Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sisters of the Mist - Chapter 2

A gloomy day had turned rainy and overcast as Eddie Toledo waited in the drizzle outside the main building of the racetrack. Rain had begun dampening his long hair. Pulling the trench coat over his head, he gave up his grandstand seat and made a run for the entrance. After a quick glance at his watch, he let the door shut behind him.
His friend, Wyatt Thomas was thirty minutes late. It was still an hour before the first race. Plenty of time to lay a bet or two. He double-stepped up the escalator to an upstairs bar he liked, planning to settle in at a table overlooking the track.
Eddie had invited two attractive women he’d met at Bertram Picou’s Chartres Street bar. They hadn’t showed, and he was miffed. What he needed now was a stiff drink and a racing form. He could get the former in the dark bar; the latter could wait. As he approached the bar, a familiar voice called to him.
“Trying to ignore us, Mr. D.A.?”
Eddie could barely see the person who had just spoken, though he recognized the gravelly voice in an instant.
“Mr. Castellano,” he said, shaking the older man’s hand.
“It’s Frankie,” the man said. “My dad was Mr. Castellano.”
Castellano was probably mid-sixties with black hair just beginning to gray around the edges. A red carnation matching the silk handkerchief in his coat pocket protruded from the lapel of his seersucker suit. Had it not been so dark in the cozy fern bar overlooking the expansive racetrack, you could have seen your reflection in his thousand dollar shoes. Frankie wasn’t alone. His companion, a very attractive, middle-aged woman, bounded from her seat and hugged Eddie.
“How you been?” she said in her Italian-laced, old Metairie accent.
“Adele! Been missing you, babe. How’s marriage treating you?”
“Frankie swept me off my feet the first time I met him. Things haven’t changed. We been to Italy twice, Bermuda and two cruises. Believe me when I tell you I’m ready to stay home awhile and cook canolis and lasagna for my wonderful husband.”
Adele had dark hair and eyes, and a perfect olive complexion. Her welcoming smile left no doubt about how much she liked Eddie. Another woman was with the happy couple. When Eddie’s eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room, he saw she looked like a young Sophia Loren. Their eyes locked. For the first time in his life, he was speechless. Frankie rescued him.
“Don’t have a coronary. This is my daughter, Josie.”
“Then you better shoot me now because I think I’m in love.”
The comment brought a frown to Frankie’s face and a smile to the young woman as Eddie grasped her hand. He was wrong. She didn’t look like Sophia Loren. More like a Greek goddess with dark liquid eyes and black hair braided in intricate cornrows. Her black dress matched Adele’s, and he could only catch his breath.
Adele bumped his shoulder with the palm of her hand. “What’s the matter, Eddie? Never seen a pretty girl before?”
“Sorry,” he said, regaining his senses. “It’s just I didn’t expect to be in the presence of the two most gorgeous women in New Orleans.”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Adele said, hugging him again.
“Watch it,” Frankie said. “Don’t be disrespectful or I may have to bump you off.”
“Something I would never do,” Eddie said. “But you’d kill me now if you knew the thoughts I’m having about your beautiful daughter.”
When Frankie frowned and started to stand, Josie grabbed his arm. She was laughing, her eyes dancing.
“He’s just kidding, Papa. Isn’t someone going to introduce us?”
“This pretty boy with the big mouth is Eddie Toledo. A Federal D.A. who works with the G-men downtown.”
Josie ignored her dad’s sarcasm. “Happy to meet you, Eddie,” she said. “Will you join us?”
Frankie grumbled as Eddie grabbed the chair beside Josie. His daughter’s laughter had stemmed his anger. It helped when Adele kissed his forehead, sat in his lap, and squeezed him to her ample breasts.
With the races nearing, patrons had begun pouring into the bar. Frankie’s table was the best seat in the house with a panoramic view of the track through the wall-sized window fronting the room. Frankie’s frown returned.
“What’s the matter?” Eddie asked. “Your horse throw a shoe before the big race?”
“I don’t own quarter horses,” Frankie said.
“Oh, why not?”
“Thoroughbred racing is the sport of kings. Nobody likes quarter horses except a bunch of damn Mexicans.”
“You kidding me?” Eddie said. “Quarter horses are among the fastest animals on earth. It’s still misting rain, and just take a gander at all those people filling the outside grandstand. What do you have against Mexicans?”
“They been flooding the place ever since Katrina. Taking jobs that should go to Americans; living off welfare and paying no taxes. They also control the quarter horse business around here and it’s time someone investigated.”
“Is that a hint?” Eddie asked.
“Someone needs to stop their nonsense.”
“Most Mexicans I know are hard-working, church going, law abiding citizens,” Eddie said.
Frankie snickered. “Now I get it. You’re a tree-hugging, bleeding heart liberal. I hope, at least, you’re not on their payroll.”
Eddie let the thinly veiled accusation of corruption pass without replying to it.
“I’m here to watch the ponies run, not to talk politics,” he said. “If you don’t like quarter horses, what are you doing here?”
Josie raised a hand. “Blame me. They’re my favorite. I dragged Dad and Adele with me. He couldn’t come to a horse race without an entry so he bought one.”
“You’re running a horse today?” Eddie asked. “Thought you said you don’t own quarter horses.”
“For Josie, I made an exception.”
“And where did you get the horse?”
“Just an old nag I picked up for next to nothing. Like Josie said, I hate watching a horse race unless I have one running.”
“Uh huh. How’d you get a trainer and a jockey so fast?”
Josie answered the question for him. “Dad has a horse farm north of Covington. Murky Bayou Farms. One hundred eighty acre working horse facility. All pasture under fence with pipe on three sides. Three stock ponds, 16,000 square foot metal barn with twenty four twelve by twelve stalls, tack room, feed room, wash rack, stocks, and storage galore. Exceptional apartment above barn with three bedrooms and two baths. Ten loafing sheds in pasture.”
“You sound like a real estate agent,” Eddie said.
Josie nodded. “Because that’s what I am.”
“Josie’s been in the ten million dollar club three years in a row,” Adele said.
“Impressive,” Eddie said.
“Are you in the market for a horse farm, Eddie?” Josie asked.
He laughed. “Never gonna happen on my salary,” he said.
Frankie frowned when Josie said, “You can visit Murky Bayou Farms anytime you like.”
“Sounds secluded,” Eddie said.
“On the banks of a scenic bayou and ten miles from the nearest town. It’s like a slice of heaven on earth. Dad’s not a fan.”
“Give me the city anytime. I don’t like having to drive twenty miles for a decent plate of spaghetti,” Eddie said.
“You don’t have to drive anywhere,” Josie said. “You have a world-class chef that works full-time at the farm and cooks you anything you like.”
“That just ain’t the same,” Frankie said.
“Sounds like heaven to me. Josie, I’ll take you up on that offer,” Eddie said. “I love horses.”
“Want to see Dad’s quarter horse?” Josie asked.
“Love to.”
“You’ll miss the first race,” Frankie said. “Who you betting on?”
“I don’t even have a racing form yet. You betting?”
“Always, even if they are quarter horses.”
“Then here’s a twenty. Can you pick a winner for me?”
“You trust me with your money?” Frankie said.
“You kidding? If I had your money, I’d burn mine.”
Josie grabbed Eddie’s hand. “We’ll be back,” she said.
She led him through the crowd starting to gather for the first race. It was still misting rain when they reached the paddock. Eddie didn’t care, too enthralled by the gorgeous young woman pulling him through the throng of spectators viewing the horses parading out for the first race. The crowd abated when they reached the stalls.
“That’s Lightning Bolt,” she said.
She petted the mane of the black stallion, its head protruding from the stall.
“This is your dad’s horse?” Eddie asked.
“Isn’t he beautiful?”
“Doesn’t look like a nag to me. Check out his muscular hindquarters and barrel chest. He’s the best looking horse in the paddock area.”
“He’s gorgeous,” Josie said. “I love the lightning-shaped blaze on his face. That’s how he got his name.”
Eddie touched the horse’s forehead. “What blaze?” he asked.
Josie touched the wet dye on Lightning Bolt’s forehead.
“I think someone must have put shoe polish to cover it up.”
“Why would they do that?”
“No idea. You’ll have to ask Dad,” she said,
Even without the distinctive blaze, the horse was gorgeous. Someone had braided its mane and tail with a red ribbon, and decorated his fetlocks with bright red tape. He looked ready for a horse show competition.
“The way he’s all dolled up, someone must expect him to win.”
“Dad says he’s never won a race. Precisely the reason he was able to purchase him so cheaply. He’s forty-to-one in the morning line.”
“Guess looks are deceiving,” Eddie said. “We better head back. From the sound of the crowd, the first race just finished. If we stay away much longer, your dad will come looking for me with a gun.”
“He wouldn’t do that, silly. Dad’s a pussycat.”
Eddie knew differently, though refrained from voicing his opinion. He followed her through the crowd of people, some with smiles, others with frowns, returning from the betting windows.
“If you say so,” he said.
Adele was back in Frankie’s lap and both were smiling when Josie and Eddie joined them at the table overlooking the track. Frankie handed Eddie a wad of cash.
“You won,” he said.
“Wow! Must have been a long shot.”
“Can’t make any money betting on the favorite,” Frankie said.
“How’d you know it would win?”
“Betters’ luck,” Eddie said. “There’s no other way to bet on these damn quarter horses.”
A waitress in a revealing skirt and skimpy blouse brought everyone fresh drinks. Josie saw Eddie glancing at the young woman’s long legs clad sexily in black mesh stockings. She smiled at him when he realized she’d caught him looking. He grinned back at her and shrugged his shoulders. Adele also noticed.
“Eddie likes the ladies,” she said.
“Guilty as charged, Your Honor,” he said.
“At least he ain’t looking at my legs,” Frankie said. The comment caused both Josie and Adele to erupt into laughter. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.
Neither of them answered, or stopped laughing. Frankie rolled his eyes as he sipped his drink.
“Can I have a look at your racing form?” Eddie said.
Frankie handed it to him. “For all the good it’ll do you,” he said.
Eddie thumbed through the magazine. “Is pure speed all you look at?” he asked.
“Lots more than that,” Josie said.
“Please tell me.”
“The races are short. Most are less than a quarter mile and last only twenty seconds, or so.”
“What’s your point?”
“There’s not much time to correct if a mistake is made coming out of the gate. A bump can end a horse’s race before it gets started. There’s also the matter of track bias.”
“Most of the races have no turns,” Eddie said. “How can there be a track bias?”
Josie handed him a pair of powerful binoculars. “Look at the turf directly in front of the gate. Specifically, the fifth through the tenth spots. What do you see?”
“The dirt’s not as even,” he said.
“Whoever smoothed the track left the turf in front of the last five slots deeper and more furrowed than the first five.”
“That can’t make that much of a difference,” Eddie said.
“In a race that takes only twenty seconds to complete, every tenth is critical. Trust me. In this race, horses one through five have a definite advantage. Gate three has the smoothest exit from the gate.”
Eddie glanced at the racing form. “The number three horse is a twelve to one long shot.”
“And it’s the horse I’m betting on,” Josie said.
Frankie didn’t comment, though Eddie noticed his wry smile.
“Tell us who you’re betting on, Frankie,” he said.
“Not the three horse.”
“You think he’s too much of a long shot, even with the favorable track bias?” Eddie asked.
“Nope,” he said. “I think an even bigger long shot will win.”
“You know something you’re not telling us?”
“The number three is a plant. Everyone in the paddock knows he’s supposed to win. He’ll be bet down to less than three to one by the time they come out of the gate.”
“This is all sounding complicated,” Eddie said. “How do you know so much?”
“The four horse is gonna come across the track and bump the three,” Frankie said. “He’ll veer to the left and take out the one and two. The six horse is a twenty to one that’s never won a race. It’ll win this one.”
“How do you know that?” Eddie demanded.
“His owner is Diego Contrado, the nephew of Chuy Delgado.”
Chuy Delgado, the Mexican drug lord?” Eddie asked. Frankie nodded. “Should I believe you?”
“I didn’t make it up.”
“Who owns the number four?” Eddie asked.
“Angus Anderson. He owns the three and the four.”
“Angus Anderson, the president of Anderson Energy Corporation?”
“Probably the richest man in New Orleans. He’s also a media mogul and owns more radio and TV stations, newspapers, and Internet properties than you can count.”
“The four is the favorite to win. Why would he ruin his own horse’s chance to help Chuy Delgado?” Eddie asked.
“Maybe he owes him a favor.”
“If what you say is true, your sources are better than those we have downtown. Who are your sources?”
“I didn’t say,” Frankie said.
“You know I can subpoena you and get all the answers I need,” Eddie said.
Frankie smiled again. “Answers to what?” I can’t even remember what we were talking about.”
Eddie took a deep breath as he stared at Frankie. “I gotcha,” he said. “You’re probably pulling my leg, anyway. Horses one and two are both good bets. If the four doesn’t win, my money says it’ll be the one or the two.”
“You’re a smart man, Eddie. I wouldn’t bet all my money on it, if I were you.”
“Stop it, you two,” Adele said. “We’re here to have fun.”
“She’s right, you know?” Josie said. “You shouldn’t disrespect your new bride by arguing in front of her.”
Frankie grabbed Adele’s hand and kissed it. “My wonderful daughter speaks the truth. Please accept my humble apology. There’ll be no more harsh words out of my mouth the rest of the day. Forgive me?”
Adele hugged his neck. “You big galoot, you know I do.”
“I’m also sorry,” Eddie said. “Let me buy the next round of drinks. I’m on vacation for the whole week. I intend to quit thinking about work, and I promise to keep my big mouth shut.”
“Good idea,” Frankie said. “I’m gonna place my bet. You coming, Josie?”
Josie grabbed Eddie’s wrist again. “Come with me to the betting window?”
“Why not? I have money burning a hole in my pocket.”
“Not for very long unless you take my advice,” Frankie said.
Frankie hurried ahead through the crowd, Josie and Eddie holding hands as they followed him.
“No matter what your dad thinks, I’m still betting with you, babe.”
“I was going to bet a hundred to win on the three-horse,” she said. “Dad sounded pretty sure of himself. I’m putting the hundred on the six horse instead.”
“You think your dad has inside information?”
“Don’t be silly. He has excellent instincts when it comes to horse racing, though from the absolutely crazy story he told us, I’d say he has a bit of fiction writer in him.”
“Then I’m betting with you,” Eddie said.
There were fresh drinks waiting for them when they returned to their table. Frankie and Adele were standing outside on the balcony, preparing for the start of the next race. Eddie and Josie joined them.
“Hope your prediction proves correct, Frankie. I put all my money on the six horse. If it doesn’t win, I’ll be living off my credit card for the rest of my vacation.”
“Hey, no guarantees,” Frankie said.
The starting bell rang as they watched the horses bound out of the gate. The three horse was almost too fast for Frankie’s scenario to occur. Almost. The four veered toward the rail, bumping into the three horse. The collision caused the three to impede the path of the one and the two. Taking advantage of the chaos, the six horse raced into the lead, holding it all the way through to the finish line. Josie and Eddie were going wild.
Eddie clutched Josie to him, twirling her twice before returning her feet to the balcony.
“Oh my God!” he said. “We won.”
The other spectators on the balcony weren’t so happy, most of them frowning as they wadded their tickets and tossed them into the trash. Eddie and Josie, smiling as they counted their money, were soon back at their table overlooking the track.
“How much did you win?” Adele asked.
“Twenty eight hundred and change,” Eddie said. “Gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frankie said. “You amateur betters are all the same. You’ll be penniless when you leave the track.”
“No more tips?”
Frankie crossed his arms. “You’re on your own, big boy. My horse is running in the next race. Hold the fort down up here. Josie, Adele and me are gonna watch from the owner’s box near the track.”
Eddie blew Josie a kiss as she, her dad and Adele disappeared down the escalator. He wasn’t alone for long.


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