Welcome to episode 11 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this penultimate installment, the dark and crooked truth about the murder case is revealed as a severely injured Jim Sherl struggles to survive the night.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
Talent is a funny thing.
Too much or too little can burn a man down.
Looking back down the dark alleyway of his life or onto the grand avenues of his future and there’s his name in neon lights, but a few letters, always, don’t shine like they should.
Or that’s how it seemed to me, slumped on the floor with my legs flopping open in front of my gut, inundated with blood and now something else: pain.
A hurricane of it. All levees in breach.
O’Shea sat across from me, pistol still smoking. He rested the gun on his knee. Was it hot?
Department-issue DAK. Department-issue off-hours cop.
Eight o’clock shadow encasing his jaw. Wallow of his tie and collar.
“Well ain’t you just fresh-faced with all kinds of theories?”
“What in the fu—“ I attempted to say but it quickly devolved into coughing with blood-flecks.
“Had to take you down a peg.” O’Shea itched his thigh with the nose of the gun. “We can’t have the vultures outpacing the wolves. It ain’t, you know, the natural order.”
He was sitting, man-spread, on the living room couch, right where I’d found Lil when she’d let herself in. He’d clearly been there for a while; his patch of aggressive trespassing looked lived in. My shotgun, like Ecks’, had also been ransacked, but none of my home entertainment was missing.
Rather only specific details appeared off.
For instance, my file cabinet vomiting sheets, odd doubles of prints, DVDs in clear sleeves, printouts from the Advocate and Nola.com. Some of my nicest photography books had been arm-loaded in from the bookcase, broken open—a couple to Storyville portraits by Bellocq. And I guessed my computer’s search history, as well, would feature some pretty expedient content; not only the stuff I had researched myself about Bellocq and Ecks and Amelia Kent, but other search profiles handpicked by O’Shea to make my death look self-fulfilling.
I moaned and I checked out my stomach again.
The entry wound was really going.
“What the fuck are you doing here, that’s the real question.” He gave me the once-over, almost flirtatious. “I figured, maybe, 50/50 your making it back from that nuthouse alive. Because dead honestly would’ve suited me fine. Little paperwork, sure, but a straight-ahead story. Novice gumshoe slain by cult.” He traced the headline with his fingers. “Either that, or you drinking the Kool-Aid yourself. They had that on virtual lockdown, they told me. Just let him arrive at our doorstep, they said, and we will gladly do the rest. Or anyway, what’s his name, Walker said that.” O’Shea did an eye-roll. “Is that guy for real? They said you were most of the way there already. I had my doubts, but no, no, no. I made them make a guarantee. I said: he comes back either bearing your shield or on top of his own, and no bullshit about it. They said great, hunky-dory, no problem. Now, look. I count it as a lifestyle win that I always remember to take out insurance.”
I managed to summon my powers of speech. “You killed Ecks,” I said.
He snorted. “I can think of worse things to have done with my time but no, as I think you well know, it was her. That prost who thinks she’s Norma Desmond. Sweet Lil is a call girl. You know that, I hope? You fucked her, what, like two, three times. Fell in with the Bellocqians when Walker hired her for a party. So, what, you’re too good to exalt to God in man or whatever the fuck they profess to exalt? I’ll bet they were pretty teed off about that.”
“They actually took it”—I coughed—“pretty well. You set me up,” I said. “How come?”
“Cause I’m a dirty fucking cop?” O’Shea raised his eyebrows, like: hadn’t you noticed? “For the same goddamn reason I set up your colleague. Vulture smells dinner. Descends. Has a nosh. I like to keep my corpses clean. Y’all were coming too close to the truth about Kent.”
“And what is the truth about Kent?”
“Jesus. Christ. Even with a motherfucking bullet in your gut you’re still trying to get the scoop. But you know, in the end, this is larger than you. And it’s larger than Ecks. Y’all are bystanders, really. What I’m talking about starts a long time ago—wait a minute.” He paused. “What the fuck am I saying?” He switched off the safety. “I’m killing you now.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait a second there!” The directive came out of me all in a stream and I had to hunch over for shockwaves of pain. “The story,” I gasped. “Got to know how it ends.”
O’Shea now stood over me, gun in my face. He considered me clinically, eyebrows ascendant, like a product he felt on the fence about buying.
Then he sort of pursed his lips. He thumbed the safety back again.
“You’ll die either way, how you’re bleeding,” he said. “But I guess I can do you the courtesy, sure.”
He slowly sat down, pulling bunch from his slacks. And in that millisecond before he began, I considered my options for getting away.
I have to say, they weren’t so hot.
As usual, there was my phone. Very theory vs. practice.
For even if I tweezed it out I couldn’t tap SOS-messages blind, and I sure as hell couldn’t just lounge with it there in my splayed-open lap, Googling who to call. I had been known to butt-call Rob, who was by far the top 504 in my contacts, leaving him logs of me ordering coffee or galumphing about the Big Easy in jeans, but butt-calls never happened when you needed them, did they? The front door was my next best bet. To rise in my agony, crab-shuffle backward, buck from my shotgun and into the night in the hope that someone with a sensitive ear not afraid of the cops was meandering by.
But all of it was too absurd.
That was when I heard the thump.
A muffled thump and then a moan, or a sort of hard humming beyond the next door. It led into the center room from which the Bellocq books had come—the room where I’d toiled in my wild isolation, tracing strands on the web I was now caught amidst.
But I banished such things from my mind. Focus, Jim.
O’Shea said: “Okay, let’s go back a few years. Butterfly is not yet born. O’Shea is a beat cop, then New Orleans Vice. Homicide division calls. It’s what he’s always dreamed of, baby! The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid. Or like Dave Robicheaux, or the one with DeNiro. You know, with the Devil and Lisa Bonet when the gumshoe gets hired—“
“—Angel Heart, for Christ’s sake.”
He wanted to fuck with me. I wouldn’t let him.
“Exactly,” he said. “So I worked and I worked. Over-time. Holidays. Beaucoup endless cases. All to get that murder badge so I could wear a rumpled suit and pay into a pension plan. But when you’re young, you don’t see that. When you’re young, you got beautiful, misinformed dreams. You want to take life by the hips and just fuck it! I wasn’t too far off from Ecks at that age. But then I caught a motherfucker. Really lowdown, nasty case. This Tulane professor was running kid porn then calling it scholarly output. Guess who? And they say tenure is a scam. Cost of printing and staging the photos he took, the crappy motel rooms, he bills the department. Paper trail a mile across. Like he had a hard-on for the bullpen or something. Kiddie diddlers often do. They want to be stopped. Spanked in court, raped in jail. Baphetz was a classic case. An open and shut one, if I had my druthers. Everyone wanted it that way, believe me. But Baphetz hired a clever lawyer. Seems that I roughed up some poor student worker getting after the paper trail. Violent misconduct. Now I got City Hall rubbing up on my ass. The Good Lord shines a light: Katrina.
Case stalls out. OPP floods. Where’s Baphetz? In a mental ward. A couple days later, he has his first stroke. So it’s hospital-time. But the city’s in chaos. Hospital where they’re treating him—either Touro or Oschner—takes a serious nosedive. The power shuts off. They transfer him to yet another. By the time that New Orleans is solvent enough to even consider re-opening cases, Baphetz has become a ghost. Sure, the case was high-ish profile but the city is fucking in ruins, okay? Not to mention the fact that I called in some favors. Court documents, evidence, paper trail—halved. Case is shakier now than it was in July. Where they’re keeping the guy in the meantime?” he said. “A handful of us, maybe, know. We also know we can’t release him. Jimbo, have a little faith! He’s a fucking convicted molester of children! So I get with the LDHH. We parlay. Seven Oaks seems pretty good. He’ll be easy to keep an eye on there and I will be keeping an eye on him, mostly. In addition to that it’s a nursing home, right? He’ll practically be zero risk. I can hardly believe how resourceful I am. Baphetz suffers three more strokes.”
“You killed Amelia Kent,” I said.
He paused a beat. He checked his phone. He said: “Okay, maybe. But let me explain.”
“You killed her,” I said, “or had her killed. Then Ecks got involved. But you couldn’t kill Ecks. It’s one thing to kill off a black woman, right? Quite another, I’m guessing, a white twenty-something. So you let the Bellocqians put in work for you.”
“What is it with your generation?” he said. He hiked up his slacks and got up from the couch. He was pissed, I could tell, and he needed to move. “Everything’s politics! Everything’s sacred! Transgender this, black bodies that. Hash-tag, hash-tag! Bang the drum. Indicting fucking civil servants on a regular basis for doing their jobs. Well guess what Amelia Kent was? That’s right. A motherfucking civil servant. And you are going to trot her out like some kind of martyr for Danziger Bridge. Black lives matter. Some do, sure, but to matter in this life is something you earn. I managed that,” he said. “Have you?”
I heard the thumping sound again. The center room, no doubt about it.
Something or someone in there wanted out. Had heard O’Shea’s weapon and now heard us talking. Whatever plan he had for me, that something or someone was part of that plan, and chances were he’d shot me in the place that he had to keep me alive long enough to enact it. If I could get him mad enough—a condition that seemed to come naturally to him—I could probably get him to open that door.
Two vs. one beat out one vs. two.
I was in unbelievable pain—did I mention?
It felt like a creature that ate its way places, a mole or a weasel or something like that, were working its way through the maze of my guts to get at a sugary treat in my tailbone.
“Amelia Kent was onto Baphetz. Ecks was onto Kent,” I said. “Insurance my ass, that’s a hostile takeover. Even if they traced Baphetz as far as Katrina, who’s to say they’d get to you?”
“Fucking lady was most of the way there already. She knew about the thrown-out case, she knew about most if not all of the transfers. It was only a matter of time until me and we love us a crooked cop tale in New Orleans. Vindicates our self of self! What no one knows is this,” he said. “Where you see corruption, I see innovation. I see getting by with the shit that you got. I killed a lady, sure,” he said. “I shot her from my diver’s window. I called it in as three blacks kids because that kind of thing happens there all the time and if I’m out the game there’ll be how many more before someone stands up and says: hold on, enough. You think that I’m gloating?” His face dropped. “I ain’t. Ain’t proud what I did, but it needed to happen. Same circumstances, same players, same stakes, I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.
“So when you blackmailed Cleveland into shooting Jarrell and then finished him off when the shot didn’t do it what thing was at stake, in your expert opinion? Public indictment?” I said. “Little jail time? Or was that one even a tiny bit fun?”
O’Shea broke down laughing. Then started to pace. He held the gun down by his side, tapping the nose against his thigh.
“Is that what you think that I did? Holy shit. You should really start writing for one of those shows—Cold Case Files or Law and Order. As for Cleveland, he chose to unload on his friend. All I did was present him a series of options. Jarrell—well, it’s a tragic thing. I hope as a nominal man of the press they let you peruse the report? Oh they didn’t?”
“I was told that he died in policy custody.”
“There you go again!” he said. “You and your liberal news media buzzwords. Jarrell died in police protection. Victim admitted with head trauma, quote, from gunshot wound to right of head. Was in stable condition, then started to hemorrhage. Lapsed into critical. Died. These things happen.”
“These things happen. Huh,” I said. Though the “huh” was due less to sarcasm than pain. “Is that a quote from your report?”
The thumping sound happened, much louder this time.
I openly looked toward the center room door.
O’Shea was pretending he didn’t hear squat but I saw from the way that he winced with his eyes he had heard it all right and was highly displeased.
“So what do you think? That we’re like Stalin’s henchman, offing people ‘cause we can? Let me assure you, there’s always a reason. Jarrell Leggins went quietly. Naturally, even. And there’s no one I know who can say that he didn’t.”
“They were helping Kent build up her case against Baphetz and you erased them, just like Kent.”
“Cleveland,” he said, “was a hot-headed boy. He shot his friend because—who knows. Whatever moves these kids these days. Gang shit. Girlfriend. Talking smack. They maybe even had a secret. Love that dare not speaks its name. It happens with these kids, you know. Their communities fail them, not us. That’s the issue. People like to misplace blame. People like you and like—“
And then I heard a voice I knew, a clear, young and frightened-as-hell sounding voice that came from back beyond the door.
The voice said: “Heeeeeeeey! Hey, help me, please! This fucking 5-0 going to kill me! He crazy!”
“Toussaint?” I called out.
And O’Shea rolled his eyes. “Well isn’t this fucking heartwarming?” he said. “The vulture and the rat is pals!”
He crossed the room quickly, threw open the door and showed me Toussaint huddled under the lintel.
His arms and legs were bungee-corded. He had recently had a gag stuffed in his mouth—balled-up kitchen rag and electrical tape—but somehow he had spit it out. The tape was loose around his neck like some kind of flowing, Edwardian collar.
O’Shea stepped down hard on the top of his toes and pressed the gun into the crown of his head. He instantly started to whimper. Fast breathing.
“No, no, no!” he said. “Not yet.”
“You sick fucking—cough—corrupt—cough—of a bitch! Don’t you think—cough—you’ve done—cough—to that family?”
“Take a minute,” said O’Shea. He touched his throat. “Enunciate.”
“Get me out of here, mister! He crazy as hell. He make that lady kill your friend.”
“Make,” said O’Shea, “is a stretch, but okay. I supervised the lady’s actions.”
“You wrote out that ticket. You made sure I found it.”
“Bingo, Jimbo,” said O’Shea. “I had my doubts at first, but damn! The more clues that led you to Baphetz, the better. Chess game up and played itself. The thing I didn’t factor in was the Baphetzes letting you walk post-refusal. You know that they got a psychotic condition?”
“You don’t—cough—say?” I said.
“Oh yeah. Senior and Junior are born schizophrenics. Father passed it to the son, so on and so forth. Some Faulknerian shit! Dash of crazy cultists here, dash of 7th Ward black kids in straits over there,” he gestured at Toussaint, who squirmed in his bonds, “and you could fudge when Jesus wept.”
“Toussaint saw Lil—cough cough—kill Ecks.”
“Right you are. Kid hangs around! Always killing brain cells with that phone in the driveway. One night,” said O’Shea, “hears a scream. Sees some shapes. Jumps the side-gate. Sneaks in through the back. Creeping, creeping. Closer now.” O’Shea walked two fingers across Toussaint’s forehead. “Sees a pretty girl stabbing a guy in the chest while a city cop holds him at gunpoint. End scene.”
“You—cough—saw it happen?” I said.
“Were you the one who called the cops?”
He nodded again.
“Typical,” said O’Shea. “They never need us, then they do.”
I didn’t have much left in me. I was starting to slip from the bright world of men. Not dying—not yet—but for sure passing out. I shook my head to stay awake.
“At first,” said O’Shea, “no one cared that he knew. But then we had a think about it. And when I found out that Amelia Kent had been talking to Cleveland and Jarrell about Baphetz, it gave me that added incentive, you know?”
“To cancel Cleveland and Jarrell.”
“And what better bargaining chip than Toussaint.”
“Fuck you, motherfucker!” Toussaint hocked a loogie; it only just missed O’Shea’s shoe. “My brother way too smart for you! If he going down then you going down with him!”
“Toussaint sees Lil kill Ecks,” I said. “You threaten Toussaint. Toussaint looks to big brother. The deal?” I coughed blood-spittle into my hands. “Cleveland has to shoot Jarrell. Make it look like a feud between buddies gone bad. He does, then Toussaint gets to live.”
“But Cleveland ain’t do what you asked him,” said Toussiant. “Cleveland—“
O’Shea kicked Toussaint in the face.
Toussaint cried out; his nose gushed blood.
“What is it with you project spooks? That’s what I want to know,” he said. “All you got to fucking do is walk the line like you been taught. But you can’t do that ever, can you?”
I thought of Cleveland blowing tuba, futzing with the .45. The shot going wide. Jarrell’s ear disappearing. It hadn’t been due to sub-par marksmanship. Cleveland had fucked up the head shot on purpose. He’d done it not to kill his friend and he would’ve succeeded, if not for O’Shea.
For him… for him… for him…
Of course. Him was standing across from me, holding us hostage.
Him had enacted the ultimate horror:
Some hospital room with Jarrell on the mend. Balloons and cards. A morphine drip.
Him had approached the bed holding a pillow. Him had adjusted the dosage of drugs. Him had drawn a shot of something, pushed it into Jarrell’s veins.
Him stooped to fish under his pant-leg a moment and took out a 9mm black Ruger. Sidearm by the look of it. He popped out the cartridge to see it was loaded and slapped it back in. Then he took off the safety.
With the other gun, too, he repeated this gesture.
He walked to the median point in between us, crossed the guns over his chest and said: “Boom.”
I looked at the place in the floor I was sitting, blood starting to creep from the seat of my pants. Toussaint was hunched across from me at a seemingly perfect ballistic alignment, as though I had entered the shotgun’s front door just as he, the intruder, emerged from its depths. Our putative guns would’ve had a discussion.
Neither weapon, of course, would be traced to O’Shea. They might’ve been department issue, but the serial numbers, I guessed, were long gone.
They called shotguns shotguns for this telling reason: you could fire a shotgun from the front to the back. The spray of lead would go straight through.
“Shooter one and shooter two.” O’Shea bowed at both of us, guns in both hands. “One white, one black. One old, one young. One a cult freak, one born into violence. Crisscross.”
“What’s—cough cough—your motive there?”
“Toussaint over there is avenging his brother. Lies in wait for craaaazy white boy. White boy appears to stand his ground. And if that falls apart for some reason,” he said, “in this era of Michael and Trevon et al, there’s still the house in Metairie where as early as mid-day today I can place you. What’s that? You say white boy was part of a cult? Satan-worshipping murder cult, ties to child porno? Burden of proof, it swings both ways. White boy comes in from a long sweaty day of burning goats to Beezlebub and Toussaint here—“
Outside, someone rammed the front door.
O’Shea paused a beat and looked up in alarm.
Someone rammed it again. It gave out and swung inward, the bottom half jarring the small of my back. Even as I turned around I could feel myself leaving the conscious condition, my head getting heavy, my vision uncoupling.
Dedeaux stood in the door, gun drawn.
Cajun Rob of all people was standing behind her.
When she made to move forward Rob mirrored her movement, but when she detected it swatted him back. Yelling, “Fall back! Get down!” without turning around, gun braced on her forearm, O’Shea in her sights. From out of the corner of my eye I could see Rob obliging her, backing away, shielding himself with the hurricane door.
For most of a moment no one moved—except for our eyes, which were watching each other.
O’Shea turned to stone between me and Toussaint, the DAK and the Ruger half-raised in each hand. He backed toward Toussaint and beyond him the hall that led to the door at the back of the house but then seemed to think better of it. He chuckled.
Dedeaux said: “Make a good decision.”
“You fucking IA?”
“You are under arrest.”
“For what?” said O’Shea. “You have got to be shit—“
Mid-sentence now he raised both guns.
Dedeaux yelled a warning: “O’Shea!”
Then she shot him.
The last thing I saw before passing out cold was the blood splashing onto the living room wall.
Photos (in order): David McNew / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Angus Fraser / Flickr; Rod Waddington / Flickr; Mario Tama / Getty; e-clecticism / Flickr; Chris Jones / Flickr; Shannon Kokoska / Flickr; Mario Tama / Getty; Sippanont Samchai / Flickr; teakwood / Flickr