PREVIEW FRIDAY: Ruined Days

BY GUINOTTE WISE

A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

THE EFFIGY was obviously an upscale gallery and not merely a tourist attraction. The polished wood floors and old trim were pre-Katrina, but somehow Travis didn’t think these had seen any flood waters. New-old maybe. The place was vintage New Orleans, quietly elegant.

The art was spaciously arranged, not crowded. A large nude hung on the opposite wall, a weird Mardi Gras look to her, holding a bird mask on a stick to her face. She was life-sized and overly voluptuous, lips parted. In the shadows behind her were men dressed in business suits. The painting had a menacing, compelling feel. On a pedestal in the middle of the room was a coffin-like structure with a stuffed vulture inside it. The piece stood on end like a shrine, vertically, and was ornate with gold leaf and stained glass jewels all around it. A filigreed cross topped it off. Other walls held wild, fiery abstracts of what looked like molten lava.

Travis walked cautiously into one of several interior rooms away from the street windows. He was conscious of the noise his footsteps made on the gleaming hardwood floor and he admired the workmanship, though the very thought of laying it made him queasy. The Effigy was utterly silent. He was uncomfortably aware of his own breathing, and a twitch in one eyelid. He was defenceless, he knew, but what choice did he have? This could be the end before he’d even begun. No one knew where he was except Cobb and Emilie. He could disappear without a trace. Would they risk that? Would he be interrogated? He stifled the impulse to slip out the front door and into the crowd. He had no idea what was in store for him here, but he vowed to exercise much more care in the future. If he had a future.

He turned at the sound of smartly clicking footsteps, high heels, in the main front room. A woman, older, handsome in a green jacket and skirt, was turning off some lights. Her grey-streaked hair was cut fashionably short, longer on one side, and expensive green and gold earrings flashed with her movements. The front room darkened, even with the soft light of late afternoon filtering in from the street. It was clouding up outside. She left track lighting spots on the buzzard and the nude.

Oddly, she patted the vulture’s head — as though it was something she did whenever she closed up — picked up a green patent-leather tote and a ring of keys. Without looking back, she exited to the street, locking the door behind her, dropping the keys into her bag. He couldn’t tell if she had set any alarms or not. She had seen him, he knew that, though she had not conveyed any kind of emotion, just a glance, perhaps a slight nod. Attractive lady. If Cobb had seen her he’d say, “I’d like to git her agin. Agin a brick wall. Agin a tree.”

Travis smiled slightly, then the hair on his neck moved as he realized another presence was near him — a squeak of soft-soled shoes on the polished wood floor.

A young man ran a metal detector over him, said, “Arms out, please.” He complied, almost relieved that whatever would take place was starting. He could smell the young man’s aftershave — bay rum mixed with the smell of cigarette smoke on his suit. The device sounded, and he was asked to remove all pocket change, rings, watch, as if at an airport. Then he was quickly frisked, and his things returned to him.

“Follow me, please.”

The man was neutral, like a mannerly pit bull. Well-dressed, solid, large neck, sloping shoulders. I’m not in that shape yet, Travis thought, but close. This guy looked built for trouble.

The young man opened the door of a large office and indicated a chair facing a handsome, curved, glass-topped desk of burled wood. Obviously quite expensive, some trend from years past. Travis couldn’t place it, Eames maybe. The guest chairs were leather and chrome, sleek yet comfortable-looking, a classic design from the ’50s, Travis recognized from his college art history classes.

“Be seated. He’ll be with you momentarily,” the pit bull said.

“Who will?” Travis asked.

No answer, a side door closed softly. He eased into one of the chairs. This could be it, he thought. They knew he was unarmed. What would Reno have done? Shit, these were Reno’s people. But Reno didn’t trust them. Or had he? He hoped these weren’t the ones who’d ruin his day.

The room was dimly lit, with track spots illuminating paintings on walls and a light emanating from a Degas ballet sculpture on the desk. The bronze piece was about 20 inches high and was turning slowly. A light above it shone down directly on it. Travis reached out to touch it and his hand went through it. It wasn’t there. It was a hologram or something like it. The clearing of a throat sounded and Travis tensed involuntarily. There was someone in the room, behind the sculpture. If my heart was weak, I’d be flopping around on the floor by now.

“Some collectors prefer to have the original in a vault somewhere,” said the cultured voice he’d heard on the phone from behind the desk. “We make these up for them so they can appreciate the piece with no reservations about it being damaged or stolen.” The speaker was on the opposite side of the Degas.

Travis started to rise so he could see the person.

“Stay where you are. I’m sorry, but I will remain en camera as they say. In shadow. Rather like the men in the painting in the front room, no? By the way, you must know, you are closely watched. Any rash move will be met with immediate consequences. Now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, would you like a drink?”

He started to speak, but his voice caught on the first word. He coughed and tried again. “Actually, yes, thanks. A bourbon, rocks.” He hated being at such a disadvantage. Won’t let this happen again, he thought. His eyes darted about, and he felt the itch of perspiration on his forehead. Where was he being watched from? Fuck it, he’d just get through it. He had a crazy impulse to overturn the desk. Hugely inappropriate, like laughing at a funeral. Only it would be his funeral. Relax, he ordered himself. Go with it. Choices are limited.

“Reno’s favourite. I’ll have one with you.”The side door the pit bull had used opened and a man with a tray appeared. He poured the two drinks at a wet bar, using silver tongs for the ice cubes. He placed the glasses on the tray and brought it to Travis, then to the man behind the Degas. Then he was gone.

“Ever wonder how Reno got his name?”

“I guess I never thought about it. He spent some time there, I know that.” Reno hadn’t been a man who invited a lot of questions.

The man, the Gallery Ghost in Travis’s mind now, took a drink. Travis could hear the ice shift in the glass across from him. The Degas holograph turned. He glanced down at his chest half expecting to see a red dot wavering there, or five of them. No dots.

“It had to do with payment for various services. Back in the early days. He’d sit in on a high stakes poker game in Reno, or roulette, craps, have the most amazing luck. We’d make sure he won a predetermined amount, and the taxes to cover it. Then he’d cash in. Big wins, taxes paid, everyone happy. We did it in Vegas too. We have properties there.”

“Why did someone try to kill him?” He’d asked the question without really thinking it through. But it needed asking, even though he half knew the answer.

“Ah. That was unfortunate. Rogue element as they say. Rogues among the rogues. There was a small faction who decided to get rid of the sniper trail to the assassination. They were arrogant and sloppy though. They vastly underestimated their targets. That was their biggest problem. You see, they had killed witnesses and gotten away with it. Needless killing. All it did was call attention to itself as witnesses died suspiciously.”

Gallery Ghost set his drink on the glass desktop with a faint click.

“Anyway, they decided to kill the killers. Big mistake. The snipers were all carefully vetted pros. Reno knew they were on his home ground. He never would have started that truck they wired. Your mother did, by pure chance, before he could get word to anyone.”

Travis’s hands gripped the chrome arms of the chair. His jaw clenched painfully. Some of those people were still alive. Was Gallery Ghost one? Travis saw his mother swinging in the tire under the old cottonwood, reading. He couldn’t tamp down the visceral emotion he was experiencing as he tried to shut out the recurring movie in his mind, the whump of the explosion, the truck lifting in the air, the fireball. Collateral death. He exhaled through his mouth, slowly.

“They learned a valuable lesson about loyalties in the few hours they had left,” the Gallery Ghost continued. “Though it seemed an eternity, I’m sure, once he got hold of them. We almost lost Reno’s trust, those of us who valued it. Indeed there was always distance after that. His wife, your mother. It was terrible. My sincere condolences are as fresh today, as then. I do hope you believe that.”

Travis didn’t know what to believe. Blowback had killed his mother. Maybe Vinita. Melissa in Dallas. Someone was still out there.

“It surprised me when you called me. How did you get my number?”

“I don’t wish to be rude but I won’t be answering many questions, Travis. I will ask a few, however.”

“Well, you said come. Here I am. Now what?” Oops, another question, fuck him, he thought.

“I see Reno in you. To that point, you’re not in New Orleans for the nightlife. You’re here because you know some things. You have something to sell. I know the buyers. I know them quite well. How much are you asking?”

Travis sighed. What difference did it make? “Four million.”

“Make it five. Plus expenses. Say a hundred thousand. We’ll stake you.”

“I don’t get it. What’s this about? I’m asking questions again, I know, but this is hard to understand . . .”

“Slow down, Travis. Cool your jets as Reno used to say.” Gallery Ghost chuckled. “A million for the gallery. A front like this is expensive to maintain, even with legitimate sales. But the money is really nothing. Let’s call it refurbishing. I just don’t want to spend it out of my own pocket. Plus it’s convenient that you’ll be doing the heavy lifting.”

“I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you just go after it yourself? Why stake me?” Travis shook some ice loose in the glass and sucked on a dwindling cube. He didn’t want to push his luck, but wanted to understand some motives here. As if they could be understood in this hall of smoke and mirrors he’d entered.

“Again, I needn’t explain myself but I will, somewhat. Let’s just say I enjoy the game. I want to see a little more justice done before I shuffle off. It’s very convoluted, Travis. Justice was done when JFK was dealt with. Don’t think it wasn’t. He was an ego out of control. He actually believed he was president. Dangerous, dangerous man, worse than his father. But what you need to know is that you can pursue your objective with some actual prospect of success, with our help. We owe it to Reno, believe that or not. Five million is pocket change to the people you’ll be up against. But I want to see them afraid. There needs to be some house cleaning as well. They sense this. They are already scuttling about, striking out blindly.”

“I’m inclined to say no and walk,” Travis said. “I’ve got reasons other than the money.”

“Travis, Travis, you’re acting as though you have choices,” the Gallery Ghost said in mock exasperation, almost effeminately. “I don’t have many audiences with people. Howard Hughes was a gregarious partying fool compared to me. You should pay rapt attention here, Travis. You can walk. But not far. When you’re no longer whinnying with the herd it won’t cause a ripple, believe me.”

Travis was finding solid ground, he felt. The Gallery Ghost was powerful, but he didn’t know everything. The threats were signs of that.

“I have safeguards against that no-ripple shit. It may not be a tsunami, but it will sure as hell cause some damage.”

“Aha. Reno lives. And just what might these safeguards consist of?”

“No deal.”

“Oh my. And if I say, we have ways…?”

Travis peered into the turning Degas between him and the Gallery Ghost. It was kind of crazy, but this meeting was starting to take on a normalcy of sorts. Though like the ballet figure it could make you dizzy if you watched it closely.

“I’m sure you do. Okay,” he said, placing his glass on the desktop, “I would have been asking four mil. Now it’s five mil plus change with your involvement. What are the chances?”

“That they’ll pay? Oh, quite good. Five is nothing to them. They are manipulating trillions as we speak. They’re tricky, though. They’ll salt it with counterfeit bills. Do things to trip you up. My part will be to get you clean money and out of their clutches. To that end, I’ve someone for you to meet. Elsie? Come in please.”

Being continually off balance was like an inner ear disease or the fucking flu. Elsie? What was he talking about?

A compact black man entered the office from the side door on the balls of his feet, jauntily. He wore Converse lo-cuts, a T-shirt with the face of Malcolm X silk screened on it, black jeans. His hair was dreadlocked. He had a couple of plastic bracelets on one wrist, an ornate chromed watch on the other. He stopped at the chair next to Travis and brushed the dreadlocks to one side before sitting. He turned a bit toward Travis, said, “This my man?” His voice was confident, humorous.

“It is. The man of the hour,” said Gallery Ghost. “Travis, this is Elsie. Not LC for initials, but Elsie, the girl’s name. His mother wanted a girl and pre-named him. To his credit, he kept it. He’s a very unusual person, and we’re giving him to you for the duration of your quest. You’ll find him of great value.”

Travis was alarmed. He wasn’t a fucking corporation, he wasn’t a team. He and Cobb would handle this. “I’d rather work alone,” he said.

A sigh came from behind the Degas. “Again, much of what you want is a non-factor to me. Elsie will prove, as I said, to be of great value. He knows New Orleans, and he knows ways, avenues, corridors of power, and the wiring of the machines. He knows how to avoid danger, how to zig when zagging is not in the best interests.”

Elsie grinned at Travis. He put out a fist for a bump. Travis reciprocated in a resigned way. “My man!” Elsie laughed. “We gone have some fun.”

Travis’s eyes narrowed as he thought ahead to negotiating the meaner streets of New Orleans with this character. Instinctively, he liked him already, but as a beer drinking companion at a sports bar, not in a complex game where death was a constant threat.

“He loves adventure,” said Gallery Ghost. “And interesting assignments. And money. Elsie’s a find. You’ll see.”

Elsie leaned forward and drifted his hand through the Degas two or three times, shaking his head in amazement. “Looks so real, you know I’m sayin’?” He looked at Travis. “Just like a lot of things. Shit will fool you, dog. We has to find out what’s real and what’s not.” He grinned as though he’d imparted an object lesson in a particularly clever way.

Travis looked into the Degas, said, “I have a couple reservations . . .”

Elsie said, “Oh he long gone. He through with us. Thing about him is, he gives you what you need, then he gone like the wild goose in winter.” He laughed. “Me too, pretty quick here. You need anything, I be around. You don’t come to the gallery unless called. I’ll be giving you ways to get ahold of me. No phones. No pagers. It’ll work, you’ll see.”

He held his fist out, bump, clasp, elbow to elbow, a final hand slap. Travis kept up with him.“You pretty white, Travis, but you okay, you know?”

Travis laughed, in spite of himself.

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