Welcome to episode 4 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, a worn out Jim Sherl heads home after a long night of chasing leads only to find his front door cracked open. Someone is waiting inside – and she has secrets to share.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
When I opened my door, I saw something was off.
My domicile was filled with smoke. It came billowing at me like some kind of wraith as the night’s atmosphere sucked it out the front door, and I looked for the fire I was sure would start up any day with my shotgun’s sub-optimal wiring.
It was cigarette smoke, a piano bar’s worth, and it showed Ecks’ lady-friend parked on my couch. I was still pretty drunk and I laughed between coughs.
You know how life feels like the movies sometimes?
There’s a reason for that: because life is the movies.
She was wearing this sort of flapper’s dress with a costume embroidery stitched down the front, and these black pantyhose, and these red wingtip heels. She’d been smoking her head off for god knows how long on the couch that directly abutted the door and the ashtray she’d made out of one of my mugs was halfway filled with Camel Wides.
“You know that I like to drink out of that thing?”
“In theory.” She stubbed out her current one. “Sure.”
I closed my front door, leaned against it and slid.
“Aren’t you going to ask how I let myself in?
“Or how you found out where I lived. Do explain.”
“The CC directory. Easy,” she said. “Besides, you left your door unlocked.”
“Did I really?” I said, genuinely dismayed.
I’d been distracted, eight beers deep. Of course, it made sense, I had lots on my mind, though I’d have to shape up in that vein going forward. Whatever bad juju had come upon Ecks after knocking down doors in the Kent woman’s murder it was measures like, I don’t know, locking your door that would help to put off when the other shoe dropped.
“I lied to you before,” she said. “I was at Ecks’ place on the night he was killed.”
“You have to be kidding.”
She looked at me flatly.
“And you figured that telling me now,” I sat up and motioned for her to donate me a smoke, “would turn the spotlight down on you?”
Operating her lighter, she thought about that one.
“That supposes I have an agenda,” she said.
“I’ll be mounted and stuffed if you don’t.”
I got up and walked over to crack a window.
I heard fabric whisper, turned back to the couch.
“Look at me, Jimmy,” she said. “I’m a mess.”
Ava Gardner, however, was anything but. I walked closer to her, upright on the couch, with her legs for kilometers balanced before her and the leg on the top of the pile was vibrating with nervousness, something, I couldn’t be sure.
I put my palm over her wingtip and stilled it. She folded out the other leg.
She wasn’t wearing hose at all but a pair of thigh-highs, polka dot underwear. She planted her red wingtip heels on the floor, and she grabbed needfully at the stuff of my shirt, and then she was pulling me over upon her, wrapping her legs around my ass.
Just short of our lips getting friendly she stopped.
“Did you love him?” I asked.
“Does it matter?” she answered.
“All right, do you miss him?”
“Of course.” And she kissed me.
It was one of those great times you almost remember. A parting of cloth, a devouring of skin. A trembling of moistened teeth. And then you come to with a heaviness on you and know you’ve acquitted yourself by the species.
We lay on my floor in a pile of chucked clothes. I was getting the hang of this cigarette-thing. It was pillow talk, sure, but without the soft stuff and Ecks’ girl was no exception.
She said in my ear: “The name’s Lil. Now you know.”
Witching hour thunder in metro New Orleans. Like mansion doors opening slowly in heaven. Firecrackers, but no, it was raining by now.
Those were gunshots I heard in the city this evening.
“So tell me about it: the night he was killed.”
“What happened to what are your hopes for the future?”
“If you don’t want to tell me about it, that’s cool.”
“Okay,” she said. “We fucked, like, twice, and then I went to get us takeout.” I tried and I failed not to wince at her words, but I’m not sure she noticed. She continued: “Chinese. Or Vietnamese. Yeah, it must’ve been that. Chinese is for shit in this town anyway. People say there are half-decent places but— “
“—hey. We can talk about anything—anything else.”
“Don’t mistake the long route for avoidance,” she said. “It’s only how I tell a tale. I waited at the restaurant. It was Saturday night so, you know, it was packed. Plus, Ecks always orders…” She paused for a beat, and her eyes turned away as her cigarette smoldered.
“Ordered these ginger and lemongrass wings and they took a minute to put on the plate. So I waited there, I don’t know, twenty-five minutes. I was reading a book. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. I drank a Sing Ha at the bar. I was happy. This cheesy-ass guy ten years older at least in the country club uniform, polo and chinos, started in TMI on his life in the burbs and I was in such a good mood sitting there freshly laid at the bar with my paperback book that I even indulged him in listening a moment. Then my order came up. I drove back to the house.”
She chain-lit a cigarette, rubbed out the burner. Beside her, I propped myself up on one elbow. “The door was open. There he was. They fucking stabbed him in the chest. Put him in that creepy pose. Well, you know the way he was found—you were there. There was so little blood, I remember. This trickle.” She touched her free hand to my chest in exactly the place where the knife had been found and she brushed her nails down it, but stopped at my stomach. “I didn’t call the cops. I couldn’t. All I could do was get out of there fast. And now, looking back, I regret that.” She frowned. “I didn’t even check his pulse.”
I remained for a time on one elbow, absorbing, while the tropical downpour played hell on the shingles. Then I dared to move my hand.
I ran it lightly through her hair.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “He was already dead.”
“You know, I know that now?” she said. She covered her face with her cigarette-hand. “I panicked, I freaked. Ecks wouldn’t panicked. If it had been me and not him, he’d have stayed.”
“Anyone there when you got there?” I said.
“Well not in the shotgun itself, obviously. But sure, it’s the summer. Some kids riding bikes. Brown-baggers on Esplanade. Folk on their stoops. That’s why I can’t figure: the robbery part. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s complicated, that I know, all this soul-searching stuff about gentrification, but even if the neighborhood had a shitty opinion of people like Ecks it’s a solid, blue-collar collection of folks. Look out for each other, you know what I mean? There is no way in hell if they saw something weird like the night strangler fleeing with Ecks’ TV that they wouldn’t have hollered. Called somebody. Something.”
“You think the best of people, don’t you?”
“Most days,” she said, “I like to try.”
“What about those kids you mentioned—the ones who were riding their bikes down the block?”
“They’re high school and middle school kids. Some are younger. Barrel the street up and down doing wheelies.”
“Ecks friendly with any of them?”
“Maybe a couple. He was civil in spite of his haircut, you know. Liked kids and he wasn’t half bad with them either.”
She stared at me. “You know what I mean.”
“You ever perused his computer?”
“At length. He had porn on it, fine. Every guy looks at porn. But it never involved little kids. Satisfied?”
I wasn’t, but gave it a rest for the moment. I could feel Bellocq poised on the tip of my tongue. Ecks had been posed like a whore for a reason and Bellocq’s red light district photos were key. She’d gone out of her way to name drop him before, but that didn’t mean she was in on it, too. All it meant was that Bellocq was special to Ecks. And whoever the killer had been, they had known.
“What about Amelia Kent?”
“Don’t even get me started on it.”
“He talk to you ever regarding his progress?”
“You’re asking me, really? The dude was obsessed. It nibbled at him day and night. You know that they never found out why they killed her? Ecks told me: no apparent motive. That fucked him up, I think. Not knowing. At first they thought a robbery but then when they searched her she had all her money. Then they thought, you know, a rape, but all the kits were negatory. So he made it his business to find out. To know. And also, maybe, catch the killer. Out driving with the crusty girl—the one in the Bywater. Rosebush or something.”
“Nettle,” I said. “She’s a friend of a friend.”
She did a big eye-roll. “Bitch did not like me. Can’t say that I cared for her hugely myself. The night he was murdered was supposed to be different. We hadn’t seen each other much in the last couple weeks him off Mickey-Spillane-ing but he said that he’d had a big break in the case and he wanted to celebrate drinking and fucking. I mean those weren’t his words, but the theme was implied.”
“He say what the so-called big break was?” I said.
“He was going to tell me when I got back with takeout. The big reveal.” She moved her hips. “They say evil hides. That was all that he said. They say evil hides, but they’re wrong. It parades.”
“Mardi Gras reference?”
“The fuck if I know. In typical New Orleans style we were going to toast evil with what else: good bourbon. I picked up a bottle en route back to Ecks’.”
“I thought it was just the takeout.”
“Where all did you buy it?”
“At Rite Aid,” she said.
“I’m surprised that you know.”
“You start on the bottle?”
“I did. That was later. Because here’s how it went when I found him,” she said. “Fucking scream. Grab the takeout and booze. Hit the road.”
I thought back to what Ecks’ neighbor had said about ambient sounds on the night of the murder. I didn’t recall a woman’s scream. Not like Jeff Spicoli was truth’s avatar with that weapons-grade herb he habitually smoked, because if she had screamed, and it seemed like she had, then why would she have lied about it?
“You found your sometimes-boyfriend dead and remembered to flee with the takeout?” I said.
She was quiet a moment. I swiveled my head.
In a bright strobe of lightning that lit up the pane, I saw her face gone flat and hard.
“You can fucking A bet I remembered,” she said. “I’m starting to question your sympathies here.”
“You know what, I’m finished,” I said. “Never mind.”
“You sure are fantastic at wrecking the mood.”
When I moved in to kiss her, she flinched at my touch. I played at a hand on her breast but she slapped it. She violently twisted away on the floor and bolted upright in the bare center of it, rearing against the windowpane not like a nude woman but some kind of goddess, the silhouette shape of her gorgeous, totemic. When the thunder had passed, she spoke over her shoulder: “I need to be held by you yesterday, please.”
I scrambled upright from my leaning position and hobbled to where she was crouched, on my knees. It seemed like a fitting conveyance for Lil, enthroned in the ether like Kali post-battle. She wrapped her arms around my waist and she leaned into me, and we fell to the floor, not to fuck as I must sort of say I had hoped but the second best thing to it: spooning in moonlight.
The nighttime turned into the morning right quick.
I’d only slept two hours at most. But I had that exuberant, second-self feeling of just having slept with a stranger I liked.
Now, in bed, I watched her sleep and I thought to myself: what the hell is she on?
Her tale of woe was like those levees: constructed half-assedly, bristling with cracks.
Well, you know the way he was found—you were there.
I had to call mountains of bullshit on that. I had never once told her I’d been at the scene, not in the stairs and not post-lay. So unless she’d assumed it from something I said or unless she’d still been at the crime scene herself when me and Rob rolled up a little past 9, she had let something slip that she’d meant to keep secret.
Moreover, the bottle of Buffalo Trace.
Not only had she never asked how I’d guessed Ecks’ bourbon my first up-at-bat, it was weird she’d forgotten to mention the purchase. And anyway, it made no sense: they had already had a half-bottle already. The cops had found it in the kitchen, set next to the tumbler with highball grime in it.
Until the forensics came back on the glass—and that could be weeks, knowing NOPD—I’d have to file the booze away in my crappy mind cabinet of meaningless clues.
Last was the timeline she’d tried to sell me. Possible, sure, but intensely unlikely. And if I decided to factor it in to Dedeaux and O’Shea’s, which I knew was legit, it raised even more doubts about who had been where or done what in what order the night of the murder.
Lil had claimed that the takeout took twenty-five minutes, give or take 5 or 10, which you had to allow. Which meant she had left Ecks’ 7th Ward shotgun at 8:30 or so and returned close to 9:00. Ecks’ was killed at 8:58. That gave her a pretty small window indeed for grabbing the foodstuffs and hitting the road before me and Rob sauntered in off the street at 9:07 by my watch. Or let alone before the cops, who then showed up at 9:15.
Cops, I remembered, that Lil hadn’t called.
And then there was the watchword: SNITCH. Whatever it said about Ecks’ forays into the sad death of Amelia Kent, I was guessing that “big break” that Lil never heard had something to do with its reason for being.
To Ecks: who showed up way too early.
What had Ecks stumbled on? What had he seen?
The Kent woman’s killer, it seemed to me now, was more than likely also Ecks’. But you didn’t “snitch” on a killer—not really. You snitched on a friend who had thought better of you.
The case was a carousel, dizzying, gaudy.
For now, I focused on her face. She lay open-mouthed in a fan of her hair. Her breath was sweet yet faintly stale, which made me marvel: so, she’s human. Her nudity under the sheet was outrageous, breasts and hips like shaded dunes.
Sneaking into the bathroom, I dialed Cajun Rob, who agreed to come get me in 10 to 15.
When I opened the door to come out and get dressed, Lil was out there bed-headed and wrapped in the sheet. She yawned a little, bugged her eyes.
“You never asked me how we met.”
“Slept great, thanks for asking,” I said.
“Aren’t you curious?”
I must admit I was. “Okay.”
“We met on the streetcar.”
“Canal Line. He liked to take it now and then. He said that he found it ‘profoundly relaxing.’”
Seeing her do the air-quotes made me laugh. Ditto the image of Ecks on the streetcar. It was hard for me to think of him outside of his hard-charging hipster milieu but the fact that he’d liked to ride NORTA made sense.
A lapse of control with the scenery passing.
“A couple of months I interned at the morgue. Parish Coroner’s Office. So you know I got stories. The first night of class I get off for the day and I get on the streetcar, a go cup in hand—Big-Ass Bloody Mary from Court of Two Sisters. There he is on the bench seat that faces the street. Oh, where are you headed? Oh, nowhere myself. By the time we get on what I do for a job, we’re most of the way to the first night of class but we still haven’t made the connection—not yet. I tell him I work in the morgue. He flips out. High fives me. Is all like: Go get it, dream woman! He gets off a stop before I do. Who knows. Maybe he wants to get high in the park. On his way out the front door, he asks for my number. I give him the real one. He shouts: see you soon! I shout back: not too soon! Face totally flattens. I mean on the slab! And he smiles—big as life.”
“Life can be ghoulish ironic,” I said.
“Class starts an hour later. I’m like: Oh, it’s you.”
“I must’ve come in late that day.”
“A classic New Orleans love story,” said Lil, and I tried to smile at her like Ecks might’ve done, but before I could marshal my face properly there was Cajun Rob honking the Mazda outside.
Photos (in order): Mario Tama / Getty; Tchockflex / Flickr; Fady Habib / Flickr; Vladimir Agafonkin / Flickr; Timm Schamberger / Getty; Shawn Harquail / Flickr; Colin Campbell / Flickr; Justin Sullivan / Getty; John Moore / Getty; Timothy A. Clary / Getty