by Barbara Colley
The water was rising. It was in her house, already waist high
and still inching higher.
She was trapped like a rat on a sinking ship.
She should have left like the others. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
late now. She’d
waited too long.
The attic. Get up in the attic. Surely the water
as high as the attic . . .
With a gasp, Charlotte LaRue sat straight up in bed, her heart
pounding like a jackhammer. In spite of the air-conditioner running
on high to counter the outside heat and humidity, her pajama top
was damp with sweat.
A nightmare. Calm down, it was just a nightmare.
You’re high and dry.
Charlotte sighed and glanced at the bedside clock.
Six am. Almost time to get up anyway. With a shake of her head,
she reached over
and shut off the alarm that she’d set for six-thirty, then
climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
It had been a while since she’d had the nightmare,
but with the one-year anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
everyone in New Orleans was on edge wondering what the odds were
that yet another catastrophic storm could hit.
Strange. The whole nightmare thing was strange, especially
since she hadn’t even been in the city when the levees broke. Unlike
so many others who had chosen to stay or couldn’t get out during
Katrina, she and most of her family had left well in advance. She
shuddered. How horrible it must have been for those who had no transportation,
who had no way of leaving.
But the fact remained that she had left. So why would she be having
the nightmare at all?
Second-hand trauma, they called it. “And TV,” she
muttered as she squeezed toothpaste onto her toothbrush. She had
sat glued to the television almost 24/7 and watched the horrors
of the aftermath of the storm . . . the levees breaking . . . the
water rising . . . people wading through armpit-high water . .
. people trapped on their roofs for days without food or water
. . . the daring helicopter rescues . . .
With a shudder, Charlotte recapped the toothpaste.
No time to dwell on it now. If she didn’t get a move on, she was going to be
late. And one thing she didn’t want was to be late for this
Charlotte brushed her teeth then rinsed her mouth
and toothbrush. Cleaning hotel rooms was not her favorite type
of work. Years ago
when she’d started Maid-for-a-Day, she’d made the decision
that her cleaning service would be strictly domestic. But her old
friend Carrie Rogers had called in a favor and asked for Charlotte’s
Unlike Charlotte, Carrie ran a commercial cleaning
service, and Carrie was shorthanded. In spite of Charlotte’s own hectic
schedule, there was no way she could refuse, especially after Carrie
had so generously offered Charlotte and her family the use of her
country home during the Katrina evacuation. If not for Carrie’s
generosity, they would have ended up in a shelter, or worse, camping
out and sleeping in their cars.
After turning on the shower, Charlotte took off her
pajamas and slipped a shower cap over her hair. Though Carrie’s country
home had been small, it was a soothing oasis in a world gone crazy.
Nestled in the midst of a forest of pine trees and located a mere
twenty miles from the small town of Minden in the northwest corner
of Louisiana, the old house had served her family well for the three
weeks they’d stayed there.
Charlotte sighed, her thoughts returning to the two-week
commitment that she’d made to Carrie as she stepped into
the warm spray of water and soaped up her washcloth.
The Jazzy Hotel was just one of Carrie’s many commercial
clients. Like so many other businesses in the city, many of Carrie’s
employees had never returned after Katrina, and had, in fact, decided
to settle in the towns to which they had evacuated. Out of the
three women that Carrie had working at the Jazzy, one could only
work half-days, one had to have surgery, and the third one had
been caught stealing and had to be fired.
Working at the Jazzy would make for a tight schedule
since most of Charlotte’s regular clients had returned to their homes
in the Garden District. But with Dale’s help, she felt sure
that she would be able to manage the hotel work for the two weeks
Carrie needed her. That the hotel was located nearby on St. Charles
Avenue, less than ten minutes from her house, was also a plus.
Thinking about Dale, Charlotte smiled. What a gem
out to be. He was dependable, efficient, worked hard, and surprisingly,
her clients had wholly accepted the idea of a male maid, especially
Bitsy Duhe. Just yesterday, the old lady had called her, raving about
Dale. According to Bitsy, Dale had made several suggestions on reorganizing
the multitude of kitchen gadgets she’d collected over the years,
then dug right in and did it for her without her even asking him.
As Charlotte drove beneath the green canopy of oaks
down St. Charles, she couldn’t help remembering how the avenue
had looked during the cleanup after the hurricanes. All of the
broken branches covered
with dying leaves had been stacked along the avenue on either side
like huge walls. Driving through the walls was like driving through
a dying forest. Even so, the Garden District, along with the French
Quarter, had been fortunate considering the complete devastation
of other parts of the city.
Charlotte shuddered. In other neighborhoods, the
streets had been littered with appliances, Sheetrock, carpet, roof
shingles, and various
pieces of furniture, all water-soaked and moldy. Then, there were
the neighborhoods where nothing but the foundations were left. It
had taken months, and the majority of the mess in the Quarter and
Garden District had been cleaned up, but like a sore that just wouldn’t
heal, the memories still lingered.
Charlotte flicked on the turn signal, slowed the
van, and turned into the driveway of the hotel. Though New Orleans
would never be
the same as it was before Hurricane Katrina, she still couldn’t
imagine living anywhere else. It was home, a place like no other
with a unique culture all its own.
Charlotte parked the van, climbed out, and locked it. As she approached
the house, she wondered what it looked like inside now that it had
been renovated into a hotel. Even before renovations it had been
one of the largest of the old Greek Revival style mansions that fronted
St. Charles Avenue. With the add-on of extra rooms to the back of
the house, now it was huge.
In spite of its present size, Charlotte still had her doubts about
it qualifying as a real hotel. Without the extra rooms added on,
in her opinion it would have made a much better bed and breakfast.
On the other hand, she supposed that it was just good business sense
to opt for more rooms. More rooms equaled more income.
Charlotte had been instructed to report to the front
desk when she arrived. Glancing around the wide central hallway that
had been turned into the hotel lobby, she was pleasantly surprised
by what she saw. The owners had kept the original ambiance of the
old home. A long mahogany counter topped with marble was trimmed
with the same embellished moldings that edged the high ceiling. A
turn-of-the century settee, a pier mirror, a rosewood plantation
secretary, and several old portraits, along with a misty-looking
Drysdale landscape added to the elegance of the space. She wondered
if the owners had carried through the same old-world ambiance in
the rooms as well.
“May I help you?”
Charlotte approached the counter and smiled at the
young red-haired woman standing behind it. “I’m Charlotte
LaRue. Carrie Rogers sent me.”
“Oh, hi, Ms. LaRue. I’m Claire Reynolds, the manager.
I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your being able to
help out on such short notice.”
After a brief rundown of the hotel operations, Claire led the way
to the supply room where she showed Charlotte how to fold the washcloths,
hand towels, and towels, and demonstrated how to adorn the extra
rolls of toilet paper with the decorative bands that carried the
hotel logo. After showing her which products she should leave in
the bathrooms, she handed Charlotte a list of her assigned rooms.
When Charlotte entered the first room, an odd twinge of disappointment
rippled through her. Except for the high ceilings, there was little
to distinguish the renovated room from any other modern hotel room.
Even the furniture was contemporary, not at all in keeping with the
period of the old house.
“Too bad,” she murmured. And just one
of the many reasons that she preferred cleaning homes. Individual
homes had character
and history, whereas hotel rooms were, for the most part, all the
Charlotte timed herself on the first two rooms, and after doing
a quick mental calculation, she decided that she needed to work faster
to be finished by four-thirty. Yet another reason she preferred to
clean homes instead, she thought as she entered the third room.
When she’d made the decision that her cleaning service would
be domestic, it had been at the urging of a college professor who
had known that Charlotte had no choice but to quit school and go
to work after her parents’ death. As a single mother, Charlotte
had been faced with making a living for herself and her infant son.
Her college professor had suggested that cleaning homes, especially
those in the exclusive Garden District, could net quite a bit of
money, and she could almost pick and choose her hours to accommodate
her little son’s schedule.
By ten-thirty, she had finished cleaning six of the
first-floor rooms. On the second floor, she approached room 201.
there was no DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging on the doorknob, she knocked. “Housekeeping,” she
called out. Waiting a couple of minutes, she knocked again. “Housekeeping.”
Since there was no response, she used the master
been given, and opened the door. Inside, the bedroom didn’t
look all that dirty, so she figured it shouldn’t take long
A smile pulled at her lips when she picked up a polyester
red scarf from the floor near the dresser. As she folded it neatly
it back on top of the dresser alongside two other identical scarves,
she recalled the conversation she’d had the previous day when
Carrie had filled her in on the group staying at the hotel.
“Most of them will check in either late Thursday or early
Friday,” Carrie had told her. “We’re ready for
the Thursday bunch, so I need you to start on Friday morning. I think
the majority of the group are booked for a week, then a different
group is due to arrive the following week.”
Carrie had gone on to tell her that the first group was from Shreveport
and called themselves the Red Scarf Sorority.
Thinking that Carrie had made a mistake, Charlotte
had laughed. “Don’t
you mean the Red Hat Society?” she’d asked.
“Oh, no,” Carrie had replied. “That’s a
completely different group. Though the two organizations have the
same basic concept, the Sorority group is a bit younger—mostly
in their forties—and considers themselves to be more socially
elite than the Society group.”
A flicker of gold caught Charlotte’s eye and she examined
the scarf more closely. Embroidered with a fine gold thread in the
corner were the tiny initials TM. “Well, now that’s different,” she
murmured as she checked each of the other two scarves for the gold
Suddenly the door burst open. Charlotte jumped and whirled to face
“What are you doing in my room?” the woman yelled. “Get
out! Get out now!”
For a moment Charlotte was stunned speechless. For
one thing, she wasn’t used to being screamed at by a client, but even more
disconcerting, the woman was almost a dead ringer for the comedian
Joan Rivers. Couldn’t be Joan Rivers though. The voice was
all wrong and this woman was probably in her mid-to-late forties. “Ah—ma’am,
I was just—“
“I said to get out!”
“I’m the maid,” Charlotte said
“I don’t care who you are. I put out
the DO NOT DISTURB sign. And that means keep out!”
Charlotte’s gaze slid to the doorknob. Clear
as day, the DO NOT DISTURB sign was hanging on the inside of the
door, not on the
outside. Temptation to point out that the sign was on the wrong side
of the door was strong, but Charlotte resisted.
The customer is always right, her voice of reason argued.
Even when they’re obviously rude or crazy
or downright wrong? she argued back. But Charlotte already
knew the answer. Biting her tongue, she quickly gathered her
cleaning supplies. And though the
words almost choked her, through clenched teeth she said, “Sorry,
ma’am,” as she marched out of the room and firmly closed
the door behind her.
To Charlotte’s surprise several women had gathered in the
hallway by the cleaning supply cart. It was obvious from the distressed
expressions on their faces that they had heard the woman’s
outburst. It was also obvious that the small group were members of
the Red Scarf Sorority since each woman wore a bright red scarf tied
loosely around her neck.
One of the women stepped forward. Her face was flushed
and she was wringing her hands. “Sorry about that.” She tilted her
head toward the room. “But please don’t take offense.
Tessa—that’s the woman inside—well, she’s
just upset right now.”
Upset? In Charlotte’s opinion, rude was a more
apt description, but she summoned a smile and simply nodded.
“If you’ll wait a moment,” the woman continued, “I’ll
persuade her to let you finish cleaning the room.”
Before Charlotte could object, the woman walked past her, knocked
lightly on the door, then opened it.
“Tessa, it’s Mary Lou.” Without
waiting to be invited inside, Mary Lou motioned for the other women
to follow her.
Since the last woman who entered didn’t bother
closing the door, Charlotte had a full view of the room and its
watched with curiosity as the women formed a tight circle around
“Now, honey, we know you’re hurting,” Mary Lou
told Tessa. “But remember our creed. We’re here now,
and your pain is our pain.”
“Your pain is our pain,” all of the women chanted softly
in unison. “We’re here for you,” they continued. “And
you’re here for us, and together, we can face anything.”
Each woman took a turn hugging Tessa, and before
the last one took her turn, tears welled in Tessa’s eyes
and she began to sob. Within seconds, all of the women were crying
and muttering words
“Just let it out, honey,” one of the
“Yeah, let it out,” another one chimed
“Oh, you guys are-are too-too much,” Tessa
Charlotte simply stared at the group. Oh, brother, she thought,
what a crock. Lending sympathy was one thing, but the creed chanting
part reminded her of the sister witches on the TV show Charmed chanting
one of their spells.
“It-it’s just th-that I saw Lisa,” Tessa sobbed, “and-and
we had words.”
“Now just what did that husband-stealing hussy say to you,
darling?” Mary Lou asked. “You just give the word and
we’ll go pull her hair out by its bleached blond roots.”
Tessa’s lower lip quivered and fresh tears filled her eyes. “She-she
said th-that Frank has asked her to-to marry him.”
“Nooo,” the women objected in unison,
shaking their collective heads in disgust.
“No way,” Mary Lou reiterated. “That’s just
so totally uncouth. For one thing, he’s old enough to be her
father, and for another, he’s still married to you.”
“But, sh-she had a ring and everything,” Tessa
“Oh, phooey,” Mary Lou retorted. “Ring, fling,
doesn’t mean a thing.”
Clearly still upset, Tessa shook her head. “I should have
stayed in Shreveport. I should never have come to New Orleans in
the first place. But-but when I found out that Frank was coming down
here on business, I-I hoped that by coming, Frank would see how much
I still love him, and now . . . “ Her voice trailed away, and
“That hussy was probably lying through her teeth,” one
of the women retorted. “Did you see the ring?”
Tessa frowned thoughtfully, then slowly shook her
I didn’t, come to think of it.”
“Well, there you go,” the same woman said triumphantly. “Yes
sir--lying through her pearly whites.”
Mary Lou placed her arm around Tessa’s waist. “You just
hang in there, honey. Frank Morgan might be running the show right
now—down here wheeling and dealing and playing the big business
man and all--but you just remember that you’re the one who
still holds the purse strings. And since you haven’t signed
the divorce papers yet, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Once he realizes that, then he’ll come running with his tail
tucked between his legs and beg you to take him back.”
Tessa shrugged. “Maybe, but--” She bit
her bottom lip and stared at the floor.
Out in the hallway Charlotte frowned. She’d always been a
private person, the type who wouldn’t think of airing her personal
problems to anyone but possibly her sister Madeline. Even then, she’d
think twice. But these women seemed to know a lot of really personal
stuff about Tessa. Was it possible that telling all to the whole
group was a prerequisite for joining the Red Scarf Sorority? She
shuddered. If so, they’d never have to worry about her applying
Inside the room, Mary Lou reacted to Tessa’s ‘but’ by
narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “But what?” She questioned.
Tessa shook her head. “Nothing.”
“Aw, come on now, there’s got to be something
Again Tessa shook her head. “I can’t talk about it.
Not now. Not yet,” she whispered.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” one of the women said. “We
could always make this Lisa person disappear. Permanently,” she
added with a giggle. “We could do it and no one would be the
Several of the women snickered.
“I have an even better idea,” another offered. “Let’s
make Frank disappear permanently instead.”
“No, no, that’s too easy,” another woman argued. “Besides,
Tessa still loves him. What about if we cut his thing off though.
Then see how Miss Lisa likes him.”
When the other women howled with laughter, Charlotte
decided that she’d heard enough. As far as she was concerned, they were
all crazy, but a fun kind of crazy, and though she certainly didn’t
agree with their little joke or the invasion of privacy, she found
that she was just a wee bit envious of the sisterly camaraderie they
seemed to share.
Figuring that no one was going to miss her if she
left and also figuring that she’d come back to clean Tessa’s
room after lunch, Charlotte grabbed the supply cart.
“Ah, excuse me. Wait a minute.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Tessa wave at her. Swallowing
her impatience, she paused.
“Don’t leave,” Tessa pleaded.
Suddenly conscious that every eye in the room was staring at her,
Charlotte waited as Tessa hurried to the doorway.
“What’s your name?” Tessa asked.
Uh oh, now what? Maybe she’s going to report
Yeah, yeah, I’m shaking in my tennis shoes. Big hairy deal. “My
name is Charlotte LaRue,” she said evenly.
“Well, Charlotte, I owe you an apology. I’m
really sorry for my earlier outburst. Please come back inside and
An apology was the last thing that Charlotte had
expected, and when the women inside the room abruptly burst into
cheers and applause,
she felt her face grow warm with shame and embarrassment. Being the
center of attention left her little choice but to accept the apology
as gracefully as possible, so she nodded. “Everyone has good
days and bad days.”
“Oh, that’s so generous of you,” Tessa said as
the women dispersed and filed out of the room. “And please
don’t be embarrassed.” She motioned toward the group. “That
was just their way of confirming that I’ve worked through my
Well, whoop-de-do, good for you. The instant
the sarcastic thought popped into her head, Charlotte’s conscience
on you. And she was ashamed. After all, who was she to criticize
another person’s way of handling a crisis? Judge not, lest
ye be judged . . . different strokes for different folks.
Forcing a smile, Charlotte said, “I’ll get to work,
then,” and she headed for the bathroom.
Once in the bathroom, all she could do was stare.
Every available surface in the small room was covered with beauty
products or jewelry.
She’d cleaned a lot of homes over the years and had worked
for many women who were obsessed with youth and beauty, but she’d
never seen such a collection in one place before, enough to fill
a whole suitcase. Why anyone would want to haul all of that stuff
around was beyond Charlotte’s comprehension.
“Sorry about all of that,” Tessa said, entering the
bathroom. “Here—why don’t I just get some of it
out of your way.” She walked to the sink countertop, picked
up a velvet jewelry bag, and began gathering up the jewelry. “I
know it’s silly, but I just can’t bear to go anywhere
without all of my things. My daughter calls it my bling-bling.” She
laughed. “I call it my security blanket.”
Whatever floats your boat. Charlotte winced
the instant the flip words popped into her head. What on earth
was wrong with her today?
She’d always believed in “be ye kind, one to another,” and
all she could do was think ugly thoughts. With a sigh and a silent
prayer for a better attitude, she picked up a lone earring that Tessa
“You missed this one,” she said. Starring
at it, she paused to admire it before handing it to Tessa. Normally
stud earrings to dangling ones. The stud earrings were much more
practical for her line of work. But the earring was gorgeous. Light
as a feather and made of hammered gold, it was shaped into a triangle
that dangled from a post that was faced with a much smaller identical
version of the triangle. The pyramid shape of the earring reminded
her of the type of jewelry displayed in the King Tut exhibit when
it had visited the New Orleans Museum of Arts years ago.
“This is just beautiful,” she murmured, picturing in
her mind how it might look on herself. “It’s so simply
elegant,” she said, handing it to Tessa. “Not too large
or gaudy, but not so small as to be insignificant.”
“Yes, it is elegant, isn’t it? That particular pair
is my favorite--an anniversary gift from my husband last year.” She
blinked several times as if to hold back tears, then said, “I
had hoped to wear them to our banquet tonight.” Tessa frowned,
then sighed. “Problem is, I can’t find but one of them.
At first I thought it might have been stolen by that maid that they
fired, but since nothing else was missing I decided that I must have
either accidentally left it at home or, Lord forbid, I lost it. Anyway,
I’ve looked everywhere.” She waved her hand to include
the bathroom and bedroom. “Like I told the other maid who cleaned
yesterday, if you happen to find it, I’d be ever so grateful.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for it,” Charlotte
“Thanks,” Tessa replied.
When Tessa left the room, Charlotte sprayed window cleaner on the
mirror behind the sink. But her thoughts drifted back to what Carrie
had told her about having to fire one of the maids for stealing.
Maybe the maid who was fired had stolen Tessa’s earring. But
no, stealing just one earring didn’t make any sense.
With a shrug, Charlotte exchanged the window cleaner for an all-purpose
cleaner, and sprayed the counter top and sink.
Several minutes later, Charlotte was just finishing up the bathtub-shower
combination when Tessa stuck her head in the doorway.
“Ah—excuse me, Charlotte.”
Charlotte gave the edge of the tub a final swipe, then turned to
Tessa had changed blouses and was holding the one
changed out of.
“Two things. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve
changed my mind. I feel a migraine coming on, and the only way
to get rid
of it is to take my meds and sleep it off. Would it be too much trouble
for you to come back a little later? A couple of hours or so should
do the trick.”
Charlotte’s gut reaction was that the woman was lying through
her teeth. Though she’d never experienced migraines herself,
she knew they could be painfully debilitating, and nothing about
the way Tessa looked even hinted that she was in pain. Why lie though?
Gathering every ounce of control she could muster
to keep her irritation in check, she simply nodded. “I’ll
be back later then, and I hope your headache gets better.”
“And the second thing--” Tessa held up the blouse she’d
changed out of. “Could you please see that this gets cleaned?”
“Sure,” Charlotte answered, taking the
“The dye in the new scarves I just bought bled through,” Tessa
explained. “I ordered more—silk this time—before
I left home, but I had to leave before they were ready. A friend
of mine is supposed to bring them, but--” She shrugged. “I
don’t have them yet.”
Charlotte glanced down at the blouse. Just as Tessa had said, there
was a faint red tint beneath the collar where the scarf had bled
“Thank you,” Tessa murmured.
Once Charlotte had gathered her cleaning supplies,
she left the room. In the hallway she checked her watch. If she
have time to clean one more room before lunchtime.
The room next to Tessa’s clearly had a DO NOT DISTRUB sign
hanging on the outside doorknob, so Charlotte went to the next room
and knocked. “Housekeeping,” she called out. After waiting
a moment and getting no response, she pulled out her entry key. Just
as she was about to insert it into the lock the door swung open.
The dark-haired woman standing in the doorway was
probably in her late thirties or early forties, and was dressed
in slacks and a silk
blouse. “May I help you?” She asked.
“I’m the maid, and I’ve come to
clean your room.”
The woman nodded. “Good. Come on in. I can use some clean
towels and washcloths, and some extra packets of decaf coffee for
the coffeemaker. Will it bother you if I continue working?” She
motioned toward a desk that contained a laptop and several stacks
of file folders.
Charlotte shook her head. “Oh, no, ma’am,
not at all.”
Once Charlotte had gathered the necessary supplies from the cart
she headed for the bathroom. She had just finished wiping down the
mirror, sink, and countertop when she heard the phone ring in the
The woman immediately answered the call. “This is Margaret.” A
moment passed then she said, “Oh, hi, Tessa. It’s good
to hear from you.”
Normally Charlotte preferred minding her own business,
and though many times she’d been put in the position of eavesdropping,
she usually tried to ignore it. But hearing Tessa’s name gave
her pause. After all, what were the odds that the caller was yet
another woman named Tessa in the same small hotel? Of course it was
possible that the call had originated from outside the hotel. Even
so she figured the chances of the caller bing yet another woman named
Tessa were slim. With a shrug she poured disinfectant into the toilet.
“Now, now, Tessa, just calm down,” Margaret told her. “Are
you sure she overheard you? Okay, okay, don’t cry. I’m
coming. Just give me a second to shut off the laptop. And if it makes
you feel any better, I was able to pick up that package for you before
I left. But I’ll need the ones you have for the exchange. Bye,
Charlotte rolled her eyes. It was hard to imagine that tell-all-Tessa
could be upset about anyone overhearing her about anything.
A minute or so later Margaret appeared at the doorway.
In her hand was a small paper sack. The bright purple logo of several
and a tulip on the white sack caught Charlotte’s eye. Beneath
the logo was the name of a store she’d never heard of before.
“I’ve got to leave for a while,” Margaret said. “Please,
don’t bother anything on the desk, and don’t forget to
leave me an extra pack of decaf.”
Charlotte nodded and a moment later she heard the outer door open
Though Charlotte tried to concentrate on her cleaning
and tried to ignore the one-sided phone conversation she’d overheard,
she couldn’t help wondering who the ‘she’ was that
Tessa had mentioned. And what was it that ‘she’ had overheard?
But even more curious, why was Tessa seemingly so upset by it?
As Charlotte reached down and flushed the toilet, parts of the conversation
between Tessa and her Red Scarf sisters played through her mind.
She frowned. What was it that Mary Lou had said to Tessa?
Aw, come on now, there’s got to be something
And Tessa had answered, I can’t talk about
it. Not now. Not yet.
Was it possible that whatever Tessa couldn’t talk about to
Mary Lou had something to do with the phone call she’d made
Charlotte groaned and shook her head. “Oh, for Pete’s
sake, just mind your own business.”
Excerpt from Scrub-a-Dub
Copyright 2006 by Barbara Colley
Now in Paperback! ISBN: 0-758-20767-0