Read Chasing the Devil's Tail Online
Authors: David Fulmer
Tom Anderson tried to concentrate on the paragraphs of type on the page before him, a rambling bill of particulars about a proposed water line for St. John's Parish. He stared at the words for a few seconds more, trying to make sense of the sentence, then gave up and laid his pen aside. He sipped his coffee. Cold. He stared at the empty chair across the table and fell into a brooding mood.
As he expected, St. Cyr was on the money. The news about the back-of-town Negro girl had barely passed Billy Struve's busy lips on Sunday afternoon when the message arrived from the parish clerk at St. Ignatius concerning poor old Father Dupre.
Anderson had noted the curious timing, of course, but it gave him little pause. He pushed aside the matter of the girl's deathâshe was a Negro, after allâand moved directly to assist in the other matter. Though he was not himself a religious man, he respected the church as a power not to be dismissed, even though it had never been so potent as to stamp out the District's sinful trade or to remove belief in the
from the hearts of God's children there.
It was a standoff with a long history, and in his well-oiled style, Tom Anderson made sure it remained cordial, extending a helping hand with problems of a public or private nature that no amount of prayer could resolve. So a telephone bell
tinkled or a message was delivered at his door. He came to know Father Dupre as a pious and kindly old rooster and his clerk John Rice as an officious bully. Over the years, Anderson had offered assistance to the church with the tact and discretion that was his signature.
Those instances had dwindled as the years went by and when a call did come, it was always from the parish clerk. Then he read in
that the Father was turning his duties over to a younger man. He heard nothing more until he was petitioned over this last delicate business. When the request arrived, he thought immediately of Valentin St. Cyr.
The front door opened and closed and he looked up, expecting the detectiveâthe
detectiveâto come barging back in to annoy him with another question, another suspicion. But it was only a delivery boy. Anderson picked up his pen, but didn't put it to paper, as his thoughts began another circle. He mused upon having to remind himself that St. Cyr was a colored man; and color was a brick wall. But this was New Orleans and nothing was ever that simple.
Sometimes it made Anderson weary just thinking about it. Ask any white man on the street and he would tell you there were four social levels in Crescent City society: the "Americans" of Anglo-Saxon blood, the descendants of French aristocracy, and the like; Creoles of mixed French and Spanish blood; a huge step down by law to the Creoles of Color, which included anyone with a single drop of African blood, such octoroons, quadroons and mulattos of the fairest complexions; finally, on the bottom rung, the Negroes, the most direct, most black-skinned products of slavery.
The caste system contained sub-divisions that defied any sane man's logic and memory, so that anyone in the City of New Orleans who actually tried to explain it ended up sounding like a madman. But at least it was so muddled that it allowed a few like St. Cyr to dance about all sides of the color lineâa benefit to Mr. Tom Anderson.
He sighed quietly. If he paid proper respect to the petrified notions of superiority, no one with a trace of African blood would be allowed anywhere near his affairs. But, by God, St. Cyr had worked for him for almost five years now, and there was no one in New Orleans who matched him in matters of discreet security. Anderson shook his head grimly, imagining what would happen if he gave any one of the local crew of dirt-white toughs the free hand St. Cyr enjoyed. Those dunces would be likely to beat a man half to death when a simple word or two would do. Hopeless thugs, for the most part. He had owned yard dogs with more sense than all of them put together. But St. Cyr was another breed entirely and Tom Anderson afforded him so much deference that the detective could voice doubts about eminent white men like Father Dupre without a second thought.
The King of Storyville knew about St. Cyr, knew of his father and mother and his police career, about his friendship with that maniac King Bolden. He would have to hold such information on anyone he allowed so close.
Maybe he had given him too much free rein; but the man had earned it, and surely never abused the privilege. So if there was, by chance, something peculiar to the deaths of the two sporting girls, St. Cyr would take care of it. Though he would have to lose those notions about Dupre, that helpless old man of God.
Anderson ran a lazy hand over the pages before him and shoved his thoughts toward practicality. It was not his habit to create problems out of whole cloth. With two thousand soiled doves working the houses and streets, two dying mysteriously was no reason for alarm. God rest their souls, but it was a fact of life.
Most likely, the sad business would flicker away and be forgotten. The bodies of Annie Robie and Gran Tillman would go down into the cold ground or into paupers' biers; old Father Dupre would fade into infirmity in his own private grave behind the stone walls at Jackson; and business in Anderson County would go on without a pause.
The State Senator picked up his pen and returned to his work.
The class with which I have come in contact is not what would be considered desirable, being entirely of the Sicilian type. Illiterate and tending to be unruly and used only for manual labor, having had no training nor education and not being adaptable for scientific pursuits nor for diversified or intensified agricultural pursuits without close attention.
President, Progressive Union
New Orleans Parish Prison was a harsh, blank, three-story gravestone that stretched along Royal Street from St. Louis to Conti, a scofflaw's nightmare that began the moment his disobedient shoes were dragged up to the gray and somber edifice.
The ugly, glowering block of granite housed courtrooms, municipal offices, a police precinct and, in the basement, a gruesome excuse for a jail, all connected by echoing corridors and stairwells. If Hell could fit in a city block, Valentin had reflected, it would have the exact appearance of this building; and should he ever again be tempted by the fruits of crime, he need only poke his nose down the west side of the French
Quarter, catch a glimpse of a single bleak cornerstone of the building, and he would be cured.
So it was only fitting that as he was arriving there late that afternoon, J. Picot was coming down the broad stone steps. The policeman stopped in his tracks and looked St. Cyr up and down, his lips curling. "Now what?" When the Creole detective didn't answer directly, Picot's grimace turned into a thin smile. "You here about Bolden? I heard they brought him in last night. Everybody heard. He was yellin' and screamin', fightin' with the officers. They had to put him down."
"Put him down how?" Valentin asked.
Picot made a lazy mime of swinging a club. "Knocked him cold, I hear. But I wasn't there," he added with a tone of regret. He fastened a hard eye on St. Cyr. "What, you goin' his bail now?"
Valentin shrugged. The copper shook his head. "I wouldn't waste my money. They need to throw away the key on that one. Nothin' but a rowdy. We get more calls when that band of his is playing somewhere. It makes people crazy. There oughta be a law." Picot's expression turned sardonic. "But while you're inside, go ahead ask him about that Negro girl over to Cassie Maples'," he said.
Valentin glanced at him sharply, but the copper had turned abruptly and was walking down the steps. "Watch yourself round here," he snickered over his shoulder. "You wouldn't want to find yourself locked up with him." That would mean locked up in the Colored section, as they both knew. Picot strolled off.
The fellow who had caused all the ruckus presented such a picture staring out from the dim shadows of the cell that Valentin almost smiled. Buddy looked exactly like he had when they were kids and caught in some mischief: baffled by the fuss, but
mostly indignant at being nabbed at all. Valentin stepped closer and noticed his right eye, slightly swollen, and purple-blue tinge of bruises here and there on his head. Behind him on a pallet on the stone floor, a lump of putrid-smelling humanity lay snoring up a storm. Up and down the narrow corridor echoed sounds and smells more akin to Audubon Zoo.
"Buddy?" Valentin said.
"My horn," Bolden murmured in a tragic voice. "They took my horn."
"What happened?" Valentin said.
The prisoner turned away and began pacing behind the bars. "I don't know. One minute we were playing. The next thing I know there's all this noise and the coppers came in and they carried me away."
"You scuffled with them."
Bolden stopped his pacing. "Did I?" He looked confused. "Well, they took my horn," he repeated. Valentin noticed the hands fidgeting about, and it occurred to him that it had been years since he had seen Buddy without a silver cornet either dangling from his fingers or stuck to his lips.
"Where's Nora?" he was saying. "Is she coming to get me out?"
"She can't get you out. They're going to hold you."
Buddy's face twisted up with a finicky disgust. Valentin understood. King Bolden had abruptly become a common criminal, stuck in Parish Prison, just another no-account nigger tramp like the rest of them up and down the line of cells. He blinked tensely. "For how long?"
"Probably two days."
"It's nothing," Valentin said. "They'll take you out with a gang to clean up the Market." Bolden's face fell further. "You want me to go see her?" Buddy shrugged and muttered
something. "It's only for the two days," Valentin said. "Then I'll come collect you."
King Bolden slumped against the steel bars. "What did they do with my horn?" he said.
Valentin stepped out into a cloudy evening. The streets around him moved in lazy slow-motion with citizens on end-of-the-day errands, sports getting an early line on the night's action, the odd drunkard drifting along on a cloud of cheap whiskey. As he stood on the corner of Canal and Marais, lost in his thoughts, the first thick drops of a Louisiana thundershower splattered on the banquette.
He bent his head, jammed his hands in his pockets and turned down Canal, walking into the approaching storm. He went at a hard pace, his shoes slapping water, putting distance between himself and that grim hulk of a jailhouse. He made his way south by ducking into doorways and under colonnades, stopping here and there for a few moments as the rain turned streets into shallow lagoons, then moving on. By the time he had reached Basin Street, he was half-soaked. He found a dry spot in the doorway of Cairo Club, closed for the night, and drew a thin cigar from his vest pocket. He struck a lucifer on the brick wall and smoked as he watched the hard rain sweep over Storyville.
In the space of a week, he had stood over the corpses of Littlejohn and two sporting girls, both of whom had been left with a black rose. He had taken a strange trip to Jackson with an old priest. And now he had seen King Bolden locked up in Parish Prison.
He guessed that the first three killings would add up to nothing. The Angel of Death stayed busy on these streets of New Orleans, and homicide was only part of his gruesome harvest; there were ravaging diseases and bizarre accidents
and slow suicides to add to the tally, as evidenced by two cemeteriesâSt. Louis No. 1 and No. 2âso full of victims that they were buried atop each other, stacked like cordwood. Around those parts, slipping gently into the Bosom of God took some doing.
So he could forget about the pimp, and Annie Robie and Gran Tillman wouldn't be far behind. Even with Bolden and the priest to muddy the waters, there was nothing to make a fuss over. Old men's wits failed; and Bolden in jail was not exactly a surprise, either. Even Buddy knowing Annie Robie was no great mystery. Back-of-town was nothing if not a small village, so why wouldn't he know such a young, pretty girl?
The black roses were curious, but more than likely a coincidence, like Anderson claimed. Valentin had thought about visiting the local floral shops and ask about anything suspicious, then dismissed the idea. There were only two flowers, after all. It would be a waste of time. Odd things happened daily in Storyville. Once the sun went down, it was all a cheap carnival, layer on layer of illusion pasted on scarlet streets. That was the District, a thousand strange players shoved together on one crowded stage.
He let out a plume of smoke and turned his thoughts back to Bolden, now sitting in that dank cell. He could not remember Buddy even getting into schoolboy fights. No, young Charles Bolden didn't roughhouse much at all; and when he began with his music, he stayed off the streets and out of trouble altogether.
But the person he'd left at Parish Prison was not the Buddy Bolden he'd known back those long years ago. That fellow had been replaced by this raw, desperate character who too often had the eyes of a stranger.
Standing under the dripping eave, he shook his head at his own dramatics. He admitted what his thoughts had been
teasing: that he would love the random pieces to assemble into a mystery, something beside the callow fringes of the flesh trade to engage him. And a chance to tangle with an evil and put something right.
He pitched the butt of the cigarillo into the gutter, watched the rushing water carry it away, then took out his pocket watch, glanced at it, and put it back. He stood under the overhang for another long minute, pondering what to do next, where to go. The rain was getting lighter. It would move on soon.
He had said something to Buddy about paying a visit to Nora. But he knew he could just as easily step onto the banquette, walk south, make a few turns and be back at his rooms before darkness fell. Bolden would never know the difference and he could put an end to his day.
More minutes passed and then he stepped to the corner and climbed aboard the streetcar heading west.
The car came to a stop and he stepped down. The rain had passed, leaving white tatters that snaked off the cobblestones like thin ghosts. The last rays of evening sun were peeking through the high distant clouds, casting the city streets in a soft mist the color of a seashell.