Welcome to the inaugural episode of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, we meet Jim Sherl – a bleed-it-leads photojournalist who, along with his buddy, Cajun Rob, stalks the streets of New Orleans looking for his next grim payday. But when the pair cop a homicide report on their police scanner, they come upon one grisly crime scene that hits too close to home.
New to the series? Click here to find out more about the project and catch up on past episodes. Share your suggestions about the case on our Facebook page, via email, or in the comments section below. Then tune in next week to see if your feedback reshaped the storyline.
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.
My name is Jim Sherl and I’m looking, right now. The view from here is pretty good. That is, if you discount the fact I won’t be alive very long to enjoy it.
But that was only after Ecks, and after the boys who adored their grandmothers, and after the murders that bled the Big Easy, and after Mr. Baphetz with the nothingness for eyes, and after the man with the bag of 9 irons, etcetera and all the rest. But mostly it was after this: me and Cajun Rob that night, fielding codes on the scanner, mid-summer, New Orleans, when we copped to an incoming 78 just a few city blocks from the crash we’d been filming and hightailed it over there, assholes and elbows, to find we had beaten 5-0 to the scene.
I’d never been inside the shotgun in question, but I knew who lived there as soon as we parked: a man named Vaughn “Ecks” with a thirteen-day beard and hair that was shaved artfully at the temples, an ambulance chaser of crime, just like me—“Freelance Videographers,” it said on our cards.
We’d been going to night school together: forensics. Trying to make what we played at legit.
But I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re thinking. I just knew enough to know this was his place.
Someone was barreling off through the dark by the time we were crossing the street toward the house and Cajun Rob called out, “Hey, yo!” but the witness or perp or whoever in question didn’t even slow down.
Before long he was lost.
The crime scene was this: eerie calm. Barking dog. You know, the one you always hear? A couple people down the block were gathering out on their stoops for a gander.
“Where do you think the cops are?” I asked Rob.
“Pileup on the 10,” he said.
We stood with absurd deference on the street, waiting for someone inside the shotgun where the murdered man lived to come out and invite us.
“Fuck it,” I said and walked up the front steps.
Granted, it wasn’t my style but so what. There was something about the whole creepy charade that made me feel outside myself, not to mention the fact this was “Ecks” Chinsky’s place—the “Ecks” in his name stood for “X marks the spot”—and I owed it to him, I supposed, to look-see.
We’d never cared for one another.
Withstanding that “Ecks” had an edge in our business—Toyota 4-Runner instead of a hatchback, better hookups for air time at all of the stations, better hair than I had and more of it, just hipper, with a driver named Nettle that lived in St. Roch whose low-top Vans were cast in lead and never balked like Cajun Rob when it came to those neutral ground swerves into traffic—the guy just kind of pissed me off.
Lately, he’d been MIA. In class and at the scenes of wrecks. I’d never really questioned why. In fact I had warmed up to living without him when here I was pouring myself through his door—a door which, oddly, stood half open.
The scanner was right. He was dead on the couch. Right there in the front room where he watched TV. He’d been stripped of his clothes and laid out end to end in what seemed a distinctly lascivious fashion, as though he’d been filming a porno for one or preparing to start when his murder befell him.
A kitchen knife stood to the hilt in his chest.
I didn’t want to see his face.
Blood spread from the base of the couch on the floor. But since the couch was dark, get this: the couch and not Ecks in his death-wretchedness seemed to bleed in widening pool toward my feet. There was something unreal about the scene, as though it were staged with the minutest care. Like me and Cajun Rob were here not as men of the press but as unwitting actors, who’d been pushed from the wings of some sinister stage to act out a drama we couldn’t imagine.
“What a way to go,” said Rob.
We snapped a couple pictures of the body and the blood that we’d have to crop later to hide Ecks’ junk.
At a glance, there were major appliances missing. A living room, but no TV. Adapter wires free of their terminals dangled. The furniture wasn’t overturned, papers coating the floor like you see in the movies, but the living room did have an disarray to it, its chair and side tables appointed to stand at angles supremely unkind to feng shui.
Either Ecks was a terribly shitty homemaker or he had, in the process of dying, been robbed.
It was my call to book it outside after that where we could appear to be twiddling our thumbs when the murder cops got to the scene of the crime. There were already blue and red carnival lights cycling over the fronts of the shotguns due south.
The night was hot—that Gulf Coast heat that makes your bones feel packed with cotton. The ancient and moss-covered oaks appeared soggy. There was random detritus all over the street; a Popeye’s cup, a stripped rib bone, a traffic ticket shredded up. The garbage in the street bins stunk. It would get and stay like this the whole summer long, the city carmelized with rubbish, as though the very atmosphere discouraged in folks the most basic politeness.
Lights from the cop cars flashed over Rob’s face, looking off down the block where the figure had vanished.
“You’re thinking what I am? “
“What’s that?” He turned toward me.
“The lock wasn’t busted. So who called the cops?”
“Whoever pig-stuck him, I guess,” answered Rob.
“Either that or who found him.”
“We found him,” he said. “You didn’t wait for me to answer before.”
As the cops pulled abreast of the house and got out, I waited in silence for Rob to go on.
“What a shame,” he said, exhaling. He smiled ruefully from the side of his mouth. “What a shitty ass shame of a thing for poor Vaughn.”
In some dim and primordial space of my mind I had hated Vaughan “Ecks” out of envy and spite, but even in my reddest hour I’d never wished his death on him: Wusthoffed through the chest with his balls on display on a secondhand couch during hurricane season.
If there’s a more ignoble way, I’d love to know. I really would.
When the beat cops were done taping off the front door and corralling what gawkers there were in the street, Dedeaux and O’Shea rambled up in their car—as long as a trash barge and baby shit beige. O’Shea emerged first in his clearinghouse suit and as soon as he hit the night air, he lit up—Dedeaux didn’t like him to smoke in the car. And Dedeaux, who’d been driving as always, came next, growing up from the knees with the grace of those egrets that frequent the waters around City Park.
O’Shea was an Irishman—go figure that. He was tall with a gut that poked over his slacks and his hair was a choirboy’s, all sandy and fine, a little thin across the top. Dedeaux was a light-skinned and long limbed black woman with an Angela Davis-confection of hair.
They saw me and Rob to the left of the crowd. O’Shea flapped his hand at me, smoke in his nose.
“You, Shirley Temple,” he said. “Ven aqui!”
O’Shea had the rollicking French Quarter accent, which made him sound like he’d washed up here from Brooklyn. He made no secret of the fact that he thought me and Rob to be foul parasites.
“You shit on my crime scene?”
“Detective,” I said.
“Did. You. Take. A. Shit. On. My. Crime. Scene?” he said.
Dedeaux said: “He doesn’t get out much. Excuse him. How long you two gentlemen been at the scene?”
“We been at the scene for a minute,” said Rob.
Cajun Rob was a little bit sweet on her, sure. They were both from these gussied up French Creole families—Louisiana through and through; Dedeaux New Orleans, Cajun Rob Lafayette. It sometimes left me on the outs when they got going on that stuff though having Dedeaux on our side, more or less, was equal to the awkward moments.
“Did you enter the house?” she said now, taking notes.
Uncertain what to say, we didn’t.
“They shit on my crime scene!” continued O’Shea. “Inundated my life with just barrels of shit.”
“I recall stepping in through the front door at first and seeing the dead guy laid out on the couch, but before I could go any further,” I paused and turned to focus on O’Shea, “something—a vision—O’shea’s ugly mug reared up huge in my mind and I beat it outside.”
“You’re being facetious?”
Dedeaux raised her brows.
There must’ve been a sense of humor in some off-duty part of her, hidden from view, but out here I guess she perceived it as weakness. She had this glitter to her eyes.
“Well, sort of,” I told her. “Except for the dead guy.”
“A dead guy,” said O’Shea, “you knew.”
“You knew him, too. We all did. Shit.”
“He wasn’t my enemy. That there’s the difference.”
“He wasn’t my enemy either,” I said. “We just happened to have the same miserable job.”
“Might as well come inside while we peer into corners. Your footprints are everywhere anyway, probably.”
The NOPD was corrupt and non-standard but tell me a functioning cop force that isn’t. Things had gotten better since Katrina, but not much. A new mayor had hawk eyes on all of the precincts. Besides, there’d been cutbacks, less cops on the street, which made them make due with the honest contingent.
Dedeaux and O’Shea were a blessed chimera: principled New Orleans cops.
The block had been roped off in several directions. Inside the shotgun was bustling with blue. We saw the same stuff that we’d seen on arrival while O’Shea and Dedeaux hashed out B&E theories. Cajun Rob hung at the edges of things. I snapped a couple pictures more. These pictures would empty the pot at the stations. Viewer Discretion Advised: Graphic Content would run the news banner, and people would watch.
O’Shea’s Dixie-Guido patois broke my trance: “…it does and it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “West of Esplanade, this is the second this month. You know, what’s-her-name’s murder. The woman got shot. The one who wore them scrubby things.”
“The social worker,” said Dedeaux.
“I could’ve sworn she was a nurse.”
“She wore a suit,” she said, “not scrubs.”
“Whatever you call her, she died on this block.”
“She died on the neutral ground up near North Roman.”
“Neutral, that’s a funny word…” But Dedeaux put the kibosh on that with a look. “Amelia Kent. That was her name. Poor lady could barely prepare for what hit her. I preach the truth, partner, so listen up good: we got crime coming up in the Treme again.”
“Crime ain’t never left the Treme,” said Dedeaux. “And this right here is 7th Ward.”
“Bullshit it is.”
“You check the map.”
“I see apples and oranges, baby,” he said.
O’Shea was a prick but he wasn’t far off.
New Orleans had homicide mixed in its blood like chicory, bourbon or anything else. The murder rate had plunged last year when the fearsome politico mayor took up office, but in these recent months we were seeing a spike. Summer always managed that.
In a way, Ecks’ death was just more for the pile, added height for the bar graphs. But also it wasn’t.
A half-empty bottle of Buffalo Trace was spotted on the kitchen counter. A tumbler sat next to it harboring dregs, lip and fingerprints on it assumed to be Ecks’.
The rug beneath the coffee table in front of the couch had been flipped at the corner, as though someone had lurched toward the couch, overturned it, but been too rushed to flip it back.
Again about that bleeding couch: the cushions were thick, I now realized—8 inches. The blood had stopped spreading but damn there was buckets. The wound in Ecks’ chest was clean. “One way in and one way out,” I had heard from Dedeaux as she studied the corpse. Once they extracted the knife, I imagined, the blood would come rushing like wine through a sieve, but for now it had only seeped out of the torso and pooled in the hollows of Ecks’ slim hips, only some of it spilling around to the fabric and far from enough for that lake on the floor.
I took a couple private pans of the base of the couch in its bloody oasis. The viewfinder had an uncanny effect on the scale of the mess as compared to the room and I thought of that sequence from Kubrick’s The Shining when the breaker of blood crashes into the hall.
In Ecks’ and my forensics class, the instructor would scold me for antics like that. “Stop trying to be like Cocteau,” he would say, “ and start trying to solve a murder.”
While O’Shea and Dedeaux were still combing the house, me and Cajun Rob slipped out. We did the post-forensics thing: switching the point-and-shoot piece for the handheld and spreading ourselves out to take in more ground—Cajun Rob taking stills of the crowd and sawhorses, while I went around getting interview clips.
Tonight it was typical bystander cud.
I didn’t hear nothing.
No, sir. Didn’t know him.
It’s a tragedy, anyway. Dying so young.
And then I saw the little kid. He was probably ten or eleven years old, sitting on the curb across the street from Ecks’ shotgun. While most of the crowd had been there rubbernecking, this kid on the curb occupied his own world, reading his phone with his chin on his knees in the tripped motion light of a neighboring house, as though he weren’t parked at the scene of a murder but an OMV queue or a bench in a mall.
I felt myself drawn to the place where he sat. He glanced up at me from the screen of his phone. Then he turned back again. He was playing Drop 7.
“So what did you think of the guy?” I began, intent to throw him off his game.
“White boy up in there?” he said.
“White boy’s dead. You know that, right?”
“I guess I did.” His fingers flew. “I get them houses there mixed up.”
“The houses?” I asked him.
“Got white folk inside them. Bunch of them all down this block. They got black folk on Prieur, white folk on North Roman, black folk on Derbigny. They call that the cookie.”
“And Ecks was the filling.”
“The cookie, you heard.”
I hoisted the handheld and switched it to on. “If you had to describe him in one word, what was he?”
He looked up at me for much longer this time. He regarded the camera I held with distaste. “You turn that off, I’ll tell you what.”
“I did there wouldn’t be a point.”
“You NOPD? You a murder police?”
“I’m a journalist.”
“You turn that camera off, we’ll talk.”
I turned off the flashlight but left it recording. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s shoot the breeze.”
He looked back and forth down the emptying block, his fingers poised above his phone. “Bull-headed,” he said.
“Did you know him?”
“What was he bull-headed about?” I pressed on.
“My brother Cleveland knew him better.”
“Where’s your brother now?” I said.
His face contorted. “Shiiit,” he said. “You ain’t getting after with Cleveland this late.”
“Nobody’s bull-headed he ain’t after something.”
“Well here’s another way he was. Guy just didn’t know when to shut the fuck up.”
He wiped his phone dark and got up from the curb and without looking back headed off down the block, and the derelict gloom in that part of the world with its lamps on the fritz seemed to swallow him up.
Where do the clues to this case lead? Let us know in the comments below, then read Episode 2 to see if your feedback influenced the storyline!
Photos (in order): Joe Raedle / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Mark Makela / Getty; Scott Olson / Getty; Peter Parks / Getty; Peter Parks / Getty; AFP / Getty; AFP / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty