Crescent City Blues
Waves wash upon its muddy banks like the incessant beating of the Crescent City’s heart. Like eternal applause for the drama, with all its shadowy plots and subplots unfolding in the decadent world of the French Quarter. No one escapes its influence, New Orleans. One might curse or spurn or dismiss it with the contempt of a religious zealot, but deny it—no. It floats like an island unto itself, a world shaped by half a millennium of vibrant tenancy.
Street vendors hobble along with their rickety, clattering carts cutting through the crowded streets of French Quarter seemingly aimless to the casual observer. But the venders are the eyes and ears of The Quarter, on the beat seven days a week. Tourists, locals, thugs, hookers, bankers, lawyers, doctors all rely on them for more than just food and drink. You want to find someone, forget the phone book—ask a barker.
I’d bet Willie Mouton could hook you up with anybody in the city in minutes. Sooner or later, every soul in the Crescent City comes to the melting pot. Crime lays heavy over the city like a scab ever since the Kennedy assassination. Cops rely on leaks and leads from folks like Willie to keep things under control—drugs, prostitution, extortion, murder.
NOPD Blues don’t bother venders with the small stuff—less than an ounce of anything. Hookers know the routine and cops look the other way unless some dumb broad rolls an important figure. Even that’s negotiable with the cop on the beat. That’s the way it was with Murph Breard. Used to take it out in trade with the hookers before one tried to haul his ass into court. He’d been seriously pissed off since and dragged the Quarter at 3:00 a.m. every morning to round up the ladies. Finally got Cherie LeMoine—the one that crossed him—and she blew his dick across the Mississippi. He bled to death before an ambulance could weave its way through the Quarter and get him some help—DOA at Ochsner Clinic.
Willie Mouton’s the one that found him, crumpled up and grabbing his crotch on a back alley near Rampart. Willie says he was just pushing his cart home and noticed a squad car with the door wide open and NOPD dispatch radio blaring. Thugs steer clear of cop cars, even if they do look abandoned. But an eye-witness—an old black man—fingered Cherie LeMoine, and her face plastered half the front page of The Times Picayune next morning.
A jury later said it was self-defense and attempted rape, and Cherie left town on the next engine smoking. Cops in New Orleans do not suffer lightly the murder of a brother in arms, and Trace Landrieu—Murph’s best friend and godfather to his two boys—is hell bent on sweeping every whore off the streets of the Quarter now. All it does is drive the die-hard hookers to the outskirts and keep their pimps on point.
Not one week after the trial, word gets out that someone has placed a bounty on Cherie—$20,000.00 collected from NOPD, though none of them would admit to it. All underground stuff. Meanwhile, life in the Quarter goes right on, never missing a beat. Tragedy is in the lifeblood here. Folks accept it like the weather. The Crescent City’s been singing the blues since it first drew breath, and ain’t no one man’s death worth more than any other. Besides, Murph Breard wasn’t a true New Orleans native. He came from somewhere down around Morgan City. Some said he wasn’t a real coon-ass neither. More like his mama’s people from up around Monroe—rednecks from the Bible Belt. But he was still NOPD and that’s a bond unbreakable in this town.
Somebody said Murph’s wife actually laughed when they first told her what happened. Said it was poetic justice for all the whoring around he’d done, all the broads he’d explained away. His pension isn’t much, but cops carry a fat insurance policy to help their survivors. Nonetheless, the two young boys need a daddy for guidance and Trace steps right in to help fill the void. Unmarried, he has no kids of his own and embraces the chance to spend time fishing and hunting and playing ball with the boys.
Jenna Breard is a fine-featured woman with azure eyes and radiant red hair, a good Catholic woman and wonderful mother to her boys. She knows the gravity of the situation she’s left with, and despite her husband’s transgressions, she still loves him deeply, foolishly. The trial has drained her self-worth and respect for the law—the errors of justice. A quiet vengeance builds and gnaws and disrupts her entire life.
Trace is no longer content pumping the venders and cheap crooks. People disappear a lot, change names and faces and hairdos, obtain fake IDs. Half the Quarter has fake IDs, and half the rest are looking for one. Some say Cherie went to Dallas. Topless joints all over the place. Hookers there work the bars more, and private parties for Texas big wigs. Not like New Orleans. The Crescent City is a mecca for transients. Men come here for an easy lay, cheap and anonymous, and go back home to their wives. Dallas ain’t exactly a tourist destination, but prostitutes do pretty well there, too, and on a steady basis.
Late one afternoon, Willie Mouton flags Trace’s patrol car down and tells him he’s got news. But first, he’s got to know what Trace has in mind if he catches Cherie.
“She’s disappeared once already,” he says. “I’ll just help her with an encore.” That’s all he says, except that Willie better spill it if he’s got a lead.
“I ain’t getting involved in no snuff action,” Willie tells him and suddenly becomes forgetful.
Trace grimaces and throws open the squad car door. “I’ll break your goddamned legs, Willie! You know where that bitch is and you’re holding out on me, you’ll be pushing that ptomaine cart on crutches and one wheel.” Trace Landrieu is 6-foot-three and built for combat. “It’s real simple, Willie: suspect caused an altercation; suspect resisted arrest; suspect drew a pistol—you do still pack a pistol in that cart, don’t you, Willie?” The two stare coldly at one another and a clear understanding passes between them. “Think about that, Willie Boy, on your way home to your wife and kids tonight. I’ll be back later for an update.”
Twilight in the Quarter is a time of transition—from the day gawkers to the night crawlers. Once the tourists in their butt-ugly plaids and gut-filled T-shirts head off to restaurants or back to their rooms, the night crawlers arrive in everything from cheap glitter to evening wear. Most are repeat visitors and every other one of them a guide for first-timers, experts on where to eat and drink and dance the night away. The city depends on them. It is also the time when alleys and clubs come alive with propositions and promises and misdirection.
Off duty, Trace joins the crawlers, club to club, shaking down doormen and strippers for information. It’s a week till Mardi Gras and the streets are packed already, music everywhere—Thomas Jefferson wailing “St. James Infirmary” over at The Famous Door, Al Hirt bringing down the house at his place on Bourbon Street and Pete Fountain squeezing the blues out of his licorice stick. Biggest party in the world. The Quarter is a living, self-sustaining organism barely aware of the vermin that course its streets like worms through bowels till they’re expelled and forgotten.
Mardi Gras also brings a bumper crop of hookers to the Crescent City—hotel lobbies and bars decorated with gaudy broads, sleazy Pick-a-Trick lounges off Canal and along the back streets. Something for everybody. Money draws the worst impulses from human nature. Trace is counting on it. Cherie LeMoine is somewhere in the city—he can feel it somewhere deep, a tingling in his belly.
On a hunch, he tracks down Willie Mouton again. The man knows something for sure, but he still refuses to talk. Willie knows Trace won’t deliver on his threats. He relies on Willie too much to take him off the streets. “Coneys! Get your Coneys!” Willie calls, his grating voice rising through the music and racket that swells the humid streets of the Quarter.
“Hello, Willie Boy. Got any news for me?” Trace pulls his jacket off and slings it over his shoulder. “Lot of new faces in town, Willie. Some old ones, too.” He studies Willie’s eyes. “Any of them look familiar?”
Willie shuts the lid on his pushcart and exhales loudly. “I ain’t seen Cherie LeMoine, if that’s what you’re asking. And what makes you think she’d show up here in the Quarter, knowing you plan to snuff her on sight?” Willie throws open his lid again. “You know, just because a woman’s a hooker don’t make her stupid, too.”
Before the last word leaves his mouth, Willie’s eyes draw suddenly wide. Trace follows his stare. Bourbon is too crowded for the eye to settle upon a single person, a single face, but he senses that Willie just glimpsed something important, something he won’t divulge. A woman is leaning against a street pole nearby puking up her last Pat O’Brien Hurricane, distracting them both. Feet like marching hooves crunch broken glasses and paper cups strewn all along the sidewalk.
“She’s here,” Willie mumbles.
“What the hell do you mean, Willie? You just see that broad?”
“She ain’t no blonde anymore. She’s dyed it black.” His face washes flat and lifeless, his eyes vacant.
“Where, Willie? Which direction:”
“Just turned onto Dauphine with some man in a brown suit.” Willie’s face remains blank.
“You sure it’s Cherie?”
Willie doesn’t answer right away, just reaches into his cart for another hot dog. “Coneys! Get your Coneys!”
It’s a dead lead for now, but Trace knows she’s within reach. His gut wrenches with the thought of meting out justice to this street whore, his best friend’s killer. And Murph wasn’t the first. They could never tie her to the deaths of those two prostitutes found face down in Pontchartrain two years before, but he knows she was in on it—slick as lard, never even questioned. Some said she had them snuffed by a greaseball over in Metairie because they were about to squeal on her drug supplier. Street whores like Cherie play for keeps. Besides, if it wasn’t her, somebody else would have seen to it—all druggies play for keeps.
Come Saturday, the streets are jammed with parades in every direction and the city is raking in its sinful profits hand over fist. Hotels have become bordellos, and back alleys are littered with rowdy tourists and all of them in heat. Trace catches the St. Charles streetcar to the Quarter and wades through the crowd to Hotel Monteleone. It’s the favorite hangout for the upper crust, always alive with celebrities and entertainers and politicians when they’re in the Quarter.
Phil Harris and Alice Faye are regulars—and whichever Hollywood stars they’re entertaining. Today the hotel bar is full of wealthy libertines on the make, men too old or too ugly to find a nice girl. The lights are dim, like always, and Jesse Ledbetter is at his piano. It’s one of the few real piano bars left in the Crescent City. Combos and small bands have driven them out of the better venues in the name of profit. “Star Eyes,” Ledbetter croons, half whispering, stretching every note to its limit. The crowed is three-deep at the piano, people humming and slurring the words.
“How about a rumba, baby?” someone calls loudly from a dark corner. “How about a little octane?”
Trace recognizes the voice as well as his own. All this time, all this searching, and suddenly here she is. He can feel the hackles rising, the adrenaline building in his veins. This is his best—probably last—chance. “I got her Murph,” he mumbles aloud. “I finally got the bitch.” It is now only a question of how to get her alone.
He studies the two, Cherie in her new jet-black hair and china doll face. Her escort is balding but handsome and sturdy built, like a former athlete, probably married with a half-dozen kids—too good for Cherie. Of this, Trace is sure. Besides, who but a gentleman would bring the likes of Cherie LeMoine to the Monteleone? He doesn’t want to hurt the man, possibly leave his wife and kids without a livelihood and a man’s love.
For nearly two hours he studies them, working through scenarios that would lure Cherie away from her escort and down a back street. Anger begins to build, along with the adrenaline—but no fear for himself at all. As godfather to Murph’s two boys, this is the best thing he feels he can do for them. For Jenna with the fine eyes and lovely red mane, wrestling with the pain of loss and humiliation at the hands of a heartless hooker. He has watched Jenna’s anger fester and grow in recent months, take a serious toll on her personality, her kind heart.
The bar reeks of strong perfumes and cheap cologne and drunks at the piano bar fouling the room with loud, flat notes till Jesse is finally forced to take a break—which does not please Cherie LeMoine one bit. “Let’s get out of here, Darren,” she says, loud enough to be heard across the room. With that, the two slide from the booth and start for the door.
Anxiety has made Trace jittery, highly alert. His heart pounds with the urgency of fight or flight as he follows them through the door into the crowd and all the way over to Bourbon Street. Killing is no new sensation for Trace Landrieu. He experienced his first blooding at twenty-three as a new cop with NOPD, a drug bust and shoot-out. Six dead – two from his own nervous aim. After that, a numbness settled over his right hand and and subsequent shootings became mechanical, instinctive.
Bourbon Street always moves like the gulfstream carrying bodies in swirls and eddies. One can disappear so quickly in the flow. The sun is now almost extinguished and neon lights are popping on to replace it. Cherie’s escort is taller than Trace had calculated, and he carries himself like a cop. This causes Trace some concern. Possibly killing a visiting brother in or out of uniform is no option—fratricide by NOPD code. But Trace knows Cherie always packs a gun in her purse and knows how and where to aim. Seeing her here now, all dolled up and on the arm of what appears to be a gentleman, somehow makes her appear almost lady-like from behind.
The couple makes a sharp turn onto Dauphine, where the crowd thins a bit. It is the break Trace had been praying for, one of the scenarios he’d already carefully thought through. But half-way down the block a muffled shot splits the air, a bullet thrown from a piece with a silencer. Cherie whirls around, pops open her purse, and quickly collapses. The man falls on his knees along with her. The crowd goes stone silent, not even a whisper. Every last soul stares in sobering disbelief, unable to move—all except one body on the periphery. Trace looks up just in time to glimpse a faint figure turning the corner and disappearing into the crowd, a tall, willowy image and a flash of red hair.
It will be a good while before an ambulance can work its way to the scene. But the shot went clean through Cherie’s body. Trace does not approach, just stares with the other onlookers. All the energy, months of emotional intensity converging in such suddenness leaves him curiously still. It is a surreal moment, a moment of both relief and satisfaction. Trace can feel the adrenaline abating, flowing slowly from his body, his limbs. He exhales deeply and fully for the first time in many months, letting the hate float quietly from his mind, his heart. He realizes that the debt is propitiously settled and not by his own guilty hand.
Before long, the crowd quietly disperses itself, off again to rejoin the living, rejoin the celebration and forget this tragic incident. Trace is once again reminded how quickly the French Quarter heals itself, how little it is affected by private matters and human emotions. He lingers a while, panning the crowd, as if expecting to catch a glimpse of the fleeing figure again, to fix a clearer image in his mind. Of course, Willie Mouton will probably know who it is by morning.