Authors: Laura Childs
Two minutes later, Carmela was out the door and bouncing down Royal Street. As she passed dozens of upscale art and antique galleries, all gathered shoulder to shoulder on this fanciful street, she decided to make a quick stop at Juju Voodoo. After all, her curiosity-killed-the-cat BFF just might be interested in the information she'd dug up on Martin Lash. And how it might help in what she'd decided to call her “shadow” investigation.
faÃ§ade of Juju Voodoo was in full holiday dress. A string of purple twinkle lights dangled along the edge of the uneven shake roof, purple wreaths decorated with tiny potion bottles hung in the window, and Day of the Dead figures sported fuzzy red scarves and Santa hats. Ava's trademark red and blue neon signâan open palm with head, heart, and life linesâglowed from a curiously shaped window that looked almost like a sleepy eye.
Carmela pushed open the door and stepped inside.
It took her eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim lighting that Ava insisted was part of Juju Voodoo's charming atmosphere. Votive candles flickered, a pair of red bat eyes glowed from up in the rafters, the flames of tall saint candles
swayed in the slight breeze. The air was warm and perfumed with the scents of frangipani, jasmine, and passionflower.
Like a burlesque performer popping out of an enormous cake to thrill her onlookers, Ava suddenly burst through the purple velvet curtains at the back of the shop.
,” she purred, heading for Carmela like a languorous jungle cat. “I thought that might be you.”
Ava was dressed to kill in a V-neck leopard top, skintight black leather pants, and spike heels that were so high she was forced to take baby steps. Her masses of dark hair were pulled into a messy topknot, and long, dangly gold earrings brushed her delicately chiseled face.
“How are you faring after the unspeakable horror of last night?” Ava asked. “Me”âshe touched a hand to her generous display of dÃ©colletÃ©â“I didn't sleep a wink.”
“Even after drinking six glasses of wine?” Carmela asked. “Or was it seven?”
Ava thought for a moment. “Perhaps I did catch a few z's after all.” She fluttered both hands dramatically. “But the dreams I had would curl your hair!” She glanced sharply at Carmela's short bob. “Well, maybe not
“Thanks a lot.”
“Still, I had terrible visions of Martin Lash lurching out of the darkness with that horrible huge fork quivering in his neck.” Ava staggered across the floor, stiff-legged, perfectly pantomiming Lash's walk.
“Thank you for that lovely reenactment,” Carmela said. “It's so much fun to dredge up bad memories.”
“Oh, you.” Ava bent forward and gave Carmela a quick peck on the cheek.
“But I'm guessing the murder hasn't soured you on going to the big dinner tonight?”
Ava's eyes glowed expectantly. “Not in the least. I'm looking forward to this evening. It isn't often a gal gets to parade around in a sexy, slinky gown.”
“For you, that would just be on the even-numbered days,” Carmela said. She was well aware that Ava's walk-in closet looked like the wardrobe department for
Ava picked up what looked like a gingerbread man from the counter and handed it to Carmela. “Have a look at one of my new ornaments.”
“Charming,” Carmela said. It was a soft sculpture gingerbread toy with its mouth sewn shut and red cross-stitches marking the eyes, hands, and feet. “I take it this is holiday merchandiseÂ .Â .Â . voodoo style?”
“I have a few customers who appreciateÂ .Â .Â . shall we sayÂ .Â .Â . certain oddities.”
“Speaking of which, I've got something right up your alley.”
“Some information I dug up about Martin Lash. Research, I guess you'd call it.”
Ava walked to the door and flipped the lock closed. “Why don't we go into the reading room and take a look.” She led the way past display cases filled with amulets, talismans, and sparkling rings. A new display of candles featured images of the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, while velvet scarves hand-painted with mysterious symbols hung from a wooden rack.
Carmela sat down at the small table in Ava's octagon-shaped reading room. This was where clients came for psychic consultations and tarot readings. The room managed to be both plush and spooky at the same time. Heavy green drapes covered the walls, music moaned from the speakers, and two backlit stained glass windows depicting beatific angels and lambs gave the room a spiritual glow.
“So,” Ava said, her fingertips fairly dancing against the green velvet tabletop, “whatcha got?”
Carmela pulled her papers out of her bag and spread them across the table, aware that she was almost mimicking a tarot card spread. “I've been doing a little research on Martin Lash. Turns out he was also the executive director of a group called the Environmental Justice League.”
Ava pushed a hank of hair off her cheek. “What's that exactly?”
“Besides writing nasty restaurant reviews, Martin Lash headed a nonprofit environmental group that loved to sue all sorts of people and companies that they perceived as infringing upon Louisiana's swamps and bayous.”
“Isn't that what our Department of Natural Resources is for?”
“I suppose. But Lash and his group were what you'd call self-appointed environmental watchdogs.”
“And they actually took people to court?” Ava asked.
Carmela fanned out a half dozen pieces of paper. “They sure did. LookÂ .Â .Â . here are newspaper articles concerning a few of the cases and, in some instances, court records.”
Ava poked through the papers. “This is kind of amazing. It looks as if most of the people Lash went after were major players. I meanÂ .Â .Â . real estate developers and even an oil exploration company.” She thought for a minute. “Maybe Lash made more than a few enemies along the way, huh? People who wanted him out of the way? Or dead?”
“I think that's exactly what happened,” Carmela said excitedly. “But it wasn't just the big boys that Lash was after. He actually filed suit against several individual hunters and trappers. He accused them of violating public lands like the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge.”
“And it all has to do with the bayous,” Ava said. “Lash really had a thing for bayous.”
“We all love the bayous,” Carmela said. “And we're especially mindful of how fragile they are after parts of them were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill. But Lash was positively rabid about protecting them. About keeping
“And now he's gone. Murdered.” Ava tapped an index finger against one of the papers. “Could have been at the hand of one of these very guys.”
“That's exactly what I think,” Carmela said. “Lash must have been despised by a whole bunch of people.”
“Everyone's been assuming that Quigg was the big hothead,” Ava said. “But it's looking more and more as if Martin Lash was the one who was positively fizzing with anger and aggression.”
“Lash didn't seem to like anything or anybody,” Carmela said. “As a restaurant critic he mercilessly attacked local chefs, as executive director of the Environmental Justice League he went after any possible or perceived threats to the environment.”
“Are you going to run this by Babcock?”
“I wasn't going to.” Carmela began gathering up her papers. “But now that I've taken a second look at all thisÂ .Â .Â . um, what would you call this stuff?”
Carmela sat back in her chair. “I guess it really is evidence. Of a sort.”
“But you're not going to tell Babcock about this
are you?” Ava fluttered her eyelashes. “You're not going to ruin what promises to be a magical evening?”
“No, Ava, I promise I'll hold off.”
“Good girl. Because right now I need to focus all my energy on deciding what to wear.”
“You told me you were going to wear the gold dress with the bugle beads,” Carmela said. “The one that makes you feel like Mariah Carey.”
“Only twenty pounds lighter,” Ava said. She sighed. “Yeah, the bugle beads. It's a cool dress. But that was before I revisited my black satin bias-cut dress.”
“The one with the lace arms that makes you look like Spider-Woman?”
“That's the dress,” Ava said. “The thing is, I really need to glam it up for tonight. I have Roman Numeral nibbling at the hook, now I just need to set it hard and reel him in.”
“Holy smokes, Ava, you want to
him?” In Carmela's mind, Ava was a serial dater. Definitely not the marrying kind.
Ava looked troubled. “Please don't say âmarry' like you're referring to the Ebola virus. You've known all along that marriage is my end game.”
“But we're not at the end yet. We're not even in the second half. So there's still plenty of time left in the game.”
“I hear you.”
“And really, Ava. Roman Numeral?” Carmela had met Roman Numeral, aka Harrison Harper Wilkes III, a couple of times, and he'd never struck her as a sweep-the-ladies-off-their-feet kind of guy. He seemed more like a come-look-at-my-stamp-collection guy. Or a let's-listen-to-Kenny-G guy. Definitely not your romantic lady-killer.
But Ava assumed a dreamy expression as she talked about him. “I always find that the more numbers a man has after his name, the longer the lineage and the larger the trust fund.”
“Ah. So there's beaucoup money involved.”
“Let me put it this way. He drives a silver Jaguar XK
convertible and his folks have a tasty mansion just off St. Charles in the Garden District.”
“In other words, he's another rich, indolent New Orleans Peter Panâtype guy with too much money and too much time on his hands.”
A tiny line appeared between Ava's perfectly waxed brows. “I wish you wouldn't put it that wayÂ .Â .Â .”
“Are you sure you know what you're doing? He sounds an awful lot like Shamus and you know how well that turned out.” Carmela rolled her eyes to add emphasis.
Ava shook her head. “But there's no comparison to the Shamus situation. For one thing, Shamus's battle-axe big sister was a huge problem for you. She was always in your face, always criticizing.”
“You got that right,” Carmela said. One of the benefits of her divorce, besides dumping Shamus and walking away with some choice real estate, was the fact that Glory Meechum was no longer in her life.
“The thing is, most of Roman Numeral's relatives have all moved to Houston, where their oil conglomerate is headquartered. SoÂ .Â .Â . poof! Holiday-only in-laws!”
“Okay, that's a plus. I'll give you that.”
Ava continued. “Roman Numeral isn't exactly a lazy society boy, either. He wants to fulfill his destiny as a world-class photographer.”
“But right now he's an
“I'm positive he can improve his skill level. Sure, his photos might be a little blurry and soft focus right now. But if he really works at itÂ .Â .Â .”
being the operative word,” Carmela said.
“Don't be a spoilsport,” Ava said. “Roman Numeral is committed to improving his photography skills. Now I just have to help him realize that he's even more committed to me!”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Carmela was still laughing as she skipped across the courtyard to her apartment. Then, two seconds after she turned the key in the lock, Boo and Poobah rocketed toward her, jumping and barking joyfully.
“Kids, kids, enough already,” Carmela told her crazed canines. She tossed her bag on the kitchen counter and grabbed two leather leashes. “Oh, you know what this is for?” she asked Boo, who was practically dancing on her hind legs. “I guess you do.”
Then they were out the door, the dogs pulling ahead of her, almost yanking her down the sidewalk.
I feel like I'm waterskiing
, Carmela thought as she was carried along, practically skidding around corners.
They charged down Toulouse Street, turned on St. Peter Street, and cruised past Jackson Square. It was crowded, as usual, with street musicians, artists, panhandlers, fortune-tellers, and T-shirt vendors.
Carmela listened to a bearded fiddler for a few minutes (Boo and Poobah being fairly attentive as well), then tossed two dollar bills into his open violin case. He nodded to her solemnly and smiled. Then it was back home without a moment to spare.