Authors: Linda Barnes
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Cities of the Dead
A Michael Spraggue Mystery
In memory of Paul J. Barnes
Where can you hide a body in a graveyard?
Saint Louis, Number Three was a walled city. Closed. Apart. A city of the dead, with brick walls twelve feet high and ten feet thick, built to hold the wall tombs. The old Creoles called them ovens, for their resemblance to bakers' ovens. No one living moved inside those walls at night. That was why they decided to meet there. Total privacy.
The man who was still on his feet groaned and dropped the heavy shovel on the path, in the alley between the tombs. It struck the gravel hard, clanging, and jolted him.
Had anyone heard?
He was wet. His chest, his armpits, his groin, felt unpleasantly damp. He fumbled at the buttons on his checked shirt with shaky fingers, pulled a button off in his hurry, and, cursing quietly, stuffed it into his jeans. The breeze that lifted the Spanish moss in the tall trees bordering the Bayou St. John didn't come into the cemetery to cool or dry him.
The dead man's body had stopped leaking blood from the head wound. Blood dappled the gravel path. The living man knelt, groped the ground at his knees, found his flashlight, and cautiously shone it at the closest tomb, wondering if blood had spattered the marble.
It was one of the older family tombs, one of a row. Some were miniature Greek temples, some were tiny peak-roofed houses. This one was granite, with three steps leading up to a panel bearing many names. A carved marble plaque near the roof gave the family name.
La Famille HubÃ¨ry
. A tuft of grass stuck out of a crack in one side of the granite. Two empty urns flanked the steps. No dirt, no flowers. The marble glinted clean and white in the flashlight beam.
Louise HubÃ¨ry, 1794â1866. Natif de St. Dizier, dÃ©cÃ©dÃ© le 29 DÃ©cembre Ã l'Ã¢ge de 72 ans et demi. ChÃ¨re Ã©pouse d'Estephan, mÃ¨re de
He read the tablet twice. Started over with Louise again. Seventy-two years. More than three times the years of the man at his feet. And Louise HubÃ¨ry had died well-loved, with a husband and children to buy the expensive carving on the marble plaque. A family tomb to lie in. Friends to mourn.
Where can you hide a body in a graveyard?
In a tomb.
There had to be an open tomb. There were always burials, almost daily burials here now. The records would be in the archdiocesan office, along with the plot number of the freshly opened tomb, the diagram showing where it was located, which alley, which crossing.
What difference did it make whose name was on the tablet, whether people marched in endless procession to fill vases, light candles, pray? It had made no difference to Louise HubÃ¨ry, dying in the fullness of her days a hundred years ago. It would make no difference to the dead man lying at his feet. Nothing would make a difference to him again. Rain would fall. Snow would cover him. Earthquake, fire, storm were all the same to him.
The living man found that his face was wet, too. He couldn't tell if it was sweat or tears.
“Tell me about the man who was killed,” Spraggue said.
The Orleans Parish lock-up smelled of disinfectant and sweat. A woman sat on the narrow holding-cell bunk, her head cradled in her hands. Staring down at her, Spraggue thought that someone else, anyone else, would have made a spunkier leading lady for a police drama. Dora Levoyer, Aunt Mary's longtime cook, looked small and shrunken, as if she'd been trying to disappear and only partially succeeded.
“I wonder,” she said softly, “if I can make you understand.” She glanced up and studied his face as if she were committing it to memory.
She used to leave him secret late-night snacks in the refrigerator. Years ago. Strawberry tarts with flaky pastry and chantilly cream. Homemade pÃ¢tÃ© smeared on crusty fresh-baked bread. If he mentioned her kindness, she'd blush and twist her apron in her hands. Compliments to the chef had to be relayed through the proper channels. When he'd moved out of the big house, he hadn't missed the family ghosts, the thick Oriental rugs, the SÃ¨vres porcelain, the maid service. But he still dreamed about Dora's cooking.
She took a deep breath and shifted her gaze, focusing on the bare cinderblock wall. Her voice sounded harsh in spite of the French elision that usually made her speech musical. “It is hard for me to talk about it to anyoneâand to tell that lawyer, a man I do not know at all, it would be even harder than to tell your aunt, who thinks of me so highly I cannot bear to see the disappointment in her eyes.”
“Nobody's disappointed, Dora. Nobody's judging you. Just don't tell me the worst, okay? Don't confess to murder, because I'm no priest, and no doctor, and no lawyer, and I'd have toâ”
“Anything I say, you must repeat to those policemen?”
“Well â¦” Spraggue peered around to see where the guard had come to roost. “Not everything,” he murmured.
“It seems I have no choice. So listen and don't be unhappy if I cry. I cry too easily and that is another reason I would not have a stranger here. It is so frustrating, such a weakness, to cry in front of strangersâand yet whenever I thinkâThis is difficult for me. It is a business I have not spoken of for fifteen, eighteen years. And if it were not for Denise Michelâ”
“Isn't she some kind of chef? Doesn't she write cookbooks?”
“To call Denise a chef is to call a beautiful, perfect silver Rolls-Royce a car. But she makes her living by cooking, yes. And she invited me here to a gathering of chefs, the Great Chefs of New Orleans they call themselves, and she was very insistent. And now I know why.”
“Go on, please.”
Dora hesitated. “How old do you think I am,
“I'm no good at guessing ages,” he lied. He would have started at sixty easily, but he seemed to remember Aunt Mary saying that Dora was younger than she looked.
“Never mind. In France, when I was growing up, it was wartime and there were many shortages and, in my case, particularly a shortage of parents, and a shortage of food, and a shortage of care, and so I grow old before my time. But that is not here or there, except that perhaps this new unhappiness will age me still more and â¦”
He wanted to take her hands and comfort her, but her erect spine and sad dignity were hard-won barriers that warned him to keep his distance. Once they crumbled, he might not get the story.
, it is even harder than I thought.” She drew a ragged breath and started again. “Denise invited me to come, to help her by giving a workshop, and I thought, so, I still have one friend and I should come when she asks me because friends are not so plentiful for me and I have not seen her since I left New Orleans many years ago.”
“How many years ago?”
Mon Dieu! Aidez-moi.
” She used her French unconsciously and almost smiled when she realized her lapse. “Long ago. I was born in Lyons, where the food is the best. But when I am a young woman, I cannot get workâand my parents are deadâand there are not so many young menâso I come to New Orleans because it has a French name and is very romantic in the tour books. Maybe 1960. I was, perhaps, twenty-six years old.”
Ten years younger than he would have guessed. “Go on,” he said.
“It's hard to tell an old story. You remember what you were once, and you look at yourself how you are now. And you weep. Not for your looks, but for your dreams.”
Even with the frazzled hair and the wrinkles and the baggy, indeterminate-colored dress, when Dora smiled, Spraggue got a glimpse of an odd, shadowy, bone-deep beauty that hadn't entirely disappeared over the years.
“I met a manâhow many stories must begin like thatâI met a man in New Orleans. I was a sous-chef, an underling to an old man who must have died long ago, in a restaurant that no longer existsâand a man came into the restaurant and he talked to me about food and life and his family and mine. I was lonely and I was looking for someone, that I cannot deny, because I was by thenâwhatâmore than thirty years of age and that is an age that sees loneliness as a very long time. And I married this manâand he went away. I tried to find him, yes, but then it seemed to me so shameful that I could not bear it. For my husband, he was not dead, or in an accident, and he must have run off with someone else. Because he was not such a good husband after all. But he was mine. I thought â¦”
“I thought because I was â¦”
She shook her head, a vague wistful tremor. “I was deceived. I knew inside me that I would not marry again. I could not support the pain again. And perhaps I knew I would not be asked. I don't know. I moved away from my memories. I went to New York and I worked many places there, and the fact that I was married came in handy, when I needed an excuse, you know, not to become attached to one of the other chefs or to the restaurateur. It was sometimes convenient to be another man's woman because many men do not believe that a woman can live by herself and not be bitter or angry or a rival to them. So I was safe as a married woman and rarely people questioned me about this man and sometimes I said he had died or we were separated. I tired of restaurant work. I went to Boston to cook for your aunt. I never knew what happened to this man I married. I left word with a few friends, with Denise, so that if he should want to reach me, he could. But after so many years, almost twenty years, it was sure that he was dead or happy elsewhere. I did not think about him. You understand?”
“Denise said nothing about this when she invited me. Only that it was an honor for her to be the hostess of this affair and she would be grateful if I would attend as her guest. I have much vacation time coming to me from your aunt and I wrote that I would come.”