Until he gets the answering machine message, private detective Micah Dunn has never heard of Julia Morvant. Calling from Jamaica, she asks him to meet her at the New Orleans airport. She needs help, she says, and he can tell by her tone that she needs it badly. Dunn is a Vietnam vet whose left arm hangs uselessly at his side, but who excels in helping the desperate people who seem to flock to his city. He has just arrived at the airport when Morvant’s plane explodes in midair. Between the fireball in the sky and the alligators below, there is no chance of survival.
The flight was bombed, and Dunn becomes obsessed with the idea that his prospective client was the target. He knew nothing about her, but in death he will come to know her intimately—and risk his life to honor her own.
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The Caesar Clue
A Micah Dunn Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
The jetliner leaned into its final approach to New Orleans International, twenty miles out and dropping toward the cypress swamp at twenty feet per second. The night was clear, and in another minute the headlight would go on, probing the darkness below like a cyclops eye. I was on the freeway, coming up on Williams Boulevard, running a little late and hoping the flight wouldn't be early. I exited onto the access road and turned south, to skim the east edge of the airfield, instinctively ducking as a big Delta jet thundered in from the direction of the lake. I had managed to get used to airports in the last ten years or so, but there'd been a time when I couldn't see one of the big jets without thinking of body bags and walking wounded. I curved north, into the airport entryway, and headed for the short-term parking area.
If the plane was on schedule, it would be touching down in a few seconds. I went inside, past the baggage area, up the escalator, and down the long hallway past the various counters. At the one marked Transcaribbean a pert young woman in blue was finishing with a man headed for Houston, who wanted to make an Oilers game the next day.
The sign behind her said the flight from Jamaica was on time, but it wouldn't hurt to check. She gave me a quick once-over and smiled.
I was getting ready to speak when her phone rang. She shrugged apologetically and lifted the receiver.
The smile vanished and she stumbled against the counter.
"Are you sure?" she said in a near whisper. Then she nodded, as if the person on the other end could see her, and licked her lips. Her eyes flicked over to me and then away, as if she were custodian of a guilty secret. "Yes. I'll hold tight."
I made my living working with people in trouble and I didn't like what I was feeling.
"What is it?" I asked.
"No ... nothing, sir. A slight delay." She tried to smile, but it was a grimace.
I looked around me at the other counters and saw other stricken faces. The people milling around in the hallway, waiting for the flight, were feeling it now, like animals before a thunderstorm, smelling ozone and not knowing what to do. I wanted to leave, because the last time I'd felt this way I'd been on a deep penetration mission that had gone haywire and they'd had to lift us out, or, rather, lift what was left.
A man came up to me and grabbed my left arm.
"What's going on?" he demanded, trying to cover his fear with bravado. When he saw my arm didn't work, he dropped his hand and mumbled an apology. "I thought, My God, my wife is on that plane."
"It'll be okay," I said, not believing it.
Two seconds later I heard the word crash.
It came from somewhere on the periphery of the crowd and crackled through like a flash fire. A woman sat down on the floor, her legs splayed at funny angles, and her husband stared blankly ahead as if he hadn't noticed. The phones behind the counter were ringing steadily now and there were booking agents talking on them, or to each other, but none seemed to want to talk to any of the crowd in the hall.
I stood around for another half hour and at some point somebody came out of a doorway behind the schedule sign and made an announcement. I didn't have to listen because I knew what he was going to say as soon as he asked for our attention.
Five minutes later the press showed up, and that was when I left.
I drove back through the night, trying to put together what little I knew. The plane must have exploded a few thousand feet from the runway, because there was no debris on the field. Fire trucks were heading west out of Kenner, and toward the swamp, but they would play hell finding anything until daylight. If it had come in from the east, it would have gone down over Kenner itself, like the ill-fated Delta in 1982. In the swamps, there was nothing to hurt except the trees, some alligators and the fish. Of course, if you were still aboard, it didn't matter.
But the Delta had been caught in a wind shear, on takeoff. This was a clear September night, with visibility of twenty miles.
I got off the highway at Claiborne, sliding down the ramp into darkness. The hospitals were on my right and beyond them the Superdome. The hospitals would be busy tonight, I thought, then corrected myself: Only the morgues would be busy.
Tulane, Canal, and Orleans streets slipped past me and I turned right onto Esplanade without thinking.
Coincidence. That's what my mind kept saying. But it wasn't saying it very loud, because I knew better: Airliners don't crash every day.
I came to Decatur and turned back south, into the Vieux Carre. Another street, and I came to the big wooden double doors that led into the parking area. Tonight, though, I felt too tired to get out and open them and slide them shut behind me, so I parked on the street. Then I unlocked the little pedestrian door to the patio and headed for the outside iron stairs that led to my second floor apartment.
The courtyard fountain was working and spray kissed my face as I went up. For an instant I stopped, trying to use the sensation to blot out the horror of what had happened. It didn't work; the spray reminded me of the wreckage crashing into the swamp, geysering dark water into the night sky. I wondered what the passengers strapped in their seats had felt.
I unlocked my door, went inside, through the kitchen and into the room I used as an office. Everything was as I had left it: file cabinet locked, odds and ends of a few cases scattered around my desk, green light on my answering machine showing there had been no calls.
I flopped into my chair and then, impulsively, reached over to the answering device and set it to Play, because the old message would still be there.
There was static, a click, and then it came on, a woman's voice speaking quickly, as if she were about to run out of time.
"Mr. Dunn, my name is Julia Morvant. I'm calling from Jamaica. I'll be on Transcaribbean 420, arriving at Moissant at eight-fifteen. Please. It's important for you to meet me. I need your help."
The voice sent shivers through me, because three hours ago it had belonged to a living person and now it belonged to a ghost. I took the message tape out of the machine and placed it in my desk drawer.
I stared trembling again and it was hours before I could stop.CHAPTER 2
I sat drinking coffee on my balcony the next morning and reading the Sunday Picayune when Detective Sal Mancuso limped up the patio stairs.
"Take what you want," I said, lowering my paper. "My money's in the desk drawer."
"It's early to be cracking jokes," Mancuso said, pulling up a deck chair and leaning back against the wall. "And I'm too tired to laugh."
I moved my head to look at him. He was right: He looked like hell, with his sleeves coming unrolled and his tie hanging limp like three-day-old greens in the French Market. We'd met at a veterans meeting a few years back and been on speaking terms ever since, but it was the first time I could remember his coming to my apartment, not to mention early on a Sunday. Old Mr. Mamet, the caretaker, must have let him in through the patio door.
"Have a croissant," I said, gesturing to the bag on the floor. "There's coffee on the stove."
He sighed and reached into the bag, but he made no effort to get coffee, probably because he'd had a couple of gallons already.
"Bad night," he said. For the first time I noticed the mud caking his slacks and understood.
I thumped the front page of the paper. "Sixty-seven people," I said. "Sixty-seven people and in two minutes they'd have been on the ground." I shook my head.
"They never had a chance," Mancuso said in a monotone. "You know what it's like in the swamp."
He was looking at me now and it was my turn to nod. "Yeah. Tough break."
"Worse than that," he said and shifted position. For a second I thought he was going to be sick but then he got his words right, so that they came but everything else stayed down.
"It wasn't a fucking accident," he said. "We figure it was a bomb."
"A bomb?" It was my turn to look at him. He was a small man, swarthy, with a kind of intensity that usually gets burned out of cops. But not Mancuso.
"Micah, all the eyewitnesses agree. The fucking thing flew to pieces. One of the scraps we fished up smelled like a dynamite factory."
"Shit," I whispered.
"My thoughts, too." He stretched slightly, but it could have been a shiver. "Look, I came to ask you something. When I got there, I saw you walking away. I haven't mentioned it to any of the federal boys, the FBI or the FAA, but if you had business with somebody on that plane, now's the time to say."
He was right. I put my paper down, got up, and went back inside, with him behind me. I fished the message tape out of the drawer and placed it in the machine. Then I played it for him. When I finished he whistled.
"Jesus, Micah. Who was this Julia Morvant?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I found the message on the machine when I came back in at seven. From the last name, I'd say she was from around here. It's French. And only locals call the airport by its old name, Moissant."
The policeman shook his head. "Well, it may not be connected. But it's the best shot we have for now."
"I'll see what I can turn up," I said. "Maybe somebody in the Quarter will know this Julia. Maybe some past client. It's a long shot...."
Mancuso made a wry face. "But better you than the feds. If it's the real thing, we don't need a task force chasing everybody into hiding. I'll see what information the airline has. Maybe she bought her ticket by credit card." He stopped at the door. "I'm not on the case," he said. "I was just in the area yesterday when the call came. After I catch some sleep I'll go back to the Mystery of the Missing Hookers. My chief suspect is the Chamber of Commerce. But if you turn up anything, give me a call."
"I will, Sal."
I stared at the door a few seconds after he'd left, listening to his feet go down the iron steps.
Julia Morvant. A French name, not common and, therefore, one that should be easy to run down. If it was real. If she weren't an actress, or a runaway, or a whore ...
I went back out onto the balcony and picked up my paper. I didn't really care that a UN commission was blaming both sides in the Middle East or that the local congressman was calling for the death penalty against dope dealers. Instead, my eyes kept going back to the front-page photo of wreckage against the cypress stumps. If there was a chance that the woman on the phone was involved I owed it to a lot of people to check it out.
Sandy. She was the place to start.
When she picked up the phone her voice was sleep-fogged, and I detected an undercurrent of peevishness.
"I'm sorry to bother you," I said. "I wouldn't call if it wasn't important."
"Sho'," she said. Sandy was a tall, well-built black woman with a taste for art and finance. She could go from banker to street whore in a few seconds, which probably accounted for her unusual success as an investigator. I gathered she led a full love life, but I made it my business not to inquire, and I hoped I hadn't interrupted something.
I told her about the plane crash and heard her breath suck in.
"Christ, Micah, why didn't you say so? You mean you've got a gig that connects with that?"
So I explained about Julia Morvant.
"She may be anybody, but my guess is she's local. Try the street people, and I'll try the phone directory and the colleges. Maybe between us we'll get lucky. Keep track of your time and ..."
"Forget it. I may have to ride a plane someday. All I need is some nut to blow it up."
"Well, do what you can," I said, and thanked her.
I showered and got ready to jog. I was missing Katherine fiercely, halfway resentful of the archaeology that was claiming so much of her time. When I'd met her a year ago she'd been the secretary at Tulane's Middle American Research Institute, but she'd picked up more than any of the students for whom she'd kept records and run errands. After a case involving the Institute, she'd realized she was wasting herself and enrolled as a graduate student. I had approved and so had her grown son, Scott, who proudly referred to her as "Mom, the archaeologist." But the Institute had a research focus on Yucatan, and she made frequent trips down to the ruins. She'd been away this time for fifty days, with another three to go, and I realized for the first time how empty my life had been before I'd met her. I wondered what she'd say about Julia Morvant. Then I remembered she'd be coming back from Yucatan on a plane and I shuddered.
The next day I finished up a job tailing a man whose business partner suspected him of stealing from the company. It was the partner's idea that his associate had a woman squirreled away someplace, maybe across the lake, in Mandeville, or in Oak Island East, but he was wrong. I waited outside the office, and when the target came out at lunch, I followed him to the bank and then to a barbershop in Metairie. I waited outside for fifteen minutes, but I could see from my spot across the street that he had gone through a door into the next room, which was something I could have predicted the minute I saw where he was heading. The barbershop belonged to a bookie named Torrelo, and it was a front for some businessmen who broke your legs if you fell behind on payments. A woman in a big house would have been cheaper, and easier to get free of, but that wasn't my problem.
My problem was Julia Morvant. The diction had been Southern, but not the kind of drawl you get in Mississippi or Georgia. Nor had it been Irish Channel or Cajun. Guessing, I'd say she'd had a couple of years of college, at least, and I doubted she was much over thirty. Not a lot to go on.
When I got back I called Mancuso at Homicide.
"I was expecting you," he said. His voice sounded tired, but not so bad as yesterday. "She boarded at Kingston. Paid cash. Gave an address in Gentilly that doesn't exist. All they remember about her in Kingston is thirtiesh, brown haired, Caucasian, good-looking. We checked all the Morvants in the book; nobody knows who she is. She's not registered with Motor Vehicles. And get this: Her passport was phony."
"Did you trace the call?"
"It came from a public booth."
"No hotel? Nobody who remembers her?"
"Too early to say. The feds are taking over and they've made it clear the only place they want to see New Orleans cops is directing traffic on Canal. We aren't smart enough to do anything but wade around in the swamp after bodies."
I murmured a few words of sympathy at his frustration, but I didn't expect to turn up anything new or helpful.
For the rest of the afternoon I sat in a roach-infested loft with a pair of binoculars and a camera, watching a warehouse crew off-load delivery trucks. It wasn't wholesale pilferage, just a case of liquor here and there, and I suspected the owner was hiring me to cover his own embezzlement. But it was his company, so I noted times and took pictures, and tried to think about the yacht races in Pontchartrain the following weekend.
It didn't work, though, because my mind kept going back to the voice on the phone. Was it chance she had called me from a foreign country and then boarded a plane that had been blown out of the sky? She'd used a false passport and had called from a public booth. What did that point to? Drugs? Was she a mule who'd decided to bolt the organization? The Colombians hadn't stopped at mass assassination in the past; blowing up an airliner would just be a new wrinkle.
I tried to remember any cases in the last few years that had involved drugs, but there was nothing I could hang onto. I'd been contacted once to try to get back some money from a coke deal gone sour, but turned it down; I didn't give a damn whether drug dealers got burned. A couple of times I'd been hired to track kids or spouses with expensive habits. I'd done a fair amount of security work for industry, identifying people with addictions. Some of the people had been let go, but a fair number landed in treatment programs and some even came back to thank me.
Maybe, I thought, it was a domestic case. She'd run from her husband and then experienced pangs of conscience. But that didn't square with the explosion, nor did the theory that she'd absconded with some money from her firm and had a change of heart. Companies don't generally blow up dishonest employees, not to mention the absurdity of sending someone overseas to plant a bomb.
Excerpted from The Caesar Clue by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 1990 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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