Midnight Bayou Page 12

"Yeah. Hello?”

"There he is. I was about to give you up." Remy's cheerful voice jangled in his head as Declan stared at the tile. He'd been thinking about the tile. Something …

"I'm, ah, doing a room by room. Measuring. Stuff.”

"How about you get yourself out of there for a while? I got me a late meeting, thought you could meet me for a drink after. Effie, too, if I can drag her out.”

"What time is it?" Declan turned his wrist to check his watch. "Midnight? It's midnight?”

"Not yet it's not. You been drinking already?”

"Just coffee." He frowned at his watch, tapped the face. "Battery m/'ve gone.”

"It's just after six. I should be able to wiggle loose by nine. Why don't you come on in? I'll meet you at Et Trois, in the Quarter, on Dauphine about a block off Bourbon.”

"Yeah." Absently, he shoved at his hair, found his forehead was lightly beaded with sweat. "Yeah, that sounds fine.”

"You need directions, Yankee boy?”

"I'll find it." He rubbed his throbbing thumb. "Remy?”

"That's my name.”

Declan shook his head, laughed at himself. "Nothing. See you later.”

He drove in early. He wasn't particularly interested in drinking, but wanted to see the metamorphosis of New Orleans from day to night. The streets gleamed under the carnival of lights, teemed with the crowds who streamed along, looking for entertainment.

It was neither the tourists nor the merchants who ran the show, in Declan's opinion. It was the city itself. And its wheels turned on music.

It pumped from doorways, cool jazz, hot rock, melting blues. Overhead, restaurant galleries were thick with diners who warded off the January chill with spicy sauce and alcohol. The strip club hawkers promised all manner of visual delights, and in the shops cash registers rang as tourists gorged on T– shirts and Mardi Gras masks. The bars served hurricanes to the Yankees, and beer and liquor to those who knew better.

But it was the music that kept the parade marching.

He soaked it in as he strolled down Bourbon, past doorways, bright lights, and sudden, unexpected courtyards. He skirted around a group of women who clutched together on the sidewalk chattering like magpies.

He caught the scent of them-flowers and candy– and felt the typical male reaction of pleasure and panic when they burst into giggles.

"Nice ass," one of them commented, and Declan kept on walking.

Women in packs were dangerous and mysterious entities.

It occurred to him that if he were going to meet Effie, he should take her a token. Some sort of engagement gift. He didn't know what she liked, or what she was like, come to that. But if there was one thing he was good at, it was buying gifts.

Wishing he'd thought of it earlier, he poked through a couple of shops without much hope. Nearly everything in this section was geared for the tourist trade, and he didn't think a wind-up, plastic penis was quite the thing for a first introduction. A gift could wait, he reflected, or he could just fall back on the basket of girl lotions and potions.

Then he saw it. The silver frog squatted on all fours as if it was about to take a good, springy hop. It had a cheerfully wicked face and a big, smart-ass grin. And reminded Declan instantly of Remy.

If this Effie had fallen for his old college pal, she had to appreciate whimsy. He had it wrapped in fancy paper with a big red bow.

It was still shy of nine when he turned onto Dauphine.

He was ready to sit in a bar, away from the center ring of the circus. Maybe listen to some music and work on a beer. For the next several weeks, he was going to have to tow the line. Spend his days tearing into the kitchen, his evenings planning his next point of attack. He had to track down specific craftsmen. Get bids. Get started.

For tonight, he'd spend some time with friends, then go home and get a solid eight hours' sleep.

He spotted the sign for Et Trois. It was hard to miss as it danced cheerfully in cool blue over the scarred wooden door of a building barely two good strides from the street.

The second floor boasted the typical gallery and lacy iron baluster. Someone had decked it out with fat clay pots of hot pink geraniums and strung little white fairy lights along the eaves. It made a pretty, feminine picture. The kind of spot where you might sit, drink a glass of wine, and contemplate the people strolling by below.

He opened the door to a blast of jumpy zydeco, the scent of garlic and whiskey. On the small stage was a five-piece band– washboard, fiddle, drums, guitar, accordion. The little dance floor was already packed with people executing the quick, fancy two-step the music cried for.

Through the dim light he could see that none of the round wooden tables scooted to the side were free. He turned toward the bar. The wood was nearly black with age, but it gleamed. A dozen backless stools were jammed together. Declan copped the single one left before someone beat him to it.

Bottles lined the mirror behind the bar, and interspersed with them were salt and pepper shakers in a variety of themes. An elegant couple in evening dress, dogs, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Porky and Petunia, the round, naked br**sts of a reclining woman, carnival masks and winged fairies.

He contemplated them, considered the sort of person who would collect and display fairies and body parts, and decided it was someone who understood New Orleans.

Onstage, the fiddle player began to sing in Cajun. She had a voice like a rusty saw that was inexplicably appealing. Tapping his foot, Declan glanced down to the end of the bar. The man tending had dreadlocks down to his waist, a face that might have been carved by a very skilled hand out of a polished coffee bean, and hands that moved with balletic grace as he worked taps and poured shots.

He started to lift his hand to get the bartender's attention. And then she walked out of the door behind the bar.

Later, when he could think clearly, he would decide it had been like having a sledgehammer plowed into his chest. Not stopping his heart, but jump-starting it. His heart, his blood, his loins, his brain. Everything went from holding pattern to quick march in an instant.

There you are! something in his mind shouted. Finally.

He could hear the race of his body like a hard hum that drowned out the music, the voices. His vision focused in on her so completely it was as if she were spotlighted on a black stage.

She wasn't beautiful, not in any classic sense. What she was, was spectacular.

Prev Next