Several cars were parked along the road to the White Palace when the black Packard arrived. Flo rushed up the porch steps out of the rain, but not before Tucker squeezed her hand and whispered, “Don’t be afraid, girl. I’ll have my eyes on ya all night.”
The main hallway of the house was crowded with people and Flo found it hard to move. She looked up to find Mayor Bucknell at the top of the stairs watching her. He motioned for her to come up.
“I see my money was well spent.” He smiled at Flo. “You look like a songbird now, except for the dress.” He opened the door to a nearby room, revealing a black girl with a silver dress draped across her arms. She also held a matching pair of silver shoes. “Put them on,” Bucknell said, closing the door.
The black girl was young, not much older than Flo and of a lighter color, which caused Flo to notice a greenish bruise on her cheek.
“I’m Flo,” she said, still feeling strange about using the shortened version of her name. “Who are you?”
“They calls me Wheatie,” the girl replied, taking Flo’s skirt and blouse. “I cleans the rooms and makes the beds.”
Flo stepped into the dress and the girl zipped her up the back. Flo felt the girl’s trembling hand on her shoulder, and she whispered so near her ear that she could feel the girl’s breath.
“Help us, before they kills us.” The girl had panic in her voice. The words sent chills through Flo.
“Kills who?” Flo demanded, turning to look at the frightened girl’s face.
“The girls they got locked up down below. The young ones they done sold. Tonight they gonna take ’em out by boat.”
Flo grabbed Wheatie by the arms. “What girls you talking about? Where they come from?”
Wheatie was nearly hysterical with fear. “They picks ’em up anywhere. Goin’ to school, at the pictures, any place they’s alone. If they find out I tole’, they gonna cut me up. Please help us get outa here.”
Flo shook Wheatie. “Stop crying, girl. I got to figure out what to do.”
The door opened at that instant and Flo recognized the tall woman named May, in the fancy kimono. She had a glass of whisky in her hand and Flo decided May was drunk.
“Get to your work,” May ordered Wheatie.
Flo caught May’s eyes and held her gaze, refusing to look away.
“Watch your step, girl,” May smirked when Flo refused to flinch. “You’re just like the rest. Nothin’ special about you.”
Flo trembled as she walked downstairs. She wanted to run when she neared the front door, but she knew better. They would find her and she would end up in the bayou like the blonde girl. Her only chance was to stay calm and look for Tucker. She could not forget the look of fear on Wheatie’s face.
Mayor Bucknell stopped Flo in the hallway. “You look upset,” he said, searching her face. “Is something wrong?”
“No, sir,” she answered, avoiding his eyes. “ I’m scared, so many people here tonight.”
The ballroom Flo sang in the week before had been rearranged. The piano was moved and tables filled the rest of the space. Along with the piano player, there were now a bass player and a drummer.
The room was full of white folks, expensively dressed, some in evening clothes. The pink spotlight came on and Flo’s heart pounded as she searched the faces watching her. “Oh, Lawd,” she whispered, “where is Tucker?”
The piano player introduced the group and then Flo. “Ladies and gentlemen, the White Palace’s own songbird, Flo Jones.” There was applause and the sultry music to “Lover Man” began, as a smoky pink haze settled over Flo.
* * *
Tucker had found a partially hidden place in the hallway where he could watch Flo sing. In his black driver’s uniform, he was hardly visible. He felt secure until a door opened across the hall. He drew back into the shadows.
Mayor Bucknell came out of the room, followed by a very large man wearing a seaman’s cap. When he turned his face, Tucker could see he was blind in one eye and that a livid scar ran across his cheek.
“I don’t care how much it costs. Get them out of here tonight. I have five more coming in tomorrow.” It was Bucknell’s voice. “If the redhead gives you any more trouble, get rid of her.”
Tucker held his breath. Bucknell had seen him. “What are you doing here?” Bucknell asked sharply.
“Jus’ watching the lady sing, sir,” Tucker answered, playing dumb.
“Well don’t get any funny ideas about her, jungle boy,” Bucknell barked. “I’ve got a job for you. Follow me.”
Bucknell took Tucker outside and gave him five one-hundred dollar bills and an address on a piece of paper. “Pick up three cases of whisky at this address in Morgan City, and don’t fool around. Get back here before morning.”
There was no way around it. If he refused to go, Bucknell would know something was wrong. As Tucker got in the Packard, he could hear Flo singing, “Lover man, oh, where can you be?”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen