Story by Maxwell Peterson
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
Hendricks’ house was a sprawl of ugly French-Creole plantation hidden at the end of a long dirt lane lined with unkempt belladonna and Copperplant, tucked twenty miles inland, away from the smell of garbage and the sea, past a hundred acres of bone-dry pepper farms. Watching the scraggle of gnarled pepper trees pass by the window of the cab put me in mind of elephant graveyards, and the way big old things try to die in hiding.
I was shown through to a glass-top table by a pool. A military haircut in a starched collar was waiting for me.
“Ms. Switch. Tom Carver, head of security for Mr. Hendricks. How can I help you?”
The pool was wide and flat, walled on two sides with charmingly ugly stucco broken by wooden pillars, looking out over a long, dark pond edged in by rows of thick, black, moss-choked oak. It felt like the bayou down south, but the swamp smell was lacquered over with the chemical scud of chlorine. Somewhere, a cicada complained.
I sat down. “Care for a drink?” Carver asked. He was sipping something blended, sweating, and piled with fruit. It looked great.
“Sure,” I said, and the doorman went away.
“How else can I help you?”
I adjusted my sunglasses to coddle the whiskey dying in my head. “I’d love to talk to Mr. Hendricks,” I said.
“Mr. Hendricks isn’t feeling well. He’s retired for the day, but I can help you.”
“He’s out of town,” I said. “I was hoping you could tell me where he went.”
Carver smiled and popped a cherry into his mouth. “He’s gone to grieve for his wife. I’m sure you’ve seen the papers. Too many memories here.”
“Really? I got the impression he didn’t like her very much.”
Carver picked cherry skin from between his teeth and rubbed it into a white napkin. “She was a gold-digging whore, you ask me, but she was still his wife. That meant something to the old man, whatever he said to you. God knows why.”
My drink came. It was tall and cold and tasted like pineapple and coconut cream, and it stung like the first crack of a belt across the thighs.
“I’m sure he’s all broken up about it,” I said.
“Is Mr. Hendricks a suspect?” Carver asked.
“Of course, he’s a suspect.”
“I see. How’s your drink?”
“Excellent. Thank you.”
Carver scratched imagined stubble along his jaw. “How did you know Hendricks was out of town?”
“Maid’s day off?” I asked.
“She doesn’t have one.”
“So, the salt across the doorways is there for a reason,” I said. “I don’t think you have the imagination for superstition. Your boss is afraid.”
“Why?” Carver sat back and folded his hands in his lap.
“Crooked old killers can’t stay fearless forever.” Carver just smiled. I went on: “The salt’s all scuffed up: nobody’s bothered to tidy it while he’s gone. There’s a car missing from the garage, from the space nearest the house. The doorman didn’t iron his shirt this morning, and our drinks are in different glasses because nobody who’ll care is here to notice.” My head ached. I chewed a slice of pineapple and fantasized that my drink was drugged so I could get some rest.
“I think you’re a waste of money,” Carver said.
“Hendricks would get more for his dollar if you’d just let me do my thing.”
Carver spread his hands wide, beatific. “By all means, ‘do your thing.’ What are we paying you for?”
I picked a cheroot from a slim copper case my father left me.
Carver said, “You can’t smoke, here,” but there wasn’t much behind it. I lit the stick and blew smoke all over.
“How’d Carriere know I was working for Hendricks?” I said.
Carver leaned forward. He smelled like Pinaud Clubman, even through the tobacco, all orange rind, and jasmine. “You found Carriere?” he said. I fished my phone out of my pocket and showed him a couple of pictures of Carriere sitting in an alley, bruised and spitting blood. Carver looked back at me. “He say anything?”
“Sure.” I put the phone away. “He said everybody on Decatur knew I was working the Hendricks thing, a lot of nasty words, not much else.”
“What’d you do with him?” Carver was watching me carefully.
“Cut him loose.” I studied the smoke twisting up from the cherry between my fingers. “There’s nothing there.”
“Think the cops will see a couple of dead girls as nothing?” Carver leaned back, brushing nothing off his shirt.
I stubbed the ember out on the glass-top table and dropped the butt into my glass. “Maybe not,” I said and stood up. “Call them if you want. I’m going home.”
Carver stood up as well. He was a big man, bigger on his feet. “We sent your cab away. Bill will take you home.”
“Thanks,” I said. I had that fishbone feeling behind my lungs like you get when you catch a lover in a lie, and just like that, I had the whole thing. The whole, unpolished pile of shit. There were holes and questions, but once you’ve got the shape in your head, it’s just shading in the devil and his details.
I spit on the bricks and headed for the door.
A fat man in a rumpled gray suit met me in the driveway. His collar was open, and I could see the tail of his tie hanging from his jacket pocket.
“Home, James?” he asked.
“My friends call me James,” I said. “It’s Miss Daisy to you. You’re Bill?”
“That’s right,” he said. He had a good handshake, firm and steady.
“Change of plans, Bill. Carver says you’re mine for the day, on account of my wasting a trip out.” There was a late-model Rolls in the drive. We walked toward it together.
Bill shrugged and unlocked the car. “Fine by me. Where to?”
Bill opened the door for me. “Whatever you say, Miss Daisy.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I told Bill the route I wanted to take, avoiding the faceless monotony of the freeway north in favor of a crawl along the coast and the ragged capillary back roads that lead to the dirty heart of Mississippi. We had time to kill, and I needed time to think. Bill kept the radio low.
Mississippi isn’t a long drive from New Orleans: a couple of languorous hours along the coast if you want to see the sights. Not that there’s anything much to see anymore, not after Katrina. The coast between the Quarter and Biloxi is bleak stuff, these days. Bare trees bent backward like testaments to agony, twisted from the whipping of a single week of wind hard enough to remold oak the way Bosch might have dreamed it. Some of them have been cut into sculptures by the city, egrets, and seagulls to mark the dead.
The view out the driver’s side isn’t any better. You can drive for a mile inland and it’s just driveways that don’t lead up to anything anymore but bare plots or the rough sketch of a first floor. The city bought back most of the property and tore up the flat concrete foundations. They figured driving up a coast of tombstones might be off-putting to tourist money headed for the casinos, so they busted up the graveyard. Now it’s only ghosts.
We pulled onto the shoulder of an old country road edged with a ragged scraggle of Smoketree at thirty minutes to midnight, a mile from the spot where Dockery Road meets Old Highway Eight. I told Bill to wait with the car, gave him some money to go deaf an hour or two, and got out.
There’s a sense of dust in Mississippi, even in the dark. A feeling like things that belong to children are rusting all around you, and every sound in the night is hunger. I started walking. I lit a Lion to keep me company, closing my eyes against the lighter, and walked with the smoke toward the crossroads, and the voices. My eyes got used to the dark. I passed a battered wooden sawhorse spattered with paint and spackle. There was a sign tied to it: ROAD CLOSED KEEP OUT.
I kept on.
— ♦♦♦ —
I never heard a shot walking, so Hendricks was dead before I got to the crossroads. I don’t know about the girl on the cross. Maybe she went hard and quiet, no mouth to scream with. I know she didn’t go quick. These sorts of things work out, so all parties concerned suffer a while.
Hendricks was dead at the edge of the road, at the end of a long drag of blood, gut shot with a spread of triple-aught and a second barrel coup de grace to the head. He was all over the place.
There were a few fires around, arranged in some sort of meaningless shape I couldn’t make out, and an old pawnshop drum, strung up with feathers and red thread and bones, that nobody was beating. The ground was all clotted blood, shriveled in the dust, beaded like blind black eyes in the dirt.
Minnie was at the absolute middle of it all, hung up naked on a cobbled cross with a couple of nails and old rope like you’d forget in a shed. The wood against her back was black with blood.
On the top of her head, tied in with her hair, was a wreath of dull steel strings, a brown crown of rust.
The copper stink of liver hung in woodsmoke on the wind.
Fats and Jeanie hardly looked at me as I stepped into the convergence of dirt at the rusted heart of Mississippi. Fats was holding a double-barreled bird gun loose in one hand, and he was drunk. Jeanie had a sloshing bottle and a book. There was a sticky knife at her feet.
I made my way toward them easy, picking around the blood. I got my .38 in hand and thumbed the hammer back.
Fats looked up at me. “Hey Switch,” he said.
“Hey, Fats.” I nodded. “Hey, Jeanie.”
Jeanie closed the book. “Why won’t he come?” she said.
“Papa Legba,” said Fats. “We did just like we always did. He come before.”
“Legat doesn’t have any interest in any of this,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Fats. He smiled.
“You look tired,” I said.
“I been sick a while, Switch.”
I said, “I know, Fats,” and I put the muzzle of the gun behind his ear and shot him in the head.
Jeanie flinched at the shot, but that was all.
The fires burned and neither of us said anything. Hot rocks cracked in the dirt.
After a while, Jeanie said, “How long have you known?”
“I got it all together this afternoon. I knew right off you had trashed your own place, but I figured you were covering for Carriere, so I let it drop. You called him that first night.”
Jeanie nodded, absent. “How’d you know we trashed the Shack?”
“Ghede wouldn’t waste Lemon Hart and goat peppers. He rides the burn. You just copied pictures out of that book. Someone sending a message would’ve known.” Then I said, “Why, Jeanie?”
“I found him in the bath a couple of months ago,” Jeanie said. “Whiskey and Dilaudid, and Charles Mingus on the record player.” She drank. It was cheap rum like you’d scrub a rusted tool with. “He looked so fine, Maddy. I almost left him be, but Mingus ran down, so I turned the record over and got Fats out the tub and got the pills out Fats and got him walkin around. I said, ‘You’re doing better, Baby, what are you doing?’ and he looked at me, Maddy, and he said, ‘Jeanie, I’m feeling good enough to go.’”
I tapped ash, watching out for Fats’ face.
“I had to get him better. Get him healed. We had to get him right,” Jeanie said. She held the bottle out my way and I took it.
“You said Fats was doing better.” I took a drink and gave the bottle back. “Why was that?”
“We tried it with a chicken,” said Jeanie. “Bought a bunch about a month ago off Jasper Trot, got a big black one in with the rest, and Fats was hurtin so bad. He had that book, and we just said why not? What’d we have to lose but a couple of pounds of bird and a little bleach on the floor?”
“And he got a little better.” The rum and the smoke settled into my gums and burned there.
Jeanie nodded. “Got a little color back. Slept through the night a couple of times.”
“Okay,” I said. “How’d it get to Minnie?”
“The girl on the cross.”
Jeanie kept her eyes away. “It was our little thing. Once a week, we’d get our chickens from Jasper, and there was always a black one, like an omen. So, we’d draw the lines and take the beak and offer the feathers, and Fats, he was breathin easier.” Another drink. “He was hoping, Switch. We would do it, and he had hope.”
“He got a little worse, he got in the tub,” I said.
“Carriere came by.” Jeanie killed the bottle and tossed it toward a fire. Little tongues of flame hung around the mouth. “He wanted to play the Shack, but I heard him, and he wasn’t shit so I said no. He hung around and got drunk and blabbed about some rich white trim, snatched Robert Johnson’s strings and run off with him for love and the Blues.”
My lips burned, so I flipped the butt away and lit another one. “Who lifted the strings off her?” I asked.
“Bust in while she was asleep. It was hot as all hell in that room–she had her foot stuck out the sheets. I saw her tattoos and I knew.”
I thought of the rope burns on Judith’s ankles.
“The wings of Hermes,” I said. “Black feathers on a young bird.”
“Like an omen.” Jeanie looked down at Fats. The dirt around his head was muddy with blood.
“What about Minnie?”
Jeanie crouched down. She touched Fats’ eyelids, then tried to press them shut, but that’s just in movies. Fats died with his eyes open. That was all.
“Fats saw her coming up the street late, pie-eyed drunk and legless. He saw the wings, and he just took her.”
“Blind luck,” I said.
“Sure.” I was tired. The gun was getting heavy in my hand, and my mouth was a wreck of booze and smoke and grit. I put the .38 away and walked over to Minnie on the cross, gift of the Divine, and salvation of a dead man, daughter of mourning. What a waste. What a fucking waste it all was.
I reached up and took the strings from her head.
Jeanie was talking.
“My granddad had this photograph. He told me about the little Cajun girl and about her man, and what you done and what she done to you.” She was sitting, rubbing Fats’ back with the flat of her hand. She looked up at me. “You been a long time off the Street, Switch. You look old.” She looked back at Fats. “All we wanted was somethin’ like you got.”
I started back toward the car. It was going on one o’clock. I was tired.
“You should run, Jeanie,” I said. “Else use that bird gun, if you can.”
A little later, I tossed the bundled strings into the scrub grass on the low side of the road, in with the beer cans and condoms and rumpled, stubbed-out cigarettes, where they belonged, and left them to rust.
— ♦♦♦ —
Devlin and a handful of messages were waiting for me when I got back. Someone’s wife smelled perfume. Someone’s husband smelled salt and sweat. Buddy West with a tip on a cockfight, two surefire losers. Sergeant Halloran following up: rest assured, Devlin got hers.
I listened to the messages and held her where she was, and after I just held her.
Drinks. The rest of the gin. Then Stingers, like brandied Christmas in the heat. Then bed. Then the window.
“You smoke too much.”
“I thought you were asleep.”
Devlin sat up in bed, shadows across her breasts where the blinds cut the streetlight. Chick of a lighter and the tilt of her head to light a crooked cigarette. She breathed earthy smoke. “It’s bugging me,” she said. “What was Hendricks doing out there? He had security.”
I looked at her and cracked some ice between my teeth. “Officer Devlin?”
She wagged the spliff. “Sarah.”
“I didn’t get a chance to ask him.”
It was raining outside. I thought: He went out there to cut his own deal. Power, or money, or to live a little longer. His security man knew about Minnie Larose–Think the cops will see a couple of dead girls as nothing? –tailed me, saw something I didn’t, got an angle on Fats before I figured it out. Hendricks wouldn’t risk his security man making a deal of his own, went out himself, ran his mouth, Fats shot it off.
I said: “It doesn’t matter.”
Devlin kicked at the sheets. “Think you’ll get paid?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She pulled on a shirt, came over, and kissed me. Her fingers brushed through my hair, gentle as the touch of the blind. “You look tired, Switch.”
She smiled and twisted some hair between her fingers. “I never noticed before. This little twist of gray.”
I looked at her, away from the rain. “What?”
“Don’t. I think it’s beautiful. Come back to bed?”
Devlin stretched. “You want coffee?”
I looked out at the rain, not washing the city clean, but wetting the dirt and running it away out of sight. Outside, rain puttered on gutter empties and aluminum trashcans in alleys down the street, plink, and titter, the laughter of New Orleans. I thought about Fats, and about a city worn old and soulful as a good blues guitar. A city missing string. A city of cracks and rust.
The rain sang down the street like a little girl’s laughter, in my heart like the anguished wail of a woman in the night.
— ♦♦♦ —
This is the exciting tale of two brothers, not bound by birth, but by blood. Together they will face an evil that has long scourged the land. They will need all of their courage to rid the land of the monster known as Two-Face.