Authors: Tony Dunbar
Tags: #Mystery: Thriller - Lawyer - Hardboiled - Humor - New Orleans
“You went alone?”
“Yep. I should have called you first, but I was in shock, I guess. He made me wait a half hour too. But we finally talked in his office— alone. He presented me with the dates, times, and places when he said I had sex with the girl. He said he’s going to pull me before a special grand jury he’s convening to nail corrupt judges. He said he might work out a deal with me if I cooperate with him by getting some dirt on my colleagues.”
“Anyone in particular?”
“No. He mentioned Judge Trapani like it was a joke because that’s a giveaway. Trapani already has his share of problems with the Judiciary Commission. He also mentioned Boggas and Tusa.”
“Both of whom he opposed in the last election.”
“Yeah. He’s hated them for years.”
“How are they supposed to be corrupt?”
“Hell if I know,” Hughes said. “They don’t tell me their secrets. Our DA may want me to manufacture something.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I had to think about it for a few days. Then I called you.”
Tubby looked at his reflection in the toaster.
“Son of a bitch wouldn’t shake my hand,” Hughes muttered. That seemed to bother him as much as anything else.
“How much of the stuff about the girl is true?” Tubby asked, still looking at the toaster.
“Depends on what you mean by sexual relations.”
“Come on, Al. You know that dog is dead.”
“If any of this gets out, Tubby, my wife will leave me flat. No two ways about it. I can’t have that.”
“What do you want me to do, Al? Never screw a client, never lie to the judge— that’s me. But you’ve got to lay it out now.”
“I want you to represent me, for Chrissakes. Find out what they’ve got on me and make me the best deal you can. Better than I deserve, if possible.”
“You messed up, huh?”
“Big time. I feel so damn sick about this, so guilty and disappointed in myself, I can barely sit here and talk about it.”
“How did you meet the girl?”
“She was at a campaign party Lucky LaFrene put on for me at his house. I don’t know who she was there with, but Lucky introduced us.”
“Lucky LaFrene the car dealer?”
Tubby had never met the man, but he was a local celebrity, well known for TV ads where he threw money into the air and squealed, “Get Lucky at LaFrene’s!”
Lucky LaFrene’s immodest stucco mansion glowed with a thousand lights. Big shiny cars lined the curbs in both directions, and a mounted policeman at the corner exchanged pleasantries with well-dressed couples walking toward the party. His horse quietly sampled the St. Augustine lawn.
The front doors were wide open, and incoming guests could stop at a little table to fix a name tag for themselves. Some, trusting in their notoriety, stepped right into the vast great hall where congestion was developing around four well-distributed bars. Black men with frilly shirts and cummerbunds concocted the night’s specials with never-dimming smiles.
There was no mistaking who the host was. Lucky LaFrene was recognizable to almost everyone who watched TV, and he was the loudest person in the room. Also, he was the only man with a bouffant hairdo wearing a pink tuxedo.
“Please don’t give me no news from Washington,” he begged one silver-haired lady in a pearly cocktail dress. “They can all croak on their own venom. The only politics I care about are right here in New Orleans, darlin’.”
“Hey, sweetie,” he grabbed the elbow of an attractive young brunette trying to slip past toward the hors d’oeurvres. “You know you could be on
.” She crossed her eyes at him. Lucky laughed and let her go.
“Where’s the paparootzie with their cameras?” LaFrene— known in used-car circles as the “great articulator”— cried. “We’ve got some stars out tonight.”
A tall man wearing a white linen suit and sunglasses came from the hall and entered the room. Behind him was a slight, coffee-colored woman in a blue sarong, gold bracelets on her wrists.
“My man, Finn!” LaFrene shouted when he spotted the new arrival. “Come on in and buy yourself a drink!”
Finn worked the crowd, shaking a few hands on his way to the center of the room.
“Nice turnout, Lucky,” he said appreciatively. “I didn’t know you had so many friends.”
“What are you talkin’ about? I’ve got more friends than China’s got peas.”
“Are they here to support your candidate for judge, or just for the food?”
“I done raised twenty-five thousand dollars,” Lucky confided happily. “What nice contribution are you going to make?”
“What is Judge Al Hughes going to do for me? I don’t get into trouble.”
“It never hurts to know the man on the throne,” Lucky said wisely.
“I’m just here to drink,” Finn admitted.
“Then go get yourself a penis colossus. We’re having a beach party. Speaking of which—” he put his lips by Finn’s ear— “it’s time we did the deal on your boat. You owe me, doodley, and I’m ready to ride.”
Finn laughed. “I’ll have your dough sometime next week,” he said and pushed off toward one of the bars.
“That story’s got more holes than a Swiss watch,” LaFrene said to no one in particular. “Hey, here’s the judge!”
The four-piece combo known as the “Dixie Gentlemen” was just starting to play when Judge Hughes made his entrance. The lady with the pearly dress started fox-trotting to “I Remember Judy,” which instantly created a space around her as nearby guests guarded their drinks and cheese straws.
Unawares, the judge stepped into the circle and waved to Lucky. He promptly found himself with a dance partner.
Not unaccustomed to the spotlight, he gave the jolly lady a spectacular twirl. Encouraged by much clapping, the judge was about to improvise a few tango moves when LaFrene came to his rescue.
“He can sidestep just like Fred MacMurray, folks!” the host yelled, grabbing Hughes’ hand just as he was attempting a personal pirouette. “Let me introduce Judge Alvin C. Hughes! My candidate for civil district court!”
After a round of applause the candidate was guided to the nearest potential donor by Lucky LaFrene.
Miffed, the abandoned dancer drifted up to the band and tried to croon along with the banjo player.
The young woman in the blue sarong sat quietly on a sofa, munching a ham biscuit and watching the judge move around the room in her direction.
“She was quite flirtatious,” Hughes continued, “and I suppose I found that flattering. She said something indicating she was very supportive of my campaign and wanted to help, and I made a big mistake. I told her she could come and talk to me about it anytime.”
“And she did.”
“They say there ain’t no fool like an old fool.”
“You’re not that old.”
“I sure feel old today.”
“How often did she come to your office?”
“Two or three times.”
“Which was it?”
“Three, to be specific, counselor.”
“That’s the way it’s got to be. Did anyone see her?”
“Sure. Mrs. Evans was there. She let her in the first time. The other times were during lunch, so I don’t know. Maybe one of the clerks saw her.”
“Did she actually do any work for the campaign?”
“How old is this woman?”
“About twenty-five, I’d say. I didn’t ask to see her driver’s license. Maybe she doesn’t have one. She’s East Indian.”
“Did she have a wire on her? You know, a tape recorder?”
“It would have had to be a mighty small one.”
“District Attorney Dementhe did not mention a wire?”
“No. He said that she had come to him anxious to confess the whole story and that she is cooperating fully.”
“Why do you think she did that?”
“I’ve got to believe I was set up.”
Tubby leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. After a moment he rocked forward hard, making a loud thump.
“Okay. Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “Go back to your job. Don’t say anything about this to anyone else. If the press calls, don’t call them back. If anyone sticks a microphone in front of you, say, ‘I have a lawyer who handles all my personal questions,’ and refer them to me. I’ll go talk to Marcus Dementhe and see what he really wants. Do you know how I can get in touch with the girl?”
“I’ve got her phone number. What do you think I ought to tell Mrs. Hughes?”
“Jesus, Al. I don’t have the slightest idea.”
His friend stared hard at the table top.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be a judge,” he said quietly.
The lawyer kept his peace.
“What do you think?” Hughes asked weakly, wanting an answer.
“I think until we get a machine with a brain and a heart, judges are going to be people. I haven’t met a perfect person yet, and that includes me.”
“It means a lot to hear you say that.”
“And before I forget, keep your conversations on the telephone to a minimum.”
“Sure thing. Remember Judge Collins? He taught everybody that lesson.”
“And as soon as possible, I’m going to send a private investigator named Sanre Fueres to check out your judicial chambers for listening devices. They call him Flowers. He’s very good.”
“All right. So I wait to hear from you?”
Hughes pushed back his chair and stood up, in a hurry to be gone. Tubby walked him to the front door.
“Nobody wants to show the whole world his backside,” the judge said somberly.
“Yeah, but don’t forget what Edwin Edwards said.”
“The voters wouldn’t care unless he got caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.”
“That was back when people had a sense of humor,” the judge grumbled.
“And he’s likely to die in jail.”
“You’re right. Bad comparison.”
“My main worry is Olivia Hughes.”
After he left, Tubby dialed Flowers’ number from memory, but his thoughts were with his unexpected client. If he had been asked which friend of his would be most likely to commit an embarrassing personal peccadillo, Alvin C. Hughes would not even have made the list. Sexual exposés were now all the rage. Was Al so above it all that he didn’t even know that?
“Flowers, I’ve got a job for you,” he told the message service. “Dust off your magic mystery box and call me.”
The music was “Ahab the Arab,” and Sapphire was imitating a python, winding herself around a brass fire pole, flicking her tongue and swinging her hair to the beat. The men in the place all wore shirts with collars, and half of them had on ties. The only ones not watching the snake writhe and undulate were getting the private attention of a table dancer shaking her powdered crotch at their eye level.
Raisin paid his ten dollars at the door, stepped around the island loaded with prime rib and potatoes au gratin, and took a little table alone.
His waitress, monumental butt restrained by a purple thong, offered him a drink.
“Whiskey and water, honey,” he shouted over the music. The club was dark as a movie theater, but he left his sunglasses on.
Even in the shadows, charged with sexual tension, he could tell that the dancer on stage was the woman from the videotape.
She had not been so hard to find.
The music changed to “I Saw Her Face.” Raisin could see her face despite the fake lashes, lip gloss, and gold eye makeup. Her gaze was stuck on a distant mountaintop, and her lips quietly counted the beat while the rest of her did the act. His eyes traveled down her body, which was to all intents and purposes naked and shaved smooth as a leather purse. She definitely demanded attention— must be her muscle tone. There was something fascinating, disabling, to a man about a naked woman dancing in a dark room under colored lights.
His drink came, and he paid with another ten.
“Keep the change,” he said, and the waitress slipped the bill in her waist strap. There were lots more there to keep it company. She likes me, he thought. Raisin knew he had a little sex appeal. Tanned and leathery, wavy black hair and a gleam in his eye, he looked like a ranger blown in from Wyoming.
When Raisin looked back at the stage he was barely in time to catch a final fanny wiggle as his girl undulated into the mirrors.
She returned once to strut around the perimeter of the stage, accepting applause and cash from the men within reach. When the next dancer appeared Sapphire stepped daintily offstage to make the rounds of the tables in the back.
From what Raisin could tell, she did okay. She plopped onto some guy’s lap for a moment, then jumped up giggling from the joke he coughed into her ear. When she got to Raisin he held up a twenty.
“Table dance for the gentleman?” she inquired, raising her arms high and twirling like an ice skater. He pushed his money into her briefs.
“How about just sit and have a drink with me,” he said.
“Okay, mister.” She fell lightly upon a vinyl-covered chair. One of her ankles touched one of his, and he could smell her cinnamon perfume.
“My name’s Raisin. I’ve seen you on a videotape, and I’ve been searching for you for a long time.”
She looked at him like he’d popped out of a manhole and stopped weaving in time to the music.
“What kind of videotape?” she asked.
“I think maybe you were at a police station. You were talking about answering a personals ad. You had coffee with a guy, and he came on to you.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Thirteen months and change,” he said. “A friend down at the paper went through the back issues with me until we found the ad.”
“It wasn’t a police station,” she said. “Mister.”
“Where was it?”
She shrugged. “Why are we talking?”
“I guess because I’m crazy. There was just something about you, about your story, I don’t know, I had to meet you.”
“So now we meet.”
“Sapphire Serena? That’s your name now?”
“You got it.” She smiled and stood up.
Hastily, Raisin produced another twenty. “Hey, where’s my table dance?”