Authors: Laura Childs
“Only your boyfriend knows for sure, and he didn't look anywhere close to being satisfied. He looked frustrated and distracted.”
Carmela knew that look. It meant Babcock wasn't done with Quigg. Not by a long shot.
“If you can pull anything out of your hat, CarmelaÂ .Â .Â .”
“I know,” she said. “I hear you.”
“Carmela, you mean everything to meÂ .Â .Â .” Quigg's voice went hoarse as he choked up. And then, suddenly, he was gone. Hanging up the phone because he didn't want her to hear him breaking down.
Damn, Carmela thought. Quigg was really hurting. Really
scared. But what could she do? How could she ever hope to resolve this?
Her mind twirled at warp speed. Quigg needed her. Babcock wanted her to stay clear of the case.
But from everything Carmela knew about Martin Lash, he wasn't exactly a model citizen. If only he'd had the decency to get murdered several miles away. Maybe out there in the bayous he loved so much. But no, he had to collapse at her feet and die in front of her very eyes.
So what's a girl to do?
And then a thought struck her. Hmm. It was a long shot. It was slightly dangerous. But it might just shake something loose.
you for riding shotgun,” Carmela said to Ava. They were blasting down Highway 23 in her Mercedes, radio turned to B97 FM, headed for Martin Lash's house in Triumph, Louisiana.
Carmela didn't know what they might find there, didn't even know if they could figure a way in, but it was all she could come up with on short notice.
“Quigg sounded pretty desperate, huh?” Ava said.
“Like he's circling the drain.”
“I must say you've certainly taken a keen interest in helping him.”
“Probably because he asked.”
“Oh, I'm sure he asked you very politely,” Ava said. “Although Quigg's charm has always been in being impolite. Exerting his machismo and being a little bitÂ .Â .Â . forward.”
“Mm hm,” Carmela said.
Ava glanced sideways at her. “Has he? Been forward, I mean? Aside from that single stolen kiss you told me about?”
“Not really. And I don't think we should talk about this anymore.”
“Your cheeks are flushed pink and you're making a lemon face. I think Quigg is starting to get to you.”
“We're not going to talk about this anymore.” Carmela reached over and turned the radio up louder.
R. Kelly's sultry song “Down Low” filled the car.
Keep it on the down low. Nobody has to knowÂ .Â .Â .
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
They passed through Port Sulphur and Empire, and then, some twenty minutes later, bumped across a narrow bridge, wooden planks rumbling beneath their tires, and rolled into the small, unincorporated community of Triumph.
“Jeez,” Ava said, “the joint looks deserted. They really roll up the sidewalks here, don't they?”
“It's a pretty small town,” Carmela said. “And it's late.”
late.” Ava pressed her nose to the window as they cruised down what was probably the main drag. “There's Booger's Bait Shop. And Manny's Pizza.” She giggled. “I hope they never get their orders mixed up.”
“Just keep your eyes peeled,” Carmela said. “We're looking for Levee Road.”
It wasn't all that difficult to find. Five minutes of driving around and a couple of wrong turns brought them across Highway 11 to Levee Road. From there they crawled along slowly for ten blocks or so, a few small homes popping up on their right, the Mississippi River turgid and dark to their left. Finally, they rolled to a stop in front of Martin Lash's house, the place looking dark, deserted, and lonely.
“You wouldn't call this an actual residence per se, would you?” Ava asked.
Carmela gazed at the ramshackle one-story wooden building that Martin Lash had called home sweet home. Thanks to pounding rain, searing heat, buckets of humidity, and the occasional hurricane, all paint had been blasted away and the exterior worn down to a dull gray. The sagging roof looked like it was covered with corrugated tin, a small porch hung off the front of the house, and the yard was basically an ugly patchwork of weeds and mud.
“There's lots of commercial fishing around here,” Carmela said, “so maybe it's more of a camp shack.” They climbed out of the car and stood on the side of the deserted roadway.
“I'd hate to be the Realtor who had to list this place,” Ava said. “One-bedroom, one-bathroom dumperoo with a river view if you don't mind the rich, ripe odor of decomposing fish. Why do you think Lash lives way down here anyway? Correction, lived.”
“It's probably what Josh Cotton said yesterday. Lash wanted to be close to the swamps and bayous.”
“A regular nature boy,” Ava said. “You think there are alligators crawling around here?”
“Sure there are. Well, not
here. But nearby.”
Ava studied her nails. “So what's on the program now?”
But Carmela had already started for the house. “We're going to sneak inside and poke around,” she said, her words drifting back to Ava.
But getting inside was easier said than done. When they approached the front door, they saw it had been fitted with a shiny Schlage padlock.
“Somebody's security-minded,” Ava said. “Do you think we can pick that lock with a bobby pin?”
“I think that only works in B movies.”
“Okay, then can we pry it off?”
“Doubtful,” Carmela said. “Let's see what's going on around back.”
They tiptoed around the shack, stumbling when they hit a few spongy areas.
“This is awful,” Ava whispered. “I'm wearing my new Giglio Frederick reptile boots and don't want them to get ruined.”
“Vinyl reptile. Which is probably why my toes feel sweaty. Oh, hey, look. There's a back door.” Ava grabbed the handle with both hands and rattled it. It barely moved. “This isn't working out very well. What's plan B?”
“There is no plan B.” Carmela shrugged.
Ava put her hands on her hips. “There has to be a contingency plan, or at least some way to get in. Here, over here.” She stumbled through a tangle of weeds. “Let's try this window. See that ratty old screen? It looks like it's practically rusted out. Come over here and give me a boost.”
Carmela picked her way toward Ava, bent over, and laced her fingers together. “When I flip you up, try to grab ahold of those shutters. Then see if you can kick out that screen.”
“Got it.” Ava stepped into Carmela's hands, jumped up, grabbed onto a shutter that was partially hanging off, and gave a powerful kick. There was a clatter as the screen fell to the ground, then a loud pop and the sound of breaking glass.
“Oops,” Ava said, her voice suddenly fading out, like a radio signal that had gone away.
“Be careful!” Carmela cried. But she was talking to dead air. Ava had already catapulted herself inside the shack. “Are you okay?” she hissed at the dark, gaping hole that, just seconds earlier, had been a functioning window.
Ava's voice drifted back. “I'm okay, but the whole dang
window popped out of the frame. Now there's broken glass all over the place.”
“You didn't get cut, did you?”
“I think I'm okay.” Ava's head and shoulders suddenly appeared. Then she stretched a hand out. “Come on, I'll reel you in.”
Carmela grabbed Ava's hand as she scrabbled up the side of the house and was yanked through the window as slickly as Alice tumbling through the rabbit hole.
“Whoa, whoa,” Ava gasped. She was sprawled on the floor and Carmela had landed on top of her. “You're crushing my chestâI can't breathe!”
Carmela hastily rolled off her. “Dear Lord, I didn't crack one of your ribs, did I?”
Ava placed both hands on her chest and felt around gingerly. “No, everything seems to be in place. Thank goodness I'm wearing my Lady Goddess Longline Bra. It holds me in pretty dang tight.”
They stumbled to their feet and glanced around the dim interior.
“Now what?” Ava asked. She lifted her nose and gave a suspicious sniff. “It smells horrible in here. Like something died.”
“It's probably just mice.”
“But you don't know that for sure. What if it's the ghost of Martin Lash?” Ava's eyes grew big. “Maybe his spirit floated back here. The man died suddenly, so could be he's not at peace yet.”
“You saw him yesterday and he looked peaceful enough lying in his overpriced casket. Besides, if your spirit could float anywhere it wanted to, would you come back to a dump like this?”
“Heck no,” Ava said. “I'd probably ectoplasm my way into
a fancy mansion in the Garden District. Or find a Neiman Marcus store and go on a spiritual shopping spree.”
“Okay then.” Carmela looked around. The place
dark and spooky.
Every stick of furniture was covered with a white drop cloth so the room's perspective took on a strange, humpy look.
“Did you bring a flashlight?” Ava asked.
“I've got one. But I'm kind of afraid to turn it on. If somebody sees the light playing on the walls, they might alert the local constable.”
“Who'd probably come swooping in here and arrest us,” Ava finished.
“So for now we just poke around surreptitiously,” Carmela said.
“What are we looking for?” Ava whispered.
“Not sure. I guess maybe something that might point the finger away from Quigg?”
“You mean like a clue? To solve a mystery?”
“Works for me.”
Ava crept forward a few feet and promptly stumbled over a low, leather ottoman. “Oops, clumsy me. Say, what if there
a clue?” For all her bravado at breaking in, she was clearly having second thoughts.
“I don't know,” Carmela said. “The thing is, Lash was murdered, right? In what was probably a crime of passion. So somebody must have seriously hated him. Maybe we can find something that sheds light on that. Maybe Lash was involved in some sort of criminal operation. Or maybe he was a secret drug dealer.”
“Maybe he had a really nasty breakup with his girlfriend,” Ava said.
“Somehow, I think it's got to be more pressing than that.
Anyone who forks someone in the throat has to be seething with rage.”
“I've had boyfriends I could have killed,” Ava said.
“No, you haven't. Not with that much fury.” Carmela shuffled along. “Let's just keep looking.”
The house had a combination living room/dining room/kitchen, a small bedroom, a bare-bones bathroom, and an even smaller second bedroom. That's where they found Martin Lash's computer.
“This is good,” Carmela said. “Maybe there's something on his computer that will point us in the right direction.”
Ava's bloodred nails flicked across the keyboard. Then she frowned. “Nothing's happening.”
They hit keys, rebooted, fiddled with it, and still the computer remained mute.
“It's password protected,” Carmela said. “So we need to think of a password.”
“LASH,” Ava said. But that didn't work.
They tried entering a few more passwords, finally resorting to BARITARIA, GLUTTON, and even NASTY REVIEW.
“Zilch,” Ava said. “Maybe he's got something stashed in his desk?”
That required a little more light, so Carmela turned on her Maglite and began pulling out desk drawers like crazy.
“Here's a notebook,” Carmela said. Although with its leather cover it looked more like a journal.
“What's it say?”
Carmela turned a few pages. There were notes that Lash had scrawled to himself. And even though it was difficult to read his back-slanted handwriting, Carmela could get the gist of it. “Look at what he wrote here.”
“What?” Ava crowded in to see.
“It says here âJosh Cotton has been going behind my back, lobbying the board of directors. Very dangerous.'”
“That's not all,” Carmela said. “Lash goes on to write âTime to get rid of him?'”
“It's almost like he was plotting Josh Cotton's demise,” Ava said.
“Almost, but not quite. Still, if Lash was going to get rid of Cotton, maybe Cotton found out and got to him first.”
“Wow. And Cotton seemed so sweet when we talked to him yesterday. Like a regular, normal guy.”
“Don't you know by now there are no normal guys?”
, when you say stuff like that it's like an arrow to my heart.”
Ava pulled open the bottom drawer. “Here's a bunch of papers all stapled together in a blue folder.”
“What is it? Let me see.”
Ava showed it to her.
“Holy smokes, this is another lawsuit.”
“No,” Carmela said as she scanned the papers quickly. “This is a lawsuit that Lash filed against someone named Trent Trueblood.”
“What's a Trent Trueblood?”
“I have no ideaâlet me take a closer look.” Carmela flipped through a half dozen pages. “Okay, so it looks like Trueblood is a real estate developer who was in the process of building a neighborhood of high-end town houses a little bit south of here near Boothville. A placed called, um, Parson's Point Townhomes. But before he could begin actual construction, Lash filed suit against him.”