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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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“You mean the Environmental Justice League did,” Ava said.

“No, that's what's kind of strange. All the other lawsuits I found mention of were filed by the Environmental Justice League. But this is Martin Lash
personally
filing a lawsuit against Trueblood.”

“Does that make a difference?”

“I don't know. But it's interesting. Very strange, actually.”

“So what do you think?”

“This lawsuit also points to motive,” Carmela said. “I mean, if I were a hotshot real estate developer who got stopped in his tracks by some random little ecology dude, I'd guess that would be a fairly powerful motivator to make him go away.”

“Go away,” Ava murmured. “As in ‘disappear permanently.'”

Scritch. Scratch.

Ava straightened up like she'd been touched with a red-hot wire. “What was that?”

“I don't know.”

Scritch.

“There it is again,” Ava whispered.

Carmela held her breath and listened. It was coming from the side window. “It sounds like somebody's moving around outside. Trying to see in. Or
get
in.”

“Holy shit,” Ava whispered. “Are we gonna get popped by some cop for breaking and entering? I've already got two parking tickets that I haven't paid as well as a cat living in my apartment illegally.”

“Shhh. There it is again.” Carmela knew that if the intruder—if that's what this was—went around back he'd soon find that an entire window had been kicked in. And then their goose would really be cooked.

“You think one of the neighbors saw us and ratted us out?” Ava asked.

“I don't know,” Carmela said. “It could be some deputy or town marshal who's making his night rounds.”

“If it's a cop there could be searchlights and bloodhounds.”

Carmela listened again as something clinked against the glass on the side window. “Or maybe it's a real burglar who knows Lash is dead and figures this place would be easy pickin's.”

“This is crazy,” Ava said. “We break in here and now some other yahoo is trying to break in on us? It's not fair.”

“The important thing is we don't want to be arrested, because there isn't anybody in their right mind who'd spring for bail after a stunt like this.”

“You don't think Babcock would help us?”

“Not the way things are right now.”

“We gotta get out of here,” Ava said. “And not get caught with any incriminating evidence.”

“We need to grab that notebook and lawsuit!”

But Ava was a step ahead of her, gathering up the papers and stuffing them under her longline bra.

“There's room in there?” Carmela asked. Ava was stuffing papers like crazy.

“There is if I really suck in.”

“Okay, the plan is we go out the same window we came in through.”

“Right.”

They bumped their way back down the hallway, crossed the living room (trying to avoid all the broken glass), and leaned out the window.

“We go on three,” Carmela whispered. “One . . .”

Ava leapt through the window like a crazed gazelle, landed in a soggy patch of yard, and managed a decent tuck and roll.

“Two,” Carmela said, flying out the window after her. She wasn't quite as graceful with her landing. She landed hard and muttered a surprised “Oof.” Her foot struck hard against something metallic.

Ava grabbed Carmela's arm and yanked her to her feet. “Come on. Whoever was around front for sure heard that. We gotta get out of here!”

Then they were flying across the backyard, leaping over a drainage ditch, and stumbling across a spit of land and into someone else's backyard.

“Keep going,” Carmela hissed. She could hear someone pounding after them now. Heavy boots crunched against gravel, phlegmy breathing sounded not more than twenty feet behind them. “We'll circle back for the car later!”

They were running for their lives, hanging on to each other, Ava trying to keep the stolen papers from slipping out of her corset and scattering in the wind.

“Holy crap,” Carmela said, managing a quick look over her shoulder. “He's gaining on us!” It was dark so she couldn't see the face, but it looked like a guy wearing a flapping jacket.

“Run!” Ava screamed. And this time it was a loud, full-bore, foghorn shriek.

“This way!” Carmela cried. She grabbed Ava's elbow and pulled her in the direction of a small shack. “When I tell you to duck, I want you to duck,” she said. “Wait for it . . . wait for it. Okay, now! Duck!”

Carmela and Ava both scrunched down and shimmied under a shoulder-high rope as they struggled to maintain their pace. At the last second, Carmela spun around and gave the rope a mighty twang. Instantly, leg traps, nutria pelts, and some other kind of stinky animal carcass began to sway violently. A few steps on, Carmela flung out an arm, this time knocking down a whole clutch of fishing gear. Oars tumbled, fishing poles went crashing, buoys clattered, everything creating a pick-up-sticks mess for whoever was chasing them.

Carmela's well-executed but impromptu plan worked. Their pursuer crashed directly into the traps, pelts, and fishing gear
that she'd set in motion. Swearing mightily, he stumbled, fell down, tried to get back up, and then got hopelessly tangled.

“It worked!” Carmela whooped as they gained thirty yards on their pursuer. Then a good fifty yards. Still, they kept running.

“Are you okay?” Ava asked as they tore through a back alley.

“I think I've got a fishing hook stuck in my ear,” Carmela said.

“Fishhook earrings are very in style right now.”

They cut down Moen Street, dashed around a corner, and ran down a dark street. There was an insurance agency, a check cashing place, and a meat market. But nothing was open.

“There's a light up ahead,” Ava said as they huffed along.

“I think it's a bar.” Carmela recognized the telltale neon glow of an Abita Beer sign.

“We can duck in there incognito and relax with a cool, refreshing beverage,” Ava cried.

“Perfect,” Carmela agreed as they pulled open the door to Sparky's Tap and spun their way inside. “We'll just be completely low-key and blend in.”

The words weren't out of her mouth as they skidded to a stop and took a look around. Besides the bartender, who was standing stop-action style with an open mouth and a white bar rag in one hand, every man in the place had turned toward the door and was staring directly at them!

Ava was the first to recover. “My goodness,” she drawled. “Fifty men and only two of us. I'd say those are pretty decent odds.”

Chapter 12

“L
AST
night you dragged me to a spooky old cabin,” Ava grumped. “And here we are this morning—trucking our way into a gloomy old church.”

“You should be the last one to complain,” Carmela said as they tiptoed past the tilting gravestones and white marble mausoleums of St. Roch Cemetery. “You had a pretty good time at Sparky's. Dancing, flirting, cavorting . . .”

“I was not cavorting.” Ava gave a mousy smile. “Well, maybe just a little bit.”

“Between your cleavage and your eyelash batting, I'm surprised a couple of those good old boys didn't run out and trap a few nutria to make you a fur coat.”

“There's still a chance of that,” Ava said. “I passed out more than a few of my business cards. And weren't those boys nice to give us a ride back to the car?”

“I always did want to ride in the back of a pickup truck with five Cajuns who were belting out ‘Le Bouquet de Mon Coeur,'” Carmela said.

Ava smiled. “And in pretty decent harmony.”

Carmela stopped and gazed at the façade of St. Roch Chapel. “Look at this place. Who holds a memorial service here anyway? I mean, with all the gorgeous, historic churches in New Orleans, Martin Lash's momma had to pick this place?”

“I'm guessing she has a few screws loose,” Ava said. “Not unlike her baby boy. Besides”—she grabbed Carmela's hand and tugged—“we don't have to attend this stupid service. We could turn tail right now and go to our respective businesses. Have ourselves a nice productive day.”

“I know. But I'm still trying to ferret out a little more information. The quicker Lash's murder is solved, the quicker my life gets back to normal.”

“Are you sure that's what you want? Normal, I mean? That would mean nuzzling with Quigg Brevard in the shadows is verboten.”

“That little incident is going to remain buried in my deep, dark past,” Carmela said. “I shouldn't have told you about it and I'd be happy if you never brought it up again.”

They walked up the gravel path to the chapel, pulled open a heavy wooden door (complete with squeaky sound effects), and slipped inside. It was dark and gloomy, the kind of place where a crowd of frenzied medieval townies might have voted to burn some poor woman as a witch. Two red candles flickered on the altar and the few rows of pews that lined the place were completely empty.

“Looks like we won't have any trouble finding a seat,” Ava said. “Do you think we're early?” She looked around. “And who on earth is that Gloomy Gus up there on the altar?”

“That, my dear, is a statue of St. Roch himself.”

“His hat and cape look overly accessorized,” Ava said. “Though I am sort of digging that cross-body bag. It does give his outfit a certain panache.”

Carmela frowned. “We should take a look around. I get the feeling that maybe we're in the wrong place?”

“Do you think the service could be happening in one of the side chapels instead?” Ava asked.

But no. When they strolled into a side chapel, it looked pretty much the same as it did on creepy picture postcards that French Quarter gift shops sold to tourists. A dark little room stuffed floor to ceiling with crutches, old leather braces, false limbs, plaster anatomical parts, and fake eyeballs.

“This stuff is so dang strange,” Ava said, peering at a metal neck brace. “Uncomfortable-looking, too.”

“Ex votos,” Carmela said.

“Ex-what-os?”

“The plaster arms and legs, the foot braces and statuettes, were left in supplication to St. Roch.”

Ava screwed up her face. “But I thought he was the patron saint of plague victims.”

“He was,” Carmela said. “But I guess he was good at healing, too. What probably happened was his job description expanded, just like it has for a lot of us these days.” She'd just picked up a low hum of voices coming from the main chapel. “Say now, I think the party might be getting started after all.”

They strolled back into the main chapel, where Lash's mother was just being seated in the front pew along with another older lady. They were both dressed head to toe in black and sniffling discreetly into white lace hankies. Another dozen or so people were filing in and finding places.

“There's the guy with the teeth,” Ava said.

“Josh Cotton,” Carmela said. “Come on, we better hurry up and grab ourselves a spot.”

They shuffled into the chapel and took their seats in the second to the last row. Carmela figured this might be the catbird seat from which to keep an eye on everything (really, everyone) that was important.

And it didn't take long. Two minutes later, a minister with thinning gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a white cassock that barely covered his bulging belly took his place at the altar. Then there was a shriek of steel wheels as a utilitarian-looking metal coffin roller poked its nose through the doorway.

“I think the guest of honor has arrived,” Ava whispered.

The coffin roller, bearing the bronze coffin of Martin Lash, was slowly pushed inside the chapel by one of the somber funeral directors from Castle Funeral Home. As it creaked and squeaked its way down the aisle toward the front of the church, four ushers in morning coats and striped pants followed behind, their pace slow and measured.

“Mmn,” Ava said, casting an admiring glance at the men. “Fresh troops.”

As the coffin approached the front altar, Martin Lash's mother let out a tremendous wail.

“Dear Lord,” Ava said. “I'm surprised she didn't knock the fake feet off the wall. That lady is louder than thunder.”

Carmela gave her a warning shush as the minister stepped up to the coffin and raised his hands.

“Good morning,” the minister said with a sad smile. “I am Pastor Nicholas Gryer and I am pleased to welcome the friends and family of Martin Lash as we celebrate his life today.”

Once again, a tragic howl issued from Mrs. Lash.

Two ushers bent down to lock the casket rollers in place and then they all took their seats. Carmela took this opportunity to look around the church. The final count in the chapel was about two dozen people, and the only ones she recognized were
Josh Cotton and Mrs. Lash. And she didn't know them particularly well. Still . . . she wondered if Lash's killer might be in attendance. She'd read somewhere that killers sometimes checked in and followed their victim's progress. But the somber faces on today's mourners betrayed no hint of glee or interest in what might possibly have been their handiwork.

Pastor Gryer was deep into a reading of the Twenty-third Psalm now. Carmela felt around on the pew, found a Bible, and scrambled to find the “I will fear no evil” part. Ava, on the other hand, was examining her nails as if trying to decide whether or not to freshen her manicure.

“We are all saddened by the loss of our dear Martin,” the pastor intoned. “A fine man who has contributed so much to our community. He is mourned by his mother . . .”

As if on cue, Mrs. Lash interrupted with a cacophony of yelps that trailed off into sobs.

Pastor Gryer continued, “. . . his dear aunt Edith, and his many friends.”

Ava glanced up. “His friends? There are barely enough people to fill this puny chapel.”

The pastor brought his fingertips together and recited a prayer for the dead followed by a prayer for the grieving. He bowed his head and ended with, “May we all feel Your love in this hour of sadness.” He paused for a moment and then said, “We all know what a giving, loving person Martin was. And today, his friend and fellow environmentalist, Josh Cotton, will say a few well-chosen words.”

Josh Cotton stood up so quickly you could hear his knee joints pop. Then he moved swiftly to take his place in front of the statue of St. Roch. His body stiff and rigid, he stood with his hands at his sides, staring straight ahead. Finally, Cotton cleared his throat and began. “Martin Lash was my friend and colleague.”

Mrs. Lash let out another cry as Cotton went on to dish up a few platitudes and praise Martin Lash as a driven and stalwart leader.

Carmela listened with half an ear. To her way of thinking Cotton was a little too passionate in his praise of the man he hoped to replace. Hadn't he mentioned making a few changes when they spoke with him at the visitation Sunday night? Sure he had. If he wanted to take control of the organization and run it according to his own standards, was he capable of killing Lash? Possibly. And if Cotton was power hungry, could he have smoke-screened the murder by making it look like Lash was killed by a local restaurateur? After all, Lash—with his sideline as food critic—had alienated a fair number of New Orleans restaurant owners. So it was certainly a logical assumption that an angry restaurant owner might have done him in. At least it was one theory that Babcock subscribed to. In Quigg's case, that is.

With suspicion over Josh Cotton percolating in her brain, Carmela found it difficult to focus. As she let her eyes wander about the dingy chapel, she noticed a man she hadn't seen earlier. Dark eyed, with a tumble of dark hair, he looked tight-lipped and grim as he slumped in the corner of the pew across the way.

Carmela flashed back to the grainy black-and-white photo she'd looked at just yesterday and recognized Allan Hurst, the owner of Fat Lorenzo's.

Now here was a man she definitely wanted to talk to.

The service droned on for another twenty minutes, with the end finally coming when the minister gave a final blessing and several people walked up to the casket and laid white roses on top of it.

Good, Carmela thought. Enough already. She was ready to go home.

As soon as the service was concluded, as soon as the ushers unlocked the coffin rollers and paraded the whole shebang back down the aisle again, Carmela pushed out of her pew and rushed to the back of the chapel. And by the time Allan Hurst reached the door, Carmela was standing right there, blocking his way.

“Mr. Hurst. Good morning. I need to speak to you.”

Hurst stopped in his tracks and peered at Carmela with curiosity. “Do I know you?”

Carmela offered a sweet smile. “Not exactly, but I have a few questions I'd like to ask you.”

“I don't think so.” Hurst started to slip by her, but Carmela grabbed his arm.

“I'm looking into the murder of Martin Lash,” Carmela said.

Hurst's eyes bulged out. Now she had his attention.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Carmela Bertrand.”

“And you're investigating Martin Lash's murder?” He sounded wary. “Are you with the New Orleans Police Department?”

“No, I'm not. I own a scrapbooking shop.”

Now Hurst really looked puzzled. “You own a . . . wait a minute. Nice try, lady. I'm guessing you're really a reporter. You look like one of those crazy Lois Lane types.”

Carmela gripped his arm tighter. “I already told you. I'm investigating the death of Martin Lash. But only as a concerned citizen.” She hoped her words sounded fairly neutral.

But Hurst was beginning to lose his cool. “Why would you possibly care about a reprehensible creature like Martin Lash?”

Carmela hesitated a split second and then decided to try the sympathy angle.

“I was at the Winter Market when Martin Lash was killed,”
Carmela said in a slightly sorrowful tone. “I saw him stagger out with a giant meat fork stuck in his neck and watched him drop dead at my feet. So, you see . . .” She blinked rapidly, trying to muster a few tears, but no dice. “I have a sort of vested interest,” she finished quietly.

Hurst's reaction was explosive. “Lady,” he said, “I would have been
delighted
to have Martin Lash drop dead at my feet. Why do you think I'm here anyway? To mourn him? Hah! I'm here to make sure that miserable excuse for a human being is dead as a doornail and that they're really going to drop the lid on him.” With that, Hurst pushed his way past a stunned Carmela and hurried out of the chapel.

BOOK: Crepe Factor
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