Storyville, 1907: In this raucous, bloody, red-light district, where two thousand scarlet women ply their trade in grand mansions and filthy dime-a-trick cribs, where cocaine and opium are sold over the counter, and where rye whiskey flows like an amber river, there's a killer loose. Someone is murdering Storyville prostitutes and marking each killing with a black rose. As Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr begins to unravel the murder against this extraordinary backdrop, he encounters a cast of characters drawn from history: Tom Anderson, the political boss who runs Storyville like a private kingdom; Lulu White, the district's most notorious madam; a young piano player who would come to be known as Jelly Roll Morton; and finally, Buddy Bolden, the man who all but invented jazz and is now losing his mind.
No ordinary mystery, Chasing the Devil's Tail is a chilling portrait of musical genius and self-destruction, set at the very moment when jazz was born.
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David Fulmer, a writer and producer, lives in Atlanta with his daughter Italia. Chasing the Devil's Tail is his first novel.
We have been visited by a sad affliction. Several coons armed with pieces of brass have banded together for what personal good we are unable to say, except that it be for two dollars a week and glue, but we are able to swear that if their object was to inflict torture upon the suffering community, they are doing right well.
Valentin heard the horn while he was still two blocks from Jackson Square. It was quicksilver shooting from a Gatling gun, exactly the kind of rainbows of loud brass, he imagined, that would announce the New Orleans version of the Second Coming. As he stepped from Chartres Street into the square, he saw a familiar profile juking across the open bandstand, looking from that distance like a country preacher cajoling his congregation.
They hadn't run up on each other in a few weeks, so when Buddy saw Valentin step from the crowd, he broke into a wicked grin and went careening over the rough boards, blowing steam from the bell of his horn. He finished the rowdy version of "Careless Love" with a shower of staccato notes, then hopped down from the bandstand to cut a rolling path through the crowd. Men clapped his back and women gave him sloe eyes, but he didn't notice, rushing up to Valentin, happy as a kid.
"Tino!" he shouted and threw arms that were all gawky angles around his friend.
They sat in the shade of a live oak. The day was hazy with heat and from that distance, the scene around the bandstand looked like an unfinished painting. Another band was playing, and Buddy was half-listening to the raggedy waltz, his fingers absently tapping out his own choice of notes on the valves of his horn.
Valentin took the moment to study Bolden with sidelong glances, taking in the almond-shaped eyes, the nose thin like an Egyptian, the lower lip full and the upper one peaked in the middle, as if they had been placed on him already fit for a horn. His hair, as always, was cut very short and parted with a razor. The one oddity was his clothes, now all dirty and in disarray. He had always been particular.
The band reached the end of the song and Buddy turned on him with a sudden frown. "What brings you out in the light of day?" There was a brittle edge to his voice.
Valentin let it pass, leaning back against the trunk of the tree and twiddling a blade of grass between his fingers. "Annie Robie," he said.
At the mention of the name, the dark cloud that was over Buddy's face lifted and he smiled again. "She sent you round?" he said, "Is that right?"
The band started up again and the strains of a slow waltz drifted from the hazy distance.
"Were you at Cassie Maples' last night?" Valentin asked.
The smile widened, all white teeth. "I was, yes."
"What time did you leave?"
Buddy served up a curious look. "I don't know. Musta been round one o'clock."
Valentin hesitated for a moment, then said, "They found Annie this morning, Buddy. Dead."
Buddy blinked as if he didn't understand, his smile collapsing inward. "Did you say dead?" Valentin nodded. "How?"
"Miss Cassie found her in her room. It was like she went to sleep and never woke up."
Buddy shook his head slowly. "She was up and about," he said. "She took me to the door," he said. Valentin saw him struggle with the somber news, then sigh and say, "She was just a young girl," as if that mattered.
They sat in the shade of the tree for another ten minutes, as Buddy lapsed deeper into silence, answering Valentin's questions shortly, then not at all. Finally, he got to his feet and walked away, not a word or a gesture or a look back, a tall figure in a stained cotton shirt and white linen trousers, horn dangling from one hand, wavering off into the pool of afternoon heat that hung over the park.
A few minutes later, Valentin stood up, brushed the Louisiana dust from his trousers and made his way out of the park, wondering why he had even bothered to come there.
It had started early that morning. Too early.
He had been lying half-asleep, curled around a coffee-colored dove named Justine, when he heard the shuffle of footsteps in the hallway outside the door.
His right eyelid twitched and his hand stretched directly to the inside pocket of the linen suit jacket that hung from a chair beside the bed. He folded his fingers around the mother-of-pearl handle of his Iver Johnson revolver and drew the pistol down under the sheets, all without moving a muscle on his left side. Justine didn't stir, flat wearied from their tussling atop the cotton coverlet, her dark curls splayed across the pillow and one of her arms flung palm-up over the side of the bed.
The rustle of movement in the hall grew busier and there came the hesitant tapping of a feminine hand on the door. "Mr. St. Cyr?" Though muffled, the name was pronounced the American way, saint-sear. The door creaked open a few inches. "Beg your pardon." The voice was a brown whisper.
Valentin relaxed his grip on the pistol, pushed himself to a sitting position and said, "Come in." One of Justine's dark eyes opened halfway. He made a small sound and she sighed and dug deeper into the sheets.
The door opened another few inches and the face of Antonia Gonzales appeared like the rising of an ochre moon. Miss Antonia slipped into the room and crossed through the gray morning shadows on feet that were light for so ample a woman. She bent down to whisper in his ear. He listened, yawned, rubbed a hand over his eyes, and nodded.
The madam led him around the corner from Bienville and onto Franklin Street as the first true light of day poked through the mist off the river. They made a small parade on the deserted street, Miss Antonia in a shirtwaist of pale pastel buttoned at the neck and a silk moiré skirt that draped down to the wooden boards of the banquette, Valentin natty in a tight-fitting Cassimere suit of gray checks.
Though the hour was early, it was April and humid. All over the cobbled avenues, puddles of rainwater had collected skeins of green scum that gave up a sour stench. The two citizens of the swamp that was 1907 New Orleans marched west, taking bare notice. By noon this Sunday, the city would sweat enough to raise the Mississippi and the streets of cobble and dirt would grow rank, as dead animals, human waste, and kitchen slops steamed in the sun, attended by clouds of green flies. But from the hallowed pews of St. Ignatius Church to the lice-ridden, dime-a-trick cribs that lined Robertson and Claiborne streets from Canal to St. Louis, only a fool would bother to complain.
They continued on to Franklin Street at an even pace, though the madam took two steps for every one of Valentin's and twisted her plump fingers in a constant fidgety roil. Valentin noticed, but wouldn't be hurried.
Still, in the space of fifteen minutes they had crossed Gravier Street, leaving behind the stately brick façades, ornate colonnades, stained-glass transoms, and galleries adorned with potted ferns to enter a dank, shadowy neighborhood of narrow dirt streets lined with houses that had weathered to a bleak gray, half their windowpanes stuffed with newspaper, their balustrades teetering on the galleries like loose teeth. The banquettes here were empty and the streets were quiet, but Valentin now glanced into every doorway and down every alley until they reached the corner of South Franklin and Perdido.
They stopped before a narrow two-story house of dull gray clapboard. He turned with a questioning look to Miss Antonia, who waved one fluttering hand, a pudgy brown bird, at a second floor balcony. He looked up at the wrought iron railing, once sturdy, now rotting away in the damp air, the French doors with their rusted hinges, and the dirty, cracked windows that stared back at him. He gestured for the madam to precede him up the wooden steps to the gallery.
Cassie Maples, short and fat, her skin as black as an African night, pushed the door to the second floor room wide and stepped back.
Valentin went inside. It was a small room, not much bigger than a crib, just enough space for a divan, a wash basin, a folding screen in one corner with a Japanese design of peacocks on flowered branches, and a sampler on the wall. The French doors were closed and locked, odd for an already-sticky April and considering the sweaty business conducted within those walls. The divan was draped with a faded silk shawl, and stretched upon the shawl was the body of a young girl.
But that was all. He frowned vaguely and ran an irritable hand over his face. He hadn't gotten his sleep out, not nearly. Then he made the ten block walk with Miss Antonia all fussy at his side, to be greeted by the body of a dead whore in a cramped upstairs room in a rundown sporting house. He wondered why the madam hadn't just gone ahead and called the coppers. He couldn't raise the poor girl from the dead, nor could he make the corpse vanish into thin air, so he wasn't going to be much good at all.
He was about to mutter some excuse and take his leave, but then he saw the two women standing in the doorway, watching him anxiously. He let out a quiet sigh and made himself step across the room to view the body.
She was naked except for a Liberty dime on a thin lace of leather around one ankle and a silver crucifix on a chain hanging from her neck. Her skin, deep black, had taken on a gray pallor. Her arms and legs were willowy and her breasts were round and firm, perfect circles. Her hands were folded between her legs, as if in blushing modesty. Her hair was jet black, cut short and pulled back severely from her forehead.
He studied her face, carved from soft ebony, a young face that had reached its final age. She was actually quite pretty, rare for what was called a "soiled dove" in the lingo of the penny newspapers. Valentin was relieved, as always, that the eyes were closed.
The rose was the first thing he had noticed when he stepped into the room, but it was the last thing he paused to regard. And th...
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