I broke a large icicle from the railing and stepped off the porch onto Claiborne Street. A speeding carriage drenched my boots with freezing slush. February was one of the coldest months in New Orleans, but no one had seen ice like this. Although the year was just beginning, 1899 seemed cursed.
I was investigating the city’s eighth murder in two months. Correction: possible murder. A working girl in the District named Peaches. No one had heard from her for days, and the talk in the brothels hinted she was the tragic victim of a jealous lover. But these girls thrive on fantasy. I needed proof.
The interview at her mother’s house revealed nothing. From what I could understand through the thick Haitian accent, the distraught woman hadn’t seen her daughter in nearly a week. A small altar to Baron Samedi sparkled violet with candles as I left.
I crunched along the six blocks to Cirque House where Peaches had a room. The house had one of the worst reputations in the red light district. Not many men I knew had been inside—only those on the force who derived pleasure from the most brutal aspects of our work. The kind that roughed up the girls we arrested or “accidentally” killed a criminal before trial.
But Peaches was the police chief’s favorite. With skin like creamy café au lait that tasted even sweeter, he would tell us. I promised him I’d find out what happened to her.
When I rang the bell at Cirque House, the madam pulled me inside. “Come out of the cold, honey! We’ve got a warm reception in every bedroom.” I tried to explain I wasn’t a customer. But she hushed my protests and said: “Now relax and tell me what you’re after.”
“I’m looking for Peaches,” I began slowly. “Does she still work here?”
“Why of course! I’ll make sure she’s not occupied.” The madam winked and retreated.
As I lounged on the arm of a velvet settee, a tiny gray maid wandered in. I asked if she had noticed anything unusual at the house. She said she only cooked meals for the working girls and cleaned the bedrooms “you know…after.” When I mentioned Peaches, the maid’s eyes showed white and she scurried off without another word.
The madam returned and led me down a draped hallway to a cold, dark room. Heavy perfume stifled me as I entered. A body was lying on the bed. Horrified, I backed out and grabbed the madam.
“Now don’t fidget,” she purred. “Peaches brought in some of our best customers. She had a visitor booked almost every hour the day it happened, so there’s no telling who killed her. Funny thing is, the gentlemen who visited afterwards never complained. Must have been an irresistible temptation. And who am I to judge a man’s soul if their money’s good?”
She stared hard at me. “So you going to have a turn or aren’t you? Her next guest is waiting.”
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I knew a man who owned 150 items. One hundred of them were books. He was extremely specific about this number. Two plates, two bowls, one pot, one pan. One squeeze bottle of liquid soap he used for the counters, the clothes, his remaining hair. One Bobby Goldsboro record, but no turntable. He said one of the songs, Honey, had always moved him.
When his dog passed away, he replaced it. A plant; why didn’t I say plant? Although it is true about his dog.
I had the idea he was spiritual and wise. He was old. His sparseness was a turn-on. And the red rug on the floor beside his bed, so pleasing. I pleased him when I knelt on it. His framed, black-inked Eye of Horus lent the place a tang of the mystic.
It lasted seven weeks. One evening, I thought I’d pitch in and empty the garbage. He was out, walking the replacement dog. The bag was surprisingly full. I clocked the contents: the detritus of fast food wolfed when I was at work, eight squishy condoms (curtsy), and much-thumbed porn mag feat…
She sat on her sofa and listened patiently right up to the point when her Dad asked her to come home. She ended the call.
To go home would be to laugh together at terrible TV and lose together against quiz-show teams. They could direct all their anger at politicians ignoring interview questions. Dad would make her a cup of tea. She could cook him something she really fancied and he would eat it all and thank her and not mind the number of pans she’d used. And even wash them up. She didn’t move from the sofa.
Dad might not have asked her back if she hadn’t told him about the doctor. But Doctor Roberts sighed too much, too loudly, and she couldn’t keep that to herself. She’d gone to see him because she felt something had slipped in her mind, tipped certainty to mistake’s side of their usual divide in her thoughts. The two were becoming interchangeable. But apparently she didn’t need a counsellor. Nor antidepressants. She just needed to relax. Did she have any hobbies? When she’d tried a…