New Orleans, Louisiana
December 27, 2017
By the end of the day, one of them would be dead. David Clement was certain of it. Hell, he looked forward to it, just so the dead guy wasn’t him. He left his office early and stepped onto Chartres Street just as the sun was setting and the ancient gas lanterns in the French Quarter flicked on. His favorite martini spot, the lobby bar of the Royal Orleans Hotel, was only three blocks away. He lowered his head and walked like a 10k racer against the icy wind whipping up from the river. As his mother used to say, it was a witch night, not meant for a solitary stroll or making deals with the devil. Tonight, the devil gave him no choice. His hand dipped into the pocket of his overcoat and he felt the cold steel of his SIG 38. If he sealed the deal, he’d be home by nine o’clock. If not, an old demon would claim another life.
Royal Orleans Hotel
Melvin Baptiste’s bar in the lobby of The Royal Orleans was. His best deserted customer, a man he knew well, sat alone sipping a Stoli martini and nervously pecking at his cell phone. “Come now or else!”
The night was brutally cold, an oddity in New Orleans. Heavy clouds drifted across the moon like a herd of wild horses. On St. Louis Street, empty taxis idled in front of the hotel, waiting for fares who would not come. Wandering tourists took shelter indoors. Even the carriage horse drivers had given up and gone home. It was the kind of tar black night that gave Melvin the shivers.
An hour earlier, David Clement settled in at his favorite table by the Royal Street door, where his back-to-the-wall perch allowed him to see anyone entering or leaving the Rib Room and bar. He was dressed casually in Seven jeans, a Loro Piana sweater and pricy Gucci loafers, but his exhausted eyes were heavy, and his jovial demeanor had cannonballed into the river. Probably too much Christmas or an excess of eggnog and roast duck. Whatever his disease, a martini would cure. Melvin served him quickly, without conversation, then returned to his place behind the bar.
So far, Melvin’s tip jar was empty; and, except for Mr. Clement, would be so at the end of the evening. No matter, tomorrow the Sugar Bowl crowd would flow into the French Quarter like a football tidal wave and chase down every available ounce of alcohol. For now, he was grateful for an easy night. Finally, he spoke, pointing to the windows. “Looka there, Mr. Clement. Outside! It’s snowing.”
David Clement glanced over his shoulder. A light dusting of white particles fluttered against the massive wall of fanlight windows overlooking the street. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “Haven’t seen anything like that in years.”
“We had some when I was a kid,” Melvin laughed. “You can guess how long ago that was.”
“I went to school in Boston,” David said. “I’ve had enough snow to last a lifetime.”
“They gonna close the bar soon, Mr. Clement. You want another drink?”
“Looks like a slow night, Melvin.”
“Yes sir. Only one table in the dining room, but they drinkin’ some kinda fancy Champagne.”
“I’m glad somebody feels like celebrating.”
“They better get it done soon, cause after the game, some folks ain’t gonna have nothin’ to celebrate.”
“You put money on it?”
“No, sir. Every penny I make stays in my pocket. You?”
“Those days are over, Melvin. I wish I could still smoke here.”
“Smokin’ days are over too, Mr. Clement. You still carrying Cubans.”
“Yes,” he patted his jacket pocket. “Don’t tell.”
“You waiting for somebody, sir? I’ll hang around if you need me.”
“One more. If the idiot shows up after that, he doesn’t deserve a drink.”
When his cell buzzed, Clement closed his eyes and spoke softly. Melvin wasn’t listening anyway. He’d learned long ago to ignore anything in his bar except a fist fight, a drug deal, or an aggressive prostitute. After a few minutes, Clement’s voice rose.
“You’re a fool,” he said. “I don’t care what you want!”
Melvin unfolded a bar towel and began rearranging glasses. His hands hovered over his register as if it was of prime interest. David Clement spoke urgently now. His ear lobes reddened; his eyes fired sparks. “Five minutes, no more,” he hissed, then jammed the phone into his jacket and waved Melvin to his table.
“You ok, Mr. Clement?”
“Never better, Melvin! Cancel my order.” He stood, then dropped a pair of twenties on the table. “Keep the change.”
Melvin scooped up the bills and watched as Clement pocketed his wallet, slipped on his overcoat, and turned towards the upper lobby. He reached inside his uniform and withdrew a silver crucifix, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. He ran his fingers over the figure of Christ, as Clement’s footsteps pattered down the corridor then up the steps to the elevators. “Bad night,” he said aloud. ‘Somethin’ ain’t right.”