Read Chasing the Devil's Tail Online
Authors: David Fulmer
"If you're lookin' for Buddy, I believe you're wasting your time, Mr. St. Cyr," the guitar player said. "I don't expect you'll see him tonight."
"Frank Mangetta was supposed to bring him by," Valentin said.
"Oh, yes," Mumford said. "Mr. Mangetta brought him by early. And Buddy went right to the bar and started drinkin' up
a storm. I turn around and he's headin' out the door. Said he was goin' down the line. Said he had business down there, but that he'd be back. But I ain't gonna count on it."
"Somethin' goin' on with some woman," the guitar player said.
"In the District? What woman?"
Jeff Mumford wiped his brow again. "Some sportin' girl down at Jessie Brown's," he said.
Valentin gave him a puzzled look. "Those are all octoroons."
Mumford shrugged. "I guess that's right. But that's where he said he was goin'."
Valentin didn't like the sound of it at all. He lowered his voice. "When you say something going on..."
Mumford waved a hand, palm out, stepping away from the subject. "You're askin' the wrong fellow," he said. "What's he up to anymore? Gettin' in some kind of trouble. Gettin' himself thrown in jail. All I do know is what he ain't up to anymore, and that's playin' music."
"You sure he said Jessie Brown's?"
Mumford nodded and looked away for a moment. "And he said he has some woman down at Florence Mantley's, too," he half-whispered. "Another yella gal. So he said." Valentin, more than startled by the news, shook hands again with Mumford, then started to walk off. "But lookey here, you find him, don't bring him back," the guitar player called after him. "I don't believe we care to see him at all."
Valentin walked down Iberville, away from Florence Mantley's gallery, at an angry pace.
The madam had stood there, hands on her wide hips, looking at him like he was some kind of simpleton.
She shook her head. What would he be doing in her house, her eyes said, cooking in the kitchen with the other niggers?
He murmured something about a certain girl he might be friendly with ... all the while Miss Mantley just frowned and shook her head side to side. He apologized and walked away, seething. Bolden, chasing after some Storyville girl? What had he been thinking? He decided right then that he wasn't about to waste his time going on to Jessie Brown's. Keeping an eye on Buddy was one thing, getting caught up in his crazy business and making a fool of himself was something else entirely. He was finished with that before he started.
It was at that very moment that he glanced down Basin Street and caught sight of Beansoup running his way, arms and legs flailing, dirty face all pink and streaming sweat, heading for the precinct station on Royal Street with the news about the woman in the upstairs room at Jessie Brown's.
One of the other girls found the body just before the midnight hour and her screams set off the whole house. Miss Jessie rushed up the stairs and down the hall. When she opened the door to the room and saw what it was, her mind went blank. She closed the door, grabbed the still-screaming girl and slapped her so hard she knocked her down, then chased the rest of them downstairs and sent a street urchin running for the police. She had put everyone out of the house and now sat in her parlor, staring at the wall, her face growing whiter by the minute. She heard the wagons rolling up to the banquette and then the coppers came swarming inside.
When Valentin stepped into the foyer, Picot turned around and held out a hand, fingers extended, as if pointing one would not do the trick.
"No, you don't," he warned.
"Who was she?"
"Out," Picot ordered.
"I'd prefer that he stay," a heavy voice intoned.
Tom Anderson stood in the doorway. He was dressed in a tuxedo of ebony black. Behind him were two young men, Mississippi toughs in suits that were too tight for their hard bodies and holding derbies that were too small for their round heads. Anderson rested his eyes on Picot. Valentin stepped out of the way of that flat blade of a stare.
"Mr. Anderson," Picot said, flushing. "You see, the problem is, he has no official status here. This is definitely a, a ... a police matter."
"I understand," Anderson said evenly. "But if you'll allow me to vouch for him, I'll certainly accept the responsibility."
Valentin was surprised to see Picot hesitate. The man was either a braver man or a bigger fool than he'd imagined. Anderson's cool eyes went ten degrees colder. "If you wish," he said, "I can send one of these gentlemen to headquarters to get written permission from Chief O'Connor."
But Picot was already backing up, grabbing blindly for Valentin's arm. "No, that won't be necessary," he mumbled. "Thank you, sir. Thank you..." and he all but dragged Valentin to the stairwell.
When they reached the second floor hallway, Picot walked directly away from the Creole detective and went to the third doorway on the left, alley side. He disappeared inside, leaving the door wide open. This, Valentin understood, was all the invitation he was going to receive. He stepped into the room.
It was the copper's little revenge. Valentin gasped and took a step back. Picot stood amidst the bloody carnage like a jolly Mephistopheles and laughed.
Anderson had commandeered the dining room and now slid the doors closed and crossed to take a seat at the table where Picot and St. Cyr waited. Each of the men at the table had a tumbler of whiskey before him. The two dull-faced roughnecks stood by the doors on either end of the room, their thick arms crossed stiffly.
Anderson turned to the policeman. "Lieutenant Picot, I understand your position as regards your official capacity. But I would like to hear your opinion on this terrible matter. Unless you'd prefer to wait for one of your superiors." He was being solicitous, giving Picot a chance to redeem himself and the policeman gobbled the bait, dismissing the concerns with a wave of one hand and flipping open his leather-bound notebook with the other.
"The girl's name is Martha Devereaux," he recited. "An octoroon about twenty-three years of age. I believe she had some minor arrests. Drunk and disorderly, that kind of thing. But nothing on her record for over a year."
"What happened up there?" Anderson inquired.
Picot said, "What happened is someone cut her throat. One large stab wound in the, uh, jugular vein there. She bled to death. Not a pretty scene. It come out like a gusher. There's blood all across the floor, halfway up the walls, sheâ"
"No one saw anything?" Anderson broke in. Picot shook his head. "Or heard anything?"
Valentin spoke up. "With that wound, she couldn't have made a sound. It was in the throat and sheâ"
"Yes, yes, but, my Lord," Anderson said. "It's Tuesday night. Business is slow. How could anyone go by unnoticed?"
"I suppose the fellow could have sneaked himself in," Picot said. "And out."
Anderson sighed heavily. "The weapon?"
"A large kitchen knife or maybe a hunting knife," Picot said. "It's gone."
Anderson glanced at Valentin, then said, "And did you find a black rose anywhere about?"
Picot swallowed. "Yes, sir. By her door there."
"I see," Anderson said. His gaze lingered on the policeman for a discomfiting moment, then swiveled to Valentin. "Anything to add?"
The Creole detective considered carefully. "Only that repeat killers do just that. The same thing over and over. We have these three women dead, but all killed in a different manner."
"You saying it ain't the same one?" Picot said sharply. "Well, what about them roses, then?" When Valentin didn't respond, he let out a tense laugh. "What, there some kinda black rose killer's club out there?"
Anderson waited, his eyes on Valentin, as if to say,
Well, is there?
Valentin shrugged. "Just an observation."
"Any other notions?" Anderson said to no one in particular, then with exasperation, "Or any suspects?"
Picot's face relaxed then, and his eyes wandered to the Creole detective. "We might have one," he said. When Valentin looked at him, he smiled coldly, as if he knew something.
Picot went back upstairs. Anderson whispered to Jessie Brown, then headed for the door with his men in tow. He stopped, took Valentin by the arm and steered him to the far side of the parlor.
"That copper's a dunce," he muttered in a low voice and then pointed a finger. "You fix this thing, Valentin. I mean directly. Find this fellow and get rid of him. Shoot him in the head or break his neck and sink his carcass in the river. This has to stop. We're not talking about some nigger house back
of town or some dive like Lizzie Taylor's anymore. This is right in the heart of the District!" He took a moment to calm himself, glancing off at his two men, who were standing with their thick arms dangling and their faces showing nothing. "What's this about a suspect?" he resumed in a quieter voice.
"I believe he means Bolden."
Tom Anderson stared down at the detective. "Bolden?"
Valentin shrugged. "That's what he thinks."
"Well?" Anderson said. "What about it?"
Valentin shook his head, dismissing the notion, and Anderson treated him to searching look. "Well, whoever it is, you'd better stop him," he growled.
After Anderson and his toughs went out the door, Valentin stepped into the sitting room to find Miss Brown slumped on a CafÃ© chair, drinking off what was left of the whiskey she'd broken out for the three men. She raised wet eyes to the detective. "Valentin," she said, "Who'd do such a thing?" She took another swig from the bottle. "Such a fine girl. Such a fine girl."
"I need to know something," Valentin said quietly. "I need to know if King Bolden was around here tonight."
The madam looked surprised, then fearful, and then her thin shoulders heaved. Valentin had his answer but he let her speak.
"He came round to the kitchen. He talked to the cook. He was asking after her."
"After who?" Valentin said.
The madam's voice was so low he could barely hear her. "After Martha," she said.
Tom Anderson, pulling away in his Winton motorcar, watched narrow-eyed as the Creole detective bolted out the front door of the house and hurried away down the banquette.
From the second floor window, Picot also watched, with the same smile he had delivered at the table, a look of grim satisfaction that lit up his dull, copper-colored eyes.
From her office just off the parlor, Antonia Gonzales saw him come into the foyer and stepped out to greet him. He strode right past her and vaulted up the stairs. Had it been anyone else, she would have whistled for one of the floor men who lounged on the back gallery, waiting to be called. Instead, she gathered up her skirt and went after him.
He opened the door without knocking just as Justine was lying back on the bed. A man who looked like a prosperous farmer in from some rice plantation stood over her. They both froze; the citizen with suspenders askew, about to drop his drawers, Justine in the motion of pulling her chippie up over her hips, her knees hiked and legs falling open. Her eyes went wide and the white man's face began to flush in anger. "What is this?" he barked.
"She's my sister," Valentin told him and Justine put a hand over her mouth.
The farmer stood there trying to decide whether or not he was going to get nasty, but he was saved the consequences of a decision when Miss Antonia bustled into the room. She treated Valentin to a withering stare and then extended a bejeweled hand to the man.
"Let me take you down the hall," the madam said in a low voice. "Someone you'll really enjoy. Come on, now. Have I ever given you a bad time?" And so she cajoled the citizen out the door. He acted like he wanted to salvage his pride with a word to Valentin, but the look on the detective's face changed his mind.
Justine put an arm behind her head, watching him steadily. She lowered her legs but left the hem of her chippie up, waiting
to see what he would do next. Valentin crossed to the bed and sat down. With a gesture that was prim in a clumsy way, he pulled the thin fabric to cover her, and then folded his hands together. He was beginning to feel ashamed and he dropped his eyes to the floor. Justine sat up and put a hand on his arm.
"What is it?" she said in a quiet voice.
"It's number three," he told her.
Miss Antonia found them sitting side by side on the bed. She studied Valentin from the doorway, hands on her heavy hips. "Valentin," she said at last, "this isn't like you."
Justine shook her head at the madam. The madam glanced between the two of them and said, "Oh, no..."
He related the bare facts, leaving out the part about the blood, what looked like fountains of it, flowing into a deep pool across the floorboards and splattered over the plaster walls. He didn't describe the raw, gaping slash in the girl's throat. He didn't tell them about her dull, cold flesh and the doll look of her dead eyes. When he finished, Miss Antonia sighed deeply, then hesitated, her eyes shifting to Justine. "I'm sorry, but you have a..." She glanced at Valentin, then touched a finger to the watch that hung from a gold chain around her plump brown neck. "You have a gentleman caller."
Justine said, "Oh."
Valentin heard the words and the note of dismissal. He thought to ask her not to entertain anymore, not this evening. But the moment passed and he took a deep breath, drew himself up and got to his feet. He was halfway to the door when he heard her tell the madam, "I'm sorry. No more. Not tonight."
He left Justine at Miss Antonia's and made the five-block walk back to Nancy Hanks' Saloon, reaching those doors a little
after one o'clock. He looked over the heads of the crowd and up at the stageâno Bolden. He ordered a whiskey to calm his nerves, then another, brooding a half-hour away while the band played on.
They were working through "If You Don't Shake, Don't Get No Cake," a lively dance number that seemed to drag like a slow mule without Buddy out in front, when an echo rolled in from the street and the door was blown open by a blast of loud brass. Every head in the room turned and the band on the stage almost stopped cold. Buddy lurched inside, his horn at his mouth and his eyes whirling crazily. Applause and laughter rippled up from the crowd. The fellows in the band peered into the darkness, glaring. Buddy didn't dare get directly up on stage, so he began to move through the crowd, all the time the horn shouting out a wild trill, like it had a life of its own. The manic look on his face had the people at the tables and the dancers on the floor hollering and after a half-dozen bars, Willie Cornish began to smile and Jeff Mumford laughed and suddenly the whole band seemed to shoot up about five feet into the air.