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Authors: David Fulmer

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BOOK: Chasing the Devil's Tail
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The old man went searching for words. "Will you hear my confession?" he whispered urgently. Valentin, caught off-guard, found himself staring dumbly into the pale, bleak eyes. "They are sending me to Hell for my sins!" Now he was pressing something into Valentin's hand. Valentin felt a pebbled snake of rosary beads between his fingers. "I have no more use for this," he said in a voice as dry as winter leaves. The eyes blazed for another instant behind the priest's eyeglasses. "Why will no one hear my confession?" he muttered fiercely. "Is it too late?" Then, just as abruptly, he let go of Valentin's sleeve and fell back, his face going slack.

A few moments later, he allowed himself to be escorted
down the long corridor of hospital gray that led to the wards. Valentin watched until he and the nurse and the doctor disappeared around a corner.

He brooded in silence during the hack ride back into town, seeing the hopeless look in Dupre's eyes before him. He felt that somehow he had just buried a man as surely as if he had thrown dirt over his face and a haunting shadow came creeping back. So dark was his mood that he did not remember the rosary the Father had handed him until he was on the platform waiting for the 3:10 to New Orleans. He dug into his pocket. The beads were tied-up in a frantic knot. And as he untangled it, rose petals fell away, all in shreds, and colored a deep, dusty black.

When the train pulled into Union Station, Valentin sat without moving, staring across Basin Street. A misty rain was falling over the city. The sight of the two women in the second story windows of Emma Johnson's French Studio, sucking their thumbs as lewd notice of the specialty of the house, did not even register; even when three drummers at the other end of the car began to point their fingers and squeal like little boys at the crude display.

He got up, walked out on the platform and turned toward the corner of Basin and Iberville and Anderson's Café. He had gone a dozen steps when he stopped and pointed his shoes in the other direction, toward Orleans Street and St. Ignatius Church.

A caretaker ushered him into the church office. John Rice looked up in surprise from his desk to see Anderson's man standing there with droplets of rain glistening in his dark hair.

"Mr...."

"St. Cyr."

The parish clerk blinked rapidly. "Is something wrong?"

"No, it went well," Valentin said. He produced the rosary and held it dangling before the bespectacled gaze. "Father Dupre's," he explained.

Rice frowned and began to reach for the beads, then withdrew his hand. "A gift?" he said.

Valentin shook his head. "I don't think so. He was trying to tell me something."

The parish clerk sat back. "Tell you what?"

"It was something about hearing his confession. Then he gave me the rosary."

John Rice shook his head sadly. "Poor Father," he said. "Poor man."

Valentin offered the rosary across the desk. "You should have this."

Rice accepted the beads and sat pensively as the detective stepped out, closing the door behind him.

It was a pleasant enough evening for New Orleans, warm and windy and now just a leftover sprinkling of rain. Valentin decided to take a roundabout way back to the District, a route that would carry him through Jackson Square. The walk would clear his head, perhaps help to dispel his mood. He looked around to get his bearings, then headed for the alleyway behind the church that cut through to Canal Street.

The shadows were deep beneath the overhang of the tall building and it was cooler there. Valentin slowed his steps even more. As he dug through his pockets for a cigarette, he glanced about, then stared, forgetting about his smoke. A small plot of dirt emptied into an alleyway, fenced on three sides with stakes and clapboards. Pushed into one corner was a trash bin that was stuffed with discarded church papers. There was also a wreath, half-bare, left behind from some recent service. About the skeleton frame of wood and wire hung the ragged remnants of three dozen black roses.

A half-hour later, he walked into the Café to deliver his report. Standing at the end of the long bar, Anderson listened carefully and when he heard mention of Dupre's last cryptic words, shook his head slightly. He noticed how St. Cyr's voice had trailed off. A quiet fellow with something more to say. "What is it?" he prompted him.

Valentin chose his words. "There were petals from a black rose stuck in that rosary he gave me. Like the one in the girl's room over on Perdido." Then he related his visit to the church and coming upon the wreath in the alleyway.

"Who told you to go back there?" Anderson inquired crossly. "The poor old fellow gave you a gift. You should have let it go at that." He leaned against the bar, entwined his fingers. "His mind is gone. It's a terrible tragedy. A lesson to be learned. But best laid to rest." He was ending the discussion right there.

Or so he thought. "But what about those roses?" Valentin said.

Anderson made a dismissive gesture. "Half the funerals in New Orleans use them." The Creole detective looked troubled and the white man said, "What? You think an old priest had something to do with some Negro girl on Perdido Street?"

"No, not that." Valentin retreated and tried another tack. "What exactly was the nature of the Father's illness?"

Anderson's heavy chin took a set and his eyebrows knit in annoyance. "Something in the mind, but I don't know the details. It's none of my affair. The church prefers to handle these matters privately. I'm sure you can understand that." Valentin
sensed that he had reached a line and dropped the subject. Anderson's tone became brisk. "I need you to work the floor this week."

Their business was finished. Valentin murmured a quick thanks and walked away. The door opened just as he reached it and Billy Struve stepped nimbly inside. The young man, his blond hair parted in the middle and slicked-down, gave a glance with sharp green eyes. The detective hurried past. Struve, once a police reporter, was now Anderson's junior partner and chief spy, and his ears were open for any tidbit of news about the District. Valentin did not want any of his business turning up as a bit of gossip in
The Mascot
or, worse, in Bas Bleu's column in
The Sun.
Struve opened his mouth, ready as always with a question, but Valentin slipped out the door and into the warm spring evening.

THREE

Before the negative was shattered, the subject's face had been scratched out by, it is said, Bellocq's brother, a Catholic priest, for reasons known only to himself and, presumably, his God.

—Al Rose, "S
TORYVILLE
"

The late afternoon light came through the window and onto a purple dress that hung on the wall like a storefront display. The door opened with barely a sound and the woman on the dirty, mussed bed looked around and smiled. She was happy to see the visitor slip inside, close the door and cross the floor to stand over her. A few murmured words and all in a nervous rush, her visitor reached for the silk sash and pulled it away. The kimono fell open on lumps of soft white tit hanging down, a fat roll of a belly, her thing down there.

The woman laughed, a dry, rheumy sound, as the kimono slipped to the floor to spread out in a silk swirl of cherry blossoms on dark branches. She slipped off the bed, went down on stiff knees and started fussing with buttons.
This whatchu want, honey?

Her tongue was a wet tickle. She was doing it when she felt the sash from the kimono drape down on her shoulders, the soft silk sliding this way and that. She looked up, smiling, and
at that moment the hands crossed in a jerking motion. The woman's eyes went wide as the silk wound tight, then tighter. Now there was another quick, trembling pull on the sash and her face passed from white to pink. But she still didn't resist at all.

It was just a rough game; they'd done it before. She didn't think to fight back until it was too late and her tongue came out all wide and red, till she started spitting-up white, till she was kicking, her bare feet sliding on the wood floor that was slippery with her own piss and then she went to flailing with her fat white arms, but they were too weak and in another half-minute, the last of the light in her eyes went out. The body was lowered to the floor. The whole house was quiet as a nervous hand pushed the black rose into the woman's palm and folded her dry white fingers around its thorny stem.

E.J. Bellocq made his way down Iberville Street as the soft sepia evening descended. He dragged a tripod along under one arm, gripped his bulky black Bantam Special camera tight to his other side, and kept his eyes fastened fiercely on the banquette ten paces ahead. He didn't—he wouldn't—look left or right. Across the street, on this corner and that, young sports stared, pointed and laughed. A glance would be open invitation to these louts. The Frenchman wouldn't tolerate it, even if he had the time. He had a paid appointment to photograph a sporting woman named Gran Tillman who worked in a house on Bienville, Lizzie Taylor's. She had told him to come by at seven o'clock, no sooner and no later. She was a woman of means these days and not to be kept waiting, or so she said. Bellocq hurried as fast as his legs would shuffle him along, looking like a crippled insect on the Saturday evening street.

Ernest J. Bellocq was one of the District's more grotesque citizens, a pale, almost translucent creature of French descent.
He stood a little over five feet tall, but his head was as large as a pumpkin because of a medical condition called hydrocephalia. He had a broken little body and bent legs so that he walked like a duck. A contortion of bone and muscle clutched his throat, so that he also talked like a duck, and a French duck at that.

Bellocq was not a happy gnome, like some storybook character. He did not have a kind heart or pleasant disposition. He was not eager to please. He was a churlish and unfriendly man. He was ugly and misshapen and in poor health and the butt of cruel taunts by those who knew no better. Those few who knew him well enough called him Papá.

To earn his living, he took photographs for the Foundation Company of New Orleans shipbuilders. He recorded with mechanical precision the components of ocean vessels weighing tens of thousands of tons and made formal portraits of the stuffy and respectable white men who ran the firm that built them. In his off hours, he took photographs of the prostitutes of the District.

There was a certain windowless room in a certain house on a certain uptown street that was lined, wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor, with a catalogue of "French" photographs, mostly crude studies that captured women and couples in every conceivable pose and coupling. All for sale, of course; when cash money was involved, there was not much that man, woman or beast could not be persuaded or forced to do.

E.J. Bellocq's photographs would not be found in this collection; his forte was something quite apart. The portraits of Papa Bellocq were also not in the florid, romantic style of the day. With crabbed hands and milky blue eyes and a soul that was twisted with private torments, he revealed small stories on 8x10 inch plates treated with silver salts. His subjects were not beautiful. They were for the most part hollow-eyed,
vacant-looking women, even if barely beyond childhood. But Bellocq saw things in their faces and their bodies, and captured them on film.

He caught his subjects as they teetered like clumsy dancers between chastity and sin, smiling their vague smiles, hearing promises. On others, he found desperate, haunted looks, as if they sensed their lives beginning to dim and go out like flickering candles. And some displayed no expression at all, their faces blank as stone as they leaned against a white wall or lay naked on a bed, their fates already drawn in the scars that brutal lovers left scrawled across their pallid breasts. The broken and crippled Bellocq trapped the faces beneath their fleeting masks, caught the dying light in empty eyes, fixed in silver crystals the looks of forever saying good-bye to something.

He arrived at Lizzie Taylor's one minute before seven-thirty. He had to ask three times before the stupid girl at the door understood him. She then informed him that Miz Tillman hadn't been seen all day. Bellocq chattered a string of angry syllables in a squirrel voice, as one of the girls would later remember it. Despite the young lady's protests (Miss Taylor was not in the house), he pushed his way inside and clambered up the steps, camera and tripod banging along behind. It took him all of five minutes to struggle like some tottering mechanical toy to the upper floor. He stomped from one room to the next, pushing open doors and generally raising a row all over the house. And so it was Papa Bellocq, the photographer of prostitutes, who opened the door at the end of the hall and came upon the body of Gran Tillman. She was lying on the floor, half-hidden behind a dressing screen. She was naked, her skin a pale, sickly yellow. The silk sash from a kimono was wrapped around her neck and in her right hand she held a black rose.

***

A street urchin came to fetch Valentin at the Café. He walked into the room at eight-thirty. His eyes took in everything: Picot standing there, hands on hips, looking like he had digested something that didn't agree with him; Papa Bellocq hugging the wall, his big eyes stark with fear; the two uniformed patrolmen standing by, one of them holding an electric lamp. Then he saw the body of the white woman, the sash and the tattered kimono, a puddle of urine and a black rose. And hanging on the wall, looking out of place in that tawdry room, a dress, a gown really, deep purple sateen, with swaths of fabric, lace, and bows. Valentin stared at it for a moment, then turned his attention back to the body.

"You aren't here by any choice of mine," Picot said by way of greeting. Valentin kept his eyes on the victim, avoiding Picot's glare in the process. The police detective made a sound in his throat. "Someone downtown got a call from your friend Mr. Anderson, and here you are." Valentin didn't comment and the copper gave up. "Looks like maybe we have a repeat killer, don't it?" He pointed. "This business with the rose mean anything to you?" Valentin said no, nothing. "What about that?" he said, jerking a thumb at the dress.

BOOK: Chasing the Devil's Tail
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