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Authors: Julie Smith

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BOOK: Death Before Facebook
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“I took ballet—to make me graceful.”

“Skippy, cut that out.” One of the things that endeared her to Skip was the fact that, though she participated in Southern self-deprecation to a tedious degree, she never let Skip do it. “Old Mrs. Julian was married to Wyndham Julian, known as Windy to friend and foe alike, and generally agreed to be the world’s most boring man. He taught history at Newcomb.”

“Wait a minute—I think I’ve heard stories about him. Is that possible? How long ago was he there?”

“Oh, about twenty years before you were, I guess. But Windy was famous. Died one day, right in class. Witnesses at the scene said they didn’t even notice. Well, Christina truly had a beautiful voice—I mean, really spectacular. She used to sing in the choir at Trinity—remember?”

“I guess not.” Skip felt silly. She’d been made to go to church at Trinity nearly every Sunday of her grade school life, but under torture from Torquemada couldn’t have said what had gone on there. Her mind had been elsewhere—on the compelling subject, for instance, of ingenious ways to dispatch a pesky sibling; or on modes of transportation that led far, far away from the city of her birth.

“Everybody thought she could have been an opera singer, but it didn’t turn out to be true—she went to New York before she was twenty-five, but nothing worked out. When she came back, she was a broken woman. Of course, everyone suspected a failed romance contributed to her low spirits, especially when she up and married the egregious Windy. She knew enough about the piano to teach, and also she gave voice lessons, but I guess there wasn’t nearly as much demand for that. Had this big old house over on Octavia Street—”

“Marguerite still lives there.”

“Well, that’s part of the story. My mother used to go there for her lessons. But by the time I came along, Mrs. J lived in an apartment. God, it was a drag!”

“What was a drag?”

“Just going over there. She was so sad—her whole approach to music was sighs and languor. Or maybe that was her approach to life. She didn’t get what she wanted and spent the rest of her life in mourning for it. She was a nice woman, though. Aside from being a terrible snob.”

“She was a snob?”

“I can’t think why. She was from Mississippi or someplace. Anyway, she was nice to her students, I think—most of the girls liked her a lot, but God knows what she was like with her own daughter. I mean, Marguerite did everything she could think of that her mother would really hate—there must have been a reason for it, don’t you think?”

“All this must have happened years before your time.”

“Well, it did, of course. Marguerite was always held up to me as an example of how a daughter can disappoint—not to mention how she’ll come to a bad end.”

“What did she do that was so bad?”

“The worst thing a kid could do in 1967. Grew her hair long and became a folksinger.”

“She was a hippie?”

“My mother said she was, but I’m not sure a woman married to a cop really qualifies. That was the other bad thing she did—married a cop. You know how I found out all this stuff? I asked my mother how come Mrs. Julian lived in a tiny little apartment instead of a house. God, can you imagine what a little snob
I
was?”

“Imagine! I can
remember
.”

“Now, now. We’re all products of our environment.”

“Marguerite just brought Leighton to the old family mansion?”

“Why Christina let her I’ll never know. Probably didn’t want to rattle around in that big house by herself. But then she moved out almost right away.”

“The whole thing has a Stanley Kowalski feel to it.”

“Frankly, I think Leighton was that kind of guy. To hear my mother tell it, Christina just had a broken heart. Couldn’t stand to see her daughter with him, so she left. Now I admit it would have made more sense to chuck Marguerite out, but this was so much more martyred. Now that I think of it, that might have been the key to Mrs. J. Nothing ever seemed to go right for her. Anyway, the minute she left, Marguerite started letting the whole place go to hell, about which Mrs. J and my mother could cluck for hours. I guess part of the fun was disapproving.”

“And then of course Leighton got killed and she married his brother Mike.”

“Uh-huh. Marguerite was visiting her mom the night of the murder.”

“With Geoff?”

“I guess so. From what I gather, when Marguerite went out and sang—which she did quite a lot—she’d take Geoff over to stay with his grandmother.”

“Ah. Grandma the martyr.”

“The saint, according to my mother.”

“Alison, I have to hand it to you—you’re always in the right place at the right time.”

“Usually, yes, I cannot deny it. But this is different, I’m not kidding. Everybody at Newcomb took lessons from Mrs. Julian. Probably McGehee’s too.” McGehee’s was Skip’s school.

“Okay, what do you know about Cole Terry?”

There was a silence. “Who?”

“That’s who Marguerite’s married to now.”

“I can’t believe this—I never heard of him.”

“It just shows you’re human after all.”

“Come to think of it, Marguerite kind of disappeared from the scene, I guess. After she married Mike. Once my mother and I ran into her—the only time I ever saw her, to tell you the truth. She was working as a hostess at the Rib Room.

“Oh, wait, there’s another chapter. After that, she sent a brochure around to all the Uptown ladies, claiming years of experience in what she called ‘the hospitality industry.’ She was starting a party-giving business, and my mom used her once. This was when I was still taking lessons from Mrs. Julian, and it got embarrassing. It seems Marguerite screwed up royally. And then there were all these stories from other hostesses—it was always the same thing.” She stopped for breath. “Do you think I get my habit of carrying tales from my mother?”

“Probably.”

“Why couldn’t I have got curly hair like you did? Anyway, it was this way—she always went over budget, and she always had fights with the caterers. Nothing was ever good enough and she kept making people do things over again, which cost everyone involved a bundle. She was just a perfectionist, I guess.”

“It sounds like she was into histrionics as well.”

“I guess so. Anyway, the business failed and after that I never heard of her again. Until today, I mean. Maybe she dumped Mike, and Cole came along and rescued her.”

“I don’t know. If they’ve got any money, why don’t they get the house painted?”

Skip hung up, thinking Alison was one of the most satisfying human beings on the face of the earth—and marveling once again at what a small town New Orleans could be. Sometimes she thought it was only tiny if you stayed within certain class and race boundaries, but she was always being proved wrong. The Julians and the Kavanaghs were certainly not in Alison’s social circle—and yet she knew every detail of their family history. (Though she was one of the few people in the world interested enough to
remember
every detail.)

But Skip had lived in San Francisco and she knew how different it was. Such things were treasured in the South, remembered and repeated by people who weren’t even gossip pros like Alison. As a region it had its faults—so many Skip felt strangled at times—but you couldn’t say people here didn’t care about each other.

She called another Newcomb acquaintance who came in handy sometimes (fortunately, she’d met a few people before flunking out). This one hadn’t turned out nearly as multi-faceted as Alison, but she was dependable. Eileen Moreland, who worked at the
Times-Picayune
.

“Well, if it isn’t that double-crosser, Skippy Langdon.”

“Double-cross?
Moi
?”

“I thought you were going to let me interview you.”

“Well, I am. That’s what I’m calling about.”

“Uh-uh. You’re calling because you want a favor.”

“That’s only coincidental. I’m calling because I owe you and I know it. That other time, I just had this little undercover thing going.”

“Great. When can we set up the interview?”

“Oh, maybe in a couple of weeks?”

“Let’s see, Thanksgiving week’s coming up.”

“The week after, maybe?” By then Skip would think of some excuse to wait even a little longer. “Tell me something. Can you get clips on a twenty-seven-year-old murder case?’

“I can, but it’s a major pain in the rear.”

“How about December seventh? I could do the interview then.”

Eileen sighed. “What murder case?”

Skip told her and arranged to pick up the clips that afternoon. Next, she went through the department file on the case. The investigating officer had been one Rene Lafont. A call to the pension board produced his address—in Westwego, on the west bank.

Despite its proximity, it was a place most New Orleanians would never see. She could probably name people who’d been to Australia and six or eight African countries who were probably going to die without crossing the Mississippi. Was it worth a drive over there? Much as she hated the idea, she thought it had to be done. Lafont might be an old grump who’d have to be coaxed to talk.

An hour later, approaching his small but neat house, she couldn’t imagine how she could have thought that—and revised her opinion when he answered the door. He was a very thick man, thick in the neck and the jaw as well as the belly. Either his hair was still dark or he dyed it It wasn’t brown and wasn’t black, but a kind of steely color, like the muzzle of a rifle, and it was slicked with something greasy. His features, like his body, were thick, his brown eyes narrow above dark pouches dotted with skin tags. He wore khakis held up with a belt that could have fit around a steamer trunk, and a cheap white shirt. He stepped outside the door and simply stood there, waiting for her to say something.

She showed him her badge. “I wonder if you could help me out with something?”

“A lady cop. I thought I avoided ’em by retirin’.” The words weren’t the world’s friendliest, but he smiled when he said them, and his whole demeanor changed. She realized that she’d gotten his street-cop look, the one the punks saw, and now she was probably seeing the one his grandchildren knew.

She decided to play his game. “Can’t avoid ’em. We’re everywhere.”

“Well, my wife’s got to see this.” He opened the old-fashioned screen door. “Ruthine! Guess what I got here?”

He ushered Skip through a painfully neat living room—the kind with plastic covers on the furniture—into a kitchen where a stout white-haired woman was loading the dishwasher. She was probably a great cook, judging from the size of both Lafonts.

“This is Officer Skip Langdon, a bona fide lady cop.”

“Well, it’s about time we had some of those. How ’bout some coffee?” She reached for a cup even as she spoke.

Twenty minutes later, Skip had seen pictures of their grandchildren and, sitting in their breakfast room, outlined her own checkered past with judicious editing—noting, for instance, that she had transferred to Ole Miss, rather than flunked out of Newcomb.

When they knew enough about each other to start their own FBI files, Rene asked what he could do for her. She told him the whole story.

She had judged her audience correctly. He nodded and grunted loudly at the end of almost every sentence, providing his own punctuation. And when she was done, he whistled so loud Ruthine looked over, startled.

“That’s some story, young lady. Nothin’ like that ever happens on Prodigy.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Prodigy. That’s the bulletin board we’re on.”

“You’re kidding. You’re on a bulletin board?”

“He is,” Ruthine called from the kitchen, where she’d repaired for some chore or other. “It’s kind of his hobby now. Whole days go by I never see him.”

“Ah, Ruthine, you know that’s not so.”

“I know it is.”

“I was wondering,” Skip said hurriedly, “what you could tell me about Leighton’s murder. You were first on the scene, weren’t you?”

“Well, no, I think a district car got there first. But I was a close second. Terrible thing.” He closed his eyes. “Terrible. I knew Leighton too. I worked with him over to the Fifth District.” He said “woiked with him.”

“What was he like?’

“Mean bastard. And none too smart. But you hate to see that happen to a young person. Beautiful wife—nice little boy.”

“What was Geoff like that night? The boy.”

“Real scared. Like any kid would be.”

“Did you get the idea he could have seen anything?”

“I didn’t question him; he was four years old. And that mama of his—the word ‘hysterical’ was made up for women like that. I’m lucky I got anything coherent at all. Tell you what I thought was strange, though. Two things. It looked like Leighton came home from work and caught a burglar in the bedroom. They struggled, and somehow the guy got Leighton’s gun and shot him. Only thing was, the gun wasn’t there. Now why take a gun that could only incriminate you?”

Skip grinned. “The guy was stupid?”

Rene grinned back. “Most likely. Other thing was, the place was wrecked, more or less, and only one thing was taken—a ring that Miz Kavanagh said wasn’t even valuable. An heirloom—somethin’ she got from her grandma—and she said wasn’t that always the way, they took somethin’ meant a lot to you and wasn’t worth that much to anybody else. But she had some nice pearls there—why didn’t he take those?”

“Probably thought they were fake.”

He grinned again. “Most likely. But he could have taken a handful of stuff.”

“What kind of ring was it?”

“Yellow. A great big stone, but just about worthless. Citrine? Could that be right?”

Skip nodded. “That’s a kind of gold color.”

“Yeah. That’s the word. Funny, I haven’t heard it in all these years.”

“Maybe he knew the Kavanaghs. Maybe there was some reason he wanted that ring.”

“That’s what I was thinkin’. Couldn’t find anything to hang it on, though.”

“How about another murder? To hang it on.”

“Yeah. How about that?” He stared out the window. “Mm. Mm. Mm.”

Skip couldn’t have agreed more.

On her way back to the office, she picked up the clips, unfurling them as she walked out of the building. The first thing she saw was the most interesting item they had to offer. It was the byline, the name of the reporter who’d covered the murders—Pearce Randolph, also known as Bigeasy.

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