In City of Spirits my second book in the French Quarter Mystery Series, N.O.P.D. homicide detective Tony Nicosia is dealing with Mardi Gras, an escaped killer and an affair he's having with a woman young enough to be his daughter. When he seeks the assistance of his friend voodoo mambo Mama Mulate, she agrees to help him. First, though, he must help her with the problem that she has: the intervention of her friend who is a serial bird hoarder.
City of Spirits - Chapter 27
Morning sun peeked over the Superdome as Tony left Venus’ apartment and hailed a cab. Too late—or too early, whichever your perspective—to go home, he decided to pay Mama Mulate a visit instead. He’d met Mama during a murder investigation. Voodoo had been involved.
Being a voodoo mambo, Mama had provided valuable information that had helped stop the murderer. Along the way, they had become close friends. Right now, he needed a friend, someone to consult with about his ever-encompassing relationship with Venus Hernandez.
The taxi driver dropped him off in front of Mama’s old two-story house, purple, gold, and yellow pansies blooming in the flower garden around her front porch. His visit sat a dog to barking across the street. Mama, checking on the commotion, came to the door before he had a chance to knock.
She was tall, not quite six feet although slender enough to pass for it. Her skin was the color of cafe au lait, with extra lait stirred in. She had dark eyes perfectly highlighted by subtle cheekbones. Her long hair, usually tied up in back to match the persona of the Tulane University professor she was, flowed down her graceful shoulders in curly waves. Morning mist rose up from the lawn as she opened the front door, still wearing her cotton robe.
“Why Lieutenant Nicosia, to what do I owe the pleasure, this early in the day?”
Tony smiled, getting a whiff of the aroma wafting through the open door. “I need your sage advice, but whatever you’re cooking has my stomach growling.”
“Well come in this house,” she said. “First, give me a hug.”
After embracing, Tony said, “How you doing, Mama?”
“If I felt any better, I’d start to worry. You’ve—”
“Gained a little weight?”
It was Mama’s turn to smile. “Did you run out of Mama’s diet pills and come for more?”
“Awhile back, but that’s not why I’m here.”
Mama put her arm around his waist and led him down the hallway. “I’ve got hot Creole coffee on the stove and sticky muffins just coming from the oven. You look as if you could use both.”
When Tony started to take a chair at the kitchen table, Mama shook her hand and pointed to the door leading to her back porch.
“Let’s go outside. It’s so pleasant today we can listen to the birds singing. If crowd noises and marching bands don’t drown them out, that is.”
“Mardi Gras,” Tony said. “I used to love it.”
“Uh oh! You must have a problem. Grab a chair. I’ll get the coffee and muffins, and join you.”
Mama’s covered porch wrapped around the back and sides of her house, overlooking her yard that featured raised vegetable gardens, flowerbeds with lots of multicolored flowers, gargoyle fountains, and koi ponds. Ferns and flowering baskets hung from the porch ceiling as sounds of a distant Mardi Gras parade failed to drown out songs of robins, redbirds, and blue jays in the backyard.
When Mama appeared with coffee and muffins, her old robe was gone, replaced by jeans, and a form-fitting gold and purple tee shirt that highlighted her busty body. When Tony whistled Mama grinned as if expecting nothing less.
“If it wasn’t for Lil and my new girlfriend, I’d have to make a play for you, Mama.”
“Girlfriend?” she said, placing muffins and carafe on the table. “Maybe I should lace your coffee with Jack Daniel’s, so I can get the whole story here.”
Mama filled Tony’s cup with strong, chicory-laced, Creole coffee. He took a drink before replying to her comment.
“I got a problem, and I don’t need whiskey to help me tell you about it.”
“Then tell Mama,” she said, resting her chin in her palms and leaning toward him.
“I met this girl—”
“Girl?” Mama said, interrupting him.
“Someone young enough to be my daughter. Worse yet, she’s the daughter of one of my oldest friends.”
“Does Lil know?”
“I’m sure she suspects something. I don’t think she knows the whole story. At least as yet.”
“Do you want her to know?”
Tony frowned, sat the coffee cup on Mama’s white tablecloth, and slowly tilted his head. A dauber buzzed overhead. Tony watched until it landed on its red clay nest in a corner of the ceiling.
“I don’t know what I want. Venus is giving me the best sex I’ve ever had. That’s not the main reason I’m attracted to her.”
“Then what is?”
“She treats me special, like a hero, and not some chump, beat cop.”
“You are special, Tony,” Mama said, clutching his hand. “You know that.”
“I’ve served on the force long enough to retire, and Lil’s nagging me to do it.”
“How do you feel about retirement?” she asked.
“Except for a summer of minor league baseball, police work is all I’ve ever done. I think I’d rather ride horse patrol in the Iberville Project.”
“Tell me about Venus.”
“She’s young, gorgeous, and smart, though not quite as smart as you are, Mama.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere. Meantime, we’re talking about Venus.”
“I met her while my new partner and me were investigating a murder at the Golden Bough Casino. She’s the daughter of my old friend, Mo Hernandez. He and I broke out in the force together, and he later moved to Baton Rouge. Venus is the director of security on the Golden Bough. She carries a gun and has a degree in criminal justice from u.n.o.”
“Did you instigate the affair?”
Tony grinned and sipped his coffee. “Let’s just say I didn’t resist very strongly. Marlon says some women like older men.”
“Marlon Bando, my new partner. I don’t know if you heard. Tommy took a knife in the gut while we were staking out a Carnival parade.”
“Oh my God! I didn’t know. Is he okay?”
“I hope so. Meantime, I got this pasty-faced, college-educated nerd-ball that’s about to drive me crazy.”
“Lil’s a smart woman. Are you sure she doesn’t know about your little fling?”
“What I’m sure of is she suspects something’s going on. I don’t think she’s figured it all out quite yet.”
Mama topped up their cups from the metal pot and pushed a muffin toward Tony. “Do you want a divorce?”
“Why hell no! Lil and I’ve been together so long I don’t know what I’d do without her, not to mention our girls would kill me.”
The steady bass of a distant tuba echoed off the walls, momentarily silencing songbirds in Mama’s yard.
“So you want to break it off with Venus, but don’t know exactly how?”
Tony smiled and nodded, took a quick bite of one of the muffins and followed it with a sip of coffee.
“Something like that. Now tell me how to do it without breaking the poor girl’s heart and I’ll be forever in your debt.”
A hummingbird hovered near a feeder filled with red nectar. Mama glanced at it and then back at Tony.
“I can help you, Lieutenant, but I’ll need a favor in return.”
“Lieutenant? What happened to Tony?”
Mama laughed, put her arms around his neck and hugged him. “Because when you hear what I want you to do, you may tell me to go to hell.”
Tony felt like hell, his stomach churning, and the pounding in his temples threatening to turn into an all-out migraine. When Mama slowed for an intersection, glanced at him and saw his eyes closing, she pulled her fully restored 1964, British racing green, Bugeye Sprite to the side of the road.
“You didn’t tell me how much you drank last night. I have something that will help.”
Reaching for her purse, she retrieved an ornate, metal container filled with brownish powder. After dumping some into her palm, she bent over the stick shift and blew it up his nose. The hit caused his eyes to open widely. When he took a deep breath and popped his neck, she handed him two aspirins and a silver flask. After downing the aspirins, he took a deep swig from the flask.
“Old Billy Goat,” she said when his eyes crossed.
Mama continued watching him until a smile appeared on his face.
“I swear, Mama, you got the best hangover remedies in New Orleans.”
“In the world,” she said with a grin. “Are you going to make it now?”
“Hell, I feel so good all of a sudden maybe I should take a cab back to Venus’ and go another round.”
“You’re already in enough trouble as it is. Even Mama’s going to have a difficult time extricating you from this little problem.”
Mama had the top down on the Sprite, glimmers of bright sunlight warming their necks. Despite the sun, it was chilly as they tooled toward City Park, Mama detouring through the recreational area on her way to Pontchartrain’s Lakeshore Drive.
“Wow!” Tony said. “The place looks beautiful.”
“Hard to imagine it was underwater for weeks following Katrina.”
The large park teemed with visitors enjoying gardens, lakes, and oak trees draped with Spanish moss. A flock of snowy egrets rose up from a lagoon, their wings driving them skyward as the Sprite tooled past.
“Maybe you need to tell me exactly what we’re about to do,” Tony said.
“A close friend of mine has a problem.”
“She’s a bird hoarder.”
Tony gave her a sharp look. “A what?”
“Valerie is a veterinarian specializing in rare and exotic birds. The rich often buy expensive parrots and cockatoos, realizing once the novelty wears off they don’t like the hassle and noise the birds create. Some only see what a mistake they’ve made when they try to return them to the pet store where they bought them, or attempt to give them away. Valerie started taking in these avian rejects years ago. Now she has hundreds of birds.”
“I’m not exaggerating. They’re all over her house, not to mention numerous cats and dogs their owners took to her clinic to have her put down.”
“Oh my God! I think I’m getting sick again.”
As Mama turned on Lakeshore Drive, the scenic route that followed the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, she reached over and touched his wrist.
“You have to help me, Tony. Valerie is eccentric as hell, but she has the proverbial heart of gold.”
“What can I do?”
“I’ve thought this all through, and I have a plan. I want you to pretend to arrest her.”
Tony grimaced as he stroked the morning stubble on his cheek and gazed at a sailboat wafting in the breeze, far out on the lake.
“Sounds to me like a job for animal control.”
“That would kill her. You have to promise you won’t take her in.”
“You just said you want me to arrest her.”
Mama’s bouffant hair whipped in the breeze when she shook her head. “That isn’t what I said. I only want you to pretend to arrest her.”
“Okay, tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do the best I can.”
When Mama reached Lakeshore Drive, she headed east to the entrance of an exclusive subdivision. Like City Park, Katrina had flooded many of the ultra-expensive homes. Because of their desirable location, most, but not all, had been restored. Others remained as empty shells, even years after the killer hurricane. Valerie lived in the biggest house on the block, surrounded by empty houses. Mama parked on the street.
“Won’t seeing your car make her suspicious?”
Mama laughed. “Though Valerie’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, she doesn’t have a lick of common sense. She’ll never put any of this together.”
“And you have somewhere to go with the birds and animals?”
“They’re all placed, either with the zoo, bird sanctuaries, or bird and animal lovers. They’ll all be well cared for. My psychiatrist friend and I will keep Valerie sedated until we convince her this is all for the best.”
“She’s not gonna commit suicide, or something I’m going to feel guilty about for the rest of my life, is she?”
“Trust me, Tony.”
Mama smiled when he said, “Last time I did I became the star performer in a voodoo sex extravaganza.”
“Not this time,” she said.
“Okay, what else?”
“You have handcuffs?”
“Then take these,” she said, handing him a pair.
“I’m not even gonna ask where you got these.”
Mama grinned. “You don’t need to know. Just cuff her and bring her out. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Not exactly. I want you to scare her.”
Tony shook his head, got out of the car and headed for the front door, knocking instead of using the doorbell. A young woman answered on the third knock, her dark eyes looking at him suspiciously as she peeked through a gap in the door.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“Water department. I need to check your pipes,” he said
“There’s nothing wrong with my pipes,” she said.
“Look, ma’am, I’m here on official business, and I don’t have time to argue with you. Now let me in.”
When she opened the door for him, the jarring din of birds, many birds, accosted his ears. The large room he entered was empty except for several long perches that hung from the ceiling. The room resonated with chirps, squawks, and screeches. A large cockatoo landed on his shoulder.
“I think he likes me.”
Valerie didn’t reply, grabbing the bird and scolding it severely before lofting it back to the perch from where it came.
“That’s Brutus,” she said, talking loudly, so he could hear her above the dissonance. “He’s a mean one. You could have lost an ear.”
Tony’s hand went to his ear in an involuntary response.
“He’s a mean one!” the parrots began repeating.
Valerie shook her head. “Don’t say anything around here you don’t want repeated.”
As Tony listened, he started hearing everything from Polly want a cracker, to the most vulgar profanity.
“Are they always like this?” he asked, almost in a shout.
She nodded. “Sometimes much worse.”
Birds were flying around the room. Macaws and parrots, seemingly every color of the rainbow; cockatoos and other rare birds Tony didn’t recognize; parakeets, canaries, and exotics.
“Why do you have so many?”
“I’m a vet. I specialize in rare birds. You’d be surprised how often their owners simply abandon them.”
Tony turned away briefly, so she wouldn’t see his smile.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“I know I have too many birds. You’re not going to report me, are you?”
Tony saw his opening. Pulling out his badge, he showed it to her. “I’m afraid I’m going to do more than that. I’m placing you under arrest. Stick out your hands.”
Valerie was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall with short, brown hair. When she extended her hands, Tony cuffed her. Her wrists and hands were so small she could have slipped out of them if she’d tried. She didn’t.
“I can’t go to jail. Who’ll care for my birds?”
“You need to worry about yourself, not the birds,” he said, pointing her toward the door.
“What’ll happen to me?”
“You’re going to do hard time, believe me. Maybe even Angola. This is as double-dog rotten as anything I’ve ever seen. The city can’t let you get away with it.”
“But I’m not hurting anyone.”
“That’s not for me to decide.”
Mama and another woman dressed in a pin-striped, business dress waited outside the door, giving Tony dirty looks when he pushed Valerie to hurry her up. Several cars and vans had lined up on the street behind the Bugeye Sprite. Mama grabbed the little woman and hugged her.
“Oh Val, are you all right?”
Valerie began to cry.
“I’ve been arrested. What’ll I do?”
“I called your dad and Chloe’s here to help. We’ll do whatever we can for you.”
The woman named Chloe, apparently Mama and Valerie’s psychiatrist friend, grabbed Valerie’s arm. After quickly administering a sedative, she gave Tony another dirty look and then hustled Valerie to an awaiting Mercedes limousine. When they reached the curb, a chauffeur opened the back door for them, returned to the driver’s seat and then hurried away, tires squealing.
More vans began arriving. As Mama and Tony watched, they immediately dispatched people dressed in work clothing and carrying nets to retrieve the birds and animals. As they passed on the sidewalk, Mama continued glaring at Tony.
“What?” he finally asked.
“You didn’t have to be so cruel to her. Couldn’t you see how frightened she was?”
Tony didn’t answer. Just shaking his head, he walked toward the Bugeye. After buckling her seatbelt, Mama patted his knee before driving away.
“I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t mean to snap at you. You did a fantastic job. I’m just upset because this is all so stressful.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. If that was the worst shit I had to step in every day, then I’d be in heaven. What’s going to happen to Valerie?”
“That was her dad in the limo. He’s extremely well-heeled, and they have an estate on the lake not far from here. We’ll soon have her convinced all her birds are in excellent homes, and this is for the best. Bird hoarding isn’t incurable. Chloe will work with her until she’s better.”
Mama laughed when Tony said, “It was scary in there, and I’ll probably have bird nightmares the rest of my life.”
“Maybe Chloe can work with you too,” she said.
“I think I’d rather work out my own problems than deal with Chloe, thank you. She looked as if she could wrestle professionally.”
“Now that’s not very nice,” Mama said with a grin.
“Don’t be mad at me, Mama. I still need your help with Venus.”
“I’ve been thinking about this,” she said. “She’s apparently attached to you. We need to break the attachment and then present her with someone else to tie herself to.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
Mama pulled the Bugeye to the side of the road, retrieved a pair of scissors from her large purse and proceeded to snip a lock from Tony’s hair.
“What the hell!”
“Now, you need to bring me a lock of Venus’ hair, and a lock from someone you think might replace you when you’re gone. I’ll take care of the rest, though you’re going to have to deal with Lil on your own.”
Born near Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption, and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma where he continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans and the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Please check it out on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.