Read an Excerpt
Down In New Orleans
By Heather Graham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Heather Graham Pozzessere
All rights reserved.
Annie had been expecting to see Jon that night.
Just not the way she saw him. Staggering in. Falling to his knees. Bleeding all over her floor. Gasping out cryptic and barely intelligible words.
At first, she hadn't even heard the pounding at her door. She had gone out to her balcony to stare down at the night life in the city. It was odd that now, nearly five years after her divorce, she could actually really and truly thank Jon for something—his city. She loved New Orleans, she loved that he had found this place in the French Quarter for her, and she could even say now, without bitterness or passion, that she had come to love her ex once again. She hadn't thought it possible. Their fifteen-year relationship had been too stormy, too angry, too hateful—at times even too dangerous. But the storms were over. What he chose to do with his Saturday evenings—or mornings, for that matter—no longer concerned her. It was the most exhilarating sense of freedom she had ever imagined, not to have to care. She didn't even blame him very much anymore. The things that had happened had been unavoidable—fate, even.
They had met as children, and he had stayed a big child. He was still a big child; but now she could cope with him and love him in a different manner.
In the end, it would prove to be very odd that she was deep in retrospection that night, standing on the balcony, chicory coffee in hand, staring down at the street, listening to the jazz she loved so much—and thinking how happy she was. Divorce had originally scared her. She had held on to her marriage long after the truth of the vows had gone out of it. Until the divorce finally happened, she hadn't realized how afraid she had been of being alone. That she had made excuses to stay married not because of their daughter, as she had thought, but because she had been afraid of being alone.
Until five years ago, she had never been alone. She had been Jon's wife, Katie's mom, and before that, she had been Jeff and Cheryl's daughter. She went right from high school into college—a liberal arts school because her parents just didn't believe it was possible for the average young woman to actually make a living at art. She met Jon Marcel her freshman year; they were both eighteen. They dated right away, went to wild parties, had huge jealous fights, parted. Yet kept going back together, no matter how bad the fights got.
They both went on to grad school, and didn't marry until after they had celebrated their twenty-fifth birthdays. When they should have both been mature, responsible, well-educated adults. Ready to face the world as mature, responsible people. They had sown their wild oats. This was marriage.
She wondered why she had expected things to change.
Because they certainly didn't. Marriage didn't make them one bit different. They went on treating one another like children—fighting like children. Petty irritations continued to rise as they sulked, battled, walked away from one another—called one another names. Somewhere along the line, the names finally just became too nasty, the fights just a little vicious. Jon stayed away. She grew silent. Wondering. He began to come home later and later, and then one night, not at all. But by then, it didn't really matter. If she felt rage, she kept it bottled up inside. She didn't even want to confront him—when the time came, she quietly saw her lawyer, quietly filed papers.
At first Jon considered her actions a bluff. He threatened and pleaded. Then he cried. And she cried. And they almost made up. But that had been the pattern, and Ann realized then that she had to break that pattern. Especially because it seemed that Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall: she couldn't even pretend anymore that he hadn't been cheating on her, and once upon a time, even with all the fighting, she had believed that there was something golden and precious in their relationship—mutual fidelity. So they divorced, becoming awful enemies; then, suddenly, somewhere in there, the very best of friends. They had been living in Atlanta together; he had gone home to New Orleans when they'd split up. He coaxed her down for Jazz Fest, then found the perfect artist's garret and home for her right next to a boulangerie dead center in the French Quarter. And she loved it. She lived on the second floor, while below she opened a store that sold cards, prints, and local crafts on consignment. She found the perfect manager for the shop, and was able to spend her days—and nights, when she so desired—working. She loved painting; she loved the gallery owner next door who did well with her vivid portraits of life in New Orleans, plants, flowers and balustrades, old fishermen, young children. Faces.
Faces were her favorite, and faces were her forte. One of the nicest reviews she'd ever received had stated that decades of living and an entire spectrum of emotions could be seen in her faces. She was wise enough to understand her own particular talent and love of art, however; so even though she made most of her money on her faces done in oil, she constantly changed both her interests and her style. She very often did so with Jon as friend, inspiration and critic. That was part of what they shared now—their mutual love of art, and their respect for one another within their chosen field and vocation.
She glanced at her watch with a frown. Jon had actually been due quite some time ago. He was currently into a project, doing a new series of paintings. A new gallery, opened by an old friend of theirs who'd just recently made the move to New Orleans from San Francisco, was displaying the first of this series, and Jon was coming to take her by to see his paintings. The series was called Red Light Ladies, and though she had to admit that she had rather high-handedly scoffed at the concept at first—all right, so she had actually snickered at the very idea of Jon doing such a series—the few paintings in his garret she had already seen were wonderful, his finest work to date. Just as she had been complimented on her faces, he was being commended for his study of women living on the edge of life. His first painting, entitled Sweet Scarlet, was both visually stunning and emotionally wrenching. The "Scarlet" of the painting was decked out in wondrous red, a costume startlingly sensual and oddly beautiful, and against that lay the pain and loss and wonder—and just an edge of hardness—within her eyes. Tawdry, glittering, lovely, sad, pathetic. The painting was so many things. He had asked a stripper who worked a local club to pose for the painting, and it seemed that he had summed up so much of her life, the beauty and hope of youth, the wary wisdom that encroaching age brought with it. He had captured the woman with the promise of fluid movement in her dance, a grace that defied the more elemental function of removing one's clothing. Tonight, many of Jon's "ladies" would be on display, and, Ann had to admit, she was quite eager to see them all in a gallery setting.
She sipped her coffee and glanced at her watch again, wondering what was keeping him. She didn't really feel that anxious; it was a beautiful night. Darkness had just come, settling over the last of a sunset that had just bathed the old wrought-iron lacing and balconies of pastel buildings in a patina of red. If she closed her eyes, she could dimly hear the voices, the laughter of people, tourists and natives, wandering the quaint streets. The jazz horn was their backdrop; the faint but tantalizing odors of rich coffee and always fresh-baked croissants and beignets lay hauntingly on the air.
It was then that she heard the banging.
Banging ... or a thud, actually. As if Jon had arrived and slammed a shoulder furiously against her door. For a moment, she was irritated. They weren't married anymore. He'd often had this tendency to think that the world should stop for him, that she should open the door the second he arrived even if her hands were dripping with dish soap, paint, or tomato sauce from a casserole.
"Jon?" She set her coffee on the white wrought-iron table on the balcony. She walked through the living area to the apartment's front door. Ready to tell Jon just what she thought of his obnoxious pounding, she threw the bolt and swept the door open in a fury.
"Damn you, Jon—" she began.
He was standing there, his handsome face thin, pale, almost cadaverous in the muted light of the hallway.
Then he fell.
He fell forward, crashing straight into her arms. Taken completely by surprise, Ann found herself off-balance, driven flat to the floor by the impetus of his free-fall and weight, crashing down hard beneath him.
His face was on the floor, just inches from her own. His lips were moving. She'd clutched him as they had fallen. She moved her hands then, still too stunned to realize just what was happening.
Her hands ...
His lips ...
Her fingers were dripping blood. And there was suddenly soft, desperate sound coming from his lips.
"I didn't do it."
There was blood. On her hands. From holding him.
"Oh, God!" He wasn't really seeing her. His mouth kept forming words.
"I didn't do it. I didn't do it, I didn't do it ...
Blood was seeping out over the polished floorboards.
"Oh, God!" He screamed it. His eyes focused on her. "I didn't do it!"
His eyes fell shut.
And the blood continued to run.CHAPTER 2
Women. Wives. They were always the last to know, Mark thought with a shake of his head and a wealth of impatience. For Christ's sake, the guy had killed the stripper he'd been with. Stripper? Sweet Jesus. That was being kind. The young woman might have had a good heart; she might have been all personality beneath the price tag she usually put on her time, but in plain language, the poor, butchered girl had been a whore. But it didn't seem to matter to this guy's wife that she'd been such a woman. Here this jerk's wife was, his little woman, with a tear-stained face, talking with the doctor, demanding that he save the life of a man who had just stolen the tarnished dreams of another.
"Now that's a picture, huh?" whispered Jimmy Deveaux, tall and stringy as a bean pole, a friendly fellow with shaggy brown hair and a blood hound's face. Mark held rank over Jimmy, but they often worked together. Partners. When the streets were filled with knives and gunfire, rank didn't mean squat. Jimmy, too, shook his head. "Cute as a button. Pretty woman. Great hair. Great butt."
The words were typical of his partner. The guys in the force referred to Jimmy's running commentary on the world as "gallow's humor." Tonight they were investigating a murder. It couldn't get more serious. But humor was often a cop's way of surviving the life he or she had chosen.
And usually, Mark would have played along with it—not even in a sexist manner—for when the cops on duty were females, they, too, discussed the attributes of people, male and female. Men and women had clichés, but cops had clichés, too.
It was just that tonight ...
"Jimmy, we're not here to assess her butt," Mark said.
Jimmy didn't seem to notice his mood. "Her boobs seem to be pretty good, too."
"Jimmy, we're not here to assess her boobs or her butt," Mark said more firmly.
"Okay, we're not here to assess them; but there they are, and they're still great. What in God's name was the guy doing killing a prostitute when he had someone like that back home?"
"Come on, now, my boy, you've been in this business long enough to know that the world is full of psychos—and that even your more normal garden-variety breed of man can behave like damned psychos at times."
"I couldn't have left her for a prostitute," Jimmy said with a sigh.
"Gina L'Aveau wasn't your usual prostitute," Mark replied casually.
Jimmy glanced at his friend long and hard. Then he shrugged and agreed, "No, Mark, she wasn't your usual prostitute. Not at all. You okay with this?"
"Of course I'm okay with this."
Mark, growing more impatient now as they waited for a conference with the doctor assigned to their murder suspect, turned away from Jimmy's inquiring eyes. He looked Jon Marcel's wife up and down again. Her name was Ann. Ann Marcel. He'd almost taken her for a kid at first. She was tiny—she'd be stretching it to claim to be five-foot-three. But she wasn't a kid. On closer inspection, she looked like she was somewhere in her early to mid thirties. Maybe even a little older. Small, compact—but he had to give Jimmy and his taste some credit—she was nicely compact. She had a beautiful shape in a small package. Her hair was shoulder length, a very light blond, her eyes were almost a startling green next to her fair skin, and her features were as fine and delicate as those of a perfectly crafted doll. She was wearing what must have once been a cool spring dress, soft fabric in earth tones that both floated and hugged her form, except that now, in most areas, the dress no longer floated; it was covered in blood. Caked with it.
"Jon Marcel is an artist," Jimmy said, as if that explained everything.
Mark arched a brow to him. "Meaning?"
Jimmy shrugged a little defensively. "Who knows? I mean, I hear some city paid a guy a fortune once to wrap some islands in pink in the name of art. I just mean that artists can be a little strange."
"Jimmy, what the hell are you getting at?"
"I—I—maybe they shared their conquests."
Mark arched a brow to him.
"Ah, come on, Mark, you know what I mean." Jimmy was just a little bit red-faced. He might be frank in his ogling of an appealing woman, but he wasn't the type to engage in too much male shop talk if the subject turned kinky.
"Ah, ménage-à-trois?" Mark said.
"She doesn't look the type."
"How do you look a type?" Jimmy demanded defensively.
"Maybe you don't 'look' a type," Mark said. "But she still doesn't 'look' the type."
Some things defied explanation.
"Aren't the wildest thoughts supposed to lurk in the minds of the mildest people. Look at Superman's alter-ego—Clark Kent. I rest my case."
"Yeah," Mark muttered. They should be resting this case damned quickly. If just a few lab tests came back positive, there would be no doubt that Jon Marcel would be facing murder charges. He swallowed, determined not to betray how shaken he had been by the case, that he'd been entangled more than he should have been since he'd gotten the call from headquarters to head quickly for the murder scene. An hysterical tourist had called in after tripping over the body; the cops in uniform had informed him that they had arrived while the corpse was still warm.
Not so when he'd gotten there, just seconds before the guys from the coroner's office. No, she'd been cold then. Cold, lying in a pool of blood, her eyes still opened, all those dreams that had lived somewhere in her heart somehow seeming to reflect in those opened eyes. She had been a pretty woman. Pretty even in death. She might have been just lying there waiting for the life of her dreams to start, except that she lay in a pool of blood.
And the life within her had grown cold.
One of the uniforms had been talking to him as he knelt looking at the body. He'd gone cold himself. Had some trouble trying to get his breath. He stood. "Corby," he said, acknowledging the young beat officer. "What've we got?"
It was good as far as information went. So it seemed. There had been a trail of blood leading from the murder scene. To the residence of an Ann Marcel. And it turned out that Mrs. Ann Marcel had just put in a 911 call, and her husband, covered in blood, was in the middle of emergency surgery.
He again knelt down by the corpse of what had been a beautiful, if sad, woman. "So you fought back, baby. Good for you."
The lab techs were all there, taking samples of anything they could, being especially careful to follow the blood trail to Ann Marcel's place.
Henry Lapp, an assistant at the coroner's office, told him, "Lee will take this one himself. I've given him a call at home; he's coming right in. You know Lee—he thinks we miss things if we take too long to get to an autopsy, so this one looks pretty pure and simple. She was cut up and she fought back and her murderer ran. We should be able to run right after him."
Excerpted from Down In New Orleans by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1996 Heather Graham Pozzessere. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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