Welcome to episode 10 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, Sherl finally confronts Ecks Chinsky’s killer, and comes face-to-face with the sinister force that set the murders into motion.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
In front of the house, looking back down the street, I could still make out Rob in the idling car hoping maybe I’d come to my senses.
As I walked up the steps to the house with blue trim, the sun was baking at my back. The shirt Rob had leant me was almost soaked through. There were day crickets here in the suburbs as well, hiding out in the trees; they shriek-whispered their chorus. In the prefab next door, a lawn sprinkler got triggered.
That dog, omnipresent, was barking its head off.
The crazy day that we had seen felt like it must’ve been midnight already but it was only 4 p.m., the summer oppression just starting to dwindle.
All-American doorbell: the two-chime. Then nothing.
The distant sound of sliding doors. Then feet on carpet, unforthcoming.
I rang again in quick succession, DJ’ing the chime with impatience. Still nothing. So I tried it the old-fashioned way, knocking thrice. The door kind of shuddered. I jiggled the handle.
Some benevolent force whispered: Kismet.
Eerily, eerily, all the way in on its slithering hinges to show the foyer.
The instant, hermetic relief of AC. The sweat on the back of my neck started drying.
Oasis of tiles amid white sands of carpet. A blonde wooden staircase to some better place the way sunlight was pouring down over the steps, which I soon realized was a high recessed skylight where the staircase cut left toward the stories beyond.
I listened for voices or footsteps, heard none.
I crossed through the foyer, beneath the staircase, into what I assumed was the main living room. Buttery couch of white leather. More carpet. White-upholstered low slung chairs. A flatscreen mounted on the wall which was somehow too small for such wide-open space—a 32” when it should’ve been 50”—and I drew closer to it, my mind in rebellion.
And that’s when I saw that the buttons were scuffed. The screen had a miniscule crack running down it.
I thudded the thing on its side with my palm and dust went wheeling through the air.
The TV was Ecks’, no question about it.
And under it, too, was his DVD player, his Wii gaming system, his iPod dock speaker, though none of these items were plugged into outlets, nor were they contained by a cabinet or shelf. They’d been piled underneath the degraded TV, their wires trailing blackly away from the wall.
When I made another study of the living room around me, I started to see more disquieting touches. It may have been a living room but that didn’t mean it felt lived-in at all: the couch was un-rumpled, the chair covers sheer. There was no coffee table for cups or remotes, just a tundra of carpet between furnishings.
It wasn’t a house but a notion of one; a malevolent being’s simulacrum of comfort.
The pictures mounted on the walls I’d pegged at first for NOLA flair: those high-gloss productions of Mardi Gras floats and pixelated sweaty jazzmen you can buy for a hundo all over the Quarter.
But they were originals, God help us all.
There were three of the photographs, one on each wall. They were all recreations of pieces by Bellocq. In the prostitutes’ places, however, were black boys—13-16 years old, on the outside. They lounged the way the women lounged or stood spraddle-legged as they stood. They were naked. Their faces were redacted from the photographic record, demulsified in zags of black, and the headlessness of them was nausea inducing.
They were like effigies of the people they’d been.
I owed it to them to peer closer, to witness. The naked boys were not alone.
The pictures were framed against drop cloths of black, the divans where they posed foregrounded. Yet in each photograph, rising out of the back, with her hair streaming black down the sides of her face, was the shape-shifting creature who called herself Lil. She smiled or she leered past the posed adolescents like the demoness Lillith or Dracula’s bride. And her gaze traveled out of the shot through the viewer, piercing him—piercing me—with such radiant force it didn’t even leave a wound but sailed through the world trailing small globes of blood to suffer the innocents everywhere else.
In one of the pictures she stands at full height in her sheer flapper’s dress, nothing on underneath it, the rapier of one wingtip heel pressing down on the chest of a boy lying supine.
A vibrating feeling came over my eyes.
How long had I been at the photo, inspecting?
I might’ve been inside the house for 5 minutes or I might’ve been there for an hour-and-a-half.
I’d backed into the center of the living room again to re-orient when I saw something dart—a flash of dark matter beyond the next doorway.
I followed the movement, my heart slamming in me.
Again the dark shape crossed my vision: the doorway of an open kitchen. It stopped at an island with blenders and shakers where it seemed to be mixing cocktails.
It was either a girl or a boy with long hair wearing shell-patterned board-shorts and flip-flops, but shirtless. It shook up one drink while it blended another.
I was glad for the racket and flurry of motion, which allowed me to creep up behind it unnoticed. As soon as it switched the blender off, I planted myself behind the wall.
Bearing the cocktails aloft on a tray, the figure moved around the island. I slipped in behind it and followed it forward over sparkling new tile toward a pair of glass doors beyond which some kind of pool scene was in session, people roaming about in swimwear through the heat. I scrutinized the figure’s backside; it was clearly some genus of male.
It went out.
The sliding doors it left ajar.
The pool itself was nothing much: a kidney-shaped pit with ceramic blue tile and a scattered assemblage of white plastic deck-ware. The boy with the shoulder length hair in the board-shorts walked up to a side table flanked by two ladies, bent gingerly down and delivered them drinks.
They were burgundy colored; I gathered Manhattans.
The ladies sipped them down an inch.
These ladies impressed me as Metairie locals: tennis-sexy, thick-armed blondes in their mid to late 40’s with high southern manners. I could see the cotillion in how their hands flexed to bring the stemmed glasses to meet with their lips.
The last two cocktails, Margaritas, the bartender set on the edge of a fire-pit between the ladies and the pool. And I couldn’t help noticing, how I was feeling, that across from the drinks lay a butchering knife, as though any moment a pig would be rendered, gutted and bled and put up on a spit.
The pit itself was very clean. The brickwork bore only a shadow of ash.
The day was bright and hot enough to cook a sirloin through the middle.
And that’s when I saw the nude body of Lil surging fluidly under the sky colored water, hair wild and alive in the grip of the currents until she popped up at the end of the deep end and rested her elbows upon the concrete. The next thing I noticed, across the bright water, was young Walker Baphetz, towel-changing in shades, shimmying while sort of hopping, abs and biceps dense with strain. The towel fell away on a snouted black man-thong; the material shimmered, some synthetic blend. He stood for a moment in self-exaltation, then walked to the pool’s edge as though to jump in, but at the last minute decided not to; he delicately dipped his foot.
I wasn’t exactly disguising myself.
I stood top and center of several wide steps leading down from the sliding glass doors to the pool
It was the bartender who noticed me first, letting the drink tray flop down at his side. He didn’t yell or call me out, merely peered at me under the shade of his hair as the Metairie women sipped down their Manhattans.
The tableau appeared to occur in slow motion: the boy taking notice, the women bird-sipping, Walker hiking up his thong, Lil treading water beside the 6’ mark, combing droplets from her hair.
And I’m not sure what made me look, a trick of the breeze or a twitch of the soul, but I shifted my gaze to the patio’s corner where an umbrella table worked vainly at shade and I saw an old man in a patio chair, his legs stretched out across the slats. By the way he was bonelessly sprawled in the chair, I could see he was short in the movement department. He wore a hefty, black pair of John-Lennon-style glasses, which rendered him vaguer than maybe he was—the paraplegic child swallower Baphetz at his very own pool party, taking the air.
“They say Faust was first,” began young Walker Baphetz, beginning around the far edge of the pool, “but really it was Paganini. Paganini knew the score. Trained in Genoa, Vienna and Paris. Hellbeast on the fingerboard. Tall drink of water. Switchblade for a nose. Christopher Lee in a cello-shaped waistcoat. They say when he played he resembled a bat. And that a second Paganini, some double or devil, would stand in the audience watching him shred. Or would take the stage with him, cheerleading him through it, insuring smoke rose from the strings. That he glowed. You know what else they said, Jim Sherl?”
“You know my name,” I said. “I’m flattered.”
“They said that he murdered a woman. His lover. Cut her,” he traced the top ridge of his throat, “from here aaaaaallll the way down to here. And release!” He hand-over-handed a rope of intestines from the top of his groin, making sounds with his teeth. “They say he took a little bit, then he dried it and made it his G-string—for twang. Her soul he imprisoned in his violin. The man the master of the muse. So when he played on nights to come you could hear, from the instrument’s body, her screams. The consensus was this: Paganini? The greatest. The greatest to pick up the bow and perform and the greatest revealer of truth in his time. He just shoveled away all the bullshit, old Nic, and he showed you his soul. Hell, he showed your own. He showed you the truth of the soul of mankind and he did it through art without gloves on. Hot damn!”
Walker did a little “Whoop!” on his way past the ledge where the Ritas were set, swinging one of his arms in a hair-metal circle as though he were soloing under hot lights. Completing the gesture, he scooped up a drink, took half of it down in a swallow.
“Boa, Claudio!” He toasted the bartender, standing around, who if I had to guess was Brazilian; he smiled. “Claudio here makes a liver destroyer! Margarita, Jim? You’ll need one.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
And I’m not sure why, but I sought out Lil’s eyes because, maybe, just maybe, I’d seen in her heart. And yet I didn’t see her there with her long, slender arms hooked above the concrete—didn’t see her as she was, peering at me with depleted affection, like: Look at you now, you poor son of a bitch. The girl that I saw was the one in the pictures, pressing her heel on the boy’s tender chest.
Not Lil, but a vampire.
A priestess of cruelty.
A heel I had held in the palm of my hand.
Walker continued: “Some say that his genius was due to a pact he had made with the Devil. I’ll sign away my living soul, you give me a lifetime of fame and success. More riches and bitches than Weezy and Yeezy! But if you ask me and my daddy,” said Walker, “if you ask us around this pool, the Devil’s somewhat of a simplification. The Devil’s easy, ain’t he, Jim? Especially in Louisiana. Point to his face in a lineup, voila. You’ve got your motive, dealt and done. The Devil made me do it, right? The Devil wasn’t Paganini. Venality, cruelty, licentiousness, lust. Now that’s a charter you can live by! We live by it, now, every day,” Walker said.
“We’re human beings, aren’t we, Jim? Paganini knew that. Paganini was savvy. Paganini discovered the truth of mankind. He staked his soul to give it voice. We are evil. That is true. And art seeks out truth like a bloodhound, yes, sir. Robert Johnson, Francis Bacon, Flannery goddamn O’Connor, you name them. Truth-seeking artists who witnessed the truth. Who directly confronted it. Made it their minion. And we say that the Devil possessed them, at times. The Devil is an obfuscation. My pop over there in the shade taught me that. The Devil rides in on the people we are.”
“So what the fuck are you?” I said—not to him, but to Lil, hanging out in the deep end. She was looking at me with a tilted smile now, tickled by something just coming to light.
“A church of the true and the faithful,” she said.
“We are called the Bellocqians,” said Walker Baphetz, shooting back his Margarita, “and we’ve got the blood of the lamb on our hands.”
“You murdered Ecks,” I said.
“Alas. He fell short of our expectations. Though I ought to give credit where credit is due. Lil over there did the wetwork, not me.”
I rolled my eyes in agony. “Fuck my life,” I said. “I knew it.”
She unhooked her arms from the lip of the pool and rafted away on her back. “Did you, Jim?”
“The way that you posed him—like Bellocq,” I said. “I would guess it has something to do with your name.”
“Sunscreen, Jim?” said Walker Baphetz. He continued to stride like a ringmaster toward me. He picked up a tube of Olay from the pool boy and started to polish it into his abs. “At the risk of deploying a bad guy cliché, today is going to be a scorcher.” My head shook no thank you. He said: “Suit yourself. You see, Bellocq perfected the truth-seeking method. Bellcoq was a living God. He recorded our oldest, most truthful profession—your feline friend can speak to that.” He gestured at Lil in a half-submerged back float, her breasts poking over the top of the water. “The oldest, most truthful profession,” he said, “through the lens of man’s longing—his most truthful gaze. Add to that, of course, the camera, recording only what it sees. Truth perceives truth perceives truth perceives truth.”
“Here’s the difference with Bellocq: he wasn’t a killer.”
“Perhaps not a killer, yet still a disciple. When he was photographing ships for some fat-cat along the wharf do you think that he saw the truth then? Not a chance. His talents were squandered. He knew it. He chose. Of his free will he chose to peer into the shadows. To exalt in the sordid, the ruined, the lost. He wasn’t a killer, perhaps that is so. But in some sense he was a collector of lives. Those whores that he photographed, posed in their chambers, he captured their spirits, recorded their names. He loved them only as they were. They say that he, too, made a pact with the Devil. Hence, the faces scratched out by his Jesus freak brother. How he was only famous once eternity had claimed him. Not to mention his death in itself, which was fishy. The suddenness of it. His fall from the steps. Or was it Baronne Street? Like that—and then curtains.” Walker Baphetz snapped his fingers at the level of his face. “They say that on the day he died it was the Devil come to claim him. But it wasn’t the Devil. It was… Diabetes! I mean, who the fuck knows what it was? And who cares! We learned a thing or two from Bellocq. We learned to lose the middleman. Because why make a deal with the Devil,” he said, “when you can become him in full fucking fire.”
You couldn’t hear that and not look upon Baphetz, who had been quiet this whole time. He was sprawled underneath his absurd white umbrella like a warlock enjoying a wet t-shirt contest, the heavy black rounds of the John Lennon-shades making strange vortices of his unstaring eyes. Though the patio smoldered, he lay in the shade where a breeze out of nowhere stirred leaves at his feet.
Lil flipped like a fish and emerged from the pool, water stringing off her hair. The Metairie ladies watched her go with a mixture of hypnotized awe and distaste. And not for the first time I wondered about them, hard bodies in tennis skirts—what witchery had brought them here apart from the eight-pack of young Walker Baphetz.
They were called the Bellocqians; Baphetz had named them. Sympathizers with Satan. A crazed murder cult.
And yet some crucial part of me did not believe in them at all.
“So tell me,” I said, “did you even know Ecks?”
Lil stopped at the edge of the pool and turned back. “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We kept tabs on Ecks without Ecks ever knowing. Tell me, how many times have you been friend-requested or followed by a woman who you’ve never seen before? A little bit sexy. A little bit trashy. A little bit,” she said, “like me. You think to yourself: she’s a hooker, no question. But part of you— hell, maybe most of you even—wants to see what would happen if you hit: accept. The fuck brain.” She grinned. “We all got it, Jim—shit. I remember correctly you got it real bad. Ecks had it, too, believe you me. And he seemed for a time like a pretty good prospect.”
“A good prospect,” I said, “for what?”
“For serving our flock as a prophet,” said Walker. “Every faith needs one, I’m sure you’re aware. Daddy Baphetz used to be but he ain’t much for church these days. He’s still got the appetite, minus the starch. Those pictures inside on the walls are his last ones. So closes one hell of a catalogue raisonne. One for the canon, as Dad used to say. Of course, I’d fly that kite myself, but my talents lie more in the physical realm,” Walker wiggled his pecks, “if you know what I mean. I never was too much for art. Somewhat of a sore point with Daddy, back when. But never mind all that.” He frowned. “The point being: we sought out Ecks. We meant to sort of lure him in. He was going to be it, baby! Modern-day Bellocq. Rendering truth through the most truthful means. But then he got snagged on that saintly dead woman. Nothing was ever the same after that.”
“You mean Amelia Kent,” I said.
“The wrong place, the wrong time. That’s a funny expression,” Walker said as he reached me and circled me slowly, reeking of chlorine and SPF 40, patting me upon the arm. “But when you convey yourself into harm’s way—when you call out to suffering, terror and pain: ‘Here I am over here, motherfuckers! Come get me!’—my sympathy begins to dwindle. She signed her own death warrant, helping those boys, and Ecks signed his while helping her.”
For a moment I didn’t respond, lost in thought.
Lil had murdered Ecks: okay.
Had the two boys been witness—participants even? If so why had one tried to bump off the other?
He hadn’t explained much of anything, really; he’d explained it away, that was pretty much it.
So I said: “Snitch. In blood. What gives?”
Walker Baphetz eyed Lil, drying off with a towel. They shared something tacit that made them smile jointly.
“You wanted to make it look street gang related. You’re pretty fucking clever, aren’t you? Ecks goes sticking his nose in Amelia Kent’s death, you stab him occult-style and write the word snitch. But we live in Louisiana! It’s ninety-nine-point-nine percent they’ll like someone for it that’s dark-skinned and poor. You really do fucking disgust me, you know?”
That one I mostly directed at Lil.
You can bet that I meant it, but here was my M.O.: my rage would give me room to think. There was so much of consequence rocketing at me that part of it must be diversion, at least
“I’m sorry, Jim, sweetie. I liked what we had. I really, really did,” she said. “I fuck so many guys, you know. You were one of the best in a really long time.”
“There you go!” Walker said. “We’re not laughing at you. We’re excited, is all, to see you so invested. No one ever gets the names. Rehsielref? The fuck is that?”
“All these villainous plans are exhausting,” I said. “Shouldn’t you tie me to train-tracks or something?”
“Chinsky backwards—what’s that spell?” said Walker, beginning again round the pool.
“Sound like another word to you?”
“It does then you’re a crappy speller.”
Lil tied a towel around her head and jutted her hands from her hips. She harumpfed. “You try writing in blood in the dark on couch cushions. One word in the offing’s as good as another.”
“It is a test of faith,” said Walker. “Blood sacrifice for blood communion. To become a Bellocqian body and soul requires the aspirant’s unflagging commitment. Bleeding the victim to death happens first, which is followed by a photographic record for a token. Then, at the bloodletting place, an inscription: the sacrifice’s name, reversed. In support of Bellocqian dogma,” he said, “but to consecrate, too, the blood-letter’s devotion.”
“That’s the craziest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Not this week or this month but this lifetime,” I said.
“And yet,” Walker said, “it does have its own logic. A relative concept, after all. You write the name backward, for instance, to twist it. To disfigure its harmonies. Make it abject. Our beauty and truth as we see it in practice isn’t most people’s beauty and truth.”
“You don’t say.”
“Sarcasm,” said Walker. He grinned at me, pointing. “You’ve always had a surplus of it. Ecks was so earnest—so driven to be. Whereas you, Jim, you’re natural. Sarcastic. Unguarded. Moral, up until a point. A true Louisiana boy! You fit the Bellocqian mold mighty well. For most, it takes a little doing. She had to stab Ecks in the chest with a knife before we could trust her enough going forward. I even had to prove myself—Daddy Baphetz’s blonde and blue-eyed baby boy. My eucharist was Ferleisher. But Rehsielref was how I wrote it. The back-side of his closet door. You see, I hid there thirteen hours, waiting for him to come home from the station and when he did, in workout clothes, and went to his closet to kick off his sneakers, I gave him the length of a bread knife right here.” He patted beneath the right side of his ribs. “One thrust, straight through, was all it took. Bled out on the carpet while I got to sketching. Don’t believe me? Google, baby. Case was all over the local news channels.”
“So all of you are killers. Wow.”
“Not Camille and Beth Anne.” Walker bowed at the ladies, who toasted his abs with the dregs of their glasses. “But they’ll come around, I can’t doubt, any day. Claudio serves a different purpose.”
“Margaritas, mostly, huh.”
“He mixes a fearsome mint julep,” said Walker. “You’re sure he can’t make you one, Jim? It’s no problem.”
“I think I’ll drink a cup of bleach.”
“There’s that signature Jim Sherl sarcasm,” said Walker. “We’re so, so glad to have you here! Claudio, uma bebida, por favor.”
“What say you cut him loose,” I said, “and I’ll go inside there and mix one myself.”
But the pool boy was already moving away.
I was pretty sure Walker heard my desperation—a faint ragged edge of it, thinning my voice. Whoever the kid was, they had him in thrall, and that kind of influence never meant good. He couldn’t have been that much older than Cleveland, messing with the .45, unable to quite get ahold of the safety before he exploded his life with a touch.
For him… for him… for Mr. Baphetz…
Walker finished his sweep of the pool and approached. His grin was tilted, toothy, wet, as though he were afflicted with a palsy of the mouth. When he entered my orbit he reached out his hand and he trailed it come-hither-like over my chest.
“Have to consult with the paterfamilias. Do me a favor and stay in one spot.”
He crossed the pool patio, butt cheeks sashaying, to where Baphetz was sprawled. He knelt. He whispered in his father’s ear. The man’s ghoulish visage appeared to be listening, and yet it did not move an inch, nor did it betray any hint of emotion. It hovered above the depleted, slack body, the glasses affixed there like some sort of catch. If Baphetz were to take them off, then the whole mechanism would fly into pieces, the eyes jetting blood and the face sloughing off and what hair remained withering on the skull to reveal the death’s head that had always been there, perpetrating its doom on the frail world of men.
Walker leaned into the face of the creature. Mr. Baphetz whispered back.
My phone buzzed with a text from Rob.
Everything ok? it read.
Since I didn’t have time to begin to explain, I told him the truth, texting N-O in caps.
When I looked up a second later, Lil was sitting cross-legged in another deckchair on the opposite side of the pit from the ladies. She was naked except for the towel in her hair and her pale skin appeared to absorb the first twilight, her flanks glowing red like some icon of fire.
My stomach turned over.
I turned back to Walker. He was crossing the patio toward me again, the Devil in Traction reclining behind him.
Claudio came through the sliding glass doors with a fresh tray of drinks borne aloft in one hand, in the other a half-empty bottle of Mezcal.
In silence he walked among the deckchairs, passing out drinks until everyone had one. He came to me last with a freshly made julep, bright with mint and top-shelf bourbon. As I took it from him, I looked into his face, his brown eyes framed by soft brown hair, and I saw that one day when he finally woke up and realized all that had gone wrong around him, he would never walk out of their clutches alive.
“No offense,” I said to him.
I threw my julep in the pool.
The heavy glass tumbler submerged and sank quickly, the whiskey distributing gold through the water. Little shreds of mint came up to bob upon the blue-green tide.
Walker said: “Claudio, pronto?”
He wove through the deckchairs, past Lil, to the fire pit. Here he stopped and turned around so that he was facing the party at large, and he scaled the ledge backward with weird self-possession, and when he was inside the pit he sat down. He still held the half-empty bottle of Mezcal. He uncorked the top and he drank from it deeply, the golden liquor pumping down.
He gave a little genteel gasp. Then he corked up the bottle again and sat waiting.
“Um,” I said.
“Come on now, Jim. I think you know what’s next,” said Walker. He walked to the fire pit and picked up the knife, and extended it toward me handle first.
“So this is, like, some kind of role play?” I said.
“That sarcasm’s starting to wear on me, Jim. I’m performing a serious ritual here.” He walked a couple paces toward me. “A ritual that honors you!”
“I think I’m going to take a pass.”
“Here’s what you’re going to do,” said Walker. And just like that, his mien changed: he was no longer just the showboating ringmaster. A forceful, dark violence came over his face. His movements went from slow to twitchy. “You’re going to take this knife,” he said. “You’re going to slash his fucking throat. And when he’s dead—now listen close—you’re going to take two of your fingers, like so,” his hand made a peace sign then fused it together, “and you’re going to write his name backward in blood as neat as you can on the side of that brick.”
“But I don’t even know the guy.”
“His name is Carvhalo,” said Walker.
I panicked. I could feel my wisecracks sinking into the red.
“Why me?” I said.
“Because,” said Walker, “you are the new prophet. You always have been. Why else would I give you the Goldfinger speech? You’ve got to know your congregation. I think everyone here will agree,” he began and encompassed the group in the span of his arms, “that Ecks was no more than a means to an end. He helped us come around to you. You’re the real talent—the real up-and-comer. Ecks was fine but Ecks…” He shrugged. “I can only assume you agree with our judgment?”
I looked at his face. He was bat shit insane.
And so were the rest of them, even poor Claudio, taking more frequent slugs from the bottle of Mezcal, stripping his tank top away, getting hyped.
I said to Walker: “I refuse.”
I can only describe the next moments as awkward.
Walker Baphetz extending the ritual knife, Lil poised like a beach blanket Sphynx on her lounger, the Metairie ladies beginning new drinks, Claudio draining the rest of the Mezcal. And then of course there was old Baphetz, sewing the seeds of men’s doom in the shade. “You’re sure about that?” Walker said.
I had no more rejoinders. I nodded, that’s all.
Walker Baphetz paused a beat. He looked around the group, then shrugged.
“Okay,” he said. “You’re free to go.”
The shock of it seemed to take light years to reach me.
I pivoted dufus-like, looking around.
“Hardi-fucking-har,” I said.
Walker took back the knife, held it down by his side. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Jimmy boy.”
I took an ungainly half step toward the doors. Then I turned back to Claudio: “Hey. Coming with me?”
He was so drunk on Mezcal he couldn’t see straight. He grinned at me, sort of, and slid down the brick.
I took the bus eastbound, back into the city. It wasn’t even headed to the neighborhood I lived in but I’d boarded it anyway, glad to be somewhere. I missed my transfer. Didn’t blink.
The bus growled past uptown, intent on the Quarter.
I was shaky. I glassily stared out the window. Cars went by with people in them, navigating normal lives. A girl picked her nose in a front-facing car seat. A young guy with tats smoked a cigarette, steering.
I texted Cajun Rob again.
Homebound, I wrote. Then I added: Meet up?
Tortured eons went by. I received no response.
When the Superdome finally came into view with the CBD-jaggedness stretching beyond it, night had fallen on the land. New Orleans blared and pulsed with vice.
A wild, purple party bus merged on the right, the kind that squires bachelor and hen- parties places while they power chug daiquiris, catcall Creation.
Corner of my eye: lights flashing. A stripper pole, maybe, with somebody on it. Female or male faces tongue-kissing the windows. And though I couldn’t bear to look, I knew the dwarf was out there, too.
His face between the partygoers’.
Maybe in the driver’s seat.
Atop the hurdling bus itself, one claw dug in against the wind, the other one holding his stovepipe in place. His whiskered face in neon lights.
When I got to my house it was already late. The block that I lived on was silent and dark. I was so fucking done with the day I had had and hot to be inside already that what happened next took a while to sink in: the door, unlocked, careering in, and the gunshot that came in the wake of the creak.
I looked down at blood spreading over Rob’s shirt. I’d been shot in the gut.
I sat down in the floor.
Photos (in order): Mario Tama / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty; Daniel Garcia / Getty; E.J. Bellocq / Exquisite Corpse; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Ricardo Baez-Duarte / Flickr; Chris Graythen / Getty; Tchockflex / Flickr