April 16, 1938
Malcolm Redding peered into the darkness around him as he eased his big Hudson sedan to a stop at the picnic grounds at Lake Pontchartrain. He looked at his watch and saw that it was nearly ten. He frowned. He was supposed to be at home helping his wife pack for their trip to Jamaica the next day.
It was dark and chilly out here, and the picnic ground was, as he anticipated, deserted. It was supposed to be spring, but the endlessly perverse weather in this part of the country had blown in a cold front that threatened to spoil the Easter weekend. He was glad he and his wife were taking a break. He was ready to feel the warm rays of the sun on his face. He got his tobacco pouch and the short briar pipe out of his pockets, and began to methodically pack the pipe. As he worked, he saw another car draw abreast of him, and heard the sound of the car door open and shut. Seconds later, his door on the passenger side opened.
“Well, it’s about time you got here,” he said irritably. “I’ve got other things to do tonight, so let’s not draw this unpleasantness out any longer than we have to.” He tamped the tobacco down in the bowl with the ball of his thumb, so engrossed in his task that he didn’t see the cheap nickel-plated revolver appear in his visitor’s hand, come to the level of his head, then emit a short, bitter roar.
The single shot knocked Redding sideways, his pipe and tobacco falling from his hands. Death was instantaneous. The killer’s breath rasped harshly. With quick movements, the pipe and tobacco were picked up in gloved hands and placed in the glove compartment. Next, the killer wiped the cheap Harrington & Richardson .38 with a handkerchief, then pressed the gun into Redding’s dead right hand.
The shrouded figure backed out of the car, stumbling as nausea roiled. The killer barely had time to bend over before the vomit rushed out onto the ground. The retching lasted for several seconds before it abated, then the killer used the handkerchief to wipe lips and chin. The stench of the burned gunpowder on the handkerchief nearly brought on another spate of retching, but breathing deeply and evenly caused the nausea to subside.
Within seconds, the killer was back inside the other car, threw it in gear, and headed back out onto Lakeshore Drive. The entire act of murder had taken less than three minutes to accomplish, but the killer knew with a twinge of fear and remorse that the memory would linger for a lot longer.
# # #
June 5, 1938
Late in the afternoon, Ernie LeDoux rode the Algiers Point Ferry from the West Bank to New Orleans. It had been ten years since LeDoux had been in the city. A decade was a long time, particularly when you were a Negro in prison.
Ernie’s memory replayed the images from that last time when he’d gotten ambitious and decided to knock over a Brinks armored truck carrying a payroll of seventy-five thousand dollars. He and his partners, Jack Solomon and Polly Flader, had stolen a Browning Automatic Rifle from a National Guard Armory which they’d used to blow off the truck’s tires, then make mincemeat of the bulletproof glass. The guards gave up without a struggle, and were left bound and gagged in the ruins of the armored truck.
The trio of Negro hoods rode away from the wreckage, laughing and joking about what they’d do with their shares of the loot. They’d agreed that LeDoux should take it to a safe place, then they’d split up and lay low until things cooled off.
Things began to go bad for them almost immediately. Cops braced Solomon outside his rooming house on Perdido Street the next day and gunned him down when he went for his roscoe. That same evening, Flader was caught with his pants off and a whore’s legs locked around his neck when the cops raided the whorehouse at Josephine and Constance Streets. They took him alive, but he refused to give anything up. He remained silent until the day a shank made from a teaspoon found its way into his back while he was showering at the prison farm to which he’d been assigned.
The news about his partners reached LeDoux quickly through the Negro underworld, and he knew something was wrong. How could the cops have tumbled to them so quickly? They’d planned it by themselves, and had remained together until the moment of the heist—there’d been no opportunity for one of them to get sauced and then spill something into the wrong ears. But somehow, somebody had learned about them, and was systematically exposing their whereabouts.
Knowing that the cops couldn’t be far behind him, LeDoux cached the loot with an old friend, sharing the secret with no one else. After that, he kept constantly on the dodge, periodically phoning his sweetheart, Ruby Richoux, to let her know he was still free and alive. He managed to keep about one step ahead of the cops, but just barely.
The week after they killed Solomon, LeDoux crossed the parish line into Jefferson, hoping to throw the cops off his track for a while. He knew they’d be watching all the roads out of the area, and all the railroad depots and bus terminals, so he went to the only place left—a honkytonk called Avery’s. He and Avery had grown up together, and the tavern owner was as true a friend as LeDoux had.
He was haggard from lack of sleep and jittery with nerves when the trio of plainclothes Negro cops came out of nowhere and surrounded the table. He could tell they were cops before they were halfway across the room, but they moved up on him fast, careless of their safety.
As the cops crowded in, LeDoux saw it was too late for gunwork. He came up with a German steel straight razor and cut two of them before the third put a .44 slug through his right leg. They three fell on him then, trussing him with cuffs and ankle chains within seconds. They rifled his pockets and discovered a few bills that they’d later found on a list of serial numbers from the stolen loot. It wasn’t much, but it was sufficient to indict him.
LeDoux resisted various tortures, several offers of leniency, and the promise of a soft job in the prison library if he’d cough up the rest of the money. Ernie insisted on his innocence and played dumb. Only he and the man he’d left it with knew where the money was, and Ernie was damned if he’d give it up. He knew they couldn’t keep him in prison forever.
That first year they tried to break him, placing him in solitary confinement. Months in the dark with bad food was almost enough to destroy him. He came out quiet and withdrawn, and from then on he did exactly what they told him. He knew he could not endure another stay in solitary.
Somehow he managed to survive through nine grueling years of killing toil under the hellish Louisiana sun and the shotguns of murderous prison guards. He had a goal, and he kept it fixed in front of him like a grail he could achieve if he were worthy. Eventually he was released for good behavior.
Now he was out and nearly home. He looked much the same as when he’d left. If anything, the years at hard labor had trimmed him down. His shoulders were the width of an ax handle and his massive square head sat atop a neck that was easily twenty inches around. His kinky black hair was still thick and full, with only a few errant strands of gray at the temples to give testimony to the hard years behind him. A part was freshly razored on the left side of his scalp, and but for a single scar on the left side of his jaw, his chocolate-brown face was remarkably smooth and unlined.
A trusted friend had arranged for Ernie’s like-new 1926 Pontiac sedan, a suitcase of tailored clothes, and a .45 automatic to be waiting for him with a friendly farmer outside of Tunica. He made his way on foot to the farm, collected his belongings, and headed back to the city like a man of means rather than a broken-down ex-con. The clothes still fit him perfectly, and the engine of the old car purred like a sated ti- ger. LeDoux made his way to a small stash of run-out money, five thousand dollars, that he’d kept in a special place for an emergency. It was enough to tide him over until he could safely collect the stolen loot.
Ruby had written him sporadically over the years, but the occasional letters had assured him that she still carried a torch for him. He wondered how it would be with her after all these years. She’d only been a kid when they were together before. Now they were both older.
Unlike many of his fellow prisoners, he’d felt no desire to pleasure himself with another man—-he’d put that part of himself into a box and locked it away. Now, when he tried to imagine himself with Ruby, he couldn’t quite do it. It had been too long. He wondered if something inside him was broken, and the thought troubled him.
As he drove into the city limits, night was beginning to fall. He’d felt something electric in the air as he’d driven through Algiers to the ferry landing. Only a few other cars shared the brief voyage across the Mississippi with him. Now he stood on the steel deck with his jacket off and his tie undone, and watched the deceptively slow progress of the ferry coming from the eastern bank as his own trudged like a tired fat man in the opposite direction.
Finally the ferry’s powerful diesel engines gave a huge shudder as the pilot signaled for reverse, so Ernie got back into his car and started the engines. Ahead of him he could see the lights of Canal Street, and he almost fancied he could hear the wail of trumpets, the low moan of a sax, and the deep hum of a bass beneath the noises of the dock. Then the cars were moving and he was off the ferry, heading Downtown to the Negro district.
He followed Canal Street as far as Rampart, then cut left across traffic. Rampart was as wide open as ever, and the smells, sounds, and sights were so powerful they were like a punch in the gut.
The neon sign advertising the Metro Hotel hove into view, and he pulled the Pontiac to a stop right outside the entrance. As he got out of the car, a young brown-skinned bellhop appeared to take his bags and car keys. He followed the skinny kid into the lobby and registered at the desk.
As the clerk read his signature, he said, “Everything’s all taken care of, Mr. LeDoux.”
“Huh?” Ernie said.
The clerk smiled broadly. “There’s somebody waiting up- stairs in Room 317. Go ahead, and I’ll send your bags up with the ‘hop.”
Taking the key to his room, LeDoux went upstairs, with the bellhop directly behind. As he reached the door, he turned and handed the youngster a quarter, and fitted the key into the lock. The bellhop retreated down the hall, and Ernie picked up his bags and walked through the door.
It was a good-sized room for the Metro, furnished with a double bed, writing table, two armchairs, and a night stand. A framed photograph of a New Orleans marching band by Arthur P. Bedou hung on the wall over the bed. Sitting on the bed was a pretty girl—-a woman, really. She’d grown up a lot in ten years, startlingly so. She got up while smoothing the brightly-colored dress she wore, her face smiling tentatively. Her shining black hair was chemically straightened now, and hung to her shoulders. Her skin reminded him of coffee with milk, and deep black eyes sparkled in her fine-featured face. “I wondered if you’d got lost,” she said.
Ernie dropped his suitcases and closed the door behind him. His body felt like it was quivering all over, although when he looked at his hands, they were remarkably steady. He took off his derby and dropped it on the table, then he came to her slowly. When they were about twelve inches apart, she threw herself into his arms. The kissing seemed to go on forever, and when they broke, both of them were breathing heavily.
“Welcome home, baby,” she said. “I feel like I been waitin’ my whole life for this minute.”
He smiled at her, blinking to keep the shine in his eyes from spilling over. “It has been a long time, honey,” he said. “But the waiting’s all over now.” He put his mouth on hers hungrily, and they fell over gently onto the bed.
Outside his window, LeDoux could faintly hear music for real now—sweet, slow jazz from one direction, raucous Dixieland from another, mingling sweetly in the night like some kind of airy gumbo. He was home now, and he was never going to leave again.
A paunchy, well-dressed Negro businessman named Ulysses Bautain came to consciousness gasping, shaking his head violently to escape the cold water that had been thrown into his face. He found himself lying on the filthy deck of a fishing boat that rocked violently in a choppy sea. The back of his head, over the right ear, ached abominably. He had a faint recollection of leaving the Sassafrass Lounge on his way to a lover’s tryst with his lovely secretary, then everything going black.
“Where . . . am I?” he asked dully.
“You takin’ a li’l cruise, bru-tha,” a voice said from somewhere behind him. Then came the harsh sound of leather heels on the wooden deck until he saw a form looming over him. A match flared in the man’s hand, and for an instant Bautain could see a long, humorous Negro face illuminated starkly as the man lit a cigarette. The match went out as he shook his hand, plunging everything back into darkness.
“What you want with me?” Bautain asked indignantly. He tried to sit up and found that his arms and legs were tied tightly, and his legs were weighted down by a length of heavy chain. “What’s the idea?”
The other man blew out a lung full of smoke that was briefly visible in the night sky before a breeze snatched it away. “The big idea is, you should’a took the deal you was offered on that property.”
“Property?” Bautain asked stupidly.
“That’s right, cousin,” the man said. “That commercial property over Gentilly way.”
“But—but that offer was way too low,” Bautain said querulously. “It’ll be worth a hundred times more than that if—”
As he said the words, he understood immediately why he was tied hand and foot on a boat in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain. The old man in the wheelchair had contacted him through Bautain’s banker, had called him by telephone, and had finally come to his offices, offering to buy some relatively worthless property that Bautain owned in the marshy east side of the city. Except Bautain had insider information that it might soon be worth more—a lot more—and he’d dismissed every offer, the last one rather imperiously. He remembered now the flat, impassive face of the huge Negro who’d attended the old man, and the dangerous glint in the coal-black eyes of the old man himself. Bautain now knew he’d made a terrible mistake.
“No, wait,” Bautain said quickly. “call Lincoln up. I—I’ll deal with him. Tell him I changed my mind—that I’ll accept his original offer of two thousand dollars. I didn’t know he wanted the property this bad, I swear I didn’t.”
The other man laughed delightedly, a wholly inappropriate delight under the circumstances. A ray of moonlight fell across the upper half of his face, and Bautain could see the mad glitter in his eyes. “Nigger, you sure is doin’ some crawfishin’ now, ain’t you? Trouble is, it’s too late. Lincoln made you an offer, you turned it down. There ain’t no counter offers with Mr. Lincoln. After I get rid of you, Lincoln’ll make the same offer to your widow—or maybe he’ll offer less. Mr. Lincoln’s kind of a slick businessman.” The man laughed again, a jittery, nasty sound that reminded Bautain of rats skittering behind the wainscoting.
“You crazy, man,” Bautain spluttered. “I’ll give you five thousand dollars, cash money, tonight, if you’ll lemme go. I won’t even stop to pack or call my wife. Please, please don’t kill me, please.” Bautain was crying now, sobbing like a lost little boy. “Please, dear God, don’t throw me in there tied up like this, please don’t.”
The other man bent down and dragged him upright, seemingly without effort. He held him like that, so he could look Bautain in the eye. “You fucked up, bru-tha. You thought you was tellin’ some old handkerchief-head to go to hell. That was wrong. You was fuckin’ with somethin’ a whole lot bigger’n you. Now you gonna be fish food. Tell Saint Peter that Archie Badeaux said hello.”
“No, No, NOOO—” Bautain’s scream rose to an hysterical pitch as Badeaux dragged him to the gunnels and pushed him over. He was still screaming when the water closed over his gaping mouth. A big bubble burst on the choppy surface as the killer stood there, savoring each lung full of smoke until he was down to a butt of about a half inch. After one last shallow drag, he examined the glowing tip, then flicked it spinning into the troubled water. He patted his pockets until he found a antique snuff horn and a clasp knife with a long, thin blade. He opened the snuff horn, flicked open the knife, and plunged it into the white powder in the horn. Turning his back to the wind, he brought the knife point to his nose and snorted the powder into his left nostril. He repeated the procedure with his right nostril, then he stood there as the cocaine rushed through his system, making him feel like a giant.
As the rush subsided, Badeaux walked to the small cabin, cranked the engine, and as it caught, swung the wheel hard to port and headed toward the nearest navigation light that would point his way back to the New Orleans shore. He had one more stop this evening, one more murderous errand to fulfill for Mr. Lincoln before bedding down for the night.
Mr. Lincoln’s quite an old heller, Badeaux thought to himself. Wish I’d of known him in the old days, when he still had his legs. The two of us could’ve walked over this fuckin’ town with hob-nail boots, took what we wanted, and then burned the rest. Those would’ve been great days, but these ain’t such bad days neither. Got me a nice house, got me a new Dodge automobile, got me a pile of money in the bank, and a few stray broads to warm the bed at night. All I gotta do is kill anybody who gets in Mr. Lincoln’s way. Yes, sir, not a bad life for a nigger from Philadelphia, Mississippi.
He laughed softly to himself as he entered the navigation channel that would lead him back to the docks at the village of Bucktown. And on top of that, there’s that li’l piece of side action I got cookin’. That’ll be one hell of a pile of kale. Maybe I’ll retire. Maybe I’ll just kill people for fun once in a while. He laughed again, more loudly, the sound floating eerily across the dark water.
# # #
A clock somewhere in the apartment above Moise Cupper- man’s hardware store chimed four a.m. The large table was mostly in shadow, the big round dining table alone bathed in the harsh circle of light cast by a conical fixture suspended from the ceiling by a long, gilt chain. Five men sat around the table, their mouths set and their hooded, bloodshot eyes focused on their cards. Occasionally one of the men would venture a brief, furtive appraisal of the other faces around the table, but otherwise the five men might be statues, unmoving and solemn.
A big, black-haired Irishman named O’Connell grinned confidently as he folded his cards into a slender deck in the palm of his hand. His black eyes roved the table as he looked over the tops of his hands.
Moise Cupperman, a burly Jew with a shock of unruly gray hair and small round glasses that had slipped to the middle of his fleshy nose, frowned at his hand. It was a lousy two pair—all low cards. He’d taken a beating tonight, and couldn’t understand how his luck could be so bad. He knew he was no riverboat gambler, but he was a better poker player than this. He wondered if he was getting old and his mind slowing down.
A corner of his mouth quirked distastefully at the thought.
To Cupperman’s left sat Art Frizzell, a crime reporter for the New Orleans States-Item. His nearly shapeless porkpie fedora rested on the back of his head, his chin cupped in his left hand as he surveyed the cards in his right. Cupperman had seen that look on Frizzell’s face before, usually when he was about to fold. He couldn’t bluff worth beans, the Jew thought, but he also knew Frizzell wouldn’t go down without some kind of gesture. He had the kind of pride that a lousy poker player couldn’t afford, and was always limping from one paycheck to another to make up for it.
Frizzell confirmed the Jew’s thoughts, picking up a ten- dollar bill and tossing it into the center of the table. “I’m in for ten,” the reporter said in a dry, nasal voice.
Sitting next to O’Connell was a small, neat man in his early twenties named Soto. His face was round and soft, like a young boy’s, and he wore a thin, neatly-trimmed mustache that did nothing to detract from the boyishness. His eyes were a sparkling blue, and his lips full, sensual, and a bit red. His dark brown hair made his pale skin look like a baby’s. He held his cards in a fleshy, pink hand near the surface of the table, angled slightly toward him. His other hand lay flat on the table between the hand of cards and his body. He wore a highly polished silver ring on the third finger of that hand, and he shifted it restlessly with his thumb as he studied his cards. Finally Soto said, “I’ll see your ten.” His voice was pitched a bit high, like that of a boy not yet through puberty. He threw two fives into the pot.
Cupperman wordlessly threw in a ten, then looked over at the other man at the table. The fifth man was tall and wide through the shoulders, and unlike the others, he still wore the jacket to his shantung silk suit of fish-scale gray with little herringbones running through it. A wide-brimmed Borsalino with a brown grosgrain band shaded all but his mouth from view. As he looked up from his cards, two pale gray eyes blazed for a moment from within the shadow. “See your ten, and raise you another twenty,” he said. His voice was a smooth baritone with the clarity of a hammer striking stone, and with just that much emotion in it.
O’Connell smirked at the pale-eyed man. “See your twenty and raise you another twenty, Farrell,” he said with a swagger in his voice.
Wesley Farrell’s face was still lost in shadow, but his eyes seemed to smile in a particularly cold way. He picked up two more twenties and a ten-dollar note from the pile in front of him and dropped them on top of the confused mess of bills and chips in the center of the table.
O’Connell’s grin grew into an obscene leer. “That’s gonna cost you, hotshot. Show your cards and then stand back while I rake in that pot.”
“Not yet,” Farrell said in that same clear voice. “Before you move an inch, let me tell you what you and your pal there have in your hands.”
O’Connell’s grin hardened, and his coal black brows met in a hostile V over the bridge of his nose. “Is that some kind of crack?” he said in a voice that reminded the other men of gravel grinding under the tires of a heavy car.
“You boys need to work on your act,” Farrell said, ignoring the menace in O’Connell’s voice. “It sticks out like a wart on a debutante’s nose.”
“What you talkin’ about?” Soto asked, his eyes big and his mouth open. His small chest worked as his breathing quickened. “We come here separate. I never seen this guy before in my life.”
Farrell laughed mirthlessly and he shook his head from side to side. “If you can’t lie any better than that, you better find another line of work, kid. You should see your face.”
“Keep talkin’,” O’Connell rasped, “and I’ll kick your ass up into your hat, pen-wiper.”
“Farrell, what the hell’s goin’ on?” Cupperman asked. His eyes had sharp points of lights in them, and his teeth were bared like a wild dog’s.
“Just a little fun and games, Moe,” Farrell said, his hands flat on the table. “These two boys have been in bed all night. Maybe before that, too.”
Soto winced at the insinuation, and pushed himself away from the table as if to distance himself from the conflict growing around him.
“Talk clearer,” Frizzell said, leaning over the table. “I’m a little slow tonight.”
“It’s not all that much,” Farrell replied. “The nance is wearing a silver ring on his left hand. But it hasn’t got a stone in it—the surface of the ring is a polished mirror disk. He uses it to show O’Connell what cards he’s got, and then the two of them do some finger exercises on the table so O’Connell can tell Soto what cards he needs to build a winning hand. I think O’Connell’s built a royal flush, with the ace of hearts the nance just gave to him.”
“The ace of hearts?” Frizzell said.
“I’ve got the other three aces in the deck,” Farrell said. “I’ve been watching you and Moe, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t have it. O’Connell got very bold after the last time he picked up a discard. I think the nance broke up a straight in order to give him that ace he needed. Am I right, O’Connell?”
O’Connell’s face had frozen into a hateful grimace, and the muscles in his shoulders bunched as he pushed himself violently upright. His right hand swept back to his hip and flew upward with a gun in it. Farrell, moving faster than the mind could register, rose, caught O’Connell’s gun hand in his left as he shoved his old .38 Colt automatic into the black-haired gambler’s face. As he thumbed back the rounded nub of a hammer on his gun, Farrell twisted O’Connell’s gun wrist, and the gambler’s hand opened convulsively. His Remington .380 automatic hit the table in the center of the pot as Frizzell, Cupperman, and Soto all jumped back from the table.
Farrell’s face, no longer in shadow, was contorted with fury. The muscles along his jawline had grown lumpy, and his pale gray eyes flashed with an unearthly light. He still held O’Connell’s right wrist at a painfully obtuse angle, and the truculence had drained out of the big man’s dark eyes.
Cupperman’s senses came back to him, and he reached over and grabbed the fallen automatic pistol, then he checked O’Connell’s and Soto’s forgotten poker hands. He turned each one over and opened them into fans. “God Damn, Farrell,” he said in a hushed voice. “You had both hands dead on the button. A royal flush and a straight, minus the ace of hearts.”
“What do you want to do with these guys?” Frizzell asked as he rolled up his shirt sleeves. “I think they deserve a beating at the very least.”
Farrell released O’Connell’s hand and shoved him backwards. He fell into his chair and nearly upset it. Soto had backed to the wall, his right hand slipping jerkily toward his hip pocket. His pale cheeks had reddened, and his baby blue eyes held a look of stark terror. Farrell shifted his gun muzzle until he centered on the boy’s dark red necktie. “Go ahead,” Farrell invited. “Pull that piece right on out. Show us how good you are.”
Frizzell approached Soto from the side, jerked a nickel-plated Harrington & Richardson .32 revolver from the boy’s pocket, and backhanded him across the face. Soto fell to his knees, blubbering, begging for his life.
Farrell turned his attention back to O’Connell who looked up at him with a sullen expression and scared eyes. “I’m going to give the two of you time to get to the railroad station this morning and get the first train going out of here—it doesn’t matter which direction—just get out of town. If I see you again, I’ll kill you on sight, you understand?”
O’Connell nodded jerkily. He’d heard stories about the tall man with pale gold skin before this night, but he hadn’t believed them until now. He reached out a shaking hand toward the pile of money in front of him, his fingers curled to pick it up.
“Forget it, punk,” Farrell rapped out. “You can keep what’s in your pockets, and not a dime more. You’re getting off lucky at that. Now get out of here and be quick about it.”
O’Connell and Soto grabbed their hats and coats and disappeared from the apartment like a dream fades when you open your eyes. Cupperman looked down at the automatic in his hand, and saw his hand was shaking. He’d known Wesley Farrell a long time, but he’d never seen him in action before, and it scared him. He knew Farrell’s reputation, and wondered how the man turned the violence inside him on and off like that. When he looked at Farrell, he was sliding his old Colt back into his waistband, and reaching for the money in the center of the table.
“And here I thought I was just going to have a quiet evening of poker,” Frizzell said in his nasal voice. “Instead I lose my shirt and look like a dope in the process. Guess I’ll go home and chalk it up to experience.”
“Not so fast,” Farrell said, holding out a sheaf of bills to the reporter. “Those guys cheated all of us, so we’ll just split the pot and call it square.”
“That’s white of you, Farrell,” Cupperman said. “But I don’t think we deserve it.”
“Don’t take it so big,” Farrell said as he handed the Jew a packet of bills. “They weren’t too bad at their con. They just thought they were in the room with a bunch of rubes.”
“You mean they weren’t?” Cupperman said, with no attempt at irony.
Farrell grinned. “Think I’ll call it a night, gents. I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks, okay?”
The other men bade him farewell, and he found his way back down to the street. The darkness was giving way to a graying in the east as he got into his Packard Marlin and cranked the engine. Now that he was alone, he felt himself shivering and saw that his hands were shaking. He’d come within an ace of killing a man, and knew that he’d let the cheating go on far too long. He could have exposed O’Connell and Soto after the first couple of hands, but he’d let it build to a confrontation that some part of him had desired.
As he drove downtown on St. Claude Avenue, he knew he’d been out of control, and recognized how often and how easily that was happening. He was a stick of dynamite with a short fuse, and had been ever since Savanna Bealieu had left town, ten months before. He replayed their final conversation in his mind for the hundredth time, trying to find the right combination of words he might have used to keep her from leaving. “You don’t understand,” she’d said. “Well, make me, goddamnit,” he’d shouted back at her. “I love you. What more can I say to you?” Saying the word “love” wasn’t easy for Farrell, and he didn’t understand why Savanna didn’t recognize the power it had for him.
He hadn’t seen Savanna cry many times, but she’d cried then. What was it she wanted him to understand? Sleepy Moyer had raped her just before Mardi Gras last year, but he was dead. She’d seen him die. “I still feel the same way about you,” Farrell had said. “But I don’t feel the same way about myself,” she’d yelled back. He’d left in a huff, frustrated beyond measure that he couldn’t get to the bottom of it; could not reach that secret place she couldn’t, or wouldn’t share with him. When he’d gone back the next day to apologize and try once more to patch things up, he discovered that she’d laid off all her people, put the building up for lease, and left town.
Another man might’ve gone off on a drunk or picked up another woman to help him forget, but there was a reserve in Farrell, a length of emotional steel that enabled him to absorb the blow and keep walking. But it had come at a price. He was often short-tempered, and violence welled up in him with such startling rapidity that even his friends had come to regard him warily, and always approached him from the front so he’d see them before he heard them.
He realized now that she was gone, that he wanted to marry Savanna, in spite of the seeming impossibility of it. He was a mixed-blood Creole by birth, but he’d been living as a white man for over twenty-five years. Marrying a Negro woman would mean giving up all that he had and was, but over a year ago, he’d recognized in himself the stirrings of a weariness with the role he was playing, and with the isolation into which it had driven him.
With Savanna gone, all that he had left was work and cards to fill up the hole in him. Much of the time he was able to make do, but at other times, like tonight, the emptiness demanded more from him than mere diversion, something with a dangerous edge, a rush of adrenaline that would drive the ache of loneliness back into its cave. Now that it was past, he realized again how foolish it was to court violence and risk killing someone. Or was it that he wanted someone to kill him? His eyes widened and his mouth fell open at the thought because he didn’t know the answer.
# # #
Ernie LeDoux woke up, and for a moment didn’t remember where he was. He saw the sunlight streaming through the windows and felt a moment’s panic, thinking the guards would be on him because he wasn’t up, dressed, and standing at the cell door. Then he remembered the drive down from Tunica, seeing Ruby again, and he relaxed.
He rolled over and saw that the bed was empty beside him, and he sat up. “Ruby?” he called softly. He pushed the sheets back, got up, and walked to the bathroom. He knocked lightly on the door. “Baby, you in there?” he called a bit more loudly. The door opened at his touch, and he saw a message written on the mirror in red lipstick.
Had to get to work See you tonight Love, Ruby
He grinned at that. He felt like a regular joe for the first time in years. Love, Ruby. God, that made him feel good all over.
He went to the telephone, called the desk, and asked them to send up a platter of ham and eggs and a pot of coffee. That done, he jumped into the shower and soaped himself all over, then shaved with his safety razor. He had gotten out and toweled himself dry when he heard the knock on the door. He hurriedly pulled on his pants, opened the door, and took the tray from the bellhop. He put it down on the writing table, got a quarter from his pocket, and flipped it to the ’hop, who grinned, nodded his thanks, and left.
The ’hop had also brought up the latest edition of the Louisiana Weekly, the city’s Negro weekly newspaper. Ernie propped it up behind the tray and scanned the front page while he shoveled eggs and biscuits into his mouth. At first, none of the news meant anything to him because he didn’t recognize any of the names. As he paged through the paper idly, he recognized some of the business names and many of the musicians and bands he saw written up.
He cleaned the remaining egg yolk from his plate with a biscuit half, washed it down with the remainder of the coffee, then got up and looked out the window. He guessed it must be midmorning by now. No need to wait any longer. He went to the telephone book, picked it up, and began looking under the “As” for a joint called Attaway’s Four Aces, but he found no listing for it.
He frowned and scratched his head at that. He then looked for a residential listing for Attaway, and found no Attaways at all in the book.
He put the book down, picked up the telephone receiver, and asked the hotel operator to connect him with information. Within seconds a businesslike female voice came on.
“What name, please?”
“Benjamin Attaway, spelled just like it sounds,” LeDoux said. “He lives on South Solomon Street.”
“One moment,” the operator said, then: “Sorry, sir, no listing under that name.”
LeDoux’s face took on a stunned look. “You—you’re sure? No Benjamin Attaway?” He spelled it for her, but to no avail. “Sorry, sir, no Attaways listed in Orleans Parish. Let me try Jefferson and St. Bernard.” There was a long silence, during which LeDoux picked at his cuticles until they were ragged. Finally, she came back on. “No luck, sir. We can’t find any Attaways in the area. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks for tryin’,” LeDoux said in a hollow voice. He put the receiver down on the cradle and stared at the wall. Ben couldn’t have double-crossed him. He’d been like a father to Ernie.
LeDoux got up and went to his suitcase. He removed his trousers, then dressed himself in fresh linen, socks, shirt, and put his trousers back on. He knotted a tie around his throat, picked up his jacket and derby, and walked to the door. Something was wrong, and he was going to turn New Orleans upside down until somebody told him something that made sense.
# # #
A beautiful Negro woman of about thirty came through the doors of the Café Tristesse like she owned the joint. She was about five-and-a-half feet tall, with skin so pale brown it was no darker than a suntan, shoulder-length jet black hair, and eyes like obsidian. The only makeup on her fine-featured face was lip rouge the color of ripe plums. Dressed in a pale yellow dress, yellow sling-back pumps, and a yellow hat that was like gold ornamentation on a queen, she was enough to make a Baptist minister drink swamp water, crawl inside a hollow log, and bay at the moon.
She walked through the lobby, past two of the janitors who watched her with big eyes, to the bar where Harry Slade, Farrell’s bar manager, listened to the Boswell Sisters sing “Apple Blossom Time” on his radio. He looked up from an inventory sheet and nearly dropped his pencil.
“I wonder if I could speak to Mr. Farrell?” she asked politely.
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” Harry said, struggling not to trip over his own tongue. He picked up a house phone, dialed a single digit, then spoke into the mouthpiece, his eyes flickering over the woman as he spoke. Finally he put down the telephone, and pointed across the large room to a door.
“Go right through there and up the stairs,” he said. “Mr. Farrell’s office is at the top.”
The woman thanked Harry and followed his directions, pausing at a closed door at the head of the stairs and knocking on it. She heard a voice tell her to come in, and she opened the door and stepped through it.
Farrell was sitting at his desk with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and a bottle of Jamaican Red Stripe ale at his elbow. A ledger was open in front of him, and he had a pencil in his right hand, poised over it. When he saw the woman, he put down the pencil, took the cigarette from his mouth, and stood up. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Hello, Mr. Farrell,” she replied. “I hope I’m not disturbing you by dropping in unannounced this way.”
“Not at all,” he said, offering her a chair with his outstretched hand. “Have a seat.”
She stepped forward, smiling, and offered him a slender hand encased in an immaculate white glove. “My name’s Carol Donovan.” She gave him the full benefit of her dark eyes.
He took the hand. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Donovan.
Can I offer you something cool to drink?”
“Some ginger ale would be lovely,” she said. Her voice was just the right kind for a word like “lovely”—a cool contralto that perfectly enunciated every word. She talked the way Farrell imagined a graduate of Princeton might, except she was a Negro, and not many went to a place like Princeton.
He walked into his kitchen, put some ice in a glass, and filled the glass from a large bottle of White Rock he took from the refrigerator. He took it to her, then got his beer from his desk, sat down across from her and waited for her to get to the point.
“I own the Original Southport Club over in Jefferson Parish,” she said. “I bought it last year from the previous owner, a white gentleman, and managed to turn it into a profitable venture.”
“I know,” Farrell said. “There are people who said a Negro club wouldn’t have a chance in Jeff Parish, but you proved them wrong. You deserve congratulations.” He was taken by her elegant demeanor, and the fact that talking to what she believed was a white man in an intimate setting didn’t seem to bother her. He found that charming—and a bit intriguing. It wasn’t what one would expect under the circumstances.
She nodded briefly, and smiled her appreciation. “You’re too kind. But I know you understand this business, and the difficulties of making any nightclub a success.”
“I’ve been at it a while,” he said with a grin. “It’s got its ups and downs.”
She lowered her gaze to the amber liquid sparkling and fizzing in her glass, took a sip, then raised her eyes back to his. “Yes, ups and downs. That’s actually why I’m here.”
Farrell caught the sudden downturn in her mood and felt a strange fluttering in his stomach that had nothing to do with her looks or charm. “Trouble of some kind?” He heard the faint sound of warning bells in the back of his head.
“Do you know of a man named Archie Badeaux?” she asked.
Farrell nodded. “He hurts people for a living—if they don’t give him what he wants.”
“He wants my club,” she responded. “He came to my office earlier this week and offered a price big enough to lose under your thumbnail. Take it or get ruined was his proposition.”
Farrell nodded his understanding, keeping his face neutral and his eyes opaque. Her bold confession of her troubles brought the warning bells to the front of his mind. He felt trouble circling him like wild Indians around a wagon train. He didn’t like the way this was going. To stall for time, he reached for the cigarette box on the coffee table, opened it, and offered one to Carol Donovan. She took it, placed it between her plum-colored lips, and bent over for his light. He lit a fresh one for himself, then leaned back and looked at her again through the haze of the smoke he expelled. She didn’t seem like a pushover to him, yet he knew she was here to ask for his help. Before he could say anything, she spoke again.
“I’ve heard some of the stories about you,” she said. “About how you fought and killed a gangster named Emile Ganns a couple of years ago.”
Farrell sighed. “There was a fight, Ganns was on the other side, and he got killed, yes. I’m not sure whose bullet did the job.” He inhaled smoke and let it out through his nose. “You shouldn’t get the idea from that that I’m the kind of guy who goes around kicking over anthills for the fun of it. Ganns was out for my blood, so it came down to him or me. I didn’t look for that trouble, or any of the other troubles you might’ve heard about.”
She leaned toward him and crossed her legs. They were long and supple, and he noticed she wasn’t wearing any stockings. “I need help, Mr. Farrell. I’m not afraid to take up for myself, but I’m no match for a man like Archie Badeaux.” She took a short drag from her cigarette and then placed it in the ashtray in front of her. “You’re a brave man, a strong man. Even if the stories about you are only half true, you’re still a generous man. Not many white men will help a Negro. You’re one of the few.”
He got up from his chair and walked around the room. She was good—awfully good. She almost made him forget that she was asking him to stick his neck into the lion’s mouth. He walked over to the taboret and poured three fingers of Mount Gay Barbados rum into a tumbler, then walked back to his chair and sipped it. It had a heavy, sweet taste like the molasses it was distilled from. The bite was sharp enough to loosen his tongue again. “Regardless of what you might’ve heard, I’m not a strong-arm man. Getting into a head-butting contest with Archie Badeaux wouldn’t do me any good, and it might get me killed.” He sipped the rum again, then put the glass on the floor beside his right foot.
“For many reasons, I try to keep my nose clean and mind my own business,” he continued. “I’m just like you—a nightclub owner. There are plenty of men—Negro and white—who make a living doing what you’re asking of me. If you like, I can give you some names.”
She listened intently as he spoke, then opened her bag and took out an envelope. She lifted the flap of the envelope and removed from it five one thousand dollar bills, which she arranged in a fan and placed on the coffee table between them. “I think Badeaux’s just the tip of the iceberg, Mr. Farrell. There’s five thousand dollars just for coming out to the club and looking things over. No catches, no commitments. They tell me you’ve got sympathy for colored people, Mr. Farrell. This is as much for the twenty-five colored people who work for me as it is for myself. Think about it, please.”
She got up from the chair then, smoothing her dress with her white-gloved hand as she moved. To Farrell, it was like watching a poem come to life in front of him. “Please don’t take too long to make up your mind. I don’t know how long I can fight these people off by myself.” She turned and walked from the room, leaving him sitting there looking at the money. Twice he almost got up and ran after her to give the money back. He didn’t need it, didn’t even want it. He was certain it would bring him nothing but trouble. But what else do you have to do? he asked himself.
# # #
In a large downstairs room in a house on Melpomene Street, in what is known as the Lower Garden District, a painfully thin old man with lustrous black hair and tight, dry skin the color of buff writing paper sat in a wheelchair with his hands folded in his lap. His head swayed this way and that as he listened to Wanda Landowska perform the Goldberg Variations on his Capehart radio-phonograph. Landowska was one of the most spectacularly ugly women in the world, but she played the harpsichord with angelic perfection. The old man had played this album of records many times, and never tired of it.
From the front of the house he heard the sound of the doorbell. People seldom rang that bell, and when they did it was invariably someone to see him. He wheeled his chair to the phonograph, tenderly lifted the tone arm from the record, and regretfully switched it off. He deftly turned the chair with his strong, nimble hands so that he was facing the doors to the hall as they opened.
A large, bald-headed Negro stood there. The Negro wore a snow-white shirt, black bow tie, and black vest. His name was Albert Minshew, but the old man always called him “Al-bair,” as though he were French. It was almost comical when you realized that Menshew had been imprisoned twice for homicide and jailed at least six times for assault with various deadly weapons. Almost. Until you looked in Albert’s eyes, and noticed the queer light that sometimes lingered there. The old man might well have been the only person in the world who didn’t fear Albert.
“Mr. Rogers Clifton to see you, Mr. Lincoln,” the big Negro rumbled.
“Fine,” Lincoln said with a sere smile. “I’ve been expecting him.”
Albert turned and held the door so Clifton could enter the room. Clifton was a slender, elegant brown man dressed in a summer-weight wool blue suit with pinstripes. He wore a vest, even in the heat, with a gold chain that dipped from the top button of the vest into the pocket where his watch rested. Hanging midway down the chain was a keypin for the Negro law fraternity. His face was smooth and unlined, and he wore a trimmed mustache. His hairline had eroded back to the middle of his skull, leaving behind an unnaturally high forehead, and the impression of a greater age than Clifton actually was. He didn’t look particularly happy.
“You wanted to see me, Mr. Lincoln?” Clifton asked in a carefully-modulated voice.
“I’ve some news on that property near the eastern edge of the city,” Lincoln said.
“Yes?” Clifton replied. He said it in such a way that one almost thought he knew what Lincoln would say next.
“The owner has departed the city,” Lincoln said, a small smile hovering about his lips. “I think his wife might be willing to sell it now. I suspect she’ll want the money more than the bother of dealing with the property.”
“Shall I call her tomorrow and ask?” Clifton asked.
“No, not so quickly,” Lincoln said. “Give her a day or so to allow her time to get used to the fact that her husband probably won’t be returning. Ladies sometimes take these things rather hard.”
“I don’t think I follow you,” Clifton said carefully. His unwinking eyes never left Lincoln’s face, giving the impression of a mongoose hypnotized by the eyes of a cobra.
“It seems,” Lincoln said, making a steeple of his fingers, “that Mr. Bautain left the city with his secretary. The folly of middle age. Tsk, tsk. You’d think a man of his age and experience wouldn’t act such the fool, would you?”
Clifton said nothing.
“I’d go and see her the day after tomorrow, or perhaps the day after,” Lincoln continued. “Suggest the original offer for the land—two thousand, I think it was. I doubt her husband spoke of his business affairs in front of her. She won’t be aware that I previously offered twice that much.”
“Suppose she does—or suppose she refuses you—” Clifton almost said, “the way Bautain did,” but he restrained himself at the last second.
“She won’t,” Lincoln said confidently. “Her husband’s run off and left her for a younger woman. She won’t know the true state of his affairs for a while, particularly since you’ll be able to manipulate the bank records to make it seem he emptied several of his accounts. Leave enough for her to exist on—I have no wish to punish her further. Her husband’s betrayal is enough for her to have to bear, don’t you think?”
Clifton tried to keep his emotions from his face, but his eyes betrayed him. He was frightened of Lincoln, more frightened of him than anyone he’d ever known, and it particularly terrified him for the old man to spin these fantasies to him, knowing that Clifton knew they were lies, and yet spinning them anyway.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Lincoln,” Clifton said finally.
Lincoln stared at Clifton for a moment. “You’re making a great deal of money through your association with me, aren’t you, Clifton?”
Clifton’s face froze, and his eyes became opaque. “I’m comfortable. Quite comfortable.”
The old man laughed, a harsh, dry clatter that sounded more like a serpent’s rattle than the merriment of a man. His deep black eyes regarded Clifton as though he were a particularly interesting species of rat. Then the laugh cut off as though a switch had been thrown. “Comfortable, indeed. When I met you, you were a modestly successful fellow who’d suddenly been made acting president of a small bank. You might have become ‘comfortable,’ as you put it, but not soon. With me, you’ve made quite a bit of money through the little real estate deals on which we’ve collaborated, and when we dispose of this land at the eastern edge of the city, I will have the means to become a power in this city—and you will be part of it. Perhaps, then, you might feel a bit more enthusiastic about what we’ve accomplished—at what we will accomplish as we go on.”
“I never wanted that,” Clifton said. “My ambitions aren’t as grandiose as yours.”
“You’re a prig, Clifton,” Lincoln said. “A rather insufferable prig. But I need you, and whether you like it or not, you need my good will for as long as it lasts. Pray it doesn’t run out.” He half-turned the wheelchair until he was no longer looking at the bank president. “That’s all for now. I’ll call you if I have something else for you.”
“Very well,” Clifton said. “Good night.” He turned and walked from the room. After a brief space of seconds, Lincoln heard the front door of the house open and close.
“Yes,” he said to himself, smiling benignly. “Pray my need for you doesn’t run out.” He turned the chair again and wheeled it toward the Capehart, switched it back on, and placed the tone arm back on the record. His knowledge of the music was so precise that the needle landed on the exact spot where he had picked it up twenty minutes before. In seconds, he had put Clifton’s visit from his mind.