It was Saturday night, and the wind was howling to howl its last, but we didn’t hear it. We were all keeping warm and strong inside old Bixie’s place.
Bixie was one of Darling William’s old friends from when he was in short pants. The two were thick as thieves, and used to tear up the town on a regular basis. Then things happened; Bixie inherited an enormous house on the North side from an uncle he never knew he had, and Darling William became a musician. The two split for a few years, but they ended up mending that divide after a common friend got hurt in a car wreck. It was one of those moments wherein you don’t know how much time you have left, and suddenly minor differences don’t seem so important anymore.
Bixie made up for lost time after that. Every week there was a party at his house. Well, a party might be too strong a word, but if you had an ounce of musical talent, could cook, dance, or tell a good story, or knew someone who could do any of the above, you were in. Right in the entryway there was the only real piece of art that had survived Bixie’s move into the house; a huge vase from some far off part of the Orient, striped blue and green. When folks came in, they dropped a few bucks or a handful of change into the vase. With all the people coming and going, Bixie was probably at least breaking even on the night.
On the night in question, Darling William had escorted me in and paused as we stood in the entryway. He fumbled a bit in his pockets. I smiled and reached for my purse, but he shot me a look. “Nothing doing, sweet.”
I shook my head, “Come on, I’ll pay this time, you get next time.”
“Unchivalrous.” He frowned. “Give me a second.”
Hank LaSalle and his girl Wynona came in from the rain and shook like leaves. Nona grinned as she saw me. “Ophelia! How long has it been?”
“Too damn long.” I admitted. Nona gave me a brief hug, and I saw Darling William shake Hank’s hand. As Nona and I parted, Darling William put his hand back in his pocket and, with the ease of a magician, slid out a five dollar bill. “Ah, there we go.” He said with relief, then dropped the bill into the vase. I had to grin, but I narrowed my eyes a bit to indicate I picked up on what my beau was up to; he wanted an audience of more than just me to see he was making money again. Hank nodded appreciatively, and Darling William looked as proud as any paid musician had right to be.
“You’re incoragable.” I smiled. Darling William put his arm around my waist. “So encourage me.” He grinned as he escorted me into the house.
The place was already rocking and rolling. The scent from the kitchen promised shrimp and chicken and spices like to make even the greatest gourmet’s palette wonder and water. There were people talking and drinking and dancing, and not anything but a smile on anyone’s face. I had a drink put in my hand, and I wasn’t even sure who’d done it, but I drank and it burned pleasantly all the way down, giving me a slight shiver that Darling William smiled at wickedly.
“Behave yourself.” I said.
“Oh, have no fear. I’m as gentle as a lamb.”
“Well, don’t behave yourself that much.”
He laughed, then cocked his head slightly. “Jimmy’s hitting on Missy Turner.”
“Oh good lord.” I rolled my eyes. “Go go. Rescue.”
“Which one of ’em?” Darling William grinned. He then gave me a quick kiss and headed over to break up what might’ve become the absolutely worst coupling since Salome and John the Baptist.
I found my way through the crowd into the kitchen. The scent was heavenly, and there were huge pots on all the burners of the stove. Three women gossiped as they stirred, added, tasted, and added again.
“Excuse me, can I have some shrimp?”
The three paused and turned toward me. The largest of them, an absolute mountain of a woman, scowled. “’Can I have some shrimp?’ You think this is a poorhouse, girlie?”
I quailed a little, then couldn’t really hold up the charade any longer. “You have enough pepper, Sal?”
The huge woman came over and hugged me. “I brought plenty, dearie. I didn’t think you were coming!”
I shrugged. “Case ended early.”
“You’re still doing that?” One of the other women said with only the mildest disapproval.
“Only until Darling William makes an honest woman of me.”
“So until doomsday.”
“Hey, if he’d propose…” I mused. It gained some expectant looks. I had to laugh. “Okay, no. I’d say yes, but I’m not about to drop the job.”
“Hard-head.” Sal shook her head. “Want us to make you a plate?”
I waved it away. “Just wanted to check in. I’ll eat when you do.”
“Fair fair.” The third woman said, then went back to stirring the pot.
I sat down on a rickety old chair near the sink. “What’s the topic of the night, Mel?”
She didn’t pause in her stiring. “New girl.”
I raised an eyebrow. “The pretty little Oriental?”
“That’s the one.” Mel nodded, tasting her handiwork and adding a pinch of something wonderfully-scented.
“She’s quite the butterfly.” I opined.
“Been here quite a bit, I think.” Sal began searching the pantry shelves for more ingredients. She worked in a house right across the street from Bixie’s; she’d see the comings and the goings.
“Think she and Bixie…?”
Sal laughed, a wonderful, rich, low sound. “Think? She’s coming over in the late afternoon when Bixie doesn’t have work.”
“She’s cleaning his pipes.” Mel muttered.
“No such thing.” Sal retorted. “Bixie’s too scared of butterflies for that sort-of thing.”
“Cleaning his pipes.” Mel stood her ground quietly. Sal just shook her head. “Don’t think so. Not yet.”
“Two dollars says it’s so.”
Sal didn’t hesitate a moment. “You’re on.”
“How’re you going to tell?”
I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. Both women looked expectantly at me.
“You’re the investigator.” Sal said.
“Investigate!” Mel added.
“We’ll make you a plate of the good stuff.” The third woman, whose name I didn’t know, apparently knew the way to my heart. I chuckled and shook my head. “My fee is usually a little different than that, but now you’ve got me interested. I’ll see what I can find out.”
“No promises!” I held my hands up in defiance. “But I’ll see what I can do.”
The trio went back to their cooking, and I walked back into the parlor. The music was swinging, and it took me only a moment to realize that the record player had been put away in favor of those who’d brought their own music. Black Dog Jordan was belting out Is You Is along with some skinny kid on bass, and bless my soul, Darling William on a borrowed guitar. His eyes were closed as he put everything he had into such a simple little song, and everyone in the house was swaying and dancing. I was always a little jealous when this happened; not for my love’s talent, but for the fact that he was sharing it with everyone else, and not dancing with me. Still, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw his gift making everyone happy, which made him happy, which, in turn, made me happy. Darling William was like that.
They transitioned into Shake, Rattle, and Roll, and I found myself swaying across the room to where Bixie and the Butterfly were dancing close. She was a stunner, to be sure. Dark and exotic, with big wide eyes. She was tiny compared to Bixie, but the two really seemed to have a spark between them. I’d seen it plenty before in the early days of relationships. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. I knew Bixie would do nothing but stammer and blush if I asked him the pointed questions, and I didn’t even know the butterfly’s name, so the direct tactic was out. Instead, I figured I’d just try to spend a little time keeping an eye on them and see what I could read off their movements.
If the closeness of the dancing was any indication, Mel was going to be making a quick two dollars.
The music transitioned to the next song, and someone came over to ask Bixie something. The butterfly took a step or two back, and blushed prettily. I, myself, found a corner to watch them.
I almost flinched. It was Jimmy. He’d come up next to me almost silently, and that meant only one thing.
“Hey, Jimmy. The answer is no.”
He looked a little hurt. “I didn’t ask you anything.”
“You don’t have to.”
Jimmy looked even more hang-dog. “C’mon. Just one dance.”
“C’mon. Missy just left, and I’m all alone here.”
He gave me the puppydog eyes, the one with real simulated human feelings. I sighed. “I’m working.”
“Here?” He looked around. “No way.”
“Yes way.” I muttered, thankful the women in the kitchen had given me an alibi to keep me away from the city’s worst womanizer.
“What’s the case?”
“You know I can’t say.”
“Aw come ON!” He half-whined. I realized he needed something or he was going to explode. I scanned the room, and winced inwardly as his eyes traced along the same path as my own and locked on the young woman just entering the room.
“Oh hey!” He said, suddenly more hopeful. “Valerie’s here!”
I caught my friend’s eye from across the room and mouthed ‘I owe you one’ to her. She looked confused at first, but her eyes narrowed as she saw Jimmy now making a beeline for her. She mouthed back ‘you really do!’
I shrugged, sighed, then turned and noticed Bixie and the butterfly were gone. Cursing quietly under my breath, I began scanning the room again and noticed that the doors out to the veranda in the back were open when they’d not been before. The wind and the rain had calmed down, and I made my way over to see if our host had gone on a moonlight-gazing expedition with his paramour.
My instincts proved right. The two were side by side, talking quietly and looking out at the river and the moon. Sadly, there wasn’t really any cover, and no real excuse for me to get close enough to hear what they were saying. Still, I figured I’d heard enough sweet lovers’ words in my life to get the gist as he slipped his arm around her waist. They drew close. They were just about to kiss.
Then they froze. I heard them still talking. I could see Bixie’s expression grow troubled, then grim. He released her.
“You really think I’m a necromancer?”
I sighed. It had always been the rumor. That Bixie had the house because he knew some black magic. Everyone knew it wasn’t true. Everyone who knew Bixie knew he didn’t know a drop of necromancy, or dabble in anything illegal like that. But the butterfly was new in town.
“You really think that?”
The butterfly nodded.
My heart fell into my shoes. All I could feel was horrible sympathy for Bixie as he simply turned and walked right past me back into the ballroom. I caught the butterfly beginning to weep out of the corner of my eye, but I was more paying attention to Bixie. He was making a beeline through the center of the room, heading to the record player.
The record player was playing again, and Darling William was moving to intercept Bixie, no doubt to ask him some seemingly innocuous question, or to return his guitar. Bixie pushed him aside and kept walking. When he got to the phonograph he dragged the needle as he pulled it off the record.
“I’m sorry, everyone. Party’s over.”
His words froze everyone, and there was a brief moment of silence. Every eye was on Bixie.
“I’m sorry. Party’s over.”
He turned and walked to the stairway, then quickly went upstairs.
“What the hell was that all about?”
Darling William was at my elbow, and his question echoed the murmuring of the crowd. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the little butterfly flitting away off the veranda and into the night.
I took his hand gently. “It’s a tale, love. We’ll talk about it when we’re out of here.”
“Nothing too bad, I hope?” He tried to lighten things.
I shrugged, trying to hide my sadness for a good friend. “No.” I said. “Nothing terrible. Sal just won two dollars.”