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Robert Crais

Voodoo River

The fifth book in the Elvis Cole series, 1995

CHAPTER 1

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 amp; 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.

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