Mani’s been introduced to Gerard, they’re around the dining table. Ellen has the burger accompaniments sliced and covered, tomato, lettuce, pickle. She’s caramelizing the onions, no overwhelming onion scent and sweet when cooked. Potatoes chopped for fries, she does them skin on. Burgers sprinkled with dark soy sauce, these have blue cheese bits mixed in.
Gerard, “I know several of the policemen who work the Quarter. Max was still outside when I walked over. They still don’t know who she is, but she’s young, twentyish. There were no other signs of violence evident, but she was clothed. And it wasn’t a messy job, not like the cut and saw of a terrorist. Clean through, like a samurai sword.”
Mani, “Geeyuck. Was she kneeling, standing, can they tell?”
Gerard, “I asked, she fell face…no, that’s not right, when she fell the body had no face. She fell on her chest, arms at her sides, eyes still open on the severed head. So standing and unprepared or she would likely have eyes shut in anticipation. The angle of the cut should tell them the height of the killer, close to it anyway. She was five-five more or less, it wasn’t a midget ninja.”
Katya, “You found out a lot, surprised he told you so much.”
“He knows me, I’m not calling the media.”
Katya, “And if she was dressed, it is also probable that there was no sexual motive.”
Mani, “They think it was done in the condo? Or could she have been killed someplace else?”
Gerard, “There, blood all over the place.”
“You don’t decapitate someone and take the head and body elsewhere anyway.”
Gerard, “That is true, Katya. I hope you have no experience in it.”
“Never cut off a head, messy, must have the right weapon, know what to do. Gun is better, point and pull trigger, bullet does all the work.”
Ellen, “No more guns, swords and murder, ya’ll makin’ me dizzy. Tell Gerard about our real estate plan, something pleasant.”
Gerard, “Ellen, such a sweet soul, you are right, please, you have decided to buy real estate?”
“Went today to see property, Michael referred us to a professor at Tulane for consulting. We haven’t decided if it is necessary. We own property in Houston, get an appraisal, do cash flow estimates, cost of repairs or remodeling, it works or it doesn’t, Katya figures that stuff out.”
Gerard, “Sounds as if you have no need of a consultant, you are your own. And you bought this place without a consultant, yes?”
“Yes, we did homework, made a good offer, Ellen hired plumber, electrician, painters, found a good decorator. Our first property will be something smaller, fix it up enough to rent, see how it goes. Maybe later we buy one to do a major renovation and resell.”
Katja, “Oh, and we are moofing to French Quarter permanently.”
She doesn’t mention two houses, no need to explain a shooting range. And after talking it over, they may keep the shooting range. They have to go to Houston for Katya Donut and their commercial property once in a while. Target practice there separates them from having to keep in practice in New Orleans.
Gerard smiles, “How splendid, the city has charmed fresh young residents. It needs productive young people.”
Ellen, “Well the Quarter and scattered restaurants, we found nothing interesting once you get past St. Charles and Carrollton. And the suburbs are death.”
He laughs, “Entirely true, to the east, there is no reason to roam further than Parkway Bakery. Lakeview and Gentilly were cultural wastelands before Katrina. The only redeeming event that direction is Jazz Fest.”
“Is that worthwhile?”
“Yes, but I only attend on Thursday and Friday, never the weekends. Far too crowded, I do not wish to be that close to my fellow man traipsing around shirtless, reeking of too much beer and sun.”
Ellen starts grilling, in under ten she has juicy medium rare burgers and toasted Oroweat Crustini buns, the perfect burger bun, light, crusty when toasted.
Gerard, “Excellent job dear girl. There is something regal about a well made burger, and your fries are divine. I shouldn’t admit it, but I do occasionally visit Camellia Grill. Your burger puts theirs to shame.”
“We tried the one in the Quarter, it’s fair, better at the original.”
“Correct again. Now, young Mani, what are you studying at university?”
“Foreign languages, right now French and Japanese, I already speak Thai, my aunt insisted I keep it up even though I’ve been in the states since fourth grade,” she relates a bit of her early history.
Gerard, “Oh my, such a shame, I am sorry to hear it.”
Mani, “It was a long time ago, I got free of my aunt’s hovering and wound up with Ellen and the twins. Overall, a great deal.”
“Good attitude," he raises his glass, “to good attitudes.”
Mani, “Mr. Depardieu, if I may ask, Ellen told me you study the occult, or I should say studied and have moved on to more interesting studies.”
“Yes, I should have a PhD by now if there was such a thing. I found it empty. I have stumbled on other mysteries, like moving matter mentally, although I am pathetically weak at it. I also do a substantial amount of what people call meditation. That is, I sit around doing nothing in a quiet room and see what happens.”
Mani, “And does anything...um, happen?”
“Most of the time the clock ticks, very occasionally there is a feeling of being outside me, me as a self. Or my ‘self’ is gone and there is only everything. It is only a short burst, a few seconds, then I am me again.”
Mani, “They say LSD has that effect, for a longer time.”
Gerard, “I read a bit about it, never followed up, I shall have to procure some. If I do, would you girls be kind enough to keep an eye on me, make sure I don’t wander off or do something stupid. I am told it can be a good or bad experience.”
Ellen, “Sure, be interesting to see what happens. You’re in good health, right? Don’t want a heart attack in the middle.”
“No, nothing like that, blood pressure is normal for a man my age, no chronic illness. I walk a good deal, no particular aches or pains. My major vices are wine and my pipe.”
“Let us know, should be at your place I think, better to have familiar surroundings.”
Time to wind up, Ellen says, “The twins will walk home with you, there’s a screwball out there.”
Gerard, “But who walks them back?”
“Gerard, he screws with them he’ll find his sword up his ass. Trust me on that.”
“I’ll take your word. Thank you for another interesting evening, pleasure to meet you Mani. I shall be in touch when I have acquired my magic mushroom.”
Katja and Katya walk Gerard home, Ellen and Mani clean up, prepare a nightcap just as the girls return.
“All safe and sound?”
“Da, we even walked his place. His house is more traditional, antique. But he has meeny books, covers almost every wall. There are stacks of books around, some open like he’s reading them, several notebooks, but it is clean otherwise, kitchen orderly and neat. A scholar’s home.”
“Glad to hear it, he’s such a sweet old guy, not that old, what, sixty? Got vodka, let’s sit and not think about dead people.”
Two weeks into the search, Ellen says, “I’m satisfied with a condo on Governor Nicholls. Ground floor, no parking, small courtyard. It’s been remodeled already, adorable place. They want four hundred, I’m gonna offer three fifty, but it’s worth the four. I think we can rent it for eighteen hundred a month. Around six percent a year and tax free until the depreciations runs out. Not get rich money, but we get our feet wet in the residential rental property business.”
Katya, “Good enough.”
Mani comes home, it’s the middle of Mardi Gras, only one more weekend, Monday and Tuesday to endure. They been to see a couple of parades, can’t get into it though. One shooting on Canal Street, they don’t need the aggravation of drunks for plastic junk from a float.
Mani, “Did you find a property?”
Ellen, “Yes, if they meet our price. I am waiting until the Mardi Gras mess is over with, let them stew a bit. There are at least two others that will work, we don’t have to have that one.”
Mani kisses her tenderly, “And tonight you get to fulfill another, your gorgeous face between my legs.”
“Yummy,” they go down to tea, Katja’s ahead of them, tea is ready, cookies out.
Tea is either discussion of the day or quiet reverie, today it’s reverie. Mani collects the cups and plates, takes them for a wash. Katja clicks on the news. She’s been following online to see if there is any progress on the murder.
An anchor reads, “Less than two weeks after the gruesome beheading on Barracks Street, another young woman has been found decapitated. This one in a vacant rental apartment in Faubourg Marigny, adjacent to the French Quarter. No further details are available at this time, but the second beheading in two weeks is suggestive of terrorism or a serial killer.”
Katja clicks off, she calls Gerard, “Haf you seen news?”
“Just now, another one. They’ve made no progress on the first except to identify the girl. Haven’t released the name but she isn’t local.”
“Can you check with police pal? Call us with any information?”
“Well, of course, you are taking an interest then?”
“We live here, are buying property. We do not need crazy man killing people.”
Gerard, “Might not get much tonight, but I will walk over to the scene and see who is on duty.”
“Wait, we will go with you.”
“If you wish, but he does not appear to be killing old men.”
“Anyway wait, we will be five minute only.”
“Ellen, you and Mani will start dinner, sister and I will take a walk wiz Gerard, maybe cop friend ees around.”
Ellen, “Protect yourself.”
That’s code for take guns, with an asshole on the loose, Katja has no intention of leaving home empty holstered. The go upstairs, change, including jackets to cover the Glock 42s. Be enough if a creep with a sword shows up.
Gerard is talking to one of the policemen, the twins are ten yards away, he waves them over.
“Officer Ferguson, meet Katya and Katja, two friends and residents of the Quarter. Naturally, they are concerned, they are the right age and gender, or perhaps I should say the wrong age and gender considering the circumstances.”
He nods, “Ladies. Only thing I can say is don’t get lured into empty buildings.”
Katya, “Again, no sign of break in, no struggle by girl, killed here, is that it?”
Ferguson looks at Gerard, “They are completely trustworthy, and smart. You should get to know them, they pay attention.”
“You have it right. It was, like the first, incredibly clean cut, the coroner said surgical, except that it was with one swipe. Whatever the blade is, it’s sharp, razor sharp.”
“Still, he must be good, it takes force to cut through a neck in one clean shot. There are drops of blood, a spatter, someplace away from the body.”
Cop blinks, “Yeah, how’d you know that?”
“Common kendo training. After a cut, the budoka flicks his wrist sharply,” she demonstrates, “to remove the blood from the katana, the sword. That would leave a spatter pattern on the floor, maybe a wall if he was close to one.”
Ferguson, “Detectives were wondering about the blood spatter. The first was the vic’s blood, guess the one today will be the same. I’ll pass it along. They figured it was a trained sword guy, the spatter business hasn’t come up. They didn’t report it to the press, you aren’t, are you?”
Katya, “We do not talk to reporters. We do not say anything, we never talked to you. How tall was killer?”
“Five ten, maybe an inch one way or the other, that isn’t public either.”
“So cut was straight, or higher on the strike side. He is right or left handed?”
“And eyes open, she has no idea of what is to happen.”
“Looks that way.”
“She will be also not local. These are girls looking to rent apartment, but from out of town. He has listing, probably Craigslist, anonymous, girl has no idea if he is the actual owner or agent. He has three or four places he knows about, has figured out how to get in. This one is like the first, no break in, no sign of tampering with the lock?”
“Doesn’t seem like it.”
“He makes an impression, gets a key made, she comes along, he opens up like any real estate agent or owner. Or maybe picks lock and is inside already when she shows up. Any more detail, you will call Gerard.”
“I don’t know, said too much already maybe, but you seem to have good ideas on the method, worth checking out.”
“Nobody will know about us. We do not want to be in the news. You will not tell anyone you talked to us, you got an idea from standing around out here and thinking it over. If it works, take credit.”
He looks at Gerard, “They for real?”
Gerard, “Count on it my friend.”
Walk to Gerard’s place, he asks, “How many twentyish girls from out of town can be looking for an apartment down here? Seems a narrow field of potential victims.”
Katya, “It does. And what is the thing with chopping off head of a girl he does not know? He takes their purse, ID, but you do not kill people for simple robbery. You stick a gun in their face, they give you money. A sword is noticeable. Besides, young woman is not the best target for robbery, not much cash, uses cards.”
Gerard, “How does he get them alone in a vacant place carrying a sword?”
“Sword is already in the place. The only risk is the owner or a real estate agent comes along while he’s inside. Improbable, but still a risk.”
Gerard, “Could he be an agent?”
“Sure, but someone who had access would be the first suspect. It is possible there is an agent posting properties anonymously on craigslist. Still, a real estate agent with kendo training, one that works the Quarter area is a short list.”
Gerard, “What about a locksmith?”
“He has the training and the equipment. Still, it is also possible the killer is just picking the lock and is already inside when the victim shows up. Anyone who practices can pick common door locks, or buy an electric pick.”
“I thought they used real estate lock boxes.”
“They do, but that only opens the box to get the key to the house, this guy is picking the lock on the door, he doesn’t care about a key.”
“You know a bit about this lock business.”
Katya, “I read about on the internet.”
She isn’t going to tell him how many locks they picked as kids to access vacant houses, or to steal guns and money. They part company, head the couple of blocks home.
Katja tells Ellen and Mani what they learned.
Ellen, “About one of your questions, how many possible victims are there? Fair number of girls move here, big nursing school, several colleges, two med schools, most of ‘em don’t move down here, but some do, allure of the Quarter. Hell, we added three to the number, just that we bought, didn’t rent.”
Mani, “It’s creepy. Good thing I’m not looking for an apartment. Are you sure that’s what it is?”
Katya, “No. Could be completely wrong. If he is using craigslist for instance, he has to get some information, or he wastes time and increases risk by showing the place to anyone who calls. Has to ask question, where are you from, why moving to New Orleans? He wants them from out of town, he wants a certain age range. College or nursing school would tell him she is probably around twenty. Tomorrow I will look and see if there are notices at the schools for apartments to rent. Better than random callers from Craigslist.”
Katja, “What ees dinner?”
Ellen, “Tomato basil soup and meatloaf. I can make it poor boy style or just hot on a plate with gravy. Purple cabbage slaw with tahini dressing, flourless chocolate cookies with toasted almonds.”
She ends up making garlic bread for the soup, they eat the meatloaf like an entrée, not a sandwich.
Katja, “Good idea, you haf not made tomato basil zoup.”
“I was surfing the soup aisle and it jumped out. One of the organic kinds in a box. Must have been in the mood for tomato soup. I added crushed red pepper to give it more kick, dollop of sour cream to smooth it out. Meatloaf was from scratch, came out okay.”
Mani, “Came out great, chopped onion, mushrooms and garlic, brown gravy on top, gravy was good, how do you make gravy?”
“Beef stock, flour, soy sauce, Worcestershire, a little sugar, simmer and stir until it’s the consistency you want. Embarrassingly simple, but it works. Just gotta do the stir part, flour will burn if you get too anxious.”
Dinner done, Mani does dishes and puts things away, they collect on the couches and watch Liam Neeson shoot people in Taken.
Yay, Mardi Gras is finito, done, over, the Quarter returns to its normal weirdness. Nobody else is beheaded. A couple of people were shot during the festivities, but in New Orleans a couple of people are shot every day. There’s no requirement it be a festive occasion.
Mani is back to her school routine, Ellen and Katya met with the condo owner and sealed the deal, for Katya’s price. They rent it to Eduardo Dimas, a lawyer with a solid rep in the Hispanic community despite the fact he’s gay. Eduardo isn’t out, he isn’t in, he doesn’t think his sexuality is anyone’s business. He only told Ellen when she mentioned her lesbian household.
Eduardo, “I occasionally run into Spanish mothers who want a successful lawyer for their daughter, I tell them I am not the marrying kind. It has the benefit of being true, I’m not marrying a man either.”
Ellen, “We don’t do marriage, we’re a little lost on why gays think it’s such a big deal. Acceptance into the mainstream maybe, but we can’t figure out why anyone wants to be accepted into the mainstream. It’s like…loserville.”
Eduardo laughs, “I had not thought of it that way, you have a point. Fitting in with a rotten society is a kind of mental illness. By the way, I’m having a few friends over, to house warm my new home, I hope you and your compadres will come for a drink. Seven Saturday evening, it is just six of us, all gay men, four more will fit nicely. If the weather holds, we can use the courtyard.”
Ellen, “That’s so sweet, sure, casual I assume?”
“Yes, of course, happy to hear you can make it.”
She walks to the house, the others are home, ‘We are going to Eduardo’s housewarming Saturday, seven o’clock. Just a few of his friends and us. No problem, they’re all gay. I’ll bring a coupla bottles of champagne, that’s warming enough. Casual, we should step up from jeans though.”
Katja, “We haf silk pants, nice blouse, like that.”
Mani, “You guys will be meeting more people, that’s good.”
Ellen, “You gonna be meetin’ more people too honey, we’re all going.”
“Really! Wow, how cool, a party with something besides girls looking to meet fraternity boys.”
“And no problem with date rape drugs.”
Gerard calls, “See the news?”
Ellen, “Do not flippin’ tell me…”
“Yes, another in Marigny, rentals are cheaper there, more prospective twenty somethings. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be the parent. Daughter strikes out on her own, beginning to train for a career or attend college, brutally murdered in an unfamiliar city. How brutal to know your daughter’s head was chopped off.”
Ellen, “Feels crappy just thinking about it. Cops know anything new?”
“I spoke to Max, essentially the same as the others. This girl they ID’d pretty quickly, from Honduras, going to nursing school. The first girl was a Tulane student, the second at Newcomb.”
Ellen tells the others, Katya gets on the phone to Gerard, “Call Max, tell him schools have boards and online sites with apartment rentals. Those should be taken down until this is finished.”
Gerard, “Goodness, a targeted audience. How did you figure it out?”
“Thinking of options. There should be no girl going to look at apartment in or around Quarter by herself. One way to stop it is to get rid of notices for rentals.”
“I’ll call him immediately, thank you,” he clicks off.
Katya, “I collected all the notices on university, nursing school and med school websites. There are only sixteen for this part of town. If they get the ads removed right away, we will be the only prospects. We are going to make appointment to see each one.”
Ellen, “We have to go alone though.”
Mani, “Yeah, that’s not safe.”
Katya, “We will have advantage, Ellen will not go, only me and sister. I have an idea. Ellen, you and Mani go buy four phones, cash, and get a couple hundred minutes on each. We don’t want calls traced to us.”
Phones purchased, they call for appointments, if a woman answers they hang up. If it’s a man, they ask questions about the place, parking, laundry, appliances. If he asks no questions, they say they’ll think it over. They are looking for a man who wants to know where she’s from and what she does. Nobody meets the requirement.
Katya, “He just killed a girl, he is running two or three weeks between each one. Maybe he doesn’t have a place that meets his needs yet. We will call Craigslist, nothing to lose. Everyone call, do not leave any message.”
A half hour in, Mani’s on the line with a man, “Yes, I’m from New Jersey, going to college, Tulane. I don’t want to dorm, I want some privacy. Yes, okay, two is fine, see you tomorrow.”
Katya, “Where is it?”
“Burgundy, near Frenchman.”
“We will take a look.”
It’s shotgun style, most of the street is, front door opens to living room, straight hall to bedroom, bathroom, kitchen in the rear. Shutters over windows, can’t see inside. Katya looks down the side, there’s a locked gate, it’s that kind of neighborhood. Locked everything, windows have either stout wooden shutters or metal bars. Around here, if it’s accessible, it’s gone.
Mani, “You have a plan?”