Authors: Laura Childs
Once Carmela had poured out kibbles for the dogs, she focused her efforts on getting all dolled up for tonight. She wasn't hot on formal events, but Ava had loaned her a red velvet cocktail dress and promised that it would blow the socks off any man over the age of eighteen and under eighty.
Okay then. That leaves a sixty-two-year span of sockless men.
Carmela hit the shower, shampooed her hair, and then stood for a few minutes under the prickly spray. When the pipes started clanking and the water went from scalding to tepid, she jumped out.
Her hair was easy. She just towel-dried her short, honeyed bob, squirted in some gobs of gel, and hoped for the best. Clearing a spot in the fogged-up mirror, she decided her hair looked okay. A little crunchy maybe, but the gelled-artichoke styling gave her an interesting tough-gal look.
Makeup wasn't so easy. Carmela was a lipstick-and-mascara minimalist, so tonight would be a challenge. She mixed a little moisturizer into her foundation, patted it on gently, and then did her eyebrows. Staring in the mirror now, her strong, arched brows gave her unlined, un-eye-shadowed eyes the pale, lashless look of a rabbit. So much for that. A smudge of gray eye shadow went on, followed by dark eyeliner, and then twoÂ .Â .Â . wait, better make that threeÂ .Â .Â . coats of mascara.
Carmela slipped into her black satin lingerie and then stepped into the red velvet dress she'd borrowed from Ava. The heart-shaped bodice and tulip skirt cinched her perfectly. And the velvetÂ .Â .Â . ah, the velvetÂ .Â .Â . was as soft as a kitten's purr.
As carefully as if she were putting on Cinderella's glass slippers, Carmela stepped into a pair of black velvet heels. Okay, so they pinched her feet. Whatever. They also arched her back and boosted her height. She'd muddle through it.
Carmela lifted her chin, tucked in her tummy, and studied herself in the full-length mirror
. If this outfit doesn't grab Babcock's attention, nothing will.
Hotel Montague had rolled out the red carpet tonight. Which meant their curved driveway was thronged with shiny black limousines disgorging a parade of society types, society hopefuls, and pseudo celebrities. Gentlemen in black tie escorted ladies who wore either flirty cocktail dresses or long evening gowns. Many women were draped in fur coats; most wore sparkly baubles of the celestial variety.
Carmela was enthralled. “Edgar, isn't this exciting? Isn't this amazing? It feels almost like a movie premiere.” She'd jumped out of his blue BMW and was gaping at the liveried attendants. AndÂ .Â .Â . was that a harpist over there? Yes, that was indeed a lady harpist who was serenading guests with the most angelic-sounding music right out here on the red carpet.
“Don't park it in the garage,” Babcock told the attendant. “I may need to make a fast getaway.”
“Yes, sir,” said the attendant.
“I knew this Reveillon dinner was going to be fantastic, but I had no idea everything would be so glam,” Carmela marveled. Flashbulbs popped as they made their way down the red carpet.
Babcock shaded his eyes. “Why is the press here?”
“Because it's a holiday event,” Carmela reminded him. “There'll be loads of pictures in the society pages.”
“Not of us, I hope.”
“No, not us,” Carmela assured him as they made their way into the hotel lobby.
Garlanded evergreen boughs were draped around every brass banister, while enormous wreaths adorned the walls. What appeared to be almost one thousand poinsettia plants were arranged to look like a massive twenty-foot-high Christmas tree. With ringing bells and traditional songs, carolers dressed in Victorian garb welcomed guests.
Carmela gripped Babcock's arm as they walked up polished marble steps into the main part of the lobby. “Isn't this magical?”
Babcock ducked his head. “It's awfully crowded.”
Carmela's smile didn't waver. “Then let's head out to the patio.” She steered him through the crowd and out the tall double doors that led to the hotel's interior courtyard. Here it wasn't quite as crowded. A fountain pattered softly and potted palms looked even more moody when lit by flickering garden torches. Surrounded by the velvety darkness Babcock seemed to relax.
“Better,” Babcock said, even though guests were spilling out here at an alarming rate.
A formally dressed waiter approached them with a tray
full of champagne flutes filled with golden bubbly elixir. “Care for a glass of champagne?” he asked them.
“Thank you,” Carmela said. She accepted a glass of champagne, but was surprised when Babcock held up a hand to wave him off.
Babcock saw her quizzical look and said, “Work. I could get a call out at any moment. Murder doesn't party.”
And neither do you, it looks like.
Carmela sighed. And here she'd figured this event would be a little oasis of calm. That she wouldn't have to worry about dead bodies or crazed killers. Or suspects unjustly accused.
A second waiter approached them. “Care for an appetizer?” he asked.
Babcock peered at the silver tray the waiter was carrying. “What have you got there?”
“Toast points with caviar,” the waiter said.
Carmela accepted a toast point and popped it in her mouth. Tiny black eggs burst as she bit down, releasing their subtle fishy delicacy. “This is delicious,” she exclaimed. “Heavenly.” Then she noticed that Babcock had passed on the caviar as well. Hmm, he was definitely going to require some loving attention to get into the party spirit.
Carmela snuggled closer to him. “Looking forward to the Reveillon dinner?” she asked. “Isn't this just a lovely place for it?”
Babcock laughed. “You say that every time we attend a fancy event. Whether it's at the museum or the arboretum or an upscale hotel. And I
notice, because if it wasn't for you, these are the exact kind of events I'd try to avoid.”
Carmela stepped back from him. “Are you going to be a crab cake all night long?”
He smiled. “If I am, then can we go home?”
“Not on your life, bucko.”
Carmela sipped her champagne and gazed out over the crowd. Something was going to have to change or they'd both have a miserable evening. But what couldÂ .Â .Â .Â ? She suddenly smiled. Ava and Roman Numeral were plowing their way through the crowd, headed straight for them.
“Ava!” Carmela called out. Ava was the perfect disrupter. Surely she could help jolly Babcock into a better mood, right?
Ava sashayed toward them like an undulating snake. Her hips rolled, her shoulders swayed, her black floor-length dress with its deep slash in front accentuated every luscious curve. She was trailed by a tall, fairly good-looking man with a neatly trimmed mustache and slightly receding hairline.
“You remember my dear sweet Harrison, don't you?” Ava trilled. “My
amour du jour
“Of course,” Carmela said, giving Harrison her most airy of air kisses.
“Nice to see you.” Babcock nodded.
“Look at this,” Ava burbled. “The dÃ©cor, the lights, the beautiful people.
“Two years at the Sorbonne and you've really got your French language skills down pat,” Carmela joked. She noticed that Babcock had stepped away from their group and was fiddling with his phone. A text message? An e-mail? What was his problem, for cripes' sake?
Ava caught Carmela's eye and smiled. She'd noted how distracted Babcock was acting and was going to try engaging him. “Oh, Detective,” she said in a teasing singsong voice. “This is supposed to be a party. Our happy time together. Why not stash your phone and give it a rest?”
Babcock smiled as he continued to focus on his phone.
“You know what?” Ava said. “I'll bet you didn't realize that Harrison was actually acquainted with last night's murder victim.”
That little conversational gambit finally served to capture Babcock's attention. He looked up, mildly interested. “What?” he said. “How?”
Ava poked Harrison with an elbow. “Tell him, sweetie.”
All eyes were focused on Harrison now.
“Perhaps the term
might be a bit of an overstatement,” he stammered. “I didn't really know the man
“You can explain it better than that,” Ava urged.
Harrison ran nervous fingers through his slicked-back, thinning hair. “The thing is, Martin Lash actually accosted me at one time.”
“When was this?” Babcock asked.
“Where?” Carmela asked.
“I was down in the Baritaria bayou a few months ago,” Harrison said. “Taking photos. So there I was in an absolutely gorgeous part of the bayou that I'd just discovered was a prime nesting spot for egrets and herons.”
Carmela glanced sideways at Babcock, who was focused on Harrison but getting edgy just the same. She could practically hear him mentally willing Harrison to get to the point.
Harrison continued. “I'm just setting my f-stop when out of nowhere this crazy man comes rushing at me. He's dressed in khakis and one of those Smokey Bear hats, like some kind of game warden, and starts screaming at me, telling me I have no right to disturb the birds. He said he knew that I'd already been banned from the Jean Lafitte Preserveâwhich wasn't true at allâand told me I wasn't welcome anywhere in bayou country.”
Babcock frowned. “How did you know this was Martin Lash?”
“That was easy. He knocked over my tripodâit was a Sachtler 0375, really high-endâand threw a pamphlet at me. I was so shocked I picked it up and saw it was from the
Environmental Justice League. Then I said, âAnd who are you, the Green Lantern?' That's when he cursed at me and told me his name was Martin Lash and that if I knew better I'd stay out of the bayou.”
“What did you do then?” Carmela asked.
Harrison shrugged. “What could I do? I packed up my equipment and left. I didn't fancy the notion of being alone in a bayou with a thousand birds and one deranged environmentalist.”
“Quite a story, huh?” Ava said.
“Lash sounds like a person who excelled at making enemies,” Carmela said.
“Enemies,” Ava repeated. “A lot of enemies.”
Babcock just looked thoughtful. Finally he glanced at Carmela and said, “Isn't that what your ex did for a while? Nature photography?”
“For a while,” Carmela said. “Until Shamus decided that chasing young women and drinking old bourbon was a lot more fun.”
“I suspect it probably is,” Harrison said. He eased into a long, rolling chuckle until Ava poked him hard with an elbow and silenced him with a sharp look.
“Well,” Babcock said, “we knew that Martin Lash was some kind of fanatical fruitcake. Extremely proprietary when it came to bayous and wetlands. Even though so much of it is public land.”
“So you're saying he was a protector of sorts?” Carmela said.
“Even though nobody protected him,” Ava said. “I mean, with a personality like an angry hornet, who would want to?”
“You're wrong about that,” Babcock said. “Because
the one who's tasked with protecting his interests now. Even if it is after the fact.”
Harrison looked interested. “So how are you doing? Has
anything shaken loose in the investigation yet? Do you have any solid leads or a suspect pool?”
Carmela knew full well that Babcock never liked to talk about his cases, but she had her own selfish reasons for being interested. “Yes, please tell us.”
Babcock raised his hands in protest. “No, no, I don't dare reveal a single detail. I can't compromise the investigation.”
“Come on, Babcock,” Ava said. She put her thumb and forefinger together. “Just one teensy-weensy little hint? Please?”
Carmela took a step closer. Would Babcock let something slip? Anything at all?
“Tinfoil,” Babcock said. “We found a small snippet of tinfoil in Lash's pocket.”
Ava looked disappointed. “That's it? That's the clue?”
“That's it,” Babcock said as his phone jingled. He pulled it out of his pocket, frowned again, and said, “Excuse me, I need to take this.”
“Well, he's in a mood,” Ava said to Carmela.
“He's been that way all day.”
“Pressure from the job,” Harrison said as another waiter passed by offering Gulf shrimp kabobs and pÃ¢tÃ© on crackers.
Carmela grabbed a shrimp canapÃ© while Harrison opted for the pÃ¢tÃ©.
“Ava, my little flower,” Harrison said when he noticed Ava hadn't helped herself to any food. “How come you're not eating?”
Ava grimaced. “If I take so much as a mouse nibble I'm liable to split my dress seams wide open. I don't know how I'm going to make it past the soup course tonight.”
“Very carefully,” Carmela said.
Harrison took Ava's hand and raised it to his lips. “Ah, but your figure is such a delight to the eye, my dear.”
Carmela glanced around so she wouldn't break out in
hysterical laughter. “Have you seen Gabby and Stuart yet?” she asked.
“Ran into 'em in the lobby,” Ava said. She was still gazing starry-eyed at Harrison, who was suddenly waving like mad at another couple. Then she turned to look, to see what all the fuss was about. “Harrison, who are those people?”
“The Jewels,” Harrison said as a well-dressed couple suddenly swooped in.
“Harrison, it's been ages. Lovely to see you.” An older man with gray caterpillar eyebrows and hooded brown eyes extended his right hand to Harrison while he beamed happily at the entire group. Then he turned to his wife, a pinched-faced, ultrathin woman with a white pixie haircut. “Didn't I say, not more than ten minutes ago, that we'd probably run into some old friends?”
The woman fingered a thick gold choker at the base of her skinny throat. “You most certainly did.”