Welcome to episode 2 of our interactive serial, “The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery.” In this installment, Jim Sherl is still reeling from the brutal murder of his former competitor, Ecks – when a chance encounter with a mysterious woman leads to a startling discovery.
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One mystery delivered in twelve weekly installments. Where do the clues to this murder lead? You decide.
The next night in class was some cringe-worthy shit.
Ecks’ chair was a grave-marker; nobody sat there.
Everybody seemed to know but nobody was owning up.
“If you knew Ecks then you’ll know this: he loved the crime blotter and loved local news,” said Professor Hoang at the front of the room. “I hope it won’t be in poor taste…” He started to shuffle his papers around. “If Ecks were alive, he’d be first on the scene and he would be standing here talking about it. Which would mean, technically, that he wouldn’t be—well…” He considered the place where his logic was leading. “He would’ve made a fine co-worker.”
Somebody sneezed toward the front of the room and everybody said: “God bless you.”
I was burning-eyes tired from the evening before and the world seemed to come at a half-beat delay.
Professor Hoang’s face jolted up from his desk. “Would anybody like to speak?”
A young woman with long, dark hair whose good looks I’d noticed in previous classes shouldered her schoolbag, got up from her desk and walked from the room in an obvious hurry. It was maybe the tiredness or that she was pretty in a strange, wistful way born of overworked nerves, but I felt myself moving to follow her out.
My body simply up and did.
“Mr. Sherl,” Hoang was saying. “Mr. Sherl, if you could—“
Whatever he wanted was lost to the hall.
The girl went ahead of me, breaking down sobbing, one of her hands plastered over her face. She moved at a clip toward the hall’s fire escape, where she bucked through the crash-bar and dipped down the stairs.
Before she reached the first landing I caught her lightly by the arm.
Damn right she was pretty. Alarmingly so. And yet I take back what I said, because watching her spin in the grey fire escape with her raven-dark hair fanning over her face, I felt that, in fact, I had never once seen her—not in class or outside—that she’d simply appeared. That here was some beautiful, fairy-tale stranger who Ecks—the poor fucker, toe-tagged in a morgue—had been lucky enough to make weep in his absence.
But that sounded like crazy talk.
“Hey there, classmate. You all right?”
“I just needed a little air.” She took out a Camel soft pack, shook one loose. Then she fumbled around in her bag for a while on the hunt for a lighter embossed in Saints colors and fought with the wheel, which was giving her grief. “I told him. That fucker, I told him,” she said, her hand fumbling as she worked at the lighter. “Fuck!’ She propelled it back into her bag. Eyes closed, breathing slowly, she sat for a beat before rooting around for the lighter again.
By God, she got it going then, exhaling a thick jet of smoke in the stairs.
I’d watched all this standing a few steps above her, a grin of embarrassment etched in my face. My hands were still reaching out toward her mid-gesture—some impotent chivalry: Here, let me help—and I awkwardly lowered them into my pockets.
Conscious how high up I was, I sat in the stairwell a few steps below her.
“Can I bum one?” I asked her.
“There’s only the lucky.”
She shook it loose and lit it for me.
“How were you two acquainted?”
She wiped at her eye. “We were fucking. I thought it was obvious, no?”
“You’re saying you met here in class?”
“Sure we did.” She was silent a moment. “So you’re Jimmy Sherl?”
“You might be on to something there.”
“He told me about you, you know. Couldn’t stand you.”
“Feeling was mutual, really,” I said.
“That kind of stuff…” She twirled her hand. “That kind of stuff is always more.”
She stubbed out her smoke in a grimy corona before plucking mine halfway gone from my hands.
“Hey,” I said in wonderment. “I was only just getting a buzz from that thing.”
“No. You weren’t.”
She had me there: I hadn’t smoked since 7th grade.
“He used to get angry about you in class.”
“Inferior competitor. I get it,” I said.
“If anyone was, it was him and he knew it. That’s what bent him out of shape.”
“Now I’ve heard it all,” I said.
“You don’t believe me, you can screw.”
I considered accepting her offer, I’ll tell you. She had this sort of Spanish look.
“On the really bad nights, he would go on and on. He compared you to—I don’t know— prodigy-types: Louis Daguerre and E.J. Bellocq. William Mumler. Matthew Brady. He admired you, God bless him. He hated your guts.”
“Matthew Brady posed his corpses. William Mumler was a fraud.”
“But Bellocq was someone,” she said, “wasn’t he?”
“Bellocq was interesting.”
“Interesting, huh.” Her eyes angled down as she smiled to herself. “Don’t you want to know my name?”
I waited for her to pronounce it. She didn’t.
“When you said that you told him—before,” I said slowly, “what was it exactly you said?”
Her face flattened.
She pitched her butt into the darkness below her. The cherry of it drew my eye, falling end over end in a trailing of sparks, and when I looked back she had reached out her hand and pressed a finger to my lips.
Her nails were salon-kept. They smelled of tobacco.
“Don’t go dragging your camera through darkness, I said. We all got enough of our own as it is.”
She left by the fire escape, spiraling down, the light blue shoulders of her dress marching into the gloom until nothingness took her and even the sound of her footsteps died, too and I sat in the char of our spent cigarettes.
I wasn’t much the rest of class—an hour or maybe fifteen minutes.
I had felt annihilated when I got there that night; eyes burning, limbs sore, mouth wretched with coffee, but after my meeting with Ecks’ bedfellow, I felt what you might call a rush of alertness.
I knew that I wouldn’t go home as I should, but rather to Ecks’ to put rest to something.
As soon as class ended I drove there and badly, turning left against a sign and running two red lights en route through Mid-City. Though I knew every pothole, I never slowed once, scraping my chassis to shit on the drop.
Adjacent to Ecks’, I parked my Accord.
The site of the murder was all but unwatched. Classic civic understaffing. The tape was still there in its yellow straightjacket. Indeed the street looked much the same as it had looked the night before, right down to the rib and that torn traffic ticket.
I picked up the ticket, torn right through the middle, and turned it around in the glow of the streetlamp. I tried to make the license plate but only the first half had made it intact: LA-WWJ…
Then the rip.
The violation I could read: “HANDICAP ZONE WITHOUT PERMIT.”
Peering around the adjacent dark streets, I pocketed the orange scrap. There was nothing much doing tonight on the block—a couple of youngbloods out horsing around, a middle-aged man on a stoop drinking Popov—but then again you never knew.
New Orleans was quietly ghoulish like that.
I remembered the murder O’Shea and Dedeaux had been talking about while we canvassed the place—the shooting of the social worker, a crime I recalled having heard on the scanner. Suddenly it seemed a shame, what people got used to in just a few weeks.
You could go on with life because life would go on. But then again it didn’t, really.
I ducked beneath the tape, went in.
I made for the couch where the corpse had been found. The blood had caked and partway dried. In the cushions were ominous, lumpy impressions.
I turned on the light at the top of my phone and scanned the bloodletting that coated the floor. Beyond the edges of the mass a funny drip-pattern had spotted the boards. I lay on my back in the dark living room and probed the couch’s underside.
My flashlight moved over an S, and an N, and an I, and a T, and a C, and an H. Dried and black-looking, I took it for blood. The strokes were bold and blood dripped down. The image was twinned sloppily on the floor. A lot of it had swirled together.
I took a run of pictures then. The lighting was poor and they barely came out.
I left the house briskly and ducked through the tape and paused midway upon the steps. A man with long hair, Ecks’ neighbor, was out there. I’d seen him there the night before. He was some kind of stoner, his hair in a gather. He wore tight stonewash jeans and a pair of black Keds. And he was, at that moment, just putting the torch to a huge cone-shaped joint in the palm of his hand.
When he saw me he cupped it and held in the smoke.
“Make yourself at home, why don’t you.”
“I ain’t the police. I ain’t here to fuck with you.”
“All right, all right.” His nose leaked smoke. “You want to hit it, baby, here. “
He held out the joint and I took it, and nodded.
“Can I fuck with your high just a little bit more?”
“About last night? Nah, man, not now.”
I took some rapid breathy hits. The familiar constriction began on my skull.
“You were here when it happened,” I said. “Weren’t you?”
He didn’t affirm it.
“I see you’re domestic.”
“I live with my girlfriend.”
“You with her last night?”
“I guess I must’ve been,” he said.
“An ounce of this stuff and a girlfriend,” I said, “is everything you’ll ever need.”
“Preacher, preach. Now pass that shit.”
I did, and he focused his wits on the joint.
There was only the sound of him sipping, exhaling, the fragrant smoke billowing off of the stoop.
“He never did make that much noise. Sometimes I heard footsteps—those boots that he wears. And sometimes I heard the TV, but real low. A couple times I heard him fucking. Grunting and slapping each other like hogs.”
“You see a girl? Maybe a guy?”
“It was a girl. That much I know.”
“The night he died?”
“I said already. It was some other night and I couldn’t hear shit. I think I’d know. We share a wall. But someone must’ve called the cops unless he called the cops himself and I read in the paper he didn’t do that.”
“You think the killer called the cops.”
“Someone must’ve called,” he said.
“Someone who was passing by.”
“Someone,” said the guy, “like you.”
I sucked at the last of the roach, passed it back. I handed him my information.
“You remember something you forgot, maybe call me.”
I drove roundabout through the city at night. I felt in a rush to get nowhere directly. I drove along Esplanade, watching the trees and I circled the statue of Beauregard twice, only to drive through the first of the park, looping around the museum, up Carrolton.
I poked around when I got home. I ate peanut butter at the cupboard. I showered.
I looked at social media and watched some clips of mine and Rob’s. Before long I stood at my crowded bookcase where my face had been drawn, and was scanning the spines. Novels, forensics, photography books. And I’m not sure what brought me to find E.J. Bellocq, the book that I had of his Storyville portraits, but in strange, elapsed time I was fluttering through it, sitting down on the floor when I grew tired of standing, shaking a Tecate from the twelver in the fridge and gulping it down in a kneeling position.
It straightened me instantly. That’s when I saw it.
“Woman Reclining on a Rattan Couch.”
She was who I’d come to find, this girl who is stretched out at ease on her divan. And she is only one, of course, of a great many women who modeled for Bellocq. Yet this woman is different, too.
Her hair is long and chestnut brown and tangles bright along her shoulders. She peers out at you from the top of her skull. She is naked and white. You can see her triangle. She lies on her side looking into the lens, one of her arms pinned beneath her.
He had walked along Basin Street clutching his camera, befriending the girls in the doorways and windows. He’d gotten them to pose for him in the various rooms of the district’s apartments. Some people said he was humpbacked, a dwarf. Some people pegged him a hydrocephalic. Some of them claimed he was both, a chimera. That from whatever angle you saw him, he changed.
To finance his life he had photographed frigates for a shipping magnate in the New Orleans harbor.
Me and Rob had found Ecks in the same attitude as the woman in the Bellocq stretching naked on her couch. Their genders were different, I knew that of course, but the posing of both of them, that was the same. The killer had studied the picture from Bellocq and then he had manhandled Ecks like a doll.
Had Ecks had the book?
It was possible, probably.
I saw Bellocq’s picture propped up on the wall between a pair of black-gloved hands, some unseen torso stepping back to frame the murder’s mis-en-scene.
What had the killer been onto with Bellocq? It seemed to me more than a little symbolic. The woman in Bellocq’s original portrait is a staunch veteran of the oldest profession. Was the killer implying that Ecks was a whore—that he had done whorish and unseemly things?
He’d posed him naked, after all, with that carving knife rammed to the hilt in his chest, intimate means to an intimate murder—a spread from Playgirl with a terrible twist.
He’d had to do it pretty quick; the time of death had been determined. They gauged it had happened at 8:58. The call came in at 9:07. Me and Rob had gotten there, best I could say, at 9:15.
Ecks’ girlfriend had all but gone out of her way to mention Bellocq in our confab that evening, which made her the most likely suspect, of course, but also the least likely one of them all.
Bellocq was interesting.
But she had known why all along.
I turned the page in Bellocq’s book. Next was a series of more naked women, their faces redacted, scratched out of existence. Some think this the work of Bellocq. Some think Bellocq’s brother Leo, a Jesuit priest, who’d discovered the pictures while Bellocq still lived and scratched out the faces in Christ-addled terror, hoping to save his brother’s soul.
It seemed to me, though, that there was a third option: the women had entered the portraitist’s room. All of them wore funeral veils. When they lifted the veils to show Bellocq their faces, that darkness was what Bellocq saw.
I clipped the woman from the ether. I made her my screensaver, then went to sleep.
Where do the clues to this case lead? Let us know in the comments below, then read Episode 3 to see if your feedback influenced the storyline!
Photos (in order): Mario Tamalogo / Getty; JMN / Getty; Johannes Simon / Getty; China Photos / Getty; Infrogmation of New Orleans / Flickr; Justin Sullivan / Getty; Darian Wong / Flickr; Weatherspoon Art Museum; Exquisite Corpse