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Steel Blues -- Enter the Countess

A reader asks, "Can I cheat just a wincey bit (my kid's phrase, not mine, meaning tiny, I think)and ask about the lovely and mysterious Russian countess (in Steel Blues)? I think you've referenced her before so maybe it's not so much cheating?"

You certainly may! Also, I'll share one of my inspirations for her, Claudia Black models for Sue Wong. That gorgeous dress shows up later in the book, just in time for a life and death chase through New Orleans.

The dead man was standing in the rain outside the restaurant at the corner of Chartres Street. He was a big, heavy man in a Panama hat, and he was watching everyone who went into the restaurant closely. Stasi looked away, concentrating on the treacherous cobblestones and her high heeled black shoes with ankle straps, but he saw the movement of her eyes and knew she'd seen him. "Excuse me, ma'am. I was wondering if you might do me an itty-bitty favor?"

Stasi stopped under the green awning and rolled her eyes. "Only in New Orleans!" she said. "None of this 'ooga booga boo' or 'I have returned from beyond the grave!' Oh no! In New Orleans it's 'excuse me, would you do me a favor?'"

The dead man looked hurt. "I was trying to be a gentleman, seeing as how you looked like a lady."

Stasi sighed, patting at her damp hair, long and black and curled neatly in a bun at the back of her neck, the front done with pins in finger waves. "What do you want?"

"My brother Milward, he's the chef. Would it impose too much on you to go give him a message? Please, ma'am. I've been standing out here the better part of a week trying to get somebody to do it."

She looked at him levelly. "Do I look like a sucker to you?"

"You look like a kind-hearted lady." His blue eyes were painfully honest. "We Dead can tell things like that."

"Fine." Stasi rearranged her pocketbook, hoping that made loitering under the awning look natural. "What do you want?"

"Tell Milward that I put the strongbox down the dry well at granny's place. He'll know what I mean cause we used to play there together."

"You put the strongbox down the dry well at granny's." Stasi sighed again. "Fine. I'll tell him if I get a chance."

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this, ma'am," the dead man began, but she brushed him off, opening the swinging door and stepping into the restaurant.

It was crowded on a rainy night, gleaming brass railings separating sets of white draped tables, every table filled, while waiters in black tie fairly flew about, trays of steaming crawfish etouffeé and Creole rice in hand.

The maitre d' met her before the door closed entirely. "Do you have a reservation, ma'am?"

"I'm meeting a gentleman." She looked around him, scanning the dining room. "Mr. Lanier."

"Ah yes." The maitre d' almost bowed. "He's expecting you. Right this way."

It was a table in the front bow window, romantic and thus a little isolated from the clatter of the dining room. Lanier stood up as she approached. He was tall and rugged looking, good looking in a way, with prematurely gray hair somewhat at odds with a face that couldn't have been quite forty. "I'm so pleased you could join me," he said, his accent thick enough to stand a spoon in. He stood while the maitre d' held out her chair and saw her into it, but waited until he left before he spoke again. "Miss Smirnoff, is it? I thought that was a brand of vodka."

"It's Rostov," Stasi said, unfolding her napkin.

He sat down, smiling. "War and Peace."


He spread his hands, a generous grin on his face. "I don't much care, Miss. Call yourself whatever you like. I've heard good recommendations of your work and I'm pleased you'll undertake this little commission for me."

"If the price is right," Stasi said. "And the particulars are as you say."

Lanier nodded slowly. "Five hundred dollars. Half now, half on delivery. And I would advise you to take care with the piece." He paused. "It has a history," he said delicately.

Stasi's plucked eyebrow rose. "A history?"

"You know how objects acquire history," he said pleasantly, reaching for the basket of angel biscuits in the middle of the table. "But I shouldn't have to tell someone with your talents to be cautious."

"I'm always cautious," Stasi agreed. "Two fifty now and two fifty on delivery." She held out her hand briskly. "That would be two fifty now."

His smile broadened. Lanier reached into his pocket and took out an envelope, which he gave her. "It's a pleasure, Miss Ivanova. Will you stay and join me for dinner?"

Stasi took the envelope and opened the flap, fanning through the stack of tens and twenties. "I don't have the time. I have a train to catch."

"Of course you do. Good luck."

"I always have good luck." Stasi stood up. "I'll be in touch."

She threaded her way between tables and waiters out to the front. The rain was falling in solid sheets, gray and chilly. But there was a taxi just across the street. The dead man was still pacing. She turned to the hovering maitre d'. "Do you have something to write on?"

"Beg pardon?"

She hooked an order pad off the shelf behind his reservation stand and tore off the top sheet. "Can you please give this to the chef? It's terribly important."

"Of course."

Stasi wrote across it swiftly. Milward -- your brother put the strongbox down the dry well at your granny's place where you used to play together. She folded the note and handed it to the maitre d' with a smile and a quarter for his trouble. "Thank you."

"I'll give it straight to him," the maitre d' promised.

"You'd better," Stasi said, and gave him a sideways smile. "It's a good thing to stay on the right side of the beyond." And with that she walked out into the rain.

I'd love to hear what you guys think!


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 1st, 2012 01:12 pm (UTC)
She's so wonderful! (I hope the ferret from the dress finds his way into the story somehow.)
Sep. 3rd, 2012 01:39 pm (UTC)
You know, I wish I knew what was up with the stuffed ferret. And I feel like it needs a story somehow....
Sep. 2nd, 2012 01:39 pm (UTC)
Love her! And yay for the dress you found for her. It's simply gorgeous.
Sep. 3rd, 2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That picture really helped me crystalize Stasi in my mind, really brought her together for me. Cigarette holder and all! :)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )