You'd never know by listening to him just how much Police Chief Turner Lewis really likes Murray and me. He insists on pretending that he can't bear the sight of us. Just because we've turned up as material witnesses during the course of three or four murder investigations in as many years, he likes to make out like we're the booking agents for a troupe of homicidal maniacs. Every time he runs into us, even if there's not a dead body within 10 miles, right away he starts in with the detective business (the dick shtick, Murray call it) -- flashing the badge, flipping out the little spiral-top notebook, asking us to come downtown, all that cop jazz. The truth is, there's a murder every day in New Orleans -- you have to make arrangements months ahead of time if you want to be killed -- and for a couple of ordinary guys like Murray and me to get caught up in one or two homicides a year really isn't all that extraordinary.
You ever notice how there are certain people you always run into at the supermarket? You could be shopping for the month or just picking up a few things, it could be Saturday morning or after work on a weeknight -- no matter when it is or why you're there, you always see these same people. Maybe you know them, maybe you don't. Either way, after a while it starts to irritate you, and you wish you could go to the store just once without running into them. Well, that's how Chief Lewis feels about Murray and me. That's how he pretends to feel, rather. We see right through him, of course. After all, running into Murray and me at a murder scene is what the Chief lives for. And on this particular Saturday morning, we could tell that we had really made his day.
He sat there in Gaylord Flagranté's private office, with his elbows on the desk and his head in his hands. He'd interviewed all the other witnesses in there one by one before us and now it was our turn. He liked to save the best for last, you see. He didn't look up for the longest time, and, though I myself am accustomed to his taciturnity, the prolonged silence was making the voluble Murray extremely uncomfortable. "So, just like old times, eh Chief?" Murray said at last, to break the ice.
The Chief looked up with a pained expression on his face, like someone had just slipped him a suppository laced with Tabasco sauce. You'd have thought that any minute he'd let go with an explosive "Yikes!" and rocket through the acoustic tile ceiling, leaving Murray and me singed by the blast and blanketing the room with billows of dark grey smoke. Yeah, but this was real life, and things don't happen that way. Instead, he fixed a withering gaze on both of us and proceeded to batter us about the face with rhetorical questions. "What is it with you guys and murders?" he asked, and before we could answer: "Is there some kind of magnetic force that draws you to them? Have you got a divining rod that sniffs out corpses? Is there a new guidebook out that lists all the best places to see homicides?"
"Hey, Chief," Murray interrupted, "is there really a guidebook like that? 'Cause, if not, we could publish one ourselves and make a bundle. People would pay ten or twenty dollars for that, don't you think, Huey? Just think of all the tourists coming to town who'd love to see a real murder to tell all their friends about when they got hack home. We could give them the most likely dates, times, and locations for murder around town, plus psychological profiles of --"
"I know what you're going to say, Chief. "
"What if somebody buys the book and they don't get to see a murder?"
"They'll feel cheated, won't they?"
"Okay, so we offer a money-back guarantee --"
Murray shot me a sidelong glance that communicated the futility of trying to interest a career man like Chief Lewis in an entrepreneurial undertaking. We'd do the book on our own, the look said, and cut the Chief out.
"What's the matter with you guys?" the Chief picked up where he'd left off. "I would have thought that two reasonably presentable fellows like you would have found a couple of nice girls to settle down with by now --"
"You've got two nice daughters, Chief --"
"Forget it, Murray!''
"It was just a thought."
"Now," said the Chief, doffing his paternal hat and donning the official, "what the heck are you bozos doing here?"
"Murray had this theory," I offered.
"I had this theory, Chief," Murray confirmed.
"Don't tell me, let me guess: A fool-proof plan for making yourselves irresistible to women?"
"That's absolutely amazing, Chief! How did you know that? No wonder they put you in charge of all the other cops. The man's psychic, Huey."
"It's the same thing every time, Murray. Girls are all you ever think about. You're pathologically horny."
"You don't have to make it sound so nasty, Chief. Anyway, it was my mother's idea. She always said I should learn how to dance."
"We met two women at a bar in the Quarter Thursday night, and they turned out to be dance instructors."
"I figured it was something like that."
"Look, we're really sorry about this, Chief. We didn't mean to get involved in this murder -- or any of the other ones, for that matter. And if there's anything we can do to help out, just let us know."
"That's very gracious of you, Huey," the Chief responded in a tone that I would not have characterized as sincere. "But, you see, we managed to solve the case without your help. Thanks, anyway."
"You're a genius, Chief!" gushed Murray, and I added my own, less unctuous congratulations. "Who iced her, Chief?" asked Murray, putting to use some of the idiotic jargon that he picked up from gangster films.
"Zula Teche," the Chief responded matter-of-factly. "We've already arrested her. According to that tedious little fellow who makes headstones, Willie Noyes, Dot and Zula were bitter rivals, both vying for their gold-level dancing certificates this year, whatever those are. Dot was scheduled to perform her final routine tonight, he tells me, but Zula had another three months to go before hers, and it killed her to know that Dot was going to finish first. Here's the best part, though: Zula was supposed to have performed her final routine last year -- only Dot gave her a beagle for her birthday and the week before her performance, while she was out walking it, the mutt took off after a squirrel and the old broad fell and broke her hip. That meant she had to postpone her performance, and she never forgave Dot for that.
"We found the murder weapon in the glove compartment of her car, parked right outside the studio. The car was there when Noyes arrived. We place the time of death some time shortly before that. We figure she must have hopped in her car to get away, only to find out that she was out of gas and had to flee on foot. That Noyes is a wealth of information. Boring as hell, but he knows something about everybody in this studio."
"Great work, Chief. You deserve a reward for that fine effort," Murray said fawningly. ''Why not treat yourself to an evening of dancing -- next Tuesday night, say?"
The Chief looked at me for an explanation.
"We get a free lesson for every guest we bring to a Tuesday night guest party."
The Chief rolled his eyes upward and shook his head in disbelief. And then, noticing a similar expression on my face, he inquired, "What's the matter, Huey? You look surprised. Did you think I couldn't solve a case without you?"
"No, it's not that, Chief," I said diplomatically. "It's just that I don't think Zula killed Dot."
"Oh, really?" the Chief replied haughtily. "And why not?"
"Because she couldn't have."
You'd have thought that Chief Lewis would be appreciative of the fact that we were trying to avert a miscarriage of justice. After all, if the murder had been committed just before nine, Zula couldn't possibly have done it. When Murray and I had stopped at her house at 8:30 that morning to pick her up on our way to the studio, as we had agreed to do the night before, it was clear that she had for some time been in the midst of applying the spackling compound that she used for facial makeup, an agonizingly slow, and pointless, process that consumed the next twenty minutes. At ten of nine, fearful that our instructresses might think us discourteous cads if we arrived late for our lessons, we told Zula to drop dead and call a cab, and hightailed it over to the studio, arriving in time to qualify as the second and third persons on the scene, behind Willie Noyes. Brandi and Tiffani had buzzed up seconds later on matching Vespas, followed by Gaylord and Dewitt in Flagranté's black Monte Carlo shortly after that. Willie, having arrived just moments before us to discover Dot's body in a pool of blood on the dance floor, had seen no one leaving the studio.
"Great job, boys. I'll see that you get a commendation for this. Now, let's join forces and find the real murderer!" That's what the Chief should have said. Instead, he muttered a series of deletable expletives (some we'd never heard before), picked up the phone, and ordered one of his subordinates to "release the Teche woman." Then he opened fire on us with the unanswerable questions again. "Why is everything so complicated when you two get involved? What have you got against me, anyway? What did I ever do to you? Have you ever thought of moving to Baton Rouge?" Questions like that. Inane, really, and a bit rude.
I tried to convince the Chief that it wasn't really our fault that Zula wasn't guilty (steering clear of metaphysics as much as possible), and insisted that it was purely coincidence that we happened to have been able to supply an alibi for her. In fact, I pointed out, it was Murray who had volunteered our services as chauffeurs, much to my chagrin. In any case, what was done was done, the woman was innocent, and the murderer clearly had to be someone else. I repeated my offer to provide whatever assistance we could, highlighting the fact that Murray and I, as students at the studio, were in the perfect position to do a little snooping. The Chief shook his head no emphatically -- which, we knew from experience, was his way of saying, "Okay, go to it!"