Authors: Laura Childs
“Are you going to sign your real name?” Ava whispered.
Carmela hesitated. “MaybeÂ .Â .Â . not.” She wasn't sure why not, except for the fact that coming here today fell into the murky realm of investigating. And she really didn't want anyone to know that she was investigating. Not yet, anyway.
“So I guess we just go in this way,” Ava said. She wandered toward a doorway that was flanked by two enormous urns filled with white gladiolas.
“Wait a minute,” Carmela said. She'd stopped to glance at a framed photo on the wall.
“Who's that?” Ava asked. “The owner?”
“I thinkÂ .Â .Â . I think it's one of the clients. Take a look.”
Ava peered at a portrait of a woman dressed in a 1950s-era cocktail dress. She was seated in a Danish modern easy chair, one hand resting casually on the armrest. At her side was a glass of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers. But there was something strange about the woman's expression. Something unnatural about her rigid posture. “Oh my Lord,” Ava exclaimed. “She's dead!”
“I think she had herself embalmed sitting up,” Carmela said. “So it appeared as if she were attending her own party.”
“This is kind of a crazy place,” Ava said. She looked a little befuddled. “It's also the first time I've even attended a visitation with a buzz on.”
“There's a first time for everything,” Carmela said.
But when they entered Slumber Room C with its plush gray carpet, dark plum walls, and two rows of chairs facing a casket, Ava dug in her heels.
“Oh no, not an open casket. I hate open caskets with those overhead pink lights beating down on the corpse. It always reminds me of the heat lamps at a bad all-you-can-eat buffet.”
“They're just trying to perk up their client's pallor,” Carmela reasoned.
“Still, I really
looking at dead people.”
Carmela tried to calm her down. “Pull it together, will you? You've seen dead people before. In fact, we saw Martin Lash's corpse at its absolute worst. He's bound to look better now that he's had the benefit of a mortician and a cosmetologist.”
“He probably looks so good he could pose for a class picture. And for goodness' sake, button your shirt. Every man in the place is starting to stare at you.”
Ava brightened considerably. “They are?” She carefully buttoned one button. “Okay, all decent.” She lifted her chin and threw back her shoulders, causing her button to pop open again. “Let's go take a gander at the man of the hour.”
Curious, a little nervous, they tiptoed up to the casket.
Lash was lying there in his bronze Slumberluxe casket looking small, pale, and waxy. In other words, a typical stiff. He'd been carefully dressed in a black cutaway suit and starched white shirt with an old fashioned high collar and black-and-white-striped tie. His head, which looked a trifle lopsided to Carmela's eye, rested on a white ruffled pillow that looked like it had been plucked right off the settee of a New Orleans house of ill repute.
“It's pretty clever the way they've got Lash all gussied up like that,” Ava said, studying him. “That old-fashioned collar hides a multitude of sins. Mainly, the big gawking hole in his throat where the meat fork gouged him.”
Carmela let loose a shiver. “Please don't remind me.”
But now that Ava had gotten started, she couldn't let it go. “How do you think they plugged up that hole, anyway?
A couple of tidy little stitches with heavy-duty thread? Some kind of magic sealing wax?”
“No idea. But I'm sure the funeral director didn't just pop over to Home Depot for a can of caulk.”
“And what's with the boutonniere? His prom days are over.”
“His life is over.” Carmela glanced at the mourners who were milling about. Most were looking grim faced but a little lost, too. She and Ava clearly didn't know a single soul here and it didn't appear that Lash had a very big family. Or any family at all, except for the little lady who was sitting in a maroon velvet armchair sniffling into her lace handkerchief.
“Excuse me,” Carmela said. She put a hand out and touched the arm of one of the ushers. “Is that the mother?”
The usher gave a sober nod. “Yes. That's Mrs. Armstrong Lash, the deceased's mother.”
“Are we going to talk to her?” Ava asked. She was big-eyed and nervous as she stared at the little lady in the black knit suit and sensible low-heeled shoes. Carmela figured Ava didn't trust any woman who wore chunky heels.
“I think we should go over and express our condolences, yes,” Carmela said.
Ava nudged her. “You go first.”
Carmela crossed the plush carpet with a reluctant Ava in tow.
“Excuse me? Mrs. Lash?”
The woman looked up at them with red-rimmed eyes. “Yes?” she quavered. She had a round face, frizzy gray hair, and an incongruously pointed chin.
“We just wanted to express our condolences,” Carmela said.
Mrs. Lash looked hopeful. “You were friends of Martin's?”
“We only just made his acquaintance recently,” Carmela said.
“Very recently,” Ava muttered.
Mrs. Lash reached out and grabbed Carmela's hand. Carmela flinched. The woman's hand felt old and smooth, like aged paper that was beginning to crumble.
“Thank you for coming,” Mrs. Lash said. “It's nice to meet some of Martin's friends.” She eyed Ava's short skirt and thigh-high boots and asked, somewhat nervously, “You were the girlfriend?”
“Me?” Ava cried. “Oh no. No way.”
Mrs. Lash seemed relieved. “Do you ladies write for that food website? Or do you work at the Environmental Justice League?”
“Neither,” Carmela said. “We were just acquaintances.”
“And not even very good acquaintances,” Ava added.
His mother offered a sad smile. “I can't thank you enough for coming.”
“No problem,” Ava said. She was itching to blow this pop stand.
“I hope you'll be able to attend Martin's memorial service this Tuesday,” Mrs. Lash said.
“UhÂ .Â .Â . we hadn't heard about that,” Carmela lied.
“It will be held at St. Roch Chapel,” Mrs. Lash said. “One of Martin's very favorite places.”
“Really?” Carmela said. St. Roch Chapel was a depressing little Gothic chapel with pairs of crutches hanging on the wall.
“Please try to make it,” Mrs. Lash urged.
“Sure,” Ava said, backing away. “We'll give it a shot.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Sheesh,” Ava said. “I felt like some kind of phony baloney, implying that we actually knew her son.”
“I'd say you made it fairly clear that you didn't,” Carmela said.
“I tried not to offend her. Because IÂ .Â .Â .” Ava's eyes lit up. “Hold everything,
, are they serving
over there?” Ava was this close to turning into a heat-seeking missile.
Carmela glanced across the room where a buffet table had been set up. Wine bottles glistened and there were large trays of food. “I guess. It looks like they're serving wine and appetizers.”
Ava shook her hair back off her shoulders. “Now that is classy. I mean, who serves wine and cheese at a viewing?”
“A funeral parlor?” Carmela said. “Probably because they've got adequate refrigeration?”
“I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that and have myself a nice refreshing beverage,” Ava said. She plowed through the crowd like a three-masted schooner cutting through the waves. “Now this is lovely,” she said, grabbing a wineglass and batting her eyes at a man who had just picked up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. “And so unexpected.”
“May I pour you a glass of wine?” the man asked. He was dressed in a brown corduroy jacket and tan slacks and had longish brown-blond hair. A look Ava probably would have deemed “crunchy granola.”
“Why, yes, you certainly may.” Ava watched as he filled her glass, then extended her hand. “I'm Ava. And you areÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“Josh Cotton,” said the man.
“How do you know Martin Lash?” Carmela asked, edging in between the two of them. This was what she really wanted. A chance to question some of the mourners.
Cotton fixed her with a toothy smile. “I guess you could call me second-in-command at the Environmental Justice League. I'm the associate director.”
“How lovely,” Ava said.
“Except,” Carmela said, “you're probably first in command now. There seems to be a wide-open vacancy at the top.”
“You're right about that,” Cotton said. “But I could never hope to fill Martin's shoes. He was absolutely passionate about preserving Louisiana's natural wonders and the creatures that live there.”
“Like the alligators and cottonmouths,” Ava said.
“You say he was passionate,” Carmela said. “Some would say rabid.”
Cotton laughed nervously. “I suppose he could have been characterized that way. And the truth of the matter is, I did struggle with Lash over policy.”
“In what way?” Carmela asked.
“WellÂ .Â .Â . I firmly believed that Lash's methods of harassment and confrontation concerning environmental issues were severely outmoded. A better way, a smarter way, to bring about change these days is through dialogue and compromise.”
“And you're just the man to do that?” Carmela asked.
Cotton took a sip of wine. “I might be.”
“I like a take-charge man,” Ava said.
Cotton smiled at Ava. “Will you be attending the memorial service on Tuesday?”
Ava gave him a wink. “Could be. You never know.”
“It's nice that Martin's mother chose to have the service here instead of in his hometown,” Cotton said.
“Why is that?” Carmela asked. “Better yet,
“Martin kept a small apartment here in New Orleans, but he really preferred living down in Triumph.”
“That's pretty far south of here,” Carmela said.
“Yes,” Cotton said. “Martin really thrived when he was close to the natural world that he loved so much.”
“I can just imagine,” Ava said.
Cotton beamed at Ava. “Ava, I was wondering if you'd like toÂ .Â .Â .”
“I'm sorry, but we were just leaving,” Carmela said. She grabbed Ava's arm and pulled her away.
“What are you doing?” Ava hissed. But she went along anyway.
“Ava, that man could be a suspect in Lash's death.”
“What if he wanted to get rid of Lash so he could move into the top slot?”
“Doggone, I never thought of that.”
“He also struck me as being a little weird,” Carmela said.
Ava tapped her own teeth. “You mean because of his teeth? They are kind of big.”
“No, it's the fact that he seems somewhat unconcerned about Lash's death and is already planning on how he'll handle the organization.”
“Which is why we should probably take off.”
Except the surprises just kept coming. Carmela and Ava were just about to exit Slumber Room C when they ran smack-dab into Carmela's ex-husband, Shamus Allan Meechum.
“Shamus!” Carmela whooped.
Shamus peered at her. “Carmela?” He didn't look thrilled to see her.
They stared at each other like a couple of frill-necked lizards, ready to do battle, until Ava intervened.
“Aren't you the surprise guest,” Ava drawled.
“You, too, Miss Sassy Pants,” Shamus said. At which point Ava broke into a fit of giggles.
That seemed to break the ice. Or at least the staring contest. Shamus smiled his devil-may-care grin and his handsome, boyish face lit up.
“Nice to see you gals,” he said.
“Women,” Carmela corrected. “Not gals.”
“Whatever,” Shamus said.
“We certainly didn't expect to see
here,” Carmela said. She was curious. Why exactly was Shamus here, anyway?
“Oh wellÂ .Â .Â .” Shamus waved a hand dismissively. “The Crescent City Bank Foundation just awarded the Environmental Justice League a grant of fifty thousand dollars.”
“What for?” Carmela asked.
“I don't know. I guess to help police the environment.”
“You're handing out cash money?” Ava asked.
“Grants,” Shamus corrected. “You realize that Crescent City Bank isn't just a commercial bankâwe have a heart, too. We're mindful of the community.”
“Sure you are,” Carmela said. She figured his bank would slice out someone's kidney if there was a buck to be made.
“Which is why we gave out this particular grant,” Shamus continued.
Ava twisted around and pointed toward the casket. “But you do realize that Martin Lash is dead.”
“Yes, but his organization isn't,” Shamus said. “We have every confidence that Josh Cotton will keep it going. Perhaps even more successfully than Lash did.” He focused his gaze on Carmela. “But I'm curious, Carmela. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Funny you should ask,” Ava said.
“I'm listening,” Shamus said.
Carmela decided to give it to him straight. “We witnessed Martin Lash's murder the other night.”
“What!” Shamus screeched.
“When he got forked,” Ava said, helpfully.
“And that's why you're here? Because you saw the guy die?” Shamus asked. “If you ask me, that's macabre. It's sort of like ambulance chasing.”
“Tell him the whole story,” Ava said.
So Carmela told Shamus about the argument between Lash and Quigg Brevard and how Quigg was worried that the blame was going to be heaped on his shoulders.
“So she's investigating,” Ava said.
“No, I'm not,” Carmela said.
But Shamus wasn't buying it. He knew her too well. “What does your boyfriend have to say about your going to bat for Brevard?” he asked in a snarky voice.
Carmela ducked her head. “He doesn't know about it.” She poked him hard in the chest. “And don't
go and tell him.”
“Huh, and you once called me a coward.”
“That's because you are, Shamus. You boogied out of our marriage without giving me any notice. Seriously, the post office got more notice than I did.”
“You're something else, Carmela. Still a real pistol. Still filled with spunk.”
Carmela crossed her arms. “I do what I want these days.”
Shamus gave her a commiserating look. “I don't think you need to worry much about Quigg Brevard. That guy's a wussy. He couldn't murder anyone if his life depended on it.” His face took on a gleeful look. “But you know who really hatedÂ .Â .Â .”