Welcome to episode 7 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, Sherl and Cajun Rob uncover a startling new clue in the jazz parade attack that just might break the case, when a mysterious stranger appears at Sherl’s doorstep with a midnight proposition.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
For him… for him… for him…
TV’s on. The volume cranked. Laugh track swelling. Open mouths.
The living room’s dark save the glow of the screen. Me and Lil tangled up on the couch, nice and cramped.
Her face with her hair falling over her cheek. The eye that shows twitching in sleep.
Shadow on the TV screen.
I can’t look up. Not yet.
Laugh track peaks. There’s dopey music.
The shadow grows darker, somehow. Malign weather. I think I can look up, I think I can face it, but when I do it’s so much worse.
The lumpen and strange silhouette of a dwarf. Stovepipe hat upon his head. The top of the hat is vertiginous, endless. It stretches away toward the ceiling. Beyond it. While next to the dwarf stands the camera itself. Of the wet-plate variety. Housed on a tripod. Camera cloth hangs from a hook in the back.
“Since we have no magnesium lamp,” says the dwarf and gestures at the TV screen, “this infernal contraption will have to suffice.” The dwarf huddles under the cloth. “Now say cheers.”
“Cheers!” I yelled and woke myself, in the real world this time and Lil shifted beside me.
Just like in the dream we had fallen asleep on the living room couch in a tangle of limbs.
And yet the TV was turned off. It was dark.
Extricating myself, I walked into the kitchen. The oven-time was 3:15.
The wormhole that led into Bellocq was deep and I entered it frantically, not looking down. My laptop on one hand, my books on the other, I took over the central room where I wouldn’t wake Lil and I sorted the puzzle.
The hydrocephalic dwarfism was bunk. Bellocq had been quite the dandy in life.
He’d been short, but good-looking with down-turned mustaches, dapper with precision trimming. He wore a fedora, the brim tilted up. By the time he was 60 they called him Old Bellocq, which seemed to me a mark of grace. He liked a striking set of clothes: eleven-diamond horseshoe stickpins, gold cameo cufflinks with matching tie clasps, red scarves like a murder enclosing his neck.
The circumstances of his death were strange and yet also depressingly average.
The morning had seen him on multiple errands—purchases at camera shops, deposits at one of a few local banks where E.J. Bellocq held accounts. At lunch he hit a vendor’s cart to purchase that day’s share of jelly orange slices in spite of chronic diabetes. In the Kodak storeroom he indulged in a snooze but because he snored loudly the boss eighty-sixed him.
What happened next and where is muddy.
In any case, the guy dropped dead at one of three proposed locations—at the top of the steps of that same Kodak store, at the top of the steps of his tiny apartment, face-first on Baronne Street, crowd surging around him.
All three accounts had him hitting his head.
It was a forehead high and broad and handsome by that decade’s standards, although not the forehead of a hydrocephalic, a condition which, soon after birth, would’ve killed him. When he fell he was wearing a rope for a belt, resolutely at odds with his dandy persona. Much would be made of this detail post-mortem to show he had fallen on difficult times.
They discovered the Storyville photographs later in Bellocq’s impoverished and musty apartment. They were ruled pornographic, illegal at first; decades later, works of genius.
One of the photographs shows a nude woman on another divan with an arabesque pattern. A carnival mask hides her eyes from the viewer. She smiles in resplendence, displaying her teeth. Not her face but her happiness, that’s the enigma.
It appears as though Bellocq is making her laugh.
It was Emily Dickinson-syndrome writ large. In life you’re no one. Then, you die.
I thought about Ecks in the drainage project where the worker had broken his back in the fall, trying for the perfect shot when in truth it was right there in front of his face.
I paced the room. I mumbled things. I had a beer then switched to coffee.
Bellocq was discovered, I thought, after death.
Fame wasn’t something he’d gotten to savor. It was almost as though in the moment he dropped he had made a decision: my life or my art. He would live through the next day, the day after that, so on and so forth for a few decades more or he would quit the world right then to return on the lips of the world yet to come.
Around dawn, scarlet-eyed and insane with iced coffee, I burst into the living room to share what I had found with Lil, but she’d managed to sneak out the door in the night. All that was left was the smell of her Camels, the mugs that she’d ashed them in emptied and rinsed.
That, and my dressshirt laid out on the couch in an eerie reminder of how they’d found Ecks. I’m sure that she hadn’t intended it that way.
This was how the day began.
I needed a wash, so I took one.
The next thing I knew we were back in the Mazda. It was over a hundred outside, the air blasting. Rob was telling me something important, I guess, some lead he’d uncovered on Cleveland and Ecks, but I was too drowsy to follow his logic.
I’d just wanted to rest my eyes but when I woke up we were idling somewhere.
The AC was freezing the sleep-sweat on me.
“How long have we been here? Where are we?” I said.
“We’re at Cleveland’s school, like I told you,” said Rob.
“Isn’t school out for the summer?” I said.
“That’s what you said before,” said Rob.
I smacked my lips and peered around. An awful nap taste had invaded my mouth.
“I played clarinet in high school,” Rob continued. “Pretty much every kid in this town plays at something. Public school, private, we all in the band. And let me tell you: summers off? That’s just an expression for too many teachers. Way, way back before the storm and now with the charters, the gig never ends. Lesson planning. Summer school. At-risk kids need some place cool. Besides, they keep the building up.”
“And you would know this how?” I said.
“Not every black kid is at risk,” answered Rob.
We sat in the coolness, collecting ourselves.
“I got to ask you one thing, Jim. Are you okay to do this now?”
“Right,” I cracked my joints, “as rain. “
“We were driving before and mid-sentence you’re out.” He slapped his knuckles in his palm. “I kid you not,” he said, “like that. And then you slept…” He checked his watch. “We’ve been here almost two hours now.”
I had bupkis to say on that. Sure, I was even a little bit touched.
Rob had been idling the car for two hours just so I could catch some Z’s. He had no book. His phone was off. He had the radio turned down. Suddenly, I felt ashamed for having questioned him at all.
“This is going to be sensitive in the extreme. Turn up with that social intelligence, huh?”
At long last he killed the AC, then the engine.
Sheepish and dry-mouthed, I whispered: “You got it.”
Renaissance 65 had a fallout zone vibe, especially now at the height of the summer.
The guard at the door waved us through wearily when Rob said we were from the press. The hallways were wide, with enormous reverb, the royal blue paint on the walls in decay. Floors of concrete, echoing. A Soviet M.O.: grey cameras in corners.
At the bases of walls there were homework assignments scrawled over in red with the name Shaundraneka.
We were taking a tour of the high school not speaking, hopeful of finding the band’s practice room when a bluesy and faint melody started up, echoing among the halls. We followed it mutely, intensely, got lost, ending up in a far room bereft of AC where a red hazard light had been left to malfunction before we doubled back again.
The tune was Coltrane, Taylor, something.
The band practice room, when we finally arrived, held a man on a stool. He was playing the sax. He was one of those nice-looking, older black men who could be anywhere between 40 and 60. In spite of the heat he was smartly turned out in a navy polo and a pair of silk khakis. The blues refrain was beautiful; it filled the room to overflowing. It was dirge-like, hard-bitten and mournful as hell.
Until the last echo, he didn’t look up.
“You bring those music stands I ordered?”
“We’ve come here to talk about Cleveland,” said Rob.
But the fellow appeared not to hear him. “Well, shit. Funds allocation went through in the winter.”
“We hear he played tuba in your marching band.”
“You cops?” said the man.
“Negative. We’re the press.”
He watched us a moment, his mind calculating. “You try turning pages and playing the horn while texting and checking your Instagram feed. These kids need an anchor. A stand will do that. Roots you,” he showed us his palms, “to the spot. You put that as your lede, we’ll talk.”
“I would, but it sounds like its own feature piece. Music Stands Cure Fickle Youth.”
Rob seemed to get through with that bit of smart-assing.
“Come on and take a stool,” he said. He looked up at us. In his eyes, there was kindness. That, and a kind of care worn devastation. “Cleveland and Jarrell.” He sighed. “I’m sorry to say they were two of my best.”
“Two heavies,” said Rob. “There can be only one.”
“Cleveland and Jarrell were friends. Always, I told them, we march as a unit. Ain’t nobody letting down nobody’s tires. Ain’t one of you blow better horn than the next one. A lot of the time, though, I lied about that. In every band, there’s special cases. Cleveland and Jarrell were those. Not only when it came to music.”
“Good academics, “ I said. “And good kids.”
“You bet they were good,” said the marching band leader. “No two better boys in the class of ‘15. Frankly, I still can’t believe that it happened. It’s been twenty-four hours but no way, man. No way. The mind,” he pointed at his head, “can bend itself only so far around something. Lots of boys from this school come from hard circumstances. Turn into hoppers to make extra cash and the next thing you know they’re dropouts. Then they’re dead. Well not Cleveland. And not Jarrell.”
“You were playing the sax in their honor,” said Rob.
“Sending my blessings out into the world.”
“What we can’t figure out,” I said, “is even if they had some beef, why do it where everyone breathing could see. Both boys graduated in June, am I right?”
“Graduated, accepted to college, the works. Wrote letters for both of their asses myself. Why, it don’t make a lick of sense. They were different, of course, but that don’t explain nothing. Don’t explain what Cleveland did.”
“We hear he liked to party some.”
“A teacher only sees so much. But Cleveland was popular, that I can tell you. Jarrell soaked up the sunlight he didn’t absorb. He always brought Jarrell along. You know they grew up in the Treme together? Ain’t easy to do that and turn out like they did. It’s holdups and murders from Johnson to Broad. A couple of days ago even, that stabbing. Some kind of reporter like y’all, wasn’t he?”
Cajun Rob nodded slowly. “A fellow freelancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Sincerely, I am. Summertime comes and the Good Lord gets greedy.”
“Was Jarrell ever jealous of Cleveland? Vice-versa?”
“Jealous seems a stretch to me. Maybe wary, when Cleveland would really get going. Fat-headed showboating. Jarrell rolled his eyes.”
“Could it have gone possibly further than that?”
“Further in what sense?” he said.
“Jarrell gets some intel on Cleveland,” said Rob, “something maybe that Cleveland’s ashamed of, confronts him. So Cleveland, he loses it. Second line. Boom.”
“A teacher sees only so much, like I said. It’s certainly hard to imagine,” he said. “Seeing as close as the two of them were, you wouldn’t think they would have much to keep secret.”
“Make any new friends in the last year or so? An older man, maybe,” I said, “they looked up to?”
“Apart from myself, I can’t rightfully say.”
“You see them much outside of school?”
“Son,” said the teacher, “just what are you saying?”
He shifted toward me on his stool. He was pointing the sax’s mouthpiece at my face.
“What Jim here means to ask, “ said Rob, giving me a little side-eye, “is what were their extracurricular habits?”
“They did the stuff all young kids do. Hell, I don’t know, they hung around. Skateboarded in Congo Square. Messed around in the Quarter. Played video games. Visited grandma together—okay?”
“Together?” I said.
“Sure enough,” said the teacher. “Their grandmothers lived in the same nursing home.”
Me and Rob looked back and forth at each other.
“Which nursing home was that?” said Rob.
“Seven Oaks? Three Oaks? Can’t remember. Metaire, I’m pretty sure. Drove Cleveland out there once myself when he stayed late for football practice. Him and Jarrell would meet there, stay for dinner, then take the bus back to Treme for the night.”
“And that was once a week?” I said.
“In the first couple years of high school, I believe. But then, senior year, they would go there more often. I think Jarrell’s grandma was starting to slip.”
“Often, as in twice a week?”
“Sometimes even three,” he said.
“They ever tell you what they did there?” said Rob.
“Set in with their grandmas who lived there,” he said. “Chinese checkers, I don’t know. What is it, exactly, you think that they did?”
“What everyone does with his grandma,” said Rob. “Plot the murder of a friend.”
“Murder?” said the music teacher. “Jarrell isn’t dead.”
“Not yet he’s not.”
“No, like, really isn’t dead. I spoke with his mother this morning. He’s stable.”
“No shit,” said Rob. “Well that’s good news.”
The music teacher sucked his teeth. “That’s certainly a point of view.”
When we left Renaissance 65 for the day, we drove around to clear our heads. As soon as Rob started the car to get going, I Googled Amelia Kent on my phone – properly speaking, Amelia Kent’s murder – and sure enough the nursing home that she’d taken the bus to the streetcar to work in was called Seven Oaks, like the teacher had said.
It was in Metaire off of Veterans Road.
The website described it by way of the tagline: “Where Angels Assemble to Carry You Home.”
If they hadn’t already, it wouldn’t be long before Homicide also uncovered the link so me and Rob figured we had to work fast if we wanted to see what it meant for ourselves. Clearly, Cleveland and Jarrell had had something to do with Amelia Kent’s murder, whether or not they had iced her themselves. Ecks talking to Cleveland about this and that was more than just coincidence. He had known that the boys were involved in the killing or anyway had some suspicion, and he had discovered the selfsame connection that we had discovered and followed it out.
What he’d said about evil parading made sense. Evil had swallowed up two decent boys and made them act against their natures.
Evil was “him,” the corrupter, but who?
“So Cleveland and Jarrell kill Kent and Ecks finds out, but who kills Ecks?”
“Cleveland maybe, too,” I said. “Ecks was snooping around in their homicide business. Ecks was a snoop but they call him a snitch. They even write it on the couch.
They make the scene looked sex-related. Maybe cast some blame on Ecks? Jarell gets chilly feet. Ka-boom.”
“So Cleveland kills not only Kent but Ecks and tries to kill Jarrell? Cleveland Luopre the New Orleans Ripper.”
We both shook our heads. It was fucking insane.
Lafayette Cemetery was up on our right, its stone angels watching us over the walls.
I began to regret my withholding of Bellocq.
Why hadn’t I mentioned it? Why had I balked?
Withstanding Rob’s critical thoughts on the subject, which were useful to me under most circumstances, my isolation on that score had started to make me feel mildly unhinged, as though I were wrapped in the kind of delusion the heroes in horror films shouted at walls. I could’ve told him days ago and yet I’d elected not to for some reason.
Unless I did and pretty soon, it would only be me and the dwarf going forward.
The never-ending stovepipe hat. The possum’s teeth inside the mouth. The head in its curtain of swaying dark cloth as though someone or something, some puppeteer’s hand, had traveled down to scratch it out.
We drove around a couple hours, but puzzling only begat more of same. I had to clear my head some more and I had Cajun Rob drop me off at the movies – of all things a 5 o’clock Angel Heart screening at the grand old Prytania, up by my house. We’d have to go to Seven Oaks to talk to the staff and the kids’ grandmothers but that was for another day, we both agreed, when we were fresh.
“Join me for the flick?” I said.
“I’m tempted,” said Rob, “just for Lisa Marie.”
But Rob needed some shut-eye, too. He left me to sit in the dark by myself.
I remembered the movie for being disturbing, but this time I just found it sad.
Mickey Rourke, he tries and tries, to finger the perp, to be somebody better, but in the end it’s him alone in the New Orleans darkness, berating a shadow.
As credits rolled I texted Lil: Wt r u up 2 grl?
But received no response.
When I arrived back home that night I was so melancholy and overextended I almost didn’t see the man leaning up on the side of the black SUV directly in front of my hurricane doors, a bright and expensively pungent cigar hovering in the dark at the height of his mouth. In fact I only noticed him because he whispered something at me.
Or not whispered it, really, but said it, real mellow: “Sorry to hear about your friend.”
“Beg your pardon?” I said.
“It was tragic, what happened.”
For a moment I thought I was going to be mugged or something far more inconvenient but when I stopped to study him my mind kept drawing eerie blanks. There seemed to be no place for him on this down-at-heel street in the Garden District; indeed, he would’ve made more sense at country club mixer for Ole Miss alumni. His face was squared-jawed and disarmingly handsome – matinee idol-esque, with a hard finger wave. He was wearing a tight-fitting white polo shirt and pleated navy Docker pants in a way you could see he took care of himself, his pecs and thighs just saying: Hey. The SUV he lounged against was a black Escalade with a tint to the glass.
“I assume you’re referring to Chinsky?” I said.
“I always thought they called him ‘Ecks.’”
“He always called him Ecks. It stuck.”
“You NOLA boys sure got that carnival streak.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “do I know you?”
“You will. I’m a fan of your work, I’m not sure if I mentioned.”
He unfolded himself from the side of the car and began to approach me, his palms opened out. Because he skeeved me out a little, I backed a few paces toward bustling St. Charles two blocks due east from where I stood with the logic if things took a turn for the worse I could hightail it thataway, flag someone down.
“My work?” I said.
“Your photographs. The footage you shoot of the cesspool,” he said. “The moldering, decadent ways of mankind. You capture it with rare panache.”
“Okaaay,” I said. I stopped retreating. “You’re telling me this now because?”
“Excuse me,” said the lounging man. “I’m with WBRZ-2, Baton Rouge.”
“Care to prove it?” I said.
He extracted his card.
In a Silica Rail font it read: “Beau Ferleisher.”
“Assistant Producer” was under the name.
“The capital scoop,” I said. “All right.”
“We work with what we’ve got,” he said. “Though Baton Rouge ain’t New Orleans. Not in terms of violent crime and not in terms of, well, you know…” He fluttered his fingers. “That je ne sais quoi.”
“So Ecks made it to Baton Rouge?”
“Oh you know he did, baby. We’re famished out there. And anyway, it’s primo news.”
So he probably was who he said after all.
Calling New Orleans NOLA, the prepster getup, talking like he was Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire. But still there was something about him, a texture; a glaze or patina that wasn’t quite right.
Not to mention the black Escalade he was driving, which Dreadlocks had seen on the night of the murder.
The first chance I got I would step off the curb and give its plate a long hard look.
The man in the polo and blue Docker pants puffed big medicine on his stogie and smiled.
“A gentlemanly proposition.” He sauntered around to the back of the car, opened the trunk with a bleep from his key and hauled a bag of Honma golf clubs from the bed of the trunk to the edge of the curb. “You like to shoot the green?” he said.
“Golf’s a good walk spoiled,” I said. And when he frowned: “Mark Twain said that.”
“Well how about these odds,” he said. “You see that vacant over there?” He pointed away from St. Charles through the dark to the half-shrouded husk of a falling-down house. A fire had claimed it some weeks back all the way to the roof, which collapsed through the middle, the FD pumping water in to absolutely no avail. Already unlovely graffiti and weeds had claimed the first story en route to the top. “If you can drive this ball,” he said and held it for me on a platform of fingers, “through the roof of that house over there, here’s the deal: I’ll pay ten large – you count it, ten – for the next heavy break in the Vaughn Chinsky case.”
“And if I miss?” I said and chuckled. “Which you should know, I probably will.”
“Then I get the intel at a price of my choosing.”
“Fuck,” I said in wonderment. Then: “Fuck,” again. “No fucking way.”
“So we don’t have a deal?” said the man with the clubs.
He unzipped the bag and he took out the driver, letting it swing playfully at his feet.
“Listen, this was fun,” I said, “but I have be getting inside,” and I turned, but the prepster caught up with me, ditching his clubs, which slumped against the car’s back wheel, and grabbed me by the left shoulder.
“Okay,” he said. “No deal, no problem. Let’s drive that bad boy anyway.”
Looking into his face with its too-too good looks and the unholy eagerness lighting it up, a what-the-fuck feeling came over my soul. “Sure,” I said. “One drive. Why not.”
“Capital,” said the man and zipped past where I stood to the back of his car where he stopped and knelt down. He carefully arranged the ball so its path through the air, if sufficiently hit, would align more or less with the roof of the house and took a step back from the site of the tee, presenting the driver to me like a showman.
As I walked toward that spot in the New Orleans street, uncertain of what brainless whimsy possessed me, I saw the man’s smile magnified twenty times, teeth flashing at me as he nodded his head. The arm with the driver swung back like a hinge. I took the thing and twitched my hips. It felt good in my hands, like my destiny, seized, little did I know just then.
I cocked the driver back and swung.
Not bad for a guy who held golf in contempt, the white ball arcing through the night, over phone-wires and rooftops and rusted-out cars, over satellite dishes and molting palm trees, right in through the hole in the top of the house.
We could hear the ball rattling down through the wreckage.
The man, who was watching it closely, said: “Lordy.”
But I didn’t see anything I’ve just described. I was too busy scoping the Escalade’s plates, which had both been removed.
There was only the bumper.
Photos (in order): Mario Tama / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Hulton Archive / Getty; E.J. Bellocq; dingler1109 / Flickr; elycefliz / Flickr; elycefeliz / Flickr; Mario Tama / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty