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A Huey Zinc Murder Mystery
by F.R. Duplantier

CHAPTER SIX

The Chief had been right about Willie Noyes. He did know something about everybody at the studio, but boy did you pay a price extracting it from him! Put it this way: If Dot had been bored to death, Willie would have been our primary suspect. Tedious Maximus, his parents might have named him, had they been prescient Romans. It may have cramped our styles a bit, but the fact that the poor soul had taken a shine to Murray didn't hurt our investigation any. He had been able to overhear the most incredible things, simply because nobody took any notice of him. Just about everybody at the studio had a skeleton in his closet -- except Willie, who had a skeleton key! And he wanted nothing more than a chance to help us unlock some of those closets. He fancied himself an amateur detective, it seems -- or an amateur amateur detective, for Murray and I were amateur detectives, and it was to our station that Willie aspired.

It was Monday before we saw Willie again, and by that time word had gotten around the studio that the murderer had escaped detection on the video, and that Murray and I had nearly been killed delivering it to Chief Lewis. Willie had been particularly distraught at the news of our misadventure -- even more so than Brandi and Tiffani, who, it was clear, loved us deeply -- and it was nice to know that somebody cared, even if it was as strange a person as Willie. Dewitt had been the conduit for the news bulletin, for it was he that we had gone to see at the studio Saturday evening after leaving Chief Lewis' office. We had called ahead to make sure that he would still be there, and that all the others would have left, including Gaylord. There had been something we wanted to talk to Dewitt about in private.

As we had expected, it had not taken much to unman Dewitt, the process being so far advanced already. The mere comparison of jail sentences for burglars versus murderers was enough to prompt him to spill his guts. Of course, there was really no way to disprove his claim that he had been eating beignets at the Cafe du Monde at the time of the murder, which happened also to be the time of the burglary. And for all we'd ever know he might have stopped in there and wolfed down a donut or two before tooling over to Dot's house, if for no other reason than to attempt to establish an alibi. The police, needless to say, had not found powdered-sugar fingerprints on the light switches at Dot's house. But, let's face it, the circumstantial evidence pointed to Dewitt -- and, if he had his druthers which crime scene to be pinpointed at, the choice was obvious. After all, Dewitt had needed the money (he'd admitted as much the night before while trying to pry open the door to Zula's car), he had known that Dot would be at the studio at that precise time, and he was the one person who wasn't where he was supposed to be at that particular moment. It was his dumb luck that the silly old woman had gotten herself killed while he was carting off her candlesticks.

We had warned Dewitt what might happen in prison to a nice-looking young guy like him, only to try a different tack when we realized that the prospect appealed to him. Remember now, Dewitt, no silk jammies in jail, and no Brie on zwieback, we'd threatened. Oh no, please, not that, he'd cried -- or words to that effect -- and proceeded to tell all. Masters of psychology, that's what Murray and I are. It was to his advantage to cooperate with the authorities, we'd explained, for it was the murderer they were after, not some penny-ante housebreaker. Dewitt had understood perfectly. He'd rat on anybody if in doing so he could diminish any discomfort to himself as much as one iota. What a specimen! Bravo, Dewitt, that's the spirit.

Now, what's all this business about Gaylord going out for a newspaper? That's what we'd been leading up to. And when we'd posed the question to Dewitt, we'd discovered just the kind of stuff he was made of. "Do you think Gaylord killed Dot?" he'd responded. "I was wondering that myself, because, frankly, I don't think he went out for a newspaper either. He never reads anything but GQ and People magazine."

"He'd hardly have taken a cab to get a newspaper," Murray had added, and Dewitt's eyes had widened.

Unfortunately, there hadn't been much that Dewitt could tell us about his "roommate." He'd met Gaylord just over a year ago at the Club Tiresias, a gay bar in the French Quarter. Gaylord had persuaded him to quit his job waiting tables at one of the tourist traps in the Quarter and come to work as a dance instructor at the studio. He'd moved in with Gaylord shortly after that. A mere manager at the time, Gaylord had moved up rapidly when, a couple of months later, the owner skipped town leaving the studio on the verge of bankruptcy. He had somehow succeeded in putting together the financing to bail out the studio and retain the Gene Kelly franchise, thereby becoming the owner. The black Monte Carlo had been one of the first fruits of his elevated status. After all, a studio owner could hardly be seen driving around town in an old beat-up Tercel.

How Gaylord had come up with the funds to take over the studio or how well the studio was doing at this particular moment, Dewitt had no idea. Gaylord didn't discuss financial matters with him. Dewitt didn't even know for sure what Gaylord's real name was, though he suspected that his first name might be Brian. He seemed to think that Gaylord hailed from San Francisco originally, or had lived there for a time. All he knew for sure about Gaylord's antecedents was that every now and then a catalog would come in the mail from a leather shop on Castro Street, addressed to Bentley Boyette.

Dewitt could think of no reason why Gaylord would want to kill Dot -- she was, after all, his best customer -- and he could detect no trace of Gaylord's presence in the videotape (How we wished patchouli oil had audiovisual properties!). In fact, the only thing he did notice was a slight peculiarity in Dot's rehearsal during the few seconds between her look of alarm and the firing of the shot that killed her. He was greatly agitated by it, though it seemed perfectly natural to Murray and me that a woman about to be murdered would miss a step or two. "No, no, the steps are correct," he'd insisted. "It's her timing that's off. It's all wrong. We went over it a million times. How could she screw up like that? The woman's been taking dance lessons since before I was born --" He was still babbling like that when Murray and I returned for our lessons on Monday, going on and on to Brandi and Tiffani, as Willie listened in, about how Dot's quick steps should have been slow steps, or vice versa. It seemed a minor point to Murray and me, and less than irrelevant at this juncture, but then we weren't dance instructors.

Brandi and Tiffany were, however. They were our dance instructors, in fact, and so we snatched them away from Dewitt's fascinating analysis and began the afternoon's lessons. Again, we were astounded by how much we learned in a mere sixty minutes. "You know, I danced with Brandi for a full hour last Friday," Murray observed later, "but it wasn't until today that I realized just how firm and full her breasts are. She showed me a couple of new steps too." Not to be outdone, I responded that an hour of watching Tiffani jiggle to jitterbugs had had its rewards. We then attended Brandi's group lesson on the meringué, a most absurd dance designed, evidently, to imitate the shuffling past seated patrons performed by latecomers to the theater -- you know, the ones who inevitably hold tickets to seats in the middle of the row. Only the meringué had no verbal component; you did it silently, leaving out the "excuse me, pardon me, excuse me." The usual suspects were on hand for the demonstration -- Zula (at large again), Bummer, the Browns, a couple of dowagers and nebbishes I hadn't seen before, and Willie, of course, against the back wall tapping his foot and heckling Brandi.

"Why do you always heckle her?" Murray asked Willie, like the overprotective lover that he longed to be, when the lesson was over.

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"Because she's full of bull," replied Willie.

"I beg your pardon!"

"She's full of bull, I said."

"I know what you said. What I meant was, Why'd you say it?"

"Has Brandi told you yet that you're the best student she's ever had?"

Murray was pleasantly surprised. "She sure has,'' he beamed. "How'd you know?"

"Because she told me the same thing."

"She told you I was the best student she'd ever had?"

"No, she told me I was the best student she'd ever had."

"And you believed her?" asked Murray, with a chuckle.

"Of course, I believed her. Didn't you?"

"Yeah, but --"

"Well, it wasn't any truer when she said it to you than when she said it to me, or to any of her other students for that matter. She says it to all of them, you know. It's a pat line. All the instructors use it. If they think you're really gullible, they tell you you could be another Gene Kelly or Cyd Charise. She didn't try that one on you, did she?"

"No, of course not," said Murray dejectedly. "I wouldn't have believed her anyway. -- But, say, Willie, if you don't believe the compliments they give you, why do you keep coming back?"

"What do you mean, why? That is why," said Willie, a bit cryptically, if you ask me. "Who wants believable compliments? You think I'd pay all this money to have Brandi tell me I'm doing a halfway decent job for a middle-aged guy with a paunch who has no sense of rhythm? I don't think so. I want her to tell me that I'm the best student she's ever had. I want her to pretend that she finds me physically attractive. I want her to pretend that she enjoys talking to me. I want her --"

"Why do you heckle her then?" interrupted Murray, thoroughly confused.

"To keep myself from falling for it. And to let her know that I know. Once you start believing that crap, they've got you where they want you. And then you wind up turning into a mindless zombie like some of the other students around here."

"Was Dot one of the zombies?" I asked.

"No," said Willie, "she was one of the smart ones. Zula is one of the zombies. It didn't make sense to me that such a birdbrain could be the murderer, but she and Dot weren't exactly bosom buddies, and I had seen her car that morning, and I didn't know that she'd left it there overnight, so it was only natural --" The abrasive drudge had jumped to a conclusion. Big deal. Anyone can make mistakes. But Willie had some other ideas as to who the murderer might be. Don't hold back, WilIie let's share them -- that was our attitude. He had no specific person in mind, but he knew enough to make a pretty good case against everyone. "Take Gaylord, for instance," he said. "Okay, let's take Gaylord," I agreed readily.

"Well, he took over the studio less than a year ago --"

"Yes?"

"Where'd he get that kind of money? He was only the manager at the time. It takes a few bucks to underwrite one of these operations, until the money starts pouring in anyway, and the last owner had left them in the lurch. Gaylord had six months' worth of contracts that he had to honor, if he wanted to keep his students happy, even though his predecessor had absconded with the money." Willie was on a roll now. "Where'd he come from, anyway? Gaylord Flagranté is obviously not his real name. And Dewitt's just some little poof that he picked up in the Quarter. If I were investigating this case, I'd start with those two. I don't know whether either one of them killed Dot or not, but I'll bet they've both got plenty to hide. If I were Chief Lewis, I'd definitely look into their backgrounds. I'd run checks on them, all right. I'd --"

And that was how we'd wound up at the Club Tiresias. Willie had put the bug in our ears. As a matter of fact, he'd offered to accompany us on our little French Quarter odyssey -- that is, he'd tried desperately to horn in. And we would have let him too (he was a likable sort, despite his acerbic dullness), only Murray had overheard Brandi and Tiffani making plans to go to their favorite bar in the Quarter that night -- a place on Rampart Street called Sambo's or Sappy's, something like that -- and we'd already determined to run into them there "unexpectedly." Women put great stock in "coincidences" like that; you just have to know how to arrange them. Anyway, a fifth wheel like Willie was the last thing we needed at such a poignant moment.

Without intending any offense to my lifelong pal, I must say that I've never considered Murray to be of much use for anything other than diversion (in which capacity he's unsurpassed, of course). I certainly have never felt more secure in the presence of someone whose favorite aphorism, by his own admission, is "Every man for himself!" And yet, at 1:00 AM in a weird bar at the tail-end of Bourbon Street, I was glad to have him with me -- that is, I was thankful not to be alone. It was a strange place, blazingly bright and pitch black at the same time. Track lighting does wondrous things, doesn't it? And the music played by the disc jockey was so loud that I could feel the Dixie beer can vibrating in my hand. At the bar sat fifteen stoolsful of stubbly Bette Davis impersonators, and every one of them had his eye on the newcomers in the corner.

Murray and I are throwbacks to a bygone era -- the big band era, actually, when men were men and women weren't, people had manners, and deviants didn't advertise. But here we are stuck in the nineties, and we have to make do. Sure, we've "matured," as our enemies say whenever we compromise. We no longer hold doors open for our dates (for fear that our failure to treat them like "equals" might provoke one of those hysterical reactions we dare not describe as typically female), and we never pay more than half of the tab when sharing a sumptuous repast (because we can't afford to). Let's face it, though, Murray and I aren't exactly feminists. No, it's true. No woman would ever mistake Murray or me for Alan Alda. But, on this particular night, we were in for some sensitizing. I mean, every guy in the bar tried to hit on us, including the bartender. Sure, it was flattering in the beginning. But after a while it got to be a real nuisance. They wouldn't let up. Did we look like a couple of sluts or what? Well, believe me, from now on when Murray and I go to a singles bar, we'll know what the girls are going through while we're trying to get into their pants.

We certainly weren't going to dance, that's for sure, no matter how many times we were asked -- though I must say the other couples did seem to be having quite a bit of fun out there on the dance floor. (What am I saying? Get a hold of yourself, Huey. We are here for a reason, a specific reason. What is it, again? Oh yes, to learn something about Gaylord. We've been trying, too.) Every time some guy had asked us to dance, we'd responded with a friendly, "No, thank you. We're waiting for our friend Gaylord. Do you know Gaylord?" But, so far, the tactic hadn't paid any dividends.

Then, at last, we were approached by a guy who introduced himself as Veronica. By this time we'd met three dozen fellows with women's names, so the impact was negligible. The name Gaylord, however, rang a bell with Veronica. "He owns the Gene Kelly Studio on St. Charles Avenue," we elaborated.

"Oh, you mean Blanche."

"No,'' said Murray, "we mean Gaylord."

"She goes by Blanche," explained Veronica.

"But Gaylord's a man," Murray objected.

"What bus did she come in on?" Veronica asked, indicating Murray.

"Oh, you'll have to excuse Daphne," I said. "She's new in town."

"Daphne? Who's Daphne?" asked Murray.

"You are, Silly."

"I am not. I'm Murray!"

"Murray! Egad!" exclaimed Veronica.

"No, dear, Murray is the name of the horrible man whose body you inhabit during the day. At night the woman you really are -- the woman trapped inside Murray -- comes alive and you're magically transformed into -- Daphne!"

"And who the hell do you turn into -- Madame Butterfly?"

"Chloë."

"Chloë?"

"Chloë."

"I've always loved the name Chloë," gushed Veronica, leaning forward to squeeze my thigh beneath the table.

"Watch it, Veronica," I growled in my huskiest voice, returning the hand to its proper owner. "I'm with Daphne!"

Lucky for us, it turned out that Mr. Veronica had known Gaylord in his past life -- or his past lives, I should say, for he had had many. Veronica had known him as Bentley Boyette in San Francisco, Ramsey Rumpole in Dallas, and Colin Cockburn in Tucson. That was in the daytime, of course. At night, he'd always been Blanche, so as not to confuse anyone.

"Colin Cockburn?" Murray repeated, incredulously. "Isn't that a bit graphic?"

"Gaylord's always been flagrant," said Veronica.

"You mean Flagranté," said Murray.

"No, flagrant. He's only been Flagranté for a year and a half, but he's been flagrant all his life. That's why he chose the name Flagranté. It's flagrant with an accent, to give it that French flavor. Flagranté has the aigu --"

"He has looked a bit feverish the last couple of days," remarked Murray.

"Aigu, Silly, not ague. It's the accent over the e."

Murray was hopelessly lost. The only foreign language he'd ever mastered was pig latin. And when Murray declined nouns, it was always with a simple, "No, thank you, I already have some." You know, I don't believe I've ever seen Murray so anxious to leave a bar -- it's not like him, you see -- and just when we were starting to make friends too. But he wanted to get out of there, muy pronto in fact, so we left. Being called Daphne must have unhinged his mind. I'd made the name up on the spur of the moment, of course, but perhaps he'd had bizarre nightmares during puberty, who knows? I'll have to ask him about that some day.

As we got up to leave, the music stopped, the lights came up, and everyone in the bar turned in our direction -- or so it seemed. "Bye, Daphne! Bye, Chloë!" the clientele called out in falsetto harmony, flapping their paws like palmetto fans. "Don't be strangers!" Once outside, Murray leaned up against the brick exterior and tried not to hyperventilate. "Alternative lifestyles are one thing," he gasped at last, "but those guys are weird!"

It had been a productive evening, nevertheless. For Veronica had not only given us a list of Gaylord's last six names, but an explanation for his compulsive need to rechristen himself. It seems Gaylord had been in the dance studio business for quite some time. His specialty was taking over studios that had been ransacked by their previous owners, working feverishly to create confidence in his own management, and then plundering the establishments himself. By casting himself as the white knight who was going to put things right, he was able, on average, to make off with two to three times what his predecessors had stolen. Instead of increasing their vigilance on his accession, his customers had invariably taken the attitude that lightning couldn't strike twice in the same place. By the time anyone would be able to unravel the mess he'd left behind, Bentley or Ramsey or Colin or Gaylord would be long gone, the man and the name.

Had a medical specialist been asked to recommend a remedy for the toxins we'd been exposed to in that alien environment, he no doubt would have prescribed the home cure that Murray and I already had in mind -- an adult dose of Brandi and Tiffani. We turned right on Governor Nicholls Street and headed toward Rampart. It was dark, the streets were deserted, and Murray and I knew better than to stick to the sidewalks and make ourselves easy prey for the lowlifes lurking in the shadows. We staggered safely down the middle of the street, keeping our bleary eyes peeled. Other than the clop-clopping of a horse and buggy approaching rapidly in the darkness, the night was noiseless. A bit late, I thought, for some liveried old coot to have just dropped off his last fare and be hightailing it back to the stables to call it a night. And then the carriage was upon us, and the last thing I remember was shoving Murray over the top of some crates of empty oyster shells as I too dove for cover.

CHAPTER 7 > > >