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One Hell of a Party
Shelby sat crouched in the bushes as she had done for almost a year now. Every night, since last November, she’d skulk down dark old lanes, darting from shadow to shadow in an effort see her idol at work; the cat burglar Le Bec. Shelby would sneak into theaters during the day, napping and dreaming along with her screen heroes. When she grew up she was going to be Robin Hood.
“Maid Marian is for girls who went to school,” she would think.
But no character played by Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks could hold a candle to Le Bec. Le Bec had the advantage of being real. Shelby would sit, unseen and observe, learning.
Tonight, Le Bec sat crouched on the the ledge of a third storey window. The house belonged to the Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Tulane, Giles Parker. Le Bec had overheard a conversation Parker was having at a recent social gathering to celebrate the re-election of Verne Sturgis to the Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeals. The exchange concerned the relocation of an artifact of great power to Parker’s house. Le Bec remembered Parker sounding reluctant, but was eventually brow beaten by Judge Sturgis who seemed keen to have it relocated from his home.
“We drew the lots, Parker. It’s your turn to house the Jade Peregrine,” Sturgis growled.
“But you haven’t kept it long enough, it’s not fair,” protested Parker.
“The witch Winthrop has caught wind of its location. It can’t remain in my keep. If she gets ahold of it there will be trouble beyond what even we can handle,” said Sturgis.
“Winthrop was dealt with years ago. Hanged. We saw to that. How can she be of any concern to us?” interjected the chief of police, Len McCallen.
“She’s been dead before,” replied Sturgis. “Look, Parker. The plan is in motion, you won’t have to hide the Peregrine for long.”
“Not long at all,” said Le Bec from his perch as he pulled a diamond glass cutter from his belt.
He sliced a smooth arc in the glass in front of the window latch. He poked his finger in and unfastened the sash. He threw the sash and slid into the room, quiet and fluid. Le Bec scanned the room,finally fixing his eyes on a pillar in the middle of the room. On the pillar sat an ornate safe. Le Bec glided over and began twiddling the knob. The safe door clicked and popped open, just a sliver. Le Bec pulled it open. Inside sat a small peregrine figurine carved out of what appeared to be jade, the surface was a flowing iridescence. Le Bec lifted the figurine and placed it in his palm. He examined the ebb and flow of the finish. The jade’s green had a depth to it that demanded his attention. He found himself in a green and flowing conduit. Vines curled the walls and erupted in Catherine wheel blooms. Every form of life marched, passed and evolved with every step. At each end of the verdant hall was a world. At one end he felt the power of creation itself and at the other, the wisdom to wield it. A vine reached up and grabbed him by the ankle. Le Bec felt the the vine pulling, entangling his leg and driving its roots in. He winced. A voice spoke to him in a clear voice.
“Life nourishes life.”
Le Bec snapped his head. He tipped forward and caught himself on the pillar.
“Jesu,” he said himself. “Get a grip, old man.”
He looked away from the figurine, opened a pouch on his belt and slipped it in. He flew back to the window pane and sat on the ledge outside, sliding the slash down and latching it.
“Don’t want just any old riff raff getting at what’s in there,” he whispered.
Le Bec scanned the ground below and saw a pair of green eyes staring at him through the dark.
“And what could I do for such a pretty pair of emerald eyes?” he asked them.
The eyes widened and retreated further into the bushes from which they peered.
“Oh, come now. You went through all this trouble to get a look at legendary Le Bec at work,” Le Bec said into the darkness. “Don’t run off on me now.”
Le Bec jumped down from the window ledge, slowing his descent by grabbing a tree branch then dropping to the ground. He switched on his flashlight and scanned the bushes and lifted his Zanni commedia dell’arte mask, by the nose.
“Come on out little mouse,” Le Bec said to the shrubbery. “You can’t hide in the ivy all night.”
The shrubs started to rustle. Le Bec put his hand near the stock of his pistol. A small girl clad in a black leather suit, much like the one Le Bec wore, emerged looking sheepish.
“So it was a little mouse after all,” Le Bec laughed.
“I’m not so little,” said the girl.
“It’s all relative, isn’t it?” said Le Bec, “What’s the little mouse’s name, then?”
“Stop calling me that, my name is Shelby.”
“Well then, ma petite souris. Why are you peeking at me from the bushes, eh?”
“I wanted to see you work.”
“Eh, well, I wouldn’t call it work,” said Le Bec. “It’s more of a leisure pursuit. How long have you been watching me?”
“A few months,” Shelby replied.
“I meant tonight, but…” Le Bec paused. “Months?”
“I can be very quiet.”
“Just like a mouse, it seems,” Le Bec grinned. “Why are you following me?”
“I want to do what you do for a living.”
“I don’t do this for a living.”
“I have no doubt,” said Le Bec. “But what kind of life is this for a little girl to dream of?”
“A better one than I got,” replied Shelby.
“How old are you?”
“Don’t your parents notice you out of the house at night?”
“Ain’t got parents.”
Le Bec paused. “Look at me,” he said, lowering himself on his haunches. “Do you truly wish to learn this art?”
Shelby shrunk when their eyes became level.
“Yes,” she squeaked.
“You must be absolutely sure. If I am to train you, you must do precisely as I say.”
“Yes,” she said raising her chin.
“It will be difficult. What I do isn’t for preservation. It’s a siren song. I’m compelled by the muse.”
“I’m ready,” Shelby snapped.
“Ok, Little Mouse. Ok.”
“My name is Shelby,” she said jabbing a finger at Le Bec.
“That’s a perfect first lesson,” Le Bec replied, “Only use code names in the field.”
“Can I make it up?”
“ ‘Mouse’ will do for now.”
Shelby opened her mouth to protest, but he covered it with his gloved hand.
“We’ve made enough noise under the window of a dangerous and powerful man at two in the morning. I will have a room prepared for you at my home.”
“I got a gang I stay with,” said Shelby.
“That’s a perfect second lesson,” said Le Bec. “Gangs are dead weight, you need to be nimble in every way. Doing what we do we can’t afford the millstones of hangers on.”
“But they’re my friends.”
“Friends are fine. A healthy social life is essential to provide cover for our nocturnal activities. But these activities are solitary. Like a composer or an artist at the canvas. It’s the lone artist inching his way toward absolute beauty. Come along. Get some sleep. We’ll begin tomorrow.”
Anatoli sat staring at the thin strips of shadow cast on the wall by the Venetian blinds. The shadows always seemed to be there regardless of outside light or time of day. Over the past few weeks he had grown more annoyed than curious that they always seemed to fall across Delareux’s eyes when he had something particularly odd to say. Delareux was occupied with a recalcitrant pendulum that didn’t seem to want to sway in any meaningful pattern.
“I gave these thieves half my rum, they can’t give me half a crumb,” Delareux said, dropping the pendulum.
“Who got your rum?” asked Anatoli.
“Papa,” Thomas replied.
“Why did you give your dad your rum?”
“No man, Legba.”
Toli had made himself a strict policy of not pressing these things much further than this point, but since leaving behind his burgeoning business to pursue the nagging call of private investigation, he drafted a new policy of always asking where the next job was coming from.
“And who is Legba?” Anatoli asked.
“A Loa,” replied Delareux.
“Do Loa require the services of skid row investigators?” asked Toli.
Delareux looked up from his desk, “No. Maybe. Sometimes. There was that one time.”
“I don’t mean to belly ache, but it’s been three weeks since the Rasputin case and all we’ve done was find a cat…”
“Buried a lamp…”
“And dug up some lady’s front lawn.”
“The grass was dead in a circle pattern. I thought it was faeries.”
“It was a leaky septic tank,” Toli groaned. “None of those jobs yielded a thin dime. The only paying job we’ve had was staking out that mob hitman with the theatrical flair. And you turned that one down.”
“He walked through a wall. I’m not messing with mob guys that can immaterialize.”
Toli sighed patiently and began to speak, but was interrupted by the jingling of the bells hanging on the office door.
Toli and Delareux eyed the lanky gentleman who stood the full height of the door frame.
“Is this the office of Mr. T. J. Delareux?” the man asked in a voice that sounded like wind through dry reeds scratching out from behind a scarf that covered his face to the bridge of his nose. His unblinking eyes, magnified by impossibly thick lenses, wobbled between Toli and Delareux.
“Merci beaucoup, Papa,” Delareux whispered to himself. “Step right up, mister.”
“Barclay,” the man replied as he loped toward an open chair. “I’m here on behalf of my employer, the heiress Sylvia Winthrop.”
“Sylvia Winthrop?” Toli’s head swiveled.
Barclay’s head turned to meet Toli’s eyes, making a scratching noise against his stiff, worn collar. Toli sat fixated. Barclay returned his attention to Thomas.
“For personal reasons I will not go into, my employer prefers to keep a…” Barclay paused “…low profile. And she would like it kept that way. Can you be discreet, Mr. Delareux?”
“Well, from time to time I do like to indulge in the teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tsu or the Hindus, and feel that on some level, like Indra’s Net, there is a oneness in reality. But being raised as a Westerner I’m inclined to feel that individuals, myself included, are separate and distinct entities each with their own agency,” replied Thomas.
“Not ‘discrete’, Mister Delareux, ‘discreet’ as in; can you make sure the Lady Winthrop is not disturbed at any point in the process of your investigation?” said Barclay curling the corners of his thin, dry lips.
“I don’t know,” replied Delareux.
“You don’t know?”
“You haven’t told me what the job is.”
“The Lady Winthrop has lost a rather precious heirloom. One that has been in her family for centuries,” Barclay explained.
“Centuries?” Toli chimed in. “Must be very valuable.”
Barclay’s head rotated toward Toli and laid another unblinking stare on him, then back to to Delareux.
“My wish is to employ you, Mister Delareux, to retrieve it.”
“How did she lose it?” asked Thomas.
“It was stolen. Burgled from her estate and by a thief. A second story man. A scoundrel known as ‘Le Bec’,” said Barclay.
“I’m familiar with him,” said Delareux. ”From what I’ve heard about him, if you just wait a few days, he usually returns whatever items he’s taken.”
“I fear that won’t be the case here. You see, this heirloom is an arcane object of great power. ‘Le Bec’ fancies himself something of a…sorcerer. I’d say illusionist at best. This is where you come in, Mister Delareux.”
Delareux sat staring at Barclay with a barely concealed grin. Toli choked back the urge to verbally scoff at the notion of ‘an arcane object of great power,’ but he reasoned that this was probably a paying gig. Plus, he really didn’t want Barclay to look at him again.
Shelby awoke to the sound of a knock on her bedroom door.
“Wakie, wakie, wakie little sleeper,” said Le Bec opening the door.
“What time is it?” Shelby yawned.
“The crack of dawn. Ten thirty,” said Le Bec. “I had Landers put out breakfast. Come down when you’re ready.”
“Who’s Landers?” asked Shelby.
“My butler,” replied Le Bec. “He’s mostly harmless.”
“He has his moments.”
By eleven Shelby was daydreaming at a pile of waning gibbous pancakes and tormenting the over-easy eggs with her fork.
“Is everything to your liking, Miss….ummm?” said Landers from his post in the corner of the dining room.
“It’s just way more than I’m used to eating in one sitting,” Shelby replied. “And it’s Herveaux. Shelby Herveaux.”
“Very well, Miss Herveaux. I’ll have the staff clean up. Mr. Corbin is waiting for you in the study.” said Landers.
“Who’s Mr. Corbin?”
“Le Bec,” Landers replied in a drawn out sigh.
Landers led Shelby from the dining hall to the study. Inside Le Bec was sitting in a high backed chair hunched over a large, tattered book. He flipped through the yellowed pages, letting them slip from under his thumb. He turned to the door.
“Little Mouse,” he said. “Come sit. There’s a lot to get through yet.”
Shelby sat in the middle of a sofa, slouching until her feet rested on the ground. Le Bec closed the book on his hand and leaned forward.
“First of all,” he began, “Le Bec is what the daily rags call me. Not that I mind it, though. My name is Guy-Manuel Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Corbin.”
“Why do the papers call you Le Bec?” asked Shelby.
“It means ‘the beak’,” replied Guy. “Because of the of mask I wear.”
“What was that you robbed last night?” asked Shelby.
“Please, ‘burgled’,” said Guy. “ ‘Steal’ if you absolutely must. But never ‘robbed’. We’re not stick up artists. I taste bile referring to them as artists. Burglary is art. Passing unnoticed in broad daylight. Gaining entry into the most impenetrable of fortresses. Acquiring anything that takes our fancy. This is art.”
“You break into a lot of fortresses?” smirked Shelby.
“You’re pretty pedantic for an eleven year old?” asked Guy.
“I’m twelve,” said Shelby.
“There you go again,” said Guy. “Anyway, it’s an object of great power. It’s a figurine of a peregrine carved from The Empress’s Jade.”
“The Empress’s Jade?” asked Shelby.
“The Empress’s Jade is as old as the universe. It’s the primordial power of life itself. As for what this little totem that was carved from it is for, I have no idea. That’s what I was researching when you came in.”
“What’s that book?” Shelby asked, swiveling her head around the room,.“As a matter of fact, what are all these creepy old books?”
“Grimoires, encyclopedias of arcane things, alchemical tomes,” replied Guy. “All quite old. Most all but forgotten. I lent the best one out to that Doctor Andronikov that went and got himself arrested.”
Guy gave her a sharp glance.
“Burgle it back,” she said.
“Lord knows where it is at this point.”
Shelby got up to peruse the bookcases.
“Some of these look like they’re made out of human skin,” Shelby chuckled.
Guy looked at her over his reading glasses with tight lips and consoling eyes.
“Ewww,” she said and continued looking.
“Now run upstairs and change into the clothing Landers laid out for you,” said Guy. “I’ve got a big lesson planned for today.”
“But’s not even noon yet,” Shelby said.
“I’ve been invited to a rare daytime function and my absence would be conspicuous,” said Guy. “You’ll accompany me as my ward; an adopted orphan.”
“Ward?” Shelby frowned.
“More or less true, I suppose. If you can think of a better story as to why I would have brought you, I’d be interested in hearing it.”
“What is this thing anyway?”
“Mayor Maestri is throwing some kind of soiree or another. He has invited me to attend.”
“You’re friends with the Mayor?” asked Shelby.
“ ‘Friend’ would be a very creative use of the word,” replied Guy. “I detest the oaf.”
“Then why are we going?”
“All part of today’s lesson. Now run and get ready before we’re late.”
Guy and Shelby arrived at the main foyer of the mayor’s mansion, fashionably late.
“Never thought I’d be rubbing elbows with these snobs,” Shelby whispered into Guy’s sleeve. “I remember every one of these faces.”
“Really?” asked Guy. “Where have you met all these faces?”
“When I was first on the street and begging for change,” replied Shelby. “Just walked by. Didn’t even look at me.”
“Motivation is important, but don’t lose focus to a vendetta,” Guy said, “That can wait.”
“That gargoyle there is only one of these heels who ever talked to me,” Shelby said, pointing out a gaunt towering old woman standing across the room. “She leaned down and called me a wretched urchin and that all the orphans should be put on a boat and left to drift in the Gulf.”
“Let’s give her a warm greeting, eh?” said Guy leading Shelby slowly through the crowd. “As we walk through the hall. Pay attention.”
“Pay attention to what?” she asked.
“Everything,” replied Guy. “Not only what you see and hear, but what you smell…”
Guy leaned toward a well dressed young redhead and made theatrical sniff around her neck.
“Spuh-ing time in Pah-ee, if I am not mistaken, mademoiselle,” Guy bellowed in a farcical French accent.
“Oh, yes,” the girl said through a blushing grin. “It’s the very latest.”
“Brings me fond memories of my grandmother,” Guy said as he took her hand.
“Oh,” the girl replied with a collapsing grin.
Guy led Shelby on closer to her gargoyle.
“Also what you feel,” he said as he took the gloved hand of a rotund man in a bowler hat.
“Colonel Withers,” Guy shouted vigorously shaking the man’s pudgy hand, “Are these gloves Egyptian cotton? Indeed Colonel, you are a man of refinement.”
The Colonel barely turned to face Guy before he had led Shelby off once again.
“And even taste,” said Guy, grabbing a shrimp and dragging it through the cocktail sauce.
He bit the tail and grabbed a napkin. He slapped the napkin to his mouth and pulled it down.
“About two days old,” he grumbled.
He turned around to the gargoyle and grabbed her hand.
“Madam Sturgis,” cooed Guy kissing her hand. “Tu es magnifique, comme toujours.”
“On-chan-tay, mis-yore, Cor-ban,” cooed Mrs. Sturgis.
“Indeed,” Guy said standing. “Allow me introduce my ward, Shelby. She was orphaned, I have adopted her. Pity is one of my many faults, alas.”
“She’s a pretty little angel,” bellowed Mrs. Sturgis. “You feel so bad for the the poor, dear souls don’t you?”
Shelby furrowed her brow and opened her mouth, but Guy shot his hand over her mouth before she could produce a sound.
“Oh, indeed,” said Guy. “So helpless.”
Mrs. Sturgis and Guy looked at each other and shook their heads.
“Madam, tell me,” Guy began after what seemed like a predetermined period of mutual Weltschmerz, “I’ve begun to take a shine to jade recently and have an eye for exotic fineries. Would you be able to maybe point me in the direction a reputable dealer? If it’s not imposing, of course.”
Mrs. Sturgis stood frozen as if nobody had let her in on the predetermined time they would be enjoying mutual Weltschmerz.
“I, no, not jade, not offhand, no,” she said shaking her head.
“Je suis désolé, madam,” Guy said, patting her on the back of the hand. “I did not mean to impose, excusez-moi.”
Guy bowed and led Shelby away.
“She looked sick when you mentioned ‘jade’,” Shelby said.
“You noticed. Good,” replied Guy.
“Why is that good?” asked Shelby.
“Investigation requires you are always observing.”
“Right now, I’m observing Detective Ed Danvers at six o’clock,” said Shelby shrinking behind Guy. “I gotta get out of here.”
“It’s fine. Remember; adopted orphan.”
Delareux and Toli stood out front of the mayor’s mansion. Toli paced the sidewalk looking at his watch.
“It’s ten after one,” Toli said.
“Just a few more minutes,” Thomas said.
“Why do we need to be late?”
“What makes you think you’ll find Le Bec here?” asked Toli.
“Well,” replied Delareux, “He returns what he stole, so he’s not doing it for the money. He only steals from the rich so it’s possible he’s stealing from the people he knows and he works the graveyard shift so he probably doesn’t have to worry about a day job.”
“How are you even going to know him if you saw him?”.
“I don’t know. Get a vibe or something.”
After a long stretch of silence, Toli turned to look at Delareux. He found him hands clasped, head bent and brow deeply furrowed in consternation. It seemed to Toli like he was in the throws of prayer or, at the very least, deep thought.
“What are you doing?” asked Toli.
“Do these look right to you?” asked Delareux.
“Do what look right?”
Toli stared for moment, “They look fine.”
“Okay,” said Tom raising his head, buttoning his blazer and taking another quick glance at his hands.
He watched through the hedges as the valets at the door wandered off to smoke a cigarette.
“Let’s go,” he grabbed Toli by the cuff and they slipped in through the door.
As Guy dragged Shelby schmoozing through the party, Ed Danvers made eyes on Shelby hiding behind Guy and darted over.
“What are doing here, you little vagabond?” he said to Shelby. “Picking pockets? This must be a buffet to you, set you up for awhile.”
Guy turned to face Danvers.
“Ah bonjour, Detective Danvers,” Guy bellowed. “Please let me introduce my ward, Shelby.”
“Your ward?” Danvers said incredulously. “Yeah, that’s perfect, isn’t it?”
“I feel that all the child needs is proper adult influence. To put her on the straight and narrow. Build a strong work ethic,” explained Guy.
“I bet she’ll learn a fine work ethic from you, Corbin,” said Danvers. “Hell, she’s already used to the late shift.”
“Detective, what is your implication?”
“You know damn well…”
“Detective Danvers,” said Toli emerging from the crowd and shooting his hand out.
“Oh great, if you’re here that means the other one is too,” Danvers groused.
“I haven’t seen you since Delareux and I cracked the Andronikov case,” Toli grinned.
“I was enjoying that.”
“Afternoon, Detective,” Delareux chirped.
“They’ll let in any riff raff, won’t they?” Danvers grumbled. “How did you two bums get an invite to this fancy shindig?”
“You told me this was open to the public,” Toli griped at Delareux.
“It is if you time it right,” Delareux replied.
“Hey, Delareux,” Shelby chirped poking out from behind Guy. “Mr. Palazzo.”
“Isn’t this nice?” Danvers growled. “Like old home week.”
“Hi, Shelb,” Delareux replied. “Keeping out of trouble?”
“No,” she snickered.
“Detective Delareux?” Guy chimed in and offered his hand.
“The same,” Delareux replied, shaking Guy’s hand.
“You have quite the reputation.”
“I try not to. They just get in the way. You are?”
“Of course. I am Guy-Manuel Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Corbin.”
“Your mother must have had it out for you.”
“Maybe. I never knew my mother. I was an orphan much like our mutual friend Shelby, here. I recently adopted her. To give back, you know. Good karma, eh?”
“Nice dress you got her all dolled up in.” Delareux looked at Shelby askance.
“It’s uncomfortable,” Shelby frowned.
“You don’t like it, Miss Shelby?” Guy asked and turned to Delareux. “It brings out the green in her eyes, no?”
“Yeah,” Delareux replied locking eyes with Guy. “Like jade. Just like jade.”
As Guy’s smile dropped with Delareux’s reply a commotion could be heard near the front of the room. Some uniformed police officers were shouting at a small, nebbish man who trotting through the room in distress, scanning the crowd.
“Judge Sturgis?” he shouted to anyone as two police officers grabbed each of his arms, “I must speak to Judge Sturgis.”
The police began dragging the little man out as he continued to shout for Sturgis.
“Hang on one moment, officers,” a tall man called out from under an ostentatious, oversized Stetson ten gallon.
“Verne,” the little man yelped as he wrestled his way out of the grip of the officers and jogged toward Sturgis.
“What is it, Parker?” Sturgis growled.
“We need to talk.”
“It’s fine, officers,” Sturgis waved the police away and took Parker aside. “Out with it, Parker. This better be good.”
“The peregrine,” Parker panted. “It’s been stolen and the sleeper is awakening.”
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