So much to do. So little time.
I’m amazed. September is eight days away from being October and today is the first official day of autumn. Perhaps it’s because summer and fall have been tag-teaming each other for most of the past two months….hot and humid, cool and rainy, hot and rainy, cool and clear. Like frenetic frogs doing their infamous jumps and leaps over one another. Or it could simply be that I’ve been running around trying to balance job and home and writing and planning for travel and most of the other “real life” events that seem to be happening in clusters rather than in a straight line. “Take a number,” I say. But they don’t listen. And I can only multi-task so much…as for juggling, well…that’s another story altogether.
This morning is definitely a taste of autumn. Cool and crisp and a good night of sleep. The heat’s not on and the air conditioner is getting a breather. I’m going out to get apples at the local orchard; some for eating…think Honeycrisp…and some for baking. I hear Empire is a good choice so they’re on the list. And yes, I said baking…something about autumn triggers my desire to create…bread, cake, cookies, pies are all fair game. Bread dough rises quickly in a sunny window, the spices for pie and cookies waft through the air, and I remember some favorite recipes and find new ones as well. Fortunately Chuck doesn’t mind being a taster, and the people at work love brownies, banana bread, apple cake, and all cookies.
But really, this post is about how much can crowd our real life calendars and give us pause about handling everything and anything without losing something…or ourselves…along the way. I should be doing more writing, but I’ve been working more hours these days. My mornings at Biggby have been few and far between. October is a traveling month for me…what to pack, where to stay, and the sights to see all crowd into each other. New York is first…a quick three days and two plays, with whatever else can be done in between. Portland is easier. Should be anyway, but my daughter will tell you I start packing three weeks ahead of time. I’m getting better. Now I make a list, check the weather, and only pack the weekend before. I envy those who can pack for a week in a carry-on. No matter how I try, I seem to have more to pack each time. Is this normal?
NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is also on the agenda this year. It’s been suggested by someone who knows me all too well that I need to clear the cobwebs of my current work from my brain and focus on a totally new project for the month of November. She calls it organic writing….a challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days, no editing, just writing. Period. Because it’s a deadline, and I hate to fail to meet a deadline, I have to make time to write every single day no matter what. I have one month and eight days to figure out how to do just that. And get Mae and her partners in crime to the conclusion, for better or worse, of her latest adventure.
I handed Sylvain my contraband, explaining my suspicions as I did. His expression ran the gamut from disbelief to downright anger as I related what I’d seen Marie-Therese do in the kitchen as well as Celine and Cameron’s separate concerns for her health. He looked ready to storm the castle and damn the consequences. Not the best idea.
“I think I have a plan that could work.” It was out of my mouth before I even knew what came next. “But if it doesn’t, we won’t get another chance.” To tell the truth I was hoping Sylvain had already sketched out something in his mind and I would be off the hook. New Orleans was supposed to be a respite of sorts for me and Drum after the mess in Charles City, and yet…well, all I wanted to do was sit by the river and share the music and the sun with my brother until it was time to move on again.
“You know the situation better than I do, Mae.” Damn. I could feel the hook being set. “I’ll get this mug to a friend at the crime lab and see what they can find from the remains of the liquid. From what you’ve said Cameron doesn’t know anything about this, but someone in that house wants my little sister out of the way. Did you speak to Benard?”
“We met at St.Paul’s after I left the mansion. He’ll do what he can to keep an eye on Celine. I don’t think Cameron knows about the drugs, but Benard will check on that as well. You know your sister will refuse to leave without her husband, don’t you?” Might as well tell him now.
“Celine loves hard,” was all he said.
“Then we need to be sure of him. Benard is as close to him as anyone and he’s convinced the man loves your sister. After tonight, I am too. Almost. But you sent me in for Celine, so it’s your decision.”
Sylvain stared at the wall for a good minute before he nodded his head. “I have to trust you three. But Benard is the best one to handle Cameron Rodrigue. You and I will take care of Celine. Now,” he leaned toward me, his eyes fixed on mine, “what’s the plan and when do we start?” I sighed. It was almost sunrise before we made sure all the details seemed taken care of; no loose ends or threads that could trip us up or get us killed.
Putting things into motion was as simple as me getting on the streetcar and heading to work.
Sylvain was to take the mug to his friend and press him for some quick results. Drum would be kept busy at the church for as long as they could find work for him. Sylvain had promised me to talk to the priest and custodian so that was one less worry. I would manage to run into Benard as soon as possible and pass him a message detailing the plan. At least I think that’s what it was. Sylvain had managed to use a language I’d never seen before to communicate the details. For security, he said. Did I say simple?
From the moment I walked into the kitchen, things went sour.
“And just where have you been this morning, Miss Mae?” Marie-Therese was in high form.
“I was coming into work as usual, Madame,” I replied, sliding a glance toward Lisa, who shrugged her shoulders. “At my usual time. Is there something wrong?” Might as well find out how much trouble I was in.
“I distinctly recall informing you last evening that we needed an early start this morning. Our guests have been complaining that their meals have not been delivered to their rooms in a timely manner. Lisa cannot prepare and deliver by herself. If we did not need your services during this time, I would be quite pleased to dismiss you. Now put your things away and take those last trays upstairs.” She whirled out of the room, her heels clicking on the tile.
“Did I miss something, Lisa? Madame said nothing to me at all last evening. I assumed we’d be back to normal today.” I placed my coat and bag in the small closet and put on my apron. “Breakfasts in bed?”
“At the last moment, the Missus suggested it as an alternative for those who wished to sleep later. She did not inform Madame Marie until after the guests had gone into the library. Madame told me but you had already gone. Perhaps she forgot that.” Forgotten or not, her ego would insist I had made the error. She’d be eager to catch me in another and get rid of me, of that I was sure. Watching my back would be one more thing to carry. Shite.
“So which trays need the delivering?” I spotted several on the long worktable. “Those?”
“If you would take two, I can manage the other,” Lisa replied. “The one with the cranberry juice is for Mr. Adams. The plain water in the carafe is for Mr. Washington.” I took the two she’d mentioned and started for the rear stairs.
“We can take the service elevator, Mae.”
“We only use it on occasions when we have guests. It makes serving and cleaning up much easier. Did Madame Marie not mention this?”
“Perhaps I forgot,” I muttered, thinking of dragging the vacuum cleaner and cleaning supplies up the stairs. And wondering if it went to the third floor.
After we’d taken the trays, collected those already outside the doors, and started the first load of dishes, I excused myself and went to look for Benard. Unfortunately I only encountered Madame again and manufactured an excuse for checking the rooms on the lower floor to see what needed cleaning after the prior evening’s dinner. She grudgingly gave me credit for the effort, so I asked after Benard.
“And why would that concern you, Miss Mae?” Suspicion ran fleetingly across her stern face. I had an answer, although she wouldn’t like it.
“I am working on the second floor, Madame, correct?” She nodded. “For some reason, when I am doing my job in those rooms, Benard feels the need to accost me and question my presence. I have no wish to be throttled by him as I change the bedding.” Given our first encounter, it was a reasonable response. Evidently Madame thought so as well.
“You have no need to worry, Miss Mae. Benard has been duly chastised for his…exuberance in his duties. In any case, he is otherwise engaged for most of the morning, so you have no worries.” As she moved away from me, I risked the question I really wanted to ask.
“And Missus Cameron? She is better after last night? I prayed for her.” Well I had, along with asking for help in getting this job done so this lot would disappear from my life.
“I’m sure she is, as I am sure she appreciates your concern. Now I have things to attend to and I believe you need to get started while our guests are out.” Out? Where? But Marie-Therese was gone.
I took the opportunity I’d been given…guests out of the way, no Benard to caution me, and the Madame safely working elsewhere…to do some meddling as I worked my way through the guest rooms. I didn’t find much, although a stray business card or two found its way into my apron pocket. The Master bedroom took longest, but it had the day before. Evidently wealth did not mean tidiness. As I put the books on the bedside table in a neat stack, I noted an address not far from where Drummond and I were staying. Not good news if someone were to see me near there. Not for Benard either if he paid another visit. Chanting the street and numbers like a mantra until I knew I could repeat them later, I hurried through the rest of the dusting and left the room.
My last stop was the bedroom Celine shared with Cameron. Neither was inside, so I changed the rumpled sheets and pillowcases and talked myself out of checking the armoire and dresser. We were helping these two, I hoped, and that meant trust. On both sides.
“I wondered where you were.” Benard’s voice came from the doorway.
“Ach, mon, air ye daft? Dinna ye ken now to knock?” I gave him the best glare I could despite my heart pounding in my ears.
“Dinna I what?”
“Never mind,” I said. “What do you want, Benard? I’m tryin’ to work here.” He nodded as though I’d said just the right thing. And then I knew why. Right behind him stood Marie-Therese. “Madame, I thought you told me he was…”
“I had to return to get something for Mr. Cameron.” Benard addressed his words to her rather than me. “And he asked me to have you keep Miss Mae here until Missus Cameron comes back from her appointments. It seems the young Missus has taken a liking to her.” I could tell by the look on Madame’s face that she was not pleased, but there was nothing to do but assure Benard I would be available whenever I was wanted.
“I’ll be happy to wait on Missus Cameron, but then I had better get the rest of my chores done and help Lisa with the kitchen work.” I smiled at Madame and left the two of them as quick as I could, hoping Benard would track me down soon. And that Madame would leave me alone.
I was finishing up the silverware when Benard came to fetch me.
“Missus Cameron is back and would like to see you,” he informed me, smiling at Lisa’s curious stare. “Make yourself presentable if you don’t mind.” The cheek of the man caused a flush on me own cheeks. “And, Lisa if you would make some tea and a light snack for Mae to take up when she goes?”
Ten minutes later, because I’d insisted on steeping the tea myself, we were on the elevator to the second floor.
“Make myself presentable? Do I look like I’ve been mucking about with the pigs?”
“Look, Mae. You and I are supposed to dislike each other. I’m just giving as good as you give me. Did you and Sylvain get a plan made?”
“Aye, we did. Your part is simple as it happens. The next time Celine and Cameron go outside these walls, you’ll be car-jacked.”
“Seriously? That’s the plan?”
“That’s all you need to know. There’s more to it than that, but you need what Sylvain calls deniable plausibility. You can’t tell what you don’t know. That way you can keep doing your job.”
“Or they’ll get rid of me. This business doesn’t tolerate mistakes.”
“That’s why you’ll be coshed.”
“Hit over the head from behind. By me. And I promise to make it count.” I gave him a wink and a smile as the elevator doors opened. “You’re a hard-headed lummox anyway.” We walked down the hallway toward Celine’s room in silence. It was the easiest plan, with the least risk to everyone involved. If we could pull it off. Celine and Cameron had to want to do this together or it was no good. And convincing Cameron was my job. I wanted the results of the soup sample to prove Celine was being drugged and that he needed to take her away from here and disappear for a while.
“Here with some tea for you, ma’am,” I said as Benard opened the door to her room.
“Mae!” A smile lit her face and again I could see how beautiful she was. “I wanted to thank you so much for helping me last night. Would you stay and talk with me while I eat? Benard will bring up the tray, won’t you, Benard? Ask Lisa to make her pudding and perhaps a salad and sandwich.” Benard could do no more than nod as he left us to do her bidding.
“I shouldn’t stay long, ma’am, since Madame will be looking for me.”
“Phfft on Madame,” Celine said. “You are my savior. I said so to Cameron last night.”
“You told him about the soup?” Too soon, I thought. I had no real proof.
“I did. But I also told him you wanted to make sure and not to say anything. Not to his brother, or anyone else.”
“Did you say anything else?” About Sylvain? Or leaving? This plan was morphing and I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“I told him we needed to go out more, perhaps explore the city. Benard could drive us, and you could…” I could tell she was full of plans and had to stop her.
“Missus, I think you need to slow down a bit. Take things one step at a time. Get your strength…”
“Oh, Mae I am fine. Or I will be when I’m away from here. Cameron wants me to be happy, so he’ll do whatever I ask him. I know he will.”
To gain a moment to organize what I needed to say, I poured her a cup of the steaming jasmine tea I’d carried in a few minutes before and watched her sip from the cup. Then I began, keeping my voice low.
“Sylvain wants you to be away from here, Celine, and as quickly as possible. Cameron too if he will come but you are his main concern. Do you know your husband’s family business?”
“How could I not? He is in textile shipping. The meetings here are to expand the company, take on new investors. Why?”
“Your husband told you this?” If Cameron lied to her, we were in for a tough road.
“No. My sister-in-law told me before we were married. Cameron doesn’t want to talk about business with me. He says he wants to keep business away from personal. But right now he’s worried. And I want him to tell me. Is there something wrong, Mae? You seem to know things, and I…”
“You are just fine,” I said. “And I think your plans to go out more with your husband are a wonderful idea. And perhaps a way to get you both away from the business and the family. But I will need to talk with both of you. Is there sometime tomorrow we can all meet?”
“I will ask Cameron to take me for a drive toward Laura Plantation. It’s one of my favorite places, because the original Laura was Creole, just like me. I’ll ask that you come too. Marie-Therese will have to let you go when he tells her I want you for my companion so he and Benard can discuss business. Marie-Therese understands business.” I had the feeling Marie-Therese more than understood this business but kept that to myself.
“I would like that,” I said. Just then Benard returned with the tray from Lisa, and I made an excuse to get back to my duties, promising to return before I left for the day. By then Celine would have talked to Cameron and I could report back to Sylvain. Maybe we could kill two birds with one stone. Rescue Celine and give Benard some inside information at the same time. Maybe.
“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”