For the tenth time in the past half hour, Rick Beckman glanced at the comp-pad resting on the red-and-black checkered tablecloth. His third beer slowly warming in his hands, he wondered what the hell he had been thinking. Keeping a promise to a hooker secret from his colleagues...
Mentally shaking his head, he sipped at the fading foam of the lager he had selected to cap off his meal.
Relying on the recommendation of the desk sergeant, he had ventured into Gabrielle's Place for a late dinner. Having missed lunch, he ordered and ate more than he probably should have. The menu might have catered to tourists, but that did not bother him. After work, that title suited him fine. When the next opportunity for spooking about New New Orleans might arise, he had no idea. He intended to take advantage of whatever experiences might flow his way.
His gumbo had been thick, dark, and spicy, rich with bits of sausage, hunks of chicken, and generous portions of crawfish and shrimp swimming amidst an array of mystery vegetables. Gamefully, he had sampled some fried green tomatoes, discovered he really did not care for them, and moved on to red beans and rice (liberally sprinkled with a Caribbean hot sauce). For the entree, he had briefly considered shrimp jambalaya with its sprightly tomato sauce and its accents of bacon, onion, green pepper, and spices. Deciding he had sufficiently challenged his stomach lining, he instead settled on fresh fish in cream sauce. For dessert, he had managed to squeeze in a light custard bathed in a delicious raspberry topping.
The beers he had consumed since then might appear uncouth to a gourmand, but he rarely concerned himself with others' opinions in such matters.
On the side of the restaurant opposite the entrance, a zydeco band crowded onto a small stage beat out lively tunes in rapid succession. The accordion, guitars, and washboard created a sound unlike any he had heard before. Though he supposed he would not enjoy listening to such music for hours on end, tonight, here and now in the heart of New New Orleans, that variant of Cajun rhythm and melody provided the proper accent to his dinner.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Unsuccessfully, Rick struggled with the thread of melancholy pushing against that buoyant sense. The good times had not rolled frequently enough for him, of late. Yet another in a long string of love affairs had exploded in a wild, emotional confrontation. As a university graduate student, Kara Clark had initially been an enjoyable companion and a delightful sexual partner. Gradually, however, her rapt attention had transmogrified into a nasty obsession. Midnight calls. Cryptic notes. Unwanted presents. Unannounced visits...
Finally, he had warned her that if she did not leave him alone, he would ensure she became well acquainted with the inside of a D.C. jail. While he knew he would not subject himself to official ridicule by following through on such a threat, he suspected she would fade into the twilight when challenged.
His assessment had proven accurate. Through mutual acquaintances, he learned she had latched her claws into some hapless slob less assertive of his autonomy or more entranced by her considerable physical charms than he had been. Almost, Rick pitied the anonymous target of Kara's affections. Ultimately, however, he had decided better him than me.
His assignment to this case soon thereafter had nailed the final spike into the coffin of that relationship. While pleased to be free of Kara's clutches, Rick still nursed disappointment at his misreading of her warped personality and excessively dependent needs. Substituting him for her self-esteem had failed her, true, but so, too, had his vaunted perception faltered when most he needed it.
Gulping down half his remaining beer, Rick frowned. He only hoped his judgment demonstrated more reliability when directed to non-personal issues.
His darkening spiral snagged as his comp-pad chimed.
Glad for the diversion, he snatched up his electronic link to the world and tabbed on the phone. A pretty face faded into clarity on the small screen. Rick blinked.
"Stellisa, er, Miss O'Connell?"
A warm smile added beauty to an already attractive image. "Good evening, Detective. I hope I'm not disturbing you...?"
Subconsciously swiping at his mouth, Rick shook his head. "No. Not at all."
"Sounds like you're in the middle of some entertainment?" Stellisa cocked her head to the right. "I shouldn't have called this late. I'll contact you tomorrow and we can &endash;&endash;"
"No, no!" Recognizing the hint of desperation in his voice &endash;&endash; apparently he had yet to banish completely the distressing residue of his time with Kara &endash;&endash; Rick cleared his throat and slowed down his words. "No. No problem. Just finishing my meal and enjoying some local color."
"I'm glad. Soak up the culture, Detective. You won't find anything like it back home."
"No argument from me on that," Rick said wryly. He hesitated. "Would you...would you care to join me? Here or elsewhere? To discuss whatever's on your mind."
Stellisa pursed her lips. "That sounds like fun. Mrs. James is out to a party. I just called to ask about any progress you might have made. Nothing urgent. But if you're free..."
Mentally kicking himself, Rick remembered just what call he had been expecting. In half an hour, he would know if Caldwell's promise had been real or merely a ploy to fend him off.
To hell with it. He could take the call in the men's room if he had to.
"I could use some pleasant company. Detective D'Angelo may be a competent colleague, but his social skills are hardly scintillating. I'm at Gabrielle's on &endash;&endash;"
"I know the place well, Detective. I've savored their food quite often."
"Just one more thing."
"It's 'Rick' when I'm off duty."
Stellisa's lips curved delicately. "'Rick' it is then. See you in twenty minutes or so."
As rapidly as it had descended upon him, the foggy veil of Rick's sadness shredded and blew away in the wind of this new development. An officious part of him argued that, after all, he needed to tie up some concerns with Mrs. James's position. Honestly, however, he understood the source of his euphoric feelings. Stellisa's company would dispel the loneliness gnawing at him, if only for awhile.
He had no more set his comp-pad down when it chimed again. Thinking Stellisa had forgotten something or that Caldwell had decided to call early, he thumbed it on. Detective D'Angelo's droll expression greeted him.
"Oh. D'Angelo," Rick said flatly. "What is it?"
"Happy to see you, too, Beckman." A rope-thin column of smoke snaked across his image. "Sounds like you're having fun."
"Did you have a purpose here, Detective, or did you simply want to deprive me of what few minutes I have on this assignment to relax?"
"I forgot to tell you. I have a doctor's appointment in the morning. If you need me, I won't be in until noon or so."
Resisting the impulse to snarl, Rick responded brusquely. "I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I hope everything turns out all right."
D'Angelo waved a dismissive hand. "Nothing big. Just an annual physical."
"I'm glad for you. Now. If you'll excuse me...?"
The big detective grinned. "Sure. Have a good time."
As the screen blanked, Rick felt the rosy edge of his mood dulled by the petty annoyance of D'Angelo's contact. The detective's only possible, credible purpose in calling over such a trivial matter had to be to irk the Yankee interloper. Despite his wish to the contrary, Rick had to admit his "helper" had accomplished his annoying goal.
Not wanting to grant D'Angelo more power than necessary, Rick smothered his irritation under the prospect of Stellisa's imminent arrival. While he might not be able to avoid his emotions, that in no way meant they had to dictate his subsequent actions.
Ordering another beer, he handed his ID to the waitress. The young, scantily clad woman slipped the thick plastic rectangle into her reader, waited for confirmation and billing, and then returned it with a perfunctory smile.
By the time Stellisa strode into the restaurant, Rick had recaptured a portion of his positive frame of mind. With a beckoning wave, he rose and pulled out the chair next to his.
After shaking Rick's hand, Stellisa ordered a glass of chardonnay and indicated the musicians. "I know the mother of the boy on washboard. Good family."
"I'm glad you could make it."
Before Rick could intervene and pay for her drink, Stellisa handed her ID to the waitress and sipped at the golden-hued wine she delivered.
For a few minutes they chit-chatted and listened to the band. It was past ten o'clock when the players announced a break and dispersed to various parts of the restaurant.
An awkward silence blossomed as Rick scrambled for something to say. The alcohol had misted his brain more than he had suspected. His liver's efficiency had evidently declined significantly since his break-up with Kara.
"You look tired," Stellisa said quietly. A speculative expression lingered in her eyes.
Sagging, Rick nodded. "I suppose I am." He smiled lopsidedly. "My brilliantly logical detective's mind, however, suggests that four beers might have something to do with that."
"I heard you interviewed some prostitutes today."
"Word gets around."
"In Louisiana, connections carry you a long distance."
"Hmm. I'll remember that."
Rick inhaled a deep breath. Should he mention Caldwell's impending call? He failed to see what that would accomplish, however. Assuming she called, at all. Already she was ten minutes late. "No one knew anything, of course."
"You let them go, then." Stellisa's words did not form a question.
"We're still checking other leads. I won't abandon this case until it's solved."
"That's...encouraging. Nothing more on the tinglers?"
"We've recovered all three of them. Still seems a bit odd to me they &endash;&endash; whoever 'they' are &endash;&endash; would leave such obvious clues behind. Why not simply remove them after they'd functioned? The coroner might well have concluded natural causes without the evidence of the tinglers."
"Can't help you there, Detec&endash;&endash;, Rick. In my line of work, I don't have much contact with criminals. At least illegal ones."
Rick yawned. "Illegal ones?"
"Do you know much about tinglers? I'm curious how Mr. James departed this realm."
"They've become a bigger issue over the past five years. Not really my department, though. Tingler abuse, that is. There's talk of banning them altogether."
"That'd be a shame. I'd heard they could be quite useful in certain psychiatric cases."
"You've checked your comp-pad?"
"Just the general entries. Designed as a non-invasive technique for altering neuro-chemical signatures in the brain. Useful in alleviating symptoms of certain classes of manic-depressives and schizophrenics."
"A growing class in our society, it sometimes seems."
"How cynical of you."
"Comes with being in law enforcement. One hardly meets the finest exemplars of humanity. Rather corrosive to one's optimism."
"I'm relieved to hear you haven't yet succumbed to the prevailing attitudes."
"You are?" Rick pondered that admission. "Guess I am, too."
"I've heard them characterized as 'pacemakers for the brain.'"
"Yeah. The way I understand it, they detect brain wave patterns characteristic of impending, unwanted psychic episodes. They induce some kind of alteration in the flux and strength of electrical impulses and neurotransmitters. Shut the problem down before it can gain a foothold. Or stimulate more desirable alternatives."
Stellisa shuddered. "I suppose that's a good thing. Fewer side-effects than with chemical treatments. Helping them lead more or less normal lives."
Searching her companion's eyes, Stellisa said, "Conjures up images of mind-control."
"The doctors call it compassionate care."
"I have to admit, official usage appears on the up-swing."
"As I said, a lot of disturbed people around."
"Not all of whom turn to governmentally approved sources."
"As Mr. James and his two friends can &endash;&endash; could &endash;&endash; attest, any avenue for illicit pleasures will be exploited by those in the underground."
"The press is a lot less charitable in their descriptions."
"Vultures on human frailty. Vampiric. Despicable. They most assuredly do not enjoy official sanction."
"The shadow realm."
Rick shoved the remains of his beer to one side and leaned on the table. "Those citizens who live on the edge of acceptable society. The prostitutes, the cig-runners, drug heads and porno purveyors."
"Supply and demand, I suppose."
"Addiction and degradation. Brain-damage from homemade tinglers," Rick said sourly.
"Doesn't sound like you care for them much."
"I don't. I simply can't understand why anyone would deliberately seek to screw up their head like that."
Pointedly, Stellisa glanced at the nearly empty beer stein.
"Oh, yeah," Rick said, deflated. "Touche. Still, there are degrees of distortion here. Beyond a certain point..."
"You support the ban on non-medical usage then?"
A corner of Rick's mouth twitched. "That breeds its own problems. Rather than purchasing reliable tinglers from reputable manufacturers, people pick them up on the streets. If they get a defective tingler, they can hardly hire a lawyer and sue or complain to the police, now can they? The price skyrockets, enticing even more scum to supply them. Disputes get settled with weapons rather than words. Those users suffering tingler damage or addiction avoid help rather than face arrest and imprisonment. The thrill-seekers who might not otherwise care are drawn like moths to what's forbidden. Our psychiatric wards fill to overflowing. Police are corrupted by the money involved. Respect for law deteriorates when people refuse to obey punitive rules that make no sense." Rick sighed. "It's an old story. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, pornography, tinglers... For nearly three centuries we've had to labor under the consequences of prohibitions of one stripe or another. What a waste of time, money, energy, and lives."
"Yet you'd arrest someone you caught possessing those guilty pleasures."
"I didn't make the laws. I just enforce them."
"Just doing your job," Stellisa said mildly, quietly.
Rick's eyes narrowed. That sounded familiar. From someone else, that statement might have seemed an insult or a challenge. Coming from this woman, however, the words held more sadness and understanding than condemnation.
"Stellisa, I &endash;&endash;"
A faint chiming interrupted his blurred thoughts.
"Looks like you have a call." Without ceremony, Stellisa pushed back her chair and stood, her red leather purse dangling from one bare shoulder.
Half-rising, Rick said, "You don't have to &endash;&endash;"
"I've got to be going, anyway. Perhaps we can get together for lunch later this week?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure." The comp-pad continued its maddeningly patient chirping.
Torn, Rick watched Stellisa hurry from the restaurant. Angrily, he turned his attention to the insistent caller. "What?"
A dark screen greeted him. No Visual shimmered in the middle of that space in small, yellow letters. "Hey, what's the matter, Detective? Catch you at a bad time?"
"What's with the vid pick-up, Caldwell? You're late."
"Can't talk long. If you want to meet those individuals I mentioned, be at Fifth Street and Dumond Avenue at four a.m. See you then."
"What are you &endash;&endash;" The link disconnected.
All that time waiting...for this? Fuming, Rick stormed from Gabrielle's just as the zydeco musicians commenced another set. His throbbing temples did little to diminish his desire to be out into the fresh air and away from the local color.
Perhaps, without his knowledge, New New Orleans had been designated the holding pen for the nation's loonies.
If so, he must fit right in.
Caldwell's friends had better have something significant to aid him in his investigation or the next time she and he met, their conversation would be a good deal less congenial.
The parking lot had filled considerably since he had arrived. Hoping he would not clip the adjacent vehicles and have to explain his impaired condition to his bosses, he carefully maneuvered his car from its slot and headed for his room. A few hours sleep would help restore him to a semblance of normalcy...as much as could be expected in this crazy town.
Cautiously driving through the traffic, he did not notice the vehicle that shadowed him from half a block behind.
"He didn't sound too happy." Jeff balled his hands into fists inside his pants pockets.
"As long as he shows up and is ready to listen, that's all that matters."
"Come on, Janet. If he's really that pissed, he's not going to be in any mood to pay attention to what we have to say. This'll just be a waste of time!"
"And don't give me that 'Jeff' shit. This has nothing to do with being a pessimist. It's called being realistic. We can't ignore facts if we expect to make any progress."
Janet stepped away from the computer and folded her arms. "I don't know what's bothering him, but it can't have anything to do with us."
"We were half an hour late."
"Don't blame me." She pointed at the mass of cables, monitors, and devices cluttering the desk. "If that thing hadn't decided to freeze up, we would've been on time."
"Yeah, fine. When the government begins letting people like me buy this kind of hardware again, I'll be the first in line to upgrade. Or if Cameron would just give me some of his... Until that glorious day, however, all I can do is the best I can to keep this crap working."
"Your sarcasm is much appreciated," Janet said sharply. A moment passed before she stepped closer and placed a hand on Jeff's rigid arm. "Look. I wasn't trying to place blame. I just stated a fact. Maybe not with the best tone in the world, but..." She began to pace. "I don't like this situation any better than you do. It seems a reasonable risk, though, given the potential payoff."
Jeff shook his head in wonder. "She agreed."
"She called?" Janet asked anxiously.
"Yeah. While you were out getting us something to eat. Cameron contacted her."
Half-seriously, Janet punched her friend. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"She wanted me to wait and see what Beckman said."
"Got me. She has her own way of doing things."
"I'm only too aware of that fact."
"Do you have the stuff ready?"
"In my purse. Let's hope I don't get hassled and searched. That could prove quite embarrassing." She pushed her tongue against the inside of her cheek. "I sincerely doubt I'll need to use it, though."
Jeff let that slide. "You want to get some sleep first?"
Shaking her head, Janet stopped and plopped onto the couch. "I'm too nervous to sleep." The pink tip of her tongue peeked from between her lips. "We going to have enough time to get there before dawn?"
"Should be all right. Cameron's got things set up from his side. Not a restricted zone or anything. As long as Beckman cooperates."
"Yeah. Be a shame if he disappoints us."
Jeff lifted a brow. "She said she might join us."
Janet bolted upright. "She can't do that! It's too dangerous. If she gets caught mixed up in something like this, we're &endash;&endash;"
Smiling at his little joke, Jeff waved his friend down. "Not in person. By secure line. After he's gone. She's curious."
Expelling a breath, Janet said. "I'm curious, too. A lot of unknowns swirling around here." She shrugged. "But we've beaten the odds already. No reason that should change now."
"Unfortunately, the odds have a nasty habit of catching up with you. Eventually."
Janet unfocused her gaze for a moment. "For all our sakes, eventually better not be now."
Jeff could only nod his agreement to that.