Monsters were out tonight. As well as two girls who'd definitely come to party.
"Jeepers!" Ava cried. "That skull puppet is a spooky devil."
Malevolent dark eyes peered from the hollow sockets of a bleached white skull. Shrouded in purple velvet, the creature's jagged teeth protruded rudely while its spidery, skeletal fingers reached out to stroke the arms of unsuspecting visitors along the parade route.
"You've never been up close and personal with the Beastmaster Puppets before?" Carmela Bertrand asked her friend. They were standing on a crowded sidewalk in front of Zebarz Cocktail and Cordial House in the French Quarter of New Orleans, watching the kickoff parade for Jazz Fest.
"I've seen puppets at Mardi Gras, sure, but never like this." Ava took a step back as a scabrous wolf head leaned in and tried to nuzzle her ear. "Keep walking, big guy," she muttered.
"Take a look at the skeleton puppet," Carmela said as a brass band blared out raucous foot-stompin' music, a gigantic float glided past, and a dozen Beastmaster Puppets mingled with the crowd to thrill and chill.
"The skeleton does kind of bother me," Ava said.
"Interesting, since you have an entire retinue of skeletons dangling from the rafters of your voodoo shop," Carmela said. She was the proprietor of Memory Mine Scrapbooking Shop over on Governor Nicholls Street; Ava Gruiex owned Juju Voodoo a few blocks away on Conti Street.
"But those skeletons are under my control."
"The giant puppets remind me of the bulbous heads on some of the Mardi Gras floats," Carmela said. As a New Orleans native and die-hard parade fanatic, she was loving this, taking it all in practically by osmosis. Fact is, you could toss a string of colored lights onto a goat cart, roll it down Bourbon Street, and Carmela would stand on the curb and cheer. She was that addicted to New Orleans mirth and merriment.
Ava Grieux, on the other hand, was a different type of party girl. Slightly loose in her ways, she was a free spirit open to trying just about anything. And while Carmela was a jeans and T-shirt gal, Ava favored tight leather pants, skanky tops, and peekaboo lingerie. Of course, they both adored hot music and cold beer.
"The thing that amazes me most is that real people are working their buns off inside those puppet costumes," Carmela said.
The Beastmaster Puppets were indeed manned by a myriad of people who were dressed head to toe in black ninja-style clothing with black gauze masking their faces. They were inside the large puppets, functioning as the beating heart of the puppets, and controlled the bobbing and weaving as well as the puppets' arms. On the really jumbo-sized puppets, outlier puppeteers, also dressed in black, manipulated long sticks attached to the puppets' limbs and faces-sticks that when worked carefully made the puppets look both ethereal and peculiarly animated.
"Check this one out," Carmela said as a banshee puppet flitted past, its bug-eyed, witchy face poking forward as a trail of diaphanous garments fluttered behind it.
"Amazing," Ava said.
Carmela was smiling at the puppets, grooving with the mood and the music. In the flickering light from the antique streetlamps, her face fairly glowed with excitement, her nearly flawless complexion enhanced by the high humidity that seemed to hold the Crescent City in a perpetual cocoon-like embrace. Carmela's honey blond hair was a tousled, choppy mop and her eyes an inscrutable ice blue that often mirrored the flat shimmer of the Gulf of Mexico.
Ava shook back the dark, unruly mane that framed her exotic face. "Witches and banshees, those I can handle, no problem," she said. "It's when the puppets become this . . . active, when they take on human dimensions, that I get creeped out."
"I guess that's what makes these giant puppets so popular," Carmela said. She took a quick sip of red wine from her geaux cup and said, "Uh-oh, take a look at what's coming next."
A hush fell over the crowd as the final parade unit appeared. It was a contingent of black-caped, chalk-faced vampires that seemed to crawl stealthily out of the darkness.
"The Vampire Society," someone behind them said in quiet, almost reverent tones.
Four masked riders sat astride coal black horses, the horses' coats glistening like an oil slick and reflecting the yellow and red neon signs from nearby bars.
The vampires marched behind the riders in precise formation. Most of the men (and women) were tall, thin, and appeared to glide almost effortlessly.
Ava wrinkled her nose. "With that funky white makeup, they look like a doomsday cult."
Carmela studied the vampires, whose faces were painted a ghostly white. Their eyes were kohl-rimmed orbs, their mouths a glistening blood red that sported glowing white fangs. It was a look that definitely gave her pause.
Not so nice. Not that friendly.
"I guess it's just playacting," Carmela said finally, lifting her shoulders as if to shrug off any sort of malevolent vibe that might hover in the night air. "Perfectly harmless." Then, "Come on, let's follow along behind. We'll head over to Royal Street and check out the food booths."
Ava fluttered a hand. "You just uttered the magic words-food booths. You think they'll have barbecued shrimp, andouille gumbo, and fried crawfish?"
"Gotta go find out."
New Orleans was, of course, a foodie paradise. New restaurants, food halls, cocktail lounges, delis, and bakeries were opening at a dizzying rate. Here's where those uninitiated into the dining delights of the Big Easy routinely lost their minds over gumbo, beignets, po-boys, jambalaya, red beans and rice, plump Gulf oysters, muffulettas, and tickle-your-sweet-tooth bread pudding. To say nothing of creamy, rich crawfish touffe, which was practically a New Orleans obsession.
Linking arms, Carmela and Ava trailed along behind the Vampire Society.
They turned the corner at Dumaine Street, walked past the Praline Factory and Toups's Italian Bakeshop, and then hung a right onto Royal Street.
"Will ya look at this!" Ava cried. "Royal Street's been turned into a gigantic street fair."
And she was right. All up and down Royal Street, for a good half dozen blocks, were food booths, food trucks, fortune-tellers, musicians, booths selling beads and T-shirts, and street artists. Revelers were cheek to jowl everywhere you looked-a mob of eating, drinking, dancing, good-time folks that formed a bobbling, jostling sea.
"This is what I need right here," Ava said, diving toward a frozen daiquiri stand. "We need two in . . . What flavors do you have?" she asked the bartender as she scanned the rainbow-hued liquors lined up on the counter.
"Pi–a colada, amaretto, pineapple, blueberry, mudslide, and strawberry shortcake," the bartender said, rubbing his hands on his red-and-white-striped apron.
"What's a mudslide?" Ava asked.
The bartender shrugged. "Chocolaty rum?"
Ava turned to Carmela. "Cher?"
"Amaretto," Carmela said.
"Two amaretto daiquiris, please," Ava said.
The bartender nodded, tipped a bottle into a slurry of ice, and sent the mixture whirring through his daiquiri machine.
Once they'd grabbed their frozen concoctions, Carmela and Ava strolled along the sidewalk past several antique shops. Royal Street was where the absolute primo shops and galleries were located, where even the locals shopped for that perfect crackle-glazed oil painting, French mantel clock, or piece of antique silver to grace their dining table.
"What a perfect night," Carmela said, as they allowed themselves to be swept along with the surging crowd. "Nice and warm . . ." She tilted her head back and smiled at the view over the Mississippi. "With a crescent moon dangling in an indigo blue sky."
"A fitting salute to our Crescent City," Ava said. "Plus, everything you want to eat and drink. It really is a fabulous . . ."
Like a clap of thunder, the noise rolled down Royal Street, crackling and booming out. Revelers paused, heads turned, a woman let loose a high-pitched scream.
There was a pregnant pause. And then it came again . . .
. . . jolting everyone out of their musical-sugary-deep-fat-fried reverie.
"Somebody's shopwindow just got stove in," Ava said. "With this many people boogying, something crazy's bound to happen." She sounded a little shaken, a little philosophical at the same time.
But Carmela was instantly on alert. "That wasn't just any window." She raised up on tiptoes and gazed down the street, not unlike a prairie dog who'd just sensed impending danger. "I think it was the front window at Dulcimer Antiques! Devon Dowling's shop!" She peered down the street again, deeply concerned for her dear friend. "Yes, that's where the crowd's starting to gather. Come on!"
Together, Carmela and Ava weaved and dodged their way along the crowded sidewalk, angling toward Dulcimer Antiques. "S'cuse me, s'cuse me," Carmela said breathlessly as she flew along, stepping on toes and causing several revelers to spill their drinks as she towed Ava behind her.
When they finally got to Dulcimer Antiques, the street in front was a madhouse. A horde of people milled about, screaming and pointing at the large plate glass window that had been shattered. Dangerous shards of glass lay everywhere, and there was an ominous hole right under the letters that said DULCIMER ANTIQUES. BUY SELL TRADE.
"Was it terrorists?" one woman shrieked.
Another woman with blood trickling down the side of her face was starting to weep. She'd obviously been hit by a shard of flying glass.
"Something got tossed hard against Devon's shopwindow," Carmela said, making a hurried assessment. She glanced around. "Maybe from the inside?" The gigantic hole in the center of the window was outlined with jagged pieces of glass, as sharp and dangerous as a shark's teeth.
"This is terrible!" Ava cried. "People are hurt!"
"Where's Devon?" Carmela wondered out loud. Worry engulfed her as she shoved her way to the front door. She put a hand on the brass knob, twisted it forcefully, and . . . got nowhere.
"Locked," Carmela said. She knew Devon had to be inside, because she could hear his pug, Mimi, barking frantically.
"Devon!" Ava cried out. Now she was edging toward frightened.
More gawkers gathered as Carmela pushed her way back to the broken window. She peered through broken glass into the dark interior of Devon's shop, trying to fathom what had gone wrong in there. She could see sterling silver teapots, priceless Chinese vases, and antique clocks smashed to bits on the floor. Lamps had been toppled, furniture upended. But it was difficult to make anything out . . . way back in the shadows.
"Devon?" Carmela called out in a strangled voice. Was he in there? Could he hear her? She looked about frantically, saw a man wearing a giant foam baseball mitt that covered half his arm, and snatched it off him.
"Hey!" he cried.
Carmela didn't stop to apologize or explain. She pulled the foam mitt onto her own arm and batted aside shards of glass as she lifted a leg and stuck it through the shattered window. She needed to find Devon to see if he was okay. Had he possibly experienced some sort of cardiac incident and collapsed against the window? Was someone in there with him? Had there been a knock-down, drag-out fight? Was Devon perhaps in dire trouble?
Carmela swatted another nasty shard aside and stepped all the way through the window, her shoes immediately crunching hard on broken glass.
"Devon?" Carmela called out, louder this time. "Mimi, sweetheart?" The little pug danced toward her, eyes rolling in fear, still barking frantically.
A deafening roar and a shower of bright sparks exploded directly in front of Carmela and sent her reeling. Half-blinded by the smoke and feeling frantic now, she reached out for something-anything-to keep from falling. Luckily, her hands grasped a small walnut desk and she was able to steady herself.
Dear Lord, what was that? Carmela wondered, even as the words flash-bang zipped like jagged lightning through her brain. And was that the slam of the back door she'd just heard? Or were her ears, shocked by the loud explosion, playing tricks on her?
As smoke began to clear, Carmela crunched her way forward into the darkened shop. She moved two steps, then three, and stopped to draw a shaky breath. The place smelled of smoke, dusty furniture, old canvases, and something else . . .
Carmela shook off the foam mitt and reached around blindly. Her heart was beating out of her chest, her breath coming in sharp rasps. Where was Devon? And after that last explosion, had someone outside thought to call the police?
In complete darkness, feeling beyond apprehensive, Carmela finally reached out and touched a lamp. She fumbled for the switch, felt the lamp wobble slightly, and was flooded with relief when she heard a tiny click and the lamp spilled its warm yellow glow.
"Devon?" Carmela called again.
Mimi let out a sharp, terrified yip that pulled Carmela's bewildered eyes downward. And there, sprawled like a rag doll on a priceless Persian carpet, his eyes drooped shut, head in a puddle of crimson blood, was Devon Dowling!
Carmela's hands were shaking so badly she could barely punch 911 on her cell phone. But she finally managed to pull it together and call for help. And even though it felt like hours dragged by, the first responders arrived within minutes.
Carmela scooped up Mimi as two men from Fire and Rescue smashed out the rest of the front window with metal tools, ducked their heads in, and surveyed the scene. Shouting ensued, and the fire guys quickly brought in light stanchions, followed by two EMTs equipped with portable oxygen and medical gear.
As the EMTs performed CPR on Devon and hung a bottle of IV fluid, Detective Bobby Gallant arrived. Gallant was a good-looking, slightly bulked-up detective, who cast a curious eye at Carmela's presence. Yes, they knew each other. Gallant was the right-hand man to Detective Edgar Babcock, Carmela's fianc. How convenient!
Except it wasn't at all, because if Babcock arrived at the scene, Carmela figured he'd immediately banish her from the premises. The last thing Babcock would want would be for her to get messed up in one of his cases. And, chances are, this would end up being one of his cases.
Carmela touched a hand to Gallant's arm and hastened to explain her presence here. "I heard the crash when his front window broke, and I couldn't find Devon Dowling anywhere!" Her words spewed out in a hot rush. "So I came in to investigate. Hoping that I could help." She gazed at Gallant as she flapped a hand in frustration. "There was a huge explosion, and then I noticed Devon."