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“Here we are, lady.” The cab driver eyed me in the rearview mirror. “It ain’t the Ritz.”
I could see that. The hotel was maybe a half a Trip Advisor star above the level of rooms by the hour. I climbed from the backseat with my charcoal overnight bag and handed the driver two twenties. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks.” He removed the cigar from his mouth. “Now I got a tip for you—don’t spend the night in this dump.” The tires squealed as he peeled out of the lot.
“And people say New Yorkers aren’t friendly.” I pulled up the handle of my bag and wheeled it into the lobby, which reeked of cheap cologne and pepperoni. As I approached the reception desk, a fifty-something male with thinning hair and a name tag that said Mo put a half-eaten Hot Pocket on the counter and wiped tomato sauce on his gray uniform.
“I’m Franki Amato. I’ve got a reservation for the weekend.”
He eyed the computer. “I don’t got anyone by that name. You sure you’re in the right place?”
I’d been asking myself that very thing since the cab sped off. “Our research assistant at Private Chicks made the reservation, so it could be under my full name, Francesca Lucia Amato.”
“Private Chicks?” His gaze meandered from my face to my chest. “That a men’s club?”
My lips curled, and I squeezed my suitcase handle. “It’s a PI firm. I’m an investigator.”
He threw up his hands like he was under arrest.
“Easy, Mo. I work in New Orleans, not New York.”
He resumed his search for my reservation, and I wished I’d followed my gut and declined Merry Wrath’s invitation to Babette’s shower. I didn’t know the former, and I’d only met the latter once. But my fiancé, Bradley Hartmann, had gone to school with Babette in Boston, so he’d asked me to accept as a favor to him. The thing was that I’d already done him a favor on Babette’s behalf during Mardi Gras three months earlier when he’d let her and some of her friends use his apartment while he was out of town, and the experience had verged on distasteful.
Babette had managed to get herself arrested for nudity in the French Quarter, a nearly impossible feat during Carnival season. From what the police told me, she’d topped off her Pat O’Brien’s Hurricanes with a Hand Grenade at the Tropical Isle Bar, and the cocktail combo had proved explosive. While she was doing the Macarena with the Dancing Hand Grenade—the bar’s green Humpty Dumpty-shaped mascot with dopey eyes, a goofy grin, and a white fuse assembly that looked like a bow—the mascot for a local chain called Dat Dog shimmied up, and he and Babette decided to swap costumes in the middle of Bourbon Street. She stripped off her Mardi Gras Queen number and was sliding into the hot dog outfit when a cop loaded her into a paddy wagon bound for New Orleans Central Lockup.
Through no fault of my own, I’d spent the night in that jail two years earlier on my thirtieth birthday. And after a large woman with a severe skin-sloughing condition had used me for a pillow, I was less than thrilled to return. But because Babette had contacted Bradley with her one phone call, he’d woken me up at three a.m. and asked me to bail her out.
When I arrived at the jail, Babette was still wearing the Dat Dog costume, and because she was naked underneath, I made her stay in it. It’s a good thing I drive a convertible because the costume wouldn’t allow her to sit, so I had to lay her out lengthwise across the front and backseats. The whole way to Bradley’s apartment, she alternated between babbling about method acting and getting into character and singing “na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…DAT DOG!” like she was Batgirl in a bun. But the truth was that instead of the Batmobile, she’d turned my cute 1965 cherry-red Mustang into a wannabe Wienermobile. Frankly, the whole hot dog escapade had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I hadn’t eaten one since.
Mo picked up the Hot Pocket and took a bite. “Found you. Did you want the continental breakfast?”
Based on his meal, I went with, “No.”
He slid a key card envelope toward me and leaned on the counter. “Your room’s on the third floor.” He flashed yellow teeth flecked with mozzarella. “Want me to help you with your suitcase?”
“It’s on wheels. I’ve got it.” Given his greasy fingers and matching demeanor, I took the envelope with my fingernails and held it at arm’s length. “Where’s the bachelorette party for Babette Lang?”
“In the Big Apple Room. Head down the hall and take a right at the elevator.”
I nodded and pulled my suitcase into the hallway. Before I pressed the elevator button, the door opened to a man and woman making out. He was leaning against the back wall, and she was all over him like the mozzarella on Mo’s teeth. I couldn’t say the same for her slinky silver dress, which was in serious danger of slinking off.
Fortunately, the door closed. Since I was already late, I decided to skip the trip to my room. Given the things I’d seen in the hotel, I was confident that my black turtleneck and slacks were appropriate for the occasion, not to mention my Italian designer boots.
The event room was more Big Easy than Big Apple. Faded gold drapes, worn velvet upholstery, and filthy shag carpeting spoke of one hundred too many parties—in the 1970s. The look reminded me of a funeral parlor I’d seen outside of Baton Rouge where you could bury a loved one and buy life insurance all in one visit. And, in all honesty, the room was actually nicer than the bordello-chic furnished apartment I’d rented sight unseen from my sixty-something ex-stripper landlady.
I spotted a tape dispenser on a card table by the door and, taking a cue from Mo, made a name tag. Judging from some of the guests, I didn’t want to introduce myself.
A woman in a perfectly pressed navy suit marched up. “Are you Franki, by any chance?”
“That’s me.” I stuck the name tag on my chest.
“I’m Chelsea, Babette’s future sister-in-law. I have you on drinks, and if we’re going to save this event, I need you to do better than Valentine’s decorations and Kate’s food.”
My head retracted at her directness. “I’ll do what I can, but I’m not a bartender.”
“That’s fine because we’ve already got one.” She gestured to a young man with the chiseled features of a model, who was carrying a box of booze into the room. “But he’s got the imagination of a rock, so he needs suggestions.”
“I’m on it.” I made a beeline to the bar, mostly to get away from Chelsea. I stood to one side while the bartender poured a scotch and soda for a mature woman in a curly blonde wig with red lips lined à la Lucille Ball and eyeliner that made my signature cat-eye look kittenish. Even more jarring than her exaggerated makeup were the lime-green gloves on the bartender. They went all the way up to his sizeable biceps, which explained the gloves’ flower-blossom-style opening—but not entirely.
“Hey, I’m Franki.” I extended my hand.
He snatched his gloved mitts away like I was holding Mo’s greasy Hot Pocket. “Rock. Rock Stone.”
I suppressed a smile, wondering whether Chelsea had known his name when she’d made the crack about his imagination. “Edgy, but redundant.”
“You know, rock, stone, they mean the same thing?”
“Yeah.” He flexed his biceps. “Hard.”
Dumb as a rock came to mind. I wheeled my suitcase forward. “Could you stash this behind the bar?”
He scrutinized the handle.
“Careful, Rock.” The painted lady swallowed a slug of scotch and pointed at my suitcase. “That handle looks cracked.”
“I see that, Zelda.”
I didn’t, but I had squeezed it pretty hard when Mo leered at my rack. “Do you have hand injuries, or something?”
“Nah,” Zelda answered for him. “He’s protecting his moneymakers.”
Rock carefully peeled off a glove. “Bartending’s my side gig.” He flexed his fingers like a proud peacock spreading its feathers. “My dream is to be a hand model.”
“A hand model?” I repeated. “Just…hands?”
The woman lit a cigarette in clear view of a No Smoking sign. “That’s right. I tell my clients to dream big.” She exhaled at me. “I represent Rock and Babette.” She squinted at my name tag. “You already got a talent agent, Frenchie?”
“Franki, and no. I live in New Orleans, and I’m not interested in acting.”
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐”I couldn’t stop reading!”
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐”Fast-paced and fun. I love these mysteires!”
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐”Diana Orgain is my new favorite author!”
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