It was spring in New Orleans, a beautiful April day, and Angus Cafferty had been dead for three months the afternoon Michael Quinn followed the widow Gladys Simon to The Cheshire Cat, an antiques and curio store on Royal Street.
The house itself, now a shop, was one of the few buildings that had survived the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 that had destroyed 856 buildings-followed by the fire of 1794 that destroyed another 212. It was one of the only structures from the mid-1700s that remained on Royal Street. It had a two-storied facade, with an inner courtyard and balconies surrounding the building streetside. He knew the layout of the old building; the original parlor, study and dining rooms were set up as the shop's display area, while the old pantry was Danielle Cafferty's studio. The basement was not really a basement at all. This was New Orleans, and even on high ground, the basement was just the lowest level of the house. Six steps led up from the street, and courtyard entries led to the porches and the house. The shop's basement was filled with treasures Angus had collected and kept away from the view of others. Upstairs, above the store, were the office and a small apartment used by the Cafferty family. Billie McDougall slept in the attic, ever watchful, while a second street entry, which had once been a carriage house, was now a two-car garage.
Following Gladys Simon was easy; Quinn was directly behind her and she was oblivious. He felt like a stalker, having to trail her like this, but when he'd discovered that morning that she had the bust, he'd tried to see her. According to her housekeeper, she refused to see anyone. No amount of cajoling had gotten him in.
He'd waited outside her house, but she'd run to her car, turning away when he'd begun to speak to her. All he could do was follow-and pray that she was going to the curio shop.
She approached the shop and so did Quinn, practically on her heels. As they entered, he saw Billie reading a book behind the counter and Jane Pearl, the clerk and bookkeeper, walking up the stairs, presumably going to her office. She paused, however, when she heard the door open.
Gladys Simon was unaware of her surroundings. She headed straight to the old mahogany bar that had been refashioned into a sales counter. Quinn stepped in right after her and feigned great interest in a grandfather clock that was situated just inside the front door.
Billie might have been perfectly cast as Riff Raff in a Rocky Horror remake or as an aging Ichabod Crane.
He was as skinny as his mentor and employer had been robust. Billie had steel-gray eyes and a shock of neck-length white hair and was dressed in jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. He must have been a startling and imposing figure to a Versace-clad and perfectly manicured matron like Gladys Simon.
But Gladys didn't seem to notice anything about Billie at all. She rushed over to him.
"You buy antiquities, unusual items, don't you? You have to buy the bust from me-you must buy it from me. No, no, you don't need to buy it. You can have it. Please, come to my house and take the bust away. It belongs in a place like this!"
Billie glanced briefly at Quinn, a frown furrowing his wrinkled brow. "I'd love to help you, ma'am. I'm not the owner, but-"
"Oh, dear! That's right!" she said with a gasp. "But. .the owner died, didn't he? Oh, please tell me the new owner is available
please! I must.. I can't live with that thing anymore
"Now, try to calm down, Mrs
"Simon. Gladys Simon. It was my husband's. He's dead now. He's dead because of that. .thing!"
"Please calm down, Mrs. Simon," he said again. "The object is a bust?"
"Yes, very old-and exquisite, really."
"You want to give me an old and exquisite piece?" Billie's voice was incredulous.
"Are you deaf, sir?" she shrieked. "Yes-I must be rid of it!"
By then, the woman's frantic tone had drawn the new owner from her studio in the back of the store.
Quinn had watched her on the day of Angus Caf-ferty's funeral. He had chosen not to approach her then; he had kept his distance when Cafferty was laid to rest in the Scottish vault at the old cemetery- the "City of the Dead," where he had long stated he would go when the time came. There'd been a piper at the grave site, but Cafferty was accompanied by the traditional New Orleans jazz band and a crowd of friends to his final resting place. He'd been loved by many in the city. Of course, a tourist or two-or ten or twenty-fascinated by the ritual, had joined in, as well. The vaults in the cemetery didn't allow for the immediate grouping around the grave that was customary at in-ground burials, so he'd been able to hover on the edges of the crowd, paying his own respects from afar.
There was no doubt that the man's daughter had been devastated. And there was no doubt that she was old Angus's daughter-she had his startling dark blue eyes and sculpted features, finer and slimmer, but still a face that spoke of her parentage. Her hair was a rich auburn, brushing her shoulders, a color that might well have been Angus's once-when he'd had pigment in his hair. Despite her grief, she hadn't seemed fragile or broken, which gave him hope. Though she was slim, she was a good five-nine and might just possess some of the old man's inner strength.
As she walked to the front of the shop, she was frowning slightly, obviously perplexed by the commotion. She wore jeans and a short-sleeved tailored shirt and somehow appeared casual and yet naturally elegant. She moved with an innate grace.
Gladys heard her coming and turned to her. "You- you're the owner?"
"Yes, I'm Danni Cafferty. May I help you?"
"Oh, yes, you certainly may. I know your father was intrigued by historic objects. I never met him but I read that his shop acquired the most unusual and. historic objects," she repeated. "You must come and take the bust."
"Mrs. Simon, we don't just take anything."
"It's priceless! You must take it."
"Mrs. Simon, I didn't say we wouldn't buy it. It's that we don't take things." Danni looked at the woman, assessing her with a smile. "I can't believe this is such an emergency that-"
"The bust killed my husband!" Gladys Simon broke in.
Danni raised perfectly arched brows. "Do you mean that
that it was used to strike him? If that's the case, the bust might well be evidence-"
"No!" Mrs. Simon cried. "You are not your father!"
Danni seemed to freeze, calling on reserves of hard-fought control and dignity. "No, Mrs. Simon, I am not my father. But if you wish to bring this bust in-"
"No! I won't touch it. You must come and get it."
Danni mulled that over for a minute, as if she was still fighting for control. Quinn noted that Gladys Simon's shrill voice had alerted Jane, and the bookkeeper was coming hesitantly down the stairs, one of Angus Cafferty's ebony nineteenth-century gentleman's canes in her hands. A good match for Billie- although the two weren't romantically linked-Jane was slim and straight with iron-gray hair knotted at her nape and gold-rimmed spectacles. She'd been with Angus for the past two years or so, and though she hadn't been a confidant in the way Billie had, she was fiercely loyal to the Cafferty family.
Jane was ready for whatever danger threatened, but seeing Gladys, her slim frame and near-hysteria, she held her place on the stairs, watching Danni to see if she was needed.
"Mrs. Simon, I'm sorry," Danni said. "You're suffering from terrible grief, and I have a lot of empathy for you. But we're not equipped to handle the psychological stages of that pain. We're a curio and collectibles shop and-"
"Yes! You must take the bust."
Danni glanced at Billie, who was following the conversation with unabashed interest.
"Mrs. Simon," she said gently. "Is there someone we can call? A close friend, a relative? Perhaps a minister or a priest?"
"I need you to take the statue!" Mrs. Simon said. Then she raged at Danni. "Oh, you stupid, stupid girl!"
Danni stiffened at the insult but, to her credit, took a deep breath and refused to reply, shaking her head with sorrow instead. "Let us help you. Let us get you someone who can help you."
Gladys whirled around, starting for the door.
"Mrs. Simon, if it's so awful, why didn't you just get rid of it?" Danni demanded.
Gladys stopped abruptly. She slowly turned around and walked toward her. "Don't you think I tried? I threw it in the trash, and it was back in the study the next day. I dropped it in a Dumpster on Bourbon Street, and it was back the next day. I buried it-and it was back!"
She was delusional-or so she obviously appeared to Danielle Cafferty.
"Mrs. Simon, really, you need to calm down," Danni said. "We'll go over and see the statue. Give me an address and we'll come this evening. We close at seven."
A sigh of sheer relief escaped Gladys and she dug into her handbag for a card, which she handed to Danni. "Thank you
thank you. You've saved my life!"
"It's just a bust
whatever, Mrs. Simon. Please relax. Everything will be fine."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Gladys breathed.
And then she was gone.
Danni picked up the store's old-fashioned phone. She started dialing as Jane came the rest of the way down the stairs.
"You all right, Danni?" Jane didn't hide her concern.
"Of course. But I'm worried about that poor woman."
"Who are you calling?" Billie asked.
"The police," Danni said. "Someone needs to help that woman-perhaps see that she's committed.
It was time for Quinn to make his move and he did so swiftly, setting his thumb down on the disconnect button before she could dial three digits.
Danni stared at him in total indignation. "What the hell? Who are you-what do you think you're doing?"
"Don't call the police just yet. Listen to me. The woman really needs your help. Ask Billie," Quinn said. "I can try to follow her and get the damned thing, but I've already tried to see her and talk to her. She knows about your father and the shop, so you're the one she needs to trust. You need to go and get the statue. But you don't have to deal with this alone. I'll be there."
Taken aback, she was still angry, but he saw sudden recognition in her smoldering gaze, along with shock and resentment.
Maybe he wasn't handling this well.
"You.you were at my father's funeral," she said.
He nodded. "I was his friend. He was a good man. The best. And you're doing him a real disservice if you don't continue his work."
"His work? His work was this shop and I'm keeping it open. Listen, I'm calling the police. That woman needs professional help-and I don't believe you're any more equipped to deal with her than I am," she said.
"Billie?" Quinn turned to Angus's longtime assistant.
Billie cleared his throat, looking at Danni. "Um, yeah, I don't know how to explain it all, but your father would've gone out there and seen the statue."
"Who is he?" she asked Billie, inclining her head toward Quinn.
"He is standing right here. I'm Quinn. Michael Quinn, private investigator."
"And you're investigating crazy ladies with statues?" she asked sarcastically.
"You should go see the bust, Danni," Billie said.
"What's the matter with both of you? If I don't call the police, I'll live with a guilty conscience forever. She's deranged! She could be a danger to herself and others."
Quinn stepped back. "By all means, then. Call the police. And maybe they can help her for a few hours- a few days. The danger will continue. I guarantee it."
"Really? And you're so sure of this
"Because I worked with your father on occasion."
Her eyes narrowed. "I don't know you," she told him.
"Um, I do," Billie said. "I know him."
"I've seen him with your father, too," Jane murmured. "But I don't think you should trust him."
"She should trust him. Yes, she should!" Billie argued. "No offense, Jane, but you were never part of Angus's real world. You've barely been around two years and you're his bookkeeper, nothing more."
"Well, I never!" Jane said.
"Jane is a wonderful employee and you will not stand here in my store and insult her!" Danni said indignantly.
"Angus trusted me implicitly," Jane declared.
"Perhaps," Quinn said with a shrug. "But that's not important right now."
Danni looked at him warily. "You should state your business, your relationship with my father and then leave the store."
"I helped him. He helped me. I guess Angus wanted to protect you, his little princess," Quinn said. "Well, it's a shame and it's sad and it's probably too late." He felt his anger growing, and he wasn't sure why. It wasn't really her fault if her father had chosen not to share the depths of his life with her.
But she should have figured out that he wasn't just a shopkeeper or a collector! How naive could she have been? On the other hand, maybe she hadn't been that naive. Maybe she'd just been gone too much.
"Like I said, I don't know you, and I was very close to my father!" she began. "Mrs. Simon is suffering and needs help but understand this-I am not trained or equipped to deal with mental illness, and I rather think you might have some problems in that area yourself-rather than being a person who's capable of dealing with it!"