Story by Maxwell Peterson
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
There’s a certain wet, hot morning fug you wipe off the back of your neck that makes a sunrise seem oily. My head said that I was dead or dying, but my watch said seven-thirty-one, so I got up and braced up with a cold shower. I was ginger with my face, which felt soft as milk-scrambled eggs and was three different colors. The nose wasn’t quite straight. I did my best with it: bandages and aspirin and the whole deal.
I cooked some beans, eggs, and bacon on a camp stove and ate breakfast while the coffee percolated.
The office was a wreck. There was blood on the carpet, on the wall by the door, on the couch, on my clothes on the floor. The coffee table was just wood lying all over. There were three bullet holes in the wall across from the desk, and four bigger ones punched through the wall behind it. There was a whiskey-bottle-sized hole in the drywall.
Then there was the desk drawer. I dumped the contents down the toilet, rinsed off the picture of my daughter, scrubbed the drawer out, and shoved it back into the desk just as the coffee started to bubble. The rest of the mess I left. My skull was too small, my tongue was a scouring pad, and my guts were threatening storms and mutiny. I sipped my coffee and looked at the spent brass on the rug.
I knew it looked bad. I put on my cleanest blue button-up and knotted a tie around it, emptied out the .38, filled it back up, slipped it under my arm, and hid it under my best blue suit. I had just poured my second cup of coffee when the phone rang. Eight-thirty on the head. I picked it up.
“Morning,” I said.
“Good morning. Is this…did I wake you?” It was a man’s voice, not one I knew.
“Who is this?”
He told me his name was Patrick Larose, that his daughter was missing, that a friend had given him my number, that I had to help him, and a bunch of other things people say when they’re scared and can’t stop talking. I burned my mouth on coffee and waited.
“I’m sorry,” he said eventually. “You must have questions for me.”
“Sure,” I said. “Who gave you my number?” He gave me a name I owed a favor.
There was a knock at the door. I checked my watch.
“Listen, Mr. Larose, my nine o’clock is early, but could I meet you for lunch? What? No, my office is a bit of a mess. No, I don’t drink anymore. That sounds fine. One o’clock.”
I took his number, hung up the phone, and a cop came through the door with her hand on her gun. She looked around the office, at the blood on the walls behind her, at everything. Then she looked at me.
“Will you call me Sarah?”
“Buy me dinner.”
She smiled, prettily. Devlin’s got a great smile: the incisors are sharp, and everything, smile included, is a little crooked. I’ve always been a sucker for interesting teeth.
“Buy you a drink,” she said.
“I don’t drink anymore. Want some coffee?”
“Sure.” She came over and sat in my chair. “How do you stay in business, Switch? You know how hard a time I had finding this place this morning?”
I handed her the cup. “You’ve been here before,” I said.
“That’s what I’m saying. I’ve been here, and I couldn’t find it.”
I shrugged. “When did you get the call?”
“What’d they say?”
“Lotta gunfire. I figured if you were still alive, I’d give you some time. You don’t seem to have done much with it.” She was giving the room another long look. She drew my attention to the several splashes, pools, and spatters of blood with her coffee cup. “So, what’s with all the blood?”
“I broke my nose,” I said. “They bleed a lot.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“Walked into a door,” I said.
She looked me over. “That was some door,” she said.
“He says he still loves me.”
Devlin swung around in her chair and looked at the dead man’s bullet holes. She got up, strolled over, and took in the shots I’d missed.
“How about the bullet holes? And the brass?”
I finished my coffee. “Oh, those were here when I got here.”
“When I first rented the place. Just left them. Atmosphere.”
Devlin nodded, then nudged some of the spent casings with her shoe. “These are forty-fives. What kind of gun do you carry?”
She nodded again, jotted something in a notebook and said, “Alright. Everything seems to be in order. Sorry for the trouble, Ms. Switch.”
“No trouble at all,” I said, taking her cup back and setting them both on the desk. “You’re just doing your job.”
Devlin stepped closer to me. Her hair was long and black-just-starting-gray, pulled back tight, and all of a sudden I wanted to take handfuls of it and find out how sharp her teeth were. She was looking at me wide open.
“What about you?” she asked. “Are you working?”
I glanced around. “Nobody likes me enough to do all this if I wasn’t,” I said. I could smell my coffee and her cigarettes, and the first clean sweat of morning. “Are you onto a girl named Judith Hendricks at all?” I asked. The answer ran all over Devlin’s face before she got herself in check again.
“Why?” she asked.
“Help me out. I have a worried husband looking.”
She considered something just above my head. Then she said, “Not anymore.”
“You found her?”
Devlin rubbed at the shadows under her eyes and told me where they’d found her and when, and which of the cuts was probably fatal. Outside in the alley, a heavy rig had pulled up and was idling around where the dumpsters were.
I said: “Any chance I could see the crime scene?”
“Then would you mind bringing me in as a suspect?”
Devlin looked at me like I’d asked her to cut a couple of my fingers off. “The station isn’t on Decatur,” she said.
“I didn’t think cops were allowed to be superstitious.”
She shrugged. “You hear things, in the Quarter.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear. Will you bring me in or won’t you?”
“Any reason I should?”
In the alley, pneumatic arms were whining, and heavy things were tumbling away into the rusted guts of a NOLA sanitation truck.
“None I can think of,” I said.
Devlin sighed and opened the office door. “Fine. You’re being brought in for questioning regarding the murder of Judith Hendricks. But let’s get going. It’s getting hot.”
I buttoned my top button. Before we left, I called Mr. Larose and pushed lunch back to dinner at five o’clock.
— ♦♦♦ —
A few hours later I was sitting in a brick-walled interrogation room with a glass of water and a few more aspirin working on my head. Devlin sat across from me. We were waiting for someone to run up the crime scene photographs of Judith’s murder, for Devlin to menace me with. We chatted to fill the time. When there was a knock at the door, she slammed her palm on the table, called me all sorts of things, and told me not to move.
I took pictures of the photos with my phone while Devlin read me the short report. When I was finished, I turned my phone off.
Judith Hendricks had been found in the deep end of a long alley just off Bourbon Street by some tourists around about the time I was having my semi-automatic argument with the heavy-handed man in the shadows. Probable cause of death was a wide-open neck. There were some irregularities with the other wounds. They would know more whenever the lab guys got caught up on the couple-year backlog of rape and murder they were swamped with. Devlin promised to keep me abreast.
The door opened a crack. I slouched down and Devlin leapt up as a young officer with a narrow, horsey face poked his head in.
“Sergeant’s coming up, Devlin. Thought you should know,” he said.
When the young man had gone, I sat up again.
“You think the nose will be enough?” Devlin asked.
I shook my head. “Everybody saw it when I came in. You gotta hit me.”
Devlin grimaced. “Can’t you do it?”
“I’m chickenshit. Just not the nose.”
She ran the back of her hand across my mouth a few times. A little split, a little blood. She apologized, grabbed the lapels of my suit coat and waited for the footsteps. I’ve always liked Devlin. She’s a real pro.
She was screaming in my face when the sergeant came in. Devlin managed another slap before he got her off me, and I bled a little more.
“Jesus Christ, Devlin, get a hold of yourself,” he barked. The sergeant was short and stout, and his hair had long gone full gray, but he still knew how to move his weight around. He was using it to pin Devlin to the wall. She wouldn’t look him in the eyes, and she was breathing hard.
“Got her collared, Sarge?” I said.
Devlin shouted some atrocious things at me. When she stopped struggling, he let her go. She put a finger right in my face but didn’t touch me. She bit her words off with bared teeth. I wanted to kiss her.
“She’s guilty, sergeant. You can practically smell the blood on her hands.”
“My mouth, too,” I said.
The sergeant asked Devlin what she had on me. She gave him the run-around, told him I was a private detective, was working for Mr. Hendricks, was probably his cheap triggerman in a Decatur Divorce. By the time she was done, I half-wanted to arrest myself.
The sergeant cut her off. “You’ve got nothing, Devlin. You’re out of line, and out of control.” He turned to me. “Ms. Switch, I’m Sergeant Halloran. I’m sorry I didn’t get up here sooner. If you’d like to press charges against Officer Devlin, here, I will personally undersign your statement.”
I said I was busy and just wanted out. He asked if the station was holding any personal effects. My thirty-eight, I told him. It was Georgia peaches after that. I got my gun and the same apology worded a couple different ways.
As I was leaving, I saw Halloran talking to Devlin at the end of a dingy hallway. He had his hand on her shoulder, and they were both grinning. She caught my eye. I gave her the finger as I pushed through the door into the sunshine outside.
For everybody but Judith Hendricks, it was a beautiful day.
— ♦♦♦ —
I picked up gin and lemons on the way back to my office. I had just cracked the cap when the dead man’s phone rang in my desk.
I let Carriere talk first. I told him I didn’t know where Jerry was, Jerry come home sayin how he beat on some woman and done right by his friends, and sure, I’ll tell him if I see him. Where?
I wrote down the name of some hole in the heart of the Quarter where Carriere was playing around eleven and hung up.
It was quarter to three and hot. With the blinds drawn, the sun wasn’t so bad. It was dark, but I left the lights off and gave my hangover a break while I mixed up gin and lemon juice. I looked at the drink for a while, then I poured it down the sink and went out for lunch.
— ♦♦♦ —
Decatur Street was hazy and vivid as a sunburned Polaroid in the early afternoon heat. I dislike cities, as a general rule. Before the Street, I lived little stints in New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis- hard places, paranoid and beetling with anxiety, but walking down Decatur toward Fats Robicheaux’s joint, I can never help but love New Orleans. It’s a dirty place, and a dangerous place sometimes, if you’re stupid, or unlucky. But it’s a city that’s had it as hard as you have, that’s grown up crooked. It’s a city that aches when it rains.
I lit a Red Lion and let the smoke into my head as I walked. I stopped a while to watch a couple of tired cops roust tired bums and drunks from park benches outside the open-air market. The bums were laughing. New Orleans is always laughing: beignet ladies, tattoo artists, and tour guides. Men in top-hats and Buffalo Bill bone coats, laughing toothy, round syllables. Even the broken punks, old as their leathers, pins and hooks and smiles on their faces, voodoo ink and Social Distortion on their arms. Even the dead, in the beautiful brick wreckage of their tombs.
I stubbed out the butt of my cheroot on the edge of a door. Somewhere out of sight, a saxophone was asking for change. I walked on.
— ♦♦♦ —
Fats’ place was a wreck, everything busted up, witchy graffiti scrawled all over the walls in blood.
Jeanie was on her knees in the middle of it, scrubbing at what was left of a big, bad hoodoo warning with a wood-handled brush. The room smelled like liquor and unrefrigerated fish and the bleach from Jeanie’s scrub bucket.
I looked behind the bar. In with the swamp of bottles and booze, frozen food was thawing under rancid sauces and busted spice bags. Broken jars of sun-dried tomatoes were slopped like gunk scooped out from behind old men’s knees.
“Switch. Where you been? Been callin you.”
Fats was coming out of the kitchen, a leaking black bag in each fist. Jeanie turned to look at me, grunted, and went back to scrubbing.
“I turned my phone off,” I said. “What happened?”
Fats set the bags down and wiped his hands. “This street,” he said. “Probably just some kids, raising hell.”
The brush splashed into the bucket. Jeanie laughed.
Fats ignored his wife. “Just some kids read too much about Papa Ghede.”
“How many kids you seen with a book in their hands just lately, Fats?” Jeanie said.
I lit another Lion, shook out the match, and flipped it smoking into the alcoholic lake behind the bar. I looked over the labels in the soup and found the ones I was looking for.
“You missing any peppers, Fats? Habaneros, or goat peppers?” I said.
“Naw,” he said. “I know right where they are. They’re mashed all around the kitchen, rubbed into the burners. Anybody lights the stove’ll go blind in a week.” He threw his rag back through the kitchen door. “Kids.”
When Fats was back in the kitchen, Jeanie came over. She leaned against the bar.
“Wasn’t no kids, Switch.”
I grinned out a mouthful of smoke.
“When we got here this morning, every one of those bust-off chair legs was crossed. Right in the middle of that blood on the floor, I found a big black chicken feather.” She spat. “I never put stock in all that hoodoo conjure trash, but somebody went around our place with a feather and a bowl of blood and drew that shit on my walls.”
“It looks that way, yeah,” I said. “Do you know what those are?”
“Signs for Papa Ghede, like Fats said. The first dead man.”
I thought about the gin back in my office. The room hummed with flies and black bags full of bad food and bloody scrub rags. I said: “Thought you didn’t believe this stuff.”
“Fats got a book, around the same time as the cancer.” She waved a fly away. “I think it’s a warning,” she said.
“How about that boy you were looking for last night? Did you find him yet?”
“No,” I lied.
“You come around lookin for him, next day we get all this.” Jeanie wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Any rate, we’re getting out a while.”
“Fats is already plenty scared to go to sleep. I won’t let him wake up afraid.”
Fats came back from the kitchen. The three of us kicked around some sympathy and talked about the goddamn insurance company, then I stubbed out my ugly little cigar and left.
— ♦♦♦ —
I got to the restaurant at quarter of four, ordered an Americano, and waited for Larose. It was a decent enough place, nestled on the nice end of the Street, without being nice enough to be overbooked, touristy, or loud. It wasn’t dingy enough to attract the curious, or ritzy enough to draw in scummy money. The barman shook a good Gimlet, the chef knew his way around a fish, and the waiters didn’t care about their jobs enough to be irritating. My sort of place.
I nipped at my drink, itched the edge of the bandages across my nose, and thumbed through Judith Hendricks’s death on my phone.
They found her face-down. You could tell right off that her throat had been cut, and more than that: her hair was soaked right to the tips, and there were dried rills of blood behind her ears, running toward the top of her head. She’d died upside-down, and when the killer opened her neck, Judith tucked her chin to her chest, trying to hold in all that blood running down past her ears.
Her skin was raw all over. She’d been scrubbed with bleach.
A close-up, mid-calf down to her feet. The bottoms of her feet were dirty, and there was a sliver of gray wood sunk in the pad of her left big toe. Six or eight inches of skin around each leg, near the ankles, had been flayed down to vivid red raw flesh. Devlin said they were the worst rope burns she’d ever seen, said they’d found fibers in the meat. Jute. The exposed bones of Judith’s ankles were thin and fine as bird’s bones.
A couple close-ups of her wrists. Ligature marks: a livid bruise on each, abrasions on the outer edges.
Then a study in haphazard stab wounds, half a dozen all told, none of them fatal. There were four in her back, shallow, chipping at her ribs. Two in the front, low in the abdomen. The coroner had determined these were some squeamish after-party, done without relish after Judith was dead.
It was five to five. Larose wasn’t around, so I drank my drink, a little of the ache fading from my face, and ordered another. I thought about rum and peppers. I thought about chicken feathers and rope burns and bleach. I thought about my face.
“Jesus Christ, what happened to your face?”
He was short, maybe five seven or eight, with scared brown eyes and short black hair. He wore an off-the-rack polo and powder blue shorts above the knee.
“Mr. Larose?” I wiped the condensation off my hand and offered it to him. He shook well.
“Ms. Switch. Thank you for coming, but….“
“I fell down the stairs, or into a cupboard, or something. Don’t worry about it.”
He sat. “Can you help me?”
“Depends on what you can tell me, and what you can pay.”
Larose fidgeted, glancing around like he was hiring me for a murder. “Our mutual friend told me to tell you he’ll forget about the October jar,” he whispered.
I nodded. “Why did you call me?”
“My daughter’s been missing since Tuesday morning.”
“Why not call the police?” He moved his spoon around and looked at things that weren’t me. I sucked an ice cube. A flash: “Because cops just pretend to look for junkies,” I said.
He nodded. “Minnie hasn’t used in almost a year. She was drawing again and painting. I heard her humming in the kitchen the last time I saw her. She was a little better every day.”
“But Minnie has a record.”
Larose tossed the spoon down. “That’s all they see,” he said. “People are just paper to cops around here, to stamp and cut up and burn. Once the ink’s dry, that’s all you are to them.”
I licked my lip. “I know a couple cops I like.”
The waiter came. I ordered chargrilled oysters and blackened redfish. Larose got a salad.
When the waiter had gone, I said: “Mike must’ve told you. I only work Decatur street. You aren’t from around here.”
“How do you know?”
I gestured around the room. “You look like a man afraid he’s about to get rolled. We’re in a restaurant.”
He looked embarrassed. “Minnie and I live in Breaux Bridge.”
I nodded. “Relax. Bourbon Street is where the ice picks and acid are, and it’s mostly tourists that get it. Most everybody else around here is decent enough. Just want a good meal and a laugh and a buck.” I picked the orange from my drink and chewed it. “Did Minnie come here often?”
“She liked to draw the buildings.”
“Where was she last seen?”
“At home, but she must have come here. She left with her bag. Her sketchbook and pencils and that stuff.”
He told me which of the buildings she had drawn more than once. Our food came. We talked about architecture and art for a while. Then he said, “I found pictures on her computer last week.”
“What sorts of pictures?”
His hands moved listlessly to the edge of the table. “Not any kind my daughter would take.”
I picked an oyster from its shell and chewed. “What sorts of pictures?” I asked again.
He chewed his lip. I chewed my oyster. I said: “Mr. Larose, we’re both adults. We’re both parents.” He looked up at me, surprised. “But I pay my bills with infidelity. Someone’s daughter has done everything you can imagine, and I’ve photographed it.” I flaked some flesh off the redfish. “I’ve never found squeamish people helpful, and if I’m going to find Minnie while she’s still alive, I need you to square up with me.”
Larose flinched at “alive”. Then he said, “What do you want to know?”
“Anybody else in the pictures?”
He murmured something. I waited. “In some of them, yeah. A boy.”
“The same guy?”
“My daughter’s no whore,” Larose spat.
“I didn’t say she was.” I stacked my plates and pushed them to the side. Larose pushed away his plate as well, most of his salad still on it. “What I asked was if it was the same guy in all the pictures.”
“I think it was.”
“Any of his face?”
The waiter came and took our plates. He asked if I wanted another drink. I made like I was offended and he left.
“You think the boyfriend is from the Quarter?”
“I don’t know,” Larose said. I let him set his credit card on the edge of the table.
I asked a couple questions about the guy in the pictures. We didn’t get anywhere, but I didn’t expect to. It didn’t matter. Minnie was starting to match up with some of the shadows in my head. When I tried to make the connections, it all fell apart, but that was nothing new.
I told Mr. Larose that I would help him, and to pass my regards to Mike. I told him I’d need a picture of the girl. He said he’d email some. He did gratitude, I did humility, he got up to leave.
“Before you go, Mr. Larose.”
He turned back. “Yes?”
“Does Minnie have any tattoos?”
Larose rested his hands on the back of his chair and looked over at the bar, at the bottles in their clean rows. “When she got out of the program, Minnie got wings on her shoulders. Like crow’s wings. To remind her that she rose above it. She carries her redemption around on her back.” Larose looked at me. “Do you believe in redemption?” he asked.
“I do,” I lied.
— ♦♦♦ —
Back at my office, I killed a couple hours flipping through old books of mine. Stuff on Palo Mayombe, a couple skinny little hand-bound things handed to me in dark basements when I was younger and credulous. I’d heard plenty in the last two days, from plenty of people, but I wanted to get things right in my head.
Larose emailed some of the pictures of Minnie and the Mystery Man. Nothing that’d shock you.
I took a nap.
I got to the bar where Carriere was playing around quarter to eleven. The place was small, dark, and mostly empty. The bar top was covered with saxophone reeds, layered like fish scales under a thick sheet of glass.
Alphonse Carriere wasn’t anything special. He played well enough, the same things the rest of the new blues kids played. He’d taken lessons and had fingers for jazz, but he slopped it up and slurred his chords, favoring an affectation of emotion. He used a spoon slide sometimes, to no great effect. A serviceable bar bluesman. No more than that. I clapped after a couple songs.
“Get you something to drink?” The barman was big-armed and balding, maybe thirty, with a face in its forties.
“You serve food?” I asked.
“Shock me,” I said. He set to pouring things I didn’t like into a shaker. When I caught his eye again, I nodded toward the stage. “He’s not bad,” I said.
“He’s not great.” The barman shook the drink and dumped it into a cold glass.
“Play here a lot?”
“Has been, lately. Can’t find anybody to play a whole night’s set, these days. All the kids coming up think a one-night gig should pay a month’s rent.” The drink the bartender slid over smelled like pineapples and rum. Framboise was slopped all over it. “The good ones, the kids who really know how to play and starve¾they’ll play for free at the House of Blues or the Nile before they’ll stoop this low.” He sighed. “They don’t get it. Sometimes you have to eat a little shit to get the champagne.”
We commiserated awhile over a generation too stupid to realize it was miserable. I glanced around at the sparse crowd. Carriere was playing it safe through “Death Letter.”
“Where’s his girl?”
The bartender followed my eyes around the room. “What?”
“I’ve seen this kid play a couple times, over near the Street,” I said. “Brings his girl in to clap and hang on him, I guess. Brunette, blue eyes, about as tall as me. Kind of bland-looking.”
The bartender grinned. “White girl?”
I nodded. “Seen her around?”
He shook his head. “No, and I don’t I guess I will.” He tipped his chin at the stage. “Caught him in the men’s room Tuesday night with some pretty blackbird, don’t sound anything like your Suburban Belle.”
“In Flagrante?” I asked.
“Delectable,” he said.
I smiled. I felt like I was going to puke a cold brick. “Got an eyeful?” I asked.
“They were right down to it. She was a good-looking girl. Tattoos, not too fat.”
“Angel wings.” He shook his head. “When I die, I hope angels are still doing things like that.” He looked around the room again. “Probably it was her, drove your white girl off.”
“She around tonight?”
The bartender frowned. “That was the last I saw her. I didn’t give them any trouble, but she hasn’t come round since.”
Carriere held a chord until it died. A couple claps slapped around the room, and he put his guitar down. I took a sip of my drink.
“What do I owe you?” I asked.
The bartender waved his hand. “Forget it. It’s garbage. Besides,” he said, examining my face, “I think you need it.”
I agreed that I did.
“Married?” he asked, studying the bandages.
Carriere was walking toward a door at the back of the bar, tapping a cigarette out of a soft pack. I stayed where I was and drank half of the mess in front of me, giving him plenty of time to settle and smoke. Then I got up, left a five on the bar, and headed for the alley.
— ♦♦♦ —
I got back to my place around three. I would’ve crashed into the loving arms of the couch if Sarah Devlin hadn’t been sitting between them, drinking all my bad bourbon.
I slung my suit coat over a short chair by the door. “Didn’t know I still had whiskey.”
“Found it in the filing cabinet.” The ice in her glass rattled as she drank.
I got a glass and kept my distance. “What can I do for you, Officer Devlin? You here to read me my rights?”
“Handcuff you, maybe.” She let me look at that crooked smile while she drained her drink. “Get anything new?”
“I talked to Carriere awhile.”
“The boyfriend.” I sat down next to Devlin and put our glasses back to work.
“Oh yeah?” Devlin picked up her drink. When she settled back into the couch, her leg was up against mine.
“Yeah. He’s the one who convinced Judith to steal the strings.” I took a drink and pulled the knot out of my tie.
“Did he say anything else?”
“He said everyone in town knows I’m working the Hendricks thing. Said it was all over the street.”
“What did you say?”
“I said so were the bits of his girlfriend the rats have bothered to shit back out.”
Devlin rolled her glass like a sore neck. “Or the cops didn’t cart off in a bag.”
We talked and drank some more. Devlin gave me a pleasant sort of third-degree until I broke and kissed her. Later, under a cotton sheet and the rattle of a box fan in the window, she told me she was scared, but wouldn’t tell me what of, so I kissed her eyelids and breasts and hips, and held her until I saw the sun.
— ♦♦♦ —
I met Charlie the first time over chili, which is the way most people probably get to know him. Now, no Mafia guy is going to tell me flat out he’s a gangster, but Charlie drops all the right names. He says he’s seen my mug and my byline in the Bulletin. Thus begins an unlikely “friendship” between these two as Charlie rolls out his story to our journalist.