26 July 2010
It’s two in the afternoon, and I can’t tell if the incessant pounding is coming from my head or my office door. I put a fresh clip in my .45 and ready myself, just in case the person outside isn’t some poor sap looking to hire a gumshoe with a bad temperament and drinking problem to trail his hussy of a wife. “Come in,” I croak, my voice shaky from a night of drinking and who knows what else. As the giant of a man in a black suit enters, I’m thanking Vishnu I’ve got Reba cocked and ready to spit lead. Where have I seen this guy before? Was it last night? Oh, God, last night. A kaleidoscope of fragmented memories slam against my frontal lobe, like so many of my bullets into bad guys’ heads. I know I was trailing some dame when, as usual, I got side-tracked. Like a drunken Proust, I try to recall what happened. I vaguely remember stepping into some dark, smokey room, and drinking a bourbon. Nothing new there. I remember cheering and activity, all with an underlying sense of danger. I remember the dice in my hand, the bourbon commanding me to continue throwing them. I wonder if I won. As I check my pockets for evidence of my winnings, the giant who’s now taking up most of my office snaps me out of my introspection.
It seems as though the large man needs me to track down some money which belongs to his employers. Some scumbag hightailed it out of their place of business without having paid them their two large. I tell him I’ll track the guy, and their money, down for them, but that it may take a little time. A guy running from men as large as this one don’t generally make themselves easy targets. “You’ve got two days,” he says, apparently not savvy to the process of a private eye, “two grand.” And I thought broads were demanding. “I’ll get the money,” I says to him, I says, “but I’m going to need at least a week – these types of cases don’t just crack themselves in the first day.” We stay in silence for a while, and the migraine continues to pound out a tympani solo on the backs of my eyeballs. “You’ve got two days.” Sensing my incredulity at getting the job done in such short shrift, he describes what they’ll do to the crook if they find him on their own, and needless to say, it ain’t pretty. Unless your version of pretty involves putting someone’s head in a vice. Great; now the perp’s problem is my problem – I don’t find the guy before the deadline, he ends up disappeared. I may hunt these scumbags down for a living, but that just don’t seem right. The Goliath then brings his point home by leveling a snub-nose .38 yours truly, and reiterates: “Two days. Two grand.” Obviously this guy had been to some Toastmasters classes.
After the giant leaves, I rack my racked brain to come up with a plan. Where would one go if one wanted to get out of town with two G’s of debt hanging over his head and “This Thing of Ours” on his trail? The answer seemed obvious: New Orleans. And if I were a guy who had just lost two grand in a bourbon-infused craps game and was on the lam in the Big Easy, I knew where I would be found – in a restaurant.
I confer with the 32-ounce daiquiri I’m carrying down Bourbon street, and we agree that even a guy on the lam would want to stuff his face with the best New Orleans has to offer – after all, each meal could be his last. After finishing the dregs of my nuclear-infused concoction, I enter an oyster house to grab however many bivalves I can before some forty-weight gets them in the Gulf. The joint is dark – just the kind of place a guy on the run would grab a bite. I opt for several dozen grilled oysters, and for the time being my spirits are lifted. The smokey oyster is topped with seasoned butter and Romano cheese, and accompanied with New Orleans French rolls. I chase each one with an Abita beer, and after I’m done I search the room for some shady character trying to take his mind off outrunning death with a few oysters and a few more beers; maybe my mark will be as careless as I hope he’ll be. The crowd, however, seems to be a mixture of hard-working locals working hard at not working, and wide-eyed tourists ignoring everything around them. When the waitress returns I make a point of indicating that one of the three dozen oysters I just ate had a hair on it, and that I won’t be paying. After I demand to speak to the manager, I wait until she storms off, then I hightail it out of the joint, getting lost in a sea of people. I set about on the streets of the French Quarter, hoping some dumb luck and even dumber private eye cunning will take me to my perp before the Syndicate catches up to him.
I walk into the unassuming building and sit down at an unassuming bar – just the sort of place a guy trying to not be assumed would be lurking. I tell the bartender to pour me a martini with a bourbon chaser and try to decide on something with which to cover the pit in my stomach. I’m tempted by the boudin noir, but the thought of blood is making mine run cold. I opt for the non-sanguine variety of sausage, and settle into another martini in an attempt to calm my nerves. After years of hunting down scumbags and exacting my own brand of extrajudicial adjudication, I can’t help but wonder why this particular tail is so nerve-racking. What do I care if this perp gets his knees capped by big guys in big suits? Something about it just doesn’t seem fair. Before my introspection has time to burrow further into the horrifying confines of my psyche, the sausage arrives, as simple and unadorned as all good food should be. I squeeze the casing and suck out the pig flesh, liver, rice, and seasonings. It’s earthy and gamey, but smooth and delicious. I follow each bite of sausage with pickles and bread and martini and bourbon and martini and bourbon, until my head is swimming. I ask for the check, pretend to place money in the holder, and stealthily stumble out of the restaurant. Just to make sure no one is trailing me, I duck into one of the ubiquitous daiquiri joints.
It becomes immediately clear that the streets of the French Quarter are meant to be some sort of dare. How else do you explain the fact that in a town where booze is flowing from every building and beverages are all in to-go cups, the sidewalks look like they belong in a post-war Dresden? I extricate myself from the cobblestone minefield and follow the jazz music to an open-air restaurant. I order the crawfish boil, hoping that the spicy broth will snap me into some state of sobriety, especially after the three shots of 151 I ordered upon being seated. The big basket of miniature lobsters is placed in front of me, and before digging in I hunch down to look inconspicuous and scan the room, looking for someone trying to look inconspicuous. The meat of the crawfish is tender and delicious, and the fiery broth and brain sucked from the head sends a message to my body that I need to snap into shape and get back on the trail. I tell the waitress I’m going to step away from the band to make a phone call, which I pretend to do while walking away from the joint.
It’s past midnight, and the crowds and music on Frenchmen have only grown larger and louder, respectively. It seems like each bar I enter has some journeyman jazz musicians playing their asses off. It seems like I’ve drunk all the punch this town has to offer, but no amount of diligent boozing has brought me any closer to the poor bastard who’s got a private dick and the mafia on his tail. I take time out to listen to a rag-time band on the corner, while I order a shrimp po’ boy from a nearby stand. The bread is fresh and dressed according to the standard menu, always letting the perfectly fried shrimp do most of the work. I manage to not get half-a-pound of sandwich on the front of my shirt, and feel like I’ve accomplished something for the day. Just as I’m contemplating the fact that my two-day deadline has technically already come to an end, when in the milling crowd I see two large men who stick out like two very large and threatening thumbs. Before I can wonder if they got to their man before I did, one of them approaches: “You get our money, or were you just down here on vacation?” I explain that New Orleans is a big place and if given the opportunity and a few more days I would no doubt find both the deadbeat and their precious two grand, both of which I was sure were in this city. The two gentlemen answer my request by showing me the handles of the revolvers tucked beneath their fine, tailored jackets. I don’t know why they’re trying to strong-arm me, but I’m persuaded. “Let’s take a walk, we’ve got a car waiting around the corner,” one of them says. Nothing good has ever been waiting around a corner, so I back up and quickly assess my options. Before I know what I’m doing, I yell above the din, “Hey! These two assholes are from BP!!!” Almost instantly, attention, followed by nasty words, get tossed toward the two men. Like a sea of scorned Latinas, the crowd is shrinking in toward them, looking more and more threatening, and I pick this moment to do some shrinking, myself, back through the mob, and drunkenly run as fast as possible in the opposite direction, looking like a Special Olympics sprinter with an inner ear problem.
Sitting in a bar, hours later, listening to some old-timer in a three-piece band sing “Hellhound on my trail,” I can’t help but think I haven’t seen the last of those two enforcers. I also can’t help but think about what I’m going to eat for breakfast in a few hours.