Sally J. Smith & Jean Steffens
I was working over an order of beignets and well into my coffee, the caffeine just kicking in, when my best friend and roomie, Catalina Gabor, finally showed up at the Café du Monde in New Orleans' French Quarter.
"Sorry I'm late, Mel."
I looked up at her and stifled a yawn. "No problem. You're still in time to catch the ferry." I handed her the last warm sugar-powdered beignet. The order was four. I ate three. She was late, and the way I looked at it, she was lucky there was even one left. She tapped the pastry against the side of the plate and knocked off half the powder. It kept her from wearing the sugar on her chest like I sometimes did.
She took a couple of bites and laid the rest of the beignet aside. I made a mental note to myself: Chere, you should try that one too.
Myself replied: But, chere, they're too good to leave on the plate.
"You look tired, Mel," Cat said. "I bet you worked all weekend at the church."
"I did. Putting in some long hours over there, hoping to have it ready for services by Thanksgiving."
The Lower Ninth Ward and Holy Cross neighborhoods east of the city were hit so hard by Katrina, even a decade later they looked like war zones. Churches, schools, and even fire stations were still boarded up and crumbling away. Federal funds went to the more prosperous, commercial neighborhoods of the Crescent City area, so it was left up to the citizenry, all the king's horses and all the king's men, moi, and people like me to mobilize and put St. Antoine's Parish back together again.
My heart lies there. It's my old stomping grounds where Mama and I lived until Grandmama Ida took us in. It's where many of my childhood friends still live. It's where I put any extra money I'm lucky enough to come across and as many extra hours that happen to turn up in my day.
The chapel of St. Antoine's Parish, deconsecrated after Katrina due to brutal damage, was being revived due to the generosity of a celebrity musician who grew up in the area. His money, together with the money and efforts of some of us less celebrated New Orleans folk, was bringing back the simple beauty and sense of community to St. Antoine's. That week I'd spent my days off—eight hours on Thursday and ten hours on Friday—helping put up new siding. Now it was Saturday morning, time to go back to my paying job, and my arms, legs, and back testified to all my hard labor. But I loved every minute of it. And that lovely old church? Why, she was coming back around.
Cat laid her hand on mine. "Melanie Hamilton, girl, you're racking up points in Heaven. And that's the blessed truth." She reached slim fingers with purple-lacquered nails across the table, snagged my coffee cup, and took a swig of the dark, heavy chicory that was both our addictions. We like it regulah, lots of cream, tons of sugar.
I looked at my watch—10:50 a.m.—and stood. "We better get a move on."
She fell in step beside me as we double-timed it along the riverfront walkway to where the dedicated ferryboat for The Mansion at Mystic Isle bobbed against the old-fashioned wooden dock. We jumped onto the brightly painted flat-bottom boat with a few minutes to spare.
George, the ferry conductor, swept off his Mystic Isle cap, offered a toothy smile, and gave us an exaggerated bow. "Miss Hamilton," he drawled. "Miss Gabor. Glorious mornin', ladies. Dat f'sure."
Mid-July. It wasn't noon yet, and the temp had already climbed to the high eighties. There wasn't even the slightest breeze, and the humidity was no less than killer. You almost had to pull the air apart like a curtain just to walk through it. Yep, a glorious day, all right. My T-shirt clung to me like wet wallpaper. The light complexion that went along with my strawberry-blonde hair wasn't ideal for life in a place where the sun beat down like my own personal heat lamp. I was thankful for the ferry's canopy.
While I was sweating like a hooker in a front-row church pew, Catalina bestowed a smile on George that was cool as a spring mist over a clear lake. No wonder he was nuts about her.
The only other passengers were a few of the dinner kitchen staff and the hotel's voodoo priestess (her official title) who ran the Who-do Voodoo We-do Shop at The Mansion.
The Mansion at Mystic Isle was where Cat and I worked. Located in Jefferson Parish across the Mississippi from New Orleans at the edge of a bayou, the main building was an old plantation house set among cypress trees and expansive green lawns. It had been handed down through the Villars family for centuries. Not all that long ago, Harry Villars, the down-on-his-luck, but no less genteel and stylish owner, had the brilliant idea to turn his liability into an asset by repurposing the place into a resort where folks dedicated to the supernatural and all kinds of magic could come and get their creep on.
The Mansion was decorated like the haunted house we've all seen at that theme park—you know the one. Ours was similar—creepy organ music when you crossed the threshold, drafty hallways, creaky doors, secret passages, even fake cobwebs. The whole shebang, chere. Harry Villars sank every cent he had into it and crossed his fingers that the place would raise him to the ranks of the solvent—then he hired all of us, a complete cast of soothsayers and charlatans, to convince hotel guests the supernatural stuff that went on at The Mansion was the real deal. But just between you, me, and the gators, it's not.
Cat was the gypsy fortune-teller, and did she ever look the part. Flashing dark eyes, long, flowing locks the color of cappuccino. Her lips always looked as if they were stained persimmon without any lip-gloss, and her size Ds were nothing short of a masterpiece. When she left our apartment in the French Quarter to head to work, she dressed like any regular twenty-eight-year-old knockout, but once her shift began at the resort, she was decked out in layers of gauzy jewel tones and bling, lots and lots of bling.
Me? I was the designated artist at The Mansion's Dragons and Deities Tattoo Parlor. My work costume was a slinky black gown with a V-neck, empire waist, and a big stand-up collar that fanned all the way around the back of my neck from one collar bone to the other. I think the effect was intended to be darkly glamorous, but most days I felt more like the Count von Count Muppet than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I would have preferred that free and easy Stevie Nicks look Cat pulled off, but it wasn't in the cards—not when I was forced to wear a full bib apron on top of that gorgeous creation to avoid spraying ink all over it.
When I walked out of college with my degree in fine arts, I never would have suspected tattoos would be my groceries, and I still don't consider myself to be your typical tattoo girl. No leather bustier or nose ring, and the only tattoo on this girl's milky skin is a tiny Tinker Bell on my right shoulder.
The boat motor revved. The signal horn blew, and the ferry pulled out into the strong draft of the mighty Mississippi River, brown as liquid chocolate and churning like a whirlpool. Cat and I leaned against the railing, shoulder to shoulder, and I turned my face into the wind created by the movement of the boat. It cooled me off a little.
"You look nice today," Cat said.
Oh. My makeup must not have been running down my face like melting Häagen-Dazs yet. "Thanks, Cat. So do you."
"Well," she said without the slightest bit of arrogance, "I look nice every day."
I nodded. When you're right, you're right.
"You hoping to run into Cap'n Jack, girl?" Her voice was sly.
I bumped her shoulder with mine. "You pokin' fun at me?" It was true. I had taken extra care with my makeup and hair that morning. Some VIPs were checking in at Mystic Isle today, and I knew the manager, Jack Stockton, would be up front and present to take care of them.
"Poking fun at you? No, girl, no way. Settin' your cap for a man like that is some serious stuff."
A man like that.
Jack Stockton—Cat and I had taken to calling him Cap'n Jack—was the recently hired general manager at The Mansion on Mystic Isle. The story was he had been the golden boy moving up the corporate ladder at an international chain's premier property in the Big Apple when disaster struck. The hotel chain's CEO had arrived in New York from Frankfurt for a look-see at his crown jewel. The grapevine rumored that Jack Stockton met a stunning blonde with a provocative Marlene Dietrich accent at the hotel lounge. The two hit off and wound up back at his place. The next morning Jack discovered the blonde was the boss's twenty-five-year-old bride of only six weeks. They didn't even let him clean out his desk, and once the story got around, poor Jack couldn't even walk into a hotel without turning every head in the place. At least in the Big Apple.
But New York was a far cry from the Big Easy.
The Mansion at Mystic Isle was just getting a foothold, and the idea of having a man as capable yet desperate for work as Jack Stockton sat just right with Harry Villars, who needed someone with monster talent to manage his supernatural resort project. The weird goings-on, unusual clientele, bizarre employees, and rumors of hauntings at our beloved place of employment had already driven off three general managers. I had high hopes for Jack.
He was smart, experienced, and would probably do whatever it took to make the place a success. And besides, Harry Villars was gay. It wasn't likely Jack would get caught in bed with Harry's significant other, my good friend the Great Fabrizio. Still, Jack would need every bit of skill and cunning he could muster to get this albatross on solid ground. I think I fell in love with him the first time he lifted that chiseled chin and showed me that smile.
Saying Cap'n Jack was easy on the eyes was an understatement of Biblical proportion. Dark eyes, slightly almond-shaped. Smooth, swarthy skin. Full lips that slid easily into a lopsided sexy smile and short, dark hair my fingers itched to lace themselves into. The Fifth Avenue suits he wore to work every day appeared tailor-made to fit his athletic body but still somehow looked out of place on him. My mind's eye insisted on imagining him in boots, jeans, and muscle shirts. And when he came to me in my dreams, he wore a lot less.
He was a really nice guy whose New York ways made him a duck in the desert among the laid-back, slow-talking New Orleanians, Cajuns, and swamp rats at Mystic Isle.
On his first day at The Mansion Jack stood in front of the entire staff and told his tale about the consequences of looking for love in all the wrong places. He made sure we laughed at what had to be a difficult and embarrassing incident in his life and made us all as comfortable with him as he was with himself. Honesty and good humor were just about the two sexiest traits a man could have. And Jack had both—in spades.
Don't get me wrong. I liked his sophisticated style, so much that whenever he even walked into the room, I came apart like a house of cards in a wind tunnel. At least that was how I felt. He made me warm and cold, excited and nervous, happy and scared all at the same time.
I think he might have been interested in me, too, but I couldn't be sure he didn't think I was the village idiot, not the way my tongue tangled itself up whenever I tried to speak to him.
Cat, God love her, was still trying her best to hook us up.
Despite her efforts, it wasn't likely to happen. He was kind and fair and had a great laugh, but he was also my boss. I didn't figure either of us was ready to risk the livelihood of the other, so I went home every night and carried on a steamy love affair with him in my dreams.
"I'm just sayin', chere," Cat closed her eyes and lifted her face to the breeze coming off the river, "dat man is delish, fo' true."
I glanced sideways at her, slid my hand along the railing, and laid it on top of hers. "And I'm just sayin', chere, you're spending too much time with that Cajun cop of yours. And dat f'shore too."
* * *
Once we docked, the ride to the resort on Mystic Isle took thirty minutes if there weren't any gators sunbathing in the road or big mud holes that had to be skirted. The shuttle ran back and forth all day every day from seven a.m. until midnight. It was a sight to behold, basically a smallish airport shuttle only N'awlins style. The front end was a purple Mardi Gras mask with headlights serving as eyes. On either side, The Mansion at Mystic Isle was scrolled in gold letters over dark but beautifully screened images glimpsing into the paranormal world of spirits and spells. Its route went via Jefferson Parish into the swamplands near the Barataria Preserve then over the bridge to the privately owned four square miles of swampland that was now the country's first, and possibly only, resort catering to those who believed in all things mystical and occult.
I stepped down from the shuttle just as Jack Stockton jogged up, out of breath, and spicier than Louisiana hot sauce.
"You need to turn around," he told the driver. "The Elway woman and her people are on their way from the airport to the ferry. If you're not there to pick them up, it won't be good."
As the shuttle circled back out, Jack turned and seemed to see me for the first time.
"Good morning, Miss Hamilton," he said quickly. That was just one of the things that set him apart from the locals. You never heard "Where y'at, baaay-beee?" or "Aw right, dawlin'" from his gorgeous lips. No sir, always polite and cultured, my Jack. My Jack? My fervent wish.
He wasn't in such a big hurry that he didn't take the time to notice. "Miss Hamilton, I believe that shirt just exactly matches your green eyes." Interest flared in his gorgeous peepers.
I smiled but didn't answer. As flummoxed as I was, it would have sounded like a foreign language.
After the shuttle turned back around, so did Jack. He stopped at the front entrance, and while the organ music groaned the welcome dirge, he asked Lurch, our obsessed-by-selfies doorman, how his day was going, and then he said to the morose giant of a man, "There are some VIP guests arriving later today. I'm going to request, as a personal favor to me, you not ask them to join you for a selfie. Please."
The fact that Lurch asked anyone and everyone to pose for a selfie with him seemed to bother Jack—the uptight New Yorker in him, I supposed. None of the rest of us cared a whit about it. In fact, it was a lot of fun to sit down with Lurch on a coffee break and have a slide show of all the pictures on his phone.
It didn't hurt anybody, and if someone didn't want to stand beside a seven-foot-tall, pasty-skinned man with hands the size of cast-iron skillets, they could always say, "No thanks."
Lurch groaned but nodded. "Yes, sir."
* * *
The Dragons and Deities Tattoo Parlor was located on the first floor of the auxiliary wing next to the hotel spa. The hotel owner, Harry Villars, a genteel Southern man with grand gestures and the soft-spoken mannerisms of Ashley Wilkes, had pretty much given me carte blanche in decorating, and I went with the Medieval Times look. Since the name of the place had to do with dungeons, it was just about my only reference material. The flickering wall sconces, stone masonry wallpaper, and red and gold drapery swags were nothing if not dramatic.
I was not ashamed to admit I kind of got off on wearing that girly garb the mystical theme required, and the skin paintings I created are ethereal and otherworldly. They went hand-in-hand with the theme of the hotel and more often than not challenged my artistic nature.
My first love was oil on canvas. The streets and people of New Orleans, my favorite subjects. When I didn't spend my weekend working at St. Antoine's trying to bring the beautiful old church back, I hauled myself out to Jackson Square and displayed my wares with other struggling artists. A gallery over on Julia Street took the odd painting every now and then. When I sold one, what I got for it went straight to the neighborhood restoration fund.
It was about three o'clock. My last client of the day, a nerdy neurosurgeon from Wisconsin, was still in the chair, just getting up from my work on the wizard I'd inked on his left butt cheek. He'd been all worried someone would see it, so he asked me to put it there, folks. It wasn't my idea. Believe me. The finished product was pretty gorgeous, if I do say so myself. The wizard's light-blue flowing beard, royal-blue flowing robes, and pointy hat were offset with the red sparks that flew from his wand. I had to say it kind of made me grumpy no one would ever see it. But like they say, the customer is always right. If he wanted a tattoo on his butt, who was I to deny him?
He'd just walked out when Catalina and Cap'n Jack walked into my domain.
Jack cleared his throat. "Miss Hamilton…"
"This is the South, Mr. Stockton," I said. "Please call me Mel."
His eyes found mine. "And I'm Jack," he said.
Cap'n Jack—it was all I could do not to say it out loud.
He went on. "I've already asked Miss Gabor—Catalina—but I wanted to ask you personally. Mrs. Elway and her party have arrived a day early. We can accommodate her with rooms, thank God, but the dining room is booked tonight for the annual banquet of the Dead-and-Loving-It Zombie Fan Club. I've arranged for Mrs. Elway and her guests to be served in the small dining room, but it's too late to bring in extra waitstaff from the city to serve them. I know it's not your job, and ordinarily I wouldn't ask, but I'm sure you've heard Cecile Elway and her personal psychic, Penelope Devere, are the president and vice-president of the International Paranormal Society. Their endorsement will put The Mansion on the map." He paused as those eyes and lips pleaded his case for him. I tried to concentrate on what he was actually saying. He was so, as Cat would say, delish. "It's a small group," he went on, "just six of them including the Great Fabrizio."
"She's having dinner with the hotel medium?"
"Yep." He shook his head as if the idea amazed him. "That's why she's here. Her personal psychic told Cecile to come. Said Theodore Elway, Cecile's deceased husband, spoke to her in a dream and wanted Mrs. Elway to have a séance with the Great Fabrizio to learn the secret to her husband's restless soul finding peace." He shook his head. "You know, if you'd asked me six months ago if I'd be lining up ghostly encounters for hotel guests, I'd have laughed you out of the room." He raised his eyes to mine. "And just look at me now, begging you to help me do this ridiculous thing."
I tried to ignore the amber gleam in his eyes. Keep it business, Mel. He is. "I'll do anything I can to help out. Just tell me what you need."
* * *
I offered my last scheduled appointment of the day a really nice discount to reschedule her body art, the Gryffindor crest from Harry Potter targeted for her right calf, and closed the parlor early. After changing into the proper uniforms, typical black-and-white antebellum-style long dresses and aprons, Cat and I took a crash course in table service lessons from the main dining room maître d'.
The smaller dining room was furnished with lovely period furniture that could well have been used in The Mansion during its plantation days in the 1800s. The oval table seated up to ten people. Mrs. Elway and the other five guests were comfortable that evening.
The widow was Cecile Elway, a fifty-something aristocratic-looking dishwater blonde with blue eyes, a strong chin, and aquiline nose she kept so high in the air I was pretty sure she had a stiff neck from it. She was haughtily lovely for (who my mama would call) a woman of that certain age.
Her stepdaughter, Rosalyn Elway Whitlock, on the other hand, looked like a small-town librarian with poodle-cut curly hair, watery grey eyes, face scrubbed so clean it shone, and a brown suit jacket over a white blouse buttoned all the way to the collar. A pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses dangled on a beaded chain around her neck. Her head stayed down, and her eyes stayed glued to the place setting in front of her.
Elway's stepgrandson, Billy Whitlock, was college-aged from the look of him, probably still had to have his nose wiped by his mama. He was skinny with an Adam's apple that sat in the middle of his throat like a golf ball. He only smiled at me, but when Cat walked by he jumped to his feet, took hold of her hand, and made a big deal about kissing it. I was surprised she didn't run into the kitchen and grab a bar of soap.
Then there was Terrence Montague. He was introduced as the President of the Society for the Preservation of the Lepidoptera Alien Caterpillar (say that fast three times). There was something about his smarmy good looks I didn't like. The Buddy Holly glasses didn't fit his persona. The fuzzy caterpillar pin on his lapel looked like it might have been solid gold, but it was as out of place on him as a My Little Pony T-shirt would have looked on me. Beside him, Cecile had her hand on his thigh.
Mrs. Elway's personal psychic, Penelope Devere, was there too. She was a short woman built like a fireplug. She might have been cute at one time, but today's look, the Little Dutch Boy haircut and her plain unmade-up features, didn't do much to add to her mystique.
Last, but no way least, was Fabrizio, the hotel's resident medium and a person dear to my heart, also known as the Great Fabrizio. He was one of my favorite people on the planet. Born in Yorkshire across the pond, he grew up poor, as he said, "With little more than a pence or two in the pocket of the hand-me-down trousers from my older brother. Fancied myself a bit of an Oliver Twist." He was about as much a psychic medium as I was the Dalai Lama.
Talk around the hotel was, back in the salad days he'd been honored by the Queen for his performances as Macbeth and Hamlet. There was little trace of that left in him these days. Formally trained or not, his career was flagging in his fifties, and I had the impression if this job didn't pan out, he had nowhere else to go. That night he was dressed all in black, like a riverboat gambler. His greying hair was covered by a silver turban with an enormous fake ruby in the middle—all the better to cement his celebrity status with the clientele.
And that, ladies and gents, was the cast of characters for the evening.
The menu was simple but elegant—puree of squash, Cajun-blackened salmon, rice pilaf, and grilled asparagus with hollandaise.
Cat and I were confident and sure-handed, balancing the serving trays as smoothly as The Mansion's resident juggler—that was until Billy Whitlock, whose baby brown eyes had been glued to Cat's swaying backside all night, suddenly whipped sideways to stare at her as she bent over to retrieve a dropped napkin from the floor. The bowl of soup I was about to set in front of him tipped backward when he hit it and landed on my chest before falling to the floor. The lovely puree, of course, stayed on the front of my service uniform.
All eyes turned to me as I scrambled to pick up the bowl off the floor. "Sorry," I said.
"No, dude, it's all me," Billy said, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down in this throat. I swore he looked at me like he wanted to lick it all off, but I didn't say anything else. Seriously? Hadn't he ever seen a woman bend over before?
While I stood back and took a napkin to my soup-laden chest, Cecile Elway lifted her hand to Fabrizio. "Oh, Fabrizio," she cooed, "I forgot to mention we have a special requirement for the séance." She exchanged a meaningful look with her psychic, who nodded what I interpreted to be encouragement. Cecile went on, "And since it's just the tiniest bit unusual, I wanted you to have ample notice for its procurement."
Fabrizio, with lifted chin and half-closed eyes in full-on medium character, smiled and said, "Of course, madam—"
As I turned to go back to the kitchen and change into a clean uniform, Mrs. Elway gushed, "Oh, Cecile, please," and batted her lashes, flirting with Fabrizio like a schoolgirl. She crooked a finger at him and whispered in his ear as he leaned his head toward her.
When she finished, he pulled away and gave her a look I can only describe as dumbfounded. "Really?" he asked. "For the séance?"
She smiled and nodded.
"Did I hear you correctly?" He stammered a little. "Did you say…clams?"