Welcome to episode 8 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, a surprising development sends Sherl and Cajun Rob to the Seven Oaks nursing home, where a conversation with Cleveland’s grandmother cracks the case wide open.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
Another night of little sleep.
I woke up to a call from Rob.
As I pushed up in bed with the phone mashed in place between my shoulder and my ear, I surveyed the wreckage of last night’s handwringing—the forest of beer bottles crowding the nightstand, the foxed Bellocq books and the Wonder Bread crusts—and for over a minute had no recollection of who in the world could’ve made such a mess.
Rob’s voice returned me to myself. “Jarrell didn’t make it,” he said.
“Jarrell,” said Rob. “As in, the victim? As in Cleveland’s best friend, who was fine yesterday?”
The out-of-left-field-ness of what Rob was saying combined with my grog had me pedaling for traction. “But he was on the up and up. “
“That’s what I’m saying, Sherl. Goddamn. About how many beers did you drink in the movie?”
I made a mental finger-count. “Enough to forget Mickey Rourke then and now.” I switched into speakerphone, dropped the receiver. “How the hell are you telling me this anyway?”
“Got a call from O’Shea.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Nope. Guess he’s the one who’s got the crush. Asshole thought we’d like to know that Cleveland’s going down for murder: Jarrell’s, and get this, Kent’s as well. They’d like to make Ecks’ stick too while they’re at it.”
It was what we’d expected from NOPD. O’Shea and Dedeaux weren’t looking for nuance; they wanted to mark the case file closed. I could see how they’d gotten from Cleveland to Kent and maybe, too, from Kent to Ecks, but I kept getting snagged on Jarrell up and dying when it seemed for a time he was going to pull through: a boon for the cops, a bad omen for Cleveland.
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “Jarell died from his gunshot wound?”
“He never specified,” said Rob. “What I do know, however, it makes sense he knows. Jarrell died in police protection.”
“Swarthmore,” I said. “Poor fucking kid.”
I needed to do something, quick, with my hands.
I was still in the jeans I’d been wearing last night. I rooted around in the pockets for change, and there was Beau Ferleisher’s card. I remembered him taking it out to show me, not me putting the card in my pocket, however. The whole encounter with the guy began to seem that much surreal-er.
Or maybe uncanny. Yes, that was the word.
That feeling you get when a PGA Tourist walks over your living grave.
Rob was saying: “Pick you up?”
“Where else is there to go?” I said.
I suddenly found I was frantically nervous. A sinister vibe was pervading the cosmos, the mustering out of a nameless foredoom. The dwarf who wore the stovepipe hat was narrowing his camera’s eye.
I asked him to give me 10 minutes to shower, then for him to pick me up.
Between the shower and the horn, I dialed up the number on Ferleisher’s card. It rang so many times that I thought to hang up, but then someone answered: “WBRZ-2! Producer’s room!”
The voice, an older-sounding male’s, was breathy and half-irritated already. As someone who regularly dealt with the stations, I knew the cadence all too well. To fuck with them a little bit would be to throw them off their guard.
“WBRZ-2 the news station?”
“No,” he said. “The costume shop.”
“Are you the assistant producer?” I said.
“You bet,” he said. “What’s this about?”
“Your name is Beau Ferleisher?” Agonized pause. “May I speak to Beau Ferleisher?”
“Is there a Beau Ferlisher there at the station? I’m looking at his card right now.”
“This is some kind of sick fucking joke,” said the man.
“Why would it be a joke?” I said.
“Because,” said the man, “Beau Ferleisher’s dead.”
Now I was the one at a loss.
“Who is this?”
“It’s no one,” I said, and hung up, feeling queasy.
The feeling didn’t go away. I vomited into the kitchen trashcan.
New Orleans passed as in a dream.
The dream of a city built up on a swamp, its foundations sinking, its borders in flux.
The dream of a city that measured its hours by the trickle of spirits from bottles and graves.
As we passed through Lee Circle en route to the 10, there was some kind of protest encircling the statue where Lee gazes north from his phallic outcropping. The protestors were mostly black. They appeared to be grilling the old Stars and Bars at the base of the monument, smoke wending up. In front of a banner that read “Black Lives Matter,” a trumpet player raised the call.
Midway there, a text from Lil: Fuck u for giving my name to Ferleisher.
Of course, I had never done anything close, but decided to leave off on texting her back. The less she knew about the guy the better it signaled for her at his juncture, however he’d come into knowledge of her.
The Seven Oaks nursing home was a one-star dump with pipe dreams of garnering one-and-a-half. First things first, there were no oaks but withered palms that lined the drive between a Rally’s and a Popeye’s. The obese rent-a-cop in the temperate spot between the summer and the lobby didn’t venture A to Z about the reason we were there. That job, it appeared, was reserved for the nurse, who sat behind the horseshoe desk. She said to us just: “Happy hour’s over, baby.”
Then turned back to doling out scrips or whatever.
Louisiana-strong white lady. Gaunt and peroxide, with seen-it-all eyes. She perpetrated on her clipboard, then peered up at us when we still stood nearby.
Somewhat after the fact, she announced: “Help y’all?”
“We’re here to see Luopre and Leggins.”
“As I said,” said the lady—the A.M. shift nurse, I could only assume from her autocrat vibe, “visiting hours for the morning are over.”
“It’s 10:03 a.m.,” I said.
“Folks rise on the bright side in here,” said the nurse. “7 to 10 is facility rules.”
Could she be the roadblock that checked our momentum?
We had a look around the place.
Walkers and wheelchairs crisscrossed through the halls. The TV up on high blared soaps. Grannies or geezers on orderlies’ arms did glacial morning calisthenics.
The nurse’s name tag read: Shireen.
“Relative or friend?” she said.
Seeing that we hadn’t budged, she must’ve taken pity on us.
“Friend of a relative,” said Cajun Rob.
That earned us both a fleeting glance. “Leggins or Luopre?” she said.
“Their grandsons, Cleveland and Jarrell.”
Now we had her full attention.
The shooting had been on the New Orleans news but had been in the ether here, too, I’d imagine. Compared to the Seven Oaks weekly newsletter—“Residents Circle and Circle the Hall”—it would’ve made a splashy headline.
“They’re where they always are,” she said and pointed to the TV room. “But I so much as hear a peep that y’all causing a spike in them ladies’ blood pressures I swear upon this clipboard here I will not fail to kick y’all out.”
The shift-nurse slapped her paperwork. We edged into the TV room.
It was Good Times or Happy Days, something old school, shenanigans inside a duplex. No reality trash for these consummate livers, these souls who had walked 80 years through the world.
The laugh track on the TV swelled.
What ever happened to laugh tracks, I thought?
And then I remembered the night of the dwarf, how the sitcom laugh track had announced his arrival, as though it were the passageway that spanned the void between our worlds.
Apart from the two ancient-looking black ladies tucked in beneath the TV screen there was one other person at large in the room—this checker-slacked grandpa, asleep in his paper—and so there could be little doubt about where we should put our chairs. The lady on the left was thin with prodigious white hair gathered up in a bun. The one on the right was a sight more substantial; metallic-black hair sticking up everywhere, across her nose a splash of freckles. She sat in a wheelchair, her feet in the stirrups, lost inside a cotton nightdress.
The left one wowed her eyes at us. “Y’all young to be taking out rooms in this joint.”
“We’re here to talk to you,” I said.
She shifted her eyes to the TV again. A plot point resolved itself over our shoulders. She shook her head and clucked her tongue and slowly refocused her eyes on our faces.
I took out the cards me and Rob carried with us—“Sherl & Foucher, Videography NOLA”— and handed one to each of them. While the thin woman took it and gave it a study, the larger woman only stared, the card falling off of her wrist where I’d placed it and fluttering into the folds of her gown.
“Don’t mind Vera,” said the thin one. “Vera ain’t been right for months. They ought to move her some place else—some place that can handle whatever afflicts her—but they ain’t done that. Here she stays.” As she studied the card, something seemed to come to her. “Say, weren’t y’all here a week ago?”
I realized she must mean Ecks. And not for the first time I had the sensation of following my rival’s trail. Every move that I made was foregone, pre-decided, uncanny reprisal of Ecks’ last days.
“That was my colleague,” I said.
“Was it now?” She handed the card back to me, raised her brows.
“What did he ask you so I don’t repeat it?”
“Y’all some kind of paper men, ain’t you?” she said.
Cajun Rob said: “Yeah. Some kind.”
“He’s pretty,” she said. “Where your people from, baby?”
“Down near Lafayette,” said Rob.
“I got me a grand niece. She looking for love. You want to cook her shrimp and grits?”
“My pappy was a Rougarou,” said Cajun Rob, and showed his teeth.
“She need a beast. You call her up.”
“Our colleague,” said Rob, “week ago, what he ask you?”
“He ask about my grandson, Cleveland. That and others things,” she said. “Lord have mercy, he in trouble. He shot a boy in New Orleans. He shot his friend.” She sucked her teeth. “Now that don’t seem like him at all.”
“So Cleveland’s your grandson,” said Rob, “and Jarrell…?”
She put a finger to her lips and cut her eyes at Vera Leggins. “Don’t like to say his name out loud. She dreaming, Vera, sure enough, but that don’t mean she can’t wake up. It’s things like hearing Ja—his name that might just seem to set her off. Last time they had to come for her and tuck her up in bed three days.”
“She know what happened day before?”
“She know,” she told us. “Sure, she do. She crying, just without the sound.”
I looked at Miss Leggins, intent on the screen. Her eyes were vacant, faintly red, as though something ecstatic had soldered them open—and yet there was a rushing glint that moved behind the vacancy: emotion sharp enough to cut. The freckles splashed across her nose gave her an almost girlish look.
“Cleveland and his friend,” said Rob, “they came here to visit you often, we hear.”
“They like to come here every week.”
“That strike you as funny for boys of their age?”
This from me. Miss Luopre frowned. She did not seem to like me much.
“Suppose it do,” she said, “a bit. But Cleveland and the other one, well they not quite your average boys. They kinder than most. More intelligent. Sweeter. They love they grandmas, bless they hearts. You got a grandma, boy?” she said.
“Not anymore,” I said.
“A shame. She teach you not to count your blessings. My grandma teach me that,” she said. “Cleveland and the other one, they grandmas teach them plenty more.”
“When they came here,” said Rob, “to set in with y’all, did they happen to set in with anyone else?”
“Don’t think so,” she said. “Hey there, Vera.” She jogged Miss Leggins on the arm. “You remember someone that the boys set in with that wasn’t you or me?” she said.
Vera Leggins watched TV. One of her wrists sort of bent and flopped back.
“Whenever she do that,” said Mrs. Luopre, doing the wrist-flopping thing, “it mean yes. I’m fuzzed up today, though. I got to think on it.”
She turned away from me and Rob as though to stay focused were far too much effort, turning back to the sitcom occurring behind us. In the story, the family’s husband and father had had a flirtation with someone at work. So far as I could tell from there, at a holiday party she’d forcibly kissed him, and that’s when his own wife had rounded the corner. Dad was in the doghouse now.
“She married to that man for 21 years,” Miss Luopre informed us without looking down. “He cheat on her and run her ragged, but they got chirren. He a father!”
“Miss Luopre,” I said. But she still didn’t look. “Any idea who they talked to, Miss Luopre?”
“No Lu-op-re’s in here,” she said. “Pronounce it like Lu-op, you heard?”
“Loud and clear.”
“All Seven Oak adored them boys. Ain’t every young man come to visit his elders. Do it on a bus? No, sir. There was this white man, though,” she said. “You remember the skinny old white man can’t walk?” She jogged Vera’s arm once again; there was flopping. “Name Mr. Boretz—Baphetz. Baphetz. His name Mr. Baphetz, right, Vera? Uh-huh. Took a liking to Cleveland and Vera’s grandson. They liked him back all right, I guess. Whenever they wasn’t in here next to us, they pushed him round and round the station.” She pointed to the nurse’s desk. “Now Vera here is in a chair. That Baphetz go the whole nine yards. He in one of them hospital beds up on rollers. He go up in the bed, he go down and he roll. He one of them paraplegics, right, Vera?”
Miss Leggins did not flop her arm. She was seemingly too, too engaged in the sitcom, whose gag jokes involving philandering dad had taken a turn for the stupidly earnest. The cheated-on wife and her daughter were talking, hands clasped, knee-to-knee, on the living room couch. The girl, who was her daddy’s darling, was working the mother to grant him forgiveness, but not without a lesson in the graces of commitment.
She patted her daughter’s slim hand and began.
“What else do you know about Baphetz?” said Rob. “He can’t move much but can he talk?”
“He talk a awful lot, I’ll bet. Some kind of professor before he come here. Art history, philosophy, something like that. Tulane, maybe? I don’t know. It was either Tulane or Loyola,” she said. “You know before he fucked it up that Cleveland into LSU? He got the full ride: E. Roe Stamps. He going to be a Tiger, too.”
“We had heard that, yeah,” said Rob. “And Ja—his friend was into Swarthmore.”
“Bright, bright boys,” said Miss Luopre. “Make sense they drawn to Mr. Baphetz.”
“Any idea what they talked about?”
“Your guess as good as mine,” she said. “It was mostly just only them boys that he talk at. Professor Baphetz got a air. I see them together. He teaching a lesson! Most of the time, though, they set in with us. Eating dinner. Watching shows. Mr. Baphetz get visitors, too, lots of days.”
“Who came to visit Mr. Baphetz?”
“Why you care so much?” she said, but more to me than Cajun Rob.
“Just want to get a sense,” I said, “for everything that made them them. Most papers just looking for shooters and victims but me and Rob here, we know better than that.”
“I really hope you do,” she said. “The last white boy come up in here that tell us he work for the paper done nothing. He said he send us what he write but my mailbox been empty for weeks, ain’t it, Vera?”
“Who came to visit Mr. Baphetz?”
“Few different folks visit, but mostly his son. Or anyway I thought it was. He pretty like you,” she tapped Cajun Rob’s knee. Then she pointed at me. “He white like him. Come every couple days or so. He looking like he on the links. You know, Tiger Woods. Like he golfing or something. Cleveland and the other one would walk a stretch with Mr. Baphetz, rolling with him, talking low and then at the station his son be there, waiting. They break off from Baphetz, come back sit with us.”
“Did the boys ever talk with the son?”
I was hot. I fingered Beau Ferleisher’s card. Or whoever the fuck the guy actually was who’d handed me a dead man’s card. And I thought of the Escalade’s license plate holder: the plate unscrewed, stashed somewhere safe, then screwed in again before driving away.
I was reasonably sure that wherever it was it started ‘W—S—J.”
“Suppose they say hey, how you doing, all right. Beyond that, though, I couldn’t say. But after what happen with Baphetz’s doctor, the son start coming by more often. Mr. Baphetz in his room. Boys setting here with us for hours. Son sign his name and go straight back. We never see him after that.”
“Baphetz’s doctor,” said Rob.
“What about her?”
“What happened to Baphetz’s doctor?” said Rob.
“Ain’t heard about her?” said Miss Luopre. “She why that other boy come out. The one that y’all said was y’all’s colleague—the white boy? He asking questions how she died.”
“Amelia Kent treated Baphetz?” I said.
“She treat a lot of us, that girl. But ain’t you heard? She got shot up. Going home through the Treme they blast her and run. Couple no account people that wanted her money, heaven knows she ain’t got much. Seven Oak a home,” she said, “but Seven Oak won’t buy you one. That Dr. Kent had to live somewhere East Bank. Must’ve had a family, too. You know, on the news they say two black boys done it but I…”
The laugh track swelled. I flinched.
Miss Luopre was busy rehashing Kent’s murder but now only to Cajun Rob, Rob’s monosyllabic encouraging noises and Miss Luopre’s story commingling, dissolving.
Something else had drawn my ears and gradually my eyes, as well.
The mother on the TV show was describing the day she had first met her husband.
“We were just starting medical school,” she began, “though only your father turned into a doctor. We were riding the subway together one day. He’d been interning in the morgue.”
The daughter faked disgust at this. “I always thought that dad seemed stiff!”
The laugh track swelled again. “Oh Leigh! Your father was a perfect charmer. He asked for my number, that day, on the train, not knowing that only a couple hours later we’d end up in the same classroom. I was smitten with him and I said: see you soon. Your father said: But not too soon! I think I must’ve frowned a little. And then your father gets this smile. I mean, he tells me. On the slab!”
The laugh track crescendoed. The room swam around me.
I gripped my chair back, staggered up. Cajun Rob and Miss Luopre and Vera Leggins, slowly, too, turned one by one to stare at me as I came up beneath the wall-mounted TV and touched my fingers to the screen, as though to discern in its pixels some blind spot, something that I hadn’t seen.
It was the same story that Lil had told me about the night she first met Ecks. It was bullshit, all of it, a measureless lie.
She’d seen it on the morning reruns. It was probable she’d never known him at all.
And I, too, remembered my probable moment: the first night I’d ever seen Lil at the college. How I had had to take a second, watching her jump up with tears on her cheeks and buck through the fire door and go down the stairs, to wonder was it possible I had never once seen her in all of that time.
I turned from the TV and back to the Misses, a look of wildness in my eyes.
And that’s when Vera started screaming, her chair rolling this way and that on the floor, the whites of her eyes all her eyes for a moment, like what she was seeing had rendered her blind.
Photos (in order): Mario Tama / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty; E.J. Bellocq; Mario Tama / Getty; Greg Baker / Getty; Greg Baker / Getty; xrichx / Flickr