Midnight Bayou Page 21

They came armed with shovels, pickaxes and mile-long clippers. From the dining room where he worked on cabinets, Declan could hear the lazy rise and fall of their voices, the occasional thump and tumble.

When he glanced out, he noticed that the tangle was disappearing.

The plasterer Miss Odette sent him was a rail-thin black man whose name was Tibald, and his great-grandpappy, so Declan was told, once worked as a field hand for the Manets.

They toured the house with Tibald scribbling in a tiny, dog-eared notepad. When they reached the ballroom, Tibald looked up at the ceiling with a dreamy expression.

"I always think I've put a picture in my head that isn't there," he said. "Don't think I'd ever get used to seeing this kind of work.”

"You've been in here before.”

"H. The Rudickers took a bid for me on plasterwork. They'd be the people you bought the Hall from. They had big, fine ideas, the Rudickers. But they never did much about them. Anyhow, they were going to hire someone from Savannah. So I heard.”

"Why?”

Tibald just kept smiling at the ceiling. "They had those big, fine ideas, and didn't see how locals could put a polish on them. Seems to me they figured the more money they spent, the higher the gloss. If you know what I mean.”

"Yeah, I get it. The way I look at it, you hire local, you're liable to get people who're more invested in the job. Can you repair and duplicate this kind of work?”

"I did the plasterwork in the Harvest House down on the River Road. I got pictures out in my truck, like a reference. You maybe want to take a look at them, maybe go on down to Harvest House and take a study. They give public tours and hold fancy events there now. Do some work in New Orleans, in Baton Rouge and Metairie. Can give you names.”

"Let's take a look at the pictures.”

One look at the before and after shots of various cornices, walls, medallions, showed Declan his man was an artist. For form, he asked for a bid, and after promising to have one written up by the end of the week, Tibald offered his hand.

"I admit, I'd love to get my hands on that ballroom." Tibald glanced back over at the house. "You doing any work on the third floor?”

"Eventually.”

"Maybe you want to talk to my sister, Lucy. She cleans houses.”

"I'm a long way from needing a housekeeper.”

Tibald laughed, took out a pack of Big Red chewing gum. "No, sir, I don't mean that kind of clean." He offered Declan a stick before taking one himself, folding it in half, and sliding it into his mouth. "Spirit clean. You got some strong spirits in that place." He chewed contemplatively. "'Specially on the third floor.”

"How do you know?”

"Feel it breathing on my neck. Can't you? When the Rudickers were working on the place, they lost two laborers. Those men just hightailed it out and kept on going. Never went back. Could be one of the reasons they looked farther afield for workers here.”

Tibald shrugged, chewed his Big Red. "Could be the reason they never finished up those big, fine ideas.”

"Do you know what happened on the third floor?”

"Nope. Don't know of anyone who does. Just know a few who wouldn't go up there, no matter what you paid them. Any plasterwork needs doing on the third floor, you give my sister Lucy a call first.”

They both turned at the sound of a car coming down the drive. "That's Miss Lena's car, and Miss Odette with her." Tibald's grin spread as the ancient MG stopped beside his truck.

"Afternoon, ladies." Tibald walked to the passenger's side to open the door for Odette. "Where y'at?”

"Oh, fine and well, Tibald. How's that family of yours?”

"Nothing to complain about.”

Lena climbed out as Declan opened the door. Her jeans were intriguingly snug, worn with a shirt the color of polished turquoise. "My grandmama thought it was time to pay a call." She scanned the drive, noted the number of pickups. "What did you do, cher? Hire yourself an army?”

"Just a battalion." She smelled of jasmine, he thought. She smelled of night. He had to concentrate on basic manners or swallow his gum. "Can I give you a tour?”

"Mmm. We'll get to it. Tibald, you say hey to Mazie for me, won't you?”

"I will. Gotta be on my way. I'll get that bid to you, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

"Declan. I'll be looking for it. Miss Odette." Declan took her hand as Tibald climbed into his truck. She wore a cotton dress the color of ripe squash, and a dark green sweater against the mid-winter chill. Today's socks matched it.

She smelled of lavender and jingled with her chains and bracelets. Everything about her relaxed him. "Welcome to Manet Hall. Such as it is.”

Odette winked at Lena when Declan kissed her hand. "We'll take a look at it when we've finished out here. Heard you hired Big Frank and Little Frankie," she said, nodding toward their pickup. "How're they working out for you?”

"They seem to be doing the job. I don't know how." He studied the patchy front gardens with his thumbs hooked through his belt loops. "I can't catch them actually doing anything, but I blink and a couple truckloads of underbrush is gone. Would you like to walk around the grounds?”

"I would. Lena honey, get those spirit bottles out of the trunk. We'll hang them on these live oaks to start.”

"Spirit bottles?”

"To keep the evil spirits away." Lena began lifting bottles half filled with water from her trunk.

"Should I be worried about evil spirits?" Declan asked.

"An ounce of prevention." And taking two, Odette moved off toward the trees.

"Spirit bottles," Declan reported, lifting one. He'd seen them hanging outside the shotgun house. "Just how do they work?”

"It's an old voodoo trick," Lena told him. "The clanking sound they make scares the evil spirits away.”

Testing, he bumped two together. It sounded pleasant enough, he thought, and not particularly scary. "You believe in voodoo?”

"I believe in that ounce of prevention." She strolled off, small and curvy, to join her grandmother.

Voodoo or old glass bottles, he liked the way they looked hanging from his trees. And when he tapped two together again, he liked the sound they made.

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