Read an Excerpt
Cities of the Dead
A Michael Spraggue Mystery
By Linda Barnes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Linda Appleblatt Barnes
All rights reserved.
"Tell me about the man who was killed," Spraggue said.
The Orleans Parish lock-up smelled of disinfectant and sweat. A woman sat on the narrow holding-cell bunk, her head cradled in her hands. Staring down at her, Spraggue thought that someone else, anyone else, would have made a spunkier leading lady for a police drama. Dora Levoyer, Aunt Mary's longtime cook, looked small and shrunken, as if she'd been trying to disappear and only partially succeeded.
"I wonder," she said softly, "if I can make you understand." She glanced up and studied his face as if she were committing it to memory.
She used to leave him secret late-night snacks in the refrigerator. Years ago. Strawberry tarts with flaky pastry and chantilly cream. Homemade pâté smeared on crusty fresh-baked bread. If he mentioned her kindness, she'd blush and twist her apron in her hands. Compliments to the chef had to be relayed through the proper channels. When he'd moved out of the big house, he hadn't missed the family ghosts, the thick Oriental rugs, the Sèvres porcelain, the maid service. But he still dreamed about Dora's cooking.
She took a deep breath and shifted her gaze, focusing on the bare cinderblock wall. Her voice sounded harsh in spite of the French elision that usually made her speech musical. "It is hard for me to talk about it to anyone — and to tell that lawyer, a man I do not know at all, it would be even harder than to tell your aunt, who thinks of me so highly I cannot bear to see the disappointment in her eyes."
"Nobody's disappointed, Dora. Nobody's judging you. Just don't tell me the worst, okay? Don't confess to murder, because I'm no priest, and no doctor, and no lawyer, and I'd have to —"
"Anything I say, you must repeat to those policemen?"
"Well ..." Spraggue peered around to see where the guard had come to roost. "Not everything," he murmured.
"It seems I have no choice. So listen and don't be unhappy if I cry. I cry too easily and that is another reason I would not have a stranger here. It is so frustrating, such a weakness, to cry in front of strangers — and yet whenever I think — This is difficult for me. It is a business I have not spoken of for fifteen, eighteen years. And if it were not for Denise Michel —"
"Isn't she some kind of chef? Doesn't she write cookbooks?"
"To call Denise a chef is to call a beautiful, perfect silver Rolls-Royce a car. But she makes her living by cooking, yes. And she invited me here to a gathering of chefs, the Great Chefs of New Orleans they call themselves, and she was very insistent. And now I know why."
"Go on, please."
Dora hesitated. "How old do you think I am, monsieur?"
"I'm no good at guessing ages," he lied. He would have started at sixty easily, but he seemed to remember Aunt Mary saying that Dora was younger than she looked.
"Never mind. In France, when I was growing up, it was wartime and there were many shortages and, in my case, particularly a shortage of parents, and a shortage of food, and a shortage of care, and so I grow old before my time. But that is not here or there, except that perhaps this new unhappiness will age me still more and ..."
He wanted to take her hands and comfort her, but her erect spine and sad dignity were hard-won barriers that warned him to keep his distance. Once they crumbled, he might not get the story.
"I'm sorry, monsieur, it is even harder than I thought." She drew a ragged breath and started again. "Denise invited me to come, to help her by giving a workshop, and I thought, so, I still have one friend and I should come when she asks me because friends are not so plentiful for me and I have not seen her since I left New Orleans many years ago."
"How many years ago?"
"Mon Dieu! Aidez-moi." She used her French unconsciously and almost smiled when she realized her lapse. "Long ago. I was born in Lyons, where the food is the best. But when I am a young woman, I cannot get work — and my parents are dead — and there are not so many young men — so I come to New Orleans because it has a French name and is very romantic in the tour books. Maybe 1960. I was, perhaps, twenty-six years old."
Ten years younger than he would have guessed. "Go on," he said.
"It's hard to tell an old story. You remember what you were once, and you look at yourself how you are now. And you weep. Not for your looks, but for your dreams."
Even with the frazzled hair and the wrinkles and the baggy, indeterminate-colored dress, when Dora smiled, Spraggue got a glimpse of an odd, shadowy, bone-deep beauty that hadn't entirely disappeared over the years.
"I met a man — how many stories must begin like that — I met a man in New Orleans. I was a sous-chef, an underling to an old man who must have died long ago, in a restaurant that no longer exists — and a man came into the restaurant and he talked to me about food and life and his family and mine. I was lonely and I was looking for someone, that I cannot deny, because I was by then — what — more than thirty years of age and that is an age that sees loneliness as a very long time. And I married this man — and he went away. I tried to find him, yes, but then it seemed to me so shameful that I could not bear it. For my husband, he was not dead, or in an accident, and he must have run off with someone else. Because he was not such a good husband after all. But he was mine. I thought ..."
"I thought because I was ..."
She shook her head, a vague wistful tremor. "I was deceived. I knew inside me that I would not marry again. I could not support the pain again. And perhaps I knew I would not be asked. I don't know. I moved away from my memories. I went to New York and I worked many places there, and the fact that I was married came in handy, when I needed an excuse, you know, not to become attached to one of the other chefs or to the restaurateur. It was sometimes convenient to be another man's woman because many men do not believe that a woman can live by herself and not be bitter or angry or a rival to them. So I was safe as a married woman and rarely people questioned me about this man and sometimes I said he had died or we were separated. I tired of restaurant work. I went to Boston to cook for your aunt. I never knew what happened to this man I married. I left word with a few friends, with Denise, so that if he should want to reach me, he could. But after so many years, almost twenty years, it was sure that he was dead or happy elsewhere. I did not think about him. You understand?"
"Denise said nothing about this when she invited me. Only that it was an honor for her to be the hostess of this affair and she would be grateful if I would attend as her guest. I have much vacation time coming to me from your aunt and I wrote that I would come."
"How long have you been here?"
"What is today? Thursday? Friday? A night like last night cannot be measured. I have been in this city since Saturday, but I did not realize what had prompted Denise to call for me until Tuesday. Now it seems to me I have been naive, stupid, but it was not until then that I realized why this man, this man Joseph Fontenot, is familiar to me. He is very different, you understand? More than a difference of years. He limps. My Jacques did not limp, nor did he wear those thick spectacles. This man is heavy; he has a stomach, and my Jacques was thin like a reed, a well-made man. This man has a mustache; he is balding. My Jacques was smooth-faced and his hair was curly like a boy's. But something is the same ... And I know suddenly when I am seated near him at dinner, near Denise also, that he is not Joseph Fontenot, but he is my husband. And I know that this is why Denise has brought me here, although I cannot say from what well her thought sprang up. If she wants to hurt me I do not know why. If she wants to hurt the woman who is now Jacques' wife, I do not know why. But I know now that I had no marriage —"
"You said you married him —"
"Is a marriage legal in this country when one of the parties is already married? For last night, Denise is asking this man, who calls himself Joseph, questions. She and I have already spoken, you understand, when I recognize him, when I realize what is going on. And she says to me, I will ask him these things and you will see what is the truth. And I phone your aunt, beg her to join me. Never would I ask for such a favor, but I am, how do you say, in a quandary. I do not know what to do, what is the legal thing to do so that this man has no right to tell anyone that once I was his wife. And your aunt will know about lawyers and things. So Denise asks questions: How long are you married? And Jeannine, the wife, says, twenty-four years. So he was wedded to her long before he married me. And they have a child, also, a daughter eighteen years, and I would not wish a child to know that her father was the kind of man who would wed two women —"
"Did you ever get a divorce?"
She rubbed the palm of her left hand with her right forefinger, tracing the red marks where her nails had bitten her flesh. "No," she said. "At first I did not want one. And then I did not need one. There was no one else I wished to marry."
She averted her face in a vain effort to keep some privacy. Tears slid down her cheek. Years ago, when he'd been a private investigator, Spraggue had found the forced confidences of strangers painful. The pain of someone you knew was worse. So different from the comfortably fake anguish of actors. Actors blurted dark secrets with relish; that was their function. Real people covered wounds with scar tissue, or hid them till they festered.
"Okay," he said gently. "Tuesday you realized that Joseph Fontenot could be Jacques, your missing husband. You spoke to your friend, Denise, about it. You arranged a questioning session for this banquet last night —"
"Yes." She seemed strong again, recovered. "I asked your aunt particularly to remember the conversation so that later on we could find out the best thing to do, but I did not tell your aunt that the man had married me."
"And after dinner, the man was killed."
"Yes, and, oh, monsieur, listen to me closely, I may have hated that man once as I loved him once, but it is all so long ago. I think that it was a different woman entirely who loved and hated so passionately. A better woman perhaps, but not the person I have become. When I sit across from him at the table, he is like a stranger to me. I try to summon up the anger, to feel betrayed, as Denise says I am, but there is nothing, only a deep sadness for what I was and will never be again."
Her voice was flat and bewildered, scarcely louder than a whisper. He knew what a good actress could do with lines like those, and he half believed her just because she hadn't used any of the vocal tricks. He didn't think he knew a liar good enough to serve that up without embellishment, without even a catch in the throat.
"You didn't kill him?"
"Oh, no. I didn't. Believe me. I am not the heroine of Greek tragedy. I am only the cook." Her smile was wry, a touch bitter. "And," she said, "I wish to hire you to prove me innocent."
"I think my aunt has already hired me."
"She has done enough for me. I will hire you myself."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Please." She focused her attention on the gray cinderblocks, as if she were trying, by sheer force of will, to keep herself from seeing something else. She swallowed hard, opened her mouth, closed it without making a sound.
"Anything else I should know?" he asked.
She shook her head, her lips pressed tight.
"I've told you everything, monsieur. My whole life."
Spraggue just nodded. Nobody ever told you everything.CHAPTER 2
The man who trumpeted the question looked like he'd been waiting in the wings to play the role of Southern sheriff. Pushing retirement age, he had the standard paunch, a gentle cloud of whitish hair, round cheeks, and a bulbous nose. His level gray eyes seemed to belong to another face.
Aunt Mary was waiting too. And even Southern sheriff-types deferred to Aunt Mary. Diminutive, elderly, she might be, but she exuded the authority that came with years of command. Underneath the charm, there was steel.
She offered the sheriff a dimpled smile and said, "May I speak to my nephew alone?"
Spraggue said, "Have you got a lawyer for Dora?"
"Well, get him and let the cops in." To the central casting sheriff he said, "Dora's ready to tell you everything she told me."
"That so?" said the fat man. "And just why would 'everything' be so touchy private before and so godawful public now?"
Spraggue shrugged. Any cop ought to know that repetition was less painful after the first time.
The fat cop said, "You can use the lieutenant's office. Hayes, show Miz Hillman and her nephew back there, okay? These hallways get you all turned around."
The office was small. One metal desk sat two feet in front of a window graced with broken matchstick blinds. The window faced out on a brick wall.
Mary stood on tiptoe and planted a kiss on her nephew's cheek. She sat cautiously on the single spindly guest chair and motioned him to a cracked imitation-leather swivel job behind the desk. Her rumpled gray silk suit, pink bow askew — an evening outfit — meant she hadn't slept last night. Her smile erased the fine wrinkles in her skin and made her seem far younger than her seventy-odd years, her vitality more attuned to the red in her curling hair than the silver.
"I'm sorry, Michael," she said. "I hope it wasn't too much trouble for you to get away."
Trouble? Hell, no. No trouble. Just walked out on an Equity acting job. Left the director with a lame excuse and a moron of an understudy. Screwed my reliability rating in every theater in the known world. No trouble.
All he said out loud was "No," and Aunt Mary beamed as if she'd known it all along.
"Quickly now," she said. "What did Dora say?"
"Imagine my surprise to hear you were in New Orleans," Spraggue replied, raising one eyebrow. "I leave you one night, safe and sound in Boston and —"
Mary fluttered her hands. "I know. I know. I should have told you. I apologize abjectly. Things happen. Now what did Dora say?"
"First you're going to tell me what's going on so that I can make some sense of what she said."
"I don't know what's going on," Mary protested. "I feel like someone who's been given one of those terrible, huge jigsaw puzzles to play, except it got all mixed up with another one, and I've got half the giraffe pieces and half the leopard pieces, and they've both got spots, sort of, but they'll never match up."
"Do you want to get some sleep first, Aunt Mary?"
"Oh, darling. No. I don't really. I am tired, but I can talk. I'll stop babbling about giraffes and leopards and start at the beginning." She closed her eyes and said, "Maybe this is the onset of senility."
Spraggue said, "Garbage. I pity the police department that tangles with you, lady."
She sat up straighter. "Okay. Report. Hillman to Spraggue. I shall try to be as factual and succinct as possible. If I stray, bear with me."
Spraggue kept a grin off his face with effort. "Shoot."
"Wednesday morning — let me see, it was ten o'clock because the stock exchange had just opened — I got a phone call that Pierce insisted I take. It was Dora, sounding quite odd. She's worked for me for what? eight years now, cooking beautiful food and only complaining when I don't entertain enough, and never getting persnickety about adding more garlic if I like. A gem. Well, in all that time she never asked for a vacation, just took her days off when I traveled. I mean, it must get so dull for her, cooking for an elderly widow, when she used to awe the New York restaurant critics. But she insisted she liked the slow pace after so many years of hullabaloo. I kept urging her to take a trip, put a little excitement in her life, and finally, last week she asked if it would be all right if she went to New Orleans for some cooks' get-together bash and, of course, I was delighted. Pierce and I can get by on our own, although my cooking is dull at best and his is distinctly bizarre. All that curry —"
Spraggue cleared his throat. Mary's cheeks grew pink and she said, "I'm wandering, aren't I? Well, back to basics: Dora's phone call. She asked me — begged me — to come down to New Orleans for a day or two. Now normally that would be out of the question, but there was something in her voice, and, well, when someone has worked for you for eight years and never said a word about her personal life and never asked even a tiny favor — well, I was intrigued. So I came. I said nothing to you because I assumed I'd be back long before our next dinner date with some fascinating tale, instead of being just old stick-in-the-mud me.
Excerpted from Cities of the Dead by Linda Barnes. Copyright © 1986 Linda Appleblatt Barnes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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