Sunday, April 22, 2018

PONTCHARTRAIN - a New Orleans short story

INTRODUCTION
I’ve long been a fan of short stories and penned my first attempt at the genre when I was only ten. I continued writing short fiction during high school and college, though none of the stories managed to survive the years. I can’t remember when I wrote my first short story featuring French Quarter sleuth Wyatt Thomas, but it was long before the publication of Big Easy in 2006. Once I started, I found it all but impossible to stop.
~SPOILER ALERT~
When I decided to write Big Easy, my first novel-length French Quarter Mystery, I did so by combining parts of three New Orleans’ short stories: Cities of the DeadVoodoo Nights, and Pontchartrain. If you haven’t read Big Easy and are considering doing so, then you should probably start it first before reading Pontchartrain.
If you’ve already read Big Easy, then you might get a kick out of Pontchartrain as it’s different in many ways than the side-story in the novel. For one, it has a different ending and even a different girlfriend for Wyatt, the commitment-adverse private investigator. Carla Manetti, a librarian at UNO, is Wyatt’s former girlfriend in the short story. Though they’re still friends and continue to flirt with the possibility of continuing their rocky relationship, Carla has yet to go back to the French Quarter sleuth with roaming eyes. She did, however, play a seminal role in French Quarter Mystery#4, Black Magic Woman.

PONTCHARTRAIN

Smoke billowing from Dagobert’s Restaurant saturated the sky over Lake Pontchartrain with a stench of destruction and the odor of scorched hair and blistered skin. It was my own. The person staring at me from the upstairs window wasn’t so lucky. Trapped inside the building, her mouth gaped in a silent scream.
***
It was a gray afternoon in the Big Easy, all overcast and misty, but not dreary enough to prevent me from enjoying the bus ride down Lakeshore Drive. Dark clouds were moving up from the Gulf and a stiff breeze already chopping Pontchartrain’s surface into a soapy-green froth. Boats still on the lake had lowered their sails and were making for shelter under engine power.
A young woman and I were the only passengers, the driver, snapping his fingers and singing along with music from his headphone radio oblivious to both of us. When he let us off at West End Parkway, I opened my umbrella and watched him pull away in a puff of blue diesel smoke.
“Where you headed? I asked.
“Dagobert’s,” she said.
Thunder rumbled, almost drowning her reply, as giant raindrops began falling, slowly at first, then faster.
 “That’s where I’m going. Hurry and jump under here or you’ll get drenched before we get there.”
The woman had expressive eyes two shades darker than the storm clouds racing above us, and prevented her from hiding the uncertainty flashing from them. Too wet for her to refuse my offer, she crowded under the umbrella. The wind picked up as we passed the marina, jostling tethered boats and slapping sail lines against the furled canvas.
 “I’m Wyatt Thomas,” I said.
 “Delphine Musson.”
I was close enough to kiss Delphine Musson and near enough to see she was quite attractive, in a bookish sort of way. Louisiana sun had faded her curly hair a nondescript shade of blond, and it clashed with dark glasses rimming her eyes. Her strained smile and folded arms clued me she didn’t much care for small talk. It didn’t matter. We were nearing Dagobert’s, and I exchanged Ms. Musson’s silence for thoughts of fried oysters.
New Orleans cuisine is world famous, and the city has a secret of which Dagobert’s is a part. It is a haven for junkies. Fried-food junkies. They fry everything in the Big Easy—shrimp, oysters, catfish, hushpuppies and even top sirloin steak. The West End, on Lake Pontchartrain’s bank, is where many citizens satiate their craving for fried food, and Dagobert’s is arguably the best restaurant on the West End.
Steady rain quickly rendered us both, despite the umbrella, damp to the bone. My shoulder was soaked, pants and jacket doused by a motorist racing past us. Delphine pretended not to notice as we pushed through Dagobert’s big front door. Just in time as the storm had reached monsoon proportions.
We weren’t the only customers with a Friday night craving for fried seafood. Patrons jammed Dagobert’s entryway. No one seemed distressed by their wait, probably because the aroma of freshly battered seafood rolling in from the kitchen captivated their senses, locking them helplessly in place.
“There’s an hour delay,” the door attendant said.  “Would you like to wait in the bar?”
“Suits me,” I said.
My curly-haired companion was obviously still reticent about our somewhat forced relationship. She edged away, toward the front door, worried I might ask her to join me. Her uneasiness was irresistible.
 “There won’t be another bus for a while. Join me at the bar? Inez mixes a mean margarita.”
Delphine Musson’s arms were still tightly folded across her chest, her toes pointed toward the door. She looked as if she were about to make a run for it when rain blasted down the entryway, drenching everyone in line. Delphine jumped back so violently, she almost knocked me down. I had to grab her shoulders and brace myself to keep us both from falling. After steadying her on her feet, I released her and edged back into the crowd.
“Not a fit night out for man or beast,” I said, pointing toward Dagobert’s dark bar.  “There’s an empty table in the back. You take it. I need to speak with Berv Dagobert anyway.”
My words roused the first positive response of the night from the young woman.  “You know Bervard?”
“All my life, his mom and dad before they died, and his little brother Perley.”
Delphine Musson grabbed my forearm and clutched it with a firm grip for such a small woman. “Don’t leave,” she said. “I’d love to hear about Bervard and his family.”
Confused by her sudden change of heart, I followed Delphine Musson into Dagobert’s bar, joining her at the table in the back as thunder shook the rafters, sucking oxygen from the room like a Cajun accordion. Delphine blinked, drawing a deep breath.
 “How is it you know Berv?” I asked.
“We met when I first moved to the city.”
“You’re not from N.O.?”
She shook her head, causing her curly hair to bounce like spaghetti in a colander.  “Lafayette. I took a job at UNO after graduating from USL.”
“Then you’re a professor?”
Her thick curls had grown heavy from the humidity, bouncing again when she shook her head.  “Librarian. Not very exciting, is it?”
 “An honorable profession.”
 “That’s what Bervard says. He’s an avid reader.”
Though I’d known Berv Dagobert all my life, I couldn’t recall ever seeing him read either book or newspaper. After thinking about it, I wasn’t even sure he could read.
 “I didn’t know about Berv’s literary proclivities,” I said.
Delphine’s guileless smile hinted that she had completely missed my sarcasm.  “Oh, he’s a man of many talents.”
Before I could inquire what those talents might be, Inez Dagobert walked up to our table. Inez was Berv’s long-suffering wife and managed the little bar residing off the main dining room. I’d known her almost as long as the Dagobert family and had even dated her briefly in high school. She didn’t seem to notice me sitting there, her attention apparently focused on my pretty companion.
“Hi, Inez,” I said.  “No smile for an old friend?”
Turning her attention away from Delphine, Inez recognized me. She responded by wrapping her arms around my neck and hugging.
“What are you doing here, stranger? I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
“Berv didn’t tell you? He said he’d spring for a catfish dinner if I could help him with a problem.”
Inez was a big woman although not fat and certainly not obese. She wore her dark Cajun hair raked back into a severe bun, her loose-fitting clothes contrived to hide large breasts that apparently embarrassed her. Her piercing green eyes emulated the color of Pontchartrain just before sundown, and her determined efforts to conceal her abundant physical attributes failed miserably.
Inez’s smile faded into her dark olive complexion.  “Wyatt, it’s a family matter. I wish you wouldn’t get involved.”
 “You’re the boss, Miss Inez. I’ll tell Berv to go jump in the lake.”
Inez still had her arms around my neck. Now she stretched them across my shoulders, kissing my forehead and drawing closer. Close enough that I could smell her perfume and feel the warmth radiating from her ample bosom. I also felt something else: possibly some unspoken pain throbbing deep in her heart. I pulled her closer.
 “What’s the matter?”
“It’s Berv and Perley. They’re feuding. I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Hell, they’ve never stopped doing that. What else is new?”
“It’s different now. Ever since Pop Dagobert died the boys hardly speak anymore.”
When Inez tried to draw away, I clutched her arms, not letting her go.  “Tell me about it.”
“Not now,” she said, glaring at Delphine.  “I’ll call you.”
 “Promise?”
When I released her, Inez backed away.  “I Promise. What are you drinking?”
“Have to ask? Your Margaritas, of course.”
“With tequila or without?” she asked.
“One regular and one unleaded,” I said.
Inez smiled for the first time, then winked and hurried away behind the carved mahogany counter that had dominated the room since I could remember.
 “She’s very pretty,” Delphine said.
Thunder rattled the windows, interrupting my thoughts and Delphine’s soft voice. It also drowned out my reply.
“You think Bervard still loves her?”
“They’ve been together twenty-five years.”
“That’s not an answer. You like Inez, don’t you?”
Delphine Musson had seen something in me I didn’t care to admit. Maybe even to myself. The truth was that I’d had a crush on Inez for years.
“I like them both,” I said.
Delphine’s smile of understanding left me uneasy, and I fidgeted with a sugar packet to divert the subject.
A circular veranda facing the lake occupies two sides of Dagobert’s. When it’s not raining, patrons sit outside, basking in warm weather and the slow anesthesia induced by Inez’s famous margaritas. Now the veranda lay deserted, awash in rain and choppy water. Patrons crowded inside, in the bar and main dining area, raising the noise level to Mardi Gras proportions. Because of the clamor, I failed to hear Bervard Dagobert walk up behind me. I didn’t know he was there until he put his big hand on my shoulder.
 “Wyatt, my man. How you are?” he said, drawling Cajun style.
Although about the same height as I am Berv Dagobert exceeded my age and weight by five years and fifty pounds. Over the years, he had succumbed to a steady diet of his own fried food. Now his physique had sunken to his gut, his puffy cheeks out of place with dark, unruly hair. It didn’t seem to matter. What I could only describe as admiration filled Delphine’s Musson’s eyes, and Bervard seemed to relish her attention. It made me wonder what she saw in a man almost old enough to be her father. When Inez returned with our drinks, her own eyes warned me I wasn’t the only one who noticed the focus of Delphine’s adoration.
“Keep ’em coming, Inez,” Berv said.  “These two’s money can’t buy nothing here tonight.”
Releasing my shoulder, he said, “When you get a minute, Cowboy, come up and see me in my office.”
Talk of Bervard Dagobert dominated the conversation as Delphine and I finished our drinks. Nothing much changed during dinner in the main dining room. We had finished our catfish and were sipping coffee when Bervard tapped my shoulder again.
“How it was, people?”
 “The best, as always,” I said.
 “You ready to come back to the office?”
Folding my napkin, I started up from the chair. So did Delphine.
“Not you, little lady,” Berv said.  “You got some special lemon meringue pie coming. I got to talk to Wyatt alone.”
Delphine’s smile disappeared, and her shoulders stiffened. A large window facing Pontchartrain backed our table, the sky black, the storm stalled directly overhead. Fingers of lightning parted the darkness for a moment, registering anger in Delphine’s eyes as Berv and I left the table. I noticed, but apparently not Bervard.
Knotty pine paneling covered the walls of Berv’s office, a leather couch marking it as a man’s room. Next door was Inez’s adjoining office, tiny by comparison, though where all the real managerial work took place. Inez attended to most of the details of running the restaurant. Unlike the gun cabinets and hunting trophies in Berv’s office, file cabinets and old ledgers filled Inez’s eight-by-ten. An open passage provided ready access to Berv’s office.
Berv told me to make myself comfortable, handing me a cup of coffee from a pot on the shelf. Instead of coffee, he poured a straight shot of whiskey for himself from a decanter he kept in his private wet bar.
“It’s Perley,” he said, not waiting for me to ask.  “He tried to burn the place down.”
“You’re joking.”
“Ain’t no joke,” Berv said, his West End accent growing thicker.  “Inez’s office caught fire.”
“What started it?”
 “Perley did.”
“I want to know how not who.”
“It was Inez’s space heater. A frayed wire on one of them little electric heaters women like to use to keep their legs warm sparked some papers in Inez’s trash can.”
 “You think Perley frayed the wire and set the fire?”
 “That’s right. Perley was here all day, working on the books.”
 “Sounds like an accident to me.”
“That’s what Perley claims. Says he was downstairs when it started. What’d you think he’d say?”
“What did the insurance investigators report?”
“Couldn’t prove nothing and paid off on our claim.”
 “Then what’s the problem? What reason would Perley have to burn Dagobert’s?”
Berv didn’t answer. After downing his whiskey in a single swallow, he returned to the bar and poured himself another drink. Outside, the storm was ebbing even though raindrops continued drumming the slate roof. Without asking, I helped myself to another cup of chicory-flavored coffee.
 “There’s more to this, isn’t there?” I said.  “Inez says you two are feuding.”
Berv’s big head slumped his chin dipping in an almost imperceptible nod.
 “It’s Dagobert’s. Perley calls it old-fashioned, out of style. Me, I just don’t see it. Papa made this place famous frying oysters and shrimp the old way, not blackening them in some pan like we burned it accidentally and served it to the customer any-ol-who.”
“Can’t you compromise?”
Berv stared at me as if I were suddenly casting dispersions on the Virgin Mary.
“Papa left me in charge,” he said, stabbing his breastbone with his finger.  “Just cause Perley studied under some fancy French chef downtown don’t mean he knows how to cook any better than me. Till I die, we do it my way at Dagobert’s.”
“So that’s all this feud is about?”
“Hell no, that ain’t all. Wait’ll you hear what else he done.”
Berv didn’t have time to tell me as the baritone voice of his little brother Perley caught us both off guard.
 “Still got a shell caught in your craw, big brother?”
Neither of us had heard Perley Dagobert enter the room. When he spoke, Berv’s jaw dropped, along with his drink. Glass shattered against hardwood, ricocheting off the walls. Red in the face, Berv started picking up the pieces.
“You get the hell out of here, man,” he said.
“Keep your shorts on. After I get my stuff, I’m on my way.”
“Then do it and shuffle.”
Except for his darker hair and more of it, Perley was a younger version of brother Berv. He also lacked the paunch that circled his big brother’s waist and dropped his belt line six inches below normal. Berv loosened his collar as Perley retrieved a box in the corner. Perley grinned when he saw it was me talking to Berv.
“How’s it going, Cowboy. When you coming to a good restaurant? I’m on Poydras, just down the street from the Quarter.”
 “I heard. Congratulations.”
 “Best mirliton dressing in town. Bring your lady by. Food’s on me.”
Perley gave me a brotherly hug, picked up the box and slammed the door behind him without saying goodbye to his brother. Thunder, rocking the windows, shook us back to reality.
 “You didn’t cook me a free dinner just so I would listen to you carp about the way Perley cooks. What else did he do?”
Berv poured another shot, and then slumped into the couch, sinking down until his head rested on the armrest.
“Perley took out a policy on the restaurant over a year ago. I just found out about it.”
 “Perley’s mad about the way you run the restaurant so he took out an insurance policy so he could burn it down and collect the money? Pardon my skepticism.”
“I ain’t paying you to think. I want you to find out the truth.”
I’d known Berv all my life. His insinuation that he thought of me as little more than a hired gun stung. I poured myself another cup of java, swallowing indignation along with the strong coffee.
 “I’ve known Perley long as I’ve known you. I wouldn’t do anything to dampen that trust.”
“Now get your dauber outa the dirt,” Berv said, feeling the air grow cool.  “I wouldn’t ask you to do that. I want you to nose around some. Ain’t nobody better at that than you, and it won’t hurt nothing.”
I didn’t have time to answer. A fire alarm blaring above the storm halted our conversation, preventing me from punching Bervard Dagobert in the nose. Berv’s face went white, and even with his fifty extra pounds, he managed to beat me out the door and down the stairs.
Thick smoke billowed from the kitchen, frightening diners jamming through the doors. Most had already huddled outside in the pouring rain. Berv didn’t join them. Instead, he grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall in the hallway and used it to spray a skillet ignited with hot grease. When trucks from the nearby fire station finally arrived, nothing remained of the fire except soot and smoke.
I stuck around long after the fire trucks and the other diners had all gone home. So did Delphine Musson. The fire had a strange effect on her, and she sat on Berv’s big couch, sobbing uncontrollably and hugging her knees. Berv had worked himself into a worried frenzy, pacing around his office like a tiger over at Audubon Park Zoo. Inez and I stood against the wall, propping it up.
I can’t believe Perley would do this to me, on Friday, my biggest night.”
 “Perley didn’t do anything. It was a grease fire. It’s happened here a dozen times,” Inez said.
She was right. Years of accumulated grease had saturated walls, wood floors, and ceiling. By its very nature, Dagobert’s was a candle awaiting a flame.
 “May-be,” Berv said, drawing out the word.  “But the fry cook said Perley dropped by the kitchen right before the fire started.”
Inez poured herself and Berv shots from the bar.  “He just wanted to say hello.”
“May-be, but it scared this poor little girl almost to death,” Berv said, taking the drink from Inez. He downed it and placed a comforting hand on Delphine’s shoulder.  “I’m driving her home now. Too wet for her to take the bus.”
Berv helped Delphine off the couch and hustled her toward the door, pointing his finger at me before leaving.
“Check Perley out for me. Find out what he’s got on his mind.”
Berv left Inez and me alone in his office, forgetting that I might also get soaked walking to the bus. He apparently had other things on his mind, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Inez knew it too.
 “You all right, Inez?”
 “Passable,” she said.
Remembering she was drinking alone, she returned to the wet bar and fixed me one of her famous margaritas, sans tequila, from a blender on the cabinet. Then she slumped on the couch and closed her eyes.
“You don’t think Perley set fire to Dagobert’s?” she asked after a moment of silence.
 “I’m sure he didn’t. What’s with Berv and this Musson woman?”
My question brought tears to Inez’s eyes. She finished her drink in a single slug, burying her face in the crook of her arm. I took her empty glass and refilled it.
 “Berv and Delphine are having an affair,” she said, sipping the drink.
 “He’s almost old enough to be her father. Maybe he’s just treating her like the daughter he never had.”
 “That’s exactly what I told myself, until I saw them with my own eyes, right here in this office.”
 “Doing what?”
 “Making love,” she said, her terse reply striking me like a sharp kick in the groin.  “After a visit to my mother’s in Marrero, I realized I’d locked myself out of the house. Dagobert’s had closed for the night, and Berv wasn’t home yet. I drove over to get a key from him.”
When Inez paused, I topped up her drink and said, “Go on.”
“I found the front door locked and couldn’t get anyone’s attention by banging on it. That is when I saw Berv’s light on upstairs. I climbed the fire escape to tap on his window. When I peeked in, I saw them. They were making love, right here on the couch.”
 “You caught them in the act? What did Berv say?”
 “I haven’t confronted him with it.”
 “Why?”
“Cause he’ll leave me if I do,” she said, tears returning in a continuous stream down her cheeks.
I put my arms around her.  “You’re twice the woman she is. Berv would never leave you.”
“Yes he would,” she said, dampening my shoulder with tears.  “She’s young and pretty. Everything I’m not. Wyatt, I’m so afraid.”
When Inez finally managed to collect her emotions, she drove me to my apartment on Chartres Street over Bertram Picou’s bar. The rain had moved north, leaving only intermittent flashes of lightning in the sky and glistening puddles on the streets. After the storm had passed, the Quarter had come alive with tourists. Now the puddles looked like liquid mirrors, reflecting blue and red color from flashing neon.
***
Next day, I had lunch at Perley’s place on Poydras. Clouds had moved north overnight, along with the storm, leaving behind a teal blue sky and a breeze so gentle it barely rocked the Boston ferns draping second-story balconies in the French Quarter. The air was electric, energizing my steps as I hiked to Poydras.
Perley’s, named simply that, was the antithesis of Dagobert’s. Instead of a stately, stand-alone two-story building, the bistro was little more than a hole in the wall in a working neighborhood several blocks from the French Quarter. It didn’t matter because it was rocking when I arrived. Like Dagobert’s, it had a long line of hungry people waiting outside to get in and eat.
Perley had grown up in a family of restaurateurs and understood that there was more to owning a restaurant than just the food. He was outside on the sidewalk, smiling and pumping customer’s hands when I walked up. When he spotted me, he gave me no chance to go to the back of the line.
 “Cowboy, you ain’t got to stand out here. You family. You know that.”
Perley grabbed my elbow and led me past the line of tourists, into his restaurant. When he opened the door, we were suddenly in bayou country, Cajun music barely overcoming the clatter and chatter of thirty happy diners. The piquant aroma of gumbo and etouffee wafting from the kitchen instantly stoked my appetite.
 “I guess you know why I’m here?” I said as Perley seated me.
 “Yeah, I know. Bervard tinks I tried to burn down Dagobert’s,” he said, his Cajun drawl whetted for the tourists.  “Hell, you know that ain’t like me to do nothing like that.”
Perley’s reply reinforced what I’d already thought.  “Then it was just an accident? Like the insurance investigators said?”
Perley took a step away from the table, playing with his dark mustache before contorting his face into a discernible French grimace.  “I didn’t say that.”
Thinking I’d missed part of his statement amid the noisy restaurant din, I leaned closer.  “What?”
“Someone started that fire, all right, but it wasn’t me.”
“You’re saying it wasn’t an accident?”
“Tell you about it when I come back,” he said.  “I got to get a soufflé out of the oven before it burns.”
Perley left me to ponder his words, not returning for ten minutes. When he did, it was with a pitcher of lemonade and a cup of his soon-to-be-famous gumbo.
“Be right back,” he said as I laced the gumbo with pepper sauce aptly named Cajun Fire.
Perley returned with seafood-stuffed bell pepper and mirliton dressing. Pulling up a chair, he turned it backward, straddled it and rested his elbows against its twisted cane back.
“I didn’t set that fire at Dagobert’s. Delphine, Bervard’s little squeeze did.”
“You know about Delphine?”
 “Hell, I ain’t blind. Everyone at Dagobert’s knows she has Bervard in her sights.”
 “Then why would she try to burn Dagobert’s?”
“Cause she’s about half nuts and got a temper like a banty rooster.”
“That’s no reason to set fire to the place. Where are you getting all this information from?”
“The kitchen. Delphine’s hung around the place almost a year. Sammy LeCroix, the fry cook, says she and Bervard argue like an old married couple. When Delphine don’t get her way, she punishes poor Bervard.”
 “Why would he put up with that?”
 “Cause she’s young and kind of pretty, and most of the time she treats him like the King of Spain himself.” When Perley grinned, his upper lip and big teeth flashed from beneath his mustache.  “And hell, maybe he likes being whupped.”
Ignoring his levity, I said, “What about the insurance policy you took out on the place?”
I could tell by the look Perley gave me that my question had caught him by surprise. Twirling the chair around, he leaned back against the wall, letting me drift through a moment of silence as background music segued painlessly from Clifton Chenier to Louis Armstrong. Finally, he shook off his frown and began to explain.
 “Wyatt, you know how Mama and Daddy was. Both of them drank like speckled trouts swimming upstream.”
I nodded and offered no opinion one way or the other.
“Hell,” Perley said.  “The only thing Daddy did at Dagobert’s was to pinch the waitresses’ tushes. He couldn’t even cook. Mama had to keep the books and pay the bills. Only productive thing the old man ever did was hire Sammy LeCroix to cook for him.”
Talk of two people, once very close to me, flooded my brain with old memories, some not so pleasant. Massaging my temples, I resisted the message in Perley’s story. Perley sensed my discomfort and topped up my glass from the pitcher of lemonade.
 “You all right?”
Nodding, I took a long sip from the sweating glass. Sirens blared outside as a fire truck raced up St. Charles Avenue. When the front door opened briefly, I became suddenly aware of the tourists, still waiting in line. Perley continued his story.
 “Mama always thought she’d die before Daddy because of her weight problem and bad heart. She loved Bervard but didn’t trust him with money or responsibility no more than she did Daddy. That’s why she give me the money she’d saved for an emergency.”
 “Maybe you’d better explain,” I said.
 “Over the years, Mama managed to put back about fifty thousand dollars. After that last heart attack, she give it to me to take care of the family in case anything happened to her.”
 “But she got better.”
Perley grinned again.  “Hell, I’m surprised that tough ol’ bird ain’t still alive. She lost weight and give up smoking. The boozing finally got her, though not until ten years after it got Daddy.”
“And what did you do with the money?”
“Had it in a safety deposit box uptown and last year I finally got around to doing what Mama wanted. The lawyer had me take out an insurance policy till he got the family trust in place.”
“Then you have no designs on Dagobert’s?”
Perley scoffed at my question, folded his arms tightly and leaned forward.
“Hell, I’ve saved my own money for years. Dagobert’s is Dagobert’s. I’d never change anything about it. I just always planned to open my own restaurant. One I could run the way I want and cook what I like to cook.”
***
I took the streetcar back to Canal, the rattling antique creaking and rocking from side to side like a drunken old man. Happy tourists, enjoying the cool weather and air cleansed by last night’s rain, were streaming in and out of the Quarter. When we reached our stop, I hurried across the widest street in the world and then bee-lined for Picou’s bar on Rue Chartres. There I found Bertram alone behind the big oak counter, polishing a drinking glass.
“What’s up, Cowboy?” he said.  “Stomach bothering you?”
“My stomach’s fine.”
“Then why are your eyes bugging out like you got a caterpillar on your tongue?”
Bertram was full of it, as all his close friends knew, and he loved verbal sparring bouts. A peculiarly Gallic trait, I had noticed. He deemed himself a winner whenever he got a rise from someone. I had other things on my mind and refused to take the bait.
 “Do you have any lemonade in this place?” I said, pulling up a stool at the bar.
“You break up with that little gal on Esplanade?” he said, not answering my question.
“About two years ago.”
 “Well, I just thought with you making them pitiful calf eyes and all . . .”
It was my turn not to answer his question. I turned instead on the stool and stared around the large empty room.
“What you looking at?” Bertram finally asked.
 “At all the people in here,” I said.
 “Ain’t no people in here but us.”
When I grinned, Bertram knew I had him.  “Exactamento, Chief Run-at-the-Mouth,” I said.  “Maybe Pierre Bartender ran them off with his loud trap.”
Bertram chalked up an imaginary point for me in the air and then poured a glass of lemonade from the jug he kept under the counter. Following a cool sip, I told him about the feuding Dagobert brothers.
After reflecting on my story, he said, “Sounds like Miss Delphine is the spark plug firing the whole deal. Why don’t you call Carla and see what she knows about her?”
***
Carla Manetti was Chief Librarian at UNO. Her name had crossed my mind more than once yet hadn’t surfaced consciously until Bertram mentioned her name. Our year-long relationship had sputtered and finally stalled, though not because we didn’t like each other. Circumstances simply came between us. Now, feeling like an insurance salesman trying to pass off an unneeded policy on a hapless relative, I took a city bus to UNO to look up Carla Manetti and find out what she could tell me about Delphine Musson.
The beautiful weather was holding as I stepped off the bus and strolled up the path to the UNO campus. A salty breeze blew off Lake Pontchartrain. A flock of gulls, their white feathers blending seamlessly with the faded sky, winged overhead. Screeching tires and the crash of a distant auto accident returned me to reality.
UNO, once a backwater branch of LSU, was now a modern university rivaling its parent institution. Math and physics graduates populated NASA’s facility across the river in Slidell, and others filled important jobs around the nation. The university even has a good basketball team. I always tried to catch several games every season in the new sports facility near the Lake. Despite my trips to campus, I hadn’t visited the library in over a year. I spotted Carla before she saw me. She hadn’t cut her thick black hair, and it still draped her shoulders. As the memory of her ebony eyes raced through my brain, she turned and caught me staring. Her large eyes flashed momentary anger, a cool smile quickly replacing the frown.
 “See something you like, Cowboy?”
I did, and for a moment, I wondered why I had quit calling.
“How are you, Carla?”
Carla stood on her tiptoes and lightly kissed my lips.  “Fine, Wyatt. And you?”
 “Great. Got a minute?”
Despite the kiss, I noted a distinct chill as Carla motioned me to follow her. She led me down a narrow aisle, past students with noses buried in thick academic volumes, to her office in the back. It was an open room with a half wall affording some privacy while allowing her a clear view of the library.
 “You could have called,” she said.
Yes, I could have called. Instead of replying with a lame excuse, I stared at the screen-saver on Carla’s computer that had transposed the screen into an aquarium filled with tropical fish. She smiled and shook her head.
 “You were never much of a liar, Wyatt Thomas.”
 “Then ask me no questions, Carla Manetti.”
We both had a laugh as Carla poured us Cajun coffee from a pot in the corner.
 “I don’t believe you’re here to talk about old times,” she said.
“I’m not. I have some questions about one of your employees. Delphine Musson.”
 “A little young for you, isn’t she?”
 “I’m looking for info, not a date,” I said, regretting my words the moment they flew out of my mouth.
Carla fumbled with her computer keyboard, replacing the tropical fish screen-saver with images of a driving snowstorm. The chill had returned to the office, the snowstorm somehow fitting the moment.
“What do you want to know about Delphine?”
 “Just checking her out,” I said, after explaining Berv Dagobert’s involvement.
As Carla punched up the library’s personnel records on the computer, a data screen replaced driving snowflakes. Walking around her desk, I leaned over her shoulder for a closer look.
“No information except her name and age,” she said.
 “Is that normal?”
“There’s a hold on her bio. It’s on the computer somewhere, but controlled by a password.”
 “Why?”
 “Government security; witness protection program; crimes committed as a minor. Who knows what all?”
 “Any way to circumvent the password?”
Carla winked.  “There’s always a way, though it’ll take a while.”
When Carla’s flashing hands returned the storm to the screen, I decided it was time to go.  “Call me when you find out something?”
Carla neither answered, nor bothered walking me to the door though she couldn’t resist a biting remark before letting me leave.
“I’ll call you, Wyatt. Just keep waiting by the phone.”
After starting to exit without responding, I stopped instead before clearing the door.  “Say, Carla, how’s your mother’s lasagna?”
“Still fabulous. Is that the only reason you went out with me for a year?”
“Well,” I said, inching out the door with a grin on my face.  “You can’t find lasagna like that in a restaurant.”
***
Now I had some questions for Bervard, and it was not far from UNO to Dagobert’s. I took the bus down Lakeshore Drive, ignoring the other passengers as I stared out the window at Pontchartrain’s emerald surface. As colorful sails billowed on the horizon, I pondered the massive lake’s connection to the feuding Dagobert brothers. I also thought about Delphine Musson and just a little about Carla Manetti.
Early French visitors came to Louisiana in search of gold and jewels. Instead of treasure, they found swampy forests populated by reptiles and insects and plagued by endless rain and devastating storms blowing in from the Gulf. When they gave up on finding gold and decided instead to exploit the region’s fur and timber, they began a search that took them to a spot south of a giant, inland sea.
Pontchartrain stretches sixty miles along a subsurface corridor known as the Baton Rouge Fault Zone. South of the lake, the Mississippi River forms an abrupt bend—the crescent of the present-day Crescent City. The lake and river cordon a spit of high ground founding fathers found attractive. Pontchartrain provided access to the Gulf, circumventing an arduous, overland trek. The spot was easily defendable, and its high ground provided some protection from prevailing storms and rampant flooding. However, there were problems.
Killer hurricanes decimated the settlement every year for the first three years. Standing water bred mosquitoes that carried yellow fever, and floods and plague dominated the city for decades. Because of the high water table, citizens couldn’t even bury their dead in a grave.
In New Orleans, water shapes and controls destinies. It always has and always will. I wondered how much it had affected the Dagobert brothers. The thought occupied me until I stepped off the bus at the marina. I found Berv in the kitchen. He was overseeing preparations for lunch. Pulling him away from his duties, I led him to his office as the aroma of fresh golden batter filled the air. It stayed with us as we climbed the stairs.
 “What’s up, Cowboy? Got something for me?”
“Not yet. We need to talk.”
The early hour didn’t stop Berv from pouring a shot of straight whiskey. Bright November sunlight flooded the upstairs window, highlighting a web of fine red veins marking his nose and chin. I wasn’t there to discuss his addiction to alcohol and refrained from commenting on it.
 “So talk,” he said.
 “It’s Inez. I’m worried about her.”
“Worried about Inez? Why she ain’t been sick a day in her life.”
“You’re wrong. Inez is sick now. Heartsick “
“What in the hell you talking about?” Berv asked, draining the shot and pouring another.
“She thinks you’re about to leave her.”
Momentary anger flashed in Berv’s dark eyes.  “Has she been telling you things?”
“She hasn’t told me anything that a blind man couldn’t already see. She thinks you’re having an affair with Delphine Musson. So does Perley and everyone else.”
Berv slammed the shot glass against the table, spilling whiskey all over a magazine. He didn’t bother wiping it up. Seeing I had him on the ropes, I charged in with a straight right.
“Inez loves you, Berv. You’re never going to find another woman like her. Don’t screw it up, or I swear I’ll kick your big butt from here to Canal.”
I waited for Berv to punch me in the nose. The blow never came. Instead, he bowed his big head. Giant tears rolled from his eyes, and he blubbered like a baby. Then he put his hairy arms around my neck.
 “I love her too, Wyatt. Swear I do. I’d never do nothing to hurt her.”
“You already have, Berv, and now you’ve got to fix the hurt. Do the dirty deed and tell Delphine to hit the road, and I mean the sooner, the better.”
I left Berv whimpering on the couch and made my way through the luncheon crowd lining the entryway. Dark clouds were rolling in off the Gulf, a storm approaching as I awaited the bus. A flock of gulls circled overhead, searching for a place to ride out the storm. I decided to follow their wise example.
***
Bertram’s establishment grew raucous every night about nine. By midnight, it usually rocked to the beat of a full-blown party. Tonight was no exception. Laissez les bons temps rouler, said the sign behind the bar. Let the good times roll. That’s what Bertram’s customers were doing when I came down from my upstairs apartment. When Bertram spotted me through the crowd, he signaled me to join him behind the counter.
 “Phone call, Cowboy,” he said, handing the receiver to me.
It was Carla Manetti on the line.
 “Wyatt. Got a minute?”
 “What’s up?”
“I hacked into the university’s personnel record and got something on Delphine Musson.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense.”
 “I’m still at the library and can’t tell you over the phone. Can you come by?”
I glanced at the old Falstaff clock hanging on the wall behind the bar.  “Are you still open?”
“We’ll close before you get here but I’ll let you in the back door.”
“I’m on my way.”
***
Thunder rumbled, and lightning grazed the disappearing New Orleans skyline as I headed down Elysian Fields toward UNO. It was late, light rain already falling when I stepped off the bus and jogged toward the library. In my rush, I’d forgotten my umbrella. I was soaked before I reached the back door of the library. Carla opened it on my second knock.
 “What took you so long?”
“I missed the first bus and had to wait ten minutes for the next one to come along.”
 “When are you going to grow up and buy a car?” she said.
“I like public transportation.”
Carla shook her head in disgust as she led me down a dimly lighted hallway. Only a small desk lamp illuminated her office, and she refrained from turning on more. Darkness carried an unexpected gift: intimacy brought about by collusion in an illicit act. Now the snowstorm screen-saver had deserted Carla’s computer screen, along with the chill in the air prevalent during my last visit.
The aquarium screen-saver blinked once and disappeared when she attacked the keyboard with lightning fingers. Quicker still, Delphine Musson’s personnel records appeared in its place. Real thunder shook the roof, accompanied by rain pounding the windows.
 “She was in Mandeville before coming to work here,” Carla said.
Mandeville is one of Louisiana’s state-run mental health facilities.
 “What was she there for?” I asked, crowding behind Carla and peering over her shoulder.
“Delphine killed her father,” Carla said, backing away from the monitor.
It took a moment for the impact of Carla’s pronouncement to register with my brain. When it did, I said, “Murder?”
 “When Delphine’s mother abandoned the family, her father began using her as his little concubine. He was guilty of incest and child abuse. What a creep.”
I reflected on my visit with Delphine during dinner at Dagobert’s. Now I understood the shy young woman’s reticence and her unusual interest in an older man.
“Does it say why she killed him, or how?”
“He must have brought home another woman.” A gasp escaped Carla’s lips.  “She locked them in the bedroom of their trailer, drenched the kitchen floor with gasoline and used it to start a fire.”
 “Can you print the report?” Carla nodded, punching the print command until the laser printer on her desk began to hum. I grabbed her phone, not waiting for a hard copy. Berv Dagobert answered on the first ring.
 “Berv, I have something on your fire in the restaurant. I’m coming over.” After a lengthy silence, I said, “What is it? Talk to me.”
Between sobs, Bervard explained.  “I realized what an ass I been after our talk the other day. This morning, I worked up my guts to tell Delphine it was over between us, and that I still love Inez.”
 “You told her?”
 “Yeah, and I never seen her so cool. At first, it relieved me. Then I got to thinking it was all too easy.”
 “What about Inez?”
 “When I explained why I needed to see Delphine one last time, her face went kind of white. She rushed out of the house without giving me a chance to explain why I had to see Delphine. She was still gone when I got back.” An audible click interrupted our conversation.  “Wait just a minute. Maybe it’s Inez.”
I waited thirty seconds for Bervard to come back on the line. When he did, his voice shook with emotion.
 “Oh my God, Wyatt! Dagobert’s is on fire! “
Berv dropped the phone, and I had to get another line to dial 9-1-1. Carla’s mouth dropped open, her face visibly white even in the dimly lighted office.
“No time to explain,” I said.  “Give me your car keys.”
 “Not on your life, Cowboy. I’m going with you.”
“Then let’s get the hell out of here,” I said, pulling her toward the door.  “Delphine’s repeating the performance that earned a trip for her to Mandeville in the first place.”
***
The rain had passed when we left the library. Didn’t matter much because a new storm was on its way, still centered somewhere south of the city as we sprinted to Carla’s ancient Plymouth Duster. Dark clouds already hung overhead when we reached Dagobert’s, though not from rain. The restaurant was on fire, orange flame licking through the windows. Worse yet, we could see someone flailing around inside the restaurant. It looked like Berv.
Berv’s car sat askance in the parking lot as if in a panic he’d slammed on his brakes and slid sideways on broken shells. Carla pulled the same maneuver, throwing me out the door. After skidding across five feet of oyster shells on my face and elbows, I regained my footing and sprinted toward the front door. Finding it locked, I kicked out a window and dived into the building.
Flame licked the walls outside the kitchen door and a cloud of black smoke, laden with years of accumulated grease, billowed forth like gases from an erupting volcano. I found Berv on the floor, his eyes closed. I dragged him through the dining room, lifting him around the waist and shoving him through the window. Then I turned toward heat licking the back of my neck.
Dagobert’s kitchen still continued to contain most of the fire. I fought through smoke and heat, locating the door and slamming it shut, hoping to slow the flames until fire trucks arrived. It was only a hope. A far-fetched one, I mused as I plunged headlong through the window.
Carla had seen Berv’s large torso tumble out the window. She’d managed to drag him away from the building, out to the safety of the parking lot. There she used her sweater, drenched in a nearby puddle, to revive him. With the same sweater, she helped me clear smoke from my lungs and wash burning ashes from my eyes.
 “How is he?” I said when I finally quit coughing.
“Lucky to be alive.”
Berv rested on the bed of broken oyster shells. When I raised his head, his eyes opened, flickering with a spark of recognition. He tried to speak but couldn’t. Smoke, remaining in his lungs, sent him into his own coughing jag.
“Lie still. There’s an ambulance on its way,” Carla said.
Berv was having none of it. Shaking his head, he pointed a quivering finger at the upstairs window of the restaurant. The vision I saw struck me like a club over the head: the dark silhouette of a woman’s figure in the window.
“There’s someone up there,” Carla said.
 “Delphine,” I said.
Berv found the strength to pull me up, almost yanking my arm from its socket. His face was red and puffy, his eyes as deranged as a wild animal caught in a trap. Despite his struggle to speak, he managed only five words. They spewed from his mouth in a hoarse whisper.
 “It ain’t Delphine, its Inez.”
Wailing sirens overshadowed distant thunder, heralding the approach of fire trucks and a rescue team. Inez couldn’t wait that long. I raced toward the flaming building, this time managing to kick open the front door.
 “Don’t do it, Wyatt,” Carla screamed.
I hesitated but didn’t stop.
The fire had spread rapidly inside the building. Now it felt like the inside of an oven, my bare skin as sensitive as that of a freshly plucked turkey. Shielding my eyes, I forged ahead through smoke, flame and flying embers, groping for the stairs leading to Bervard’s office, nailing into the banister and stumbling over it. With no time to worry about my throbbing shin, I hurried up the steps taking three at a time.
The billowing smoke sucked oxygen from my lungs. Only a trapped layer of fresh air, halfway up the stairs, kept me from suffocating. Between jags of coughing, I breathed deeply and wiped acid sweat from my eyes with a scorched sleeve, trying to ignore my blistered hands. What I found at the top of the stairs, almost made me turn around.
A beam, collapsed from the smoldering ceiling, blocked the door to Berv’s office. It burst into flames before my eyes, for a moment piercing the wall of smoke. Ripping a banister rod from the stairway, I used it to pry away the beam, then kicked open the door. Smoke rushed from the room, and I got a clear look at what was to be my biggest shock of the night. Inez was lying on the floor, Delphine Musson kneeling over her.
Part of the roof came crashing down on my head, leaving me dazed, and hovering between reality and illusion, consciousness and coma. Spirits appeared and disappeared through the haze, and somewhere along the way, I even stopped coughing. Although it seemed more dream than reality, some voice in the deepest recess of my brain told me that someone had taken hold of my ankles and was pulling me down the stairs.
***
I awoke to a white-smocked doctor standing over me, listening to my heart through a stethoscope. A frown shrouded his face. An oxygen mask covered my own.
“Where am I?” I said in a mumble.
 “Charity Hospital. I’m Doctor Wenske,” the young, very serious doctor said.  “How you feeling?”
 “Like I reached for a bale and pulled the whole gin down on my head.”
The good doctor attempted a constipated grin that failed miserably.  “You hit your head in the fire. We’re keeping you overnight. You’re fine except for a few scrapes and burns.”
Inez and Bervard, holding hands like high school sweethearts, entered the antiseptic room as Doctor Wenske exited. Little brother Perley was with them.       
“What happened?” I asked.
 “Perley dragged you out of Dagobert’s.”
 “Perley?”
 “I had a premonition something was wrong at Dagobert’s,” Perley said.  “I wasn’t five minutes behind you.”
 “Good thing for you, Cowboy, “Berv said, chuckling.”
 “And a good thing for Inez,” I said.  “He saved her from Delphine.”
Perley, Berv, and Inez exchanged knowing glances.
 “Delphine saved my life,” Inez said.  “Not Perley. The fire trapped us in Berv’s office. We couldn’t get through the bars on the window. She kept us alive with damp towels till you kicked open the door. She pulled me to safety and led Perley back through the smoke to help rescue you.”
 “Then who set the fire? Was it you?” I said, looking at Inez.
 “Inez didn’t set no fire,” Berv said.
Inez released Berv’s hand, massaging her temples until color returned to her cheeks.  “I wanted to talk to Delphine. Alone. I called her apartment, asking her to meet me at Dagobert’s. Thunder was shaking the walls when I arrived. There was a bright flash as lightning shot down the kitchen flue, knocking me against the wall. It was a direct lightning hit, and it lit up those grease-soaked walls like a Roman candle. I panicked, running upstairs to save our books and records.”
 “Delphine saw smoke when she got off the bus. She called me from the marina,” Berv said.
“Delphine knew I was in the building and rushed upstairs to get me out, but she couldn’t drag me away from the books and records. That’s when the door slammed shut, trapping us in Berv’s office.”
“How did Delphine get in the front door?” I asked.  “I couldn’t open it when I arrived.”
“Inez left the door cracked. I must have slammed it shut, locking it when I got there,” Berv said.
“Is Delphine okay?”
“None the worse for wear,” Berv said.  “Not even Dagobert’s. Rain put out most of the fire before the fire trucks got there. You the only one that got hurt.”
Berv and Perley were all smiles, and Berv had his big arm around his little brother’s shoulders.
“Looks like you two are speaking again,” I said.
 “Perley explained to me about Mama’s trust.” Inez shook her head and elbowed Perley when Berv added, “I knew all the time Perley had a good explanation for what he did. I’ve asked him to come back to Dagobert’s.”
 “Fat chance of that,” Inez said.  “Besides, unless Perley marries pretty soon and has some kids, there’s no need for a Dagobert family trust. Maybe we’ll have to leave it to Wyatt. And Carla,” she added.
When Carla poked her head through the door, Inez said, “Let’s get out of here. Wyatt needs his rest, and I’m sure he wants to visit with Carla without us hanging on his every word.”
Inez kissed me as Berv and Perley pumped my hands before leaving Carla and me alone. Carla was the first to speak.
“Hey, Cowboy, how’s it hanging?”
“Half mast, but still flapping.”
“I’m glad,” she said, squeezing my hand.
“And I’m glad Delphine didn’t start the fire. She’s suffered enough already.”
Carla squeezed my hand tighter.  “That was a brave thing you did tonight. I told Mama what happened and I think it might have changed her opinion of you. She even asked me to invite you over for lasagna. Interested?”
“Burning buildings couldn’t keep me away,” I quickly said.
***
The night nurse shooed Carla out the door, leaving me alone with a drip tube in my arm and questions about Mrs. Manetti’s former opinion of me rattling inside my brain. Thunder shook me back to reality. Like the other storms this month, turbulence remained stalled over the city. Now, rain thumped against my window, pouring in rivulets down the pane. It reminded me of Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the endless swamps and bayous surrounding the city. Some people might say they were only water. I say that water is the single most important thing that sets New Orleans apart from all the other cities on earth. Water that surrounds us in all directions, its power and danger shaping both our past and present.
I didn’t have long to think about it. Beset by both exhaustion and the mind-numbing anesthetic a nurse had given me, I closed my eyes and faded away into a watercolor dream.
###

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