Authors: Julie Smith
Praise for 82 DESIRE, the eighth book in the Skip Langdon series by EDGAR AWARD winning author Julie Smith.
“The reader can’t guess where the author is headed. Each scene comes as an intriguing surprise; it’s like wandering around an endlessly fascinating but unfamiliar city. The ending is agreeably suspenseful.”
—Los Angeles Times
“A solid detective yarn with engaging characters and a genuinely baffling mystery … [Smith] succeeds admirably. The novel is intricately constructed, and while Smith keeps nothing important unfairly hidden from her readers, she manages to spring some nice little surprises. Readers who enjoy trying to solve the mystery before the writer reveals the solution will have a great time here. The popularity of the Skip Langdon series stands only to be increased with the appearance of this latest installment.”
“The wealth of crimes and misdemeanors gives the case a Dickensian richness.”
82 Desire is fresh and fast paced, gently funny and often touching. In it, Skip Langdon and her creator, Julie Smith, are at their peak … Talba is one of Smith’s best creations ever…. Smith takes risks in this book, and they pay off … [She] excels at writing across cultures, creating believable black and white characters who live side by side in the sometimes strained environment of contemporary New Orleans … The description of the Quarter in the first couple of pages of 82 Desire is one of the most immediate and evocative I remember.”
—New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Smith’s strengths are her incredible and sometimes outrageous characters and her snappy dialogue. To read Wallis’s poem on how her mother named her Urethra is worth the price of the book. Obviously, she had her name changed. Very funny stuff.”
—San Francisco Examiner
“Another spirited return to the streets of New Orleans.”
“A BRILLIANT NEW ORLEANS WHODUNIT … A WONDERFUL READING EXPERIENCE.”
Skip Langdon “is extremely down to earth despite her polished Uptown upbringing, professional to a fault, and an imposing six-footer to boot … 82 Desire is an accurate reincarnation of the sights, sounds, and smells of Smith’s favorite, semifictional setting.”
—New Orleans Gambit Weekly
“One of her best books yet … Sure-footed plotting will keep you guessing as layer after layer of complexity is revealed, but the real star is the Baroness of Pontalba: poet, office temp, computer whiz, and sometime
who is one of the best characters Smith has created.
‘m hoping she’ll return.”
—Mystery Lovers Bookshop Newsletter
The Skip Langdon Series
(in order of publication)
NEW ORLEANS MOURNING
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ
DEATH BEFORE FACEBOOK (formerly NEW ORLEANS BEAT)
HOUSE OF BLUES
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
CRESCENT CITY CONNECTION (formerly CRESCENT CITY KILL)
MEAN WOMAN BLUES
Also by Julie Smith:
The Rebecca Schwartz Series
DEATH TURNS A TRICK
THE SOURDOUGH WARS
DEAD IN THE WATER
OTHER PEOPLE’S SKELETONS
The Paul Macdonald Series
The Talba Wallis Series
P.I. ON A HOT TIN ROOF
As Well As:
WRITING YOUR WAY: THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL TRACK
NEW ORLEANS NOIR (ed.)
A Skip Langdon Mystery
New Orleans, La.
Copyright 1998 by Julie Smith
Cover by Nevada Barr
Originally published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First booksBnimble Publishing electronic publication: August 2012
Digital book(s) (epub and mobi) produced by
To Greg Peterson, my mentor and guide in the baffling world of the silicon chip
Table of Contents
NEW ORLEANS CHANGES people, even if they only come for a weekend.
The expected occurs: Teetotalers get sloshed; virgins get laid.
But the consequences are sometimes lasting and large. The story is told, for instance, about the woman who came to JazzFest and faxed her husband good-bye—a long-running husband, too.
The city is a setup.
The very air smells different. You notice it as you step off the plane—there’s a hint of mildew, heavy with history. Then, if it’s the right season, there’s also jasmine, and sweet olive.
Urine and vomit as well, along with plenty of Pine-Sol to take the edge off.
In the bars, a hundred years of cigarette smoke.
In the streets, frying oysters from restaurant vents.
In the spring, the air is more like velvet than silk—luxuriant, but a little smothery. In summer, it lies on the body like three-inch fur. Tangled fur, at that.
The very name New Orleans conjures up the sins of another century: riverboat gambling, black marketeering, bordello revelry, wicked skulduggery, and relentless scalawaggery.
Today the city’s gamblers wear oversized T-shirts instead of ruffles, its black marketeers are drug dealers, its prostitutes transvestites and underage addicts, its skulduggery institutionalized.
But everyone wants in on the scalawaggery.
The name conjures up Southern graciousness as well. This exists today behind the elegant facades of the French Quarter and the iron fences of the Garden District, yet it is beginning to fade at some of the city’s landmark restaurants. Lately, jeans have been seen amid the dark wood and white linen of old-line eateries; on the streets, sartorial standards are a plain disgrace. Men think nothing of taking off their shirts as if it were the beach—and not only young gay men showing their pecs.
Tourists urinate on the nineteenth-century town houses.
Angry residents will stop sometimes to chastise them, but the tourists answer that if the Quarterites don’t like it, they should move to the suburbs.
The tourists peek through the iron grilles at the lush courtyards (and who can blame them for that?), but they do not draw the line at mixing drinks on the residents’ stoops.
Gutterpunks are drawn to the Quarter as hippies were drawn to the Haight-Ashbury, yet they will move along if asked. They have chosen lives on the fringe, and they know the consequences of crossing the line.
It’s the tourists who give lip.
Ladies who’d call the cops if a stranger touched weary butt to their own immaculate steps will argue that in the Quarter, surely everything is public. They are weekend outlaws, and proud of it.
Before they go home, they may shed their denim skirts in merry abandon, or they may not—but they will certainly understand, perhaps for a change or even for the first time, what it’s like to want to.
On weekends, living in the French Quarter can be like camping out in the middle of Disneyland.
Yet around midnight (if nobody’s driving by playing rap at full volume), mules clip-clop on the streets and ships whistle on the river. You could swear it’s a hundred years earlier, though you know the boats are full of petroleum products and the mules are trudging home after a hard day of hauling tourist buggies.
At about three or four
., the drunks commence to shouting, and the paper thuds on the balcony. Sometime after, quiet descends.
Then at eight Monday morning, people open their shutters and greet their neighbors. You hear them up and down the streets: “Good morning, Alice.” “Good morning, Donn.”
So very nineteenth century.
And for five days—until the tourists arrive for the next weekend—the Quarter is the closest thing to a European village this country has to offer.
Some visitors, usually those who stay more than a weekend, lose not only their reputations and their decent denim skirts, but their hearts—and, ultimately, a good chunk of their cash. They buy property on a whim and repent while they renovate.
For this reason, Skip Langdon worried about her beloved, Steve Steinman, late of Los Angeles—he’d fallen hard for a little Victorian cottage.
“Are you sure,” she entreated at first, “that you know what you’re getting into? Can you handle pee-ers on the porch?”
“Listen to you,” he said. “Don’t you remember? You used to want me to move here.”
“At the time, I thought you were tougher.”
“Thanks a lot.”
All that was months ago. Now he was working on the house, getting it ready to move into. The relationship, which had finally evened out after a few rocky years, was starting to wear as a consequence.
“Goddammit,” he fumed, “why didn’t you tell me this was a third-world country?”
“In California, when the plumber says he’ll come, he comes.”
“You don’t smell so hot.”
“I’ve been up on a ladder for twelve hours.”
“Want to go get some dinner?”
“I’m so tired I can’t move.”
For the first time, sharing her garconnière with him was more work than fun—literally. They spent every spare moment choosing colors, applying them to walls, cleaning kitchen cabinets, hauling debris.
Going to work was like a vacation—and she had one of the world’s hardest jobs.
She was a cop in one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Before decentralization, she’d been a homicide detective.
However, New Orleans, following New York’s lead, had disbanded its detective bureau and sent everyone out to the districts. Where she’d ended up, someone had bought a huge ledger, marked on it
, and left it empty as a little joke—there had been only seven homicides since the first of the year.
She had moved from the ferment of Headquarters to the Third District, which was housed in a one-story, low-ceilinged brick building right across Moss Street from Bayou St. John. With a really good tailwind, it wasn’t inconceivable that a ball from the City Park golf course could come sailing through one of its windows. Which wasn’t a bad metaphor for the pace of the Third compared to what she was used to. And that, she supposed, was part of the point of decentralization.
Throughout the department, the load was lighter. More officers were being hired, were graduating from the academy, and were getting on the streets. And they were good, competent police officers, not desperation hires.
More cars and more computers had been bought, and now the cars were being equipped with still more computers.
It wasn’t yet a renaissance, but just about everyone thought things were improving.
As for Skip, she liked the old system, the way anything could happen in any part of town and she could end up with the case. The Third, compared to some districts, was almost a model of gentility; indeed, it contained the solid middle-class section called Gentilly. It also contained Pontchartrain Park, an upscale black neighborhood built around a golf course, the fancy white districts of Lakeshore (mostly Jewish) and Lake Vista (mostly Catholic), the vast oak forests of City Park, the funky lakeside section called Bucktown, and no fewer than five universities if you counted the Baptist Seminary.
Still, it wasn’t any quiet country town. The St. Bernard Project was there, for one thing, and for another, there was the constant pressure to lower the crime statistics and get the city livable again. It was an atmosphere where district captains met once a week with maps, comparing notes on what crimes were committed where, trying to identify patterns and develop military strategies. Though the department denied it publicly, there was no way such a system couldn’t lead to rivalry and competition. And so, quiet as the Third might be in some respects, there was still no time for coffee and bull sessions.
Fortunately, Skip had been transferred with her favorite sometime-partner, Adam Abasolo. But she no longer reported to Sergeant Sylvia Cappello, who’d just passed the lieutenant’s test. Abasolo was her boss and she wasn’t sure she liked it. He had an independent, maverick style that meshed with hers; historically, she’d watched her p’s and q’s with Cappello and gotten down and dirty with Abasolo. She didn’t know if she could do that now.
But what she did know was, she could work with him. If she’d ended up with Frank O’Rourke as her sergeant, she might have considered a new career in banking. The current deal was functional.
Their new lieutenant was newly returned to the department—she’d moved away with her husband, and then they’d moved back—more than that, Skip didn’t know. She and Abasolo were reserving judgment. Kelly McGuire, with her by-the-book style, reminded them a bit of Cappello, which was good—but maybe she was a bit too stiff.
On the other hand, perhaps that permanent wrinkle between her eyebrows was about something else entirely.
Skip, six feet tall and twenty pounds overweight, distrusted women who made her feel clunky, and McGuire did, almost. She was average height, average weight—nothing wrong with that—but her light red hair was straight and proper, whereas Skip’s was unruly and brown; her blue eyes were pale as ponds, while Skip’s were bright green. There was something a little delicate about her, even slightly elegant in a laid-back kind of way. She wore pants, but they were tailored and looked expensive (though they probably weren’t); she wore sweaters, but they looked like cashmere—and Skip was damned sure they weren’t.
Still, Skip told herself, there was nothing wrong with all that—maybe the problem was that McGuire was scarcely older than she was. Maybe she ought to take the sergeant’s test and think about moving up.
It was a Monday in late October when McGuire caught her in the hall. Skip was talking to one of the guys from the Power Watch.
“Look in there,” he said. “I got the cat woman.”
“Her? That little tiny thing?” The woman’s cat had bitten her; she had sentenced it to death by baking—slowly, in a preheated oven.
“She’s tiny, but she’s sneaky. She got out of the handcuffs—I had to tackle her and wrestle her down.”
McGuire joined them. “Handcuffed her in front, didn’t you? I know you, Frankie.”
The man blushed, staring as if trying to think of a rejoinder.
“You better watch yourself, my man. You’re going to get hurt one day.” She grabbed Skip by the elbow and steered her a few steps away. Out of the blue, she said, “How do you like working with Adam?”
Skip was taken aback. “We’re a real good team.”
“I think you’re probably dangerous. You know how kindergarten teachers separate the bad kids?”
Skip grinned at her. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
“I’ve got a soft spot for bad kids. Just don’t screw me, okay?”
McGuire wafted off, not an easy thing to do in a pair of tailored pants. Skip was vaguely pleased, thinking maybe McGuire was really all right—if she liked bad kids, she couldn’t be all bad. On the other hand, something was up, and she wondered what.
She got a Coke out of the machine and went back to the tiny windowless, airless office she shared with three other detectives. There were several of these offices off a large room with computers in it—two computers, enough space for a living room; go figure. She was going through the stack of new cases that was waiting in her mailbox when Abasolo happened by.
Meaning he had taken the trouble to cross the hall, wander through the computer room, and squeeze into her minuscule space. “Beautiful day, isn’t it? Too nice to be inside. Come on—take a ride with me.”
“Let’s just take a ride.”
Skip shrugged into her jacket. Abasolo was wearing a tie and sports coat, which he did only on state occasions.
“I need a VNL,” he said.
This was slang the two of them had picked up from a tough-as-nails hostage negotiator—Very Nice Lady, it meant.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“You got a good side, Langdon. You just hide it.”
When they were in the car, she said, “Okay. Tell me.”
“Heater case. Your specialty, right? “
“Not by choice.”
“Still. The term ‘hot dog’ has been used.”
“Thank you, I’ll stick with VNL.”
They were quiet until it dawned on her to ask where they were going.
“Jay Street—how’s that grab you?”
“Ah. Lake Vista.” If the street was a flower or a bird, it was Lake Vista; if a gemstone, Lakeshore. “What’s the deal here? McGuire buttonholed me to mention we shouldn’t fuck up.”
“Who’s famous who lives in Lake Vista?”
“Pete Fountain, I heard. Hey, Pete Fountain? Really?”
“Oh, hell, I’d love to meet Pete Fountain.” She wrinkled up her face and thought. “Bebe!”
Babette Fortier—Bebe (“B.B.”) to her friends and supporters—was a city councilwoman and rather a dull one as local politicos went. Truth be told, she wasn’t famous for anything special and she was of more or less good repute.
They turned into the cul-de-sac that was Jay, and Skip was so surprised she gasped before she could stop herself Trees, gardens, two-story brick houses—very, very nicely done. Not suburban in a boring sense—simply peaceful and well designed.
Abasolo said, “What?”
“Yeah, but is it New Orleans?”
Skip had to agree. “You’ve gotta wonder.”
They parked and strolled up a short walk to the Fortiers’ house. The councilwoman answered the door in a red suit, dressed for a hard day of complaints and meetings.
Abasolo introduced himself and Skip.
Skip held out her hand.
“You mean you’re
Skip Langdon? Well, Sergeant—you
hauled out the big guns.”
Skip hoped she wasn’t blushing. She had gotten her name in the paper often and spectacularly in recent months.
“Our best little hot dog,” Abasolo said.
“I am not little.” Skip spoke with mock petulance.
Fortier laughed. “You sure aren’t. You’re as tall as my husband.”
“Six feet and growing.”
“Come in, won’t you?”
Fortier led them into a room that was evidently a family room or den, a room full of books and furniture that was getting shabby, along with the inevitable “entertainment center” containing television and stereo.