.

Friscoville
A Lucien Caye Story

by O'Neil De Noux

This story is for Dana...



.

.......I had my feet up on my beat-up mahogany desk, the small revolving desk fan flapping the front page of The New Orleans Morning Chronicle as I read about how public enemy No. 1, Lou Jacoby himself, had eluded an FBI dragnet on Bourbon Street last night.

.......I laughed just as the smoked-glass door of my office opened and a little girl walked in. She wore a blue, flowered cotton dress with white socks and black patent-leather shoes, the strap of a small black patent-leather purse draped over left shoulder. She batted her wide brown eyes at me and said, "Are you the detective?"

......."Yeah," I said, pulling my feet off the desk.

.......She closed the door and walked up to the front of my desk and stuck her hand out for me to shake. I reached over and shook it.

......."I'm Vivian Hartley."

......."Lucien Caye." I let go of her hand and sat back down.

......."Do you find missing people?" She looked about seven or eight. Her light brown hair was cut in a pageboy.

......."Sometimes."

.......Her lower lip quivered and she looked away. "I want you to find Amy."

.......She opened the purse and pulled out a picture and passed it to me.

.......It was a cat.

.......A tear rolled down her round cheek and fell on the collar of her dress.

.......I put the picture down and nodded to one of the chairs next to my desk. She moved over and sat, carefully crossing her ankles like a little lady.

......."Amy's a calico. Two years old. She's been missing for two days and I can't find her anywhere." She had a deep voice, the kind that would drive me crazy if she was about fifteen years older.

......."I prayed to St. Anthony all last night, but I still can't find her." She pronounced Anthony the old New Orleans way, "Ant-nee."

.......The old Catholic school rhyme echoed in my memory -

St. Anthony. St. Anthony.
Please come around.
Something I've lost.
Cannot be found.

.......The patron saint of lost things, St. Anthony's reputation was overrated. I didn't tell her that.

......."How old are you?"

......."Eight and a half exactly. I was born New Year's Day, 1940. This is July first, so I'm exactly eight and a half." She punctuated it with a nod of her head.

.......I looked through the venetian blinds out at Cabrini Playground across the street and said, "Where do you live?"

......."Almost next door." She pointed up Barracks Street.

......."Your mother know you're here?"

......."Heavens no."

.......It was at that moment I knew I was hooked. The way she said, "Heavens no" floored me. I pulled a notepad out of my desk and starting writing - Amy. Calico. Two years old. Missing since Tuesday.

......."Um," she said, "how much do you charge? I have seventy-six cents. Is that enough?"

***.......

.......The French Quarter smells old, even with a breeze filtering in from the river on a bright spring morning. It's one of the things I like best about living and working here - the familiar musty smell of old buildings.

.......Stepping out of my office with Miss Vivian Hartley, into the bright sunlight, I slipped on my sunglasses and took in a deep breath of musty air. Across the street the breeze rustled the branches of the oaks and the thick leaves of the magnolia trees.

.......I walked the little miss home, up to her wooden shotgun double with its three small front steps at 925 Barracks Street. I hoped to meet Vivian's mother, figuring if the kid's that pretty, the original should be quite a looker. Vivian went in through the wooden louvered door. I waited, running my hands through my dark wavy hair.

.......Vivian came back and said, "She's not here. She went to the grocery."

.......I told her I was going to canvass now.

......."You'll keep me posted, won't you?" She sure had a way with words, for an eight year old.

.......I told her of course, loosened my tan tie, which matched my pleated tan suit pants and tan-and-white wingtips, and walked up to Burgundy Street to begin my canvass. I worked my way back down Barracks, knocking on every door. Nobody had seen Amy. At least someone was home at each house, except the other half of the double where Vivian lived.

.......I stopped when I reached the bookstore at the corner of Barracks and Dauphine. In the same two-story building as my office, the dusty bookstore was run by a lanky ex-fireman named John who hadn't seen Amy either. I leaned against one of the black wrought iron posts that supported the lacework balcony running along the second floor and wrapped around the corner of our brick building. Some of the masonry that covered the brick had worn away. I liked that. My office was at 909 Barracks. I lived upstairs in Apartment B.

.......I went back to Vivian's and knocked on her door. She answered and asked, "Have you found anything yet?"

......."No." I pointed to the other side of the double. "Who lives next door?"

......."They moved." She let out a long sigh.

......."When?"

......."Day before yesterday."

.......I pulled out my notepad. "What's their name?"

.......I wrote the names Frank and Nettie Gumm on my pad, winked at Vivian and walked back down to my office.

.......Settling in my desk chair, I picked up the phone and called a buddy at the light company. Marty and I were the police once, before he found better-paying work, before I went civilian. I asked for another favor.

......."I'm looking for a Frank Gumm. Just moved out of 927 Barracks. Can you call me back?"

.......Marty said sure. I leaned my face in front of the desk fan, but it did little good. Three minutes later Marty called back. Frank Gumm switched his electricity from 927 Barracks to an address in St. Bernard Parish, on Friscoville Avenue. I reminded Marty I owed him another one and hung up.

.......Well, it was cooler outside and I hadn't been in the parish for a while, so I grabbed my hat and suit coat off the rack and walked back out into the sunlight.

.......I looked at my Bulova. It was eleven now. I figured I'd go down to the parish, check out the Gumms and catch a bite at Gina's Diner across from the Chalmette Battlefield. Gina's had some good looking waitresses, a little on the hairy side. I like that in a woman.

.......I walked around the corner to my DeSoto and climbed in. It was a pre-war model, a light gray two-door coach with the most comfortable seats and a cool ceramic steering wheel. I rolled the front windows down to let in the river breeze, smelled the familiar musty old-building smell again and started the engine.

.......I took Barracks up to Rampart and hung a right over to St. Claude Avenue and followed the avenue through Bywater. Near St. Roch Avenue, I passed a streetcar rattling down the neutral ground along the center of St. Claude. A good-looking blonde leaned out a streetcar window and winked at me and blew me a kiss. I smiled back and realized she looked familiar. I think I pinched her once for shoplifting on Canal Street.

.......Friscoville Avenue was only a little ways out of the city, running from St. Claude down to the river, where illegal gambling houses were still open for business, on the sly, except everybody knew. I hooked a right on the small, two-lane avenue and slowed immediately, trying to catch an address. I couldn't see one on the first few houses, typical wooden singles half hidden behind trees, so I pulled over to the right and dug out the note I'd written with Gumm's new address.

.......The air was sweet with the humid smell of greenery. The avenue was lined with oaks and magnolias and pecan trees all the way down to the levee. I spotted a pasture on the left with a black-and-white cow. Some of the houses had white picket fences in front. The two-story ones had wrought iron fences and front galleries with gingerbread overhang and front porch swings.

.......I couldn't read my own handwriting. When Marty called back, I'd jotted it down too quickly. Gumm lived either at 542 or 342 Friscoville. I ran into 542 first, along the uptown side of the street. A shotgun single in dire need of paint, it was recessed a little off the avenue behind a large magnolia whose dead leaves covered the front yard.

.......I avoided the hole in the front porch and knocked on the screen door. The bottom half of the screen was ripped and dangled. I heard someone move around and knocked again, louder.

......."Yeah," a voice called out.

......."Are you Frank Gumm?"

......."No, who the hell are you?" The voice was rough and sounded like a Yankee.

......."The name's Caye. Did you just move in here?"

.......The front door opened and a man looked at me through the screen. In a soiled white undershirt and blue pants, his angry face was half-hidden in darkness. He gave me the once-over and said, "You got the wrong house, stupid." Then he slammed the door.

.......On my way back to the DeSoto, I realized his face was familiar too. That's the problem being an ex-cop. I see faces from mug shots all the time, like the babe on the streetcar.

.......The single story bungalow with the cement steps and wide front porch at 342 Friscoville looked more promising. I rang the doorbell and shaded my eyes with my left hand to peek in through the screen door. A woman stepped into the living room, straightening her pink shirtwaist dress. I like to watch women do that.

.......She touched the sides of her shoulder-length brown hair, worn in a swirl, and smiled when she saw me.

......."Are you Nettie Gumm?"

......."Why, yes." She had green eyes and a nice figure.

.......I pulled a business card out of my wallet and pressed it against the screen and introduced myself. A little boy with crew-cut hair moved up behind her. He looked to be about Vivian's age. He wore a red striped shirt and jeans.

.......As Mrs. Gumm looked at my card, I pulled out the picture of Amy and pressed it against the screen and she said, "That looks like Amy."

.......The boy started crying. Nettie went down on her knees and asked him what was wrong. It took a minute to get the story out. Her son, Frank Jr., had told her the Hartleys gave Amy to him.

.......When Mrs. Gumm stood back up, her lips were shaking. I told her if she'd just give me the cat, then everything would be all right.

......."Go get her," she told Frank, Jr. who hustled back through the front room.

.......Mrs. Gumm wrung her hands and said, "Does this mean my son will have a record now, officer?"

......."I'm not the police. I'm a private eye."

.......Frank arrived carrying Amy. Mrs. Gumm took the cat from her son, unlatched the screen door and shoved Amy at me. She re-latched the door quickly and wouldn't look at me. Frank Jr. wasn't crying anymore. He was sticking his tongue out at me.

***.......

.......Juggling Amy, I rang the Hartley's doorbell a half hour later. Vivian opened the door and leaped at me, grabbing at Amy. The cat jumped to her, digging claws in my arms in the process.

......."Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my." Vivian was ecstatic. She hugged the cat and bounced in place, her face beaming.

......."Is your mother home, yet?"

......."No. Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you!"

.......I reached over and tousled her hair and winked at her and left. I love leaving females smiling and bouncing on their feet.

.......I climbed in the DeSoto and drove straight back to Friscoville, parking just up from the wooden shotgun in dire need of paint. I eased my snub-nosed Smith and Wesson .38 out of the glove box and kept it hidden behind my right leg as I walked around the magnolia and up to the porch.

.......I knocked hard on the door.

.......The same voice said, "Yeah, who is it?"

......."Are you sure you're not Frank Gumm?"

......."What?" The door opened and that familiar face leered at me through the screen. "You nuts or something?"

......."Come on," I said with a smile. "You gotta be Frank Gumm."

.......I watched his eyes move as he looked around me, checking to see if I was alone.

......."Your face has a gummness about it, so you gotta be Frank Gumm." I said matter-of-factly.

.......He pressed his face against the screen and growled, "Get lost, stupid."

......."You have a Gumm face." I made a sound like Goofy, the Disney character. Then I stuck my tongue at him.

.......He unlatched the screen door quickly and shoved it open. I took a hesitant step back as he came out, his fists clenched. His momentum took him right to me; and I shoved the snub-nosed barrel under his chin.

.......He stopped. I grabbed his undershirt with my left hand and twisted hard and told him to put his hands in his pockets. I pushed the barrel against the soft flesh under his chin for emphasis. He obeyed, a hard glint in his dark eyes.

.......I cocked the hammer. "This has a hair-trigger." I gave him a cold smile.

.......He blinked his eyes and beads of sweat rolled down his right temple.

......."Now," I said, "you got a phone?"

.......He said, "Uh-huh," but it didn't sound like that with the .38 pressed hard under his chin. I guided him, on his tip-toes, back into the house all the way to the black phone resting on an end table next to a tan sofa.

......."Move and I'll blow your head off." I let go of the undershirt, picked up the receiver and dialed the operator.

......."We need the sheriff's office at 542 Friscoville. It's an emergency." I hung up.

.......Lou Jacoby swallowed, his Adam's apple bouncing as he glared at me. I tapped the barrel against his chin and said, "Don't move, scumbag.".......

***.......

.......I had my feet back up on my beat-up mahogany desk, the small revolving desk fan flapping the front page of the morning paper as I read about how public enemy No. 1, Lou Jacoby himself, was captured by a private-eye on a missing cat case.

.......At least they spelled my name right and had my address correct.

.......I laughed and folded the paper and put my hands behind my head and dreamed about all the big money cases that were going to roll in now.

.......The smoked-glass door of my office opened. A woman stood in the doorway, her left hand on her hip, her piercing blue eyes staring at me. I pulled my feet off the desk.

.......She closed the door and walked straight to the desk, her eyes still staring at me. She wore a tight blue skirt with a pale blue silk blouse and black open-toe high heels. Her blonde hair was shoulder length and parted down the side of her face like Veronica Lake.

.......She raised her large black purse from under her left arm, opened it and pulled the front page of today's paper out and showed it to me.

......."Lucien Caye," I said. "At your service."

.......The pearls around her creamy neck looked real; so did the diamond rings on each ring finger. The rest of her didn't look bad either.

.......She let out a sigh - I love it when women do that before they talk - and said, "So you're the cat detective."

......."Huh?"

.......Then she pulled a black kitten from her purse and said, "I just have to find her mother!".......

Copyright (c) 2001 by O'Neil De Noux.



A former homicide detective, O'Neil De Noux's novels (Grim Reaper, The Big Kiss, Blue Orleans, Crescent City Kills and The Big Show) have been lauded for their hyper-realistic portrayal of police work.

His most recent published work is a short story collection, LaStanza: New Orleans Police Stories. Mr. De Noux adapted a short story from this collection, which was televised and broadcast in New Orleans.

Mr. De Noux's short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, England, Germany, Italy and Scotland. He also teaches mystery writing at the University of New Orleans.

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