by Barbara Colley
"Maid-for-a-Day, Charlotte LaRue speaking."
"Hey, Charlotte, I've got some good news and some bad news. Then, I've got some more good news."
Charlotte bit back a groan of impatience. Bitsy Duhè, an elderly lady, was a long-time client. Her phone call had come smack in the middle of Charlotte's search for an article that she'd cut out of the newspaper. The article in the Times-Picayune listed the upcoming Fourth of July celebrations going on in the Greater New Orleans area, and Charlotte wanted to check out the different locations again before she settled on the one she had in mind.
"Bitsy, can I call you back in a few minutes?" Charlotte tucked the telephone receiver between her chin and shoulder to free her hands so that she could continue sorting through the stack of papers on her desk.
"This won't take long," Bitsy responded sharply, her tone petulant. "Besides, I don't have all day to sit around and wait for you to call me back."
And I do? Charlotte closed her eyes and counted to ten before speaking again. Truth be known, other than staying on the phone gossiping, watching her soap operas, and going to her many doctors' appointments, sitting around all day was exactly all that Bitsy had to do. Knowing how Bitsy could pout, though, she figured that she might as well let Bitsy have her say or Charlotte would never hear the end of it. "So what's the good news?" Charlotte asked.
"Oh, Charlotte, you'll never guess."
No, and I don't want to. Charlotte bit her tongue to keep from saying the words out loud, and guilt for being so impatient with the old lady reared its ugly head.
"They want to use my house."
Charlotte's brow furrowed. "They?"
"Mega Films--you know--the production company that's shooting that movie here in the Garden District, the one starring Hunter Lansky and Angel Martinique."
Hunter Lansky! Charlotte's mouth gaped open. Hunter Lansky was one of her all-time favorite actors. Why, even the mention of his name immediately conjured up his handsome image in her mind.
"Two days ago," Bitsy continued, "a man knocked on my door and said he was Mega Films' location manager and that he wanted to use my house for a movie. Then, yesterday, he came back with three other men, including the producer and the director. Can't remember what the fourth man's title was. Anyway, they're willing to pay me a boatload of money and said they'd put me up in the hotel of my choice while they shoot the scenes they need. I'm thinking that maybe I'd like to stay at the Monteleone. I've always thought it might be fun to live in the French Quarter–temporarily, of course."
"Why, Bitsy, that's terrific."
Louisiana, and the Greater New Orleans area in particular, was quickly becoming known as Hollywood South. Though the movie industry was good for the economy since they used locals, Charlotte had mixed feelings about the so-called Hollywood invasion. Still, it was exciting. Why, just earlier she'd read an article that mentioned that in addition to the movie starring Hunter Lansky, several more movies were scheduled for production over the next few months. She'd even had to take a different route to work the day before since part of St. Charles Avenue had been blocked off for filming. Could that be the one Bitsy was talking about?
"Yeah, I was all excited at first," Bitsy continued, "but here's the bad news. I could hardly sleep last night for thinking about it, and now I'm not so sure. I can always use a bit of extra money, but just the thought of all those strangers traipsing in and out of my house makes me nervous. Why, no telling what they'll do to my stuff."
And what on earth does this have to do with me? Charlotte thought impatiently.
Still searching through the stack of articles, Charlotte sighed. "Granted, I don't know a lot about this type of thing, Bitsy, but I would think that they would be extra careful when they use someone's home." She suddenly spied the Fourth of July article and set it aside. She should have known that it would be near the bottom of the stack.
"You're probably right," Bitsy went on, oblivious of anything but her own agenda. "But just to make sure, I called them bright and early this morning and told them that I want you to be there."
"You did what?"
"Well, I would have asked that young man, Dale, who you've got working for me, but since he's decided to get his master's degree, I knew he wouldn't have time."
And I do? Bitsy's audacity never ceased to amaze Charlotte.
"There would be some cleaning involved," Bitsy continued. "But between you and me, your job would mostly be to watch over my stuff. So–and this is the other good news–I insisted that they hire you to keep the house clean and organized during the shooting, and they've agreed. And guess how much they're willing to pay you for the two weeks that they'll be shooting?"
Without waiting for a response, Bitsy blurted out, "Five thousand dollars. And believe me, I had to negotiate with them to get that much. Pretty nice, huh?"
For several moments Charlotte was speechless. No wonder making movies cost so much money. Once she finally found her voice, she said, "Ah, Bitsy, I-I appreciate the offer–I really do--and the money is unbelievable, but I do have other clients, you know. I can't just take off for that long without prior notice."
"That's what this is!" Bitsy exclaimed. "I'm giving you prior notice. And before you say no, don't forget who's starring in the movie?"
Hunter Lansky and Angel Martinique. How could she forget? In spite of herself, Charlotte felt a tingle of
anticipation at the chance to actually meet Hunter Lansky. Just say no . . . just say no. Ignoring her inner voice of reason, Charlotte hesitated. The money would be really nice and certainly more than her maid service would bring in for the two weeks. It would also be more than enough to finally have the twins' portrait done. Now that her little grandbabies were finally crawling and sitting up by themselves, they were the perfect age for a portrait.
Besides, the publicity for Maid-for-a-Day would be great, and this might be the only opportunity you'll ever get to meet Hunter Lansky.
Charlotte felt her face grow warm. Hunter Lansky had been the first movie star that she'd ever had a crush on. By now he had to be at least sixty-eight, five years older than Charlotte. She knew that because, ever since she'd been a lovesick teenager, she'd followed his career through the years. He'd been twenty when his career had taken off, and she'd collected all of the tabloid articles and pictures printed about him, not to mention seeing all of his films at least twice.
Knowing she would probably regret asking, she said, "How much prior notice are you giving me?"
"Then you'll do it?"
"Bitsy, how much prior notice?" she repeated.
"They start shooting two days after the Fourth–that's this Monday--and should be finished within two weeks."
Charlotte winced. The Fourth was on Saturday, two days away. Four days total notice--not a lot of notice, but adequate . . . decisions, decisions. "Tell you what, let me check my schedule and see what I can do. Then I'll get back to you."
"And how long will that take?"
Lord, give me patience. At times it was all she could do to keep a civil tongue in her head when dealing with Bitsy. Finally, taking a deep breath, she said, "It shouldn't take too long. I'll give you a call just as soon as I can. More than likely, by later this afternoon I'll know something, one way or another."
"Oh, good. And, Charlotte?"
"Please try to work it out."
Charlotte frowned as she hung up the receiver. Something about the way Bitsy had said "Please try to work it out" gave her pause. After a moment, she shrugged and reached for her schedule.
Her regular days to work were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Since Dale worked at Bitsy's on Tuesdays and wouldn't be needed while the movie was being shot, maybe he would switch to one of her days instead.
She glanced farther down the schedule. Her part-time employee, Janet Davis, only worked once a week, on Thursdays. If she could persuade Janet to take up the slack on the other two days, then . . .
Charlotte drummed her fingers on the desktop. Janet had been an employee longer than Dale, and she really should give Janet first choice of the days to work. Even so, because of Dale's class schedule, she would have to give him first choice instead.
Charlotte glanced at the cuckoo clock on the wall behind the sofa. It was still pretty early. Had Dale left for classes yet or not? Since she couldn't remember his schedule, she reached for the telephone receiver and tried his home phone number. While the phone rang, she flipped through her Rolodex in search of his cell number, just in case he wasn't at home.
On the fourth ring he answered, and Charlotte winced when she heard his groggy voice. "Hey, Dale, this is Charlotte. Did I wake you up?"
"Yeah, but that's okay. I should have been up an hour ago."
"Are you ill?"
Dale chuckled. "No, Mom, I'm fine. I just stayed up too late last night working on a paper."
Charlotte grinned. "Humph, if I were your mother, I'd tell you to have a little more respect for your elders."
Dale laughed. "Okay, okay, sorry. So, what's up?"
Once Charlotte explained the situation, Dale readily agreed to work for her on Monday. "On Mondays my only class isn't until five. I could also work on Friday, if you need me to. The extra money would come in handy right about now."
"Great!" Charlotte grinned.
After giving Dale the addresses for her Monday and Friday clients, she quickly filled him in on their particular peculiarities. "Just so you know, my Monday client, Sally Lawson, likes all of the sheets changed. Never mind that none except hers have been slept on. Also, she has this stainless steel garbage can in the kitchen. Make sure you Windex it."
"What about the Friday client?" he asked.
"My Friday client is Joy Meadows. Joy has a couple of cats that she allows to roam everywhere, including the kitchen countertops. Make sure you wipe down those counters and get rid of all that cat hair. I swear, one of these days, Joy is going to cough up a hairball."
"Gross, Charlotte. Really gross."
"Sorry," she apologized.
"No, I think that's about it."
After ending her conversation with Dale, she dialed Janet's number.
A few minutes later, she sighed with relief as she again hung up the receiver. Janet had also agreed to the extra day for the next two weeks, so now all she had to do was call Bitsy back and give her the news.
"No time like the present," she whispered as she dialed Bitsy's number. The phone barely rang before Bitsy answered. Charlotte figured that the old lady must have been sitting next to it, waiting. "It's all set up," Charlotte told her. "I was able to clear my schedule."
"Thanks, Charlotte. I really do appreciate this."
"So, who do I contact now?"
Bitsy cleared her throat. "Ah–well–nobody."
"What do you mean 'nobody'?"
"Now, don't get mad, but I already told them you'd do it. All you have to do is fill out the paperwork when you show up."
The heat of sudden anger burned Charlotte's cheeks. No wonder Bitsy had been so eager for her to work it out. As far as Charlotte was concerned, Bitsy had crossed the line. No one, but no one, made these kinds of decisions for her. Barely able to contain the anger boiling inside, she said, "You shouldn't have done that, Bitsy."
"Probably not, but I figured you'd take the job. You always come through for me."
Charlotte chose her words very carefully. "That might be true, but please don't ever do something like that again. I'm hanging up the phone now, and I'll talk to you later." Charlotte immediately dropped the receiver onto the cradle.
For several moments she glared at the phone and fumed. It was true that she always tried to help out her clients when they needed her. In fact, most times she bent over backward to be accommodating, but she truly resented anyone outright assuming that she would do something without asking her first.
"Bitsy, Bitsy, Bitsy," she murmured. "What am I going to do about you?" With a shake of her head, she sighed. There was nothing she could do about the old lady but put up with her, and what was done was done.
Feeling somewhat calmer and in hopes of distracting herself, she turned her attention to the newspaper article she'd found.
After considering each location, she finally made up her mind and set the article aside. She figured that instead of fighting the crowd in Jackson Square, they could see just as well from the levee across the river at Algiers Point. Meantime, she needed to make a grocery list . . . and a hair appointment.
Where did that come from? Until she'd talked to Bitsy, she hadn't even considered getting a trim.
But you might actually get to meet Hunter Lansky.
Charlotte felt her face grow warm. Big deal. He met thousands of women all the time, so what were the chances that a big-time movie star like him would even notice someone like her? She automatically reached up and finger-combed her hair. Still, it didn't hurt to always try to look your best.
Making a mental note to call Valerie, her hairdresser, she grabbed a pen and paper and jotted down several items she needed for the backyard barbecue that she and Louis were hosting before the Fourth of July display.
A tiny smile pulled at her lips. The whole get-together had been Louis's idea. He'd pointed out that since they lived next door to each other, why not join forces?
Charlotte got up and walked over to the birdcage by the front window. Outside was sunny, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. According to the weather forecast, record high temperatures would be set today. Already, her air-conditioner sounded as if it was having labor pains.
"I just hope it makes it through this summer," she told Sweety Boy, her little parakeet. But the heat and her aging airconditioner weren't the only things on her mind of late.
Inside the birdcage, Sweety Boy sidled over near the door, and Charlotte reached in between the wires with her forefinger and gently rubbed the back of his head. "What am I going to do about Louis, Sweety?"
She stared back out of the window. Louis Thibodeaux, her tenant and sometimes friend, sometimes nemesis, was an enigma, a Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde. A retired New Orleans police detective, he now worked for Lagniappe Security, a private security firm, and just when she thought she had him figured out, he'd do something totally unexpected . . . like planning this backyard barbecue that included all of his and Charlotte's family members.
"Ever since Joyce died, I'm not quite sure what to think," she muttered. At times Louis seemed to be really sad about his ex-wife's murder. Other times, it was as if Joyce had never existed. She knew that people went through stages of grief, but she was fairly certain pretending the deceased had never existed wasn't one of those stages.
"I wouldn't think that would be one of the stages of grief," she told Sweety Boy. Suddenly, from the corner of her eye she detected movement in front of the window–Louis--followed by a sharp rap on the door.
Charlotte grinned as she reached for the doorknob. "Speak of the devil," she whispered to Sweety Boy. "Good thing I decided to get dressed early." Sometimes on her days off she didn't bother getting dressed until midmorning, but today–thank goodness--she had dressed early because of several errands she needed to get done. Of course there had been times that Louis had seen her in just her housecoat. He'd even bought her a housecoat as a gift once. Even so, for some strange reason, being properly dressed made her feel more comfortable around him.
Charlotte opened the door and smiled. "Good morning."
Louis was a stocky man with a receding hairline of steel-gray hair. He kept himself fit, and from the first time she'd met him several years earlier, she had thought that he was an attractive man for his age. Too bad he could be such a pain in the butt at times, especially when he was in one of his male chauvinistic moods.
"Good morning to you too," he said with a curt nod of his head.
Charlotte's smile faded when she noticed the small suitcase sitting on the porch beside him. "You going somewhere?" She motioned toward the suitcase.
Louis nodded. "Yeah, some unexpected business. Just an overnighter in Houston," he hastened to add. "I'll be back in plenty of time to fire up the grill on the Fourth. One of the guys got sick, and they needed someone to fill in for tonight and tomorrow morning."
Charlotte pulled the door open wider. "Want to come inside? I think I still have some coffee in the pot."
Louis shook his head. "Wish I could, but I can't. I'm running late as it is." He reached inside his pants pocket. "I just wanted to give you this before I leave." He pulled out a money clip and removed four twenty-dollar bills. "My share of the groceries for the Fourth shindig."
Charlotte shook her head and held up a hand in protest. "Uh-uh, that's way too much. All we're having is hot dogs and hamburgers. Besides, most of the folks coming are my relatives."
"It's not too much," he insisted, "so take it." He reached out, and with a firm grip, grabbed hold of her wrist.
Charlotte automatically closed her hand into a fist.
"Don't be stubborn." He gently pried her fingers open, placed the money in her palm, and then closed her fingers around the money. Still holding her hand with both of his, he said, "Counting my bunch and yours, we're going to be feeding fifteen people. We will need soft drinks, paper goods, charcoal, and I'm sure there's some other stuff I haven't even thought of. Besides, this whole thing was my idea to begin with." He gently squeezed her hand. "Okay?"
After a moment, Charlotte nodded. "Okay."
"Good." He released her hand. Then from his shirt pocket he pulled out a piece of paper. "I made out a list of stuff. If you don't mind, could you pick these things up when you go grocery shopping? I'd planned to do it myself, but then Joe called."
Though Charlotte had never met Joe Sharp, she knew who he was. Joe owned Lagniappe Security, the company that employed Louis.
Curious, Charlotte glanced down at the list. A slow grin twitched at her lips.
"What?" Louis demanded.
Charlotte laughed. "Except for the badminton set, I made a list that includes most of what your list includes."
Louis shrugged. "Great minds think alike. As for the badminton set, I figured Amy and Davy would have fun with that. And if I get back in time, I'm going to pick up one of those small kiddy pools for the little ones to splash in."
Charlotte didn't want to burst his bubble of enthusiasm, but she knew for a fact that his granddaughter, Amy, who was twelve, and her nephew's stepson, Davy, who was eight, would much rather play one of their many video games. Still, miracles happened, and who knows, maybe the two kids would enjoy the badminton set. It would certainly be different from what they were used to doing. "That's really thoughtful of you, Louis."
Louis suddenly shifted his eyes downwards and a tinge of red stained his cheeks. Charlotte's mouth curved into an unconscious smile. Would wonders ever cease? Usually gruff and serious, Louis was actually embarrassed by her compliment. Go figure.
A moment later he cleared his throat and said, "Got to run, but I should be back tomorrow afternoon."
Charlotte was about to tell him bye when he suddenly bent down and kissed her. The kiss was just a quick peck on the lips, but it caught her completely off-guard. Stunned and tongue-tied, she could only stand there and watch him as he turned and hurried down the steps. By the time she found her voice, he was halfway to his car. "What in the world was that all about?" she murmured as he backed his car out of the driveway.
As if Louis had heard her, he glanced her way, winked, and with a two-fingered wave, he drove off.
The Fourth of July lived up to the weather forecaster's predictions: sunny and hot. Charlotte stepped over to the stove to check on the chili for the hot dogs. "I can't believe it's just noon, and the temperature gauge has already climbed to ninety-eight degrees."
Charlotte's daughter-in-law, Carol, nodded. "At least Louis had the good sense to put up that canopy for shade. And those fans he set up help. By the way, I love your new haircut."
"Thanks." Charlotte smiled, pleased that Carol had noticed. Thankfully, Valerie had been able to work her into the schedule late on Friday afternoon. "I thought I was due for a change–too much gray." She laughed. Up until she'd hit sixty, the gray had blended in with her honey-blond hair, but after sixty, it seemed like almost overnight there was more gray than blond.
"The shorter style really flatters you–makes you look ten years younger."
Charlotte laughed again. "Younger is good, and it's certainly easier to fix."
Suddenly, a high-pitched shriek exploded from the backyard, and Charlotte froze.
"That's just Samantha," Carol quickly reassured her. "That's her 'I didn't get what I wanted' scream. Either Hank or Judith will take care of her."
With a sigh of relief, Charlotte resumed stirring the chili for the hot dogs. It never ceased to amaze her how early kids learned how to get what they want. The twins, Samantha and Samuel, weren't even a year old yet and already they could wrap the adults around their little fingers like pretzels.
"So, when do you start the movie job?" Carol asked.
"Day after tomorrow."
"Aren't you nervous? I know I would be."
"No, not so much nervous." Charlotte rapped the spoon on the side of the boiler and placed it in the sink. After turning off the burner beneath the pot of chili, she put a lid on it. "I guess, more than anything, I'm a bit anxious. To tell the truth, though, I haven't had a lot of time to think about it." She walked over to the table to prepare a tray of buns and condiments for the hamburgers and hot dogs.
Carol grinned. "Unlike your son, I think it's sooo exciting. Sure you don't need someone to fill in for you on one of those days?"
"Then Hank would really throw a fit."
Carol giggled. "Well, we just wouldn't tell him." When Charlotte jerked her head around to stare at her daughter-in-law, Carol giggled again. "Just kidding, Charlotte. Just kidding."
Charlotte grinned, and then turned her attention back to the task at hand. She was almost finished when the sound of children's laughter reached her ears. Smiling, she glanced out of the back window, and a warm feeling of love and contentment spread to the center of her being. All of her family and Louis's son and his family had been able to come. She'd also invited Dale and a former employee and friend, Cherè Warner, who was in town. Except for Carol, who had offered to help her bring some food outside, they were all right there in her own backyard.
Family and good friends. Her family and her good friends. Life couldn't get much better. She was truly blessed.
And what about Louis? Which category does he fit?
Charlotte closed her eyes for a moment. Where on earth did that come from? What about him? she answered the silent voice in her head. He's a good friend, a really good friend.
Just a good friend?
Well, he's not family, so what else would he be?
What else, indeed? And what about that kiss?
Ignoring the nagging voice in her head and the memory of the kiss, Charlotte opened her eyes and loaded up the tray to transport the food to the picnic table.
True to his word, Louis had returned from his overnight assignment in plenty of time to "fire up the grill" as well as purchase the small wading pool for the little ones.
Again, Charlotte glanced out of the window and smiled. While the twins splashed in the pool, Davy and Amy, much to her surprise, seemed to be really having fun playing badminton.
At that moment, Davy swung his racket and missed. Like a streak of lightning, Danielle, Daniel and Nadia's four-year old, swooped in behind him and scooped up the shuttlecock off the ground. When Davy held out his hand for it, Danielle shook her head and said something that Charlotte couldn't hear.
Just behind Charlotte, Carol laughed. "Guess that's one way to try and force them to play with her."
"Yeah, poor little thing. She thinks she's too old to play with the twins, but Davy and Amy think she's too young to play with them."
"Maybe they'll take pity on her."
"Humph! I doubt that. But–" Charlotte picked up the tray and headed toward the back door. "Maybe I can
distract her--get her to take pity on the twins," she said over her shoulder. "The twins crawl around after her like little lapdogs."
"If anyone can, you can," Carol quipped. "Do you want me to bring that pot of chili?"
Later that night when Louis parked the car in the driveway, Charlotte opened the door and walked slowly to the porch. In the distance she could still hear the sounds of fireworks popping, and though the night air wasn't exactly cool, it was cooler than the afternoon had been.
She paused at the bottom of the steps and looked up into the sky. "That's strange," she murmured. "I've never seen that many stars out in a long time. And they all seem to be centered right over our neighborhood."
Though Louis chuckled, he didn't comment.
"By the way, thanks for the ride home," she told him. Though she'd ridden to the levee with Hank and his family to watch the fireworks, Louis had offered to take her home to save Hank an unnecessary trip.
"You're welcome. I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted," Louis said as he followed her up the steps onto the porch. "But it's a good exhaustion," he added.
"I feel the same way." Charlotte headed for her front door. "All in all, it was worth it. And the fireworks this year were fantastic. I have to say that, except for the heat, this day was about as perfect as they come." She unlocked the door.
"Yeah, well, don't forget the mosquitoes."
"Speaking of the bloodthirsty critters, either step inside or say good night." When he stepped inside, Charlotte quickly closed the door. With a grin she turned to face Louis. "Funny, I didn't hear anyone else complaining."
Louis laughed. "That's because the little ones didn't stay still long enough for a mosquito to land, and their parents were too busy chasing them to notice."
"And because their parents had the good sense to spray them good with mosquito repellent before we left," Charlotte pointed out.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Go ahead. I know you're dying to say I told you so."
Charlotte shrugged. "If the shoe fits. I did warn you to spray yourself down. And speaking of mosquito bites, if you've got some of that green rubbing alcohol, using it on the bites will help with the itching. Either that or some Benadryl cream."
"Well, unlike some people I know, I don't happen to keep that kind of stuff on hand, so guess I'll just suffer."
Charlotte laughed. "Is that a hint?" Without waiting for his reply, she said, "Hang on a minute, and I'll be right back."
Within a couple of minutes, she returned and handed him a bottle of green rubbing alcohol.
"You're welcome. And, Louis, thank you for helping make this such a great day."
Louis simply nodded. "Couldn't have done it without you." Then, without an ounce of warning, he suddenly wrapped his arms around her and kissed her, again. As before, she was stunned. But unlike the brief peck he'd given her on Thursday, this kiss was a full-blown one. Surprisingly, his lips were much softer than she'd expected. Then, just as she'd made up her mind to enjoy it, Louis ended it. With a knowing smile, he released her, opened the door, and then carefully pulled it closed behind him.
For long moments Charlotte stared at the closed door. Dormant feelings within stirred, feelings that she'd long thought were gone forever with the death of her son's father in Vietnam, so long ago. Hank Senior had been her first love, and though other men had come along, none had stirred her emotions quite like Louis.
With a shake of her head, Charlotte threw the dead bolt, then turned away and walked to the bedroom.
Something was going on with Louis, and just thinking about it made her all jittery inside. She could come right out and ask him, but ask him what? How on earth did a person even phrase that kind of question? Besides, knowing Louis, he would only tell her what was on his mind when he was good and ready.
Excerpt from Dusted to Death
Copyright 2009 by Barbara Colley