Read Chasing the Devil's Tail Online
Authors: David Fulmer
ORLANDO AUSTIN NEW YORK SAN DIEGO TORONTO LONDON
Copyright Â© 2001 by David Fulmer
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Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
First published by Poisoned Pen Press, 2001
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Chasing the devil's tail/David Fulmer.
p. cm.â(A Harvest book)
1. PoliceâLouisianaâNew OrleansâFiction. 2. ProstitutesâFiction.
3. JazzâFiction. 4. New Orleans (La.)âFiction. I. Title.
Text set in Sabon
Designed by Cathy Riggs
Printed in the United States of America
First Harvest edition 2003
E G I K J H F
To my agent Laura Langlie, for never giving up the fight. To Kati Hesford, Liz Royles, my publisher Robert Rosenwald and my editor Barbara Peters, for making it real. To Steve Loehrer and Barbara Saunders, brother and sister in all but blood, for staying in my corner. To Barbara Bent, for having her heart in the right place. To my parents, Thurston and Flora Prizzi Fulmer, and my sister, Karen Mertz, for tending to the roots of the tree.
This is for Talia, the flower on its highest branch.
You best be careful if you go chasm' the devil's tail,
'cause you just might catch it.
No. 13,032, C
Be it ordained by the Common Council of the City of New Orleans, that from the first of October, 1897, it shall be unlawful for any public prostitute or woman notoriously abandoned to lewdness to occupy, inhabit, live or sleep in any house, room or closet situated without the following limits: South side of Custom-house Street from Basin to Robertson Street, east side of Robertson Street from Customhouse to St. Louis, from Robertson to Basin Street.
It was after three
when the trouble started.
Valentin St. Cyr was working the floor that night. He never caught the fine lines of the spat, but it had something to do with a certain pimp and some citizen's sister or daughter. The offended brother or father walked in off the street, stepped up to the bar, put a foot on the brass rail and ordered a glass of
rye whiskey. He surveyed the room until he spotted the pimp, a ratty Creole named Littlejohn, standing not fifteen feet away.
Ferdinand LeMenthe, taking a few minutes away from the grand piano in Hilma Burt's parlor next door, glanced up from his seat at the bar to see a dapper-looking white man waving him out of the way with the blue-black muzzle of a Colt .22.
Valentin St. Cyr saw the whole thing from the other side of the room, but it happened so fast there was nothing he could have done, even if he had been willing to risk taking a bullet for a piece of shit like Littlejohn. In one instant, the pistol appeared, he heard a sharp bang and saw LeMenthe jump back as the shot whistled by to catch the pimp neatly at the base of the skull.
The music wound down in three jagged notes and the card players froze in mid-deal. All heads turned to watch the pimp crumple against the bar and then raise one hand as if asking for a moment's pause while he ordered a drink. His eyes fluttered and he fell forward stiffly, landing on the floor with a face-down thud.
The dapper fellow peered complacently over the end of the bar, laid the smoking pistol down and picked up his glass of whiskey. Valentin stepped to his side, slid the weapon out of reach, and sent for the coppers. Someone threw a rug over Littlejohn. The music started up again, the rounders went back to their hands, and the revelry resumed.
It lasted until New Orleans Police Lieutenant J. Picot arrived and promptly cleared the room. The fellows in the band called it a night, put up their horns, and stepped down yawning from the low stage. The gamblers pocketed their winnings, the suckers counted their losses, and they all pushed back from the tables. There was a scraping of chairs, a shuffling of feet and a babble of low laughter and goodnights. St. Cyr and
LeMenthe tagged onto the tail of the crowd heading for the street.
"Hold it up, there!" Picot called. The two men turned to see the policeman standing over Littlejohn's body, crooking a fat sausage of a finger. Valentin walked back to the bar.
"You, too, piano man," Picot said, and LeMenthe joined him.
Picot regarded both characters with annoyance, then fixed a hard eye on the private detective. "Ain't you hired to prevent this kind of thing?" he said. "Ain't that what Mr. Tom Anderson pays you for?" He glanced at LeMenthe, taking in the piano player's light skin, wavy locks, and fine tailored suit. "And what are you doin' in the middle of this?" he asked.
LeMenthe, a young man who almost never stopped talking, opened his mouth to explain. But Picot wasn't really interested. He said, "Shut it, now," and LeMenthe's mouth closed. He returned his attention to the Creole detective St. Cyr. "I want to know right now what in hell happened here," he demanded. "I want to know where is the man what shot Littlejohn."
Valentin said reasonably, "I believe you just chased him outdoors."
Picot stared for a moment, then looked at LeMenthe, who was trying not to smile. "Go," he said and the piano player went. Picot leaned his head toward St. Cyr as if indulging a secret. "I don't like you," he said. "And I don't care to see you any time soon."
"That suits me fine," Valentin said and turned away. He walked with LeMenthe to the door of Hilma Burt's mansion and then went home.
Within the hour, one of Picot's patrolmen found the fellow who shot Littlejohn the pimp, strolling calmly along St. Louis Street, enjoying the sights. He surrendered without resistance.
We have been visited by a sad affliction. Several coons armed with pieces of brass have banded together for what personal good we are unable to say, except that it be for two dollars a week and glue, but we are able to swear that if their object was to inflict torture upon the suffering community, they are doing right well.
Valentin heard the horn while he was still two blocks from Jackson Square. It was quicksilver shooting from a Gatling gun, exactly the kind of rainbows of loud brass, he imagined, that would announce the New Orleans version of the Second Coming. As he stepped from Chartres Street into the square, he saw a familiar profile juking across the open bandstand, looking from that distance like a country preacher cajoling his congregation.
They hadn't run up on each other in a few weeks, so when Buddy saw Valentin step from the crowd, he broke into a wicked grin and went careening over the rough boards, blowing steam from the bell of his horn. He finished the rowdy version of "Careless Love" with a shower of staccato notes, then hopped down from the bandstand to cut a rolling path through the crowd. Men clapped his back and women gave
him sloe eyes, but he didn't notice, rushing up to Valentin, happy as a kid.
"Tino!" he shouted and threw arms that were all gawky angles around his friend.
They sat in the shade of a live oak. The day was hazy with heat and from that distance, the scene around the bandstand looked like an unfinished painting. Another band was playing, and Buddy was half-listening to the raggedy waltz, his fingers absently tapping out his own choice of notes on the valves of his horn.
Valentin took the moment to study Bolden with sidelong glances, taking in the almond-shaped eyes, the nose thin like an Egyptian, the lower lip full and the upper one peaked in the middle, as if they had been placed on him already fit for a horn. His hair, as always, was cut very short and parted with a razor. The one oddity was his clothes, now all dirty and in disarray. He had always been particular.
The band reached the end of the song and Buddy turned on him with a sudden frown. "What brings you out in the light of day?" There was a brittle edge to his voice.
Valentin let it pass, leaning back against the trunk of the tree and twiddling a blade of grass between his fingers. "Annie Robie," he said.
At the mention of the name, the dark cloud that was over Buddy's face lifted and he smiled again. "She sent you round?" he said, "Is that right?"
The band started up again and the strains of a slow waltz drifted from the hazy distance.
"Were you at Cassie Maples' last night?" Valentin asked.
The smile widened, all white teeth. "I was, yes."
"What time did you leave?"
Buddy served up a curious look. "I don't know. Musta been round one o'clock."
Valentin hesitated for a moment, then said, "They found Annie this morning, Buddy. Dead."
Buddy blinked as if he didn't understand, his smile collapsing inward. "Did you say dead?" Valentin nodded. "How?"
"Miss Cassie found her in her room. It was like she went to sleep and never woke up."
Buddy shook his head slowly. "She was up and about," he said. "She took me to the door," he said. Valentin saw him struggle with the somber news, then sigh and say, "She was just a young girl," as if that mattered.
They sat in the shade of the tree for another ten minutes, as Buddy lapsed deeper into silence, answering Valentin's questions shortly, then not at all. Finally, he got to his feet and walked away, not a word or a gesture or a look back, a tall figure in a stained cotton shirt and white linen trousers, horn dangling from one hand, wavering off into the pool of afternoon heat that hung over the park.
A few minutes later, Valentin stood up, brushed the Louisiana dust from his trousers and made his way out of the park, wondering why he had even bothered to come there.
It had started early that morning. Too early.
He had been lying half-asleep, curled around a coffee-colored dove named Justine, when he heard the shuffle of footsteps in the hallway outside the door.
His right eyelid twitched and his hand stretched directly to the inside pocket of the linen suit jacket that hung from a chair beside the bed. He folded his fingers around the mother-of-pearl handle of his Iver Johnson revolver and drew the
pistol down under the sheets, all without moving a muscle on his left side. Justine didn't stir, flat wearied from their tussling atop the cotton coverlet, her dark curls splayed across the pillow and one of her arms flung palm-up over the side of the bed.
The rustle of movement in the hall grew busier and there came the hesitant tapping of a feminine hand on the door. "Mr. St. Cyr?" Though muffled, the name was pronounced the American way,
The door creaked open a few inches. "Beg your pardon." The voice was a brown whisper.
Valentin relaxed his grip on the pistol, pushed himself to a sitting position and said, "Come in." One of Justine's dark eyes opened halfway. He made a small sound and she sighed and dug deeper into the sheets.
The door opened another few inches and the face of Antonia Gonzales appeared like the rising of an ochre moon. Miss Antonia slipped into the room and crossed through the gray morning shadows on feet that were light for so ample a woman. She bent down to whisper in his ear. He listened, yawned, rubbed a hand over his eyes, and nodded.
The madam led him around the corner from Bienville and onto Franklin Street as the first true light of day poked through the mist off the river. They made a small parade on the deserted street, Miss Antonia in a shirtwaist of pale pastel buttoned at the neck and a silk moire skirt that draped down to the wooden boards of the banquette, Valentin natty in a tight-fitting Cassimere suit of gray checks.
Though the hour was early, it was April and humid. All over the cobbled avenues, puddles of rainwater had collected skeins of green scum that gave up a sour stench. The two citizens of the swamp that was 1907 New Orleans marched west, taking bare notice. By noon this Sunday, the city would sweat enough to raise the Mississippi and the streets of cobble and
dirt would grow rank, as dead animals, human waste, and kitchen slops steamed in the sun, attended by clouds of green flies. But from the hallowed pews of St. Ignatius Church to the lice-ridden, dime-a-trick cribs that lined Robertson and Claiborne streets from Canal to St. Louis, only a fool would bother to complain.
They continued on to Franklin Street at an even pace, though the madam took two steps for every one of Valentin's and twisted her plump fingers in a constant fidgety roil. Valentin noticed, but wouldn't be hurried.
Still, in the space of fifteen minutes they had crossed Gravier Street, leaving behind the stately brick facades, ornate colonnades, stained-glass transoms, and galleries adorned with potted ferns to enter a dank, shadowy neighborhood of narrow dirt streets lined with houses that had weathered to a bleak gray, half their windowpanes stuffed with newspaper, their balustrades teetering on the galleries like loose teeth. The banquettes here were empty and the streets were quiet, but Valentin now glanced into every doorway and down every alley until they reached the corner of South Franklin and Perdido.
They stopped before a narrow two-story house of dull gray clapboard. He turned with a questioning look to Miss Antonia, who waved one fluttering hand, a pudgy brown bird, at a second floor balcony. He looked up at the wrought iron railing, once sturdy, now rotting away in the damp air, the French doors with their rusted hinges, and the dirty, cracked windows that stared back at him. He gestured for the madam to precede him up the wooden steps to the gallery.