I sat at my desk. Mysterious odors drifted east of Cancer Alley, through the window behind me; the sun imposed through open blinds, its light enhancing the wood grain of my desk. I didn’t use coasters. I had a bad ‘zine habit. Stacks of paper lay about. My drawers were disorganized, the small paper clips mixed with the large. The pens and pencils co-mingled.
I was back. N’awlins seemed another planet after life in La La Land. Southern California had little weather to speak of. The forecasters got big bucks anyway. It had little humidity; N’awlins had lots. The men there were prettier than me. They got big bucks too. Me, I was a cop.
My apartment was off Decatur, near the river. I was between a liquor store and a voodoo supply. I could conveniently shop the odd assortment of wines at Jimmy’s or drop in at Rita’s for herbs, gris gris and candles. Local real estate could be a mishmash of residential and commercial, eye candy and eyesore. Buildings seemed slightly askew, threatening implosion, cartoon-like: from the inside, seemingly spacious – from the outside, smallish, individual frontage mere slits in the block. N’awlins was sinking. The delta was eroding. The buffer zone was going. The big storm was coming.
* * * *
I skipped the wine-shopping and dropped in next door at Rita’s. On the right, a long glass and wooden display case served as a sales counter; behind it were display shelves and drawers. The left side of the shop boasted low wooden ceiling beams. Rita’s shop smelled delicious and so did she: slightly smoky-sweet and heavily herbal, and somehow reminiscent of cooking in cast iron over an open wood fire. My apartment was often perfumed with the various essences that emitted from her place, odor molecules changing with the light, temperature, and time of day or night. Aroma therapy proved no joke. The building wasn’t exactly soundproof either.
“Erica! How’s it going?” Rita called from behind the counter. She wore a semi-transparent cotton gauze print dress in shades of cocoa, cream and pink. Long curly hair waved around her milk chocolate-coloured face, neck and shoulders. Her wide cheekbones curved under healthily gleaming eyes. Her smile revealed a slight gap between her front teeth, which sometimes emitted discrete whistling sounds. “Tell me something good.”
“Let me think about that one.”
* * * *
I walked Decatur Street. Sweat glistened on me like dew on a peach. Like condensation on an icy bottle of beer. Like sludge on levee rocks. Mysterious scents drifted off the water, wafting through the Quarter. Cooking odors teased my nostrils: ribs and conch fritters from Margaritaville and beignets from Du Monde. The mingled bouquets made me lightheaded. Hungry.
* * * *
I met Rita for lunch at Mama’s. We took a booth and looked at the menus, which were designed in a primitive art style.
“Oh, what the hell. I’ll have the breaded, fried oysters.” I was craving seafood. And fat.
“A little bit of oil won’t hurt.” Rita laughed. “Make that two.”
“How often do they change the oil?” I asked our waitress Betty.
“You use safflower or canola oil?”
I sighed. “And we’ll have iced tea.”
“You got it.” Betty smiled, her comfortable shoes slightly squeaking against the floor as she turned and walked away.
“So, tell me something good.”
“There’s not much to tell. Work’s good. But damn it, Rita, I hardly ever meet any interesting men, and when I do, they’re intimidated – just because I pump iron and carry a thirty-eight.”
“Ah. It’s been quiet at your place, no? Maybe you’ll meet someone. Maybe his mind will be right.” Rita smiled.
“What are the chances of that?”
“Not good. But people can get their minds right. There are ways to get the mind right.”
“Really? Who are you, Cool Hand Luke’s gang boss?”
* * * *
“Strode!” Sargeant Strickland yelled at me as I walked past his open office door. Such was life at NOPD homicide. He was a man of few words and he’d rather yell than use a phone or email. I was okay with that. I walked in, closed the door, and sat down opposite him. On his desk was a pint of whole milk and a tin of peppermints.
“I want you to partner with one of the new guys.”
“Backlog. The Mayer case. Next of kin hired a goddamn private investigator. Get your heads together. Tick, tick, Erica.”
* * * *
I headed to the bullpen of scattered desks and ringing phones. Walking the perimeter of the room, I made a mental note of the woman-gazing style of the men present. Some were direct viewers. Some were discrete. If you suddenly met the gaze of a discrete, his eyes would dart around the room. A few didn’t seem to be looking at all. They were perhaps masters. Riker sat at a desk in a back corner organizing his space and making notes. His body language didn’t seem so easily classifiable.
* * * *
I met Riker at the morgue. It too was backlogged. A large refrigerated trailer in a parking lot held overflow; I wondered about the quality of extension cords. I’d seen beaucoup bodies. But this seemed obscene: overflow was wrapped and stacked, human bodies like cordwood. A tech had placed Mayer’s remains on a gurney. I met Nick beside the human mound, which was reminiscent of turkey on a platter. Mayer’s pallor contrasted with the dark linear violence of the Y incision. He’d been a vital man. He’d soon be entombed, his flesh devolving around white-to-brown hardness.
“Call me Nick.” He extended his hand.
He had a firm grip but didn’t overdo it, as some did, as if they wanted to make you wince, or bring you to your knees then go have a hoot with the guys about it. I squeezed his hand and met the direct gaze of his brown eyes.
“Nick, to review, the victim bled to death. As you can see, he sustained longitudinal cuts to his right inner forearm. No weapon on scene.”
Jeff had been single. He’d been a chef at a Quarter bar and grill. He’d owned a PC. He’d worked out at home. He’d read a lot. Dying was a good way of becoming extremely intimate to law enforcement; no personal items would remain unturned, from PC to underwear.
“Did you see the photos?” I asked.
“Yeah. I wonder who she is?”
The woman had a familiar face.
* * * *
I drove to the Garden District and parked off Prytania. I watched the home from across the street. The woman answered the door and stepped out onto the veranda to accept a package. She wore a long black dress with a white lace-trimmed bodice and lace-up spiked heel ankle boots. Her dark hair was long and wavy. Bangs framed her eyes. Coloration and style set her apart from the precious blonde and pastel set. It could have been a scene from another century, the long haired woman in a long flowing dress, standing in front of a Greek Revival home, save for the presence of the UPS man. Author Leila Rivers: her stylish fiction defined a sensual, religious world of supernaturalism. I had the feeling that even though Leila was a famous writer with a bit of a quirky reputation, she was still a genteel Southern lady, a good hostess, and despite having a household staff, couldn’t resist occasionally answering her own door.
She seemed connected to the case. But why would she get involved in such a thing, potentially risking her reputation and standing, I wondered?
* * * *
Nick was coming over. I was cooking an oyster bake. I mixed whole jarred oysters with cubed sourdough bread, eggs, and milk. I added a good measure of Rita’s herbs and spices, stirred, and spooned the mixture into a slightly oiled casserole dish.
By the time I cleared the clutter, made a salad, set the table and took the casserole out of the oven, Nick rang my bell. I opened the door; he stood in the hall holding a bottle of wine, his cotton shirt and slacks limp from the humidity.
I’d lit candles. We sat inside at the dining table by the courtyard doors, ate, and drank our merlot. It was true. You could drink red with seafood.
“What have we got?” Nick asked.
“We have new stuff from Jeff’s PC. And the photos are of a local author, Leila Rivers. She wasn’t interviewed.”
“We’ll be talking to her.”
“Right. As you know, Jeff had mutual interests with internet acquaintances. I’m wondering if he knew the perpetrator well, or if it was possibly a meeting with an internet correspondent.”
“It seems to me that whatever your quirk, there’s likely a chat room, forum, or newsgroup dedicated to it.”
“Yes, but I don’t think that we should demonize the internet. It can be simply another outlet for people to do what they would have done anyway.”
“True. One might easily get dead without help from the internet. But perhaps without the stimuli and possibilities offered through cyberspace – in a society tending towards instant gratification – a person might not cross a line, behavior-wise. I don’t know.”
“You’re a brave man to admit you’re unsure about something.”
“Thanks. I think.” We laughed.
We drank by candlelight at the table. There seemed to be a soft haze throughout my rooms. Maybe it was my eyes. Maybe it was the brandy.
“Erica, do you smell that? Is someone smoking pot?”
“No, I don’t think so.” I inhaled. “They’re burning patchouli leaf, maybe.” I imagined sweet, smoky essence traveling the cracks and ducts from next door, filling our air and noses and lungs and brains. “My neighbor is into aroma therapy. It sometimes makes me giddy.”
“So I see, Erica. So I see.”
He looked down. “Would you look here… do you realize that you have a moisture problem, a leakage situation?” A small puddle grew, moving from underneath the wall that faced the courtyard. I went to the linen closet and found old towels. I put a couple down on my concrete floor.
“It’s a funky old building, a high water table area. A little rain is a big deal. I get leaks and puddles. Sometimes it comes in at the bottom of the wall. Sometimes it seeps through cracks in the floor.”
“Erica, your home is not intact.”
* * * *
Rita and I had ordered seafood platters at Daddy’s. God, they were salty. We’d soon suffer fluid retention.
Rita put down her fork, wiped her glistening mouth with a red linen napkin, and reapplied lip color. I would’ve loved to have had lips like hers. The gap between her teeth was cute too.
“Did you hear about the storm? Hurricane Franklin’s moving into the Gulf. Are you staying in town?” She asked.
“I’ll be here, how about you?”
“I always stay, don’t I?”
“I wonder what kind of emergency plan is in place this time?”
“The ten thousand body bag plan, I hear.”
“Rita! Can you imagine? Evacuation would be damned near impossible.”
“Don’t worry about it. Things will be all right. Am I ever wrong?”
I thought about it. She seldom was.
* * * *
I’d met Nick at the station. We met Leila in a barely furnished interview room.
“I’m Detective Riker, this is detective Strode.” He nodded in my direction. “Thanks for coming in, Ms. Rivers.”
Nick and I took seats opposite her at a rectangular table.
“I enjoy your books.” Nick began the interview.
“It must be interesting being a writer. All I ever do is write reports.”
“I enjoy it, but it can be hard work.”
“Yes, of course. You know, I have ideas from time to time. I should write them down maybe.”
“Have you ever seriously considered writing?” She smiled.
“Well, yes. Yes, I have. I’ve considered writing crime fiction.”
“The genre seems quite popular and lucrative.”
“Yes. Leila, tell me, how many books have you written so far?”
“How long have you lived in New Orleans?”
“Altogether, 35 years. Why are you asking me these things? You could look this up, couldn’t you?”
“Yes. Now, Leila, we’re here today to discuss what happened to Jeff Mayer. Perhaps you can help us. We know that you knew Jeff. How did you know him?”
“We met online.”
“How many bytes of RAM do you have?”
“What? I don’t know!”
“What’s your megahertz speed?”
“I have no idea.”
“How did you meet online?”
“Through a book discussion forum.”
“Do you spend much time on the internet, Leila?”
“Not really. I sometimes do online research for my writing.”
“Do you do much net-surfing?”
“Do you write a lot of email?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Jeff spent a lot of time online. He liked to chat. Have you ever been to a chat room, Leila?”
“Well, of course.”
“Did you ever chat with Jeff?”
“Maybe about books or something.”
“Leila, did you ever role play in cyberspace?”
Nick slammed a file down onto the table. Its tab read ‘Leila Rivers’. He took documents from it and put them on the table in front of her.
“Leila, please take a look. Does the content seem familiar?”
She picked up the pages and began to read. Jesus. Chat room printouts.
“Excuse me, Detective Riker, why don’t we take a break?” I interjected. We left the room.
* * * *
Leila remained seated in the room, a smallish woman framed and boxed by one-way glass and digitization. She sat, read and fidgeted. The building’s energy hummed around her: human energy penetrating cubic space – vibrations of the violent, the victimized, the guilty and the innocent, echoes of defense and proclamation. Phones bleated from desks of weary detectives, systems and cycles set in motion; a sometimes Rube Goldberg-esque factory of criminal justice, people in and people out.
* * * *
I re-entered the interview room and sat down across from Leila.
“Leila, I know this must be embarrassing, sort of like a stranger going through your underwear drawer. But if you were involved in Jeff’s death, we need to know. You need to tell me. You want to talk to me, don’t you?”
“Online relationships can be very seductive. People tend to fantasize a lot and fill in the blanks. Anonymity can lead to more easily revealing oneself. Leila, how often did you chat with Jeff?”
“At first, we chatted not so often, once every two weeks maybe. Then he suddenly became more available.”
“He began to instant message me almost every night.”
“How many times did you meet in person before the night of his death?”
“I don’t know, lots of times.”
“You and Jeff had a lot in common, then? What do you know about sanguinarianism, Leila?”
“Blood rituals …”
“Yes. Leila, tell me what happened between you and Jeff on the night in question? Who did the cutting?”
“Jeff did the cutting. He always did the cutting … I wasn’t comfortable doing that part.”
“So, he cut himself, so you could, um, drink?”
“Was blood-drinking a prelude to sex?”
“What did Jeff use to perform the cutting?”
“He used an X-acto knife. He cut too deeply … why did he cut so deeply?” She rocked back and forth, back and forth, then leaned back in her chair. She pushed up the long sleeves of her black silk tunic. Short, delicate scars ran length-wise upon her wrists, thin, creamy trails upon dark skin. She laid her hands flat on the table, palms facing up. She tilted her head back, her dark eyes looking up at Erica – and God.
“Thank you, Leila.”
* * * *
Rita and I hung out in her darkened shop after hours. In a back corner was a small sofa and coffee table. We sat as she hand-rolled a joint, the fat buds making the cig bumpy. She lit it, toked, inhaled and exhaled. “This Night Queen, it’s very sweet, a little sticky.”
She passed it to me and I toked; we passed it back and forth. I imagined that I’d soon be hungry and paranoid – and usually didn’t require pot to achieve the effect.
Vases, sculpture, crosses and bones were spotlighted on walls, shelves and counters. Through the storefront windows I watched movement and shadow on the sidewalk and street.
“Rita, when did you get lava lamps?”
“Silly. They’ve always been here.”
“That’s funny. I don’t remember them being here before.” I noticed small round objects resting on a counter. “Rita! When did you get glass eyes?”
“They’ve always been here. What’s the matter with you?” She laughed.
I took another toke and passed the joint back to her.
I was amazed at the technique. She organized her tongue and teeth and lips around the short, burning cigarette, and put her mouth to mine; she blew and filled my mouth with smoke. She suddenly pulled back, flicked her tongue and swallowed.
“What did you do? Did you burn yourself?”
She put her mouth to mine, her incredible softness, in a kiss. Her tongue had bits of herb on it. A pounding on the front door startled us. I saw a tall outline through the storefront glass.
“It’s the MAN …” Rita said, looking at me, shiny glass eyes ensconced in her sockets. Moaning, I awoke to knocking and yelling at my apartment door. Men were here to move furniture upstairs for me. I wouldn’t get to finish my wet dream in my wet home in my wet city, at least not now.
* * * *
If you stay in your home through a hurricane, there are things you can do to protect yourself. Monitor the radio or television for weather reports. Stay indoors until the storm is over. Seek shelter in a basement or in an interior room with no windows. Stay away from all windows and exterior doors. Evacuate to a shelter or to a neighbor’s home if your home is damaged or if emergency personnel instruct you to do so.
Nick and I sat upstairs on my sofa drinking red and listening to the radio. We luckily still had power but we’d left off the lights.
“This reminds me of when I was a kid in Dalton. We’d get the highly unusual half inch of snow and civilization would shut down. People would be afraid to drive.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It was. We stayed home, watched movies, and marveled at the miniscule dusting of snow.”
“We could have our own emergency-time celebration, what would you like to do?”
“Erica, do you smell that? Is something burning?” Nick deeply sighed.
“Yes.” I inhaled. “Sage and mandrake, I think. Now, would you listen to that rain …”
Sandbags settled as water traveled streets and sidewalks. Gutters flowed and gushed. Ugly ply board covered Spanish windows and modern storefronts; louvered window shutters banged in the wind; impacts of flying debris would soon pepper the night. In the semi-dark apartment, haze drifted through candlelight. Outside, rain was windblown, its gatherings pooling here and there.