Jack Delmas, a laid-back New Orleans private investigator who enjoys soaking up the Lousiana bayou flavor, investigates the murders of both his barmaid client and her missing boyfriend, a drug associate she hired him to find. A first novel.
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Martin Hegwood is currently the senior attorney for the Secretary of State's office in Mississippi.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It ain’t seeing the body that made me throw up, Jack. I seen plenty of stiffs before.”
“Tony,” I said, “that was no slasher movie out there. That was real.”
“Real bodies is what I’m talkin’ about. I seen ’em. Lots of ’em.”
“Lots of bodies?”
“Like at funerals and stuff.”
I nodded as I laid my cinnamon roll beside the Newport display and poured myself the darkest dregs from the coffeepot. Hell, the stuff even smelled like it was scorched. Felt hot right through the Styrofoam. Three weeks I had stopped by the TimeSaver on my way to the docks, and I had never managed to catch a fresh pot despite the fact that I always got there before sunrise.
“You gotta admit those are bodies,” he said.
“Sure they are.”
“Of course they are. And I seen lots of them. So, see, it wasn’t walking up on that man all dead and everything that made me sick. It was that rat.”
“You think a rat would eat a dead man?”
“It’s possible,” I said.
“Just before I got to him, I shined my flashlight on the biggest rat in Orleans Parish haulin’ ass outta there. I could just see that rat eatin’ a chunk outta his neck. That’s what made me sick.” It sounded like an apology. Nineteen-year-old boys, especially Eighth Ward kids like Tony, kids with daggers tattooed on their biceps, feel like they have to apologize for such things.
“Sounds bad,” I said. “You see anything else?”
“Like I told you. His throat was slit wide open, all the way down to the bone. Oh, yeah, and he was laid out on a sheet.”
“Did you say a sheet?” That made my heart beat a little quicker.
“And this box was right beside him,” he said. “Had two candles on it. Little white ones like they use in church. Wax had dripped all over the box.”
Through the burglar bars inside the plate glass of the storefront I saw a fifth police cruiser pulling into the lot. It was still dark, not quite dawn, and the flashing light bars painted everything blue. Two policemen, one scribbling on a notepad, towered above a gray and hollow-cheeked man in a sweat-stained shirt squatting on the curb in front of the door. The few teeth he had were yellow and broken, and he had a three-day stubble on his face. He also had a bad case of the shakes.
“This box, was it long?” I held my hands up two feet apart. “Was it shaped like maybe a little coffin?”
“I didn’t look too good.” He shuddered as he hunched his shoulders. “You don’t reckon that rat . . .”
“It was in those weeds minding its own business and you scared it. That’s all. What about the box?”
“I guess you could say it looked like a coffin,” he said, “for a rat or something . . .”
“Forget the damn rat.”
“It was like one of them boxes whiskey bottles come in.”
So, six years after killing Big Jim he comes to the surface again. I swirled my coffee around, and a few scalding drops sloshed on my hand. “Why did you go over there?” I asked.
“That wino out there busted in here yelling about how he had stumbled over this dead guy in that empty lot.” He stepped toward the coffee machine, shaking down a foil pack of Dark Roast Luzianne. “I figured he was having the DTs and told him to beat it. But he kept pulling at my arm and everything so I locked up and went to take a look.”
“Tony, son, I’ve told you a million times not to come out from behind that counter.”
“Hey, I carried my pistol.” He patted the chrome-plated .38 holstered above his back pocket.
A white station wagon with the Channel Six News logo whipped into the parking lot, and from the passenger side a woman stepped out, tall as I am, her blonde hair shining under the yellow glow of the streetlights.
“What did the dead man look like?” I asked.
“He was sorta black, looked Puerto Rican. Pretty young. I’d say mid-twenties. About your height. Six feet, six one. Hard to tell with him laid out on the ground.”
The two cops who had been standing beside the wino walked inside. One looked Tony’s age, too young to be a cop. But when you turn forty, you see doctors and judges who look like they could go to the prom. And every morning I see a new gray hair where there was a dishwater blond one the day before.
The other cop had some years on him. His gut pushed hard against his belt and he had deep crinkles around his eyes. They brushed past me to the counter and waited for the new coffee to brew. The young cop lifted the pot and the last few drops sizzled on the warmer.
“The Undertaker at it again?” I asked the older cop.
His eyes narrowed as he stared through the steam over the rim of his cup. “You know something about this?”
“Nothing but what I just heard. Sounds like the Undertaker to me.”
“We got all the investigators we need, mister. Don’t be talking about no Undertaker, ’specially around that TV reporter out there.”
He rubbed his eye with his knuckle and turned toward the blue lights. He sipped his coffee in short, loud slurps and kept looking outside as I glared at the side of his face. If these cops were half as good as they thought they were, they would have made a case six years ago. And nobody would ever have had any need to hire guys like me. But he did have a point. Bringing up the Undertaker was the last thing the NOPD needed.
“C’mon,” he said to the young cop, “let’s wrap this up.”
As they walked out the door, Tony said something I didn’t hear. Some grim work was going on outside. Six cops in a knee-high ground fog shone flashlights across the lot, flattening the brown weeds as they kicked around, looking for the knife they knew wasn’t there. A camera flashed as an investigator on one knee chalked a line around the body. An ambulance down the street, flickering red and white, inched toward the store. Had it looked like this when Big Jim was killed?
“Hello?” Tony said. “Anybody home?”
“Huh? Oh . . . yeah. I was just thinking about something.”
“Well? Who is he?”
“Who else? The King of Mexico,” he said. “That Undertaker dude. Who is he?”
I sipped some coffee. “This stuff is burned up, Tony.”
“You say that every day. Who is he?”
The ambulance eased into the lot and parked beside the Channel Six station wagon. The driver killed the white strobe but left the red lights flashing.
“It was too far back for you to remember,” I said. “Several years ago they found two bodies one night over on the banks of the Harvey Canal. Found another one the next week under the I-10 overpass. They all had their throats slit, just like that guy out there.”
“They have them whiskey boxes, too?”
“They’re miniature coffins. That’s why the newspaper started calling the guy who did it the Undertaker.”
“Oh, man. They ever catch him?”
I shook my head. “Word got out about the coffins so everybody figured they were voodoo sacrifices or something.”
“They were drug killings, Tony. The dead guys were all street pushers. But naturally the press played up the voodoo angle. Made national news for a month and embarrased the hell out of the cops.”
“Hey, this makes national news, maybe they’ll put me on that Dateline show.”
“I’m sure they’d love to hear all about that rat.”
A cop shooed the reporter away from the body. I sipped the remaining bitter drops of my coffee, chewed the last bite of my cinnamon roll, crumpled the wrapper, and tossed it, along with the coffee cup, into the trash can by the door.
“Hey, Jack! Got one for you. How can you tell a male chromosome from a female chromosome?”
“You pull down its genes,” I said. “You told me that one last week.”
“Hey, it’s hard to get fresh material, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “See you later, Tony. Stay behind that counter, you hear?”
The air was thick with exhaust fumes from the idling police cruisers. The blonde reporter called out and trotted over to me as I walked to my truck. The cameraman, a chubby kid with oily, shoulder-length hair, grunted as he hoisted the camera to his shoulder. “Do you know anything about this?” she said.
I glanced past her, over her shoulder, and saw the two cops who had been in the store. They leaned against their cruiser with their arms folded, watching as she stuck her portable microphone near my face.
“Just drove up,” I said. “Don’t know a thing.”
She wheeled around without a word and dashed over toward the cops at the edge of the weeded lot. The cameraman jogged after her, panting and cursing in low tones. Under the glare of the television camera, the EMTs lugged the body toward the ambulance. I drifted away from the curb and coasted to the street with my window rolled down, the morning quiet broken only by the deep horns of the tugs on the Mississippi River and an occasional crackle from a police car radio.
I pulled out into the street and headed uptown toward the Celeste Street Wharf, on my way to unload ships for the last time. My side mirror reflected darkness, except for the gleam of the TV camera’s light on the faces of the older cop and the blonde reporter.
She had only been in New Orleans for two or three years. She wouldn’t make the connection. But some city editor, or some longtime reporter who had been around back then, would be asking NOPD about it, and soon.
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. Author's first mystery. Signed and dated July 16, 1999 on the title page. Signed by Author(s). Bookseller Inventory # 001617
Book Description Minotaur Books, 1999. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0312202776
Book Description Minotaur Books, 1999. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110312202776
Book Description Minotaur Books. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0312202776 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.1021899