***   No One Left To Burn  ***

Chapter 1

 

18

                I had a couple of hours to kill before Martha would be available to talk to me about whatever it was she wanted to talk to me about.  I spent some of the idle time finding and driving past the address she had given me just to be sure I’d have no difficulty finding it when the time came.  Preplanning, you know. 

 

                The address was a frame double in a quiet, middle class neighborhood that appeared, from the people I saw in the area, to be mostly black. No problem there.  Martha fit right in.

 

                I still had an hour and a half to kill, because I found her place almost immediately.  It was easy since I’d seen the street she lived on when I left the Fiddlers Inn a couple of days earlier, and today, I drove right to it.

 

                It was well past lunchtime when my nose and my super sense of smell led me to the wharf area where highway 90 crosses the lower Atchafalaya River west of town.  I picked up the spicy aroma of fresh boiled crawfish that made my taste buds come alive and made my mouth flood.  The trail, carried on a warm breeze, guided my car to the Crab Trap Restaurant like the Town Car was following the signal of a radar beam.  I find the smell of steaming Zatteran’s crab boil to be almost as exciting as the most sensuous eau de cologne.

 

                Yours truly spent the next hour peeling crawfish, sucking heads and drinking ice-cold Miller draft.  Just down right enjoying a crustacean feast.  They were quite tasty, but not near hot enough.  I mean hot like spicy hot.  To be primo, in my mind, crawfish must be so hot that what’s dripping down your lip can’t be distinguished between sweat, crawfish juice and snot.

 

                After I finished lunch, I leaned back, relaxed and looked out across the water of the marina. I could see many old wooden shrimp boats, oyster boats and large aluminum flat boats piled high with wire crab traps.

 

                Several boats were moored at the far end of a long wooden dock with their shrimp nets hanging limberly to dry.  There was a large sign above the pier to which the boats were secured.  The sign read “Chardon.”

 

                Jesus Christ.

 

                Everywhere I go that name comes up.  It’s like it’s haunting me.  What the fuck do you suppose I did to be preyed upon like this, I wondered.  The name Chardon was vexing me.  It also seemed that more of that shit was passing through my mind.  I scrunched my eyes closed and rubbed my hand across my face.

 

                Just past the Chardon Seafood Co., about five hundred yards, I could see the Intercoastal Waterway where it cuts across the lower Atchafalaya River .  The same Intercoastal Waterway I had viewed from the top of the Huey P. Long Bridge in New Orleans .  Small world I told myself.

 

                I still had about thirty minutes before I was to ring Martha, so I decided to give Jan a call and let her know that I might not make it back tonight and if I did, it would be pretty late.

 

                She’d told me last night that today she would only work half a day because all the cars go out early on Saturday, and Saturday afternoons are usually slow.  Also, it seemed to me that the regular reservationist, along with Mrs. Morgenstern’s help, could handle the office if business were slow.  And well, the bottom line is she only works half days on Saturdays because, after all, she’s the boss.

 

                I called Jan’s home number, and after four rings, her answering machine came on.  I quickly recorded my message and hung up.  I didn’t feel completely fulfilled and dialed the rental agency number.  Jan answered this time.  So much for my analytical mind, and so much for being the boss.  I went through my story again, only this time added a few other things that I didn’t feel comfortable saying to an inanimate object like a telephone-answering device.

 

                It was ten minutes past five when I dialed Martha’s number.  She obviously didn’t have an answering machine because the phone rang at least ten times before she finally picked up.

 

                She sounded winded when she spoke.  “Hello.”

 

                “Martha?”

 

                “Yes. Mr. Stevens?”

 

                “Yes.”

 

                “Where are you?”

 

                “Crab Trap restaurant,” I answered.

 

                “Good choice,” she said.  “They’re good, but I don’t think they’re hot enough.”  She paused and then asked, “Can you come by now, Mr. Stevens?   I could come over there if you would prefer?”

 

                “No, Martha,” I answered.  “That won’t be necessary.  I’ll come there.”  Martha’s place was more on the way out of town than where I was, and I was still hoping to get back to New Orleans tonight if possible.  I told her that I’d see her in about fifteen minutes, then hung up and got the hell out of there.  The telephone conversation had sounded clandestine like the surreptitious dialogue in a James Bond movie.

 

                By the time I arrived at Martha’s she’d already changed from her housemaid uniform into a pair of blue jeans and a baggy fitting man’s shirt.  She was barefoot and wore no bra.

 

                No bra, you question?  How did I know you ask?  I’ll explain later.  But right then I thought how nice it was, when one gets home after working all day, to shed the work clothes and slip into familiar feeling, easy wearing garb.

 

                I described Martha earlier in this journal and that hasn’t changed.  She looked the same.  But what had changed, what was really different, was now she was into that familiar feeling, easy wearing garb, and she did look comfortable.  And she did look several years younger.  And she did look goddamn good.

 

                Martha’s little apartment was just that - little.  It was little and clean and neat as a pin.  It was little but well furnished.  It was little but bright.  And you definitely could not get lost in the little place.  I sat on a sofa, facing a small cocktail table.  Martha started to sit next to me but then paused and asked, “Can I get you something to drink, Mr. Stevens?  I drink Scotch myself.  Having worked for Mr. Burton for so many years, I’ve mixed enough water with Johnny Walker, Glenlevet and J and B to float a battleship.  And I just kind of acquired a taste for it myself.  You have to do that you know.  Learn to like it, I mean.  Learn to like the medicinal taste.  It’s so much different from bourbon you know.  It’s really dif....”

 

                “Scotch and water would be fine, Martha,” I interrupted.

 

                It just then occurred to me that calling her Martha might be just a bit presumptuous on my part, perhaps a bit too personal.  “Martha?” I asked.   Is it all right if I call you Martha?”

 

                “Yes, Mr. Stevens.  That is perfectly all right,” she replied, smiling broadly with her purple lips open, exposing a mouth full of white teeth.

 

                Martha seemed more relaxed and at ease to me.  I don’t know why I thought that, but the way she was talking and acting seemed to be so unusual.  Not so unusual but different from the way she was talking and acting earlier today.  But then hey, she’s on her home ground. Familiar turf.  This is her place.  Maybe this is the way she always acts and talks when she’s at ease in her own comfort zone.  What the shit do I know about it anyway?

 

                Martha was busy in the little kitchen fixing the drinks, so I just wandered about the apartment.  Just checking it out.  I checked it out until I found what I was looking for.  Then I stepped into the little bathroom, closed the door, and took a long awaited and well-needed squirt.  I had four Miller Lite drafts that were screaming to be set free.  And I did.  God it felt good.

 

                I was back on the sofa when Martha returned with the potions.  She didn’t, however, sit on the sofa next to me as she had started to do before, but rather took a small easy chair on the other side of the cocktail table and facing me.

               

                Martha took a small sip of her drink before she spoke, then with a faint smile she said, “The first time I saw you this morning, Mr. Stevens, I thought you were Father O’Brien from St. Luke’s Church, over on Front Street . You bear a striking resemblance to him, I must say.  But then the clothing didn’t work, if you know what I mean. But with your size and build, you could pass for his non-ordained twin.  Especially in the face.” She smiled again and took another sip, then leaned back with a sigh. Tough day.              

 

                I took a pull on the drink she handed me and wondered if she had taught John Burton how to mix highballs or had he taught her the art.  Whichever, this son of a bitch was also a real heart starter.  I took another but smaller sip and then concluded that it was time to get on with the interview.

 

                “Martha,” I asked.  “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?   Earlier at Mr. Burton’s you talked about knowing something was going to happen to that child.  That child I assume was Lila?  What was it you thought was going to happen to her?”

 

                “Mr. Stevens,” she said.  “Mr. Burton has employed me for over fifteen years.  I’ve watched those little girls of his grow up almost from babies.  I was there when Mrs. Burton died, and if I must say so, I helped them pull through that terrible ordeal.  It was so tragic.  Such a young woman, too.”

 

                Martha had been working on her drink while I talked, and I had been working on mine while she’d been talking.  So, “Let me fix us another drink,” she said.

 

                Oh oh.

 

                This time when she returned, she took the other end of the sofa and turned slightly so that she could look at me.  She had her legs curled up under her.  She appeared to be distracted and she absentmindedly brushed at the tight fitting blue jeans when she spoke without looking at me.  “I think the undesirable friends Lila took up with had something to do with what happened to her.  I watched Lila change right before my eyes.  It started right after she got involved with that Charlie Whitney and Louie Chardon.

 

                “Although the police never made anything stick,” she said, finally looking up at me, “ they’ve both been picked up and questioned by the Pont-Rouge police about drug use in this parish.

 

                “Louie Chardon has connections with the local politicians because he has one of the largest businesses in the area, especially since the oil companies cut back.  He’s also big in community activities and the Catholic Church.

 

                “Now I’m not saying Louie is paying anybody off.  But something is mighty strange.  It’s a known fact that he’s had several parties where cocaine and heroin were used and nothing ever happened. Let me freshen your drink.”

 

                While Martha walked into the little kitchen, I followed in an effort to speed up the pace of our conversation. “Martha,” I asked.  “Did the police know about the parties?  I can’t believe that if they did, nothing happened.”

 

                “I don’t know if they did or didn’t,” she answered.  “ I have a nephew who works for Chardon.  He was there and he said they did.” 

 

                “They did know?”

 

                “No, that they did have parties with drugs.”

 

                “So perhaps the police didn’t know.”

 

                “I don’t know, maybe they didn’t.  Did or didn’t I don’t know, but something seems very strange.

 

                What was seemingly very strange, I thought, was this fucking conversation.  It was not so strangely going anywhere.

 

                “Has your nephew ever said anything else about what goes on within the Chardon work place?  Something else that would cause you to believe Chardon had something to do with Lila’s death?”

 

                “No.”

 

                “Huh?  That’s it?”

 

                “You could talk to him yourself, Mr. Stevens.  You might find out more.  You know how to ask the questions right. I mean you know the right questions to ask,” she corrected herself.

 

                She finished mixing the fresh drinks, which I’m not so sure I needed, and handed mine back to me.  Then we returned to the little living room.

 

                I was starting to feel pretty mellow.  I took my spot on the end of the sofa and Martha sat in the center.  A little closer, but that was fine by me.

 

                The top three buttons of her shirt had somehow become undone, allowing her large, black breasts to force the garment to gap open.    This caused exposure of a rather large circular plum colored areola and an ample, erect and dimpled dark purplish nipple.

 

                Good God! I thought.   Her lip-gloss and her nipples were color coordinated.  And I think I was staring.  Yes I was.   I know I was.  I was staring like crazy.

 

                What was even more excitingly distracting was my knowledge that another magenta twosome, only slightly more concealed, waited closely nearby.

 

                Jesus Christ, Rick, I thought, but almost said it aloud.  I have to get my ass out of here before things get out of hand.  Or in hand?

 

                “Perhaps you’re right, Martha.  About me talking to your nephew, I mean.  Where does he live?  Could he come over?”   I was thinking that maybe we needed a chaperone.

 

                “He can’t come over.”

 

                “Huh?”

 

                “He can’t come over because he’s out of town.  About once a month he takes one of Chardon’s boats to Madisonville for maintenance.  He left this morning and won’t be back until Wednesday.  At least those were his plans when I talked to him last night.”  Either Martha had started to slur her words or my hearing had suddenly become impaired.  And, I might add, I thought that she was also starting to look a bit mellow herself.

 

                It seemed profoundly odd to me that they would take their boats all the way to Madisonville for maintenance when there were several marinas and boat yards in Pont-Rouge that performed that same service.  Henry’s Marine on the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain came to mind.  Is there a connection here?  Could be.

 

                What also came to mind was how I learned about Henry’s Marine in the first place.  From a business card taken from the wallet of a dead guy who had just tried to put me out of fucking business permanently.  I added an item to my mental to-do list, to check out Henry’s when I got back to New Orleans .

 

                Just as I was about to verbalize that last notion, Martha took the empty glass from my hand and temporarily sidetracked the thought.

 

                Sidetracked, I’m sure, is the proper word.  Yes, sidetracked is definitely the correct expression, because, as I watched the limbo queen waltz a tad unsteadily from the room, what had just switched from the siding to the main track was a new train of thought.  And I can assure you, it was a thought that had absolutely nothing to do with boat maintenance.

 

                The next three hours were spent mostly talking about other stuff.  I definitely hadn’t planned it that way.  Not at all.  What I’d had in mind when I first got to Martha’s house was to listen to what she had to say and still make it back to New Orleans before it got too late, perhaps not before dark, but maybe by eight o’clock.  That would give me time to stop by my hotel and freshen up and still drop by Jan’s house.

 

                Nine o’clock came and went, and I was still parked on the right end of Martha’s sofa.

 

                I’d taken over the bartending duties, thereby possibly forestalling the onset of cirrhosis.  The drinks became weaker and less frequent.  However the warm glow experienced earlier had long since progressed to feeling no pain, and that condition seemed transitory and would surely soon be upgraded to blotto.  Or should that be considered downgraded?

 

                Some of the other stuff we spent three hours discussing was an eloquent exchange on the impending close of day.  Soon the bright sunshine began to cast long shadows upon the ground and the steadily falling sun very quickly altered the outdoor light from sunny through twilight into darkness.

 

                We talked about the occurring sunset while the metamorphosis came to pass.  As the evening light faded, the obvious adjustment that should have been made was to turn on the lights inside.  Somehow this didn’t happen and very soon we were sitting in partial darkness.  The only light coming in was through the open door from the little kitchen.

               

                   We also spent a considerable amount of time debating the virtues of rap music, its origin and contribution to society. We finally agreed on how bad and non-musical it was and how it shouldn’t have a place anywhere in the civilized world.

 

                Our interchange on what types of music were really inspiring and stimulating eventually led to loading four compact discs into a carousel that shuffled through early Sinatra, Lou Rawls, Nat King Cole and Streisand.  Real pleasing, rhythmical, mellow and mood setting.

 

                I wouldn’t say it was exactly what was needed for mood altering.  Mr. Johnnie Walker had already done a pretty good job of that.  But still Frank, Lou, Nat and Barbra performed their crafts with such deft skills that my mind and body felt euphoric in the semi-darkness.

 

                The right end of Martha’s sofa had become more crowded now that she had moved all the way north and was for the nonce sitting very close to me.

 

                During our varied conversations recounting numerous diverse topics and exchanges of ideas, Martha would periodically smack my leg roughly if needed to emphasize a point she wanted to get across.  Sometimes, depending on the far-reaching impact of the point and its vital and serious influence on the universe, she would bang the living shit out of my thigh.  Luckily I don’t bruise easily.  Periodically she would stroke it gently, not to get her point across, but as a part of the discourse.

 

                The tender touching started our first kiss, which began as a slight brushing

of lips and ended sometime later, wet and wild.  Martha’s lips and tongue danced and darted around my own.  In and out, softly probing.  She taught me several new techniques in the art of osculating.

 

                The fourth button on her baggy shirt had long past become non-functional.  Her large, firm, ebony breasts were now completely liberated, swaying freely when she moved, shifting fluid-like without encumbrance, rising and falling softly as she breathed.

 

                I had a blue-steel hard on that was severely restrained by the snug fit of my casual Dockers slacks.  Freedom, I thought.  Christ, my dick needs freedom.  With a firm tug on the front of my pants, Martha resolved my dilemma and opened my fly like it was a plastic, Ziploc storage bag.  The cage of incarceration was suddenly unclosed.  I was liberated.  Yes!

 

                Liberation, however, was of short duration for my swollen phallus.  Martha’s open mouth hovered over it for a brief moment, and then her warm, moist lips and throat quickly and completely enveloped me.

 

                 With my eyes closed, I had a vision. I saw what must have been Saint Luke’s Church because in the background I could see a green and white street sign.  Front Street. Father O'Brien stood on the front steps of the church with his arms reaching out as if to welcome someone inside. A wide grin grew on his face when he held up both hands with his open palms out toward me. Then with a wave, he flapped his hands as if to say, “ Forget it.” The grin was still on his face when, while shaking his head, he turned and stepped out of sight. Just then, thoughts of returning to New Orleans any time soon vanished from my mind.    

Page Nineteen

 

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