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A globulous giant head, evil grin stretched wide across its glowing orange face, teeth jagged as a buzz saw, bobbed and pecked at the air above Carmela Bertrand's head. Ten feet high, it dwarfed her five-foot-six-inch frame, seemingly oblivious to her concerned gaze. The bizarre creature hovered for a few more seconds, like a bad moon rising, then slowly sank to eye level.
"It's still not working," Carmela called to her friend Ava Gruiex. She retreated a few paces to the temporary table they'd set up in the Pluvius krewe's vast float den and bent low over her sketches. Some design flaw kept causing her giant puppet to deflate, and she couldn't quite put her finger on what was causing the implosion.
Carmela pursed her lips and frowned, allowing a few faint crinkles to appear at the corners of her mouth. Blue-gray eyes, with the same flat glint as the Gulf of Mexico, scanned her notes and hand-drawn pattern, while one hand reached up to haphazardly tousle her caramel-colored chopped and gelled hair.
With a fair complexion, full mouth, and perpetually inquisitive expression, Carmela was quite lovely, even by New Orleans standards, where moonlight and magnolias seemed to be handed out by the bushel basket. But her physical traits, her attractiveness quotient to men, like current boyfriend Lieutenant Edgar Babcock, were the furthest thing from Carmela's mind right now. She was bound and determined to figure out this crazy puppet if it killed her. After all, Halloween was only six days away and this puppet, such as it was, was scheduled to march in the Monsters and Mayhem Torchlight Parade.
"Tell Miguel we're going to wrap for the night," Carmela called to her friend Ava, who'd offered to lend assistance as long as she didn't have to actually handle a needle and thread. Or ponder the puppet's inside hydraulics.
Ava nodded briskly, ran lethal red-lacquered fingernails down her tight red T-shirt to the waist of her skin-tight black leather pants, and nodded. She was a curvaceous almost-thirty, a few months older than Carmela, and a few inches taller. As she strode over to the monster, her four-inch stilettos clicking and clacking above the babble of other float designers in the vast float den, Ava drawled, in a voice dripping with honey, "Miguel, sweetie pie, Carmela says we're gonna bag it."
The strange yellow head seemed to bob in agreement on its stalk-like neck, and then the puppet slowly bent forward. As if in slow motion, the creature collapsed into yards of parachute nylon, the fabric whispering softly, like banana leaves in a bayou breeze at midnight. And Miguel Angelle, Ava's right-hand man at the Juju Voodoo shop, carefully emerged from his costume.
"Hot in there?" Ava asked him. Even though it was cool in the Pluvius float den, Miguel was sweating bullets inside the costume Carmela had designed and painstakingly constructed by hand.
"The mouth's still not working," Miguel told Ava. "Tell Carmela if she wants gnashing teeth, I have to get my hand all the way in there."
"Got it," said Ava as Miguel gathered up gigantic folds of nylon and pushed them at her.
Then Miguel gave a quick wave and was off across the den, dodging groups of other designers who were also putting finishing touches on their Halloween monster puppets.
Ava struggled to strategically fold the costume, finally decided she was fighting a losing battle, and ended up dragging the whole thing over to Carmela's table. "This is like trying to corral liquid mercury," Ava told her friend as Carmela reached out to help gather up the yards of flowing fabric.
"Need some help?" called a male voice.
Carmela recognized the voice instantly and executed a quick spin. "Jekyl!" she called, a grin lighting her face. "What are you doing here?"
Jekyl Hardy, one of New Orleans's premier Mardi Gras float designers and an art appraiser by trade, sauntered toward them. Rail thin, dressed completely in black, Jekyl wore his long dark hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, the better to accentuate his pale, oval face.
"In case you ladies hadn't noticed," said Jekyl, tucking his left hand into his black leather jacket and negotiating a slightly stilted bow, "I'm doing a little designing myself for Monsters and Mayhem." Sidling closer to the two women, Jekyl delivered a chaste peck to Carmela's cheek and exchanged extravagant air kisses with Ava.
"Maybe I should turn this project over to you," said Carmela, looking a little glum.
"Not on your life, darling," purred Jekyl. "I'm positive your puppet's a marvel of magic and engineering. After all, you've got street cred; you're an experienced designer."
"Hardly," said Carmela, who had followed her heart a few years ago and opened Memory Mine, a cozy little scrapbook shop in the French Quarter. Fact was, she adored helping customers create meaningful scrapbook pages, memory boxes, and handmade cards, and would have been sublimely content with that alone, except for the fact that people kept asking her to tackle larger projects, too. Someday, someday soon Carmela hoped, she was going to learn to say no.
"C'mon, cher," said Ava, always the upbeat cheerleader. "You're a terrific designer. Remember that runway and backdrop you crafted for Moda Chadron's fashion show? Remember all your crazy ideas for Medusa Manor?"
"Mmm," said Carmela, "I think I'd rather not."
Ava glanced at a row of enormous heads that were stored on shelves against one expanse of wall: a six-foot-high smirking Julius Caesar, a goofy court jester, a medieval dragon, a beady-eyed horse, an Egyptian princess, Fu Manchu, and a Minotaur head, all looking like gigantic victims of a gigantic guillotine.
"Are all those heads going to be made into puppets, too?" Ava asked Jekyl.
Jekyl shifted from one foot to the other, looking reflective. "I hear the dragon's going to be incorporated into one of the Beastmaster Puppet Theater's puppets. And somebody's got dibs on Julius Caesar, too." He paused. "That fearsome Minotaur head way down at the end was constructed in Hong Kong for next year's Pluvius float. As far as the others go… they're really just leftovers from past Mardi Gras floats." He made a snarky face. "Unless there's some change in plans I don't know about."
"Uh-oh," said Carmela. She'd just caught a glimpse of someone and instantly recognized his bandy rooster strut.
"What?" Jekyl asked, raising a single eyebrow.
"There's a possible change in plans right now," Carmela murmured under her breath.
The three of them watched as Brett Fowler, captain of the Pluvius krewe, strode arrogantly across the floor. "You people still here?" he called out in a high, reedy voice to everyone in earshot. His reputation as a tough, taciturn guy obviously preceded him, as groups of puppet builders hastily began to pack up.
"We were just leaving," Carmela called to Fowler, hoping to remain on his good side. She turned and said, under her breath, "Come on, guys, let's get out of here."
But Brett Fowler came huffing over to them anyway, his face as florid and red as his hair. "Ladies." He gazed with flat eyes at Carmela and Ava, then turned toward Jekyl. In a chilly tone he said, "Jekyl."
"Really," Carmela told Fowler, "we're going to take off. I know you're probably anxious to lock up."
Fowler glanced at his watch. "You got five minutes." His jowls sloshed from side to side as he talked. He was a man who'd turned to lard from too much of a good thing. That too much being oysters Rockefeller, fried catfish, pecan pie, shrimp bisque, sweet potato pie, and Jack Daniel's. Not necessarily in that order, but definite menu staples in New Orleans. "I have to take off," Fowler continued, "but I trust you folks will pull the door shut and set the security system?"
Carmela nodded. "We can do that." She was shocked Fowler hadn't just tossed them out on their ears. Brett Fowler, as Pluvius krewe captain, ran a very tight ship.
Ava dimpled prettily. "So lovely of you to let us use your float den," she trilled.
Fowler ignored her, seemingly immune to Ava's charms. "Just hurry it up," he snapped. Then he fixed his hard eyes on Jekyl again. "Jekyl? Can we have ourselves a conversation?"
"Sure," said Jekyl, although it was clear he really didn't care to. "Why not?" Jekyl shrugged, waggled his fingers good-bye at Carmela and Ava, and reluctantly followed Fowler across the den and out the door.
"Brett Fowler thinks he's so smart," sniffed Ava. "Just because he's rich." Fowler was the senior partner in Emerald Equities, a venture capital firm that had been going like gangbusters for the past couple of years. While everyone else in New Orleans was still dealing with the residual effects of Hurricane Katrina as well as the more recent recession, Fowler's firm seemed to pump out investment returns and continued success.
"But rich doesn't guarantee class," said Carmela. She'd married into one of the wealthiest families in New Orleans, the Meechums of Crescent City Bank notoriety, and they'd turned out to be a bunch of passive-aggressive infighting idiots. Mean as cottonmouths and perpetually snarly. Particularly her ex-husband, Shamus.
Flipping open the lid of a large cardboard box, the box that had once held her wedding dress, Carmela began layering in folds of puppet fabric.
"What do you want to do with the head?" asked Ava, regarding the large monster head.
"Probably leave it here," said Carmela. They'd transported the big goofy head in her car, top down, all the way from her apartment in the French Quarter to the float den in the Central Business District. And judging by the amount of stares and honking horns they'd garnered, had probably looked like some kind of War of the Worlds spectacle rolling down the road. Now it seemed far more practical to just leave the big head. After all, they'd be back tomorrow night to tinker with it again.
"So… just park it with the other heads?" Ava suggested.
"Sure," said Carmela, glancing around the den, noting the dozen or so enormous Mardi Gras floats that hunkered in the dim light. Adorned with purple and gold foil, the floats seemed to shimmer expectantly, as if they knew that very soon they'd be rolling down Napoleon Avenue, once again enthralling tens of thousands of people.
"Sure do like this monster fella," said Ava, reaching out to touch the jumbo papier-mâché creation.
"Hmm?" said Carmela, glancing around again. For some reason, they seemed to be the only ones left inside the float den. The slight babble of voices and hum of activity had faded away without either of them taking much notice.
Ava bent forward to hoist the bulbous head atop her shoulders. "I think I can…"
Without warning, a high, shrieking scream pierced the night.
Ava bobbled the head, almost dropping it, then gazed at Carmela with huge, saucer eyes. "Dear Lord, what was—"
Another pitiful scream rolled at them in excruciating waves. A death knell of someone who'd been fiendishly attacked!
"Sounds like a banshee cry!" Ava shrilled.
Carmela gulped hard. Whatever it was, it was coming from right outside!
"You think we—" began Ava.
But Carmela was already dashing pell-mell for the door.
"Wait for me!" cried Ava, shrugging off the head. With her longer strides, she caught up with Carmela at the door. Together they pushed open the heavy sliding metal door and stumbled out into the darkness.
"What on earth?" said Carmela. Her eyes instinctively probed the empty parking lot and nearby warehouses.
"I don't see any—" began Ava.
And then Carmela, glancing down, murmured, "Oh no." She put out a hand and caught Ava, before she could take another step forward and contaminate the crime scene.
"What?" asked Ava. Then she followed Carmela's gaze downward. "Holy crapola!" Ava exclaimed in a quavering voice. "Is that who I think it is?"
Carmela nodded silently. Brett Fowler lay spread-eagled in the gravel, faceup, his mouth drawn back in a grim rictus of pain. Spread all around him was an enormous pool of darkness. Blood, Carmela supposed. Lots of blood. Carmela shivered as she took in the hideous details. At Fowler's feet lay the large, discarded Minotaur head. Its ugly, bullish snout was punched in; its glassy red eyes reflected madness. Its massive horns curled upward into nasty, sharp points.
"Dear Lord!" exclaimed Ava. "Somebody stuck Brett Fowler with that awful Minotaur head."
Carmela stared at Fowler's crumpled body, slowly leaking pints of blood. She took a couple of tentative steps forward and reached out her hand. Touched the razor-sharp horns of the Minotaur head. Her fingers came away warm and sticky. "Not just stuck him," Carmela told her friend as she drew a single, shaky breath. "Gored him to death."