It weren’t the bodies cooling on the dance floor that caught our eye; weren’t the lime sherbet suits half of them had on—it was the Laurel.
You got me and Rufus, and Fudd with his gun still running out smoke. A dozen slicks leaking out their life in the ballet studio. The mirrors on the walls puckered and toothy with all them bullet holes. Everything there just like a still-life around the Laurel: An archipelago of gold about the size of Rufus’ rims in a sea of red.
We had no idea what it was then. We was soon to find out in a big way.
“Where the money at, Fudd?” I ask, because with Fudd, you got to ask.
“Ain’t no money.” Fudd says, looking sorrier about that than he does putting lead through four mother’s sons. He points out the Laurel. “Just that.”
“Then why you kill all these fools, if there ain’t no Benjamins?” Rufus gets in before he has to turn his pager off again.
“They was already killing each other when I came in,” Fudd goes, squeezing his ‘r’s into ‘w’s and ditching ‘g’s in the cartoon drawl that earned him his nickname: “Alweady” and “otha.”
“So what is that,” I point at the Laurel, a gold circle done up like a fleur-de-lys with leaves all round it, “That they was in a murdering mind over it?”
“Fucked if I know.” Fudd says. Fucked was right, even if we didn’t know it, then. Then I do about the worst thing in the world for the three of us, and go over to pick the Laurel up.
“We should just get rid of it.” Fudd adds. He’s already shuffling for the door like he got other places to pee.
“The Hell we should.” I nod at the case of flake that some inked-up Mexican still got in a death grip. The case is chained to one of those lime-suit slicks, and God bless them, though the Jesuits raised me, I couldn’t tell you what race of man the slicks hailed from. “The Mexis were looking to trade ten kilos for it, it got to be worth something.”
I pick the Laurel up and give it a good look over. Far as I can tell then, it ain’t worth more than a migraine without connections in the art community to move it. I ain’t that connected.
“Where the fuck that Mick motherfucker Hennessey at?” Rufus waves his Ingram around like it would magic Sergeant Hennessey out of thin air. “He was supposed to be our official face on this if the raid went south.”
From the sound of it, we don’t need Hennessey’s badge to keep the heat off. The only sirens singing in Bywater is the gulls. Something about Hennessey being gone stinks all the same. Damned if I know what it smells like.
“He never came in,” Fudd says. “We heard the Mexis lighting up the suits and I kicked in the door, just like we planned. No sign of Hennessey.”
I suppose that adds up. Hennessey’s only brave when it comes to laying down big money on the Saints and the Tigers. Besides, I got other things on my mind.
“How we gonna move this, boys?” I hold up the Laurel and I swear, that sparkle it catches in the light of those cracked mirrors—that sparkle goes right to my blood. It gets in all of us. Even Rufus.
“Shit, Stagger,” Rufus tells me, trying to squint with all that gold in his eyes. “I hope you got some rich folk in the Derby crowd looking to buy a conversation piece.”
Quite a conversation piece it’d be. The gold’s old—you can just feel that, same as you can feel that it’s a good ten pounds or so. It’s sculpt like a headpiece for an Emperor’s bed, with the sigil of our city—New Orleans’ fleur-de-lys—gleaming in the middle. I swear to you, if this thing had legs, they would go all the way up.
“I can’t reckon right off.” I admit.
“We can just leave it.” Fudd insists from the door.
“Seems more trouble than a motherfucker.” Rufus says before the pager goes off again. That man and his pager—I swear.
“Not more trouble than it’s worth.” I say, slapping Rufus on the shoulder and heading for the Cadillac. “Now let’s go find out how much that is.”
I tell you now, I had no goddamn idea how wrong I was. We was soon to find out, though.
I was up at Rufus’ place, on the Google, doing my homework on what we’d took. Rufus was off doing what I told him to, just in case. Fudd was eating one of those canned-crab Poboys he was always shoving in his pig-sty face.
“That’s it right there,” Fudd says, pointing to an image I got from the search results. It don’t take half a brain to get answers from Google. Of course, that meant Fudd was still shit out of luck.
“Naw,” I snap a finger at the correct image. “That’s it. You was pointing at a pattern on a bedsheet.”
“I never been accused of being an art critic.”
I pull up the page that goes with the image, and there it is.
“The Napoleon Laurel.” I read. It’s even shinier on the Internet. “Commissioned by Emperor Bonaparte himself, as a parting gift to the good folk of New Orleans.”
“Made of gold. Twenty-four karat.” Fudd’s on a roll when it comes to stating the obvious.
“Priceless.” I frown and lean back, feeling a Hell of a lot of weight on my shoulders all of a sudden. Priceless means just what it implies in my line of work—not a damn cent. I can move diamonds and I can move women; I can even move flake if I don’t mind the heat. Priceless I leave to credit card commercials.
“I bet I can find someone to move it.” Fudd nods, wiping crumbs on his purple bowling shirt. It improves the garment, but that ain’t saying much.
“Who you gonna find, Fudd? A real estate bozo down at the dog track? One of your meth-cooking croc-wrestlers from out on the bayou who needs something to complement his taxidermy?”
“They wrestle alligators.”
“I don’t care if they wrestle fucking centaurs, Fudd.” I cannot shake my head at this sack of fat long enough to set him straight. Whatever little sense he had, his momma dropped out of him a long time ago. “They ain’t got enough money to fit the bill for a priceless Napoleonic artifact.”
“See—that’s just my point, Fudd. You can’t say what it is, let alone find an interested buyer.”
About then a knock on the door tells us that interested parties have arrived.
“You go ahead and answer that, Fudd.”
He does, about the time I’m taking the Colt .44 from Rufus’ desk drawer, out from under all the Happy Meal toys that crazy motherfucker collects for all his little bastards. Of course, about that time, I notice the beefsteak in a bowler hat who’s snuck in through the back. Leastways, I notice the hand-cannon he got pointed at my head.
“Who wears bowler hats these days?” I ask the beefsteak. I can tell right off from how he looks back at me that he ain’t no fan of fashion critique.
The answer comes readily enough—the three characters who Fudd lets in, cowboy-style with their pieces drawn, they’re a matched set with beefsteak. Somebody with a sense of humor and a Black AmEx dressed these boys, if you can consider wedging three-hundred pounds of man into a linen monkey suit “dressed.”
“Mister Crannock,” says the shortest among the crowd from the front door. I figure him the boss, considering his vertical deficit to the others. He’s even got a monocle, to make that real clear. “I believe we have cultural matters to discuss.”
I get my hands up. It seems the decent thing to do. Besides, I already hit the ‘Send’ button on my cell phone.
“I ain’t much for cultural matters,” I say. “Lessen it has to do with Wildcat basketball or Derby Day attire.”
“I am interested in a more exotic subject,” Monocle tells me. “A certain heirloom of the ancien regime that has come into your custody.”
“I don’t do custody,” I turn to face Monocle full on. “It’s Fudd here who’s late on his child support.”
“You can quit the act, Mr. Crannock.”
“Well that is a relief.”
“Yes,” Monocle says, just as slick as his bald head. “You will find business with me to be a relief in its simplicity—my terms are crystalline, Mr. Crannock. They are clear and simple.”
“I can do simple. Can’t vouch for Fudd here.” I admit it. I’m trying to cause a bit of trouble. Fudd’s just stewing, though, the color of Crystal sauce, right up to the fingertips of his raised hands. He ain’t going to try nothing with the arsenal these boys got set to us.
“For every wrong or insufficient answer you supply,” Monocle says, “I will have Gunter put a bullet through one of your limbs.”
“I wouldn’t want to inconvenience Gunter over a spent bullet.”
“Nor would I. So quit wasting our time.”
I reckon that’s a good idea all around. I got a Saints game to catch later on. They’re going all the way this season. Besides, that text I sent has surely made the person on the other end mighty antsy.
“Alright. Fire away, so to speak.”
“As you have no doubt surmised,” Monocle goes on, as if I’d ever thought of myself as surmising anything. “We are seeking the Napoleon Laurel.”
“Is that really relevant?”
“I’d figure you fellas at way beyond relevant to me.”
“Very well.” Monocle adjusts his eyepiece. He’s got some dramatic flair. I’ll give him that. “We are the Golden Society of Macao.”
“Like the monkeys?”
“I fail to guess your meaning.” Monocle announces this as if it were a first. “In any event, that is all you will suffice to know, as our identity will have little bearing on you should you survive this day. We are a secret order.”
“That would explain your fashion sense. Y’all clearly don’t go out in public much.”
Monocle rivals Fudd for shades of red. He gets his hand up—more ring-decked blubber than a hand, actually. I chime in before he does something we all regret.
“Anyway, it’s here.”
“Out in the car.”
Monocle grins like he’s caught me passing notes in class. “Mr. Crannock, you would not presume us stupid, surely.”
“I wouldn’t presume anything about the Golden Society of Macao.”
“Then you will not be offended if I have Friedrich keep his armament on you while my men check your automobile.”
The suits make for the door. I shake my head as I sink to the floor. “Nah, you just go ahead while I have a little lie down.”
Fudd does his best to play it cool as he sits on the floor, too. Monocle gives us a look. If you’ve ever seen a pig get a farmer’s thumb up its butt to calm it down, you know the look I mean. I almost feel sorry for him.
“Mr. Crannock,” Monocle says. “You will remain erect.”
I almost feel sorrier. That look; those words—it’s a special kind of sad that a man has to leave this world with that being his last contribution.
I have a witty retort, but the Ingram machine pistol that Rufus lets go with as soon as the muscle opens the front door would drown it out. It would drown out Gabriel’s own horn. It sounds like a can opener cracking all Creation.
I don’t bother watching what all that gunfire does to the Golden Society of Macao. I smell it, and that’s enough. It smells like somebody’s cooking pennies in brown sugar.
After Rufus puts his third extended clip through the front of the house, waist level and higher, I take a look.
Damn, but he ruined those fancy old suits. There ain’t much left to the muscle wedged in them either. Even Monocle’s eye-piece got hit.
“Come on, Fudd. Let’s scram before the heat shows up.”
Fudd’s first out the door before me, but not by much.
“Sorry about your crib, Rufus.” I console him with a slap on the shoulder, but Rufus is about to set his cornrows aflame with how far from consoled he looks.
“Damn right, you sorry.”
Rufus don’t know the half then. None of us do.
There are a few places in New Orleans that I wouldn’t be caught dead in, and sure enough, that’s where the next killer shows up.
“Your choice of luncheon sucks mule dick.” Fudd says to Rufus and I would agree. The Metropolitan Street Market looks like it was built, decorated and staffed by the sadder students of a short bus. It’s a slab of concrete with advertisements for pig knuckle and T-shirts by the 20-pack painted on the side. But it’s where Rufus wanted to eat, and considering the appetite that gets in that man after a shooting, we were not going to argue.
“You ain’t one to criticize cuisine, cracker.” Rufus fires back at Fudd, working his way through his second sandwich.
“Can it, the both of you.” I tell them, trying to listen to the human voice that finally picked up on the other end of my cell phone.
“Sergeant Hennessey’s desk.” It’s a lady. I know right off that something’s awry. Hennessey don’t know any ladies that he doesn’t pay for.
“Yeah,” I say, “is the Sergeant around?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Don Hickey.” I just make that up and ride with it. “From down at the gym. He didn’t show up for his yoga class.”
“Sergeant Hennessey will not be showing up for any classes.”
“Shame that. His glutes were just beginning to show results.”
“It is a shame,” the lady says, not meaning it much. “Sergeant Hennessey was shot in the line of duty today.”
“You don’t say.”
I’m about to offer my sympathies when a shotgun blast takes out the rear window.
I would like to claim that what happens next—my slamming the Cadillac into reverse, gunning it, swerving to hit the shooter—is all defensive driving skills, flaring to life in a combat situation.
“Go, go, go!” Fudd is sobbing, as Rufus looks for the Ingram under the remains of his sandwich on the floor.
Truth is, it was just good old blind luck. We all got our strengths in life. That would be mine. The Cadillac’s bumper makes a rag doll out of the Latin King who put the shotgun to us. Just like that, Lady Luck takes him out of action.
The rest of his boys, well, them we have to see to by other means. They turn the corner of Metropolitan and Humanty Street into the Chinese New Year. With the steering wheel rocking in my white knuckles, I can feel my precious ride coming apart.
“Fuck all!” I yell. It seems appropriate. The upholstery and the CD player and the chassis are all popping apart.
Good thing we have Rufus to pop back.
The Ingram blows a wave of noise over the street, and two of the shooters take a fall. I take what chance I got and drive for the opening in the corral of bangers.
For about ten seconds of eternity, everything’s just sound and cordite and the shaking of the Cadillac. Then it comes to me that the Caddy’s smooth, and we’re the ones who’re shaking.
Rufus gets sick out of where the tinted window used to be. Fudd gets real quiet. I get an idea.
“Heat like this,” I say through the gate of my teeth, “we best split up.”
Turns out, that’s about as bad an idea as they come.
A worse idea would be for me to hit Bourbon Street to get blind drunk at Lafitte’s. So you’re damn right that’s what I do once I drop Rufus and Fudd off. I drink like there’s no tomorrow because I am about convinced there won’t be one, not for Stagger Lee Crannock.
The zydeco’s hooting and the spirits are high. I’ve raised so many glasses of Captain Morgan to this city, this bar, and the pirates it lovingly commemorates that I’ve lost count. I’ve lost most of my sense of balance, too, and I weave with the crowds of tourists and locals that wash in and out of the crusty room on tides of beads and bravado. I’m getting in a mindset to lose, you see.
“Goddamn, but I love it here!” I call to all the mobbing drunks and to the shiny music and to the glitter that seems coming from everywhere. This city’s crazy soul is about the only thing I haven’t lost.
“Pour me another one, matey.” I slap a twenty on the table, and the bartender scowls. I’ve lost his patience with my nautical references. I’ve lost hope of any good coming of the Napoleon Laurel, too.
I’ve lost my connection to the cops with Hennessey. I’ve lost my lease on the Caddy for sure. I’ve about lost my mind.
“Here’s to being good and fucked.” I toast. And it’s then, as the Captain burns his way down a throat that can no longer feel the fire, that I get my first, solid good idea of the day. It’s always when you’ve given up that you find your way through.
Then my epiphany gets interrupted.
“I can drink to that.” Says the blonde next to me. She appears as if by magic. And even without the booze, I would swear she looks like sorcery to me—a body that was lovingly licked into shape by the tongues of devils. Eyes that would make angels put in for a change of address. A smell to her that puts paid to every sin imaginable.
“Well, hello.” I tilt onto my feet and get another good look at her. I hold hard to the good idea I just got, but I give my eyes long enough to send a treat to my pecker.
“Hello yourself.” The blonde is making music with that foreign accent she’s got. “You seem interesting.”
“I got more interesting than I know what to do with.” I balance myself on the bar so that I can focus on placing that accent.
“I like interesting.” She purrs.
I give up on placing the accent and give her a good one across that priceless jaw. She goes down in a pile of pretty pieces.
“That makes one of us.” I tell her as I head through the shocked crowd. I would stay to explain that she seemed like a dime novel femme fatale to me, if I had the time. I would state my reasons; ask them to search her for a membership card to the Golden Society of Macao. I got no time to waste, though.
I got a good idea, and those don’t come often or easy to me. I’m on the phone before I even make it into the flashy nonsense of Bourbon Street and vanish into the crowd.
“So who are we waiting for?” Fudd asks me, doing his bathroom dance again. I try not to follow his shuffle with the sway of my body. The shabby pea coat he’s got on—despite the sap-thick swelter in the air, I should note—makes his figure serpentine. I put both hands on the trunk I’m sitting on—the one I’ve been using for a couch in the roomy Garden District manor I bought last year.
I keep telling myself I should go out and buy some fitting furnishings. The place deserves something that crawls with gold leaf and brushed velvet. Something ‘period’ they call it.
But every time I go out, I wind up in situations like this.
“We’re waiting for Rufus.” I tell Fudd. Dumb bastard that he is, he looks around the echoing room as if Rufus might spring out of one of my packing boxes.
“He going to show soon?”
“Maybe he’ll show up with Hennessey.”
Fudd still ain’t catching on, and gives me one of his piggy little squints. “Thought you said Hennessey was dead.”
“You would know.”
“Fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“You swear plenty.” I try to slide on a grin but the tide of rum in me just washes it off my face. “For a fella who doesn’t say much in the end result.”
“You one to talk.” Fudd snarls. “Always dancing around shit you should come right out and say.”
“What am I gonna say, Fudd?”
“Maybe you gonna say where the Napoleon Laurel is at.” And he gets this twitchy grin, the kind that’s not sure whether it should lift its skirt yet or not.
“First you can tell me where Rufus is.”
Out of Fudd’s coat comes the Ingram.
“You’ll be joining him soon enough, I reckon.”
“You ‘weckon’ you’ll be sharing your evil scheme first, Fudd?”
“Come again?” Fudd goes back to looking confused. I get to my feet. As usual, they don’t fail me when I need them.
“See, I get that you were aiming to grab the Napoleon Laurel from the raid by convincing us that only you could move it. Only you could figure that and still do such a piss-poor job of the convincing.”
“I got other means of convincing.” Fudd lifts the Ingram.
“I get that you think you do. But what I don’t get, is how you found out about the damn thing and thought you could move an object d’art like that.”
“Never you mind,” Fudd says, actually looking sure of himself.
“Just give it on up!” His feet getting to fussing with the floor again. I can tell the Ingram’s about to make a mess. Fudd’s all squints and twitches. “I ain’t a Bond villain, gonna tell you how I done it.”
“That much is clear.” I give him a look that says he wouldn’t even rate as a minion. “Which leads me to wonder how you figured you would be one step ahead of me now.”
“What you mean?”
“I mean, why do you think I’ve got the Napoleon Laurel here?”
And there again, Fudd glances around like the answer would jack-in-the-box right into view.
“Where’d you put it?”
“With my dry cleaner.”
“What? The fuck you did.”
“Mhm.” I pat my coat pocket. “Enrique’s one trustworthy motherfucker, Fudd. He’s keeping it with my camel hair jacket. I got the receipt right here.”
Fudd thinks this over for a moment, or whatever passes for thinking with him. He actually gets to looking meaner. Fudd looks like the meanest hog this side of the Mississippi—a downright shame to the animal kingdom.
I do. Out of the coat comes a yellow paper receipt. His eyes go as wide as you please.
“Hand it over!”
“Not so fast. I want—”
“Fuck the asshole of what you want! Give it!”
I do my best sigh. I put on the frown that used to get my high school drama class clapping with sympathy. The hand that passes over the receipt is even shaking a little.
Fudd dips the gun as he reaches for the receipt.
The hand I put between his eyes ain’t shaking. I could drive a post with that punch. Fudd starts clicking like a bust transmission and loses his knees.
He squeezes the trigger. The Ingram makes its noise, bringing the apocalypse. And damn if that makes me mad.
I ain’t mad because the bullets rip up my trunk and my hardwood floor beneath. I’m mad because I’m hearing that sound and Rufus ain’t making it. He won’t ever make it again. And that makes me hit Fudd square in the chest again, again, again and again.
When he gives up coughing blood and just bubbles with it, I wipe my hand on his shirt. That damn rag ain’t getting prettier. I spit on it just to make sure.
“You always were an asshole, Fudd.” And yep, that was what figured it out for me. As crazy as things seemed, I knew there had to be a simple solution. There always is, when you set all the nonsense aside.
I forget what I’m doing for a moment. A kick to Fudd’s balls brings me back on track. I pay notice to what he did to the steamer, and get worried about the condition of what’s inside.
Inside, I see as I open the trunk, the Napoleon Laurel shines, its glow cracked through in three places by the Ingram’s bullets.
“Well, shit,” I say to no one in particular. Ain’t got anyone left to complain to. The priceless artifact really is priceless now, bust to shit as it is. That makes me sad, until I take a good look at the pieces of the Laurel and put a thought together: Gold don’t crack.
I lift up the Laurel and the bottom slides off, showing plaster under the gold plate.
I don’t grin at that. But the grin at what slides out of the plaster housing, that stays and stays. It’s gonna stay for some time.
“Never would have guessed, Fudd.” I say, holding up the millions in bearer bonds that pour from the false Napoleon Laurel. “You weren’t dumb as all that.”
My days are just full of surprises.