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Friday, April 10, 2009

Death of a Dancer - first chapter


Chapter One

I ’M NOT SURE WHY I THOUGHT A TRIP TO NEW ORLEANS WITH MY nephew would be a simple thing. I should have known better.

When I first promised to take Frank to the city, the journey had still been months away and I’d been trying to help him through one of life’s early disappointments. He’d discovered that his childhood idol, Colonel Jedidiah Gilmore—world-renown adventurer and writer—had a propensity for lying; and the trip just seemed like the thing to offer to cheer him up. As soon as the school year ended, however, he was at my heels like a starving pup until I gave in. So, in June of 1925, the two of us traveled across Louisiana all the way from the Texas border to New Orleans.

The long trek started with a boat ride from Marshall’s Bayou to Orange, Texas, where we waited overnight at the dock. Cool air blowing in off the water held the mosquitoes at bay as we stretched out on wooden benches, using our bags as pillows. Too excited to sleep, Frank kept me up most of the night asking questions about New Orleans and my brief career there as a policeman.

Shortly after daybreak, we washed up at the train station and ate a little bread with fig preserves from the sack of food my sister-in-law had fixed for us, then settled into a car near the end of the train to enjoy the gentle rhythm of the Southern Pacific line. As it was Frank’s first train ride, I gave him the window seat. Anticipation and the change in scenery kept him occupied and gave me a chance to catch up on a little sleep. I tipped my bowler over my eyes and stretched my legs out in front of me.

The seats across from us stayed empty until just outside Baton Rouge, when the Coffers boarded. Mrs. Coffer, a round, rosy woman, sat across from Frank, and her daughter Amelda took the seat facing me. Amelda, probably twelve or thirteen, was just old enough to find Frank interesting and spent most of the trip casting furtive glances in his direction. He didn’t seem to notice her attention as he twisted his cap in his hands and stared out the window.

“Can you believe how dreadfully hot it is?” Mrs. Coffer asked me.

“No, ma’am.”

“And the way they crowd us into the train these days, like so many cattle. It’s just disgraceful.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If the trip were any longer, I would insist on better accommodations.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The one-sided conversation continued for nearly an hour until the woman ran out of things to complain about. She turned her attention to her daughter’s attire, retying bows and straightening sleeves.

As we finally pulled into Union Station in the heart of New Orleans shortly after four in the afternoon, passengers, anxious to be released from the crowded cars, jumped up to gather their belongings from overhead racks. Amelda Coffer stood on tiptoe to retrieve a carpetbag. The train lurched, and she nearly tumbled into my lap. I caught the startled girl by the shoulders and righted her.

“My word, child, sit down.” Mrs. Coffer grabbed her daughter’s wrist and yanked her back into the seat. “There’s no need to rush around like common folk.”

“Aw, Mama,” Amelda protested, trying to free herself from her mother’s grip without drawing too much attention.

Mrs. Coffer shook her head and frowned in my direction. “These children today. I don’t know what gets into them.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, “I couldn’t agree more.” I stood up, removed the carpetbag and handed it to the girl with a wink. “They’re a wild bunch.”

Amelda reddened and smiled at me as her mother continued to frown.

“Come on, Frank,” I said, “let’s go.”

My nephew, whose nose had been pressed to the window for the last hour of the trip, jumped up and hit his head on the rack. Ducking, he winced, nodded quickly to the Coffers and took his bag from me. He must have been too excited about arriving in New Orleans to notice Amelda. My guess is he'd inherited his father's single-mindedness.

As soon as I stepped from the train onto the freshly swept platform, I had to smile. The city waited, as if nothing had changed since I’d left almost a year earlier. Heat carried scents of shellfish, jasmine and ladies’ perfumes, and hoards of people rushed to and from trains. Ahead, the massive brick station sprawled over a city block, and arched doorways beckoned like the arms of a woman. I took a deep breath, catching whiffs of freshly cut grass. Steam hissed from the train behind me, momentarily overrunning voices raised in cheerful salutes and wailing farewells.

A tearful woman stood at the edge of the shadows and waved to a man walking to a departing train, and I suddenly remembered the day I’d left New Orleans. A knot of guilt and sorrow rose in my chest, but I pushed it down, determined not to let anything sour my return. I couldn’t help what had happened, and I wasn’t there to relive it.

I glanced back at Frank and found him frozen in place, trying to take it all in, his eyes as wide as china cups. Grabbing his sleeve, I moved him in front of me. The last thing I needed to do was lose my fifteen-year-old nephew on the first day. My brother Alcide would have killed me…slowly.

I guided Frank through the crowds to the well-dressed, smiling man who waited at the end of the platform.

“Ty,” I called.

He waved then grabbed my hand in both of his as we reached him.

“Dassas Cormier,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

“You know better than that,” I told him, squeezing the hand of a man I’d sincerely missed.

“Maybe so, but I sure was surprised to get your letter.”

Tiberius Fuller had been my partner in the New Orleans Police Department for two years. He’d also been my best friend. When I’d written him that we were planning a visit, he’d responded immediately.

Ty gave me a quick once-over and his smile broadened. I’m sure mine did the same.

“How was your trip?”

“A little on the long side, but not bad.” I stepped back. “Ty, this is my nephew, Frank Cormier. Frank, this is Ty Fuller, the best patrolman in New Orleans.”

The two shook hands. It hit me, as I watched them exchange greetings, that Frank was well on his way to becoming a man. I’d always thought of him as a lanky boy, shy and bumbling as he followed me around the marsh, but here he greeted a stranger with a nod and firm handshake as if he’d grown up all of a sudden. With a mended pocket on his brown suit, his old boots polished to a glossy shine and the dark Cormier curls sticking out from his cap, I felt like I was looking at a picture of myself when I first left home.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay with me?” Ty asked.

“I’m sure,” I said. “When I told Miss Sugar we were coming, she wrote back that my old room had just been vacated and she’d hold it for us. The Quarter’s a little seedy, but I thought Frank might enjoy the excitement. Thanks for the offer, though.”

We crossed the brightly polished marble floors of the station with my nephew between us.

“If you change your mind, you know where I am,” Ty said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd. “And we’re expecting you tomorrow night for dinner. I’m sorry about tonight, but Beth took Martha with her to Mandeville. You sure don’t want me cooking for you.”

I shook my head slowly. “No, we don’t want that. I’d like to live through this trip.”

Ty raised one eyebrow in mock reprimand, and I laughed. It was good to see the man who had helped me through one of the roughest times in my life. He’d been the first one at my side when I accidentally shot an innocent woman, had taken me home and gotten me drunk then stood beside me through the entire review. He’d tried to talk me out of quitting the force, but I couldn’t continue. It had taken months, and the help of my family, to regain control of my life. Now that I was as close to my old self as I figured I’d ever be, I hoped to find a way to thank him.

We emerged from the station and stepped into sunshine that beat ferociously against my shoulders in spite of my clothing.

“You look good,” Ty said.

“Thanks. You, too.”

It was mostly true. At six-one, Ty was my height, and the fifteen years he had on me hadn’t stooped his shoulders at all. His hair was a bit grayer than when I’d left, and he’d put on a few pounds; but he carried himself with the same relaxed authority as always. Still, there was something in his eyes that piqued my curiosity—a sadness or worry, I wasn’t sure which. Maybe both.

We tossed our bags into the back of the his Ford, and I settled Frank beside them. He couldn’t stop gawking long enough to watch where he was going, and had tripped over the curb as we left the station. I climbed into the front beside Ty; and as we followed Rampart, he filled me in on who had left the force, who had been promoted and who was in trouble. I looked back now and then to make sure the boy was still breathing.

Once we crossed the wide expanse of Canal Street, where streetcars rang their bells to encourage horse-drawn carriages along, the streets narrowed; and ancient brick walls rose from the sidewalks, adorned with wrought iron balconies and ivy hanging from baskets. Avoiding barefoot urchins, who laughed as they dashed in front of us, we rattled and bumped over stones and dirt as we wound our way into the French Quarter.

“So, who does the captain yell at now that I’m gone?”

Ty shook his head and grinned. “He hasn’t picked out a new favorite yet, but there are several in the running.”

“Who’s your partner?”

“Greg Singletary.” He answered almost too quickly.

“What’s he like?”

“Green, but he’s a good kid. Still thinks he’s tough. He’ll outgrow it.”


I thought back to the times I’d run into hornets’ nests while trying to show how tough I was and Ty hadn’t said anything about it. Greg was lucky to have him for a partner. Ty had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. He was by far the best teacher a young patrolman could have.

“How’s the family?” I asked.

When he looked over at me, I realized I’d hit on something. My stomach tightened.


He was lying.

There had always been tension because of Beth’s parents. They didn’t like the idea their precious society daughter had married a lowly patrolman. Things had gotten better after Julia was born, but they were never great. Still, there was something more going on than that. Before I could ask, we’d completed the short trip from the station, and he steered the car to the curb at the corner of Dauphine and St. Ann.
“You are going to eat with us, aren’t you?” I asked.

“Of course.”

I practically had to drag Frank out of the motorcar; he was straining to see the tops of the buildings through the Ford’s side window. No doubt still in shock over the number of people and structures, he straggled along behind us as we rounded the corner and walked through the doorway of the brick wall concealing the courtyard of the boarding house from the street. Inside, overgrown ferns and pots of assorted flowers hid stray cats, and a fountain in the center trickled water from a marble urn to a school of goldfish.

Miss Sugar, the elderly woman who owned the building and, according to the framed portrait in her drawing room, had once been a dark-haired beauty, tottered from the door with her arms stretched out in greeting. As usual, she wore colors too bright for someone her age. My guess is that her mother was either a gypsy or a voodoo priestess. Her skin, nearly the color of café au lait, suggested the latter.

“My, my! I can’t believe it’s really you, Dassas!”

I leaned over so she could hug my neck. She smelled of lavender, lemon and something sweet I couldn’t quite identify.

When she stepped back, Miss Sugar held my face between her gnarled hands and examined my eyes for several long moments. Then she nodded, smiled and released me. Sometimes I think she can see a person’s soul.

“And who is this handsome young man?” she asked.

Frank, practically hiding behind me, cowered under her scrutiny until I grabbed his arm and pulled him forward.

“This is my nephew, Frank Cormier.”

Miss Sugar held both of his arms and studied his face with her keen black eyes.

“Yes,” she whispered, as mysterious as ever. I’d long since given up trying to figure out what her odd comments meant. She exchanged greetings with Ty and led us into the parlor.

“You know where your room is,” she said to me. “Why don’t you two put your things away while Officer Fuller and I catch up on the latest gossip?”

I led the way back to the courtyard and up the outside stairs. Old wooden steps squeaked in all the familiar places. On the second floor, we passed windows, and doors to some of the other dozen rooms, until we reached the room at the end.
Inside, Frank finally spoke. “This is where you lived?”

“Yes.” I tossed my bag on the bed and left the rollaway for him. “Like it?”

“Yes, sir.” He turned a circle in the middle of the room.

I glanced around at the familiar chiffonier, desk and washstand, placed strategically between oversized windows. One window led to the front balcony and the other overlooked the courtyard. It was, without a doubt, the best room in the eighty-year-old house, if not the largest. Miss Sugar had replaced yellowing curtains with white lace and put a new blue spread on the bed. With the high ceilings, fresh pale-blue paint and newly polished wood floor, the room looked more impressive than I remembered.

“Bathroom is down the hall on the left,” I said.

He spun around. “It has indoor plumbing?”

I nodded as I filled the washbasin from a pitcher. “Lots of places here do.”

“Can I look?”

“Sure, go ahead. And get cleaned up while you’re at it so we can go out. I’m starved.”

“Yes, sir.” He dropped his bag in the middle of the floor and dashed out of the room.

I washed my face then stepped out onto the balcony and surveyed the city I’d fallen in love with years before. Voices filled with laughter, horses’ hooves on stone streets and jazz seeping from hidden rooms made my heart race. At that moment, I regretted my decision to stay in Marshall’s Bayou, even though I knew in my soul that I belonged there.

It took some prodding to get Frank moving—his fascination with everything from the indoor plumbing to the electric lights made him childlike. And Miss Sugar refused to release Ty until she was sure he’d relayed every interesting bit of news.

When we finally hit the sidewalk, I had to work not to whoop with joy. Sunset drenched the buildings in reds and oranges, and moisture filled the air, promising rain before the night ended. Excitement practically crackled all around us.

“Is Sammy still serving gumbo?” I asked.

Ty nodded.

“Good.” I draped my left arm around Frank’s lean shoulders and shoved my right hand in my pocket. “You’re in for a treat. Sammy’s gumbo is even better than your mother’s. But don’t you dare tell her I said that.”

“Yes, sir.”

We walked the block to Bourbon Street, where scantily clad women stood in doorways and leaned over balconies, beckoning to the three of us. Frank gawked.

“And I don’t think you should mention this to her, either.”

He nodded without looking at me.

Piano solos and voices of Negro jazz musicians seeped out into the street from several of the better parlors, blending into a crazy mixture to stir the blood. Music from a full band, drawing early crowds, drowned out everything else as we approached Al’s club, where juice flowed freely in spite of the Volstead Act. I smiled and thought about one of the women who danced inside, a close friend the entire time I lived in New Orleans—Miss Cherry Blossom.

“I should stop in and tell Cherry I’m here,” I said, releasing Frank. “Will you give me just one minute?”

Ty stopped me with a hand on my arm. “She’s not here.”

“She’s not?” I frowned at him. “Where is she?”

Ty’s eyes widened, and then he looked everywhere but at me for several minutes. His hesitancy shoved my heart into my throat.


“Ty, what’s wrong? Where’s Cherry?”

He cleared his throat and looked down. “Dass, she’s dead.”

“What?” Shock pulled all the air from my lungs as I stepped closer. “How?”

Ty glanced around again and lowered his voice. “She was murdered.”

I grabbed his shoulder. “Why the hell didn’t you write me?”

“It just happened last Saturday,” he said. “I was afraid a letter wouldn’t arrive until after you’d left.”

It took a moment to catch my breath, and even longer for the reality to sink in. Cherry was dead. Sweet, kind Cherry.


“How? What happened?”

“She was shot twice, found in her bedroom on the floor.”

“Who did it?”

Ty took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “She was seeing a thug named Blackie Celon. We picked him up the same day right here.”

“He killed her?”

“That’s what everyone thinks.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “But you don’t?”

Ty jerked his shoulder out of my grasp. “I don’t know, Dass. I don’t know what happened to her. All I know is that she’s dead.”

He started away slowly with Frank at his side, giving me time to recover and catch up.

Suddenly, my beautiful city felt dark and cruel.


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