BODY IN THE BAYOU
Okay, so none of this would have happened if the Muffuletta Magic food truck hadn’t parked so close to the bus station.
It’s the aroma of olives and chopped celery mingling with the whiff of ham and salami that did me in.
“Listen up, folks, you’ve got just half an hour in N’awlins,” the driver had said. “Make sure you’re back on board in time, otherwise you’ll be left behind.”
My ears had caught his words as I stretched out my legs, which had been twisted up like pretzels to fit into the cramped seat during the ride all the way from Philly. But his warning never really sank in because as soon he opened the doors, my nose took over and my brain lost all capacity to process anything else.
You see, food and I, we have this thing, okay? Food cannot control itself around me. It just has to tempt me. And when food acts that way, how could I hurt its feelings and ignore it? I guess maybe I’m just a little bit co-dependent that way, but, hey, who isn’t in some form or the other?
So, off I went, sniffing the wind to locate the famous stuffed-to-the-rafters sandwiches.
It didn’t take me too long to find the bright, pink truck that dished out the divine delights. Unfortunately, a million, five hundred and thirty-six people had done so before me.
Another thing about me is that I’m loyal to a fault. Once the muffuletta had won the interest of my taste buds, there was no way that I was going to run off on it and go seeking out the pleasures of a po’ boy, a bowl of gumbo, or anything else.
So, I waited, and waited, and waited as the line inched – well, actually, not inched; more like millimetered – along. After that long period, during which I was sure several generations of Louisiana mosquitoes had been born, lived out their pesky lifespans and proceeded on to mosquito heaven, I finally had that round, heavy, meaty, cheesy, olive-y sandwich in my hands.
The price, too, had been hefty; one that I could hardly afford on my budget, which was probably the only thing about me that was slim. But the cost only served to make me cherish my muffuletta that much more.
I headed back to the bus station with my mouth watering as I pictured myself relishing the sandwich in my seat, all the way to my destination.
I was about to cross the street when I looked up and saw my bus turn a corner. I knew it was my bus because I’d strung up a red bandanna in my window to act as a sun shade. It was a nice bandanna, too, one with a white floral print that my great-aunt had given me.
“Hey, wait for me!” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I scrambled after the bus, in an admittedly not very dignified manner.
The bus entered a traffic-free stretch and roared forward. I tried to double my pace, and that was when I slipped on a candy wrapper and all hell broke lose.
The muffuletta went flying out of my hand and soared into the air. During the next few moments, it seemed as if time had slowed down, and I watched every painful second as the sandwich fell from the sky, and then splattered onto the pavement.
The wrapper burst, spilling all the lovely contents onto the dirty concrete.
The missed bus, the wasted cost of the last leg of what was an expensive ticket, and the wasted, expensive sandwich – especially the wasted, expensive, heavenly-smelling, provolone-and-salami-stuffed sandwich – was just too much for one woman to bear.
I heard myself scream.
I felt myself blacking out, which was quite normal for me when faced with an overwhelming situation like this.
But before I totally lost it as I fainted dramatically on the pavement, I was sure I heard tires screeching and other female voices screaming.
Then everything went silent.
“You’ve gone and killed her.”
“I did not.”
“I always knew you’d kill somebody one day.”
“I never even touched her.”
“It’s all my fault. I never should have let you drive without your glasses again.”
“I didn’t kill anybody. Look, she’s breathing.”
My vision was blurry. I could only vaguely make out the faces of the two women looking down at me. What struck me most was that their skin seemed to be marked by wrinkles; yes, something like six million, nine hundred and ninety-four wrinkles – each.
“Sinful,” I groaned.
“Listen, Ida Belle, she’s saying something,” one voice said.
“What did you say?”
“Sinful,” I said. “I’ve got to get to Sinful. I missed my bus.”
I sat up and looked about. A huge, ancient Cadillac had mounted the pavement and sat just inches from me. One tire had bits of the muffuletta deeply embedded in the tread. The sight made me want to faint all over again.
One of the women wrapped a frail hand around my shoulders. “You want to go to Sinful, dear?”
“We’re from Sinful,” said the other woman, who apparently went by the name of Ida Belle.
The woman who embraced me, patted me on the back. “I’d be happy to give you a ride to town.”
“No, Gertie. That’s not going to happen.” Ida Belle’s voice was quite firm.
“Shame on you Ida Belle. Have you lost your sense of southern hospitality?”
“My sense of southern hospitality is doing perfectly fine,” Ida Belle said. “But you are not going to give anybody any ride to Sinful. From now on, you’re banned from driving.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m sure I’ve got my glasses somewhere. I just need to poke around in here to find them.”
Gertie dug into a ginormous handbag made out of material that looked like the exact match of a worn, old chair which graced my great-aunt’s living room.
“Doesn’t matter if you find your reading glasses or your spectacles,” Ida Belle said. “You’re not getting back behind that wheel.”
It didn’t seem possible that such a thing could happen, but Gertie added more furrows to her brow when she scowled at Ida Belle.
For my part, it didn’t matter who drove that Cadillac, whether Gertie, Ida Belle, or a pig wearing a tiara and a tutu. I would have even considered offering to operate the heaping pile of heavy metal myself if my license hadn’t been stolen along with my wallet when I was in Mexico, three months before – which, by the way, was another tale of unfortunate adventures in itself that could fill the pages of a book, and we’re talking about novel-length, here, not just a novella.
“Ladies,” I said, “I’ve got to get to Sinful by two this afternoon, even it it kills me. For what it’s worth, I’m prepared to take my chances with Gertie, if it comes to that.”
They made me lie down on the back seat as we pulled off. I didn’t mind playing an invalid and getting some sympathy after the kind of crazy year I’d just had, which had seemed to solidify the nickname some wag in my family had given me long ago.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the emergency department?” Ida Belle peered at me in the rear view mirror as she drove. “There’s a hospital not too far from where we’re now.”
“Don’t need to see a doctor,” I said. “I’m perfectly fine.”
“Well, take this, at least, dear.” Gertie riffled through that immense handbag of hers and pulled out a small, pink bottle. She reached back and handed it to me. The label said “Sinful Ladies Cough Syrup”.
“Go easy on it,” Ida Belle said. “It’s pretty strong.”
I couldn’t understand why they thought my condition – whatever they imagined that condition to be – required a dose of cough syrup.
It smelled curiously like tequila, with which I’d become somewhat familiar, on account of the daily libations of my travel companion to Mexico. One sip of Gertie’s cough syrup set my throat on fire. I sat up, hawking.
That crazy stuff didn’t soothe coughs; it produced them.
“Wowzah!” I said when I found my voice. “Mama mia and Pablo Picasso!”
“Well, you were warned,” Ida Belle said.
“What is that stuff?”
“Oh, just a little concoction brought to you by the Sinful Ladies,” Gertie said with more than a hint of pride in her voice. “Keeps the town sane and happy.”
Still hacking, I tucked the bottle into my backpack, which contained all my earthly possessions at that point. If I didn’t make it to Sinful in time for my two o’clock appointment, I wanted that cough syrup nice and handy.
“At least it’s restored you enough that you can sit up,” Ida Belle said. “That’s good, because somebody will be joining you in the backseat, shortly.”
“Huh?” I said.
“We’ve got to make one stop before heading back to Sinful.” Gertie turned around and smiled at me. “We have to pick up a friend from the beauty parlor.”
“I look ridiculous,” she said.
The faint voice came from outside.
“Nonsense.” Gertie stuck her head through the window and spoke to whoever was approaching. “You look fabulous, dear.”
Suddenly, the door opposite me swung open and the owner of the voice plopped herself onto the backseat.
I stared at her and she stared at me.
I’d been expecting to see six million, nine hundred and ninety-four more wrinkles, and a fresh blue rinse.
Instead, here was a pretty, young thing, about my own age, with smooth, rosy cheeks; thick, dark mascara; bright, red lipstick; and a mountain of long, blonde curls. Okay, so maybe the curls were a little bit on the excessive side, but this girl had the whole southern belle look down pat.
I wondered what she was doing hanging out with my geriatric saviors.
She, of course, had not been expecting to see me at all.
I could almost hear her brain ticking as her eyes fell on me and my grubby, little backpack. I imagined what she’d be saying:
Female, probably 28 years old, with jet-black, shoulder-length hair and a nose like a bird’s beak. Marilyn Monroe-type mole above right side of lip – real, not fake. Weight: 215 pounds, which she carries stunningly in a red, body-hugging dress. Perhaps a little too much cleavage on show. Incongruous dirty backpack. Liable to turn violent if 2 pm Sinful appointment is missed.
Okay, so she couldn’t have thought that last part because she knew nothing of my appointment, but the liability was still real.
Gertie had now turned to face us.
“Fortune, meet…,” Gertie frowned and stopped. “Hey, what is your name, by the way?”
“Elizabeth Washington,” I said. “That’s what’s on my birth certificate, anyway. But, since we’ll be riding along together all the way to Sinful, I think I should warn you that the people who know me call me by another name.”
“What’s that?” Ida Belle asked my reflection in the rear view mirror as she started the engine.
The delicate Barbie next to me frowned. “That’s not nice.”
“Oh, when I was little, I was always told the nickname was well deserved,” I said. “It started when my mother went into labor with me while she was home alone. In the middle of a snowstorm. The neighbor who tried to dig out the driveway for her collapsed, clutching his heart. They were still waiting for an ambulance to come pick up both of them when my dad finally got home. He tried to get my mother to the hospital, but the car broke down and they had to trudge through knee-deep snow to the nearest building. I ended up being delivered on the floor of Karl’s Cookhouse, by a pot washer.”
“That’s actually a lovely story,” Gertie said.
“It is.” Fortune batted her long lashes. “Your parents sound very brave.”
“Yes, they were,” I said. “And I miss them, even all these years since they both passed. But, to finish up the story, things definitely went downhill for me from that day. Especially when it comes to men. You don’t want to hear about my dating disasters.”
“Speaking of dating disasters…,” Fortune started, but Ida Belle and Gertie cut her short.
“You’ll be fine,” they said in unison.
“Ooh, la la.” I looked her up and down, and now noticed the acrylic nails in a shade that was unmistakably blood red. “Looks like somebody’s got a hot date.”
“It’s not a date.” Fortune lowered her voice, but her cheeks heightened in color.
“Even when a woman goes out with a man a second time, it’s still called a date,” Gertie said.
“There wasn’t even a first date. That was just having dinner.”
“Now, wasn’t there a wee bit more than just dinner?” Ida Belle said into the mirror.
Fortune’s cheeks now almost matched the color of her fake nails, which she bent her head and studied quite intensively, as she continued to blink. Though she looked the part of a southern belle, she seemed to me to be battling with it.
“Did Auntie Gertie and Auntie Ida Belle talk you into this?” I said.
“Actually, she’s a former beauty queen,” Ida Belle said.
“Yeah, but then she went and became a librarian.” Gertie shook her head. “She’s totally lost her game.”
“You’re a librarian?” I shifted with excitement.
Fortune remained stiff and seemed somewhat hesitant. “Yes.”
“Well then, you’ll be my new best friend. How big is Sinful’s library?”
“Sorry, but I don’t work as a librarian in Sinful.”
Maybe it was my imagination, but she sounded somehow relieved to declare that. Before I could even open my mouth to ask for an explanation, she was already on to it.
“I inherited a house on Main Street from my great-aunt and I’m in town just to dispose of the property.”
“Bummer,” I said. “I could have done with a librarian friend in town. It would have helped with the research job I’m going to start today – if I can arrive in time for my appointment.”
“What kind of research job is there to be had in Sinful?” Ida Belle said to the rear view mirror.
I smiled, but kept my mouth shut.
“No, really.” Gertie swiveled again to face us in the back. “Who’s hiring a researcher in Sinful?”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to reveal that. I may have said too much already.”
The three women exchanged glances by some incredible feat of coordination that involved much use of the rear view mirror and great agility on Gertie’s part, as her torso spun freely to allow her to face Fortune in the backseat and Ida Belle at her side.
“Are you sure this job is above board, Lizzy?” Fortune said.
Gertie wore an expression of worry. “Please don’t tell me this was some advertisement you found on Craigslist.”
“What they’re trying to get across,” Ida Belle said, “is that Sinful isn’t exactly a hot-bed of academic activity.”
Gertie nodded. “So this business about a research job is sounding alarm bells that can probably be heard all the way over in Texas.”
“Oh, the position is perfectly legit,” I said. “My great-aunt got it for me. I’m just not sure how much about it I’m allowed to tell.”
“Tell us everything,” Gertie said. “You can trust us to keep quite. You should know that in Sinful, it’s illegal to let out a friend’s secret.”
She smiled sweetly, in the way that only a hundred-and-twenty-year-old woman can. Yet my resistance remained up. “Does that law hold on a Sunday, when you’re in church?”
The guilty look that appeared on Gertie’s face told me everything I needed to know.
“Just as I thought,” I said. “I come from a long line of Bible-thumpers. I know how things go down on a Sunday in church.”
Fortune chuckled. “Gertie you’ve been made.”
“Don’t worry about Gertie,” Ida Belle said. “I’ll make sure she keeps her mouth shut.”
For the first time, Ida Belle’s eyes weren’t on the road or the rear view mirror. She turned to Gertie and gave the meanest scowl I had ever witnessed in my close to three decades on the planet. Gertie went all rigid. I got the impression that Ida Belle had a long history of keeping Gertie in line, and that gave me some confidence.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ve actually been dying to share this with somebody.”
Fortune smiled. “You couldn’t have chosen any better than these three pairs of ears.”
“I hope so. I’m actually beginning to think the screeching of Gertie’s tires was the fanfare to usher in some good luck in my life for a change.”
“And I hope that’s the case,” Gertie said with an impatient smile, “but what’s the secret?”
“Okay, so my great-aunt used to work as a nursemaid with the Wilders, a very wealthy family in Philadelphia. She took care of three generations of them, before she retired. The family loved her and they remain in contact with her. She said the grandson, Thomas, was sweet but very shy, since he was an only child and his father was a recluse. Seems he’s taken after his father that way.
“Anyway, six months ago, Thomas Wilder inherited a place down in these parts that belonged to a relative who had fancied himself as a bit of a swashbuckler. Thomas has never had to work a day in his life and spends his time just floating around to the various houses, apartments and estates the family owns. But he’s got it into his head to write a book about his dead, swashbuckling relative.
“My great-aunt heard about it. She also realized that I’d crawled back from Mexico and was flat broke. She knew this because I’d been staying with her since I’d got back and had been eating her out of house and home. Anyway, she spoke with Thomas about his project and, as they say, the rest is history.”
“Wilder, huh?” Ida Belle said. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Wilder in Sinful. Where exactly in Sinful is this swashbuckler’s house supposed to be?”
I dug into the pocket of my backpack to fish out my little black book and read out the address.
“That’s not in Sinful,” Ida Belle said. “It’s that big, white, old house, just outside of town. In all these years, nobody seems to have ever met the owners and nobody knows anything about the place.”
“Well, the Wilders tend to keep to themselves,” I said.
Gertie flashed an impish grin. “Actually, if you went upstairs in my house, to the bathroom next to my bedroom, and you looked out the window with a pair of high-powered binoculars, you’d get a pretty good view of the place. Not that anybody here is in the habit of spying on her neighbors, mind you.”
“Oh, perish the thought,” Fortune said. “But what would the occasional, accidental glimpse of the house through high-powered binoculars have told you about the place?”
“Nothing really.” Gertie shrugged. “The lights come on and off religiously, as if on a timer. Other than that, there’s never been any visible sign of life.”
“There’s more about Thomas Wilder that I could tell,” I said. “There’s something a little creepy. And if I wasn’t so desperate right now, it would have put me off the job….”
Gertie’s expression brightened and she rubbed her palms together in anticipation.
End of this sample.
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