by Barbara Colley
Watch out for that woman. She's not someone you want to cross.
Like a nagging toothache that just wouldn't go away, Bitsy Duhe's
dire statement about Mary Lou Adams came to mind yet again as Charlotte
LaRue drove down Prytania.
Monday morning traffic had slowed to a crawl, and as Charlotte
inched along in her van, she found herself growing more frustrated
with each passing minute. The traffic jam was bad enough, but what
Bitsy had said had haunted her all week . . . and worried her.
The last thing that Charlotte had wanted was to listen to one client
gossiping about another client, especially a brand-new client whom
she'd never met except through a phone conversation. She'd always
preferred to form her own opinions about the people she cleaned for.
And truth be told, Bitsy, bless her old heart, was one of the biggest
gossips in New Orleans. Any little tidbit of information was fair
grist for Bitsy's gossip mill.
As usual, though, Bitsy had ignored Charlotte's attempts to change
the subject, and she'd filled her ears with information about Mary
Lou and Gordon Adams.
According to Bitsy, Mary Lou was a social butterfly, but a butterfly
with the sting of a wasp. As for Gordon Adams, his one obsession
in life was becoming even wealthier than he already was. He had not
only expanded his car dealerships to include South Louisiana but
had ventured into Mississippi as well.
Behind Charlotte a car horn blared and she jumped. "Okay,
okay, for Pete's sake!" She glowered in the rearview mirror
at the driver behind her, then eased her van forward. Both of them
were going nowhere fast, so she didn't see what the big deal was
about lagging a few feet behind the car in front of her.
Still irritated at being honked at, she ventured
a quick glance at the dashboard clock. Five minutes. She drummed
her fingers impatiently
against the steering wheel. She still had five minutes to get to
the Adams’s house before nine.
The line of vehicles in front of her stopped again, and with a
groan of frustration, Charlotte craned her neck in an attempt to
see past the SUV ahead of her. Half a block down was a side street.
If she could just reach the side street, she could get around the
traffic jam altogether.
A few minutes later, Charlotte sighed with relief when she finally
parked behind an old battered truck alongside the curb in front of
the Adams's house. From the looks of the contents in the bed of the
truck, she figured that today was most probably the day for the gardener
as well as the maid.
Charlotte glanced at the dashboard clock again. "You're late," she
grumbled to herself. Just five minutes. So what? her inner voice
chided. It's highly doubtful that Mary Lou Adams is sitting in front
of a clock and counting the minutes, Charlotte.
Feeling a bit foolish for worrying so much about the time, Charlotte
quickly unloaded her supply carrier and vacuum cleaner from the back
of the van.
A black cast-iron fence surrounded the house, and as she let herself
in through the ornate gate, she paused a moment to admire the beautifully
preserved home and the well-manicured grounds.
The huge house was magnificent, probably built in
the late 1800s, she decided. Like many of the old homes in the
New Orleans Garden
District, she could tell that it had been altered over the years,
the end result that the style was a combination of Greek Revival
and Victorian. But the landscaping was what really caught her eye.
She'd worked in the Garden District for more years than she cared
to count, and she'd be willing to rate the grounds of the Adams’s
home as one of the most fascinating that she'd seen. It was filled
with exotic plants. A couple of the plants she recognized--Tibouchina,
the Sago Palm--but there were many more that she didn't.
Charlotte's long experience working as a maid exclusively in the
Garden District had made her somewhat of an expert on architecture
and furnishings, and she was well aware that only someone very wealthy
could afford the upkeep on such an extravagant old home.
Mary Lou and Gordon Adams were indeed wealthy. Not only did Gordon
Claiborne Adams III own a conglomerate of car dealerships that stretched
over the entire state of Louisiana, but according to Bitsy, he came
from old New Orleans money as well.
Charlotte climbed the steps to the lower gallery and approached
the double entry doors. Each oak door contained beveled leaded glass,
and above the doors was a transom made of the same type of glass
as well. A large brass door knocker was located to the side of the
doors and was shaped in an oblong circle; within the circle was an
"A for Adams," Charlotte murmured as she
lifted the door knocker and banged it a couple of times. She waited
When no one came to the door, she banged the door knocker again.
After a moment, Charlotte frowned and tapped her foot impatiently.
The gardener. Maybe the Adams woman was outside in the backyard with
the gardener. Still she hesitated. Should she take the supply carrier
and vacuum cleaner with her or not? Not, she decided. Neither was
that heavy, but both together were a bit unwieldy, and besides, there
was no use lugging them all over creation if she didn't have to.
She set the supplies and vacuum cleaner down on the porch, then went
in search of her new employer.
As Charlotte neared the back of the house, she heard voices. One
was the low, gravely rumble of a man's voice. Probably the gardener,
she figured. Though Charlotte had never met her newest client face-to-face,
she had talked to her for just a few minutes over the phone, and
there was no mistaking the other voice, with its imperious, higher-pitched
tone, as belonging to Mary Lou Adams.
When Charlotte rounded the back corner of the house, she glanced
around in awe. The landscape of the backyard was just as amazing
as the front and side yard had been. The entire property in the back
was encased in a wall of well-manicured Photina that served as a
living privacy fence. At the far back corner of the property was
what looked like a small greenhouse. Beneath a portico attached to
the main house was a large brick terrace which Charlotte suspected
was original to the house. Flanking the terrace were even more exotic
plants, and in the center of the terrace was a circular brick planter
containing ferns and a Venetian urn.
Charlotte stared at the small urn and shuddered. Though not nearly
as large as the urn that one of her former clients Patsy Dufore had
owned, Charlotte doubted that she would ever be able to look at another
urn again without remembering the harrowing experience she'd had
when she'd worked for Patsy.
With another shudder, Charlotte forced herself to turn her attention
to the middle-aged, scruffy-looking man and the tall, slim woman
near the edge of the property.
Her first impression of Mary Lou Adams was that the woman's appearance
fit her voice. Her dark brown hair was long and brushed straight
back in a seemingly effortless style that revealed a high forehead;
finely arched brows; a straight narrow nose; and full cupid lips.
She was a tall woman, probably in her midforties, and though she
appeared to be dressed casually, even from a short distance Charlotte
suspected that the aqua-colored blouse and matching slacks she wore
were made of silk because of the drape of the fabric.
Charlotte herself was only five-feet-three with short, gray-streaked,
honey brown hair, which she liked to think was cut stylishly, and
she still wore a size nine. But compared to Mary Lou Adams, she felt
It's the age difference, she consoled herself. She figured that
she was probably almost twenty years older than the other woman.
And, of course, there was no way her plain blue polyester uniform
could compare to Mary Lou's silk outfit.
Silk, just the thing to wear while mucking around
in the heat and dirt. The moment that the sarcastic thought popped into her head,
she felt the chiding prick of her conscience. Shame on you. Judge
not lest ye be judged. Promising herself that she would try to be
less critical in the future, she walked briskly toward where the
couple was standing.
"This is the one." Mary Lou pointed out a small tree
that was all but naked of leaves. What few leaves that were left
on the scrawny tree were brown and shriveled. "I want it dug
up, roots and all." She gave Charlotte a cursory glance, and
continued her instructions to the gardener. "After you get it
all up, I need you to prepare this area for a small flower bed. About
three feet by ten feet should be plenty of room." Without waiting
for a question or comment from the gardener, she turned her back
on him and faced Charlotte. "You must be Charlotte." She
thrust out a hand with perfectly manicured and polished fingernails.
Charlotte nodded and shook her hand. "And you must be Mary
Lou," she said with a smile, noting that although the handshake
was brief, the other woman's grasp was strong and firm.
"Yes, I am. But for goodness sake, call me
Mimi. It's a nickname I've had so long that I probably won't answer
to anything else."
Again, Charlotte nodded. "I'll try to remember that." Charlotte
motioned toward the small tree. "Termites or the heat?"
"Neither," Mimi retorted. "The poor
thing was murdered, outright killed on purpose by Sally Lawson,
that awful woman who
lives next door. It's the second one she's killed in less than a
Charlotte wasn't quite sure how to respond. All
she could think of to say was, "But why?"
"Humph! Why indeed. Because Sally is a selfish,
vindictive woman who loves nothing more than to make my life miserable.
all because of her stupid pool."
"She has a swimming pool just on the other side of the hedge.
Pathetic creature that she is, evidently her pool parties are her
only form of social entertainment." She glared toward her neighbor's
house. "Her noisy pool parties," she added in a loud voice
as if hoping that Sally Lawson were listening. She turned back to
Charlotte. "She's already cut down a couple of trees in her
own yard--beautiful old live oaks that had to be over a hundred years
old. And all because they shaded her pool. So now she's poisoning
Mimi suddenly laughed. It was a wicked sound that matched the sly
expression on her face. "But I've found a delicious way to get even." She
motioned for Charlotte to follow her and led Charlotte to the small
the opening of the greenhouse were several large containers grouped together.
Inside the containers were what appeared to be flowers, but Charlotte personally
thought they looked more like weeds. From a distance, the plants, with their
pale green stems, large leaves, and purple, funnel-shaped blooms, were rather
pretty, but by the time Charlotte and Mimi got within a few feet of the plants
the putrid, rotten-egg smell was overpowering. Charlotte wrinkled her nose
and tried not to breathe too deeply.
"Don't they smell just awful?" Mimi said with a grin,
her hands on her hips. Charlotte nodded, and Mimi laughed and bent
down to gently caress one of the stinky blooms. "These are my
She stood upright, pulled a small package of hand
wipes from her pocket and, using one of the wipes, scrubbed at
her hands. Then,
to Charlotte's horror, Mimi dried her hands by rubbing them on the
legs of her silk pants. "Actually, they're classified as weeds," Mimi
If it looks like a weed, then it must be a weed, Charlotte thought.
"But you'd never know from the looks of them," Mimi
Charlotte had to bite her tongue to keep from voicing her thoughts
on that one.
"A friend of mine came up with the idea," Mimi told her. "Instead
of planting another tree for Sally to kill, I'm going to plant these.
With enough of them growing along that fence, I'm banking that the
awful smell will drive her and her noisy friends crazy or, at the
very least, ruin her parties."
"But won't the smell bother you as well?"
Mimi shrugged. "Just a small price to pay.
Besides, we don't entertain back here hardly at all. And I can
always get rid of them
Charlotte found herself at a loss for words. The
capacity for one human being to hurt another never ceased to amaze
her, nor the lengths
someone would go to. For most of her life, she had always tried her
best to live by the Golden Rule “repay no one evil for evil” doctrine
instead of the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" philosophy.
Finding herself really uncomfortable with the whole conversation,
she decided that about now would be a good time for a change of subject.
Charlotte cleared her throat. "Well, I guess I'd better go
get busy and leave you to your gardening before it gets too hot.
I left my cleaning supplies
on the front porch, though, so if you'll unlock the door, I'll get to work."
Mimi gave her a curious look, and then, with a whatever
shrug, she pointed toward the back door beneath the portico. "You
can go in that way. That door isn't locked, and there's a key in
dead bolt on the inside of the front door."
With a nod and eager to get away from the awful smell of the flowers,
Charlotte forced a quick smile, did an about-face, and gladly headed
for the portico.
As Charlotte approached the terrace, the stench of the flowers
still lingered in her nostrils, and unbidden, Bitsy Duhe's warning
about Mary Lou Adams came to mind. Watch out for that woman. She's
not someone you want to cross.
Charlotte reached inside her apron pocket and pulled out a tissue.
She could hardly wait to get inside and blow her nose, and the moment
she closed the door behind her, she did so. It helped, but a bit
of the stench still lingered. She wadded the tissue and shoved it
back inside her pocket. As far as Charlotte was concerned, Mimi's
little feud was just plain ridiculous. Regardless of what Sally Lawson
had or had not done to the silly tree, Charlotte didn't think it
justified what Mimi was doing. Besides, there were always two sides
to an argument, two sides to every story, weren't there?
So what was Sally Lawson's side?
Excerpt from Wiped
Copyright 2004 by Barbara Colley