There are two things that every good private investigator is never without.
The first is a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum service revolver. I have one in my desk, and I keep it loaded. The second—and by far the most important—is a flask of bourbon. I also have one of those in my desk, and it keeps me loaded.
So needless to say, that’s the first thing I went to grab after I showed up to my office that morning.
Don’t look at me like that, all right? Sometimes you need something stronger than coffee to start your day.
It was a shitty-looking day, too. The morning was so gray-bruised and black that you could hardly tell it was dawn, and the steady drizzle that came along for the ride showed no signs of stopping. It was the kind of weather that would have made Jack the Ripper feel right at home. Ominous. Foreboding. And it was so humid and muggy that my clothes stuck to me like a wet piece of toilet paper.
Maybe it should have been a tip-off for the kind of case I was about to get.
My “office,” if you can call it that, was a small, cramped little space in New Orleans’ French Quarter. And before you ask, no, it’s not on Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street is a little too wild a place for an office, even when it’s tame. My little part of the Quarter is a bit more presentable, the part where musicians play on the sidewalk and artists try to sketch out St. Andrew’s Cathedral. On most days, I’d usually hear one of them warming up his instruments right about now, but not today. No one with an ounce of sense would be out and about in this weather—which probably says a lot about me.
I caught a glimpse of my reflection on the glass pane of the door when I swung it open: my reddish-brown hair was damp and slightly mussed from the weather, and as always, it clashed horribly with bright blue eyes and pale, freckle-spotted skin. My face, with its narrow jaw, jutting chin and upturned nose—had a growth of rust-colored stubble since I hadn’t had time to shave that morning, and little dark bags under my eyes gave me a look of perpetual sleep deprivation. It made me looked aged and weary, though I was only thirty-two.
Christ. Maybe I needed a makeover or something.
I had mail waiting for me on the other side of the mail slot, though I didn’t notice until I accidentally stepped on one of the envelopes. The first was a token fee from a helicopter dad who hadn’t approved of who his daughter was dating. He was convinced the kid had to be a convicted felon or something, but it turned out the poor guy wasn’t anything but on the up and up—and his girlfriend hadn’t been too happy when she’d learned what Daddy Dearest was up to. The second was a much meatier check from the Dean of De La Salle High School. La Salle was one of the ritzier private schools in the Crescent City, and until very recently it had been home to one of the most organized student drug rings I’d ever seen. The hapless Dean hadn’t had any luck trying to put a stop to it, and he was so keen on avoiding scandal that he went to me instead of the cops. The money almost made up for the mountain of non-disclosure forms I had to sign afterward.
Ah, kids today…
I was knocking back a shot from the flask and brooding, a pastime beloved by P.I.s everywhere, when the little bell on my door jingled. I swallowed hastily—no comments, please—and tried to put it away, but didn’t quite get in the drawer fast enough. The sodden, bedraggled-looking woman who walked inside probably caught a glimpse of it.
She was an older woman, perhaps in her early forties, with a narrow, pinched face and an upturned nose. Her clothes were wrinkled as though she’d slept in them, and dark circles made her haunted-looking eyes appear even more sunken.
I knew the look. It was the look of someone desperate.
“Jack Boudreaux?” she asked, in a quiet voice that I almost had to strain to hear.
“That’s what the IRS keeps telling me.”
“My name is Eleanor Mathis. I want to hire you.”
“What’s the job?” I tried to keep my tone as casual as I could.
She dug into her purse, took out a photograph of a man in his mid-forties, and slid it across to me. “My husband, Victor. He works at an accounting firm. He’s gone missing. I want you to find him.”
“Have you tried talking to the police? Did you ask anyone at his office if they’d seen him?” It’s a question that guys like me are kind of obligated to ask. Cops tend to look at a P.I. the way most people look at rats, and they don’t always take kindly to private investigators dabbling in “real police work.” That’s their turf, and they guard it jealously. This was especially true in my case, given my less-than-sterling history with the NOPD.
I’d been a cop once. Not anymore.
It’s not something I care to revisit.
“Yes, but his boss said he didn’t show up to work! I tried to call the police too! They said they’d look into it, but they haven’t done anything yet!” She looked as though she were about to cry.
“Probably because he’s been missing for a while now,” I nodded. “Missing persons have the best chance of being found within a forty-eight hour window. After that…” I trailed off, not wanting to upset her further. “Where’d you last see him?”
“He said he was going down to the Atchafalaya Swamp to go camping, but when I called his friends they said they didn’t know what I was talking about. I’ve tried his cell dozens of times and he hasn’t answered!”
The Atchafalaya Swamp is one of the biggest swamps—if not the biggest swamp—in the entire United States. Say what you want about soil erosion and wetland loss, but that place is still plenty big. If Victor had gotten himself lost in there, chances were he’d already gone the way of the dodo.
People tend not to realize just how dangerous a swamp can be. A goodly-sized snapping turtle can bite through a rubber boot and still take off a toe or three without even breaking a sweat. The venomous bite of a cottonmouth snake can do you in if you don’t get treated quickly, and since cottonmouths are found in the water more than they are on land, so you won’t know if one of those has bitten you until it’s already too late. The American alligator can grow up to fifteen feet long and can tear you apart like you’re made of straw. And don’t even get me started on the brown recluse spider. It’s one of the most venomous spiders in North America, and it’s the size of a goddamn penny.
And assuming you manage to avoid all of that, there’s still the distinct possibility of death by starvation, drowning or dehydration. Unless you’re desperate enough to drink from the swamp, in which case dysentery or some other illness will punch your ticket instead.
Of course, this is all operating under the assumption that Victor had gone into the swamp at all. For all I knew he might be in a hotel with some woman he met online or something.
I tried my best to hide my misgivings. It probably wasn’t enough. “Ma’am, we won’t get anywhere if you go into hysterics. Take a deep breath and try to think clearly. I can’t help you if you don’t give me the facts. Did your husband tell you anything else?”
“Not that I can remember.” She ran a nervous hand through brown hair streaked with gray.
“Do you have any text messages from him that I could take a look at? Receipts? Credit card statements? Anything?”
“I…” She looked helpless and frustrated, and believe me, it never gets any easier no matter how many times you see it. Then she stiffened, as though in epiphany. “David!”
“David Marney. He’s a friend of my husband’s.” From the way her eyes glinted, I guessed that Eleanor didn’t approve of the company Victor chose to keep.
“How do I find him?”
“I…I don’t know. Victor never told me much about him, and I doubt David would have given me an honest answer.”
Her mouth twisted in distaste. “Yes. But Victor could never see it. He was always too friendly for his own good.”
“Do you have a picture of him I can use?”
In response she handed me a second photograph, this time of a tattooed guy wearing one of those obnoxious huge-clock necklaces. I studied it for a second, then nodded and put it in my desk.
“I’ll see if I can find him, ma’am. In the meantime, please be patient and let me know if you think of anything else.” I handed her a business card and hoped she wouldn’t notice the stains on it. “Here’s my number.”
“Thank you.” Eleanor sniffled and stood, grabbing for her umbrella. “Please find him, Mr. Boudreaux. I don’t know where else to turn.”
Of course you don’t, I thought. If you did, you wouldn’t be here.
No one goes to a private eye first.