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Louisiana Hotshot
by Julie Smith
Forge, 2001


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Nerd wanted. Nerdette wouldn't be too bad. Young hot shot, under thirty, 5 yrs. computer, 10 yrs. investigative exp. Harvard ed., no visible piercings. Must play the computer like Horowitz played piano. Slave wages.

CHAPTER ONE

"Huh. This one see you comin'--he as picky as you."

"Let me see that." Unbelieving, Talba Wallis grabbed for the classifieds. She was having breakfast with her mother at the old black-painted table, trying to ignore Miz Clara's morning meddling. Talba had nothing against getting a job, indeed fully intended to. She merely preferred to peruse the Times-Picayune ads at her own pace, if at all. The best jobs in her field would be on the Internet, so why bother?

However, she had to admit her mother had happened on a rare gem--an honest ad. The kind you usually saw only in the personals: "Fat toad, sixty-five, stinks, seeks hard-bodied blue-eyed blonde for hideous perversions. Must be 18 and star of own TV series."

"Must be some kind of joke," Miz Clara said. "Nobody under thirty with all that experience." Hardly hearing, Talba took the paper and wandered toward her room. Who the hell would place an ad like that? It was easy enough to find out, and she couldn't resist--it was a slow Sunday morning. Darryl had his kid for the weekend.

Actually, she met quite a few of the criteria. She was under thirty, had no visible piercings, did have investigative experience, and was, in fact, the Horowitz of the computer. She'd probably be employed if she weren't so damn good. In fact, she certainly would be--she'd just quit a cushy gig at United Oil out of pure boredom. Elsewhere, there were plenty of jobs for a nerd of her distinction, but Talba was a New Orleanian through and through. Her mama was here and her boy friend was here, but that was only part of it. Her heart was here.

The last line of the ad said "Fax resume," and gave a number. That was all she needed. A few strokes of the keyboard and she had a name: Edward Valentino. A few more and she had another: E.V. Anthony Investigations. A detective agency on Carondelet. No web site. "Well, well, well, well, well. What can we deduce from this?" She mumbled to herself, thoroughly delighted. Her mentor, Gene Allred, had told her he got a good percentage of his work from being first in the phonebook--therefore, given the "E.V.", there probably was no Anthony.Carondelet Street was in the CBD, or Central Business District--therefore maybe Valentino was a pretty respectable guy (which was more than she could say for Allred.)

She grabbed for the Yellow Pages. Aha, an ad. Twenty-five years' experience. Specializing in criminal defense, undercover, divorce, child custody, missing persons, insurance, pre-nuptial. In other words, not specializing. Interesting, though--the ad didn't mention too much about background checks. Corporate and pre-nuptial might cover that, but something told Talba Mr. Valentino didn't care much for doing heavy computer searches.

Well, hell. That was a nerd's job. She got back on the net and sometime after lunch had a stack of papers half an inch thick. An excellent day's work. She decided to give her mother a treat. "Come on, Mama. Let's take a ride." 

Miz Clara was dozing in front of the television set. "Where ya want to go?" "Let's go see Aunt Carrie. I've got this nice car--we might as well use it." She had bought a five-year-old Camry out of her United Oil earnings.

Miz Clara said, "Hmmph. Not nice enough."

"Oh, yeah, I think so. In this neighborhood, I think it's quite nice enough." Her mama lived in a run-down cottage in the Ninth Ward, in a block poetically situated between Desire and Piety. A better car would just be a better target. Miz Clara went off to trade her floppy old blue slippers for a pair of Nikes, and find herself a wig to wear. When she came back, she said, "What you been doin' in there by ya self?"

"Writing poetry," said Talba, and Miz Clara shut up.

It was eight forty-five the next morning when Talba tried the door marked E.V. Anthony. It was locked. Good. That probably meant they came in at nine. She found a ladies room in which to replenish her lipstick and returned to stand guard. At approximately nine-oh-five, a young white woman unlocked the door. "Are you waiting for someone?"

"Edward Valentino."

"Come on in. Do you have an appointment?"

"No. Just taking a chance."

"Can I help you with anything?"

"Oh, no thanks. I'll just read a magazine." It was obvious the woman was dying of curiosity, but Talba figured once was enough to tell her story. It was another few minutes--twenty maybe--before a stocky man came in, a man who'd be sixty-five in a matter of days, stood five-feet-ten, and limped a little. Not even giving him a chance to greet the help, she rose and extended her hand.

"Mr. Valentino, I presume."

"Good morning. Good morning," he said, clearly a little flustered.

"I didn't know about the limp."

"Say that again?" Now he was irritated.

Talba noticed that he said "dat" for "that". He had the kind of New Orleans accent that sounded, for all the world, as if he'd grown up in Brooklyn. She held up her file.

"Everything else was on the Internet. But I missed the limp." He nodded at the secretary.

"You're Eileen Fisher, aren't you?" She turned back to Valentino.
"And you're about to have a birthday. Congratulations."

Smoke was starting to come out of Valentino's ears. "What the hell is this?" What da hell is dis?

"This," she said, "is a young hotshot, able to play the computer like Horowitz tickles the ivories. No visible piercings and well under thirty. Talba Wallis at your service."

Valentino looked exhausted, but he stuck out his hand manfully. "Eddie Valentino. You gotta be a friend of Angela's."

"Angela? I must be missing something."

"Come on, come on. Angela put ya up to this."

"Angela. Your wife's name is Audrey, it can't be...oh! Daughter. She must be your daughter."

He was laughing now. "Angie, Angie--don't you ever give up?"

"Mr. Valentino, I'm as much of a hotshot as you're gonna get, but your daughter's name wasn't in any of the databases. Now if I'd known I was going to need it, I could have had it in two seconds."

A look of astonishment spread over his features. Talba figured he was starting to catch on. "How'd you know who placed the ad?"

Talba shrugged. "You advertised for an investigator. I investigated."

Valentino closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, a man clearly at the end of his rope. "Eileen, you got any coffee?"

"Yes sir. Of course." The girl looked terrified.

"Bring us some, will ya? Ms. Wallis, come on in."

He led the way to one of three other rooms she could see, another of which seemed to be a combination coffee and copy room. Valentino's office wasn't a whole lot grander. He turned on a light and slipped behind a desk, gesturing at two facing chairs. Talba took one, and for the first time really looked at him.

His hair was salt and pepper, not yet white, and not soon to be, but his face was deeply lined. Almost as if it had been carved out of a once-handsome, very Mediterranean demeanor that had become, for some reason, very tired. Deeply, deeply tired. The bags under his eyes were duffels. She almost asked if he were getting enough sleep."Start at the beginning, Ms. Wallis."

She passed him most of the file, holding back her ace in the hole. "Here's the background check I did on you, omplete with driving record and newspaper clips. I see you worked on the Houlihan case."

He nodded impatiently. "Yeah, yeah. Okay, you're a hotshot. Ya went to Harvard?" Eileen brought in a couple of mugs of coffee, and he had his to his face almost before he'd finished speaking.

"Xavier. Computer skills mostly self-taught, except for five years at TeleSyst. Five years off and on, I mean--some of it was summer stuff while I was in school. But I bow to he applicant who did go to Harvard and brings you a package like this."

"Pretty pushy broad, aren't ya?" His eyes crinkled a little. He was starting to loosen up. Talba knew guys like this--the way they showed they liked you was to get insulting. Best to let it go, she thought. Stow the righteous indignation. She gave him a grin instead. "I try to be." He had drunk about half his coffee by now and it was doing him a world of good. His skin was looking less gray, his eyes starting to show some spirit, the purple of the duffels smoothing to puce. What's in that stuff? she thought, and took a sip herself. If she hadn't already been sitting, it would have knocked her on her butt.

"How much investigative experience ya had?"

"About two months." She paused."Not counting the ten minutes I spent on this." Gesturing grandly at the pile she'd given him. He didn't crack a smile, and she made a mental note to lay off the bragging. It wasn't going over. "I'm just kidding. It really took me about an hour and a half." "You tellin' me the truth?" Da trut'.

She made an attempt to look modest, but it was something she hadn't tried before; she wasn't sure she succeeded. "Yes sir. Give or take."

"Tell me about your experience."

"Well, it was a funny thing. I had a problem I needed a private eye for. So I picked one out of the phonebook, and the guy hired me."

"Oh, yeah? Who was that?"

"Gene Allred."

He leaned forward a little, and his eyes threw off sparks like a couple of mini-fires. The guy had something she hadn't seen at first. "Gene Allred? I knew Gene Allred. Crooked son of a bitch."

Talba laughed. "Guess you right." She hardly ever lapsed into dialect, but this guy was such an old-time New Orleanian, it was catching. "A little sleazy, but he sure could detect."

"What was so special about ya he just had to hire ya?"

"He said I had the right demographics."

Valentino raised an eyebrow.

"Meaning I could go undercover in places he couldn't. That and my computer skills. Gene was kind of a Luddite."

"A what?"

"Luddite. You're one too, aren't you?"

"I'll let ya know when ya clue me in what ya talkin' about."

"A Luddite is somebody who'd rather give the government thirty-three cents than send E-mail."

"I got no time for that crap."

"I rest my case. But an awful lot of detective work is  done on computers these days. Which must be why you advertised."

"It ain't the business it was." Valentino was a heavy-set guy, somewhere around five-ten, but a little shorter, she thought. His shoulders sagged forward as if he'd just  suffered a defeat. Talba hated seeing him that way; found it made her truly sad, and noticed for the first time the sadness in the detective's eyes. The sadness, and the intelligence; and the kindness.

Oh motherfucker oh shit, she thought, realizing she had started to care about him. She recognized instantly that it wasn't a sexual thing--never could be, never would be. She had a great boy friend, a dynamite boy friend, and this dude was white, married, old enough to be her father, and so depressed he probably couldn't get it up. Definitely not sexual, but definitely something, and something she thought she recognized. Something not too healthy.

Valentino's eyes--the sad, intelligent, oh-so-kind eyes, the terribly caring, deeply understanding, tender-as-the-night eyes, were the sort of eyes sometimes referred to soulful; the sort that, in a young, attractive man were almost guaranteed to get a young woman in trouble. She had seen those eyes before, seen them on many an attractive, hurt, tough, scary young face; and she had followed them where they had led and had gotten in the kind of trouble they invariably got you in. She was such a sucker for that kind of thing her mother and brother had sunk to trying an intervention to get her to dump her last boy friend, the one before Darryl, the one she now recognized was the second biggest asshole in the city of New Orleans (she being the biggest for not seeing it sooner).

She knew perfectly well why these eyes were so attractive. They were irresistible because they were the only soft thing in a hard face; a worldly, leather-tough face that had seen it all and dealt with it, a face you wouldn't want to mess with. They were a cry for help from a soul that desired no help, wanted no help, chose no help, couldn't in any way be helped. They were not eyes that cried, they were themselves the tears; they were the fatal tipoff that mutilated and now aggressively armored soul needed to be kissed and made well. That the imaginary tears must be wiped away, crying, desperate eyes replaced by the carefree, corner-crinkled eyes of a man who has just been made to laugh by his beloved; or the devoted, follow-you-to-the-grave eyes of a man who has just made love to her. Or to anyone. Or to a plank with a mink-lined hole in it.

Oh, yes. Talba was not only under thirty, but well under twenty-five, and already she knew everything about eyes like that--everything except what they meant when they were underscored by velvet-soft pouches so big they needed a bra; so bloodstained, so seemingly bruised you wanted to order emergency ice.  What they meant when they sometimes sparked like small fires and peered from the head of an old white man who said dese and dose.

When Eddie Valentino spoke again, interrupting her silent ocular love song, she nearly did a double take. "I'll think about it, Ms. Wallis."

"You'll think about it? Here I stay up half the night to show you what I can do, and then I get here before sunrise, and you'll think about it?"

And for the first time in the interview, sad, soulful Eddie Valentino really did smile--a broad, amused, gotcha smile. "I thought it only took you ten minutes. Hour and a half at the most."

"I'm making a point, Mr. Valentino. I tend to exagggerate when I'm making a point. And the point is, I'm your hotshot. Who else was here before your door opened with a complete dossier on you? I mean, what's the definition of a hot shot?"

He smiled again, "You're a ball of fire, all right. I just gotta sleep on it, that's all.

"Oh. Well." Twice Talba had made him smile. Maybe that's what her mission was; maybe that was all she was meant to do. Of course he had to sleep on it. What was she thinking? I'm believing my own P.R., she thought, and felt embarrassed. What did I think he was going to do? Welcome me like a long-lost daughter?

Excerpted from Louisiana Hotshot by Julie Smith. Copyright © 2001 by Julie Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.









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