Welcome to episode 3 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, the mystery of Ecks’ life and grisly death takes a strange new twist when Sherl and Cajun Rob track down their former rival’s driver at a seedy rock club.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
Ecks’ neighbor was smoking some powerful stuff because when I woke up I felt pretty stoned over, not to mention the fact I’d been clobbered by sleep for upwards of 11 hours.
I indulged in the notion of cereal slowly. I housed a whole carafe of Cool Brew. The pairing of Cornflakes and loads of caffeine had a sour and refluxy effect on my stomach, and I bounded around the apartment all morning, trying to find an agreeable place.
I kept replaying: Ecks. Not dead. But how he had lived, how he’d moved through the world.
I remembered this time we had met in the field—just one of many, many times, my scanner and his doing call and response, though Ecks would always get there first. The death had been an accident at one of those main thoroughfare drainage projects, Napoleon or South Claiborne, where the city exhumes twenty feet of concrete for canals belowground the next time that hell opens. A site worker had lost his feet at the edge of the hole and gone plummeting down. He had shattered his back flipping over a pipe.
He ‘d lain in a dramatic pose, his arm flung behind him and buried in muck.
When I got to the place where the man had gone down, I’d seen Ecks in the hole, making paces around him. I saw the angle he was after, a shot of the man’s tragedy from aloft like a still from De Palma or Martin Scorsese. He balanced on a nearby pipe. At the base of the crater, he stood on his toes. He did not see the empty digger looming high above the hole, how it would’ve been easy to climb up its ladder and crouch in its pilot seat, getting the shot. I had felt something watching him, some recognition. His tender movements in the hole. How he may’ve not been very good at his job, but damned if he wasn’t ecstatic about it.
Back in my apartment, I drank a Tecate.
In two hours’ time I had drank half the case. I bartered a few cigarettes from my neighbor. Five o’clock came around. I was doing all right. I felt something dark draining out of me slowly.
Cajun Rob came by at six as always. He stood at the door in a pink polo shirt.
“Riding dirty this evening, I take it,” he said. He was looking me over while shaking his keys. “Man we have got to get you food.”
We rolled into Rally’s. I mumbled my order. I scarfed a burger on the road.
I waited until the scanner snowed with news of a biker struck down on Dauphine to suggest that we make a detour in St. Roch.
At the bar where I took us, the bike racks were full. Immense heavy metal vibrated the windows. In spite of the bar just a few feet away, there were dense groups of kids on the neutral ground drinking. A couple of dogs pranced around in the dim. “Bend over!” cried one of the kids in the huddle and started to pantomime rough sodomy on one of his buddies, who seal barked a climax. They were dark patchwork creatures, these dog-owning kids, with their shell belts and hoodies and death metal butt flaps, and they had something painfully naked about them even under all that gear, a sort of orphan resignation, like even they knew that their antics looked forced.
Inside of the bar you had one option: listen. People moiled in a trance toward the front of the stage. The band, which was five swaying curtains of hair, was approaching the height of a huge, drop D groove. Directly, I got me and Rob four Abitas.
By the end of the set I was sipping my second.
A blonde with her head shaved to fuzz on one side and her forearms a matrix of pirate tattoos wandered out from the front of the stage and came toward us. At first she almost passed us by before I sidelined her with one of the beers.
She pretty much drank off the rest in one swallow.
“Seasonal strawberry, dude, seriously?”
Her name, by all accounts, was Nettle. She’d sat behind Vaughan Ecks’ wheel as long as I’d been on the freelancing circuit and she could drive a fucking car. There was some speculation between me and Rob that once she’d been a stunt driver or that her dad had raced for NASCAR; whatever it was, to pursue and maneuver were life skills that seemed to reside in her blood. More even than Ecks’ expensive 4-Runner, she was always the reason that Ecks got there first. Once, at the site of a liquor store robbery, while Ecks and myself were inside taking pictures, Rob had seen her doing donuts all over the parking lot.
“Beautiful, surgical donuts,” he’d said. “Michelle Fucking Kwan, brother, best you believe.”
Though me and Ecks hadn’t much cared for each other, between her and Rob there was grudging respect.
“What can I tell you: I like a good wheat beer.”
“You boys going to buy me another? I’m grieving.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. “We’re sorry.”
“Well, shit.” She looked rueful. “It is what it is.”
We repaired to the bar and I bought her another. “To Ecks,” she said, and took a pull. “I’ve been drunk for two days just to hold in the feels. The guy was a reckless and bleak motherfucker but I got pretty used to him sitting shotgun. Doesn’t this come with a shot of Old Grandad?”
I signaled the barkeep to pour her her due.
She tossed it back and peered at me. “So tell me,” she said, “why the fuck are you here?”
“Before Ecks was murdered,” I swallowed the words, “where did he have you two driving at night?”
“Where didn’t he have us.” Her eyes peered around and they fell on her neighbor’s smoke pack on the bar; she jimmied one loose on the sly and lit up. “Earhart, the 610, the 90, the 10. Carrolton and Tchoupitoulas. When I got home at night, I’d be dizzy with U-ies.”
“Scanner goes up in the summer,” I said.
“No.” She glanced at Cajun Rob. “Last couple outings we had it turned down.”
I paused for a minute to let that sink in, even though it made good sense: her and Ecks had been scarce at the major kerfuffles. My bank account was living proof.
“Y’all weren’t chasing captions,” Rob asked her, “then what?”
“We were chasing not-captions,” said Nettle. “Okay? Ecks wasn’t exactly loquacious about it.”
“Someone’s been doing her crosswords,” I said.
“Try a master’s at UNO, bub. Urban studies.”
“Tuition on commission, huh?”
She glared at me. “I’m on my own. Emancipated myself at the age of 16. That money we made at the end of each night may not have been much to the boss, but I noticed.”
“So he was just cruising the city at night and you hadn’t the faintest idea as to why?”
She didn’t jump to answer that, just smoked for a moment in silence. Another band was setting up, replacing the gear of the last with their own and she stared at the stage like the process intrigued her.
“Wilting daisy I ain’t. You can bet that I asked. He didn’t want to tell me much. Whatever it was he was after those nights, it was almost like Ecks didn’t want to involve me. We would pull up to somewhere, some place in the city—first Treme and 7th Ward but getting out to Metaire and Kenner by the end—and Ecks would tell me: wait right here. He’d go off a while and come back out of sorts. Turning something over in his secret place. Tense. A few nights of this there was no point in asking. Kept paying me, too, but he did out of pocket. Leftovers, I guess, from his last decent sale and there weren’t much of those thanks to you motherfuckers. I knew he had so much in savings,” she said, “I would’ve asked for more an hour.”
“You ever see a certain car—maybe parked in the dark, maybe following you?”
“A certain car, man? Gotta be more specific. I see literally thousands of cars every night.”
“Louisiana plates,” I said. “The first half is WWJ.”
She shook her head and sipped her beer. I could see I was losing her ear in a hurry.
“Here’s a rumor I heard: your boy was a snitch.”
“You heard the word snitch?” Nettle blurted. “From who?”
“Lean hard enough on bystanders,” I lied, “they’ll give some ground before they tip.”
But something more pressing had surfaced in Nettle. She anxiously twisted the tab from her beer. “You showed at the crime scene. You saw him,” she said.
Me and Rob shared a look.
Rob nodded. “We did.”
Nettle swallowed some beer. “How the hell did he look?”
“I’ve seen him look better,” said Rob. “Pretty rough.”
She flicked the torn beer tab off into the dim. “No one deserves to be knifed in the chest.”
“It wasn’t a good way to die,” Rob agreed, “but by all accounts it was deadly and quick.”
“Did the cops tell you that? Fuck the cops,” Nettle said.
But I could see, even, that wasn’t the issue. “Come on, Nettle. Help us out.”
When she finally did answer, she spoke just to Rob: “Murder happened down the block. A shooting, I think I remember. This lady. Worked in reception at some doctor’s office or worked in a lab—“
I cut in: “—social worker.”
“Right.” Nettle nodded. “All over the news. Upstanding lady gets shot up. Do-gooder black lady: no car, walks to work. Or takes the streetcar, I don’t know. He was all broken up about that for some reason. She fucking walked to work, he said, so she could help people—help kids, probably—and somebody up and does that? Fuck this world. He started asking lots of questions. People that knew her. That lived on the block. Never let me in on any of this—I was only the talent, you feel me, Rob, baby?—but I could catch a fucking hint. Two years and running of driving his ass and all of sudden there’s radio silence?”
“Sounds like a matter of conscience,” I said.
“He had one,” said Nettle, “believe it or not. But there was something more behind it.”
“More than conscience with X-marks-the-spot?” I mouthed off with a sour-bellied feeling of twisting the knife, but when she looked back at me pale, disappointed, I regretted my words. I said: “Sorry. Go on.”
“The guy was ambitious. I mean, we all are. He wanted a name for himself. For his art. You’re rolling your eyes, but to him it made sense. And he figured the best way to do that, I guess, was in breaking a high profile murder wide open. Y’all got test cases in night school,” she said. “The ones the professor writes up on the board and you break into partners to solve them in class with all of those toe-tapping crime skills you’re learning? Well, none of that was right with Ecks. He wanted a real one to lose himself in and he wanted it yesterday. That’s what he got.”
“He found out who killed her and snitched it,” I said.
“I never fucking told you that. But it seems like he probably stumbled on something. A day or two before he died he stopped asking me to chauffeur him around.”
“He give you a reason?”
Her mouth curled. “No sir. Motherfucker went rogue. The next day, he was dead.”
Me and Rob sat in the car for a while with a couple Hi-Life’s, cogitating on things. The crusties on the neutral ground appeared to have hit their sweet spot for the evening and were reeling around with their off leash Pit mixes like some end-of-times picnic gone horribly south.
I’d been trying to get just as drunk as they were since 11 a.m. to the best of my memory, but all I had managed was middling buzzed. Now the buzz was cresting out.
“Went back to Ecks’ last night,” I told Rob. “Snitch was written in blood on the base of the couch.”
Tilting his beer, Rob was silent a moment.
“I was wondering when you were going to say something.”
“Just waiting until the right moment, I guess.”
“Well, ain’t this romantic.”
“I know. Stupid of me.”
“Waiting to tell me? Yeah,” said Rob.
“Not going back, though?” I glanced at him, cautious.
“You think I could’ve stayed away? Besides,” he paused to glug his beer, “it’s the least we can do for the guy, is my thinking.”
“To Ecks.” We clinked bottles like Nettle had done. “Always showed up way too early.”
We watched the kids romp, letting booze warm our stomachs.
Rob told me: “I’ll stick this out with you a while but here’s the fucking deal, okay? Never ever hold out on me like that again. Ecks shut her out. You saw what happened. Isolate yourself like that and you are going to get your wish. The next time you see a word written in blood at the scene of your arch rival’s murder, you holler.”
My response was to nod. After all, he was right.
But the Bellocq I kept to myself for some reason.
“So now you forgive me?” I grinned at my partner.
“No.” He killed his beer. “I don’t.”
Photos (in order): Chris Graythen / Getty; John Moore / Getty; China Foto Press / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty; John Moore / Getty; Jim Watson / Getty; dorkmuffin / Flickr; Mary Turner / Getty; Christopher Furlong / Getty; Mario Tama / Getty