Seven yers ago, Claire Doucett's daughter vanished without a trace. A clue has finally surfaced--a doll that looks exactly like her missing child. Claire's search will lead her from a quaint collectibles shop in the French Quarter to the murky Louisiana bayou country and the shadowy home of an eccentric doll maker whose 'portrait' dolls resemble missing children.
Travis McSwain wasn’t a man easily spooked, but the doll was getting to him. She was so lifelike that anyone glancing through the shop window might mistake her for a pretty little blonde-headed girl.
But up close, the eyes gave her away. They looked like pieces of turquoise. Travis had never seen real eyes that color.
He didn’t like staring at her for too long because his mind kept playing tricks on him. Earlier, when he’d loaded her up to bring her into the city, he could have sworn those glass eyes followed his every move. Gave him the chills so bad he’d had half a mind to chuck her into the swamp. But he needed the money and so here he was.
The shopkeeper glanced up from her inspection. “She’s beautiful. Absolutely breathtaking.”
“She’s a real knockout all right.”
The woman smoothed her hand down the doll’s ruffled dress. “If you’ll just give me a few more minutes we can discuss your payment terms.”
“Take your time,” Travis muttered, but he wished to hell the woman would hurry up. The sooner he got rid of the doll the sooner he’d breathe a lot easier.
There was something a little creepy about that porcelain face. It was almost as if Travis had seen her before, in a dream maybe, but he didn’t see how that was possible. She was one of a kind.
He’d gone up to the old Sweete place looking for work, and when he spotted the doll through the front window, he’d decided to snatch her because that’s what he did. He took things that didn’t belong to him. It was some kind of sickness, he reckoned.
Before his Pentecostal mother went off the deep end, she used to weep and pray for his immortal soul, but his daddy had favored another approach. Whenever Travis got caught using the five-finger discount, the old man would take a belt to his hide, work him over good until his back and butt cheeks resembled raw steak.
But after the first time he got sent off to juvenile detention in St. James Parish, Cletus McSwain’s attitude had changed toward his son. He’d pretty much washed his hands of Travis. “One of these days you’ll pinch from the wrong person, boy, and end up with a bullet right between the eyeballs. And when that happens, I’ll be damned if I shed a tear over your sorry ass.”
Well, that was fair. Because Travis sure as hell hadn’t done much crying when the pious old bastard got swept off a shrimp boat last summer and drowned in the Gulf. And now here he stood, right as rain, while his daddy swam with the fishes down in Terrebonne Bay.
Sometimes you just had to laugh at how things worked out.
Travis leaned an elbow on the counter and tried to assume a casual air as the shopkeeper continued to study the doll. But every once in a while when the woman wasn’t looking, his gaze would dart to the front window. He didn’t like to put much stock in his old man’s predictions, but ever since he’d taken the doll, he’d had a real bad feeling that maybe, just maybe he’d gotten in over his head this time.
Boosting cars was one thing, but jacking that doll was starting to feel a little like kidnapping.
A shiver snaked up his spine. It was like the damn thing was hexed or something.
He fingered the mojo bag he carried around in his pocket. She’s just a toy. Nothing special about her.
But the doll was more than a toy. Everyone in Terrebonne Parish knew that Savannah Sweete’s dolls were worth a lot of money. And someone was going to want her back.
He cast another glance at the window. Rain was coming and the gloomy twilight deepened his unease. He was letting his nerves get the better of him, but he couldn’t seem to help it. New Orleans did that to him. He hadn’t been back since Katrina and the landscape had changed so much he hardly recognized the place driving in. But the soul of the city—the Vieux Carré—remained the same. Travis didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
Earlier, he’d walked around for a little while before his appointment with the shop owner and he’d been struck by how normal everything seemed. Normal for the Quarter anyway. It was still early but the strip joints on Bourbon Street were already open, giving passersby free peepshows from the doorways. Travis’s attention had been caught by a tall, leggy blonde undulating to a country and western song. Her back was to the door, but when she glanced over her shoulder, dark eyes fastened like laser beams on Travis.
She was incredibly limber and her ass and thighs were as tight as the skin on a snare drum. She smiled and curled a finger in his direction, inviting him in for a closer look, and Travis had been sorely tempted. But then she turned slowly to face him and anger and humiliation washed over him when he realized he’d been standing there gawking at a transvestite.
A throaty voice had said from the doorway, “Come on in, sugar. She don’t bite. Her name is Cherry Rose. You like what Cherry Rose got down there, no?”
“No,” Travis muttered and turned away.
“Hey, don’t be like that!” the voice called after him. “Come on back here, baby. Cherry Rose make a real man out of you.”
Some of the tourists on the street overheard and started laughing, and Travis’s fist itched to connect with the he-bitch’s red mouth. But Bourbon Street drag queens were notorious for strapping switchblades to their thighs, and when they got all hopped up on speed and coke, they’d as soon cut a man’s balls off as look at him.
So Travis had hurried away, but as he crossed the street he glanced back and noticed someone standing on the sidewalk staring after him. Not the dancer or the hawker in the doorway, but a strange-looking woman wearing silver earrings and a flowing green skirt.
Something about the way she looked at him startled Travis and he’d paused for a moment to stare back at her. Then he lost her in the noisy crowd on the street and moved on.
He thought about the woman now and wondered where she’d gone off to. Wondered if he might be able to find her once his business with the shopkeeper was settled.
Then again, maybe he ought to leave well enough alone and get his ass on home where he could tell what was what. But after taking that doll, Terrebonne Parish might not be the safest place for him right now.
Suppressing a shudder, he said impatiently, “Don’t mean to rush you, ma’am, but I ain’t got all night.”
The woman looked up with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry for making you wait, dear, but I rarely come across workmanship of this quality. The freckles across the nose...the heart-shaped birthmark on her left arm...that kind of attention to detail is a Savannah Sweete trademark. I just can’t get over how meticulous she is.”
“However...” The woman’s tone sharpened as if she were readying herself to get down to business. She was an old broad with steely blue eyes and cotton fluff hair. Her glasses were in the shape of cat’s eyes and as they talked, she kept slipping them off and chewing on one of the stems.
“What’s wrong?” Travis asked with a frown. “You don’t like her so much all of a sudden?”
“No, it isn’t that. As I said, the doll is beautiful. But there are some fairly convincing imitations making the rounds these days. A few of Savannah’s former students have mastered her technique and I know of one or two who have actually tried to pass off their work as hers.” The woman paused, her gaze dropping to the doll. “Do you have the certificate of authenticity?”
Travis had thought that might be a problem, but he was prepared to bluff his way through it. After all, bullshitting was second nature to him. Just like stealing. “If you’re the expert you claim to be, you should be able to tell just by looking at her that she’s the real deal.” He reached out and flipped one of the doll’s golden curls with his fingertip. “You said yourself you’ve never seen such quality.”
The woman slid the glasses up her nose and bent back over the doll. “I’m ninety-nine percent certain she’s genuine, but if you could obtain her paperwork, the value would double.”
“Sorry, but I’m offering the doll as is.” Travis straightened from the counter. “You don’t want her, I’ll go elsewhere. I figure there’s plenty of shops and private collectors that would grab her up in a heartbeat.”
“Perhaps.” The woman gave a slight shrug. “But you have to understand my position. My livelihood hinges on my reputation. If you could at least tell me how and where you acquired her...?”
“Why do you need to know that?” Travis didn’t much like her tone. The last thing he needed was for her to call the cops.
“As I said, I have a reputation to consider. I have to be cautious.”
This wasn’t going as well as Travis had hoped. The old battleaxe was playing hardball and he now had two options. Stay and haggle or take the doll and walk. By this time tomorrow he’d probably have another buyer, but he didn’t much like the notion of driving all the way back home with those glass eyes watching him from the backseat.
Besides, when he spoke to the woman earlier on the phone, her offer had gotten him all excited. Even after asking around, he’d had no idea a stupid doll could be worth so much and he wasn’t about to let a jackpot like that slip through his fingers.
“Okay, it’s like this. The doll belonged to my girlfriend’s kid. The little girl up and died suddenly, and my woman can’t have a reminder like that lying around the house. So she asked me to get rid of it for her. Considering everything she’s been through, I don’t see how I can worry her about the paperwork. You understand.”
He didn’t know if the woman believed him or not, but she seemed willing to play along. “Of course, I understand. How awful to lose a child. And one so beautiful.” She stroked the doll’s smooth check. “I have two little granddaughters. I can’t imagine anything more tragic—“
“So we got us a deal or not?”
The shopkeeper’s attention lingered on the doll. She couldn’t seem to tear her gaze away. “Cut ten percent off the price we discussed on the phone and we’ll call it a day.”
Tight-fisted old biddy. “I guess that’s fair.”
She smiled, satisfied with herself. “Good. If you’ll wait here, I’ll write you a check.”
Travis’s hand snaked out to curl around her wrist. “Like I said earlier, I’m partial to cash.”
The woman’s eyes flickered. He could see the suspicion working its way back to the surface, but she wanted the doll so bad she was willing to ignore her instincts. She shook off his hand and gave a curt nod. “I’ll be right back.”
She reappeared a few moments later and handed him an envelope. “It’s all there...the amount we agreed on earlier less ten percent. But feel free to count it, Mr...”
Travis pocketed the envelope with a grin. “I trust you. Besides, if you short me I know where to find you.”
The woman’s hand fluttered to her throat and she turned a little pale, as if suddenly realizing that she’d just struck a bargain with the devil.
Lady, if you only knew.
She followed him to the door and as he stepped outside, he heard the click of a deadbolt behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the woman’s silhouette in the window, but she quickly doused the light and pulled the shade.
Travis stood on the sidewalk for a moment, deciding whether he wanted to go straight home or stop off somewhere for a drink. It wasn’t often he had spare change in his pocket. Might as well do a little celebrating.
Across the street, a shadow darted into a doorway, and his heart raced. For a moment he thought it was the woman he’d seen earlier on Bourbon Street, but as he peered into the shadows, he couldn’t make her out.
He was seeing things, probably. A guilty conscience could make a man jumpy.
Whatever the hell was wrong with him, he couldn’t wait to get out of New Orleans. Too many weirdoes hanging around to suit him. He’d leave the city before having that drink. Maybe stop off at a little place he knew on the way home, buy a bucket of shrimp and have a few beers. Later he’d make a liquor store run with Desiree. The two of them could sit out on his back porch getting shit-faced as they watched heat lighting over the Gulf.
It all sounded good.
Hunching his shoulders against a light rain, he headed east toward Bourbon Street. At the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, a group of tourists had stopped to watch an old man tap dance beneath a balcony. The rata-tat-tat of the old man’s shoes resonated in the dark, and for some reason the sound made Travis feel lonely.
He stopped to stuff a couple of bills into a beat-up coffee can, then quickly moved on, discomforted by the man’s toothless grin. Geezer looked to be pushing eighty. He should have been tucked away somewhere in a rest home instead of busting his hump on a street corner in the rain. But that was New Orleans for you. The old and poor didn’t die here. They just got forgotten.
You don’t get yourself straightened out, that’ll be you someday, he could hear his daddy goad him.
Travis didn’t want to think about his father or the future or even what he was going to do with himself beyond the next drunk. He tuned out the echo of the old man’s taps as he neared the cathedral and turned up St. Peter.
The street was nearly deserted here except for a woman who stood in the glow of a shop window. She wore a green skirt and when she moved her head, light sparked off her silver earrings.
Travis slowed his steps. She was the same woman he’d seen earlier on Bourbon Street. Was she waiting for him?
Their gazes connected as he approached and a shiver slid up his spine. He’d never seen her before tonight. She was attractive enough that he would have remembered, but there was something familiar about her just the same. Travis couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
She smiled and the skin at the back of his neck crawled. Who the hell was she?
Spooked by that smile, Travis decided to keep on walking, but as he passed her by, she said in a low voice, “Can I trouble you for a light?”
Not exactly an original line, but curiosity got the better of him and he reached in his pocket for a lighter. Turning, he shielded the flame with his cupped hand as she lifted a cigarette to her lips. They were nice lips. Not to full, not too thin. It was only when she smiled that something seemed off about her mouth.
She took a pull and slowly exhaled the smoke, then handed the cigarette to Travis. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it, but when he took a long drag, she didn’t seem to mind.
“So what are you doing out here all by your lonesome?”
“Killing time,” she said with a shrug.
“Kind of a dangerous place for that. Nothing but freaks in the Quarter.”
She smiled. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
That smile. Travis wished she’d stop doing that. It wasn’t a nice smile and it kind of ruined the mood for him. He glanced away.
“Do you like to party?” she asked.
“My place is just back there.” She nodded toward a narrow alley that ran between two buildings. “Got a nice little courtyard where we can sit and watch the rain. Come on,” she said and started walking. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
Her smile might not do anything for him, but the way she walked sure as hell did. Travis glanced around, hesitated, then followed her into the alley. He didn’t know if she was a hooker or just some bitch out for a good time, but at the moment, he didn’t really give a shit. The money he’d made from the doll was burning a hole in his pocket.
She was a few steps ahead of him, humming something under her breath.
“What’s that you’re singing?”
“It’s an old song. Something my mother used to sing to me at bedtime.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s nice.” He hurried to catch up with her. “My mama didn’t believe in music. Or dancing.”
“How sad for you.” She paused to adjust the strap on her sandal, and when she lost her balance, she grabbed Travis’s arm to right herself.
He stared down at her in the darkness. She laughed softly, and the next thing Travis knew, he had her backed up against the brick wall.
She laughed again, a breathy sound that spiked his heartbeat. But when he bent to kiss her, she turned her head so that his lips only grazed her cheek. He moved to her ear, then nuzzled her neck as he put a hand on her narrow waist, letting his thumb slide up beneath her breast. She was small there, too, but he didn’t mind. “What’s your name?”
A slight hesitation, then she said in a husky whisper, “Madeline.”
“That’s a nice name.” Travis figured she’d made it up on the spur of the moment, but he didn’t care if she had. After tonight, they’d never see each other again anyway. “You smell good, Madeline.”
He tried again to kiss her, but she gave him a playful shove. “Take it easy, okay? We’ve got all night. Don’t you want that drink first?”
He rubbed up against her, grinding his hips against hers. “You know what I want.”
“Sure I do, baby.” Her hand slid between them and she ran it up and down his fly. “But it’ll cost you.”
“A hundred and fifty.” Her hand squeezed in just the right place. “You got that much?”
He fished in his pocket for the money and handed it to her in the dark. “For that kind of dough, you better be something special.”
“Oh, I am.” She smiled as she slipped the folded bills into her bra. “I’m very special. You’ve never been with anyone like me before.” Reversing their positions, she pushed him up against the wall, wet her finger in her mouth, then traced his lips. “You want it fast or slow?”
“Right now, I want you on your knees,” he said and unzipped his pants.
“Patience, baby. Good things come to those who wait.” Her fingers closed around him as she slid her other hand over his shoulder.
Travis let his head fall back against the brick, his breath quickening as he swelled in her hand. An instant later, he felt a sharp sting in the side of his neck and pushed her away. “What the hell was that?”
She smiled in the dark. “You’re going to need something for the pain.”
“Pain? What are you talking about? What did you do to me, you fucking bitch?” His voice rose in fury as he lifted a hand to his neck. Light from an apartment overhead filtered into the alley and he could see her eyes staring back at him. He hadn’t noticed before how blue they were. And then in a flash, it came to him where he’d seen that face before.
Fear and revulsion rose in his throat a split second before his muscles collapsed. He tried to stay on his feet, tried to grab her around the throat, but he had no control over his limbs. He fell to his knees, his gaze locked on hers. His mouth gaped open, but no sound came out.
“You took something of mine, Travis. And now I’m going to have to do some very bad things to get her back.”
With a foot on his chest, she shoved him backward. Paralyzed, he fell to the dirty pavement, his gaze fixed on those blue eyes.
She removed a knife from her bag and knelt beside him. “This is going to be a little crude and messy, I’m afraid, but it can’t be helped. I don’t want the police tracing you or the doll back to me.”
A fresh wave of terror washed over Travis. He wanted to get up and run. He wanted to scream for help. He wanted to fight for his life.
But the only thing he could do was lie there helplessly as she lowered the knife and began to cut off his fingers.