Authors: Heath Lowrance
The killer liked music. He had a phonograph in his room and a stack of long-playing records, and when he had time he enjoyed lying on his cot and listening to them.
King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke and Jellyroll Morton, they were like prophets, the way they made him feel. Jazz was the reason he'd come back to New Orleans in the first place. It wasn't the same in other cities, not even Chicago or New York.
He especially liked to listen to music before going out on the town with the axe. Jazz put him in the right frame of mind, the right
, to cleave someone's skull.
He listened to his records for two hours straight, thankful that Mr. Ventucci didn't start pounding on the wall again and telling him to turn it down. Mr. Ventucci, the local grocer, liked jazz well enough but got annoyed when it went on too long. That was something the killer couldn't understand. If he had his way, the music would be non-stop. The trance would never end.
Finally, he put away the records and got dressed. He knew who he would bless tonight, and she would have started her shift by now.
The grocer he lived behind was on Upperline Street, in the heart of the Italian district. He stepped out into the humid night, clutching his overcoat around his throat. The axe was tucked into his belt under the coat, and the handle rubbed uncomfortably against his thigh and his spine as he walked.
He sweated ferociously, although he didn't feel particularly warm. He caught a trolley to Basin Street resenting the press of humanity all around him, fantasizing about pulling out the axe and slaughtering everyone. A pretty, young girl kept jostling into him, smiling up at him with an apology in her eyes each time, but after the first few times he couldn't bring himself to smile back at her and turned his head away.
He hummed under his breath, just to think of something else. "Weary Blues," the last record he played before heading out. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine he wasn't surrounded by filthy mortals.
At Basin Street, he got out and stood on the corner for a few minutes, just breathing. The tune in his head had gotten louder and louder the whole way, until it was all he could hear. He wiped sweat from his brow and tried to get his heart to beat normally. He tried to find the trance again. It wouldn't do to go to the girl with an unclear mind. It would make using the axe harder.
The District—the area they called Storyville—was crowded and hectic, as usual. All up and down Basin Street and the connecting lanes, red lights gleamed in the dusky dimness. Both whites and Negroes abounded, along with Creoles and Mulattos, men making the rounds from bar to brothel to gambling den and back again. There was a mad cacophony of sound—jazz played in every upstairs window and raucous laughter and yelling rained down on the streets.
He started for Miss Tilly's place, well beyond Basin and the train station, into the seedy heart of the District. All the high-end brothels were on Basin, elegant mansions that didn't betray the depravity that went on inside. The killer had no interest in those places. He wanted Miss Tilly's, that's where he would be closer than ever to The One.
Miss Tilly's was a modest two-story house on the corner of the block, next door (and with an entrance to) a tavern called Shorty Pete's. One of the girls, wearing nothing but an assortment of carefully placed ostrich feathers, let him in, and Miss Tilly herself greeted him in the foyer.
Without looking up and doing his best to remain disregarded, he gave Miss Tilly a wad of bills. Within minutes the killer was upstairs with his sacrifice of choice.
The girl called herself Eva-Lynn. She was a Mulatto girl, about sixteen, with a flat chest and no hips to speak of. But she had a lovely face, clear and innocent as an angel. She looked, like all the others, like The One. Her dark eyes flashed at him. "Take off your coat, handsome. Should I get you a drink?"
He shook his head and started to unbutton his overcoat.
She put a record on the phonograph, something popular from Rudy Vallée. Not one of the killer's favorites, but it would do.
"Hot night for so much clothing," the girl said, sidling up to him. She put a hand on his crotch and rubbed, putting her face close to his. She smelled faintly of lavender and stale sweat.
She started to put her arms around his waist but he moved away from her and took off his coat, being sure to keep the axe at his spine hidden.
Eva-Lynn shrugged and went over to the bed. She dropped onto the pillows and began undoing the straps on her bodice. She spread her legs, stretching lewdly, and said, "I'm feeling lonely over here, handsome. Come keep me company."
He took a step toward her, and the music seemed to get louder in his head, "Every Moon's a Honeymoon," and his heart started pounding in time to the syncopated beat of it. He felt the arousal beginning, felt the first strains of the damnable clearness, like the entire world was made of glass and he could see deep inside it to the roiling guts of the earth. He could look at the girl and see right into her. There was a core of vile disease in her heart that pulsed black and purple, a sort of cancer in place of a heart. It spread out and out, through her veins, out her fingertips and into the clear glass world.
It was infuriating to witness, it always was, but he maintained the clearness of head by letting the jazz take him body and soul and lift him up into the trance.
Another step toward the whore, and his big right hand, the melody hand, went behind his back and came out with the axe. His left hand, the rhythm hand, gripped the handle and he felt his face threaten to crack under the pressure of a beatific grin and the
, the beautiful, clear
came to him.
Eva-Lynn started to sit up, her pretty face going blank with alarm. She looked like she wanted to scream, but couldn't quite fathom that this was happening to her. Her mouth moved and her hands came up in an oddly touching display of beseechment.
He disappeared into the music and, gripping the axe handle in both hands, he swung down, hard, burying the blade in her collarbone.
The force of it slammed her back into the bed. She didn't scream, didn't even groan. The blow had not only broken her collarbone but knocked the wind right out of her.
He yanked the axe out of her shoulder and brought it down again in her face.
And he kept doing it until the record was over.
Breathing hard, he wiped off the axe blade on the bed sheets. Then he started the record over again, his trembling fingers barely able to hold onto the needle.
He slid the axe back through his belt, put on his coat, and left Miss Tilly's place through the window, clambering down to the street below. Two whores coming out of the tavern saw him, stopped cold in their tracks, alarmed.
He started down the street as the whores hurried into Miss Tilly's place.
He wasn't worried. He'd be on the trolley back to Upperline Street before the coppers even stepped foot in the brothel's foyer. Even then, he knew from experience they wouldn't do a damn thing. Who cared about some diseased, morally depraved whore?
In New Orleans' Storyville, they were a dime a dozen.
"That's it," Gideon Miles said. "I've met my match. I'm a dead man."
Violet said, "No. Say it's not true, Gideon."
"I can't, Vi. I'm done. I'm sorry. This is the end."
He sat at the far back booth of his nightclub, stacks of invoices, bills, and other paperwork spread out on the table in front of him. He looked at it all glumly.
Standing over him, Violet said, "It's just the usual, Mr. Big Shot Club Owner. You need to do it if you want to run this place proper."
He looked up at her. "It's going to kill me, I tell you. How about
She laughed, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Sorry, baby. You're the brains of this operation. Me, I'm just the pretty face here to get 'em in the door."
He smiled. "Well, you
that, all right. What say you and me forget all these bills and go upstairs and—"
"Gideon Miles, get your mind proper on your work, you lewd old man."
She sashayed away, swinging her supple hips just like a girl half her age. Miles watched her walk past the booths and the dance floor and the small stage, into the back rooms. After she was gone, he turned his attention back to the paperwork, the smile on his face fading.
, he thought,
is not what I had in mind.
He and Violet had opened the VioMiles Club eight months earlier, after settling in New Orleans. They'd spent the previous three years, after Miles got back from France, travelling from West to East and back again, enjoying their new-found leisure and freedom. But there comes a time, Violet said, when a pair of old fogies have to settle down and plant roots.
So that was what they did. Miles bought the old building on Royal Street, not far from Rue St. Louis, and turned it into New Orleans' latest jazz club.
Which was all well-and-good, Miles thought. Except for the goddamn bills and invoices and what-not. As a younger man, he didn't know how he'd spend his old age, but he certainly hadn't counted on filling out forms and writing checks all damn day.
He'd been a U.S. Marshal once, back in the old days, out in what was then called the Wyoming Territory, one of the very first black men ever to hold that distinction. As far as he knew, there had only been one other black man with the Marshals, even now in this new, so-called liberated age.
But being a Negro didn't hinder him in his work. He'd spent years tracking down bad men and bringing them to justice. It was a job he was good at, and by the time he retired, in 1910, he'd brought in more outlaws than just about anyone else on the job, with the possible exception of his good friends Cash Laramie and Bass Reeves.
After retirement, he and Violet got hitched after a courtship that went on for decades. He did some freelance work for the Marshal Service when he felt like it, and in 1914, with the Great War raging in Europe, he went to France and worked in intelligence until the conflict was over. They treated Negroes differently over there, and he almost stayed. But Violet was homesick, and so back to the States they came.
Now here he was, in New Orleans. A club owner.
He was sitting there, pondering all of this, when a voice at his shoulder said, "Heya, Mr. Miles. Hope I ain't disturbing you, sir."
It was Little Cat Borre, the Creole kid Miles had hired two months ago to help out around the place. About eighteen years old, Little Cat was lithe and good-looking and already a hit with the ladies who came to the VioMiles. Miles had to admit the kid was loaded with charm.
But at the moment, Miles wasn't in the mood for Little Cat's easy smile. He said, "What?"
"There's some ladies in the foyer wants to see you, Mr. Miles, sir."