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By Robert Crais
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L.A. private eye Elvis Cole is hired by popular television star Jodie Taylor to delve into her past and identify the biological parents who gave her up for adoption thirty-six years before. Cole’s assignment is to find out their biological history and report back.
It seems all too clear cut. But when he gets to Louisiana and begins his search, he finds that there’s something much darker going on. Other people are also looking for Taylor’s parents, and some are ending up dead.
And when Cole realizes that his employer knew more than she was telling, Voodoo River becomes a twisting tale of identity, secrets, and murder.
I met Jodi Taylor and her manager for lunch on the Coast Highway in Malibu, not far from Paradise Cove and the Malibu Colony. The restaurant was perched on the rocks overlooking the ocean, and owned by a chef who had his own cooking show on public television. A saucier. The restaurant was bright and airy, with spectacular views of the coast to the east and the Channel Islands to the south. A grilled tuna sandwich cost eighteen dollars. A side of fries cost seven-fifty. They were called frites.
Jodi Taylor said, "Mr. Cole, can you keep a secret?"
"That depends, Ms. Taylor. What kind of secret did you have in mind?"
Sid Markowitz leaned forward, bugging his eyes at me. "This meeting. No one is to know that we've talked to you, or what we've discussed, whether you take the job or not. We okay on that?" Sid Markowitz was Jodi Taylor's personal manager, and he looked like a frog.
"Sure," I said. "Secret. I'm up to that."
Sid Markowitz didn't seem convinced. "You say that now, but I wanna make sure you mean it. We're talking about a celebrity here." He made a little hand move toward Jodi Taylor. "We fill you in, you could run to a phone, the Enquirer might pay you fifteen, twenty grand for this."
I frowned. "Is that all?"
Markowitz rolled the bug eyes. "Don't even joke about that."
Jodi Taylor was hiding behind oversized sunglasses, a loose-fitting man's jeans jacket, and a blue Dodgers baseball cap pulled low on her forehead. She was without makeup, and her curly, dusky-red hair had been pulled into a ponytail through the little hole in the back of the cap. With the glasses and the baggy clothes and the hiding, she didn't look like the character she played on national television every week, but people still stared. I wondered if they, too, thought she looked nervous. She touched Markowitz's arm. "I'm sure it's fine, Sid. Peter said we could trust him. Peter said he's the best there is at this kind of thing, and that he is absolutely trustworthy." She turned back to me and smiled, and I returned it. Trustworthy. "Peter likes you quite a bit, you know."
"Yes. It's mutual." Peter Alan Nelsen was the world's third most successful director, right behind Spielberg and Lucas. Action adventure stuff. I had done some work for him once, and he valued the results.
Markowitz said, "Hey, Peter's a pal, but he's not paid to worry about you. I wanna be sure about this guy."
I made a zipper move across my mouth. "I promise, Sid. I won't breathe a word."
He looked uncertain.
"Not for less than twenty-five. For twenty-five all bets are off."
Sid Markowitz crossed his arms and sat back, his lips a tight little pucker. "Oh, that's just great. That's wonderful. A comedian."
A waiter with a tan as rich as brown leather appeared, and the three of us sat without speaking as he served our food. I had ordered the mahi-mahi salad with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. Sid was having the duck tortellini. Jodi was having water. Perhaps she had eaten here before.
I tasted the mahi-mahi. Dry.
When the waiter was gone, Jodi Taylor quietly said, "What do you know about me?"
"Sid faxed a studio press release and a couple of articles to me when he called."
"Did you read them?"
"Yes, ma'am." All three articles had said pretty much the same thing, most of which I had known. Jodi Taylor was the star of the new hit television series, Songbird, in which she played the loving wife of a small-town Nebraska sheriff and the mother of four blond ragamuffin children, who juggled her family with her dreams of becoming a singer. Television. The PR characterized Songbird as a thoughtful series that stressed traditional values, and family and church groups around the nation had agreed. Their support had made Songbird an unexpected dramatic hit, regularly smashing its time-slot competition, and major corporate sponsors had lined up to take advantage of the show's appeal. Jodi Taylor had been given the credit, with Variety citing her "warmth, humor, and sincerity as the strong and loving center of her family." There was talk of an Emmy. Songbird had been on for sixteen weeks, and now, as if overnight, Jodi Taylor was a star.
She said, "I'm an adopted child, Mr. Cole."
"Okay." The People article had mentioned that.
"I'm thirty-six years old. I'm getting close to forty, and there are things that I want to know." She said it quickly, as if she wanted to get it said so that we could move on. "I have questions and I want answers. Am I prone to breast or ovarian cancer? Is there some kind of disease that'll show up if I have children? You can understand that, can't you?" She nodded hopefully, encouraging my understanding.
"You want your medical history."
She looked relieved. "That's exactly right." It was a common request from adopted children; I had done jobs like this before.
"Okay, Ms. Taylor. What do you know about your birth?"
"Nothing. I don't know anything. All I have is my birth certificate, but it doesn't tell us anything."
Sid took a legal envelope from his jacket and removed a Louisiana birth certificate with an impressed state seal. The birth certificate said that her name was Judith Marie Taylor and that her mother was Cecilia Burke Taylor and her father was Steven Edward Taylor and that her place of birth was Ville Platte, Louisiana. The birth certificate gave her date of birth as July 9, thirty-six years ago, but it listed no time of birth, nor a weight, nor an attending physician or hospital. I was born at 5:14 on a Tuesday morning and, because of that, had always thought of myself as a morning person. I wondered how I would think of myself if I didn't know that. She said, "Cecilia Taylor and Steven Taylor are my adoptive parents."
"Do they have any information about your birth?"
"No. They adopted me through the state, and they weren't given any more information than what you see on the birth certificate."
A family of five was shown to a window table behind us, and a tall woman with pale hair was staring at Jodi. She had come in with an overweight man and two children and an older woman who was probably the grandmother. The older woman looked as if she'd be more at home at a diner in Topeka. The overweight man carried a Minolta. Tourists.
"Have you tried to find out about yourself through the state?"
"Yes." She handed a business card to me. "I'm using an attorney in Baton Rouge, but the state records are sealed. That was Louisiana law at the time of my adoption, and remains the law today. She tells me that we've exhausted all regular channels, and recommended that I hire a private investigator. Peter recommended you. If you agree to help, you'll need to coordinate what you do through her."
I looked at the card: Sonnier, Melancon & Burke, Attorneys at Law. And under that: Lucille Chenier, Associate. There was an address in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Sid leaned forward, giving me the frog again. "Maybe now you know why I'm making a big deal about keeping this secret. Some scumbag tabloid would pay a fortune for this. Famous actress searches for real parents."
Jodi Taylor said, "My mom and dad are my real parents."
Sid made the little hand move. "Sure, kid. You bet."
She said, "I mean it, Sid." Her voice was tense.
The tall woman with the pale hair said something to the overweight man, and he looked our way, too. The older woman was looking around, but you could tell she didn't see us.
Jodi said, "If you find these people, I have no wish to meet them, and I don't want them to know who I am. I don't want anyone to know that you're doing this, and I want you to promise me that anything you find out about me or my biological relatives will remain absolutely confidential between us. Do you promise that?"
Sid said, "They find out they're related to Jodi Taylor, they might take advantage." He rubbed his thumb across his fingertips. Money.
Jodi Taylor was still with me, her eyes locked on mine as if this was the most important thing in the world. "Do you swear that whatever you find will stay between us?"
"The card says 'confidential,' Ms. Taylor. If I work for you, I'm working for you."
Jodi looked at Sid. Sid spread his hands. "Whatever you want to do, kid."
She looked back at me, and nodded. "Hire him."
I said, "I can't do it from here. I'll have to go to Louisiana, and, possibly, other places, and, if I do, the expenses could be considerable."
Sid said, "So what's new?"
"My fee is three thousand dollars, plus the expenses."
Sid Markowitz took out a check and a pen and wrote without comment.
"I'll want to speak with the attorney. I may have to discuss what I find with her. Is that okay?"
Jodi Taylor said, "Of course. I'll call her this afternoon and tell her to expect you. You can keep her card." She glanced at the door, anxious to leave. You hire the detective, you let him worry about it.
Sid made a writing motion in the air and the waiter brought the check.
The woman with the pale hair looked our way again, then spoke to her husband. The two of them stood and came over, the man holding his camera.
I said, "We've got company."
Jodi Taylor and Sid Markowitz turned just as they arrived. The man was grinning as if he had just made thirty-second-degree Mason. The woman said, "Excuse us, but are you Jodi Taylor?"
In the space of a breath Jodi Taylor put away the things that troubled her and smiled the smile that thirty million Americans saw every week. It was worth seeing. Jodi Taylor was thirty-six years old, and beautiful in the way that only women with a measure of maturity can be beautiful. Not like in a fashion magazine. Not like a model. There was a quality of realness about her that let you feel that you might meet her at a supermarket or in church or at the PTA. She had soft hazel eyes and dark skin and one front tooth slightly overlapped the other. When she gave you the smile her heart smiled, too, and you felt it was genuine. Maybe it was that quality that was making her a star. "I'm Jodi Taylor," she said.
The overweight man said, "Miss Taylor, could I get a picture of you and Denise?"
Jodi looked at the woman. "Are you Denise?"
Denise said, "It's so wonderful to meet you. We love your show."
Jodi smiled wider, and if you had never before met or seen her, in that moment you would fall in love. She offered her hand, and said, "Lean close and let's get our picture."
The overweight man beamed like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. Denise leaned close and Jodi took off her sunglasses and the maître d' and two of the waiters hovered, nervous. Sid waved them away.
The overweight man snapped the picture, then said how much everybody back home loved Songbird, and then they went back to their table, smiling and pleased with themselves. Jodi Taylor replaced the sunglasses and folded her hands in her lap and stared at some indeterminate point beyond my shoulder, as if whatever she saw had drawn her to a neutral place.
I said, "That was very nice of you. I've been with several people who would not have been as kind."
Sid said, "Money in the bank. You see how they love her?"
Jodi Taylor looked at Sid Markowitz without expression, and then she looked at me. Her eyes seemed tired and obscured by something that intruded. "Yes, well. If there's anything else you need, please call Sid." She gathered her things and stood to leave. Business was finished.
I stayed seated. "What are you afraid of, Ms. Taylor?"
Jodi Taylor walked away from the table and out the door without answering.
Sid Markowitz said, "Forget it. You know how it is with actresses."
Outside, I watched Jodi and Sid drive away in Markowitz's twelve-cylinder Jaguar while a parking attendant who looked like Fabio ran to get my car. Neither of them had said good-bye.
From the parking lot, you could look down on the beach and see young men and women in wetsuits carrying short, pointy boogie boards into the surf. They would run laughing into the surf, where they would bellyflop onto their boards and paddle out past the breakwater where other surfers sat with their legs hanging down, bobbing in the water, waiting for a wave. A little swell would come, and they would paddle furiously to catch its crest. They would stand and ride the little wave into the shallows where they would turn around and paddle out to wait some more. They did it again and again, and the waves were always small, but maybe each time they paddled out they were thinking that the next wave would be the big wave, the one that would make all the effort have meaning. Most people are like that, and, like most people, the surfers probably hadn't yet realized that the process was the payoff, not the waves. When they were paddling, they looked very much like sea lions and, every couple of years or so, a passing great white shark would get confused and a board would come back but not the surfer.
Fabio brought my car and I drove back along the Pacific Coast Highway toward Los Angeles.
I had thought that Jodi Taylor might be pleased when I agreed to take the job, but she wasn't. Yet she still wanted to hire me, still wanted me to uncover the elements of her past. Since my own history was known to me, it held no fear. I thought about how I might feel if the corridor of my birth held only closed doors. Maybe, like Jodi Taylor, I would be afraid.
By the time I turned away from the water toward my office, a dark anvil of clouds had formed on the horizon and the ocean had grown to be the color of raw steel.
A storm was raging, and I thought that it might find its way to shore.
It was just after two when I pulled my car into the parking garage on Santa Monica Boulevard and climbed the four flights to my office there in the heart of West Hollywood. The office was empty, exactly as I had left it two hours and forty minutes ago. I had wanted to burst through the door and tell my employees that I was working for a major national television star, only I had no employees. I have a partner named Joe Pike, but he's rarely around. Even when he is, conversation is not his forte.
I took out Lucille Chenier's business card and dialed her office. A bright southern voice said, "Ms. Chenier's office. This is Darlene."
I told her who I was and asked if Ms. Chenier was available.
Darlene said, "Oh, Mr. Cole. Mr. Markowitz phoned us about you."
"There goes the element of surprise."
She said, "Ms. Chenier's in court this afternoon. May I help?"
I told her that I would be flying in tomorrow, and asked if we might set a time for me to meet with Ms. Chenier.
"Absolutely. Would three o'clock do?"
"If you like, I can book you into the Riverfront Howard Johnson. It's very nice." She sounded happy to do it.
"That would be great. Thank you."
She said, "Would you like someone to meet you at the airport? We'd be happy to send a car."
"Thanks, but I think I can manage."
"Well, you have a fine flight and we'll look forward to seeing you tomorrow." I could feel her smiling across the phone, happy to be of service, happy to help, and happy to speak with me. Maybe Louisiana was the Land of Happy People.
I said, "Darlene?"
"Yes, Mr. Cole?"
"Is this what they mean by southern hospitality?"
"Why, we're just happy to help."
I said, "Darlene, you sound the way magnolias smell."
She laughed. "Oh, Mr. Cole. Aren't you the one."
Some people just naturally make you smile.
I dialed Joe Pike's condo and got his answering machine. It answered on the first ring and Joe's voice said, "Speak." You see what I mean about the conversation?
I told him who we were working for and where I would be, and I left both Sid Markowitz's and Lucille Chenier's office numbers. Then I hung up and went out onto the little balcony I have and leaned across to look into the office next door. A woman named Cindy runs a beauty distribution outlet there, and we often meet on the balcony to talk. I wanted to tell her that I would be gone for a few days, but her office was dark. Nobody home. I went back inside and phoned my friend Patricia Kyle who works on the Paramount lot, but she was in a casting meeting and couldn't be disturbed. Great. Next I called this cop I know named Lou Poitras who works detectives out of the North Hollywood division, but he wasn't in, either. I put down the phone, leaned back in my chair, and looked around the office. The only thing moving besides me was this Pinocchio clock I've got. It has eyes that tock side-to-side and it's nice to look at because it's always smiling, but, like Pike, it isn't much when you're trying to work up a two-way conversation. I have figurines of Jiminy Cricket and Mickey Mouse, but they aren't much in the conversing department, either. My office was neat, clean, and in order. All bills were paid and all mail was answered. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of preparation necessary for my departure, and I found that depressing. Some big-time private detective. Can't even scare up a friend.
I shut the lights, locked the door, and stopped at a liquor store on the way home. I bought a six-pack of Falstaff beer from a bald man with a bad eye and I told him that I was going to Louisiana. On business. He told me to have a nice time and to stop in again when I got back. I said that I would, and I told him to have a nice night. He gave me a little wave. You take your friendship where you find it.
At 1:40 the next afternoon I was descending into the Baton Rouge metropolitan area over land that was green and flat and cut by chocolate waterways. The pilot turned over the muddy wide ribbon of the Mississippi River, and, as we flew over it, the bridges and the towboats and the barges and the levee were alive with commerce and industry. I had visited Baton Rouge many years before, and I remembered clear skies and the scent of magnolias and a feeling of admiration for the river, and for its endurance through history. Now, a haze hung low over the city, not unlike Los Angeles. I guess commerce and industry have their drawbacks.
We landed and taxied in, and when they opened the airplane the heat and humidity rolled across me like warm honey. It was a feeling not unlike what I had felt when I stepped out of the troop transport at Bien Hoa Air Base in 1971 in the Republic of South Vietnam, as if the air was some sort of extension of the warm soupy water in the paddies and the swamps, as if the air wasn't really air, but was more like thin water. You didn't walk through the air down here, you waded. Welcome to Atlantis.
I sloshed down to the baggage claim, collected my bag, then presented myself to a smiling young woman at the Hertz desk. I said, "Pretty hot today, huh?"
She said, "Oh, this isn't hot."
I guess it was my imagination.
I gave her my credit card and driver's license, asked directions to the downtown area, and pretty soon I was driving past petrochemical tank farms and flat green fields and white cement block structures with signs that said things like FREE DIRT and TORO LAWN-MOWERS. The undeveloped land gave way to working-class neighborhoods and grocery markets and, in the distance, the spidery structures and exhaust towers of the refineries and chemical plants that lined the river. The chemical plants reminded me of steel towns in the Northeast where everything was built low to the ground and men and women worked hard for a living and the air smelled strange and sulfurous. Most of the men in these neighborhoods would work at the refineries, and they would work in shifts around the clock. The traffic in the surrounding areas would ebb and flow with great whistles announcing the shift changes three times a day, at seven and three and eleven, sounding like a great sluggish pulse, with each beat pumping a tired shift of workers out and sucking a fresh shift of workers in, never stopping and never changing, in its own way like the river, giving life to the community.
The working-class neighborhoods and the refineries gave way to the state's capitol building, and then I was in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge. The downtown area was a mix of new buildings and old, built on a little knoll overlooking the river and the Huey Long Bridge. The river ran below the town, as much as within it, walled off from the city by a great earth levee that probably looks today much as it did over a hundred years ago when Yankee gunboats came down from the north. Even with the commerce and the industry and a quarter million people, there was a small-town southern feel to the place. Monstrous oak trees laden with Spanish moss grew on wide green lawns, standing sentry before a governor's mansion sporting Greek Revival pillars. It made me think of Gone With the Wind, even though that was Georgia and this wasn't, and I sort of expected to see stately gentlemen in coarse gray uniforms and women in hoop gowns hoisting the Stars 'n Bars. I wish I was in the land of cotton…
At six minutes before three, I walked into an older building in the heart of the riverfront area and rode a mahogany-paneled elevator to the third floor and the offices of Sonnier, Melancon & Burke, Attorneys at Law. An African-American woman with gray hair watched me approach and said, "May I help you?"
"Elvis Cole for Lucille Chenier. I have a three o'clock appointment."
She smiled nicely. "Oh, yes, Mr. Cole. I'm Darlene. Ms. Chenier's expecting you."
Darlene led me back along a corridor that was solid and enduring, with heavily lacquered pecan walls and art deco sconces and framed prints of plantations and cotton fields and portly gentlemen of an age such that they might have shared cigars with old Jeff Davis.… Old times there are not forgotten.… The whole effect was unapologetically Old South, and I wondered what Darlene felt when she walked past the slave scenes. Maybe she hated it, but then again, maybe in a way I might never understand, she was proud the way any person might be proud of obstacles overcome and disadvantages defeated, and of the ties with a land and a people that adversity builds in you. On the other hand, maybe not. Like friendship, you take your paycheck where you find it.
She said, "Here we are," and then she showed me into Lucille Chenier's office.
Lucille Chenier smiled as we entered, and said, "Hello, Mr. Cole. I'm Lucy Chenier."
Lucy Chenier was five-five, with amber green eyes and auburn hair that seemed alive with sun streaks and a wonderful tan that went well with the highlights. She seemed to radiate good health, as if she spent a lot of time outdoors, and it was a look that drew your eye and held it. She was wearing a lightweight tweed business suit and a thin gold ring on the pinkie of her right hand. No wedding band. She came around her desk and offered her hand. I said, "Tennis."
"Your grip. I'll bet you play tennis."
She smiled again, and now there were laugh lines bracketing her mouth and soft wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Pretty. "Not as often as I'd like. I had a tennis scholarship at LSU."
Darlene said, "Would you like coffee, Mr. Cole?"
"No, thank you."
"I'm fine, Darlene. Thanks."
Darlene left, and Lucy Chenier offered me a seat. Her office was furnished very much like the reception area and the halls, only the couch and the chairs were covered with a bright flower-print fabric and there were Claude Monet prints on the walls instead of the plantation scenes. A blond wood desk was end on to a couple of double windows, and an iron baker's rack sat in the corner, filled with cascading plants. A large ceramic mug that said LSU sat among the plants. The Fighting Tigers. She said, "Did you have a nice flight?"
"Yes, I did. Thank you."
"Is this your first time to Louisiana?" There was a southern accent, but it was slight, as if she had spent time away from the South, and had only recently returned.
"I've visited twice before, once on business and once when I was in the army. Neither was a fulfilling visit, and both visits were hot."
She smiled. "Well, there's nothing I can do about the heat, but perhaps this time will be more rewarding."
"Perhaps." She went to the blond desk and fingered through a stack of folders, moving with the easy confidence of someone who trusted her body. It was fun watching her.
She said, "Sid Markowitz phoned yesterday, and I spoke with Jodi Taylor this morning. I'll bring you up to date on what we've done, and we can coordinate how you'll proceed."
She took a manila folder from the desk, then returned to sit in a wing chair. I continued to watch her, and continued to have a fine time doing it. I made her for thirty-five, but she might have been younger. "Yes?"
"Sorry." Elvis Cole, the Embarrassed Detective, is caught staring at the Attorney. Really impress her with the old professionalism.
She adjusted herself in the chair and put on a pair of the serious, red-framed reading glasses that professional women seem to prefer. "Have you worked many adoption cases, Mr. Cole?"
"A few. Most of my experience is in missing persons work."
She said, "An adoption recovery isn't the same as a missing persons search. There are great similarities in the steps necessary to locate the birth parents, of course, but the actual contact is a far more delicate matter."
"Of course." She crossed her legs. I tried not to stare. "Delicate."
"Are you familiar with Louisiana's adoption laws?"
She slipped off her right shoe and pulled her foot up beneath her in the chair. "Jodi Taylor was relinquished to the state for adoption on an unknown date thirty-six years ago. Under the laws of the state at that time, all details of that surrender and all information pertaining to Jodi's biological parents were sealed. When Mr. and Mrs. Taylor adopted her, their names were entered as parents of record, and Jodi's birth name, whatever that might have been, was changed to Judith Marie Taylor. All records of that name change were also sealed by the state."
"Okay." Maybe I should take notes. If I took notes, she might think me professional.
"Louisiana maintains what we call a voluntary registry of birth parents and adopted children. If birth parents or adopted children wish to contact each other, they register with the state. If both the parent and the child are registered, then, by mutual consent, the records are unsealed and an intermediary working for the state arranges a meeting between the two."
"Did Jodi enter the registry?"
"Yes. That was the first thing we did. Neither of her birth parents are registered. I filed a request for special leave with the state to open the records, but we were turned down."
"So, legally speaking, that was the end of the road and now it's up to me."
"That's right. You'll conduct the actual investigation to try to identify Jodi's birth parents or locate a bio-family member who can supply the information she seeks, but you won't make contact with them. If contact has to be made, that will be my job. Do you understand?"
"Sure." Strong back, weak mind.
She took a folder from the larger file and passed it to me. "These are local maps with directions to Ville Platte, as well as some tourist information. I'm afraid there isn't much. It's a small town in a rural area."
"How far away?" I opened the folder and glanced at it. There was a Triple-A map of the state, a Chamber of Commerce map of Ville Platte, and a typed sheet listing recommended restaurants and motels. Everything the visiting private eye needs in order to swing into action.
"A little over an hour." She closed the larger file and placed it in her lap. "Our firm is very well established, so if there's any way that we can help with research or access to state agencies, don't hesitate to call."
"May I ask how you'll proceed?"
- On Sale
- Jul 16, 2013
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Hachette Books