A novel after a hurricane hits New Orleans
When the winds and the rain from the storm subside, everything on the south side of the levee is inundated with foul water. Five stone houses built by the once famous J T Callahan still stand proudly on the shell mound overlooking the devastation just a few feet below. Hotel Maison Ensoleillée (house of the sun) across the street lost its roof and most of its fourth floor to the wind. Then flood waters penetrated the foundation and the two-hundred-year old hotel leaned in the horrifying winds, slowly collapsing into the smelly “out of its banks” river.
A storm this severe changes everything abruptly. Most of the residents leave their homes in a few hours or less. Many flee with the pitiful remains of their lives clutched in their arms. Now they go to other cities and towns scattered over several states. Few will ever return as a miasma seems to hover enshrouding the area. The ones who stayed behind were forced to seek refuge where there was higher ground the ones who didn’t drown. Animals and people alike succumbed to the wind and the water. The death toll was close to two thousand. Many people just disappeared and are not accounted for in official statistics. The air still has the unmistakable smell of decomposing flesh. It is like standing down-wind from a row of recently used above ground “oven” graves. It is not overpowering but it doesn’t go away, it lingers in your nostrils as if the people and animals that produce the odor have a strong desire to be remembered.
Five stone sentinels stoically stand guard over a sea of carnage covered with a shroud of sticky mud that the devastating storm plastered on everything. Broken joists and boards stick out of the muck like the broken ribs of a flock of seabirds caught in the fury of the storm and blown mercilessly against the stone walls of the Hotel Maison Ensoleillée (house of the sun) just before the old hotel gave its final groans and crumbled from the fury of the storm.
The only light on this section of Levee Rd is reflected from a hand painted metal sign reading “Maddi’s Hair Salon.” Only one of a pair of dim-when-they-were-new incandescent flood lamps illuminate the gold letters of the sign on a black background. It hangs by two chains from a rusty wrought-iron brace above the door. Moving with the gentle insistent breath of death that creeps over this forlorn area at night it is hard to tell if it is sighing or moaning. The dim light is reflected slightly onto the eleven cracked steps leading to the entrance. They are littered with chunks of stone wreckage of the Hotel. The heavy wood door entrance to #900 Levee Rd is old, gray, and underlined by a wide dark greenish brown high-watermark three inches below the threshold. The weak light is not bight enough to allow safe navigation up or down these steps. The two lights never were intended to allow safe passage for pedestrians. These days anyone stupid enough to be out and about in the dark, deserves whatever horrible fate that comes out of the gloom.
The first floor didn’t get saturated with the river water, but the wind pushed tree branches across the roof tearing through the roofing like the claws of some furious prehistoric creature ripping its prey apart. The torrential rain poured through the cracks and nail holes faster than Maddi could catch it in buckets and dump it down the gaping mouth of the ancient porcelain toilet in the third-floor bathroom. The window of the second floor facing the street has a small computer printed sign that reads Gunn Investigations. The “for rent sign” that decorates the third-floor window is a forlorn thing sun bleached in just a few days. Undisturbed since the wind damaged the roof and the resulting mold has made suite #3 unlivable despite Maddi’s valiant efforts.
Thomas Gunn, the blue-eyed, white-haired, sixty-year old former commander of the New Orleans Swat team retired with two bullets in his spine five years ago after being shot by persons unknown. He collapsed near Thibodaux’s Tap Room and Pool Hall two blocks from Maddi’s Building. She saw the lights of the Emergency vehicle that took him to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge. When he got out of the hospital he returned to his neighborhood and became the resident of suite two.
Maddi would not normally have rented to him. His intense blue eyes seem to see into her soul. She felt a bit uncomfortable. Her heartbeat behind her ample bosom sped up too fast when she felt the caress of his eyes passing slowly over each one of her breasts as if memorizing every contour of it. His type was not what she really wanted, but he had two months’ rent, cash in hand at a time when she needed every dime she could scrape together. A Fantastic Sam’s had opened on the opposite side of the river siphoning off badly needed customers, so the money from renting apartment #2 will help her make expenses.
She is fifty-nine years old, still beautiful with smooth unblemished skin, Irish blue eyes, and naturally curly hair. Her smile is one of her best features. However, she only gives a little grin, or a slight grimace, when it is necessary. It’s been a long time since she allowed herself to smile. There hasn't been much in her life to encourage a real smile, for years. Maddi has never met a man who captivated her interest. Living alone for so long has created a comfortable rut with high safe sides so, the idea of a changing her status hasn’t crossed her mind in decades. Her family is her clients, she knows the children and grandchildren of all her customers. She inherited a lot more than the old house and the business. The set of her jaw and her no bullshit attitude is inherited from her grandma.
Her shop still has the same name as when her grandma passed it on. The old woman named the enterprise after her granddaughter. It was as if the old woman could see the future through the window of her red 1951 Studebaker convertible. When Maddi was six, her mother and father were killed in that same old car. Her mother, Aoibhinn (A-veen) borrowed her mother’s car to pick up Maddi’s father, A helicopter transferred him from the offshore rig that he worked on to the Grand Isle Heliport.
Grandma Aoife (Effie) burst into tears pointing outside at the thick fog bank which had crept upriver and was enveloping Southern Louisiana.
“Mom it is just a little fog. I’m so glad it didn’t cover the gulf. The crew was able to leave the rig.”
Grandma stood with her jaw thrust out, “No, no, Aoibhinn not tonight. They have a place for Jacques to sleep where he will be safe until the fog lifts.”
“Mom, I’ve just got to pick him up, I can’t bear the thought of his being this close to home and not be able to wrap my arms around him. I miss him so much.”
The old woman stood her ground, “Child tonight is not the night to pick anyone up from the heliport. Wait until tomorrow until after the fog burns off.”
“Mom, I will pick him up. If the fog is too bad, I can always turn around and come home.”
Maddi stood beside her grandmother with her hands on her hips. She couldn’t imagine her mother turning around for anything once she started driving. “I miss my daddy too. But Momma the fog will get a lot thicker tonight. I want you both to get home safely.”
Maddi’s mother Aoibhinn (A-veen) was just as adamant as Grandma Aoife (Effie).
To this moment Maddi can still see the determined look on her mother’s face. At that point in time nothing anyone said or did could have changed the tragedy that occurred. The red convertible crashed into a canal on the way home and both her parents drowned. It was late afternoon the next day before the fog lifted enough that it was spotted, almost completely submerged just a few feet off the roadway.
Maddi’s life changed, she moved downstairs into Aoife’s tiny apartment behind the shop. The third-floor apartment where Maddi’s family had lived was then rented to another offshore worker and his wife and small son. She grew up helping her grandmother. Beauty School was a necessity, not an option for her. When her grandma died from a stroke Maddi took over the clientele of the shop. It was small but brought in enough to satisfy her immediate needs.
The upper two floors had been rented out as sort of mixed use. Before Maddi’s parents moved in the third floor was rented by a quiet little man named Ezekiel Kaczanowski. He set up a gem cutting business in 1920. He got sick in 1956 and moved out in the face of his inevitable death from lung cancer. None of the three renters in between found anything he left behind. Jacques moved in with his wife and baby daughter. Aoibhinn (A-veen) was an excellent hair stylist. She worked for her mother downstairs. There were two other shops with similar names in the area. When her daughter moved in with her precious granddaughter, her grandmother changed the name of the business. In the intervening years Maddi’s became a well-known beauty shop in the area.
At the time of the storm, a wild red-haired artist named Alexander Kahn occupied Apt #3 He was behind in his rent three months. Maddi had wrestled with the idea of kicking him out. When the evacuation order came, he was the first one to evacuate carrying his paint box, a few drawings in a cardboard tube, and one small suitcase. Maddi knew that she would never get a dime from him but was pleased that she could avoid the legal process of evicting him. As he disappeared down Levee Rd in pursuit of the olive-drab evacuation bus she went to the third floor to check out how much mess he had left behind. She swept the floor and gathered two large garbage bags of fast food wrappers and discarded sketches which had been crumpled into balls of paper. Maddi uncrumpled one. The artists pFrom the third-floor window she watched the trees bending over in the wind prior to the arrival of the storm. When it hit with full fury, one of the first victims was the roof of the abandoned Hotel Maison Ensoleillée, across the street. In just a few seconds it tore loose and become projectiles capable of cutting a man in half. Then the whole fourth floor disintegrated before her eyes. She cried out in fear. The wind pushed the branches of the oak tree in back so hard that they tore her roof. She knew her building was built well and the highest point in the area except for the breeched levee. The vacant hotel across the street leaned precariously toward the street. Weaving drunkenly in the wind, it collapses into the river of mud that was once a two-lane cobblestone street.
Tommy climbed up the stairs and calls to her. “This is not a good time to be alone. Come down here, it is the safest place in the building. I don’t think the water will get this high and the winds will have to tear a whole floor off to get to us.”
She goes down to his apartment where they sit on wooden chairs across his desk in the dark. The only light is from a vintage hurricane lantern. At the height of the storm, despite her inner strength, Maddi whimpers a little in fear. Tommy reaches across and holds her tiny hand tightly in his large strong hand. “It’s going to be alright, Maddi, the worst is over.”
During the long dark hours that follow she is better able to bear the fear knowing Tommy is just a few inches away. They talk about everything and nothing. She, about beauty school, her grandmother, and about the neighborhood when she was growing up. She describes the many changes before the storm telling a tale of a neighborhood on its way down and the slow disintegration of her past way of life. In the past, the shop had customers all day long usually keeping Maddi busy enough that having time for lunch was rare. Before big events like Proms and School dances and Mardi Grais she kept the shop open two to three hours late as well as bringing her friend Rita out of retirement to help her.
He talked about his years in the Marine Corps Investigations Unit and his subsequent time with NOLAPD, his promotion to lead SWAT and how much he enjoyed leading such a close-knit team. He extracted a butane hotplate and a new bottle of gas from the lower section of his kitchen cabinet, put a well-used percolator filled with water and dark roast coffee over the flame. He extracted cream, and sugar from his stash of necessities.
She shocked him with her question, “Why did you leave SWAT?”
Tommy cleared his throat, then continued. “I have two bullets resting in my spine that are inoperable without making me a quadriplegic.” He didn’t mean to tell her, but he realizes there is no way to dodge her question without creating more and generating, “God forbid,” undesired sympathy. “Doctors watch for complications that so far have not happened.” Ill at ease, He shifted in his chair.
“I apologize for prying. I can tell you are not comfortable talking about it.” She touches his arm, “I’ll never bring it up again.”
Her touch stays longer than he is comfortable with, so he suggests, “The electricity is off, the fridge is getting warm. I have stuff for sandwiches that needs to be eaten soon.”
“Let me help, you don’t need to wait on me,” Maddi says.
“No problem, I know where everything is, and you don’t. Please keep your seat.” He quickly manufactured two Po Boy sandwiches that rivaled those of a great submarine sandwich shop that is now under ten feet of water. “I have milk that will sour if we don’t use it soon.”
“I have juice and bottled energy drinks downstairs as well as ten plastic gallon jugs of water I filled from the tap just before the storm got close.”
“You did very well Maddi,” said Tommy.
He refills her empty glass. Then he pours the last few ounces from the jug into his glass. “Another dead soldier,” he says as he puts it into his trash.
When the wind finally dies down, he escapes onto the roof through the door at the top of the stairs. He can see water rushing through the breech in the levee turning the streets below it into deep brown rivers. After the two-hundred-year old Hotel across the street collapses into the muck, the only sign it ever existed are the ridges and troughs where liquid mud flows over the ruins. It might be a long while before they can escape from where they chose to shelter from the storm. They won’t be hungry for a while, because they both have food caches. They can eat and drink for a little without outside help. Time passes slowly and they play gin rummy to keep their sanity. After nightfall Maddi rests her head on his shoulder while they sit together on his lumpy old couch.
After the storm no sign of the prior inhabitants remains. The neighborhood is evacuated, and most people left their flood damaged homes and possessions behind. Tommy leaves her and walks toward the city proper. It is ominously quiet, there is no traffic and no cell signal. He finally finds a truck that is dispensing water in gallon jugs to the motley assortment of bedraggled people. He takes two gallons, all that he can carry gracefully.
“Have you heard anything about emergency rations, or when we can expect power here?”
The man in OD coveralls sighed, “I wish I had good news,” shaking his head negative, “the power will be out for weeks, but there will be a red cross food truck here tomorrow. Come back then. Good luck.”
Tommy commiserated with the others standing in a small group. They talked about what each person needed to survive. Tommy gleaned some useful information from the encounter but no real hope.
Coming up the steps Maddi opens the door for him, he can see that she is relieved not to be alone. She takes the two one-gallon jugs of water and puts them with the ones she filled just before the storm. “I watched at the window for a long time and saw only you. What did you see?”
“There will be no power in the foreseeable future, when water becomes available from the tap in a few days, it must be boiled well. Tomorrow there will be a red cross food truck where I got this water. I need to be early.”
Maddi touched his arm, “I’ll take inventory of my supplies, I suggest that you do the same.”
Tommy opened the doors to his well-stocked shelves. He has a lot of cans which will require heating to make their contents palatable. He just purchased a two-pound cannister of coffee grounds. Heating water is always a main priority. He has a new case of twelve cans of butane minus the one in his hotplate. There will be no problem for a while if they conserve what they have.
Maddi comes in with a smile on her face. “I have five pounds of red beans and a ten-pound bag of rice. Soaking both cuts down on cooking time. I have a double boiler which will allow cooking two items at once.”
Tommy says, “We have plenty of coffee and twenty-three cans of assorted vegetables from my stash, plus I have six cans of chicken and seven cans of tuna.”
“I have half a dozen eggs, nine slices of bread and a large cannister of coffee creamer. We can make milk from that to use on dry cereal,” says Maddi. “I’ve got three boxes of high fiber cereal and nine cans of various vegetables, and a package of precooked bacon as well as a large box of bisquick and a simple way to make pancakes without milk using creamer.”
“We’ll make do with nothing but water after we run out. Maybe by that time we’ll have good news,” says Tommy. They settled into sort of a routine, Maddi read by the light from the window and Tommy played solitaire. Sometimes they played Gin Rummy.
Time passes slowly with very little change. Weeks later some power is restored in the area and a few of the ladies from the retirement home have worked up the courage to come to Maddi for her services to lift their spirits. Trouble is she gets one or two clients a day and at least two days a week she has no clients. Today she has one very old lady who came in a ride share car from the Elder Care Residence a few blocks away. No one walks as there is still a lot of places to turn an ankle on broken bits of what was once the Hotel across the street. Now the remains are trip hazards for anyone trying to walk.
Tommy makes daily sojourns toward civilization. His walks ease the pain in his back. Today he is dressed in a very wrinkled blue suit, his graying hair flops a bit in the breeze as he climbs the steps to the landing tapping with his knuckles on the shop door to get Maddi’s attention. She looks toward the door and their eyes meet for an electric second. Then she raises her fingers in the classic wait a minute sign. Maddi has fine classic features that betray her Gaelic ancestry. and her beautiful natural curly, red hair is sprinkled with salt grain size patches of white in a pattern that could never be duplicated in a beauty parlor. As she finishes a cut and style for her only customer of the day, she motions to the man at the door to come in as she holds a mirror in front of the matron sitting in her salon chair.
“Is this what you had in mind Miss Ethyl?”
“It’s perfect Maddi. Everyone always says you do the best hairdo North of the river.”
Ms. Ethyl smiles widely and places two twenty-dollar bills into Maddi’s outstretched hand. “Keep the change. I’d wind up paying a lot more for a lot less if I went elsewhere.”
Maddi sighs, “Not many people left here since the flood. It gets harder every day to get by. But I’ll keep praying for a miracle.”
Tommy smiles and opens the door for Ms. Ethyl. “Have a good day ma’am.”
She smiles at the attention and walks carefully down the steps to the broken surface of the sidewalk and her waiting hired car.
When the door closes behind Ms. Ethyl, he speaks, “Ms. Maddi, I wish I had some money to pay you for rent, but all I have is what may turn out to be some good news.”
“Tommy, good news doesn’t pay my bills. I’m about to have to close the doors and try to find somewhere else to live. This building could be condemned at any time.” Her celestial blue eyes fill with tears. She heaves a long sigh silently praying for a miracle.
He looks at his shoes, “I know the roof needs some serious work but, I think I can get a contractor to bring it back to code. That would make it much more difficult for anyone to condemn this building.”
“Tommy as much as I would like to fix this building up, I have no money to pay for anything right now.”
“That is just it, Maddi. It wouldn’t cost you a cent because one of my clients owes me $4000 for services rendered and he has no money left since his wife cleaned out his accounts and ran off with his ex-partner.”
“How does this benefit me?” asked Maddi with one slightly raised eyebrow. “We would still need supplies.”
“Kevin says he has a lot stockpiled for a job that didn’t happen, so he would fix your roof at no cost to you, to pay me,” Tommy smiles. “That way you get something for rent. And I get a little ahead instead of always being behind on my rent.” He blushes blood red.
She looks Tommy squarely in the eye, “I guess that would be better than nothing.” Maddi lifts her chin and a very slight smile creeps across her suddenly young-looking face.
“I’ll carry materials for him, he has no money to pay a helper, so I volunteered,” he says.
“I’d like to meet with him and discuss the job on my roof. The last work I had done didn’t accomplish anything. The roof leaked worse after they did the work and I couldn’t get anyone to even come back and look at it.”
“My contact is no rip off Gypsy, I knew his dad on the force. I watched him grow up and get tangled in his present situation because he loved his wife. She used that love to burn him.”
“Tommy, everyone has troubles, that’s what life is.”
“Kevin is my friend and he won’t cut corners or burn you.”
“I’ll talk to him. Have him come by early in the morning.”
Tommy put his hand out to shake Maddi’s, “We’ll see you around 9 am, put the coffee on and we’ll see what we can work out. Kevin will inspect the roof first and let us know if we have a workable situation.”
Maddi held onto his hand a little longer than necessary. “Tommy thanks, I know how much you need money too.” The physical contact made her heart pound rapidly in her chest leaving her a little dizzy.
His heart pounded too as he said, “See you tomorrow Maddi,” Thoughts that neither of them would ever risk saying aloud, fill the room with a curiously strong energy.
After he left to climb the stairs to his rooms, Maddi heaved a sigh to relieve the tension behind her ample bosom. That night she got out the bottle of rose scented lotion she habitually used on her always chapped hands. After she applied more than necessary, her fingers crept beneath her coverlet and she touched herself thinking about Tommy.
The next morning at 8:45 AM Tommy led a husky young man in bib overalls up the stairs to Maddi’s. He turned down the hall and tapped on the door of Maddi’s tiny apartment behind the beauty shop.
A soft melodious voice mellowed with a telltale lifelong New Orleans accent says, “Come in, how do you like your coffee?” She pulls two chairs out from her tiny folding table. “Sit here, I’ll sit on my couch.”
“This is my friend Kevin, He is the best roofing contractor that I know,” says Tommy. “Kevin, this is Ms. Maddi.” After the two men are properly seated, she brings in a tray with a steaming pot of Community Coffee and a cup with lumps of sugar and tiny tongs to serve them. A small pitcher liquid creamer sits next to the sugar. A plate is piled high with fresh out of the oven pecan covered sticky buns.
“Help yourself to the cream and sugar, the sticky buns are delicious, please would you use these.” She hands each man a carefully folded large white cloth napkin.
“I took the liberty of doing an aerial inspection of your roof with my drone camera,” said Kevin. “Your roof is definitely worth the effort to save it.” He picks up a sticky bun and takes a bite. “Delicious,” smacking his lips with obvious pleasure.
“Has any people from the government approached you about abandoning this property,” asked Tommy?
“I had a visitor from the Corps of Engineers last week. She told me that she would do everything within her power to assure that these five stone houses along Levee road would not be torn down” said Maddi.
Kevin said, “The Pictures from my drone reveal that there is only one other building on this block which appears to be occupied. Seems strange to me, though, from the air none of the five buildings on this block appear to be damaged any worse than this one. They were all above the floodwater level. I would think that everyone would have returned by now.” The two men exchanged a poignant look. Kevin and Tommy unloaded supplies from Kevin’s large bed Dodge pickup truck, placing them out of the way behind the door that opens to the roof. If anything was left at street level it would not have been there in the morning. Human scavengers abound in this area especially after dark.
Kevin worked nearly for a week on the roof. squaring his debt to Tommy. His work paid Maddi four month’s rent on the second-floor walkup that served as Tommy’s office. The other room was where Tommy kept a bedroll that he unrolled at night onto the couch that some tenant in the past left behind. A coffee pot and a microwave sit on a small table in the office next to a 16-cu ft refrigerator / freezer. The second room has a Cedar wardrobe and a small matching chest of drawers that Tommy purchased long before the flood from a yard sale in the Garden District. The apartment has ample room for Tommy’s simple needs.
Maddi, a spinster, has run the beauty shop for almost forty years. Her grandmother, the owner before her, let Maddi work after school. She grew up here, living with her grandmother in the tiny apartment behind the shop from the time her parents were killed. Then Grandma had a stroke when Maddi was seventeen. She never ventured far from the beauty shop and had never met a man she felt was worthy of her attention until she met Tommy.
He is blatant unaware of her feelings or perhaps, he ignores them well, never saying or doing anything to encourage or discourage her. However, he has his own fantasy about scooping her into his arms and kissing her while caressing her beautiful boobs. His luck with women in the past has not been good. His job constantly interfered with his love life. He long ago gave up and resigned himself to living alone. Now he is a private investigator who never turns anyone away who really needs his help. Most of his clients barter with him bringing him containers of frozen food like gumbo, jambalaya, and shrimp etouffee and sometimes oysters and catfish. There isn’t much cash money from his business, so he constantly must scratch to raise money to pay his rent. He can’t afford a wife now. He frequents the Tap room and Pool Hall a few blocks away. No one who knows him will ever play him because he is an excellent pool player. When he can’t raise any money playing pool, he is forced to be late with his rent, he stands before the beautiful woman and begs forgiveness and a little more time. She always fusses at him and then allows him a little more time.
If Maddi could rent out the third floor to anyone but a “Starving Artist” she might make up some of the deficit from her no longer viable beauty shop. Her only problem is that repairing moldy ceilings and wallboard takes money for supplies even though Tommy would willingly help. She hates having to rely on Thomas. She knows his Physical and financial condition and understands all too well the old saying, “You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.” It isn’t that Thomas doesn’t keep busy, he does. It is just that few of his customers pay him with cash for his services. He is a natural born investigator though and is willing to help anyone in need whether he has a hope of being paid or not. All business is off considerably. Most of the residents evacuated when the storm hit New Orleans and so far they are still gone. There isn’t enough income now to pay all the bills. Renting the upper two stories would barely pay for taxes and utilities. She must rely on a few of her very old customers that live in the apartments a couple blocks down the street. There is no reason for anyone else to ride a bus more than two or three blocks through this decrepit neighborhood for a hairdo.
After Kevin fixes the roof, Tommy managed to get one of his other clients to trade drywall and sheet rock for ceilings as well as mud and tape to hide where the sheets join. So, Tommy goes to work on the third floor. While tearing out soggy and moldy dry wall and ceiling he, much to his surprise, discovers a well-hidden cache behind an interior wall.
Maddi helps him after closing time and they begin to go through what was stashed behind the false wall. The cache contained account books dating back to the time the house was built in 1844 as well as several Journals. The thickest one is written in a language neither of them is familiar with which had belonged to Ezekiel Kaczanowski. The biggest surprise was a bag filled with gems. Tommy had never seen such a collection before. There were Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, and some that looked like diamonds.
“These have to be glass,” said Maddi. “None of my ancestors could have afforded real gems.”
“These gems look like they may have been hidden from Union troops. My gut tells me that they are real. Find a safe place to keep them.” Tommy looked at them through a magnifying glass that he always carried in an inside pocket. “I will take the smallest of each kind to be appraised. Long ago I helped prevent some thieves from getting away from a jewelry store robbery. If the old proprietor is still available, I’m sure he would appraise them without charging me very much.”
“I just don’t know what to think,” said a wide-eyed Maddi. “If they are real gemstones their discovery could be a life changing event.”
“First thing tomorrow I’ll call and find out if I can get them appraised without cost, “said Tommy.
“Thank you, Tommy,” Maddi touched his arm. “This gives me hope again. I think my grandma would smile.”
Tommy turned facing the little woman. “Maddi you deserve a break.
She smiled a real smile that Tommy had never seen before, “You do too, Tommy, you are always doing things to help others and they hardly ever pay you enough to cover your rent.”
Morning comes early, Tommy left his blinds open the evening before to allow the first light of day maximum access to his room. He wanted an early start to reach his old friend’s tiny apartment in the eldercare facility. Menashe, a retired Jewish Jeweler was an early bird and Tommy wanted to get there before his pot full of delicious coffee was empty. It was a forty-minute bus ride to reach his destination meaning a before breakfast departure for Tommy.
Tommy reached the ends of his fingers into the pocket that held the four sample gems neatly wrapped in one of his two handkerchiefs. Tommy wears a Ruger LC 9 mm pistol in his ankle holster. Under his jacket he keeps his Desert Eagle pistol. Tommy spent enough time as a Swat Commander that he appreciates the old saying “Get there Firstest with the Mostess.” He is aware of the danger of riding a city bus. This time of day it will be slight because of the number of people that ride up Levee road and then take the bridge across the river to an area which has recovered more from the storm. Five feet above sea level provides a distinct advantage over most of the city which is below sea level. Since the flood things are always a bit chaotic no matter the time of day. His insurance was loaded and ready to be called upon if needed. A bunch of young thugs would get the surprise if their lives if they picked his bus, which carried an innocuous old grey-haired ex swat commander called Thomas Gunn. His Cop friends referred to him as Tommy Gunn, Lethal Weapon was already taken by a cop with an uncanny resemblance to Mel Gibson.
The bus is nearly full of people who ride the bus to work daily after crossing two main feeder routes sixteen blocks apart. There are always ten to fifteen transferees waiting when this bus arrives. Tommy saw no young thugs or bangers in the bunch. Tommy maintains his harmless old man look until the bus stops a long block away from his destination, the Jewish Eldercare facility. Menashe always snorts at that name for this place. “Lots of Elders and not much care here.”
Tommy called from his apartment on the levee just before he left, to give the friend, he was to visit, time enough to brew coffee.
“It’s Tommy, have you come to put me out of my misery for not being the best of friends,” said Menashe.
“You will outlive me by twenty years,” retorted Tommy. The small balding old man who put his yarmulke on his head upon waking daily, lead the way into his tiny kitchen.
“I made a full pot of coffee, so we won’t run out,” he said smiling. He has a bright lamp on the tiny table next to two cups with spoons and two serving dishes for tiny packages of condiments.
“You know I drink your delicious coffee black, my friend.”
“Now, I understand that you have something you wish to show me?”
Tommy takes a long sip from his cup. “Ahh Caffeine.” Then he digs out the handkerchief with four small lumps twisted together inside.
Menashe holds them reverently in his gnarled liver spotted hand. “What have we here?”
“I need to know if these are genuine. I dug them out of a hollow wall last night.”
The older man takes a loupe from his pocket and looks at each one carefully. “Oi, Tommy do you have any idea what you have here?”
“Tell me they’re glass, so we can get on with our day.”
The old man chuckled as he spread the stones out on the wrinkled handkerchief. “Let me get my scale.” He put the clear stone under the light and looked at it for a long time. “What do you think the provenance of this stone is.”
“I was thinking that these stones were put in the wall to keep them out of the hands of the Yankees.”
“The old man said good guess but wrong century, my friend.” He took a sip of his coffee and weighed the clear stone. “Over 2 1/4 carats. It is perfect without blemish. It was cut before the second World war by Jacob Asscher. Even in a depressed market, this one diamond would wholesale for at least $6000.”
“What? That news is going to make a certain lady very happy,” said Tommy. “Are you sure?”
“I’m as sure as I can be without a few more tests but I really don’t need more tests on this diamond.”
“Are the other stones genuine as well?”
“If they’re fakes, I have to say the best I have ever seen. The ruby is exquisite, and the sapphire is the nicest I have ever had the privilege of viewing. Ahh… are there more than these?”
“A double fist size velvet drawstring bag full. I need you to look at all of them. I didn’t want to risk bringing them here via city bus.”
“I’ll spring for a cab and breakfast at Denny’s,” said the old man. His excitement was obvious.
“Menashe, don’t get too worked up, old man.”
“I’ll be there at your wake, Tommy.”
The two men walked close together for the three blocks to Denny’s. After they ate too much breakfast Menashe called a cab. Both men ate their meals avoiding thinking about the gems in Tommy’s coat not wishing to draw attention to themselves. When the cab came Tommy heaved a sigh of relief, the cabbie was a patron of Thibodeau’s Draft House and Pool Hall which Tommy frequented. The ride to Maddi’s Beauty Shop only took fifteen minutes.
Maddi had two customers when Tommy and Menashe climbed the stairs to the shop.
Tommy tapped gently on the door to her shop. Maddi answered “Yes,” she said breathlessly. “I have two customers now.”
“We need to talk to you for a minute,” said Tommy.
She stepped close to Tommy. He held his finger across his lips. “I need the rest of what we found.”
Maddi seems to be in a state of shock, “Are they valuable?” she whispers.
“My friend will need to examine them,” says Tommy.
“I anticipated that, so I put them in the middle drawer of your desk upstairs.” Maddi whispers.
“What kind of trouble are you two getting up to? Whispering in the corner like naughty little children,” said the voice of a retired schoolteacher from under a hairdryer. Her name is Shelia and she just got new hearing aids and could hear a pin drop. Maddi’s other customer was an octogenarian named Sally who needs more than her current hearing aids to hear anything. Conversing with her requires shouting.
Maddi said tersely, “Nothing of interest to anyone else, I’m going to do a little repair work on the third-floor apartment, Shelia.”
“You must have come into some money since the last time I talked to you,” says Shelia, the biggest blabbermouth in town from under safety of her hair dryer. Maddi is tempted to throw the hairbrush in her hand at the nosey old lady. The thought provides her some comfort without hurting anyone.
“Ha, Shelia, I wish I had come into some money. Tommy made a trade for some wallboard which we are going use to finish the third floor so I can rent it out,” Maddi smiles a conservative little smile as she helps Shelia get out from under the hair dryer. “Sit here in this chair so I can comb-out your hair, Shelia.”
Maddi stopped in front of her other customer. “I’ll be just a few more minutes then I’ll trim your beautiful silver locks, Miss Sally. Thank you for waiting so patiently.”
Tommy leads the way upstairs to his office.
Menashe is breathing hard when they reached the door. “My place may be small but at least it has an elevator.”
“Don’t pass out on me, old man,” said Tommy.
They go into his apartment and Tommy opens the middle drawer on his desk, retrieves the soft cloth bag and spreads a thin layer of gems onto a navy-blue bath towel covering the top of his desk. The old jeweler sits in the available chair on the far side switches on the desk lamp and peers down intently at the jewels shaking his head for the longest fifteen minutes of Tommy’s life.
“Oi, I don’t believe what I see.” He finally stops his examination of the stones. The old man rubs his eyes on his shirt sleeve. “What I see here is absolutely incredible! Tell me how you come into possession of this exquisite collection of stones?”
“They aren’t mine, and before you ask, I didn’t steal them. I just want to find out what they are worth for the woman that they belong to.”
Menashe sits shaking his head in disbelief as he picks up each stone and holds it in under the light, examining it through his loupe. “Oi, my friend these stones are worth much more than you can possibly imagine. These stones once belonged to a very rich man who really knew stones.”
“How do you know?” Tommy asked.
“I have seen perfect stones before. Usually only small stones well under five carats. Some of these are much larger in comparison. This perfect ruby is twenty-three and one-half carats by itself. This is the wealth someone collected over a lifetime; I can’t begin to speculate what these magnificent stones would be worth auctioned at Sotheby’s.” He shrugs his shoulders and turns both palms up. “Maybe one of the books from the cache will have a detailed history of these stones. A man who collects stones like this wants to know as much about them as possible. It increases the perceived value.” He puts both hands to his lips and blows through them as if warming them. “I am curious to know who owns these.”
Tommy said, “The lady who runs the beauty salon and owns this building. There was some storm damage to the roof, and we discovered this cache behind a wilted wall.” His discomfort generates sort of a force field around him.
Menashe nods his head with understanding but growing impatience. He motions with his fingers. “Out with it, we’ll grow old and die before you answer my question.”
Tommy had his own question in mind, and he needed an answer before he said much more. First, he was going have Menashe sworn to silence.
“Menashe, I want this discovery to remain our secret. No one else can know about them! We need to decide what to do with them. I have no idea yet who put these stones into the wall. I’ve known you for years, my friend. You tell me these stones are worth a fortune. I believe you, but this find also puts an insurmountable obstacle in way of the development of a relationship with Maddi. If I were to make any overture to her now, there will always be a doubt. Is he only here for my money?”
Menashe said, “I know of your track record with women. It was bad when you were on the police force. You have no excuse now because of your work, It’s time Tommy. You need a good woman to help you. That Maddi woman caressed you with her eyes. It is time to do something about that look.”
“I was about to see if Maddi was in the mood to establish a relationship.” Tommy groaned loudly. “Now we have this fortune between us. It wouldn’t be right for me to make my move now. She will always wonder why I am interested in her.”
There was a rustle in the hall. “How long has Maddi been standing by the door to the hall?” He thought.
Maddi was indeed just outside his door. “I just baked a frozen peach pie and I have vanilla Ice cream. Are you and our friend Menashe, ready for some?”
“Only if you’ll come in and sit with us,” said Tommy opening the door wide.
“Where can I set this pie while I go downstairs for the ice cream?”
“Here,” said the little Jewish Jeweler. “I will wrap the gems in this towel, to make room for the food.”
While Maddi goes downstairs for ice cream as Tommy makes a pot of hotel blend Community Coffee.
The old man has a curious smile on his face when Maddi returns. “I do love ice cream and peach pie,” he says smacking his lips.
The three of them sit at the little table without conversation as they eat.
Maddi breaks the pregnant silence. “I have no idea where these stones came from or why they were hidden in the wall of my third-floor apartment. Please enlighten me.
“We found the journal of Ezekiel Kaczanowski in the cache. It is written in a language I’ve never seen before,” says Tommy.
“Let me see this journal,” says Menashe digging for his eyeglasses and perching them on the bridge of his nose.
Tommy went across the room and dug through a stack of books. “Here it is.” he holds it up with a wide smile on his face and places it in the old man’s hand.
“Yes.” he shouts, “this book is written in Yiddish and it will tell us what we need to know.”