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Authors: Penelope Williamson

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BOOK: Wages of Sin
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The wind died. Carlos Kelly heard the click of a hammer cocking.

Aw, Jesus.

The crack of a gunshot smacked off the water and Carlos Kelly fell to his hands and knees. His palms burned and his nostrils filled with the acrid odor of urine and in the next instant he realized that if he was pissing all over himself, then he wasn't dead.

The goon realized it, too. He had whirled at the firing of a gun and the screaming going on behind them, but already he was spinning back around and pointing the big-bore revolver at Carlos Kelly's face.

The boy rolled and lashed out with his legs just as the goon pulled the trigger, and for the first time in his young life Carlos Kelly got lucky. His heavy brogan clipped the goon in the back of the knee, knocking his right leg out from under him. The goon's arm had flailed as he fired, and the bullet went wide. Carlos Kelly kicked again.

The goon staggered, catching his heel on a gap in the warped boards. He teetered a moment, then pancaked backward off the pier and into the river.

Carlos Kelly didn't even hear the splash. He had already scrambled to his feet and was off and running, away from the open waterfront and toward the crosshatch of narrow, broken-down streets that was the Quarter.

Even at past two o'clock in the morning the Quarter wasn't asleep, but all the action was happening behind the bolted doors and boarded-up windows of the speakeasies. Those working girls and boozers who still walked the streets were past helping anyone.

Carlos Kelly ducked into the shadows of the wide arched stone portico to an abandoned macaroni factory. He strained his ears for the patter of following footsteps, but his breath sawed too loudly in his throat and his heart beat too hard for him to hear anything but his own fear. His legs trembled so badly he could barely hold himself up.

The brick wall he sagged against was papered with peeling posters advertising a long ago boxing match. The broken glass panes in the fan light above his head rattled and moaned in the wind. The double barnlike doors of the factory were padlocked together, but he saw where the hasp had busted loose. The weathered wood had been scrawled with hobo graffiti: two parallel wavy lines slashed through with five hash marks. He didn't know what it meant and he didn't care. All he wanted was a place to hide.

The wind gusted around the corner, and Carlos Kelly shuddered with the sudden chill of it on his damp skin. Jesus, he had been sweating scared. He was still scared but he was beginning to feel some shame now in the way he'd behaved, the begging noises and the tears. He stank of his own piss; his trousers were wet with it.

A trash can clattered nearby, followed by glass smashing on cobblestone and a snarled curse, and Carlos Kelly nearly pissed himself again.

His feet twitched, wanting to take off running, but the street was empty and harshly exposed in the white light of the incandescent lamps. He pressed deeper beneath the arched portico, his hands feeling the door behind him for the broken hasp.

He pried it free of the rotting wood and then eased the door open carefully, praying that the hinges wouldn't squeak.

It was dark inside, with the barest of light coming in through the cracks in the boarded-up windows. He heard a rustling noise and he looked up through the grated catwalk above his head, and nearly jumped out of his skin as he caught the flapping of dark wings out of the corner of his eye. A high-pitched squeal echoed in the rafters of the deep, pitched ceiling.

Aw, Jesus, bats.

His blood pounded in his ears and a scream clawed at his throat, but he wouldn't let it out. He hated bats, really hated them, but at the moment their company was preferable to another do-si-do on a river pier with Tony the Rat's goon.

He stood unmoving for a long while, hardly daring to breathe as his eyes got used to the darkness. Slowly, he craned his head back and peered up through the latticed metal of the catwalk again. The bats, thank God, were gone.

Where he was, on the floor of the macaroni factory, strange machinery cast hulking shadows on the walls: cement vats and long wooden troughs and huge wheels and pulleys connected together by thick fan belts, like giant slingshots. Then he saw, deep in the farthest corner, the flicker of a fire.

Tramps, he thought, but unlike the bats they didn't scare him. Their company would be a good thing right now, and maybe he could join them in the morning when they hopped a train. What Carlos Kelly really needed to do was get his sorry ass out of town.

Hobos who rode the rails didn't travel unarmed, though, and so he made some deliberate noise as he walked down the length of the cavernous factory. “Hey, there,” he called out, nice and friendly. He could smell meat cooking, but as he got closer he realized that it wasn't a fire he had seen. It was a cluster of burning votive candles, and above the burning candles something was hanging from the crossbeam of a large drying rack.

Something that whimpered and then made a horrible noise as he came up to it. It was a noise he'd heard only once before, but once was enough for him never to have forgotten it—the wet, popping gargle of a man strangling on his own blood.

Then he got close enough to see it all, and for the second time that night Carlos Kelly fell to his knees, sobbing.

“Aw, Jesus.”

Chapter Three

T
hey'd run out of the labeled stuff an hour ago and the champagne that homicide detective Daman Rourke now drank tasted like sugarcoated paint thinner. It was melting his teeth and making his lips go numb.

Like almost everyone else in the crowded front parlor of the elegant plantation house, he was watching Remy Lelourie
be
Remy Lelourie. Beneath the blaze of the crystal chandeliers, her bare arms and legs were the same pale gold as her silky slip of a dress, and the dress was all that she was wearing. No headband or jewelry, no stockings, not even any shoes. Just the silky dress and that incredible, breath-stopping face.

The tabloids called her the most beautiful woman in the world. It might have been the truth.

It was deep into that cool October Friday night and in the old French colonial house overlooking the Bayou St. John, Remy Lelourie was throwing what the newspapers were calling the Party of the Century, even though the century was only twenty-eight years old. New Orleans had always been a city that relished its balls and parades, but this was something special, for Remy Lelourie was one of the world's brightest stars and yet she was theirs. A hometown girl.

It was all happening at the film idol's ancestral home of Sans Souci, a bygone confection of white colonnettes and broad galleries that had been part of a sugar plantation a century ago, and the scene of a scandalous and brutal murder only last summer. Bright Lights Studios didn't care about that, though. Publicity, whether good or bad, was still publicity and publicity was good for business.

Most of the guests at the party were in some way connected with the studio. For three weeks they had been shooting on location in the swampland east of New Orleans—a swashbuckling boudoir intrigue called
Cutlass
about a Southern belle turned swamp pirate who sailed the Caribbean searching for her lost love. Tonight they were celebrating life and love with all the extravagance and flamboyance of the movies they made.

Chandeliers blazed in the front parlor, where a five-piece jazz band was playing “Three O'Clock in the Morning” even though it was only half past two. Negro waiters in white tuxedos served bootlegged champagne in glasses bigger than finger bowls, and the air had the crackle of a live wire, as if everyone was still waiting for the party to turn wild. So far the most exciting thing to happen had been around midnight, when a budding starlet had thrown off her clothes and danced naked on top of the grand piano before passing out underneath it.

Daman Rourke leaned against the wall near the French doors that opened onto the upstairs gallery. He watched Remy Lelourie flirt with a skinny guy who was supposed to be some kind of writer for the studio. A scenario writer. He had patent leather hair and a little black mole on the right side of his upper lip that looked inked on with a fountain pen, and maybe was. The trousers he had on were wide enough to fit an elephant's legs. What the college kids nowadays were calling Oxford bags.

Remy Lelourie had a reputation that was mostly sin and trouble, but this time she was playing it soft and sweet. Still, after only two minutes of her company, the writer in the Oxford bags already had
the look:
like he'd been smacked in the face with a ball peen hammer. Even when she wasn't trying all that hard, even when she didn't care, Remy Lelourie could do anything with any man she wanted to.

As Rourke watched, she laughed at something the writer said, letting her head fall back so that the light of the chandelier fell full on her exposed throat. She bit her lower lip to stop another laugh and pushed her fingers through her hair, and Rourke felt a pang of pure lust laced with a little jealousy.

“Do I look like I got a sex complex?” said a young female voice close to his ear.

He turned, and the girl who had spoken raised a cigarette in a long silver holder up to her lips for him to light. She held his gaze a moment after he had obliged her, then averted her face, pursed her lips, and blew out smoke.

Her mouth looked like the bow on a candy box, and her eyelids had been greased to make them shiny. The dress she wore seemed to be mostly swaying fringe with nothing underneath it. The effect was mesmerizing.

“You look fine to me,” Rourke said.

She blew more smoke out in one long sigh and then sucked down a long drink from the gin rickey she had in her other hand, striking just the right pose between boredom and amusement. The epitome of razz-ma-tazz.

“Freddy told me I got a sex complex,” she said. Her voice had a bit of a pout in it that was as intriguing as her fringed dress. “But he's only sore because I wouldn't go to bed with him. I told him a girl wants a fella's full attention on her. Know what I mean?”

From the direction of her yearning look, Rourke figured the Freddy with the wandering eye must be Alfredo Ramon, the silver screen's latest Latin lover sensation. At the moment Freddy was having something of an argument with
Cutlass
's director, although most of his attention was on his own reflection in the gilt mirror above the yellow Italian marble fireplace.

“She's the biggest box office draw the studio has,” the director was saying. He wore a monocle in his left eye and had a reckless taste in old-fashioned spats. His beard, clipped to a dagger's point, jabbed the air, punctuating his words. “Without me you wouldn't even be in this picture, so quit giving me grief.”

For an answer, Freddy pushed out his sensuous lower lip and flared his nostrils in a Rudolph Valentino moue. His hair, hard and shiny with brilliantine, glistened like lacquer in the refracted light of the mirror.

“Freddy thinks he wants Remy,” the girl was saying. “But then everybody thinks he wants Remy.”

The big bangles on her arms jangled as she took another long pull on her gin rickey. Ice clicked in her now empty glass. She turned and searched Rourke's face with drooping, glazed eyes. “Are you somebody famous?” she said.

Suddenly the razz-ma-tazz was gone, and Rourke saw that she was even younger than he'd thought. Young and hard and naive and hungry, and he felt sorry for her. “No, I'm just a cop,” he said.

Her gaze moved up and down the length of him, from his black suede-topped shoes back to his mouth, and stopped. “You look like you ought to be famous.”

Rourke laughed and shook his head. “I think Freddy just glanced your way.”

It was only after she had walked away from him without another word that he realized he'd never learned her name.

The musicians had been passing reefers back and forth among themselves all night, and their horns were now hitting some wild and ragged notes that burst through the open door in shards of sound.

She stood alone on the upstairs gallery, with her back partly to him and her hands resting on the balustrade, looking out at the vanishing night where a wafer of a moon seemed to be jittering over the bayou and the black sky was popping with stars. He could just make out the line of her jaw curving out from beneath her ear, limned by the light spilling out of the house. Her short-cropped hair exposed the white nape of her neck and that delicate protrusion of bone that always made a woman seem so vulnerable, and Daman Rourke thought,
Jesus, I've got it bad.

“Do you want something, Detective?” Speaking into the night, she'd kept her back to him.

“Uh huh.” He'd brought a fresh glass of champagne out with him and he swallowed down a big swig of it. “I've been thinking about your behavior earlier this evenin', before the party, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to arrest you for soliciting sex from a cop.” He took a couple of steps, coming up behind her, close enough to touch her now, although he didn't. “Drag you downtown,” he said, “and give you the third degree.”

She turned around and leaned back, resting her elbows on the balustrade while she looked him over. A smile touched her mouth, and she did something with her eyes. Made them go hot and droopy. She wasn't sweet Remy anymore, but the red-lipped, black-souled vamp who picked up men, bled them dry, and threw them away.

She did a little shiver. “Oooh. The big, tough cop. Should I be scared?”

“Very scared.”

“Tell me again what you're arresting me for, Detective,” she said in a whisper. “I just love to hear you say the words. They make me shiver.”

“What words?”

She made him wait for two beats and then she said it, low and sultry, “Soliciting sex.”

“Lord, if you aren't at it again. You're a one-woman crime wave.”

He'd gestured with his hand to make his point, and the champagne sloshed over the rim of the glass. She took his hand and licked the drops off his fingers. “You shouldn't waste it like that,” she said.

“It's awful stuff. It deserves to be wasted.”

She laughed, and he felt the warmth of her breath on the wet skin of his hand. “You're swacked on it, though.”

BOOK: Wages of Sin
7.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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