NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Humid dark hung over the boulevard lamplight as a pale moon rose beyond the trees. Cicadas began their nightly chants in concert with the cries of tree frogs. Comforted by the familiar song of spring, Maggie Fordham locked the door to the Alabaster Rose Nursery with ritual flourish. First, she gave three quick turns to the ornate brass key that had secured the store for nearly a century. As she’d been taught by her grandfather, she jiggled the handle three times before smacking the mahogany with the base of her hand. A silly rite, perhaps, but after a hundred years, who was she to tempt the fates?
It was easy to be superstitious in New Orleans, Maggie acknowledged as she hit the sidewalk. Equal parts religion and culture, the ways of the supernatural permeated every breath of life in the city. A fifth-generation native, Maggie understood the call of blood that required spitting on a broom if it swept your feet or the expectation of a windfall when the palms of empty hands itched.
A woman of science, she would never admit to herself that she believed in ghosts or demons or creatures of the night. Still, she instinctively angled her foot on the cobblestone walk to avoid stepping on a crack between the stones. She caught the motion and chuckled softly. Apparently, even science had its limits.
She turned into the alley between her shop and the apothecary next door. She fished in her purse for the car keys she kept on a separate ring, then opened the door to her new car. The hot-red Miata was courtesy of her adjunct teaching gig at Burkeen University. Twice a week, she taught botany to its students, and the check from the university covered the car payments. Not a bad deal, she thought, even if the students were a tad spoiled.
Maggie slid inside the compact car and pulled the door tight behind her. Abandoned coffee pooled condensation in the cup holder. She turned the key in the ignition, eager to get home. Her Labrador puppy, Sadie, would be waiting up for her. Sadie thought she was a guard dog, and Maggie hadn’t the heart to tell her different. The car sputtered once, and Maggie pushed down on the gas. The engine revved.
In the next moment, the driver’s-side window exploded. Before she could do more than flinch, hard hands reached inside the broken window and grabbed Maggie by the throat. Screaming, she raked her nails across the hands that choked her. “No! Help!”
“Shh, Maggie,” her attacker warned. “Don’t struggle. It will be finished soon.”
In response, Maggie’s fingernails dug deep but did not penetrate the latex gloves that protected her attacker. Still, a fisted hand slammed into her face in punishment.
“I told you not to struggle.”
Blood poured from her swelling nose and sobs tore from her as the pain radiated endlessly from the broken bone. She panted now, breaths coming in short gasps of air through her mouth. “Ah, ah, ah. Ah, God.” Her screams and sobs turned to whimpers of agony. “Please, no.”
Suddenly the door was hauled open. Maggie lurched forward, trying to escape. Her attacker grabbed her by the hair and smashed her broken face into the steering wheel. Flung into the seat, Maggie struggled to stay conscious, but the searing pain pulled at her in waves, begging her to give in.
Silently, Maggie prayed for the strength to save herself. Blood poured into her throat, gagging her. Abruptly the seat belt bit into her neck. Oh, God, no, she thought desperately; it wasn’t the seat belt. The killer’s hands wrapped wire around her neck, the metal slicing through skin, through tissue. Maggie’s last pant broke the night air, and the wire pulled tighter, then tighter still. Then the killer turned, face clear in the lamplight.
Why? Maggie mouthed as crimson began to spill onto her pale blue silk blouse, fill her larynx.
In answer, the wire pulled taut and strong. Maggie could feel life ending, and she sought the ethereal light of myth. But only yellow filled her vision, the lamplight above. Yellow and the smile of her killer. The reassuring smile followed her into death, as wire severed the cream column of her throat.
Maggie’s lifeless body threatened to fall to the ground, but the killer’s braced hip caught her. Methodically, the careful hands arranged Maggie gently against the leather seat. A flick of a side lever, and Maggie Fordham reclined in silent repose. The bloodstained wire was spooled and laid on the seat beside the empty body. Without the blood and empty eyes, the killer thought, a person might think she’s sleeping.
As before, last touches included removing the crisp bills from the wallet and dropping it into the leather bag that carried all the killer’s tricks. Reverent fingers tugged off the tourmaline ring that sparkled green on Maggie’s right ring finger.
Staring at the limp, naked hand, the killer paused. The alabaster strip of skin said she’d worn the ring for a long time. She had probably wished to be buried with it when she died. The ring went into the bag.
After all, if wishes were horses, the killer reflected, beggars would ride.
* * *
ONE WEEK LATER
The envelope in Erin Abbott’s mailbox did not have a return address. As she walked up the stairs to her apartment building door, she ran curious fingers over the old-fashioned script. Her name had been etched by a calligrapher’s pen onto the ivory parchment.
Dr. Erin Abbott
216 St. Bennett Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70116
She tucked the envelope into her purse and punched the elevator button for her floor. The entire building was subdued by the lingering sorrow over the death of Maggie Fordham, the victim of a brutal, senseless murder. It had been nearly a week since Maggie’s body had been discovered. Her gruesome end shocked the quiet Esplanade neighborhood where she lived with a noisy, adored dog. It forced her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Hardy, to her bed for three days, comforted only by orange pekoe tea and generous shots of Jim Beam. On the first floor, Davis and Shanie Dupree purchased an extra dead bolt to augment their home security system and began searching the papers for condominiums out in Metairie.
She wished she could grieve more, Erin thought as she set her purse down on the trestle table near the entryway. Ignoring the light switch, she held on to the letter and headed out to the balcony to watch the sunset.
Maggie had lived a floor below, and often they’d shared the last minutes of daylight. In silent tribute, Erin watched the sun dip below the edges of the magenta sky. Though the women hadn’t been close friends, Maggie had been a good neighbor. In the months Erin had lived in the building, Maggie had been unfailingly kind. She’d shown Erin around the Quarter, helped her haggle over prices in the market. Maggie had told her about the vacant position at Burkeen University.
But while Erin was saddened, death did not affect her as it did others. For one thing, she’d trained herself not to become too attached. Friendly, sure, but never truly a friend. For another, Erin made her living studying death and the dealers in it. A criminal psychologist, she’d seen the worst of the human psyche played out in horrifying detail. She’d learned not to dwell on the passage of human life. She knew all too well how fragile life could be, how easily taken, on purpose or by accident.
Life was best lived in solitude, she believed. No connections, no recriminations. No one to take notice. No one to tell you who you should be.
It was the only way to survive.
As dusk settled, she turned around slowly, ran critical eyes over the one-bedroom apartment. Potted plants occupied every corner of the postage-stamp balcony. Like the magazine photo she’d patterned it on, inside, buttercup walls held framed prints of Paris and the markets in Senegal. Her furniture was arranged to mirror the glossy pictures from the catalogs. Tacky tchotchkes jumbled onto shelves, more by design than desire. Real homes had the useless things, she’d learned, and she would have them, too. If the sight of them made her wince, it was a small price to pay.
This was her home now. Her life. It was a small apartment but filled with windows and polished hardwoods. Her choice of residence was not a factor of income. A trust funded by her parents’ life insurance guaranteed that she would never lack for money. But she spent that money carefully, reluctant to draw attention or interest. No, money was not an issue for her. Freedom was.
For too long, she had lived at the mercy of a madman who controlled her every thought, every move. Now, she had her own space. A life she’d created far away from anyone who cared about the woman she had once been. It had taken more than two years and thousands of dollars, but Analise Glover was gone.
She slid open the French doors and walked into the apartment, the letter still unopened. Perhaps it was a plea from a student for an extension, she mused, running her fingers along the stationery. Still, a sense of uneasiness crept along her spine.
Erin shook off the feeling and wandered over to the chaise that stretched beneath the wide bay window. She switched on a swing-armed brass lamp and curled her legs beneath her on the brushed cotton. Telling herself to stop being fretful, she slit the seal on the letter and turned it to spill the contents to her lap. Newsprint fell out.
Five obituaries stared up at her. They’d been clipped from the local paper, she realized grimly. Clipped and sent to her. Holding them by the edges, she sifted through the columns, murmuring the names aloud.
“Julian Harris. Burleigh Singleton. Phoebe Bailey. Juan Johnson. Margaret Fordham.”
She tripped over Maggie’s name and her breathing hitched. Erin forced herself to take a calming breath. Think rationally, she commanded herself, trying to ignore the shrill of panic in her head.
Be reasonable. Someone had sent her a packet of obituaries. Strange, yes, but not terrifying. She was, after all, a criminal psychology professor. One who habitually read obituaries and police news to her students to teach them how to look for information.
The envelope was probably a prank by one of her students. A nasty, silly prank to rattle her before exams.
But even as she formed the feeble excuse, her heart thudded against her chest in fierce denial. On her lap, Maggie’s grainy photograph watched her with knowing eyes. This was more than a trick.
Hands trembling, Erin shook the envelope again.
A note that had been scripted on a scrap of the same ivory paper fluttered into her lap. Shakily, she lifted it to read. There were only three words.
For hours, Erin sat in the darkened apartment, lit only by moonlight and a single lamp. She read and reread the five items lined up on the coffee table. A pattern had emerged from the morbid columns and sent her to the computer, fighting the urge to retch.
To an eye trained in more than the basics of crime, the records of the deceased had a connection stronger than the tenuous nature of death.
A killer was on the loose. Perhaps it took one to know one.
Copyright © 2004, 2021 by Stacey Y. Abrams