First chapter of Transitory, Micky Knight #11
Blinding, blue, white. A spit of dark. Jarring, off and on. I stared at the police car parked half-on, half-off the road. The blinding, nauseating lights were better than looking at the woman on the ground.
Thirty minutes ago, she had been alive.
The glare did nothing for the roiling in my stomach.
Thirty minutes ago, I had been crossing Rampart Street, leaving the French Quarter to head back to my house in Tremé.
Thirty minutes ago—no, thirty-five now, I was mellow, enjoying the steps back to a normal life, returning from one of my favorite bars, showing the card to prove I’d been vaccinated.
A toned-down celebration. Like the previous plague, not everyone survived, and even those of us who did had our scars—loss of a loved one, of a friend, of the people we got used to seeing on a regular basis, a favorite waiter, store clerk, loss of income, a job, a home.
But it was supposed to be a night to see and laugh and hug one another, the tipping point to going back to normal, or creating what would be normal now.
New Orleans is a city with a dream that stopped at a bar along the way. No, not the raucous tourist joints on Bourbon Street, but a bar of storytellers, lazy fans swirling in the ceiling, a door wide open to the street, sultry air mixing with the chill of the bar, like a portal from one world to another. A scratched and beat-up bar, tales of hearts broken and hearts mended told over and over like it was the first time. Air thick with desperation and courage, a place where time seems slowed, even gentle. One low step from the entry to the sidewalk, to trip you if you’re not careful, just like life. I’ve lived in New Orleans most of my years, and I think I’ve been in that bar for a good part of it.
A short wait for a shower to pass, a cool, rain-washed night, a lingering summer finally turning to fall in this subtropical city. A saunter from the bright lights of the Quarter, greeting strangers on the street because this is New Orleans, and it’s what we do.
Two blocks from my house. Crossing Rampart, past the final lights of the gas station.
A roar of engine stopped me on the neutral ground. Someone speeding.
The car gunned by, only to screech to a halt just beyond me.
The door flung open and the woman was pushed out, into the middle of the street.
Into an oncoming vehicle, either a large boxy truck or an SUV.
It didn’t stop.
The first car sped away, the door hanging open. It tailed the SUV, at first as if trying to catch it, flying through the just red light at Esplanade, but then both turned like they were traveling together.
The woman in the street was screaming, an incoherent cry of pain.
I pulled out my phone as I jumped into the street, frantically waving to halt oncoming cars. The next car stopped, seeing me, seeing the woman.
I was yelling at the 9-1-1 operator. Telling her to get help as quickly as possible.
Then telling her about the cars and where they were headed.
On my knee next to the woman. I didn’t dare do anything; even moving her was dangerous.
“Help is coming,” I told her. Over and other again. Sirens in the distance. Help is coming.
She looked at me, reaching her hand to mine. At first touch, the grip was strong, desperate.
But her fingers loosened, strength slipping away.
Her lips moved. I leaned closer.
“Why? Why do this? I wasn’t going to...”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Save your strength. Stay with us.”
Other cars stopped. Some honking, some helping. A crowd around us.
Her fingers let go, her hand dropping to the pavement. I picked it up again, holding it tightly, as if that could keep her from slipping away.
“Don’t let them get away…” A bare, harsh whisper.
A ragged breath, another. Another. Nothing.
“Stay with us,” I begged her.
Another blur, the police and EMTs pushed through the crowd. I stood back. She was only a few breaths away from living. If they could start her heart and lungs again, she could hold on to life.
The seconds slipped into minutes. Then more minutes. The clock moved relentlessly.
The EMTs backed away.
The police took over.
I stared at the blinding lights.
The cop in charge had ordered me to remain; they wanted to talk.
I wanted to stumble the last few blocks to my house, crawl in bed, and pretend this was all a dream; walk away from it until I was sober and the sun chased away the night and I could carry the grief of a stranger who crossed my path.
I took a few careful steps back, but the closest cop glanced my way as if knowing what I wanted to do and watching me to make sure I didn’t.
Time slipped away, marking only by my realizing I was chilly and tired. The sun might be coming up any minute for all I knew.
I pulled out my phone to check the time.
“Don’t take pictures,” the close cop barked at me.
“Just checking the time,” I answered. One hour. Just one hour.
The cops had blocked the street, clearing the traffic. The mere onlookers had been sent away.
The morgue truck and the ME arrived.
The cops backed away, talking as if the night were still crowded and noisy.
“Yeah, sad, but that’s what usually happens to guys like that,” the younger one said.
The older one shook his head and replied, “Almost asking for it, if you ask me. Something wrong with him to dress like that.”
Her. I was silent.
“Hey, you should get out more, check out a drag show. They can be pretty good,” the younger cop said.
“No, thanks, got a wife and kids at home. That’s enough for me.”
I wanted to tell them she wasn’t a drag queen. She was dressed in clothing that any woman could wear in a mall, not the flamboyant camp of drag. A sedate navy dress, cowl collar, elbow-length sleeves, sensible black kitten heels. A reasonable amount of makeup, nothing over-the-top. Not drag, not even close. Not working the streets, not the kind of look that would make a car stop. She was just a woman.
But I was alone, not as sober as I needed to be, and they didn’t seem like the kind of people I could explain gender and sexuality to.
A man in a rumpled suit jacket sauntered over to them. He had a badge on his belt. “Any idea what this might be for?” He showed them a card in an evidence bag.
The older cop read, “Gender at CC with CJ, Monday at 10 a.m.”
“Some appointment, maybe?” the younger cop said.
“Obviously, but where?” the detective said. “No ID on him that we could find. Just this crumpled up in his pocket. Isn’t that something you’d put in your purse?”
“Maybe he was too butch to carry a purse,” the older cop said.
I coughed, trying to clear my throat. The nausea wasn’t going away. I had a guess, a strong guess, but that’s not the same things as knowing, is it? A local community health clinic called CrescentCare did specialty work with the transgender community, running a gender clinic. My ex was their chief medical officer. Her initials were C.J.
New Orleans can be such a small town.
I didn’t know that for sure, certainly not sure enough to tell these cops. I wanted a time of clear thinking to decide if it would help find her killers or be a tangled mess for the clinic that did no good for anyone. In any case, I didn’t want to be the one who made the connection for the police unless I had to. There wasn’t much Cordelia would thank me for, but landing the police on her doorstep without warning to interrogate her about a murdered patient would not be one of them.
“Who’s that?” the detective asked the cops, pointing in my direction.
“A witness,” the younger one said.
He strolled over to me. “What are you doing here?”
The question was suspicious, not friendly. Not a good sign. “I live close by. I was walking home.”
“Home from where?”
“A bar about eight blocks away.”
“Which one? Or can you even remember?”
No nice cop here. He had ideas about me, and he didn’t like those ideas.
I’m a woman in my late forties, hair on the short side now, since I was finally able to get it cut. Black and curly, — well, a lot of gray in the black now. Olive skin from my Greek mother and Cajun father. I’m white, but I don’t look as white as some people think I should look. A little taller than he was. Black leather jacket. Well-worn jeans, not fashionably aged. A purple T-shirt that read “Still, She Persisted.”
“Q Carré,” I said. His eyes narrowed even more. Q was well known as a hangout for the rainbow spectrum. I’d just outed myself, not that I was very far in. It’s on the Rampart edge of the French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, hence the name.
“You know him?” he asked, shrugging his shoulder in the direction of the women.
“No, I don’t know her.” I stared coolly at him.
He asked for my ID.
I gave him my driver’s license. He didn’t need to see my PI license.
“Michele Knight,” he read, then my address, asking if I still lived there.
I just said yes, not pointing out that if I didn’t live there, why was I walking there.
Only answer what’s asked, and even then, keep it to a minimum.
I gave him the best description I could of the car and SUV, how both turned off at the same street.
“Yeah, well, maybe i t was coincidence,” he said.
“Both going the wrong way down a one-way street?” I countered.
He looked at me. “So?”
Damn, I was trying not to talk and had backed myself into talking. “It didn’t seem like the SUV tried to stop. One car pushes her out, the second runs over her.”
He kept staring at me. Then he sighed and said, “Yeah, right, you’ve been watching too much TV. He was working the streets. His customer got a nasty surprise under the dress and pushed him out. Bad luck he got hit be a car. It happens to those types all the time.”
Don’t get angry. It won’t help. “She wasn’t a prostitute.”
“Yeah? Thought you didn’t know him?”
“I don’t. But she was wearing a dress with pockets, high neck, low heels, only basic makeup. Not the kind of look that gets a car to stop.”
“Maybe she works by appointment, for the kind that like that look.”
“Maybe you should keep an open mind and get actual facts before you make assumptions.”
“You want to come down to the station and tell me how to do my job?”
I did manage to not say, “Why, would it do any good?” Instead shaking my head. Kept my mouth shut.
He stared at me, as if he wanted a fight.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?” I said, in as bland a voice as I could.
He glared a moment longer. “No,” he spat out, then spun away.
I backed up slowly, trying to leave without anyone noticing. He hadn’t given me permission exactly. I was afraid if I left too abruptly, it would be an excuse for him to call me back. I edged away from them. It was the wrong direction, but getting away from them, the blinding lights, was all that mattered.
Finally, slow step by slow step, it was dark enough and I was far enough away to turn and walk as fast as my nausea would allow, cutting up side streets to detour around the police.
Tomorrow, I chanted to myself. Tomorrow will be daylight. You’ll be sober and you can think through what you can do. If anything.
I managed to get the door to my house closed and locked before running to the bathroom and throwing up, slumping on the cold bathroom floor after the final empty heave.
I woke up, cramped, still on the floor, the night still dark. Managed to rinse out my mouth and stumble to bed, into the oblivion of sleep and dark.