Prolific LGBTQ author Greg Herren has a new book series headed our way. The first book, Death Drop, is dripping with the flavor and taste of New Orleans, as well as rife with well built men, dramatic makeup, and murderous mayhem. It’s a divine and delightful glimpse into New Orleans high society, French quarter drag bars, and the darkness that can exist behind both!
Glam artist Jem Richard loved making New Orleans’ society mavens feel beautiful—but doesn’t like being stiffed. He reluctantly agrees to help with the make-up for the fall fashion show for the House of Mercereau, but demand payment up front after what happened the last time—when designer Marigny Mercereau’s check bounced. But no one warned him before he arrives, brushes and make-up palettes in hand, that the models he’ll be working on are drag queens!
Pressed into service when one of the queens doesn’t show Jem wows the crowds and slays his fellow queens with his style and presentation on the runway. But between trips down the runway (and tequila shots for courage), Jim starts noticing bits and pieces of conversations and arguments showing all is not well behind the scenes of the House of Mercereau, and everyone seems to want Marigny dead. When her body is discovered the next morning, Jem finds himself in the sites of a killer! Jem puts on his best Shirley Holmes deerstalker cap and starts tracing the clues to help that handsome police detective—who may or may not be flirting with him—catch the killer before the killer catches Jem.
Please enjoy this exclusive excerpt courtesy of Herren and Golden Notebook Press!
“Are you sure you want me to let you out there?” asked my Lyft driver Shawna in a skeptical tone.
I looked up from my cell phone and over the front seat. The light was red at the corner of Nashville and St. Charles. There were three cars ahead of us. I looked past the glare of their red tail lights and could see a crowd out in front of the enormous stone wall encircling the business on the corner, Designs by Marigny. Some were carrying signs. There was also a police car parked in front, the blue lights flashing.
My heart sank. This wasn’t good.
“Well, that’s where I’m going,” I said, making it sound more like a question than a statement of fact. Hadn’t I just made a joke that very morning about this show attracting anti-drag homophobic protestors?
“I don’t know if I feel comfortable letting you out in that crowd,” she replied as the light turned green and the cars ahead of us started moving. “Maybe I can take you down to the next house?”
I started to say but I’d have to walk back anyway but decided to just go along with it. “That’s fine.”
“I said when I saw her last night on WYES talking about her fashion show she was begging for a protest,” Shawna started moving towards the intersection. “The way things are now? I’m surprised they aren’t showing up at the gay bars when they have drag shows now.”
“Well, I’m not a queen, so I should be okay,” I said dubiously as the car moved through the intersection at Nashville.
But were hostile homophobes capable of making that distinction? They didn’t know the difference between a transwoman and a drag queen, after all.
Shawna slowed as she reached the opposite corner. Some of the protestors were standing in the street, and there was a lot of pushing and shoving and yelling going on near the gate to the mansion that housed Designs by Marigny. The light was fading, and the streetlamps were coming on. It rained earlier in the afternoon, so the streets and sidewalks were slick and shiny. The crowd looked like about twenty people, maximum? One of them was carrying that massive sign that always shows up at the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon during Carnival and Southern Decadence—listing all the sins that would send someone straight to hell. They usually had someone with a bullhorn shouting at everyone partying to repent. The list on the sign was thorough and included all the usual slurs: faggots, adulterers, idolaters, fornicators, masturbators and so on. I could see two uniformed cops standing in front of the gate, while a man—most likely the Reverend Graham Steuben, was yelling in their faces. Steuben was pastor of an evangelical church somewhere on the West Bank and had become kind of a local fixture, as a kind of D-List Westboro Baptist Church. He and his flock always turned up looking for headlines and news cameras, usually with a group of people wearing black jeans and black T-shirts with the word FAG on the front in red, inside a circle with a line through it. It looked like the usual group I’d gotten used to seeing protesting any and every gay event in the French Quarter.
I should have known they’d jump all over the “drag queens are groomers” narrative. Anything to hate on queer people.
Shawna pulled the silver Taurus over in front of the house just past Designs by Marigny. “Thanks,” I said, opening my door and lifting my rolling make-up case out of the backseat and onto the walkway. “Have a safe night.”
I shut the car door and tipped her twenty percent on the app. I shoved my phone back into my jeans pocket and rolled the case up the walkway to the sidewalk. This house didn’t have a fence and was enormous. The upper floors of Designs by Marigny, housed in the enormous plantation-style mansion on the corner, were visible above the massive stone fence running around the property. The purple, gold and green awning stretched from the front porch down the walk all the way to the gate.
I glanced at my watch. I didn’t have to be there until seven and it was about twenty minutes till. I sighed as I drew nearer the people blocking the sidewalk. The cops were still standing, stone-faced, in front of the gates. Just as I was about to start saying “excuse me” on repeat as I pushed my way through, a van bearing the logo of our local ABC affiliate pulled up right where Shawna had let me out and the back opened. A local news reporter whose name I could never remember climbed out, smoothing her skirt and adjusting her jacket. It was a bit muggy for a jacket, but the night was cool. A heavyset man with a neckbeard also got out, carrying a massive portable film camera.
“Reverend! The news is here!” someone shouted, and the Reverend Graham Steuben himself separated himself from the group and bounced along the gutter to where she was standing, talking to her camera man. As if on cue, the group started chanting “Groomers! Groomers! Save our kids!”
It didn’t even rhyme.
I rolled my eyes. They could have at least put some effort into their homophobia. I’ve heard better chants from junior high school cheerleaders.
I didn’t even have to say excuse me once. The group magically parted as I rolled down the sidewalk towards them. I doubt that my battered old Louis Vuitton make-up case impressed them very much. My guess was if they touched or tried to block anyone from entering Designs by Marigny, the two cops would leap into action.
Here we go, I said to myself and started rolling my case behind me over the broken, tilted flagstones and over the roots of a massive live oak tree. Before I made it to the gate an older woman stepped in front of me, smelling like liniment, watery roses, and peppermints. She was short, with graying hair handing loosely to her rounded shoulders. She was wearing a pair of black yoga pants, ballet flats, and a black T-shirt with the words Stop Grooming Children!!! written across the front in gold.
“Are you one of the pedophiles?” she hissed at me, her bloodshot eyes staring at me intently.
I recoiled from her in distaste. “I—”
“I said you couldn’t bother anyone.” One of the cops said before I could finish. He’d moved rather quickly from the gate.
She flinched away from him. “I wasn’t bothering anyone!”
“Go on, move along.” He went on casually. “I don’t want to have to arrest you as a public nuisance.”
I bit my lower lip. Typical cops, siding with the oppressors and not wanting to upset the nice straight white lady. “Actually—” I started to say, but she shoved a piece of paper in my hands and ran off, disappearing around the corner of the fence and up Nashville Street.
I looked down at the paper. It was a flyer, an anti-drag one, with the expected bad grammar, misspellings, and overwrought capitalization. Whoever had made it hadn’t skimped on the exclamation points, either. There was a website listed at the bottom, as well as a listing of social media accounts. I started to toss it but stopped myself.
I’ve always believed it was wise to know what the haters were saying, so I folded it and slipped it into my front pocket.
I tried not to make eye contact with anyone as I made my way through the chanting people. I glanced back over my shoulder. The reporter was interviewing Reverend Steuben, the cameraman holding the camera on one shoulder and a handheld spotlight in the other. Perfect, I thought, irritated. As usual, they get to tell their side on television. Bet she’s not going to interview any of the queens.
As I looked, Reverend Steuben made a gesture and the chanting stopped.
Can’t have the chants on the news, I thought cynically as I approached the gates. There was a tall, cadaverous looking woman on the other side of the gate, holding a clipboard.
“Hi,” I said to the cops. One was Black and in his mid-thirties and knew his way around the gym. The other, the one who’d chased off the protestor, was older by several decades, white and balding with a healthy paunch over hanging the waistband of his uniform pants. He spat chewing tobacco into the grass and gave me a gruff look. “I’m working on the show tonight? Make-up?”
“Name?” the woman from the other side of the gate barked.
“Jem Richard,” I had to shout because they’d started chanting again. The interview must have ended.
She found my name on the list and checked it off, opening the gate from the inside. The cops moved so I could maneuver my rolling case through the gate. Once inside, she closed it again. “The dressing room is in back on the first floor,” she directed me. Tall and thin, she was one of those women who looked like she was always hungry but could make do with a lone almond. She was wearing a sleeveless red silk dress I could tell was a “Design by Marigny” by the way it emphasized flaws a properly fitted dress would have hidden. Her shoulders were bony, her arms sinew and muscle and skin. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail so severe that it looked like it hurt. “Same place as the last time you were here.” She gestured for me to continue walking. “Service entrance in the back,” she added as I started walking again. “The walk will take you around that way.”
I bit my tongue. The last time I did glam for one of Marigny Orloff’s fashion shows I’d sworn it was the last time. Her check had bounced, for one thing, and it took me weeks to get her to make the check good. The only reason I agreed to break that vow was because someone guaranteed my pay, and it was already deposited in my bank account.
I started pulling the case up the walk and made a right at the front steps, following the walk around to the back.
“Save our kids!
Save our kids!
Save our kids!”
I sighed as I reached the back steps. I could make a break for it….
Knowing I was going to regret it, already regretting it, I dragged my make-up case up the stairs. Just a few hours, put some highlights on some drag queens, and you can get out of here.
If only I could go back in time to last night and tell myself not to say yes….
“I don’t know, Jem,” Lauralee Dorgenois said, frowning and raising a perfectly plucked eyebrow as she looked back over her shoulder into the three-way mirror set-up in her dressing room. “You’re sure that this dress doesn’t make my butt look big?”
Okay, I’m going to take a sidebar right here to give y’all some free-of-charge advice that is more than worth its weight in gold. There is only one correct answer to be given without pause or hesitation any time a woman asks you if something she is wearing makes her butt look big: “No.”
You always, always, ALWAYS say no.
If that is, in fact, a lie—you say “I don’t know if that cut drapes right” or “I don’t like what that color does to your skin.”
There are literally a thousand other options besides making the incredibly foolish mistake of saying ‘yes’ or the seemingly safe, non committal ‘maybe.’ Marriages, engagements, friendships, and relationships have all ended over this question being answered incorrectly—and no, it’s not a trap question. Women are bombarded from childhood with images of what they are supposed to look like and what they are supposed to wear. They are taught to fear fat cells and fatty foods, spend millions on diets and gym memberships and personal trainers. They are gaslit into thinking that being any size larger than zero and not having big firm breasts and not having a wrinkle-free face aglow with the dewiness of youth means they are doomed to grow old alone and unloved. So, they try to fight aging—and the fear of being traded in for a younger model—by having poison injected into their faces, excess skin surgically removed, and their hair constantly colored and touched up. Centuries of societal and systemic misogyny, of telling women they don’t measure up, echo in those sad, simple words: does it make my butt look big?
My heart breaks a little every time I hear it.
However, I get paid to make them look good. My opinion must be honest, but I still need to be delicate. Why be hurtful when you don’t have to be?
I tilted my head to one side and brought my eyebrows together as I looked her up and down yet again. “You’re curvy, Lauralee,” I replied finally, fluffing the peacock feathers on her shoulders to spread them out further. It was true. Lauralee was about five seven, and maybe could stand to lose a pound here and there. Her hourglass figure had thickened a slight bit once she hit forty, but it was barely noticeable. I’d picked out a green silk dress for her because the color made her green eyes sparkle like emeralds. It clung perfectly to her hips and was cut low in the front to shove off the ample bosom, highlighted by an emerald pendant handing from a gold chain just above the cleavage. I’d braided her long auburn hair into a French braid that dropped about half-way down her back. I’d woven some extra pieces of auburn into the braid to make it thicker. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, you know. We’d put Marilyn Monroe on a diet today.”
“Of course, I’m sure! That’s why I picked out this dress with the slight shoulder pads and these gorgeous feathers to broaden your shoulders out a bit more, to offset that juicy booty and make your waist look even tinier than it is.” So much of beauty is an illusion, I added to myself as I gently tugged a bit on the neckline to bring it down just a smidgen lower on the shoulders. I stepped back away to get a good look and smiled in triumph. “Voilà!” I said dramatically with a snap of my fingers. “You look gorgeous, Lauralee. Right off the cover of Bayou Vogue. Anna Wintour would approve.” Okay, that was an exaggeration, but she did look beautiful. What’s a little harmless hyperbole between friends?
“You really think so?” she asked in the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl worried no one will ask her to dance, spinning back around to take another look at herself in the three-way mirror. A happy smile started tugging on the corners of her lips.
“I don’t say things I don’t mean,” I lied, snapping my fingers to give my words more emphasis. Sometimes, you’ve got to “gay” it up a bit for the straight ladies. “Besides, who wants to be one of those bony-assed skinny popsicle sticks, anyway? Barry Dorgenois didn’t marry you because you were built like a pencil, girl. He wanted a woman.”
She flushed with pleasure. Her smile widened, dimples appearing in her cheeks. She really was beautiful when she had the confidence to lean into it. “Where were you when I was in high school?” She air kissed my cheeks and booped my nose. “Or college, for that matter.” She glanced at her gold Tag Heuer watch and frowned.
“I told you, don’t frown. Frowns are the enemy of the best make-up artist.” I reached for a brush and smoothed out the little wrinkle she’d put in her perfect make-up above the bridge of her nose. I stepped back and smiled, raising my arms in triumph. “You know, you are just stunning, Lauralee. That green sets off both your eyes and your hair. If you aren’t the hottest wife at this party I’ll—I’ll—”
“Eat your brushes?” Lauralee smiled back at me. “No, no need for that.” She turned back to the three-way mirror, checking herself out from every angle and giving herself permission to like what she saw. “What did I ever do without you?”
“Only the Lord knows, and His lips are sealed,” I said in as somber a tone as I could muster, but I couldn’t keep my face straight once she started laughing “But let’s just make sure you never have to find out in the future, okay?”
She beamed at me. “Let me get my checkbook.” She checked herself out in the mirror one last time with a pleased smile before heading from her dressing room into the massive master bedroom.
Lauralee Dorgenois was one of my favorite clients, and not just because she was married to one of the richest men in New Orleans—but that didn’t hurt, either. I was lucky. She usually wanted my glam expertise at least several times per month— so often she could have listed me as a dependent on her tax returns. She was always texting me photos of clothes she was considering buying, sometimes having me head to the Saks at Canal Place with her so I could give her my expert opinion on everything. I kept hoping she’d take me on one of her Paris shopping trips, with no luck thus far.
Lauralee was at that dangerous age for rich men’s wives when they start worrying about getting older, spend hours staring in mirrors looking for new lines and wrinkles, and watch their butt to see if it’s started sagging. There’s always someone younger looking for a rich older man, after all, and when men start feeling like they’re on the downward slide into the grave they think a younger woman will somehow make them magically young again. Lauralee herself was a second wife—I’d never really known what happened to the first Mrs. Barry Dorgenois and wasn’t sure how to ask politely. Barry didn’t seem like the type who’d want to trade Lauralee in for a younger model, but they never do until it happens. You only had to be around them for about five minutes to see he clearly worshipped the ground she walked on, and what did I ever do to deserve her was written on his face every time he looked at her. I’d be willing to bet that the Mississippi River would run dry before Barry Dorgenois would even glance at another woman, let alone think about replacing Lauralee.
But . . . she was his second wife, and Barry had about ten years or so on her.
He didn’t seem the type to have a mid-life crisis.
I took a deep breath and sat down in a very comfortable wingback chair and pulled out my phone. No messages. No new emails. No missed calls. I opened my social media apps to look at my notifications.
I exhaled. Of course, nothing from Tradd. He was ghosting me.
I’d thought he’d had potential, too. I always think they have potential.
Forget about him, he’s not worth it, I reminded myself, he’s doing you a huge favor by ghosting you before things might have gotten serious.
Serious, what did that even mean anymore?
It wasn’t yet eight o’clock on a Friday night and once Lauralee handed me my check for services rendered, I had no plans for the rest of the night. I’d like to think that even if Tradd had answered one of my text messages I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to see him.
Lord, how many texts messages had I sent him?
I checked and inhaled sharply. Had I really sent him that many text messages without getting an answer? One, two, three…ten? You texted him ten times without an answer? Yeah, I would run for the hills if I were him, too. Desperate and pathetic, party of one, your table is ready.
I’d thought Tradd Matherne would be different.
For one thing, I hadn’t met him in a bar or on Grindr. We’d met at a birthday party for some girl who worked with my best friend and roommate Kyle Lamothe. I was getting another glass of wine from the flimsy poker table where the haphazard bottles of liquor and wine everyone had brought were placed when a hot guy held out a red cup with a pleading look on his face.
He was handsome in almost nerdy kind of way, with an attractive face and a slender body. His stretch jeans were skintight on his nicely shaped legs. “Tradd,” he said, shifting his cup to his left hand and shaking mine with his right. He gave me a flirty grin. “Where have you been hiding, good-looking?”
“Just standing here waiting for the hottest guy in the room to need a drink,” I grinned back at him. “What are you having?”
He leaned in close enough to me that I could smell his cologne and feel his breath on my neck. “Red wine for now.” His right hand brushed against my backside as I filled his cup. “Thank you,” he said, giving me a slight bow as he took the cup from me. “Want to find a quiet place and talk?”
We found a couple of empty chairs in the backyard and moved them to a secluded corner. For once, I wasn’t fumbling for things to say or worried I was making a fool out of myself. He was smart and funny and sexy, with his brown hair gelled upwards and his almond-shaped brown eyes and thick red lips. I didn’t realize how long we stayed out there talking until his friends told him it was time to go.
He asked me for my number, and I figured that was the end of that.
But he called the very next afternoon and asked me out. Our first date had been dinner and a Marvel movie (I’d been right about the nerdy thing—he knew a lot about Marvel and comic books). I was a little surprised when he gave me just a light kiss goodnight, but liked that he was taking it slow. Most guys just hop in the sack and don’t want to give you their last name, let alone their number. It seemed romantic. On our second date he’d made me dinner—a kind of tasteless lasagna, but I ate two helpings before we streamed Guardians of the Galaxy. Our third date had been nice, too. We went out for a nice dinner—he paid—and then back to my place to watch Now Voyager, which he had never seen. On each date we went a little further than the time before.
On the fourth date, after he made me dinner and we watched The Philadelphia Story, I knew I was ready. I bit the bullet and spent the night. The next morning, he kissed me goodbye when my Lyft arrived, said he’d text me later . . .
And I hadn’t heard from him since.
I sighed again. I was sitting at Lauralee’s vanity, her little make-up table with light bulbs all around the mirror. I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror. Okay, maybe I wasn’t the best judge of my own looks, but I wasn’t that bad, was I? I didn’t have snakes for hair and men didn’t turn into stone when they looked at me. I had a long oval face with a widow’s peak that cursed me to side parts for life. I usually wore my thick brown hair long because it was wavy when shoulder-length. It was cut down close to the scalp because on a wild whim I’d dyed it bright pastel blue a few weeks earlier, regretting it the minute it dried. I gave it a week before buzzing it all off. My best feature was probably my eyes. Big and round and expressive, they were a rich brown with golden flecks, framed by long thick lashes. My nose had a bump in the middle from being broken when I was a kid, but it wasn’t offensive.
So why can’t I meet someone special? Who wouldn’t ghost after spending the night for the first time? Was that really too much to ask for?
Gay men are the worst.
Another lonely Friday night. I could sit home watching movies in sweats while eating a tub of ice cream feeling sorry for myself, or I could head out to the Quarter gay bars and look at the same gay men whose faces I saw in those bars every weekend, hoping against hope that this time would be the time I would meet my Mr. Right instead of the usual Mr. Right Now.
I glanced at the vanity surface. Her mail was stacked up in a corner. Being nosy, I sneaked a look at the invitation on the top of the stack and felt my blood pressure rise a little bit. It was an invitation to a fashion show at the Designs by Marigny shop the following night. Designs by Marigny was about as close to couture and high fashion as you got in New Orleans. For a certain class of women in New Orleans, a ticket to one of Marigny’s fashion shows was de rigueur, although I couldn’t see why. I didn’t like her clothes. I’d talked Lauralee out of buying a Marigny Orloff original so many times I’d lost count. The clothes didn’t flatter women’s bodies.
Marigny was also an incredibly unpleasant woman.
She’d hired me to work on her spring show last year. Her check bounced. It took me weeks to finally get my money from her, and I’d vowed to never work for her again.
Fool me once, etc.
I picked up the invitation. It was a dark cream vellum, with black script lettering and the Designs by Marigny logo across the top—three swords crossed over a fleur-de-lis.
As I was setting it back down, Lauralee came up behind me and pressed her check into my hand. I folded it, sneaking a glance at the amount before slipping it into my wallet. I kept my face impassive. I wasn’t cheap and Lauralee always over-tipped, but fifty percent?
Her check would take care of my pending bills, with some left over. I felt a gigantic weight lift from my shoulders. Note to self: always make her up in some variation of tonight’s color and palette combinations.
“Have you got big plans for the night?” She asked as I started packing up my make-up case. She’d hated my old case, so she bought me an alligator-skin one from Gucci.
I was too afraid of the answer to look up how much it had cost.
If you can’t be rich yourself, you need rich friends.
“Honey, I never have big plans on any night.” I replied, snapping the clasps shut. “Probably just me, TCM, and some ice cream like every Friday night.”
She was fiddling with her phone, summoning my Lyft.
“Are you going to Marigny’s show tomorrow?” I asked innocently.
“Your Lyft is on the way and should be here soon,” she said, looking at her phone. “White Prius, driver named Trevor. As for Marigny’s show, I doubt it.” She shrugged. “You know Marigny’s designs just don’t look good on me. I want to support a local designer of course, but—” she shuddered. “You’d never let me be caught dead wearing one of her dresses anyway. And after the way she screwed you over last year—”
“Tried—tried to screw me over.” I corrected her gently, while moving a stray hair away from her forehead.
“It wasn’t cool.”
“You don’t have to hold a grudge against Marigny for me, Lauralee.” I winked at her. “I can do that just fine on my own.” I air kissed her again and patted her on the arm. “Have a great time, Lauralee—you’re going to be the most gorgeous woman there, you know.”
I really do love making women feel beautiful.
Lauralee and Barry Dorgenois lived in a brick Georgian style townhouse on Camp Street, about a block or so from the World War II museum in the Warehouse District of New Orleans. Barry’s family money came originally from cotton and sugar, but eventually moved on to oil, shipping, and real estate. He currently was president of their shipping company—they had a fleet of about twenty tankers. The enormous Dorgenois mansion in the Garden District was a historic landmark, but it also came with Lauralee’s mother-in-law, Thérèse. It didn’t take Barry long to realize that the best way to keep the two most important women in his life happy was by keeping them apart as much as possible, so he bought and renovated this gorgeous place for his wife. Lauralee was talking about selling the townhouse and moving into something smaller, now that her youngest had left for college at Northwestern in Chicago. But I couldn’t see her being happy anywhere else. Barry had given her carte blanche on how to do the house and she’d made sure it was exactly what she wanted. If I had a dollar for every time she told me how much she preferred the townhouse to “that old barn on Third Street,” well, I could retire.
I think it also aggravated Thérèse that her oldest son refused to live in the mansion with her, making Lauralee even happier.
I went out the front door just as a white Prius pulled up and double-parked, the passenger window coming down. “Jem?” The driver was in his late twenties, cute in that way only straight girls understand. He was already past the flush of his youthful beauty, but it hadn’t completely gone yet—but it was making a good start at a getaway. His brown hair was thinning on top and his wire-rimmed glasses were smudged and bent a bit. He was wearing a purple LSU T-shirt.
There was a lot of traffic on Camp Street heading to the Quarter, and no sooner had the Prius stopped before a cacophony of horns started blaring.
“Trevor?” I opened the back door. “Or would you rather I sit up front?” Kyle always takes the passenger seat, and will know the driver’s entire life story by the time the ride is over. I always ask—but if I’m paying, well, Lauralee is paying, I think I should sit in the back seat to keep a professional distance. I preferred my ride-share drivers to be talking on the phone, to be honest. Then I don’t have to worry about whether I should make conversation or not, how friendly I should be, should I tip more if he doesn’t talk than I would if he did . . .
Kyle says I worry too much. He’s probably right.
“Front’s fine,” Trevor shrugged. “Don’t matter to me.”
I sighed and hoisted my make-up case into the back seat, pushed it over, and slid into the seat. Once I’d snapped the seatbelt in place, I pulled out my phone again as he started driving downtown. I went through my social media accounts, liking some things, rolling my eyes at others. The Central Business District was hopping. The sidewalks were clogged with couples and small groups, people jogging or walking their dogs. The outdoor seating areas at restaurants and clubs were packed, and there were cars everywhere.
“Crazy traffic tonight,” Trevor said as he turned left onto Poydras. “I think it might be faster to get to the 7th Ward by getting on I-10 and getting off at Claiborne?”
“Makes sense,” I nodded, scrolling through my emails. Nothing but junk, so I started deleting them as he swung left onto Loyola and headed back towards the highway. I was tired and stifled a yawn. It had been a long day. I’d gotten up early and taken care of the yardwork before it got too hot, and then I’d cleaned and done laundry before heading over to Lauralee’s. Too tired to go out? Of course I could always just take a nap . . .
That was the great thing about New Orleans being open 24/7; you could easily not feel like going out around eight . . . but you could change your mind no matter how much later it was. Some people thought midnight was too early to go out, especially on a weekend.
I closed my eyes as we took the on-ramp past Loyola. It hadn’t been a great month for me client-wise. Sure, I could always count on Lauralee needing me once or twice a month (and generously over tipping the high rate I already charged her), but I generally booked more than three or four other gigs a month. But nothing was filming in New Orleans currently, I’d missed out on a job working with the touring company of Mamma Mia! playing this weekend at the Saenger and was beginning to worry I might have to start looking for work in a salon again—long hours on my feet washing and cutting and setting hair. Being a freelance make-up artist was better than doing hair full-time.
Not that there was anything wrong with doing hair. My grandmother’s salon on Magazine Street had put my father through college and paid for the house I live in currently. Mee Maw had left me the house in the 7th Ward on St. Roch when she’d died a few years earlier. I hadn’t grown up in New Orleans, but Mom and Dad loved sending me down here to stay with Mee Maw for a month or so every summer. That was where I learned how to do hair and make-up, hanging out in The Beauty Spot and sweeping up hair and cleaning. I loved all the stylists who worked for Mee Maw, and it was quite an education for a young gay boy. I learned to love The Young and the Restless and General Hospital, that gossip was fun so long as it wasn’t mean-spirited, and by the time I was a teenager I was washing and setting hair, too. Mom and Dad were a little disappointed I’d decided on cosmetology school instead of college. Inheriting the house right after my boyfriend of five years dumped me for someone else seemed like a sign I needed to make a fresh start in New Orleans.
The Prius pulled up in front of the big camelback double shotgun at the corner of St. Roch and Villere. I thanked Trevor, wrestled the case out and rolled it up the cracked walk to the front steps. I dragged it up, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, rolling the case in behind me before shutting the door.
When the house had been rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, Mee Maw had turned it from two side-by-side shotgun singles into one big house. She’d always kept it spic-and-span, too. Everything had a place and everything in its place, she used to say. The ceiling fans and shelves didn’t have a layer of dirt on them when Mee Maw was alive. I’d let the cleaning slide since I moved in.
My roommate Kyle was hanging from the pole he’d set up in the big front room. Kyle smiled at me and swung gracefully around the pole one more time before dismounting. All he was wearing was a very tight pair of Daisy Duke shorts, and his lean, muscular body was slick with sweat. “There you are,” he said, wiping his hands on his shorts. “Did Lee Ann Vidrine call your cell?”
“Lee Ann Vidrine?” She was an occasional client. “No, she didn’t.”
“She’s called the land line at least three times in the last hour,” he nodded over to where our landline was sitting on a small round table. It was an old school Princess phone that plugged into the wall; Mee Maw had had it forever and never replaced it. Her old school answering machine was still attached to it, and the message light was blinking a red 3 at me. Lee Ann had been a client I’d inherited from Mee Maw, so she always called the land line. “And no, she didn’t say what she wanted. Just for you to call as soon as you get home.” He wiped sweat off his forehead. “I’m going to get in the shower. You want to go out tonight?”
“I don’t know.” I frowned, pulling out my phone and pulling up Lee Ann’s number. It went straight to voicemail, so I left a message for her to call me back on my cell and slowly read off the number twice. “Tradd’s ghosting me, too.”
“I told you to forget him,” Kyle called back over his shoulder as he headed to the back stairs, which led to our bedroom suites in the camelback part of the house. “And don’t tell me you don’t want to go out in case we run into him. That’s why we SHOULD go out.”
“Okay, okay,” I waved, plopping down onto my couch as my phone started making shattering glass sounds—which meant it was a client, and sure enough, when I looked at the screen, it was Lee Ann calling me back.
“Darling please tell me you’re free tomorrow night?” she said as soon as I said hello.
“Free for what?” I replied, getting a sinking feeling. Lee Ann was a friend of Marigny Orloff’s—I’d gotten the gig for her show last year through Lee Ann.
“Marigny needs you for her show tomorrow night, she’ll pay double—”
“Jem, please, she’s desperate.” Lee Ann pleaded. “And I’ll guarantee you get paid.”
“Double?” I replied, knowing I was going to say yes and hating myself for it, “But I want to be paid, in cash, before I arrive. The full amount.”
“You are amazing!” Lee Ann almost shouted in my ear. “You’ll need to be at Designs by Marigny around six—I’ll email you all the details.” She hung up.
I put my phone down.
Well, I thought, that made up my mind. I needed to drink tonight if I was working for that witch tomorrow night.
About the author
Greg Herren is the award-winning author of over forty novels and fifty short stories, and the award-winning editor of over twenty anthologies. He has won two Lambda Literary Award ( from 14 nominations), an Anthony (out of seven nomina- tions), and two Moonbeam Children’s/Young Adult Literature medals. He has also been shortlisted for the Agatha, Lefty, and Shirley Jackson Awards. He has published short stories in markets as varied as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, and the critically acclaimed New Orleans Noir, among many others. He was the first openly gay Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America. He has also served as a judge for the Hammett Prize, the Edgar Awards, the Stoker Awards, and the Lambda Literary Awards. A co-founder of Saints & Sinners, the world’s longest running LGBQT+ literary festival, he lives in New Orleans with his partner of 28 years.