Welcome to episode 12 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” The case is officially closed in this dramatic end to the Big Easy murders—with one final twist still in store for Jim Sherl.
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The movies have it mostly wrong.
World coming sharp into focus, then fading. Faces of loved ones dissolving in smoke. Flashes of consciousness: rotor blades, cloud shapes. Gurney on wheels beneath halogen lights. The masked visages of the surgeons. The dope drip.
Recovery room bathed in sun. Gift of life.
Being shot in the stomach by NOLA’s worst cop just inches from your large intestine before having the bullet removed at great length in a Trauma 1 surgery later that night does not an artful montage make.
Somebody’s got to call bullshit on that one.
Mostly, there’s pain and unconsciousness. Shouting. The hideous grog of the drugs in your system. Your body made into a siphoning port for innumerable needles and different-sized tubes, all that medical claptrap sustaining your life. You wish every bit of it came with a price tag so you could accept or decline the procedure.
The first thing I thought upon waking in bed: this is going to clean me out.
A bandage was done up around and around me. And then for good measure around me again. Even through the thousand layers, a little blood was spotting up.
I tried to sit up: big mistake.
Goodnight, doctor. Goodnight, nurse.
I slept on and off for a full 24.
When I woke up again I was famished for solids. I wanted a cheeseburger bad for some reason, which was probably the last thing I should’ve been eating.
It was Syrupy Glop a la Tube going forward.
Outside of my recovery room, passersby went by the blinds. One shape never moved at all: a broad-shouldered torso, its head at attention.
Gradually, it dawned on me this must be the officer guarding my room.
I hadn’t been conscious for quite long enough to see what happened to O’Shea—the placement of Dedeaux’s gunshot. All I had seen was the blood on the wall.
If he was still alive, then a sentry made sense. O’Shea didn’t seem like the giving up type. And he wasn’t the only bad cop in New Orleans; he was only one head on a terrible hydra. And as much as the NOPD was inclined to make sure his poison had been neutralized there were other O’Shea’s in the queue, I would think, who didn’t care for whistleblowers.
Days 1-3 or 3-5, depending how you looked at it—I’d mostly fluttered in and out according to my A.M. nurse—were largely bags and vital signs and wound-swabbing and bandage swaps. The doctor came in on the heels of the nurse, or sometimes never came at all. The nurses seemed to run this place.
My nurse, pretty girl with a weave, was named Shannon.
One day I put it to her straight. “Can a guy get a proper cocktail in this place?”
“Don’t sit up too fast.” She smiled. “But don’t you go planning your funeral neither.”
On the 6th day she asked if I minded a visitor. I didn’t answer yes or no.
And just like the night I’d been shot in my house, Dedeaux came in with Rob behind her. She was wearing a suit. Very V.I Warchawski. Overlaying the blouse was a laminate badge with the PIB logo.
I thought back a decade.
Internal Affairs being gutted, turned over. Accountability, transparency. Or so we were told. The I stood for Integrity, the B for Bureau. Fancy that.
But then, like most promises made in New Orleans, the small print fell out of the contract. Katrina. Less cops on the street, then more cops, and then less. An urban revitalization moves forward. Now someone, if only Dedeaux, was rebranding. Grim-faced, while watching the skies of the city.
Rob lingered in the door a moment. He looked sheepish at first then he seemed glad to see me.
“You’re looking—not great,” said Dedeaux, “but not awful. How’s the Jello in here?”
“Sure wish I could tell you. Security,” I said, “is tops.”
I gestured at the beat cop who’d been posted in the hall, his navy blue shoulder and belt of doodads drifting into the door before Rob gently closed it.
“Hey there, Jim,” he said.
I wasn’t mad at Cajun Rob but felt a little distant from him. Behind palling around with Dedeaux was a story, about to be told, in which I didn’t figure. Maybe I was dog-tired. Feeling tender, who knows.
As though I’d never harbored a secret from Rob.
“So.” A caught breath. “Should I fear for my life?”
“Not from Quicky O’Shea,” said Dedeaux.
“Well, Stephen,” she said, “was his given first name. Around the department we called him Quick Change. He was always concocting excuses for things. Minor stuff, you know. Lost staplers. Leaves the copy machine on the blink without toner. Then he tells you he tried to put in the new cartridge, couldn’t get it to fit, so he ordered another. Then later when it never comes, he says it’s their fault. It got lost in the mail. One day someone gets fed up. Takes a minute to put in the damn thing himself. The more trifling the guy’s mistake, the more complicated the cover up scheme. Pathological shit. Crooked cop OCD. Eerie, when you think about it.”
“Cornelius Baphetz. The ultimate fuck-up.”
“Quicky painted himself in a very red corner.”
“About how many years do you think that he’ll get?”
Dedeaux and Rob exchanged a look.
“He drew his gun,” she said. “He’s dead.”
A moment of silence. Not in the guy’s honor—if anyone needed to go, it was him—but in the enormity, rather, of death. So much of it, everywhere, always. And growing.
Famous New Orleans, with blood on its breath.
“They knew he was rotten. They partnered you with him.”
“Beaucoup allegations were pending against him. Much worse than lost staplers. For real shit,” she said. “Accepting bribes. Blackmailing. Couple of murders. Manufacturing evidence—dozens of those ones. But the business with Baphetz et al was a handhold. And then the Kent murder. The second line shooting. Quick Change was a busy boy. PIB is freaking out. They say that it’s time to move in now or never.”
“So you got him,” I said. “And for murder this time. And now…” I said.
“And now he’s dead. Justifiably so, am I right?” said Dedeaux.
“I’ll testify to that,” I said. I meant it in a double-sense. Then something occurred to me sharply; I faltered. “What happens to Cleveland, now he’s been exposed?”
Wearily, she raised her brows. “Downgraded to manslaughter. Least, that’s the rumor. But he ain’t going to beat it. Not here in the boot. He’ll be held. He’ll be tried. Then he’ll go to Angola.”
You wanted to say something, somehow, to help it. I’m so very sorry, or even Tough luck. But then you were asking for some absolution; you weren’t as sorry as you seemed.
“And you,” I turned back to Dedeaux, “PIB. When did you get in with Rob?”
“I wanted to tell you so bad, Jim,” said Rob.
“You wanted to tell me,” I said, “but you didn’t.”
“Y’all don’t be ridiculous, hear?” said Dedeaux. “You sure couldn’t know and Rob sure couldn’t tell you. The C in CI is for confidential.”
“You used me as a piece of bait.”
“We never took our eyes off you. You were safe,” said Dedeaux. “Only you didn’t know it. Safer on account of that. And you helped us a little, believe it or not. The stuff about Bellocq was very revealing.”
“But I never told Rob about Bellocq,” I said.
“Google,” she said, “leaves a hell of a footprint.”
I looked from her to Rob, then back.
Were they fucking or something? I couldn’t decide. My intuition told me no. You want to believe that these things really happen—IA beauty beds informant—but the world is too fucked for a cheeky romance. They flirted in public because it was easy. When it really came down to brass tacks, they were strangers.
Like Toussaint and Shireen and the marching band teacher and crazy fucking Walker Baphetz, we were all of us strangers who’d been thrown together, heated up to a hundred and made to run rabid.
Everything was entropy and the sooner we all copped to that one, the better.
“If I was safe,” I said, “what gives?”
I gestured at my bandaged middle.
“Button-up shirt,” Rob said. “The light blue one.”
I led my mind back to the last time I’d seen him. The Mazda outside of the Metairie house. He’d braked at a light and I’d fumbled my coffee, spilling dark roast down my shirt and before going into the house he’d insisted I take off the stained one, put on one of his.
“Special lining,” Rob explained. “You probably didn’t even notice.”
“You fuckers,” I said, “had me wearing a wire.”
“For safekeeping purposes only,” she said. “Nothing we collected is admissible in court. If things got out of hand, we’d know.”
“Seeing as they did,” I said. I stewed for a moment. “Where the fuck were you guys?”
“Pile-up on the 10,” said Rob.
Aw, fuck it, I thought and let loose with a grin.
But that’s when a shadow passed over my soul.
I said to Dedeaux: “What about the Bellocqians?”
Already I could sense the dwarf slithering through the hospital’s halls on his belly, peering into sick rooms at the height of the threshold, tipping his stove pipe: well, how do you do?
“Where else would they be?” said Dedeaux. “They’re in prison.”
“Can I get a shot of the hero?” said someone, a scruffy, young guy loitering in the door.
He was holding a point-and-shoot camera down low. Beneath his dress shirt’s rolled-up sleeves, a tattoo of planets, celestial wolves. Tight-fitting black pants with a clip-on key ring.
“Step away,” said the cop who’d been guarding the room.
He stood in the door with a coffee in hand.
When Dedeaux had come in he had taken a breather.
And that’s when the kid with the scruff made his move.
The kid’s approach was pretty sound. Shit, me and Ecks had done it, too—even going so far as to pay off a guard for access to a stabbing victim, climbing car impound fences to photograph wrecks. In this line of work, you did all that you could.
“Step. Away. From. The. Door,” said the cop, “or I’ll move you.”
“It’s okay,” I said to Dedeaux. “You can tell him.”
She waved him off. He shrugged, cut left and his silhouette moved trudgingly down the hall.
The scruffy kid smiled and came in through the door.
“Where you from, cher? The Gambit? New Orleans & Me? You strike me as an up-and-comer.”
“Freelancer,” he said. “How about that exclusive? Murder-Cult Interventionist Clings to Dear Life.”
“Sure,” I said. “Whatever’s good.”
He framed the tableau of my bed with his hands. Then he stepped back a pace. “Can you two be his guardians? Sort of shelter his bedside while boxing him in?”
I could see Dedeaux puzzling potential backlash. Would this be good for PIB?
“Come on,” she said to Cajun Rob.
When they stood at my bedside, their arms on my shoulders, their faces arranged passably into smiles, still the kid could not commit. He framed the shot, scrapped it. Kept backing away. He backed all the way to the door, where he stopped, Fellini with a Power Shot, and then he took a rapid series.
“Okay,” he said. “I think that’s it.”
I wasn’t the hero, but what could I say. The media gets what the media wants.
Even when the facts are right they are libelous hearsay, according to someone.
I woke in the dark of my hospital room with a painkiller haze on me. Smeared, blurry vision. No idea what time it was.
I tried to push upright in bed. Tentacle-crush of the pain through the drugs. No sense in perfection. I called down the dope.
Then adjusted the bed, which came whirring up slowly.
Room came into view, inch by inch, as I rose. The ceiling light, darkened. Cross-section of panels. High in one corner the dead, black TV. The lintel, the doorway, the door. Backlit blinds. The rough silhouette of the guard’s head and shoulders.
At the edge of the dark, a mysterious glow. It wasn’t machine light. The TV was off.
Someone or something was in the room with me.
But then I saw it was Toussaint.
He was playing the zombie plague game on his phone, the slaughter on mute so as not to disturb me. The one he’d been playing before the parade—before Cleveland, his brother, fudged killing Jarrell, only to trigger malignant events that would lead to his death at the hands of O’Shea. If Lil could be believed at all, then it was in the province of what Ecks had said—maybe something he’d scribbled or typed up in notes: They say evil hides, but they’re wrong. It parades.
He hadn’t meant the second line. He hadn’t even meant the city.
He had meant the worst evil, the powers that be, parading their monstrous blood crimes in plain sight.
Toussaint killed the zombies again and again.
They jetted blood, fell to the ground. More arose.
Above the glowing iPhone screen, his face was blank yet oddly peaceful. He played the shooter game one-handed, his other hand clutching the bed’s metal railing. As though he had wanted to be close to me.
Or as though, in his way, he were holding my hand.
Photos (in order): Mario Tama / Getty; Su--May / Flickr; Freaktography / Flickr; Andrew W / Flickr; Joe Raedle / Getty; AFP / Getty; Weatherspoon Art Museum; AFP / Getty; txmx2 / Flickr