World Cup. Everyone knows what it is even if they aren’t sure exactly what it means. Like the Olympics, it enters our consciousness once every four years for approximately a month of universal competition; that it involves the sport of soccer may speak to only a certain group, but every nation participating has an investment in watching, cheering for the national team, and hoping for victories that will make their team the ultimate best in the world. It’s a team effort, from the people who clean the uniforms to the goalkeepers who contort their bodies in order to make “saves” to the fans who cheer, cry, and travel thousands of miles to celebrate in one of the biggest world parties—this year in one of the world’s premier vacation spots. The party is important of course. Who doesn’t want to have a good time at any sporting event? But the TEAM is the real reason for being there. People from different countries, ethnicities, cultures, all come together in celebration of the sport of soccer. The United States is a relative newcomer to this sport; fútbol is definitely European in origin. Although the ancient Chinese did have a sport which translates as ‘kickball, 900 AD rings in as a possible origin date in modern times. Still, we understand team sports as well as the next guy. It’s called ‘working together for a common goal’. No one person can make a team, although lack of leadership can sink one faster than a leaky dinghy.
“So,” you may ask, “what does this all have to do with anything? My team lost, I don’t care who wins, give me a break. Soccer? Who cares?”
Well, take a step back and translate that to any sport you enjoy. Almost all of them are team sports at some time or another; they require commitment, cooperation, compassion. Still doesn’t make sense? Then let me be blunt. TEAM. Working together. And the confusion as to why, when we can come together as friendly rivals for sporting events and often cheer on other teams as they move forward after our own has been defeated, the word often disappears from our daily lives to the point of us making our own time on this planet less pleasant. Our way is the only way. We’re right and no one else understands that. Any number of expressions used daily from the halls of Congress to our own living rooms. Every nation is guilty. Some call it National Pride. Me? I’m old enough to have seen and heard things that make me wonder. I’ve learned that not all can be taken at face value. Actions don’t always suit words, words sometimes mean one thing in a certain context and have another definition altogether in another one.
I’m not on a soapbox here, although I do believe we can look at life in many different ways and profit from what we see. Working with others, listening their point of view (whether we accept it or not), trying as a group to make things better…to ‘win’ if you will…may enhance our experience and give us opportunities we never would have had otherwise. Mae knows that…and while she’s been thrown a curve again, she’s wise enough to find a way to convert that curve into something other than a foul ball.
“There’s biscuits in that tin with the plaid lid,” I said. I had the feeling this was going to take more than just an apology to satisfy me and I wanted something to keep my mouth busy while these two recent interlopers in my life cleared the mud from the murk. “Get a plate while you’re standin’ there, Sylvain. If that’s really your name.”
“Keep those hackles of yours down, Mae. I am Sylvain Lionel. No fear on that score. This rather oversized person with no hair,” and here he looked a bit puzzled, “is my second cousin on my mama’s side, Etienne.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” offered up our intruder with a slight bow. “Etienne Besson from Grand Isle at your service.”
“At my service? Maybe you’d better sit yourself down before you say anything else. And the name is Mae, or did you forget that?” The bruise on my shoulder told me different, but I needed to be the one asking the questions, s o I kept going as Sylvain waited for the kettle to boil. “When you tried to push me down the stairs this afternoon?”
“In truth, I meant you no harm, Miss Mae. But had I not acted to stop you…”
“Why did you interfere, Tenny?” Sylvain brought the pot and a third cup to the table. “And where is your hair?” He seated himself, muttered something and went back to get the biscuit tin. I reached for a crisp shortbread cookie and nibbled a bit, quite ready to listen to whatever tale he wanted to spin, as long as he said his piece and got out. I wanted nothing more than to lie down, mull over the day, and make me own plans for that mysterious room before I had to rise and get back to Marie-Therese and her orders.
“It’s my cover, Syl. We’ve been watching Rodrigue for over a year. Trying to tie him to money laundering for the guys up North. Money that comes from drug sales. He looked at me. “This goes no further, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to concern yourself with Mae,” Sylvain said. “She already suspected something after just one day.”
“Then tell me why she’s in there, cousin, and why you’re involved at all.”
“Beb Celine? Las time I saw her she was all braces and braids, Syl. What does she have to do with any of this?”
“”You don’t know?” The disbelief in Sylvain’s voice hung in the air like a dismal fog. “She’s in that house. And I sent Mae to try and get her out.”
“And that’s why you were jigglin’ at that knob this afternoon? No one in there, not since…”
“Just how long have you been on the inside, cousin? “
“I told you. Since last year. Are you sure?”
“Dead sure. She married into the family. Last I heard from her she was here in New Orleans. Called me from a shop in the Quarter. I could hear the fear in her voice. By the time I got to where we were supposed to meet up…she never came, Tenny.”
I could see by the expression on Tenny’s face that he’d remembered something. Or someone. But I kept taking bites of my cookie, waiting for the whole story.
“Etienne? We don’t have time for this. You know something. Look at me.”
“I never thought….I mean….I knew the boss’s brother had married but…aw merde, Syl. She looked familiar but she didn’t say a word to me. Kept her eyes down mostly. They lived in the cottage next to the main house in Baton Rouge, Syl. I never really saw her after that one time. And it was always Missus Cameron when the staff talked about her. Last time I laid eyes on her was right after the family moved here. She was…she looked ill. Wasn’t my business. Y’know?”
Last time?” Time for me to put myself into the mix. “Just when was that? Today maybe? After you…”
“I told you Miss Mae how sorry I am that I gave you a difficult time. But you didn’t have to make such a noise about it.”
“When did you see her, Tenny? Where?”
“Mr. Cameron was helping her up the stairs to their room. I offered to help but…”
“You didn’t see him take her inside?” Sylvain’s words were almost an accusation.
“No. The boss called me back to discuss an upcoming meet with a “linen supplier” from Tucson. Sounded as though we might be able to actually…”
“I don’t care, Tenny. You and your boss can meet with suppliers from New York to Chicago and back. Not my circus. My sister wanted,,,needed,,,my help, and I let her down. Now I’ve got to get her out of there before it’s too late.” Sylvain banged his mug down on the table.
“Get yourself in check, Sylvain,” I said in as loud a voice as I could without waking me brother. “Tenny here has his agenda and it has nothing to do with yours. Yet.” I took a sip of lukewarm tea to wash down the last of my cookie. “And mind my mug. I can’t just buy a new one every time you want to make a point.” To his credit, Sylvain reddened a bit as he muttered a “sorry” but the anger in his eyes was still flashing. “Now I want you two to listen to me.”
I told you before, didn’t I, that I can’t let a good “meddle” pass me by. As soon as ‘Benard’ warned me off that room, I knew there was something bad going on. Sylvain’s sister probably stumbled onto it and was being ‘taken care of’ in more than one way. Celine needed to be saved, that was sure, but now we had the added complication of Tenny’s involvement as an undercover agent. Sylvain couldn’t see that the two missions could be made into one….good results for all. So I said my piece.
“If you, Sylvain, can keep yourself from verbally beating up your cousin,” I saw him shrug, “and you Etienne can stop apologizing for what you had to do”, a slight nod, then I have a plan.” Sylvain groaned.
“Just wait until I lay my hands on Morales,” he growled.
“Morales?” That was Etienne.
“Never mind,” both Sylvain and I said in chorus.
“Now it’s a rough plan, and we may have to make it up as we go, but if it works, we can get the job done and not get hurt. Any of us.” I had their attention at the last.
“Go on, Miss Mae.” Tenny was the first to speak, Sylvain having calmed himself with a gulp of tea. “I’ll tell you what I can. The sooner we can get enough evidence to stop Rodrigue, the better. And,” he turned to Sylvain, “If Celine knows as much as they think she does, we can protect her too. If she’s willing to testify…”
“Let’s get her out of that house first, cousin,” Sylvain muttered. “while she’s still alive.”
“First things first,” I said, sensing another round of familial fighting in the wings. “Tenny, or I should say ‘Benard’ since I don’t want to let something slip tomorrow, you’re the front line. I need you to find out just where ‘Missus Cameron’ is. No first names, even if you see her in the hall or at table. Obviously she didn’t recognize you or you’d have been contacted before Sylvain here.” He nodded. “Once you find out, give me a signal…maybe mention “that redheaded maid” to Marie-Therese while I’m in the vicinity. Doesn’t have to be fancy. Maybe an insult would be better since we’ve already traded blows.”
“Wait about an hour or so and then find me. Ask me to do something, tell me to leave the room, whatever seems right at the time. I’ll bump into you, apologize and you can give me the location before you tell me off.” I had to laugh as he shot me a look. “I promise not to kick you again,” I said.
“What about me?” Sylvain had been drumming his fingers on the table as I spoke.
“You wait. Find a Safe place…not here,” I added as he looked around the room. “This is my and Drum’s haven. Do they know Celine’s family connections?”
“I doubt it,” he replied, some sadness in his voice. “Celine didn’t like where she came from, so if anything she made herself an orphan from New Orleans. We didn’t know she was married until we saw the society page in The Times Picayune. Why?”
“I’m think you might take her home. Let your mama take care of her until she’s needed to testify.”
“But…” came from both men.
“It’s as safe, maybe safer, than those blasted secure houses your police are so proud of. Do you trust your bosses, Tenny? All of them?”
“We have to trust someone,” Tenny said. “But I see your point. Sylvain?”
“I don’t see why I can’t just go and get her.”
“First idiotic thing out of your mouth in the time I’ve known you, you dolt,” I said. “All they’d do is tell you she’s not there and if you kept after them, well….things might happen.”
“And if this scheme of yours doesn’t work?”
“It will. Although I’m thinking that Benard may have to get knocked about a bit. Not by me of course. Hate to put his manhood into question.” I chuckled at the possibility he’d have to explain how one little maid could take him down. We’ll get there when we get there. Any questions?” Both men looked at me and shook their heads. “Good. Let’s all get what sleep we can. Sylvain, you and Drum make arrangements with your family. Go see them. No phone calls. Drum can use the time away from the temptations of Bourbon Street. Benard, you go back to your boss and tell him whatever. You followed me home, waited to see if I went out or met anyone, or you stopped for a drink.” I got up and walked them to the door. “Benard? You first. Sylvain? There’s a back way, right?” He nodded. “Good night then.”
After my co-conspirators left, I went back to the table and stared into my mug. What bothered me? Celine hadn’t been in her bedroom when I cleaned. If she was ill, there should have been some traffic, doctors, her husband, even Marie-Therese ordering someone to take up a tray. Nothing. If she wasn’t in that small room, and Benard’s reaction told me she wasn’t, that left either the third floor or someplace not visible to me. No cellar. New Orleans’ water table is so high they bury their dead above ground or weight down the coffins with cement coverings. I’d have to do more snooping than cleaning if I wanted to find Sylvain’s sister before her ‘illness’ became fatal. I checked the hot plate, stacked the mugs in a metal pan for washing later, checked the dead bolt on the door and headed into the room where Drum slept. Saying a silent prayer that we would all come out of this in one piece, I tucked myself in and let the sounds of the night lull me to sleep.