“It’s always something.” Roseanne Rosannadanna
No matter who we are or where we are, there are always times that will try our souls, anger us, or perhaps make us wonder at how things got this bad….which is strange because we almost never question how things got so good, or pleasant or sunny. For some reason, our minds are programmed to accept the good as our due….and the bad as something that just needs to go away. Go figure.
This month’s “somethings” are all medical tests….my MD reminded me that it had been (insert number of years here) too long since the last, and while I was at it, I could…..until I had four different screenings set up before month-end. And of course one of those screenings requires a prep. I say no more. Then why, do you ask. Well, I’m kind of tired of my fantastic MD reminding me I need to take care of me. He’s been so supportive in the aftermath of my “stroke of luck” that I hate to disappoint him. I’d rather have the tests and find out I’m healthy than avoid them and get blindsided down the road. And I know for sure that my health plan will pay for them….this year. With all the nonsense surrounding pre-existing conditions and possible changes to Medicare, who knows what 2019 will bring? Right? It’s always something.
I’ve been a pragmatic optimist for some time now. I hope for the best and look for the best, but I also know that real life has potholes and detours and requires adjustment. I’d rather see the good in people but I know they can disappoint, just as I can. We are none of us perfect. That doesn’t mean we can’t try. The next “something” that comes along just might be a kick in the pants to try and be helpful or positive. Have you ever noticed how disasters and tragedies and man’s cruelty to man (and beast) are debated non-stop on social media, in cafes, at meetings? It’s only when the debate becomes action that we start to see possibilities…ways to change that “something” in a good and healing way. More often than not, we (or at least me) feel overwhelmed and unable to help solve the problem. Immediately if not sooner, right? So we make a donation or buy a t-shirt and hope everyone else does. And then we move on. I’m not judging anyone, because I do the same. And the “somethings” seem never-ending, either in our own lives or in the world in general.
So, what to do? Well, first we look at what we can do for our own “somethings”. Take care of those medical tests, be there for our families whenever possible even if only by phone or laptop. Stay connected. While some issues only you or I can confront, most are manageable when shared. When you find a place you can help, offer up what you can. Time, dollars, prayers, whatever is in your wheelhouse. Then make a note to check back later just in case. “Somethings” like to be ignored or shelved so they can grow and fester. Too many of us have seen what happens when they get the chance to do just that.
Chin up, though. Humans don’t take things lying down. We’d have been animal chow long ago if we did. Knock us down and we can get up again. Sometimes it takes help, and all the time it takes love.
I found me car hotter than Hades from the sudden burst of humidity and sun. Nothing to do but open the windows and hope the forward movement at 30 miles an hour would create a breeze. I’m not one to have a grudge against the luxuries of filtered cool air, but turning it on for a drive so short would only waste petrol. I chuckled at my thrift. Me Da would be proud (Your Da? I can hear the question, even though I mentioned him a bit earlier. He and Mum preached thrift. Not penury, just good solid common sense when it came to spending coin, which is why I always find work when I can. Not easy considering where Drummond lands, but I can pick up cleaning jobs and work counters when I need to.) Drum works when he can, but his health makes him seem more than his forty years and his habits…well, that’s why I follow him and stay near when I can. This latest is not his fault. It bothers me I couldn’t do more. It bothers me there are rascals about who prey on those like Drum and it bothers me more that I have to ask for help to stop them. Without realizing it, I’ve pulled to a stop by my temporary home. All peaceful, or so it seems. I grab my bags and head inside, thinking now of a cool shower and some hot herbal tea.
“Miss Mae?” I recognize the voice but the hallway is dim enough to disguise the face of the man heading toward me.
“Who’s askin’?” I say, ready to attack with me bag.
“’S me, Alphonse. Gots a message for you.” As he got closer, I could see his features and confirm it was indeed my young cohort in tea making.
“Let’s get inside then,” I said as I opened my door. “Can I get you something cool? I have some lemonade if you’re thirsty.” Of course my mind was saying “What’s the message?”
“Oh, no Miss Mae. I ain’t needin’ anything, just to tell you Mr. Sylvain will be by later this evening and to give you this.” He held out a rumpled piece of notebook paper. “It’s all numbers and such.” I took the paper and smiled my thanks.
“I appreciate your trouble, Alphonse. Are you keeping watch over me still?”
“Yes ‘m. Until Mr. Ray says otherwise. Now I know that Doctor fella though I won’t stop him.” He lowered his eyes and fidgeted.
“Doctor B? He’s fine. You just get on with your day and I’ll tell Sylvain how helpful you are.”
Alphonse backed out of the apartment, stopped in the doorway to swivel his head each way and then disappeared down the hall. I heard the outer door latch and then closed my own, shooting the deadlock home. Putting my bags on the bench by the door, I went in to take my shower. The note could wait. Alphonse would have been told if otherwise.
By six o’clock I had showered and found some cool clothes, namely a loose green sundress that hung to my ankles and some slip on sandals. Not stylish, but then it didn’t matter to me. After being in work clothes all day I needed comfort. I set the kettle to boil and spooned some rooibos leaves into my brown pot. I had the makings of a salad in the refrigerator and some bread from the bakery, so I was set for dinner. As I sat down to wait for the tea to steep, I picked up the paper Alphonse had brought.
Not only folded, but rumpled from being in a pocket, the cheap paper needed careful handling. I slowly smoothed the square out and then began undoing the folds. If the message had been in pencil, the dampness in Alphonse’s pocket might have caused a problem, but the sender had used a pen.
“Jesus, Mary & Joseph,” I muttered as I looked at the mix of letters and spaces. “What am I supposed to know from this mess? And who would….?” Well, that question was answered by the small letters in the lower right corner of the paper, almost hidden by a wrinkle. in the paper. Alejo a=e . I stared at the word for a moment before I remembered a conversation I’d had with Morales up in Charles City. One of those trivial chats while we were walking through the tent city, a habit both of us had developed since the murders, and somehow we got to talking about when we were kids, me in Scotland and him in Cuba. His parents had made it to Florida at some point, which is how he ended up in the US, but his first home was a tent not unlike the ones surrounding us.
“My mama was always worried about us kids; me anyway,” he told me. “I was always exploring and getting into things. Lots of old rundown buildings, the canals, anything that looked interesting. I can still hear her calling me. ‘Alejandro! Alejo! Venga! Donde estas? Alejo!”
“Nickname. Shorter than Alejandro anyway. And it meant I’d better bust my butt getting back home.” He chuckled. “Now I go by Alex. She’s the only one who still calls me Alejo.”
So. I took another look at the rest of the paper. Morales had trusted me to remember that name. That meant he wanted me to know something, maybe important, maybe not. But me, not Sylvain or Marcus. Great. Dinner first, I decided. I still had time to work on the puzzle before Sylvain came by. I was hungry and I needed distraction, so I grabbed the Times-Picayune I’d gotten the day before and tucked into my salad.
The sun was beginning to disappear behind the trees by the time I’d cleared my dinner remains away. I settled on the couch with the paper and some tea, chuckling at the cartoon page while I waited for Sylvain. A quick knock at my door pulled me back to the present and I remembered to ask who was calling before I unlocked the dead bolt.
It was Sylvain.
“Being cautious, Miss Mae? Good idea.” His smile gleamed in his café au lait face.
“I’m always cautious, Sylvain. Even when I want the news.” I smiled. “Anything you can share? Oh…and please sit. I have some hot water ready to brew some chamomile if you’d like.”
“I’ll not be here that long, I’m afraid.” He stayed close to the door. “Not much to tell other than our friend is in place.”
“It’s been three days, Sylvain. Surely he’s managed to get himself noticed by the people we’re looking for by now.”
“Maybe, but you know how thorough he is. We did track him to the CharityCare you and Drummond visited, but there was no attempt to take him. Unless he was simply being a curious drifter. His GPS puts him back where he’s been staying for the past two nights.”
“I cannot tell you that, Mae.” That damned smile was still there. “You don’t need to know. Remember?”
“Does Marcus know? Ray? The Task Force? I’m as involved in this as anyone. It was my brother getting snatched that spawned this whole set-up.” Me gut was tellin’ me this was a bunch of sheep shite and I didn’t like it.
“Morales asked me to keep you one step removed from this, Mae. For your own safety. And Drum’s. Yes, Ray knows and so does Marcus. Since he’s the link to the Task Force I assume they’re on board as well. It’s a delicate operation, especially since you and Marcus are working undercover already. Your main concern in your brother. Let us handle the rest. There can’t be any slip-ups.”
“Sylvain, you of all people should know I wouldn’t do anything to…” I stopped. Oh, hell. This was a waste of time. And I was tired. “Never mind,” I muttered, “ I’ll just have to trust you.”
Sylvain’s eyebrow went up at my sudden capitulation. “That was a quick reversal, Mae.”
“It’s been a hard day. And I’m feeling a bit guilty that Drummond got taken, and that I had to…”
“I understand, my friend. But for Drummond we wouldn’t be closer to catching these criminals. The elderly are too easily targeted, especially in such a poor city. I know from before that you want to be in the thick of it, but I worry about you getting too close. Marcus and I want to keep you and Drummond as safe as possible.” He glanced at his watch. “I’d better take my leave. I have another matter to get to before I can go home. Alphonse is back on duty now, so you can get some sleep.”
“Just keep me posted,” I said as he left. I locked the door behind him. Liar, I thought. And he didn’t mention the note. I thought he’d been the one to send it on to me by Alphonse, but Alphonse hadn’t said that. Just that he had a message for me and Sylvain would be by later. What if…I undid the bolt and stuck my head out into the hallway.
“Alphonse?” I heard a clatter on the stairs and there he was.
“Was the message you brought me before from Mr. Sylvain?”
“No,’m. It was on a table at Mr. Ray’s place and he said someone left it off for you. Not wrong to bring it was it?”
“No, no. It’s fine. I was just curious. You know Alphonse, I’m glad you’re keeping watch.”
“Mr. Ray and Mr. Sylvain take good care of me and mine. Be here until midnight and then you got Adrian next door. He’s Mr. Ray’s man too. Take care, Miss Mae.”
“And you, Alphonse.” I gave him a last smile and locked myself in again. So if Sylvain didn’t know about the note and it was left at Ray’s, was there something I was missing? As tired as I was, I went back to the table and took another look at the wrinkled paper. There was a pattern even if I couldn’t see it right off. Morales trusted me to figure it out.
And I did.
I’d missed the notation after alejo the first time, more than likely because I fixated on the nickname. I hadn’t expected to hear from Morales directly. Sylvain did have a point about distancing myself from the actual operation, even though I hated it. So this paper, whatever it meant, was a surprise. It wasn’t until I scanned the letters again that I noticed the little addition: a=e. Oh good. Another mystery. As I reached for my tea, I glanced at the newspaper. There, under the cartoons, was the daily cryptogram and the hint l=a OK then. Easy enough. Of course, I thought, I had to be hit on the head with a newspaper. I pulled out a sheet of paper and copied out the letters, and the one number “5” at the end. The two letters after the 5 could be am or pm, so…..a= e and…….
Taam om Qbakrp Tobzam om buxab gow dolj 5 ot
Once I had 5 am (only because it seemed more logical if he wanted to see me to have it be before I went to Begonia), it was a matter of guesswork and error. I even worked the Times puzzle (a quote from A.A.Milne) to get my brain in sync. When I finally had something readable, it looked like Meet at Fren** Market at r**er *a* *a** 5 a m. My best guess was Meet at French Market at 5 am….river? So, Morales wanted to meet me at the crack of dawn at the French Market….a time when new produce was coming in and old was being tossed. Lots of activity, and probably lots of homeless looking to cadge some food. Mae Fitzgerald would stand out like a sore thumb. Time to resurrect homeless Mae McEwan, I thought. That meant a trip back to the loft and avoiding any watchers Sylvain might have around the place. Damn. Better to head over there now, late as it was, and get my gear. Even better, I’d get Alphonse to come with me.
To my surprise, Alphonse didn’t look at all suspicious at my 11PM journey over to the loft. I’d told him I needed some additional materials for my “job” and asked his help to carry the tote to the car. After he delivered it to the apartment, I gave him ten dollars and told him to have dinner on me. He grinned. More than likely, dinner was the last thing on his mind.
Throwing my ‘disguise’ together took all of ten minutes. I laid out a ratty wig as well, just in case. My red hair would stand out like a beacon, even under a cap, and I had no idea who Morales was avoiding at that hour. Something was bothering him. I’d known him long enough to trust his instincts, so old and haggard was definitely the way to go here. Only Marcus had ever seen that side of me. I distributed my usual equipment in the pockets of the skirt and sweater, adding an apple and some pepper spray for good measure. The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like it. Or maybe it was just a meeting to keep me in the loop without Sylvain knowing. Maybe. But it was better to expect trouble than be ambushed by it. I set the alarm for 3 AM knowing I’d be awake before then. If I slept.
I was on my way well before the night gave up her darkness. A fine drizzle kept me company as I negotiated the streets on foot from my temporary home toward the edges of the Quarter. Me car would have caused some notice, especially with me in the rags of a homeless woman. By the time I arrived near the Riverwalk, my feet were sore and I was damp clear through. The mists from the river helped obscure my passage as I slipped by Café du Monde and arrived at the entrance to the French Market. I slipped behind the tent that covered most of the booths and wandered a bit back toward the Mississippi’s banks. I got a curious look or two, but kept my head down and muttered to myself for good measure. The sellers were hard at work getting new product set up with no time to ask me my business. Yet. I needed to find Morales. A soft tap on the shoulder set my nerves going, but I kept my head down and grumbled.
“Mae?” The whisper was next to me ear and I jumped.
“God’s breath, man. Can ye not leave an old woman in peace?” I turned as I spoke, my right hand reaching for the pepper spray in my pocket. “Tis a…”
“There’s a doorway halfway down. Wait there. Por favor.”
The voice belonged to Morales but the accent was different. I shuffled away toward the middle of the market and found an opening cut into the building. My hand rested on the pepper spray and would until I was sure. After a few moments I could just barely make out the shape of something headed my way.
“Forgive me, Mae.” Definitely Morales’ voice. Not that I would have recognized anything about him other than that, or his eyes. Three days had produced a rough beard and uncombed hair, and his clothing was atrocious.
“Forgiven,” I whispered. “You look the part, senor. I wondered… well, I hoped you’d made it. Our friend is cheap with his information.” I didn’t tell him I was worried.
“Slow going. Street people don’t like newcomers. They’re territorial. I keep my sleeping bag at a shelter, but I get last choice on the floor space.”
“But the GPS works.” I gave him a push away from me as couple of workers walked by. “And keep yer distance. You smell.” I heard their uneasy chuckles as they hustled past our spot. We stayed silent for a bit, hidden in the shadows.
Morales frowned. “Too many people here. But…”
“We’re good for a few minutes,” I said. “Crowds and activity distract. But we can’t stay too long. Curious eyes are everywhere.” Morales nodded. He knew that as well as I did. “So?”
“I’m losing the GPS, Mae. I Sylvain, but I don’t think he knows how rough it is here. No,” he said as I opened my mouth, “let me finish. Sylvain and Ray know these streets but not the people who sleep in them, or in the alleyways. I’ve been hit on by strangers in that shelter looking for who knows what. Anyone could be working with the bad guys. Life is cheap to them if they feel they can trade it for cash.”
“I’ll not let ye go back with no safety,” I replied. “Could yo u sleep at the loft? Or maybe…”
“I can’t risk being followed there.”
“One of Sylvain’s street kids could…”
“No. Have to seem on my own, remember? No friends, no nothing.” His eyes searched mine. “But I need to be able to reach you.”
“You. I trust you. Something’s off…too much organization. GPS, CharityCare as my go-to if I’m sick, Gut feeling, Mae. I don’t believe Sylvain’s involved but…”
“No worries. He knows a lot of folks here, and who knows all his connections. He was a help
when I lost Drummond, and I like him. But being edgy isn’t wrong. It’s your life if you go blind into the fray.” I looked at him and sighed. “No cellphone either?”
“No .Best I can do is pencil and paper, and even that’s tricky.”
“Our Lady of Guadalupe,” I said softly. “Up from the Quarter a bit, on Rampart. The priest is a friend.”
“They run a day worker program. Drummond did a few shifts there. You could leave something “from Alejo” with Father Adolfo. I’ll let him know to call me.”
“It’s something, but…”
“Not perfect. But if I don’t hear from you in two days, just to check in, I’m telling Marcus.”
“Deal. For now.” Morales, poked his head outside our meeting spot. “More people moving. I see one or two from the shelter. Be safe, Mae.” And he was gone into the shadows near the Market.
You too, I thought as I waited for me own chance to head back to my apartment. My worry now was what Svlvain and Marcus would do when the GPS went silent. And why Sylvain had lied to me about Morales wanting me out of the loop.