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Answer the back door.

“I need you to find a woman.”

In my field of work I’ve heard that line a thousand times. A woman came in many guises: she was a lover, a whore, a child, a thief, a sister, a fling, a floosie, a wife, an ex-wife, a wife of a friend, an ex-wife of a friend, an ex-wife of an ex-friend. A looker or a hooker, they all had some sort of title, and I waited for him to announce hers.

“Ruby. Her name’s Ruby,” he said, and tossed a book onto my desk. It landed with the thud of a well-worn softcover, glue-binding, and a glance down to my leathertop confirmed as much. But it wasn’t just any dime store fiction.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked the question; I knew the answer. Books like this didn’t make it north often, and when they did, they usually came with a story. I looked back up at my visitor, who was doing his best to hide under the brim of a gray fedora. He’d known about the back door, but I’d never seen the Joe before in my life. Rather, the Romeo ... he introduced himself as such.

“Where do you think?”

“New Orleans.”

“Good guess. Must be why you’re the dick.”

I chose not to take the comment maliciously, and gave the fella a tip of my hat. Business hadn’t been good enough to snipe at my first customer of the week. “What were you doing down there?”

“I was down for a meeting with business associates and decided to see the sights.”

Again, I held my tongue. I decided not to ask what line of business would send my visitor to the Big Easy, because I already had a pretty good idea of how he made rent: he paid for his room by bending the law. The moment I heard the words “business associates” I knew I was talking to a mid-level gangster. A high-level gangster would never ask a favor from an outsider like me; they have their own people. And a low-level thug would not have been doing work a thousand miles away from his block in the first place.

I finally put down the morning paper and gave my visitor a good look. Grey double breasted suit, thin white poplin shirt, lightly starched. A blood-red pocket handkerchief on the left. Past his collar I saw a peek of a thin gold chain — presumably a cross dangling under his red silk tie — and at the wrists, mother-of-pearl cuff links. He was a thin man, with a pencil mustache, brown hair pressed down and parted off-center, heading left, his left. His shoes were polished to a dull shine. Regular leather, not patent, I’d say elevens. There was nothing special or extraordinary about this man. I didn’t like his mustache much, but he was average. Looked like a little bit of trouble, but then again, most of us do.

“And the sights? I’m assuming one of them was Ruby?” I thumbed to the “R’s” and turned up three quarters of a page of the forename. “Who knew there were so many precious gems?”

He helped himself to a chair, and looked at my hardwood with a forlorn expression. “I don’t remember much about that weekend. She wasn’t on the main drag, with all the other girls. It was one of the side streets. We just spent one night together”—that’s all anyone got out of the Blue Book—“but that’s all it took.”

There were only three streets, side or otherwise, in the French Quarter. At least, there were three streets you went to if you were a guy like him or me. “Iberville?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s the one.” I looked through the listings, scanning for the seedy street that crossed Bourbon down near Canal. There were six Rubys on the street.

“You remember which house?”

“No, but it doesn’t matter. She’s not there.”

“How can you be so sure?” I shut the Blue Book and gave him the once over. He was working the brim of his hat pretty well with a handful of anxious fingers.

“Because she’s in New York. I saw her in Herald Square last night. Crossing .”


“Yeah.” His hat wouldn’t hold up to this kind of anxiety much longer. He must have been in some kind of bad shape about this dame.

“So what did this broad do to you? Steal some money? Give you the clap?”

“No, nothing like that. I just,” he straightened up, “I just want to talk to her.”

I could tell by the forced attempt at nonchalance that this wasn’t about some bedside crime. This was about the girl, and by the way he stuck out his chin and swallowed hard, he had it bad. “You want to talk to her?”

“Yeah, just see her again.” That got a nod out of him, and he glanced up at me before returning his attention to the orientation of his cuff links. All at once, I felt sorry for the guy. He was hard up for a whore, and one with a bad dye job at that. I knew that looking for a lady like that was a fool’s errand. She’s a business woman. She had no need to see him again.

But I’m a business man, and rent was coming due. “Sure thing, buddy. What did she look like?”

Try calling New Orleans to get any leads.

Go to Herald Square and hope Ruby makes a return appearance.