16

New Orleans, Wednesday March 22, 18.15 CST

The billboards on Interstate 10 told her she was in a different country, a universe away from the buttoned-up pieties of the capital. One sign promoted a gun show, the next a burlesque club with a slogan that made Maggie smile: Ten beautiful girls and one ugly one!

‘This your first time in N’Awlins?’

Maggie nodded, not wanting to get into conversation with the cab driver just yet: she wanted to keep looking out of the window. She needed to think.

‘’At’s a pity,’ he replied, ignoring her attempt at aloofness. ‘Shoulda been here before Katrina. Not the same place no more.’

She surrendered: ‘Were you here the whole time?’

‘I stayed till I saw the water rise so high my church was drownin’. I went to Atlanta. My ma refused to leave. She ended up one of those bodies you saw on the evening news. Floating.’

‘Oh my God, I am sorry.’

‘Nothing for you to be sorry for, ma’am. You ain’t the government. Not your fault. You doing the right thing, coming back to N’Awlins. We need all the visitors we can get.’

She had asked for the French Quarter, to be as close as she could get to Forbes. It also made for useful cover. She could be a tourist from Dublin too na?ve to know anywhere else to stay. Or she could be a journalist.

It was a plaintive message on the machine from Nick du Caines, the dissolute New York-based correspondent of a much-loved, if ailing, British Sunday newspaper that had given her the idea. She had sat through enough of his anecdotes to know he treated his press card as if it were a magic ticket, granting admission to every ride at the fair. If Nick was to be believed, there was no one and nowhere to whom a journalist could not gain access.

If Nick was to be believed, that is. Part of his charm, if you didn’t count the wreckage of his personal life and the complexion battered by three decades of ‘experimentation’ with vodka, whisky and every kind of drug the pharmaceutical industries – legal and illegal – had managed to generate, was the grey zone he inhabited when it came to the truth. Or la veracit?, as he would doubtless refer to it, resorting to his comedy French accent whenever he wanted to skirt round a topic that might be awkward. (‘Mags, it’s late, you’re gorgeous, I am full of ardeur, so what about a little liaison, dangereuse or otherwise?’)

She had tried calling him as soon as she left home for New Orleans. While she raced around packing a bag, she called Nick’s cellphone at least three times. No point trying the office: he had sublet that to the correspondent from Danish television – ‘All on the QT, if you don’t mind, Mags: London would not be best pleased’ – preferring to work from home. Though that, Maggie suspected, was a laughable euphemism: from what she could divine, Nick du Caines didn’t work during the week at all, instead building himself up to a fever which crested on Friday night as, in a sweat, he spewed out thousands of words, hammering away at his keyboard until dawn on Saturday – just making the lunchtime deadline in London.

So where the august correspondent would be at this hour of a midweek morning was anybody’s guess. Though you’d get good odds for the bed of a lonely, ex-pat European – the wife of the Belgian ambassador, perhaps, or that dark-eyed Kosovar who had worked for du Caines as a translator during the Balkan wars and somehow ended up in DC in his wake several years later.

No luck on the way to Reagan Airport, but there was a sign of life when she touched down at Louis Armstrong International: a busy signal. Now, just as her cab was navigating its way down streets with improbable names like Abundance, Cupid and Desire, she finally got through.

‘Mags! My long-lost comrade! What the hell is happening at the White House? Seems like the place is falling apart. Just heard on the old bush telegraph about your unwanted au revoir from there. Sounds like you got out just in time. Bastards, though, for firing you. Or “letting you go” as the tossers in HR would no doubt phrase it. Is there anything your Uncle Nick can do?’

‘Well, actually-’

‘Perhaps a brief tale in the paper, setting the record straight? You know, “The New McCarthyism that lost Baker his best diplomat”, that kind of thing? I love “New McCarthyism” stories: the posh papers’ version of “political correctness gone mad”. Might fight for space this week, though, what with-’

‘Nick-’

‘Still, any port in a storm. Things are terrible on the paper, threatened with a bloody-’

‘Nick!’

The cab driver turned round, a look of hurt on his face. Maggie pointed at the phone and mouthed an apology. Sure that she now had Nick’s silence, she lowered her voice. ‘Nick, there’s something I need.’

‘I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to hear those words, Mags my love. Shall I come over at eight? Or right now? I love the afternoons.’

‘Not that, Nick. I need some advice.’

‘OK.’

‘About being a journalist. I can’t tell you much about it yet, but I promise when I can you’ll get it first.’

‘A story?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh bless your little Irish heart. What is it you need to know?’

For the next ten minutes, Nick du Caines proceeded to teach the core elements of a crash course in journalism’s black arts. They agreed that she would be Liz Costello of the Irish Times: if anyone were to be mischievous enough to check up on her via Google – ‘A loathsome practice, but increasingly common these days,’ lamented Nick – then they would at least find something. The fact that the Costello byline would be attached to witty reports on Dublin nightlife would be a problem, but a surmountable one.

‘Say you’re comparing the two scenes for a long article for the magazine,’ Nick advised, before exciting himself with another thought. ‘Say you’re writing it for the travel section: a post-Katrina piece, “Return to New Orleans”. They’ll be so grateful they won’t care if you don’t have a press card.’

‘And why don’t I have a press card?’

‘Say you were mugged. That’ll make them even more desperate to make you love them.’

‘Won’t they start asking me for details? Taking witness statements, all that crap?’

‘Good point. Say it happened in DC. You’re applying for a new one. In the meantime, any questions, they’re to call your bureau chief in Washington, one Nicholas du Caines.’

‘What if they Google you?’

‘They never do. Name’s too difficult. And remember you never write, you file. It’s never an article, it’s a piece. And don’t save anything onto the machine. My laptop was once crushed under a motorbike by some hairy biker: lost a three-thousand-word feature on the new Hell’s Angels. Those memory sticks are fucking useless too. Save everything online, Mags. In the ether.’ He sighed. ‘New Orleans, eh? It’ll be a riot.’

Nick warned her that the city would be swarming with journalists after the Forbes death: ‘I’d be there myself if it wasn’t for the fact that the foreign desk is even more broke than I am.’ She was to head for the hotel where all the reporters would be staying. There’s always one, he explained. He promised that the second he had rung off, he would call his mate from the Telegraph and find out the name. Within two minutes, there was a buzz on her BlackBerry: The Monteleone. Demand a room that doesn’t look over the street. Bloody loud at night.

The second she got out of the cab, she was hit by a scent that reminded her of a combination of Africa and Washington in August: the sub-tropical tang of damp and decay, with a hint of sweetness. She looked around, instantly hit by the lushness that seemed to tumble off every Paris-style balcony, vivid purple bougainvillea or trailing plants of dense green. The place seemed to ooze with fertility, drunken and heady.

It was still early, but Nick had told her to head for the bar all the same: thanks to the time difference, the European hacks would all be off deadline by now. Even their ‘damned bloody websites’ would be asleep. ‘They’re better anyway,’ Nick had said. ‘Much more forthcoming than our tight-lipped American colleagues, most of whom stay on the bloody mineral water all night.’

The Carousel Bar was the kind of place that would normally make Maggie recoil: it had, God help us, a theme – the circus, complete with a spinning merry-go-round, elaborately decorated, in the centre of the room. But there were also black-and-white portraits of past guests, among them Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and William Faulkner, which made her feel rather more forgiving.

She spied a group of half a dozen – five men, one woman – at a corner table. Past experience told her this was the foreign press corps; and she was right. There, sipping at a vile-looking concoction, was a man who perfectly matched Nick’s description of his Telegraph pal – sandy-haired, gawky, eager.

‘Tim?’ she asked, prompting the man to his feet, simultaneously putting down his drink and offering a handshake. His face bore the expression Maggie had seen ever since she turned eighteen, a look that even the most sophisticated men were not fully able to conceal, one that contained both a split-second act of assessment and the passing of a positive verdict. She felt rumpled after the flight and she was exhausted after the last two days. But the gaze of Tim from the Telegraph, probably ten years her junior, told her that whatever it was she had had at eighteen had not completely vanished.

‘Hurricane?’ he said, raising his glass with a smile. ‘The post-Katrina cocktail of choice, apparently.’

Remembering Lesson One in Nick du Caines’s journalism for beginners course, Maggie insisted she would get this round – taking orders for more Hurricanes from the rest of the table. As she did, she noticed a man at a corner table, alone. Dark-haired, thin-faced and older than the others, he had a laptop open and was speaking softly into a cellphone. Was he a journalist too?

By the time she came back to the table, Tim had already filled everyone in: she was Liz from the Irish Times, a pal of Nick’s and therefore to be welcomed.

‘Where we got up to, Miss Costello,’ explained Francesco from Corriere della Serra – a bald man in his late forties, who nevertheless gave off a whiff of foreign correspondent glamour, starting with his battered photographer’s jacket and its countless pockets – ‘was the police statement today that they are “looking for no one else” in connection with Forbes’s death.’

‘Means they are treating it as suicide,’ added Tim keenly.

‘And what do we think of that?’ said Maggie, taking a sip of her cocktail. Sickly sweet, it made her gag: how anyone would want to drink this over a glass of Jameson’s was beyond her.

‘I don’t see how they could do anything else,’ said Francesco. ‘There was no sign of a break-in at the apartment,’ he said, counting the fingers off his hand for emphasis. ‘There were no fingerprints except his own. And this is a known form of sexual – how do you say – fetish.’

‘The Louisiana coroner might call it death by misadventure.’ It was the woman, whose voice sounded Home Counties English to Maggie but who was, apparently, the New York correspondent for Der Spiegel. Like the others, she had got on a plane the moment Forbes’s death was announced: since they’d been in New Orleans since lunchtime, they were now officially experts. ‘It’s not a suicide if Forbes didn’t want to take his own life.’

‘It seems,’ said Tim, turning to face Maggie, his voice lowering as if he was hoping to turn the group conversation into a more intimate exchange between the two of them, ‘as if our Mr Forbes was so thrilled at his success in wounding the President, that he wanted to celebrate, as it were.’

‘And we think Forbes was into the whole autoasphyxiation thing?’

‘Oh, yes. He was a gasper, all right.’ Tim smiled, pleased with himself.

‘A gasper?’

‘That’s the word for it, I’m told: those who get their kicks being choked.’ Seeing Francesco straining to join their conversation, Tim decided to say more, to keep Maggie to himself. ‘We have a piece from our medical correspondent which says Forbes fits the profile completely. Middle-aged man; risk-taker; thrill-seeker; loner.’

‘We know all that, do we?’

‘And don’t forget the New Orleans factor.’

‘What’s that?’

‘N’Awlins!’ He attempted a Southern drawl, without success. ‘The Big Easy, the Big Sleazy. He lived just off Bourbon Street, for God’s sake. This is sin city, and he was right in the middle of it. He fits the bill perfectly.’

‘Is that what the Telegraph is saying tomorrow?’

‘That’s what I’m saying. Can’t speak for the bloody comment pages. The editor loathes Baker, thinks he’s some crazed socialist. He asked the foreign desk to get me to write “The ten clues that say Forbes was murdered”. Been reading too many blogs.’

‘That would be a cracking story, though, wouldn’t it?’ Maggie said, before noticing that the woman from Der Spiegel was staring at her. Was she jealous? Had Maggie got between her and young Tim?

‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’

‘I don’t think so. Not unless you spend time clubbing by the Liffey.’ Maggie could hear her own accent change, dialling up the Irish.

‘No, you definitely look familiar.’ Still the cut-glass English accent, with impeccable idiom, but now the German undercurrent had become audible. ‘Were you in a magazine?’

‘I’m not a model, if that’s what you mean.’ Maggie saw Francesco and Tim break into appreciative smiles. She didn’t like where this was going. ‘Actually, I get this a lot. I have one of those faces. People say I look like a lot of people.’

‘Must be that then.’

Maggie smiled in what she hoped was a sisterly fashion, but elicited only a cool response. She glanced down at the pile of BlackBerrys and phones on the table: it would only take a couple of searches of the name Costello and this woman would soon have her rumbled.

A phone call came for Francesco and, thankfully, the moment was broken. Seizing his chance, Tim turned to her and suggested the two of them go out for a bite of dinner. ‘We could compare notes on the story if you like – though, obviously, only if you think that’s useful.’

Maggie remembered another of Nick’s rules: better to hunt in packs, at least if you’re a novice. She needed to tag along with someone, so it might as well be someone eager.

She got to her feet, accepting the table’s collective gratitude for getting the round in – including a mouthed thank you from Francesco – and followed Tim out. As she left she looked back at the thin-faced man, to see that he was staring straight at her.

They headed down Iberville Street, hearing the jazz riffs that curled like cigarette smoke from each doorway. Eventually they reached the Acme Oyster House: she had a plate of chargrilled oysters, so fresh they made her tingle, while he gobbled up a pound of spicy boiled crawfish.

Over dinner, she listened politely as Telegraph Tim told the story of his life: Eton, Oxford, then straight to Kabul as a stringer, impressing the foreign desk, becoming a favourite of the new editor and eventually earning a transfer to Washington. His father, a retired general; his life, one of seamless privilege. Maggie nodded and laughed in the right places and did the occasional shake of the head, thereby exhibiting the full length of her hair, a move which tended to elicit an almost Pavlovian response in most heterosexual men.

After dinner they walked along Bourbon Street, continuing to trade speculation on the Forbes case as they watched frat boys lurch out of the multiple bars. Was Forbes a Southerner? Was he a native of New Orleans? If not, had he come here pre- or post-Katrina?

‘Can we go there?’ Maggie said suddenly.

‘Where?’ Tim replied, looking for whatever it was that had caught Maggie’s eye.

‘The house. Forbes’s house.’

‘It’s sealed off, Maggie. Crime scene and all that. No media access.’

‘I don’t mean to go in. Just to look from the outside.’

Tim, who had visited earlier that day, was only too happy to play tour guide, leading Maggie a few blocks east, turning right, then heading into the crush of antique shops, restaurants and hotels on Royal Street before they finally reached the tree-lined and residential Spain Street.

The homes were decent enough, timber-clad in pastel colours, but they were small, many of them single-storey, and without the ornate, wrought-iron balustrades that made the heart of the French Quarter as alluring as a subtropical Paris. It suggested that Forbes had been anything but wealthy.

‘There it is,’ said Tim, gesturing ahead. Ribbons of yellow-and-black police tape still barred the front porch and the three-step walk-up; there were a couple of TV satellite trucks parked outside.

Maggie gazed at it, trying to imagine the life of the man who had lived there. Who he had been and what he had wanted. Just then, she spotted some activity. A policeman was approaching and behind him what appeared to be a colleague in plain clothes. She turned to Tim – ‘Isn’t that…?’ – but he was off chatting to one of the technicians by the TV truck, asking if there had been any developments.

Maggie took another look. It was him: the thin-faced man from the Monteleone bar, now being ushered into Vic Forbes’s house, a place that was off-limits to the press. And yet he had been there, among the journalists, in what was, in effect, the media hotel. What was going on?

Tim was back at her side and Maggie said nothing. She scribbled a few lines in her notebook, then agreed that they stroll back to the Monteleone together. They re-entered the pedestrian throng of Royal Street, full of shops open to the heady spring evening. As they passed a display of scented candles and an array of gothic masks for Mardi Gras, Tim launched into a long story about the cricket club he had founded in New York, allowing Maggie to stop listening and to think.

The simplest explanation for what she had just seen was that the man was indeed a plain-clothes cop who had earlier been at the bar of the Monteleone undercover. But why? Surely he hadn’t been eavesdropping on the hacks: of what possible value could that be?

They were back at the hotel now, Maggie reluctantly agreeing to return to the Carousel Bar, where the table of international journalists had reformed, albeit with a slightly different cast list. This time, though, she insisted on whisky.

Within twenty minutes, the thin-faced man was back, once again taking a table on his own, once again pulling out his laptop as if to begin journalistic work.

Maggie excused herself from the group and, with no clear plan, strode right over to the man. ‘Excuse me,’ she began, hoping she was looming over him.

‘What is it?’ he said. American, the accent rougher than she was expecting. Not Southern; closer to New Jersey.

‘Who are you?’

‘I’ll tell you if you tell me.’ He cracked a smile, showing bad teeth.

‘My name is Liz Costello. Irish Times.’

‘Lewis Rigby. I write for the National Enquirer. Freelance.’

That was not what she was expecting. ‘As in the supermarket tabloid?’

‘Yeah, the supermarket tabloid that broke the biggest political story of the last year, thank you very much.’

‘Mark Chester’s love-child? That was you?’

‘Not me personally. But yeah. You wanna sit down?’

Maggie pulled up a chair, forming a new strategy in light of this fresh information. ‘So,’ she said, her voice friendly and collegiate now. ‘You here on the Forbes story?’

He smiled, as if licking his lips at the prospect. ‘You bet.’

‘Right,’ Maggie said slowly. ‘It’s just I had a tip that earlier today a reporter for “the Enquirer” bribed a serving officer of the New Orleans Police Department in order to gain access to a crime scene. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing the Philadelphia Enquirer would get up to, so it must have been you. You know that’s a felony in all fifty states, with very heavy penalties.’

He turned ashen.

‘Yep. My source has hard evidence.’ The bluff was the oldest trick in the negotiator’s book. Through years of talks, Maggie had discovered that even the wiliest operators would fall for it.

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to blab. Not to the police, not to the Enquirer.’

‘You’re not?’

‘We’ve all got a job to do.’

He let out a long gulp of air.

Maggie continued. ‘Just so long as you share whatever you’ve got with me.’

‘You gotta be kidding. There’s no way the Nat-’

‘-National Enquirer is going to want to face charges of corrupting a police officer. Too serious. Which is why you’re going to get on the phone to your friend and ask him to arrange another visit to the house. With me as your pal.’

It took him approximately five seconds to compute what he’d heard. ‘But no photographs, all right? Those are my exclusive. Otherwise I’m screwed.’

‘Deal.’

His brow remained furrowed. ‘How can I trust you not to take it somewhere else?’

‘You can’t.’ Maggie smiled. ‘But you don’t have much choice.’

He gave a short, glum nod.

‘So,’ Maggie said, gesturing for them to leave the bar. ‘When shall we do this?’

‘There’s only one time we can do this. He’s only on duty tonight. We’ll go there right now.’

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