Saturday, June 27, 2015

WILD MAGNOLIAS - A Short Wyatt Thomas French Quarter Mystery

Mardi Gras rocked the French Quarter. A man on the sidewalk reminded me as much when I almost tripped over him. Still, in costume, he was busy throwing up in the gutter. It didn’t seem to bother the two speckled pigeons grousing over the cigarette butt he'd dropped.

I had something else on my mind as I hurried down Royal Street—a new client. The prospect of a paying customer and bone-chilling March wind whistling down my neck added purpose to my steps. The breeze carried the damp odor of mold, mildew and old masonry and reminded me I should have taken an allergy pill before leaving my apartment.

The short walk took me to a shop named Wild Magnolias, the name alluding to the all-black marching club that dressed in garish costumes during Mardi Gras. Wild Magnolias sold books, but it wasn't exactly a Barnes & Noble Superstore. The woman behind the sales counter dropped her Picayune when the bell on the door rang, her relieved smile indicating she was glad to see me.

“I'm Sally Barthelemy. You must be Wyatt Thomas.”

“I got your message,” I said, shaking her hand. “How can I be of service?”

“I have a job for you. Please come with me, and I'll explain.”

Sally Barthelemy didn't realize her announcement was music to my ears. I followed her down the hall to a room in the back, not only bolted but also triple-locked. She opened the door using keys on a large brass ring and then re-locked all the bolts once we were inside. Sitting behind an antique desk, she directed me to an empty chair.

“You're familiar with my little shop, Mr. Thomas?”

“I presume you're a bookseller.”

“Outside's just a façade, a few magazines and slick best sellers for the hicks from Beaumont and yokels from Little Rock. It's not where I make my real money.”

“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t.

Sally Barthelemy pointed to her racks of old books and said, “I generate my real money in this room. Wild Magnolias specializes in rare first editions, especially books with a New Orleans connection. That brings me to why I need your help.”

I glanced around the room as Sally Barthelemy explained. It was quite different from the shop in front. Instead of movie posters and linoleum, expensive wallpaper and a Persian rug dominated the decor. Real art, not cheap lithographs, hung from the walls. I began to appreciate the three locks on the door.

“These volumes are valuable,” she said. “I'll give you an example. Faulkner's first novel, The Marble Faun, is the type of book I sell. In perfect condition and with dust jacket intact it might go for ten to twenty thousand dollars. I have such a volume. It bears a special inscription, signed in New Orleans, in the author's own handwriting. One of my collectors is ready and willing to pay fifty thousand for it.”

“So what's your problem?”

“Someone took it, and I need you to retrieve it for me.”

Sally Barthelemy poured herself a glass of sherry while she waited for my answer.

“I'm not a cop, Ms. Barthelemy.”

“And that's why I called you and not the police,” she said. “The bandit is also a valued customer of mine, one of the few collectors I allow inside this room.”

“That's unfortunate, but you know what they say about roses.”

“This rose happens to rank at the top of the City's social order. By local definition, she can only be a rose. The person that took my book is Lillie Hebert.”

Sally Barthelemy waited for my reaction and got a raised eyebrow for her efforts. Lillie Hebert was more than a person at the top of the city's social order. She was old guard, one of the elite, her family among the richest in the state, her father a former King of Rex. Mrs. Hebert had even reigned as Queen of Comus. Now I understood Sally's plight.

“If I accuse Lillie Hebert, I’ll be the one that ends up ostracized.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“Get the book from her and return it to me.”

I paused before saying, “Any suggestions on how I might go about it?”

Sally topped up her sherry. “Mrs. Hebert has done this before. She's old and senile, as well as rich. I'm sure she slipped the book into her purse while looking for something else, and likely doesn't even remember having it.”

I was facetious when I said, “So you want me to break into her house and get it for you?”

“I think not. Mrs. Hebert is expecting delivery today of a book she recently purchased. You make the delivery. While she is busy serving milk and cookies, slip the Faun into your jacket and return it to me. She'll never miss it.”

“Why not just do it yourself?”

Miss Barthelemy made a face and dusted her hands as if she could not bother herself with such a banal task.

“My assistant usually takes care of these little problems for me. He’s on vacation. I need the book today and will pay you five hundred dollars to retrieve it for me. Are you interested or not?”

My landlord and all my other creditors already knew the answer to Sally Barthelemy's question.

***

The weather had grown warmer as the streetcar rumbled down St. Charles Avenue to the Garden District. I stared out the open window as masked revelers, heading for the French Quarter. Sally Barthelemy was the daughter of a prominent local family and graduate of Sophie Newcomb. She had served as a Maid of Court during the Rex Ball and had “come out” with a group of important debutantes. I understood why she didn’t want to rock the boat of local social acceptance.

Almost noon when I exited the streetcar, I joined the crowd awaiting an approaching parade. A long night of festivities would conclude at midnight. It was Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras day. Before it ended, people would make love, fight and some, perhaps, even die. I was only interested in earning a much-needed five-hundred dollars. Lillie Hebert's large house was a long walk from St. Charles Avenue. I was alone and uncomfortable, carrying the valuable copy of Faulkner's Mosquitoes. When I reached her house, I was hobbling from a rock in my shoe. When Mrs. Hebert answered the door, I saw she was much older than the age suggested by her society pictures in the Picayune.

“Don't you have a car, young man?”

“No, ma'am. I use public transportation. It sometimes has its disadvantages.”

“Well come in and take a load off.” Lillie Hebert led me down the hall. “Have a seat, and I'll get you a glass of water.”

Plopping down in a divan, I stared at the large sitting room as Mrs. Hebert disappeared into the kitchen. The house was huge, gorgeous and worth millions. New Orleans is now the third largest film-making Mecca in the world. Mrs. Hebert likely didn’t realize that many of her neighbors were movie stars. Builders of her house had constructed it using the finest Italian tile and polished cypress. It was one of the brightest jewels in the fabled Garden District. The old woman had returned before I had a chance to inspect her floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. When she appeared with no water and confused look, I understood how she might have taken Sally Barthelemy's book. She wasn't even suspicious of me, a complete stranger.

She did finally chirp, “Who are you, young man?”

“Wyatt Thomas,” I said, standing. “I brought you a book from Wild Magnolias.”

Lillie Hebert's eyes squinted as she studied me. “James usually brings my books.”

“He's on vacation this week. I came in his place.”

“Oh! Well, would you like a glass of water?”

“I'm fine, thank you,” I said, handing her the copy of Mosquitoes. “You have so many great books. Mind if I take a look?”

“You honor me,” Mrs. Hebert said, beaming.

As I glanced through the volumes in the bookshelves, I thought about Lillie Hebert. She could have passed as Sally Barthelemy's mother. The resemblance was remarkable. Both were tall and with dark eyes and olive skin. Mrs. Hebert, like Sally, wore her hair in a bun, though hers was gray instead of jet black. Unlike svelte Sally Barthelemy, the old woman sported a few extra pounds. Her flowered frock with no discernible waistline did little to hide them.

I spent the next half-hour letting Lillie Hebert show me the love of her life—her collection of first editions. When I finally managed to pry myself out the front door, I had Sally Barthelemy's copy of The Marble Faun beneath my jacket. Despite knowing the book was not the old woman’s property, I still felt like a two-dollar chump. As the old green streetcar rumbled back downtown, I realized Sally Barthelemy had been wrong about one thing. Lillie Hebert had not offered me any milk and cookies.

***

Culotta's is a quaint little restaurant near the river. The gumbo is good, and you can watch tugboats and oil steamers heading to and from the Gulf while you eat. I was sitting by the picture window, enjoying my gumbo and watching natural gas flare on the horizon. I had just topped my gumbo with extra Tabasco when Detective Anthony Nicosia pushed through the crowded cafe. Outside, excited seagulls chased a trash boat down the river.

Tony motioned a waiter and ordered a Dixie. When it arrived, he pushed aside the frosted glass and drank straight from the green and white can. After wiping his mouth with the back of his arm, he plopped his chubby elbows on the table and stared across the frosty can at me.

“Bowl of gumbo, Tony?” I said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

Tony was five-eight or nine and at least forty pounds overweight. His Irish Channel accent sounded straight from the Bronx, even though he’d likely never visited New York. He made continual swipes at any loose black hair daring to dangle on his forehead. When he finished his beer, he asked for another, his elbows never leaving the red and white plastic Purina tablecloth.

Finally, he said, “You in deep trouble, Cowboy.”

“More than usual?”

“I ain't kidding. Some old woman filed charges on you downtown. Says you stole a real valuable book. And, Cowboy, this old lady has the stroke to send you to Angola for a lengthy vacation. We already got calls from the Mayor, the D.A., and the Governor. Couldn't you have been a little more selective and robbed one of them blind beggars up on Camp Street?”

"I didn't steal anything," I said.

"Then maybe you better give me your story."

Tony stared out the window at a passing towboat, shaking his head as I explained how I'd earned the cash still warming my wallet.

“We already contacted Miss Barthelemy, and she says she never heard of you. She even invited us to search her shop if we thought she had the book. We didn't bother ’cause she's the Chief's first cousin.”

“This is a mistake, Tony,” I said, wiping hot sauce from my mouth with one of Mama Culotta's checkered napkins.

“May-be,” he said, drawling the word. “But I still got to take you in.” He smirked and said, “The Chief is looking forward to grilling you himself.”

“You forgetting the Saints tickets I gave you last season?”

“I ain't forgetting nothing, Cowboy. The Chief gave me orders to bring you in. That’s what I’m here to do. At least he sent me instead of a squad car.”

Like Tony, I had known the chief for many years. Sending a homicide detective to bring me in was his way of attempting to diffuse an explosive situation. Even though I was appreciative of his concern, I still didn't want to go to jail.

“Maybe you didn't find me,” I said.

“I'll get my short-hairs trimmed if I don't.”

“Give me until noon tomorrow. I'll come in on my own, I promise.”

Tony thought a moment before agreeing. ”Okay, but don’t screw me, Cowboy,” he said, chugging his Dixie and exiting the café without as much as a backward wave.

I felt quite the fool as I walked out of Culotta's and headed toward the noise issuing from the French Quarter. Sally Barthelemy had suckered me, and I had fallen for it like one of her hicks from Beaumont or yokels from Little Rock. Despite the frivolity of Fat Tuesday, I was not a happy camper. Crowds of masked revelers thickened as I neared Canal Street. Mardi Gras, along with all the parties, festivities and gaiety associated with it, had begun weeks ago. Most of the lesser carnival clubs had already had their balls and parades. The ones reserved for Fat Tuesday were the richest and oldest.

One giant parade was in progress. Masked krewe members aboard colorful floats were busy tossing beads and doubloons to the crowd. The parade was snaking toward the Municipal Auditorium where the Rex and Comus Balls would soon begin. Lowering my shoulders, I pushed into the crowd.

As I did, masses of temporarily insane humanity, grabbing for tossed beads and souvenir doubloons, engulfed me. An inebriated college girl encircled her bare arms around my neck. Balancing her mask in one hand and a half-empty whiskey bottle in the other, she planted a sultry kiss full on my lips. Then, with a wanton smile, she yanked down her blouse to show me her lipstick-smeared breasts. I found the world's largest street party even livelier when I reached Bourbon Street.

Balcony drunks were tossing dollar bills as the frenzied masses fought for the floating bills. Crowds thinned when I turned off Bourbon and made my way through the relative darkness shrouding Rue Royal. Noise on Bourbon Street was a distant peal when I reached Bertram Picou's bar. The place was rocking, regulars, hip locals, and lucky tourists who had stumbled in by accident having their own celebration.

I was looking for someone in particular. Regulars that might have information and advice I needed.

“My man,” Bertram Picou said, giving me a high five from behind the bar. “I knew we'd see your homely face in here before the night ended. What can I do you for?”

Bertram's canned coon-ass accent was straight from the bayou. Before I could answer, he poured me a glass of pink lemonade from a special jug he kept just for me in the ice bin. Picou's bar was eclectic. Panties, bras, and boxer shorts hung from the silvered mirror behind the bar, or the ceiling above it. Mementos of lost inhibitions. Something tourists, and even locals, often misplaced in the French Quarter. I took a drink from the frosted glass and stared around the room at the throng of happy masqueraders.

“Good crowd, Bertram,” I said. “Something going on I should know about?”

“You don't already know, you be one cold fish,” he said in his inimitable Cajun accent.

A blond woman in a revealing pirate's outfit crawled over the bar, interrupting our conversation. When she proceeded to hump Bertram's thigh, I excused myself and pushed through the boisterous crowd to a booth in the back. The two people I’d come to see smiled and let me slide in beside them.

“Wyatt, my man. How the hell are you?”

“Tolerable, Armand. You?”

“Smoking, man.”

Armand was doing just that, the pungent odor of marijuana mingling with stale air in the bar's dark corner. No one seemed to mind. I had known Armand for twenty years, and I still didn’t know his last name. He was more than eccentric. His shiny black blazer draped the black turtleneck sweater strangled around his scrawny throat. He also had slick black hair and a pointed goatee. He always wore black. His clothes pinned him as a throwback to the fifties—a stereotypical beatnik, if such an animal still existed. He wasn't alone.

Armand's companion hugged his arm, her velvet miniskirt riding high on thick, café au lait thighs. An imposing black woman, Madam Toulouse Joubert was Armand's physical antithesis. She had coarse facial features and shoulders like a linebacker. Almost blond, her bouffant hair pointed toward the ceiling. She was a woman that loved bright colors, and her puffed lips were red as oxidized blood.

Armand and Madam Toulouse knew more about the Quarter, and old New Orleans, than any two people I knew. She had long worked in the Notarial Archives, once located in the basement of the District Court. The Archives provided her access to the detailed history of the City from its beginning. She had expanded on this knowledge through the years. Now, she could quote the membership roles of the exclusive Boston Club and tell you who was in line to serve as next Queen of Comus.

Armand, a collector, and seller of art and antiquities complemented Madam Toulouse's knowledge. He knew the moneyed and powerful in the Big Easy on a first name basis. Together, they were formidable. I ordered them fresh drinks and explained my situation. When I finished my story, Armand shook his head in sympathy and killed his shot of Cuervo.

“You should have called earlier, Cowboy. We could have saved you some embarrassment. Everyone knows the volume of the Faun you stole belongs to Lillie Hebert.”

“I didn’t steal anything,” I said. “It was a mistake.”

Madam Toulouse didn’t seem to accept my plea. She wrapped her big hands around her Hurricane glass and sipped the icy pink concoction through a bright red straw.

After licking her lips, she said, “If you had just read the inscription inside the front cover, you wouldn't have had to ask.”

Armand's dark mustache twitched with his crooked grin. “It says to Lillie Hebert, my sweet benefactor—William Faulkner.”

“Don't rub it in,” I said. “I feel bad enough already. Have any idea who Sally may have sold it to?”

Again, Armand's mustache twitched, and he exchanged a knowing glance with Madam Toulouse. She winked and said, “Wyatt, you have a particular talent for seeking out the right person to question.”

“Then you know the answer?”

They nodded in unison. Madam Toulouse leaned against the padded booth, crossing her long legs. “Sally's assistant, James, has been busy all week. First, he visited the rare book room at the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane. And then the Notarial Archives.”

“Doing what?”

“Authenticating Lillie Hebert's copy of the Marble Faun, that’s what.”

“Why bother? She knows where I got it.”

“Because the person that's buying the volume is just about the richest and most powerful man in Nawlins',” Armand said. “Judge Henri Montegut.”

“Judge Montegut? How do you know that?”

“The person buying the Faun didn't trust James' authentication of the volume. She brought it by earlier this evening for my opinion.”

“Who brought it?”

“Electra Montegut, the Judge's wife. Electra's giving the book to the Judge tonight during the Rex Ball. Case you didn't know, the Judge is King of Rex this year.”

King of Rex, the most coveted crown in the Mardi Gras hierarchy. Only the richest and most influential men are even considered. Only then after a donation to the Krewe of Rex of at least a million dollars.

“The Rex Crown is one of two things Judge Henri Montegut covets most in the world,” Armand said. “The other is Lillie Hebert's copy of The Marble Faun. He is an avid collector of rare books with a New Orleans connection and has lusted after Lillie's edition for years. Of course, she doesn’t need the money and would never part with it.”

“Electra is a devoted wife,” Madam Toulouse added. “She plans to fulfill Montegut's second greatest desire tonight by presenting him with the Faun at the Rex Ball.”

“Then I'm shafted,” I said.

“Why hell no!” Armand said. “I got another copy of the Faun upstairs, and I do a pretty good Faulkner forgery. I can let you have the book for five hundred dollars, and that's cheap at twice the price.”

With great reluctance, I dug the five Bennies out of my wallet and handed them to him.

“Now what?”

Madam Toulouse gave Armand a high five and me the power sign. “Just sneak it in the party and exchange it for Lillie's copy. You're good at that.”

After devising a slight variation on Faulkner's inscription, I agreed to the plan. We retrieved Armand's copy of The Marble Faun from their upstairs apartment. Madam Toulouse found a devil's costume left over from some past Mardi Gras for me to wear to the ball. Armand wrote the inscription in the book as I adjusted the flashy red costume in front of their mirror.

***

Bertram Picou's nephew was a security guard at the Municipal Auditorium, and Bertram arranged entrance to the Rex Ball for me through a door in the back. The crowd would be so large that once I made it inside, no one would know I had crashed their party. It would be easy to switch the two books and get the hell out of Dodge before anyone discovered my ruse. At least I hoped so. Leaving Bertram's bar, I hurried toward the party.

Already well after dark, the town continued to rock. French Quarter revelers had pumped themselves into a drunken frenzy all the way down Rue Bourbon. Mardi Gras beads rained from the balconies, enticed by women, young and old, grinning and baring their breasts. Though it was the world’s wildest street party, I didn’t have time to enjoy it. Ignoring the masses of drunken revelers, I continued to my destination.

Several parties were ongoing in various ballrooms of the Municipal Auditorium, the Rex Ball by far the largest. After thanking Bertram's nephew for spiriting me through the back door, I stared in awe at the crowded ballroom. It was like something out of the Arabian Nights. A full orchestra wasn't succeeding in overcoming the dissonance of a thousand masked celebrants. Strobes and rotating balls lighted the otherwise dim room with dancing light. I spotted the King and Queen through the shadows as they sat on their thrones in regal splendor. Piles of gifts lay strewn about like shucked oyster shells behind Brennan’s.

Gold and ermine bedecked Henri and Electra. Both were soused, Electra and Judge Henri, by now, tippling straight from a Wild Turkey bottle. It made my job easier and neither of them paid any attention to the smiling devil pawing through their gifts.

I found Lillie Hebert's copy of The Marble Faun in a cheap gift bag tied with a red bow. No one noticed when I exchanged it for Armand's copy. I was halfway out the door when I decided to present the book to Judge Henri Montegut myself. Be there as he read Armand’s special inscription. Climbing back on the dais, I fumbled through the presents, found the book, and handed it to Judge Henri.

“King Rex, you one lucky man. Look what the queen got for you.”

Judge Montegut removed the book from the bag, fingering it in anticipation when he saw what it was. As he read the inscription, I felt his agitation and resultant anger, even though I could not see his face behind the mask. When he glanced up at me and tore the book in half, I knew for sure I had ruined his party. I didn’t wait around for him to thank me.

***

It was almost midnight when I reached my flat just north of Esplanade. Mounted New Orleans police officers were already dispersing the crowds. I had followed a group of real Wild Magnolias through the Quarter. Their elaborate feathered costumes may have cost less than Henri and Electra's did, but it didn’t matter. They still added up to a large part of their yearly income. Maybe they represented the true spirit of Mardi Gras. I wondered as much as I buzzed into the enclosed courtyard and climbed the steps to my apartment.

Tomorrow, Tony Nicosia could return Mrs. Hebert’s prized first edition. I would be off the hook with her, the Chief and even the Governor. As I unlocked the heavy door and went inside, my inscription in Armand's Marble Faun crossed my mind. I wondered what Judge Henri Montegut must have thought when he read it. What price Sally Barthelemy would have to pay to regain her spot in polite New Orleans society.


The inscription read To Judge Henri, my sweet benefactor—Sally Barthelemy.

END

Wyatt Thomas and Bertram Picou are recurring characters in Eric Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Check out all the colorful characters on Eric's AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages, and his Website.

3 comments:

photos by Janice Anne said...

Love reading your stories.

Eric Wilder said...

Thanks, Janice Anne. Music to my ears.

Sheree Arabie said...

The story was good. I hope this is just a draft because I found several grammatical errors. I hope your published books are better written. I love to read anything about my beloved hometown! However, I hate to waste money on a crapy, inaccurate, poorly written article of literature.