A Huey Zinc Murder Mystery
by F.R. Duplantier
For my father, in fond memory of the many late nights we spent watching Ironside reruns together
And for my sister Elizabeth, whose Christmas present in 1964, my first Hardy Boy book, precipitated my addiction to mysteries
The French Quarter is a filthy place. This historic old section of New Orleans is overrun by raucous sports fans, goggling conventioneers, and rowdy college kids. Prostitutes preen on the corners, homosexuals loiter on the stoops, and drunken wretches form human speed bumps along the sidewalks. Half-clad strippers and raspy-voiced hawkers in cheap suits beckon from darkened interiors. Pickpockets work the crowds, and assailants lurk in dim alleyways. There is litter everywhere — cups, cans, bags, spilled drinks, half-eaten sandwiches, horse manure, pigeon droppings, vomit, and blood. The streets reek with the smell of sweat, boiled seafood, and stale beer. Amplified jazz and rock and roll blare from the club doors, battering the eardrums of passersby with discordant combinations. At night, the noise, the smell, and the filth are even more revolting. That’s what Murray loves about it.
Murray Gold and I are old pals. We go way back together. We went to the same grammar school and the same high school — except for senior year, that is. That’s when Murray had that little disagreement with the administration over the use of supplementary materials during examinations. To this day Murray insists that it was all a big misunderstanding. Nevertheless, he was obliged to complete his high school education at another venerable institution of higher learning, one designed specifically for hard cases, nestled in the secluded piny woods north of Lake Pontchartrain.
But we hooked up again in college, at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, about 150 miles west of New Orleans in the heart of Cajun country. Though the fact that it had been rated the number-one party school in America by Playboy magazine had had nothing to do with our decision to attend, we did find over the next six years that academic pursuits seemed to take a backseat to guzzling beer and chomping on boudin (a Cajun sausage) at “The Strip” in Lafayette, dancing all night at the fais-dodos in Breaux Bridge, and laying wagers on the cockfights in Cankton.
We had both managed to graduate with a degree in something or other, and after ten years in the workforce (fifteen if you counted the periodic bouts of unemployment) we could proudly boast that we were no further behind than when we had started. Murray was between jobs at the moment, having gone out to lunch one day and forgotten what building he worked in. He seemed to think that it was a brokerage firm of some kind, since people were always calling him up and asking for advice. All he remembered for certain, however, was that there had been a lot of secretaries there, that apparently being what had attracted him to the job in the first place. But Murray is resilient. He’d have several more jobs before the year was out.
Unlike Murray, I had an excellent position. The hours were flexible, I could come and go as I pleased, I had no indolent subordinates to berate and no taskmaster boss to grovel beneath. I reported to a swell guy named Huey Zinc. I was self-employed, you see. I’m Huey Zinc.
So there we were at the Bayou Club on Bourbon Street, Murray and I, enjoying the abundant leisure of the super-rich, nursing sazeracs and sharing an order of shrimp remoulade as we wolfed down the complimentary saltines. Sal the bartender was whipping up another batch of sazeracs with the meticulousness of a chemist, and a decrepit black man who swept out warehouses during the day was hammering away at the ancient upright in the corner, reprising the rhythm and blues classics that had brought him fame, if not fortune, three decades ago. This half-empty dive had some of the strongest drinks and jivest music in New Orleans. Murray, of course, went there for the waitresses.
To be sure, Lavinia and Gladys were two gorgeous, though perhaps excessively ornamented, babes. If we could have afforded to tip them for each round of drinks, we would have. Murray had once recommended that we ask them out, having discovered that their boyfriends, Killer and Psycho, were securely tucked away at the state penitentiary in Angola. But a recent spate of escapes from the prison work farm had put a damper on his designs.
That night, however, Murray had his eye on someone else. She had the legs of Cyd Charisse, the hips of Sophia Loren, and the bosom of Jane Russell, and appeared to have no intention of giving them back. The clincher was that she also had the face of Suzie Dugas, the otherwise obscure classmate that Murray had been in love with in third grade — make that fourth grade (third grade was Marcy Broussard). It wasn’t Suzy, of course, but you’d never have known it by Murray. He was head over heels in love all over again, and if the necessary implements had been available he might have popped her with a rubber band or shot a spitball at her.
Seeing that he was at a loss for a more mature method of introduction, I kindly suggested that he buy a drink for the extraordinary woman with the souvenir anatomy.
“At $3.50 a pop! What are you, nuts?” Murray replied, indignantly.
So much for my advice. But I couldn’t resist pointing out that even $3.75 would be a small price to pay to meet a “veritable goddess” — that being the term used by Murray, who has a tendency to indulge in hyperbole, to describe the object of his lust. I regretted the sarcasm immediately, of course, for, though I myself am made of sterner stuff, I could see that my old pal had been thoroughly smitten.
“Why don’t you ask her to dance?” I tried again.
“I’m a terrible dancer.”
“I always thought you were pretty good.”
“That’s because you’re worse than I am.”
“Now wait a minute — ” Such unexpected attacks tend to take the enthusiasm out of fraternal feelings.
“Admit it, Huey. The only thing more appallingly savage than the cockfights in Cankton was the two-step you used to do in Breaux Bridge.”
“The jolies blondes used to wait in line to dance with me.”
“They admired you for confronting your handicap.”
“Epilepsy? Who told them — Murray, did you — Murray!”
“You wanted someone to dance with, didn’t you? Well, it worked.”
Our conversation continued in that cordial vein. And as I tried to overcome the injury done to my ego by the revelation — assuming it could be credited — that the emotion felt by my former dance partners had been one of pity rather than exultation, the very veritable goddess that Murray had been ogling, and that I had been attempting to persuade him to accost, got up from her table, crossed the floor to ours, and asked Murray to dance!
Now I don’t want to leave the impression that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to super studs like Murray and me on a regular basis, but the fact is that we were sufficiently taken aback for Murray to discharge an oral bombardment of minced shrimp at the back of the piano player’s head and for me to decant into my lap the entire contents of a fresh sazerac that I had just paid three and a half hard-earned dollars for. Veterans of the single scene that we are, we quickly contrived to create the impression that these apparent faux pas were wholly intentional — and with some success, judging from the fact that Murray was soon jitterbugging all over the dance floor like nobody’s business.
I had merely been exercising courtesy when I had said to Murray moments earlier that I had always considered him a satisfactory dancer. He is, by his own admission, terrible, and for that reason I was doubly astounded to see him circumnavigate the dance floor with something approximating grace. Whether it was the power of love, the power of sazeracs, or some unknown force that had so transformed Murray was a question with which I was still grappling when he returned to our table after five or six consecutive dances. Murray seemed to be pondering along similar lines, and commented succinctly on the mystery as he resumed his seat.
“Wow!” he said.
“Wow! is right,” I seconded.
“I had no idea I could dance so well.”
“Nor I, though, as I said before, I always thought you were pretty good.”
“You know, the girls in Breaux Bridge used to say that I couldn’t lead, but I had no trouble at all with Brandi –“
“That’s Brandi with an i.”
“And I can do without the snicker, Huey. Brandi is a perfectly suitable name for a veritable goddess. You know, looking back, I realize that the problem I had with the girls in Breaux Bridge wasn’t that I couldn’t lead. It was that they couldn’t follow! Pretty clever of them to foist the blame off on me. And like a sap I fell for it. I can’t believe I’ve shied away from dance halls and discotheques all these years just because of a misconception. I could’ve been another Gene Kelly!”
Well, I’m all for bolstering the self-esteem of my brethren, but there are limits, and I was beginning to think that Murray had exceeded his. It was time to bring the old boy back to earth. “Another Gene Kelly?” I said with a snort. “Really, Murray!”
“That’s what Brandi said.”
“Brandy — I mean, Brandi — said that?”
“Yes, and she should know. She’s a professional.”
“What would a hooker know about dancing?”
“Not that kind of professional. She’s a professional dance instructor, at the Gene Kelly Dance Studio — you know, the one on St. Charles Avenue near Lee Circle.”
“She said you could be another Gene Kelly?”
Murray batted his eyelids modestly.
“How much is it going to cost?”
“What do you mean, how much is it going to cost?” Murray responded heatedly. “This veritable goddess pays me a well-deserved compliment and you act like she’s some kind of high-pressured salesman –“
“How much, Murray?”
“Ten dollars for the introductory lessons — but there’s no obligation to continue, and you don’t sign any contracts unless you decide to go on. Plus, you get a free lesson for every guest you bring to a guest party!”
“This is the guy who couldn’t spend $3.50 to buy a lady a drink?”
“Look, Huey, it’s only ten dollars. Ten dollars to learn an art form that you can enjoy for the rest of your life. Once you drink a drink, it’s history, but dancing is forever. Besides, I think Brandi has the hots for me.”
“Somehow I’m not surprised that she managed to give you that impression.”
“Oh, right! If she’d come on to you, you’d think it was perfectly natural. But, no, she hits on me, so there’s got to be an explanation.”
I tried to convince Murray that I hadn’t intended to disparage his uncanny appeal to members of the opposite sex, but merely to highlight the fact that this woman Brandi could, given her professional status, be considered to have ulterior motives in flattering his ego and titillating his libido. I was just beginning to beat some sense into his thick head when Brandi reappeared suddenly, accompanied by yet another veritable goddess, this one the most stunningly voluptuous long-legged blonde I had ever seen in my entire life.
“Murray, I have to leave now, but I wanted you to know what a wonderful time I had dancing with you tonight,” Brandi said with extra emphasis. “I was just telling Tiffani that I can’t remember vhen I’ve had so much fun –“
“T-t-tiffany?” I repeated pantingly.
“With an i,” said Tiffani, coyly. “Tiffani.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” the blonde amazon responded graciously. “Lots of people make that mistake. Say, can you dance as well as your friend?”
“Even better,” I boasted, stomping on Murray’s foot beneath the table to squelch any contradictory rejoinders. “By the way, my name is Huey.”
“Gee, Huey, I wish there were more guys like you and Murray at the studio.”
“You work at Gene Kelly too?”
“Oh, yes. Brandi and I are professional dance instructors. And, you know, most of the guys we dance with are — well, pretty bad.”
“Pretty bad? They’re awful!” said Brandi.
Tiffani nodded agreement. “So you can understand how excited we get when a couple of nice-looking fellows come in who are light on their feet and have rhythm and poise.”
“Murray, I had a great time,” said Brandi again. “I hope to see you at the studio some night.”
“I hope to see you too, Huey,” said Tiffani. “Bye-bye.”
Murray and I watched silently as the veritable goddess and the blonde amazon sashayed out of the club and disappeared into the Bourbon Street throng. We polished off our sazeracs, put together enough pocket change between us to order another round, and leaned back in our chairs and stretched our limbs as we waited for our nightcaps.
“Wow!” I said at last, pithily.
“Wow!” agreed Murray.
“Did you see how Tiffany couldn’t take her eyes off me? I guess I haven’t lost the old Zinc touch, eh Murray?”
“Yeah, it’s a shame, though –“
“Well, that she’s tied up at the studio almost every night. You’d almost have to take dance lessons, if you wanted to see her regularIy.”
“How much are they?”
“How much are what?”
“Dance lessons! Dance lessons! How much are dance lessons?”
“Ten dollars for the introductory package.”
“No further obligation?”
“No further obligation.”