"LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN"
An original Nick Travers story.
© Ace Atkins, 2009
HER NAME WAS Sarah. Petite hands, delicate face, soft brown skin. She probably was in her late twenties, going on fifty. Her lips quivered when she blew cigarette smoke over her head, and she liked to drink. Crushed ice, Jim Beam, and cherries. The closer I sat to her at the hotel bar, the more I smelled the cherries. The more I smelled her perfume. I see, Fats. I see.
On her third drink, she looked over at me and grinned fully into the left corner of her mouth. Her lips were full and thick. Her small body tight and exposed in black hot pants and black shirt tied above her stomach.
“You sure are big. You a Saint?” she said.
“No, I’m a dancer. Jazz, modern, and some tap. I used to breakdance, but I never could spin on my head.”
She laughed. And even from the six feet that separated us, I could tell she had been crying. Dry streaks through her makeup.
She kept wiping her nose and eyes. She turned her eyes back to a book placed in front of her drink.
“How is it?” I asked.
She cocked her head at me and a thin strap fell from her shoulder.
“Oh,” she said and closed it and showed me the cover. Lady Sings the Blues. “A friend gave it to me.”
As I was about to pursue the thought, two guffawing men walked into the deserted bar. Laughing, smirking. Drunk, with slow moving eyes and aggressive swaggers. One nodded at the bartender. He nodded back.
“Ready?” the bartender asked Sarah.
I put my hand over hers, which were cold and shaking. “You don’t have to do this.”
She smiled at me with her eyes. “It’s gonna be just fine. Just gonna be fine.”
I kept my hand over hers.
One of the businessmen approached me. Maybe I was generalizing, but he sure fit the description. Brooks Brothers suit and a wedding ring. His hair was silver, and his expensive cologne clashed with his hundred-buck-meal onion breath. Big fun on the bayou in the Big Easy.
"We already paid,” he said. “You’ll have to do it yourself, son.” He made a yanking motion with one hand.
The younger businessman snorted. The bartender was wise enough to shut up.
I looked for a long time at the older man. He probably had everyone in his company scared of him. Everyone called him “sir” and catered to his every egotistical whim. He’d never sweated, never done a damn thing but hang out at the fraternity house and kiss ass until he made partner. I stared.
He looked down at my tattered and faded jean jacket and sneered. “What do you want?”
I slowly reached down the side of my leg and pulled out my boot knife. I grabbed him by his tie—red with paisley patterns—cut it off at the knot, and shoved it in his mouth. The younger man moved in as the CEO took a swing at me. I caught his fist in my hand and squeezed. If I had anything, it was strong hands from shirking tackles when I played football.
I brought the guy to his knees.
“Sir, when your grandkids are sitting on your lap this Christmas and everything is all warm and fuzzy, I want you to remember this. I want you to think about it as you light the tree, cut the turkey, and pat the kids on the head. Tell the boys when they come to New Orleans to treat the ladies real nice.”
I released my grip. He wouldn’t think about what I said. He was not me, and I was not him. I remembered something a psychologist friend had told me years ago. Don’t expect anything from a pig but a grunt.
SHE AGREED TO walk with me to the Quarter only after I gave her fifty bucks. It was fifty I didn’t have, but it was the only way. Together we crossed Canal, dodging cars, soon smelling that cooked onion and exhaust scent that floats around the old district.
I took her to a small bar off Decatur to talk. Really it was just a place to sit and drink, only four feet from a sliding window. I got two beers in paper cups, and we sat down. No one around us except an elderly black waiter in a tattered brown sweater. Sarah finished half her beer in one gulp.
I asked her if she was afraid.
“No. Not of you.”
She finished her beer, then pulled a cigarette from a pack extracted from a cheap vinyl purse. I lit it.
“Tell me about you and Fats. You know he’s dead?”
She sat there for a moment just looking at me.
“Was he a regular?”
She dropped her head, kneading the palm of her hand into her forehead. The cigarette held high in her fingers.
“Did you work for him at his apartment or did he get a hotel?”
She scratched the inside corner of her mouth and took another drag of the cigarette.
“You were with him the night he died, weren’t you?”
I exhaled a long breath and gambled with what I said next. “That man didn’t have anything. Why’d you set him up? You could’ve rolled anybody, like those two in the hotel. You’d come up with a lot more money than what Fats had. He was a sweet old guy. He had more talent than someone like you could ever comprehend. Just tell me who helped you.”
“Stop it. Just stop it. You don’t know anything.”
“You got it all messed round. You don’t know how it was.”
“How was it, Sarah? You tell me.”
“I loved him.”
“He tole me he’d marry me. Imagine that. Him marrying me. Even sold his saxophone to—”
She was sobbing now. I waited. When she stopped, she told me about how they first met. Thursday nights she would wait for him outside JoJo’s, listening to his sweet music. The day he told her that he loved her, it was raining. “Real black clouds over the Mississippi,” she said.
“So why’d he sell his sax?”
“To buy me.”
IT WAS TWO in the morning when I got back to the Warehouse District, lonely, cold, and tired. I didn’t want to be alone. A light was on across Julia Street in the warehouse of a neighbor, one of the many artists who lived in the district. A ballet instructor. Beautiful girl. Good person.
I parked my Jeep, grabbed a six-pack of Abita out of the fridge, then found myself buzzing her from the street-level intercom. I could hear Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 filtering out a second-story cracked window and reverberating off the concrete and bricks down the street. Her blurred image floating past the dim windows.
As I stood there, I suddenly felt silly because she could have company. I guess I arrogantly thought she would always just be there when I needed her. Just waiting, no need for a life of her own. But I guess she thought of me like one of the neighborhood cats that she consistently fed whenever they decided to wander by for a meal.
Sam slid back a rusted viewing slot, then opened the door smiling. Short blonde hair and blue eyes. She wore cut-off gray sweat pants and a man’s white ribbed tank top tied at her waist. She’d been dancing a long time—enough to build a sweat.
“I don’t remember ordering a pizza,” she said.
“I do. Should be here in fifteen minutes—chicken, artichoke hearts, and white cheese.”
She shook her head and laughed. She slid two heavy bolts behind us, and I followed her up the stairs. I put my hand on her back. It was very warm.
THE NEXT DAY I played the waiting game in a little tourist café on Royal. I waited and I watched Sarah’s apartment. I ate two bowls of bland gumbo and a soggy muffuletta, drank draft Abita until I got loopy, and then switched to “Authentic French Market Coffee.” Tasted like Maxwell House.
I saw her walk outside to a balcony in a loose-fitting robe and lean over a scrolled balcony sipping coffee. That was noon.
At three, she came back to the balcony. She sat down in a director’s chair, propped her feet on the iron railing and read. The Billie Holiday book?
At 3:43, she went back inside and did not come back outside for two hours. The bright sunshine barely warming a cold day retreated, and the shadows finally returned, falling over my face.
Around six, she came out of the street entrance walking toward Esplanade. I tucked the copy of Nine Stories back in my jacket pocket, where I always kept it, placed a few bills under the weight of a salt shaker, and began to follow.
I had a ragged Tulane cap pulled low over my eyes and wore sunglasses—some Lew Archer I was. I pulled the collar of my trench coat tighter around my face. Not just for disguise, but also to block the cold. December wind shooting down those old alleys and boulevards can make a man want to keep inside.
She went into the A&P on Royal, and I stayed outside. In a few minutes, she returned, unwrapping a pack of cigarettes and continuing to walk toward the far end of Royal. She walked into one with the doors propped wide open, leaned over the bar, and French-kissed the bartender. He struck an effeminate, embarrassed pose and laughed. She patted him on the face and kept walking.
At the end of the street, she went inside a bed and breakfast. Semi-renovated. New awning, peeling paint on the windows. I got close enough to see through the double-door windows. She was talking to someone at the front desk. Then she turned, going deeper inside the building. I waited.
It was cold. There were no restaurants or coffee houses on this side of district. It hadn’t been civilized yet. I blew hot breath through closed fists.
I got solicited twice. Once by a man. Once by a woman. And had a strange conversation with a derelict.
“Crack,” he said.
“Gave it up for the holidays. Thank you, though.”
“Naw, man. Dat’s my name.”
“Your name is Crack?”
I asked “Crack” where the nearest liquor store was. He said it was on Rampart, so I gave him a few bucks and told him to buy me a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and whatever he wanted. Actually it wasn’t really a gamble to give him money. Most of those guys work on a strange ethical code when it comes to a fellow drinker.
He came back, and we sat on the other side of Esplanade watching the bed and breakfast until nearly ten o’clock. The whiskey tasted like sweet gasoline.
When Sarah came back, her hair was mussed, her jaw worked overtime on gum, and she looked tired. She certainly did not expect what came next as she bent down to re-strap a sequined stiletto.
As she pulled the buckle tight around her ankle, an early seventies black Chrysler whipped around the corner of Chartres, speeding right toward us. I had no time to push her out of way or yell. I could only watch as she just stayed bent over with her butt in the air. Hand still touching those ridiculous shoes. Very still.
I knew the car would hit her.
But it didn’t. Instead, the car skidded to a halt next to her, and a white arm grabbed her by the hair and jerked her in. She screamed as I sprinted across the street. Because of the tinted windows, I couldn’t see the driver, who put the car back in gear and weaved to hit me.
I bolted away and lunged toward the curb, where Crack was standing holding his bottle of apple liquor. The car’s tires smoked as it headed down Royal.
My breath came in hard, fast spurts. I knew I was sprinting a losing race, but I followed until I saw the dim glow of the car’s cracked red taillights turning somewhere near Toulouse.
And she was gone.
WHOEVER TOOK SARAH dumped her body underneath the Greater New Orleans Bridge on the Algiers side of the Mississippi. Naked with a cut throat.
Jay Medeaux stood over me at police headquarters on Broad Street and slurped on a cup of black coffee. I rubbed my temples. It was 9 A.M. and I hadn’t slept. His wide, grinning face looked more amused with my situation than sympathetic.
“Jay, do you mind?”
I regurgitated every trivial detail of what I witnessed and knew. Jay listened without asking any questions. He didn’t even lecture me about conducting my own investigation—which he knew I was prone to do. Jay was a good friend.
I remember him happiest when we beat LSU. His grin wide as he held our coach high on his shoulders in a warped, fading photograph I still kept on my desk.
He pulled Sarah’s file from Vice and made a few phone calls. We found out she was working for a pimp with the awful moniker of Blackie Lowery. A lowlife whose previous convictions included running a strip club staffed with twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, trucking oysters from a polluted water zone, indecent exposure at Antoine’s restaurant, selling illegal Jazzfest T-shirts, and beating the shit out of his pit bull with a Louisville Slugger. Sounded like our man.
Jay let me go with him to pick the guy up.
WE FOUND BLACKIE outside his Old Style Voodoo Shop spray-painting a dozen little cardboard boxes black—his back turned as he spurted out a final coat. He was a skinny guy with pasty white skin, a shaved head, and a thick black moustache curled at the end like Rollie Fingers used to wear. He stopped painting and looked sideways at us.
“Hey, Blackie, why don’t you spell shop with a two Ps and an E?” Jay said. “The tourists would like it more, I bet. Make it sound real authentic, ya’ know.”
Blackie had his shirt off, and a tiny red tattoo was stamped over his heart. As he watched us, I could see the colored skin beat.
“We found one of your employees this morning,” Jay said. “Blade sliced her throat real even.”
He gave a crooked smile and threw down his paint can. “I don’t have a clue.”
“That’s beside the point,” Jay said. “Come on with us.”
“Eat me,” Blackie said.
I walked through a side door and into a voodoo shop. The smell of incense was strong among the trinkets, stones, and powders. A small, glass-topped casket sat in the middle of the room with a carved wooden dummy inside painted to look like a decomposing corpse.
But beyond the Marie Laveau T-shirts and the hundreds of bags of gris-gris powders, something interested me.
Fats’ sax sat in a corner.
To be concluded...