I broke a large icicle from the railing and stepped off the porch onto Claiborne Street. A speeding carriage heading towards the river drenched my boots with freezing slush.
February was one of the coldest months in New Orleans, but no one had seen ice like this. Not in my lifetime. 1899 already seemed cursed.
I was investigating the city’s eighth murder in two months. Correction: possible murder. A working girl in the District named Peaches. No one had heard from her for several days, and the talk in the brothels hinted she was the tragic victim of a jealous lover. But these girls thrive on fantasy. I needed proof.
The interview at her mother’s house revealed nothing. The distraught woman sat beside a small altar to Baron Samedi sparkled violet with candles. From what I could understand through the thick Haitian accent, she hadn’t seen her daughter in nearly a week.
I crunched along the six blocks to Cirque House where Peaches had a room. The house had one of the worst reputations in the red light district. Not many men I knew took advantage of its services—only those on the force who derived pleasure from the most brutal aspects of our work. The kind that roughed up the girls we arrested or didn’t mind if their gun “accidentally” went off and killed a criminal before trial.
But Peaches was the police chief’s favorite girl. With skin like creamy café au lait, but that tasted even sweeter, he would tell us. He’d whisper his most forbidden desires to her, just to watch her cheeks glow with the natural rouge that bore her name. So I’d promised him I’d find out what happened.
I rang the bell at Cirque House and the madam pulled me inside. “Come out of the cold, honey! We’ve got a fire in the parlor… and a warm reception in every bedroom.” I tried to explain I wasn’t a customer. But she hushed my protests and said: “Now tell me what you’re after. Just relax and leave your cares at the door.”
“I’m looking for Peaches,” I began slowly. “Does she still work here?”
“Why of course! I’ll make sure she’s not occupied.” The madam winked and retreated.
As I lounged on the arm of a velvet settee, a tiny gray maid wandered in. I asked if she had noticed anything unusual at the house. She said she only kept the parlor tidy, cooked meals for the working girls, and cleaned the bedrooms “you know… after.” When I mentioned Peaches, the maid’s eyes showed white and she scurried off without another word.
The madam returned and led me down a draped hallway to a cold, dark room. Heavy perfume surrounded me as I entered. A body was lying on the bed. Horrified, I backed out and grabbed the madam.
“Now honey, don’t fidget,” she purred. “Peaches brought in some of our best customers. One of them got upset: strangled her, I guess. She had a visitor booked almost every hour the day it happened, so there’s no telling who did it. Funny thing is, the gentlemen who visited afterwards never complained. Must have been an irresistible temptation. And who am I to judge a man’s soul if their money’s still good?”
She stared hard at me. “So you going to have a turn or aren’t you? Her next guest is waiting.”
Frank wasn’t going to wait much longer. Long shadows had started to snake across Basin Street, and this part of the Quarter wasn’t safe after dark—even for someone like Frank, who had done his share of hard time.
Where the hell was Nicky? They had met in New Orleans every Valentine’s Day for decades now, and Nicky was never late. “Our special date,” he had called it. As fruity as Nicky was, these meetings were always productive. This time the rendezvous was out past Rampart Street on the way to St. Louis Cemetery #1.
Nothing about this day had gone right. Frank rose early as usual, eager to get a pulse on the day before all the suckers could figure it out. Screw or be screwed was his motto. He washed quickly and left his hotel for Déesse Coffee on Dumaine Street. Déesse means goddess in French—a word Frank’s father used as a pet name for his mother before she passed away.
But when Frank ordered his coffee and newspaper to go, he found out that the Times-Picayune was now only available online. This city’s so damn soulless these days, thought Frank. New Orleans had been one of his favorites when he first visited in the late 1960’s. Raw, cheap, and alive. Little girls were giving out free love and naïve tourists were funding Frank’s exploits.
Frank’s boss sent him to a New Orleans casino for the biggest deal of his young career. Nicky was his contact—a slim, quiet Italian with half-closed eyes, smoking a pungent clove cigarette. He seemed too soft for the work, but had a knack for noticing everything, including Frank’s tattoo: a pair of dice showing snake eyes.
“Let’s play a game,” teased Nicky, leading Frank to the well-worn craps table. Frank wanted to hit him square in the jaw. He had never seen a man flirt so openly, almost arrogantly. But with every roll of the dice, Frank found himself relaxing into Nicky’s compelling presence. The opiate eyes beckoned; the liquid Latin accent murmured a low and gentle rhythm. They talked for hours, traded business secrets, and ended up swindling both of their bosses out of the deal. Frank was born Frances Duval, but that was the day he became Frankie the Snake.
Forty years had passed, and as Frank’s grey eyes scanned the alley off Basin Street, he wondered if Nicky was playing another game.
Back in his hotel room, the grimy phone’s small red light flashed. The message would have told Frank not to bother.
As the cold sun sank behind St. Louis cemetery, Frank turned to leave. A sweet aroma stopped him. Clove cigarettes? He became nauseated as the air turned foul and thick. Something was burning and the street was spinning beneath his feet. As Frank began to fall away, his legs became steady and his eyes opened…halfway.