When she pushed open the door, the aromas and product displays triggered memories of a summer spent in Italy. Her grandmother Esme had arranged for her to stay with friends in Venice as a ‘finishing’ experience after her senior year, but her favorite time had been the weeks spent at their farmhouse set in an olive grove in the small village of LaSterza. Sal’s different sorts of salami, sharp full smell of Italian cheeses and the salty scent of the tiny purple black olives floating in brine in a barrel were reminiscent of a hole-in-the-wall shop in the Tuscan village.
Echo rounded the shelves stocked with Italian cooking oils and wines, plucked the Times-Picayune off the newsstand and headed to the back corner where a scrabble board and two racks of tiles sat on a stack of boxes. With the six letters selected from a rack, she played the word simple, and then flipped a chip to its red side. One rack is played only by short, balding, cigar chomping Salvatore Bertucci, the owner. It had become tradition for different customers to play the other stand of tiles throughout the day. A flat round chip kept track of whose turn it was to play – Sal or customer. Red and green, colors from the Italian flag, represented charity and hope.
Turning away from the scrabble game, to brag about the thirty-two points she scored for the customers' side, she realized neither Sal nor his wife, Bella, was behind the counter. Excited voices drew her attention to a partly open door connecting Sal's shop to the adjoining tenant. He normally kept that door locked.
Echo peeked through the doorway. A policeman closed his notebook and departed through the front entrance. She crossed the threshold into the Museum Store, careful to step around the items strewn on the floor. Someone had searched the cases in a hurry, she thought, observing the products jumbled haphazardly in the showcases.
The crown of her head ached like someone was tugging on a hank of her hair. A murky assault of her senses immediately followed the warning sign. A malignant undercurrent triggered her precognition of danger. Poppy called it her spacetime -in essence bending space and time where particles and matter orbit around her. Her intuition worked at warp speed while everything around her slowed down or hung motionless. Unable to control these unbidden transient moments which disrupted the fabric of her space and time, she respected and acted upon them. According to her grandfather, the white streak down the center back of Echo’s dark ginger hair, is a blessing, not a curse. One of the traits she inherited from her Leger ancestors.
A short Italian woman hovered over a tall lanky young man with dark black skin and dreads, dabbing a cloth to his cheek. Archer Williams, the proprietor of Archer's Museum Store collected and sold Jazz artifacts-- some valuable to collectors while others were simply objects d'art.
In her soft husky voice Echo asked "Archer, are you hurt?"
"Not bad. I hit my face and scraped my hand."
Sal and the young man spoke at once. Echo briefly touched Sal's wrist, quieting him. FLASH! Rattled and worried.
Sheepishly, Archer answered, "I came in early this morning to set up a Louis Armstrong memorabilia display for this weekend. When I arrived I found the glass broken and the front door swinging open. It didn't look like anyone was here, so I walked in. Someone must have been hiding at the side of the doorway. They shoved me down and ran away before I could get up."
"Don't you have an alarm?"
"Yeah," he said. "But only a silent notification to the monitoring company. Too many false alarms. The police said next one I'd be fined so I disabled the siren. The officer that just left discovered someone cut the telephone cable to the store, so the system didn't call the alarm company."
She twisted an escaped curl back into its clip on her head, taking in the disorder surrounding them. "Can the Foundation help?"
After inheriting full control of her trust fund three years ago at age 26, Victoria "Echo" LeBauve delighted her grandmother, a member of New Orleans’ aristocracy, when she quit her job as an investigative reporter to create the Insight Foresight Benevolent Foundation, with a mission to discover and utilize inventive and effective ways to help others help themselves. Delight quickly morphed into mortification after Echo solved a high profile mystery and the locals adopted her and the Foundation as their 'go-to' for mysteries and puzzles.
Echo’s version of a foundation didn’t match her socialite grandmother’s expectation. Grandmother Esme accused her of being an investigator without a license. Well it did allow Echo to indulge her nine-year old dream of being like Nancy Drew.
Grandmother Esme, owner of the Delahaye Academy of Etiquette and Protocol, had often instructed Victoria on proper social interactions. "A saucy, resourceful girl is welcomed. A snoopy, willful person can be offensive." Esme was very engaged in society. That's society with a capital "S".
Esme's father was a descendant of an old New Orleanian family. That scion came down from Virginia in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson sent her father's great-great-grandfather Jonathan Lewis to be a judge for the territory of Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase.
Archer wrinkled his eyebrows in puzzlement. He said, "I don't know, Echo. I can't make sense of this. Someone was obviously looking for something, but it doesn't appear they took anything valuable. What's weird is the only thing that's missing is that photograph I found this week when we demolished my great-uncle's old house."
Echo remembered reading the news article. Archer is the great-nephew and only living descendant of Jazz Legend Billy Williams. Vacant, unattended and deteriorating for many years, the house had been the center of a dispute between the Historical Society and city government. The city finally deemed the property dangerous and ordered the house be demolished or renovated. The Historical Society wanted it preserved, but had no funds so Archer had no choice but to hire a demolition crew to tear the house down. The Times-Picayune had reported his discovery of a silver cigarette case in a pile of boards after the razing, publishing a photo of Archer with the case and its contents. Inside the case he had found a photograph clipped from a newspaper and a small key.
"Who was in the photo?" Echo asked Archer.
"Don't know." Archer shrugged his shoulders and said, "There weren't any names of the five people listed under the picture.” He described the photo. “Three musicians posed on a pocket-size stage in a club - a piano player, guitarist and Uncle Billy with his trumpet. The other two people were a man seated at a table with a lady, who looked younger than all of them, standing near him. Oh, and the man at the table was the only white person in the photo."
Chomping on his unlit cigar, Sal chimed in, "He left the newspaper clipping on the counter when he closed up last night. Planned to show it to the old-timers who stop in here -- see if they could name anyone in the photograph besides Billy. Based on the clothes and bar scene, I'd say that picture was probably taken in the forties."
Echo asked, "Where are the cigarette case and key?"
From under the neck of his black t-shirt, Archer pulled out a brown cord dangling a small key. "Thought it'd make a cool amulet," he said. The cord passed through an intricate cutout design. The head of the key had been shaped into a fleur-de-lis. "The cigarette case is still in my car."
"What are the police doing?"
"What can they do," asked Archer "besides file a report about the break-in? Nothing of value was stolen." He looked shyly down at Echo, shrugging his shoulders, "I'm not sure there's a mystery here, Echo."
Echo's eyes crinkled at the corners, her full lips parted, revealing straight white teeth when she grinned. She didn’t want to frighten Archer unnecessarily, but the malignant undercurrent she felt upon entering the store suggested something sinister was brewing. "Feels like a mystery to me." Reverting to her reporter habits, she rattled off several questions, "Why would someone want an old newspaper clipping? Were they looking for the other objects you found, too? Did you have any other items that belonged to your uncle which are missing?"
Archer walked over to a locked case, its glass top broken. Objects from the case appeared to have been searched and then dropped back haphazardly into the case. Archer lifted a drab brown wooden instrument case, beat up from decades of use, and brought it over to Echo for a closer look. "This belonged to Uncle Billy." A dull brass trumpet with a small dent in its bell lay on worn royal blue velvet inside the case. "Even after he became a more successful musician and bought another trumpet, he kept this case. My dad said he referred to his case as 'a friend I'll keep'." Shrugging, he said, "Seems odd. You'd think his trumpet would be more of a friend than his case."
The incident piqued Echo's interest, her intuition thrumming. She snapped photos of the trumpet, case and the disarray in the store with her smart phone, whispering "there's more to this story."
Animated by the mystery she perceived and troubled by the sinister fog she felt, she turned her earnest eyes to Archer, and said, "Let the Foundation dig around-- research to see if we can uncover any history related to the items you discovered."
When Archer nodded his consent, Echo pulled out her tablet computer, tapping her long slender fingers to open an investigative file. "Archer, I'd like to take the key and cigarette case with me, if that's ok with you."
Archer removed the cord from around his neck and placed the key on the counter. When he returned from his car, he laid the silver case next to the key. Discolored with black tarnish and corrosion due to long exposure in the heavy humid New Orleans air, the silver case measured five inches high by three inches wide. A lighter spot appeared in the center of the cover where someone had rubbed at the tarnish, probably in an attempt to read the engraved monogram. She snapped photos of each item.
Echo traced the monogram with her finger. The center letter S scrolled above and below the smaller letters t and m, on either side.
"Do you know who this cigarette case might have belonged to?" she asked Archer.
"Nah. I don't know anyone with those initials. Maybe one of the older musicians who stop in here might."
She jotted names of the old timers he listed to her file as potential people to interview. "It's Friday. Don't know how much I can find with the Satchmo Festival this weekend, so give the Foundation a few days to explore."
She picked up the key. FLASH! FLASH! Echo couldn’t see auras like Poppy, but her brain often registered colors when she flashed. Brick red followed by peach – the colors of avarice and protectiveness.
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