Scrapbook shop owner Carmela Bertrand is ready to head out and enjoy her night until she hears some strange noises coming from Oddities, the neighboring antiques shop, and decides to investigate. Her evening plans are abruptly put on hold when out of a curio cabinet—and into her arms—falls the bloody body of Oddities owner Marcus Joubert.
While Joubert was known for being an eccentric, Carmela never thought he could inspire the passion required to kill—until she learns a priceless death mask was also stolen. As the mystery grows, so does the list of suspects, leaving Carmela with the feeling that it will take every trick in the book to unmask the killer thief before there’s another night of murderous mischief…
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IT was Halloween again in New Orleans. A week-long, rabble-rousing celebration that just seemed to get bigger, badder, and crazier every dang year. A time for would-be werewolves, witches, fairy princesses, goblins, Venetian lords and ladies, and zombies to dust off their costumes, throw on a wig, howl at the moon, and paint the town the bright red color of fake vampire blood.
Carmela Bertrand, the owner of Memory Mine Scrapbook Shop in the French Quarter, was no exception. This year she was debating the merits of wearing a medieval lady’s costume for the week leading up to Halloween, a Scarlett O’Hara dress for her friend Baby Fontaine’s annual masquerade ball, and a sexy witch dress for the ultra-fancy Pumpkins and Bumpkins Ball.
After all, what’s a girl to do when she has dozens of party invitations and is dating one of the hottest police detectives in the Big Easy?
Well, for one thing, it wasn’t so easy.
Right now, late Friday afternoon, with streetlamps just beginning to glow in the darkening purple haze of a French Quarter evening, Carmela was still hunched at her computer trying to figure out which classes to post on her Facebook page. She’d already offered several Paper Moon classes that had proven to be wildly popular. But now she was racking her brain for something different, a couple of fun crafty sessions that would tickle her customers’ fancies and really get their creative juices flowing.
Maybe a stencil class or a class on painted fabrics? Painting on velvet clutch purses and pillows could generate lots of excitement among her die-hard scrapping ladies. The other thing might be . . .
She stood up fast and hustled out of her tiny office and into her retail area. Pulling open a flat file drawer, she peered inside. Yes! She had a huge inventory of square and oval jewelry findings. Neat little square frames, as well as hearts and elaborate ovals that you could slip a tiny photo into. So maybe she could offer a Charm and Pendant class? That could be loads of fun.
Carmela nodded to herself, liking the idea more and more, as she rushed back to her office and typed in her new class. There. Done and done. Creating a personalized charm or pendant was almost as fun as creating a miniature scrapbook page.
Feeling satisfied and a little relieved, more than ready to call it a day, Carmela grabbed her handbag and suede jacket and headed for the front door. Rushing now, she smoothed back a strand of honeyed-blond hair from her short, choppy bob and did a little quickstep. Not quite thirty, Carmela was at that point in her life where she was still young enough to be bubbly, but old enough to be serious. A freewheeling Southern conservative with inquisitive blue-gray eyes, fair complexion that rarely saw the need for makeup, a nose for getting into trouble, and a serious penchant for chocolate.
We could even make charm bracelets, she thought to herself as she turned and locked the door behind her.
As Carmela stepped out onto Governor Nicholls Street, she inhaled deeply and smiled. Evenings in the French Quarter never failed to give her pause and an overall feeling of sweet contentment. After all, who wouldn’t love to gaze up at a purplish blue-black sky that served as a dramatic backdrop for two-hundred-year-old brick buildings? Or wander through courtyard gardens with pattering fountains and giant froths of jasmine and magnolias? And if you stopped and listened carefully, you could more often than not hear the haunting low notes of a jazz saxophone bumping along on a breeze from the river.
Of course, the French Quarter had its crazy hurly-burly side, too. Lest you think it was a perfect little slice of heaven, you couldn’t forget the voodoo shops, absinthe bars, strip clubs, and touristy T-shirt and bead shops. But for every one of those crazy shops there were dozens of quaint oyster bars, jazz clubs, elegant restaurants, historic old homes, French bakeries, and haunted hotels. All there for your delicious enjoyment.
Feeling upbeat, Carmela paused outside her own quaint little bow window with its display of finished scrapbooks, memory boxes, Paperclay jewelry, and altered books. Just gazing at all the finished crafts gave her a keen sense of satisfaction. A feeling of accomplishment for having found her happy little niche in the world.
Over the past few years, Carmela had managed to build Memory Mine into a thriving business. No thanks at all to her ex-husband, Shamus “The Rat” Meechum. He’d bugged out after their very first year of marriage, leaving her to figure out how to negotiate a lease, write a business plan, and obtain a bank loan. And the rat (yes, we’re making a point here) even hailed from one of New Orleans’s premier banking families, owners of Crescent City Bank.
But Carmela had taken the risk, worked her proverbial buns off, and figured out how to entice and build a customer base. And, wonder of wonders, her efforts had not only paid off monetarily, but she found she enjoyed being a small-business owner. One of many here on Governor Nicholls Street with its plethora of gift shops, antique shops, and what have you.
What have you.
That thought caused her to pause outside the front window of Oddities, the shop that served as her next-door neighbor and with whom she shared a common brick wall. Oddities was a strange little business run by an even stranger man by the name of Marcus Joubert. The shop had sprung up two years ago like an errant mushroom and was aptly named. Because Oddities carried an eclectic and macabre mix of merchandise. There were taxidermy animals, Victorian funeral jewelry, steampunk items, beetle and butterfly collections, antique furniture, old medical devices of indeterminate usage, albums filled with black-and-white photos, and any number of bleached-white animal skulls and bones. She’d even once spotted an apparatus that looked suspiciously like a thumbscrew.
Tonight, under the soft glow of streetlamps, her curiosity getting the best of her, Carmela stopped and peered in Oddities’ dusty front window. And saw a pair of old leather goggles, a piece of scrimshaw, a collection of Chinese vases, and a top hat and antique dagger.
For some reason the top hat and dagger struck her as something Jack the Ripper might have had in his possession. Might have even treasured.
Kind of creepy.
Then again, it was the week before Halloween. So perhaps Marcus Joubert was trying to set a theme?
Carmela was just about to turn and walk away, hike the few blocks to her cozy apartment, when she was suddenly aware of a funny and slightly ominous set of noises emanating from inside Oddities. What she thought might have been a muffled scream followed by a dull thump.
She stepped closer to the window and tried to peer in, to see what was happening in the back of the shop. No luck. A rainbow of lights from the street reflected off the glass, creating a glare that made it almost impossible.
Still . . . she’d heard something, right?
Carmela, who was generally practical in nature but was blessed (or cursed, some might say) with a giant dollop of inquisitiveness in her DNA, decided it might be smart to investigate.
After all, what if Marcus Joubert had suddenly taken ill? What if the sounds she’d heard were him staggering and falling? Could he be lying in there right now? Struck down by a heart attack or some other ailment and unable to call out for help?
Carmela put a hand on the brass doorknob and turned it slowly. Nothing doing. The door was securely locked.
No problem, she had a key. Joubert had given her one in case of emergency—and this just might qualify as an emergency. If not, then no harm done. She’d take a quick look-see and lock up tightly. No one would be the wiser.
Quickly pulling out her key fob, Carmela found the little brass key and stuck it in the lock.
And that’s when her bravado and good intentions suddenly came to a screeching halt. Because when she opened the door, the shop yawned at her in complete darkness.
Carmela stood there for a few moments, feeling unnatural warmth wash over her, as if a space heater had been left on, and hearing a monotonous ticking from an old grandfather clock in back. As a few more moments passed, she realized the shop wasn’t completely dark after all. There were a few dim lights scattered about the place. Pinprick spotlights glowed from the rafters like bat eyes, illuminating a suit of armor and a wrought-iron candelabra. A stained glass turtle-shell lamp cast a dim orange glow on a shelf alongside a set of frayed leather-bound books. And way in the back, sitting atop Joubert’s rickety rolltop desk, was a faux Tiffany lamp.
Unfortunately, none of the lightbulbs seemed to pump out more than ten watts of power. It was like walking into a dark cocktail lounge without the benefit of strong liquid refreshments.
Carmela took two steps in. “Marcus?” she called out. “Are you okay?”
There was no answer.
“It’s Carmela from next door. I thought I heard something . . .” Her own voice sounded shrill to her, but also seemed to be absorbed quickly into the gloom and darkness. She advanced a few more steps. “Now what?” she muttered to herself. What should she do? What was going on? She prayed it wasn’t some weird Halloween prank that was being played on the unsuspecting next-door neighbor.
“Joubert?” she called again. “Are you in here?”
There was another muffled noise. From where? Maybe from the back of the shop, she decided.
Could it have been the soft snick of the back door closing? Had someone been in here with her for a few moments and just now slipped out the back?
A cold shiver traveled up Carmela’s spine and a little voice in her head, the one that sometimes whispered, You’re taking too big a risk, told her to get out now.
A prickly feeling, as if she was being watched by unseen eyes, made Carmela crank her head sharply to the left. And she suddenly found herself staring directly into the grimacing face of a stuffed capuchin monkey that was perched precariously on a shelf, condemned forever to wear a hideous purple vest and matching fez.
Startled by the snarling mouth and beady eyes, Carmela whirled away from the monkey, caught her toe on the edge of an Oriental carpet, and started to stumble. Her arms cartwheeled out in front of her in a last-ditch effort to catch herself from falling. And, in so doing, flailed and flapped against the front doors of a tall wooden curio cabinet.
As her splayed-out hands thumped against the thin wooden doors, they rattled like crazy and the entire cabinet seemed to teeter forward on its spindly legs. Terrified that the entire piece was going to fall over and smash something odd or precious, Carmela tried to grasp the cabinet and steady it. But as she felt the weight of the cabinet slowly tipping toward her, as her fingers fumbled against the brass handles, the cabinet’s doors slowly creaked open.
And then, like a corpse spilling out of Dr. Caligari’s closet, the dead, bloody body of Marcus Joubert suddenly came lurching out at her!
Carmela took a step backward in shock and protest. No matter, the body tumbled relentlessly toward her in horrible slow motion. There was a low moan, like the stinking sigh of a zombie, as a final bubble of air was released from the deep recess of its lungs. And then Joubert’s body flopped cold and bloody and unwelcome into Carmela’s outstretched arms!
Stunned and horrified beyond belief, Carmela screamed at the top of her lungs. She shoved Joubert’s body away from her with as much strength as she could muster, made an awkward jump sideways, and crashed into a small metal table topped with glass figurines. A tiny lion plunged to the floor, a rearing horse tumbled over backward and shattered, its head and right leg flying off.
And still Carmela continued to scream.
When nobody showed up to help, when nothing seemed to be accomplished by her loud screeches of protest, she let out a garbled cough and closed her mouth with a snap.
Joubert is dead. Right here in front of me. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.
Her mind churned wildly, like a rock tumbler gnawing away at bits of agate and sand.
What just happened? What should I do?
She grimaced and looked about nervously. The suit of armor was certainly no help. The capuchin monkey hadn’t made a move. A weird, beady-eyed cat head stared relentlessly back at her.
I . . . first I have to pull myself together.
That decision made, Carmela really did try hard to collect herself. To stifle her fear and revulsion, to try to figure out . . .
Wait just one minute.
A frightening thought had suddenly formed like a cartoon thought bubble inside her brain.
Is Joubert dead? Is the man really dead?
Carmela scrunched her face into a look of distaste. Of course, there was only one way to find out and it wasn’t very pleasant. Still, she supposed it had to be done. Slowly, methodically, Carmela took a few steps forward until she was all but hovering over Joubert’s body. He’d landed on the floor in a heap and looked fairly lifeless, like a rag doll that had been slung across the room. Grimacing, she saw that the front of his white shirt was shredded in some places and stained wet and dark with blood. Had he been stabbed? That seemed most likely.
Stabbed, then stuck inside a cabinet? Why?
Shuddering, hating that she was forced to do this, Carmela reached slowly down until the tips of her fingers brushed against the pulse point at Joubert’s throat. Correction, what had been his pulse point. Because now it felt utterly cold and devoid of life.
That was enough for Carmela. She fled the death and darkness of Oddities, ran out onto the street, and then hastily retreated to the relative safety and security of her own shop.
Slamming the door hard, Carmela quickly latched it, even as she tried to still her racing heart. Then she gazed, unbelieving, out her front window and tried not to let her imagination run wild. Tried not to go completely bonkers and let a movie version of what might happen next crank through her brain. Because in her personal horror show—and this was most definitely a real-deal horror show—Joubert’s stiff and blood-soaked body would come lurching after her.
No, Carmela told herself. Get a grip. That isn’t going to happen.
She was pretty sure—really, more than a little sure—that the man was dead. Therefore, she was going to handle this crisis with calm and dignity. Or as much shaky composure as her frayed, overwrought nerves would allow.
Pawing frantically through her handbag, Carmela hastily located her cell phone.
Definitely got to call for help.
But instead of calmly dialing 911, Carmela’s shaking hands fumbled the phone. Feeling stupid and more than a little helpless, she watched it tumble to the floor and spin wildly on the wooden planks. As she lurched after it, her toe accidently struck the phone and sent it sailing beneath one of her display cases.
Dang! Dropping to her hands and knees, Carmela wondered what else could go wrong.
She fished around under the case until she finally managed to grab hold of her phone. Then she stood up and feverishly punched in a familiar number.
The first person she called, of course, was her boyfriend, Detective Edgar Babcock. Luckily, her call was answered on the first ring, because her request immediately devolved into a disjointed ramble, delivered with staccato urgency and more than a few tears, pleading for Babcock to please come quickly because something really, really terrible had happened. The second call she fired off, once she’d pulled herself together in a vague sort of way, was to her best friend and neighbor, Ava Gruiex.
That done, Carmela walked slowly to the back of her scrapbook shop, gazed at her floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with albums, paper, stencils, and shadow boxes, and wondered just what on earth could have happened next door. Oddities wasn’t exactly the kind of shop a thief was likely to break in to. Inventory ranged from the strange to the bizarre and, from Carmela’s recollection, nothing had ever seemed particularly valuable. In fact, if a thief was going to make a big score in the French Quarter, there were dozens of antique shops, estate jewelry shops, and upscale art galleries filled with extremely valuable merchandise.
So what on earth had happened? Had it been a burglary? Was there anything in Oddities worth stealing? Or had it simply been cold-blooded murder committed by a couple of crazy stickup artists or hopped-up tweekers?
* * *
Predictably, Ava was the first one to arrive at Carmela’s shop. She flew in like a witch on a nuclear-powered broomstick, managing to look worried, gorgeous, and perfectly pulled together in a spangled purple sweater, tight black leather pants, and studded leather cage boots.
“Cher!” Ava cried breathlessly. “What happened?” The shapely ex–beauty queen fluttered a hand to her chest as she gazed worriedly at Carmela. Her mass of raven-black hair was poufed out around her expressive, fine-boned face. “When you called you were babbling like a crazy lady. Something about your hair? So naturally I came a-running.”
Carmela was fighting back a bad case of nervous hiccups and still stumbling over her words. “Not hair, I was trying to tell you about Joubert!” She made a hasty circular motion with her hands. “You know, the shop owner next door.”
Ava eyed her carefully. “Something happened?” She paused, trying to assess the situation. “Something bad?”
Carmela nodded excitedly. She was still having trouble stringing her words together, but was relieved that Ava was finally able to comprehend her terror.
“Excuse me,” Ava continued. “Was this something that could be construed as . . . harassment?” Ava had never been particularly fond of Marcus Joubert. Had never really trusted him.
Carmela continued to bob her head nervously. Then Ava’s words clicked with her and she said, “Um . . . what did you say?”
Ava placed her hands on slim hips and narrowed her eyes into a catlike scrunch. “Please don’t tell me that lecherous old coot made a pass at you,” she said in a low growl. “I’ve always found something smarmy and unsettling about . . . Oh. And you’ve got blood on your sweater. Oh no. What happened?”
“No, Ava,” Carmela choked out. “It’s not what you think.” She held a hand out. “The thing is . . .” Carmela forced herself to bite down hard to keep her teeth from chattering. “Joubert is . . . well, he’s dead!”
Ava’s finely groomed brows rose in twin arcs as she stared at Carmela. “Dead,” she said in a flat tone. Then she seemed to finally comprehend what Carmela was saying. “Wait a minute, you’re talking dead dead? As in not among the living?”
Carmela nodded frantically. “That’s it exactly. I heard these strange noises after I locked up. Coming from his shop. So I went inside to check on Joubert.” She gave a shudder. “I had a key . . .”
“You went inside that creeped-out shop? All by yourself?”
“Because I thought Joubert might be hurt. Because I heard . . . well, anyway, that’s when I found him . . .” Her voice trailed off as she recalled the bloody scene inside the shop.
“Holy Coupe de Ville,” Ava whooped. “Did you see what happened?”
Carmela shook her head vigorously.
“Then what do you think happened?”
“I’m pretty sure Joubert was stabbed,” said Carmela. “There was . . .” She wrinkled her nose, repulsed by the remembered image of his dead body catapulting out at her, an image that was now seared into her brain. “There was blood. So much blood. All over.” Suddenly remembering how she’d shoved the dead body away from her, she held up her hands, which were smeared with traces of dried blood. “You see?”
“Did you call Babcock?” Ava demanded. “Is he on his way?” She’d finally jumped into hyperdrive, too. “The police are coming?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“Nobody,” said Carmela. “Just us. And the police.”
Ava chewed at her bottom lip. “It sounds like you did okay, honey. You pretty much kept your head in spite of what happened over there. But for now, until the police arrive, let’s work on getting you cleaned up.” She put a hand out and pulled Carmela toward her. “Poor dear, you’re an awful mess.” She sat Carmela down on a rolling chair behind the front counter, grabbed a pack of wipes from her purse, and carefully swiped at the blood.
Carmela sat numbly as Ava cleaned her off. Of course, when the damp wipe hit her bloodstained hands, the blood began to smear all over again, reminding her of a scene straight out of a horror movie . . . like a dead body being reanimated.
“You don’t think this blood is like a clue or anything, do you?” Carmela asked. “That it should be tested for DNA?”
Ava continued to blot at Carmela’s hands. “If it’s Joubert’s blood like you say it is, then they’re bound to find splotches of it next door, too.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Carmela. She knew she wasn’t thinking straight and fought to clear her mind. There was something she was missing. Something she should probably . . .
“Oh my gosh!” Carmela said, suddenly stiffening in her chair.
“What now?” said Ava.
“I should call Mavis.”
“Mavis Sweet, the assistant.”
“You mean that mousy little girl in stretch pants who works for Joubert?” said Ava. “Why bring her into this?”
“The thing is,” said Carmela, “Joubert always introduced Mavis Sweet as his assistant, but I think the two of them had something going on—a little romance on the side. Well, maybe more than a little romance.”
“Those two?” said Ava. “I never would have guessed. Well, I suppose it’s only fair to give the poor girl a call.”
“You mean do a notification?” The idea of telling Mavis that Joubert was dead terrified Carmela.
“Notification nothing,” Ava advised. “Don’t tell Mavis anything specific. Just make up some crazy excuse to get her down here.”
“Then what?” said Carmela.
“Then,” said Ava, “you let the cops do the heavy lifting.”
* * *
While Carmela was on the phone with Mavis Sweet, asking her to please come down to Oddities without spelling out the exact reason why, Detective Edgar Babcock arrived.
“He’s here,” Ava called out. “Babcock.” She was staring out Carmela’s front window. “He just jumped out of . . . holy bejeebers, is that a BMW I see out there? What an awesome set of wheels. Oh yeah, and it looks like he brought a posse of uniformed officers with him. Though those poor peons arrived in a far more traditional black-and-white vehicle.”
Carmela hung up the phone, feeling like a coward. She’d told Mavis Sweet that there was a dire emergency at Oddities, but she hadn’t been at all truthful or specific. Still, the girl promised that she was on her way, so that was something.
Ava was still peering out the front window. “Did you hear what I said? Your love bunny arrived in a BMW. Do you think some crook finally bought him off? A drug dealer or a smuggler?”
“He bought it at a police auction,” said Carmela. “Besides, Babcock’s not like that. He’s basically . . . well, he’s straight.”
“Well, hook me up at the next police auction, girlfriend,” said Ava. “Because I could use a hot new set of wheels like that.” She glanced out the window again. “Uh-oh, now he’s waving at us. I suppose he wants us to come out there. Hmm, and he’s got that serious tight-lipped look that means he’s upset.” She glanced back at Carmela. “Are you ready for this, sweetie?”
“No,” said Carmela.
* * *
Duded up in a chalk-gray Zegna suit, Detective Edgar Babcock was tall, thin, and attractive in an officer-of-the-law kind of way. The glow from the streetlamps gave his ginger-colored hair a slightly darker cast and made his pale skin look almost ethereal. His normally handsome face, usually lit with a warm, crooked smile, looked rather serious tonight with just a touch of grouch thrown in.
Still, to Carmela, Babcock looked wonderful. His pale blue shirt matched a tie of a slightly deeper tone that picked up the intensity and color of his eyes.
An Armani tie? Carmela wondered, as her heart did a small flip-flop. Had to be. Only the best for Babcock, always the most stylish duds. She knew that, someday, GQ magazine was going to do a feature on the ten best-dressed detectives in the country and Babcock was probably going to top the list. Then she wondered—how on earth could she be turned on by Babcock and completely repulsed by Joubert’s murder at the same time? Those were two emotions that didn’t seem to coexist, yet there they were. All intertwined and smooshed together in her slightly addled, hyperactive brain. Go figure.
“So,” said Babcock. He rocked back on his heels when he caught sight of Carmela and Ava on the front sidewalk. “We seem to have a rather large problem here.”
“I’ll say,” said Ava, who loved to be in on the action. Any kind. Even police action.
Babcock gestured toward the front door of Oddities. “Is it unlocked?”
“Yes,” Carmela said in a small voice. “That’s how I left it.” Especially since I came flying out of there like a crazed banshee.
Carmela wished that Babcock would look at her, really see her, instead of holding her at arm’s length, treating her like some sort of suspect or witness. On the other hand, that’s probably what she was.
Babcock cocked a finger at one of the uniformed officers. “Lambert, you come inside with me. Wallace, stay by the door. Don’t let anybody else in.”
“Crime-scene guys are here,” said Wallace, as a shiny black van pulled up tight to the curb.
“Send them in,” said Babcock. “As soon as they unload their gear.” He sighed as he led his little group into Oddities, and then stopped short when he saw the body. He held up a hand, indicating for them all to wait. Then he stepped forward, took a cursory look at the very dead Marcus Joubert, and said, “Carmela, you’re going to have to walk us through this.”
“WHAT happened was . . .” Carmela began. She was ready to let it all come bubbling out. The terror, her jangled nerves, her fear that Joubert’s dead body might come stumbling after her.
But Babcock held up a finger. “Let’s wait a second for the crime-scene guys.” He glanced around. “Aren’t there any decent lights in this place? Where are the lights, anyway?”
“It’s like a tomb in here,” said Ava, which caused Carmela to flinch.
Officer Lambert scurried around, finally locating switches and flipping on several overhead lights.
“Oh man,” said Ava, as Joubert’s dead body was revealed in the now harsh light. “That’s just . . . rude.”
“You really shouldn’t be in here,” said Babcock. He shook his head. “Why is she in here?”
Nobody offered an answer until Carmela finally said, “I need Ava for moral support.”
“Right,” said Ava, giving a slow wink. “I gotta keep watch on her morals.”
“Excuse me, excuse me,” a youthful voice called out. “Coming through.”
It was the crime-scene team, a flying wedge of three men all wearing dark blue jumpsuits and carrying black leather cases along with a clanking gurney.
“Charlie,” said Babcock, nodding at the young man at the head of the group. Charlie Preston was the crime-scene team’s young wunderkind. A smart, persistent technician who considered every case he handled a personal challenge.
“Hey, Charlie,” said Ava. The two had met before and she was well aware of this young man’s interest in her.
Charlie looked around, surprised, and then grinned impishly at her. “Ava. What are you doing here?”
“Another day, another murder,” Ava quipped.
“Can we please just get down to business?” said Babcock. He raised an eyebrow and focused on Carmela. “Carmela?”
So Carmela led them hesitantly through her little adventure. As Charlie and his team snapped photos, bagged the hands, and poked at the body, she explained how she’d heard a couple of strange noises, had entered the shop, and then tripped and inadvertently opened the cabinet where Marcus Joubert’s body had been stashed.
“Yowza,” said Ava, when she’d finally finished. “That’s quite a story.”
“That’s exactly how it happened?” said Babcock. “You didn’t leave anything out?”
“I don’t think so,” said Carmela. Just that I screamed my head off.
“Sounds about right to me, Chief,” said Charlie. “You look at how the body fell, where it landed and all. Her story pretty much tracks.”
“Okay,” said Babcock. He seemed to be chewing on something.
“There are spatter marks in the back of the shop,” said Charlie. “So that’s where the victim was stabbed. Then he was obviously dragged and stashed in that cabinet.”
“Dead before they put him in there?” asked Babcock.
“Oh yeah,” said Charlie. “This guy lost a lot of blood. It was all over pretty fast.”
“But there’s no sign of a weapon,” said Babcock.
“The killer must have brought his own knife,” said one of the crime-scene techs. “Then taken it with him.”
“He would have been bloody after such a violent struggle,” said Babcock. “It would be hard to stroll through the French Quarter covered in blood.”
“Maybe not,” said Ava. “Some guys party like rock stars down here.”
“Maybe his car was parked in the back alley,” said Carmela. “Or maybe the killer didn’t have to walk far to duck out of sight and change.”
Everyone was silent for a minute, and then Charlie said, “All right if we load him up now, Chief?”
“Yes,” said Babcock. “But please don’t call me Chief.”
Charlie snapped off a blue latex glove and grinned up at him. “Isn’t that where you’re headed? The chief’s office?”
This was news to Carmela. “Are you?” she blurted.
“Hardly,” said Babcock. But he seemed embarrassed.
One of Charlie’s team spread a black plastic body bag on the floor, then the three of them muscled Joubert’s body into it and zipped it up. The bag was then rolled onto the gurney and the gurney was raised to waist height.
There was another collective moment of silence and then Officer Lambert glanced toward the front door and said, “Uh-oh.”
“What now?” said Babcock.
But Carmela knew exactly what was going on. Mavis Sweet had just arrived at the front door and was struggling to push her way in. There was an exchange of heated words and then a high keening sound, like the screech of a dying hyena. And then Mavis cried, “Let me in! Let me in!” She seemed to be locked in a physical confrontation with Officer Wallace, who was pushing and grunting and trying to block her entrance to the shop.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Wallace continued as he lowered a shoulder and tried an unsuccessful body block. “This is a crime scene. No one’s allowed to pass.”
“But I work here!” cried Mavis.
Carmela peered toward the front of the store. “That’s Mavis Sweet,” she told Babcock. “Marcus Joubert’s assistant.”
He cocked an eye at her. “Let me take a wild guess. You called her with a heads-up?”
Carmela nodded. “I thought Mavis had a right to know. And she’s not just the assistant. I’m pretty sure she and Joubert were . . . romantically involved.”
“Let her in,” Babcock called to the officer at the front door. “It’s okay.”
“Although this whole scene is really not okay,” Carmela mumbled.
“Oh my gosh, who’s gonna tell that poor girl what happened?” Ava asked in a loud whisper. “Who’s gonna break the bad news to her?”
Everyone in the room fell silent as they looked toward Babcock.
“I will,” said Babcock, stepping past them to head off Mavis. “I suppose it’s up to me.”
But Mavis had already caught sight of the black plastic body bag lying atop the metal gurney. She flew through the shop, her frizzy brown hair flying out behind her, her face red, and her slightly plump form jiggling like crazy.
“Oh no!” Mavis cried. “Please no! Don’t tell me . . .”
“I’m very sorry,” Babcock said in a respectful tone of voice. “There appears to have been a break-in and possible robbery. In the ensuing struggle Mr. Joubert was stabbed.” He said it straight out, with no wasted words.
Mavis was utterly stunned. “Stabbed, you say? Stabbed to death?” Words failed her for a few moments, and then she said, “You’re saying he’s . . . dead?” Her voice rose in a plaintive squeak.
“I’m afraid so,” said Babcock.
“I need to see him,” said Mavis, elbowing and fighting to push past everyone. “Please!”
This time Carmela, Babcock, Ava, and the entire crime-scene team tried to block her path.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Babcock, trying to grab Mavis’s arm and halt her progress. “Unfortunately Mr. Joubert sustained several rather severe injuries. Um, disfiguring injuries.”
But Mavis remained firm. “No. I have to see him.” Her eyes blazed and had grown to the size of saucers as she glanced from one person to another. Mavis seemed so freaked out that Carmela wasn’t even sure if the woman recognized her.
“Maybe just a little peek?” said Ava.
Babcock looked unhappy.
Carmela, sensing a kind of standoff, put an arm around Mavis’s shoulders and led her slowly toward the gurney. “Could you. . .?” she said to Charlie. She motioned with her right hand. “Unzip it just. . .?”
Charlie slid the zipper down six inches, allowing a partial view of Joubert’s face.
Mavis’s mouth opened and closed like a dying fish and tears streamed down her face. “Oh no, it’s really him.”
Charlie zipped the bag back up as Mavis fumbled in her pocket for a hanky.
“We need to ask you some questions,” said Babcock.
“Really,” said Carmela, who was still trying to comfort Mavis. “Can’t they wait until tomorrow?”
“I suppose,” said Babcock.
Mavis sniffled loudly and gazed at Carmela. “Carmela,” she said.
“Yes,” said Carmela.
“Who would do this?” Mavis cried. “You know that Marcus was . . . everything to me.”
“I know that,” said Carmela, trying to console her.
“He was kind and sweet and gentle,” Mavis went on. “Such a dear, dear man!”
Ava, who was never comfortable with tears, said, “Well, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Warmth.” She thought for a minute. “Or even Mr. Personality.”
“Miss Sweet,” said Babcock. “Were you working here today?”
Mavis shook her head sadly. “No, Friday’s my day off. Maybe if I had been here . . .” More tears leaked out. “This wouldn’t . . .”
“We’re going to need to know about next of kin,” said Babcock.
“There really isn’t anyone,” Mavis sobbed. “Well, maybe a sister.”
Babcock gave a nod to the crime-scene team and they slowly rolled the gurney through the store and out the front door. Carmela saw this tragic scene drawing to a close and felt terrible for Mavis. The woman lived by herself and she sensed that her job at Oddities, her relationship with Marcus Joubert, had been the only good things she had going on in her life.
As Babcock’s keen eyes searched the shop, something seemed to register with him. He cleared his throat, then said, “This somewhat strange collection of, ah, merchandise . . . these items resurrected from the past, they might possibly attract a certain unsavory type of character.”
“Strange things indeed,” agreed Ava, glancing at the same stuffed monkey that had almost frightened Carmela to death.
But Mavis was suddenly defensive. “Some of these items are priceless. One of a kind! Marcus had all sorts of customers who thought the world of him and relied on his ability to seek out unique and unusual objects of art.”
“Hence the chance that this started out as a robbery,” said Babcock, trying to placate her. “Perhaps, since you are here, you could take a look around and see if anything is missing?”
“How could you even tell if something’s missing?” Ava murmured. “This shop is like a cross between my Aunt Effie’s attic and an episode of Hoarders.”
“Still,” said Babcock, pointedly ignoring Ava’s comment, “it would be a tremendous help if Miss Sweet was able to take a cursory look around right now. I wonder . . .” He focused his attention solely on Mavis. “Is there some sort of inventory list that you could consult? Maybe a stock status program on your computer?”
“Yes, we have that, but it was never completely up to date,” said Mavis, sniffling loudly and wiping at her nose again. “Marcus was forever selling a piece here or there and then forgetting to delete it from our inventory list. It was the same thing when he purchased new items for the shop. Sometimes I’d notice something brand-new sitting on a shelf and not even know where it came from.”
“What’s the most valuable item in here?” Carmela asked suddenly. “If this was a robbery, and it certainly feels like it must have been, what would a thief be most likely to grab?”
Mavis suddenly looked really frightened. “Oh.” She put a hand to her mouth and drew in a deep breath. “Oh no. It couldn’t be. . .!”
“What couldn’t be?” asked Babcock.
“The . . . the mask,” Mavis stammered.
“You mean like a Mardi Gras mask?” said Ava.
Mavis gave a vigorous shake of her head. “No, it was . . .” She suddenly crossed the shop in three quick strides and placed her hands on a small tea-stained Tibetan cabinet. She paused. “You have no idea.”
“No, we really don’t,” said Babcock. “Perhaps you could enlighten us?” Balanced on the balls of his feet, trying hard to follow the gist of Mavis’s words, he seemed a little tense.
“Are you talking about some kind of tribal mask?” said Carmela. She knew Joubert often displayed carved African masks as well as Central and South American masks in his shop. She remembered a mask from Oaxaca in particular that had been carved from a cactus plant and threaded with honest-to-goodness horsehair.
But Mavis was suddenly in a tizzy. “It couldn’t be . . .” she babbled. “Please tell me it’s not . . .” She suddenly flung open the doors of the Tibetan cabinet and stared inside. Curious now, they all crowded around her and stared in, too.
The cabinet was completely empty. Just three empty shelves and a curious scent. Like a cross between cinnamon and eucalyptus.
“This can’t be happening!” Mavis shrieked. She reeled backward and spun around, almost crashing into a tall, glass pyramid-shaped case filled with antique jewelry.
“Just calm down,” said Babcock.
“Take a deep breath,” Carmela urged. “Try to pull yourself together and tell us exactly what’s missing.” She helped Mavis limp over to a vintage horsehair chair and sit down heavily. “Really, it can’t be that bad.”
“Really, it can,” Mavis moaned. She was bent forward now, her head in her hands, trying to pull herself together, struggling to get her words out.
Carmela knelt down beside her. “This mask that’s gone missing,” she pressed, “just what kind of mask was it?”
Mavis let her hands fall away from her face. Then she lifted her head and gazed sorrowfully at Carmela. Her eye makeup had melted and run together and now she looked like a sad raccoon. “It was a piece that had been handed down through three centuries. It was priceless.”
“You mean like a fancy carnevale mask from Venice?” said Ava.
“No,” Mavis sobbed. “It was . . . Napoleon’s death mask!”
TIME seemed to stand still for Carmela. She felt like she’d suddenly been teleported to some weird art history mystery from the eighteenth century. Or back to the dark days of World War II, when all the art galleries, museums, and private collections of Europe had been outrageously plundered. “Wait a minute,” she said to Mavis. “Could you repeat that please? Did you really say death mask?”
“Napoleon’s death mask?” said Babcock. He straightened up and frowned. Rubbed the back of his hand against his cheek. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” He turned and gazed at Carmela. “Is there such a thing?”
Carmela shrugged. “I suppose. Or at least there was, once upon a time.”
“No,” Mavis said with firmness in her voice. “It’s an acknowledged fact. There are four known Napoleon death masks in existence.”
“Seriously?” said Ava. Then, “Come on, this is a joke, right?”
Mavis threw up her hands and stomped her foot like a petulant child. “No joke! At the time of Napoleon’s death it was customary to cast a death mask of all great leaders. Special artisans would press a mold of wax against the dead man’s face and then make copies cast in bronze.”
“Where on earth would Joubert get such a mask?” Babcock asked. “I mean, it’s not exactly your ordinary run-of-the-mill object.”
“I don’t know!” Mavis wailed.
“But you work here,” said Babcock. “So you must know something about it.”
“But I don’t,” said Mavis. “I only know that Marcus purchased it very recently and kept it in that small Tibetan cabinet under lock and key.”
“So this isn’t just a murder,” Carmela said. “It’s also a robbery.”
“Homicide plus robbery,” Babcock corrected as he ushered the ladies toward the front door. “Now . . . everybody needs to clear out. I have to get to work.”
“I bet we could help,” said Ava. She was clearly intrigued by the story about the death mask.
Babcock flashed her a stern look. “The only way you can help is by leaving me in peace.”
Carmela raise her hand to her ear with her pinky and thumb extended in the universally recognized gesture for Call me.
Babcock gave Carmela a tight nod and then focused his attention on Mavis. “Miss Sweet, it’s likely I’ll be in touch with a few follow-up questions.”
Mavis sniffled and managed to squeak out an, “All right.”
Babcock closed the door to Oddities behind them and Officer Wallace hastily fastened a string of yellow crime-scene tape across the doorway.
Out on the sidewalk, Mavis pressed her fist to her mouth and stifled a sob. All around them, darkness had settled upon the French Quarter like a cashmere blanket. Lights twinkled from old-fashioned brass lamps, palms swayed in the cool October breeze, tourists brushed past, talking excitedly and carrying geaux cups filled with daiquiris and hurricanes.
Carmela put her arm around Mavis’s shoulders and walked her a few feet away from the store as Ava trailed behind them.
Mavis gulped, as if she was trying to form a sentence, then she reached down and grabbed Carmela’s wrist tightly. “Please help me,” she pleaded.
“Really,” said Carmela. “There’s not much I can do at this point. Or should do, now that you’ve got one of New Orleans’s best detectives working the case.”
Mavis aimed a plaintive gaze at Carmela. “I hope you know that Marcus thought the world of you.”
This surprised Carmela. “He did?” She figured Joubert tolerated her only because they were neighboring shopkeepers.
“Absolutely he did,” said Mavis. “Marcus was always telling me how smart you were. Not just about business strategies and coming up with smart marketing ideas, but that you were able to figure things out. Things like . . . mysteries and murders.” Mavis delivered this last line with a pitiful, hopeful look on her face. “Like the one you figured out a couple of months ago . . . that fat-cat businessman who got killed in his Garden District home?”
Carmela and Ava exchanged quick glances. Ava raised a single brow, a dubious expression on her face.
Sensing their skepticism and hesitation, Mavis said, “This was kind of a secret, but did you know that Marcus and I were engaged to be married?”
“Seriously?” said Ava. She sounded just this side of disbelieving.
“Yes,” said Mavis with a pained expression. “The minute Marcus and I locked eyes it was love at first sight.”
“Okay, whatever,” said Ava. Behind Mavis’s back she made a face that clearly conveyed her distaste.
But Mavis seemed to sense the need to prove their love, because she suddenly shoved a pudgy hand right under Carmela’s nose. “See?” she said, flashing a gold ring decorated with interlocked skulls and a Sanskrit inscription. “We hadn’t announced our engagement yet.” She paused to catch her breath, then her voice quavered as she added, “But we were going to be married.”
Carmela rubbed Mavis’s back as the girl broke down and sobbed. “There, there,” she said, as her heart slowly warmed to Mavis. Carmela was a believer in love, a champion of love. After all, didn’t everyone deserve to be happy? Of course they did.
“Could you please help me?” Mavis asked. “Help figure out who committed this terrible crime against my poor dear Marcus?”
“I think Detective Babcock is quite capable of doing that,” said Carmela. “But I could probably do a little checking as well. Ask a few discreet questions.”
“You would? You will? How can I ever thank you?” said Mavis. She seemed genuinely overcome with emotion.
“You don’t have to,” said Carmela. “But right now I want you to go home and take care of yourself.”
“Fix yourself a good stiff drink,” Ava suggested. “Or watch some trash TV.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Scrapbooking Mysteries:
“Brilliant…From the lively imagination of Laura Childs.”—St. Paul Pioneer Press
“Scrapbook aficionados rejoice! Ms. Childs creates a charming mystery series with lively, quirky characters and plenty of how-to...Serving up some hors d’oeuvres of murder and mystery, creativity and fashion, she has a winning formula to get even the laziest of us in a scrapbooking mood.”—Fresh Fiction
“Delves deeply into the Big Easy’s food, culture, and fashion scene.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Cleverly designed…Getting to the climax is fun, as Laura Childs is a superb cozy storyteller with this series and her Tea Shop Mysteries.”—Gumshoe Review
“Fast-paced with plenty of action…Terrific.”—Midwest Book Review
“Sure to please cozy fans.”—Publishers Weekly