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."
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.
.......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
......."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
.......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
.......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
.......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
.......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?"
She let out a long sigh.
......."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
.......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
.......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
......."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?"
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
.......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,
......."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,
......."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
.......I knocked hard on the
.......The same voice said, "Yeah,
who is it?"
......."Are you sure you're
not Frank Gumm?"
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.
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."
.......Then she pulled a black
kitten from her purse and said, "I just have to find her
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
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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