Story by Maxwell Peterson
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
He walked into my office fat and unattractive, five minutes to five on a Wednesday afternoon. A dog’s August had mellowed into a comfortable Indian autumn; still, I could smell him from across the room. He stank like lunch on the tourists’ end of the street, like blackened fish and bad rum and sour air conditioning. I could see the wet edges of his weeping armpits peeking around the lapel of his open suit coat.
“You don’t look as I expected.” He brushed aside magazines and liquescent takeout and sat down on the sofa where I sleep. I let it ride. There was always my .38 and the special dumpster down the street.
“What were you expecting?” I asked.
“I thought you would be white. You came very highly recommended.” He folded his hands in his lap, looking around the office. “Your fees are notorious.”
“Sorry to disappoint.” I pulled open the bottom drawer of my desk, where I keep the things I love: half a bottle of bourbon, a picture of my daughter, a gun.
“It won’t be a problem, Ms. Switch. Madeleine. May I call you Madeleine?”
“Shame. My mother made them when I was young. The scent of a lemon in the autumn always puts me in mind of Mother and her almonds. It’s a lovely name.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I believe you’re well suited to my needs.” He waved a careless hand at me. “Money is no issue.”
I believed him. It wasn’t the suit, or the uptown lunch, or the fug of affluence clinging to him like a caul. It was his eye.
His left eye was missing, and he’d left the socket empty. The flesh around the hole was rumpled and red as a dead-tired dog’s. The lids hung loose, puckered like lips when he blinked. Only two types of people walk around with that kind of deformity. The first kind is rich enough to take pleasure in its effect: the affectation of an oddity, a badge proclaiming a tax tier well above whatever opinion you might have. The other type can’t afford me. Everybody else gets a glass or sews it up.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“My wife has taken something very precious to me, recently purchased at auction at great cost. I want you to find it, and, if possible, her, and return them both to me if you can.” He took a small pewter flask from his jacket and drank.
“If I can’t?”
“If you can’t, I don’t pay you one red cent.”
I slugged some whiskey into the dust in the bottom of an old chipped mug.
“How long has she been gone?” I asked.
“I’m eight hundred a day on Decatur. Five thousand a day if I have to leave the street.”
“I had heard. May I ask why the disparity?”
“Sure.” I took a drink, filtering the wet dust with my teeth. “My time is worth more than yours, out in the world.”
“Is that so?” He gave me that empty eye again, took a sip from the flask. “I’ve heard stories.”
I tongued the dust from my teeth and spat toward him. “Why don’t you tell me one?”
“My time is valuable as well, Ms. Switch.” He sat back into the sofa. “You’ll take the job?”
“Tell me about your wife,” I said.
“An infirmity in my old age.” He sighed. “Judith and I met at some charity…thing. She made quite the vigorous case for herself in a coatroom, and I decided I must have this pretty bird perched in my cage.”
My gut burned with cheap bourbon and distaste. “What am I looking for?”
“About your height, I suppose; she’s quite tall. White. She’s a brunette, with blue eyes.” He leaned toward me. “Yours are quite striking. Don’t see many colored women with blue eyes. Are they contacts?”
I drained the mug, then I reached into the drawer and pulled back the hammer on the .38. I let him hear it.
“Have you ever been shot, Mr. Hendricks?” I asked.
He smiled. “I thought you might know me,” he said. “Yes, I have. I didn’t care for it. I take your point and offer my apologies: I’m a beast of an older age.” He put his flask away somewhere near the sweat. “I’ll provide you with photographs of Judith, but you’ll likely find her lover before you find her.”
There it was. People in my line pay ninety-nine percent of the rent with pictures of fat husbands and happy wives screwing people they’re not married to. Under those circumstances, it’s always a divorce case.
Hendricks must have seen it on my face. “Oh yes, and not her first. Carriere, I believe his name is. Alphonse Carriere. A man of about your color, short and thin. My men tell me he has a long scar along his neck, comes up past his chin almost to his lips,” he traced the line with a forefinger as he spoke, “as though someone failed to cut his throat proper.” Another ugly grin.
“And if I find him?”
“Do whatever it is you dicks do. Watch him, follow him, take his picture. I don’t care. Find my wife and recover what she stole from me.”
“What about her? You going to leave her, or leave her in a ditch?”
Hendricks laughed. “Throw it all away? My estate, my fortune, and freedom, because my midlife crisis is sleeping around? No. I’m no fool, Ms. Switch, but I am no sniveling cuckold, either. I am a pragmatist, and she, a pleasurable window-dressing. I have gardeners to tend to my flowers, maids to tend to my messes. Judith was a flower of mine. Now she’s a mess.”
“Well, I’m not your maid, and I don’t need your money. So, take your Courvoisier and close the door behind you.”
“What a remarkable palette you have,” Hendricks said. “Perhaps we’ll share a glass when you’ve returned what belongs to me. I have a Massougnes 1805 that has not yet met a proper epicure.” He turned his good eye to me, muddy brown, jaundiced as whorehouse wallpaper. “Consider it a bonus or an appurtenance of a wealthy friend.”
I poured more cheap whiskey I didn’t want, to spite him. “I don’t know what you believe belongs to you, Mr. Hendricks, but kindly count me elsewhere, and get out of my office.”
His smile was like a cut across his face. He stood, brushing the dust from the legs of his pants, and stepped heavily around the coffee table toward the door. I should’ve let it alone, or, better, shot him in the back and slipped an extra hundred in the coffee can by the old dumpster out back. Del Ray and Rio–a couple of good Cajun boys who’re the only garbage men who work that particular alley–check the can, close their eyes, and pull the lever. Get rid of your old rugs.
But I didn’t. Of course, I didn’t.
“What’d she take, Mr. Hendricks?”
He turned back. He told me.
— ♦♦♦ —
Fats Robicheaux runs the greasiest crawfish shack on Decatur, right smack in the middle of the block that tourists never seem to see, nowhere near Du Monde. Everybody’s been there sometime; you’d know it if you walked in: a gap-toothed wood floor reeling all over the place, so you’re drunk before your first drink, Art Nouveau and those manic Louisiana nightmare paintings of jazz funerals and fat Uncle Toms splashed over wallpaper like a series of skin grafts that didn’t take. It’s always packed, and you never wait long to eat. That sort of place.
Three things you can count on, in a place like that. The food is better than you deserve, the drinks are cheap, and somebody knows something.
I came in from the alley out back an hour into the dinner rush: a handful of regulars picking at fries and sucking crawdad heads, late-season tourists eating muffulettas and po’boys and perfectly good fish fried beyond reason. Fats plays jazz during tourist season, which is alright but doesn’t fit the place. I like it better the rest of the year when the blown-out speakers play blown-out blues from before he was born.
I took a seat in the gloom at the end of the bar, and only Jeanie Robicheaux looked at me twice. She stood twisting a tail out of a lemon skin more delicately than you’d credit she could. Jeanie’s a big girl. She moves like a prizefighter.
“You look bad, baby,” she said. “You want a drink?”
“Americano,” I said.
“What, are you workin again?” She said it to the lemon, raised an eyebrow.
“Is Fats around?”
Jeanie filled a glass with ice and ran a half-empty bottle of Campari under a hot tap. “Ain’t nobody drink this nasty shit but you.” She twisted the cap off and measured it out quick and clean.
“Is Fats around or isn’t he, Jeanie?”
“I don’t think he is, Switch. Not tonight. Not if you want him.” She was at the lemon again, spritzing citrus with each twist over the drink. That’s what I like about Jeanie: she thinks I’m scum and scrapes at me as often as she can, and she knows which of the stories people tell about me might be true. But she makes my drinks right.
“I just need a couple minutes. See if he’s heard anything.”
She set the drink down and waited until I tasted it. The Americano was bittersweet and ice-cold, a crisp sharp lemony razor cutting right down into my heart. If you make it right–and Jeanie does¾an Americano can almost make you feel clean. I nodded to her and put a twenty on the bar.
“Five minutes,” I said. “And his hands are clean when I leave.”
The money disappeared. She set a bottle of bourbon and a glass on the bar, then came around and sat next to me. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know what Fats knows.”
Jeanie nodded toward the kitchen. “That old man don’t know nothin no more.” She poured a few fingers into the glass and nibbled at them. “He knows crawdads and gumbo and dope, and that’s all he knows.”
“Drugs?” I was surprised. Not the Fats I knew.
“Not like you think. Nothin nasty. Just grass. Lotta grass.” She looked into her drink. “I’m thankful, I guess. It helps.”
I drained my drink and tossed the ice over the bar into the sink. Jeanie gave me a hard, straight half glass and we drank. Sometimes it isn’t right to be clean around people who’re low. You have to drink right.
“How long?” I asked.
“Lord knows. The doctor sure don’t. Could be a long time. We got money stashed up, and he’s got things to do. They say that keeps you moving around up here.” Jeanie drained her glass. It was a lot of whiskey, but she’s a lot of woman. “If it’s gonna get him, we’re alright. Something gets us all eventually.” She looked at me. “Well. Maybe not all of us.”
Like I said, Jeanie knows the right stories. I bit off a little bourbon and twisted my glass into the bar. I fished Judith’s picture out and set it down. “Seen her around?” I asked.
Jeanie looked at the picture, screwing up her eyes in the dim whiskey light. “Looks like a tourist.”
“Well, whatever she is, I haven’t seen her.”
“How about her boyfriend? Skinny black kid with a scar up his jaws like someone cut his throat shallow. Name’s Carriere.”
“I guess he might be.” I downed the whiskey. I felt like another drink, but it was too early in the night to go under, and I didn’t know anything yet.
“Never saw him, I don’t think,” said Jeanie, refilling her glass. I slid mine away. “Hear a kid with scars plays around the street, though, and over on Bourbon in the early afternoons before the place floods up with trash. Blues kid.”
“He ever played here?”
Jeanie looked at me sidewise. “We ain’t ever had live music, Switch.”
Lazy jazz sax shuffled around the restaurant. I put Judith’s picture away. “I’d noticed,” I said.
Something was starting up across the room. Two white boys in sunburns and shorts were throwing a lot of mouth at a waitress I didn’t recognize. She bawled that there wasn’t a table, they bawled about whose sons they were and things like that. Heads were starting to turn.
Jeanie stood up off the stool, steady as a bottle on a bar, and moved off toward the boys. I pulled my glass back toward me.
“You gonna eat, or just freeload the ambiance?”
Fats looked bad. He was standing at the far end of the bar, in the doorway to the kitchen, wiping grime back and forth between his hands and a rag. Even in silhouette, he looked bad.
“That depends,” I said. “You cooking or ordering out?”
“You’re a real son of a bitch,” he said and showed his teeth.
“How are you, Fats?”
He slung the rag over his shoulder and came over grinning. “I been good, Switch. Ain’t seen you in a while. Guess you’re workin again.”
“Might be. Not sure yet.”
“You want a drink?”
“What I really want is a plate of food to soak up this afternoon,” I said. “But I’ll take a drink, too.”
Fats makes the best jambalaya I’ve ever tasted. Real rabbit and crab with the claw still on, spicy like it’s mad at you. It’s good, but it’s no good for drinking. I settled on fried oysters and bread, with Jeanie’s tartar and lots of lemons and French fries and coleslaw. Good bar-close food. I’d swum too deep to reach shore before two or three; there was nothing to do but settle in and sit straight on the stool. Fats started on a Sazerac, making a lot of fuss swirling the absinthe and dashing the bitters in. A Sazerac is like America: a lot of motion and violence, and at the end, a glass of booze.
Across the restaurant, a boy was crying. Jeanie was holding him against the wall by the door, right in his face. His friend was long gone. Laughter bright as a new nickel flashed around the room, then Jeanie shoved the kid out the door and disappeared off somewhere.
Fats sat with me as I ate. I picked the picture of Judith back out and flipped it to him.
“Seen her around?” I asked.
He screwed up his eyes like his wife and shook his head. I asked him about Carriere.
“Don’t ring any bells,” he said. “She get herself snatched up?”
“Ran off. Took something with her when she went.”
“Thought you weren’t doing divorces anymore.” Fats stole an oyster off my plate. “What’d she take?”
I pushed a bundle of French fries into my mouth. “Robert Johnson’s guitar strings,” I said.
He chewed. After a while, he said, “You say, Robert Johnson.”
“I say Robert Johnson.”
“I ain’t seen that girl, but I’ll tell you about Robert Johnson.”
I sat up straight as I could, picked up my whiskey, took a long drink, and went under.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Like most everybody, Robert Johnson was born to a couple people don’t matter. Forget about them: they was just like everybody else.
“Robert Johnson wasn’t nobody. Used to dog around the legends, House and Shines and Honeyboy and guys like that, but he never had the foot for it back then.”
I said something.
“Sure. The foot stompin on the floor in your heart’s half what the blues is. Other half is how bad you can hurt and still pick up the guitar. Wasn’t no devil at the crossroads gave Robert Johnson the blues: it was pain. Just the old-fashioned physical. That man could hurt, and he did.
“He traveled around, drinkin women and whiskey and pickin at a beat old Kalamazoo flattop with Shines and some other boys used to play the corners in the Quarter–the biographers say he never come to Louisiana, but my great-grandfather said, rest him, that he drank with Robert on two occasions, and nobody knows nothin about him anyways, on account of his being shy and blowin around the way he did.
“So, on one of these drinkin occasions¾this was thirty-five, thirty-six, after he’d come back with that steady, black foot in his heart and his fingers workin the guitar like nobody’d ever seen, and everybody’d heard the stories about the crossroads and the devil–my great-grandfather asked him, ‘Robert, you really sell your soul?’ They said it was the Devil in Christian Mississippi, but everybody in New Orleans knew that deal had more the feel of swamp hoodoo, and my great-grandfather was wonderin if Robert had talked to Legat or Samedi or whoever else.
“Robert says, ‘Unless the Devil is time, I never dealt with the Devil.’
“Turns out, he went off to a shack up north in Mississippi, with a whiskey jar and his guitar, and when the whiskey was gone there was nothin left to do but play. He played all day while the sun beat hell on the little tin shed, and he played to the fire at night.
“Then Robert showed my great-father his fingers: the tips on both hands was dead with scars, crisscrossed so many ways there wasn’t any fingertip left, just hard, dead, mean callus and scar. He played, and he played, and he played his fingers down to blood and bone; until there wasn’t anything between him and the strings, so when he played you the blues, bones is what he’s playing you.
“And Robert says, ‘Just practice.’
“My grandfather says, ‘Sure, Robert. Still. Something different about you.’
“And Robert says, ‘Ain’t nothin different bout me. I’m still doin what I always done, workin the body and the bottle,’ and he bust the neck off the whiskey they were workin on and played right there until the sun came up and stopped him. My great-grandfather said it was the dirtiest thing he ever saw in his life: there wasn’t any difference between a woman and a guitar to Robert any longer, and he loved both of them just the same. They were where he could tell about his pain.”
— ♦♦♦ —
It was raining when I left Fats’ place, sometime past three on Thursday morning. Rain in this city, on this street, kicks up back-alley fish blood and garbage and stirs them into the night until you almost don’t mind it, or until you throw your liquor up. I held onto mine and made my way home in quantum leaps, big black gaps, and missing blocks, making undeniable progress toward my door. Old men sat in clusters under ragged awnings, like clumps of fat along an artery wall, blowing clots of cigar smoke into the fog. They left me alone as I passed.
The lock on my office door did its best to keep me out, smug as if I hadn’t dealt with it a hundred times before. There was a struggle, then I stabbed my key into the lock’s metal guts, gave a vicious twist, and stumbled inside.
A bed is no place for a drunk. Drinking that way is a thing like adultery, dirty and selfish; and a bed won’t bear the weight of it. Luckily, I have a long-time thing with my couch and was stumbling across the office toward dirty, selfish dreams of dying when he hit me.
I didn’t see him, but I saw his fist come at me like a train roaring down the long, black tunnel of a drink too far. I felt the whiskey slosh in my belly. I didn’t really feel my nose break. I hit the edge of the couch and fell heavily to the floor.
“That’s fine, just where you are,” someone said. He was tucked back in the shadows by the door, big as a mountain, with a black automatic in his hand. I couldn’t see his face.
“You broke my nose.”
“Yeah? You a doctor?”
“I’m a private investigator. I know these things.” My face felt like it was full of hot light, and there was blood all over everything, but the shot in the face was better than cold water and hot coffee to wash the bourbon out of my head. I kicked hard for the surface.
“Yeah, well, your nose breaks easy.”
“I’m an accommodating gal.”
“Let’s see you can’t accommodate up a couple answers. I got some questions for you.”
“Shoot,” I said. I spat blood and laughed.
A hammer cocked back in the dark.
“We’ll see. Got a gun on you?”
“No,” I said. My gun was in my desk, across the office, oblivious to the situation.
“French Quarter cops don’t mind drunks on the street,” I said, slurring a few extra letters here and there, “but everybody’s prejudiced at a drunk with a gun.”
He grunted. Then: “What business you got with Alphonse Carriere?”
I knew that his knowing meant something important, but I couldn’t get my head above the booze. “Heard he plays the blues. Want to book him for a funeral.”
“If you can’t use your mouth any better than that, I’m gonna start busting pieces of it out onto the floor.” He waggled the gun at me. “What do you want with Al?”
A couple of ideas were bobbing in the fog. They were all terrible. I was terribly drunk. I picked one and tilted my head back onto the couch.
“Sit up,” the man growled.
“Can’t breathe with all this blood,” I said. I bubbled some at him.
“Sit up, I said.”
I let my breathing slow and shudder and didn’t move a muscle. My eyes kept closed all on their own, swelling. The man in the shadows said something. I waited. The clock in my office ticked awhile. Then I heard him breathing, close to my face.
“Shit,” he said. He was bending over me: I could feel his legs outside of mine, and the weight of his empty left hand on the back of the couch. He was probably looking down at me to see if I was unconscious or just dead.
I kicked my right knee straight up with everything I had, and it got where it needed to go. Our heads collided as he doubled over, and I tried to rush up off the floor. The white-hot flash behind my eyes was blinding, but I couldn’t see anyway, so I didn’t mind. I was on the floor, crawling toward what I hoped was my desk. I felt fingers fumble at my leg, then clamp on my ankle so the bones ground together. I kicked out a couple times and clawed at the floor until I was free. Somewhere behind me, hands were patting down the carpet for the dropped automatic. I got one eye open just in time to bash it into the corner of my desk.
Like lovers in the dark, the big man and I fumbled and sweated awhile, feverish and intimate, on opposite sides of the room, like lovers ought to be. I yanked the bottom drawer out onto the floor and hucked the whiskey bottle toward a burst of light and a bang that stuffed cotton in my ears. The next second, I had my .38 in hand, hot liquor and blood in my head, and my eyes split open enough to see three big men with guns rushing in, banging bullets at me in unison. I couldn’t tell who needed killing most, so I moved my finger a lot and threw lead around until they all fell down.
When I was sure it was just me and the ringing in my head, I threw up in the desk drawer. I felt better afterward.
— ♦♦♦ —
The dead man didn’t have anything in his pockets that I wanted except a cell phone. I unlocked it with his thumb and went through the contacts. “Al” was first on the list. I wrote down the number. I thought about going through his pictures to see if I could find one of Carriere but didn’t: mashed nose or no, last thing I needed was a picture of a wedding ring or a little kid’s face to keep me awake. Better just to pay for a quiet funeral and let it be a hard break for just one guy. I put the phone in a clean desk drawer and got to work.
I weigh a hundred and sixty pounds, and a lot of it I can use, but it took most of an hour to get the body where it needed to be, my nose mostly where it needed to be, and myself back onto the couch in my office. I thought about the bullets buried in the wall behind my desk, and the twenties in the coffee can out back. I thought about Robert Johnson, and diamond rings, and imagined the smile of a child I’d never seen. I thought about having a drink, and then I fell asleep.
— ♦♦♦ —
By K. Sullivan, Art by Lee Dawn
“I am a man out of time,” he said, gesturing at the books in their files along the wall. “You see me, and you think me old, ancient–but I am more ancient still than you can reckon. I have survived these centuries by the sternest application of science–but it has left me marooned on an ancient island in your sea of modern numbers. You will have a place in my house, and I shall have no secrets from you. You shall breathe in the air that I breathe, and benefit as I benefit. You will learn things that are beyond the dreams of your feeble classmates–you will have the secrets, as you come to discover them, by which I have defied the years and decades. You will have all of this, and a handsome salary of your own, if you can bear this burden.