Welcome to Foolishly Free! Here, I’m sharing one of my novels,

in installments, all for free. Enjoy!

 

 

BUSINESS AS USUAL

an unpublished manuscript by Karen MH Kersting, 2018

A series of badly-timed coincidences pulls prestigious LeBlanc Land & Development Corporation into a complicated and dangerous FBI investigation. Embezzlement, fraud, drug running and murder seem to implicate both LL&D employees and members of a drug cartel. As tensions mount within the LL&D executive suite and in the FBI’s field office, the covert work from an unlikely informant may be the only way to untangle the conflicting clues and locate the most dangerous people.

(This is a work of fiction. Although set in New Orleans, some street names have been changed and some historic references have been adapted to fit this story. At this time, there is no Krewe of Tiresia nor Krewe of Xanthus. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely a coincidence.)

 

CHAPTER ONE – Friday

 

“Next on the agenda is Old Business: LeBlanc Land and Development Corporation versus Charlie Thomas.”

Immediately, the conference room air felt warmer. Ten of the twelve well-upholstered chairs suddenly felt uncomfortable; those occupants now shifting their weight and shuffling their feet while avoiding the direct gaze of William “Will” R. Grant, CEO of New Orleans’ largest land developer. Will, however, ignored his staff’s obvious lack of ease while carefully replacing the agenda sheet atop his other papers. He leaned back into the firm support of his chair, while turning his head to stare at the man seated to his left.

“OK, Huey,” Will sighed, “how are we doing?”

Huey Richmond, LeBlanc Land &Development’s in-house attorney, had arrived late to this meeting and was only now opening the bulging folder he had pulled from his briefcase. Clearing his throat gained him a few more seconds to collect his thoughts. I hate bringing this sort of news fresh from court, but what else can I do? “Well, the judge has thrown out his appeal.” Huey patted the paperwork. “And our friends at the EEOC have indicated that they do not want to get involved.” He briefly shook his head and held up his hand; William Grant’s smile disappeared. “However: there is a rumor Charlie’s lawyer will appeal again, this time claiming age discrimination.” Huey paused to look about the room. “And… another rumor that several of the Facility Division’s staff are making noise about filing their own job discrimination and workplace harassment suits.” The sound of William Grant’s sharp exhale, Huey decided, should have been accompanied by a rush of ember-laden smoke.

“Rumors?” Will quickly sat upright. “How reliable are these rumors? This is unbelievable. How vulnerable are we against all these claims?” As Huey began his explanation, Will glanced at the concerned expressions seated around the conference table. He slowly resumed a more comfortable position in his chair. Thank God Leland is not alive to see this mess, he thought. Leland LeBlanc III had been his graduate school roommate, closest friend, and the reason he had moved to New Orleans. LeBlanc’s great-grandfather had started this company in the early 1900s, and until 1980, only a LeBlanc had held the CEO position. But Leland – a bachelor, and recently diagnosed with a terminal illness – had ended that tradition when he reached out to Will for help. Transitioning the company into a corporation known, now, by its acronym and into a state-wide, high-powered business leader had been Leland’s final goal for LL&D.  It took us 2 years to reach that goal, Will thought, as he nodded encouragement to Huey’s current question, but I’m not going to let this Charlie Thomas fiasco ruin what I have accomplished since his death. Lost in these thoughts, Will finally realized the only sound in the room was the soft hum from the fluorescent lights. Now, he heard Huey tap his pen lightly against that ever-present legal tablet.

“I know the word counter-suit sounds expensive, Will, but if handled carefully…”

William Grant now leaned forward, placing his forearms on the table top; both hands were balled into fists. “No. No counter-suits.” With a deep exhale, he added “You know how I try to stay away from the New Orleans-way of doing business, Huey, but did you go to school with any of Charlie’s attorneys or the lawyers lining up to represent the staff? I am so sick of this mess that perhaps some sort of…off the record… negotiation… is worth a look.”

Huey lowered his gaze to his legal tablet, but felt the stare of every individual seat around the table. Grant, with his East Coast executive perspectives, had often made it quite clear that he did not want LL&D to continue operating within the Good Ole Boy business model. Soon after Leland’s will had been read, Grant had leveraged his position and newly-inherited majority share of company stock to replace every upper management position with non-locals – except for Huey. The board had not been pleased and Huey recalled hearing the word “carpetbagger” whispered at more than one company event. Inwardly laughing at the irony of this situation, he managed to maintain a neutral tone. “Will, I know all the attorneys personally, but the issue here is to maintain LL&D’s position as a victim. We have to keep the courts convinced that upper management had no idea of the …situation… in the Facility Division. Admittedly, Charlie has some family connections with another judge, but it’s mainly through his wife.” Huey smiled. “And I understand she has read the depositions from the female staff members.” He paused, allowing the soft laughter from the other executives to break the tension. “Anyways, we need the Facility staff on our side. If we open the door to any sort of negotiation or settlement with Charlie, I’m certain it would backfire.”

“Okay, okay.” Will slowly resumed his comfortable slouch within his chair. “For now, I’ll agree to a wait-and-see approach with these rumored suits. Let’s just make sure the new Facility director is briefed. If he can find out anything more about…” he paused, since the meeting was being recorded “…about this… situation, then we may not have to worry about appeals.” He now glanced towards the man seated to his right.

Webster Dalton, Vice President for Personnel, knew that expression too well. Because of his misguided attempts to minimize the problems with Charlie Thomas, and insulate the CEO’s office from staff complaints, the Facility Division was on the brink of mutiny. Will Grant had privately warned Webster his career at LL&D was in jeopardy if this new hire did not get matters under control. He felt a muscle in his neck twitch, but kept his voice sounding confident. “The new director is scheduled to meet with you, Huey and myself at 7AM, Monday morning.” Before the employees have a chance to get to him. He was relieved when Will nodded slightly, then, asked the Marketing VP for her progress report.

As she distributed folders containing options for the new logo design, Will’s thoughts lingered upon the Facility Division. From Webster’s reports, Charlie Thomas had assigned several key positions in the Facility office and shops with his extended family and friends. Now, the department was split into two camps: those who were hired by Charlie, and those who had filed the complaints against him. Priority: new director has got to get the Facility staff re-focused and at full efficiency before we start the renovations on the Whitcomb Building, Will noted in his Day Planner. He re-read the entry, feeling a small twinge of frustration. Leland had dismissed the entire Facilities operation as merely a low-priority, budget-saving work force and Will, too focused on Leland’s final plans for LL&D, had never found the time to even travel across town to visit those offices. He thought about the man who would replace Charlie Thomas.  Should be quite a shock to our new hire to learn that prestigious LL&D has a fiscally unsound department, staffed with warring employees and possibly under an FBI investigation. He began turning his attention to the contents of the presentation folder, but Huey was slipping him a folded bit of paper. Will scanned the contents of the note; reluctantly, he made a slight gesture of agreement.

“It seems to me, Kelly,” Huey interrupted, “that before we agree on a launch date for the new logo, the Procurement Department should inventory existing stationery, and determine whether the uniform vendor needs extra time to make the patches, or whatever, for the Facility shop uniforms, and what it will cost to repaint the company work trucks.” He ignored Kelly’s sputter of annoyance as he swiveled his chair towards the woman seated at his left. “Don’t you agree, Patrice? Or do you already have those cost estimates?”

“Good point, Huey,” said the Director of Procurement. “I almost forgot about all the Facility vehicles.”

“I wish I could,” laughed Huey. “Now: I make a motion to table this item until next week’s meeting and to adjourn this meeting, due to Will’s other, conflicting schedules.”

They are adjourning our meeting so I’m not late for a Carnival Ball. Will Grant watched in amazement as his executive staff quickly gathered the Marketing folders, Day Planners and notebooks. He and Huey were alone in the conference room within 45 seconds. “Huey, many times Leland tried to warn me about conducting business this close Mardi Gras, but it still catches me by surprise. If it wasn’t for you and my wife, I would never be able to keep track of all these Balls, patron parties, gala fundraisers and society events.”

Huey silently laughed at Will’s tone while he inserted the last folder into his briefcase. “Will, Will. All those events are just as important as any Chamber of Commerce luncheon or shareholder meeting. Around here, everything and everybody is connected. Besides, there are several people at this Ball who you must get to know on a social level. Com-on: I’ll brief you while we take the elevator.”

The pathway from the conference room to the elevator lobby crossed the marble-floored reception area. Neither man acknowledged the woman seated behind the wide, wood paneled desk. She, however, immediately stood to wave several small sheets of pink paper. “Mr. Grant, I think you need to see these messages.”

Will continued walking. But Huey spun towards her. Resting his briefcase atop the empty in-box positioned at one corner of the desk, he struggled to maintain a calm tone. “Zoe, honey: why didn’t you deliver those messages to Rebecca, just as we discussed on Monday?” The set of Zoe’s mouth was Huey’s clue that she wanted to forget the context of her latest meeting with Huey and Gwen, Webster’s assistant.

“Well, uhm…Mr. Richmond…you see, uhm, Rebecca has been on the phone the entire time y’all were in that meeting.” She gestured back and forth between the conference room and the frosted glass door which led to the executive suite, “and since I am not supposed to leave the reception desk…”

Huey gripped the briefcase handle with his stronger hand. “Zoe, Rebecca screens Mr. Grant’s calls. If you can’t reach her by phone, you are to use the intercom. No exceptions. If you continue to disregard office policy, we will have to reconsider your future on the executive floor. Do you understand?” Ignoring Zoe’s insincere-sounding agreement, he plucked two of the message slips still pinched between her fingers. “Please get the rest to Rebecca in the next five minutes. And Zoe: I will be calling her from the limo to verify she has them.”

Horrible, troll of a man. Zoe monitored his progress into the elevator lobby before she picked up the handset to the phone console. I should have never asked him to help me with my legal problems. I swear: he now feels I owe him some sort of deference, when my family has lived here…The phone connection clicked on. “Yes, Rebecca,” she said, “While you were, I guess…busy, several phone messages came in for Mr. Grant. And now, he has left for the day. Mr. Richmond was quite insistent you look at them before he calls you from the limo for a report.”

From a side corridor, Webster watched Huey’s uneven gait. The smoothness of the marble floor, he guessed, was probably easier to traverse than the thick carpet in the offices. The oddly angled doorway also afforded him an observation point into the reception area that, in recent months, had allowed him to monitor Zoe’s inability to adequately fulfill the receptionist job requirements. Jotting down a few notes to document her conversation with Huey, and her voice tone when speaking to Rebecca, Webster wondered if the four pages of previous infractions would finally convince Will to fire her. And he doesn’t even know about the Consulate fiasco. Webster felt his shoulders tighten at that thought. Last week, Zoe had mistaken the Consulate’s assistant for the Tulane intern, resulting in a bi-lingual shouting match. As long as Will never pays attention to the terms of that Consulate lease, I’m content that the concessions I approved are a contribution towards international harmony. Webster glanced at his watch, adding that detail into his dossier on Zoe Duplanche.

##

Will vaguely heard Huey and Zoe’s conversation as he stared at the portrait of Leland. The life-size painting filled a good section of the lobby wall. It was more than a realistic painting: somehow, it captured the air of absolute confidence and high humor that had earned Leland a reputation as a savvy businessman with a maverick streak for adventure. Will smiled at the memories from the years before the medications and the rampaging illness reduced his friend to a gaunt, bedridden wisp of manhood.

“Do you think he and that painter shared more than a mere acquaintance at Tulane?” Huey handed Will the phone messages and winked. “I asked her, once, if she minded that the frame sort-of obscures her name. She actually blushed.” Huey laughed as he pressed the elevator call button.

Stepping into the cab, Will waited for the doors to close before replying. “I asked Leland, once, about her. Probably the only time I saw him at a loss for words.” Will read the names on the message slips before continuing. “He finally told me that she had helped him get a passing grade in an art appreciation class. Whatever that really meant.” With a short laugh, he gestured to the floors above them. “And did you make any progress with our less-than-capable receptionist?”

“It’s a learning curve.” Huey was too aware that Zoe was a sorority sister to Will’s wife, and that Lynn Lee Howard-Grant wielded considerable clout.

Will sighed. “If Lynn Lee wasn’t so involved, I would have fired her last month. But Zoe is now her project, I guess, and so to keep peace, I’ll give her another few weeks.” He folded the message slips into an inner pocket of his overcoat. “…Although, I do feel sorry for her. Did you know she was living in that drafty old house for three years, without heat?” He shook his head. “If she would have sold that house…”

“Will, her family has owned that house since 1891. It’s…well, it’s her only connection to the life she should have enjoyed – not the one ruined by her husband’s affair with that paralegal.”

“I guess I’m too East Coast to understand that logic. It’s 1986! She could have sold the house and restarted in another city – like Atlanta.” He laughed at Huey’s expression. “What? Not possible in this town?”

Before Huey could reply, a two-tone beep announced their arrival on the ground floor. The polished doors slid back, revealing a busy lobby and, beyond its wide glass windows, Will’s limo parked at the curb. Nothing more was said as they crossed the lobby and entered the car. Huey immediately reached for the car’s phone while Will spoke to the uniformed man behind the steering wheel.

“Is there a parade tonight, Albert?”

“Yes sir. Canal Street will be closed off at six.”

“OK. Huey and I need another 20 minutes before we get him home.”

“Yes sir. No problem.” Albert directed the limousine towards the interstate, and the on-ramp that would carry them east. You would think after more than five years in this city, Mr. Will would know how parades are scheduled this time of year. Albert stored away that opinion as he monitored the ebb and flow of vehicles in the lanes around them; debating which exit and route to take. Pre-parade traffic could be tricky: especially if there was an accident, or if he misjudged when the convoys of school buses - filled with the marching bands that performed with the parades - would clog the streets near the parade routes.  He almost lost his concentration, though, when Huey choked back a loud laugh as he replaced the car phone into the console.

“Now, what?”

“Nothing, Will. Just enjoying Rebecca’s sense of humor.”

“Was she able to schedule a meeting with that investigator?”

“No. Seems he is off-shore. Won’t be back until Monday.” Huey watched the traffic speed past the window to his right for several seconds. He needed a moment to review his strategy on how to convince Will to be friendlier to certain people at tonight’s Ball. “We are very fortunate, Will, that Leland and the CEO of the newspaper knew each other since their days at Newcomb Nursery; not to mention that her family has, let’s just say, interesting connections with the TV stations.” He stared at Will. “Don’t forget that her father is one of the floor captains. I’ll point him out, tonight, when we first arrive. Make a point to compliment him on the newspaper’s latest Pulitzer and...”

Albert was now too busy to listen to the rest of this conversation. He had decided to take the Esplanade exit, only to discover an impromptu gang of revelers strolling in the middle of the street. “Damn tourists” he breathed. He knew all he wanted to know about the problems in the Facility Department and the FBI’s interest in Charlie Thomas. Thirty-plus years as the chauffeur for the Howard Family and, later, for the Howard Foundation had taught him to keep his attention on the road. Now, the street noises along Decatur and Jackson Square muffled most of the conversation from Will and Huey.  And by the time he brought the car into the Warehouse District, the back of the limo was quiet. Carefully, he pulled behind a glossy, teal-colored Porche blocking the passenger zone for the Wharf Condominium Building.

“Still decorating?” Will tried not to smile.

“Oh, you know: gotta get all the pillows plumped, arrange the artwork.” Huey hoped his voice sounded disinterested. “Or is it: plump the artwork and arrange the pillows?” He winked at Will. “See you at the auditorium entrance, at 6:30.” Walking away from the limo, he noticed Carl, the front desk supervisor, had hurried away from the reception desk to meet him near the front doors.

“Mr. Richmond, you gotta talk to that decorator about that car. She tol’ me she’d only be upstairs a minute to balance somethin’ but that was haffa hour ago.”

“Did Evie leave you the keys?”

“Nossir.”

“Tell you what, Carl,” said Huey, setting down his briefcase to push his hand into a pocket, “Take my set of keys and this… and park that car someplace legal. I couldn’t bear to see that toy, get towed.”

The twenty dollar bill was new. Carl deftly slipped it into his shirt pocket as he bounced the key ring in his other hand. “Yessir!”

During the elevator ride up to the eighth floor, Huey tried to imagine what Evie was balancing in his small condo. He arrived at the eighth floor, hopeful. He was encouraged when he did not see her in the living room. “Hey, decorator,” he said loudly, “What are you balancing?”

“What do you mean, client?”

He set his briefcase on a side table, laughing at that coy tone. “Carl thinks you’re balancing something up here.”

“Valances, client, not balances” said Evie, now standing in the bedroom doorway. “That Carl is such an idiot – I know I told him I had to confirm measurements for the valances.” She sighed in, mostly, mock exasperation. “And you really need to tell him to stop calling me a decorator.” She tossed her head for further emphasis

Huey stepped towards her. As far as he was concerned, Evangeline, “Evie”, Dumaine, looked more like a model than any version of a decorator.  Her long, copper-colored hair shimmered in competition with the length of white silk shantung draped over one arm. “I’ll send him a cease-and-desist letter, tonight. Will that be enough?”

“Maybe.” Evie gently tugged on Huey’s tie.

He kissed her, twice, and then brushed several strands of that long hair away from her face. Beyond her shoulder, he now noticed several more lengths of fabric strewn across his bed. “I thought you selected the valance fabric last month. And, aren’t the valances supposed to be installed next week?” Evie stepped away from him, her mouth compressed into a pouty grimace.

“That was the plan, until the workroom called me this afternoon. The fabric I ordered arrived with a huge flaw, running the entire length of the bolt. Harold insisted he couldn’t work around it, so I’m trying to select a substitute.” She dismissively motioned towards the samples. “These fabrics are all in-stock, without flaws, and could be in town for Monday.”

Huey circled behind her, wrapping one arm around her waist. He rested his chin atop her head, enjoying this closeness and the complicated scent of her perfume. “Well, how long will it take to get the first fabric re-ordered and shipped?”

“Uhm, about three weeks.”

“I could wait three weeks, or so.” Huey could feel Evie’s back muscles constrict against his chest. Evie was a perfectionist; he knew she wouldn’t be happy with anything less than her original choice.

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“Nah. But I may invoke the delay clause in your contract…” He laughed when she quickly turned to face him, and again, at her playful shove. “Okay, okay. All kidding aside: just reorder the fabric. I want you to be happy.”

“Thank you, client.” She kissed his cheek. “And I’m sorry I won’t be at the Ball, tonight. But…” she paused to stare into those grey-green eyes “…if I can catch the last Saturday flight out of LA, maybe, I could wake you up on Sunday morning?”

“Deal” whispered Huey. “Just tell Carl you have to take another measurement.”

“Now, that will be enough of that,” laughed Evie. Untangling herself from his embrace, she quickly gathered the fabric samples into her oversized tote. Aware of Huey’s gaze, she employed graceful, swaying arm movements to wrap a wide cashmere scarf around her shoulders. Pleased with the expression on his face, she stepped closer to rest one hand lightly on the lapel of his jacket. “I really am sorry to miss this Ball, but I promise I won’t miss Rex. OK?”

“OK.” Huey kissed her, again. “And don’t panic when you get downstairs. I had Carl move your car.”

“You worry too much about silly things,” she laughed. “You should be worried about having less than an hour to get ready for the Ball. I’ll let myself out.”

He watched her close the front door as he undid his tie. “Evie, you have no idea what I worry about,” he said softly. “And I hope to keep it that way.”

CHAPTER TWO- Friday

Albert glanced at the clock on the limo’s dashboard, pleased that he had followed a route that had brought them to Audubon Place in fifteen minutes. But, he was not pleased to see that the arched entranceway into the city’s only gated street was blocked with a State Police car. “Mr. Grant, the street is blocked,” he said as a warning. “Lemme see what Tom has to say.” The elderly guard was frantically waving at him to roll down his window.

“Sorry, Mr. Grant,” Tom wheezed. “The Governor is attending a meeting down the street, so we are taking extra precautions.” He now looked towards the cruiser and gestured a thumbs-up signal.

“No problem, Tom,” Will said. “That makes sense.”

The Howard mansion, Lynn Lee’s family home, was situated mid-way along this boulevard of impressive homes; their lush landscaping and carpet-like lawns only reinforcing the picture of Wealth. Albert had been driving a limousine along this stretch of pavement for more than 30 years. He noted how, with few exceptions, the view had remained the same - almost as much as the names of the families who lived in those homes. Mr. Will’s marriage to Miss Lynn Lee, he admitted, had probably been the biggest bit of gossip for this neighborhood since the house at the end of the block had hosted a party for that British rock n’ roll band. Albert glanced in his rear view mirror. Will Grant was busily jotting notes in his ever-present Day Planner, seemingly oblivious to the photo-worthy views beyond his window. Albert couldn’t help shaking his head as he steered the car into the driveway.

“Mr. Will, if it’s OK with you, I’ll be back here before six o’clock.” Albert set the car’s brake, waiting for Will to reply before opening the driver-side door.

“Sure, Albert, that should be fine.” Will kept his focus on the Day Planner calendar page, circling several dates even after he heard Albert open the passenger-side door. Finally, he stepped out of the car, glancing at the cluster of limos and police cars further down the block. Better ask Lynn Lee about that meeting, he thought, it better not be related to the land sale near LSU.

Irritated from that possibility, and from his conversation with Huey about the FBI agent, Will kept his gaze upon the slate walkway, the stone steps and eventually the colorful, mosaic-tile porch floor. He only looked up as he heard the latch in the front door click. Mae, the housekeeper, swung open the wide front door. The woman, old enough to be Will’s mother, smiled.

“Evening, Mr. Will. Miss Lynn is, still, upstairs, getting’ ready.”

“Thanks, Mae.” Will handed her his raincoat, then began crossing the spacious foyer towards the staircase. Resting his hand on the intricately carved newel post, he paused. “Oh, Mae: was there a delivery for Lynn Lee, today?”

“Yessir!” Mae now looked past the closet door. “There sure was… and it was a doozie!”

Smiling, Will sauntered up the stairs. The master suite was redolent with a rich, floral, scent. He approached the table in the middle of the room to inspect the array of white roses, sequined masks and delicate orchid blooms among the other greenery within the silver ewer. Perfect, twenty-five roses.

“You are spoiling me rotten.”

He felt like an awkward teenager when he heard that tone in his wife’s voice. Lynn Lee, resplendent in a rose-pink colored silk ball gown, stood at the doorway to their balcony. He counted no less than15 graceful steps for her to cross that corner of the room before resting one hand on the table supporting the large floral arrangement. Her expression was a mix of amusement and mild concern.

“It took both the delivery man and Albert to bring it up here, Will.”

He decided to ignore their on-going debate about Albert’s actual job description. “Well, since this is your twenty-fifth anniversary as Queen of Comus, shouldn’t I be allowed to spoil you with enormous floral arrangements?” He carefully kissed her cheek.  Lynn Lee always scheduled a salon stylist to be at the house for hair styling and make-up before important societal events. He had no intention of smudging those efforts.

“Oh, Will. I was beginning to wonder… and there have been deliveries like this since Twelfth Night! I had no idea!”

He was unprepared to see her expression crumple. “What’s troubling you, darling? Why are you upset?”

Lynn Lee struggled to bring her emotions under control. She patted the lapel of his jacket. “Oh, don’t mind me; I’m so surprised…that’s all. And it’s just… such a sweet thing to do…” After a swift glance towards the carpet to steady her thoughts, she now smiled at Will. “I’m fine, now, dear. Please, don’t worry.” She gently steered him away from the table. “You have less than an hour before we have to leave, Will. I had Mae set out your tux in the dressing room, but your cuff links and studs are still in the safe.” She waited until he entered the adjoining master bath, before she stepped towards her dressing table. She stared into the mirror, then, selected a small makeup sponge to repair the area near her eyes.

Her first reaction to Will’s comment had not been giddy surprise, but a rush of sadness. Leland LeBlanc, her childhood friend and confidante, had long-ago promised that he would help her celebrate this anniversary in a way that would never be forgotten. Leland: who had shared her determination to become more than just the next generation of their family’s names, who knew her secrets and fears, who had assured her that Will Grant would be a good husband and partner and who, in his last living moments, had cried as held her hand, had evolved from a dearest friend into an aching memory to all her life’s happy moments. She scrubbed at one section of her cheek, perhaps too firmly. Now she searched a drawer for a bottle of foundation. Why can’t I only focus on Will’s generous heart and not always draw a comparison to what I think would have been Leland’s reaction? She paused in her work when the water to the shower was turned off. Moments later, the muted sounds of Will’s preparations in the dressing room were masked by a knock on the bedroom door. In the mirror’s reflection, she saw that door slowly swing open.

“Thank you, Mae. Perfect timing; you can place everything on the table next to the chairs. We should be ready to leave in about 20 minutes.” Lynn Lee now inspected the neatly arranged hors d’oeuvres within the silver platter, and touched the side of the champagne bottle to gauge coolness. Selecting one small wedge of brie, she returned to the mirror for one, last, review of her repairs.

“Did Mae include my favorite?” Will strode into the room with a laugh. “I won’t have another decent thing to eat until the supper.” He carefully directed two of the larger offerings into his mouth in quick succession. Without comment, he next draped the top of the champagne bottle with the small bar towel, wresting the cork out with a firm twist. Handing a flute to Lynn Lee, he said “For a happy evening, my dear.”

“I’m glad to see you so relaxed and smiling,” Lynn Lee said. She took a small sip of the champagne. “I watched you, when you stepped out of the limo. The look on your face should have melted the pavement.  What was on your mind?”

Will ate another bacon-wrapped scallop before answering. “Oh, among other topics, Huey and I have been debating how to approach this whole FBI issue with the new director. It’s quite a mess.”

Lynn Lee stared at the stream of bubbles racing upwards within her flute. “I’m worried about this, Will. If the FBI is involved, are you in any danger?”

“Not that I can see, but, the agent is supposed to call us back on Monday and…” Will, noticing the concern in his wife’s face, quickly revised his reply. “And…for the moment, it appears the biggest danger is that Huey’s condo will never be finished. Her car was parked at his building when I dropped him off this afternoon.” He laughed when Lynn Lee immediately sighed and looked up at the ceiling.

“That decorator is a breathing nightmare! You should hear what she is doing at the Aubert’s summer house: Mignon said the painters walked off the job because Evangeline insisted they had painted the floor stripes the wrong width. Then, she requested four more paint samples be applied to the foyer ceiling. Mignon claims that ceiling now looks like a patchwork quilt.” Pouring another small amount of champagne into her glass, she offered to refill Will’s flute, adding “Please, tell me she will not be at the Ball tonight.”

“Possibly, but she and Huey will be at Rex.”

“Well,” said Lynn Lee, not willing to acknowledge Will’s teasing tone, “at least we won’t see them until the meeting of the Courts.”

Will set his flute upon the table before speaking. He took both of Lynn Lee’s hands into his own. “Lynn, Huey is happy. He told me last week that he isn’t having nightmares about the fire as often as he did before they started dating. She may be giving your friends headaches, but Huey enjoys her company and finds, what he calls, her penny-dramas amusing. If Evangeline helps him to find a way past that tragedy then, she’s worth the occasional run-in at a social event. OK?”

Lynn Lee brushed her thumb along Will’s palm. “You are a good advocate for them, my dear. Was that fire, really, three years ago? Well, I agree: Huey deserves to be happy.” She picked up her champagne flute. “A toast, then, to our favorite corporate lawyer… despite his choice in female companions.”

Mae, waiting outside the bedroom door, listened to this conversation and frowned. She had heard all about that decorator from the Aubert’s cook, Lucy Martin. Mae and Lucy often rode the streetcar home, and Lucy spared no discretion on the many ways Evangeline Dumaine’s perfectionism annoyed the tradesmen. But Mae’s more pressing task was keeping Will and Lynn Lee on schedule. She light rapped upon the door frame before entering. “It’s almost six o’clock.”

###

Sixty minutes earlier, Albert had steered the limo out of the Howard mansion driveway, under the arched entrance of Audubon Place, then into traffic along St. Charles Avenue. A few blocks west, he turned away from the traffic towards his own house, located several blocks closer to the river.

Easing the long vehicle into his narrow side yard, Albert set the brake. Once outside, he activated the electronic lock before, finally, tossing an old sheet over the roof and windows. He was aware that a flock of birds often roosted in the tree shading this portion of the yard. He adjusted one corner of this make-shift tarp. No way am I gonna be washing bird poop off this car, in the dark, while in my chauffeur’s uniform.

Albert unlocked his front door, pleased that the timer had turned on the table lamp next to his favorite chair.  The warm glow felt welcoming, even though he knew no one else was inside. He paused, as was his daily habit, to gaze upon the framed photos propped upon the fireplace mantle: a time-worn wedding photo of a young couple, a faded color Polaroid of a young boy sitting on an elderly woman’s ample lap, and a glossy graduation photo displayed in a cardboard frame that was embossed with the school’s mascot. He walked into the next room – a smaller space containing his double bed and an ancient chest of drawers – stopping only long enough to tuck next week’s gas money for the limo into a worn manila envelope that was returned to the back of his sock drawer. Next, he passed through the room where his son, AJ, still stored some boxes and a lumpy sofa-sleeper. Finally, he entered the kitchen.

While a scoop of cold jambalaya was warming within a pot on the stove, Albert assembled a bowl, plate and cutlery atop a battered metal table. His Uncle Moses had insisted the table once belonged to the Café DuMonde, but was taken as a “souvenir of VE Day”. Albert mildly doubted his uncle’s tales, but as he settled into his chair, he thought about all the ways his life path had been influenced by Uncle Moses and, peripherally, aligned with the LeBlanc and Howard families. The overheard conversations during this afternoon’s limo ride prompted him to adjust his mealtime prayer to add “…and keep us all safe, Lord, from whatever that FBI man will be telling Mr. Grant.”

From where he sat, the window across from the stove gave him an unobstructed view of the side yard. No one in this part of Uptown would presume that he owned the limo tucked beneath that old sheet; other homes along Cypress Lane either had a cab or work truck parked at the curb to signify those residents’ occupations. This modest street, he considered, hinted at the subtle ways New Orleans organized its neighborhoods and citizens. While the prestige addresses along the boulevards named Audubon, Newcomb and Exposition were easily viewed by tourists, other, narrower streets had been developed to provide near-by housing for the people who were employed by the owners of those grand homes. In those earlier times, the owners of those prestige addresses would often, also, be the owners of the modest homes occupied by their cooks and chauffeurs – occasionally deeding the residences to their employees upon retirement.

Had Uncle Moses bought this house or had it been deeded to him by the LeBlancs? Albert couldn’t quite recall, but remembered well the old man referring to him as “the son I wish I cudda had”. Albert had been discharged from the Army in the mid-50s, with no job prospects and no idea what sort of job he wanted after a four year deployment in Korea. Thinking about those days brought a slow smile to Albert’s mouth. Back then, I only knew I did not want to live with my parents. At the time, Uncle Moses was the chauffeur for the LeBlanc family and eager to help his favorite nephew. But, the LeBlancs already employed two chauffeurs; Uncle Moses, though, was determined. He soon learned the Howard family’s chauffeur wanted to retire. In quick flashes Albert thought about the day he had moved into this house; the early years driving for Senator and Mrs. Howard, then, their daughter Lynn Lee; Uncle Moses’ death in 1964 and the discovery that Uncle Moses had willed him both this house and a tidy sum of money. He had met his wife, a cook, at one of the houses the Howards often visited. After Earline died in childbirth, Albert recalled how he almost sold the house. His mother-in-law finally convinced him to “stay with the familiar”; she had also generously volunteered to raise his baby son, AJ, so that the child would have a normal home life.

AJ. Albert loudly exhaled as he thought about his only child. Now a young man in his mid-twenties, AJ had spent most of his youth in Mid City amid the rough-and-tumble ways of the Whitlows. What did you expect? he mentally chided himself. The boy saw  you only one afternoon a week, sometimes not even on holidays ,and you expected him to be…what? Some sort of uptown gentleman? He felt the sting of disappointment from AJ’s recent life choices. Barely graduating from high school, running with that skateboard gang, getting that girl pregnant – Albert stopped inventorying AJ’s shortcomings when he thought about his grandson. Albert III, known fondly as Three by the family, was a sweet, chubby child who had inherited the same hazel-green eye color as his Grandma Earline. “God bless the child…” he prayed.

His last bite of food was cold; Albert glanced at the kitchen clock, not really surprised to see that the hands indicated 5:45pm. “You old fool: spending your dinnertime lost in difficult thoughts when you should-a been thinking about something nice… like Miz Camille.” He laughed at that idea while he heaped the plate, pot and cutlery into the sink to soak, then secured the aluminum foil over that small tin of cornbread. His neighbor, Camille Butler, had brought the tin over yesterday. Cornbread only satisfies so much…wonder how flustered she would get if I said that tomorrow? Albert laughed.

Now, walking towards the limo, Albert saw that his concern about the birds had been justified. Several tacky splotches marked the sheet instead of the windshield. He could hear the birds rustling among the branches of the ancient yaupon holly and decided not to risk further mess by removing the sheet –yet. Slowly, while the vehicle was still draped in that sheet, he managed to steer it from beneath those bird-infested branches. With a grunt of triumph, he pulled off the sheet, slammed the driver-side door closed, then headed back to Audubon Place.

Albert pulled into the driveway a minute before six. He set the heat controls to the highest setting, while watching the front door. From years of practice, he could calculate just how much time he needed to step out from his side of the car, jog around to the passenger side, and open the door to the back of the limo in coordination to his passengers arriving alongside.

Lynn Lee, bundled into a magnificent sable coat, was delicately helped into the warm interior of the limo. Albert was always amused at the use of fur coats in New Orleans. When I served in Korea, a fur coat had a real purpose. The air was brutal cold and snow flew in stinging sheets. Here, when the temperature dips into the 40s, ladies like Miss Lynn Lee need fur coats because their ball gowns are made of tissue-thin fabric! He nodded slightly at Mr. Will. Unlike his wife, Will Grant was braving the cool air wearing only a tux. Yeah, but don’t forget: he is from Virginia. That observation amused Albert for much of the drive across town.

The gateway into the Municipal Auditorium property was clogged with a seemingly endless, shiny, segmented ribbon of limos and luxury vehicles all slowly inching towards the well-lit canopied entrance. From his rearview mirror, Albert had a few seconds to watch his passengers exit the limo. Lynn Lee delicately waved to a friend, while Will hurriedly pulled on his white gloves. Then, the Lincoln ahead of him pulled forward, allowing Albert to drive towards the reserved parking spaces near the service entrance of the Auditorium. If he was lucky, he would also find a chair in the loading dock. The traditional dice game between several of the chauffeurs and the Auditorium staff would be a welcome diversion from the earlier stresses of the day. It was a far different social event from the Ball, but for Albert, it was a chance to laugh and gossip with men he had known for many years.

###

Huey watched Will and Lynn Lee exit the limo before abandoning the lobby’s warmth. After lightly kissing Lynn Lee, he said “the floor captains are already circling the lobby, Will. You and I won’t have much time to mingle.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” said Lynn Lee. “I see that Margot and Lloyd are already inside. She and I have some details to review for the Arias in April gala.” She laughed as she patted his sleeve. “Enjoy your first night as a member of the Krewe. I’ll meet you on the dance floor.”

Will watched his wife glide towards the older couple. He tugged at the thick cotton gloves, again. “Huey, I can’t believe you talked me into this Tableau business, but I guess there is no turning back.” He sighed. “Lead on.”

“Have no fear,” laughed Huey. “There are more attorneys in the Krewe of Tiresia than any other Carnival organization. What could be more fun?”

Will snorted. “If I remember correctly, the title for this year’s Tableau is ‘Blind Truth”. I doubt there will be anything truthful about the performance, but I hope anyone who knows me will be blinded by those silly costumes.”

“Don’t worry: no talent scouts will be in the audience.” Huey was amused at Will’s less-than-enthusiastic perspective. He gestured towards a side door. “This is the quickest way. My brother, Cole, said he would try to save us a space in one of the dressing ...” Huey didn’t complete his comment. The judge who had presided over this morning’s hearing was walking towards them.

Judge Rabalais smiled as he said “Good to see you are active in the Krewe again, Huey.” He nodded at Will, then, approached another cluster of men farther into the lobby.

Huey laughed at Will’s expression. “Yes, that was the judge who was assigned to our case. Now, do you understand why these Balls are so important?”

The backstage area could only be described as organized chaos. Will swiveled his head left and right to watch Krewe Officers in sequined outfits and plumed hats and other members in various costumes stroll among the stagehands who were jogging here-and-there to arrange props and light stands, while waiters carrying trays of sandwiches and drinks deftly wove their way in between men and equipment. Musicians had gathered in one corner to tune their instruments. Conversations were only conducted at the loudest volume; often drowned under louder noises hinting at small accidents. He saw several other men, with dour expressions, hovering near a closed door. “What’s their role, here?”

 “The dads, uncles or trusted friends of the Debs,” Huey grinned. “Insuring the young women will have no exposure to this madness.”

“I can see why.” Will was mildly surprised to recognize several prominent members from the Chamber of Commerce staggering amid the masked Krewe Officers and costumed men. “And this happens every year?”

“This happens at every Tableau Ball, every year” said Huey. “And there are three, other, similar Balls tonight in Orleans Parish and two more in Jefferson. That translates into a lot of silliness all over town.” He tapped Will’s arm. “Look: there’s Cole.”

Cole Richmond assumed an exaggerated pose as his brother and Will approached. “What do you think? Should I audition for the role of Clark Kent, next?”

“Hardly,” laughed Huey. “Shouldn’t you be more worried your wife will go into labor before the end of tonight?”

“Don’t even speak those words.” Cole led his brother and Will to a cramped corner within one of the Krewe dressing rooms. “Not after I have paid a stupid fortune for four maternity ball gowns. Four! Melanie will just have to hold it in ‘til after Rex!” Now, he pointed to two garment bags hung on pegs. One was much larger and lumpier than the other. “Gentlemen: your costumes.”

Huey’s costume, the discovered, included a theatrical harness, complete with glittery wings. As Cole helped Huey don the protective vest, then adjust straps and buckles, he said to Will “Did Huey tell you our baby will be a girl? Now, all my involvement in this Krewe may really bring a dividend: wouldn’t it be great if, one day, my daughter is Queen of Tiresia?”

Will only smiled as he struggled to pull on his shapeless, one-piece, outfit. He patted the front of his tux several times as he worked to pull himself within the costume.

          “You can leave your tux jacket in the dressing room, Will,” said Cole. “Just hang it on the peg.”

           “Can’t. Have a gift for Lynn Lee, in a pocket, that I don’t want to lose.”

Huey and Cole exchanged glances. Krewe members usually presented their wives with the annual Krewe pin before the Ball. Most women enjoyed the distinction of showing off that limited-edition jewelry while they sat in the Auditorium and waited for the start of the Tableau. Huey thought he had explained that little ritual to Will; he only recalled seeing Lynn Lee’s fur coat, not seeing the pin. “Didn’t you give Lynn Lee the Krewe pin?”

         Will smiled. “She’s wearing it, now. But I’ve brought something much nicer.”

Cole made a small indistinct gesture to his brother before  he stepped forward to help Will make one, final, adjustment to the collar of the costume. “OK, Will, it may take both of us to help Huey maneuver these wings through the doorway. The music is starting and I don’t want to miss my cue.”

On the other side of the curtained stage, Lynn Lee had been escorted to her seat by one of the Krewe’s ushers. She vaguely recalled the elderly man’s wife had died the same year as Leland. “How are you doing tonight, Robert?” The old man’s head bobbed slowly up and down

“Oh, doing fine, now. Had a bit of a problem with a stroke last year, you know, but I’m almost back to normal.”

“Yes, I had heard,” Lynn Lee lied. “I’m so pleased to hear about your progress.”

“Thank you, Miss Lynn Lee. Hope you enjoy the Tableau.”

Lynn Lee inwardly laughed. Small chance of that. Last month, Will had shown her the document claiming to be the script for this Tableau. A questionable version of the Wizard of Oz tale, blended with the details of the recent scandal following the mayor’s race, this year’s Tableau would never be confused with any professional stage performace. She knew that Cole played the part of the news reporter, Huey was slated to be a Flying Monkey and Will’s role was described as One of the Munchkin Horde. Content with just that much information, Lynn Lee now watched the trio of women carefully navigating the steps towards her row.

“Oh, Melanie! Aren’t you the trooper to be here tonight. And what a lovely gown.”

Melanie Richmond slowly settled into the aisle seat. “Thank you, Lynn Lee. Be sure to tell Cole how much you like this gown. He almost fainted after he saw the bill from the seamstress.” She laughed softly as she rested her hands atop her wide girth. “Are you and Will stopping by our house after the Ball for our supper?”

“Only if you aren’t tired,” said Lynn Lee, with a glance towards Melanie’s mother-in-law. The elder Mrs. Richmond was not smiling.

“It’s a different generation, Lynn Lee,” said Mrs. Richmond. “I don’t know how she manages, but she and Cole are determined to…”

The lights of the auditorium blinked twice, followed by a familiar 3-note blast from a trumpeter. Lynn Lee gratefully directed her attention to the blaze of kleig lights aimed at the stage curtains.

 

CHAPTER THREE – Friday

Albert was lowering himself into a padded folding chair while, 75 miles north, his son AJ was crawling up into the passenger seat of  a large, LL&D truck. His co-worker, Harwell “Harry” Lewis, watched AJ’s progress, only twisting the ignition key after AJ had slammed the door shut.

“Damn long day…can’t believe we worked a full shift then spent more than two hours shoveling corn into Charlie’s shed…or whatever that building is called ,” said Harry as he pushed the gear shift lever into first.

“Crib. Corn crib,” said AJ as he squinted into darkness through the windshield and to his right.

The rutted tracks leading from Charlie Thomas’ farm to the paved state road meandered around clumps of scrub trees and a few, wide, Magnolias on their left while also acting as a sort of boundary to the fenced pastures on their right. The half-ton truck had maneuvered the journey to the farm with no problem; the weight of the grain acting as a hefty ballast. Now, the truck bumped and bucked through deep, mucky puddles that alternated with narrow patches of rocky ground. Harry felt a rivulet of sweat snake along the side of his face. The possibility of having to free a truck this size, from a mud hole in the dark, filled him with an anxious irritability.

“Harry, maybe you should drive a little to the left,” said AJ, as the back end of the truck swayed towards the line of fence posts corralling a smaller pasture.

“Hell, no. I’m sittin’ on the left and there’s a ditch running along here. Don’t worry: I’ll get your city ass out of red-neck land.” He regretted the sound of his voice, but laughed at AJ expression. “Com-on: just kidding. I don’t want to spend too much time up here, either.”

Finally, the truck lurched onto the state road, clumps of thick mud spewing away from the tires. The sound was too loud for the men to comfortably talk for several minutes. AJ didn’t mind. This section of Tangipahoa Parish was not just desolate - it carried a subtle hostility that kept his skin prickling. He was too nervous to carry a conversation. Through the deepening gloom, he could barely see the sporadic clusters of small houses and trailers set back from the road. Their small windows only dimly hinted to any interior illumination and the unlit porch lights further reinforced the notion that strangers were not welcome.

At the intersection of the state road and Route 445, small commercial buildings huddled around the four-way stop signs. They were older structures, from a time when all commerce was only conducted in locally-owned stores. Now, their shabby exteriors were barely identified with signage. The exception was a welding shop, which was displaying a new sign and a confederate flag. Both were illuminated by a spotlight bolted to a pole.

“Don’t know how my Maw-maw Dee’s family lived around here.”

“That’s probably why they moved to Orleans,” said Harry. “Don’t get your blood pressure all crazy thinking about it. Look – we’re turning onto the interstate, now.” The blur of speed and smooth pavement was calming Harry’s nerves, too. He didn’t like being surrounded by all those trees. Now, steering the truck onto the elevated portion of the interstate, he watched for the last exit before the ramp that led onto the Causeway Bridge. As he directed the vehicle towards that exit, Harry pointed at the truck stop situated near the intersection of the exit ramp and service road. “Don’t know about you, but I’m not gonna drive across the Lake before I get some food.”

AJ made a small grunting sound of agreement. Even with a brief stop for a meal, he calculated, they would not be able to get the LL&D truck returned to the yard before 10PM.

The truck stop’s restaurant was clean, but showing the wear from serving customers for decades. In all the booths the vinyl upholstery was scuffed, punctured and often torn at the corners; the action from thousands of hands, sleeves and wash rags rubbing against the edges of the table tops had worn away the wood grain pattern, exposing a pale beige substrate of plastic and at certain high traffic points, the linoleum floor tiles had eroded down to the scrim backing.  Still, the inviting aroma of seared beef, fresh brewed coffee and a hint of cinnamon caused Harry and AJ to smile.

Harry led the way to a booth mid-way along the outside wall; he quickly slid atop the bench seat facing the front door. It was one of Harry’s few quirks, AJ considered, to always claim the seat facing the door. But he was willing to overlook this odd trait, once again, since he had questions to ask his co-worker. Once the waitress had delivered their coffee and left with their orders, AJ waited until Harry had taken a few sips of coffee. “So, Harry. Your sister is a nurse, right?”

“Nurse’s assistant.”

“OK, but she works at Children’s Hospital, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, do you think she could look at some paperwork and tell me if my boy is sick or if Dez is lying to me, again?”

“What kind of paperwork?” Harry was well aware that AJ was involved in a complicate child custody battle. It was one of AJ’s few topics of conversation.

“Well, that’s the thing,” said AJ, leaning forward. “Now that she and my boy moved to Atlanta, she keeps sending me copies of all these doctor’s bills for blood tests and office visits and stuff I don’t understand. The insurance we got at LL&D won’t pay for out-of-state doctors, so I have to pay full price every time Three goes to a doctor. Now, Dez told me Three has asthma and will need some kind of mist-air machine to breathe.” AJ slouched into the booth upholstery. “My lawyer wants to hire someone to review these bills and such, but I can’t afford it, Harry. I can barely pay him.”

Harry took another swallow of coffee before replying. “Yeah, Katie should be able to at least tell you if the invoices are legit, but what about Desiree’s job?  Isn’t she working at her relative’s company? Don’t they have insurance and stuff like that?” AJ’s chin sunk further into the collar of his uniform. Harry lightly slapped the table top. “Hey man, don’t beat yourself up – who knows what sort of crazy crap her family and that DJ boyfriend are telling her. After we go out to The Café’ tomorrow, we’ll talk with Katie. Then, you’ll know what to do.”

Before AJ could reply, a younger waitress returned with their food. With deliberate care, she set each plate slowly on the table. Harry winked at AJ.

 “You know, doll, you look a lot like a girl that went to my high school. Didn’t you go to Warren Easton?”

AJ had heard that line from Harry at least once a day, for the past few months. AJ was tired of watching the young women’s pained expressions and listening to their polite, but firm refusals. He turned his attention through the wide window to his left, to the view of the restaurant parking lot. He was surprised to discover he had a clear view of the LL&D truck. But he was more interested in the man seated within the light blue pick-up truck parked alongside their vehicle. The man was busily writing notes in a folder. Several other folders were stacked on the dashboard. Why would anyone want to work in a dimly-lit truck, when there was a brightly-lit restaurant only 30 feet away? Their waitress had just extracted herself from Harry’s flirting. AJ started to comment about the driver, but Harry was gesturing with his fork that he had some important news.

“You know, we were so busy with work today that I almost forgot to tell you something.  I met these guys at a sports bar, and one of them said he might need some cash-only workers. Interested?”

            “Like what?”

“I don’t remember. He has a repair shop, or maybe it was a roofing business…we was all drinking, you know …but he asked me if I knew anyone who would work part time and I said yeah.”

Harry looked so pleased with this job lead that AJ chose his words carefully. “Well, I guess that could be OK, if it was only the weekends, you know.” AJ wasn’t certain if Harry’s smile was sincere or just affected by all the fries he had stuffed into his mouth. He waited while Harry chewed.

            “Good. The guy’s shop is near my place. We can stop in after you talk to Katie.”

They ate their meal in silence for several minutes before Harry spoke, again. “Ain’t it a pain how you and me have to work our butts off for money we don’t even get to keep?” Taking AJ’s shrug as confirmation, he continued. “I mean, how am I ever going to pay down that court judgement when all I can afford is $100 a month? And you got child support and now these crazy doctor’s bills… I’m telling you, man, some cash-only work may be the best deal we have had in a while.” He glanced around the mostly-occupied restaurant. “I bet this place makes some money.”

            “Yeah, but you can’t cook.”

            Harry laughed while he dragged a napkin across his chin and mouth. “And neither can you. Let’s hit the road.”

 The man in the blue pickup truck was no longer looking at a folder, he appeared to be asleep. AJ thought, again, about mentioning the man and the pickup truck, but became too engrossed in Harry’s story about last night’s brawl in front of his sister’s house. By the time they had crossed the Causeway Bridge, AJ had completely forgotten about the blue pickup. But Harry occasionally monitored his rearview mirror. The blue pickup had tailed them from the restaurant all the way back to LL&D’s vehicle lot on Basin Street. He was relieved when the truck did not follow them down the side street, but continued towards the east.

After helping Harry secure the padlock on the lot’s gate, AJ drove to his father’s house. A brief stab of panic clutched his gut when he opened the door to only silence. Then, he saw the notes his father had printed on the wall calendar tacked next to the front door: Ball, 6pm. He looked at his watch: eleven-thirty. “Pops won’t be back til at least 1AM,” he said softly as he continued into the front room. Ignoring the photos on the fireplace mantle, he sat in his father’s favorite overstuffed chair. AJ closed his eyes.

His memories about living in this house were an uneven blend of emotions. Moving from his grandmother’s noisy, cluttered household to his father’s tidy, by-the-clock regime had been a cultural shock, but AJ could now admit that his father’s consistency and work ethic had guided him through his senior year of high school and towards a job at LL&D. But, then there were also the arguments about his involvement with Dez, their hasty marriage and now, the divorce proceedings. AJ slowly thumped his fists against the chair’s worn armrests. “Dammit.” The kitchen clock was chiming midnight.

Slowly pulling himself out of the chair, AJ looked towards the aligned doorways that gave him a direct view down the length of this shotgun house. “Just one more time.” Walking into his father’s bedroom, he hesitantly pulled open the sock drawer and removed $75 from the worn manila envelope. Shuffling the socks to replicate Albert’s attempt to hide the envelope, he now eased the drawer back into place. He had 15 minutes to get to Carlo’s usual hangout, if he wanted a decent nickel bag.

###

Lynn Lee glanced at her watch. Eleven-fifteen. There was still a noticeable smudge of dirt and glitter staining the stage’s carpet from where three men had stumbled into a row of potted trees and knocked over one of the floor captains during the Tableau. Thank goodness Will and Huey were not involved, she thought, glancing about the auditorium. The last debutante had not yet been seated upon the stage dais, but there were three women attempting to unobtrusively exit the row to her left. No doubt they are the wives of those three men. That won’t be a pleasant ride home. The unplanned pause from that mishap had delayed the presentation of the Court and start of the dancing by almost 30 minutes. The ushers charged with escorting women to the dance floor were only, now, approaching the first few rows. “How is Melanie doing?” she whispered to the elder Mrs. Richmond.

“I think she will be fine, although I am going to insist we leave after the first call-out.” Mrs. Richmond frowned at the usher attempting to assist Melanie out of her chair. “Be careful on the steps, Melanie.” She turned back towards Lynn Lee. “She worries me… but I guess I won’t spoil her one chance to show off that gorgeous gown. She looks like she stepped out from a Renaissance painting.”

Lynn Lee didn’t have a chance to reply. Two more ushers had approached, each with a call-out, or dance request, from a (supposed) un-named gentleman on the dance floor. She followed Mrs. Richmond to the edge of the carpeted dance floor, laughing at the sight of Will in his rumpled, slightly askew costume. The opening strains to a waltz caused her to angle her face close to Will’s ear. “What will the Yale alumni association say if I sent them a photo of you, now?” She could barely hear his voice, muffled from behind his mask.

“They would never believe it,” laughed Will. “Although, I have to admit, it has been great fun. Did you see me catch that tree…before it fell atop the musicians?”

Lynn Lee allowed Will to guide them through a few dance steps before replying. “A very gallant rescue; I hope the Krewe president knows you saved the day for that poor drummer.” She nodded at Melanie and Cole, carefully swaying side-to-side. “They will probably be leaving after this dance. When will you want to leave?”

Will carefully guided her into a twirl, keeping them in step with the last notes to the music. “Not until you open your call-out gift.” Fumbling slightly with the sections of his costume, he finally pulled a narrow box from his jacket. “Go on, open it now.”

Lynn Lee hesitated. The logo stamped on the lid was from a well-known local jeweler, not from the company who supplied the usual trinkets that were distributed as Krewe call-out gifts. Pressing the tiny release button, she gasped when the hinge swung up the lid to reveal a Tahitian pearl bracelet, in a shade of pink that almost matched her dress. “Oh, Will,” she breathed. “This is beautiful.”

Unconcerned about Krewe protocol, Will slipped off his gloves. “Here, let me help you.” The simple ring and toggle clasp was quickly intertwined. He held up her hand; the bracelet barely slid an inch down her arm. “Perfect.”

Several couples stepped towards them; the women quickly steering Lynn Lee to one side of the dance floor so that they could admire her bracelet. Will shrugged at the men now standing nearby; all waiting for their dance partners to return. “I guess that means she likes it?” Only Huey laughed.

“Will, you have reset the gift threshold for every married man in the Krewe. By tomorrow, every wife who knows about that bracelet will be asking their husbands for something extravagant as a call out gift next year.” He glanced towards Cole, for agreement, but his brother was monitoring Melanie’s slow progress up the steps towards the exit. “Looks like my brother may be leaving, soon… and to tell the truth, my costume is starting to pinch in all the wrong places. When do you think Lynn Lee will want to leave?”

“We are planning to fly to the coast tomorrow morning, so I know she doesn’t want a late night.” He waited, though, until Lynn Lee acknowledged his gestures for leaving the dance floor. “Okay, I am approved for exiting,” he laughed.

Huey, Cole and Will discovered the backstage area was almost as busy as the dance floor. The janitorial crew was attempting to preemptively stack folding chairs and move the Tableau props towards the loading dock. Several women, who Will guessed were employed by the families of the debutantes, were hurrying in and out of that green room with wardrobe bags and make up cases.  Laundry carts had been placed near the Krewe’s dressing rooms to collect costumes, and a tired-looking security guard now leaned against one wall, monitoring the activities.

Huey waited until they were back inside their dressing room before tapping his brother’s shoulder. “Hey, Cole. Why don’t you tell Will about the conversation you had with an investigator this morning?”

Will, hunched over his costume, paused; one leg still angled up in mid-motion. It took him a few seconds to recall that Cole worked in the District Attorney’s office. “Now, what?”

Cole’s expression shifted from smiling to a frown. “It’s just an odd comment this guy made about LL&D. Our office has some overlap with certain Federal agencies, you understand,” he began. “This particular investigator does a lot of field work – tailing suspects, monitoring business- the sort of work that looks interesting in the movies, but is really very boring.” Cole smiled slightly. “Anyway, he’s involved in a joint task force project for another division…I’m not even sure what they are doing, but it seems that LL&D may get dragged into their investigation, too. His exact words were: and now I have to keep an eye on some low-pay LL&D employees. I’m going to need a chart to keep track of everyone involved.” He watched Will and Huey’s reactions. “It may not be anything related to LL&D, but I thought you should know.”

“Well, I guess Monday’s meeting with the FBI agent may be a very eye-opening experience.” Will feigned a hook shot toss of his costume towards the laundry cart. He was determined to maintain a cool demeanor, even though his stomach had clenched. “Huey, if Cole brought you here, why don’t you ride with Lynn Lee and me to his house? Then, we can drop you off at your condo.” He smiled at Cole. “You may need to keep your car available for a hospital trip, later tonight.”

Thankfully, there were no trips to the hospital during the after-Ball supper party at Cole and Melanie’s new home. After the bustle and sparkle of Municipal Auditorium, the soft lighting in each room and the subtle infusion of classical music from the whole-house stereo system both relaxed the guests and enhanced the generous buffet assembled atop the dining room table.   

From the limo’s position alongside the curb, Albert had an almost unobstructed view into the house. Curtains were pulled to either side of the tall windows to reveal each room well-lit and filled with beautifully attired people; their slow movements sporadically creating a gap that would reveal a painting on a wall or an antique bookcase. Albert adjusted the temperature control and flexed his feet. “Sure wish they would have given us more coffee,” he said, looking beneath the lid of a Styrofoam cup. Thirty minutes ago, Melanie’s caterer had brought a small plate of food and one cup of coffee out to each of the limousine chauffeurs. It was a nice gesture, but Albert was tired. He monitored the progress of the vehicle slowly rolling by, again. Must be the security detail for one of those Big Society guests, like that judge. He drained the last of the lukewarm coffee from the cup. Can’t imagine who else would want to drive a pale blue pick-up truck.

CHAPTER FOUR – Saturday

Albert pawed at the top of the clock radio. One of these mornings, I’m gonna remember which button stops that beeping noise. The soft clack from the little plastic tabs flipping back-and-forth to display the time was equally annoying; he preferred the steady tick-tock rhythm of the gears and the clanging bell of his old wind-up clock to this electronic box. “Wish AJ wudda bought me a new pair of slippers for Christmas, instead of you,” he mumbled towards the device, as he swung his legs out from the blanket and shoved his feet into the worn-out loafers. Eight AM. Five hours sleep, but at least I don’t have to drive THEM to the airport.

He felt more happily awake after the first sip of coffee. Now, the crackle and spit from bacon and eggs cooking within the old skillet and the warm aroma of bread toasting, filled the kitchen with an energy that reminded Albert of lazy, summer mornings from his childhood. Sweet, calming memories that inspired him to hum an old show tune as he brought the meal to the kitchen table.

While turning to the last page of the Sports section, he glanced out the kitchen window. “Dammit.” The sheet he had thrown over the limo’s roof and hood, when he returned again from Audubon Place, had been pulled away and manipulated by a grey tabby cat into a sort of nest. Albert suspected the cat had chosen a warm spot above the engine. Exhaling a snort of annoyance, Albert grabbed a sweater from the coat stand, stepped outside into the morning chill and approached the limo. The cat greeted him with a trilling chirp.

“Mewt yourself,” said Albert. He was actually fond of the cat, but not all of its antics. Grasping the cat by the scruff of its neck to gather the sleepy feline into his arms, Albert calmed his anger before turning away from the limo. He crossed the street, climbed the steps to Camille Butler’s porch and pressed the doorbell button briefly, but twice. It was the neighborhood’s agreed signal that this was a friendly call. Camille opened the door with a smile; a flowery scent flowing along the warm air wafting out from the house.

“Oh, Pepper: you bad kitty. Why you bothering Al on a Saturday?” She now cradled the cat in her arms. “Com-on in, Al, I just made a pot of coffee. Was he trying to get into the bird feeder, again?”

“Sorry, Cam, not today. Pepper pulled the tarp off the Grant’s limo. Now, I have to wash all the bird poop off, before I drive it back. If you could keep him inside, for a few hours, you would be doing me a big favor.”

Camille shook her finger at the cat. “You are the worst. Sneaking out of the house last night, probably tomcatting around the neighborhood, and then making work for Al…don’t know why I feed you.” She laughed when the cat jumped out of her arms, to run towards the kitchen. She rested one hand on Albert’s sleeve. “I feel bad about this, Al. If you give me a minute, I’ll put on my gardening shoes so I can help you wash the car.”

Albert shook his head. “Naw, I can’t let you do that. Besides, the hose water will be colder than ice. Don’t want to give your hands cramps…aren’t you still hemming ball gowns and such?” Beyond her shoulder, he could see into her sewing room, seemingly overflowing with rolls of fabric and several dress forms attired in mostly-finished gowns. He was pleased when she playfully pushed on his arm.

“Oh, really, now. A little cold water won’t hurt me. But I’ll tell you what: come over for lunch. I fried chicken for last night’s church supper, and there was plenty extra.”

“Now, that’s a deal. See you at noon.” Albert shoved his hands into the pockets of his sweater as he stepped off the porch. This day is shaping up fine. Sure, I have to wash the limo, but lunch with Camille is more than I …

“What excuse you got to be visitin’ wif Miz Camille at this hour of the morning?”

“Checking her pulse.” Albert smiled at Jacob Washington, his next door neighbor. An elderly man who enjoyed monitoring the neighborhood from his porch, Jacob would sit upon his glider for hours. Today, he was wrapped in a thin blanket; one foot slowly pushing against the porch floor to direct the glider back and forth, the other resting atop the low table where he kept a thermos of coffee.

“You old dog…if I was ten years younger.” He laughed with Albert, both men comfortable with the unspoken. Still shaking his head, he now pointed towards Albert’s side yard. “You know, I thought you was running some sort of parking lot last night. That son of yours needs to either fix the muffler on his jalopy or stop pulling in and out of your yard at all hours.”

Albert frowned. “Didn’t know AJ stopped by, ‘cause I was at the Auditorium. He didn’t even leave me a note. Damn kid. Sorry about that Jacob, I’ll remind him your room is on the other side of that fence.” He stared at the limo, worried about AJ’s visit. With a deep inhale he said “Well that limo isn’t gonna wash itself. Time’s a-wasting.”

“Let me know if you need me to inspect your work,” laughed Jacob.

But Albert didn’t immediately begin washing the limo. An unpleasant idea had flashed; he went inside his house, to the chest of drawers where he had stowed the gas money. “Dammit, AJ,” he whispered. Lynn Lee had given him one-hundred and twenty dollars for fuel and the limo’s brake tag sticker, but there was, now, only forty-five dollars in the old envelope. With deep effort he gently pushed the drawer back into place, then wiped one hand across his face. “Nothing I can do about this right now,” he said softly. “Just got to get that limo back to Audubon Place, before noon.”

Walking into the kitchen, Albert stacked the frying pan, plates and cutlery into the sink to soak. He took a final swallow of lukewarm coffee, glancing one more time at the back page of the Sports section. “Well look at that.”

The article was titled “Boat Festival Winners Celebrate in Style”; directly below was a photo of Huey Richmond, his decorator girlfriend and an elderly couple holding a trophy. From the article, Albert learned that the girlfriend’s parents owned a 1953 Chris Craft Commander, a rare, wood-hulled boat that had once belonged to a former Louisiana Governor.  “Pontchartrain Marina Boat Festival. Huh. Bet her parents have got some money to own a boat like that and pay for a slip.” Albert liked Huey and was glad the scarred man was finding a new life after that house fire. He had even met Huey’s parents, during that sad time, when Huey was recovering in a Houston burn unit. Several times, the Grants had flown Mr. and Mrs. Richmond in the Howard Foundation jet to Houston. Albert had been instructed to drive the couple to and from the plane’s hanger. That decorator looks high maintenance, but at least she is sitting closer to Huey than her parents. Good sign. Albert folded the paper, then, gathered his car cleaning supplies.

By 11:15, Albert was steering the limo towards the entrance to Audubon Place. Mike, the weekend guard, waved for him to roll down his window.

“You know, the Grants left two hours ago.”

Albert had learned to be patient with the overly anxious young man. “Yes, Mike. They didn’t want to leave the limo at the airport. Just putting this in their garage, til Monday morning.” Pulling up to the gate which blocked their driveway, Albert now patted his shirt pocket. Lynn Lee had managed to lose all the remote control boxes that operated this gate; last night, he had given her the one assigned for the limo. Now, he used an odd, barrel-shaped key to activate the box bolted alongside the gate. Once the limo was parked inside the building his Uncle Moses had called a car-barn, Albert jogged back to the gate and reactivated the mechanism which pulled the gate shut. As it slowly swung closed, he glanced at his watch.  “Eleven-forty. Should be enough time to walk back to Cam’s house. Don’t want to be late.”

 

CHAPTER FIVE - Saturday

Scarecrow Grains operated a complicated, but efficient, facility along the shore of the New Orleans Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, near its intersection with the Mississippi River. Grain from all over the world arrived via ship, up the Mississippi River, for storage in their tall silos. Then, the grain was transferred by rail cars to Scarecrow’s many baking facilities in other states. The Howard family had owned this section of real estate for more than 120 years. Once they had harvested all the mature cypress trees, the fallow land had shown little promise until the canal was dredged. Soon afterwards, Scarecrow Grains had signed a 50-year lease; then 10 years ago, had extended their lease for another 50 years. The terms of that lease provided funding for the Howard Foundation and an annual donation of baked goods to several local charities. Lynn Lee was quite proud that it had been her idea to hire LL&D to manage both the property and the lease arrangements. As she and Will flew over that eastern section of Orleans Parish, she nudged her husband’s arm. “Look: they are freshening the paint on the silos. Now, their logo doesn’t look so, so…what’s the word? Demonic?”

Will laughed. “I’ve never liked scarecrows, so to me, they all look demonic. But you see that open field, the one with the little building near the road? We have been talking to the owner, again. Maybe, in a few months, we will reach a deal. I wouldn’t mind getting a long-term lease with a gas station or a support industry for Scarecrow to really ramp up the potential for your properties further inland.”

Lynn Lee sighed. “Enough shop talk, dear. Didn’t we agree this would be an R&R trip?”

“Okay, okay.” Will slouched back into his seat; he didn’t care that the pilot’s head blocked his view through the cockpit window. His temples still throbbed from the aged scotch he, Huey and Cole had been sampling at the after-Ball party. He angled his face to the right. “I can’t remember if I told you I had Rebecca make dinner reservations at The Grand. Seven o’clock.”

Lynn Lee kept her face towards her side window. “No, but she called me yesterday afternoon in case you would forget. Such a nice young woman; it’s a shame, though, that Zoe’s application arrived too late for consideration.” Will’s noncommittal sound caused her to glance away from the window. She decided to believe he was merely dozing, not avoiding the topic.

###

He watched the jet glide overhead, then bank south and east. From the open door of his trailer, he had been smoking a cigarette and nursing a hangover, while monitoring the feral cats prowling the dumpster at the back of the parking lot. The whine of the jet’s engines had frightened away the cats, but the swaying tall grasses and bird song from the open land surrounding the café and his trailer was unimpressed. With a sigh, Mike Kirby crushed out the remaining inch of cigarette, and then slowly stood. Even from trailer’s doorway, he could barely see the lumpy stretch of pavement connecting the I-10 exit ramp with the entrance to Scarecrow Grains. During the weekdays, this was a busy thoroughfare of assorted vehicles heading to and from the grain terminal. Since the early 1950s, the cinderblock building his grandfather had christened “Two-Lane Café” had been providing hearty lunches, cold beer and recently, the cable sports channel, for the workers and visitors to Scarecrow Grains. During the weekends, though, this was a desolate area prone only to illegal trash dumping, teenagers looking for a hidden place to drink and screw, and for thieves to abandon stolen cars. But Mike never tired of those two days of solitude. After Angola Prison, he treasured that sort of quiet.

Now, walking through the café, his thoughts lingered on all the memories that were tied to this rough little business. He had spent most of his childhood here: sweeping the floors, helping his beloved grandfather cook beans or fry chicken; and in his early teens, sneaking a coffee mug filled with Dixie beer from the bar’s tap. Those memories, he could recall with a smile. But he could never shake the grip of sadness when he reached the cashier station. His grandfather had stood, exactly where Mike stood now, and challenged a drunken, out-of-state trucker who had shouted for another beer. Furious from the challenge, man had fatally shot his grandfather. Mike had run from the kitchen, armed with a wide knife.

Mike glanced at the faded photo of Tulane stadium, still hanging next to the cash register. How many times had his grandfather boasted ‘Just watch: we’re gonna see Mike in that stadium one day, wearing a Tulane jersey’? How many times had he day-dreamed of being the family’s first college graduate? “That wudda been something. Sure do miss you, Gramp’s,” he whispered. Pulling a lidded box from under the counter, he left the cafe to approach the rickety signboard alongside the entrance to the café’s parking lot. Despite the circumstances which had marooned him to this place, the low pay from his mother’s poor management of the business and the quality of the clientele patronizing the cafe, Mike took pride in his cooking efforts. Setting the box on the pavement, he looked within the box’s alphabetized compartments for several seconds before selecting letters to create next week’s announcement:

red beaNS  $3.50 Mon only

boilD crOwfish  $5/# T-f

chiken stk  $4

shrimP & Urster po-boy   $6.50 Fri only

closed S&S

Pleased with his work, he returned the box to its place below the cash register, then, strolled into the kitchen. Grabbing two slices of cold pizza from the box he had stashed in the refrigerator, he glanced at the clock above the back door. Well, not quite 10AM, but I guess I’m sober enough to work on my ‘cycle.

With the muffler off, the fitful roars from the motorcycle engine prevented Mike from hearing the pale blue pickup truck roll past the Two Lane Café, towards the gate of Scarecrow Grains. On its return trip up the road, however, a flash of sunlight off its chrome trim caught Mike’s attention. He recalled seeing the same truck, last weekend. Annoyed, he walked towards the front parking lot, gripping a large wrench. The truck had slowed almost to a stop, as if debating whether to drive into the parking lot. When the driver spotted Mike, however, the truck was steered quickly back onto the road. “Yeah,” Mike yelled to the plume of road dust, “go find some other place to throw your construction trash. We pay too much, already, to have garbage hauled away.”

By noon the crisp temperatures, combined with a generous dose of exhaust fumes from the motorcycle, had encouraged Mike to stretch out on the hammock next to his trailer. Nursing a tightly rolled joint, his mind fuzzily considered the cries from the hawk circling overhead, against the distant noises from the Navigational Canal. He never noticed the van pulling alongside his signboard, nor its tight maneuverings to turn around.

“Dammit.” AJ slapped the van’s dashboard in frustration. “How in the hell are we gonna get the schedule changed? I already asked Darlene to change it last month.”

Harry only grunted in agreement, too focused at the moment with the challenge of avoiding the derelict sign as he steering the large van to face the direction of the interstate. “I’ll worry about Darlene,” he finally said. “She owes me a favor. Let’s go see Katie.”

Katie, her two children, Katie’s mother-in-law Rose Henderson, and Harry lived in a narrow shotgun house along a narrow asphalt street in the section of New Orleans known as the Lower 9th Ward. A neighborhood well known for its musicians, oyster shuckers, skilled tradesmen, drug dealers and petty criminals, the residents carried a defiant pride in the area’s checkered heritage, its marginally maintained buildings, its lumpy pavement, the numerous trees strangling under the weight of cat’s claw vines and its physical isolation from the rest of the City. For Harry and his sister, though, it was a desperate living arrangement, dependent solely upon Rose’s deep concern for her grandchildren. Five people living in a five room house was only possible if Harry slept on the sofa, Katie shared the back room with her children, and Rose occupied the smallest bedroom.  AJ was never comfortable visiting this house. The tension between the adults was almost visible. He gripped a thick folder of paperwork as the van bumped across a series of railroad tracks.

Harry easily navigated the ill-paved roads from the Two-Lane Café and under the interstate to eventually cross the Almonaster Bridge, back-track across the Florida Avenue Bridge, then, zig-zag through several side streets to reach the Henderson house. AJ, however, was still attempting to memorize the labyrinth-like route. The sheer quantity of run-down buildings and trash; the seemingly haphazard placement of businesses, signage, abandoned cars and scatter site housing developments presented him with a visual chaos that was distracting and disturbing. Today, a group of young boys was chasing after a thin dog, pelting it with trash. Several adults, lounging in chairs, watched the boys from a shaded porch with little more than mild interest. AJ felt relief when the dog, finally, out-ran the boys and headed towards a vacant lot. The animal wasted no time to scurry under the fence bordering the trash-filled property. Two blocks later, Harry steered the van towards his usual parking spot: a portion of tilting pavement under a mostly-dead mulberry tree.

Upon entering the house, Harry and AJ were engulfed in the laughter of Katie’s children and the noise from the cartoons blaring from the TV. AJ felt a tug of loneliness when the children launched themselves against their uncle. Harry gently wrestled with his nephews for several seconds before saying to his sister “AJ brought along that paperwork. Why don’t you two go back in the kitchen to talk, and I’ll stay here with these wild guys.”

The path through the cluttered home first took them through Rose Henderson’s bedroom. Not much bigger than my old bedroom, AJ assessed, but the hospital bed, side table full of medical supplies, worn chest of drawers and the presence of Rose Henderson, tucked into a wheelchair uncomfortably filled every inch of space except the path to the kitchen. Miss Rose raised a thin hand in a mild gesture of acknowledgement, but never looked away from the screen of her small, black and white TV.

Katie studied the drug store receipts, lab reports and invoices from the medical clinic. She refilled AJ’s coffee mug, then leaned back into her chair. “Most of this looks legit, AJ,” she began, “but the lab and the drugstore have the same address.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, around here, there are laws against testing labs referring patients to specific drugstores.” Katie watched AJ’s face compress; she quickly added “But look: the doctor’s name and phone number is on this report. Let me see if I can get someone at the hospital to call him, OK?” When AJ only nodded, Katie patted his hand. “Don’t give up, AJ. Your ex-wife doesn’t know how many friends you have, and how we want to help. Understand?”

AJ started to reply, but Harry’s voice called out from the front room. “Hey. It’s almost two. The basketball game will be on, soon.”

“Are y’all planning to go to Winners?” Katie had followed AJ into the front room. She placed her hands on her hips. “You know that place is being run by a gang, don’t you? Harry, you better think about what your PO will say when he finds out.”

“Katie, my parole officer only cares that I keep my job and don’t get into trouble.” He winked at AJ. “How much trouble can happen if I am just watching TV?”

Winners Sports Bar was the latest business to occupy a corner building along St. Claude Avenue. Originally built as a grocery store, the square-ish structure now housed the full-service bar, complete with a satellite dish bolted to the roof, a small kitchen and two large TVs. A banner draped above the front door announced that “Razorback Ribs” would be served during the LSU- Arkansas game. A series of charcoal grilles were already parked along the sidewalk, the flavorful smoke hovering above the people walking in and out of the bar. Harry waved to a short, squat man.

“AJ, this is Jake Newlin,” began Harry. “He owns this place. Knows how to pull a really good beer.”

Jake laughed while pointing to the empty sleeve pinned to his shoulder. “Yeah, for a guy with one arm. Glad you are here. I saved you a table, back in the corner. Julie will bring you some beer, in a few.”

Harry led the way through the crowded bar, to a table jammed in a far corner. A paper sign was taped to the table’s surface. “Look at that,” laughed Harry “reserved for Harry. Jake is a nut.” A waitress almost immediately brought two mugs of beer to the table. Harry tapped his mug against AJ’s, took a deep sip off the top and sighed before saying “You know, the only reason I get this kind of treatment is because Jake has the hots for Katie. Jake used to work with Marlon, Katie’s husband you know, on the rigs. About the time that Marlon got arrested on that drug charge, Jake got hurt on the job. Jake’s injury settlement paid for all this and more,” Harry gestured at the walls around them, “which tells you how much money he got. Now, Katie claims Jake was in on the same deal as Marlon, but only Marlon got busted. But, I can tell you, like I told her: Jake is clean. Katie’s just angry ‘cause Marlon got jail time.” Harry laughed. “If she was smart, she’d come in here once a week. I’d probably get free beer.”

AJ only smiled. He was no novice to neighborhood bars, but he didn’t like the looks of this place. Too many people watching too many people. He did, however, like the taste of Jake’s barbeque ribs. He and Harry had shared three trays of ribs by the start of the second half. During the commercial break, a trio of middle-aged men approached their table.

“Hey, Jerry,” said Harry, “why don’t you and your guys grab a few chairs and join us? This is my friend, AJ. I told you about him last week.”

AJ was introduced to Jerry Evans, owner of General Contracting Repairs and Jerry’s two companions Buddy Houston and Orren Guillot. He covertly eyed the tattoos on Orren’s arms and the Hell’s Angels ring on Orren’s right hand while Julie delivered a pitcher of beer and three more mugs to the table.

“So,” began Jerry, “Sounds like y’all are interested in some cash-only work?”

Harry leaned both arms onto the table top. “Yeah, me and AJ talked about it last night. What you got?”

Jerry glanced at his companions. “Well, right now, I got a couple of delivery jobs – you know, pick up stuff on the weekends, so my weekday crews can start work first thing Monday mornings. Other times, I may need some machines fixed, small repairs; stuff like that.”

“Weekends are good for us,” AJ said quickly.

“OK.” Jerry smiled before he took a swallow of beer. “This might work out well. Oh, and y’all got your own trucks? See, I can’t let you drive my company trucks if you aren’t on the payroll…damn insurance rules, IRS, you know?”

“Well, I got an Econoline van” said Harry, “it’s probably got more storage room than a pickup truck. Me and AJ are a good team… we can make the work go faster, if that helps.”

Jerry nodded as he scratched at a spot behind his ear. “Sounds fine to me. Gimme your phone numbers and I’ll call you next week.” He waved at the waitress to approach, placing an order for two more trays of ribs. Rubbing his hands in a satisfied way he said, “Alright, men, let’s watch some b-ball!”

The basketball game was now in the last minutes of play, with LSU leading by 40 points. The patrons in Winners Bar had been evolving into a rowdy, yelling mob. Jake hurried over to their table. “Hey. We’re pooling money to get Julie to do some backflips when the game ends. You guys in?”

Jerry and Buddy flashed twenty dollar bills.

Jake plucked the money from their fingers, then, motioned to several people near the bar. Tables were pushed around to provide an open floor area. At the sound of the buzzer, Julie was cheered along as she executed two quick back flips, bowing to the crowd once she had tucked her t-shirt back into her low-slung jeans.

“She used to be on the LSU cheering squad,” Harry said to AJ. “At least, that’s what she tells anyone who asks,” he added with a wink.

As they walked back to Harry’s van, AJ listened to Harry’s optimistic assessment of their conversation with Jerry, until he had to interrupt with a nagging detail. “But Harry, he never mentioned how much he was gonna pay. Do you think it will be close to what we’re getting to haul that grain?”

“Huh. I thought he said something about ten dollars an hour. Oh, well. We can ask when he calls us.”

AJ thought about that assumption while Harry drove to AJ’s home, and monopolized the conversation with his analysis of the basketball game. When they reached the driveway to the apartment complex, AJ began to swing himself out of the van, but paused. “Thanks for letting me talk to Katie, Harry. And thanks for buying one round of beers and ribs. Good times. See you Monday.”

“No problem, man.” Harry exhaled a long sigh as he redirected the vehicle towards the French Quarter. He found a parking space in the area close to the levee; the five block hike to Jackson Square was welcome exercise after all the food and beer he had consumed at Winners. He liked being in the ‘Quarters at this hour: weary day tourists were trudging back to their hotels and the rowdy evening crowds had not yet arrived. Now, stepping beneath Café du Monde’s striped awning, he surveyed the crowd; the man seated in the farthest corner slowly lifted his coffee mug to acknowledge Harry’s arrival.

“You buying beignets this time, too?” Harry stiffly lowered his bulk into the metal chair. “What’s the matter, Andrew? Don’t you think I’m worth at least a cup of coffee?”

Andrew Clark sighed, then, signaled to the white aproned waiter. Once the waiter had stepped away with the order, he leaned back into his chair. “What’s the news?” He wasn’t pleased when Harry squinted, then rubbed his forehead with three fingers.

“Too much stuff going on all at once. And what the hell is the deal with that blue pick-up truck?”

Andrew stared. Harry Lewis was one of his best undercover informants. So successful, Harry was only identified by the nickname, Magnet, in all investigative documents. Harry had been recruited through an unusual parole program that hired released prisoners to assist local and federal investigative law enforcement teams. Despite his lengthy record for auto theft and trafficking stolen auto parts, Harry was also unexpectedly shrewd, observant and motivated to, now, help the FBI. If Harry was under surveillance, it was not through his office. Andrew pulled a small notebook out of his pocket. “Give me some details about the truck. I didn’t authorize it.”

“Great.” Harry swung his head slowly left and right. “Pale blue, Ford, maybe 2 or 3 years old. Doesn’t have federal government plates, but has some sort of toll tag or parking sticker above the brake tag. Guy driving it is white, young; on Saturday he was wearing a baseball cap.”

“Hold on a minute.” Andrew raised his eyebrows to gesture for silence while the waiter placed two china mugs of café au lait on the table. He gave the waiter several bills, saying “keep the change.” Now, he leaned closer to Harry. “How many times have you seen this truck?”

“Uhm, Thursday morning when we were pulling out of the LL&D yard; then at a truck stop on the Northshore Friday night, and then, today when AJ and me were checking the sign.” Harry took a careful sip from the rim of the mug. The amount of steam rising from the coffee warned that the liquid was extremely hot. “And whoever is driving isn’t doing a good job of blending into the background. AJ noticed him on Friday night, and I had to keep finding ways to distract AJ from noticing him today.”

Andrew stirred his coffee for a few seconds before speaking. “OK, I will get to the source of this tail. Meanwhile: what about your assignment?”

“You mean assignments.” Harry had agreed to this crazy undercover work only because there was an incentive to forgiven the monetary judgement from the civil suit portion of his auto theft bust. What had started as a simple monitoring of gang activities in his sister’s neighborhood had exploded into a series of involvements in stolen merchandise, money laundering and more recently, the strange drug smuggling operation at Scarecrow Grains. And now, he had another tip for his FBI liaison. “So, remember I told you about meeting Jerry Evans last weekend? Well, he showed up at Winners today. Offered me and AJ some part time, cash-only work. I gave him Katie’s phone number at the house, ‘cause I know you guys are monitoring that line.”

Andrew smiled as he continued to write in the small notebook. “Can’t comment on that, but let’s just say your sister’s friend…I think her name is Lydia…sure likes to gab about all her boyfriends.” He closed the notebook, and restored it to an inner coat pocket before speaking, again. “On a more serious note, though, I don’t want you including this AJ in any of Jerry’s work until you know more about his operation. I can’t shield AJ if he’s arrested in connection with anything illegal, and AJ sounds like a nice guy. Are we agreed?”

Harry swallowed a mouthful of coffee before nodding. “OK, I’ll do what I can. But, AJ is in a tight spot and Jerry has AJ’s number.”

He stood away from the table, tugging at the lapels of his coat to adjust its fit atop his shoulders. To Andrew, it looked as though Harry was wrestling with himself. “Call me Wednesday.” Harry only acknowledged that directive with a slight wave. Andrew monitored Harry’s progress, around the clusters of tables, the aproned waiters and the ebb and flow of patrons. Harry’s ill-cut hair, lumbering gait and worn coat were just some of the physical characteristics which allowed him to blend so well into the urban background. Andrew was also aware that Harry never seemed to be looking directly at someone – especially a stranger – which only insured he was practically invisible to passers-by.

Andrew deeply inhaled. Harry’s ability to walk through a crowd unnoticed did not extend to his uncanny ability to be noticed by any criminal looking for assistance in the pursuit of illegal activities. He was marginally aware of Jerry Evans activities, but it was Jerry’s friend, Orren, whose photo was tacked on the department’s Person Of Interest bulletin board.  “Magnet, indeed,” he said softly.

CHAPTER 6 – Saturday

The chugging noise from Harry’s van was finally receding to a faint growl by the time AJ reached the bank of mailboxes in the apartment complex courtyard. He was not surprised to find another envelope in his mail box that contained another medical bill from Desiree. “Just can’t give it a rest, can you Dez?” he whispered, before stuffing it in the folder he had shown Katie. Ignoring the boasting and cussing from the gang of teens lounging near the staircase, he unlocked his apartment door.

Once inside, he crossed the empty front room without switching on the overhead light. The holes he had punched in the walls – on the day the notarized paperwork had arrived from Desiree’s attorney – had been repaired, but not repainted. He didn’t like looking at that damage or spending any time in that room. A room once filled with Three’s toys and the TV he had purchased from Darlene’s friend, for him, it was a place of lost dreams and tainted memories. By habit and from the dim light seeping past the drawn shades, he was able to navigate the apartment until he reached the bedroom. Here, with his belongings packed within a dorm-like arrangement of the furniture Desiree had not taken to Atlanta, he stowed the file of paperwork in a desk drawer, kicked off his shoes, rolled a tight skeeter joint, then, stretched out across his bed.

“God, I wish I could afford cable.” At this hour, only local news programs were being aired on the broadcast networks, followed by low-budget local shows. AJ closed his eyes, allowing the voices and music to blend into a droning chant within the slight buzz from the pot. His muscles relaxed; the feelings of doubt and anxiety numbed, and that nagging inner voice went silent. He mentally drifted within this dreamy sensation, barely reacting to the sting of heat from the last, smoldering piece of rolling paper. But that incessant, almost-familiar clanging sound could not be ignored. Finally, understanding it was the ringing of his telephone, AJ stumbled towards the hallway. The phone was bolted to the wall, but the receiver’s cord was long enough to allow him to return to the bedroom and sit on the edge of the bed.

“Yeah.”

“Hey, man, I almost hung up. Twelve rings is my limit. You doing anything tonight?”

“Nope. I went to some bar to on St. Claude to watch the LSU game and now I’m just hanging.” AJ held the receiver away from his ear, anticipating the loud bellow of laughter from his friend, TyRon.

“Hanging? By yourself? That’s no fun. Anyway, see, I got some plans for you. I know you’re always looking for extra work, and the guy who usually works with me sez he has to drive out near Baton Rouge for his granny’s funeral. Want to try a night shift with me, tonight?” TyRon barely allowed AJ to sigh. “Com-on, man, don’t let Frankie go and bring in some temp who don’t speak English. I already told him about you, man; told him how you already know the place, ‘cause you work for LL&D. Com-on, pleeeese.”

TyRon’s comedic pleading was no surprise to AJ. The two had been friends since grade school and TyRon had perfected this whiny tone to a stage-worthy performance. AJ had to laugh. “Oh, I guess so. Your shift starts at 10, right? I’ll meet you there.” Replacing the receiver into the phone’s prongs, he stepped into the kitchen, ignoring the small roach that scuttled across the counter. Rinsing out the well-worn metal percolator, he thought about the electric coffeemaker- a wedding gift from Maw-maw Dee, no less- that Desiree had taken as part of her claim to their belongings. Well, at least Maw-maw Dee’s old percolator carries good memories from my childhood, not memories of how Dez used to throw hot coffee at me. While the percolator bubbled, he took a quick shower to shake off the last of his buzz. Now, perched on the desk chair, sipping the strong roast coffee, AJ compared the day’s events. Man, if this night shift gig works out, maybe I won’t have to take on any work from Jerry. Harry might think he’s OK, but there is something weird about that guy. He checked his watch. 9:30. Once outside, AJ was pleased to find the apartment complex courtyard empty. The parking lot was quiet, too. Guess this cold air is too much for those wanna-be thug teenagers. The insult made AJ smile, but he kept monitoring his surroundings until he had steered his car towards the Warehouse District.

After circling the block that was filled by the Wharf Condominiums building, AJ maneuvered his car into an open space along a side street. The nearest streetlight flickered like a strobe, but the rest of the street was washed in an unnatural glow from the bulky security lights bolted at the corners of the Wharf Condominiums building. This area looks safe enough.  AJ sat in the car for a few more moments, soaking up the last of its interior’s warmth while staring at the multi-storied building through the blinking light. Originally built as a supply house for a shipping company, the drab, brown-grey brick building looked anything but homey. The “condos for sale” sign included the word luxurious, but AJ didn’t agree: he had been assigned to the LL&D crew that built some of the interior walls. He had been unimpressed with the idea of people living in an old warehouse. For what those folks pay for the efficiency units, he sniffed with distain I could buy a nice house, with a back yard, for Three. Stepping out of his car, he shivered. The wind had increased and the cold air now carried the muddy scent of the nearby Mississippi River. AJ pulled the jacket’s zipper up to his neck before crossing the street to the main entrance doors.

The cavernous lobby was brightly lit and silent; AJ walked towards the reception desk, conscious that his footfalls echoed loudly amid the trusses and concrete columns. The desk, a massive assemblage of packing crates and sheets of tin, was a formidable object. He thought about the day he, Harry and two other LL&D workers had been assigned to haul that desk into the building. The artist who had been commissioned to create the desk had, initially, acted very snooty towards them. After several hours of monitoring their ability to fit all the pieces into place, though, he became quite a friendly character; covertly giving each of them four joints as extra payment. The man sitting at the desk now, however, had made no attempt to greet AJ- he only frowned. “We ain’t hiring.”

“I’m… I’m supposed to meet TyRon,” said AJ. “He said you needed someone for the shift tonight.” AJ realized he had been so startled by the man’s hostile attitude, he had forgotten the man’s name. In the few seconds of silence, his memory finally clicked. “Uhm, you’re Frankie, right? I’m AJ, the guy who works at LL&D?” He pointed to the logo on his jacket. Frankie’s expression relaxed.

“Oh…yeah, AJ. Yeah. Let me call TyRon on the radio.” He pulled the walkie-talkie from his belt holster, then, began twisting the small dials.

AJ tried not to smile. TyRon often complained of Frankie’s excessive use of the walkie-talkies, and his attempts to use military-style lingo.

“Front desk to TyRon. TyRon do you copy?”

“Yeah”

Frankie sighed. “TyRon, this is Frankie. AJ is at the front desk. Do you copy?” Static crackled. “TyRon, unclear. Come back?”

“Yeah, I’ll come back up front.”

AJ pretended to cough while Frankie, frowning, placed the device atop a magazine. Opening a drawer, Frankie now pulled out a clipboard, a printed form and a pen. He handed all to AJ. “Fill out both sides of the form and sign at the bottom of the front page.”  Before AJ could print his name at the top of the application, though, Frankie spoke. “So, TyRon told me you worked on this building, right? What kind of work did you do?”

“See this desk?” AJ set down the pen to pat the metal panels, creating a soft drumming sound. “I was on the crew that brought this in—in about eight sections. We had to put it all together, with the artist watching every move we made. Sonofabitch took us half a day, just to get it off the truck, and then through the front doors.” AJ smiled while pointing upwards. “And, I was on the crew that built the leasing offices and the model apartments on the second floor.”

Frankie whistled. “Say, if you do carpentry work, we get a bunch of little work requests from the condo people all the time. You know: fixing cabinet doors, or they get some furniture and they can’t figure out how to put it together, you know? Would you do work like that?” Not waiting for AJ to reply, he continued. “The day supervisor, Carl, he starts at eight in the morning; he’s the one who schedules that stuff. I’ll write down his number. If you’re interested, you call him. I’ll leave him a note, too.”

AJ pocketed the slip of paper, amused how Frankie sounded a lot like Harry talking about Jerry’s work opportunities. He filled out the paperwork, handed back the clipboard, and then extended his hand to Frankie. “Thanks, man, this means a lot.”

The hinges to a door somewhere farther back into the lobby squeaked, followed by the sound of rubber-soled shoes crossing the concrete floor. “Hey,” TyRon said. “I thought I told you to meet me at the loading dock.”

“Yeah, you did, but the gate was locked at the driveway entrance.”

TyRon dramatically slapped his forehead and groaned. “Gate gets locked at 6PM. Oh, well, sorry about that.” He smiled at Frankie. “Okay if we start pulling trash, or should we start in the conference room?”

Frankie picked up a sheet of paper. “Schedule says the party won’t end til eleven, and the caterer wants an additional hour to pack up, so start with the trash. Oh, and there are bubs out in stairwell two, floors three and eight.”

TyRon steered AJ towards a door labelled “staff only”, before whispering “Just so you know: a bub is Frankie’s pronunciation of bulb. Man, he cracks me up.”

The work assignments over the next six hours were not difficult, but not interesting either. After three hours of trash hauling and wiping down elevator doors on all eight floors, AJ finally said “TyRon, if it wasn’t for all your stupid, funny comments I don’t think I could do this every night. How can you?”

“Man, you don’t get it, do you? This job is just to pay the bills. During the day, I’m working on my routines, you know? Practicing my jokes, been trying to imitate the President’s voice…you know: bits like that. See: there’s an audition in three months at one of those comedy clubs. If I can get a gig there, who knows?”

AJ stared at TyRon’s wide smile. Hell, isn’t that what I’m doing, but not with as much enthusiasm? TyRon keeps his focus on his goal, not all the obstacles he’s crawling over to get there. He gave TyRon a friendly shove. “You are all right, TyRon. I like the way you see the world. Comedy club, huh? OK: now that we’re up in this conference room, why don’t you try some of those routines on me?”

Frankie was standing by the timeclock when AJ and TyRon arrived to punch out from their shift. He drummed the fingers of his right hand atop his walkie-talkie as they approached. “TyRon, are you missing something?” In the other hand, he held out a similar walkie-talkie. “I had to send the security guard all over the building to find it. I’m gonna have to write you up for this.”

AJ was impressed with TyRon’s acting ability. His friend had immediately looked at his empty holster, his facial expression a convincing mix of surprise and horror.

“Oh, man. That is crazy. I could of sworn it was there two hours ago. You know – when you called to remind us about the stairwells.”

Frankie sighed. “Well, he found it in the stairwell. These are expensive pieces of equipment…” He glanced at AJ. He liked this young man and, seeing the expression on AJ’s face, decided to take a different approach. “Oh, all right. I’ll let this be a first warning. Pay more attention, you hear?”

“Yessir. I really am sorry,” lied TyRon. “It must have slipped off when we were setting up the ladder. Won’t happen again.”

They were able to contain their laughter until they had left the building. “You are a nut,” said AJ. “Do you think the security guard will be p.o.’d at you, after having to look for that thing?”

“Naw,” said TyRon, as he unlocked his car, “we’re kinda even, now. Last week, he wanted to sneak off and see his new girlfriend. I had to pretend I was looking for him for about an hour. We told Frankie the battery in his walkie-talkie had gone bad.” He laughed. “I actually put it in the conference room’s ice maker so the battery really wouldn’t be working.”  He set one foot into the car. “Hey, want to get a beer?”

AJ, guessing it was now close to 4:30AM, shook his head. “Nope. If I have to call this Carl in four hours, I better get some sleep.”

“Yeah, you right about that,” laughed TyRon. “And if Carl likes you, he will run your ass every hour you aren’t working at LL&D. There’s always something needing to be fixed at The Wharf.”

AJ walked the half block back to his own car, thinking about TyRon’s plans, his own hopes for the future and, now, the possibility of some part time work that didn’t involve people like Jerry or even shoveling grain for his former boss. Maybe this is the turn in the road, Maw-maw Dee keeps promising will come my way, he thought.  And maybe, I can finally get straight with Pops.

##

Kathleen Kirby could divide her life story into only two chapters: the time before, and the time since the casinos were built along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Tonight, lounging within the comfort of her complimentary suite, she debated whether a third chapter might, now, be possible.

The first chapter, she mused, should be titled Broken Dreams. Her dreams of being more than her father’s bookkeeper, ended when her father was shot by that drunken trucker. Her dreams for her son ended with his conviction of negligent homicide and a stint in prison. Her dreams to make the Two Lane Café into something more than a shabby, lunchtime spot for blue collar workers ended when all the café’s savings paid for her father funeral, Mike’s attorney, and finally, four years of nursing care for her mother.

She reached towards the low table, where the waiter had placed the room service tray. From the several dessert choices, she selected the plate of multi-layered chocolate cake. Kathleen now leaned back into the sofa cushions, ignoring the unflattering reflection in the mirrored panels along the opposite wall. She had found solace in stress-eating, until she and a cousin had visited the casinos. Eating this cake was a slight relapse, but she wasn’t worried. Chapter Two should be titled Discoveries. On her first trip to the Bella Rico Casino, she discovered her talents with numbers and calculating probabilities were a handy skill in the game of blackjack. She had won $2,000 from that trip. Within two years, she was known as a “regular” at the larger casinos, recognized by waitresses and blackjack dealers, invited to upgrade her membership to Elite status at Bella Rico and welcomed into a new circle of friends that bore no resemblance to the people she encountered at the Two Lane Café. She had also reconnected with her former, common-law husband and had agreed to participate in an unusual, side-business arrangement. All-in-all, she thought, those past years have been a good adventure.

Setting the now, empty, plate atop the other plates, Kathleen left the sofa to pace the room. The view from her suite’s windows faced the Gulf, where thin streaks of color had seeped from the west, tinting the clouds with smoky tones of burgundy and copper. West. By almost pressing her face to the glass, she could see the last sliver of the setting sun. Its retreat threw dramatic rays of orange light among the puffy clouds. But, the colorful display did not calm her present worries. Would a move to Las Vegas really provide a solution? Would Mike travel with her, once he learned she had been hiding money from him? Was that city really a place where people could reinvent themselves and even make the past disappear? She stared at the horizon line, until the color of ocean water and twilight sky matched. Between her casino winnings and the cash payments from her other business deal, she had covertly amassed a significant nest egg. Enough to, finally, no longer rely on the café for employment. And then there was the latest offer for the Two Lane Café property. Kathleen had ignored the earlier offers; she knew her four-acre plot had gained value since the acreage next door had been sold. And she knew enough about the company that had bought that land because they also owned the land under Scarecrow Grains. She had seen the society page photos of Lynn Lee Howard and her husband. A thousand dollars an acre probably wouldn’t cover one month of credit card bills for that couple. Kathleen paused in her mental rant to answer the phone. “Yes, thank you, the steak was perfect. I’ll be returning to the Tables area in about two hours...no, no preference. Thank you.” She stepped towards the alcove with the king-sized bed. In the gambling world, Routine supported Luck - her ritual 45 minute nap was an essential part of her evening preparations for late night blackjack.

In the Bella Rico’s ground floor lounge, however, Kathleen’s future was also under review. The waitress in the form-fitting, mini-skirted outfit briefly patted the arm of the older man seated at the table in a far corner. His companion, a much younger man, leaned forward. “SHE is your sister?”

“Baby sister,” laughed the man. “My mom is probably spinning in her grave when Renee sash-shays about in that costume. But Renee is married, and I like her husband, so don’t give it another thought.”

The young man only smiled as pushed away the plate of mostly-eaten food to sip his cola drink. “And so, Mason: my father has been very pleased with your-shall we say-creativity, in helping us get our product out of Scarecrow Grains. Your ex-wife, though, seems to be getting greedy. If we change our…business model…can we still count on you?”

Mason McAlister swallowed an inch of beer out of his mug before replying. “Look: Kath can be a bit of a hard-ass, but she’s been in a tight spot ever since her dad was killed and her mom went into the nursing home. A lot of her attitude is just guff; you can count on her to help you and your dad with whatever you are bringing in.” Setting down the mug, he reached into the small bowl of nuts. He hoped his companion hadn’t noticed the slight tremble in his hand. “Anyway, as I started to say, a guy from the parish Ag Center called me about a new crop rotation program. He was asking why I hadn’t been developing those ten acres...remember how I told you I have to send in a land use audit every year?” Mason poured the nuts into his mouth; allowing a few more seconds to elapse while he chewed. “I told him I was debating on whether to set up bee boxes or lease that parcel to the gal in Covington who grows sunflowers.” His companion’s rigid posture and squinting stare was unnerving. “I’m…I’m just letting you know. Between the tree canopy and its location behind that ridge, most of that land stays out of view, but if they offer me a higher subsidy for growing a hybrid sorghum, I may have to take it. And that means someone may be able to get a sight-line into that back acreage.”

“Do you have to do whatever the AgCenter suggests?”

 “Well, not really, but…when I signed up for that Farm Loan, I agreed to plant certain crops that were being tested by the LSU Agriculture Lab.” He dragged one finger through the condensation pooling beneath his beer mug. “Actually, I’ve also thinking about trying out that new hydroponics system they are developing. You know, where you grow crops indoors, in a water-based solution? If the AgCenter has a pilot program for that, I could convert most of the barn into what they call Crop Factories. Then, they won’t be bothering me about that back ten.”

The young man leaned back into his chair. “Actually, my father and his associates are not seeing the profits they want from selling your weed. They are…exploring other revenues.” He shrugged. “We are, however, still interested in using your grain deliveries to get our other… products… distributed to the right people. Father says if you want to sell your weed to other people, he won’t object, but you must be careful. We wouldn’t want it to interfere with our…relationship.” He stood away from the table. “I’ll tell him about your idea for the barn…he may want to talk with you about that…see you next week.”

Mason did not watch his companion’s departure. Jay Zolan was the more polished version of the elder Mr. Zolan: a watchful, stern man who travelled with several large, stoic men who reminded Mason of the actors he had seen in those old mobster movies. Only they certainly weren’t actors. He took another swallow of beer.

 “Your friend stiffed you for the bill, again.” Renee placed a narrow folder next to her brother’s elbow. “You okay?”

 “Yeah, just…just work issues.”

Renee scanned the lounge, hoping her supervisor was still on break. “Look, I can comp you another beer, OK? But after that, you’ll have to order something.”

“Sure, sis. Thanks.” Mason lifted the half empty mug in a small gesture of salute. He took only a sip, before resting one elbow on the table and propping his chin on that hand.  Lord. How can I get out of this mess?  He had, once, dreamed of playing in a band; had even abandoned Kathleen and the child he, still, wasn’t certain was his son to explore the LA music scene. But instead of working as a drummer, he had found better-paying work on a farm. He had never wanted to follow in the family business of farming, but a series of circumstances had delivered him back to the family’s Northshore acreage and the science of heritage grains, crop rotation and a fairly lucrative contract with Scarecrow Grains’ specialty bread division. But I became greedy and angry, he could finally admit to himself. Discontented with the drudge work that is a part of farming, he found a kindred ear from Jay Zolan’s ideas of ‘sticking it to the Man’ and late night discussions of anarchy. Later, when the Zolan clan began paying him for organizing and operating this smuggling scheme, he convinced himself that he was just balancing societal inequities.  But, I completely underestimated Kath…and the Zolans, he added.

Kathleen. He had been shocked to discover that the pretty, outspoken, free-spirited girl who had been his common-law wife had evolved into the shapeless, bitter, middle-aged woman with a reputation as a savvy gambler. How Renee had recognized Kathleen and then encouraged him to be at the casino, on a particular Saturday afternoon, almost a year ago still seemed like a contrived movie plot. Have to admit, though, that getting Kath to store those packages at the Two-Lane was a stroke of genius. Even if I did have to sleep with her…once more. He smiled at Renee, now setting the full mug of beer on the table. “Get me one of those Dealer Burgers, dressed, and a side of chips.”

He rolled his shoulders; the muscles and joints creaking, but, giving him a sensation of reduced tension. Maybe Kath was just having a bad run of luck today, he thought, recalling her annoyed tone and her reluctance to agree to the new ideas. Jay wasn’t cutting her out of the deal, just changing it a bit. You’d think she wouldn’t mind doing the hand-off on the weekends, when there were less people around. Still, he couldn’t ignore the pestering little voice at the back of his thoughts that noticed Jay’s body language and the five times her had mentioned “other revenues”; Jay’s inquiries about Harry and his recent interest in Renee and most unnerving, his new interest in the barn. But, for the moment, he had a thick bundle of cash in his coat pocket and Renee had just returned with his meal – along with a small plate holding a slice of chocolate cake.

“Happy birthday, big brother,” Renee whispered.