They entered not a warren of dark smoky rooms to be expected in a place famous for gatherings of cabals. Those rooms were located in front for the sightseers. Instead, they found themselves in a bright, pleasant, and cozy courtyard crowded with small tables, shaded by awnings. Butterflies danced among fragrant vines curling across the walls while a violinist played sweet airs in a corner. Waiters bustled like bees serving scattered couples and groups.
A stout waitress with a severe bun and matronly air greeted them. Her frown at intruders suddenly changed to a startled look. “Ma�tre MacLantis, cela vous est?” she asked.
“Suzette!” Gus smiled and they briefly chattered. “It is good to see you, monsieur; Angelique told us you were coming. Madame H�l�ne will want to greet you herself.”
“That won’t be necess–” he began, noticing the proprietress at a corner table. “Ah, I see she’s waiting,” the waitress said, “I shall send someone for your order,” and hurried off.
They went over. “But of course, you know our hostess, no?” Angelique purred. “May I present my dear friend and a pillar of support for me through difficult times, Madame H�l�ne, a lady almost as famous as her fine establishment?”
H�l�ne was a larger than life figure in several ways, one of which was literal. The woman was a mountainous pile of flesh swathed in black silk, glittering with minute sequins scattered from head to toe. Her rings, even the thick, black-beaded rosary around her neck, were in danger of being swallowed by her bulk; eyes and mouth nearly submerged already.
The granddaughter of the infamous Abb� Dupre and his housekeeper Antoinette, Madame H�l�ne was something of a venerable institution, and carried herself like she knew it. Gus introduced them and they let him speak – possibly due to the morbid stench which heavy floral perfume could not completely conceal.
The woman held out a pale plump paw while fanning herself with the other. Gus smoothly bowed and kissed it. “Ah Madame H�l�ne! Certainly I remember you well. You haven’t changed a bit. But now I know I am again in God’s favorite garden this side of Eden.”
The woman crossed herself, and mockingly tapped him with her fan. “You haven’t changed a bit, my dear, still joking of things you should not,” she said. “It’s good to see you, Professor. This must be your family, here for the Festival, no? My how you’ve matured; I scarcely recognize either of you. My sincere condolences, it was so distressing to hear of your father! I lit a candle for his soul.”
“His passing was truly tragic,” Gus said, “but our presence here is due to Doc. We’re here to honor him and close our mourning period.”
“Let’s not forget,” Allie said softly. “We’re not the only ones who lost a relative recently.” She gave Angelique’s hand an appreciative squeeze.
The hostess nodded, looking at Allie in a curious way. “Do not grieve; both those heroes brought honor to themselves and thus to your families, and to Our Lady. I have no doubt but they will be well rewarded in Heaven.” H�l�ne smiled. She glanced curiously at the remaining member of the party. “And who is this gentleman?”
“Permit me to present Nigel Buckhorn,” Skip said. “He’s an old friend of mine, a writer of sorts, here for the Conference.”
“You’ve come to the right place, monsieur,” H�l�ne said. “Bellegraal is as much a fountain of literature as it is of art and music.” She frowned. “Now where is that waiter?”
As if on cue, the promised server materialized in a fluster. He was a large nondescript man, balding slightly, with a thin moustache and thoughtful brown eyes. “Ah, good day, my friends. Americans, yes? Excellent! I am Alphonse; what may I bring you?”
He took their orders following his boss’ recommendations, but hesitated. “Excuse me. I don’t mean to bother you, but aren’t you the celebrated ‘Clan MacLantis’?”
Gus nodded, “Goodness, word travels fast.”
“In this caf�, I should think so, monsieur. It is an honor to meet you Doctor Augustine, and you, Monsieur Charles, and especially you, mademoi–”
“Alphonse!” his employer barked. “I’ll repartee with our guests; you serve them!”
The waiter jumped, mumbling excuses, and quickly retreated – but not before he’d taken a quick peck at Allie’s hand.
“I apologize, dear friends, I hope he didn’t offend you,” she purred with a greasy smile. “Normally I should dismiss him instantly for taking such flagrant liberties, but we are so short-handed during the Festival. It’s so different now!”
“Not in a good way, either,” Angelique said, “save perhaps economically.”
“I sure didn’t expect those mobs,” Gus said.
“Oh, you’ve seen nothing yet!” H�l�ne rolled her tiny eyes. “This year, there will be a rock music concert! Yes, during La F�te de Musique, on the sacred vigil of the Our Lady’s feast day! Can you believe it?”
“The Vision hasn’t been seen in a century, ma’am, maybe they’re trying to lure it back,” Nigel joked as he reached for his glass of wine.
“Or drive it away forever,” she sighed, fanning herself. “Why else would they feature such a dreadfully loud and discordant band as Barefoot Left? Not just that,” she added confidentially, “there’s a rumor which says it will feature their former leader, the chanteuse, Cindi Savage.”
“I believe it’s actually ‘Salvage,’ ma’am,’ Skip blandly said. “Isn’t that so, Nigel?” Nigel gagged and coughed, unable to answer, his latte-hued face darkening.
“Oh you hadn’t heard?” H�l�ne said with a sympathetic but knowing twinkle in her eyes. “It’s hush-hush,” she continued in a low voice. “We don’t want the city to be overrun by mindless, drug-taking freaks, as if it wasn’t already by pothunters. Don’t tell any journalists!”
She winked, saying, “Excuse me, please, I must be attending to business,” and closed her fan with a snap. “But I hope you will visit us often during your stay, my friends.” With a final motherly, “Do drink some water, Anglais,” she stood with difficulty. With the help of a gnarled black cane, she slowly waddled up the ramp into the building.
Skip regarded Nigel with a crooked grin. “Bad as that, old man?”
Still unable to speak, Nigel could merely shrug. “I’ll live,” he croaked, ignoring Gus’ whispered explanation to Angelique. After a minute, he said, still gasping a little, “Perhaps skiving news of my talented ex-wife is not a terribly sensible policy after all, considering my job. A bit of a shock, I must say.”
As her eyes grew wide with comprehension, Nigel confessed, “Yes, yes, it’s true; hard to believe, much less comprehend, but Cindi and I were once chained briefly, long before she was famous. Yet even then she was a bloody force of nature. I wish her well, but you know how it is with ex-lovers.”
“I do,” she said sadly, gazing at Gus. “I do indeed.” He looked stricken. It was one of those awkward times Nigel later said he just couldn’t find the clever remark which would have saved the moment. Years later, he still regretted it.