It’s always a good day when the client shows up.
On this bright, New Orleans autumn morning, my newest client opens the smoky-glass door of my office, peeks in and says, “Are you Mr. Caye?”
“Come in.” I stand and wave her forward. Leaning my hands on my desk, I watch Mrs. Truly Fortenberry cautiously step in. A big woman, Truly has mousy brown hair worn under one of those turban hats, the kind Ann Sheridan made popular during the war. She wears a full brown skirt with a matching vest over a white blouse.
A typical-looking 1948 housewife, Truly glances around my office, at my tired sofa, at the hardwood floor in need of waxing, at the high ceiling with its water marks. She looks at the row of windows facing Barracks Street. With the Venetian blinds open, the oaks and magnolias of Cabrini Playground give this section of the lower French Quarter a country feel in the middle of town.
Truly clears her throat, takes another step in and says, “I took the liberty of bringing a friend.” Turning, she waves at the shadow I see through the smoky-glass. “Uh,” Truly says, stepping aside, “this is Diane Redfearn. My friend and neighbor.”
As the second woman steps in, Truly adds, “She wants to hire you, too.”
Diane Redfearn moves around Truly, stops and bats a pair of large brown eyes at me. Her blonde hair up in a bun, she wears a powder blue suit dress with sloping shoulders and a curving waistline. I had ogled a model in that same outfit, an upcoming ’49 fashion. It was a D.H. Holmes ad in yesterday afternoon’s Item. I like ogling fashion models. So sue me.
Diane, a long, cool blonde, makes the model in the paper look like a chubby, over-fed boy. She follows Truly across my wide office to the matching wing chairs in front of my desk (I bought the chairs at a furniture auction on Magazine Street. When was that, three years ago?). Diane slinks into the chair on the left and crosses her legs.
Truly sits in the other chair, filling the seat with her broad hips. I sit in my high-back captain’s chair.
“Any problem finding the place?” I ask as I notice the bevy of diamonds, two rubies and an emerald dotting their fingers.
“Oh no. Your directions were perfect.” Truly blinks her deep set eyes at me and leans forward. “I told Diane how nice you were on the phone, Mr. Caye. And since she’s in a similar position, I convinced her to come along.”
Diane bats her eyes at me.
“Lucien,” I tell them. “My first name’s Lucien.”
“Oh.” Truly leans back and digs something out of her over sized purse. She places a five-by-seven-inch photo on my desk. “This is my husband.”
I have to stand to reach the picture.
Diane opens her purse and pulls out a photo and leans forward, uncrossing her legs. Her breasts push nicely against the front of her dress. I smile and take the picture. She leans back and recrosses her legs.
I catch a whiff of expensive perfume. Nice. Very nice.
Sitting back, I look at Truly’s picture first. It’s a studio shot with Truly standing next to a mohair chair where a man sits. His hands in his lap and his legs crossed, the man has a Boston Blackie pencil-thin moustache and a goofy look on his wide face. His dark hair lies thick and curly on an over sized head.
We had a guy like that in our outfit back in Italy. Head too big for his helmet, so he never wore it. Never got hurt either. Just a big jolly fella: he even came to see me in the hospital after that damn German sniper winged me back in ’44. Monte Cassino. But that’s another story.
Diane Redfearn’s husband is another sort completely. He’s alone in his photo, posing as he looks to his right, a cigarette in his raised right hand. He looks like Ronald Coleman, without the moustache, a distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a cravat and what has to be a silk shirt. I hate cravats.
I put the photos down and pick up my fountain pen, holding my hand over my note pad. “So, what can I do for you ladies?”
Truly clears her throat and says, “Our husbands have left us. Mine two weeks ago. Diane’s last week.”
God, I hate domestic cases. But with the state of my bank account, I can’t afford to be choosy.
Truly looks at me as if I’m supposed to say something. Diane’s brown eyes remind me of a sad puppy dog.
“So, Mrs. Redfearn. What can you tell me about your husband, besides he’s blind?”
The women look at one another momentarily before Diane tells me her husband isn’t blind.
Lord help me.
Truly clears her throat again and says, “They left us after visiting the red witch.”
It’s my turn to clear my throat.
“The red what?”
“The red witch.” Truly points to my windows. “You can see her place from here. She’s your neighbor.”
I look out the windows for a moment before reaching over to turn on the small, black revolving fan that sits on the corner of my desk. The air feels good on my freshly shaved face.
“Um,” I say as intelligently as I can.
They both speak.
“She always wears red,” Truly says.
“She’s not really a witch,” Diane says.
Truly turns to her friend. “We don’t know that. She calls herself a witch.”
They both look at me and Truly says, “We want to hire you to . . .”
“Investigate this woman.” Diane completes the sentence and brushes a loose strand of hair away from her eyes. She blows at it when it falls back, her lips pursed in a nice red kiss. I try not to stare, but she’s hard to look away from. Thin and buxomy and married . . . my kind of woman.
“We tried talking to the police,” Truly says. “My uncle knows someone downtown.”
I nod as I pull my gaze from Diane’s lips.
“They sent someone to talk to the red witch’s neighbors,” Truly adds.
“But no one seems to know much about her,” Diane says.
“Except cats and dogs have disappeared.”
“Cats and dogs?” I put my pen down.
Both women nod. The strand of hair falls across Diane’s eyes again. If I could only reach it.
I pick up my pen and ask, “When do your husband’s visit her?”
“Oh,” Truly bounces in her seat. “They don’t any more. My husband’s in Cleveland.”
I look at Diane, who tells me her husband is in Mexico.
“They moved out after visiting the red witch,” Diane explains.
“We want you to find out what she told them,” Truly says.
Diane looks down at her lap. “We want to know what happened . . .”
“When they visited this . . . sorceress.”
I stand and move to the windows and open one. A nice breeze floats in, bringing the scent of freshly cut grass. I spot a city worker pushing a mower across Cabrini Playground. Shiftless, his brown skin shimmers with sweat under the bright sun.
“Where does she live?”