Nola Céspedes, an ambitious young reporter at the Times-Picayune, finally catches a break: an assignment to write her first full-length feature. While investigating her story, she also becomes fixated on the search for a missing tourist in the French Quarter. As Nola's work leads her into a violent criminal underworld, she's forced to face disturbing truths from her own past and is confronted with the question: In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what's been broken?
Vividly rendered in razor-sharp prose, this haunting thriller is a riveting journey of trust betrayedand the courageous struggle to rebuild. Fast-paced, atmospheric, and with a knockout twist, Hell or High Water features an unforgettable heroine as fascinating and multilayered as New Orleans itself.
About the Author
JOY CASTRO teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Her 2005 memoir, The Truth Book, was elected an ABA Book Sense Notable Book.
Read an Excerpt
Cecily could find her way to the bathroom perfectly well by herself, thank you very much. She might have been only seven, but she could tie shoes, climb trees like a boy, and ride bikes through the leafy streets of their neighborhood back home in Lawrence. She didn’t need any big sister escorting her to the ladies’ room. She scowled at her father, who relented, shrugging.
“So go, then,” said Sophie, the superfluous big sister, who was eleven.
Quivering with insult, Cecily pushed down from the table and strode off across the restaurant. Sophie watched her go. Cecily’s soft brown hair was cut in a bob with bangs, something simple their father could manage, but Sophie could take care of herself. She could braid her own hair or put it up in a swinging ponytail or twist it into a neat low bun like their mother used to wear when the girls were small. “Good-bye to vanity!” their mother would laugh on the phone to her friends. But she stayed vain, even at the end, in the hospital, carefully penciling a fresh pink mouth over her own before they arrived, holding hands and standing hushed beside the bed, their cardigans buttoned all lopsided, their barrettes crooked, while their father stroked her hand and spoke in a low, strained voice. Once she had forgotten to put it on, and Sophie had worked hard not to stare at her pale, cracked lips, but not hard enough, because their mother had put her hand up to her mouth and said, “Oh.”
Now they had visitors from time to time, nice women who appeared at breakfast and were introduced by their father as “my promising student.” One of them, Amber Waybridge, had come along to New Orleans with them—“as an au pair,” their father said. Amber was twenty-five and an MFA student, which her father usually called “a dime a dozen,” but he didn’t say that about Amber.
It wasn’t just a vacation for fun. Their father was there for inspiration, because his work was suffering. He couldn’t seem to produce the kind of sculptures that had made his reputation—the kind that kept Sophie, disgusted, away from his studio: single masculine legs standing on the floor with their big things jutting out or hanging down, all painted in swirling bright reds and greens and blues and blacks, with splashes of silver and gold, so that you could hardly tell what they were. But Sophie knew, and thought they were gross. Since their mother’s death, all his pieces were just the color of plaster, a color like sawdust or putty.
Sophie thought the new sculptures were even more gross, but Cecily didn’t mind. She was quick and happy in general—she’d “adjusted well,” their father would murmur confidentially to adults—and ran around his studio laughing. Sophie thought she laughed an awful lot. Sometimes it seemed like she didn’t even remember their mother.
“Don’t brood,” their mother would have said. “Daddy won’t like it.”
His next show, “Surrealism(s) of the Body,” was already scheduled for the university gallery’s fall calendar, and Sophie knew he was counting on New Orleans to recharge him. He was on spring break, as was Amber Waybridge, and he’d taken the girls out of school for the week. They had been to numerous galleries as well as out in a flat-bottomed boat for an alligator tour in the bayous, where tall white waterbirds flapped into flight at their approach. When the guide cut the motor and tossed marshmallows onto the slick, shining brown skin of the water, they all sat silently on the metal benches, squeezed among the other tourists, as the rampant green foliage and the insects’ whine seemed to close in upon them. “Hands inside the boat,” the guide had barked suddenly into his microphone, and long, muscled bodies had slithered along beside them and risen up. The scaly pale flesh, the lizardy eye. Vast jaws had opened and snapped. “Daddy!” Cecily had screamed, but it was Sophie’s arm she’d grabbed.
That had been Saturday. Now it was Monday, and they were getting a fresh start with breakfast at the Copper Pot, a cheerful restaurant with waitresses who joked and grinned when they took your order. The walls were a bright, warm yellow, and the fronds of potted palm trees nodded in the ceiling fans’ breeze. It felt tropical, so different from the long, gray Kansas winter. At the table, her father sifted through maps and tourist guidebooks while Amber leafed through the Times-Picayune—SECOND BODY FOUND, blared a headline so large Sophie could read it upside down. Their father had explained that New Orleans was one of the murder capitals of America and given them lengthy instructions about safety and the buddy system and always staying close to him or Amber Waybridge—though Sophie would never willingly get close to Amber Waybridge, who kept pausing to lift her tanned wrist, tilting it in the light to admire the new bracelet their father had bought her, a slender gold chain studded with tiny diamonds, “for watching the girls,” he’d said loudly. As if Sophie were stupid.
Sophie ran her fingertip across the elaborate castle, all purple turrets and red spires, that Cecily had been crayoning into a sketchpad. “No electronica on vacation,” their father had said firmly, but Sophie had heard, under his dictatorial tone, the plea, almost a whine, and she knew that with a little pressure he could be overcome—that he secretly longed to continue the quiet, familiar isolation of all of them absorbed in their Game Boys and iPods and iPhones and laptops, their bodies moving along together but their minds in separate worlds, the way they had been ever since “the pancreatic” began. Sophie knew she would have to complain only a little for their father to give in, to collapse and let them retreat into their unsharable distractions. So she said nothing. She wanted more. She wanted a real vacation, the kind they’d had with Mommy at Yosemite, when the girls wore matching head scarves and Daddy carried their supplies in a backpack. Their mother never would have let the girls wear the kinds of shirts Amber Waybridge wore, black T-shirts cropped short to show her smooth belly. When would the food come?
Sophie sipped her grapefruit juice, pressing her lips close together to keep the pulpy bits out. With her fingernail, she picked at the corner of the laminated map Daddy was studying, peeling the plastic back from its edge.
“Stop that,” Daddy said, writing in his tiny notebook. He was plotting their day. The French Quarter had plenty of galleries they hadn’t looked at yet, and the Cabildo was full of historical things, including things from slavery days that he’d said he wasn’t sure the children were old enough to see. They’d already groped through the dark historical dioramas of the Musée Conti Wax Museum and hurried down Bourbon Street, their father muttering, “Well, this was a mistake,” and ignoring their questions about why anyone would want to wrestle in mud, while Amber Waybridge laughed into her hands. Sophie pushed the tiny black ball of the compass that was built right into the map, pushing the N all the way round, then letting it spring back. North could be south if you just kept pushing.
“Where’s your sister?” Daddy said.
She looked up. It had been a while. Maybe Cecily was making number two. She always picked the most awkward times to do it, instead of just waiting until they got back to the hotel.
“Go check on her,” he said. Sophie rolled her eyes, sighing loudly.
“I’ll go,” said Amber Waybridge quickly, smiling, laying her hand on his arm. She pushed back from the table and set off.
Sophie knew the word for her. Ingratiating. And it seemed to be working on their father, who smiled briefly, watching Amber Waybridge walk away. He liked to talk about how new and bold her work was. On the strength of his recommendation, she had won a summer artist’s residency in Vermont. Sophie couldn’t wait for her to leave.
Just as the eggs and toast and bacon arrived, Cecily trotted back to the table and climbed into her chair, her small purple tennis shoes swinging.
“Where have you been?” Sophie said in annoyance, not expecting an answer, and not receiving one. Bright wedges of orange rimmed the plates. Good. She was hungry.
But when she picked up her fork, her father frowned. “Wait for Amber.”
“Where is old Amber, anyway?” asked Cecily, already biting into an orange.
Their father looked at her. “She was with you.”
Cecily shook her head and spoke with her mouth full. “Nuh-uh.”
“She went to the ladies’ room to find you.”
“I didn’t see her.”
Their father sighed heavily. “Soph, would you go see what’s keeping her?”
Sophie sighed in return, sliding slowly from her chair, her every exaggerated motion a protest. It felt good to skid her rubber toes across the tile.
She rounded the corner into a long corridor paneled with dark wood and lit by a single dim sconce. The floor was dark cement, and doors flanked her on both sides, closed doors with faded gold-painted letters that said PRIVATE and EMPLOYEES ONLY and EXIT, and doorways branching into other hallways, narrow and dark. “A veritable warren,” her mother would have called it. No wonder it had taken Cecily so long. Near the end of the corridor, Sophie pushed open the glossy black door to the ladies’ room. “Amber?” Sophie bent and peered under the doors, but saw no tanned ankles, no strappy sandals, no toe ring. “The food’s there already,” she said, pushing open one metal door after another, but her voice echoed, and all the stalls were empty, and she knew she was alone. In the wide cupboard under the sinks, there were only big white wheels of toilet paper.
Annoyed, Sophie headed back down the dark corridor, trailing her fingers along the paneled wood. When the kitchen door flashed open and a waiter hurried out, a swath of fluorescence lit the hallway for an instant, and the whole corridor flashed into brilliant relief. In the sudden illumination, Sophie could see a curl of lemon rind on the dark cement and the sticky spots a mop had missed.
And there, on the floor near the door marked EXIT, lay a small and broken gold chain, its tiny diamonds glinting.
* * *
Then things got very loud and frantic, with Daddy shouting for the waiter, then the manager, and running with the employees to push doors open with a loud, fast slam, not just the ladies’ room but the men’s room, the storage rooms, the walk-in, the kitchen, where all the cooks peered curiously, their knives stilled in midchop. All the other diners were on their feet, looking, saying what they’d seen, who’d left the restaurant, a woman with blond hair, a man with a big duffel bag, three loud college boys who looked hungover, but no pretty twenty-five-year-old with dark hair and a cropped black T-shirt. When the police came, Daddy was out on the sidewalk, yelling, and the people said it all again, and Sophie told her story to a big officer who nodded and blinked. Their father yelled, Stay there! Right there!” at Sophie, and so she stood next to the restaurant manager, gripping Cecily’s hand, while her father and the police searched everywhere again, the whole building and the street outside, the alleys and the shops next door, but Amber Waybridge wasn’t there, she wasn’t anywhere.
Copyright © 2012 by Joy Castro
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very well written and edited. I read this book without even one hiccup. Well except for the short people who had to smack my arm to get my attention. I stayed up so late last night because I wanted to finish it, not because I had to. The main character, Nola felt like a soul sister. She had a few friends but everyone was kept at a distance. They did all appreciate that she could keep a secret. Considering she is a journalist, that's an amazing skill! She loves the written word and doesn't like a lot of fluff language. That's the reason I suck at writing business correspondence. They LOVE fluff. I just want to get to the point and get out of there. The story keeps you guessing all the way through. I wish I could tell you more but I can't. I can only say that it's a roller coaster ride. It's listed as a thriller, but I wasn't so much afraid for Nola as worried about her sanity. When the author described Nola's descent into depression, it felt familiar. There is the thriller element, but it's also highly political. Highlighting not only the vast chasm that exists between whites and non-whites and the poor and wealthy. When speaking to the disparity between the races with regard to jail time, the old lady who used to watch Nola said, "In this world, baby girl, there's no such thing as justice. You got to make your own." When she starts interviewing people about the sex offender registry she finds a sickening disparity. Wealthy mothers are educated about the registry, and work like hawks to protect their children. The mothers from the 9th ward, have never heard of the registry and don't have computers anyway. Plus they treat sexual abuse as a reality, and while they won't tolerate it they also feel their daughters need to learn to protect themselves. (I don't think either is particularly healthy.) I will give only one warning. If you've ever been sexually abused, this might be a difficult story. There's nothing too graphic, but the feelings and realities in this story are hauntingly familiar. It could easily pull some triggers.
Unlike most other reviews, I won't go into the story line or give away plot twists. I stopped doing 'book reports' in the 4th grade. Instead I'd like to say I found Ms. Castro's prose delightful to all my senses. Her descriptions of one of my favorite locations (New Orleans) was so accurate and spot on, I could see it as I read it. I could even taste the red beans and her flan. Her use of the language brought me to the stairway with her protagonist Nola when she was talking with the 'off the grid' offender, or inside the condo with the former educator. I always felt I was right with her, that I was seeing what she was seeing. Nola's flaws are real flaws, her strengths are real strengths. How she deals with them is complex and confusing, as are all human reactions. It's perfect. Having read other works by Castro, I was anxiously waiting for this release, and I was not disappointed. A friend who read it first, described it as a 'summer read for smart people', and I couldn't agree more. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre. The subject matter is tough, but she handles it well, and honestly. I look forward not only to more from Castro, but more of Nola...and hopefully maybe some screen action of Nola. This would be a very interesting movie, done correctly.
I LOVED this book. That is not to say that it was an easy read, by any means. Nola is a deeply flawed character that seems to spiral downward toward certain trouble. It is like watching a car crash that has you cringing but you can't look away. But the writing is so well done and the descriptions of New Orleans are so spot on, I couldn't help but be drawn in and fall in love with this book. Although, the subject matter of pedophiles and missing girls had me putting the book down when it was dark out and only reading with the lights on. The writing was fresh and the characters intriguing. I look forward to Castro's second book about Nola and seeing how the character grows and where she goes from such a dark and disturbed place. Fantastic read! Victoria Allman author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Husband
This book will surely have a sequel. while it was a fast read and enjoyable, it also shares a good deal of factual information. It is a book I will share with others and I think many will appreciate it.
A heroine you'll like very much and would also like to yell at. Fine New Orleans, intense story. Nice to hear there's a sequel coming.
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Sex offenders, New Orleans after Katrina and an investigation all wrapped up in an interesting novel. Right from the beginning I was sucked into the story and wanted to know how it would unravel, but there are some definite plot points that I was questioning.
Shelly Bell is visiting to Writer’s Corner on the Chick Lit Plus Blog Tour. She is promoting her debut novel A Year to Remember. Synopsis: Sara is the older sibling and today her younger brother Seth is getting married. Sara being the eldest child feels some animosity towards her sibling on his special day. She is asked to give a speech at his reception then caught by surprise and doesn’t know what to say at first. Sara vows to get married by her thirtieth birthday. Let the online dating journey begin. Sara brings along her friend Missy for support in carrying out this quest. Will Sara find someone special? What will she learn about herself? My Thoughts: If you like Jennifer Weiner then you will also like Shelly Bell. I had a hard time putting this book down. I am interested in checking out this J-Date website is it real? I thought the story was great. I loved how the author developed the characters as the story went along. I thought that this book was very easy to read. I loved how the plot wasn’t just about finding your mate but also having a fulfilling life. Another question that could be asked is what you do have to contribute? A great relationship should seek to fulfill you. It should also matter what you have to contribute. Where do your interests lie? I am a cook, writer, and reader. I am interested in joining writing groups or joining a cooking class.