May 15, 1943
Marcel Aristide sat in the private courtyard of The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street enjoying the shade and a glass of Pernod over ice. The dense heat made it seem more like August than mid-spring, but Marcel was content. He was the only customer in the courtyard, because he had once gotten the owner of the famous bar from under a blackmailer's thumb. In return, Marcel Aristide was, for a time, immune from the Jim Crow laws that kept coloreds out of such places as the Old Absinthe House. The long-ago rescue also paid for the Pernod, which was as rare as blue diamonds since the war began.
He was rattling the ice in his glass, debating whether he should indulge in another drink when Armand, the Haitian bartender approached wearing a serious expression on his broad, black face.
"Monsieur Aristide, a lady asks for you. She says it is tres importante."
"What's her name?" Marcel asked.
"She says it is Ida Deal. She says she knows you from before the war."
Long before. She was a regular at Mama Lester's Homestyle Bar and Grill across town, back when Marcel was nothing but a punk going nowhere fast. She'd been riding high then, singer and wife of band leader Tony Deal. Together they'd made sweet music, and might be still, except that Tony was a chaser. When he'd turned up in an alley with his throat cut, many thought it was Ida's doing, but that theory carried little water with those who knew her. Tony's death left Ida with a young son to raise and no money. She'd had to crawl and scavenge and worse to keep the boy fed and sheltered. He would be about eighteen now. "Tell her to come in," he said.
Ida once swept into the places she frequented like a clipper ship under full sail, but now she moved carefully on arthritic knees. A shadow of her former beauty still shown beneath the rose face powder she used on her cocoa-colored face, but her eyes were those of a runner used to coming in dead last in every race. Her smile was forced, but she gave it all she had.
"I didn't think you'd remember me after all these years," she said as she sat down across from him. Her voice still sounded like honey mixed with a dash of cayenne.
"Not so long ago," Marcel replied. "And we all wanted to be with you then."
Her smile was a bit more genuine now. "A lifetime ago, but thanks."
"You didn't come to reminisce," Marcel said. "What's the rumpus?"
She dropped her eyes a bit. "It's my son, Elliott. He's in a jam."
"How big a jam?"
"About the biggest there is," she replied, fighting a quaver. "They say he killed a woman."
She stared for a moment, unable to speak. Then, forcefully, "No, never."
"Who's the woman?"
She tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear as she regained her composure. "Her name was Felicity Oscar. She was a hostess at Smack Johnson's club."
Marcel grunted. "'Hostess' is a polite word for the girls at Smack's dump. What was the girl to your son?"
Her lips compressed into a brittle line. "He said he was in love with her. Whatever that means coming from an eighteen-year-old boy."
"Uh, huh. How long they been playing house?"
"Two months," she replied. "I insisted he leave her alone and he moved out." Her lip trembled, and for a moment Marcel thought she might burst into tears.
"You know where he is now?"
Ida raised her large dark eyes to his, suddenly looking very old. "He called last night. Said he was staying in a rooming house just off St. Bernard Highway. I've got the address." She dug through her purse and brought out a slip of paper.
Marcel took the paper and placed it in his vest pocket. "Okay. I'll see what I can do. You still living on Esplanade Avenue?"
She nodded. "Please . . . He's all I've got." She got up and left Marcel alone.
Marcel entered the basement at New Orleans Charity Hospital and followed the signs to the city morgue. A friend had given him the name of a Negro medical student who moonlighted as a morgue attendant. Marcel found him studying an anatomy text.
"Are you Arthur Delarouse?"
A square brown face with horn-rimmed glasses peered over the top of the textbook. "Mr. Aristide?"
"Right. I heard you observed the autopsy they did on Felicity Oscar."
"Yes, sir," the young man said, rising from the desk. "Follow me." He led Marcel into a chilly room, halting at a solid wall of steel refrigerator doors. "I have to warn you, Mr. Aristide, this isn't pretty."
"Open it up," he said.
The young man adjusted his glasses, then opened the locker door and slid out a sheet-covered form. Beneath the sheet lay the nude body of a Negro girl of perhaps twenty. She'd been pretty, with big brown eyes shaded by lush lashes, a snub nose, and cushiony lips that were gently parted as though in surprise. Her torso bore the obscene marks of the autopsy, but worse was the stitched-up slash across her throat.
"She bled out quick."
"Yes," the student said in a hushed voice. "But notice how the cut travels."
Marcel looked at him with sharp interest. "Go on."
"See how it begins beneath the right ear and ends up here beneath the left jawbone?" He tilted the girl's head and traced the cut with his long blunt fingers.
Slowly Marcel began to nod as he understood. "Done with a razor, probably."
"Most likely," the student replied. "The edges of the wound are clean, not ragged. And the cut went deep, severing the larynx." He paused to look at Marcel, who studied the wound, rubbing the point of his chin. Marcel felt the young man's scrutiny and nodded that he was finished.
As they parted company at the morgue entrance, Marcel said, "You've got a good eye. If I can ever return the favor, call me at the Café Tristesse."
The young man smiled. "Can you help me with gross anatomy?"
It was past 9:00 that evening when Marcel eased his Mercury coupe to a stop on a side street off St. Bernard Highway. Leaving the car, he caught the heavy aroma of ham and cabbage on the humid night air along with the cacophony of Spike Jones's band coming from somebody's radio. He entered a shabby structure and climbed to the second floor, hearing the noises of people snoring, arguing, and making love behind the doors he passed. He paused at the end of the hall, sensing nothing from Elliott Deal's room except the sour stench of dread. He knocked on the door.
"Marcel Aristide. Ida sent me."
"Come in slow," a voice quavered.
Marcel palmed the knob, then pushed with his foot until the door opened enough to reveal a skinny teenaged Negro pressed against the far wall. The boy held a worn-looking .38 Colt in his trembling hand. "That's far enough. Show me somethin' says you're who you say you are."
"Act your age," Marcel snapped as he entered and closed the door. "Who else knows you're here besides Ida?"
"Then put that gun up before you shoot your foot off. We don't have time to replay the gangster movies you've seen. When did you last see Felicity Oscar?"
Elliott Deal sank down on the bed. He put the big Colt on the floor beside his right foot and dropped his head into his hands. "Sunday night. We went to the Sassafras Lounge so 'Licity could hear Louis Bras and his Hot Six."
Marcel took the room's only chair and straddled it. "How long were you there?"
"Jesus, man I don't—"
Marcel's voice suddenly cracked like a whip. "Listen, fool, you're sitting under the gallows. Slap yourself together and talk before I get bored and go home."
Deal's head snapped back, his eyes round with fear. "T-Ten o'clock. She said she had a h-headache and needed to go home. When we got there, there wasn't no aspirin, so I went out to get some. When I got back, she—she—" Deal shoved his hand into his mouth and bit it as tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
"Okay. How many people knew you were going out that night?"
He shook his head. "Nobody. At least, nobody I told."
"Who did she tell? She must've had a girlfriend she talked to."
Deal rubbed his face. "There was a girl worked with her at Smack's place. Rosette Maron. She and 'Licity been friends ever since she started workin' there."
Marcel stared at the warped floorboards for a moment, then lifted his gaze back to the frightened boy. "That's a start. Now tell me everything you know about Felicity. And talk fast. The clock's ticking."
Marcel returned to the city near midnight and began to prowl the Negro taverns and nightspots. In each place he found someone he knew, and for a few drinks listened to gossip and rumors that sometimes held a faint ring of truth. By sunrise, he had enough to form a theory, but that's all it was. At 8:00 that morning he called police headquarters and asked to speak to Detective Eddie Park in the Negro Squad room.
"Eddie, you busy this morning?"
"Let's see," Park replied, "I got a man who tried to cut his wife for makin' eyes at a huckster, two dope fiends who held up a liquor store and shot the owner, and a woman cryin' to me because her husband run off with her beautician. And that don't count the three homicides yesterday and the—"
"I get it. Listen, you remember the Tony Deal murder?"
"Sure, man. I was in uniform when that went down. Pretty big caper, 'cept we never solved it."
"How much trouble is it for you to get the file?"
"Hmmm, now why would an enterprisin' young brutha like you care about a ten year-old murder? You got anything you want to tell me, Marcel?"
"I'll know better when I hear what the medical examiner said. How about it?"
"Okay," Park replied. "I'll cut you a break, but if this turns into something, you call me first, hear? I need a raise. Call you back in thirty minutes?"
"I can stay awake that long."
At 8:00 that evening, Marcel Aristide drove to Smack Johnson's Club, a two-story brick building on the north end of Rampart. It had been the place to go when it opened in the early 1930s, but now it was just another joint where soldiers and sailors looked for cheap drinks and one-night love affairs. The elaborate neon sign of two boxers slugging it out cast a garish ripple over the rain-washed street, and raucous Dixieland poured from the open door in buffeting waves.
Marcel entered, bracing himself against a musical onslaught that vibrated the floor beneath his feet. As he edged up to the bar, he locked eyes with the bartender, an ex-thug who went by the name Tono Albert. Tono eyed Marcel warily as he polished a glass.
"What'll it be, Mr. Aristide?"
"A martini, with two olives. And a little talk with Rosette Maron."
Tono bent to the task of making the drink, watching Marcel from under his brows. "Smack don't like people talkin' to his gals, unless they're gettin' paid."
"Pay as you go," Marcel replied. "That's always been my motto."
The bartender watched Marcel as he built the martini. He slid it in front of the younger man. "Been hearin' things about you, man. Askin' questions about Felicity Oscar. Curiosity killed the cat, and you're close to the lick that killed Dick."
Marcel sipped the martini, watching the bartender over the rim of his glass. "Quit scarin' me, Tono. You talkin' so rough because you got things to hide? I hear you and the Oscar girl had a thing some time back. Maybe you didn't like her new friend, huh?"
A nerve jumped in Tono's cheek. He stared at Marcel for a long moment, then pointed to a table. "Take a seat over there. I'll find Rosette and send her to you."
Marcel sat down at the indicated table and sipped the martini. He was about halfway through it when a tall girl with skin the color of bronze came through the crowd toward him. Her light brown hair was swept high, and her bare shoulders moved with a swagger. Her arms were firm and strong from swimming or some other exercise and went well with her square shoulders and narrow waist. She sat down at the table, removed a package of Chesterfields from her bag and put one in the corner of her mouth.
"If you want to be useful, sugar, give me a light," she said, studying him with casual disregard.
Picking up a book of matches from the table, Marcel struck one and held it out. She took his hand in hers, pushed the end of her cigarette into the flame. She looked up at him with a half smile, puffing smoke. "What you want to talk about, sugar?"
"For starts, Felicity Oscar."
Her eyes widened and she pulled away from him. "I don't know nothin'."
Marcel waved out the match and dropped it into an ashtray. "You were her best friend. I'm guessing she let you in on her little secrets, like where she was going the night she was killed."
Rosette dragged on the cigarette, then took it out of her mouth to flick the ash away. "'Licity was always foolin' around with one man or t'other. I told her it was gonna get her killed one day. She ought never to've taken up with that Deal kid."
"They'd been living together for two months. Word is they had something solid."
Rosette snorted. "Then I guess he didn't kill her like they sayin'."
Marcel smiled. "He didn't, and I can prove it."
The girl stiffened, put the cigarette back into her mouth and sucked hard on it. "Prove it, how?"
Marcel's smile grew as he stared at her. "That's between me and the cops. If I decide to tell them."
She swallowed, crushed her cigarette out in the ashtray. "I don't see why you're tellin' me all this. It ain't none of my business."
"What ain't none'a your business, baby?"
The girl's head snapped to the side, her mouth dropping open at the sight of Smack Johnson standing nearby.
"Hiya, Smack," Marcel said, lifting his glass to the big dark man. "How's tricks?"
Johnson wore a black suit over a snow-white dress shirt. His lips drew back from teeth that gleamed like marble tombstones, his eyes as flat and blank as river stones. "What you want here, Aristide?" he growled.
"Good times, man. And a pretty lady to talk to."
Smack put his huge left hand on Rosette's bare shoulder and squeezed it. "I asked you a question, baby. What's this hustler tryin' to sell you?"
"Nothin', Smack He—he's just shootin' me a line is all." Her eyes brightened with pain as the ex-boxer punished her shoulder. "Please—please, Smack."
The big man let go of her, jerked his chin, and let her scuttle by him. All the while he glared at Marcel. "Don't be comin' into my place tryin' to stir up mess, boy. You ain't got the size for it."
Marcel's face hardened as he looked up at Johnson. "The mess is already stirred, Smack. Bet you can smell it cooking, 'cause I sure can." He rose as the ex-boxer reached for him, keeping the table between them. "Thanks for the hospitality." Snagging his hat from the table, Marcel backed away from the club owner until he was far enough to risk turning his back. As he reached the street, he felt himself grinning.
Marcel rose early the next day and made several phone calls, one of which was to Detective Eddie Park. After that, he sat at his desk and wrote three identical notes on three sheets of lined note paper. The notes, all written in block capitals, read:
MEET ME THIRD STREET FERRY LANDING, 11:00 PM
OR I GO TO THE COPS.
He gave all three notes to a youngster in his employ, told him where to deliver them, then sat back to wait.
By 10:45 that night, Marcel had found a place to stand in the shadow of some tall pilings near the ferry slip. Except for the slap of water against the wharf, the night was still and sultry. He'd chosen this hiding place because it gave him a clear view of every approach to the landing. Just before 11:00, he heard the click of high-heeled shoes on the brick street, and soon recognized the athletic stride of Rosette Maron. She wore a dark dress, a hat with a veil, and carried a handbag. She found her own hiding place and slipped into the shadows.
The next visitor was bulkier, but he was a good deal quieter and moved with the caution of a man used to working in the dark. Tono Albert already had a .38 Detective Special drawn as he inspected the surrounding area. When he was convinced that he was alone, he found a hiding place of his own.
Some time after 11:00, the enormous bulk of Smack Johnson appeared. His black suit and hat gave him the appearance of some eldritch night creature, his huge hands like claws. Unlike the others, he disdained caution and walked into the open area just short of the vacant ferry slip, standing in a pale circle of yellow light. Marcel let him stand there for a couple of minutes before moving into view.
"Nice night for a walk, eh, Smack? Sorry if I'm a bit late."
Johnson turned toward Marcel's voice, his body tense with menace. "Figured it had to be you, Aristide. I told you about comin' to my place stirrin' up mess. Guess now I got to show you."
Marcel stood his ground, his right hand thrust deep inside his coat pocket. "Don't be impatient, Smack. Let's get the rest of the guests out here. Rosette, Tono, c'mon out and join your boss."
Slowly, with a caution that bordered on reluctance, the pair separated themselves from their hiding places and joined Smack Johnson in the weak circle of light. Each eyed the other with suspicion, and Smack Johnson with trepidation. Tono's gun hung by his side, but Rosette now had her hand out of sight in her handbag.
"That's better," Marcel said. "Now we're all together, I'd like to tell you a little story."
"Forget stories, Aristide. Think I'll just tear your fuckin' head off'n your li'l body," Smack said in a growl.
Marcel's pocketed hand moved, checking the big man's advance. "Not yet, Smack. See, the story concerns all of you. It's about the death of Felicity Oscar. Y'all knew her—some of you better than the others, but you all knew her." Marcel, moved, keeping his hand in his pocket. "You were her best friend, Rosette. The two of you even lived in the same apartment. I'll bet you even shared your clothes and perfume, but it wasn't so great when Elliott Deal decided he liked Felicity better than he liked you, eh, Rosette? My guess is you're the only one who knew she and Elliott Deal were going to the Sassafrass Lounge the night she was killed." The girl stiffened, her hand quivering inside the handbag.
"Yeah, that was a good guess, wasn't it?" Marcel said, circling the trio, forcing them to move with him.
"Tono knew Felicity, too," Marcel continued. "Knew her a little too well. It's usually bad policy to play with the help, but Felicity was a girl who liked variety in her men. She didn't hang around you long, did she, Tono? Too much competition, I guess."
Smack's attention had been focused on Marcel, but now he turned to stare at his bartender, and Tono shriveled beneath the big man's silent fury.
"Felicity made her biggest mistake, though, when she got to playing footsies with the boss," Marcel said, still moving in his slow circle. "Smack was used to getting his way with his 'hostesses,' but I think Felicity got under his skin a little. More than a little, eh, Smack?"
"You take chances, Aristide," Tono said. "You tricked all of us into comin' out here by makin' like you knew who killed the girl. What's to stop one of us from shuttin' you up?" His .38 was waist high now, the ball of his thumb rubbing the hammer.
Marcel grinned as though he were having the time of his life. "I'd say you haven't got much to worry about, Tono, because the person who killed Felicity Oscar is the same one who killed Tony Deal ten years ago."
"Huh?" Rosette's mouth fell open, and her eyes darted between Tono and Smack. "Ten years ago I was livin' in Jackson with my mama."
"That's right," Marcel replied. "You have no connection to that murder. Tony Deal was a chaser, and it happens he chased a little too hard after a girl named Iris Fletcher. Trouble was, Iris already had a boyfriend, a big man with a big temper. That man caught Tony in an alley and sliced open his throat with a razor. The cut was made from right to left, and Tony strangled to death on his own blood. Just the way Felicity did. And strange to say, Felicity betrayed her old boyfriend with another man named Deal—Tony Deal's son, Elliott. That cut you to the quick, didn't it, Smack?" Marcel paused in front of Smack now, his hand still in his coat pocket. Without warning, Marcel jerked the hand free, tossing an object at Smack, whose left hand reflexively snatched it like a frog grabbing a fly. Five slow seconds passed as the big man stared stupidly at the rubber toy ball he held.
"Two different people who cheated on a left-handed killer," Marcel said in the stony silence. "Smack held the razor in his left hand, looked each of them in the eye and slashed their throats from right to left." Marcel paused to let the accusation sink in, then said, "You wouldn't have come here without that razor, Smack."
Smack stood frozen for a count of ten seconds, then dropped the rubber ball as his hand streaked into his pocket and flew up with the razor. The air was suddenly full of the blade whisking free of the handle, but before the weapon reached apogee, the harsh clack of shotguns pumping froze the big man. His eyes darted to his left and right as Detective Eddie Park and two uniformed cops stepped from behind Marcel with their weapons leveled.
"Christ, but you sure talk a lot," Park complained as one of the other officers handcuffed the ex-boxer and his employees. "Another minute or two and you'd of put me to sleep, and then you'd of been meat." He shook his head, clucking his tongue. "What about these two?" He nodded in the direction of Rosette and Tono.
"Take them downtown and squeeze them a little," Marcel replied. "Rosette had to be the one who told Smack who Felicity was playing house with, and probably told him where they were going that night so he could be waiting for them. My guess is he planned to kill the Deal kid, too, but lost his chance when the boy went out to get Felicity's aspirin. Tono's out of this, but I'll bet he'll tell you things about Smack that'll help you get that raise you're looking for."
"I'll need you to come downtown, too," Park said as Marcel began to drift toward the street. "I got a report to write, and you're so good with words."
"I'll talk to Elliott, then follow you down," Marcel called over his shoulder. He continued to the street where he found Elliott Deal sitting in the back of a squad car, his face ashen, his right wrist cuffed to a ringbolt in the floor.
"W-what happened?" Elliott asked in a whisper.
"You're off the hook. After they take you down to headquarters and listen to your story, they'll cut you loose, probably."
The youngster leaned back, looking like he wanted to cry. "Thank you, Jesus."
Marcel snorted. "Glad to see you know how to be grateful, sonny, but it's gonna cost you more than that."
The youngster raised his head, his eyes flickering. "What?"
"Yesterday you were a dead man. Sure, you were still breathing, but sooner or later Smack or the cops would've found you. Then everything your mama did to raise you would've been for nothing. Lousy way to pay her back."
He dropped his eyes. "Got sick of bein' treated like a kid is all."
"So you thought you'd go out and raise a little hell," Marcel replied. "I guess you did that, all right. Trouble is, living on the edge is a real kick until the day you slip and wind up in two pieces." He straightened, tapping his fingers on the open window ledge. "Those days are over, Elliott. Tomorrow you go to work for me."
Elliott blinked, his mouth open. "I—I'm workin'? For you? Doin' what?"
"Some of it'll be boring. Some of it maybe not so clean. All of it as hard as I can make it. There's Eddie and the rest. C'mon, and we'll drive to police headquarters in my car." He opened the door and unlocked the cuffs.