The Family ties that bind can be deadly.
An international porn star murdered. A PI who needs to discover who put a .38 slug in her beautiful head.
Hard-boiled PI Jim Trust works and lives in Passion Street, a glitzy, seamy neighborhood littered with xxx movie theaters, strip joints, seedy hotels, jazz clubs and the best restaurants in town. With the help, or hindrance, of its denizens – Froggy Slick Deveraux, Alex, the diminutive lesbian bouncer, Detective Helen Copper, and a man from his past he can’t quite remember – Trust takes care of the “Street.”
Just returned after recuperating from two bullet wounds, Trust’s friend asks him to look into the murder of his girlfriend, international porn star, Diane Lavish. Trust finds that in his absence bad drugs and violent dealers have infiltrated his turf. Of course the people of the street blame him. Trust needs to regain their confidence; his place in Passion Street is all he has.
I stared out my office window at the oily sheen on the street. A familiar old lady, thin and stooped, ducked out of the drizzle into Madam Harriet’s for her weekly fortune. Two hookers in stiletto heels and black microskirts strutted by under a red and white umbrella. The Hotel El Cid’s deskman, a large, unshaven, round-shouldered man, flicked his cigar butt into the gutter and scratched himself.
Life as usual on Passion Street.
I surveyed the late afternoon activity on the Street through the window with Jim Trust Investigations tastefully gold leafed on it. I could still see the faint outline of the previous name – Willy Bakersfield.
I’d met Willy some fifteen years ago when I came to claim my father’s body. My father was murdered outside BeeBop’s Jazz club. The general attitude at the time was that if you ventured to Passion Street you got what you deserved. So I hired Willy to find the killer. Willy found the person who shot my father. But a hit-and-runner ran Willy down before he could tell me anything except the killer bumped up against the periphery of the drug trade and went by the street name of Caruso.
I found the drunk who killed Willy. I also found that the Street needed someone like Willy Bakersfield to look after it. Much to my surprise, I discovered I was that person. It took five years before Passion Street, and I, felt comfortable enough with each other for me to replace Willy’s name with my own. Caruso remains out there.
As I watched the El Cid’s deskman spit in the gutter and gaze at the hookers, a vague, uncomfortable notion niggled at my thoughts, probably nothing, but a disturbing vibe just the same. I’d just spent ten days in Mexico for wounds to heal. Why wasn’t I as happy to be back as I thought I should be? Maybe it was the rain? Maybe I was getting old? Of course too much tequila and sun, and two bullets in the leg can make you think some weird thoughts, too.
My ruminations were interrupted when my secretary, Emma, ushered in Nate White.
Emma is a beautiful woman in an understated way. Generally, she wears her shoulder-length, dark blonde hair in a ponytail and favors men’s dress shirts and jeans or casual dresses. Quick to smile, her deep blue eyes tend to lag a few seconds behind, assessing, suspicious, waiting for the evil within all men to show itself. A habit she acquired for good reason at the time we met.
Nate tended to think men hired good-looking women because they were good-looking. Usually, I had to endure Nate’s good-natured disbelief that Emma was as efficient as she was attractive, but this time he barely noticed her.
He slumped onto the good end of my old sofa.
“Jim,” he said. “Diane was murdered last night.”
Jesus, Diane dead? Not much happens on Passion Street that surprises me, but that sure as hell did, especially as I hadn’t heard about it yet.
“Nate, I’m sorry.” Christ, so inadequate.
I knew Diane Lavish, but not well. Nate’s girlfriend, beautiful and smart, with a laugh as big as her chest, she co-starred with him in the porno films he produced. Nate discovered Diane as an orgy extra and raised her to stardom.
“What happened?” I asked.
The joints of his fingers turned white as he worked them against one another.
Broken down to essentials, where, when, how, who, why? he replied – Her condo, last night, a bullet between the eyes, I don’t know, I don’t know.
“Did you find her?” I asked.
“No. Her sister, Sally, found her this afternoon.”
“Who’s handling it for the cops?”
“Freddy’s good,” I told him, meaning it. “Square as Diane was round, but he’s a good man.”
Nate stopped wringing his fingers and turned his thin tanned face to me. He was pissed.
“Jim, I want to hire you to find out who killed Diane.”
I told him, “Nate, Diane lived in Passion Street, you know I’ll do what I can. No charge.”
“No. I want your undivided attention.” He stood and reached into his slightly tattered $500 jacket, pulled out a wad of bills and slapped it on my desk. “Two thousand dollars.”
I pushed the money away. “Nate, that’s not necessary.”
“Yes, it is. I don’t trust the cops. I’m sure Nordstrom is good, but he don’t know the Street like you do. People will talk to you. You need more money, let me know.”
What could I do? I counted the money and had Emma type out a standard contract. After he left, I spent some time wondering why I hadn’t heard of Diane’s death already. Usually I know about things before the cops. Why didn’t anybody call me? That question produced an unsettled feeling in my chest like when the boss walks toward you with an I’m-going-to-fire-somebody look on his face. A feeling left over from my big company cubicle days. I also wondered what caused the generally parsimonious Nate to give up two grand.
Not coming up with any answers, I headed for Diane Lavish’s condo.
Passion Street is in the eastern side of Lafane, tucked away in the rolling hills of the northern reaches of the state, surrounded by Loblolly pine forests and farmland dotted with hardwood stands. Claude Lafane, a nightclub owner from New Orleans, founded the city in 1863. He had a bit of trouble involving a wife, a mistress and a girlfriend, not necessarily his own, and came north for his health. Claude died at seventy-two on January first, nineteen hundred, shot by a jealous husband, wife, or girlfriend, depending on which story you want to believe.
Lafane is southern by location and architecture. Iron railings, brick and white columns, abound. A goodly percentage of the population hails from some place else, drawn here by as many different reasons as there are people. Sex workers, drinkers, musicians, gangsters, addicts, and open-minded people looking for a new start gravitate here.
When people talk about the Street, and a lot of people do, they’re talking about an area six blocks long and three wide, lined with adult movie theaters, strip joints, bars, by-the-hour hotels, greasy spoons and the finest restaurants, jazz and blues clubs in the city. If there’s trouble, people usually come to me first. I like to take care of trouble with a minimum of police interference. The cops tolerate me because I restore the balance on the Street without alarming the tourists or the local suburbanite weekenders.
Tree-lined Brick Avenue runs east-west through the heart of the district and eventually leads to modern day downtown. Darkling Street is one block north; Jasmine Street, one block south. The oldest buildings are red brick with brightly painted windows, while art deco and Fifties concrete plain buildings fill in. Diane lived in a renovated, four story art-deco building at Twenty-fifth and Jasmine, the western edge of Passion Street, close to mainstream downtown.
Blue sky around the setting sun promised relief from the rain, but I’d been promised blue sky before.
From the elegant marble lobby of Diane’s building I took the elevator to the fourth floor penthouse.
The forensic geeks finished packing up as I stood at the edge of the large white-on-white living room. They’d removed Diane’s body. Only a tape outline in the middle of a fat leather couch that dominated the center of the room remained. The place smelled of fingerprint powder and expensive perfume.
“I thought you were on vacation, Trust,” a deep, unhappy, Norwegian voice rumbled. “What you doing here?”
Lieutenant Freddy Nordstrom resembled a six foot-four, Scandinavian Winnie the Pooh. I’m six foot, bordering on slim. Beside Freddy, I look like a kid’s stick figure.
“We have plenty of professionals around here. We don’t need another one.”
“Come on, Freddy,” I said. “I’ve always been straight with you guys.” I told the truth and he knew it. The cops against you made it hard to make an honest buck. “Besides, this is Passion Street, I live here, you don’t. Do you?”
He looked at me as if he’d swallowed something slimy and wiggly. Freddy’s a church going man. Clearly the thought of living anywhere near the district did not appeal to him.
“You know the woman?” He emphasized “woman,” as if asking, Do you know this poor, fallen sinner who is going to Hell for the disgusting things she did for money?
“Sure. She was all right. She didn’t deserve a bullet between the eyes.”
“Nobody does, Trust. Not even her.” He turned his baby blues on me. “How do you know where she was shot?”
“My client told me. And I’m not telling who.” Before he could put on his indignant face I said, “Sally, her sister, found her, right?”
Freddy shrugged and accepted me into the fold.
“She found the body at two-thirty this afternoon. She has her own key.”
“Was she expected?”
“They were going shopping downtown.”
I indicated the tape outline.
“What was she wearing?” I asked.
A red flush appeared on his cheeks. I managed to keep a straight face while he made a show of checking his notebook.
“A black silk robe.”
“And nothing. It was… open.”
I pictured her, and I’ve seen her movies so I had a detailed picture, as she must have looked just before she died. All that blonde hair and black silk, the ultimate fantasy of adolescents of all ages.
“Any signs of a struggle?” I asked when the picture of that single blemish on her unblemished body brought my thoughts back to the real world.
“No struggle, no forced entry, no sign of company.”
“Someone she knew then.”
“She have any enemies?”
Diane always seemed agreeable in my presence. But, I’d heard that not everybody could say that. “I don’t know, but I’m damn sure going to find out.”
I stepped out of the building into a warm night with just a hint of the past winter. The drizzle had stopped, the scent of fresh rain intoxicating. The neon colors asserted themselves and the electricity began to flow through the Street as the day people faded and the night people materialized, becoming more solid and real as the dark closed in.
At Twenty-seventh Street I looked up in time to see the light in my second floor office go out – Emma working late as usual on a Wednesday night. She’d meet Jordan, her boyfriend, for dinner at Maxx’s then go over to the Red Rear Jazz Club, where Emma sang for the gay, straight and in-between crowd.
I strolled another block, nodding greetings to friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. It was that kind of night.
Mr. Levine, a rail-thin, hawk-nosed man, at Mr. Levine’s Video’s told me Diane Lavish video’s were the hot rental. As I continued up the street, he called after me, “See what happen when you not here, Trust. Bad things.”
“I don’t think my being here or not would have prevented her murder,” I said, a bit more defensively than I intended.
Mr. Levine wagged a long, thin finger at me. “No matter. You not here, bad people come, bad things happen.”
“What bad people?”
“You look, you see.” He wagged his finger again and disappeared into his shop.
That was not the first time someone on the Street tried to lay guilt on me. It was not the first time they succeeded, either. Taking the blame was one of my roles.
I walked half a block with Cindy, a friendly hooker. With her thin face, a cap of dark hair, a slender body with long thin legs, she looked sixteen instead of twenty-six. She was always busy. She told me she had a big date that night so tomorrow she’d pay me the fifty I loaned her two weeks ago.
“An investment opportunity came up,” she told me. “I forgot to get some cash.”
“A hot stock?” I asked. She reads the Wall Street Journal every morning – before coffee. Cindy considers herself a business woman first, a hooker second.
“GT Medical. Bought it at twenty-eight and a half. This morning it was thirty-five.”
“Sounds like you bought it right,” I said. Envious.
“Yeah. Sorry you missed it. But, Hell, you were occupied with that Weller business. That was good work.” She patted my arm. “Put that scumbag where he belonged. How’s the leg?”
Cindy, my own one woman cheer-leading section.
“Fine,” I said. Back to business. “Heard any rumors going around about who killed Diane Lavish?”
“Nothing much,” she said, uncharacteristically brief.
“Nothing much like what?”
She crossed her arms tightly across her chest and hunched her slim shoulders.
“You know, lots of talk, but no names or anything.”
“No names at all?” I asked, puzzled. Blame speculation is alive and well in Passion Street.
“She didn’t hang out with the working girls, you know.”
I caught the chill in her words.
“Did you know her?”
Long beat. “No.”
“How do you know she didn’t hang out?”
“Come on, Cindy. Spill it?”
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the dead.”
Oh yes, she did.
“I always heard good things about her. If you know something bad, I need to know.”
“Oh Hell, Jim. I don’t know anything. Just heard stuff.”
Her whole body tightened up.
“I’ve heard, that she could be a real Miss Bitch. That she was cheap and greedy. That she was arrogant and vindictive. I heard that she once said that hookers were ‘scum with scabby knees.'” She gave a snort of a laugh and tossed her head. “There’s nothing wrong with my knees. That what you wanted to hear?”
“Yeah, right. All you men want to hear about is all that blonde hair, big lips, and big tits.”
I gently grasped her arm and brought us to a stop. When I caught her eye, I said, “Some of us dream about dark hair, thin lips and little, perky tits.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Fuck you, Trust.” But, against her will, she smiled when she said it.
As Cindy strutted off to her date, I considered what she said about Diane. True? Or did Cindy take the “scum with scabby knees,” crack, personally? Something to keep in mind.
A half block after Cindy left me, I saw Charlie Axe, but he saw me first and ran away. I wanted to see him about a matter of money. At least I knew he was still in town.
Roddy Katts, the hot dog man, finished setting up his sidewalk cart and started flashing his big ivory grin about for business. Always a good idea to talk with Roddy when looking for information.
“Give me a big dog with blood and guts, Roddy.”
“You’re not limping,” he said by way of a greeting.
“At least I’m walking, not lying in a box like Weller.”
“Humph,” he snorted, and tugged at his sky blue beret, one of many he owned. While he applied the ketchup and relish, he said in his usual deliberate way, “Hear you workin’ for Nate White, lookin’ for thet son bitch killed Diane Lavish.”
“How’d you know that?” I asked with no expectation of a real answer. On the Street, gossip travels in the air, like an infectious virus.
“Sure is a shame,” he said. “She was a fine looking lady, even if she was white.”
“That she was,” I agreed. “I hear she was a nice person, too. You ever hear anything about that?”
Roddy smoothed out the relish in its dish.
“Nothin’ but this and thats,” he said.
In the right light, Roddy’s skin had a sheen like a blued pistol. Used to play a Blues guitar that’d make a steel worker weep. Then a couple of rich white kids, noses full of coke, thought they’d have some fun and cut off his two index fingers. A week later the two guys showed up in the ER minus their index fingers and a pinky for good measure. I still swear I had nothing to do with it.
“Any names floating around who might have taken her out?”
I took a bite out of the foot long while Roddy served up a couple of regular dogs to two working girls.
“Sure you lovely young ladies don’t want a foot long?” he kidded them. “Best in town.”
“We get foot longs every night,” said the black one.
“We’re trying to cut down, Roddy,” said the brown one.
Giggling, they swayed away.
“You ladies heard anything about the Diane Lavish murder?” I called after them.
The giggling stopped. They looked at each other.
“Who cares?” said the brown one. Then they walked away.
We watched them appreciatively and Roddy said, “I ain’t heard a thing, either.”
“Not a single name? That’s odd, isn’t it? There’s always speculation when something happens around here.”
“There has been a rumor sayin’ that somebody was interested in Diane,” Roddy said.
At last, a solid rumor.
“Interested in what? Love, money, show biz?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Rumor also says Diane wasn’t interested back.”
I finished my dog. “You hear anything….”
“You’ll hear it, too. Your Emma singing tonight?”
“Maybe I’ll move down that way. That girl’s got some damn fine pipes.”
I jaywalked Brick Avenue and turned toward Mabel’s.
If you’re a woman looking for a woman, Mabel’s is the place to go. There’s a couple other lesbian bars, but you don’t go there unless you’re looking for trouble, too. Not that Mabel’s is overloaded with class, but it’s clean and Mabel runs the place with an iron fist – named Alex.
I rested one leg on a stool next to a gorgeous brunette with hair down to her rear. “Evening, Sibyl,” I said.
She flashed me one of those smiles that makes a man’s brain soft and his dick hard. “Hi, Jim. Glad you’re back.” She picked at the hair over my ears. “You need a haircut. The sun sparked up that dull brown of yours, though.”
I usually keep my hair short, it’s harder to grab. In Mexico, I hadn’t seen any use in messing with it.
“Wilda and I were just talking about you.” She smiled provocatively.
“She’s not jealous, I hope.”
“No, silly.” She punched my arm playfully.
“She should be,” I gave her my best leer.
“I don’t think so, Jim.” She leaned her round flawless face close to my long square one. “Although, a nice dress, the right makeup….” She threw my leer right back at me. “It might work, you and me.” She laughed and squeezed my arm to show she was only kidding. Dressing in women’s clothes is not something I plan to do in this lifetime and she knows it.
Wilda, the bartender, all six foot three inches, two hundred pounds of her, made her way to our end of the bar. “Hi, honey,” she said to Sibyl. “This man bothering you?”
“No. But he’s trying.”
“Very funny,” I said. “If I want jokes I’ll go to the Funnybone. How does a man get a beer around here, anyway?”
“Out the door to the right. Tony’s will serve any man.”
I just smiled to let Wilda know I didn’t think she was funny. The two ladies made an odd pair, though they were clearly in love. Wilda is plain and big with a simple outlook on life while Sibyl is slinky and beautiful with three or four college degrees. She teaches at the University. I imagine Wilda makes Sibyl feel safe. They met when Sibyl was halfway through a four man gang rape. The three survivors are still doing time and the two women have been together since.
“How are classes,” I asked. “What is it you teach?”
I leaned close. “Maybe I should take your class and find out what Political Science is.”
“You find out who killed Diane Lavish yet?” Wilda cut in. Miss Jealous.
“I’m working on it. She come in here?”
“With anybody special? Especially lately?”
When bartenders don’t want to talk, the counter always seems to need polishing.
Wilda kept her eyes on her task. Finally she said, “A couple times in the last weeks she was here with a woman.” Her shoulders rose as a shiver ran over her. “She was a strange one, looked like a snake. They sat in a back booth.”
She continued polishing the counter until Sibyl laid a hand on hers. “It’s okay, Wilda.”
“Did you know the woman?” I asked.
“What do you mean, looked like a snake?”
“You know, a snake.” She concentrated. “Tall, skinny, no boobs, black hair slicked back, wore a man’s business suit.”
“You sure it wasn’t a man,” I asked.
She shot me a look that said – Who you kidding buster? I’m a bartender in a lesbian bar. I know a woman when I see one.
I squirmed a bit to let her know I was suitably chastised. “You say they came in twice?”
“Once on a Monday afternoon about four. Once last week, Wednesday, maybe.”
“Seen this snake lady since?”
Wilda’s description reminded me of something just the opposite. “You hear anything about Slick Devereaux? He was hot for Diane’s talents, last I heard.” Both women shook their heads. “Heard any speculations on who killed her?”
Negative again. Curious. I laid down two bucks for the beer and slid off the stool.
I followed music to the back room. The hot detective on the trail. The Beatles’ “Michelle” had lured five couples onto the dance floor. I waved to the DJ in the booth, her double Mohawks were turquoise that week, and made my way to the corner where Mabel, five foot three, two hundred and fifty plus pounds of very black woman, held court. Somewhere between thirty and death, she ruled her bar and other businesses from a raised corner booth. When she saw me, her face split open in an impossible grin that showed at least eighty-four enormous white teeth.
“Jimmy, honey,” she boomed. “You’re back. Come sit by ol’ Mabel. How’s the leg?” She shooed two pretty young things out of the booth to make room. My eyes couldn’t help but follow them to the dance floor.
“Pretty little things, ain’t they? I looove pretty things. That’s why I don’t have any mirrors around.” She punctuated her old joke with a laugh like the death cough of a water buffalo. Mabel signaled for another beer. “So Jimmy, someone has to get killed before you come see me?”
Not for the first time I wondered where the term Private Investigator came from. “I’m afraid so, Mabel. It’s a hell of a thing. Did you know Diane?”
“Sure, I knew Diane. She used to come in.”
“I thought she was straight.”
“She was, ain’t that a pity. She come in with some of the movie girls before Nate White made her a star.”
“Know anything that might help me find who did it? I hear somebody was interested in her.”
“Yeah, I heard that too. Wanted to take her away from Nate White. Make some big buck movies.”
“Shit. That’s not what I wanted to hear.”
“I know you two’s best buds, Jimmy, but Diane Lavish was Nate’s bread and butter. It won’t be the first time some man’s decided she’s mine or she’s dead.”
But if he did it, why would he hire me to find her killer? “Have any idea who was after her? What’s Slick Devereaux up to these days?”
“Slick is up to his fat ass in wannabe porno queens. He’s making movies again, looking for new talent. Maybe he wanted to start off with a star?”
“My thoughts exactly. Maybe I can catch the auditions.”
“Aw, poor Jimmy, still looking for a girlfriend.” She roared another laugh at her joke, which I didn’t think funny at all. I started to slide out of the booth. She grabbed my arm with thick fingers. “You be careful of Slick, Honey. He didn’t get that name just from his greasy hair. Wait a minute. Alex!” she bellowed.
Alex, Mabel’s right hand fist, appeared from thin air, as she had a habit of doing. She looked like a teenage boy with her short spiky hair and slender build, but underneath she carried a hundred pounds of highly trained, lightning- fast muscle. She’d earned a double black belt in Kung Fu and two black belts in street fighting – one for dirty and one for vicious. I’ve seen her take a knife away from a freaked-out guy twice her size without breaking a sweat. She tolerates my presence because Mabel likes me.
Alex greeted me with her usual cordial expression – like she’d just bit into a bad apple. “Trust.”
“Alex.” We are not the best of friends, though there is a mutual respect. She knows she’s not as fast as a bullet from my Browning .45, and I’m not so sure.
Mabel rested a thick hand lightly on Alex’s shoulder. Even Mabel is a little frightened of her.
“Jimmy’s going to see Slick Devereaux,” Mabel said. Tell him about Slick’s new assistant.”
“Angel Dupierre,” she said. “I can take her easy, there’s nothing to her. But she’s smart. He brought her in from Miami. She brought her drug connections along. There’s a lot of that shit around lately.”
“That must be where he’s getting the money for his movies,” I said. “Dupierre. She French?”
“You be careful, honey. Slick is slick.” Mabel warned.
Alex followed me to the front door.
“Trust,” she said. “I think Angel is a lot smarter than Devereaux thinks she is. My guess is she’s going to try and take over. Slick might be on his way out. Keep that in mind.”
“Thanks for the warning. Does this mean you like me?”
“You’re a friend of Mabel’s,” was the only answer I got.
I think I’m getting to her.