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The Girl on the Edge of Summer

By J.M. Redmann

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 J.M. Redmann

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The Girl on the Edge of Summer

Micky Knight reluctantly takes on two cases, one for money, one for pity. The first is a trawl though archives to solve a century old murder for an arrogant grandson who thinks riches should absolve his family of any sins. The other, to answer a mother’s anguish as she tries to understand her daughter’s suicide. Micky sees no happy ending to either case; the dusty pages of history aren’t going to give up their secrets after holding them for so long. And even if she finds answers for the mother’s questions, nothing will bring her daughter back. But as Micky discovers, the past is never past and a young girl can lead a complicated, even dangerous, life. The secrets, both past and present, are meant to remain hidden—only the first murder is hard. The rest come easy.

A Micky Knight Mystery

Acclaim for J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight Series

Ill Will

Lambda Literary Award Winner

Foreword Magazine Honorable Mention

Ill Will is fast-paced, well-plotted, and peopled with great characters. Redmann’s dialogue is, as usual, marvelous. To top it off, you get an unexpected twist at the end. Please join me in hoping that book number eight is well underway.”—Lambda Literary Review

“Ill Will is a solidly plotted, strongly character-driven mystery that is well paced.”—Mysterious Reviews

Water Mark

Foreword Magazine Gold Medal Winner

Golden Crown Literary Award Winner

Water Mark is a rich, deep novel filled with humor and pathos. Its exciting plot keeps the pages flying, while it shows that long after a front page story has ceased to exist, even in the back sections of the newspaper, it remains very real to those whose lives it touched. This is another great read from a fine author.”—Just About Write

Death of a Dying Man

Lambda Literary Award Winner

“Like other books in the series, Redmann’s pacing is sharp, her sense of place acute and her characters well crafted. The story has a definite edge, raising some discomfiting questions about the selfishly unsavory way some gay men and lesbians live their lives and what the consequences of that behavior can be. Redmann isn’t all edge, however—she’s got plenty of sass. Knight is funny, her relationship with Cordelia is believably long-term-lover sexy and little details of both the characters’ lives and New Orleans give the atmosphere heft.”—Lambda Book Report

 “As the investigation continues and Micky’s personal dramas rage, a big storm is brewing. Redmann, whose day job is with NOAIDS, gets the Hurricane Katrina evacuation just right—at times she brought tears to my eyes. An unsettled Micky searches for friends and does her work as she constantly grieves for her beloved city.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune

The Intersection of Law and Desire

Lambda Literary Award Winner

San Francisco Chronicle Editor’s Choice for the year

Profiled on Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross, and selected for book reviewer Maureen Corrigan’s recommended holiday book list.

“Superbly crafted, multi-layered…One of the most hard-boiled and complex female detectives in print today.”—San Francisco Chronicle (An Editor’s Choice selection for 1995)

“Fine, hard-boiled tale-telling.”—Washington Post Book World

“An edge-of-the-seat, action-packed New Orleans adventure…Micky Knight is a fast-moving, fearless, fascinating character…The Intersection of Law and Desire will win Redmann lots more fans.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Crackling with tension…an uncommonly rich book…Redmann has the making of a landmark series.”—Kirkus Review

“Perceptive, sensitive prose; in-depth characterization; and pensive, wry wit add up to a memorable and compelling read.”—Library Journal

“Powerful and page turning…A rip-roaring read, as randy as it is reflective…Micky Knight is a to-die-for creation…a Cajun firebrand with the proverbial quick wit, fast tongue, and heavy heart.”—Lambda Book Report

Lost Daughters

“A sophisticated, funny, plot-driven, character-laden murder mystery set in New Orleans…as tightly plotted a page-turner as they come…One of the pleasures of Lost Daughters is its highly accurate portrayal of the real work of private detection—a standout accomplishment in the usually sloppily conjectured world of thriller-killer fiction. Redmann has a firm grasp of both the techniques and the emotions of real-life cases—in this instance, why people decide to search for their relatives, why people don’t, what they fear finding and losing…and Knight is a competent, tightly wound, sardonic, passionate detective with a keen eye for detail and a spine made of steel.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Redmann’s Micky Knight series just gets better…For finely delineated characters, unerring timing, and page-turning action, Redmann deserves the widest possible audience.”—Booklist, starred review

“Like fine wine, J.M. Redmann’s private eye has developed interesting depths and nuances with age…Redmann continues to write some of the fastest –moving action scenes in the business…In Lost Daughters, Redmann has found a winning combination of action and emotion that should attract new fans—both gay and straight—in droves.”—New Orleans Times Picayune

“…tastefully sexy…”—USA Today

“An admirable, tough PI with an eye for detail and the courage, finally, to confront her own fear. Recommended.”—Library Journal

The Girl on the Edge of Summer

© 2017 By J.M. Redmann. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-688-3


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: April 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editors: Greg Herren and Stacia Seaman

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

The Micky Knight Mystery Series:

Death by the Riverside

Deaths of Jocasta

The Intersection of Law and Desire

Lost Daughters

Death of a Dying Man

Water Mark

Ill Will

The Shoal of Time

The Girl on the Edge of Summer



Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir

edited with Greg Herren


Men of the Mean Streets: Gay Noir

edited with Greg Herren


Night Shadows: Queer Horror

edited with Greg Herren


As R. Jean Reid, the Nell McGraw mystery series


Roots of Murder

Perdition

Acknowledgments

Sitting in front of a computer trying to make words turn into worlds is never easy. (Nor are the words ever as perfect as the vision we have in our heads.) There are moments when I come home from the day job and I’m tired and want nothing more than to turn my brain off, pour a glass of wine, and read a book instead of writing one. But in those moments, I remember the coterie of readers and writers, who keep me sane and focused. Yes, that would be you. Thank you.

My writer friends, all of us who struggle to get the words in the page amidst everything else life throws at us. Carsen, Ali, Anne, VK, ’Nathan, Jeffrey, Rob, Fay, Ellen, Greg, and I know I’m forgetting some of y’all. You keep me sane, or at least aren’t bothered by my insanity.

I also need to thank the generous folks who have willingly supported my day job at NO / AIDS Task Force by donating because I used a name of their choosing in the book. The support is greatly appreciated, and it really helps me come up with names.

A big thank you to Greg Herren for his editorial brilliance and calmness, especially his Zen about deadlines.

Mr. Squeaky and Arnold because I’m a lesbian and we have to thank our cats. Also, Sammy and Ms. M, the rescue cats left homeless by the floods in the summer of 2016 who shared my house this fall and are now in their forever home thanks to Mary and Ginny.

My partner, Gillian, for all the joy in us both spending evenings at our respective computers working on our respective books. At least I don’t have to footnote and index mine.

There are many people at my day job who keep me sane—or don’t point out to me that I’m not—and are greatly understanding about the writing career. Noel, our CEO, Reg, our COO and my boss for his tireless leadership and letting me run off to do book things. My staff is great and makes my job easy enough that I have time to write—Narquis, Joey, Lauren, Allison, and all the members of the Prevention Department. I would love to be able to write full-time, but since I have to have a real job, I’ve very lucky to have one of the best ones possible.

Also huge thanks to Rad for making Bold Strokes what it is. Ruth, Connie, Shelley, Sandy, Stacia, and Cindy for all their hard work behind the scenes, and everyone at BSB for being such a great and supportive publishing house.

To the City of New Orleans and all my friends here.

A fascinating, beautiful, maddening place and a glorious one to set mysteries in.

Chapter One

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, her 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 parents’ 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 a 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 crumbling 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.

Chapter Two

Brandon ignored her the first time she called his name. And the second.

It wasn’t until she was standing in his bedroom door, shaking something at him, that he looked up at her. This was the first time he’d gotten to level four, and he didn’t want to be interrupted.

“Can’t you ever take care of your things? I found these behind the dryer; they’ve been stuffed there for God knows how long. These are the new jeans your grandmom brought you for Christmas.”

“Sorry, I forgot,” he mumbled, not looking at her.

“How could you forget? They stink!”

“Sorry,” he mumbled again. “They musta got dirty behind the machine.”

“This isn’t dirt, this is dog s—poop. Weeks-old, hardened dog poop.”

He almost laughed at her clumsy switch from saying “shit”—like he didn’t know the word. Poop. “Poop” was a funny word. But laughing would only keep her tirade going.

“Sorry, Mom,” he tried again. “I didn’t realize I must have stepped in it. And then forgot.”

“How do you forget a mess like this? Can you look at me?”

He paused the game first, then looked at her. Just long enough to meet her demand.

“Sorry, I forgot,” he repeated, his hand still on the gaming control. “I won’t do it again.” There, that should be enough, it usually was. His hand moved to un-pause his game.

“Maybe you won’t do it again if you have to clean them.” She threw the jeans at him, landing on top of his laptop.

His hand jerked away from the foul smear. To get it off his computer, he had to carefully wad the jeans up to keep the dog shit in the middle. Just in time to hear the bloop-bloop-bloop of doom. Back to level five.

He hadn’t expected his mother to do that. When he said he was sorry, that was usually enough to get her to let go of whatever she was nagging him about. Even if he didn’t mean it. That was their bargain. He obeyed the rules—sort of, saying sorry when it seemed like that was what she wanted. Getting Bs, sometimes even As in things he liked, like biology. And she didn’t harass him too much.

She’s probably on the rag, he thought, repeating in his head one of the lines Kevin used when girls were stuck up. But he quickly banished the phrase; he didn’t want to think about his mother and down there. That was too heretical, even for him.

He hadn’t forgotten about the jeans, more ignored them day after day because he didn’t want to think about them, about peeling the wet and stinking jeans off, hoping his mother wouldn’t notice how late he’d come home, wouldn’t ask questions he couldn’t answer.

He found a plastic grocery bag, one he used to sneak forbidden snacks into his room, and put the wadded-up jeans into it, tightly tying the handles together. Maybe it would keep it from smelling up his room.

Then he went back to playing his computer game.

Chapter Three

The weather held, bright and cheery, too nice by far for the errand I was on, going to Mrs. Susie Stevens’ posh house in the suburbs to paw through her dead daughter’s things.

I had to look up her location on the map—the one on my so-called smartphone. It wasn’t smart enough to tell me not to take this case—or what to do about my love life, and that was the kind of smart that would have been truly useful, although speaking an address and having it tell you how to get there was kind of helpful. I know New Orleans proper, but for the suburbs I have something I call dyslexia of the chain stores. It all looks alike, so I’m never quite sure of where I am. Or if I should be there at all.

Mrs. Susie Stevens lived in a house off Metairie Road, the kind of street parents called a good place to raise kids, not knowing how wrong they could be. The houses here were originally built in the prosperity of the ’50s and ’60s. Most, like many of the women living in them, showed signs of having had work done to keep them attractive looking. Mrs. Stevens’ house now took up most of the lot, the façade updated to matching red brick, with faux Georgian columns, a lawn clipped like a drill sergeant’s head, tasteful landscaping on the borders, ordered like the sergeant’s troops in neat rows and lines. No wonder Mrs. Stevens was so shattered; this house was one of order, a bulwark against the twists and turns and blind alleys life could take you on.

I sat in my car, ambivalent about pursuing this. Again, I ignored my instincts and let facts—the ones I was aware of—guide me. She would find someone else, and that someone else could be venal. Being involved gave me some control; walking away gave me none. And maybe that was it, no matter what my instincts told me; I couldn’t just walk away.

I got out, striding up the perfectly weed-free walk, and rang the doorbell.

She answered as if she had been hovering at the door waiting. For anything to intrude into her shroud of grief. She managed a weak smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes, the reflex action of a woman named Susie, not Susan, always polite.

The wan smile was the only greeting she managed. “Please come this way,” she said as I entered her house.

It felt too empty, not a dog or cat or even parakeet to keep her company. As with the yard, it was as neat and clean as a house about to be shown by an owner desperate for a sale. Even the strong morning sun didn’t reveal a mote of dust. I gave her the benefit of a doubt that this was grief, obsessively cleaning as if it could restore order to her life, that once there had been a family and people running messily through this house, leaving the usual trail of footprints, glasses left on tables, books half-read on a couch.

With no other words, she led me down a long hallway, with a large den running the length of one side and on the other first what was clearly a boy’s room with football memorabilia and sports car pictures, then a bathroom, also too clean to have been used recently, and finally, a smaller room than her brother’s, a room just as clearly a girl’s, with pictures of boy bands—I had no idea who they were, except to be able to tell they were either in showbiz or gay. Or both. Her bedspread was pink, with white curtains dotted with pictures of pink roses that matched the bed. Clearly this orderly household allowed for no gender nonconformity.

You don’t know that, I reminded myself. Maybe Tiffany and her brother were happy in their traditional choices. Cordelia used to say you’re not really open minded if you don’t accept people making choices you would never make. Like a pink bedroom. It didn’t matter what Cordelia used to say, even if she was right. Cordelia was my…ex? Was that all that was left?

“Let me know if you need anything,” Mrs. Stevens said at the door.

“What should I be looking for?” I stepped into the room.

She didn’t follow; this room had too much grief. I turned back to her and the door, standing close enough that she could see only me and not the room. But she didn’t look at me, only down at her clean floor.

“Whatever will help you…find justice,” she said softly.

I won’t find justice here, I wanted to say. Pure, shining justice was only available on TV or books or in the stories we tell ourselves. Real life was muddy and messy, with everyone telling their version of the truth so that nothing like one truth existed anymore. I might find a few facts, complicated bits of information that could fit into a truth she could live with. Maybe one she could call justice.

“I’ll do what I can,” I offered. “Do you know what her passwords were?”

She pointed to a small pink notepad. “They’re supposed to be listed in there. We didn’t let her have any accounts we couldn’t monitor.”

I doubted that. She wasn’t likely to be sending racy pictures where her parents could see. “Supposed to” was as close as her mother was likely to admit to her daughter having had a life her parents didn’t know about.

She repeated, “Let me know if you need anything,” and without waiting for a reply, went back down the long hallway.

The computer and her phone would probably tell me more than anything else, but I paused to look around the room. Unlike the rest of the house, this room felt like someone lived here. School books piled on the desk, a note with a phone number jotted on it stuck under a clock. The obsessive cleanliness had stopped at this door. Mrs. Stevens, and presumably her husband, couldn’t bear to erase the faint traces of their daughter, couldn’t straighten the books on her desk, wash the pants hung over a chair in the corner, make the bed more neatly than the hurried pulling-up of the covers.

Interspersed with pictures of the boy bands were ones of her with her friends, attesting to the ever-present cameras we now lived our lives with, groups shots of her with several friends, the same shot, first serious, then less serious, then goofy and acting up. She had a wide smile, the perfect teeth of the middle class, shoulder-length brown hair, hazel eyes that even when she was smiling never seemed content and comfortable. Just the angst of adolescence? Or was she unsure of herself, hovering at the dreaded edge of acceptance and rejection by her peers? I looked again at the picture, searching for a clue to who she was, but it remained resolutely just a fraction of a second of her life, one safe enough to put on the walls of her room. There were additional pictures of a family trip to the beach, again, multiple shots, a happy family posed before emerald-blue waters, probably of the Florida coast around Pensacola. This time they were all smiling.

I turned away from their smiles.

I rarely looked at the few photos from that time in my life. Maybe I had been smiling as well, hiding the pain, the fear. A split second of posing for the camera. My room had been radically different from Tiffany’s, a thrown-together room in the garage of Aunt Greta’s and Uncle Claude’s home, barely enough room to stand up in even at the peak of the roof. Not a place I could invite friends to come hang out. But it was filled with books. I couldn’t afford to buy many, but a constant stream from the library, both at school and the local one. Books—and parades—had saved me.

I took out my phone and took pictures of the pictures, of the room, of the pink bedspread. In a few weeks they would most likely just be more photos to delete, but it was easy to take a picture now in case it would ever come in handy.

I heard a vacuum cleaner start, as if this house needed to be even cleaner than it already was.

I sat at her desk, in a chair painted pink to match the pink roses and the bedspread, and opened the pink notebook. There were pages of various accounts and passwords, written in a neat, flowery script, with smiley faces over the Is. Computer geek I am not, but I can muddle through the basics. I checked the phone first.

I’m too old for this was my thought after attempting to translate text messages like “c u b4 shc,” “r u go 2 wk.” Maybe I was misreading, but most seemed to be about where to meet people and other exciting stuff like that. I scanned through the photos, but nothing that indicated where the half-naked picture had come from or been sent to. I put the phone down and opened up the computer. A quick glance at her browsing history told me she had other accounts than the ones listed in her pink notebook. I checked in the back of it, just in case she’d written them there. Several pages had been ripped out, leaving little tags of paper on the spiral wire. A quick look in her trash can told me she had been smart enough not to leave them there. Or she’d jotted down some note—schoolwork, a phone number—she wanted to take with her. I’d have to farm her laptop out if I wanted to gain access to those files—and make sure I warned the computer grannies of what they might find.

Since I was there and the vacuum was still going, I did a search of her room. Maybe the sheets with the secret passwords were hidden taped under her sock drawer.

I found a hoard of chocolate bars under her bras. Binge eater? Or just liked chocolate and wanted a stash her brother couldn’t scarf down? I dumped them into my bag. Mrs. Stevens hadn’t said it, but it seemed part of our bargain was for me be the one to forage through her daughter’s life and filter what I passed on to her. Not deliberately hide, but unless the chocolate bars turned out to be important, she didn’t need to worry her daughter had an eating disorder on so little evidence. Besides, it might be years before this room would be cleaned out. Stale, moldy chocolate wouldn’t be a pleasant discovery.

That was the only secret her chest of drawers held, unless you counted one of her bras was a pushup bra in black lace, hidden behind her other demure white ones. Still, both it and the chocolate seemed almost innocent compared to what most adolescents were up to. No drugs or even booze as far as I could tell.

Nothing under the bed save dust bunnies. Under the mattress was only less than tidy sheet tucking. While she wasn’t the neat freak her mother was—it may have been grief that pushed Mrs. Stevens into such obsession, but it wasn’t likely she was a slob before—for a teenager, she wasn’t bad.

But it wasn’t my job to probe the family psychodrama. “Curiosity has killed much better cats than you,” I muttered under my breath, far too quiet to be heard over the vacuum. I started to gather the computer and phone but then decided I might as well finish this pointless task and search the rest of the room.

Her bookcase was a disappointment, mostly in how few real books she had, shoved on a bottom shelf with the rest of it taken up with mementos of growing up, a trophy from a sixth-grade popularity contest, “most likely to make chicken soup for a sick friend”; with that as a category, probably every kid in the class got something. A signed picture from some boy from one of the boy bands, seashells from the family trip, albums of pictures, starting when she was six. But the pictures were the smiling ones. Its open shelves hid nothing, save how small her triumphs had been so far.

The closet held the usual assortment of trendy teenage clothing, bright colors and patterns, much of it on the pink side, most of it made to last for about a year. Nothing too indiscreet. Even the stylishly ripped jeans (were those still in? Or had they been out long enough to be in again?) would show less than seen on a typical beach. Maybe the bra was the one thing that hinted at the sexuality behind the smile.

On the second to top shelf, under a pile of sweaters, my hand ran over a large manila envelope. It had been pushed to the back as if to better hide it. But it was a hiding place meant only for those who would never look for anything hidden. Since I had to stretch to reach the top shelf, and I’m five-ten, I guessed that this was as high as Tiffany could go.

The vacuum stopped. There was a brief moment of silence, then it started up again in a more distant room.

I shook the contents of the envelope onto the bed. A flash drive, mercifully blue-gray, not pink, and several sheets of paper fell out.

I turned one of them over. I hadn’t seen the picture yet, but my guess was this was a copy of it. If the young girl in it weren’t dead, it would have been almost laughable in its naïve attempt to be a sophisticated, sexy adult. She had on too much makeup, as if smearing a bright red over her thin lips was all it took. She posed on the pink bed; the rose spread covered her from the waist down, one arm under her budding breasts as if trying to pump them up, the other stretched out with the phone to take the picture.

I wanted to grab her back into life and tell her this wasn’t worth killing herself over. No one would think it more than a brief, and in a few years, easily forgotten moment of foolishness.

The photo was printed on cheap paper, the colors blurry. She didn’t have a printer here in her room, so I wondered where she’d made this copy.

Then I looked at the back. There was a note in what was clearly not her handwriting. It said, “Hey, T, I like this pic of you. Why don’t we meet up for more?”

No signature, of course.

The next sheet was the same photo. Its note said, “Nice tits. How bout a blow job? I’ve seen everything that matters.”

The third and, I guessed, the final one said, “Hey, bitch, stop fucking around. Either put out or I send your titty shot to my list. U want to cunt tease, U get what U deserve. Three days to respond.”

No date, but Tiffany had clearly responded.

I carefully put everything back into the envelope. My fingerprints would be on them, and Tiffany’s as well, but I wanted to leave as few marks as possible.

If this was a crime. Yes, there was certainly an ugly threat there, but it seemed that he sent a picture she had sent to him to others. Was that a crime? The laws were slow to catch up to the technology. And even if they had, where did this fall? If she willingly sent the picture, where did that leave her?

The vacuum stopped again.

I put the envelope in my bag, hidden from view. I should show it to Mrs. Stevens, but I wanted more information—and to know what was on the flash drive—before having a discussion I suspected we’d both like to avoid.

I picked up the laptop, cell phone, and pink notebook, heading to where I’d last heard the vacuum cleaner.

She barely looked at me, as if ashamed she’d had to invite a stranger into her house, into her tragedy, to handle the messy cleanup, quickly agreeing to letting me take the computer and phone.

She followed me politely to the door, managing another fake smile as we said good-bye.

I didn’t look back at the house, didn’t want to see if she was still hovering at the door, quickly got in my car, deposited my bag and the items on the passenger seat, and pulled out.

As I drove away, I mentally made a list of the things I needed to do. Call my lawyer friend Danny and ask about laws on sexting, to see if there could be any legal action to take. Pass the phone and computer to the computer grannies—several older women who had discovered they could hack as well as the boys and computers were a job that could be done sitting down, in air-conditioned comfort, and they could make their own hours. I liked using them because they had both the tech savvy of the young guns and the wisdom and compassion that comes with age.

I focused on the concrete because I didn’t want to think about the intangible. The tangible action steps I could control. But a young woman had died by her own hand because of a stupid mistake, a wrong turn in how to be an adult. She sent the picture to an ugly person, a brutish thug interested only in his sexual gratification. Why couldn’t he have just masturbated? That was all it would be in any case. Tiffany Stevens was as much of a person to him as any blow-up doll would have been.

Traffic was kind on the way back to my office. Just as well; I was close to rage, and the road isn’t a good place for it.

Chapter Four

I got back to my office shortly before noon and put in a call both to the grannies (since they weren’t on the second floor in their not-often-used office) and to Danny. I had to settle for leaving a message for both.

Then I decided the turkey sandwich (on whole grain, mind you) wasn’t an adequate lunch after this morning. To remain on the not-too-outrageously unhealthy, I settled on takeout from one of my favorite sushi places on Frenchmen Street. I needed the distraction, the movement, to concentrate on the mundane and important act of deciding what I wanted to eat. We get through our days one small decision / act at a time. Groceries, laundry, going from one place to another, nothing memorable, but there are times these buffers of normal and routine pull us through the days. Driving from my office, picking up the sushi, all worked for me, kept me from thinking about a young girl and her early death.

I doubted even the fierce vacuuming and superhuman cleanliness helped Mrs. Stevens.

I just decided I had ordered too much and could save some for dinner, when my downstairs buzzer rang.

I now own my office building. When I first moved in, as a renter, it was a down-at-heel working-class neighborhood. I had stayed, coming back after Katrina, probably because I was too bewildered and overwhelmed to do anything except return to what I knew. This area hadn’t flooded, so it was easier for me to come back. About two years ago, my landlord decided he wanted to get out and offered me a reasonable enough deal that I said yes. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a capitalistic bastard land baron, but I knew if he sold to someone else I’d either have to cough up a lot higher rent or be looking for someplace to move to in a rapidly gentrifying city. The only option was to buy. It meant having two mortgages, one for my house and one here, but between a little hustling and being capitalistic bastard enough to rent the bottom floor to a coffee shop / café that was too chi-chi for me to patronize, I was able to make ends mostly meet.

The computer grannies had the second floor at a more-than-reasonable rent, but they were as likely to work from home as not. I had taken over the third floor. It had once been divided into two offices, but in a tear of renovation last year, I’d opened up the space, creating a proper, though mostly unused waiting area, a small conference room, a small separate office for when I worked with other people, and a decent-sized break room with a microwave, toaster oven, and full-size refrigerator. High on the hog.

There was a separate entrance for those of us on the upper floors, with discreet brass name plates, M. Knight Detective Agency and Computer Solutions for the grannies. Neither of us encouraged walk-in clientele, so I guessed the buzzer was either someone lost (how did tourists find themselves all the way down here—oh, right, gentrifying, and now the ’hood was hip enough for the coffee shop to be able to afford the rent I charged) or a friend with drop-in privileges. The former would be a quick distraction and the latter a welcome one.

I buzzed the downstairs door open, then sauntered to the landing outside my door where I could see down to the second floor, to wait just in case it was a lost tourist.

The man who came into view was too well dressed to be a tourist and no one I knew.

“Can I help you?” I asked as he rounded the stairs.

He was tall, handsome in a way straight women would probably like, brown hair just a tad shaggy, a clearly deliberate scruff of beard, strong, almost too big chin, but with a dimple that softened it, and wearing a suit that looked to be tailored especially for him. No tie, an open-collar white shirt, also expensive looking. I guessed either late thirties or early forties. The kind of man who expected life to open its doors to him.

He seemed surprised to see someone above him on the landing, but he showed little concern, instead came across as unworried he had anything to fear.

“I’m looking for the M. Knight Detective Agency,” he said. He had a deep baritone voice, smooth with an accent I guessed to be somewhere from the northeast.

“Who sent you here? We don’t usually take walk-ins,” I said.

He continued up the stairs. I remained outside my office.

“Sorry,” he said in a way that told me he wasn’t. “I’m in a hurry, only in town a few days and needed to move things along. Scotty Bradley gave me your name. Said my case sounded fascinating, but he was about to leave for two weeks in the south of Italy.”

Scotty was a PI I occasionally worked with, more occasionally met in French Quarter bars. I did recall him saying “ciao” the last time we talked and mentioning an upcoming journey. I’d check later. I knew Scotty was a decent enough sort that if this guy turned out to be a real asshole, he’d bring a nice bottle of Italian wine back for me.

The man joined me on the landing.

“How can I help you?” I said, still making no move to go back into my office. If this was a quick “sorry, can’t do anything for you,” there was no point in wasting more time and energy.

“And you are?”

He hadn’t answered my question.

“I’d like to talk to someone in charge,” he continued.

“You are.”

“A woman. I like that.”

“Does that matter to you?”

“Not really,” he answered smoothly, “but it might be helpful in this case.”

Much as I wanted to, I didn’t sigh. If this guy turned out to be a serial killer of female private detectives, Scotty would have to learn to pick olives on the olive oil farms, because it wouldn’t be safe for him to return to this side of the Atlantic.

“Why don’t you come in and we can talk about it?” I said, stepping aside to let him enter before me. And avoid having my back to him.

“Thank you,” he said with a smile. He’d won this round. Somehow I suspected that was exactly what he was thinking.

Still, the expensive suit meant money, and a paying client helped with the mortgages.

I ushered him into my office and even engaged in the usual pleasantries of offering coffee—he took his with a little cream, which got a fake apology from me that milk was all I had. Two percent milk at that, but I didn’t go there.

I told him I was the M. Knight, even allowing the M was for Michele. Micky is for my friends, and he wasn’t one and I doubted he would ever be one. His name was Douglas Townson.

Once we had sat down with a mug in front of each of us, I again asked my first question, “How can I help you?”

“I need you to solve a murder.”

I left a long silence because you don’t come to a private dick about a criminal case. There had to be more to this than his simple statement. However, he didn’t fill the silence and clearly he wanted questions, so I obliged him. “What can I do that the police can’t?”

“Are you interested?” he countered.

In whatever game you’re playing? Not really. Again, he hadn’t answered my question. But I didn’t say that. “As I’m sure you know, the police should be contacted and will take the lead for any criminal investigation. It’s only the TV detectives who don’t work within the law. Any evidence of a crime, I will take to them.”

“I doubt this one will interest them,” he said.

“There is no statute of limitations on murder.”

“True, but this one took place in 1906, so I feel if the police were going to solve it, they would have done so by now. My great-grandfather. Killed when he was thirty-nine years old. My grandfather was eight at the time. He lived just up the river near Baton Rouge, doing well in farming with sugar and cotton. We had to sell and my great-grandmother remarried, a merchant from New Jersey, who bought some of his cotton. It took the family a while to recover.”

I cut in. “The best I could do is find a grave somewhere. Anyone old enough to kill in 1906 isn’t around to put handcuffs on. And even that would be unlikely. If the police couldn’t solve it then, the evidence is most likely long gone.”

He waved his hands at me as if I was telling him information he already knew. “Oh, I realize that. I fully understand how quixotic this quest is. But I’m a hedge fund manager, and I make enough money to blow it on unlikely quests. I want to know whatever can be known. All I’ve heard are tales passed down from the previous generations, some of them clearly wildly untrue. I want to clear the air, or I’d like to at least get the official record. It’s a tedious search; I could do it but I don’t have the time. I can certainly make it worth your while.”

That explained his confidence. Looks and money are more than enough to make people overrate themselves. I don’t like all my clients, and if I could choose, I would leave all the asshole men out, but I rarely choose what cases to take on whether I like the client or not. This is a business. If I think I can help them and if what they’re asking me to do is legal and I have the time and resources to take on their request, I usually say yes. There have been a few people I so disliked—or disliked what they were asking me to do—that I turned them down. But if I only accept cases from the decent people of the world, I might not have enough business to stay open. It’s not usually the decent people who need my services anyway.

A murder case over a hundred years old; that seemed easy enough. A few records searches would be about the sum of it. There would be no witnesses left to interview. No, I didn’t especially like Douglas Townson, but that hardly mattered.

I brought out a contract, named the most outrageous fee I thought I could get away with, and he signed it without blinking.

I led him through most of what he knew, admittedly not much, but enough for me to make a start. Great-grandfather was Frederick Townson. Frederick Kingsly Townson. Stabbed to death while on a buying trip to New Orleans from his estate outside the place we call Red Stick. No one was ever charged, and the family felt the police were incompetent or bribed, because for someone as important as Frederick Townson, the murderer should have been caught. No, he didn’t out and out say that, but it oozed copiously between the lines. Most of the family repeatedly said he was a fine, upstanding gentleman, taken far too soon.

The wild stories—after a prompting question on my part—were that a great-aunt said he’d given his wife the pox. That would be syphilis. Ah, that was the worm in the wood. Douglas Townson was too proud to have any such scurrilous rumors floating around about a forebearer of his. He was really hiring me to clear his great-grandfather’s name.

He was leaving tomorrow but left me his contact information, both his NYC apartment and the beach house on Long Island.

As he got up to leave (finally), he said, “You’re here alone?”

My answer was, “Nope, I’m expecting one of my associates to be here any minute now. In fact, he’s about fifteen minutes late. Former Saints linebacker, washed out with a knee injury and needed something interesting to do with his life.” That took me to about fifty-five times I’ve told that lie.

He smiled again, not winning this one, and headed for the door. I told him they had great coffee downstairs, especially the sugar cane spice latte.

He thanked me for the tip.

I watched him as he went down the stairs, mostly to make sure he continued all the way down. I noticed signs of life for the computer grannies on the second floor, and I wanted him gone before I went down there.

I washed out our coffee cups; he’d barely drunk his—this was not cheap coffee—and then made a case file for him. That should be enough time for him to have ordered all the outrageously overpriced lattes he could possibly want.

I headed down to the grannies.

Jane and Timmy—sorry, Timothy were there. Jane is now the ringleader. When I first moved into this building, back when dinosaurs roamed the swamps, I shared the third floor with a woman named Sarah Clavish. At the time, she was old enough to be my grandmother, both prim and proper, and kind and generous. We were neighbors and we acted like it, feeding each other’s cats, accepting packages, walking out together if it was dark. I made no bones about being lesbian—as I lived here in my office back then and she couldn’t miss it—and she never wavered in her respect and politeness for me. Over time we became friends. She had been doing mail-order Cajun cookbooks, and once she started computerizing her business, discovered the possibilities of the tech world. She had started the computer grannies, pulling in a few of her friends, recruiting other older women who were willing to learn. Naturally I took my computer searches—and let’s be honest, occasional hacking—to them. I hadn’t become a private investigator to sit at a desk and stare at the computer screen, so I was happy to delegate those chores to them. Jane, known mostly by her handle LadyJane, had taken over running the business. In August of 2005, Sarah Clavish had gone down the river to try to convince her sister and brother-in-law to evacuate. He was confident they would be okay; he had a skiff in the backyard. They weren’t. Only he made it to the boat.

The grannies had recently hired Timmy, Timothy, as their, yes, they used this title, Girl Friday. He had the goatee, trendy long sideburns, and enough of a coffee habit to help the coffee shop downstairs pay their rent, which paid my mortgage. He didn’t know much about computers, but he looked the part and happily answered phones and talked to customers and consumed all the baked goods the grannies constantly brought in whenever they came by the office. He looked so young, I had trouble thinking of him as Timothy instead of Timmy.

I entered their office bringing the offerings of the computer, cell phone, jump drive, and pink notebook. Jane waved Timothy away to handle me herself. The reasonable rent I charged got me to the front of the line and the standard friend discount. Other than that, I paid them what they were worth.


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