It was raining when she stepped into my office. No surprise. It’s been raining on me for, what, 38 years now. This time, though, maybe the rain would wash in something good. If she was as good as she looked, it was a great start.
Even in this gray part of town, this black lady stood out. Black hair, black eyes, black dress, hat, coat, skin. She looked like a panther fresh from a kill, dripping on my hardwood. Made me hungry too.
“I need your help.”
Lady, I ain’t a cop or a Boy Scout. If you want to hire me, siddown. If you need help, there’s a church in the next block. If it ain’t burned down yet.
Awright, so I’m a sucker. If I knew better, maybe I would be a cop and get paid no matter how the case ended.
“My name is Cilia Lime. I’m Billy Lime’s widow.”
Billy Lime. Killed three days ago in the Vieux, gambling.
“Yes. He was shot by Stackhouse Lee.”
So? Getting killed over gambling in Vieux Carré is only a little less common than getting killed for f…ooling around. This still sounds like the cops’ problem to me.
“No, the police aren’t interested. As you said, a dead gambler down here doesn’t rate the attention. I’m concerned with the man responsible.”
You lookin for a killer, lady? I’m not in that line either.
“I just want what’s mine. Billy had taken an heirloom from me and lost it gambling that night. If I can’t have Billy back, I want my family’s treasure.”
True love, huh? So you want a gambler?
“No, I want a thief. I know when Stackhouse will be out. I want you to get this item back for me.”
She handed me a cracked, yellowed picture. Two men with their arms around each other’s shoulders, one holding up a little girl, the other showing off some kind of statue.
That’s your family treasure? And it’s worth all this?
“It means the world to me, Mr. Nale. It’s a statue of Mercury, god of prosperity. That’s my father and uncle holding it up in the picture.”
She nodded. “And me. Daddy always said both his treasures were in that picture. Now, with Daddy and Uncle Karl gone, that statue and the future of the family fall to me.”
Your family, even with your husband gone?
“Husbands come and go, Mr. Nale. Now, about this case…?”
Not much of a case, is it? Awright, I’ll do it. When and where?
“Saturday, after 2 a.m. Here’s the address.”
Sure. Now my fee.
“Without that statue I have no money, Mr. Nale…unless you would accept another form of payment?”
Husbands do come and go, I suppose. I told you I wasn’t smart. So I took her, right then, on my desk, without considering what black widows do to their mates.
2 a.m. Saturday. I’m outside the trash address she gave me, and it’s raining. Some people think rain would help this kind of work, but it just makes things colder and slipperier, and just when you need it dark, old Zeus flips the switch so you have no privacy.
Didn’t need much for this one, though. The door was unlocked.
A smart guy would have gone home and put on dry clothes.
A smart guy would have turned her out four days ago.
So why is the door unlocked? Stack got forgetful before leaving town, or am I part of a party tonight?
Down the hall to the bedroom. Guys like Stack keep things they don’t wanna lose close to them, especially when they sleep.
Which leads to two problems. One, if that’s true, why would he leave it here and go out of town? And two, if he’s out of town, who just put a gun in my ribs?
I’d already looked into the corner so I was no more blinded when Stack turned on the light than he was. But if he had the light, and the gun in front of me, who had the one behind me?
“I told you I heard something, Stagger.”
The widow Lime.
“Look, I ain’t so fond of cops as I wanna call em to my own place, even when I’m bein robbed, so you jes get out and we’ll forget it.”
Reasonable man. I could have a drink with this guy.
“Stack, he was trying to rob you! You can’t just let him go!”
“Cile, I can’t call the po-lice in the middle of the night, neither. You know I ain’t got no friends there.”
“Well, we can’t just let him go.”
Wait, now, hold on. What did I do?
“Cile, I can’t jes kill this man.”
“Why not, Stack? You killed Billy.”
And at that, the gun left my ribs and opened up a hole in Stackhouse. As he fell across his bed I saw the statue. Didn’t seem so important, right now.
What the hell, lady? If you wanted to kill him, why drag me into it?
“Oh, I didn’t kill him. You did. I saw your gun when I was in your office and made sure the one that just killed Stackhouse was the same model. The police won’t look too carefully down here, you know.”
But why? You’re here with him, with your statue.
“I wouldn’t get that statue from Stackhouse any more easily than I could from Billy. He had to die. I do appreciate your help. Too bad the shot woke me before you could get out.”
I grabbed her arm as she tried to change guns.
You get all that, Captain?
Captain Davis came in with two uniforms and led her away. She didn’t say another word. Started talking later, but it didn’t save her.
I’m not smart enough to be a cop, but I’m smart enough to keep a few around. Before I turned off the light and left the room, I picked up the statue that caused all this trouble. Her shot had nicked the base. Looked hollow.
Turns out her father and uncle had been smuggling diamonds. They died in a plane crash in Africa but this statue, their prototype for smuggling the jewels in, had held enough for their family to retire on.
Or for me. Thank you too, Cilia.