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There were three remarkable things about the night of November tenth: it was the first time a woman ever slapped me in the face, it was the first time a woman ever beat me in a game of pool, and it was the first time I'd heard anything from Jackie Silva in sixteen years.
A couple of hours after Diana DiCarlo slapped me—and after being humiliated at the pool table by a twenty-two-year-old girl, if you can believe it—I was reclining in bed, propped up just enough to nurse a Scotch and smoke a bunch of cigarettes. I was wondering what to do about Diana.
The phone rang. I looked at the clock. Five minutes till midnight. I fully expected it to be Diana. Unlike a lot of women who would rather die than be first to call, she was more interested in games that are played in the boudoir, not games that get you there.
"What," I said into the receiver.
"Is this Neal Rafferty?"
I said I was.
The voice was a woman's, low, husky and tense. "Remember me, Neal?" A whiskey voice, talking quickly and right up against the mouthpiece, like maybe she didn't want someone nearby to hear what she was saying. It was a voice that sounded as if it were in trouble. It was also disturbingly familiar. I sat up in bed, listening hard.
"Am I calling too late?" she asked.
"Depends on who you are."
"It's Jackie, Neal. Jackie Silva. You remember, don't you?"
Sure I remembered Jackie. She and my sister were inseparable all through junior high and most of high school. Then Reenie met Michael who became her husband, and Jackie met too many guys in too many places where a high school girl shouldn't meet guys, mostly French Quarter bars and nightclubs.
Jackie had polio when she was eight or nine and had been left with a slight limp. She walked a bit more slowly and a bit more provocatively than she would have otherwise. She'd also fallen behind a couple of grades. So while the other girls were turning sweet sixteen and still decorating the gym for sock hops, Jackie turned eighteen, the legal age at that time to bar hop and drink in New Orleans.
Reenie got married and Jackie came to the wedding, and after that we didn't hear from her again until she called and told us she was getting married, too, to a man named Larry Silva, a deep sea diver she'd met in a joint on Decatur Street, a place called La Casa. Our whole family went to the wedding.
That was sixteen years ago. I still remembered Jackie walking in that oddly sensual way down the aisle of the Mater Dolorosa church on her daddy's arm. She was dressed in white lace from head to foot and smiled radiantly for the wedding guests, who didn't fill the first five pews on either side of the aisle. Jackie's daddy wasn't smiling.
On the Silva side of the church were a bunch of guys looking like thugs in their shiny new suits. The girls they were with had long hair ratted high up off their heads, breasts that pointed straight and sharp ahead, and dresses that clung to each hard curve. Somebody popped her chewing gum. It rang out against the high vaulted ceiling like a pistol shot. A laugh was shushed. From where I was sitting in the third row, I could see that the backs of Larry Silva's hands were tattooed.
When Jackie's father handed her over to Larry, the echo of a stifled sob lingered along the sanctuary walls. It came from Jackie's mother.
The tenor of my phone conversation with Jackie seemed to be anxious and secretive. I matched the tone.
"Where are you, Jackie?"
There was a moment's pause during which I heard the flick of a cigarette lighter, a sharp intake of breath, and then she let go with a loud, raucous laugh.
"Westwego," she said finally.
"Westwego?" I repeated.
Westwego is on the West Bank, the other side of the Mississippi River from New Orleans. If I sounded amazed, I didn't mean to. After all, Larry was a diver and the diving and salvage company he worked for was on the West Bank. I knew they had moved there after they got married. I guess my amazement was because of the way she was laughing.
"Yeah," she said. "Might as well be in China, huh?" She laughed some more. She didn't sound anxious anymore; she sounded as if she were pretty well into tying one on.
But then she got serious again—and anxious. "I'm in trouble, Neal." I heard ice rattle against the side of a glass. "There's a man over here, a stupid man. He's stupid about everything except how to hurt people. And he's cheap. He's stupid and cheap and that's why he's dangerous." She was talking quickly again, not making a whole lot of sense. "And I owe him a lot of money. I owe him for The Emerald Lizard."
As you can imagine, I was concerned, but I had no idea what she was talking about. "Is Larry there with you?" I asked.
"Oh no. Larry's going to die. It's all he thinks about ..."
"Jackie, you're not making sense."
"Yes I am. Just listen. This man—he's got a contract out on me."
"Who is he?"
"His name is Bubba Brevna, and he says if I don't come up with five thousand dollars by Friday, he's going to have my tongue cut out."
I managed to find out that The Emerald Lizard was a lounge Jackie owned in Westwego. I told her I'd meet her there the next afternoon, figuring she would need most of the morning to sleep off her drunk, and also because I had to be in court.
I had trouble going to sleep. I had stopped thinking about Diana; I was thinking about Jackie, about that provocative walk of hers, the way it could make you want to crawl the walls, and those sloe-eyed looks she could give you, looks that made you suspect she was up to no good. And that crooked smile that ended in two crescent-shaped lines, a smile that could bring a sixteen-year-old boy to his knees.
And I remembered how dangerous it all had been. She was danger --the walk, the eyes, the smile, all of her. She could make you do things you'd swear you'd never do again, and then you would do it again, and the more you did it, the bolder she got, until sometimes you thought your sixteen-year-old heart would stop.
I got a whiff of the way Jackie used to smell on those steamy nights, and with that whiff came a taste way on the back of my tongue. My adrenaline kicked in. Sleep was out. It was the taste and smell of danger all grown up now.
* * *
But, in a strange way—strange because this is New Orleans, a tiny town really—the story doesn't exactly start with Jackie or in Westwego, but in the office of my closest friend, Maurice, on the morning of November tenth.CHAPTER 2
Maurice sat behind his desk wearing a black three-piece Western-cut suit, heavy black-frame glasses, and the look of love.
Little did I know that this was the last time I'd ever see him like this, sitting in his law office—the only place where he was completely comfortable except a courtroom—happy, in control of his destiny, single-minded in his pursuit of justice for all. I might have been a bit more sentimental if I'd realized.
"Not only that," he was saying, "she thinks I'm sexy," and blushed to the roots of his shiny brown hair.
Let's see. I'd known Maurice for about fifteen years, since he was a brilliant young assistant district attorney and I was a foot-sore young cop on the beat. In those fifteen years Maurice had seen me go through a lot of changes, including my more or less forced resignation from the New Orleans Police Department. He then persuaded me to do what he'd done—go to work for myself—and gave me my first case as a private investigator. The biggest change I'd seen Maurice go through was from prosecutor to one of the most respected defense lawyers in town, which was exactly what I'd expected. Otherwise, he still wore the black Western suit and cowboy boots he'd worn ever since I'd known him, and still had those slightly lopsided horn-rims. He carried a black leather schoolboy's satchel instead of a briefcase, and to get him out of the house he had to be held at gunpoint. I'd heard him described as boyish, eccentric, genius, workaholic, weird ... but sexy? That one hadn't come up before.
"Sexy is in the eye of the beholder," I said.
He sat forward, his elbows on the desk, and talked to me intently. "We're exactly alike," he said. "How can I explain it to you?" His eyes drifted around the walls of books, then snapped back to me. "She's like a twin, my long-lost twin. We think alike; we like the same things. We read voraciously. We hate TV. We both like to work more than anything else. Well, except being together." He stopped to chuckle. "You won't believe this, Neal, but at two o'clock this morning, Nita realized we'd forgotten to eat dinner."
Maurice knew I wouldn't be surprised that he could forget to eat.
"Did her remembering do any good?" I asked. Since Maurice rarely remembered to eat, there was rarely anything to eat in his house.
"She is so fantastic, Neal. She found a can of red beans and whipped up the most fabulous omelet."
My stomach churned and growled in protest. "And did you get any sleep after that gourmet's delight?"
"Oh, a couple of hours. Nita seems to need a bit more sleep than I do."
"A couple of hours, huh? That could get to be habit-forming."
"She's moving in with me."
I now have to interrupt what Maurice said to impress upon you how incredible this was. I don't mean to say he'd never had a girlfriend before. He'd had a few and some of them were women he really liked, but none of them could take the fact that Maurice was married to his work, and that she was always going to come second. He was too obvious about it. I'd even heard him admit it once when under direct examination, so to speak. No woman can take hearing that. But this time was different. I'd never heard him this excited over someone, never heard him talk about living with anyone, much less anyone consider living with him. Maurice had an obsessive personality, but even women drawn to obsessive personalities couldn't take him. He was so honest, direct, and open about it that it was almost unbearable to most women. He didn't really need anyone, so I thought, so he didn't try very hard to get anyone. When they started getting unhappy, he let them go. A couple of times when they wouldn't go easily, he refused to see them anymore.
He was saying, "She loves my house. She's going to transform it." He added, "She's very artistic," as if I should already know.
Now wait a minute. This was maybe something altogether different. I mean, who wouldn't love Maurice's house? One of those high-ceilinged Garden District mansions. And who wouldn't want to transform it? Maurice hadn't done anything to it except turn the den into another law office after his parents died.
Maurice said, "I've decided we should be married by Christmas."
And this was November tenth. I felt panic rising rapidly.
"Maurice, you told me you've known her for less than two weeks."
"I know, but I'm absolutely sure. I haven't been as sure of anything since I knew I wanted to be a lawyer."
Which had been forever. Maurice, staring at me with those wide round eyes. Boyish. I think that's the word I've always used to describe him, even though he's about two years older than I am.
I fooled around lighting a cigarette for a minute before I said what I had to say: "I don't mind telling you I'm a little worried."
He smiled broadly at me. "Of course you are. You wouldn't be my friend if you weren't. I expect you to be worried. Until you meet her. Then you won't be worried anymore."
I didn't have an answer ready for that. I asked him what kind of work it was she did that she liked so much.
"She's a photographer," he said, "an excellent photographer. Of course, that's a hard way to make a living no matter how good you are, so she's been taking odd jobs when things get tight. She doesn't have to do that anymore."
"But that's exactly what I mean, Maurice." I decided I'd better tread gently, then I said, "I mean, maybe she's tired of all those odd jobs." I wanted to bite my tongue.
But he smiled at me with the greatest affection. "I understand what you're saying, that maybe she's using me. Don't worry, really. She's not tired of anything. She's only twenty-two years old."
Great. And Maurice was pushing forty.
A girl who liked to take pictures, who told Maurice he was sexy, and who wanted to move in and redo his house. Oh boy.
"Look, Maurice, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but it would make me feel a whole lot better if you'd stop talking about getting married for at least six months."
Another indulgent smile. "As soon as you meet her, you'll see we're made for each other. And you must meet her tonight, Neal. Get a date and let's go to dinner. Nita says that the only way we won't forget to eat is to make plans well in advance."
"I'll see if I can round up the princess," I said weakly. There was no talking to him; he was off the deep end.
"You'll love her, you really will. Nita." He said her name in two short, punctuated syllables. "Isn't that a great name? So crisp and pert and energetic. Just like she is." His grin was so wide I thought his face would split.
Isn't it funny how silly someone in love can seem? Unless, of course, it's you.
I left Maurice mooning around his office and went out into the reception area where Pinkie, Maurice's young, pert, energetic secretary, was sitting in front of a computer screen. Her short frothy blond hair curled behind a small, delicate ear. An earring like a beaten gold scythe swayed gently as her fingers flew over the keyboard making soft rapid plonks. I sat on the corner of the adjacent desk and waited for her to turn rose-shadowed sapphire blues on me. She rested her chin on her laced fingers and looked at me in her dreamy way, her lips slightly parted, asking to be kissed.
"What's it like working for a lawyer in love?" I asked.
Her long black lashes dipped once. "I like it," she said. "I give the orders now."
I really got a kick out of Pinkie. When she thought no one was watching her she was very childlike, jiggling her legs under the desk, chewing gum and blowing bubbles while she typed a letter, or eating candy, a long chocolate streak on her cheek, yawning with complete abandon. But in a situation like this, she was quite the sophisticate, very aware of herself—and her sexuality.
She smiled a slow conspirator's smile. "What I want to know about is detectives in love."
Pinkie had been after me for roughly the three years she'd worked for Maurice. It was the running joke between us, though she wasn't entirely joking and I admit to being flattered by the attention.
"What about them?" I asked. "What it's like to work for them?"
"No, that wasn't at all what I had in mind."
"Oh. Then let me tell you about detectives in love." I learned down closer to her, lowering my voice. "Detectives fall in love nearly every day. That's because they're such horny old buggers. They know women from all walks of life—lady cops, ladies of the night, high society ladies—that's not what they're particular about. What they're most particular about is that they're not seen with anyone too young or too innocent or too wholesome. They have reputations to protect."
And that was the running argument between us, the difference in our ages. Or, more specifically, the fact that I thought Pinkie was too young for me. She was just a kid. The same age as this Nita.
Her smile vanished while I was talking. "Of course," she said. "Their reputations as sex-crazed, gun-slinging adolescents who think the bigger a woman's mammary glands are, the more brains she has." She turned her slim squared shoulders away from me, to give her attention to the more cooperative computer.
Maybe she thought I was taking a crack at her figure, the type of build that some people might call boyish.
"You know I'm just kidding, Pinkie."
She kept her eyes on the screen. "Adolescent humor."
I sighed. "Let's face it, Pinkie, I'm too young for you. You need an older guy, someone you can match wits with. Someone into early senility maybe?" (All right, all right—it was despicable.)
I slid off her desk, ready to go, but not before the golden scythes sliced the air at the sides of her cheeks and I got a sharp bite of cold sapphire.
"You are," she said, "a despicable human being."
"That's good," I told her. "I hope you include that when you recommend me to your clients who are sleazy enough to need the services of a detective. In my business, 'despicable' translates as effective. "
"A low life," she said with disgustCHAPTER 3
You might think what I said to Pinkie means I'm not particular about women. Not so.
Hell, I have a history of being particular about women. For instance, Diana DiCarlo. Thirty-two, five foot seven, dark brown hair that took a straight and elegant plunge before curling gently under her chin, a body that looked long and willowy under her fashionable clothes, but was substantial enough to give you something to hold on to. It's true—I always like something to hold on to. She said not to let the name fool you, that she was French—Parisian French—descended from the early French settlers, and she looked it, with that smooth fair skin and those chocolate-drop eyes.
Diana was the most imperious woman I'd ever known except maybe old Grandma Rafferty, who was just as haughty and demanding. Diana was also smart and independent. She had a glamorous job as assistant director of public relations for a swank French Quarter hotel.
Excerpted from The Emerald Lizard by Chris Wiltz. Copyright © 2012 Chris Wiltz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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