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Without advancing a foot, she watched the minute change on the dashboard clock display— then spotted the reason for the jam-up.


Two young hoods in gang colors lingered in the crosswalk to block traffic each time the light turned green. Three others worked the line, car to car, tapping on windows, extorting payoffs.


“Clean your windshield. Two bucks.”


Like a patter of semiautomatic gunfire, car doors locked one after another as the young entrepreneurs made their sales pitch, but no car could move forward until the driver paid the tariff.


The apparent leader appeared at Carson’s window, smug and full of false good humor. “Clean your windshield, lady.”


He held a filthy rag that looked as if it had been fished out of one of the city’s many weedy canals.


A thin white scar on one darkly tanned cheek was puckered at several suture points, suggesting that he’d gotten into a knife fight on a day when the ER physician had been Dr. Frankenstein. His wispy beard implied testosterone deficiency Getting a second, closer look at Carson, Scar-face grinned. “Hey, pretty lady. What you doin’ in these shabby wheels? You was made for Mercedes.” He lifted one of the wipers and let it slap back onto the windshield. “Hello, where’s your mind? Not that a long-legged fresh like you needs a mind.”


An unmarked sedan had advantages in low-profile detective work; however, back when she’d driven a black-and-white patrol car, Carson had never been bothered by crap like this.


“You’re breaking the law,” she told him.


“Somebody in a mood this mornin’.”


“The windshield’s clean. This is extortion.”


“I charge two bucks to clean it.”


“I advise you to step back from the car.”


The kid lifted his rag, prepared to smear the windshield. “Two bucks to clean it, three bucks not to clean it. Most ladies, whether they’re male or female ladies, take option two.”


Carson unbuckled her seatbelt. “I asked you to step back from the car.”


Instead of retreating, Scarface leaned into the window, inches from her. Breath sweetened by a morning joint, soured by gum disease. “Gimme three bucks, your phone number, a nice apology— and maybe I don’t mess with your fine face.”


Carson grabbed the gink’s left ear, twisted it hard enough to crack cartilage, and slammed his head sideways against the door post. His howl sounded less like that of a wolf than like that of an infant.


She let go of his ear and, exiting the sedan,


opened the door into him with enough force to knock him off his feet.


As he sprawled backward, rapping his head on the pavement hard enough to summon constellations to an inner planetarium, she planted one foot on his crotch, grinding down just enough to make him squirm and to pin him in place for fear that she’d make paste of his jewels.


Shoving her police ID toward his face, she said, “My phone number is nine-one-one.”


Among the hostage cars, heads up and alert, Scarface’s four ace kools were looking at him, at her, stunned and angry but also amused. The guy under her foot was a homey, and a humiliation to one home boy was a humiliation to all, even if maybe he was a little bit of what they called hook homey, a. phony.


To the nearest of Scarface’s friends, Carson said, “Stall it out, shithead, unless you want a hole in your doo-rag.”


The gink under her foot tried to crab-walk away, but she stepped down harder. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he chose submission over the prospect of three days with an ice pack between his legs.


In spite of her warning, two of the other four gangbangers began to edge toward her.


Almost with the nimbleness of prestidigitation, Carson put away her ID and produced the pistol from her holster.


“Check it out, this lady under my foot, he’s been scratched”—which meant embarrassed—“but none of you has. Nothin’ here for you but two years in stir, maybe lit up and crippled for life.”


They didn’t split, but they stopped moving closer.


Carson knew they were less concerned about her pistol than about the fact that she talked the talk. Since she knew the lingo, they assumed—correctly—that she had been in situations like this before, lots of them, and still looked prime, and wasn’t afraid.


Even the dumbest gangbanger—and few would bin a dime on Wheel of Fortune—could read her credentials and calculate the odds.


“Best to break, best to book,” she said, advising them to leave. “You insist on bumping titties, you’re gonna lose.”


Ahead of her plainwrap sedan, closer to the intersection, cars began to move. Whether or not they could see what was happening in their rearview mirrors, the drivers sensed the shakedown had ended.


As the cars around them began to roll, the young entrepreneurs decided there was no point to lingering when their customer base had moved on. They whidded away like walleyed horses stampeded by the crack of thunder.


Under her foot, the windshield-washer couldn’t quite bring himself to admit defeat. “Hey, bitch, your badge, it said homicide. You can’t touch me! I ain’t killed nobody”


“What a moron,” she said, holstering the pistol.


“You can’t call me a moron. I graduated high school.”


“You did not.”


“I almost did.”


Before the creep—predictably—took offense at her impolite characterization of his mental acuity and threatened to sue for insensitivity, Carson’s cell phone rang.


“Detective O’Connor,” she answered.


When she heard who was calling and why, she took her foot off the gangbanger.


“Beat it,” she told him. “Get your sorry ass out of the street.”


“You ain’t lockin’ me?”


“You’re not worth the paperwork.” She returned to her phone call.


Groaning, he got to his feet, one hand clutching the crotch of his low-rider pants as if he were a two-year-old overwhelmed by the need to pee.


He was one of those who didn’t learn from experience. Instead of hobbling away to find his friends, telling them a wild story about how he’d gotten the best of the cop bitch after all and had punched out her teeth, he stood there holding himself, ragging her about abusive treatment, as though his whining and threats would wring from her a sudden sweat of remorse.


As Carson concluded the call, pressed end, and pocketed the phone, the offended extortionist said, “Thing is, I know your name now, so I can find out where you live.”


“We’re obstructing traffic here,” she said.


“Come jack you up real good one night, break your legs, your arms, break every finger. You got gas our kitchen? I’ll cook your face on a burner.”


“Sounds like fun. I’ll open a bottle of wine, make tapas. Only thing is, the face gets cooked on the burner—I’m lookin’ at it.”


Intimidation was his best tool, but she had a screwhead that it couldn’t turn.


“You like tapas?” she asked.


“Bitch, you’re crazy as a red-eyed rat on meth.”


“Probably,” she agreed.


He backed away from her.


With a wink, she said, “I can find out where you “You stay away from me.”


“You got gas in your kitchen?” she asked.


“I mean it, you psycho twat.”


“Ah, now you’re just draggin’ me,” Carson said, draggin meaning sweet-talking.


The gangbanger dared to turn his back on her land hobble away fast, dodging cars.


Feeling better about the morning, Carson got behind the wheel of the unmarked sedan, pulled her door shut, and drove off to pick up her partner, Michael Maddison.


They had been facing a day of routine investigation, but the phone call changed all that. A dead woman had been found in the City Park lagoon, and by the look of the body, she hadn’t accidentally drowned while taking a moonlight swim.


CHAPTER 3


WITHOUT USING her SIREN and portable flasher,


Carson made good time on Veterans Boulevard,


through a kaleidoscope of strip malls, lube shops,


car dealerships, bank branches, and fast-food franchises.


Farther along, subdivisions of tract homes alter-


nated with corridors of apartment buildings and condos. Here Michael Maddison, thirty and still single, had found a bland apartment that could have been in any city in America.


Bland didn’t bother him. Working to the jazz beat and the hoodoo hum of New Orleans, especially as a homicide dick, he claimed that he ended every day in local-color overload. The ordinary apartment was his anchor in reality Dressed for work in a Hawaiian shirt, tan sports jacket that covered his shoulder holster, and jeans, Michael had been waiting for her to drive up. He looked wry and easy, but like certain deceptive cocktails, he had a kick.


Carrying a white paper bag in one hand, holding an unbitten doughnut in his mouth with the delicacy of a retriever returning to a hunter with a duck, Michael got into the passenger’s seat and pulled the door shut.


Carson said, “What’s that growth on your lip?”


Taking the doughnut from between his teeth, intact and barely marked, he said, “Maple-glazed buttermilk.”


“Gimme.”


Michael offered her the white bag. “One regular glazed, two chocolate. Take your pick.”


Ignoring the bag, snatching the doughnut from his hand, Carson said, “I’m crazy for maple.”


Tearing off a huge bite, chewing vigorously, she swung the car away from the curb and rocketed into the street.


“I’m crazy for maple, too,” Michael said with a sigh.


The yearning in his voice told Carson that he longed not only for the maple-glazed doughnut. For more reasons than merely the maintenance of a professional relationship, she pretended not to notice. “You’ll enjoy the regular glazed.”


As Carson took Veterans Avenue out of Jefferson Parish into Orleans Parish, intending to catch Pontchartrain Boulevard to Harrison and then head to City Park, Michael rummaged in the doughnut bag, making it clear that he was selecting one of the other treats only from cruel necessity.


As she knew he would, he settled on chocolate— not the glazed that she had imperiously recommended—took a bite, and scrunched the top of the paper bag closed.


Glancing up as Carson cruised through a yellow light an instant before it changed to red, he said,


‘Ease off the gas and help save the planet. In my church, we start every workday with an hour of sugar and meditation.”


“I don’t belong to the Church of Fat-Assed Detectives. Besides, just got a call—they found number six this morning.”


“Six?” Around another bite of chocolate dough-nut. he said, “How do they know it’s the same perp?”


“More surgery—like the others.”


“Liver? Kidney? Feet?”


“She must’ve had nice hands. They found her in the City Park lagoon, her hands cut off.”


CHAPTER 4


PEOPLE came TO the fifteen-hundred-acre City Park to feed the ducks or to relax under the spreading live oaks draped with gray-green curtains of Spanish moss. They enjoyed the well-manicured botanical gardens, the Art Deco fountains and sculptures. Children loved the fairy-tale theme park and the famous wooden flying horses on the antique merry-go-round.


Now spectators gathered to watch a homicide investigation in progress at the lagoon.


As always, Carson was creeped out by these morbidly curious onlookers. They included grandmothers and teenagers, businessmen in suits and grizzled winos sucking cheap blends out of bagged bottles, but she got a Night of the Living Dead vibe from every one of them.


Centuries-old oaks loomed over a pool of green water fringed with weeds. Paved paths wound along the edge of the lagoon, connected by gracefully arched stone bridges.


Some rubberneckers had climbed the trees to get a better view past the police tape.


“Doesn’t look like the same crowd you see at the opera,” Michael said as he and Carson shouldered through the gawkers on the sidewalk and the jogging path. “Or at monster-truck rallies, for that matter.”


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this area had been a popular place for hot-blooded Creoles to engage in duels. They met after sunset,


by moonlight, and clashed with thin swords until blood was drawn.


These days, the park remained open at night, but the combatants were not equally armed and matched, as in the old days. Predators stalked prey and felt confident of escaping punishment in this age when civilization seemed to be unraveling.


Now uniformed cops held back the ghouls, any one of whom might have been the killer returned to revel in the aftermath of murder. Behind them, yellow crime-scene tape had been strung like Mardi Gras streamers from oak tree to oak tree, blocking off a section of the running path beside the lagoon.


Michael and Carson were known to many of the attending officers and CSI techs: liked by some, envied by others, loathed by a few.


She had been the youngest ever to make detective, Michael the second youngest. You paid a price for taking a fast track.


You paid a price for your style, too, if it wasn’t traditional. And with some of the cynical marking-time-till-pension types, you paid a price if you worked as if you believed that the job was important and that justice mattered.


Just past the yellow tape, Carson stopped and surveyed the scene.


A female corpse floated facedown in the scummy water. Her blond hair fanned out like a nimbus, radiant where tree-filtered Louisiana sunlight dappled it.


Because the sleeves of her dress trapped air, the dead woman’s arms floated in full sight, too. They ended in stumps.


“New Orleans,” Michael said, quoting a current tourist bureau come-on, “the romance of the bayou.”


Waiting for instruction, the CSI techs had not yet entered the scene. They had followed Carson and stood now just the other side of the marked perimeter.


As the investigating detectives, Carson and Michael had to formulate a systematic plan: determine the proper geometry of the search, the subjects and angles of photographs, possible sources of clues___ In this matter, Michael usually deferred to Carson because she had an intuition that, just to annoy her, he called witchy vision.


To the nearest uniform on the crime line, Carson said, “Who was the responding officer?”


“Ned Lohman.”


“Where is he?”


“Over there behind those trees.”


“Why the hell’s he tramping the scene?” she demanded.


As if in answer, Lohman appeared from behind the oaks with two homicide detectives, older models, Jonathan Harker and Dwight Frye.


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