Tick-Tock, it’s Fall O’Clock!

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.

autumn

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.

Mae

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.”

“Elevator?”
“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.”
“What?”
“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.”
Elizabeth Lawrence

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Doin’ The Quick-Step

Yogi-Bear-show-02

“Dance like nobody’s watching…” Good advice from Satchel Paige. “Life is a dance”, said Martha Graham, or if she didn’t she should have. Even Voltaire had thoughts on what dance means to life, but what none of them tell you is that the dance isn’t necessarily a waltz, or even one of those slow dances we all craved in high school; standing almost in one spot, swaying to the dulcet tones of the likes of Frankie Avalon, Elvis, Axl Rose, Styx…the generation doesn’t matter. The slow dance did.
Who knew that sometimes the dance of life is done in double-time, like the old quick-step we see on Dancing With the Stars…or in The Music Man. Buddy Hackett and partner whirling around the dance floor and collapsing at the end….glad to have done the dance but just as glad to stop and rest a bit before returning to a slower pace, perhaps a foxtrot.

I’ve been doin’ the quick-step almost non-stop these days. Summer is coming to a close, the population here has increased by around 30,000 with the arrival of a new school year at the local U, I’m working more hours than I have in months, and the days seem to morph into evenings before I notice. The ideas in my brain rattle around, colliding with the lists of things to do. Cloning myself would be lovely.

Frustration over things I can’t control only makes me dance faster, hoping that someone will take action while I whirl around the floor. Worrying about what I can control gets in the way of solutions. Sometimes, anyway. I’m querying one mystery, working on a second, filing rejections, re-reading my query letter, trying to imagine a two paragraph synopsis when I’m fortunate to have condensed my plot to one page, and of course being witty and readable on this blog. I don’t ask too much of myself, do I? And did I mention my day job?

Play no little violins for me though. Like most people fortunate enough to have choices, I make mine and dance to the music they create. Would I give up my writing and the pleasure it gives me? No. Creating stories feeds my soul. Would I give up that day job? Again, no. Helping people find books, music, even movies that touch their hearts is something I relish. Sharing the things I love gives me joy. Oh…and the paycheck is nice as well, especially for those little perks like travel, plays, and books of my own. Will I stop complaining? Probably not. I’m human. Will I keep dancing? Indeed. As long as my feet don’t fail me and I can hear the melody.

Mae dances too, as we saw when she joined that Second Line. She’s probably out there right now. But she’ll be back. Until then, why not take Satchel Paige’s advice and do a step or two? There’s music if you choose to hear it.

owl pussycat

“And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon.”
― Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

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…And the Creek Don’t Rise…

river

It’s been one of those weeks. Oh, I know it’s only Wednesday as I write this, but sometimes weeks can run from one major happening to another instead of by the calendar. Summer is still too much like Spring most days, although this week is supposed to give hot temps and humidity a shot at some resemblance to the Dog Days of Summer I remember from my childhood. Shorts, halter tops and flip flops…we called them thongs in my neck of the woods far before that word became part of the world of lingerie…’cannonballs’ into the local pool and trips to DQ or Prince Castle for their (now extinct) triple square dipped sherbet cones. By August we were already laying in school supplies and putting winter coats on layaway at the local department store. No worries about anything other than the number of lightning bugs we could catch in the evening.

The strangeness of the weather seems to carry over to emotions as well. We’ve been doing multiple events at my job, events geared toward not only driving some business but to give kids some new things to think about and old things to enjoy. We’ve done Pop Culture. Trivia contests, giveaways, drawings, dressed as our favorite characters from cartoons and movies, all without excitement from most of the people we’re trying to reach. The kids are excited of course, at least for the Marvel Comics characters and the day the Imperial Guard came to wander the store along with Darth Vader, but the adults? Meh. Our biggest event was Frozen Day. We had our own Anna and Elsa, take your picture with Olaf, TWO sing-along story times….who knew kids could belt out lyrics like professional singers? They loved it. The parents? “How come Olaf isn’t here? We expected the snowman.” At least they didn’t ‘expect’ the reindeer Sven…although we might have been able to find one in a neighboring city. And James Patterson Day? A cardboard standee was the best we could do. We did give away a gift card or two. And it should have been raining. Everyone was at the pool. Or on the golf course. Who can blame them? Oh…and we had our normal tasks to do as well. Internally we were exhausted. Externally? Well sometimes we were the most cheerful of the lot. It happens. No one wants summer to end, especially if it’s not really come to stay, just dropped in for a visit or two. Even then, wet sloppy tears of rain (and sometimes hail) signal its departure. And that rain comes in buckets. Floods the streets and underpasses, makes rivers rise and overflow their banks, and soaks every living thing fortunate or unfortunate to be outdoors. We don’t need a rain gauge…the depth of water on our street lets us know what we need to…that moisture came too fast and too furious. The ducks from the nearby lake have been known to swim in the pond. There’s more in the forecast…of course there is.

Maybe I should take a page from Elsa and “Let It Go”. Have faith that the creek behind our house won’t rise enough to kiss the edge of my back yard. Enjoy the fact I’m not always feeling the sweat or needing cold water to quench my thirst. Even better, think back to last winter when the snow fell fast and furious and covered everything for days on end. It was cold. Best yet, take each day and make it the best I can. Cross things off my to-do list and make time for my bucket list. Look for the good and do something to lessen the bad. And consider Summer a state of mind, not a season.

Mae is somewhere warm as well…sometimes warmer then here but never as cold. But things are heating up as she does double duty and tries to prevent a flood of bad fortune with only a few sandbags….

Mae

Sylvain’s description had not been based on simple brotherly pride. Celine Lionel Rodrigue was raven haired, dark eyed and ethereal in her looks. A perfect picture of Creole beauty. If it hadn’t been for the slight stumble in her step and the shadows under her eyes. No amount of make-up can truly hide those. I noticed that Cameron kept one hand over hers as it rested on his forearm, careful to match his steps to hers. Whether for appearances sake or out of true concern, the gesture was encouraging to me. That and the look in his eyes as he spoke to her. Benard had been right. Bad guys can love just as hard as good ones. It did compound the problem of her rescue though. I needed more information about Cameron’s involvement in all this. Benard and I had to find a way to talk, and soon.

“Miss Mae, please attend to the crudités on that side table.” Marie-Therese had as usual made no noise. The woman was like a ghost. “And Benard has asked me to send you for more ice. Ma don’t dawdle.”

“Of course, Madame.” All I needed was a moment to set up a meeting. I hurried back to the kitchen, removed a fresh tray of assorted vegetables and dipping sauces from the refrigerator and smiled at Lisa. “I’ll be back to help you serve in a few minutes, lass. I have to get more ice for the bar.” She nodded at me, her attention on the stove-top grill, heating for the filets.

“About time,” Benard growled as he grabbed the bag of crushed ice from me. “I could have done it faster myself.”
“And you didn’t, did you.” I affected a glare at him just in case the Madame was still around. “Just needed another chance to plague me.”
“All clear,” came the whisper. “I’ve been thinking…”
“Me too. And I need more information on Mr. Cameron before I make another move. Can we meet someplace after you’re done here?”
“Not your place. I played that card already.”
“Our Lady. On Rampart. I know the shelter is locked, but maybe we can find a place in the gardens. By the St. Jude shrine. Say midnight?”
“Tempting fate? Magic walks at night, Miss Mae. And so say some, does Marie Laveau.”
“As long as she doesn’t walk into the gardens, I’m fine. I need you to…”
“I’ll need more ice after dinner. Make sure you bring that and more lime juice.”
“As you wish, sir.” I turned away and found myself face to face with Cameron Rodrigue. “Sorry sir,” I mumbled as I did my best courtesy. He ignored my apology and spoke directly to Benard.
“Might I trouble you for some cool water and lime for Celine?” Then he looked at me. “And perhaps you might take it to her in the parlor. Please tell her I will be just a moment while I discuss a matter with Benard.”
“I will be glad to Mister Cameron,” I said as Benard prepared the drink. “May I take her something to eat as well?”
“No, merci. She is not hungry so she tells me. Her appetite…” he shook his head. “The drink will be fine.”

I took the tall glass filled with lime slices and water, a bit of ice at the bottom, and walked toward the parlor. At least I could get close enough to see whether Celine was ill or perhaps sedated.
“Miss Mae! Where are you going with that glass? You are not to take a rest until…”
“Ah, Madame Marie,” I smiled. “Mister Cameron instructed me to take this refreshment to his wife.” I nodded toward the parlor. “With your permission, of course.”
“Oh. Of course. But then you must hurry to help Lisa. We will be dining in ten minutes and it is important to serve our guests promptly.” She haughtily waved me on my way. Someone needed to tie a bell on her.

No one took notice of me as I entered the parlor, so I reached Celine without a problem.
“Your drink, madame,” I said as I placed it on the table next to where she sat. “My name is Mae should you need anything. Anything at all.”
“Ah, merci.” Her voice was a whisper. “But I only need my husband to return.” She fingered the locket around her neck. “He will…” she sighed. “Would you find him please? I think I …”
“Celine?” Damn these carpets. People snuck up on me and I didn’t like it. “Are you feeling worse? I was hoping we could have dinner together.” Cameron sounded genuinely worried. It occurred to me he might not know what was happening to his wife.
“Cam, I think I’d feel better lying down upstairs. I thought I would be all right but the lights and the conversation are making my head ache. Will you take me? To our room?”
“May I help you, Mister Cameron?” Best to put myself in the mix before the Madame could, I thought. “It might be easier if two of us…”
“No, I can manage. But would you ask Marie-Therese to bring up some of Lisa’s special broth and perhaps some unbuttered toast?” I watched as he offered both hands to his wife and helped her off the settee. “And tell Benard to inform my brother I will join the others as soon as I settle my wife in our room?” I nodded and hurried off to find my most recent partner in crime, this time with a valid reason for conversation.

“I don’t need ice, Mae,” Benard said as he saw me approach, looking over my shoulder to see who might be watching.
“No worries, Benard. I don’t have any. But I do have a message for you from Mister Cameron. Please tell his brother that Celine is feeling poorly and he will be in to dinner once he has her settled.” I saw by Benard’s face that he was as concerned as I was. “I have to get Marie-Therese to bring up some broth and toast.”
“She won’t like that one bit,” Benard muttered, keeping his voice low. “She is to dine at table with the guests tonight. This doesn’t happen often. But it might work to our benefit.”
“How?” And then I saw his point. I could offer to take Lisa’s dishes upstairs and possibly talk with Celine. “You know, that’s not bad on the spur of the moment.”
“I have my good days. Now get yourself to Marie-Therese and keep me posted. I’ll let the Mister know.”

As things turned out, I managed half of that errand. Marie-Therese was more than happy to let me play delivery person but insisted that she oversee the tray that was to go up. I tended the grill for the short time it took Lisa to heat the broth and brown the bread, so I almost missed what gave the game away. The Madame made some adjustments to the linen on the breakfast tray used to convey meals to those wanting to eat in their rooms. As she passed over the deep bowl of clear soup, I thought I saw something leave her hand and disappear into the hot liquid. Of course by the time the tray was given to me, all I could see was the bottom of the bowl through the broth. I would need to be the one to take the tray away if I wanted to get that bowl before it was washed. Or….
“Madame Marie, may I have a plain mug to take up as well?”
“Might I ask why?” The Madame raised her eyebrow at me. “We are only sending broth, not coffee or tea.”
“I was thinking perhaps Missus Cameron might find the warmth of the cup comforting in her hands, and I could keep the bowl covered so the broth does not cool as quickly.” We had done this at home when I was a child. No microwaves to re-warm liquids or food.
“One of your old customs, I assume?” Bright woman. What I wanted was a sample of the innocent looking soup. I could always pretend to have broken the mug. A few dollars out of my pocket to see if there were drugs about was a small price to pay.
“Yes, madame.”
“Oh, all right. Lisa?”
Lisa handed me a plain mug and smiled before she turned the filets with a practiced hand. “I will save you some of the pudding, Miss Mae. In case Missus Cameron would care for it.”

Negotiating the stairs to the second floor was no problem, although the tray was heavier than I wanted. I knew which was Cameron and Celine’s ‘official’ bedroom, so that is where I went. I was half expecting an empty bed, given that there was no sign of Celine ever actually occupying this room with her husband, but she was installed on the left side of the king sized bed, already tucked in and propped up with several pillows. Cameron sat next to her, his hand resting on her cheek.
“Excuse me sir, but I’ve brought the tray. Madame Marie is otherwise engaged.” I walked to the bed and placed the tray near Celine. “Will you be staying, sir?”
“Cameron? Will you stay? I don’t see you often since you’re so busy.” Celine put her hand over his.
“Oh cher, I would but this is an important dinner and you know my brother wants me there. I promise to come back as soon as I can. Once this deal is settled, you and I can return to Baton Rouge and our cottage. But tonight…”
“I understand, Cam. But there are times….”
“Mister Cameron, I am happy to stay with your wife if she wants company. I promise to find you if there’s a problem, but perhaps just having someone in the room while she has the broth will ease her worries.” And give me a chance to let her know Sylvain had sent me to help her if she needed it. And I wanted to find out what was in the broth.
“Celine? Would you like company?”
“I would prefer yours, but…” she smiled in my direction. “ Of course.”
“My name is Mae, Missus.” I settled the tray over her knees and used the ladle I’d brought from the kitchen to spoon some of the broth into the mug. “If you like, this will warm your hands while you sip it.”
“Thank you.”
“Yes. Mae, I’ll let Marie-Therese know you’ll be taking care of my wife. Please let Benard know when she is finished so I can come and say good night” Cameron kissed his wife on the forehead and left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
“You come from Baton Rouge?” That was as good an opening as any, I figured. Just curious enough.
“Just in the last year, Mae. What family I had was in Belle Chasse. There is no one now but me, so I wanted to go away. I chose Baton Rouge. That is where I met Mr. Cameron.”
“No family? How sad for you. How sad for your brother too, since he is alive and well and in New Orleans.” I was rewarded for my candor by a sharp intake of breath followed by a coughing spell. I quickly took the mug from her hands and made her sip from the glass of lime and water she’d carried upstairs with her. She peered at me from over the lip of the glass as she managed to swallow some of the liquid, her eyes wary. “No fear, Celine. I am here at his request.” My charge visibly relaxed but said nothing. “More broth, ma’am?”
“No. I mean perhaps in a moment. Marie-Therese would be displeased if I sent the bowl back with any left. She is most insistent. But,” she set the water glass down and met my eyes with a curiosity I had not expected given her condition. “Tell me how you know about Antoine?” Smart girl despite everything.
“Sylvain, you mean,” I corrected her. “Antoine has a restaurant in the Quarter.” I smiled. And so did she. Sylvain was right. She had a radiance that came from inside. “He and I are friends. When he couldn’t find you in the Market after you called him, he was worried. He also knows you claim to be an orphan.” It was time for honesty. “And he fears for your safety with these…people. More so after you disappeared and never called him again. So, he asked me to make sure of your safety. Rescue you if I had to. No one really notices a servant so this was how I chose to act on his request.”
“I was frightened when I called that day, Mae. Then Cameron found me and everything seemed better. I should have called him back but there was no time really. And I have not been well. Cam and I hoped it was because I was pregnant but the family’s doctors say no. They don’t seem to know why I am…”
“So tired? With no appetite?”
“Yes.” Celine looked at me, suspicion in her eyes again. “I have had tests and the results…”
“According to the ‘family’ doctors,” I said. This was getting more complicated by the minute, and my Scots sense told me Celine was in more danger than she knew.
“Mae? What does my brother think is going on? Cameron would never lie to me. He loves me. I know that. I did not even meet his family until just before the wedding, and I…”
“I don’t want you to doubt your husband,” I assured her. I had seen his concern for her myself. It was the rest of the family I worried about. “But I would like you to trust me, at least for tonight.” I indicated the covered bowl of broth that sat front and center on the tray. “I think someone here wants you out of the way, and the broth is a way of doing that. I saw Madame Marie drop something into the liquid before I brought it up.”
“No…”
“Please,” I lifted the cover off the bowl and poured in the contents of the mug. Then I pocketed the mug, empty except for a few drops at the bottom. Celine watched me in horror.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s enough in the mug to test for a sedative or other drug, lass. Now I’m going to empty the rest of the broth down the sink in your bathroom.” Celine started to protest again but I held up one hand. “If I’m wrong, nothing is lost. If I’m right…”
“If Sylvain truly did send you, this is something he would do as well,” Celine admitted. “He is overprotective but I think you are too.” She smiled at me. “Do what you need to do. I will try and eat some toast and then wait for Cameron. It will be nice to be awake for once when he comes up. He is away so often I do not like to stay here by myself. Marie-Therese suggested a small room upstairs near the back so I would not be disturbed and…” Her eyes widened. “I am to call her when I wake and she brings me a tray. Oh, Mae…are you right?” Panic settled on her face. “How can I…?”
It was time for me to be the caring sister I always was with Drum. Speak plain and calm and handle the demons. This time for Celine. Until I could get her…and probably Cameron as well…out of this mansion.
“Keep calm, lass. Until I know for sure whether the soup is tainted or not, it does no good to let yourself flutter like a moth against the windows. Sylvain only had a strong sense that something might be wrong, not a certainty.” A lie of course since Benard/Tenny had told us his side of the tale, but she didn’t need to know that…or that Benard was here to take the family down. “I will see him after I leave tonight and he can take the mug to test.” And now the hard part. “If there is evidence of drugs, he will want me to get you out of here. Before something worse happens. We would need to move quickly.”
Celine drew herself up in the bed, her eyes flashing. “Not without Cameron.” I feared that. So I lied again.
“Cameron too.” If he loves you enough. “One more thing,” I cautioned. “Without the drug in your system, you might feel sick for a little while…if you do, just remember it’s temporary. I’ll see if I can convince Madame to let me tend to you. Make sure that broth is healthy.” I gave her a smile. “Maybe some of Lisa’s pudding as well.”
“I will tell Cameron how well you tended me,” Celine said. “He will insist on it being you, no matter what Marie-Therese says.” She spoke with all the confidence of a woman in love. I hoped she was right. I took the broth and poured it down the drain in the sink, leaving just enough to convince Madame that Celine had tried her best to empty the bowl. I washed my hands and rinsed the porcelain sides to take care of any trace of broth before I went back to Celine.
“I’d better get meself down those stairs,” I said with a bit of Scots brogue. “The Madame will be looking for me to clear the table and Benard will need more ice.” I picked up the tray and gave her an encouraging smile. “I’ll tell Mister Cameron you’re waiting for him.”

Madame Marie was indeed looking for me, none too happy with me staying upstairs so long. It was at Mister Cameron’s request, I told her, knowing she would double check with him, and did she know where he was so I could tell him Missus Cameron wanted to see him before she fell asleep. She bustled off at that, leaving me to find Benard and check on the ice.
“Where did you get yourself to?” Some greeting.
“Tending to Missus Cameron,” I told him. His jaw dropped just enough to let me know he hadn’t expected that. “She knows about me.”
“Our Lady. At midnight.” He looked behind me. “Just one more bag for the evening, Miss Mae. If you can manage. May I be of service, Mister Cameron?” Celine’s husband headed toward us, his eyes questioning my presence.
“Just bringing more ice, sir. Did Madame Marie find you?”
“I haven’t seen her, Miss Mae. I wanted to thank you for offering to stay with Celine. Did she manage to eat something? I’m worried about her. Lately… In any case. Thank you for taking the time. My brother would never have understood.”
“I was glad to help, sir. She seemed to rally a bit and asked me to let you know she wanted to see you before she fell asleep. That was why the Madame was looking for you. If you’ll excuse me, I need to help Lisa with the clean-up.” I curtsied again and hurried out. The cup was burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to get it to Sylvain as soon as I could. Before I met Benard at the church.
Clean-up was easy given the number of guests and dishes, but Lisa was smart enough to have soaked the dishes as they came back so we only had to load the heavy-duty dishwasher and cart the linens into the laundry area. On the way I managed to transfer the mug to my purse. Good thing since Madame Marie made me hand over the apron and change back into my regular clothes. So far, so good. Not for long though. The good always seems to show bad the way.

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Carpe-ing the Diem

fish

The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time – Abraham Lincoln.

Most of us worry about the future. And why not? After all, we’re brought up to believe that what we do as children and young adults can affect what happens to us—and others—in that nebulous place not yet seen. Sometimes we even capitalize it. The Future…and add whatever applies: space travel, education, technology, medicine, the world as we know it. The future lies in being tech-savvy, moving to the right job at the right time…and then leaving that job when a “future offer” seems more enticing. Sometimes, the Future is an edict…as in “your future. Son (or daughter) is in the family business. Why do you think we paid for that education?” Daunting, right? Do we have a choice? Are we driven to make choices based on what might happen?
The truth is…as President Lincoln said so well…that our futures do come one day at a time. Each day is a step forward if we want it to be, or we can make no move at all. The interesting thing is that we can also use that future day to repair or enhance the events of the prior day…or days. We have the opportunity to make ourselves better or worse, to take a minor detour to enjoy some unexpected delight that may never happen again, to decide to put on blinders to hide what happens around us, to create, to destroy, to laugh…even cry. It’s in our power to make our day the best one it can be. Whether we choose to use that power is up to us.
One thing I’ve learned is that focusing too much on what ‘may be’ rather than on ‘what is’ steals our time on this planet. Yes, it’s prudent to take steps to prevent those catastrophes we can and make the good things even better, but it is just as important to recognize what we can and can’t control…or even predict. We too often say “Well, I can’t do anything about that” when in fact we can. One little step forward, one kind act. It doesn’t take much. And we feel better for it.
Mae McEwan never studied Mr. Lincoln…or if she did it was only in passing as the Scots taught History in school. She does however subscribe to his belief that we take things one day at a time. Take the opportunities life gives, deal with the disappointments, do what good can be done. Go to sleep each night thankful for the day and know that the next one will be a clean slate on which to write.

Mae

The sun was up by the time my old alarm clock buzzed to life. One thing I was never sure of in this city was which way was east and which was west, but there was enough light filtering through the stained and dusty window blinds to let me know I needed to be on the move. Sylvain had mentioned taking Drummond to Our Lady to finish doing the yard work, so my mind was easy on that score. Left to himself me brother is a magnet for everything New Orleans flaunts, but work was the one thing that gave him some sense of who he used to be back before the whisky. I bent over to give him a kiss on the brow before I tidied myself up and assumed the identity of Mae McFarland once again.
It took less time to make my trip to the mansion…the Rodrigue mansion if I remembered the name right. Sylvain knew it, that was sure. And if he didn’t like his sister being in the middle of it, well neither did I. I let myself in the back door to find Lila bustling about like a fox in the hunt.
“Mornin’, Miss Mae,” she breathed as she swept by me to put some chopped vegetables in a huge copper pot. “Busy time today. The Missus gave me a menu this morning for the soiree she and the Mister are hosting tonight.”
“Tonight? Isn’t that a wee bit late notice?” I dropped my bag in the coat cupboard and found a clean apron. I would have asked what a ‘swaree’ was but figured I should know that having been in service for the de Villiers.
“The Missus apologized after she told me. Evidently there’s to be an important meeting with some business associates this week. She hasn’t been able to entertain since they moved here, not really. The Mister told her this would be the perfect way to welcome everyone. Some of them…”
“Gossip doesn’t do anything more than waste time and air, Cook.” Neither of us had heard Marie-Therese enter the room. “We have only a few hours to make this place shine.” She looked at me and I knew she blamed me for Lila’s lapse of concentration. “Miss Mae, we will indeed be having guests and some of them will be staying with us for a time. Please make sure that every room sparkles. The tapestries are being freshened this afternoon, so you might tend to the other rooms on this floor first and then do the bedrooms upstairs. All of them. I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigue will appreciate the extra effort on your part.” That Marie-Therese expected extra effort every day was a given, so I nodded.
“Will I be needin’ additional supplies for the third floor as well so I can tend to those guest rooms?” That would be one way to get up there and see what I could discover.
“No. The rooms on the second floor are adequate for the number of guests, Miss Mae. I had the houseboys carry the area rugs out to the back to hang. They’ll beat them and then let the warm air work her magic to freshen them. If you would be so kind as to buff the wood floor with that soft mop, they can replace them before the dinner guests arrive.” She peered at the watch she kept on a long chain around her neck. “My driver should be waiting. I find I will be gone most of the day so I must trust you and Lila will honor the schedule. Lila, I have your list and will have the grocer deliver what you need in more than enough time for preparation. If you find you find you need something more, please call me. I will see the item is added to the order. In the meantime, you may assist Miss Mae if she needs you.” Having said her piece, Marie-Therese turned and walked out of the kitchen towards the portiere where ‘her’ driver was probably wishing for anything but her company.
I told Lila I’d let her know if I needed help and to do the same with me and then grabbed my tray of supplies and started with the dining room, the absence of those tapestries making the room appear much brighter and larger. I put my skills on autopilot and tried to figure out how I could use Madame Marie’s prolonged time away from the house to my advantage. By the time I had polished and vacuumed and dusted and plumped the rooms on the first floor I had the glimmering of a plan to scout out the forbidden third floor. I needed to do that quickly, so I hustled myself and my tools up the stairs and placed them in the first room to be cleaned. Taking extra care so my heels would not click on the wood flooring, I made my way to the stairs leading to what I hoped would be the answer to Sylvain’s problem; Celine in one of those rooms more than ready to be rescued. And maybe enough evidence to get my temporary employer and his men out of circulation.
I’d learned as a child that old steps tend to squeak. Got meself caught a time or two trying to sneak out to do some mischief and found that staying close to the railings made for more quiet progress up and down. Served me well through the teenage times and when I snuck out the final time to follow me brother. Keeping that in mind, I took the staircase one step at a time and was rewarded by total silence. And a gate of sorts stretched across the posts at the top. No problem. Since the staircase sat at the midpoint of the house, there was a hall on either side, with a railing that stretched from the end of the stairs to the front of the upper level. Doorways, six on either side, beckoned me. Most were open, with the light shining through swirls of dust and…dust. I looked at the floor before me. Aside from a tattered runner stretching toward the rear of the building, there were no rugs. And enough dust on the unpolished flooring to track anyone who stepped off that piece of carpet. Shite. My eyes studied the area and found one room off to the left with a closed door. Close to the rear of the house, my guess was that it sat right above the kitchen-mud room area, far enough away from any activity that sounds would be muffled, or not heard at all. That’s where I’d keep someone I didn’t want free, I decided. Now how to get there.
“Off limits,” a voice growled behind me. Shite again. “Didn’t I tell you not to snoop?” The hand on my shoulder was not as forceful as yesterday.
“Benard,” I whispered.
“The same.” He used his hand to turn me toward him. “And just what are you up to? This wasn’t part of the plan.”
“Opportunity knocked,” I said. “Plus I’d like to find Celine before something happens to her. You said she looked ill. The sooner I’m out of here, the faster you can get back to your own business.”
“You won’t find her if they catch you where you’re not supposed to be, Mae. Let me do what I said I would. I’ll ask Mr. Cameron. He’s a part of this, but he married her because…well, love happens even with the bad guys. I was looking for you when I saw you climbing the stairs. Neat trick that, staying to the sides. I’m supposed to go with him to the airport to pick up some of the associates. You get your work done before that dragon lady comes back and be helping Lila in the kitchen. Poor woman is ready to poison the gumbo.”
What could I do? The third floor was dusty and as quiet as a tomb. If Celine was up here, she wasn’t moving or moaning, and I couldn’t risk being discovered either. That Benard had managed to catch me unawares rattled me. He was right. At least I’d satisfied my curiosity about the place.
“I see your point, Benard. I don’t like it, but for now I’ll back off. I’m no good to Sylvain if I’m fired. This is between us, though. No one else needs to know.”
“Of course.” He stepped back to let me past him. “Just don’t push the envelope. But if you see anything that might help me in my job, I’d appreciate it. I’d like to stop shaving my head every day.” He chuckled. So did I. Just then a door banged open somewhere on the first floor and we both scrambled down the third floor stairs.
“Benard! Kote ou ye? We’re going to be late!”
“Mr. Cameron,” Benard whispered. “On my way, sir!” He patted my shoulder. “Watch for me later.”
“Hurry, man!” Cameron was almost at the stairs.
“Coming!” Benard clattered down the stairs just as his boss stepped on the first one. Crisis averted. “I was having a word with the new housekeeper. About tonight.” Advantage Benard.
I listened until I heard the door close behind them and considered the work that lay ahead. I’d done the guest rooms yesterday, so I concentrated on those in use by the family and then used the remaining time to freshen the air and plump the pillows everywhere else. I soft-buffed the floor, surveyed my work, and caught sight of the footprints Benard and I had left on the stairs to the third floor. I swept them away, figuring a clean staircase was less noticeable than a dusty one with shoe marks. That done, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed down to find Lila.

To say Lila was at her wit’s end would be charitable. Four boxes of groceries had landed courtesy of the neighborhood gourmet grocery and she was trying to sort through them with one hand and stir something pasty looking with the other.
“Miss Mae! You are the angel from God. Might I ask you to stir the roux while I find the filets for tonight’s main course?” She offered me the wooden spoon in her right hand. “It must be done over a very low flame and stirred until quite dark. Please. It will only be for a moment while I marinate the beef and let it rest in the cooler.” The gratitude in her smile seemed more suitable for a knight in shining armor than for my whisking a mixture in a pot, but I took the utensil from her and gently stirred the thickening liquid. I knew what a roux was. We had made them at home, although never to this shade of brown. Lila found the filets and placed them into a shallow glass dish already half full of a burgundy mixture of spices and…wine I think. After turning them several times, she placed them in the huge refrigerator and rescued her roux from my inexperienced hands.
“What else can I do to help you, Lila?”
“Pray for me, Miss Mae.” She softened that request with another smile. “If you would unpack the groceries for me that would be a great help. I tried to ask Madame Marie for an extra hand. It is so short a time to expect so much to be done. And the beef must be prepared just as they finish their first course or it will be dry.”
“No worries, Lila.” I looked inside the boxes. The packer had organized them so that all the cold food was in one while the others held the non-perishables. “It won’t take me but a minute to sort through these things and get them put away. How many are you cooking for?”
“The Missus told me to make enough for twelve. She will be there of course, and the Mister. Mr. Cameron and his wife if she’s well enough. That is four. Benard is to be there. The others are coming in this afternoon. Why?”
“Just me being nosy,” I joked. “Still, that is a lot of work for you. Not that I’ve been asked but I expect Madame Marie will want me to stay and help serve.” That explained the starched apron and cap I’d seen hanging in the cupboard. “But,” and here I paused. My next question was a dangerous one. Oh what was the worst that could happen. Lila could tell Madame Marie but nosiness was no crime.
“But?” Lila prodded me.
“You mentioned that Mrs. Cameron might not be well enough. Is she very ill?”
“I do not really know other than I have had to make her broth and plain custards ever since they’ve arrived. She stays upstairs mostly. When she has come down it is only for a short time. Surely you’ve seen her as you clean?”
“No, but then I don’t know the schedule of everyone in the house so perhaps she is out with Mr. Cameron or the Missus when I tend to their room.” Lilia didn’t need to know there was no indication that Celine ever spent any time in the bedroom she supposedly shared with Cameron.
“She rarely goes out, but that is possible. Perhaps to the doctor?”
“That must be it. I’m sure I’ll see her at some point. Now,” I turned the subject back to the tasks at hand. “Is there something I can chop or shred or dice for you? “ It wouldn’t help to have Marie-Therese walk in to discover ‘her’ kitchen in disarray and me chattering away.

Entertaining in New Orleans is an art. Temporary staff is hired, the liquor cabinet restocked, the linens not only pressed but mildly starched, and the tables in the parlor are filled with unusual delicacies. The Rodrigue soiree was no exception in all but one area. Not a temporary bartender, server, or butler to be found. By the time I had finished my prep work with Lila, Marie-Therese had sent me to lay the table, set small trays in the parlor for the appetizers, make sure there was ice for the drinks, and plump the pillows on the sofa one last time. Then she had directed me to the cupboard to get the apron and cap I’d seen earlier.
“I’m sure you’ve done this in your service with the de Villiers,” she said. “This is a small party, so you should have no trouble. Just do as you did the other evening. Keep the platters filled, offer to refresh their drinks. Benard will be our bartender this evening. You may want to discuss the details with him. He’s also greeting guests, so do not worry yourself about the door.”
I hadn’t seen Benard since our meeting on the stairs. He’d told me to find him, and Madame Marie had just given me the perfect excuse to talk to him throughout the evening. No time like the present, I decided.
“Then if you’ll excuse me,” I said in my best servant voice, “I’ll find Benard and let him know I’ll be staying. And ask him if he needs anything special for the bar.”
“The guests should be arriving shortly, Miss Mae. Please do not dawdle over the details. I’m sure Benard will let you know as he needs things.” She waved me away and turned her attentions to Lila’s creations. I left the room, anxious for the evening to begin. Maybe I would finally see Sylvain’s Celine. The chimes from the front door announced the arrival of the first guest. Benard’s voice echoed in the foyer as he welcomed someone in. A moment later I saw him striding toward me.
“What the hell are you still doing here?” He looked at my new apron. “You’re kidding of course.”
“No. Madame Marie has pressed me into maid service. This must be some dinner.”
“You don’t want to know,” Benard muttered. “By the way, Mr. Cameron assured me his wife is fine, thank you, and she will be with him tonight, at least for dinner. Good news, no?”
“Not when Lila’s been making her broth and custards for the past week. Something’s not right.”
“Just don’t meddle. Once the after dinner cigars and brandy come out, get your butt out of here. I already have enough to worry about.” His voice turned bossy. “And make sure my ice buckets are kept filled. Now go and find the cocktail shakers.”
“Ah, Benard there you are.” The Missus, exquisitely dressed in a floor length sheath of violet and blue, put her hand on Benard’s arm and squeezed it. “Would you assist me for just a moment? In the parlor?”
“Of course, ma’am.” The look he gave me told me that his undercover work was not the only ‘thing’ he had to deal with. Oh how I wanted to be a meddling mouse on the wall. But, I sighed, first things first.

Making my way around the front parlor was like running through the brush. Other than the Missus, who was holding court by the screened fireplace, everyone was male. And big. I’ve never seen so many men who looked like they could lift a bull in each hand. Still, I managed to avoid being crushed. Sadly I could not avoid being pinched. I did step on a few designer shoes in retaliation, always excusing myself in my best Dundee accent. Then above the baseline of male voices, I heard Benard from the hallway.
“Mr. Cameron. Mrs. Cameron. The others are in the parlor.”
Moments later, Cameron Rodrigue and his wife entered through the open doorway. He was clad in black formal attire much like the rest of the party. His hand rested over that of the petite, dark haired woman who clung to his arm, her face as pale as the new moon. Around her neck hung an antique locket. I had found Celine.

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There Is No “I” in Soccer

Soccer
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.

MAE
“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.”
“Celine.”
“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.”
“Oh hell.”
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.”
“Then what?”
“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.

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Not My Circus

circus tent

If you haven’t seen the phrase, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” on Facebook or other social media—it’s an old Polish proverb—then you may not realize the words are just another way of saying, “Hey, it’s not my problem.” Or “leave me out of it”. One way to deal with difficulties to be sure. Ignore them, avoid them, wish them away, but never confront them. Of course it also means “I don’t care. Don’t bother me. I have my own baggage.”
What with all the social commentary so available to us in so many ways, news programs online and on air, sound-bytes exhorting us to do this or give to that, and to get involved in good causes, it’s understandable that some people simply want to tune out. Compassion overload. But the problem is that we do need to be involved in something, even if it is simply ourselves. Compassion and empathy are, I believe, parts of the human condition. We go through life….most of us anyway….trying to make things better; for us, for our children, for the country, and yes for the world as well. We learn this at an early age from our parents, on the playground, whenever we see a person help another person. Helping is a good thing. Right?
As we get older and more self-focused we can lose sight of the bigger picture. We tend to classify people as those who “should be helped” and those who “brought this on themselves”. In the real world that doesn’t always apply; something we discover as we age a bit more and have had to dodge life’s curves and calamities. When we ask for help and someone says “Not my circus” it stings. If we have helped that someone in the past, it stabs us in the back. And it makes us wonder if helping anyone other than “us” is even worth the effort. Not that we expect things in return for our helping hand. Do we? Because wanting credit for doing good things can also be part of being human. Our sense of self-worth thrives on thank you’s and applause. Even just dropping some coins in the red kettle at Christmas gives us a bit of a glow.
So, if helping is a good thing and ignoring the problem is a bad thing, why are there so many problems running rampant without being solved? Solutions take time. Most of us will tell ourselves there isn’t enough time in the day as it is. The thing is, there is enough. Maybe we don’t have time to go to a foreign country and dig wells or go to disaster-stricken areas after every earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, but we can do our part. Donate supplies when we can, offer to spend one evening on a telephone tree, help build or rebuild a house for Habitat. Mentor a child one day a week and possibly change his or her life. There are many opportunities in this world which cost only time and caring. We can all be a part of those opportunities if we look for them. Because, in spite of everything, the world is our circus. It’s up to us to make it the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
By the way, our friend Mae knows this well. Better than most. She gave up her way of life to make sure that her brother didn’t endanger his. With one exception. Mae also gets involved with other circus trains along the way….

Mae
I hadn’t counted on being late back to my new place. Trouble is I didn’t take into consideration what happens in New Orleans after dark most nights. Music and more music, crowds in the streets dancing, and me finding myself caught up in a Second Line going in the same direction I was. Now I was never much of a dancer, though I can do a decent Reel if the music and the whisky are right, but there’s something about the tunes of this city and her people that makes you want to move with the rhythm and strut to the beat. So I did, all the way down Frenchman to where the Old US Mint stands. Then I headed over to the building Drum and I were to call home for a while. There in front of the entry paced Sylvain, his eyes scanning the area, his face a study in worry.
“Dear God, Mae! I was about ready to call 911. Where have you been?”
“Och, man, I’ve been comin’ home from work, that’s where I’ve been.” Telling him I’d been dancing in the streets did not seem prudent. “If ye wanted me here soonest, you should’ve sent me a cab.” I moved past him but not before he’d taken my arm.
“Do you know how dangerous this city can be after dark? You could have been attacked or worse.”
“Aye, right,” I scoffed. “I look like a rich tourist with no brains. I thought you said Morales told you about me. I can handle myself. But my feet can’t handle me bein’ in these shoes much longer. And I want to see Drum’s settled in before we talk.” I didn’t wait for a reply, just took myself and walked into the building. A moment later I heard the thunk of his boots as he followed me up the stairs. “Ye didn’t lock the door?” I stared at the opening to my crib. “Did I not warn you about…?” I slapped his arm just as Drum’s voice called from the main office area.
“That you, Mae? I’ve been waiting to see you before I take my rest.”
“In a moment, dearie.” I looked at Sylvain. “Find me kettle and make us some tea, while I tend to me brother. We can talk at the table. You’ll find some biscuits in the red tin.”

Not long after, I’d gotten Drum tucked in for the night in what now was a combination sitting and sleeping area. Sylvain and Drum had between them managed to acquire two day beds as well as light blankets and pillows and a small table for books and papers. Better than the crates I’d had in Charles City, that was sure, but I missed those crates just the same. I made my own bed ready, since I planned to send Sylvain packing in not more than thirty or so minutes by the old pocket watch on the table in the makeshift kitchen. And I found me slippers, took off my working clothes and decided I needed the other set for tomorrow’s duties, and threw on my comfy chenille robe. Then I padded back to Sylvain.
“Did ye steep the tea right?”
“Don’t sound so skeptical, Mae”. Sylvain’s Cheshire Cat grin should have warned me.
“I’m right particular about my brew,” I said. “It takes a tender touch to get it done to my liking.” I reached for the cup he held out to me, prepared to have the liquid pucker my mouth with the bitterness that comes from over-steeping or too hot water. I took a cautious sip. “Holy heaven!” The warm beverage slid smoothly down my throat like honey from a hive.
“My grand-mere was quite the stickler when it came to tea, Mae. Loose-leaf, never bagged, and always always at the proper temperature. I learned early how to please that palate of hers. So, see? I do have a use or two other than moving man, Drum-watcher, and friend to Alex.” He laughed and then took a long drink from his own cup. “So? How was your first day? Can I hope for an answer to Celine’s location?”
I won’t make you sit through a re-telling of my day, but I didn’t leave anything out, including Benard and that room by the stairs. I had a few choice words about Marie-Therese as well, but that was more to get her out of my craw than anything else. Sylvain sat silent, reacting only when I mentioned my first encounter with Benard outside that ‘storage’ room.
“So you think my sister might be kept in there, Mae? Why else would it be considered off limits?”
“It seemed too quiet,” I said. “No movement, no nothing. And it was the same in the evening as earlier. I’d expect a noise or something, especially when I first rattled the doorknob. Besides, I have my own ideas.”
“Such as?”
“ Patience, man. Remember I was supposed to be live-in help? With a room on the third floor and all?” Sylvain nodded. “Well, once I told them I needed to tend Drummond so didn’t care to stay on the premises, the third floor just happened to need repairs and such and I shouldn’t concern myself about anything up there. So this is what I think. Maybe Celine was kept in that little room by the stairs and maybe not, but now I’d wager a pretty pence or two that she’s somewhere on that forbidden floor. If she’s in the house. And that’s not all.”
“That’s enough for me, Mae.”
“I don’t like the place, Sylvain. Too perfect. Except for Benard. He’s like a square peg in that round hole. That off limits room is hiding something. I want to know what it is.”
“Find Celine, Mae. That’s all I want you to do. Alex warned me about you. A meddler, he said. With a nose for trouble.”
“I told you I can take care of myself. And Drum. Been doin’ it for a fair while…since before I met Morales. And I’ll be doin’ it after we move on from here too. Don’t you want to know what your sister’s messed up in?” I stared at him, wondering if he’d admit to the fact.
“Once she’s out of there, Mae, I don’t care what goes on.” So he said. I could read it in his eyes that he wanted nothing more than to stomp on the people who’d wronged his kin.
“Wrong answer,” I said. “You can’t have it both ways. We can rescue Celine…if she wants to be rescued…” His head came up at that and he glared at me, “Or we can rescue her and make sure she never has to deal with the likes of these people again. That means meddling, Sylvain.”
I poured myself another cup of tea, lukewarm now but still flavorful, and waited in silence while my companion wrestled with his conscience and his emotions. The sounds of the River came in through the partially open window, and there were noises as the building settled down for the night; the creaks and groans of wood and metal and…Sylvain was on his feet before I could put my cup on the table, moving quietly toward the door we’d locked behind us. He held up a hand to stop me from joining him, so I simply stood by the table, ready to do whatever was needed. We both watched as the knob on that door turned slowly from one side to another. Someone wanted in.
Sylvain looked back at me and then moved his hand to unlatch the safety chain and turn the key to release the lock. He placed one hand on the knob, jerked it firmly and pulled the door back. I might have done the same meself I have to say, but watching someone else do the deed sent a shiver up me spine. Because there framed by the door jamb stood Benard.

“What the…Sylvain?” Benard’s words were as much of a shock to me as Sylvain’s presence was to him.
“Etienne?” Okay, so now I was doubly shocked. These two knew each other? Sylvain’s next words did nothing to make me any easier. “Where did you come from? Last I heard you were up in Shreveport. And you had hair!” Time for someone with sense to jump in, so I did.
“I take it you two are acquainted.” Not the best opening, I admit but it was late, I was tired, and Benard had tried to throw me down some stairs not twelve hours earlier. “Care to fill me in? Before I find something to use as a weapon?”
“You’d better come in, Tenny,” Sylvain said. “She means it.” He stepped back to let the intruder in and motioned the chair he’d just vacated. “Take a seat. I’ll make more tea.”
“Tenny?”
“Forgive me Mae. My manners have totally deserted me in the face of this unexpected meeting,” Sylvain replied as he took the teapot and went over to the small double hotplate he’d brought over to replace my elderly one.
“Unexpected?” I couldn’t get more than one word out of my mouth. And that a question. I turned my attention, and a hearty glare, towards our guest. “Etienne?”
“Yes, ma’am. Although I realize you know me as someone else. And for that, and my lack of manners earlier I do apologize.”
I sat back in my chair, feeling as though Lewis Carroll had dumped me through the Looking Glass along with Alice and I was now a guest at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Any second now, I thought, and someone would yell “Off with her head”.

monkey

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“….Is the Word”

Fill in the blank in my title for this post and you’ll have a good idea of where I’m going. And you can thank The Jersey Boys, the latest movie to re-visit the days of music past. And bring the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to an entirely new group of listeners.

We’ve been playing The Best of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in rotation as one of our in-store plays at the bookstore and when we do, one of two things usually happens: a teen or twenty-something female walks in and says “You’re playing The Jersey Boys, right?” and seems confused for a moment when we smile and say something like, “No, this is the original Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You know, the show was based on them.” Or someone, and here age and gender don’t seem to matter, walks in and says, “Do you have anything by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? I just saw Jersey Boys and loved it! Have you seen it? You need to.” When we have the CD(s), we find them for the customer…but it doesn’t take much to deplete our stock. One bright note? We finally have the movie soundtrack in stock as well as the original cast recording.

My point? Every so often this generation of music-lovers, whether they love Maroon Five or Birdy, Sarah Brightman or Alfie Boe, feels the tug of the music that went before. If you listen, you can hear the influence of Chuck Berry on The Beatles, Bob Dylan on folk and protest songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even the classic tenor of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. But more importantly the music itself resurfaces thanks to movies, Broadway’s new crop of musicals, even Pandora.
Grease brought back the doo wop and rock of the early sixties coupled with the now almost extinct Drive-In and high school hangouts…bowling alleys, drag races, and young love. The music was fantastic for those of us who’d been there back in the day as well as our kids. Eddie and the Cruisers with a young Tom Berenger and Michael Pare as members of a band making the transition from oldies to hard rock showcases some great music written by John Fogerty. Dark Side is still one of my favorite tracks from this one. Hair and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night brought an entire generation into the late ‘60s with music influenced by the times and earlier artists but still unique. Today Broadway offers everything from Sweeney Todd to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the latest Rap musical based on the writings of Tupac Shakur. In between we can discover both old and new music in movies, television series, and the plethora of radio (yes, radio) stations, FM, online, Sirius, the aforementioned Pandora, and iTunes.

Me? I was extremely fortunate to have parents who believed in music. I’ve listened to everything from Big Bands to Ragtime to Elvis to whatever artist is playing right now in the coffee shop where I write. I love it all, sing along as much as I can when I can, look for ways to hear it live. I cannot imagine a world without music and melody. And neither could Plato…“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.” What about you?

PS. Mae will be back…she got sidetracked on her way home by a late-night Second Line on Frenchman’s Street, but never fear. Mae dances whenever she can but never forgets where she needs to be.

second line

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