I cursed. Silently. I had to keep my face neutral, to look like I didn’t regret the question I had just asked. But the words were out, and she would answer. And the answer would compel me to do something I desperately didn’t want to do.
It had started out as a good day, cold—for us—but with clear sun after days of drizzle and clouds. Traffic was post–Mardi Gras light. Everyone was either crammed in the airport to leave or home sleeping it off, leaving the roads blessedly sane for a few days.
I’d even caught a coconut at Zulu, now proudly displayed on my mantel. I hadn’t been exactly sober but maintained a pleasant buzz, enough to enjoy the insanity but not stumble into the gutter—as many other people were doing. I had seen Zulu in the non-tourist area up on Basin. You could pay me enough money to watch Mardi Gras on Canal Street, but it would have to be a lot. A whole lot. After a wander through the French Quarter to see all the costumes—and get a voodoo daiquiri to keep the buzz going—I’d come home. It had still been light out. For New Orleans, I was a good girl.
I’d taken it easy this week, used Ash Wednesday for a grocery run to replenish my bare larder. I live in an old neighborhood, close to the French Quarter, and once the parades start it’s hard to get out and about. I don’t quite recover from the tromping around—and to be honest, the mix of alcohols—as when I was younger. Thursday was a half day at the office, half day at home cooking the newly bought food. Friday I left early; it was Friday, after all. The work could wait until a real Monday, far from the toss of shiny beads.
And Monday, it was, one of bright sunshine, the light changing, stronger, more direct, a harbinger of spring, the renewal of what had gone in the winter. I’d come to my office around the usual time, before ten but safely after nine.
In a few days I’d be busy with everything that had been put aside to ride on a float, make a costume for a ball—or to have left town to get away from the madness.
I had done paperwork, billing, which I hate, but it’s part of the job and the part that pays the cost of my existence. My standards are to never darken the door of a Laundromat again—this is New Orleans, I know enough weird characters without having to meet any at the dryer, thank you very much. So much nicer to have my own. At least I know where the dirt it’s washing off came from.
There had been one message on my voice mail. I’d returned it, my phone call of the day, making this appointment with Mrs. Stevens—she called herself Mrs., so I followed suit. Mrs. Susie Stevens. Yes, Susie, not Susan. Deep South much? Our call had been brief; she said she wanted me to find someone, and I agreed to meet to talk about it.
She had arrived on time, a little early as if I were a doctor’s office and there would be paperwork to fill out first. She was neatly dressed, a conservative navy blue blazer with matching skirt, crisp white blouse. Pearls, even, although they were small and looked more middle-class respectable than money. Sensible black leather pumps. Her hair was the brown it probably always had been, with a few blond highlights that were either from a long summer on the beach or a bottle. My money was on the latter. Mrs. Stevens didn’t come across as a long time at the beach person. She was every inch the kind of woman I’d pass in a mall in Metairie—assuming I ever went to the mall or the suburbs—and not notice. Except for her face. No, not her face, but the emotions sculpted into it, sad, lost, her glance searching for a place to focus but finding nothing to compete with what she was seeing behind her eyes.
Her voice was low, soft; I had to strain at times to hear the words. “I need you to find someone for me. I don’t know his name, but I know what he looks like and have some idea of places he might be.”
“Why do you want to find him?”
Her eyes looked away, the rest of her face immobile as if she didn’t dare move it. “He obtained—I don’t know how—a picture of my daughter. She had her shirt off. He posted it online, sent it to all his friends.” Her lips were tight, brittle, as if the words could break them.
“What do you want to do with him if you find him?”
Her answer was ready, as if she’d thought this through over and over again. Or rehearsed it. “Only what he did to my daughter. Post who and what he is to the online judge, jury and executioner.”
Maybe it was true. A twitch at her eye, the tight lips, a mask, or so many emotions, the real one was lost.
I asked the logical next question. “Can I talk to your daughter?”
Her expression told me before the itch of memory recalled a newspaper story. A car found on River Road by the Bonnet Carré Spillway. The body of a young girl had washed up. A brief story; her life was brief, only seventeen years. No evidence of foul play. Trouble at school. Suicide.
I didn’t want to take this case, and I knew I would. If I said no, Mrs. Stevens would find someone else to take her suburban money and ignore her grief. Maybe I thought I could talk her out of anything rash, keep her to her word of shaming him online. Maybe I thought I would be kinder, wiser than the next person she tried. Rationalization comes so easy.
“You can’t talk to my daughter. She killed herself,” the words a bare whisper as if they were shards of glass cutting her mouth on the way out.
“I’m very sorry. That is a hard loss.” No mother should bury a child. But she knew that, and there were no words in the world that would make any difference. I didn’t try. “Will it help?” I asked. “Finding him?”
“It’ll help his next victim. The next girl he taunts and makes miserable.” She continued, the lips still pressed together as if each word cost her, “The police could do little. They claimed they didn’t have the resources to hunt down some anonymous online person. Particularly for…” Then the words cost too much and she couldn’t say them.
For someone who killed herself. It wasn’t murder. Sad, a troubled teen, desperation long enough for her to take her parent’s car, drive twenty minutes, and embrace the dark water.
Maybe she had even given him the picture. Girls still do stupid things for love. Or the first glimmer of attention they mistake for love. The police don’t make arrests for crimes of the heart.
I agreed to take the case.
After she left, I wondered why I felt guilty because one more young girl had died. Or why I thought I had any business being involved. The everyday violence against women. Men kill each other for drugs or they’re drunk and stupid, or drunk and angry, or feel they have to prove something. But women die because they’re women. How many times have you skimmed the headlines, “a woman’s body was found” or “a woman’s nude body was discovered” and then a short blurb more on her death than her life.
Mrs. Susie Stevens hadn’t given me much because she didn’t have much. A lump of a boy, maybe a school mate, maybe not, had gotten a picture of her daughter, Tiffany, showing her breasts. There might have been other pictures, but that was the only one she knew about. The only one she wanted to know about.
I was to meet her tomorrow at her home in Old Metairie. She would let me have Tiffany’s cell phone and computer.
I had the feeling she wanted someone to filter her daughter’s life for her, to see the other pictures, read the naïve text messages and only pass on what a grieving mother could bear. She said all she wanted was his name and address. I doubted that. The twitching of her eyelids, the tightness of her lips said she wanted something beyond what life could give—to go back to the moment before Tiffany took the keys to the car, to grasp that one short, oh-so-short hour of time and wrench it off the path it had taken.
I took a deep breath, then another. Then prepared a case file. I wanted to jump back a few days, to the revels when my biggest concern was how to hold on to a coconut and still catch beads.
Time marches on and pain isn’t ended by a parade, only buffered, a respite of color and motion with the blare of marching bands for soundtrack. All I could do was help Mrs. Susie Stevens through the days, find a few tattered pieces of that thing they call closure. Or maybe if Tiffany had held out a little longer, the swirling colors, the thumping drums, the bright, sparking beads in the air could have caught her and held her in this life.
My high school years, I tried not to think of them. The parades saved me on occasion. I remember clearly, all too clearly, once thinking I could just step in front of that truck and it would all end. All the misery, the despair of knowing I was so far out of place—queer, taken in by family that didn’t want me, olive skin and black curly hair, not a fair child of the suburbs, but a bastard bayou rat. It seemed there was no place in the world for me. Except at the parades, and later the gay end of the French Quarter. Looking at the truck, its gears grinding as it sped up, my foot on the curb. A step or two. But I was meeting my friends Ned and his hidden boyfriend at a parade, Thoth, uptown. I let the truck pass.
A few little threads, having someone else gay in my life, plans to meet up, had twined together, enough to keep me safely out of the road. Luck, mostly, things that would be minor were still enough to keep me holding to life. Ned, two years older, off to college after we’d doubled-dated in high school, the façade of Bryan and me and Misty and him, but once away from prying eyes, we switched. Misty was my first girlfriend, also two years older, also off to college, but she wasn’t coming back, not here, not to me.
Ned had, and said let’s meet for Thoth. That was enough; I couldn’t let him down.
Tiffany had taken that step.
It’s a case, do what you’re hired to do, I told myself. I had no magic; I couldn’t save the lost girls.
Instead, I set myself to the usual routines. First of all, check out Mrs. Susie Stevens. My gut said she was who she claimed, a suburban woman carrying a heavy sorrow, but it’s always best to fact-check instinct. Most clients are who they say they are. Not all of them are forthcoming on their reasons for why they want to hire a private detective. Guilt, shame, they don’t want to reveal everything—why their kid really left, the real reason they’re looking for someone. Best to dig behind what they say. A few clients are out-and-out cons, trying to manipulate me into doing their dirty work. Those get shown the door. With no refund on the retainer.
What Susie Smith had left out was that she only had a tenuous claim to the Mrs. The divorce papers had been filed and Mr. Smith was living in the kind of apartment ones moves into in haste, a big complex out in Metairie, built in the oil boom of past decades. He worked in insurance. Susie kept the house. A big empty house, with an older son in college at LSU and her only other child dead.
She did volunteer work for a local hospital, was active in a gardening club, winning a prize for her roses. It seemed her husband’s paycheck had been the one that bought the nice house in Metairie, paid the college tuition, and kept the family firmly in the upper middle class. I wondered how long Susie would be able to hold on to the house. She put a brittle façade on her crumbling life and didn’t want me to know. She didn’t deliberately lie; the truth was too acid to tell. Her life was spinning out of control—her son’s leaving was the only expected and accepted loss. Children grow up. But her second child would never grow up, never leave for college, always be a brutally torn scar of blame, regret, and loss. Her husband? Ex-husband? Maybe their marriage was strong until this ripped it apart. Or maybe it was already crumbing and this was the end of the end.
Susie Stevens didn’t need to spend time and money searching for the lout who’d posted her daughter’s half-nude picture. She needed to get into therapy, move out of a now haunted house, and find a way to live the decades she still had of her life.
I considered calling her to say I couldn’t take the case. But the rationalizations came back. She would find someone to do it. It was better she find someone like me.
Plus, I had to admit, I wanted to find the asshole. Nothing illegal, but he needed to sweat, and sweat long and hard. Maybe that was the other reason I shouldn’t take this case. But I didn’t think about that. Even I wouldn’t believe my rationalizations.