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Authors: David Fulmer

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BOOK: Chasing the Devil's Tail
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Valentin crossed the room to find the proprietor of all this grandeur seated at one of the round tables in his customary three-piece suit with watch and chain, studying a copy of
The Mascot,
Storyville's weekly penny paper, devoted mostly to reporting the most lurid scandals of the moment. He glanced over the top of his wire-rimmed reading glasses, laid his newspaper aside, and gestured to the opposite chair.

The face of Tom Anderson, "The King of Storyville," round, pink and adorned by a grand mustache—once blond, now gone to gray—and with eyes that glittered either a jovial or an icy blue, was the most famous visage around Uptown, surely all of New Orleans, probably the entire state. The papers had started calling the District "Anderson County" years ago, and he lorded over that piece of real estate like it was a private fiefdom. Little of consequence went on within those twenty blocks without his knowledge or blessing.

He had stretched his fleshy arms beyond the District and into the realm of legitimate politics. With his Café as his headquarters, he got himself elected to the Louisiana State Senate and then appointed to the powerful Ways and Means Committee and the Committee for the Affairs of New Orleans. All this, even as he stood neck-deep in the sinful wallow that was Storyville. Never one to draw too fine a moral line, he was known to the police as a dependable stool pigeon as a young sport. He was now, next to the governor, the most powerful man in Louisiana. He hobnobbed with statesmen and celebrities. Gentleman Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan had been his guests, and he headed the welcoming committee when President Roosevelt visited the city.

Still, the honors did not turn his head, and his duty to the place where he had made his fortune and now based his power never swayed. He kept all his friends close at hand, senators and scoundrels, madams of French houses and gentlemen with distinguished titles, monarchs and magnates and petty thieves and pimps and prostitutes of white and every shade of brown, confidantes and employees and favored customers. If he was the King of Storyville, they were his subjects.

Included in their number was Valentin St. Cyr, now sipping the fresh cup of coffee which Anderson had himself fetched from behind the bar. The two men chatted for a few minutes, chuckling over a cartoon drawing in
The Mascot,
and trading news on the bad boys who were mucking-up Storyville and the new girls who were rumored to be worth a visit. The King of Storyville went to the bar again, returned with the enameled coffee pot and refilled their cups. He sat down, laid his reading glasses aside, laced his fingers together and inquired into the shooting of Littlejohn.

"I don't believe you'll find anyone mourning him." Valentin glanced at the spot not ten paces away where the
pimp had breathed his last. "The papers didn't even mention it."

"I can do without the gunplay," Mr. Tom said. "This isn't Algiers."

Valentin caught the comment, but let it pass. "It was a bit of bad luck," he said. "It could have happened anywhere."

"But it didn't happen anywhere, it happened here." Anderson's tone was snappish. "On your watch."

Valentin didn't take offense. Rounders were shot down all the time in Storyville and they both knew it. As long as no one who mattered got hurt, the occasional gunshot could give a room a certain racy reputation. No, there was something else bothering this white man.

"What's Picot think he's up to, throwing his weight about like that?" Anderson said.

"It was after three o'clock," Valentin told him. "It was time to close up anyhow. I doubt he would have done the same at midnight."

"I don't like him."

"I don't care for him myself," Valentin said. "But Uptown's his beat."

"For now," Anderson said in a distracted voice. He shifted in his chair and Valentin watched curiously as his face grew serious, almost mournful.

"I have a job for you," Anderson murmured. "A sad business. It concerns an old acquaintance." He tapped his temple. "The poor man had a collapse and his mind was affected. He's being committed to an institution. A very sad business." He allowed a few seconds of silence, then said, "You'll escort him to Jackson, to the State Hospital. Discretion is the order of the day. The gentleman is not without reputation in the community." His sharp gaze fastened on the detective as he brushed his copy of
The Mascot
with thick fingers. "Wouldn't
do to have such news getting into the wrong hands." With a muted sigh, he drew an envelope from an inside pocket and handed it across the table. Valentin pocketed it directly.

"Please come see me when you get back, the King of Storyville murmured. The Creole detective stood up and started for the door, his steps echoing on the tiles. "Valentin?" The detective stopped. Anderson had replaced his reading glasses and was paging idly through his newspaper. "I heard something about a girl found dead, where was it, Miss Antonia's?"

"It was in a Perdido Street house. Cassie Maples'."

"I see." Anderson said, without looking up. "How did she die?"

"I don't know. In her sleep, it seems."

"And what's this business about a black rose?"

Valentin allowed himself a small smile. He might have guessed that Tom Anderson would be on to every detail. "Probably some hoodoo charm," he said.

Anderson pursed his lips, musing. "Died in her sleep," he said. "You know, if she got herself cut up or shot, I never would have thought twice about it." He shrugged and opened his newspaper. "Remember to come see me when you get back," he said, and returned to his reading.

Valentin stood under the colonnade outside the Café. He looked south over the city. Clouds were coming up over the Gulf, which meant rain by afternoon.

A streetcar was passing and he hopped on. The car was empty except for one black-shawled old woman. He took a seat far to the rear, slipped the knife from the sheath on his ankle and quickly slit the envelope open. It contained five new twenty-dollar gold pieces, each embossed with an American eagle. Far too much for this one assignment, it was a retainer, an unofficial salary. He had received such a payment the first
time Anderson secured his services (a matter of minor blackmail, resolved with a promise of violence, delivered in a casual whisper), and the detective had understood immediately. Tom Anderson would have regular use for someone with his unique resume, just as he depended on Billy Struve for information, just as he occasionally employed a dimwitted thug after gentler persuasions failed. It was another trapping of the King of Storyville's position; and the three high-toned madams with whom the detective had like arrangements shared this conceit. He also sensed that the first, too-generous payment was some kind of backhanded reward for a certain incident with a certain police sergeant.

Valentin found in the envelope one one-way and one round-trip train ticket to Jackson, and a folded sheet of cream-colored paper. On the paper, a flowing hand had inscribed:

Thomas Dupre
St. Ignatius Church
103 Orleans Street
11 o'clock

For a startled moment, he forgot about the one hundred dollars gold in plain view of whatever rapscallion happened to board the car. He knew the name; indeed, most of New Orleans knew Thomas Dupre as pastor emeritus of St. Ignatius Catholic Church, for twenty-odd years pious shepherd of the flock, now retired five years. As the car rolled west down Basin Street, Valentin put the paper away, pocketed the tickets and the money and sat back, musing on the odd turn to his day.

At a few minutes before eleven, he appeared at the side door of St. Ignatius and was ushered down a dim corridor and into the sanctuary by a white man a few years his senior who
sniffed an introduction: John Rice, clerk of the parish. Rice was tall, with a narrow, pinched face. His beard and mustache were trimmed to delicate edges, spectacles perched on the bridge of his long, thin nose and he spoke in a high, clipped voice. His shirt with its tight collar was immaculate and his tweed trousers had been pressed razor-sharp.

He left the visitor alone and Valentin found himself sitting in a church for the first time since his father's funeral service sixteen years ago. The light through the stained glass was thick with dust and the air heavy with incense and the prayers of the penitent. As the deep, echoing silence lingered on, his mind began to wander.

An oval frame encased a photograph of his mother, a slim woman of mixed African-Cherokee-French blood, maid to a wealthy downtown family, and his father, a short, muscular immigrant from Sicily who worked on the New Orleans docks. In the photograph, their wedding portrait, they are standing side-by-side, his mother beautiful, with milk-coffee skin and long hair in dark ringlets, her blouse pinned at the neck with an onyx brooch; and his father holding himself with stiff formality in a too-tight wool suit, swarthy, with a curled and waxed mustache swooping over his shyly smiling face.

That image faded and in the next picture, his father is hanging from a rope that is attached to the limb of an oak tree on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, murdered by men he did not know; and there, far behind in one corner, his mother's face shatters in grief and horror as she collapses to the ground...

Thankfully, at that moment, the door to the sanctuary opened.

Valentin stood up and watched as John Rice led a frail and stooped old man across the apse by one arm. One step behind was a nun in black habit, her head bent and hands clasped
before her. As the little group approached, Valentin recognized Father Thomas Dupre from photographs in the newspapers. The priest was now over seventy, a small, doddering man with thin white hair combed back from a high forehead. His face was deathly pale and his eyes looked dazed behind tiny rimless spectacles. A signal passed and the nun backed away, crossing herself. Looking grim, Rice handed the detective a black Stetson hat and a packet of official-looking papers that was bound with a purple ribbon. He did not speak at all.

Valentin took the old man's arm and escorted him past the confessionals, through the chapel door, down the corridor, and out the side door of the church. A carriage waited with a blank-faced Negro in suit and cap at the reins. Valentin placed the Stetson on the Father's head, pulled the brim low in front, then helped his charge take an unsteady step into the seat. He nodded to the driver and the Negro snapped the reins. They rode all the way to Union Station in silence, the old man's pale blue eyes fixed inward. At one point he looked up, then reached out with a shaking hand, as if bestowing a blessing on the world he was leaving behind.

At the station, Valentin led the priest past the cars emblazoned with stars to the white-only coaches at the rear of the train, away from the grinding noise and gritty smoke of the engine. Segregation laws had been back in force for thirteen years, but Valentin could pass. It was always a bit of a gamble, however; his olive skin wouldn't mean a great deal if some drunken cracker at a backwoods station looked too closely and pointed a finger. It had happened before and he had been lucky to get away. But now he had a pistol in his pocket and white man or colored, priest or no priest as a witness, he was ready to use it.

At the first stop outside the city the car all but emptied of passengers. The train pulled out of the station. Father Dupre
still did not speak to his escort, barely noticed him, as the flat Louisiana countryside rolled by. Valentin wondered if the old man had any idea where they were going. He glanced at the priest, mystified by the whole business. He had seen victims of afflictions of the brain shuffling about the streets of the city, all shaking hands and dead, vacant eyes, babbling nonsense. He had seen half-witted beggars with their wooden faces and blind stares. And once he had witnessed a lunatic suddenly go amok in the middle of a busy downtown intersection, stumbling into the path of wagons, screaming at pedestrians and raging madly against unseen demons until the police arrived to beat him to the cobbled street and carry him off. Father Dupre showed no such signs; Valentin saw nothing but a gentleman enfeebled by old age. It made him wonder why the priest was being sent off to the Hospital for the Insane at Jackson.

Which also made him wonder why Anderson created the drama of giving him the note, rather than just explaining that his charge was Father Dupre. Because he assumed Valentin wouldn't know the old gentleman? No, more likely he didn't want to answer the questions that the detective would surely have posed. Finally, why him? Why did Mr. Rice, or whoever was responsible at St. Ignatius, give this job to Tom Anderson? Wasn't that dealing with the devil himself? The only answer could be that Rice knew it would keep the matter quiet. Which meant they were making Father Thomas Dupre disappear.

Valentin thought about it for a few moments more, and then shrugged it off. So what if they were? It was white people's business and none of his affair.

The train pulled into the Jackson station at two o'clock and Valentin escorted the priest out of the car. There was a double-seated hack with a mulatto driver dressed all in white waiting by the platform and they rode a dirt road between
drooping live oaks and weeping willows that led outside the town to the grounds of Jackson State Hospital for the Insane.

When they reached the gate, Father Dupre stirred. He gazed at the complex of drab brick buildings that rose up behind a tall black iron fence. Valentin heard him sigh and saw him shake his head, as if in resignation. They stepped down from the hack. A guard greeted them and took a moment to look over the papers. Then came the only light turn in this melancholy business. The good Father, in his confusion, somehow forgot that insanity was also an issue of race and began to shuffle off in the direction of the colored wards, located closest to the gate. The guard smiled as Valentin went after his charge and gently turned him around. The guard led them up a stone walk to the main building. A doctor, a nurse, and a man in a suit appeared in the lobby and the patient was handed over with a minimum of fuss. It was all quite efficient. They paid no attention to Valentin. Before they finished, the staff members stepped aside to whisper over some detail and Valentin felt a tug at his sleeve. He turned to find Father Dupre fixing him with an intense, pleading look.

BOOK: Chasing the Devil's Tail
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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