Welcome to episode 9 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, Sherl and Cajun Rob close in on the sinister force behind the killings, and discover their top suspect keeps some startling friends.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
“Y’all done exactly what I asked you not to,” said the A.M. shift-nurse with the clipboard, Shireen.
She stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips. Vera Leggins continued to scream in her wheelchair, its wheels squeaking between the screams. Whatever had put her in such a condition it seemed to have no outward cause, for now she was looking right at the TV where the nuclear family beset with travail was mending itself in a round-robin hug. Miss Luopre pushed her chair forward, looking back at Miss Leggins with pointed distaste.
“Vera. Vera. Sssshhh,” she said. “You blocking out the best damn part.”
Shireen told us: “Peaceably, gentlemen, please.”
Rob rose from his chair and we walked to the door. Sure enough, behind Shireen, two bored-looking orderlies leaned on the wall, looking me and Rob over with cursory menace.
Shireen led us through Seven Oaks like a couple of drunks eighty-sixed from a bar.
Yet not toward the front doors as I had imagined, but in around the nurse’s station and down the hallway deeper into the place, Vera Leggins’ cries against being restrained growing fainter and fainter the further we went through a slalom of old folks in wheelchairs and walkers compelled to the dayroom to see what was wrong. Still getting over the shock of the fact that I’d been sleeping very likely with a dangerous stranger, I found it hard to put a pin in where exactly we were going. At first I’d assumed we were being led back to some head of security eager to grill us, but after a series of hard lefts and rights I was no longer sure. We were walking past rooms. It was one of the nursing home’s residence halls. The hush of a privacy best not invaded—the fumbling, ripe hush of the bountifully aged—suffused the beige carpet, the vine-print wallpaper.
TVs squawked behind closed doors.
My eyes were stinging in my skull for lack of sleep and twanging nerves.
That almost perpetual sense of foreboding, the universe whispering doom in my ear.
One of the doors that we went by stood open and there at the edge of the bed sat the dwarf. His feet, in shiny wingtip shoes, were dangling high above the floor. His face beneath his stovepipe hat was just in the process of coming to light, the whiskered chin tipping, the teeth flashing white, but then we were past him.
The hallway had ended.
Shireen turned around at a yellow fire door with a cigarette already poised in her mouth.
“They’ll nick you for that on your monthly review.”
But the woman ignored me. “Let’s all get some air.”
She opened the door and we followed her out onto some kind of loading dock, cloudy with heat. An ashtray sat beside the door—Shireen and the other home staff’s smoking outpost—and the woman lit up with a fidgety air, her thumb taking eons to get at the lighter. The smoke in the heat fairly made me upchuck. I suddenly wondered the last time I’d eaten: popcorn a la Raisinets in Angel Heart’s opening credits last night.
The shift-nurse said: “Bullshit.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Friends of the family my lily-white ass.”
“I like to think that I have lots.”
“Y’all with the press. I know y’all.”
Rob and me looked back and forth. Then Rob nodded.
I smiled at Shireen and said: “Guilty as charged.”
With her eyes closed a moment, she held in the smoke. Her clipboard from before had grown, now fronted by a thick file folder; I thinned my eyes to see the tab but the folder was stashed down too low at her side.
She exhaled and nodded, as though to herself. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, okay. I’ve been holding this madness for too long already. You want to know something about Mr. Baphetz—about Cleveland, Jarrell and Amelia Kent,” and here she peered around the dock to double-check we were alone, “I’m the woman to ask. But you listen, sweetheart: this ain’t no donut shop lagniappe. Both y’all need to fucking swear, right here and right now in this godawful heat that if y’all going forward with this it’s on y’all. It ain’t my cross to bear, no more.”
“We swear,” said Rob.
She said: “Do you? Then swear on this big-ass case file I got with me.” She held it up and waited for us. “Go on,” she said. “Need both y’all’s hands. You reading the name right: Cornelius M. Baphetz.”
We put our hands upon the file, and eyed Shireen, and said: “We swear.”
“Okay,” she said. “I feel much better. Mind if I smoke till I’m dead? Course you don’t.” She tandem-lit another Pall Mall. “The LDHH, Medicaid, Medicare—you thought they was bad pre-Katrina? Well, shit. Bad didn’t mean nothing till after the storm. Baphetz came to Seven Oaks when the system was just about bad as it gets. Patients all in a jumble. Come in and come out. Big Charity closes. Nobody knows shit. Meanwhile out here at Seven Oaks, a center for assisted living, they cycling in all kinds of folks that no one here knows how to treat. Folks that’s bipolar. Compulsive. Hears voices. Some of them even done stretches in jail. Just whoever, it seems, been displaced by the storm and with no licensed doctor on record comes here. Baphetz, he was one of those.”
“They tell you about him when he was admitted?”
“They?” said Shireen and blew smoke out her nose. “They makes you think there was someone in charge. Someone calling the shots in some office somewhere. There was no one in charge, I can guarantee that. Louisiana loosey-goosey. One day he’s there outside the place. No records, no nothing. All paperwork lost. Or so says the suit from the LDHH. It’s Seven Oaks’ job to look after him now. All we do know is he suffered a stroke. Can’t walk so good. He’s in a chair. That—and what he used to do.”
“What did he used to do?” said Rob.
“Professor of the history of photography at Tulane. The second thing that struck me off. Got a Tulane professor, full-time in the past—at least a hundred-grand a year—and one stroke in they stick him here? He was just in a chair. He was sixty years old! Where’s his family? His friends? Scotty Cowan? I swear. Had three more strokes while he was here. Third one was the charm. Now he never sits up.”
“How did he seem as a person?” I said.
Her eyes looked away. “Little bit of a mystery. As I said, he came scrubbed clean. We had to build a file for him. As y’all will later read,” she said, “had a wife, but she died in her 50’s. Esophageal cancer, or something like that. Got a son out in Metairie. Young Walker Baphetz. Was a semi-pro golfer at one point in time. Subsequent means to a paycheck unknown.”
“All that’s in the file, I’ll bet.” I leveled my eyes at her. “How did you find him?”
“Polite and presentable. Kept to himself. But don’t they always say that, though? Needed round the clock care, pretty much, to stay lively. Changes. Sponge baths. Fluff the pillow. Can’t have been a easy life. Had something about him, I will tell you that. Like he saw in you. Saw your soul. Not only the stuff you was tolerable at but also where you’d come up short. Saw you just as you were. Rusty edges and all. And there was beauty, there, in that.”
“He ever talk to you?” said Rob.
“Thank you, always,” said Shireen. “Johnny on the spot with that. Apart from thank you, not so much. Always glued to his computer. Got one mounted here,” she said and she tabled the air at the height of her chin, “he learned to work by doing this.” She thrust her chin outward and dragged it back toward her.
“His room was also lined with books. And I’m not talking James Lee Burke. These were fancy books. Glossies. Photography books, I would guess by their look. Some even had his name on them. Imagine that, huh? The old guy was a someone. Walker would help him page through them sometimes when he came out to visit dad.”
“And how often was that?” I said.
“When he first got here, once a month. I mean,” she said, “if even that. But after he was here a while and especially after he had his third stroke, the kid would be out here two, three times a week. Even bought a panel van—big boat of a thing with a handicap loader—so they could go out and about in the parish.”
“You know where they went?”
“Ain’t none of my business. This here is a home, not a supermax, darling.”
“Amelia Kent, the social worker. When did she start treating Baphetz?” I said.
“Amelia,” she said. “Oh, Amelia. Poor darling.”
“We heard she was a special lady.”
“Really, really was,” she said. “It’s a sin on all goodness what happened to her. Every sense of good there is.”
We gave her some space to return to herself. She lit another cigarette.
The ashtray was filled with them, hundreds of Pall Malls, and Shireen’s living face showed the ravages of it. I pictured her out here in autumn, in winter, in spring with her secret too awful to name.
“Amelia started treating him…” She stashed the Pall Mall in her mouth and started counting on her fingers. “2013? For a while, anyway. All the residents here have a counseling option. You check it on the admit form. Baphetz wanted his, I guess, and Dr. Kent was who he got.”
“So.” I paused a beat. “That’s it?”
Shireen was having trouble going forward and she knew it. Gazing into the heat-haze that fronted the dock like spectral fog before a ship, she tremblingly drew on her third cigarette.
“Amelia only told me later. Confidentiality’s a hell of a thing. She started to notice things slowly about him—things that weren’t, you know, quite right.”
“Things he told her?”
“That came later. What she noticed, that came first. Got a wait-staffer here by the name of Atone. That’s short for Antoine or for Tony or something. Real sweet black kid. Good, good looking. Whoever can’t walk to the café for meals, he brings them breakfast, lunch and dinner. Amelia noticed Baphetz liked him. Stared at him always a little too long. Interested in him, you know?” said Shireen. “And more than just what he had under the platter.”
“So he liked men,” said Rob. “So what?”
“Atone is seventeen,” she said. “But Atone was only the tip of the iceberg. This was back around the time when those grandmothers’ boys started coming more often. Back then, they were sophomores in high school, I think. Amelia and Baphetz would talk for a while, whatever he had on his mind needed mending. Then she wheeled him through the place on that barge of a bed that he had, making rounds. He struck up something with the boys. Seemed innocent at first, I guess. They were excellent students, I heard in the papers, so he mostly made talk about what they were learning. What subjects did they like in school? Why those subjects and not others? Football, okay. Why football? Trombone. That was better. Why that and not flute? Dr. Kent felt he was opening space in the minds of two boys who’d been told all their lives you do this long enough you’ll be it. He was opening space up for doubt. For free will. She said he was obsessed with that. Free will, he told her in their sessions, is everything you’ll ever have.”
“So then what happened next?” said Rob.
“Dr. Kent did some research.” The nurse’s face darkened. “Baphetz was and he wasn’t the person they say. He’d been a professor at Tulane, all that. He’d also at one time been under indictment for running a child porno ring in New Orleans.”
She stopped for a moment, allowed that to settle. “That’s right,” said Shireen. “From her lips to your ears. University, gently, lets him go. It’s a private school move. They don’t want any headlines. He even keeps his pension, maybe. But he loses his housing. His colleagues’ respect. Over time he turns into a kind of Boo Radley. Apparently, though, the conviction got tanked. Somewhere in the mix with the cops or the courts. This is after Katrina, mind you. Shit is fucked. Baphetz gets off Kingfish-free. But instead of them sending him home with an aid or to live with his son out in Jefferson parish, they send him to Seven Oaks, special delivery.”
“Porno ring,” said Cajun Rob. “Polaroids, movies, live action—what were they?”
“What little I know about that type of stuff is a lot of the time it’s whatever it is. It’s that illegal. That hush-hush. These scumbags take what they can get. But the stuff Baphetz made, it was really specific. That’s what nibbled at Amelia. They were, like, these stylized, high-quality photos. Of boys. Ages thirteen to sixteen. All black. But dressed in this tatted up old-timey clothing. Like they weren’t taken now at all but a hundred years back, in the Jazz Age or something.”
“She have any notion who else was involved apart from just Baphetz?” I said hopefully.
“Couldn’t say,” the shift-nurse said. “All’s I know it was a ring.”
Rob said: “Kent tipped them off about Baphetz.”
Shireen’s eyes grew hard as she nodded at Rob. “Weren’t just those boys that took the bus. Dr. Kent took it, too, and she synced up their schedules. On their way they’d pass the time. It took a couple rides, I think, for her to broach the Baphetz subject but when she did it went like this: the man is evil. Steer clear of him.”
“That was the word she used—evil?” I said.
“I do believe it was,” she said. “I see that it’s strange for a doctor to say. Not altogether scientific. But sometimes people are, you know. There’s just no better word in the world to describe them.”
“And what was their response?” I said.
“She told me that they were receptive,” she said. “A little shocked at first I think—that stuff, at their age, is a hard pill to swallow—but by and by they listened well. Next time they came to Seven Oaks they stayed with their grandmas, let Baphetz float by them. And the next time, and maybe a couple times after. And then Amelia Kent was dead.”
“You think that they killed her,” said Rob, “to protect him?”
“I’m not sure what to think,” she said. “Is that what the cops have been saying?”
“From what I know about those boys—what they’ve been saying on the news—that don’t make too much sense to me. Though I can’t help from wondering: what about Baphetz. He seemed to have some power on them. Sure, he’s a pervert and loony to boot but kids at that age are a little bit loony. Believe me,” she said, “I’ve got two living with me. He might’ve convinced them it mattered somehow—what Dr. Kent had said about him.” She paused for a moment, considering something, her eyes looking down at her dove-colored shoes. “Or maybe it was even worse. Amelia might’ve been too late.”
“Meaning Baphetz had already… done things to them?” said Cajun Rob with sharp distaste.
“Or had someone else do the doing,” she said. “Victims tend to blame themselves. That Baphetz is smart—about pictures and people. He might’ve convinced them that now they were spoilt they had no other choice but to go all the way.”
We all took a moment to think about that. The prospect was hideous—also compelling. I wanted a smoke of my own from Shireen but Lil came to my mind and I thought better of it.
“One thing that eludes me,” I said to Shireen, “about the Kent-Baphetz-teenager triangle is why Baphetz opened himself up to Kent if he wanted to keep his proclivities secret.”
“Even evil needs an ear. Especially evil, I guess,” said Shireen. “The Devil lamenteth to Eve in the garden, Baphetz spills the beans to Kent.”
“I’m assuming you know what we’re going to ask next.”
Working those lashes, Rob smiled at Shireen.
“He’s in room 106,” she said. “He’ll be there now. It’s almost lunch.”
We nodded and turned back inside in a hurry, but not before she caught my wrist.
“Aren’t you two forgetting something?” She pressed the five-pounder case file in my hands. “I’ll say it mildewed when the AC went leaky.”
“Thanks,” I said. “We’re in your debt.”
“Let’s call it even,” said Shireen. “When he first came, your friend,” she said and she pantomimed Ecks’ haircut with her hands, “I didn’t have my shit in order. When I saw he’d been murdered, I felt bad about it. Maybe if I’d just spoke up. Maybe if I’d—on and on. I know it ain’t my fault he’s dead but if I had told him he might be alive. This world is a horrible, meaningless place with so much unfairness it boggles the mind.”
“But?” I said.
“No buts about it.”
She hopped off the edge of the loading dock, lighter, then stubbed out her smoke in the floor of the bay. And then she walked around the front, where the camera could see her, to finish her shift.
We followed her after a little delay. She was at the nurse’s station when we got there, no biggie. She pretended not to see us as we headed through the lobby, bending to tend to her flesh-colored hos or to pull something off of the printer: just missed them. To enhance the charade of our non-descript presence, I stopped at the coffee cart off of the lobby and poured myself a dilute cup. This I carried through the halls until we got to 106.
Rob said: “Here goes something.”
He reached out and knocked.
We held our breath but no one answered.
“Asleep, maybe?” said Rob.
Rob shrugged off the thought. “He still talks, doesn’t he?”
I sipped my coffee, knocked again. “Mr. Baphetz,” I said. “Have a minute to chat?”
But again there was nothing.
“Well, that’s disappointing.” Rob held up his palms and then slapped his thighs with them.
I was on the verge of kneeling in the very public hallway to peer through the keyhole or crack in the door when an orderly walked by and noticed us, stopped.
“Help y’all?” he said.
He was standing behind us: Tyrese-looking black kid. His nametag: Atone.
“We were hoping to get with Cornelius,” I said in the best unassuming put-on I could manage.
“Y’all family?” said Atone.
“Ex-students,” I said.
“Green Wave!” said Atone. “I’m an LSU man.”
“Is he around?” said Cajun Rob.
“Y’all Tulane-ians all business, ain’t you?” he said. “No one calls him Cornelius. He’s Neelie to us.”
“Neelie, right,” I thought to say. “Professor-student force of habit.”
“Neelie ain’t around right now. Went out with his son, Mr. Walker, for lunch.”
“Just now?” said Rob.
“Just missed them, bruh. But they’ll amble on back before dinner tonight.”
We shuffled through the sliding doors, Shireen watching us from the desk with confusion. I still carried my coffee with me. Out here in the heat it was sick-making stuff. We crossed the parking lot not talking, both of us half-distracted, our eyes on the ground, the small consolations of further AC and Baphetz’s case-file held under my arm making what had just happened to us bearable when we had come so fucking close.
Then suddenly Rob was no longer beside me.
He was standing in the parking lot a couple paces back, watching something occur toward the front of the building.
That something was a panel van, big off-white Chevy with handicap tags, backing out of a spot to the left of the entrance.
I saw what Rob saw; and not just the car’s make, exactly as Shireen described, but the red and white license plate riding the bumper: WSJ804.
As we followed the van onto Veterans Boulevard, past car dealerships, box-stores and daq shacks, I came clean to Rob about all my withholdings: the Bellocq and all that I felt it might mean; my sketchy rendezvouses with Lil; Beau Ferleisher, a.k.a. young Walker Baphetz, waiting in darkness outside of my house. I had never had reason to keep them from him. Even as I’d not told him I hadn’t known why.
I admitted this now, with head-shaking confusion.
There was maybe some part of me somewhere, I said, that had wanted to keep him aloof of the mess but by the time I realized how unhelpful that was it was too late already.
It was high time I swan dove right onto my sword.
For all of a minute, I’m kidding you not, Rob didn’t say a word to me. He just followed the panel van, eyes dead set on it. He did what I paid him to do: he drove forward. I sipped at my coffee, birdlike, irritating. Or anyway, I felt that way.
He was pissed, I could tell. Just this way that he had: I’m cool with my level of anger. Are you?
The panel van braked at a light up ahead. For a moment it seemed he was not going to stop, that he was going to fender bender with the psychos up ahead to teach me the lesson I’d never quite learned when just before impact he pumped on the brakes. My coffee spilled upward and onto my shirt. It was still pretty hot and I gritted my teeth as the stuff hit my chest and soaked into my jeans.
“Okay, I deserved that,” I said.
“And then some.”
“I know what I’m saying is utter bullshit because here we are now at the end of the line and what can it matter now anyway, right, but I hope you can see, in my own twisted way, that what I was doing I did it for you?”
But Cajun Rob just shook his head.
The van started forward again, gaining speed. You couldn’t see shit when it came to the driver; these chi-mo vans are all like that. The sideview showed only the bulk of who knew as they guided the car rigidly through the heat.
At some point, we both took a right off of Veterans, heading into the streets of the new neighborhood.
There was old Metairie and just Metairie. Go figure.
The old part was nicer: more moss and Greek columns, a Deep South that hearkened to “simpler” times. While the Metairie part was much more of a burb: prefab houses, swimming pools, lots of gated offshoots of the main neighborhood with names like Spanish Lake Estates and Magnolia Terrace. You get the idea.
At present, we were in the latter.
The streets that we followed the panel van down, always one block away, were disquieting clones. Driveway, hydrant, palm—repeat. And I started to wonder the further we went that when and if we had to flee if we would be able to find our way back to the unloveliness of the true and right world.
The dwarf stood out on someone’s lawn, his shadow long across the grass. He tipped his stovepipe with the sun at his back and then we’re stopping along with the van.
It was hard to discern the address they were at, both because of the houses and where we were parked, and yet I could only assume it was white with cerulean window-trim just like the others.
“I wish that I believed you, Jim.” Rob cut the ignition and stared straight ahead. “But we both know the reason you did what you did: you wanted to break the case open. Just you.”
“I know I’m a terrible asshole,” I said, “but can’t we forget it and just go inside?”
“Forget it?” said Rob.
“Maybe save it? For later?”
“And who says we’re going inside, anyway?”
“You have to be kidding me, Rob.”
“Take a look.”
I did. His face was so not kidding.
“We’re alone,” he continued. “We’re too close and we’re running on fumes. Here’s what we’re going to do. As soon as they take Baphetz out of that van, if Baphetz is even inside it at all, we’re going to creep up, scope the house’s address and call in Dedeaux and O’Shea on the double.”
“Dedeaux and O’Shea? What the fuck did they do?”
“You see, that’s what I’m saying,” said Rob. “It’s just you. The goddamn Jim show. J-I-M in lights. Did you somehow forget the fact that we’re New Orleans ambulance chasers, not cops?”
I scoffed at that. “So says the driver.”
His face went blank. He turned away. He was rummaging, now, in the Mazda’s backseat. He returned with a clean button-up in one hand.
“You’re going to want to change your shirt.”
He pressed it rough against my chest.
I did without a second thought, stripping off the coffee mess and balling it up in my trembling hands and stuffing it under the front of my seat like some shameful companion to crime, or addiction.
Meanwhile, the front of the panel van opened. Two figures got out either side in the street. One was clearly Walker Baphetz, I could tell by the lithe, virile way that he moved, while the one from the passenger door was a woman. She climbed down one-legged to perch in the street, hair the color of asphalt, or hurricane sky.
It was Lil in blue jeans and a Fluer-de-lis t-shirt.
They opened the panel van’s long sliding door and started to carry the evil man out.
Photos (in order): Mario Tama / Getty; Greg Baker / Getty; hjl / Flickr; Earl / Flickr; Earl / Flickr; Earl / Flickr; David Kent / Flickr; Opacity / Flickr; Christopher Sessums / Flickr; Robyn Beck / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty