"You'd better get up before the boys at the club come running with ketchup and crackers," I said to Murray on the half shells, but his sense of humor had failed him and he ignored the gibe. Under the circumstances, we decided it would be best to give the rendezvous with Brandi and Tiffani a miss, inasmuch as our clothes were soiled and in tatters and Murray smelt like a trawler. There'd always be tomorrow. In fact, today was tomorrow. And it was nearly dawn, believe it or not, by the time we'd retraced our steps to where I thought I 'd parked the car, circled the four adjoining blocks thinking l'd miscalculated, and finalIy wound up at the city pound -- to which it had been towed for some esoteric infraction, and where we were expected to redeem the humiliated little Bug by paying a fine nearly equivalent to the original purchase price. "Keep the damn thing," I'd told the attendant, and Murray and I had caught the bus back to his apartment.
As it was after seven by the time we had ensconced ourselves in Murray's antique Vega, and we had made plans to interview Dot's daughter Della that morning before she went to work, we drove directly to her house in Metairie. We'd promised to let Willie come along on this little detective outing, having put him off the night before, but we were running late already, and if we'd stopped to pick him up we'd surely have missed her. "Watch out for potholes," I advised as the "Murraymobile" chugged along Washington Avenue.
"Don't worry, I will," Murray replied. "And I checked my lugs too."
We had to excuse Della for her hostile reception as we approached her in her driveway. She had been expecting us, of course, but not in the bizarre costumes of coconut tree climbers, which is the state to which our narrow escape from the rogue buggy had reduced our sometime fine apparel. We would honestly have preferred not to have received a liberal dousing of Mace from the little canister at the end of her key chain, but we had to forgive her for feeling threatened by persons of our description. She was extremely apologetic, in any case, once she'd realized her mistake, and most cooperative in answering the questions we posed to her tearfully.
She had a right to be enraged, it seemed to me, by the manner in which her mother had been manipulated out of tens of thousands of dollars by her "friends" at the studio -- not to mention her mother's murder, which Della attributed, not unreasonably, to one of these unscrupulous inverts. Judging by the frequency with which the woman was seen there (with the meter running all the while, of course), our conservative estimate was that Dot had spent more in a year on dancing than Murray and I earned between us in a like period. We were clearly in the wrong business. The worst part, said Della, had been the way in which Gaylord and Dewitt had shamelessly exploited her mother's weakness for alcohol, plying her with liquor and then "persuading" her to sign expensive dance contracts after she was well lubricated. Knowing she'd be too far gone to put up much resistance, they would call her on the phone after a late-night party at the studio -- ''to make sure she'd gotten home all right" -- and badger her to commit to more lessons or to finagle one more of her dwindling circle of targeted friends and neighbors into coming in for guest parties. And even when they didn't call her late at night, they would take advantage of the embarrassment she felt over her frequent memory lapses by telling her the next day that they had called and that she had agreed to this, that, or the other thing. They were smooth operators, all right.
On the other hand, maybe the old biddie had gotten exactly what she'd paid for. And maybe the gigolos at the studio had earned every cent of the tens of thousands of dollars they'd sweet-talked her out of. Murray wouldn't have coddled the lecherous old bat for all the money in the world, and ordinarily he'd have done anything for a buck. And if Gaylord and Dewitt's treatment of her mother had been such a shame, why hadn't Della done anything to extricate her from their clutches? Why hadn't she ever told her mother just how strongly she felt about it? That's what Murray and I wanted to know. Della just laughed. "Don't you think I tried?" she asked with exasperation. "She wouldn't listen. They'd brainwashed her into thinking that all I cared about was her money. I couldn't even bring the subject up without her making some sarcastic remark about how I needn't worry because I was still her beneficiary and I'd still get all her money when she died. And how it was none of my business what she did with it while she was alive. I told her a million times I didn't give a damn if I ever got a cent from her. I've got a good job; I don't need her money. That wasn't the point. The point was, I didn't want to sit idly by and watch somebody take advantage of her. And, frankly, I don't think my father scrimped and saved all his life so that the money he left my mother would be used to subsidize the escapades of sodomites. -- What's that horrible smell?" Della sniffed the air disapprovingly.
Murray and I smelt it too. We looked skyward, over our shoulders, down at the ground, at the bottoms of our shoes -- but were unable to detect the source of the foul emanation."
"Where is that disgusting odor coming from?" Della demanded. "It smells like dead fish!"
"Ah!" I said. "That would be Murray!"
"It's not me," Murray corrected. "It's the oysters."
"He's a sloppy eater," I explained to Della.
Murray and I decided that we had best wash up a bit before heading over to police headquarters for a meeting with the Chief. We'd suffered enough from Della's little container of Mace, and the boys at HQ carried much bigger weapons. Murray dropped me off at my hovel and repaired to his own. We were soon cleansed and on our way again, discussing Della's discourse as we motored past the massive oak-shaded homes on Napoleon Avenue toward Broad Street. We'd gotten an earful too. Della's father had been a military intelligence officer specializing in cryptology. Evidently he'd invented some type of encoding device and made a packet, thereby leaving Dot a wealthy widow, with a sizable military pension to boot. Dot, despite her post-menopausal behavior, had not been a frisky young woman. She had, in fact, been a model of self-repression -- unlike her daughter Della, who as a teenager had enjoyed a succession of oversexed suitors. One of these beaux had sired a son, whom Della, owing to the blighter's boorishness, had had to give up for adoption. This was, you see, before the day of the quick fix. The child, as Della summed it up philosophically, had wound up either in a better home or a worse one, and there was no way to know which, so that was that. The incident, however, had estranged Della from her mother. And then there was the interesting tidbit of information about Major Bummer. It seems he'd been most anxious to purchase Dot's home out by the lake for the future site of his 18th Cha Cha Chicken chamber -- so anxious, in fact, that he had made overtures to Della.
"Maybe you fellows ought to stick to women from now on," the Chief advised with a grin after hearing the account of our boys'-night-out.
"What are your lovely daughters doing this evening, Chief?" asked Murray, seguéing neatly.
"They're going to sit at home with me all night, counting the outstanding parking tickets belonging to someone named Murray Gold."
Murray took the hint and dropped the subject. The Chief then brought us up to speed on his investigations. The buggy had been stolen, of course, and later abandoned at the back of the Quarter near Washington Square, but no one had seen the hijacker take or leave it. Needless to say, the police had no record of any criminal who specialized in murder by archaic means of transportation. Neither Gaylord nor Dewitt had been able to account precisely for his whereabouts last night, both having been making the rounds of the clubs in the Quarter -- including stop-ins at the Tiresias -- until the wee hours. After prolonged questioning, Gaylord had admitted taking a cab to the studio the morning of Dot's murder, but he had insisted that it had only been to check up on Dewitt, whom he suspected of infidelity, and that Dot had been alive when he'd left. Of course, his word wasn't worth much, but the Chief was reluctant to arrest him without first establishing a clear motive. He was able to corroborate much of the information we had learned from "Veronica" about Gaylord's businesses practices, however, and was in the process of determining what stage of plunder the Gene Kelly Studio was currently in. What if Dot had discovered what Gaylord was up to and confronted him? He'd have had to kill her or risk exposure, the Chief speculated. "This Rufus Lipschitz is a real shady character," he commented.
"That's Gaylord's real name," said the Chief with a chuckle.
"His real real name?" Murray asked with amazement. "It sounds phonier than all the ones he made up."
"That's the one Mr. and Mrs. Lipschitz gave him," the Chief confirmed.
"And who were they?"
"His parents, Murray.''
"What about Dewitt?" I asked.
''There's no telling what his name was originally, or if he even had a name. He was given up for adoption at birth and grew up with a series of foster families --"
"He was put up for adoption here in New Orleans?" I asked, and the Chief nodded. "Do you know what year?"
"The same year that Della Dubois put her son up for adoption!"
"You don't think -- no, it couldn't be. That kind of stuff only happens in bad novels."
"After last night," I told the Chief, "I'm beginning to wonder if maybe this is a bad novel.
If you've ever seen a chicken doing the cha cha, then you have a pretty good idea of what the logo for Major Bummer's chain of Cha Cha Chicken chambers looks like, and you've probably spent too much time around chickens. If, on the other hand, you haven't had that distinct pleasure, you can probably visualize it just the same. It conjures up an image, doesn't it? In New Orleans, however, you don't have to do any conjuring, for the image appears everywhere -- on the outdoor signage at each of 17 outlets; on the bags, boxes, wrappers, napkins, tray liners, and translites inside each store; on the T-shirts, cockscomb caps, and feathered vests worn by store employees; in newspaper advertisements, in animated television commercials, and on billboards and busboards all over town. Nothing compares, nevertheless, to the 75-foot-high, inflatable, cha-cha-ing chicken moored to the roof of Cha Cha Chicken's administrative headquarters -- "Chicken Central," Bummer calls it -- on Veterans Highway in Metairie.
"That's a big damn chicken!" said Murray, for we were standing at that very moment in the parking lot of Chicken Central, looking up at the air-filled fowl. Had we been standing anywhere else, I might have wondered what the hell Murray was talking about, but in this particular spot the remark was quite apt. The Chief had suggested that we pay a visit to Bummer, after learning from us of his interest in Dot's property. Bummer had a reputation, it seems, of doing whatever it took to get what he wanted, and when the Chief said whatever, he meant whatever. There was no doubt that Bummer had had his heart set on that site for the location of his 18th chicken chamber. The only question was, Had he wanted it enough to kill for it?
We strolled past chicken chamber No. 11, located on the first floor of the building, and rode the express elevator up to Bummer's office. Murray had called Willie to apologize for standing him up that morning, only to put him off again when Willie suggested meeting us for the Bummer interview. As you might have guessed, Murray had a plan. He'd discovered that the flat Brandi and Tiffani shared in the Maison des Bons Temps apartment complex was not far from Chicken Central. As long as we were going to be in the neighborhood, he figured, we might as well pick up a bucket of chicken and drop in on them for an impromptu picnic. I had to hand it to Murray: The wheels never stopped turning in that one-track mind of his.
Bummer stuck to his story. He'd stopped by Chicken Central on his way to the studio the morning of Dot's murder. Yes, he'd had an interest in Dot's property as the future site of a chicken chamber. No, he hadn't killed her to get it. Why had he approached Dot's daughter Della? Had he had reason to believe that Dot would not be around much longer? "Hell, the old broad was past seventy," Bummer responded. "She had to croak some time. Don't you boys know anything about business? It pays to think ahead."
As a matter of fact, Murray and I didn't know anything about business. If we had, we wouldn't have both been destitute at the end of one-third of our working lives. One look at us would have told any sane and sighted person that we obviously knew nothing about business. Nevertheless, we resented the question. That pompous ass! Was he really trying to suggest that his accumulation of an obscene fortune had anything to do with merit or intelligence? Were we supposed to believe that there was some great art to selling rectum-reaming, battered bird bits to people who would devour piston rings and strut rods if they had cayenne pepper on them? Well, he wasn't fooling us any. We snatched the coupons he offered and bid him good-day.
As I stepped into the down elevator, I found myself alone and realized that Murray must have lagged behind to chat up the receptionist, who, it was true, was a toothsome morsel. There he was, sitting on the corner of her desk like the reincarnation of Paul Drake and charming the heck out of her. As I approached, I could hear him inviting her to attend the guest party at the studio that night. To my surprise, she responded favorably, asserting that she'd be delighted to do so, provided that the function did not conflict with her husband's kenpo class. Murray became suddenly more discriminating. That black and beckoning beauty mark 19.5 degrees above the left corner of the young woman's voluptuous lips was really just a mole, after all, and the caramel nipples budding through the warp and woof of her skin-tight chemise could have been a tad less pointy. Why waste his time with inferior goods? That was Murray's attitude.
I seized the opportunity of our contemporaneous captivity during the descent to the first floor to chastise Murray for his insane randiness. "When are you ever going to learn?" I chided.
"Oh, I learned plenty just now," Murray responded.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, because you just can't go on --"
"I learned that the old Bummer wasn't in his office, like he said he was, at the time of Dot's murder."
"How do you know that?"
"Because Crystall was here, and he wasn't."
"The receptionist -- and that's Crystall, with two l's."
"I might have known."
"Yeah, he's come in every Saturday morning at the same time since she started working here two years ago. This past Saturday, no show."
"How do you like that guy? Did he really think we wouldn't find out? Does he think he can buy us off with these stupid coupons? Which one do you want to use, by the way?"
As we approached the entrance to chamber No. 11, we were accosted in the lobby by a man in a chicken suit -- that is, we assumed it was a man, though the costume itself had no external genitalia. It may have been an extraordinary coincidence, but it seems we were the one millionth customers to patronize the establishment -- or the one trillionth or one zillionth, I didn't catch the exact number. In any case, we were presented with a complimentary bucket of the extra spicy "Damn Hot" Cha Cha Chicken, and a free bucket beat hell for sure out of one purchased at a discount, much less a full-price one. Now it was on to Brandi and Tiffani's for an afternoon of gorging with the gorgeous, with no out-of-pocket expense.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Maison des Bons Temps apartment complex just minutes later, locked the chicken in the Murraymobile, and headed for the bank of mail boxes outside the gated entrance. "Here it is," said Murray, pointing to a nameplate above a buzzer. "Leroux/Twickler. Number 230." He pressed the buzzer. Now, if we had paid more attention in college, Murray and I might have been familiar with the fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc -- you know, the one where people think something is caused by something else just because it comes after it. But we hadn't, so we weren't. Thus, in the split second allotted for reflection while we were being hurled against the gate and knocked unconscious by a booming blast from behind, we wondered if Brandi and Tiffani got lots of complaints from their neighbors about the loudness of their buzzer.