New Orleans, May 1919
John Riley stumbled into the offices of the New Orleans Times–Picayune an hour and a half after he was supposed to have started work. He sat at his desk, took a long slow breath, and raised his eyes to peer about the room. Even in his befuddled state he could see his colleagues stealing glances at him and he wondered exactly how unkempt he must look. He had been out the night before, at his usual spot on Elysian Fields Avenue, and he raised a hand to his face to make sure he wasn’t still perspiring. When his fingers rubbed against a stubble at least two days old, he felt a pang of regret for not having sought out a mirror before his arrival.
He looked at his desk and his gaze landed on his typewriter. Its black metal frame, its crescent of type-bars, its levers and keys, all made the thing seem daunting somehow, cold and hard and otherworldly, and he realized he wasn’t in a fit enough state to start writing just yet. He ’d need a few coffees and a packet of cigarettes, and maybe a lunchtime brandy before he was ready to tackle anything requiring a fully functioning brain, so he decided to kill what was left of the morning with something that approximated work. He rose and stumbled over to the in-tray where the letters to the editor were kept. He grabbed as many as he could, cradling them against his chest, and returned to his seat.
There was the usual correspondence from irate residents, people with complaints, know-it-alls, and those who used the letters page as a forum for arguing with one another. He selected a few of the longer diatribes to print as they filled up the page more easily, then he sifted through the letters from people who claimed to have seen the Axeman. Since the killings had started a few months ago, the office had been inundated with letters from concerned residents who swore they had seen him on his way to some murder or other. Riley sighed and wondered why these people sent these things to the newspaper and not the Police Department. He lit a cigarette and picked up the last letter in the pile. It was an unusual-looking envelope, rice-paper thin, with no sender details, and the newspaper’s address written on it in a spidery scrawl of badly splattered, rust-colored liquid he hoped was ink. He took a drag on his cigarette and opened it up with a fingernail.
Hell, May 6th, 1919
They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman.
I don’t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past.
They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.
Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:
I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned.
If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.
Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.
Riley took a drag on his cigarette, put the letter down and wondered if its author really was the Axeman, and if not, who the hell else would send something like that to the paper. Authentic or not, it’d be a sin not to print it. Riley grinned and rose, and his colleagues turned to look at him as he marched towards the editor’s office. He didn’t care to wonder if he should tell the authorities before going to press – in instances like this, it was better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. They’d print it, and the city would read it, and a chaos would descend, and New Orleans might well spiral into the greatest night it had ever seen.
One Month Earlier
To the west of the French Quarter, in the uptown slum the Orleanais referred to as the Battlefield, a Negro funeral procession lumbered through the granite sheen of a dawn fog. The mourners, dressed in dark suits and veils, their heads bowed, were reduced to shadows as they moved in and out of the mist, an effect which gave the procession a spectral feel, as if the parade in its entirety had somehow managed to wander into Hades.
The funeral had commenced just after dawn, when the coffin had been carried out of the vigil house and placed on the hearse and the mourners had assembled on the street. Once all was set, the Marshall had blown a shrill, lingering whistle, and the five brass bands employed for the day struck up a slow, haunting version of ‘Nearer My God to Thee ’.
The marshal, a somber-faced, regal old man dressed in a top hat, frock coat and bright-yellow gloves, turned on his heel and led the cortege through the grass-cracked streets. He was immediately followed by the hearse, horse-drawn and draped in satin, black feather plumes fluttering in the breeze. Then came the bereaved family, wailing into handkerchiefs, and after them the five brass bands, each musician top-hatted and tailed, their coats bedecked with epaulets and tassels. At the very rear, the cortege ended in a press of well-wishers, mourners, and ragged streetchildren known as the second line, urchins who had nothing better to do than follow parades across town all day, even if it meant being led as though by a Siren to one of the city’s many graveyards.
The man being buried was a member of a number of Negro men’s associations – the Zulu Aid and Pleasure Club; the Odd Fellows; the Diamond Swells; the Young Men Twenties; the Merrygo-Rounds – and on its way to the graveyard the procession had stopped at each of the association’s assembly halls so the club’s members could bid farewell to their brethren. Only then did the cortege move on to the cemetery, the songs becoming ever more melancholic as it made its way. When the hearse entered the graveyard all the instruments died down except for the snare drum, which rattled out a desolate, lonely rhythm, the drumsticks muffled with a handkerchief to imitate the timbre of military kettledrums. And when the procession finally reached the tomb, the drum died out too, and for a brief moment, there was silence.
Then the preacher began the service, intoning against the sibilant wind, and when he had finished, the family threw soil onto the grave, one by one, a process that contained its own rhythm and beat. And after the last mourner had thrown his handful of earth, and the sods had thumped onto the coffin and trickled down its sides, the crowd turned expectantly to the marshal, who stood a few yards back from them, shivering on a stretch of uneven earth, the breeze flapping the cuffs of his trousers.
The old man greeted their stares with wide, milky eyes and after a few long seconds of wind-rustled silence, he nodded, lifted his hand to his chest, and turned over his sash to its parade-day side, a side of dazzlingly bright colors, an African scheme of checkered red, gold and green that shimmered through the fog. And almost in an instant, as if a spirit had taken control of the crowd, the funeral transformed. Club members flipped over their membership buttons, the band turned their jackets inside out, smiles broke, the marshal blew his whistle and before they knew it the band was playing dance music – a raunchy, loud and ironic selection: ‘Oh Didn’t He Ramble’. The horn players blared, the second line danced among the tombs, and the club members opened bottles of bourbon and beer to toast the deceased. A carnival atmosphere swept through the parade and carried it along as it snaked through the cemetery and back onto the streets, where more people joined the celebrations and the ever-increasing mass of revelers made its way back to the wake.
As the funeral procession had lumbered through the city, performing its well-rehearsed rite of music and movement, it was watched keenly by a 19-year-old slip of a girl in a red pimiento dress, who went by the name of Ida Davis. She hadn’t had much difficulty finding the funeral – sound travelled without much obstruction in New Orleans, a flat, wooden city of low-lying buildings, open ground, rivers and lakes. Her father, himself a musician, had often remarked on the phenomenon, saying it was almost as if the city had been constructed as an instrument for the dispersal of music. When a band played – and New Orleans bands were especially loud – it could be heard all the way across town.
And so she had followed her ears and found the cortege, and now she watched it with a disapproving frown. It wasn’t that she looked down on the drunken mourners, or the free-loaders, or even the ratty street-children in the second line. Rather, it was the irony of it all that she lamented. Louisiana was a place where Negroes were seldom allowed to express their culture openly, and a funeral provided a rare opportunity for public display, for the downtrodden to be treated with pomp, and it was this that made her frown, that the only time a Negro was allowed to be treated with grandeur was when he or she wasn’t even alive to appreciate it.
She stepped off the sidewalk and made her way up the line of mourners, scanning the faces of the musicians, looking for her closest friend, possibly her only friend – a chubby-faced young horn-player on second cornet, who had not yet changed the pronunciation of his name to the French form Louey, and was still known to Ida and everyone else in the Battlefield as Lil’ Lewis Armstrong.
She spotted him soon enough, at the head of the procession, playing along to an up-tempo rendition of ‘High Society’. Lewis noticed her and raised his eyebrows; then, without breaking rhythm or key, he blew out a complicated flourish on the horn by way of a greeting. Some of the crowd nearby cheered drunkenly and Lewis handed his cornet to one of the second-liners, a gangly barefoot child in a frayed white shirt.
Lewis stepped out of the line and approached, his walk stymied by the too-small tuxedo trousers he was wearing. Lewis was almost nineteen, chubby and dark-skinned, with a round face that was a perfect cradle for a distinctive grin. Ida was his opposite in almost every respect – slender and deliberate, with skin just a touch darker than milk, and an almond-shaped face that made people turn. She was also a little introverted – a shyness born of being light-skinned enough to pass for white, a trait which made her few friends in the Battlefield.
Lewis tipped his hat and smiled. ‘Hey, Ida,’ he said, ‘you good?’ His voice was fleecy and deep, rasped by tobacco and liquor, and she was surprised to hear that it betrayed no hint of awkwardness or curiosity. She hadn’t been down to see him in months, and now she had turned up in the Battlefield of all places, unannounced and feeling embarrassed.
‘I’m good,’ she said, smiling weakly. She had come to him for a favor, to ask for help with an investigation. But now she was with him, she didn’t quite know how to make her request. It had been so long since she had seen him, and it was difficult to talk over the noise of the bands, who were reaching a raucous crescendo to their increasingly off-kilter rendition of ‘High Society’.
Lewis peered at her with a puzzled look and she could tell he had guessed something was up.
‘If you wanna talk,’ he said, ‘I can meet you back at the wake.’ Ida had been hoping to avoid the wake.
‘Sure,’ she replied, enunciating over the music. ‘Where is it?’ Lewis grinned at her, a gleam in his eye. ‘Just follow the band,’ he said with a shrug, and before Ida knew it they were both chuckling. He tipped his hat at her and trotted back to the parade. The band struck up the opening to ‘The Beer Barrel Polka’ and Ida watched as the second-liner returned Lewis’s cornet. Then her friend stepped back into position, merging into the dark-suited parade rolling drunkenly up the street, its blaze of music and noise fading once more into the mist.
A black landaulet police car flew through the fog-bound streets of Little Italy, the driver blaring the horn wildly in an attempt to avoid accidents. He swerved past market stalls and farm wagons and startled pedestrians and occasionally clipped the curbs and banquettes of the narrower roads. At the intersection of Upperline and Magnolia Streets, he veered the car through a sharp corner and screeched to a halt a half-block from a grocery store. In the rear of the vehicle, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot dropped back into his seat and breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Nice driving, ’Rez,’ he said.
‘Thanks,’ the driver replied, failing to notice the sarcasm. Through the glass partition that separated the two men, Michael saw the driver flip open a pocket watch and check the time.
‘Seven minutes and twenty-five seconds,’ said the driver, a round, swarthy man called Perez. ‘That’s gotta be a record,’ he added, flashing a smile at Michael through the rearview mirror. Michael smiled back weakly, still feeling faintly nauseous.
Perez scrabbled around the dashboard for a notebook and with the stub of a pencil wrote down the time. The New Orleans Police Department had taken receipt of its first ever fleet of motorcars only a few months previously, and the drivers in the various precincts had, as far as Michael could tell, set up some kind of betting league on how fast they could drive their various routes. Three of the new cars had already been wrecked, one of them by Perez.
Michael let his stomach settle for a moment and arched his back to look out of the car’s rear window. His eyes settled on the cheap corner-store grocery a little further down the street. It was typical of the stores Italian migrants were setting up all over the city – single-storied, a shop in the front, living quarters in the back, a yard for deliveries at the rear, and a sheet-metal sign teetering above the whole jerry-built mess, proudly displaying the owner’s name. Michael sighed and rubbed his face, running his fingers along the scars that pitted his cheeks.
Outside the store, among the carriages from the Police Department and the Coroner’s Office, a mob had gathered – Italian locals that a cordon of patrolmen was half-heartedly holding back. Michael could tell it wasn’t the usual kind of crowd that always seemed to materialize at grisly crime scenes – the passers-by, the neighbors, the reporters, the street-corner habitués with nothing better to do. This crowd hadn’t gathered out of macabre curiosity. It was there because it was scared, and Michael’s heart tightened at the sight of it. From what he knew about human nature, it didn’t take much for fearful mobs to turn violent.
‘Into the madding crowd,’ he mumbled to himself.
‘Say what?’ Perez asked, glancing up from the notebook with a frown and a dart of his eyes in the rearview mirror. But Michael had already opened the passenger-side door, flipped his homburg onto his head and stepped out into the street.
He strode towards the far end of the cordon, hoping to avoid being noticed by taking the longer route, but Michael was a lurching type, singular and easy to spot. He was a head taller than most other men, with gangly, awkward limbs, and a face razed red and bumpy by smallpox. As he approached the cordon, he pulled the homburg low, but a beady-eyed reporter happened to turn his way at just the wrong time. Michael saw him nudge one of his colleagues and whisper, and in an instant the crowd erupted. Cameras swung towards him and a riot of flashbulbs strobed and popped, sending little clouds of soot into the air that mottled the fog. The paper men shouted his name and bellowed out questions. Angry Italian phrases flew his way. He carried on pushing past the throng, and after a few seconds of jostling he made it to the cordon and through to the other side. He nodded hello to a few of the patrolmen that he recognized, stony-faced, annoyed-looking men, none of whom bothered to respond. A young, earnest beat cop in a starched blue uniform trotted down the front steps to greet him. ‘Morning, sir. The victims are this way,’ said the beat cop, a greenhorn called Dawson, freshly returned from the war and eager to prove his worth. He held his hand up to the storefront with a smile, and Michael thought there was something of the maître d’ about the gesture. He nodded his thanks and Dawson led him up the front steps and into the dim interior of the grocery.
The store was lined on all sides with neat pinewood shelves crammed with tins of fish, meat and assorted Italian delicacies that Michael had never heard of. Drums of olive oil were piled high along one wall, and festooned from the rafters were upturned bunches of dried oregano that to Michael’s mind lent the store a grotto-like air.
At the far end was a glass counter filled with breads and foul-smelling cheeses, and a Dutch meat-slicer, its cranks and disc-blade gleaming, a leg of pork still lying in the tray. The cash register stood next to it, and as Michael expected, it was completely undamaged. Beyond it was the door into the domestic part of the building. They approached, and Dawson held up his hand again. Michael, unsure of what to make of the boy, nodded and smiled. He took off his homburg and stepped through the door.
The living room was cramped, illuminated by a greasy light, and made smaller by the officials drudging away in it. Two patrolmen were taking an inventory, a doctor from the Coroner’s Office was bent over one of the bodies, and a photographer, a Frenchman with a portrait studio in Milneburg, readied a new roll of nitrate for his camera.
Michael inspected the room – a dark wood table and a sideboard filled most of the space, a window looked out onto the side of the neighbors’ house, and at the back a door led into the kitchen. None of the furniture had been upset or overturned, and a gospel book still lay at one end of the table. The walls were covered in floral wallpaper, yellowing and ancient and spotted with mold. Photographs of somber old Sicilians competed for wall space with an accumulation of cheap religious images – crucifixes, Madonnas, postcards of cathedrals and pilgrimage sites. In the space that led into the kitchen were the bodies of the two victims, splayed out on the linoleum floor in a pool of dark, resinous blood. Michael crossed the room and knelt next to the bodies. The wife was short and plump, with aged skin and salt-colored hair. Dried blood had glued her nightdress to the rolls of fat around her midriff, marking out the curve of her figure. Michael could make nothing of her face, which had been so viciously attacked with a sharp object that it resembled less a human head than some kind of crater, around the lip of which a handful of flies buzzed frenetically.
The husband was slumped by the window. Most of Michael’s view was obscured by the doctor who was still examining the body, but he could see the man had wounds similar to his wife ’s. His right arm was outstretched and pointed towards the sideboard, whose lower drawers were streaked with finger-wide lines of blood.
Michael shook his head and took a last, sorry look at the two corpses. He had learned it was best not to dwell on the savagery his job confronted him with, so he crossed himself, a token gesture that somehow helped insulate him from it all, then he stood and stretched the tension out of his knees. Behind him the photographer took a snap and the flashbulb popped in the stillness.
Michael wiped the blood from the soles of his Florsheims onto an already ruined Persian rug, stepped over the wife’s body and entered the kitchen. An axe had been left by a cupboard, propped up on its rough-hewn handle. Michael noticed fragments of bone speckled along the blood-encrusted blade. In the sink there was more blood and a few crumbs of mud. The door from the kitchen into the yard behind the house had been forced open from the outside, the frame around the lock an explosion of jagged wood. Michael stepped into the yard and the morning cold pressed itself against his face. On all three sides, high wooden fences cut off the view and gave the yard an eerie stillness. Next to the door was a haphazard pile of firewood, and beyond that, a barren space occupied solely by weeds and rusting metal trash. Michael looked around for a moment, then returned to the clammy warmth of the living room.
‘Dawson? What have we gathered so far?’ He pulled a chair from under the table, sat, and motioned for Dawson to do the same. Dawson sat and read from a polished leather notebook. ‘Victims were Mr and Mrs Joseph Maggio. Fifty-eight and fifty-one years old respectively. Sicilian immigrants. Owned the store a couple of years. Neighbors said they moved in from somewhere in Gretna. I called headquarters – neither of them had any convictions.’
Michael nodded. Mr and Mrs Maggio fitted the profile – Sicilian shopkeepers with no criminal ties, seemingly picked at random. In the preceding attacks, the killer the press had dubbed the Axeman had entered the victims’ residences at night and, as the name would suggest, dispatched them with an axe, showing considerable relish in what he was doing, and no interest whatsoever in burglary or molestation. Aside from the Maggios, the Axeman had already attacked three households, killing among others an infant and its mother. And with each attack the violence had increased, becoming more gruesome and crazed.
‘The neighbors saw nothing unusual,’ continued Dawson, ‘no one arriving; no one leaving; no screams or shouts; no noise of a break-in.’
‘Means of entry?’
‘No clues whatsoever as to how he got in, or left. And here ’s the kicker, sir – the room was locked from the inside when the bodies were discovered.’
The killer had a habit of leaving rooms that way. Either he exited from windows which slid closed after him, or he picked locks shut from the outside after he ’d finished. These explanations hadn’t stopped the press from painting the Axeman as some kind of supernatural being with the ability to float through walls. New Orleans was a superstitious place at the best of times, and now a sizeable portion of the city believed they were under attack by some form of demon.
‘Who kicked in the kitchen door?’ Michael asked, remembering the scene at the back of the house.
‘That’d be . . .’ Dawson flicked through his notebook. ‘Patrolman D. Hancock, sir. The wife’s niece discovered the bodies. She helped out in the shop. No one was answering when she arrived this morning so she walked round the back. Spotted the wife’s body from the window. Hancock was first to the scene.’
‘Any tarot cards?’ asked Michael.
Dawson nodded, reached over to the sideboard and handed Michael two bloodstained cards. Michael inspected them – the Justice card and the Judgment card. Like the ones they’d found on the previous victims, they were expensively made, hand-painted, bigger than normal playing cards, and rendered in lurid reds and purples, with outlines in black and gold ink. The Justice card portrayed a robed man sitting on a throne, sword in one hand, scales in the other. The Judgment card showed an angel flying high above a hellish, barren landscape, while a crowd of naked sinners pleaded to it from the ground. On the reverse was the usual intricate, monochrome pattern found on all playing cards, but this one had depictions of tiny animals weaved into the design. The animals seemed to be calling to each other, crying out against their geometric prison.
‘Where were they found?’ he asked, handing the cards back to Dawson.
‘In the victims’ heads, sir,’ said Dawson bashfully. ‘Inserted into the wounds.’
Michael nodded. He knew the Mafia sometimes left tarot cards at execution scenes, calling-cards to let people know what happened to those who didn’t toe the line. But Michael also knew the Mafia didn’t butcher grandmothers and children. And if the attack was an execution, what had a God-fearing elderly couple done to deserve it?
Most homicides were committed by people known to the victim, and in New Orleans every community stuck to their own. If a Sicilian had been killed, the most likely person to have done the killing was another Sicilian. And since the victims had all been shopkeepers, and Sicilian shopkeepers were invariably mixed up with the Mafia, it all pointed in one direction – the Family. But the savagery of the attacks and the scattering of tarot cards, with their links to voodou, had convinced half the city that the Axeman was a Negro – despite the fact that not a single person had actually seen the killer. In neighborhoods all across town, colored men were being chased through the streets by mobs. It was only a matter of time before there was a lynching.
The Axeman was stoking up distrust in a city already full of suspicion. Each of New Orleans’s communities fenced itself off from its neighbors: the Creoles of color to the north; the Irish to the south; the Negroes to the west; the Italians in Little Italy in the center; with enclaves of other groups – Chinese, Greeks, Germans, Jews – scattered about like pawns on a chess board. Only in the very center of town, in the French Quarter, in Storyville, in the business district, was there any intermingling. The segregation caused suspicion, and the suspicion furthered the segregation. And now there was an Axeman lighting a flame under it all, causing all these closeted people to rub and spark against one another, and Michael was the man the city had entrusted to put a stop to it all.
From somewhere in the backyard, the noise of a woodpecker drilling its head into a tree floated into the room. The doctor stood at this point, groaning as he did. He was an old man with a rusty complexion and a portly physique. An elaborate white mustache adorned his upper lip, combed in the Victorian style into two great walrus arcs.
‘Knees ain’t what they used to be,’ he said in a rough, cigar-smoker’s voice. He tottered over to the table, slumped into a chair next to Michael and fumbled through his pockets for a three-pack of Fonsecas. He offered one to Michael, who refused with a wave of his hand.
‘I’ve got my own,’ he said, taking a silver cigarette case from his pocket. He opened it and took a Virginia Bright from inside. The doctor struck a match and the two men shared it.
‘It’s the same old story, son,’ said the doctor, shaking the flame from the match and dropping it onto the table. ‘Victims were dispatched by the usual means. I’d estimate the time of death as between eleven and one last night. No signs of rape. Can’t say much more for now.’ The doctor shrugged and took a long puff on his cigar. ‘What do you say?’ he asked Michael, raising his eyebrows. It was the same expectant look Michael had been seeing increasingly since the murders had started. He peered over to the two corpses lying on the floor, barely a yard from where he and the doctor were chatting.
‘I’d say at about eleven or twelve o’clock last night the Maggios were sitting here in their living room. Wife was sitting over there, reading scripture.’ Michael motioned to the gospel book on the far side of the table. ‘Not sure what the husband was doing. Maybe she was reading it to him. Anyways, he was sat over here, near the sideboard. Killer entered the property from the backyard, because the front’s on a main road, and from the back he just needs to climb the fence. He picked the lock of the kitchen door. What with the yard-fences being so high he could have taken his time. He grabbed the axe from the pile of firewood because I didn’t see any axe there, and the man would have been a fool to carry a weapon with him when he knew there’d be one waiting. The wife heard a noise when the killer stepped through into the living room. She stood up because she’s closest to the kitchen. See how she’s lying on the floor?’ He pointed to the wife’s body. ‘Killer attacked her first. The husband sees what’s happening, tries to grab for something in the sideboard, maybe a gun, in the second drawer down. But he’s too slow. He carries on trying to open the drawer while the killer attacks him, hence the blood on the sideboard. Killer took his time mutilating them. Then he goes to the kitchen and discards the evidence. Leaves the axe, and I guess he washes the blood off his hands and clothes and boots, because there’s specks of blood and mud in the sink. He steps out into the backyard and locks the door from the outside with a pick. ’Course, that’s just conjecture, on account of Patrolman D. Hancock obliterating a crucial piece of evidence in his rush to get in. The killer leaves the property with not a single piece of evidence on him. Not even a bloodstain on the underside of his boot. That’s about the sum of it.’ Michael took a drag on his cigarette and stared at the two bodies again. ‘What I can’t figure out,’ he said slowly, ‘is how the killer got from the wife to the husband without either letting off a scream.’
‘Maybe he struck the wife,’ Dawson suggested, ‘then threw the axe across the room at the husband, you know, Injun style.’ Dawson mimicked what he thought the over-arm action of an Apache might be, to illustrate the point.
Michael and the doctor shared a look. ‘Maybe,’ said Michael. ‘Whatever he did, he did it quick.’
He turned to the two officers who had been taking an inventory of the room but had stopped to listen to Michael’s theory.
‘You two checked the sideboard yet?’ he asked. ‘No, sir,’ said one of the men.
‘Well, let’s see what Mr Maggio was grabbing for.’
He stepped over to the sideboard and opened the bottommost drawer to reveal two stacks of neatly folded linen. He frowned, rummaged around underneath the stacks and came out with a shoebox. He opened it to find a mound of papers – invoices, receipts, the couple’s naturalization papers, and several wads of crisp five-dollar bills.
‘Guess he was trying to buy the killer off,’ said the doctor.
Michael flicked through one of the wads and frowned. The treasury seal was in red ink, a design used exclusively on Federal Reserve notes that hadn’t been issued for nearly five years.
‘These notes are unused,’ said Michael. ‘Crisp as the day they were printed.’
‘So?’ said the doctor with a shrug.
‘So either Maggio got these out of the bank five years ago and they’ve been sitting here ever since, or they’re counterfeits.’
Michael took the shoebox out of the drawer and handed it to Dawson.
‘Get hold of someone from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and check the serial numbers. No one keeps that much money in a sideboard for five years. Specially not in New Orleans.’ Dawson took hold of the shoebox and nodded. Michael lost himself in thought for a moment, and in the silence the sound of the woodpecker rose again to fill the room. ‘What about the graffiti?’ said the doctor. ‘What graffiti?’
Dawson led Michael out to the back yard and round to the side of the building. Scrawled in foot-high spidery brown letters on the side wall of the store were the words:
MRS TENEBRE WILL SIT UP LIKE MRS MAGGIO WHEN I’M THROUGH.
Michael stared at the words and shook his head. Had the Axeman stopped to write them a message? Was he telling them who was next on his list? Was he goading the police for his own amusement, or trying to scare a future victim?
‘Get the Frenchman to take some photos,’ Michael said to Dawson, pointing at the graffiti, ‘then drape something over it before any of the jackasses out front see it. Then get back to the precinct and run a search on every Tenebre in the city, male and female. I want a list on my desk by this afternoon.’
Dawson tipped his hat and rushed off. Michael stood for a moment, hands on hips, then turned around and scanned the yard for a second time. Trash was scattered everywhere: tin cans; newspapers; broken wood from packing crates; an outdoor grill rusted in a corner, warped and unused. All across the space, a carpet of weeds and bushes had grown tall and choked the ground. There was something sad and forlorn about the whole of it. The Maggios had failed to insulate themselves from the dirt of the streets. He thought of his own home briefly, of the crowd outside the store, of the weight of the city’s expectations on his shoulders. Two more victims, and a foot-high message from the killer letting them know another was on the way. Michael shook his head, crossed himself once more, and stepped back inside.
Just to the north of New Orleans, in scrubland outside a farming town called Boutte, stood a handful of barnlike structures surrounded by rings of razor-wire fences and dust-bowl courtyards. The buildings were made of heavy wood and blacked-out windows and were used by the State of Louisiana as a halfway house – a stop-off point for convicts in transit. The prisoners’ barracks were located at the compound’s very center, and when the door of the building was swung open, a sharp clang reverberated across the labyrinth of huts, enclosures and fences.
Two men stepped out into the morning chill and shuffled single-file towards the edge of the courtyard, their shoes crunching a rhythm on the gravel underfoot. The first man was a convict on his way to freedom, having the night before completed a six-year sentence. His hands were cuffed in front of him and he was dressed in a crumpled, moth-eaten suit of sky-blue cotton. He had arrived at sunset the previous day, on the convict transport wagon that journeyed between Boutte and Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary a hundred and twenty miles northwest.
The convict had spent the night in the icy barracks, and had slept well despite the cold, tired as he was from the journey. The wagon took just over a day to travel from the isolated crook in the Mississippi where Angola was located, far up at the very edge of the state. Convicts were never transported after dark, so the Board of Control used the halfway houses as rest stations – this one being the very last link in the barbed-wire daisy-chain that led all the way to New Orleans.
A few minutes after dawn the convict was awoken by the jab of a nightstick in his guts, and now he was being shadowed as he walked by the nightstick’s owner, an ominous man in a royal-blue warden’s uniform, who stared at the prisoner with a slant in his eye. After traversing four courtyards and waiting four times for gateways in fences to be unlocked for them by the guards, they eventually arrived at the compound’s front gate.
‘Patterson!’ shouted the warden.
A toothless streak of a man, with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, appeared in the doorway of a sentry hut and grinned at them. He sauntered out of the hut, approached the bars that lay across the front gate, and undid the locks that kept them in place. Then he heaved the bars back and swung open the gate, its lower edge scraping against the uneven clay of the road.
The warden tapped his nightstick on the prisoner’s shoulder and the prisoner turned to face him. Luca D’Andrea was a slight, dark-haired man in his early fifties, with a face that was both handsome and hollow, brown eyes sparkling under a soft, sorrow-filled brow. The warden removed the cuffs with a jangle of keys, and Luca rubbed his wrists. Then he nodded, as if to say thanks to his captor, and stepped through the gate onto the road outside.
Boutte wasn’t much to look at. The road was rutted and dusty, and on either side scrubland stretched to the horizon, barren save for a few stubby, crippled trees. If there was any point that marked Luca’s transition from a prisoner to a free man, this was it, but he felt no joy, no sense of freedom, just a heavy, anxious uncertainty – the same feeling of dread that had racked him in the months leading up to his release.
During the years of his incarceration he had been given two square meals a day, a place to lay his head, and enough work to stop him pondering the sorry turns his life had taken. From dawn till dusk, six days a week, he had farmed the Manhattan-sized penitentiary estate for the profit of the prison board. Angola had been named after the plantation on which it had been built, and the plantation had been named after the mother country of the slaves that had first worked its land. A fact which led the inmates to muse that when it came to back-breaking regimes, shackles and chains, Angola’s name wasn’t the only fragment of its slaving past that echoed into the present.
Unlike most of the convicts, however, Luca hadn’t begrudged the work. He experienced a serenity in the fields that he had never known before, an acceptance of his place in the world that calmed and reassured him. But now he had no work to keep him from dwelling on memories he’d rather forget, and his days stretched into the future as empty as the scrublands in front of him.
He peered down the road, and thought he could see New Orleans, just about visible on the horizon, dancing in and out of the shimmering mist that clung to the ground. He thought there was something vaguely feminine in the way the image moved through the haze, like a showgirl in a bar.
‘It’s a long way to the Big Easy,’ said a sarcastic, adenoidal voice behind him.
Luca turned to see a thin, swarthy man leaning against the fence opposite, arms folded, smoking a cheap brand of cigarette. John Riley, a familiar but unwelcome face. During Luca’s trial, Riley’s newspaper had run a series of exposés on him, using editorials Riley had written to stoke up public outrage. The reporter smiled at him, reached into his pocket for a cigarette case of tarnished brass and proffered the contents to Luca. Luca peered at the cigarettes, picked one out, and Riley sparked a match for him.
Luca studied Riley’s face and noticed how he had aged. Riley had always sported dark patches around his eyes, but now they were more noticeable, more ingrained, and they were accompanied by hollowness around the cheekbones, a stretched, almost mummified pallor. Riley was a man, thought Luca, who oozed decay.
‘You don’t look too happy, D’Andrea,’ said Riley in his well-heeled staccato. ‘In lieu of a welcoming committee of family and friends, you should be pleased to see me.’
Riley grinned a yellow-toothed grin and Luca took a long drag on his cigarette. Riley was wearing a cream-colored blazer and a straw boater with a red silk band wrapped around the crown. The clothes would have hinted of the Ivy League and rowing clubs and strong-jawed, north-eastern families if they were on anyone but Riley. Instead they looked coarse, somehow, louche even, on the haggard, round-shouldered figure in front of him.
‘I got a car coming,’ continued Riley. ‘Can give you a lift if you like.’
Luca gave the reporter a sideways glance. People like Riley didn’t do favors without expecting something in return, and Luca was in no position to be striking bargains and making pacts.
‘I was thinking I’d walk,’ said Luca, who had been looking forward to strolling in a straight line for as long as he wanted, with no chains around his ankles or barbed-wire fences cutting him off, or gunmen trotting by his side.
‘It’s twenty miles plus to New Orleans,’ said Riley with a frown.
Luca shrugged. ‘What do you want?’ he asked, and the reporter paused.
‘You know how it is,’ he said, his tone plaintive. ‘I didn’t particularly wanna come down here and spoil your big moment, but my editor asked me to get some quotes,’ he explained, throwing his hands into the air, bemoaning the whims of fate.
‘Still haven’t been promoted, then?’ said Luca flatly, and Riley laughed a short, contrived grunt of a laugh.
‘Thanks for the smoke,’ said Luca. He fixed the cigarette between his lips, put his hands in his pockets and started off down the road to New Orleans.
‘Jesus, Luca. I came all this way,’ said Riley, scampering along after him. ‘C’mon, you were always good copy,’ he pleaded.
‘I was good copy when you were stitching me up,’ said Luca.
Riley grimaced and cast a look over Luca’s face.
‘I have to say, chum, you’re looking good,’ Riley said. ‘Most folks age at twice the pace in Angola. You look just the same as the day you was sentenced.’
‘Go to hell,’ said Luca, taking another drag on his cigarette.
Luca hadn’t been expecting his return to New Orleans to be an easy experience. He knew the city was no paradise; it was violent and unforgiving, awash with criminals and immigrant communities that treated one another with hostility and suspicion. But it was also a city with a beguiling energy to it, a bright and opulent charm. For all its segregation and spite, its shabby streets and faded glory, it was easy to become bewitched by the city of New Orleans. And so the whole time Luca was in Angola he couldn’t help feeling that when he returned, he would be entering a better world. That the slime of the prison life would wash off him like some kind of amniotic fluid. But now, as he looked at Riley, he wondered if he wasn’t just exchanging one kind of slime for another.
‘Well, how’s about that,’ said Riley. ‘I tell you what, on this day of new beginnings, let’s turn over a new leaf? Start afresh?’
Luca was about to send another curse Riley’s way when he stopped and sighed. Something about the prospect of new beginnings tugged at his conscience. Maybe if he gave Riley what he wanted the man would leave him in peace.
‘What do you wanna know?’ Luca said, and Riley’s smile returned.
‘Just the usual,’ said the reporter. ‘How was your time in Angola? How’s it feel to be outta that convict garb? What’s your view on the state’s correctional facilities now you’ve seen them from the other side?’
Luca gave Riley a look. ‘You didn’t come down here to ask me that,’ he said. ‘Not even the Louisiana State Prison Board gives a shit about the state of its correctional facilities. Your readership sure as hell ain’t gonna give a damn.’
Riley screwed up his face. ‘Still sharp as a tack, huh, Luca?’ he said. ‘You know, some men get out and their brains’ve gone to mush. Not you, though.’ Riley tipped his hat at Luca with a smirk. ‘What’s your view on the Axeman murders?’ he said.
Luca frowned and peered at him. ‘What Axeman murders?’ he asked, and Riley nodded knowingly.
‘Word didn’t reach you during your sojourn at the state’s expense? A crazy Zulu’s been running around town killing Italian grocers. Six weeks since the first attack and your old pal Talbot, who’s in charge of the case, is making no headway. Making a mess of it, in actual fact, and people are getting rightly upset.’
Luca noticed a light wind whipping dust along the road towards New Orleans. Times had changed, he thought: now it was Michael’s turn to have his name dragged through the mud. Luca had tried to keep abreast of changes in the city. As inmates arrived in Angola they brought with them news of the outside world, and Luca had listened in earnest to these prison-yard dispatches. He’d heard of the Great War, of the Great Hurricane, of the Influenza Pandemic, of Storyville being closed down; he’d even heard of the new type of music that was, according to the Negro inmates, engulfing the city. He knew the Eighteenth Amendment had been passed and prohibition was just around the corner, and he wondered what it would do to the tinderbox of clashing interests that was New Orleans. But amidst all this news of upheaval and strife, Luca had heard nothing of the goings-on in the police force, or of his old protégé.
‘What’s it got to do with me?’ he asked.
‘Well, seeing as you got history with Talbot, the boss and I were hoping, in his hour of need, you’d supply the Schadenfreude. I mean, it’s only because he squealed on you that he got promoted. If he’s not fit for the job it’s kinda funny you getting released just at the point people are beginning to notice.’
Riley breathed deeply, having trouble talking, smoking and keeping up with Luca’s brisk pace all at the same time.
‘Kinda like the chickens coming home to roost,’ he wheezed. ‘At least, that’s the angle the ed wants. Ironic.’
He peered at Luca, waiting for an answer, but Luca stayed silent, his eyes fixed on the horizon, on the distant image of New Orleans in the mist. He was trying to make out once again the dancer in the mirage, but all he could see now was a swirl of dust, sunrays and dew.
‘No one cares what I think,’ he said. ‘People’ll believe what they wanna believe. I learned that much during the trial.’
Riley nodded, and they strode on a little further without talking. Over the fields on either side of them a murder of crows angled and swooped, letting out piercing, nervy squawks.
‘Don’t you have anything you want to say?’ said Riley after a while, his tone softer, pleading. ‘It’s because of Talbot you spent the last six years in a cell. I mean, he was supposed to be your protégé.’
Luca made a valiant effort not to let his spirits sink, and tried not to think of betrayal. He stopped and turned to face Riley, and Riley instinctively took a step back.
‘Five years,’ said Luca calmly. ‘I got one off for good behavior.’ He took a last drag on the cigarette, flicked it onto the road and swiped it out with his boot. ‘Michael did the right thing,’ he continued, ‘I don’t hold him no grudges. I just wanna start my life off again. No vendettas, no living in the past. All I wanna do now is get to New Orleans, eat some food that ain’t half-rotten and covered in roaches, buy me a drink, and maybe buy me a woman. Put that in your paper.’
Luca turned and strode off down the road and Riley watched him go, a perplexed expression on his face.
‘Luca, haven’t you heard?’ he shouted. ‘You can’t buy a woman no more! The Navy outlawed the brothels!’
Luca ignored him and carried on down the long, dusty road to New Orleans.
Excerpted from The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. Copyright © 2014 by Ray Celestin.
First published 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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