Miss Georgia was quite forthcoming with information on the whereabouts of Nathaniel La Croix. She did say she couldn’t guarantee the man would definitely be at the location she'd just given away, though it was his eventual destination. No doubt she was trying to sew a seed of doubt in her captor’s minds.
She told them he was using the steamboat Natchez as a safe house. It was a replica of the old time paddle boats that traveled the length of the Mississippi river but it was only here for Mardi Gras and docked at the South Shore Harbor.
Onboard the Natchez were gambling tables and floor shows. There were personal cabins for a select few who wanted to travel by steamboat to their destinations found somewhere along the river.
La Croix would essentially be hiding there in plain sight and now that Napoleon and Illya knew where he would be. they’d be able to capture him at last.
Checking a map, the agents realized it would take several hours to reach the harbor if they tried to get there on foot. Hailing a taxi was going to be problematic as well now, as the crowds for Mardi Gras had swelled to immense proportions.
Their next option was a horse drawn carriage, which if they pushed the driver to quicken the horse’s pace would get them to the harbor in approximately 45 minutes. It would have to do.
They used money from a kitty kept at the field office and there they also replaced their guns and communicators.
After approaching one of many charming horse drawn carriages bedecked in flowers and Mardi Gras beads, a bargain was struck with the owner Luther Meredith. He and his horses, Daisy and Duke would take them to the harbor, with the agents paying a bit extra for the privilege.
When they finally arrived at the dock they found it crowded as there were quite a few privately owned boats berth in the vicinity.
Some folks were motoring out on the Mississippi, going for a pleasure cruise which most likely included a fair amount of drinking. Among the crowds there were quite a few drunkards passed out, or stumbling about with their friends.
This time there would be no need for Solo and Kuryakin to borrow anyone’s Mardi Gras mask. No, this was a local crowd, one with money and they were only interested in their own pastimes. Napoleon and Illya dressed in suits would easily blend in.
So far there was no sight of the Natchez, making the agents wonder if they’d been sent on a wild goose chase. Of course it was possible Miss Georgia had lied to them.
It was then they heard a long whistle in the distance; coming around the riverbend was the Natchez. She truly looked like a grand old girl from the glory days of the south.
As she docked a gang plank was lowered and several colored roustabouts dressed in overalls, their chests and arms bare, came down to the dock, sitting amidst a number of stacked cotton bales.
There they began to sing songs to attract customers to the Natchez.
It was all for show, and emulated the past on the river. Members of the crew appeared on deck, waving to those standing on the dock.
The captain with his white cap and navy blazer called out using a megaphone.
“Come on board and cruise the Mississippi in the style of yesteryear. Enjoy riverboat gambling and our ever popular floor shows. The food is good and the beer is cold. Come on y’all. What you waiting for? Only five dollars and this can all be yours to enjoy while we cruise up and down the river like the steamboats of old!”
That speech seemed to send thrills through the hearts of the onlookers. They quickly lined up to get on board as passenger capacity was limited.
Napoleon and Illya paid the price of admission and boarded, looking carefully in every direction for La Croix.
They were offered rentals of costumes from the time period and the agents decided it might be prudent to blend in with most of the other passengers who were attired thusly. Doing so just might help hide the agent's identities.
Both men donned tail coats with the collars turned up and ruffled cravats worn at the neck. The hat of choice was a top hat and they carried walking sticks like every other Southern gentleman would have.
The style of dress called for breeches and stockings but Napoleon and Illya passed on that, their suit trousers would do well enough.
Napoleon’s coat was charcoal grey, which worked well with the light grey color of his pants. Illya’s tail coat was a deep burgundy and perfect with his black trousers.
Beneath their coats were hidden their guns and communicators.
“That color seems to haunt you tovarisch,” Napoleon snickered.
“I like it, end of story.” The Russian deadpanned.
“Well excuse me,” Solo chuckled. He paused in front of the dressing room mirror to check himself. “I could get into this look.”
“Napoleon, will you please stop preening like a peacock. Here I found these.” Illya quickly applied a dark false moustache to Solo’s upper lip. For himself, he affixed a blond moustache with a goatee.
They now looked the parts of sophisticated Mississippi gamblers, and hopefully they’d be slightly less recognizable to La Croix.
Of course the costumes didn’t come free, and they paid for the rental, with their suit jackets being kept as a sort of collateral.
They stepped out on deck among the other guests, most dressed in period costumes but there were a few who weren’t.
There were even lovely ladies wearing hoop skirts, with off the shoulder bodices and puffy short sleeves. Of course matching bonnets were on their heads. It was the exact frou-frou being worn as if they’d just stepped out of the film, ‘Gone with the wind.’
The Natchez could hold as many as eight hundred passengers, but thankfully it appeared to be far less than that number; that meant a lot of faces to check. There was also the possibility that La Croix was masquerading as a member of the crew.
Napoleon and Illya strolled along the deck, keeping their heads slightly bowed as the top hots helped to obscure their faces but allowed them to peek out from beneath the brims to search among the other passengers.
They strolled to the entrance of the casino while taking in the some of the grandeur of the Natchez.
The boat had a working paddle wheel, tall black smokestacks and the gingerbread trim of U.S. riverboats from the Victorian era, the interior was surprisingly sophisticated with stained glass, Austrian crystal chandeliers, and walls graced with riverboat painting. There was lots of rich red velvet everywhere.
There were a dozen or more round tables, most of which had games of five card stud already in progress. With six seats to a table, the one closest to the door had an empty seat and Napoleon decided to take advantage of that favorable spot for viewing the casino as well as the door.
“May I ?” He asked the dealer.
“Why of course sir, buy in is fifty greenbacks.”
For a moment Solo hesitated as greenbacks were paper currency (printed in green on the back) issued by the United States during the American Civil War.
The dealers sensed Napoleon’s apprehension. “Regular U.S. currency is fine sir. We say ‘greenbacks’ to keep things a bit more authentic.”
Fifty dollars was a bit pricey, but Solo didn’t even wince as he took out a bill fold and drew the necessary funds from it. After all, it wasn’t his money.”
While Napoleon was scanning the room as his hand was dealt, Illya was on the move, carefully circling as he studied every face. La Croix, if he was here, was most certainly in disguise. So far Kuryakin didn’t recognize any faces, being a master of disguise himself, he could see past latex applications and stage makeup when used.
In the back of the room a heavy gold velvet curtain drew open, revealing a small stage; women rushed out onto it whooping and shouting as they began performing a rowdy dance accompanied by music played at a single upright piano.
They flashed their multiple colorful petticoats under their gathered skirts topped with corseted low cut bodices. Their boots were decorated with tassels that sparkled and added bedazzle as they kicked their legs up above their heads.
Their dance was not unlike those performed at the Folies-Bergère in Paris, though this was on a much smaller scale, and there appeared to be no nudity. Given the influence by the French here in New Orleans the style of dance though, came as no surprise.
Illya gazed across the room at one of the waiters delivering drinks to a table closer to the stage, far enough away from Napoleon.
The man was dressed in black pants, with a white shirt and a white apron wrapped around his waist. On the biceps of both arms he wore black garters. His hair was a different color now, gone was his sandy color and now his hair was black as a raven’s.
Illya was sure it was Nate La Croix, and at that moment of realization the waiter looked over at Kuryakin and caught his gaze. There was instant recognition on both their parts.
Nate quickly jerked his right arm and a derringer slipped out from beneath his sleeve to his hand. In one swift movement he aimed it at Kuryakin and fired...