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Late November. The time of the silver-haired man.
These past weeks, every gray cloud charcoaled across the pale sky brought him back to her. Every cold breeze coming down the Mississippi felt like his hands under her coat. His shadow walked before her everywhere she went, painting the buildings and the sidewalks of New Orleans like the shadow of a great carrion bird. When she awoke in the mornings, she felt he’d only just stepped away from the foot of her bed. The bed with bullet holes in it. Late at night, he whispered the names of the dead, his victims and others, in her ear during her last conscious moments, when she felt helplessly paralyzed by the coming sleep.
Which meant that most nights, Maureen did her best to stay awake until morning.
* * *
Maureen sat alone at a corner cocktail table at d.b.a., a Frenchmen Street bar, thinking about the silver-haired man speaking names into her ear. So, she figured, sipping her drink, she was now officially hearing voices. So be it, then.
Maybe that was for the best. Maybe they would help. Hearing voices gave her something in common with one of the women she was out here looking for: Madison Leary, the woman who killed men with a straight razor and who sang old folk songs about death and the devil into Maureen’s voice mail. Maybe the connection, this new empathy, would inspire an idea. Maybe it would change her luck. Lord knows, she needed something to shake things up. She needed something to break. A break in the case, as they say. At this point, she’d take going half-crazy, even if it was the second half, even if it meant she was going the rest of the way crazy. As long as Madison Leary was there at the finish line.
She lowered her eyes to the table, avoiding the faces in the barroom, and sipped her drink again, embarrassed even though no one was looking at her.
The time of the silver-haired man, she thought. Oh, please, girlfriend.
What bullshit. Melodramatic bullshit, Maureen. You know better. Get over it.
He was just a man, she told herself, over and over again. Just a man. Repeating that sentence as if it were a stone she threw again and again at the great black bird overhead. Of course, she could never throw it high enough. And the bird never got frightened and never flew away. But that didn’t stop her from trying.
She thought of the Greek god condemned to roll his stone up a hill, condemned to repeat the same meaningless task for eternity. She couldn’t recall what his sin had been. Or his name. Didn’t much matter. It wasn’t much of a story, and Maureen knew what her own sins had been. The silver-haired man was just that, a man. Not a devil. Not a god. Not a ghost. He’d had an ordinary name. Frank Sebastian. And he was dead. Maureen knew this for sure. She’d been ten feet away from him when he’d died.
The time of the silver-haired man? His time was over. She had seen to that.
Sitting at her table, Maureen tried imagining herself as someone else. A different person. With a different voice. This was a new thing she’d been trying in her head. A way to hear herself tell the story of what had happened to her before she had come to New Orleans. She studied her pack of cigarettes. American Spirit. A chief in a headdress was on the front of the box. He smoked a peace pipe. Maureen lit up.
She closed her eyes and envisioned herself not as the thin, short, pale-faced redhead she was, but maybe as a stout, dark-haired, and tattooed medicine woman, crouched on her haunches as she told her story, surrounded by openmouthed, wide-eyed squaws circling the longhouse fire. She tried to hear herself, tried to listen to herself tell them the story of the Silver-Haired Man, the November Man, the one who haunted her in these late weeks of autumn. The one she saw reflected in store windows along Magazine Street and turning corners ahead of her along St. Charles Avenue. The one who lived in the blind spot over her shoulder, who hovered in her peripheral vision. The man she had seen in the soulless eyes of a sociopathic rich boy outside a party at his father’s Audubon Park mansion, who she saw everywhere around her in the bars and clubs of New Orleans at night, in the glittering ravenous eyes of brown and black and blond young men.
But when she tried listening to her other self tell the story, as soon as she started paying attention and seeing everything again, seeing Sebastian, the cattails at the water’s edge, the headlights of the oncoming train, Maureen’s invented self fell silent. The story ended and the vision disappeared into a tiny point of light, as if someone had pulled the plug on an old television. At the table in the bar, the medicine woman vanished and Maureen was left alone again with her ache and her fear and her ghost, and she had nothing to say and no one to listen to her not say it. I need to find a way, she thought. I need to find a way to tell the story to someone.
She had hoped that this first anniversary wouldn’t haunt her. The first six months after Sebastian had tried to throw her in front of a train, she still lived on Staten Island with her mother in the house she’d grown up in, on the same streets where everything bad had happened, and so it kind of made sense that those events had lingered. But this November, she had a new life, in a new city. She was a cop now, for chrissakes. A cop on indefinite paid administrative leave, she thought, which made her a cop without a gun and a badge at the moment, which wasn’t much of a cop, but a cop according to her paycheck. And she’d get her badge and her gun back. Soon.
The point was she had put a lot of work into becoming a different woman, into building herself into a new person. A real new person. And leaving behind that bastard and the places he’d taken her was a big reason she had done that work.
But then the weather had turned at the end of the month, and Maureen learned that November in New Orleans could be, if it wanted to, as cold and gray and wet and bleak as November in New York. And at the turn in the weather had come her dark turn of mind. This year should have been much different from the last. She had expected it to be different. She deserved it to be different. And when it wasn’t, she got pissed. More than pissed. Angry. Incensed. Furious.
* * *
The woman Maureen had been watching for more than an hour got up from her barstool, bringing Maureen back to the present. This woman was not Madison Leary. This woman was not part of a murder case. This wasn’t police work. This was something else. Something private.
Just for tonight. Which was what you said the last time, Maureen thought.
The woman pulled on her coat, flipped her long black hair out from underneath her collar, gathered her phone and her purse, and headed for the door. The bouncer opened it for her, letting the cold outside air rush into the barroom as he said good night. Maureen pulled the hood of her baggy black sweatshirt tight against the back of her neck. She longed for her father’s old blue pea coat, the one she had lost last November. The one she had left in a bloody heap on the floor of a Staten Island emergency room, soaked in Frank Sebastian’s blood.
She drew her hands into her sleeves. She carried a weapon in the front pocket of her sweatshirt. She savored its weight on her lap.
A man Maureen had also been watching emerged from the dim and narrow hall that led to the restrooms. He froze, his face scrunching in anger, when he saw the empty barstool. He looked around the bar. Maureen could tell it was all he could do to keep from screaming the woman’s name. They’d arrived at the bar at different times, the woman first and the man about twenty minutes later. Right away they had fallen into a bad argument, quickly enough that Maureen knew it was the continuation of a previous fight, badly enough that the bouncer had come over from the door to check on them. Maureen hadn’t been able to hear much of what they were saying, but she’d heard enough to know that the man had followed the woman here from another Frenchmen Street bar she’d left to get away from him.
After the bouncer’s intervention, the man had moved away down the bar, pretending, Maureen could tell, to watch the funk band that had taken the stage during the argument. But throughout the set he had kept a close eye on the object of his ire, glaring at her over his shoulder, his silver-labeled bottle of Coors Light raised to his lips.
From where she sat in the corner across the room, Maureen could see the wheels turning in his head. She could read his thoughts. She didn’t like what they told her. Her fears were confirmed by the fact that the woman had waited until the man was out of sight to make her move for the door. She wasn’t leaving. She was escaping. She was fleeing.
The man gave up searching the bar. He made for the door, shouldering people out of his way. He hurried out in pursuit, Maureen knew, of the woman who had slipped away.
She grabbed her cigarettes and slid off her barstool, pulling on her gloves and moving for the door as quiet as a shadow. She raised her hood over her head, slipped her hands into the pouch of the sweatshirt, gripping the weapon hidden there, a telescoping baton with a weighted tip called an ASP. She kept her head down as she passed by the bouncer and out the door. A few paces ahead of her on the crowded sidewalk, she spied the angry man searching for the frightened woman.
Like she had with the others, she’d take him from behind, start with a quick strike to his knee. A man who can’t stand can’t fight back. Then, before he even hit the ground, she’d go for his throat. For control of his voice, his breath, and the blood rushing to his brain. Destroying the knee hurt him, and it gave her strategic advantage. But compressing his throat in the bend of her elbow, strangling him? That was what induced the panic; that pressure conjured the terror. The terror was what she wanted. Terror left a lasting impression. She knew that from experience.
Maureen would make sure he never found the woman he pursued. Not tonight. Not ever. And that he’d never know what hit him.
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