CHapter One

Snakes.

Have I told you I hate snakes? Make that motherfucking snakes. Or anything fucking snakes. Yeah, I don’t generally use that kind of language in public, but that was the kind of mood I was in.

It had already been an annoying day. The only messages when I got to work were three all asking / not really asking if they could pay their bill a little later. Sure, pal, if you can arrange for the bank to take its time about my mortgage. Just around lunch, a potential client dropped in. I try to discourage drop-ins. There are people I can’t (or won’t) help, and it’s so much easier to tell them over the phone. Even if they get pissy, they can’t complain about the drive down here. Or be close enough to throw something in my direction.

But Mrs. Aimee Smyth had dropped in just as my stomach was starting to truly growl.

She was too well dressed for the weather, especially this time of day and this mission, a raw silk suit in a tropical turquoise, crisp white shirt, linen, I guessed. Jewelry that hung off every possible appendage, mostly gold with stones that tried but didn’t quite succeed in matching her suit. All expensive, not very tasteful. She might have been dressed for a long lunch at Commander’s Palace, but not a last day of July jaunt down to my neighborhood. The humidity made steam baths seem chilly. The last three days had been downpours of afternoon thundershowers. Today’s sun added all that wet back to the air.

I was wearing a light blue V-neck T-shirt and off-white lightweight cotton pants, and I felt overdressed for the weather.

Seeing her in a long-sleeved shirt with a jacket over it made me itch.

She wasn’t pulling it off either. There are some women who seem impervious to heat. They might glow a little on the worst days of August but are always perfectly put out, hair and makeup in place. Aimee Smyth wasn’t one of those. Her makeup was starting to slide down her face, her hair too much unruly frizz to be the latest hairstyle.

She was trying too hard, and that always worries me in a client.

She wanted me to find her missing sister. A vague family feud, they’d lost touch. Now she wanted to find her.

“Why now?” I asked.

“It’s time. We’ve been apart for too long,” was her answer.

Lies are vague. Truth has sharp points that are jagged, that don’t always make sense. A friend passed away, a cousin reconnected with a long-lost friend, my dog died—something usually triggers the search. Not just a vague notice of time.

She’d written a personal check from an out-of-state bank.

She also hadn’t given me much. Her putative sister was named Sally Brand. Her maiden name, so presumably Smyth was Aimee’s married name, although the one missing piece of jewelry was a band on her left hand. Aimee didn’t know if she’d married or not, thought she’d probably stayed in the South, maybe the New Orleans area—again with only the vaguest of reasons.

Aimee was from Atlanta and was only going to be in town for a few days. She’d appreciate it if I could do this as quickly as possible.

“Why me?” I asked.

She was too ready for the question. “You were recommended,” she answered.

She couldn’t remember by whom.

I said yes. Summer is slow. The “can’t pay the bill now” people were piling up. But I wasn’t going to do a lot of work on the case until the check cleared.

After lunch—some leftover shrimp thrown on a salad—I started the case by looking her up.

Or trying to. Aimee Smyth should be just uncommon enough for me to find something. And just common enough to be confusing. I found more than enough A. Smyths and Smiths in the Atlanta area to be unhelpful. But no specific Aimee Smyth.

I even called the bank on the check, but they seemed to do Eastern time zone early closing, as no one answered the phone.

If I couldn’t find the Aimee who had been sitting in my office, it was unlikely I’d find the long-missing sister.

That had eaten up most of the rest of the day. I’d stayed later than I’d planned, doing “just one more” internet search, until I noticed the sun tucking behind clouds. A variation in our weather—thunderstorms in the evening instead of the afternoon.

So now, standing in front of my home, it was just dark, long shadows from the rain-smeared streetlights.

And I was staring at a snake.

Okay, a poster of one, its flickering tongue pointed in my direction. “Lost python” with a big picture of the missing snake.

I looked at the bushes next to my entrance steps. Dense, perfect for hiding a snake. I live in a city, thank you very much, a mere two blocks from the French Quarter, and I can see the tall towers of the CBD from the small deck off the upstairs. Urban means no snakes should be lurking in bushes I had to walk past.

As I paused to glare at the shadows, looking for anything long and sinuous, I could feel the sweat drip down my nose. The dusk was still too new to get rid of the heat the sun had left, adding only humidity. Perfect snake weather.

Fucking snakes, I grumbled, then charged up my stairs, jammed my key in—missing twice, enough times to make me mutter “fuck” out loud again, before finally getting it in and the door open and slamming it louder than I’d intended as I closed it.

I tossed my briefcase, and gym bag, left over from good intentions of the morning that weren’t carried out, on the chair I cleared off only when company came over.

It hadn’t been cleaned in a month.

Then to the kitchen where I filled a go-cup with ice (Muses, I’m classy like that) then water and chugged half of it down.

Bedroom. Strip off the clothes, into ratty shorts and a T-shirt. No bra, needless to say.

Only then did I check the phone for messages. Nada. Do I still exist if no one calls me?

Ah, email. One from Torbin seeing if I’m free next weekend. And a group email from Danny and Joanne, asking about lunch tomorrow, Tuesday. A not pleasant reminder that today was still only Monday, the week barely newborn and already way past its welcome.

I managed a quick yes to both before I contemplated dinner.

A few months ago, Danny, Joanne, and a few other women in the legal / law enforcement profession started meeting for monthly lunches. I got invited along as the “illegal” one, since I’m a private detective. It was mostly a fun time, occasional professional news and info. And work-related enough to be a tax deduction for my small business.

I hadn’t seen Torbin, save for passing in the street—we lived on the same block—for close to a month. My ex, Cordelia James, was back in town. We had been together long enough for Torbin and her to be friends—and she had been close to Alex and Joanne before we got together. It was an unspoken rule that we traded off, to avoid any awkward meetings. She—and her new girlfriend—had been here for six months and I hadn’t run into her yet. At least not officially.

Oh, I knew where she lived—uptown in the Touro area, worked—a new community health clinic, the girlfriend’s name—Nancy Something Forgettable. I am a private detective, after all. What kind of car she drove—a blue Subaru Forester. Forgettable Nancy didn’t have a job yet. Or was she going to be a lesbian housewife of New Orleans?

I didn’t ask, my friends didn’t tell.

Had I driven by her house? Yes, but late enough at night and I was in the area anyway. I was curious, that was all. The lights were all off, save for the obligatory porch light. A quick glance; I’d kept on driving.

I’d seen a car like hers, with a driver that could have been her, but it was the usual crazy New Orleans traffic, so I kept driving and didn’t look back.

Sometimes I thought I should just show up or find some public event they would be at and go. Get it over with. New Orleans can be a small town, and when half my friends were her friends, too, it made for an awkward social dance.

At other times, I thought I should make this a game; could I avoid her for the rest of my life? Dash around corners just in time, jump out bedroom windows, or peel off in my car.

And then I’d have a couple fingers of Scotch and decide to let it go. It would happen or it wouldn’t. We would be perfect fake Southern polite. My life would go on exactly as it was now.

It was an okay life. Business was doing reasonably well. Summer is always slower, I reminded myself. I was carrying the mortgages both on the house and on my office, the latter covered in good part by the hipster coffee shop that rented the downstairs. Bills got paid on time, a little put away here and there. I could afford the decent Scotch if not the really good stuff. But why pay a hundred dollars a bottle for stuff you’re only going to convert to piss anyway?

I was still single and beginning to decide I liked it that way. I’d been dating a nurse for a couple of months; we’d hit it off, but our schedules kept getting in the way. She mostly worked nights. My hours were scattered depending on the job. She’d emailed me last week saying she’s met someone at work; they had similar schedules and could do things together. If I wasn’t hunky-dory fine, I would be soon enough. It had only been a few months; we had gone out maybe six or seven times. Spent the night together twice, still awkward and unsure. She’d been fun, but I wasn’t sure she was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. If that was the case, maybe it was better she found someone else and dumped me before I dumped her.

Right.

I took a slug of the Scotch.

In a nod to adulthood, I sliced up an apple and grabbed a wedge of cheddar. Supper.

And it was only Monday and every time I had to pee in the middle of the night, I’d have to check the toilet to make sure no snake had slithered into my sewer system. I took another big gulp of Scotch. Maybe grain whisky pee could keep the snakes away.


CHapter Two

I slept late-ish. For a weekday, that is. Didn’t get to the office until around ten a.m. The first order of business was to make a pot of coffee.

Once I had a cup in front of me, I looked at the case for Aimee Smyth. She had hired me, paid after all. I checked my bank to see if the money had cleared. Of course not; it goes out very quickly, in very slowly.

Maybe Aimee Smyth wasn’t her real name. That could explain why she was so hard to find. Or maybe she hadn’t led the kind of life that leaves much of a track.

Summer is too slow, you’re spending too much time on this case, Micky, I told myself. Do what you’re paid to do until you have a good reason to not do it.

I did call the bank again. They weren’t very helpful. Could not give out client information. Even to verify the check the client had written me was good. Annoying, but I had to give them points for security. Anyone could call up and make the same claim that I had to get info about someone’s bank account.

I started the usual internet search for Aimee’s sister Sally. I also slowly sipped my coffee. Aimee had claimed she was pressed for time, but until the check cleared, I wasn’t going to bust my ass on this case. Most people are honest, but a few aren’t, and there have been checks that have not cleared.

As elusive as Aimee had been, her sister was even more elusive. Why is it that no one searching for a lost person can ever be helpful enough to have their Social Security number? No, it’s always “I think she might be in the New Orleans, maybe Slidell, area and her last name might have changed.” (C’mon, really, you’re still taking his name like you’re his property? Feminism can’t be over; it’s barely started.)

In the hour and a half I had before my lunch meeting, I found nada on Sally, not even that she existed.

I glanced at the phone number for Aimee. After lunch, I told myself, I’d call her and see if she could scrape up any more info on her sister.

Then it was time to head uptown. They vary their locations, and this one was up on Freret Street, a strip with lots of new restaurants on it. And most of the major road construction in the city between me and there.

I was about ten minutes late. Respectable given I had to come all the way from downtown. They were ordering as I slid into the last remaining chair. A bottle of sparkling water was already in front of me. Either Joanne or Danny had ordered it. Both of them were capable of the betrayal. I had been contemplating a Bloody Mary, but my choice had been usurped.

“We can’t stay long,” Danny was saying, even as she ordered the fried catfish plate. The large one. Maybe she was taking the leftovers home to her partner Elly. Danny and I had been friends since college. She was now an assistant district attorney, well on the legal side of the group. She was sunny and stoic, attributes that got her through working in a criminal justice system she knew was far from perfect, especially for people of her skin color. And she could be more patient than I could ever hope to be explaining why she worked in the system to change it rather than fighting it from the outside.

Joanne was even more legal, a cop, actually a detective, now overseeing a homicide unit. Like Danny, she had her conflicts with the system, one that didn’t welcome women, let alone lesbians. She could be as stoic as Danny and not let others see what it cost her, but not as sunny. Oh, no, Joanne was not a sunny person. Fair, honest, blunt. If you were sick, Danny would make chicken soup and bring balloons. Joanne would tell you you’re probably not going to die and if you do, your troubles will be over. I preferred Danny’s chicken soup (she could cook), but Joanne had pushed me to get over my whiny self on multiple occasions.

I did a quick glance at the menu, saw an oyster po-boy, and ordered that as the waitress was looking expectantly at me.

Joanne got a salad. But wavered enough to add fried oysters as a topping. Two more catfish lunches—what this place is known for—and one burger for the Midwestern transplant who did not do seafood. She was a new lawyer who worked with Danny. She also ordered a beer. I took a sip of my sparkling water.

“Why can’t you stay long?” I asked.

A sigh from Burger Girl—so passive-aggressively nice—told me they had already covered this topic before I came.

“A nice juicy murder,” Danny said. “No name, no ID, but well dressed enough that someone is going to miss her.”

“It wasn’t a robbery,” Joanne added. “She had jewelry on just about every place you can have it, and nothing was disturbed.”

“No sign of sexual assault, either,” Danny added.

That explained why this was an interesting murder. The common motives seemed to be missing. I also enjoyed that both Danny and Joanne seemed interested in discussing it with me.

“But she was older,” Burger Girl said. She had a name, but I couldn’t remember it. That was more effort than she was worth.

“Maybe in her forties,” Joanne said. She and Danny, both well into their forties, glared at her. “Not bad looking, but as you know, sexual assault has nothing to do with what a woman looks like. It’s about power.”

I took another sip of water. What were the odds? Forty-year-old woman with a lot of jewelry. I took another sip. “You don’t happen to have a picture of her, do you?” I asked.

Danny was passing the bread, but Joanne looked at me, catching the suspicion in my tone. “Why?” she asked.

“Not here with us,” Danny added, catching the current in the air.

What were the odds, I thought again.

Let’s close this door. “I had a client who claimed she’s here from Atlanta, wanted me to look for her sister. Forties, lots of jewelry, well dressed, raw silk turquoise suit when I saw her.”

“Hair color?” Joanne asked.

“Black, probably dyed, but a decent enough job.”

She and Danny exchanged a look. The door didn’t seem to be closing.

Our food arrived.

Joanne said quietly to me, “Can you come with us after lunch?”

I nodded yes.

Then we got to hear all about Burger Girl’s upcoming wedding, including how much every flower arrangement cost.

I was not unhappy to follow Joanne and Danny out, even carrying Danny’s doggy bag of leftover catfish on the way to her car while she struggled with her briefcase and large handbag. We waved good-bye to Burger Girl, still rambling on about flower arrangements to the others who were caught behind her.

Danny did remember to take the doggy bag from me before we went to our separate cars. I’d have to figure out something else for dinner.

I followed them, thinking we’d be going to either Joanne’s station or Danny’s office.

But no, we were going to the morgue.

The Orleans Parish Coroner’s office, aka the morgue, is not in my favorite area of the city, not even close. It’s in Central City, a location that hasn’t had a whiff of gentrification for blocks. Guess they figured people this poor wouldn’t object to the dead bodies. Or else that it would save on travel time. It’s an area with a high murder rate. Murder and desperation often go together.

Coming here in the steam bath part of the summer? Call this another “not enough aspirin and vodka in the world” day.

I scrabbled in my briefcase—no, I will not carry a purse—for what I hoped was a scented lip balm. Oh, great, rum cola, a giveaway from the last Pride festival, not a flavor I would have picked myself. But that was all I had. It was that or the windshield cleaning fluid.

I even contemplated just driving on, not following Danny as she turned into the parking lot. But like a good citizen, always willing to help the forces of law, I parked beside her, pausing only to rub some rum cola lip balm under my nose.

One whiff told me that was probably not a good idea.

I tried breathing through my mouth. Less of a good idea. The heat and humidity and trash can we were walking past smelled like rotting, rancid bananas. Or what I imagined they would smell like.

Joanne, who drives like a cop, was already waiting for us at the door.

Trotting behind Danny, I asked, “You’re not going to make me look at a dead body, are you?”

“No, we’re here for the fish tank in the lobby,” she said.

It was too hot for sarcasm.

“If I barf, it’s on you,” I said as we mounted the steps to join Joanne.

She was already opening the door into air-conditioning.

But even the cold air couldn’t hide the odors of…cleaning fluids? Bleach? Yeah, that was it, I told myself. It was just bleach I was smelling.

Both Joanne and Danny seemed blissfully unaware. Or were used to it.

Do not let your imagination get away with you, I admonished myself. Bleach. That musty, chemical smell is just bleach.

They led me through the security with practiced ease, and I got little more scrutiny than a bare nod. I had been hoping for blaring alarms and being denied admittance.

But no, we were striding down a too brightly lit hallway, scrubbed to gleaming white perfection. Just a hint of…bleach—I had to convince myself all I was smelling was something antiseptic and cleansing—nothing else.

The power of the mind is so annoying. Just because I’m in a place where all the dead bodies in Orleans Parish end up doesn’t mean it smells like them. But that thought was lodged in my brain, and it wasn’t leaving until I did.

I swallowed and surreptitiously rubbed some more rum cola under my nose. Now I was smelling rum cola bleach.

We turned a corner and Joanne opened a door, Danny following, with me having little choice but to tag along behind.

Smell was the first thing I noticed. More than bleach. Another hard swallow. Rapid, shallow breathing. So not what I wanted to be doing right after lunch.

Another thing I shouldn’t be thinking about: What was roiling in my stomach. Oyster po-boys are only good going down.

Be clinical, be detached, view this as just another New Orleans experience.

Joanne and Danny greeted the people in the room—the live ones—like old friends.

There were several gurneys. Joanne led us over to one and, without asking if I was ready, pulled back the sheet.

It was her…but not her. Same age, hair, like a bad drawing of the woman who had been in my office.

“Is it her?” Joanne asked.

“I…think so,” I answered. “But something seems different.”

“She is dead,” Danny pointed out.

Maybe that was it. I had seen a woman—briefly—in the animation of life, eyes roving the room, mouth and lips moving in speech and expression. This woman was still and silent, not even the whisper of breath left.

I tried to impose the two faces together, the one I’d seen and the one in front of me. One was a person and one a clay statue. But if it wasn’t the woman from my office, it was someone who bore a striking resemblance to her.

“I think so. That’s the best I can do,” I said, turning away. “It might help if I could see her clothing and jewelry.”

Joanne nodded and, mercifully, led me out of the room with the gurneys.

It was just bleach, that was all you smelled, I told myself as I followed them through another too bright hallway. But I knew that wasn’t true. There had also been the distinct taint of mortality—we go this way but once.

Another door. This time I could smell the odor of stale clothing, last garments of homeless men found on the street, no one to claim their final belongings, the bloodstained shirts and pants, all the odors of life oozing away.

I looked down at the floor, another application of rum cola, on my lips this time but a wide smear. Maybe it helped; maybe it just gave me something to do. It felt like an hour but was probably only a few minutes when Joanne called me over to a table. She opened the box that was on it.

The clothes were the same, but even they seemed to have less color, or the bright fluorescent lights dulled the vibrant hues. I looked at the jewelry, the profusion of turquoise. One ring, a big rock, with small bands of lapis blue around it. I remembered looking it as she had talked.

“That looks like what she was wearing,” I said, adding, “The ring is distinctive.”

Joanne nodded and put the clothing back in its container.

Danny added, “That’s helpful. It gives us something to go on.”

Joanne threw her latex gloves in the trash, then led us out.

“What can you tell us about her?” she asked as we headed back down the hallway that seemed even brighter than before.

What could I tell them about her? She was a client—had been. What did I owe her in death?

I was silent long enough for Danny to prompt, “Your client’s confidentiality ends at her death. Anything you know might help us.”

“Yes, I know,” I answered. “Can we go outside? I could use some fresh air.”

“Sure,” Danny answered. She seemed to finally notice that I wasn’t as seasoned as she and Joanne were about dead bodies. She led the way as Joanne checked us out.

I crossed quickly to my car, gulping rum cola–infused air. And dust and the heat of asphalt and car engines. Just not…bleach.

“Are you okay?” Danny asked.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I lied. I took another deep breath. I looked up at the clouds in the sky.

Joanne joined us.

I kept looking at the clouds as I talked. “She gave her name as Aimee Smyth.” I spelled it out. Joanne took notes. “Said she wanted to find her sister. They had lost touch and she wanted to reconnect. She was in my office for maybe half an hour. She didn’t have a lot of information, and what she did have was…vague. Sister was probably somewhere around here, maybe the Northshore. She claimed to be only in town for a few days. Said someone had recommended me, but couldn’t remember who.”

“And you took her at her word?” Joanne asked.

“I’m not the police,” I said. “She wanted me to find someone. As long as it seemed reasonably legit and I have the resources, it’s a case.” Another breath, finally looking at them. “But yeah, something didn’t feel right. I usually do a quick check of any new clients. Mostly everything checks out enough for me—they are who they say they are. And their credit report is good enough to make it likely they’ll pay the bill.”

“So you checked her out?”

“Yes. And I found nothing.”

“Nothing to make you suspicious?” Danny asked.

“No, just nothing. No record of her. Or nothing that I could trace back to her. Plenty of A. Smyths—and Smiths in the Atlanta area, but no Aimee with her spelling. Check written from a small out-of-state bank. Nothing bad, but most people leave paper trails. I couldn’t find hers.”

“You think she faked it?”

“I don’t know. If she did, she was good. Usually something comes up, the death certificate for the person whose identity they took, an address that doesn’t exist. But nothing like that. It could be she was one of those paranoid people, no credit cards, locked everything down as tightly as she could.”

“Have you found the sister?”

“I wasn’t going to start looking until the check cleared,” I admitted.

Joanne gave a dry chuckle. “No one said you weren’t smart.”

“I might be able to give you more if I look over my case file.” I might be able to quiet my still-roiling stomach if I got out of the morgue parking lot.

“Okay, thanks, give me a call,” Joanne said.

“Yes, thank you, Micky, this has been helpful. First break we’ve had on this,” Danny added.

I nodded and got in my car, not waiting for them to get in theirs before pulling out of the parking lot. About a block down the street, I rolled down my window, letting the hot air in, but I needed real air, the distraction of the normal smells of summer.

Two blocks later, I rolled the window back up. Greasy fried chicken was not a helpful odor.

It might have been quicker, but I avoided the spaghetti around the Superdome and went up to Broad to head back downtown. There was a less than remote chance I might have to pull over to the side of the road, and it would be easier to do it on this route.

I grew up out in the bayous. Stumbling over a dead critter—or even killing one—was common. Why was my stomach acting like a roller-coaster ride? Time, maybe. And knowing. It’s one thing to catch a whiff of decay, then see the dead gator, skimming by in a boat. Another to park in the lot of the morgue and know I was going to view a body of someone I’d known—albeit slightly. The minutes of walking down the hallway, knowing what was coming, not the random turn in a bayou. And death out there was part of life, expected, the inevitable changing of the seasons. But this was too soon, too sudden. Too deliberate. The woman I had seen in my office was only hot and sweaty, not the gray, hollow face of someone in such poor health she was likely to turn up dead in a day.

And she had given me a quest—okay, a case. But it mattered to her. Someone lost; wanting them to be found.

It’s not your case anymore, Micky, I told myself as I turned onto Esplanade. Instead of going back to my office, I headed home. Two bathrooms there instead of one. My stomach still wasn’t sure which way it would go.

But it nagged at me.

Maybe I should try to find Sally to at least say her sister tried to find her before she died.

And maybe I’d do it if the check cleared.


CHapter Three

Coffee made. My piled up desk stared at me. I could do invoices. I could do filing. I so didn’t want to do either.

I looked at my bank account. The check still hadn’t cleared.

I should just bundle up the case file for Aimee Smyth and drop it on Joanne’s desk.

And come back to my invoices and filing.

I looked up the phone number she had given me.

Dialed it.

Maybe someone was looking for her. As heartbreaking as it was, leaving them in uncertainty was crueler than the truth. Aimee wasn’t coming home.

Three rings. Maybe it was ringing in her pile of clothes in the morgue.

“Hello?”

It sounded like her voice.

I almost dropped my coffee before pulling it together enough to answer.

“Hi, this is Micky Knight. The private detective you hired?”

“I’m sorry, who?”

“Michele Knight,” I answered.

“Oh, okay. Look, this isn’t a good time.”

“When would be a good time? There are some things I’d like to discuss.”

“Can you find my sister?”

“No, not yet.”

“Call me when you do.”

“No, we need to talk. There is someone who looks a lot like you—it might be your sister—in the morgue. I need to—”

The phone dropped.

Well, that was smooth.

The phone was picked up again.

“I’m sorry, you have the wrong number.” She hung up.

No one answered when I tried again. I tried from my personal cell phone, but still no answer.

“Well, fuck,” I muttered. Someone had answered her phone. Female voice, about in the range of hers. But was it her? Or was the woman who had been in my office on the slab in the morgue? There was no way I could know for sure.

But then who the hell answered her phone? And knew about looking for her sister? And why the clumsy pretense of claiming it was a wrong number?

Not your case. Hand it to the police.

I waited only long enough to finish my coffee before heading to Joanne’s station and dumping the copy I’d made of her case.

She picked it up.

“Not much.”

“No,” I admitted. “She didn’t give me much. Said the best contact was her cell phone—the one she’s not answering. Didn’t fill in the address part of the form. And I hadn’t really started looking.” I gave her a rundown of the methods I’d used to look for both Sally and Aimee. Joanne nodded and took a few notes. She’d have to do it all over again. But she also had law enforcement resources that I didn’t have access to.

I debated telling her about the phone call. Cowardice won and I left it out. It didn’t add much and I’d only get the—well-deserved—lecture on messing in police business.

She nodded, thanked me, and it was time to go. It was a workday for her, and lingering disreputable private detectives wouldn’t make it any easier.

Out in the street again. It still smelled like greasy fried chicken here. Oh, wait, there was a fowl place down the block. I was somewhat relieved to know the smell of chicken fat hadn’t taken over New Orleans. Or my brain.

Duty done, it was time to head back to my office and pretend I loved, just loved, filing.

The pretense lasted about ten minutes if I included making another pot of coffee and taking a bathroom break.

Who in hell had answered the phone?

Not your case anymore, Micky. It’s murder now, and the police don’t play with murder.

But who had answered the phone?

Clearly I didn’t love—or loathe—filing enough to be distracted from thinking about the phone call.

Just enough to only notice the sound of footsteps when they were coming up the final flight of stairs to my office. I’m the only one up here, so they were either way lost (a few coffee shop folks have sought the bathroom up here) or on their way to see me.

Filing did not put me in the mood for unexpected visitors.

Without a knock, the door opened.

And nothing would have put me in the mood for this unexpected—and unwanted—visitor.

Impeccably dressed as always, white pants, probably linen, loose and flowing, white shirt, sleeveless, showing arms that spent time at the gym but not too heavy on the weightlifting, to only hint at muscles, without being unfeminine about them. A deep navy belt added color and contrast to the outfit. Her hair was perfectly blond, as if just coming from a sun-kissed beach, twisted up in a chignon. Understated jewelry, a pendant necklace with a deep blue stone echoing the navy of her belt, matching earrings. A ring on her left hand. Well, that was new.

“I need your help,” she said.

“I’m the last person you should ever ask for help,” I replied. I stood up, as if I was about to go to the door and usher her out.

“I know that. Believe me, I do know that. But you’re the only one who can help.”

I wanted her out of my office. But, damn my inquiring mind, was also curious about what could possibly bring her to my door.

Karen Holloway had hired me, long ago, and hadn’t been exactly up front and honest about her reasons. Let’s just say it was messy in more ways than I cared to think about. Karen was also a first cousin to my ex, Cordelia. When we had been together, I’d occasionally run into Karen and her various lady friends at some charity function that Cordelia was expected to go to, meaning I got dragged along. Since we’d broken up, I hadn’t seen Karen, didn’t even know if she was still in New Orleans or not.

The last place I’d expected to see her was here in my office.

“Only one, huh? What kind of betrayal do you have in mind this time?”

“Don’t be like that! I’ve changed. Really, I have.”

“Karen, what do you want?”

She started to cross the room toward me, but I put up my hand like a traffic cop. I wanted her as close to the exit door as possible.

“Can’t I at least sit down?”

“No. You have two minutes. One second past, I will escort you out and call security if you don’t leave. Use your time wisely.”

I crossed my arms.

She did the same, then realized she was mimicking me and dropped them to her sides. “Why do you have to make it so hard?”

“Because you’ve made it so hard in the past. One minute and thirty seconds.”

She gave a sour glance, then said, “As you may know, I’ve gotten into real estate—”

“What? Your trust funds aren’t enough?”

The look soured even more. “After taxes, no, not really. Barely 100k a year.”

She ignored my snorted opinion.

“I just made a deal on a house. A really good one, in the Garden District, just over a million.”

“That should help your trust fund,” I interjected.

“Don’t use up my time.”

I waved her to go ahead.

“A woman from out of town. Atlanta. She wanted to make it a cash deal, she seemed to check out, deposit cleared the bank okay, submitted proof of the other funds. We’re supposed to go to closing tomorrow.”

I glanced at my watch. “I don’t do real estate cases.”

“This isn’t real estate. The woman’s name is Sally Brand, and she listed you as her local contact.”

I stared at Karen, then quickly looked away, out the window. Karen may have been venal, but she wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want to give away what a bombshell she had dropped in my lap.

I coughed, grabbed a sip of water from the always present sports bottle on my desk. Recovered. Somewhat. “Did she say why I was her contact?” I added, “I’ve never met anyone by that name.” True enough. I’d never met Sally, only her sister Aimee.

“I don’t know. She gave me a pile of paper, and it was only on the last sheet.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Real estate takes a lot of paperwork. I can’t read over every word in front of the client. Look, she gave me all the contact info I thought I’d need. Home address, cell phone, home phone, business phone, two emails, one business and one personal. How was I to know she’d disappear and leave only your name?”

With a sigh I didn’t bother to hide, I motioned her to sit down. Karen was wise enough not to smirk at her victory.

Barely letting her get seated, I began a barrage of questions. “What do you mean by disappeared?”

“What people usually mean. I can’t find her, can’t contact her.”

“What have you tried?”

“Everything! I wouldn’t be here if anything else had worked.”

It was, as usual, going to take effort to get useful information out of Karen. I considered throwing her over to Joanne—they weren’t exactly bosom buddies—since it was possible this was related to the murder.

But my curious—and not perfectly ethical—mind wanted to see what I could get from Karen first.

“Tell me exactly what happened.”

With a few prompts, she did. Called her cell just to finalize a few details. No answer. Left a message. Two days ago. No call back. Called her work phone. Disconnected. Went to the hotel she was staying in—where they’d initially met. No one by that name was staying there. They couldn’t tell her if anyone by that name or her description had stayed there. Confidentiality. Email to both addresses. No answer to the personal. Work bounced back.

Fifteen minutes later I said, “Yep, looks like she did indeed disappear.”

“Thanks,” Karen huffed, “I knew that. What are you going to do about it?”

“What am I going to do? Are you hiring me to find her?”

“She listed you as the person to contact as the last resort!” Karen seemed appalled that she might have to spend money and not get her problem solved.

“Without my permission. Or even notification.”

“But why would she do that? It makes no sense!”

“Does it matter? You said the deposit cleared. The seller gets to keep it, right? So you find another buyer.”

She huffed again. “It’s not that easy.”

“There are tons of people moving from Brooklyn who think our prices here are cheap.”

“That doesn’t help me if this falls through.”

“You cut corners,” I guessed.

“No! But we had several offers. I pushed for this one because it was full list and in cash.” She twisted in her seat, not looking me in the eye. Oh, Karen, do you have to be so predictable?

“Even though it wasn’t as solid as some of the others.”

“They all were solid. At least on paper. Cash and full price. It seemed a no-brainer.”

“So why did you have to push for it?”

“One of the other bidders was local; he bought his last house with us. But it was complicated. He’d have to sell that house to buy this one. He wasn’t happy when we turned him down. So if this falls through…we lose this sale and have pissed off a repeat customer.”

“Life in the real estate business is harsh.”

“But why would she do that? Throw away a chunk of money to hold the property, then disappear?”

“Maybe something happened to her.”

“Why? What do you know?” Karen asked. Amoral, yes. Stupid, no. She knew there was something I wasn’t telling her.

It was too big a coincidence to think Aimee hired me to find her sister, and her sister randomly picked my name out of the phone book (online directory?) as a contact for a house she was buying. It seemed Karen and I had something in common—being pawns in someone else’s game.

And a deadly one. There was a body in the morgue. Aimee? Sally? Could the sisters look enough alike to pass for each other? Especially from a brief moment, like the one in my office? Or with a new Realtor? Switch the clothes and jewelry, and a family resemblance could be enough. Maybe they were even twins, although that sounded so soap opera weird. But why? Any contact would have worked as well—a hotel clerk, a waitress. Why hire a private detective and go through the motions of buying a house to create witnesses to an identity switch? The house deposit. My fee. Why did money have to change hands?

Karen was staring at me.

I could send her out of my office and claim I knew nothing. She wouldn’t believe me for the very valid reason that I would be obviously lying. I could tell her she needed to talk to Joanne, but that might be a bridge too far for Karen—at the mercy of a police officer who didn’t approve of her ethics.

Or I could tell her what I knew. Maybe in the small piles of information we both had, something would stand out. Or maybe it was my excuse to pursue who had answered the phone. Who had dumped me into this mess?

“A woman claiming to be Sally’s sister hired me to find her. And someone who looks a lot like her turned up in the morgue.”

Karen covered her mouth with her hand, shock on her face. “What? But her sister isn’t my buyer.”

“Unless she is,” I pointed out. “I couldn’t find much of a paper trail for the woman, like she didn’t exist. She could have used a fake name.”

“That’s crazy!”

“You got a better explanation?”

“No, that’s no explanation at all.”

She was right.

Karen continued, “Are you sure?” Not waiting for my answer, she said, “That might be the best outcome for me.” At the look on my face, “Yes, horrible for her and her family—I’m sorry and all that—but if she was killed, then it means I didn’t screw up and pick a flake for a buyer.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said as sarcastically as I could.

“Oh, fuck your snotty attitude! Yeah, I’m sorry she’s dead. I didn’t kill her and I’d be happier if she were alive and taking possession of the house right now. She’s not any more dead by my benefiting from it.”

“It’s one problem solved,” I conceded, still leaving the sarcasm in my tone. “But it doesn’t solve the larger problem.”

Karen stared at me. “What are you talking about?”

“Why? Why would she hire me? If her sister was buying a house from you, she’d be easy to find. Just check the property records. Why would the woman claiming to be the lost sister put down a deposit on a house and list me as the contact?”

“It makes no sense.”

“Not to us. But someone had a plan.”

“But if she’s dead, it got messed up.”

“Unless that was part of the plan.”

Karen stared at me. I couldn’t tell if she thought I was crazy or was worried at where this was going.

“Think about it,” I continued. “She hires me. Engages you to sell her a house. Actions long enough that we can ID the body—”

“I’m not looking at a dead body.”

“You’re going to have to,” I told her bluntly, making no effort to be kind about it. “If it’s your client and my client—who both gave different names—the police need to know that.”

“Maybe the police do, but I don’t,” Karen protested. Then she saw the look on my face. “You’re going to tell them, aren’t you?”

“I’m not withholding information in a murder investigation. That’s accessory after the fact.” Yeah, I was laying it on thick. But Karen wasn’t weaseling out of this one.

“Look, I didn’t want to get involved in this—”

“Then you shouldn’t have walked into my office and dumped this on my lap.”

“She put your name down!”

“Not by my choice, remember? Karen, there is a con going on. Likely involving a murder, and we’ve both been unwittingly involved. My hunch is it hasn’t played itself out yet.”

“But the woman’s dead. You’ve identified her.”

“If that was their goal, have us ID the body, why did she use one name with me and another with you?”

Karen didn’t have an answer.

I didn’t either. But if their hiring us was to create two disinterested professionals who could say they saw this woman, why change the name? And the story? Aimee Smyth could have hired me to do a title search—claimed she had been burned before and wanted to be sure or some such. It would have been the same story, Karen and I backing each other up. But now we had to contradict each other. The same woman, but with two different names and two different stories. The only reason to put my name on the document was to make sure we linked up.

It made no sense.

That worried me.

My head hurt.

I sent Karen from my office, telling her to bring every scrap of paper she could, even telephone doodles, concerning Sally Brand back as soon as she could.

I stared at my clock, wondering how long it would take her to come back. It wasn’t even lunch yet, and I already knew this was not how I wanted to end my day.