First time I've ever driven through a river. Peering myopically through the smeared glass of his windshield, Rick Beckman gently arced the rented vehicle towards the curb and applied the brake. The faint squeal of metal-on-metal did not penetrate his concentration. It was not everyday he interrogated one of the most prominent -- and richest -- individuals of a state, even one as poor as Louisiana. A whispering voice warned him that Mrs. Aletha James would prove to be no pushover. A social maven such as she would hardly be intimidated by a low-level law enforcement officer...especially a "damned Yankee," at that.
Pushing the gear into park, Rick killed the engine and stared at the torrent of water plummeting from the darkened sky. A doomsday crack following hard on the heels of an actinic lightning bolt elicited an involuntary jerk. The car's clock announced the time as three in the afternoon. The storm barreling in from the Gulf of Mexico, however, had buried any hint of daylight under its roiling masses of thick, blue-black clouds. It might as easily have been midnight as midday.
"I hate getting soaked," Rick murmured in annoyed resignation at the inevitable. With the rushing wind gusting up to forty miles an hour, the compact, maroon umbrella under his seat would be as useful in fending off this damnable New Orleans weather as a straight pin would be in warding off a snapping 'gator.
Unfortunately, he had already missed his three o'clock appointment with Mrs. James. Though he had heard that Southerners held less tightly to such deadlines, he suspected his interviewee might disclose the narrowness of such a generalization.
Expelling a long breath, Rick grabbed the door handle. He tensed for his mad dash across the cracked sidewalk and towards the imposing mansion. Determinedly, he pushed against the door as hard as he could.
With the gale pushing angrily back, however, his run faltered at the gate. Struggling, he managed to squeeze into the open, felt the wind rudely snatch and slam the door for him, then spun about into the full brunt of the monsoon. Like a drenched mime, he forced his way against the invisible hands urging him towards the safety and dryness of his car. Before he had reached the sidewalk, his imitation of a drowning victim seemed complete. Inundated, he plowed manfully ahead, heedless of the buffeting tempest.
Hardly able to breath against the laughing pressure of the gale, he stumbled, half-blind, onto the broad veranda stretching across the front of the ancient dwelling. Partially sheltered, he stamped his feet and shook his arms in a futile attempt to remove the excess water.
Smoothing back his plastered hair, he frowned. "Great. Just great." A dash of anger evaporated any concerns regarding his sodden appearance. "Stupid-ass weather..." All the more reason to forge ahead and close this case. The sooner he returned to his normal stomping grounds, the better. Humidity was one thing. This, however...
A golden aura of light opened in the darkness. A young woman in a subdued yet stylish dress propped open the door. "You're welcome to linger out there, Mr. Beckman," she said with a sardonic drawl, "if you really and truly enjoy the great outdoors. But it is past three, and Mrs. James hates to be kept waiting."
Rick blinked away droplets of moisture leaking from his sopping hair and gazed into his greeter's gray-green eyes. "Thanks," he said curtly. Her half-smile did nothing to oil the waters of his foul mood. Stepping past the woman, he paused in the entryway as she wrestled the door closed.
"Sorry I'm late," Rick said perfunctorily. "Got a bit turned about in the storm."
"Easy enough to do," the woman said agreeably. Self-confidently, she thrust out a hand. "I'm Stellisa O'Connell. Mrs. James's private secretary."
Licking his lips, Rick said, "What? Where's the butler? Or maid?"
Without offense, Stellisa handed Rick a thick, peach-colored towel from a table standing guard near the ornate, leaded-glass door. Momentarily startled, Rick stared uncomprehendingly at the proffered gift.
"You prefer wet?" Stellisa asked matter-of-factly.
"Oh. No. Thanks," Rick said, taking the towel. Shaking it out, he dabbed at his face.
Watching the detective remove the worst of the water, Stellisa said, "You've been watching too many old movies, Detective. In this egalitarian day-and-age, there are few enough citizens who can afford a full household staff."
Handing back the towel, Rick said slowly, "But surely Mrs. James is one of those elite few."
"Oh, yes," Stellisa said, tossing the wadded towel onto the table. "But Mrs. James has never cared much for throngs of people underfoot. One reason she never had children, I suppose."
"One reason..." Who is this woman? Rick wondered. "And Mrs. James is...?"
"She'll be done in a little while. In the meantime," Stellisa said smoothly, gesturing across the foyer, perhaps you'd care for a drink while you wait?"
A twinkle of light from the crystal chandelier illuminating the room reflected from Stellisa's eyes. "Just a cup of tea, perhaps. To warm you up. I know you're on duty, Detective."
Yielding to the suggestion because he had no good clue how else to proceed -- after all, he could hardly storm up to...where? The bedroom?...and demand that Mrs. James immediately commence the interview -- Rick accepted the gracious invitation with as much aplomb as he could muster.
The craftsmanship of the spacious dwelling Mrs. James called home gradually filtered through Rick's awareness. "Elegant" did not capture its essence. While not a competent judge of architectural styles or techniques, he nonetheless appreciated quality workmanship and fine taste. The rich, polished -- waxed? -- wood of the walls, floors, and the stairway leading to the second story bespoke a bygone era when pride as well as profit moved artisans. Then, they strived to create an environment appreciated for its beauty as much as for its utility.
Ornate chandeliers hanging improbably from long, thin chains; intricate plaster-work reflecting a heritage passed down from the era of classic Greece or Rome; finely carved and upholstered furniture placed unobtrusively about the rooms; Tiffany-style lamps surely worth more than his yearly salary; detailed landscapes and flattering portraits of vanished scenes and imperious people capturing a distant history; all the bits and pieces of a family's life transformed what could have been a museum into a living monument to a once-vital society.
Remembering just as he began to sit, Rick hovered, half-crouched as he glanced towards Stellisa. "My...I'm still pretty wet," he said, straightening awkwardly. "I don't want to stain this chair."
"Oh! How thoughtless of me. Just a moment." Striding purposefully from the room, Stellisa returned moments later with a folded sheet. Deftly, she draped it across the seat and back of Rick's chair. "There you are," she said brightly. "No harm done."
Once the tea had been poured into tiny porcelain cups -- "Haviland china," Stellisa informed him (whatever the significance of that) -- and a scalloped plate of small, chocolate cookies had been passed, Rick settled gingerly back and glanced about the room. Trying to grip the cup without crushing it -- under no circumstances would he ever be able to force a finger through the delicate curve of its handle -- Rick cast about for a topic suitable to polite conversation.
Rarely, however, had he need for such small talk in his line of work. Despite his ability to read subtle social cues and personality characteristics in those he met, most of his "clientele" consisted of lawbreakers and lower-class losers. The bosses at Justice usually shunted the higher-profile cases to those in the department more suave and sophisticated than he. His personality often rubbed the wrong people the wrong way. His presence in New Orleans arose primarily from his small reputation as a no-nonsense, non-political investigator, destined never to challenge his superiors or to make waves. His primary goal consisted in getting the job done...not in impressing others or wrangling for a promotion. Obscurity sheltered him and his career from prying eyes.
"How long have you worked for Mrs. James?" Rick asked, at last.
Sipping at her steaming tea, Stellisa sank into the settee placed at an angle to Rick's chair. "I've been helping her for nearly fifteen years now."
"Fifteen years?" Rick blurted out. "You don't look old enough to..."
A tinkle of laughter greeted the detective's discomfiture. "Why, thank you so very much. Nice to know the years have been so kind."
Rather than compounding his faux pas with more explanation, Rick asked, "Did you have much contact with Mr. James then?"
A thin veil of distaste fluttered across Stellisa's face. Her trim shoulders stiffened ever-so-slightly. "No," she said tersely. "Not a great deal. He...Mr. James kept quite busy at his other...pursuits."
Gulping down the rest of his tea, Rick deposited the cup upon the serving tray, glad to be rid of the fragile thing.
"That cup is over three-hundred years old, Mr. Beckman," a new voice said from the arched doorway. "It's been in my family for a very long time." Like a vision from a departed past, Mrs. Aletha James glided into the room.
Rising quickly, Rick met Mrs. James in the middle of the room. Cautiously, he shook her small hand.
The strength of her grip surprised him, though, almost as much as her well-tailored outfit of supple silk. Despite creeping towards seventy-years of age -- as Rick knew from her file -- she in no way conveyed dowdiness or insularity from the ebb and flow of modern society. No relic of a more wistful age, she exuded a self-assured astuteness Rick found immediately appealing...and curious.
"Disappointed I'm not wearing a hoop-skirt and braided hair?"
Realizing he had been staring, Rick stepped back. "No. Sorry. I...wasn't quite certain what to expect."
Cordially slipping her arm through his, Mrs. James escorted Rick to a sofa situated before a tall bank of curtained windows. On sunny days, the location would have afforded visitors a marvelously cheerful place to visit. Given the still raging storm, however, it offered more a sanctuary from the elements.
As the elderly woman and the man decades her junior occupied opposite ends of the sofa, Stellisa drifted towards the doorway, almost -- but not quite -- out of earshot.
"So, Detective," Mrs. James said conversationally, "I assume you seek to probe my feelings, see if I will betray myself as the killer of my recalcitrant and inordinately wayward husband."
Rick blinked. "Uh... Basically." Gathering his wits from Mrs. James's frontal assault, he slipped on a stern expression. "Given what I know of customs here in the South, I could see why such an outcome might appeal to you."
"To avenge my sullied honor?" Mrs. James suggested. The lightness of her mocking tone descended into a firm, no-nonsense mode. "My honor remains -- as it always has -- solidly in my own hands. Whatever my deceased husband may or may not have done, he alone is responsible for his decisions and his indiscretions...as well as the consequences. I am unconcerned with dignifying any notion of guilt by association."
"But you did marry him. Surely that reflects upon your judgment and your values."
Mrs. James raised a judicious brow. "I'll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Beckman. When Mr. James and I married fifty-plus years ago, I was, to put it charitably, naive and starry-eyed. Franklin could be quite charming when he put his mind to it and ambitious in his own way. I admired ambition -- I still do -- but only ambition of a certain stripe. I encouraged my young beau to pursue his ideals, to build a business worthy of what I thought I detected in his soul. The wealth my parents bequeathed me -- diminished though it was by our political leaders before falling under my control -- it proved sufficiently great to permit us both to reach for our dreams."
Rick's hostess paused and coughed into her fist. "I admit to erring on the side of enthusiasm. Perhaps I blinded myself to obvious clues Franklin provided or perhaps he truly did own a pure vision. At least initially. Eventually, though, his swelling financial and political power corrupted the man I had once loved so dearly and so completely." She shrugged -- somewhat sadly? -- and gazed directly into Rick's unflinching eyes. "For many years I stayed out of loyalty to the man he once had been. I plead guilty to hoping foolishly that Franklin might one day recognize how far astray he had wandered, that he would return to me, chastened yet healed of his affliction. When even that remote fantasy failed to materialize, I suppose I kept his name from a combination of inertia...that and the threat of a legal system that would punish me and reward him should I formally break our bonds. But guilty of murder?" She shook her head. "Ridiculous. By the end, my husband hardly deserved that degree of jealousy or revenge."
"A vivid demonstration of Lord Acton's dictum?"
A genuine smile of pleasure wreathed Mrs. James's mildly wrinkled countenance. "You read the banned classics, Detective? How marvelous."
Rick shrugged uneasily. "Reading of any kind is rare enough these days," he allowed. "As a law enforcement officer, I enjoy certain...allowances." Shifting quickly back to business, he said, "If not jealousy or revenge, then perhaps embarrassment?"
"He was an embarrassment only to himself. Anyone attempting to load Franklin's silly antics onto my head displays only his own mental and moral deficiencies."
Rick's ears reddened. A moment passed before he continued.
"You now have sole control over his businesses and finances. Surely you chafed at the necessity of including him in such decisions while he lived?"
"His companies enjoy existences independent of our marital status. Once I awoke from my youthful slumber, I ensured that my share of whatever resources he created remained tightly in my grip and no other."
Rick considered her words then leaned toward her. "If Mr. James represented values you abhorred, wouldn't you seek to destroy him...and them?"
A challenging grin curved Mrs. James's lips. "Be assured, Detective Beckman, if I had wanted Franklin dead, I would not have hired someone to accomplish that for me. Nor would I have selected such a convoluted path to that end. Though I must confess a degree of wry amusement at the poetic image of his demise at the hand of a lowly prostitute...since in a very real sense that was what he, too, had become."
Before Rick could ask for clarification of that characterization, Mrs. James stood. "No. If I had wanted to murder my husband, I would have done so face-to-face and by my own hand."
Slowly Rick rose.
"If you'll excuse me, Detective," Mrs. James said, "I have another appointment due soon."
Appearing as though by magic, Stellisa said, "I believe the front has passed. The rain's letting up."
Mrs. James again took Rick's arm and escorted him to the door. "I'll wager we'll have a rainbow yet to relieve the gloom of this day."
"Yes," Rick said politely. "I hope you're correct."
As he passed through the doorway, he turned briefly. "I may need to talk with you again, Mrs. James." Even in his own mind, he could not tell if he meant that as a threat or a request.
The elderly woman inclined her head. "At your convenience, sir."
Bidding his thanks, Rick glanced up at the gray clouds scudding along in the storm's aftermath. Though the rain had diminished to an annoying drizzle, the wind continued to slap at him.
As he headed for his car, he realized that despite her suspect status, Mrs. James had managed to charm him with her straightforward and honest demeanor.
Why, then, did a nagging corner of his mind insist that this matron of New New Orleans had something very much to hide?
Leaning against the rusting railing, Janet Caldwell stared at the gravy-brown water sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the clear, salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. Hardly an image to frighten children. The river posed as a calming friend, the gurgle and splash of its waves soothing Janet's frayed nerves. For much of her adult life, the Mississippi had been a fact of her world, fading as such otherwise notable landmarks did into the background haze of awareness.
When first she had wandered into New New Orleans, alone and nearly penniless -- yet buoyed by a sense of liberation at being shed of her staid parents -- Janet had spent hours gazing at this marvel of nature. Its latent power and serenity had beckoned her even at that youthful period of her struggle. With a fascination borne of novelty, the restless waters had occupied her attention endlessly as she strolled up and down the manmade barrier separating New New Orleans from its drowned ancestor. For her, the broken and burned spires and shells (which had once enthralled millions of gawking tourists) initially held little meaning beyond what she could glean from old novels, books, and movies. Now those remnant shrouds of glory and history existed as landmarks along the reclaimed riverbank. Faintly, they heralded a new world to come, a world she and her friends fought for inch by inch.
In an earlier era, before a national obsession with "safety" and "security" had bankrupted the people, those ravaged structures might have been reclaimed and restored. Instead, a new truce between land and water had been declared. The present boundary had existed for generations. Janet realized that eventually this peace would be shattered once again when the river abandoned its meek and mild Jekyll facade and unveiled its buried Hyde persona in all its raging, destructive power.
The bent railing creaked faintly as Janet turned and leaned against it.
Where was he...? Jeff had told her to meet him at one o'clock. That deadline had passed half an hour ago.
The vague uneasiness which too frequently crept in when the unexpected and unexplained confronted her asserted its annoying presence as Janet straightened. Indecisively, she debated whether to leave and connect later with Jeff or wait still longer on the off-chance that something had delayed him. Calling him, of course, was not an option.
Crossing her arms, then just as abruptly dropping them to her sides, Janet decided that staying would accomplish nothing. The men, women, and children who shared her proclivity for the river indulged it in their own ways and appeared to take no note of her presence. Nevertheless, she feared one of those seemingly innocent bystanders might have other, more sinister goals in mind. Paranoia did not mesh well with her personality. Unfortunately, the hefty dose infecting Jeff had wormed its bleak way into her psyche ever since the "Tingler Murders" had been so-dubbed by the local media and then as quickly dropped.
As nonchalantly as she could, she sauntered past the rows of shade trees and regularly spaced park benches with their faded and flaking brown paint. An occasional fountain alleviated the long, wide expanse of sidewalk that provided a diverting venue for jaded citizens and eager tourist groups alike.
Perhaps she had misunderstood, Janet thought, quickening her pace. At their last meeting, they had discussed and finally selected a new target from the long list Jeff had first revealed to her...when?...three months ago.
He and Cameron had produced both the list and the rigged tinglers. The programs were designed to end painlessly the lives and careers of a number of Louisiana's most renowned movers. Since the two men and she shared the same objectives, she had not been difficult to recruit.
Disappointed at not seeing her friend, Janet crossed DuBois Street and headed away from the river. Some food would settle her fluttering stomach. After that...?
Engrossed in her thoughts, she barely registered the deep, male voice that sounded close behind her.
"Hello there, Miss."
Stuttering to a stop, she pulled on her best professional smile and squashed her irritation. Surely her career did not display itself so plainly in her walk? Every night she had to work herself into the proper frame of mind before performing her job. She did not appreciate being accosted in broad daylight by some yahoo from the sticks. She had her bills squared away and no need for a bit of impromptu spending money. As politely as she could, she would ditch this leech and then demolish a big bowl of gumbo with a side order of cornbread.
"Hello, there," she said sweetly as she turned. "I'm not --"
"You're not what?" The smirk on the big man's face conveyed his amusement at her discomfiture.
"Detective D'Angelo," Janet said flatly. "How nice." Though a part of her wanted to run, she laced her words with barely concealed contempt and the proper proportion of cynical disrespect. "I already paid your boys this month."
"And we do sincerely appreciate your promptness. Especially when your ID has registered an appalling lack of basic activity. Perhaps you have access to a source of illicit income?" Digging his fingers painfully into the biceps of her right arm, D'Angelo dragged Janet along as he headed towards a waiting car. "But that's not why I'm here. Your prints were found at the site of a recent murder, and a colleague of mine requests your presence ASAP. Just on the off-chance you might be aware of circumstances surrounding the incident."
Knowing better than to resist, Janet scurried to keep up with the long strides of her nemesis. "I'm just a working girl, Detective. I don't go in for any rough stuff."
After opening the passenger door, D'Angelo stuffed his captive into the car's interior like a blanket into a duffel bag. Once inside, he sped away through streams of pedestrians who scurried to avoid the gleaming bumper.
"Snagged you, too, eh?" "Wondered how long it'd take him to find you." "You're slipping, honey. Thought you'd knee him, for sure."
Straightening, Janet peered behind her at the trio of grinning women occupying the rear seat. Nodding, she said, "Bettyjean. Sally. Teresa. Good to see you. Been awhile."
"Where you been keeping yourself?" Sitting in the middle, Teresa Murdock leaned forward and rested her arms atop the front seat. "Haven't seen you in quite a bit."
Janet shrugged. "Same as you. Trying to earn an honest living."
D'Angelo snorted his opinion of that judgment. His comment was rewarded with a backhanded slap against the side of his head.
"Don't need your snide remarks, penny boy," Sally said crossly as she settled back. "If it wasn't for the likes of us, you and your old cronies wouldn't be buying those cozy little vacation cabins, now would they?"
The detective's playful expression belied his harsh words. "What's a tramp like you know about a decent man's business?"
Bettyjean filtered long fingers through her bleached hair. "Why you hassling us, anyway, Walt? You know damned well we didn't have nothing to do with any 'murder.' Just trying to look good for your bosses, aren't you?"
"Now Bettyjean, keep a respectful tongue in that luscious mouth of yours. I'm just doing my job here. Don't be giving me any grief for what I can't help."
Pushing aside her nervousness, Janet chimed in. "Who's this 'colleague' of yours who's got nothing better to do than waste his time with the likes of us?"
D'Angelo shrugged and turned left across traffic. A bevy of angry horns chased him. "Some crawfish from up North. Rick Beckman. With the Justice Department. Guess the governor doesn't trust his own people to get the job done. Got to bring in an outsider so everything is 'proper and aboveboard.' Wouldn't want anyone accusing the New New Orleans police department of a cover-up."
Janet's lids narrowed. "Why would you want to?"
D'Angelo glanced to the right. "Exactly," he said in apparent sincerity. "So a few big timers find themselves in permanent slumber land. So what? Not the first time such has happened. Won't be the last."
Gliding her fingertips along the detective's arm, Janet said with a seductive suggestiveness, "You'll be there when he questions me, won't you, Detective? I don't trust a Yankee. You know that."
D'Angelo's lips curled cynically at her blatant manipulative attempt.
With a dramatic sigh, Janet burrowed into her purse. "All right already." Extracting the contraband pack of cigarettes she kept handy for her smoking customers, she slipped the bribe into the detective's front shirt pocket. Briefly she rubbed her breasts against his arm then leaned against the locked passenger door.
"Good girl," he said approvingly. Raising his voice, he said, "You ladies see that? Janet here knows how to treat a gentleman."
A chorus of rude noises welcomed that reminder. "She must have x-ray vision," Teresa said, her dark skin gleaming in the sunlight streaming through the window, "because I sure don't see any gentleman around here."
"Fine. I'll remember that when you lovelies need to visit the girl's room. I might find myself busy for quite awhile before I get around to escorting you down the hall."
A flurry of plastic packs pelted D'Angelo. Unperturbed, he gathered the cigarettes and stuffed them into a pocket.
Despite the minor insurance she had purchased, however, Janet felt anything but secure. After all, she had watched with grim satisfaction as that asshole Franklin James died in that well-used bed. If this Rick Beckman proved to be any kind of investigator, he might learn more than she wanted to reveal. That result could lead to danger not only for her personally but for the distant goals she and her allies hoped one day to achieve.