Down in the Flood

Kenneth Abel

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1

TUESDAY, AUGUST 23

"Shoot me, please."

Danny leaned back in his chair, looked at the stack of deposition summaries scattered across the desk in front of him. August in New Orleans, and the ancient window air conditioner in his small office was straining to keep up with the thick blanket of moist heat that lay across the city. He’d been struggling to keep his eyes open for the last hour, as he made his way through six different accounts of a car accident up on Carrollton Avenue between a van full of Guatemalan restaurant workers and a soccer mom in a Range Rover with half the junior high school midfielders in Metairie crammed in the backseat. But when his wife called with that tone in her voice, he knew there was nothing he could do but shove it all aside and listen.

"What’s she done now?"

"She just asked me if we’re trying to starve our daughter."

Danny smiled. "Damn. She finally caught us."

"It’s making me crazy, Danny. All she does is tell me what I’m doing wrong."

"I told you not to take the day off."

Mickie Vega sighed. "She’s only here for a couple more days. She’s been sitting in the house all day. I just wanted to take her out to lunch. But all she does is complain. Nothing I do seems to help."

"You show her your gun? That always works on me."

"Danny, my mother was married to a cop for twenty-eight years. You think she hasn’t seen a gun before?"

"It’s a pretty impressive gun." A 9mm SIG Sauer P228, which she wore in a leather holster on her hip, putting it on every morning before she went to work as an ATF agent. She’d stand in front of the mirror mounted on the back of the bedroom door, checking to make sure it didn’t show beneath the jacket of her suit. Taking a moment, also, to look at her waistline, sucking in her stomach a little. Two years, now, since she’d had the baby, and she was still frowning at her waistline, waiting for the miles of running and the hours of crunches to take it back to where it was when she’d run the obstacle course at the ATF training center in Glynco, Georgia, a tough little Hispanic girl with fierce eyes and a determination to beat the good old boys in her training class, the way she’d kicked their cracker asses on the firing line. But having a baby changed everything. The muscles in her belly, which had once rippled like furrows in a hard-packed field, had stretched until she felt like a dam getting ready to burst. After the baby was born, she’d lost the weight, then lost some more when that didn’t seem to be enough. She’d go to the gym every day, lift weights until the muscles in her belly rippled and her forearms were tight as a drill sergeant’s. Then she’d go home, and when she opened the front door of the house on Calhoun Street that they’d moved into a few months after their daughter was born, she’d hear her daughter’s tiny baby voice, and every muscle in her body would soften like hard-packed earth turning to mud beneath a gentle rain. She was a mother now, and when she heard that voice, it called out to every part of her.

And twice a year her mother came to visit, and all those muscles tightened right up again, bracing against the endless questions, every one of them implying that a real mother wouldn’t still be going to work every day, a gun strapped to her hip. So how did you go, Danny wondered, from a young mother melting at the sound of your child’s voice to telling your grown daughter everything she does is wrong? Wrong career, wrong husband, wrong way to raise a grandchild, wrong place to raise any child, this city where it rains every day so the whole house smells like the inside of the kitchen drain. It was hardcore Chicana mama, served up on a bed of Ay, my bones are so tired. She’d never do that to Anna, Mickie swore to Danny, go to visit and spend the whole time complaining. But maybe you get to that age and you just can’t help yourself. Her mother had been alone now for three years, since her dad died, and that was probably how she spent her day, wandering around her house in Phoenix, talking to herself, making a list of everything that wasn’t right with her world. And she noticed everything. The upstairs toilet runs. There’s dust under the couch. And what’s that smell by the kitchen door?

"It’s the garbage cans, Mom. It’s August, so it smells bad."

"They don’t pick up your garbage?"

"They pick it up on Tuesday. But it’s New Orleans. It gets hot out there, and after a couple days it starts to smell."

But at this, Matia Vega only wrinkled her nose. In her city, her expression seemed to say, you didn’t find such smells. There, the air was dry and the boys your daughter married had names like Javier, or Ernesto, or even Joaquin. Not Danny, like someone you’d see drinking green beer or doing that zote heel-clicking dancing where they leap in the air, shirt open to their waist, like an Irish boy’s got anything to show you!

"He’s not Irish, Mama. He’s French. Around here, everybody’s French."

Except the blacks, Danny could tell Matia was thinking. Not that she’d ever say it, but you could see her looking as they drove around New Orleans. In Phoenix, there are Mexicans and whites, and if you’re Mexican, you just take the whites for granted, like the heat. There’s nothing much you can do about it, so what’s the point in even talking about it? But here, you could see Matia thinking, there were people, you couldn’t even say what color they were. Whites, blacks, Cajuns, Creoles. And when you’re done with all that, they start doing math: quadroons, octaroons, doubloons . . . She couldn’t keep it all straight, but Danny could see it made her nervous. The first time his friend Jabril Saunders came over to the house, she looked at him like he might make a grab for her purse any moment. He was a tall black man, with a fierce light in his eye, who worked as a "community organizer" with the city’s youth gangs. He’d saved Danny’s life on more than one occasion, but that didn’t stop him from flirting with Mickie, and before the baby had been born, the three of them had spent many nights at a blues club he owned, although his name wasn’t on the lease, where they kept a table empty for him with a bottle of dark rum, a bowl of limes, and a sharp knife stuck into the top of the table like a warning, Don’t sit here, you don’t belong. Danny’d just begun to feel that the sign might not apply to him when the baby was born, and now he didn’t spend his nights going to blues clubs. So a couple nights a week Jabril came to them, spent a few hours sitting on their couch playing with the baby before heading over to his club.

"Your mama don’t like me," Jabril told Danny, after Matia went upstairs. And then he winked at Mickie. "Don’t like seeing me around her baby girl. She afraid you might start thinking ’bout what you missin’."

Danny smiled. "If it makes you feel any better, she doesn’t like me either."

"Then she got some taste, I guess."

But Danny had to admit, it was Mickie who bore the worst of it. Matia was always questioning her, her eyebrows going up before she spoke, so you could see it coming. Danny’d started joking that her eyebrows were like those question marks they use in Spanish to warn you a question’s on its way:

"¿Mercedes? ¿Porqué esta usted muerta de hambre el bebé?"

Putting that little squeak in his voice, like Matia got when something annoyed her. Arms folded across his belly, sighing, as if he couldn’t decide what was hurting him more, his back or his feet. Ay, mama!

Mickie would just look at him, shake her head. "We’ve got to work on your Spanish."

But she seemed to appreciate the gesture. Anything to lighten the mood. Not that it helped much. Mickie still got that tightness around her jaw, her eyes like the twin barrels of a shotgun as she thought about all the things she couldn’t say to her mother.

"Why don’t you go out for a couple hours?" Danny asked. "Go out to the range, maybe, put the hurt on some targets. That would give her a chance to fatten up our child."

"She wants to show me how to make mole poblano."

"I thought you made that for me a couple times."

"Apparently I’m not doing it right."

Danny winced at the thought of the anger slowly simmering in their kitchen all afternoon, building up until he got home to find Matia sitting in fierce silence on their living room sofa, her eyes fixed on the stain in the carpet they hadn’t gotten around to replacing when they moved in two years ago. Mickie would be upstairs in the bedroom, cleaning out their closet with a ferocity that made him want to turn around and head back to the office, where he’d be safe with the car accidents and loan collections.

"You want me to come home?" he asked, feeling like the guy in the old war movies who takes one in the chest for the beloved sergeant or throws himself on the grenade to save his buddies. Is there a medal for husbandry?

Only at the state fair, and you gotta raise a sheep to earn it.

"No," she said with a weary tone. "You’ve got work to do. I just needed to blow off some steam before we start peeling the chiles. I don’t trust myself with a knife in my hand."

"We’ll take her to lunch tomorrow. I’ll pick you up, and we’ll go to Uglesich’s. Show her the real New Orleans."

"I’m not sure she wants to see the real New Orleans. Can we show her Pensacola and tell her it’s New Orleans?"

Danny hung up, saw that his secretary, Demitra, was watching him out of the corner of her eye. For four years they’d shared a single small office, their two desks only a few feet apart, and there wasn’t much they didn’t know about each other.

"Mickie callin’ for help, huh?"

"Yeah, it ain’t pretty."

"Her mama gettin’ all up on her ass about how she’s raisin’ that baby?"

Danny smiled. "It’s something, the two of ’em get going."

"Talkin’ that Spanish at each other?"

"Too fast for me to keep up. I got those CDs in my car, Se Habla Español, but Matia gets going, I feel like I’m trying to catch a bus that’s doing seventy down the highway, and it ain’t stoppin’ for nothing."

"You really want to catch that bus?"

Danny laughed. "Do I get a choice?"

"Depends. You don’t mind not knowing what they sayin’ about you, just let it go."

Demitra’s cell phone rang, and she bent, dug it out of her purse. Danny looked wearily at the deposition summaries scattered across his desk. Sometimes it seemed like half the city was suing the other half, as if you could reduce the life of a place to these random moments of collision when a priest, a video-store clerk, and a Bourbon Street stripper all sat in their respective cars, watching as a Range Rover ran a light, bounced off a van full of surprised Guatemalans, scattering glass across the intersection as both vehicles spun with surprising slowness.

"She was on her cell phone," the stripper observed about the SUV’s driver. "Went right past me, just talking away." The priest regretted that he was looking the other way at the crucial moment, but he heard it, saw the surprised faces of the Guatemalans as the van spun past him, and the resulting impact with a light pole that put four of them in the hospital for weeks. The video clerk confessed that he missed the whole thing; he was too busy looking at the stripper in her red Corvette. Then the cops showed up, and the ambulances, and before long the lawyers and insurance companies, ready to fight it out in court. All of it’s here, Danny thought, picking up one of the depositions, the whole city meeting at this intersection, like we’re all just an accident waiting to happen.

"You want to talk to him?" Demitra looked over at Danny. "He’s right here, sittin’ a couple feet away from me. Don’t look too busy either."

Danny looked up at her, raised his eyebrows. She put one hand over the cell phone’s mouthpiece, said, "Ray’s brother, Louis. He’s got a legal question he wants to ask you."

"Have him call me on my line. No point wasting your minutes."

Demitra shook her head. "He don’t want to talk on our line. Says it ain’t private enough."

Danny stared at her. "He thinks a cell phone is more private than my office line? Anybody can pick up calls on those things."

"He don’t want to talk on no cell phone neither. He’s askin’ can he meet you someplace."

"Now?"

"Soon as you can make some time."

Danny glanced at his watch, then looked down at the pile of depositions on his desk. He’d known people who didn’t want to talk on phones before, only met in crowded restaurants or empty parks. They’d look down at the ground as they talked, glancing over their shoulders every few minutes, watching for squad cars or unmarked panel vans, where an FBI surveillance team could be hunching over their recording gear, straining to hear the faint words coming through their headphones. But Louis Sams was the last person he’d expect to be meeting that way. He was Demitra’s brother-in-law, an engineer who worked for a concrete manufacturer at a plant over on Industry Street. They’d met last summer at the wedding reception for Demitra’s little brother, Shawan, a six-foot-seven-inch tight end who’d just been drafted by the Houston Oilers out of Grambling, who’d spent his college days chasing a succession of girls who were built for speed, only to marry a tiny, churchgoing Baptist girl he’d met at a "Do You Live in Jesus?" rally at Tad Gormley Stadium just before heading off to training camp. Even there, standing in front of the liquor-free bar with a glass of iced tea in his hand, among a crowd that clearly lived in Jesus every day of their lives, Louis Sams stood out—heavy-rimmed glasses, country-club jacket and tie, a big guy who looked like he’d played ball in his day, but now he looked like everyone’s idea of an engineer. Jabril, who was standing beside Danny, followed his gaze.

"That somebody you know?"

"He’s Ray’s brother. You know Ray, Demitra’s husband?"

"Yeah?" Jabril looked over at him. "Man, I know Ray’s livin’ that whole Cosby life, goes home to his wife, puts the seat down on the toilet. But that guy?" He shook his head. "That’s the straightest black man I’ve ever seen."

Danny could only agree. Any minute, Danny expected him to pull out a calculator and start figuring up the weight tolerance of the dance floor, everybody from Demitra’s side of the family out there doing the Camp Street shimmy while the Baptists looked on in stern disapproval.

Still, anything that you couldn’t talk about on the phone had to be more interesting than a pile of insurance claims and deposition summaries. And Demitra was waiting, the phone tucked against her shoulder, giving him that dead-eyed stare she used when she felt he was wasting time.

"Any clue what he’s got himself into?"

But Demitra shook her head. "Won’t tell me. You want to know, you better go meet the man."

Danny gave his watch one last glance, then sighed. "Okay, I’ve got to run some papers up to Robert E. Lee Boulevard this afternoon. Ask him if he can meet me at Deanie’s after work."

She raised an eyebrow. "Black folks don’t eat up in Bucktown much."

"So give him my cell number. We can meet in the parking lot, go for a walk by the lake. It’s a good place, if he wants privacy."

She raised the phone, said, "Louis? You know where Deanie’s at, up in Bucktown? He wants to know can you swing by there, you get off work. Take a walk by the lake."

Danny shuffled his papers. The case was a slam dunk. The woman driving the SUV was talking on the phone and ran the light. Everybody agreed about that, except her insurance company. They’d already spent six weeks collecting the depositions, and now they’d spend a couple months going over them, looking for something they could use to shift liability onto somebody else. In the end, they’d agree to a settlement just before the case went to trial, so the only question was whether they could find something in the evidence to make the plaintiffs nervous, reduce the price they’d have to pay for a soccer mom talking on her cell phone.

It’s not exciting, Danny liked to say, but it’s a living. Moving the paper, like a janitor with a broom, shuffling along the corridors of the courthouse on Poydras Street, pushing the piles of paper from one room to the next. You go to law school, you think it’ll be like you see in the movies: a guy fighting for justice, getting up in a courtroom and convincing a jury to do what’s right. That’s what Danny had thought, anyway, and for a few years he’d lived that life, putting in eighteen months as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting drug dealers, hookers, and petty thieves. It was the kind of job that wore out men’s souls, but Danny had loved it. Until a past he’d thought was safely buried came back to haunt him, like a ghost that calls to you in the night, leads you away into the darkness.

Danny sighed, pushed the papers away. There were lots of ghosts, if you let yourself start listening to their voices. He’d spent his whole life mixed up with corrupt cops and crooked politicians. Men had died, others had gone to prison, and Danny had a reputation now. Friends in some of the big law firms tossed work his way, small-time insurance litigation mostly, but he could tell, by the way people looked at him out of the corners of their eyes when he walked into a restaurant, that he’d never shake the scent of death that hung around long after the bodies went in the ground. So if Louis Sams was calling him, wanted to meet where nobody could listen to their conversation, Danny would bet it wasn’t because he needed a lawyer to help him draw up a will. From the moment Demitra had said he didn’t want to talk on the office line, Danny had heard the ghosts start whispering again. It left a strange taste in his mouth, like drinking from a well the cows won’t go near.

Excerpted from Down in the Flood by Kenneth Abel.
Copyright 2009 by Kenneth Abel.
Published in August 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.