Glancing down at his comp-pad to hide his embarrassment at the lurid tableau, Detective Rick Beckman frowned. A moment passed while he gathered his scattered composure. For his own sake (if for no other reason), he had to maintain a coherent mask of professional neutrality.
"Any ideas, Detective?"
Rick cleared his throat. A second ticked by before he turned towards the New New Orleans detective -- Walt D'Angelo -- who had been assigned to "assist" him. Keep an eye on me is more like it, Rick thought wryly. "I'm a detective," Rick said testily. Despite his resolve, his annoyance at this make-work assignment filtered through. Almost reluctantly, he shifted his attention to the bloated, naked corpse whose discovery had brought him here to the Riverview Hotel. The dead mass of flesh sprawled in all his -- its -- undignified splendor across the rumpled and stained sheets. "I'm not a psychic."
D'Angelo's prominent ears reddened. His large lips thinned to a hard line as he stepped back a pace. Without verbal comment, he folded beefy arms across his broad chest.
A grimace flickered across Rick's weathered face. "Sorry, Walt," he murmured. "Not enough sleep last night."
The other detective's rigid posture melted a fraction but did not completely relax. "Sure," he said briskly. "Just wondering."
Rick smothered his irritation at the man's condescending air. Clinically, he regarded the dead man staring vacantly at the peeling yellow paint of the ceiling.
The pale body had to top two-hundred-fifty pounds. At least seventy-five of that consisted of thick pads of fat molded over a once sturdy frame like ropes of gray clay spiraled around a wire sculpture. A thick mop of white hair plastered the round skull in an unflattering, form-fitting cap. Dull, glazed eyes of deep brown peered sightlessly into space. They offered no clue as to what scene of degradation had last impressed itself upon this tingler-encased brain.
The massive arms and barrel legs spread, star-shaped, as though frozen in the act of making an innocent snow angel. Of course, the residents of sultry New New Orleans had experienced that child-like pleasure of his Northern upbringing about as often as Rick had wrestled a rough-toothed alligator.
With the distaste of a fastidious man probing a nest of maggots, Rick poked with the tip of his silvery comp-pad stylus at the delicate web of the tingler on the man's head. The shimmering dark mesh did not respond to the tentative contact. The forensics team had assured him the tingler had truly and completely died. Whatever program had activated its illegal circuits had been wiped clean. Its tiny electronic power source was as cold and non-existent as the life of the man who had chosen this avenue for his illicit pleasures.
"This doesn't look like a homemade job." Rick glanced in inquiry over his shoulder at D'Angelo.
The detective sniffed his disdain. "It's not," he said tersely. "But there's no manufacturer ID, either. Somebody had access to prime material and the ability to hide the source."
Thoughtfully, Rick nodded. A small "V" furrowed his brow. "But if that somebody possessed resources such as that, why use them in this sleaze-bag place?" he said, sweeping his free arm to indicate the decrepit room.
"Like you said," D'Angelo said with a sly grin, "you're the detective."
Rick grunted. "A master of petards, eh?"
Rick waved that aside. Scanning his comp-pad, he said, "How'd you get his ID so fast? All his clothes and personal effects are missing. Or did you run his prints already?"
"Hell, everybody knows who Franklin James is." D'Angelo shrugged, his shoulders bobbing like those of a modest hippo. "Owns one of the biggest construction companies in the state. Don't know how Mrs. James is going to take this news. Can't believe she'll be too happy about it."
"Loved him a lot, did she?" Rick asked absently as he walked to the opposite side of the bed.
A bark of laughter escaped D'Angelo. "Loved him? Be happy to see him dead's more like it."
"Would she have...?" He gestured at the victim.
Shaking his head, D'Angelo pursed his lips. "Oh, she knew about his dalliances and all, but who didn't? Old Mr. James's biggest crime in her eyes wouldn't be that he hung out with hookers or wore a tingler now and then. His major sin was dying in the middle of it and exposing her to public ridicule."
Gingerly, Rick drew up the soiled sheet to conceal the worst of the spectacle. Shoving his tongue against the inside of his cheek, he said, "I don't know how you folks in New New Orleans operate, but in D.C., we'd be hauling the good Mrs. James in for questioning. I imagine a gentleman such as this would have a generous life insurance policy."
A nightstand held a dingy-shaded lamp, a half-filled ashtray, and a pack of illegal cigarettes. D'Angelo picked up the latter and deftly slid it into a side pocket of his jacket. "She has more money than she can use already. Who do you think bankrolled his construction company in the first place?"
Rick observed the unself-conscious theft but offered no rebuke. Only a few days had passed since Justice shipped him south at the request of Louisiana Governor Bert Hadaway. Even in that brief time, he had learned a bit of New New Orleans protocol. If he raised a stink over every minor rules infraction, he would never have time to focus on his main objective here: to discover whether the two -- now three -- recent tingler-related demises qualified as an unlikely spike in the roll of the death-dice. Or if they represented clear cases of premeditated and meticulously planned murder.
Besides, Rick thought sourly, the Cigarette War had been waged for nearly eight decades by the Feds. It had accomplished nothing beyond complicating his career and the integrity of his profession. Strictly speaking, of course, the War had provided job security for countless law enforcement personnel, an excuse to clamp down even further on the citizens he was supposed to protect, and a way for men and women such as D'Angelo to supplement their salaries with a constant supply of graft, bribes, and blackmail. In any event, he wanted nothing to do with it. He refused any assignment connected even remotely to cig-runners, buyers, or users. Let them kill themselves and their fellow nic-addicts if they so desired. He had real crimes to fight.
Shoving aside such bleak ruminations, Rick blew out a breath. "What kind of prints did they find?"
"Lots." D'Angelo grinned. "What else do you expect in a place that rents rooms by the hour?"
"O.K.," Rick said with forced patience. "What matches did they find among those 'lots'?"
The detective pulled out a smaller, grungier comp-pad from a coat pocket and touched its miniature screen. "Let's see... A Bettyjean Tompkins, hooker. In jail for the past two weeks. Francine Bonaparte, hooker. Drowned in the river a month ago. Teresa Murdock, Sally Wilson, Janet Caldwell. All hookers. Alice Pendrake, the maid here. A few others they couldn't identify."
"Couldn't identify?" Rick said in exasperation. Clenching his teeth, he strode over to the detective. "Everybody has prints on file. You can't get an ID otherwise. And without an ID you can't work, can't rent a home, can't buy food, clothing, or anything else."
"Can't legally buy them," D'Angelo corrected him. "But who knows? Maybe the prints were smeared or something. Not everyone thoughtfully provides pristine images for us to match."
Squeezing his comp-pad tightly in his right hand, Rick struggled to remain calm. "What about the men? Surely they didn't all wear gloves."
D'Angelo slid his gaze in the direction of the partially-covered corpse. "Don't imagine they wore much of anything," he said in a dead-pan voice. "Be that as it may, the only male prints we found belonged to one Franklin James."
For a moment, Rick wondered why in hell his boss had exiled him to this forsaken anus of the world. The very individuals whose jobs demanded they cooperate and aid him proved to be his greatest stumbling blocks.
The question provided its own answer.
Three prominent businessmen dead under suspicious and sensational circumstances. The details of their ends minimized and obscured by a complacent police department. Others who might share such playful proclivities clamoring for answers to ensure their future safety...and their continued ability to indulge forbidden pastimes.
An independent investigator -- him -- to ensure that the danger and the culprits did not merely sink from sight into the Southern morass of New New Orleans society. Nor erupt into a full-blown, potentially damaging scandal for a two-bit governor in a jerkwater state. How was he to accomplish those goals? Somehow. Always somehow...which always translated into "someone else." Him.
"Download your notes into my comp-pad," Rick said roughly, holding up his stylus.
"Sure." D'Angelo lowered the port onto the stylus tip then returned the device to his pocket. "Want me to bag the tingler for you?"
Almost, Rick agreed. The detective's sudden attention to duty, however, triggered faint alarms. With the speed of a striking river adder, Rick's fingers clamped on D'Angelo's thick wrist before the officer reached the deadly crown.
The man's strength surprised Rick. Overweight D'Angelo might be, but real muscles rippled under that slack exterior. If the detective truly meant to take the tingler, Rick could do precious little to stop him...short of drawing his zapper or his needler.
For a crackling few seconds, D'Angelo stared into Rick's intense hazel eyes with the malevolent gaze of a roused viper. Just as quickly, however, that deadly challenge retreated behind a veiled amusement. The man's arm dropped to his side.
Trying not to stretch his fingers too obviously to relieve the induced cramp, Rick stepped next to the bed. Slowly, he drew a clear bag from a pocket, slipped the tingler from its resting place with his stylus, and slid it cautiously home. Last, he shoved the clasp over until the container was sealed from prying hands.
D'Angelo said nothing and offered no further objections.
Perhaps the detective's eagerness had not signaled ulterior motives. Perhaps he desired nothing more than to help.
Perhaps the Mississippi would retreat to its old riverbed, and the sunken portions of Old New Orleans would rise miraculously to view, restored again to their unsullied beauty.
Motioning D'Angelo to lead the way from the (murder?) scene, Rick followed. As he exited the room, he waved the waiting coroner to enter and fulfill his duty.
Rick only hoped he would survive long enough in New New Orleans to do the same.
Janet Caldwell clutched her temples with trembling fingers and squeezed bloodshot eyes against the incessant throbbing of her head. The extra-strength aspirin she had choked down half an hour before had barely chipped away at the rumbling intensity of her hangover.
Cheap bastard, she thought, wincing. One of the richest men in the entire mud-bespattered state and he ordered the lowliest rot-gut the Riverview had to offer. For that alone, the bastard deserved the ludicrous fate they had fashioned for him.
Janet rolled from her disheveled, queen-sized bed. As best she could, she ignored the thin slivers of starkly yellow daylight punching through the gaps in the window shades. She had to pee. Badly.
In the bathroom, she eased gingerly onto the wooden toilet seat, relieved herself, then stood to wash her hands in the ancient sink. As she dried her hands on a faded but clean beige towel, she slit her lids and examined the damage last night's little escapade had inflicted upon her.
Mottled bruises on her mirror-reversed biceps echoed the savage hold that asshole James had used when she entered his rented room. Somehow, terrorizing a woman barely half his size excited the stupid idiot. Janet did not care what pathetic ego needs the slime-hole massaged with such a rough display of physical strength. Maybe he thought his wife emasculated him with her money, her intellectual superiority, and her supposed frigidity. In compensation, he snatched at any hint of power and control he could grasp in his sausage thick fingers. Janet, of course, knew the truth regarding Aletha James.
Damaging the merchandise, however, did nothing to endear him to her or to persuade her to abandon the precarious course she and her friends had chosen. His cowardly act only bolstered her disdain. Once James had consumed enough brown courage to continue that evening's diversions, she had not hesitated slipping that expensive trinket over his fat head.
Luckily, this time she had not been forced to endure his "affections" before reaching the denouement. Though she had long ago lost track of how many male organs had penetrated her, sometimes a customer so disgusted her that she refused to consummate the transaction. Though Mr. High-and-Mighty Franklin James would normally have fit that profile too-well, given her objectives she would have swallowed her compunctions and spread her thighs, if it had come to that. Having experienced tingler sex before, however, Mr. James only too eagerly preferred to proceed directly to the enhanced encounter.
The special tingler program her friends had supplied had begun innocently enough. Stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, it had set Mr. James on an upward spiral of augmented delight. With his eyelids fluttering in barely bounded bliss, any suspicions he might have entertained in the aftermath of the recent tingler deaths faded from consciousness. Only then -- but before he could snare her in his disgusting embrace -- had the tingler subtly shifted its commands. The invisible impulses had raced to another portion of that mentally and emotionally deformed brain. Simultaneously shutting down the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, the tingler had nudged the old fart past the portals of consciousness. Gently, it slid him gracefully and permanently into the waters of Lethe. Forgetting to breath and to beat his heart, Franklin James had entered the ultimate oblivion.
Janet grimaced as her headache spiked a nail through her skull.
Screw him, she thought viciously. Him and all his kind.
A quick survey of her trim body found nothing else to worry her. At age thirty-four, she knew her career could not last much longer...at least not among any clientele who could afford more than the minimum. For all the money that had slipped through her fingers, little of it remained to soften the blows of advancing years and the first hints of a sagging body. Though the women she worked with had long ago eliminated their pimp -- men were not the only ones capable of wielding a pistol, after all -- they spent their illegally earned income nearly as rapidly as they obtained it. Of course, after the government took its lion's share of what she felt obligated to report, that amounted to less than a princely sum.
If not for friends such as Jeff and Cameron, she knew her likely fate would be an unpleasant death on the streets of New New Orleans. Too many of the women she knew had already stumbled into that end.
Massaging her sore breasts -- Damn! Another period coming on already? -- Janet clinically assessed their size and shape, the thin layer of fat softening the curves of her hips and thighs, and the thick mound of dark pubic hair so many of her guests liked to probe with their flicking tongues.
Too bad she couldn't remember the last time she had experienced an orgasm. A real one, anyway. Years, at least. The kinds of men who would date a prostitute rarely possessed the qualities one sought for in a mate...or even a guy she would bring home to her parents. If her parents still lived. As if she gave a flying good goddamned.
Some of Cameron's men offered real potential...but not until she discovered a new career to pursue.
Turning from the ornately framed mirror, Janet wrestled with that sudden burst of anger she so frequently believed she had overcome. That childhood emotion picked the most inopportune occasions to reassert itself. A skull-doc would undoubtedly tell her she would experience those nagging barbs of resentment until she allowed herself fully to acknowledge, accept, and experience them. To do that, however, would be to admit that her parents -- with their twangy Midwestern accents -- had been correct in urging her not to rebel, to fit in and not question her teachers and employers, to accede to the demands of society.
That, she would never do. Indeed, if she had crumpled under that pressure from her oh-so-cooperative and oh-so-caring parents, she would never have embarked upon this adventure in the first place. Even though her own death might be the final result of this dangerous game, she would see it through to whatever climax it provided. The odds of success did not appear overly favorable, but such mundane considerations had rarely deflected her in the past. Given the alternative, she could imagine no other avenue to follow.
Pattering, nude, across the white tile of the bathroom, Janet entered her bedroom, toyed briefly with the idea of slipping on a robe, then proceeded au naturel into the cluttered living room. The massive, metal-framed sofa, well-used chairs, and chipped, mahogany coffee table competed for space with the tall, skinny bookcase overflowing with used books and magazines. Beyond that lay the tiny kitchen with its ancient electric stove, fold-down table, humming refrigerator, and slowly oxidizing sink.
A billow of cool air washed across her skin, hardening her nipples, as she opened the refrigerator door. With little enthusiasm, she examined the haphazardly arranged food containers crowded on the multiple shelves. One of these first days she really had to set aside a few hours and thoroughly sort through that mess and clean the enamel interior. Someday.
Grabbing a box of leftover ribs, a plastic-covered bowl of baked beans, and a bottle of beer, she kicked the door shut and pushed the button that lowered the table into place. The small rectangle of polished wood fell in a smooth arc before locking with a dull thud on its large metal hinges. After setting down her impromptu meal, Janet unfolded a chair and eased onto the cloth seat.
If food wouldn't drive away her cranial pain, maybe the beer would.
For a few minutes, she focused her full concentration on gnawing at the spicy and sticky remnants of her last visit to the Cajun Corner restaurant. Once she had dulled the initial pangs of appetite, she snatched a spoon from the drainer and proceeded at a more measured pace to consume the beans in their rich bath of molasses and secret ingredients.
Emitting a contented burp, she sagged into the creaking chair and contemplated the sweating bottle of beer. Miniature riverlets flowed fitfully down the clear glass guarding the amber fluid within. A tense frown momentarily distorted Janet's well-formed features. With an untamed, almost ferocious gesture, she swung the tall-necked bottle to her lips and gulped down the sharp brew with an unrelenting, almost cold-blooded intensity. The pitiless power she used in slamming the half-drained container back onto the table startled her from her ruthless reverie.
No, her parents -- and most especially her mother -- would never have approved of her lackadaisical housekeeping, her unhealthy culinary habits, or her choice in careers. Of course, they had rarely approved of any aspect of her life even before she had bid them adieu and headed south for warmer climes. What irked Janet now almost as much as those distant memories was the fact that she still could become so upset at people who no longer existed as part of her current life. Intellectually, she had long ago realized the source of her initial rebellion as well as the deeper fountainhead for her later decisions. Somehow, though, that unadorned truth had yet to translate into full emotional congruity.
Scrubbing bleary eyes with the tips of her fingers, Janet rose and headed for the shower. The nearly empty bottle stood lone sentry amid the debris from her meal. She had promised to meet Jeff later that afternoon to detail her latest and last rendezvous with the target du jour. After that, she would have to don her work outfit and patrol her beat yet again.
Conspiracy or no conspiracy, the bills continued to arrive on time. Some things never changed.
As she spun the shower lever to deliver a stinging spray of cool water against her weary, upturned face, Janet hoped that change would come more easily to other aspects of the world.
Trying his best not to snarl his frustration, Governor Bert Hadaway gazed at the vidscreen and the insolent image of Detective Walt D'Angelo of the New New Orleans police department. When this minor (he hoped) imbroglio reached its natural conclusion, he would ensure that this defiant underling reached his full potential...as 'gator bait. Perhaps. The man wouldn't be the first to meet those jaws. Until then, however, the four-term governor of the great state of Louisiana would wear his best conciliatory and patient politician's mask. For the present, he must allay any suspicions this buffoon might harbor in his black-eyed-pea-sized brain.
With an elaborate sigh, Hadaway patted the air with his open hands. "Take it easy, Walt. I'm not asking you to be the man's nanny. I just want to be assured he doesn't stick his long, Yankee nose in where it doesn't belong. Keep him on the road we want. No detours."
Detective D'Angelo slipped a smuggled Mexican cigarette between his full lips and nonchalantly lit the tip with an expensive looking, engraved gold lighter. "I can't go reining him in too tightly or he's likely to get suspicious. He may be a Yankee, but I get the distinct impression he isn't a stupid one. He's a fast learner, no matter what those Feds say."
Hadaway's narrow brow wrinkled. "Meaning what?"
D'Angelo waved the white tube in front of the vid pickup. A veil of gray-white smoke briefly obscured his grinning features. "When I pocketed this pack of cigs from James's hotel room, I know Beckman saw me. I could hardly have been more obvious about it. Committed a federal crime right in front of him. Also plain as anything, he was not very happy at what I had done. But did he call me on it? Then or later?" Examining his cigarette, the detective said, "No, sir. Nothing. He let it slide without a ripple of complaint despite how it grated on his 'professional ethics.'"
For a moment, Hadaway pondered that intelligence. "Promising, I suppose," he said noncommittally, "but hardly conclusive. He may merely be biding his time until he feels more secure in his situation. After all, he's only been down there a few days."
D'Angelo's face clouded. "'Conclusive,' my johnny-red ass. I tell you he'll play. We just need to let him string out his line a bit before reeling him in. Keep a pretty face on it so he doesn't lose what little reputation he has left with Justice."
Waving that aside, Hadaway thrust ahead, his aggravation sharpening his tone. "Regardless, we still need to discover who's doing this and why. The Feds may think these deaths rate nothing more than a third-rate agent, but I smell blood. If these murders continue much longer, there'll be hell to pay...and I don't intend to be the cashier."
"You still believe it's murder?"
"Awfully damned coincidental, don't you think? Some of our biggest contributors die in such similar fashions and over such a short span of time? Do you grasp what I'm saying?" Despite his earlier resolve, the governor could not drain all sarcasm from his voice.
A scowl ghosted across the detective's face. "Fine. It's a conspiracy. We want Beckman to dig up the dirt then bury it far from our doorstep before he leaves. I'm telling you, that's not going to be a problem."
Deliberately, Hadaway dropped the pleasant facade and speared a long, thin finger at his subordinate and spy. "Be certain you're right, Walt. 'Cause if I lose next year's election, you can be damned sure I won't be the only one paddling the swamps for business when I leave Baton Rouge."
D'Angelo stiffened, his smoldering cigarette forgotten between his fingers. "I don't take kindly to threats, Governor. Not even from you."
"And I don't take kindly to the prospect of losing everything I've built up over so many years," Hadaway said with steely certitude. "Help Beckman when you can, fuck him up when you have to. Just find out who's supplying those tinglers, who's programming them, and who's handing them out like party favors. And why. Understood?"
Nodding curtly, the detective reached out, said, "Understood, Governor," and abruptly severed the connection.
Hadaway winced at that insubordination. The muscles in his jaws bunched in annoyance.
His anger did not flow for long, however. Wasting energy on useless emotion did not appeal to him. Better to act than to curse the air.
Reaching for a Cuban cigar from the dwindling supply on his desk, he snipped off the tip with a razor-sharp cutter and sucked upon the rich tobacco.
He would act, all right, when the time and place proved best for his purposes. He would not be goaded into rash revenge. That cold meal was one he fully intended to enjoy to its fullest.