Read an Excerpt
Commander's Palace wasn't just the most storied restaurant in New Orleans. For Carmela Bertrand it was pure magic.
Carmela knew this for a fact because she was sitting in their Garden Room at this very minute. And not only was she nibbling soft-shell crab and sipping an awesome Montrachet, but she was staring into the inquisitive blue eyes of her fella du jour, Detective Edgar Babcock.
Maybe it was the wine, no doubt crafted by wily Bacchus himself, that had cast such a luscious spell. Or maybe it was the soft, warm light from the gilded candelabras, the old-world charm and formality of the place, or that crazy second course of oysters baked in absinthe and buttered crumbs. Whatever the reason, Carmela was definitely feeling it. Luxuriance, exhilaration, and romance. Sweet, bubbly romance.
"This is so lovely," Carmela said, trying to pitch her voice an octave lower so it was sexy and seductive, kind of like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. Or maybe Lauren Bacall in one of those old black-and-white movies from the '40s.
"You're lovely," Babcock replied.
And Carmela really was. Her blue-gray eyes, fine features, and tawny-colored hair (this week's color, anyway) gave her an air of exuberance and creative curiosity. She was toned and fairly athletic from lots of dog walking with Boo and Poobah, but still enjoyed a few sweet curves. And, yes, she could be stubborn, but was generally quick to administer a hug or kind word.
Carmela took another sip of wine. "I have to say, this dinner has been pure perfection. If every restaurant reviewer in the universe hadn't already bequeathed four stars to this place, I would have sprinkled them on myself."
Babcock smiled and reached across the table to gently take her hand.
"Why are you talking that way?" he asked.
Carmela's eyes went slightly round. "What way?"
"Like you've got the beginnings of a head cold. Or are doing an imitation of a character from The Simpsons."
"Oh." Then, "I didn't mean to."
"You've just fallen completely under my spell, is that it?"
"Well . . . yeah," said Carmela, reverting to Valley girl speak. Now she wasn't sure if he was flirting with her or putting her on.
Babcock gave a low chuckle. "You're such a little cutie, you know that? One of these days we're seriously going to have to . . ."
"Carmela!" A loud, impassioned shriek suddenly split the air.
Startled, Carmela and Babcock both whipped their heads sideways, only to find an exuberant-looking blond woman grinning at them, all teeth and gums and big Southern hair.
"Uh . . . hi," Carmela said as she scrambled to dredge her memory, to put a name to this face. "Isabelle?" She said it tentatively because she really wasn't sure that was the name of this young woman who'd just hit an earsplitting high C as she stormed their table like a pirate commandeering one of the king's galleons.
Isabelle's smile got even wider and brighter, and she said, "You remembered."
"How could I forget?" Carmela said, when she really had forgotten. Well, almost.
"Has Ellie been keeping you in the loop about all my big wedding plans?" Isabelle asked. Ellie was Eldora Black, Isabelle's sister and the tarot card reader who worked at Juju Voodoo, the little shop across the courtyard from Carmela's French Quarter apartment. The voodoo shop, a kind of funky, fun tourist trap, was owned by Carmela's very best friend, Ava Gruiex.
"Ellie has shared a few things with me," Carmela said, lying as gracefully as she could. She glanced over at Babcock. "With us." Now she gave Babcock an encouraging nod. "You remember Isabelle, don't you? She's one of the assistant district attorneys."
"We've met," Babcock said politely.
"Just two more weeks," Isabelle said. She held up two fingers and then fluttered her hand nervously as her engagement ring caught the light and glittered like a disco ball.
"That's some gorgeous ring," Carmela said.
Now Isabelle preened a bit. "Isn't it? Three carats, a VS2."
"Sweet," Babcock said, gamely trying to interject himself into a conversation that had suddenly turned girly.
Flustered by the attention, Isabelle took a step back from their table. "I hope you two are still planning to attend my wedding."
"Absolutely," Carmela said. She had an awful feeling that she hadn't actually mailed back her RSVP. She'd been busy and scattered lately, what with teaching a series of card-making classes at her scrapbook shop, Memory Mine. Oh well, maybe she could short-circuit things and give her reply to Ellie. Yeah, that oughta work just fine.
Isabelle glanced across the room where two of her friends waved at her, one tall and blond, the other short and dark haired. "Well, I'm afraid I have to hustle off. I've been tasting cakes with Naomi and Cynthia and a few other folks from the wedding party." She rolled her eyes. "And now I have a thousand other things to nail down."
"I'll bet you do," Carmela said. She gave a little wave as Isabelle scampered away. "Bye-bye. Good luck." Then, when Isabelle and her friends were out of both sight and earshot, she leaned across the table and said, "Do you recall me inviting you to her wedding?"
Babcock shook his head. "Nope."
"Do you want to go? Do you want to be my plus-one?"
Another head shake. "Nope."
"Come on," Carmela said. "Don't be an old poop. Weddings are exciting, romantic events filled with dancing, champagne, good food, and excellent cake." Carmela was particularly fond of cake, though champagne wasn't too far down her list, either.
"I'm pretty sure I have to work," Babcock said.
"You don't even know when her wedding is," Carmela snorted. "So how do you know if you'll be called upon to bust an international smuggling ring of ladies' designer flip-flops or chase down a homicidal maniac?"
But Babcock didn't answer. He was suddenly frowning at the check that had been surreptitiously deposited at their table, running quick computations in his head.
Hmm. He was good at dodging bullets, that's for sure, Carmela decided. Probably from all the practice he got as a police detective.
She narrowed her eyes and studied him carefully. He was quite a catch, this guy. Tall, lanky, ginger-colored hair, nice high cheekbones. A man who walked into a room and immediately projected a certain weighty presence. Plus he had a penchant for snazzy clothes. Really snazzy clothes, like Ralph Lauren Black Label and Moncler. Tonight he was wearing a Burberry Brit jacket that widened his shoulders and nipped his waist. Always a good thing.
Babcock glanced up and gave her a warm smile. "Ready to go?"
Carmela returned his smile. Her upper lip dipped in a soft Cupid's bow, a luscious, rounded lip that most women would kill for. Or pay good money for in a plastic surgeon's office.
"I could get used to this, you know," Carmela said. She meant the dinner, the togetherness, and then some. The and then some meaning the two of them would eventually head back to her place for a nice Sunday-night canoodle.
"So could I," Babcock said. He held out a hand and helped her up from the chair. Then, he slid both arms around her, pulled her close, and gave her a quick kiss.
"Uh-oh," Carmela cautioned. "PDA."
Babcock arched back an inch. "What's PDA? Some kind of women's political group? A new design project?"
She brushed her lips across his cheek, feeling his warmth and energy. "You know, public display of affection."
"Oh, that." He chuckled and grabbed her hand. "Come on."
Outside the restaurant, the November evening had turned cool and breezy. Though it was full-on dark, the exterior of CommanderÕs Palace twinkled with multiple strands of lights. Turrets, columns, gingerbread swirls, and balustrades were all shown off to full advantage, gilded and glittering like a Mardi Gras float. Turquoise and white awnings flip-flapped in the wind while the restaurantÕs trademark neon sign hummed softly.
The whole of the Garden District was spread out around them, stately and sublime, as if it were its own proud principality governed by some unseen archduke. Lush gardens and wrought-iron fences surrounded block after block of palatial Greek Revival homes, with a few Queen Annes and Victorians thrown in for good measure. And, if you strolled down First Street, you might even encounter a fanciful Gothic home, owned by a famous author of vampire books.
Carmela and Babcock walked down Coliseum Street, heading for Babcock's blue BMW, which was parked at the end of the block. Across the scuffed blacktop, where dry leaves scritched and scratched, hurried along by little puffs of wind, stood the notorious Lafayette Cemetery. Dark and ominous-looking, this was one of New Orleans's oldest and most infamous Cities of the Dead. Here, crumbling tombs, ancient crypts, and hulking mausoleums stood shoulder to somber shoulder, more than seven thousand residents interred in a one-block area, attracting and terrifying swarms of tourists as well as locals.
A chill gust of wind suddenly blasted them, and Carmela turned her face into Babcock's shoulder.
"I was thinking that we should-" she began.
An ungodly scream suddenly pierced what felt like a fragile night.
Carmela clutched Babcock's arm. "What was that?"
Another agonizing scream rolled out, but was immediately cut off.
Babcock swiveled his head like a periscope. "Cemetery," he said sharply. He took off running, as if a starter's gun had sounded, leaving Carmela standing all by herself on the sidewalk. In the dark.
She weighed her options for all of one second. "Wait!" she cried. And took off after him.
But Babcock's longer legs had put him easily twenty strides ahead of her. And when he reached the cemetery's fence, he simply grabbed hold of the top tines, wedged a toe into a curlicue, and vaulted over it slick as you please.
"Where are you . . . ? Oh jeez!" Carmela cried. She knew she couldn't climb over that foreboding-looking fence in her tight skirt, so she pounded down the block to the formal entrance at the corner, lost her balance and almost spun out, then ducked through the narrow entry.
"Babcock," she called out. "Where are you?" She slid to a stop and listened intently. When she didn't hear anything, she called again, "What's going on?" Then, "Are you okay?"
"Over here." Babcock's faint shout drifted toward her.
Carmela glanced around, decided that his voice had to be coming from practically the epicenter of the cemetery, and then took off at a gallop. She dodged around a row of low, flat, humpy-looking tombs, then sped down a narrow gravel walkway between two mausoleums that were iced by a finger of moonlight. The night felt even darker, more dangerous, in here. Fear trickled coldly down her spine, and the exertion of a full-out sprint made the blood pound in her ears.
Still she kept going, moving and darting ahead.
What could have happened? Carmela wondered. Had someone been attacked? That had to be it. None of New Orleans's cemeteries were particularly safe after dark, and visitors were constantly being cautioned to avoid them. Had Babcock been able to foil this robbery attempt or attack or whatever it had been? Had he given chase to the attacker?
Carmela spun around a stone angel whose upturned face had eroded away over the years from the constant onslaught of heat, wind, humidity, and hurricanes. She dashed past a row of oven tombs, stumbling as her toe caught on the corner of a marble tablet that the earth had heaved up. Righting herself, she listened again but didn't hear anything. So she ran left in a sort of zigzag pattern, still trying to get a bead on where Babcock had called to her from.
Gray clouds boiled up, and the sliver of moon, which had served as a small guiding beacon, slipped behind them. Now Carmela was practically running blind, feeling her way along, touching and grasping cold stone. If only she could . . .
She ran her fingers along the edge of a marble tomb, cool and smooth as picked bones. She glanced up-hoping that the crescent of moon might put in an appearance again. But the night seemed to turn darker, holding a hint of ever more danger.
Carmela scuffed along quietly. She figured she was fairly close to where Babcock might have called to her from. Now if she could only see . . .
A sound, soft and muffled, as if someone might be hunching themselves back into the shadows and hiding from her, caused Carmela to stop dead in her tracks. On high alert, hair on the back of her neck prickling like crazy, she listened as though her life depended on it. And maybe it did.
What was that? What did I hear?
Flattening herself against the side of a large, hulking crypt, she tried to modulate her breathing as best she could. Tried to make every sense keenly alert to what was going on around her.
But, after a few moments, she heard-and felt-nothing.
Carmela slowly released a breath. She was spooked, yes, but she wasn't going to let her emotions run wild. She was going to keep bumbling along and find Babcock. After all, he was in here somewhere.
Carmela moved ahead two steps, then three, her right shoulder still brushing against the side of the crypt, using it as a sort of touch point. She was just about to cry out to Babcock again, to try to get a fix on his position, when she heard a strange, low, creaking sound and caught a rush of something.
The initial spark in Carmela's brain told her it was a shadow coming at her-a grid of light and dark projected by a far-off passing car. At the last moment, she realized it was a rusty iron gate. The heavy, flaking wrought-iron door of the crypt had been flung open on squeaking hinges and was creaking inexorably toward her.
Shocked and totally unprepared, Carmela had barely two seconds to get a hand up in front of her face, a pro forma protest at best, before the gate struck hard against her, pinning her tightly against the crypt's outside wall.
She let loose a startled yelp as her forehead went numb and bright stars danced and flashed before her eyes. She suddenly felt like a captured butterfly pinned inside a display case. Angry, stunned, and struggling to pull herself back to the here and now, she gripped the gate with her hands and managed to croak out, "Help!"
Then she heard footsteps lightly running away from her as she was finally able to shove the heavy door or metal gate or whatever it was off her body.
"Stop!" she cried out. Now her fear had been replaced with fury.