New Orleans, match to my flame, flame of my soul. My sin, my passion, my confession. New Or-lins: the tongue trampolining up to the roof of the mouth then down before bouncing back up again. New. Or. Lins.
She is just New Orleans in the mornings when the mist rises like ghosts from the river. She is the Big Easy to musicians, N’Awlins to tourists trying to go native, home to the locals. She was Nouvelle Orleans to the French, Nueva Orleans to the Spanish, Nuovi Orlini to the Italian immigrants, Nua Orleans to the Irish.
For many years film and television producers called her Hollywood South.
But in my heart, she is always simply New Orleans, my home. A magical place like no other, nestled in curves created by the wanderings of the father of waters. She is surrounded by water, connected to the mainland by bridges and a ferry across the river. A mystical island of sorts where what rules there are differ vastly from those elsewhere and are rarely enforced; where the words last call are never called out, where anything worth doing is also worth doing to excess, where Piety and Desire have been a block apart for hundreds of years.
She resists yet welcomes change, encourages people to be themselves, and never judges; celebrates and embraces eccentricity.
To know her is to love her, despite the daily frustrations of blinking traffic lights and deep potholes that can swallow cars whole, the herds of stray cats and the swarms of Formosan termites in the spring, where school board money disappears without a trace and frequent street flooding and snarled traffic from unexpected parades and second lines are all just a part of the fabric of life. Once you’ve lived in New Orleans, everywhere else seems tame, bland, colorless, the same as everywhere else.
New Orleans decays and crumbles and collapses, yet always rises to meet the latest challenge and will never surrender, will never bow because, as the song says, “we don’t know how.”
New Orleans shouldn’t exist, yet somehow does, her head high and arms wide open to welcome visitors and tourists and explorers, bachelor parties and fraternity trips and conferences.
And newcomers, seduced by her charms and wiles.
After the Flood Caused By the Failure of the Federally Built and Maintained Levee System, written off for dead, she rose from the ashes, for if New Orleans didn’t exist, someone would have to create her.
We need New Orleans, and always have.
The flood of newcomers after the flood waters receded was welcomed but watched with a raised eyebrow. The newcomers brought change in their wake, and New Orleans has always been slow to accommodate change. Working-class neighborhoods were rebuilt, only to become short-term rentals rather than homes. New construction went up everywhere—luxury condos here, a new University Medical Center complex there, grocery stores and restaurants and gas stations. There were concerns that the charm was being lost, but can one really complain about the Costco? The revitalization of the Carrollton corridor? The rebirth of the Central Business District, and the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods?
But rents and property values rose.
Nothing says gentrification more than bathhouses being turned into luxury condos.
I do miss those bathhouses.
But the city was changing before that fateful flood. K&B had already been replaced by CVS, Maison Blanche bought out by Dillard’s, and Starbucks had opened a couple of stores. But we were all so busy putting our lives and homes back together it seemed like one morning we woke up and the city wasn’t quite the same place we remembered. The new Rampart streetcar line, new hotels on Canal and in the CBD, Sewell Cadillac became a Rouse’s Grocery, Mary’s Tru Value left Bourbon Street for the newly repaved Rampart.
So much has changed it’s hard to remember what changed before the flood, and what changed after.
And…I’m not getting any younger, and my memory isn’t what it used to be.
Although I’ve yet to find a gray pubic hair. The Goddess has thus far spared me that horror.
I am that rarest of rarities in the newest and latest iteration of our beloved city: an actual native. There was a time, not all that long ago, when someone who’d lived here for twenty years would be sniffed at, airily dismissed, waved away, as a parvenu. In those antediluvian times you could live here most of your life, but someone would surely say at your funeral, if you weren’t born here, “I’ll miss him, he was a great guy…for a parvenu.”
My name is Milton Bradley, but everyone calls me Scotty. I suppose most people would say I lead a strange existence, which would be true if I were anything other than a born-and-bred New Orleanian. I lead a charmed life—money on both sides of the family, grew up in the French Quarter, and have been involved in a long-term relationship with not one but two incredibly great guys who are also incredibly hot and sexy. (For the record—and you know you were wondering—the sex is amazing.)
Although there are times when I question the charmedthing. I have a bad habit of stumbling over dead bodies and running afoul of criminal conspiracies, with a tendency to get kidnapped by bad guys now and then.
It’s a long story, but I have a tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time a lot more regularly than most.
I don’t think I was ever destined to have a normal life, to be honest. My mother’s a Diderot, which means she was from Rex royalty and expected to be a nice Uptown lady who married into another old society family and lunched and did charity work. My father is a Bradley—not quite as blue-blooded as the Diderots, which Papa Diderot never lets Papa Bradley forget—which meant he was supposed to go to Vanderbilt and come home to either law or medical school at Loyola. Instead they fell in love as teenagers and turned their backs on everything their respective families have always stood for—and went to the University of New Orleans, becoming what I guess is now called sneeringly social justice warriors orhippiesor pinko commie bastards.I never gave it much thought; they were always just Mom and Dad to me. They are very liberal—very much anti nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, very much in favor of equality for everyone—and are unrepentant stoners. They’ve been arrested numerous times at protests, and some of my earliest memories are of my parents chained to fences at nuclear power plants and marching in protests carrying signs.
I think my first words were “I want to speak to a lawyer.”
Another way they rebelled against their parents was naming me Milton Bradley.
My grandmothers’ maiden names were Milton and Scott; that’s how Mom and Dad claim they came up with the name. The family legend is that both sets of grandparents insisted Mom and Dad give me a normal, family name—they named my older brother Storm and my sister Rain (she started going by Rhonda in junior high)—and that’s what they came up with; a family name but also a middle finger to their parents.
The legend also holds they were going to name me either Ridge or River. Either would have been better than being named after a board game company. Other kids made my life miserable at school until Storm started calling me Scotty.
Having Milton Bradley as your legal name causes no small amount of hilarity when dealing with things like the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the passport office, or whenever you need to show legal ID, like at airports.
Trust me, I’ve heard every possible joke that can be made about my name, thank you very much.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents are the best. No young kid grappling with his sexuality could have had better parents. Mom and Dad were thrilled when I came out in high school—they’ve marched in every gay pride parade in New Orleans since, hang rainbow flags on the house every Pride, Decadence, and Mardi Gras, and have worn out numerous I’m proud of my gay son T-shirts. They own and operate a tobacco shop on the corner of Royal and Dumaine in the Quarter, and I grew up in the spacious apartment directly above. I went to Jesuit High School, and like a good little Bradley went off to Vanderbilt after graduation. But I hated the school, missed New Orleans, and finally flunked out at twenty, returning to New Orleans an abject failure. Dismayed at the dark stain on the family honor my flunking out had created, both grandfathers tied up my trust funds until I proved myself worthy of access to all that money and accruing interest.
Or turned thirty, whichever came first.
It probably goes without saying that the trust funds were released on my thirtieth birthday, doesn’t it?
Then there’s the psychic thing. I have what is known as a “gift,” which means that I can sometimes see the past or the future, and sometimes I can commune with the Goddess in one of her incarnations. That usually happens when something big is going to go down, but she also speaks in maddening riddles that I often can’t figure out until it’s too late. Sometimes I can focus the gift using tarot cards, and sometimes the cards will answer my questions. It doesn’t always work, and for some years after the Flood Caused By the Failure of the Federally Built and Maintained Levee System, it went away completely.
I don’t really understand how it works, to be honest.
If I did, I suppose I could have made money doing it. But without a degree or work experience other than working in my parents’ shop, I was kind of at loose ends.
So, I became a stripper. I was also a personal trainer, but no one ever mentions that. It’s always “Back when you were a stripper…”
I was a personal trainer by day and a sometime go-go boy at night in gay bars. I originally worked with Southern Knights, a booking agency that sent me all over the country to dance. Sometimes I made great money, sometimes I didn’t. But it required me to stay in shape. I was already in pretty good shape from being a wrestler in high school—Storm got me to go out for wrestling when I was in junior high, when kids were picking on me—and I was pretty good at it. I rented an apartment from a lesbian couple, old family friends that I call my aunts, on the last block of Decatur Street, across from the old Mint. Millie and Velma were awesome, and never minded if I was late sometimes with the rent.
The summer I turned twenty-nine, a porn star who was supposed to dance at the Pub for Southern Decadence weekend overdosed and went into rehab, and the manager asked me to fill in. I needed some quick and easy money, so I said yes. I wound up helping the FBI stop a crazed right-wing politician from destroying the French Quarter (it’s a long story) and wound up with not one buttwoboyfriends. Frank Sobieski was the FBI agent I worked with, and Colin Cioni…well, he told me that weekend he was a cat burglar (it’s a long story) but it turned out he’s actually an international espionage agent, working for the Blackledge Agency.
His boss, Angela Blackledge, is who governments call when they need something handled but also need plausible deniability. Colin is gone for long stretches of time, on jobs we can’t know anything about. Frank retired and moved to New Orleans, and eventually chased his dream of being a professional wrestler, signing with Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling and becoming one of their biggest stars and draws. He keeps saying he’s going to retire but hasn’t yet.
I joke that his farewell tour has lasted longer than Cher’s.
I think both of them being gone so much helps keep our three-way relationship fresh and alive—we’re never around each other long enough to get annoyed or bored.
The sex is also fantastic. Have I mentioned that?
Once the top floor of our building became vacant we rented it, too—so we have the third and fourth floors of our building.
But Millie retired from her law practice—Velma had retired years ago. Tired of living in the city, they wanted to live at their beach house in Florida. I bought the building from them—but haven’t figured out what I want to do with it yet. There are four floors: The ground floor has always been leased to a business of some sort, but it’s been vacant since the coffee shop closed a few years ago. Millie and Velma’s apartment on the second floor has been vacant since they moved. Colin has always had his own bedroom up on the fourth floor, while Frank and I both have our own on the third—but we mostly all sleep together in my room. Frank’s nephew, Taylor, also lives with us now. His parents disowned him and threw him out when he came out, and he’s now attending Tulane University. He also has a bedroom on the fourth floor, and since Colin is often away, he pretty much has his own place.
Both Frank and Colin think I spoil Taylor.
Maybe I do. I have a soft spot for gay kids who grew up with homophobic parents, sue me. I was lucky, as I said, with my own parents, so I feel a bit of a karmic debt that needs repaying.
I keep thinking I should renovate the building and turn it into a four-story home for my little family, but I tend to procrastinate—and Frank and Colin aren’t much help. My accountant, Bonnie, tells me I should actively look for a business tenant for the first floor, and I could make a fortune renting out Millie and Velma’s apartment, too…but I don’t know. Millie and Velma were family, and after the Duchesnays closed their little grocery store after Katrina, having other businesses in that space seemed weird to me. I never got used to the coffee shop being there—and it didn’t last long anyway.
I’m also a private eye, licensed by the state of Louisiana. After that first experience with a criminal conspiracy and catching a killer, Frank convinced me to become a private eye. He retired from the FBI and we opened an agency together…but I don’t use the license much, honestly; we might get an actual paying client once in a while. Most of the time, my detective work is limited to doing research for my brother Storm’s law firm. But sometimes, a body will drop out of the sky, bullets start flying, and I’m right in the middle of the whole mess.
The New Orleans Police Department—particularly detectives Venus Casanova and Blaine Tujague—used to find me annoying. Over the years, they’ve come to a kind of grudging respect for my skills, such as they are.
At least I like to think they do, anyway.
I also have a deep dark secret: I love reality television.
Not all of it, of course. But when it first got started, I was obsessed with The Real World,and later, with Project Runway. I liked the competition shows, where people were required to have some sort of talent in order to participate, but I didn’t care for the singing ones. I don’t watch the ones about finding your true love or about families with more money than they need who are just terrible people or any of those. I stopped watching Real World when they stopped casting actual real people and instead starting casting wannabe models and actors with rage and / or drinking problems.
And then one of the cable networks launched a show called Grande Dames of Marin County. I didn’t watch, but one Sunday when I was the only one home I turned on the television while cleaning, and it was on. I didn’t change the channel right away because I’d turned it on just for background noise, and having seen preview commercials I immediately knew what it was…and so I paused, with my finger on the channel button, ready to flip to something else if it was as awful as I figured it would be.
But I couldn’t stop staring at the television. Two women, their faces frozen rigid and expressionless with Botox and fillers, were screaming at each other about something. Curious, I kept watching as they screamed at each other, finally agreeing to disagree but now that They Had Had a Conversation and Made Their Feelings Known, they were happy they could Move Forward and start fresh with their friendship.
Everything about these shows annoyed me. They began, basically, as a rip-off of a hugely successful prime time soap starring actresses too old to play love interests for men two or three times their age and too young to play grandmothers yet. I hated that they catered to the lowest common denominator. I hated that all the women on the show were certifiably insane, encouraged to behave badly and make all women look bad, like a bunch of shrewish self-absorbed monsters—the absolute worst stereotypes of women: shallow, vain, petty, and unsupportive of other women, only concerned about their looks and money and things.
I suppose it goes without saying that I couldn’t stop watching, nor could I stop hating myself for watching. Frank and Colin roundly mocked me for being so addicted, but I watched them all: The Grande Dames of Marin County,Manhattan, Malibu,Palm Beach,Baltimore,Boston,and Houston.The franchises spread across the country like bubonic plague in fourteenth-century Europe. The formula was the same, no matter which city served as the setting: women with money who had never progressed emotionally and intellectually beyond junior high school with too much time on their hands and way too much access to a plastic surgeon.
Narcissism and borderline personality disorders were also apparently a plus in getting cast.
It was only a matter of time, of course, before New Orleans got a franchise.
A previous attempt to launch a franchise in New Orleans had failed spectacularly when the producers couldn’t find enough women interested in being on the show. The network had been getting complaints about racism and the lily-whiteness of its casts; even the Houston show was all white women, with nary a Latina in sight. The producers’ plan had been to make the New Orleans show the “black” one, but they couldn’t find enough women of color with the requisite narcissism and mental problems to air their dirty laundry for the cameras. The New Orleans show plans were scrapped, and they’d moved on to Baltimore, where they’d had great success finding women of color to film—and the Baltimore show was wildly popular.
But one summer the news broke that the producers were, once again, trying to launch a New Orleans franchise. Naturally, it was a lot of fun trying to figure out who would say yes to being on such a show—casting it became a very popular parlor game around town. I couldn’t imagine anyone who was actually old-line New Orleans society—Comus and Rex and the Boston Club—agreeing to go on television and look bad to the entire country.
When the cast was finalized and made public with a blazing fanfare and burst of publicity, no one was surprised they hadn’t landed anyone from the upper echelons of New Orleans society—the kind of woman they wanted here would neverdo a television show. The women in the New Orleans cast were all successful in varying degrees, but no one who’d ever been any sort of Mardi Gras royalty. Chloe Valence was probably the closest out of them, but she wasn’t from New Orleans and had married into an old Garden District family. Rebecca Barron was the widow of a nouveau riche restaurateur. Fidelis Vandiver had been a weather forecaster for one of the local news stations but had gotten her own local workout show, which led her to owning a string of health clubs scattered around the metropolitan area. Megan Dreher was married to a man who’d been a slumlord before Katrina and was now making a fortune in the building boom of the last decade—and becoming one of the most loathed men in the city. Margery Lautenschlaeger was the oldest member of the cast, with a family fortune from liquor. Her family name and money went back to the nineteenth century…but they were also Jewish, which meant no Boston Club or membership in Rex or Comus.
The final member of the cast was the one I knew the best, Serena Castlemaine, an oil heiress from Dallas who’d relocated to New Orleans several years earlier. I loved Serena, with her platinum blond hair and enormous breasts and her earthy sense of humor. Serena was a Grande Dames natural. But she has a great sense of humor, and her reason for doing the show was neither fame nor fortune, but simply because she thought it would be fun.
“And, darling,” she said, rolling her enormous eyes at me with a wicked grin, “when it stops being fun, I’m done.”
New Orleans being the small town it was, I had met all the women cast on the show in passing or knew who they were. New Orleans being New Orleans, I’d also heard plenty of gossip about all of them. And once filming began, their presence became hard to miss: restaurants and bars put up the filming tonight coming inside indicates permission to be filmed signs on their doors.
“I was going to go to that fundraiser / party / event, but those dreadful reality show people were going to be filming there” became a common refrain throughout that late summer and fall, always mentioned with sighs and eye rolls. I suspected that most people couldn’t wait for the show to air but would never admit it—and would certainly never admit watching.
I managed to avoid filming, even though Serena kept asking me to film with her. I always declined—when one of your partners is an undercover operative working around the globe, the less attention you bring to yourself, the better. Besides, I didn’t want to know how the cookies got made. I preferred to just continue being a fan, pretending that it was all unscripted and none of the women were putting on a show for the cameras, trying to be liked, trying to claw their way up the ladder and become a brand.
But…you hear things. New Orleans has always been about a block long and everyone is on a party line, as they used to say when people still remembered what a party line was.
And the weekend the show premiered, I got sucked into the drama against my will.
Like I said, I have a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, this is the story of how I sort of became a Grande Dame of New Orleans.
They didn’t even have the decency to give me a fleur-de-lis to hold in the opening credits.
Page of Cups
A young man who is courageous when it is called for
I fished the last olive out of my almost empty glass and popped it into my mouth. I glanced at my watch as I chewed it, and moaned after swallowing. “There’s nothing like a good martini,” I said, glancing around the bar and getting our server’s attention.
“Do we have time for another?” My nephew Taylor finished the rest of his sazerac and looked at me hopefully.
“I take it you liked it,” I replied, not even trying to hide my smile. “But no time for another unless we want to be late.”
This was Taylor’s first time at the Sazerac Bar. He’d turned twenty-one just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and since we were going to a party at the Joy Theater, I thought I’d treat him to a sazerac in the bar where they were invented. I personally don’t care for the drink—give me gin or vodka any day of the week—but everyone in New Orleans is required to try a sazerac at least once.
And now I could rest easy, having done not only my civic duty but treated Taylor to a New Orleans rite of passage.
I’d also wanted him to see the Roosevelt Hotel’s Christmas decorations. The Roosevelt is one of the grand old hotels of the city, and their lobby decorations are truly spectacular. Since we were going to a party at the Joy Theater—a mere block or so from the hotel—I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone? This was Taylor’s second Christmas with us, and I wanted to do it right. We’d already done Celebration in the Oaks at City Park, and I’d loved seeing the beautifully decorated ancient live oak trees through a newbie’s eyes.
I know it’s corny, but I love Christmas.
I love everything about it. I love decorating my apartment. I love picking out a present that is 100 percent perfect for the person and carefully wrapping it up in beautiful paper, topping it with a bow, and twining ribbons around the box. I love picking out a tree, and the wonderful smell of pine that permeates everything inside once it’s delivered. I love getting the boxes of ornaments down from the storage closet and adorning the branches with them. I love tinsel and opening a new box of icicles for the branches. I love Christmas cookies and cakes and pies and turkey and celebrating and spending time with people I love.
I even love carols—although I do think that September is a bit early to start playing them unless the intent is to drive people to homicide by December.
I love how New Orleans puts on her Christmas best every year, the houses and buildings festooned with lights and decorations and wreaths, massive trees sparkling and shining and blinking in picture windows. It’s fun walking through the French Quarter after dark to see the decorations at Jackson Square and on the houses along the way. I love driving down St. Charles Avenue and through the Garden District. I love going out to City Park for Celebration in the Oaks. New Orleans takes decorating just as seriously as costuming. I even watch the movies and specials—I get a little bit misty with A Charlie Brown Christmas every year, and yes, I may cry every time Clarence gets his wings and George Bailey decides his life is wonderful after all.
My favorite thing about Christmas, though, is a New Orleans tradition known as reveillon dinners, a traditional dinner that originally followed midnight mass on Christmas. Local restaurants started offering these meals (not just after Christmas midnight mass, of course) in the weeks leading up to Christmas. New Orleans food is amazing, and a bad restaurant doesn’t last long in this city. Reveillon is just really an excuse to get dressed up and go out for dinner at a nice place and feel festive for the holidays. Christmas was less than two weeks away, and we’d already been to several restaurants to enjoy a reveillon meal.
“Another round?” asked our waitress, a perky and friendly young woman in her mid-twenties, as she walked up to our table. She’d been obviously flirting with my gorgeous sort-of-nephew ever since we arrived, but he was completely oblivious.
“No thank you, just the check, please,” I replied, fishing out my wallet and my black American Express card.
Smiling at Taylor, she replied without looking at me, “I hope everything was good?”
“Fantastic.” I smothered a grin. She still hadn’t really done more than glance at me—she’d only had eyes for Taylor since we walked in.
Not that I blamed her, Taylor was a good-looking kid—man.It was hard for me to get used to thinking of him as anything other than a kid. Sure, he’d only been nineteen when he first came to live with us, and there’s nothing like having a young person around to make you feel a little old. I realized that in my head I still thought of myself as twenty-nine, which is a hard pretense to maintain when your partner’s nephew is living proof that you’re not. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mind getting older. I’m not one of those people who cling desperately to their youth. No face-lifts or Botox for me, thank you very much. I’m letting my sandy-blond hair go gray—and it’s also starting to thin a little on the top. No, I earned my gray hair and my wrinkles, and I’ll wear them proudly.
I’ll cross the gray pubic hair bridge when it happens.
I do miss how easy it was to keep weight off…and not aching in the mornings when I get out of bed. But metabolisms slow down the older you get (how many times had I said that to a client back when I was a personal trainer?) and not only do I no longer teach seven aerobics classes a week, I haven’t in years. It’s hard for me to go to a class someone else is teaching, and I hate the stationary bike and the treadmill and the elliptical and all those other instruments of torture I used to make my clients use.
I know, I know. Excuses to fail, not reasons to succeed.
Frank and Colin, damn them, only gain muscle.
“Thanks for bringing me here,” Taylor said, slipping on his jacket while we waited for her to bring the charge slip for me to sign. “The lobby is gorgeous.”
It was an understatement. The lobby was filled with trees, all done in twinkling white lights and white ornaments. The polished marble floor and the dark wood lit up, reflecting the lights so it was almost like walking through the night sky, the heels on our shoes clicking with every step. The lobby was a bit warm and stuffy, and I could feel sweat forming along my scalp underneath my woolen stocking cap. We went down the stairs and out the doors on Roosevelt Way, shivering as the cold wet wind smacked us right in the face.
I slipped the shivering doorman a five for holding the door open for us, and we headed quickly to the corner at Canal Street.
A cold front had swept down from Canada the weekend after Thanksgiving, blanketing the Midwest with an early winter blizzard and freezing temperatures. Even in New Orleans the mercury took an enormous, unnatural dive. We’d had a couple of hard freeze alerts, with everyone being warned to run their taps to prevent pipes from bursting. Even after that front passed, the temperature hadn’t risen much, hovering somewhere from the mid-thirties to the low forties. The sun hadn’t been seen in weeks—and tonight’s forecast was for cold rain ahead of yet another unnatural cold front. There was a chance of snow.
It doesn’t snow in New Orleans often—only a few times in my lifetime that I can recall—and the city comes to a screeching halt when it does.
It hadn’t started raining yet, but we both had enormous umbrellas tucked under our arms.
Canal Street was practically a ghost town with tumbleweeds blowing down the neutral ground. One of the red Canal Street streetcars passed by on its way to the river, its windows twinkling with white lights and a gigantic green wreath on the front. The palm trees lining Canal’s neutral ground were banded with white Christmas lights, and each one was festooned with a huge red velvet bow. I looked over at the Ritz Carlton Hotel and smiled a little ruefully. When I was a kid, that building had housed the Maison Blanche Department Store, and every year at Christmas an enormous Mr. Bingle—their Christmas snowman mascot—hung from the side of the building.
I still have my ratty old Mr. Bingle doll. He sits on my bed in my old bedroom at my parents’.
The wind was worse on Canal as we walked hurriedly away from the river to our destination, the Joy Theater.
Our friend Serena Castlemaine had scored us tickets for tonight’s world premiere of the first episode of The Grande Dames of New Orleans. I’d met her through my sister Rain, and she lived in the old Metoyer house in the Garden District, where we’d solved a decades-old murder last year. We all really liked Serena—she had an enormous personality and a great sense of humor. She also knew she was over-the-top, and that self-awareness gave her the ability to also laugh at herself.
She was perfect for a show like The Grande Dames.
As Frank said, “She’s always played to the cameras when they weren’t there. Imagine what she’ll be like actually on camera.”
He had a point.
I had a slight buzz from my martini as we hurried across Rampart Street to get to the theater. The Joy was an old vintage theater that had been falling to pieces before Hurricane Katrina and was severely flood-damaged when the levees failed. I hadn’t been inside since its multi-million-dollar overhaul and renovation was finished, so I was curious to get a look at it after its face-lift. The traffic was terrible. Limousines and town cars, cabs and Ubers and Lyfts swerved and lined up and honked their horns at each other as they tried to get close to the front doors to let their passengers out.
We managed to get across the street without getting killed and joined the group of people milling about outside the theater entrance, smoking and shivering and talking. We got into the line and I fished our invitations out of my trench coat pocket. I didn’t recognize anyone in the line as we slowly shuffled forward toward the entrance. Opinion in the city about this new reality show was pretty divided. Old-line New Orleans rolled its eyes and dismissed it out of hand. Two seasons of MTV’s The Real World had filmed here, and neither had been embraced by the locals. But the newer people, the parvenus, as my grandparents referred to them, were a little more open to the show and more excited about it. After all, it was a great way to showcase how far the city had come since the flood after the levees failed. Tourism is the engine that drives a significant portion of the city’s economy, and a successful Grande Dames franchise could possibly rev that engine even higher.
We finally made it to the front of the line. A blast of hot air washed over us as the front door opened and closed behind the people who’d just been in front of us. I gave our invitations to an unsmiling young woman with cat’s-eye glasses with rhinestones in the corners, skintight leopard print leggings, and a massively baggy black T-shirt with Grande Dames of New Orleansin gold lettering on the front. She checked our names off a list on a clipboard. “Right, then,” she said in a British accent. “Go on in, then. There’re bars and food tables set up both in the lobby and upstairs in the balcony. Enjoy the show.”
As I looked around as we walked inside, I was impressed. I’d only been inside the theater once before—years ago, for a fundraiser—and the decay had been apparent. The building had great bones, though. The renovation had worked wonders. It had been 30s-style art deco before, and they’d kept much of the original style, yet added a modernistic flair. The color scheme was red, black, and white, and it looked very classy and elegant.
“I’m going to get some food,” Taylor said, and vanished into the crowd near the food tables before I could respond.
It never ceases to amaze me how much that kid can eat.
I turned and grinned. I bent down so Paige Tourneur, the editor ofCrescent City magazine, could give me a hug. Paige was cool. She had reddish hair with blond streaks in it, one blue eye and one green eye. She was barely over five feet tall, and she was wearing heels. She had a great sense of humor and could always make me laugh. She also tended to dress flamboyantly. A favorite look was something I thought of as fortune teller chic, which was what she’d chosen for tonight. Flowing brightly colored silks and lush dark velvets. I kissed her cheek. “Where’s Ryan?”
Her fiancé, Ryan Tujague, was a lawyer who was a sometimes colleague of my older brother, Storm. Ryan’s younger brother Blaine was a police detective whose path I crossed sometimes when on a case. The Tujague brothers were both handsome, with bluish-black hair and blue eyes and olive skin. I’d actually met Paige during the course of a case, and we hit it off. I was a little surprised to find out she was engaged to the older brother of one of my cop frenemies.
New Orleans is a very small town.
“Getting me some wine, like a good fiancé who wants to keep his hopes of getting some tonight alive.” She grinned at me. “I thought I saw a tangle of arms and legs heading to the food table. Taylor?”
I nodded. “Always hungry.”
“Where’s Frank and Colin?”
“Frank’s doing a show in Montgomery and Colin’s out of the country, so it’s just me and Taylor tonight.”
She rolled her mismatched eyes. “You know, for someone in a throuple you never seem to have a date when you need one.”
You’re telling me,I thought.
“You know,” she waved me to bend down, then whispered, “there’s food and a bar upstairs in the balcony, and I bet no one’s up there. When they get back, let’s head up there.” She shifted the blue-and-orange silk draped around her shoulders. “It’s much too crowded and stuffy down here.”
“Okay,” I replied. “It’s weird, as crowded as it is, I don’t see many faces I recognize.”
“Oh, none of the Old Guard is going to show up here.” Paige laughed. “Even my boss isn’t coming anywhere near here.” Rachel Delesdernier Sheehan, publisher of Crescent City,was from an old political dynasty in Orleans Parish and had married into another one. “They asked her to do the show, you know. She told them she lived in Old Metairie, thank you very much, and hung up on them.”
I laughed along with her, adding, “Well, if worse comes to worst, it can’t be as bad as those seasons of The Real World.”
“Have you watched any of these Grande Dames shows?” She raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes. “Narcissists and sociopaths, all of them.”
“I know. I hate myself for watching.” I saw Ryan heading our way with two glasses of red wine. But he was stopped when a remarkably good-looking man grabbed him by the arm. I caught my breath. Remarkably good-looking was an understatement. “Who’s that guy in the gray jacket?” I asked. He looked familiar to me in that way everyone in New Orleans looks familiar, but I couldn’t place him. “There, with the blue shirt and gray tie.” He was very sexy. His dress pants were tight in the back over a rather shapely bubble butt. His waist was narrow and his shoulders broad. He had a thick head of dark hair he wore long and pulled back into a ponytail. His skin was swarthy, darkly tanned, and he had a dimple in his chin and a strong nose.
“Him? That’s Billy Barron.” Paige shook her head. “He’s been trying to get Ryan to rep him in his lawsuit against his stepmother.”
Oh, yes, the Barron family drama was perfect for reality television. “So, he is going to sue her?”
The struggle over the Barron restaurant empire had tongues wagging all over the city since Billy’s father, Steve Barron, had died suddenly from a heart attack just over a year earlier. Steve was a local boy made good, from a blue-collar Irish Channel family who’d borrowed money and opened his own fast food New Orleans style po-boy restaurant, NOLA Boys, when he was just twenty-two. NOLA Boys had been enormously successful, spreading across the country the way Starbucks would later and making Steve ridiculously wealthy in the process. He’d been a real New Orleans character, vain and arrogant and not ashamed to court controversy. He’d built a colossal home on the North Shore, right on the water, in a gated community and had publicly feuded with the homeowners’ association over almost everything you can imagine—including his garish Christmas decorations that were so bright they could be seen by passing airplanes. When he was in his late forties he sold NOLA Boys for a fortune and started opening what he called “fine dining” restaurants with New Orleans–style food all over the country. The local Barron’s restaurants primarily appealed to tourists. I’d never eaten in one.
He kept himself in top shape and, as he aged, dyed his hair shoe-polish black and had been prone to skintight shimmery shirts open to expose his chest. He’d been married numerous times, and his widow, Rebecca, had been cast on the show. She was about forty years younger than Steve, and there were rumors he’d been planning on divorcing her when he died suddenly. He’d cut all of his children out of his will shortly before he died, hence the ensuing battle between the grieving widow and his children. Billy had been a baseball star at LSU and had played several seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals before an injury ended his career.
As I watched him talking to Ryan, a woman tucked her arm into his and led him away. I didn’t see her face. She was wearing a blue silk dress and had long, thick dark hair. They disappeared in the crowd. She also looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
“Hey, Scotty, good to see you.” Ryan smiled at me, giving Paige one of the glasses. “I would have gotten you something—”
“Oh, Taylor’s in there somewhere supposedly getting me a drink.” I frowned, trying to spot him. It’s usually easy to do, given he’s six four, but I couldn’t pick him in the crowd. “I’ll just text him.” I pulled my cell phone out of my coat. Going upstairs to the balcony with Paige and Ryan, meet us up there.
“Let’s go,” I said over the dull roar of the crowd. The lobby was filling up, and more people were outside in line. I slipped off my coat, draping it over my arm.
It was much cooler and less crowded upstairs. There were maybe twenty or so people milling around the concession stand. It had been set up as a full bar with two tuxedoed bartenders, and two enormous tables groaning with food had been set up along the small wall separating the balcony from the concession area. Paige and Ryan headed over to the food tables while I got a glass of Chardonnay from a bartender who looked slightly familiar. I walked over to the food tables and made a sandwich with a roll and some slices of Cajun fried turkey, adding some roast asparagus and bacon-wrapped shrimp to my clear plastic plate before joining Ryan and Paige at a tall table set up off to the side. My phone buzzed.
It was Taylor. Should I get more food before I come up?
I rolled my eyes.There’s food and a bar up here and not nearly as many people.
Less than a minute later I waved at Taylor when he reached the top of the stairs. He had a can of Coke and my wine glass in one hand while balancing enough food to feed a family of four on a plate with the other hand.
Taylor came over and placed his plate on the table, said hello, and headed back to the food again.
“I’m going to get another drink and then we should find seats,” Paige said. “Anyone want anything?”
“I’ll get some food,” Ryan replied, “and meet you at the seats.”
I was finished with my plate by the time Paige came back—I’d been hungry and kind of scarfed it all down embarrassingly fast and chugged down the wine Taylor had brought so I wouldn’t have to carry two glasses.
Classy. That’s me. My grandparents would be so proud.
Taylor followed behind me, a plate buried in food in each hand with his Coke can tucked in his jacket pocket. We walked down the aisle and found seats in the front row of the balcony. I looked down. The seats on the main floor were filling up. There was an area at the foot of the stage where some women I recognized as the actual cast members were standing around sipping wine and idly chatting with well-dressed men I presumed to either be husbands, lovers, or network executives. I spotted Serena, who of course was wearing a shimmering gold satin dress with spaghetti straps screaming at the burden of holding up her enormous breasts (“They’re mine, too,” she told me once. “No implants for this girl!”), her platinum blond hair curling around her face in ringlets. A short, animated man in a tuxedo joined them as I watched. I recognized Eric Brewer, the creator and producer of the Grande Dames shows.
Eric Brewer was good looking, if you liked that type. As his creations took off in popularity, he wound up with his own talk show that aired every night after episodes of the shows. At first, his guests were just cast members of the various franchises, discussing what happened on the episode that just aired and giving a behind-the-scenes look at how the shows were made. As the shows continued to grow in popularity, so did his talk show and his own celebrity. Soon, major stars who were big fans of the shows began showing up on his show, and he began appearing in tabloids and on the gossip sites.
Personally, I didn’t see the appeal. I thought he was annoying and never watched his show. He clearly believed he was clever and witty and funny. His short brown hair was going gray, but rather than embracing being a silver fox he acted like he was still a wide-eyed twenty-year-old twink. The gossip sites often ran photos of him with much younger men—he had a definite type: muscular young guys with dark tans, big white teeth, and no body hair that liked to wear skimpy bikinis. He always acted on his show like he really wanted a life partner, but I suspected that was an act. He was rich and famous and good looking and had a powerful job in television…if he couldn’t find a life partner, who could?
Taylor had a huge crush on him, which I didn’t understand.
Then again, I didn’t have to, and it was none of my business.
The lights flickered, and Eric Brewer climbed up the steps to where a microphone had been set up on the stage. He said, “May I have everyone’s attention, please?” The theater fell silent, and he flashed his what-I-am-sure-he-thinks-is-a-dazzling smile. “I want to thank you all for coming tonight to the premiere of Season One of The Grande Dames of New Orleans.” This was of course followed by a few whoops and hollers mixed in with mostly polite applause—golf claps. He started off saying some great things about New Orleans, but it wasn’t long before he moved on to how brilliant he was.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re wonderful, your shows are wonderful, blah blah blah, can we get on with it already?” I muttered under my breath.
Taylor, hanging on his every word, shushed me.
Finally, Eric said, “Enjoy the show.”
The lights dimmed all the way and the network logo appeared on the big screen. I settled back in my seat as some unrecognizable music began and the opening credits rolled.