Welcome to episode 6 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, Sherl and Cajun Rob struggle to make sense of the pandemonium at the neighborhood parade, and uncover a sinister connection to the recent string of murders.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
But the hand must’ve flinched and the gunshot went wild, sheering through the victim’s ear and vanishing into the mid-morning dazzle.
Later, we found out it grazed the kid’s temple. That accounted for the blood.
A cloudburst of it hit the marchers, speckling their shoulders, their collars, their cheeks. The trombonist weaved. Then he fell on the ground. The trombone flipped out of his hands and banged down with its last hopeful note wavering in the air and that was the worst part about it, I guess, to hear the trombone’s call cut short.
People barely even freaked. The drunkest were the most upset, colossal buzz kill I’d imagine. They toddled around in these hand-wringing circles as though deciding what to do while the rest of the marchers caromed into action as soon as they saw that the shooting was over.
And it was over, hear my words.
The shooter dropped the pistol in the middle of the street and went to sit down on the opposite curb. He still had his tuba slung on; he unslung it.
Then he thought better of it, re-slung it again.
He was Renaissance Charter, the jacket at least; I’d seen them march with Krewe of Thoth. He couldn’t have been a year over 18. And he wasn’t hopped-up like your average asshole who decides that he’ll go Call of Duty in public, this sort of crackling way they move. He had a lowdown sluggish look, like pulling the trigger had really depressed him. Like even way before the shot he’d been resigned to what would happen.
It wasn’t a rarity here in New Orleans.
The Mother’s Day beef between street crews on Frenchmen, which was also a second line, lest we forget. And then the one on Bourbon Street where the Asian bar hopper unloaded on tourists.
To some people it was a gas to mix liquor with loaded guns.
Me and Cajun Rob jumped in, trying to be something more than just gawkers.
Folks had encircled the trombonist’s body. They’d known not to move it. They’d blocked off the traffic. They’d stripped off their shirts to support the kid’s head, which was bleeding prolifically into the heap. It seemed a bitter point of pride that everyone knew what to do.
Me and Rob did our part in the blocking of traffic.
The escort cop was in the street, radioing for backup fast. I could tell by his stance he was seconds away from charging the shooter and pushing him down and kneeing the small of his back for the cuffs before he escaped like most second line shooters, fleeing into the side streets and thin alleyways that ran between the shotgun houses where often they remained at large for a number of days in affront to the cops.
But even I saw that he wouldn’t run far. He still had that low look, his head on his knees. Some of the older folks there had closed ranks and appeared to be giving the kid free advice.
The gun lay in the street untouched.
“Well shit on me,” said Cajun Rob. “I wasn’t expecting the damn Grassy Knoll.”
“Yeah,” I said, “with crappy aim.”
“Can’t come through here. Incident,” Rob was telling a driver turned onto the street who was gesturing pissed at the backup of people.
He started to roll down his window to yell but I saved him the trouble: “Fuck off. Go around!”
I normally wouldn’t have gotten so hot, but seeing Toussaint skulk around broke my heart. He stood at the edge of the group of old folks making pained overtures as though maybe he’d join them. Lurching forward, lurching back while madly texting on his phone.
It didn’t take Madame Blavatsky to see that the kid on the curb was his big brother Cleveland.
The trombonist was still alive. It was anyone’s guess if he’d stay that way, though.
An ambulance came for him, grim paramedics. One of them stepped from the height of his seat to grind out a butt he’d been smoking en route before him and two others attended the victim, masking him, getting him up on the gurney. The fellows blowing up the stoop were somber now, their blunts extinguished.
In a huddle of bodies, they watched from afar.
The paramedics pulled away, revealing Dedeaux and O’Shea’s beige sedan. I hadn’t known that they were here and I guess, for some reason, they’d wanted it that way, preferring to make an assessment of things before they mingled with the crowd.
As though to pick up where they last guy left off, O’Shea had a cigarette going as well.
They crossed the street towards us, the dud and the damsel, suspicious of everything, peering around them.
“Y’all making a habit of this,” said O’Shea. He blotted his face with a handkerchief, grinning. “Third time it happens, god-willing,” he said, “Dedeaux and me got to arrest you on spec.”
“Right place, wrong time,” I said.
“Come to shoot the parade, the parade gets shot up.”
“Parade doesn’t seem like your normal milieu,” said Dedeaux, standing slightly in back of O’Shea.
“Human interest,” I answered O’Shea. “People love it. 7th Ward Rising. The Mercy Parade. Tradition in the Face of Bloodshed.”
“Whose lede?” said O’Shea.
I held up my palms in a show of surrender.
O’Shea took a drag and fumed smoke. He said: “Shit. Ain’t got the staff budget to run human interest. This wouldn’t have something to do with Ecks, would it?”
“May he rest in peace,” I said.
“Because if I was you,” he said, “and my competition got offed in the night under dubious, maybe occult circumstances, then I would want to find out why. I would want to brush up on my Hardy Boys pronto. And I’d start overturning clues. But this here’s the difference between a cop’s instinct and the instinct of—what do you go by these days?”
“Siren chaser,” said Dedeaux.
“Carrion bird of the press,” said O’Shea.
“Urbanite entrepreneurs?” I suggested.
“Don’t ride in no shit wagon, neither,” said Rob. “And I never renew my break tags. Fuck y’all.”
Break-tags were a cash-grab and everyone knew it. Pay Orleans Parish 30 bucks vis-à-vis civic workers with poor bedside manner behind sandwich boards at assorted Shell Stations who put a sticker on your windshield, you earned the right to not get stopped and fined up to 200 dollars for nothing.
“Let that go long enough, sweetheart, watch out. I’ll slap on some blues and come get you myself.”
This from Dedeaux.
You see, that’s what I mean: they were always combatively flirting in public. It took us all a little while to recover ourselves from the sexual tension.
“Instinct,” continued O’Shea, “tells me this: murder’s always how it looks. Vast network of evil, conspiracy junk? Most criminals, trust me, are never that smart. That shooter or one of his boys murdered Ecks.”
“How you figure that?” said Rob.
“Ecks was—what do you call it, Dedeaux?”
“Right,” he said. “Post-Katrina hopeful type who immerses himself in the vibrant street culture. Tries to be a deep-fried Yat when he’s really from L.A. or Boston or someplace: puts on where y’at and y’all, wears fedoras, learns his way around a crawfish. Moves into the 7th Ward. Grows his own lettuce. Uses mommy and daddy’s re-gifted Forerunner to film gruesome shit that he sees on the 10. He calls it: vid-eo-graphy.” He twirled his fingers in the air. “And then one day he’s seen too much. Finds out he wants to make a difference. Buy broken New Orleans a pair of nice crutches, help it learn to stand again. Kent woman gets murdered, a mugging gone bad by some kids in the neighborhood bored in the summer, and what do you know, he sees debut potential. Goes Magnum PI in the wrong part of town. He’s knocking down doors and he’s driving up rents. Even brings some heat down. Fucker’s got a B.A.! Juju gets bad for the killers right quick. Pig-stick him,” he pounded his chest, “in the heart. Make it look like a robbery. Hell, make it one. Take whatever they can and they run for the hills. A couple days later Jarrell over there,” he pointed at the bloodstain in the middle of the street where the trombonist kid, now in triage, had lain, “can’t take the pressure anymore. They know he’s going to sell them out. Gonna cop to the Kent woman, Ecks—the shebang. Dirty boot ain’t kind to black boys. Second-line rolls on a Saturday, boom. He figures the chaos, horn section, drunk people, I might just be able to blast him and run.”
So there it was, the city’s case, and they would probably make it stick. It would likely have trouble not sticking, I figured, how they treated black kids in this part of the world. O’Shea was right about those figures.
But something about it just didn’t cohere.
First, the couch’s bloody scrawl, which O’Shea might’ve found on his own by this point. But the question remained: did he know that I knew?
And second, the Bellocq.
The Bellocq, the Bellocq. The Storyville Portraits. The posing of Ecks.
Bellocq was hardcore Big Easy, of course, but that didn’t mean that they taught him in schools. They didn’t teach much in our schools, let me tell you. Not counting good ol’ Mississip, we were second or third short of worst in the nation (no matter how shitty things got under Jindal, we’d always have that over on them) and while it wasn’t so outré for a couple of 7th Ward kids to know Bellocq, it didn’t strike me as an ace in the hole.
Something vital was amiss.
What had O’Shea said about the occult?
As if this wasn’t New Orleans. Not the prospect of something outright supernatural, but certainly something with all of the trappings—a killer that ran in those circles, let’s say.
The knife in Ecks’ naked chest.
The blood graffiti on the couch.
The reference to Bellocq, the swole-headed dwarf, on his portraitist’s errands a hundred years past.
Lil in my living room, cello-shaped goddess, as bayou weather lit her up.
“Human interest,” said O’Shea. He scoffed and he razored his eyes at Dedeaux.
“Y’all keep on with that, all right? I’ll be over here solving an actual murder.”
“Gentlemen,” chimed in Dedeaux. “Mind you pay them tickets now. Would hate for you to get picked up.”
O’Shea hitched his pants, Dedeaux straightened her collar and they walked toward the shooter, still hunkered curbside, but now with the beat-cop positioned behind him. Toussaint and a middle-aged, church-formal lady were the only ones left at the scene by this point. I could hear the church lady was singing a hymn, benediction with strength in it under her breath. Toussaint was leaning into her, his close shaven head nuzzled under arm.
It was one of those moments that seems staged, but isn’t. You wish that it was but it’s real and it’s awful. And though I knew it might be rude to document them in their grief it seemed to me the only good that could come of this day gone completely to seed and I started to edge toward the six of them, slowly, my Nikon held up at my chest.
O’Shea and Dedeaux hadn’t started in yet; they were hashing out strategy off to the side, glancing in the kid’s direction.
As for Cleveland himself, he was in hedgehog mode. He’d sloughed off his tuba, which lay on its side, and was rocking himself in a traumatized ball.
He kept saying the same two words: “For him… for him… for him… for him…”
O’Shea overhead him. He called out: “For who?”
But that was all that Cleveland said.
O’Shea had essentially told us to scram and Rob and me did what he said more or less, driving up Esplanade to the edge of the Quarter and taking barstools at this dive that we knew. We ordered fried green beans and red beans and rice and a round of Sweetwater’s and took in the scene. A citywide smoking ban, much villainized, was set to go into effect the next week. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em reigned, and Eau du Newport was afflicting the beans.
“You buy O’Shea’s theory?”
“Seems facile to me.” Rob sipped at his beer bottle, watching the crowd. “He said the kid wanted to make a run for it but I mean, we were there. He did not make a run.”
“He sat his ass right on the curb.”
“That strike you as typical killer’s behavior?”
“Husband aerates the dude fucking his wife and delivers himself to the cops, maybe then. But not that kid. Not like we saw.”
“Gentrification hate killing my ass. Who says they’re even connected?” said Rob.
Though I was pretty sure they were.
For him… for him… for him …
It could be Ecks himself, of course, but likely as not it was somebody else; some grim puppeteer who was looming behind him. Did that mean that Cleveland and Jarrell, the victim, whoever he turned out to be, had no beef? Jarrell and by extension Ecks and maybe, too, Amelia Kent—had all of them been contract hits on behalf of the same unregenerate creep?
The central question being this: what had all of them done to that creep to get got?
I ordered us a few more beers. When I judged we were probably both pretty toasty, I suggested to Rob that we drive back to Ecks’—not to pursue the Ecks-Cleveland connection but to talk to the dealers who lived down the street.
Or anyway that’s how I spun it.
Consider the life of your average drug dealer: Miami babes and chainsaws, sure, but also a whole lot of sitting around. You needed a home base, like any good business. Optimally, a four-way stop with a decent lookout and a wealth of thru traffic.
From up there the whole neighborhood would unfold.
When me and Rob showed up the party had dwindled but most of the guys were still out, passing time. All up the stairs to the porch they sat staggered, sucking down cigarettes, tipping back beers. A lot of them looked glassy-eyed. And now that we were up this close I saw, too, just how young they were, not mid-thirties hombres but literal kids of 21 to 25.
I’d brought a 12-pack of a Corona along.
I’d also, thankfully, brought Rob.
Race is a unwieldy thing in New Orleans. Folks discuss it openly—“that black chick,” “that white-boy,” so on and so forth—but also they never discuss it at all. It’s what they don’t say that you have to watch out for. And so while I might’ve walked up to that stoop to ask for directions or what time it was, in order to get after good information having Cajun Rob there with me couldn’t hurt any.
“What you need, partner?” said one of the dudes.
He ambled down the stairway towards us.
He was wearing an FSU Seminoles jersey, his arms a mockup of discrete, small tattoos. He had dreads to his back with bright rubber bands in them that flashed when he brushed them back over his shoulders. At the bottom he crouched and once-overed us both before looking deftly both ways down the block and continued to crouch, elbows hitched on his knees, while the four other dudes kept the watch up above him.
He couldn’t always be this cautious. I had to ascribe it to what had gone down: Cleveland’s murder attempt on Jarrell and the fallout.
Cajun Rob said: “Talk at you a minute?”
He did the twice-over. “Y’all 5-0 or what?”
“Press pass,” answered Rob. “We with Nola.com.”
One of them tongue-clucked and said: “V-I-P.”
“Just want to get at y’all a minute,” said Rob, “what happened down the way this morning.”
“Who dat?” said a dude higher up, pointing at me. “He sure he ain’t looking for some of that chiva?”
“He’s good,” said Rob.
“He say he good?”
“I’m good,” I said.
“You all right, baby. Ain’t good until you sampled this,” and he jiggled his hand in his pocket. Group laughter. “Got Wentworth Miller here,” he said, “and Sigma Phi Delta from Tu-lane, y’all feel me?”
More laughter. Okay, they were having some fun. For now, we had to give them that.
I stepped up next to Cajun Rob. “Y’all know anything about Cleveland, the shooter?”
Dreads said: “What’s in it for me if I do?”
“Sources say,” I said.
“It’s an industry term that we use. Sources say. As soon as it goes up online, like, tomorrow, you’ll see sources say and you’ll know: that was me.”
A staring silence took the group. There was laughter again but more hesitant, darker.
“You kidding me, bruh?” said the guy with the dreads. “Break open that case there and pass to the left.”
I’d forgotten about the case of beer. I tore the top open and did as he’d asked. The clinking of bottle glass circled the group followed by the pop and fizz. When the rest of the case circled back to dreadlocks he set it behind him halfway up the steps.
“Y’all friends with the boy that got got down the way?”
I pointed at Ecks’ shotgun and said: “Him?”
“He come around before, like you. He asking them questions, like you, about murder.”
“And what did you tell him?” said Rob.
“This and that. We was out here the night that that lady got shot.”
“We heard that shit,” another said—stocky, close buzz, yellow shorts. “Pop, pop, pop. Tariq run out to see what’s up. Tariq see—what, bruh, tell them what.”
Tariq said: “Lady lying there. It not too late—say, 12:15. There other folks. They watching too. She breathing fast, like: huh, huh, huh. She going, though. She got one here.” He hovered two fingers above his left eye. “She looking nice: white blouse, grey skirt. Below that she wearing some busted-ass Reeboks. Her purse still lying on the ground. There some heels in the purse, poking over the top.”
“What happen to her,” said dreadlocks, “wasn’t right. What happen to that white boy neither.”
“So what did happen, you think?”
“The night white boy got got?”
“Lots of folks outside that night. Them houses down by Esplanade, they look the same from here,” he said. “White people moving in and out. White lady own that whole damn block. She don’t sell to black folk. She running the rents. There was this car. A Escalade. Antony, bruh, you remember what color?”
Antony, the stocky guy, said: “Black, I think. New looking. Tint.”
“We clocking it going by six, seven times. We thinking it maybe them St. Bernard hitters. Thinking maybe we going to put in some work. By the time murder cops hit the scene, poof, it’s gone.”
Cajun Rob said: “Get a look at the plates?”
“LA, bruh. That’s all I got.”
“And what about Jarrell,” I said. “How does it strike you what happened to him?”
“Damn sure is a tragedy, partner. Believe.”
“So what kind of kid was Jarrell, would you say?”
“Isn’t just Jarrell I mean.”
“You’re saying Cleveland, too,” said Rob.
“Youngblood get shot out here,” he said, “it’s more than just his life that’s over.”
“You knew them pretty well, I guess.” I could’ve shot someone for one of those beers but where dreadlocks had put them, a couple steps up, I figured I had paid the piper. “Sixty years from now,” I said, “what do you think folks will say at their funerals?”
“If Jarrell even make it that long,” said dreadlocks. “Now just let me think on it some.” He turned back, and showed his profile to the group. “Help a motherfucker out?”
“Jarrell could ride a deck,” said one.
Said another: “Them ollies and kickflips and shove-its.”
“He decent on the horn. “
“He play Drunk in Love at the Muses parade.”
“Jarrell, you know, he’s sweet,” said Dreads. “He’s always got the time of day. He’s talking with us on the corner out here, and he’s talking that skate shit with white boy down there, and he’s talking with grandma out Metaire way at that old folks’ home that she stay at. He sweet.”
“He get good grades.”
“He going to Swermer.”
“To Swarthmore, ” said Dreads.
“He say that he getting that early admissions.”
“That’s Jarrell,” I cut in. “So now what about Cleveland?”
“He a different kind,” said Dreads.
“He sweet like Jarrell but he salty like Cleveland.”
“He putting it up in the air.”
“Love that weed. “
“He love his little brother, too.”
“Toussaint,” said Dreadlocks. “Cleveland Lite.”
“Cleveland ever go in through the gateway?” said Rob. “Maybe ask you for some of that chiva you selling?”
“Uh-uh, bruh,” said yellow shorts. “He going to college at LSU, baby!”
“Strong safety,” said Dreads. “But he get in on grades.”
“He’s smart like Jarrell but he’s doing his thing.”
“He a grandmama’s boy!” said the dude named Tariq.
“You a grandmama’s boy, motherfucker,” said Dreads.
They busted out laughing, Dreads slapping his knees.
“So both of them loved their grandmothers?” said Rob.
“Not just loved they grandmothers,” said Dreadlocks. “They close.” He tangled his middle and index together. “They seeing them, like, every week.”
“Cleveland and Jarrell, they close?” For a moment it seemed like I’d said something stupid. “I mean outside of school were they friends?” I amended.
“Close as friends could get,” said Dreads. “Can’t blame you for asking, what happened today.”
Cajun Rob said: “You got any idea?”
Dreadlocks looked down at the pavement a moment.
“World a funny place,” he said. “Out of all of the youngins out here, they was different. I figure they make it okay in the end. We figure they make it okay.” He looked up. “But life never turn out the way that you figure.”
When Rob dropped me off at my shotgun uptown it was getting on quarter till one.
I was sacked.
I opened my door to find Lil on the couch. She was right where I’d found her the evening before but now wearing one of my button-up shirts and not much else, her hair all mussed. She was propped on one elbow, legs stretched down the couch, perusing some year-old GQ that I had with Helen Mirren on the cover. The apartment looked lived in: strewn clothes, dirty dishes. There were DVDs tented and beaucoup beer bottles. And lots and lots of Camel Wides, their butts overflowing a couple of mugs that I honestly doubted I’d drink from again, air hazy and acrid with unvented smoke.
The AC was going full blast. It was chilly.
I guess I must’ve made a face.
“I know,” she said and stubbed a smoke. “But then I thought: it’s too damn hot.”
I kicked off my shoes and sat down on the couch, draping her calves across my lap.
“You leave and come back?”
She looked down. “Never left.”
“You enjoying your stay at Chez Sherl?”
She smiled sadly. I tickled her knee but she didn’t respond.
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I just couldn’t,” she said. “Something came over me—scared me, you know?”
“Don’t you have a car?” I said.
I instantly realized how awkward it was, asking her that when she needed some comfort, but given the Escalade spotted at Ecks’ I’d had to mention it at least.
Her face fell a moment. She said: “Starter’s broken.”
“You’re walking around in this heat?”
“There’s the bus.”
“I can see why you stake out a place and stay in it. New Orleans ain’t safe for a woman on foot.”
“Oh sweet Dixie courage!” she said with a sneer.
“I just mean—never mind, okay. Allow me to try that again.” She sat up and looked at me attentively. “You said you were scared and there’s no shame in that. I just want to know what you’re scared of,” I said.
“Since they killed him,” she said, “pretty much everything. I just feel…”
I listened. I tried to tune my body to her. I was sure as hell spreading it on, I know that, but here’s the thing: I wanted to.
“Like any moment now,” she said, “every good thing that’s left, it could all go away.”
“What could all go away?”
But she didn’t explain.
“What could all go away, baby doll?” I repeated.
Alley catting about with those wonderful legs. She folded one over my waist and said, “Mm,” a sound of contentment or something unspoken.
I repeated the question again for good measure.
But that was all she had to say.
Photos (in order): Chris Graythen / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty; Rusty Costanza / Getty; Weatherspoon Art Museum; Rusty Costanza / Getty; Alex Brandon / Getty; Alex Brandon / Getty; Will Etling / Flickr; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Justin Sullivan / Getty