Mask


By J. T. Seate



New Orleans is an odd combination of the familiar and the strange, as intoxicating and exotic as the mix of humanity that inhabits it. I crossed paths with someone unique on a late October night near Canal Street in a strip club called the Mad Hatter. While two uniforms cuffed a dancer called Charity and placed her in the back of a patrol car, a shimmering red blouse appeared next to me. In it was a ravishing brunette who was put together like a Greek statue with arms.

"Excuse me." Her voice was low and husky. "Charity's a good kid. Give her a break."

I swiveled toward the woman. Her red blouse revealed the tops of alabaster breasts stacked as nicely as feathered pillows. The rest of her was just as delectable, built like a Marvel comic book character come to life. "And you are?"

The female observed me with green-eyed solemnity. "Stella Barton. I'm the den mother around here."

"Head stripper, huh? Well, Stella, it appears one of your cubs got careless at home and let a butcher knife slice through a guy's neck instead of the watermelon."

"The cad she's been living with? He's dead?"

"Charles LeBeaux. As dead as Rudy Valle's comeback."

Stella's bosom swelled. "She's better off, but you're wrong about Charity. She's a rabbit. She'd run first."

"This is New Orleans," I reminded this red-lipped doll. "Impulsive behavior is practically expected. We'll be taking your statement at a later time, Miss Barton."

"Would you ask Charity to call me the minute you finish working her over. She'll need a place to stay while your boys are playing around in her apartment."

"Unless the boys downtown decide to book her tonight," I said, more interested in Stella's shape than her words. "We'll let her make a phone call when we're through."

"See that you do, Detective...?"

"Peters. Detective William Peters."

Stella shot me a look designed to drop charging elephants, all business and sass. Then she turned on a dime and walked away with a swaggering wiggle that said, "I'm your wildest dream." Male catnip. I stuck a Camel between my lips, thumbed open my Zippo, and leaned the cigarette into its flame. Stella's sculpted torso probably drew more customers into the Mad Hatter than a hole in a window screen draws flies. I idly wondered how many poor slobs had braced her over the years only to discover a cougar rather than kitten.

I followed the black and white in my unmarked car and thought about all the dames who'd snapped due to some abusive piece of garbage. I knew well the savagery of which humankind was capable. But my mind returned to the luscious form of Stella Barton. She was the kind of dame who could make a man climb walls. Her body represented not only sex, but hopes and dreams. The fresh source of sustenance tantalized me.

After spending most of the night grilling Marilyn Goosebaum, a.k.a. Charity, and asking if she knew anyone who might benefit by turning the dearly departed Charley into a morgue job, we let her go. I knew she hadn't committed the crime. Most of these naive girls from small towns wouldn't see the evil in Jack the Ripper if you showed them pictures of his six dead hookers.

A Packard Coupe picked Charity up. I went home to my small riverfront apartment which was slowly sinking into the Mighty Mississippi. A breeze rippled through the trees carrying a whisper of death along with the scent of the river. It was Friday, a busy night for brawls. I idly wondered how many drunken Cajuns would carve one another into 'gator bait by Monday morning.

A lonely foghorn somewhere upriver reminded me of twisted hopes and broken dreams, a longing for something which seemed just out of reach. I fought the familiar tug of a dangerous thirst. Instead, I indulged in two of my three vices: Booze and the Blues.

* * *

The next morning I called Miss Barton and requested her presence at the station. She arrived in the late afternoon. She looked prim and proper compared to the night before, more like a society dame who'd just come from a Garden District soiree than the madam of a strip joint. Her raven hair was pinned up highlighting her long neck. The fading sunlight from a window wrapped around her nicely.

Stella spent an hour and a half telling everything she knew about Charity's whereabouts on previous evenings and what she knew of the deceased now residing on a slab in the morgue as cold as a dime's worth of baloney with a big smile carved into his neck and a red tag tied around his big toe. Her gaze was cool and detached. I talked calmly, making sure not to ask pointed questions. The who, where, and when's fell sensually from her mouth.

"Thanks for not giving me the third degree," she said so pleasantly I almost believed her.

"You mean the spotlight and the rubber hose? We got rid of those a couple of months ago."

"I mean for taking me seriously. Most of you gumshoes take me for a high-class bimbo."

Another cigarette died and was entombed in an ashtray. A thin trail of moisture glistened in Stella's décolletage. I tried to keep my eyes trained on hers, but that little wet trickle got in the way. Even as she sat in the metal chair, Stella Barton moved with the sensual promise of what could be, every inch of her shouting, "Female."

"So, are there any more questions, Detective Peter, or can I go home and take a hot bath?"

"That's Peters, Miss Barton." I had no other reason to hold her except to wonder what kind of underwear she wore to compliment the garter belt and hosiery most dames sported these days. "That's all for now, but please — "

"Don't leave town, like they say in the movies," she said petulantly.

"I was going to say, call me if you think of anything else that might help."

"Sure thing, Peters." She stubbed out her fifth butt, uncrossed her legs and stood. "I'll call the minute the real killer confesses to me."

There were enough bodies loitering around the station to cast a De Mille epic. I led Stella past the normal assemblage of cops, boozed-up rednecks, and hookers, through the heavy scents of sweat and musk to the double doors leading out of the station.

"Maybe we could have a drink some night you're off," I heard myself saying.

Stella stared at me, her eyes dancing with frantic energy, as if she could see into my soul. A rye smile softened her features. "In my business there aren't any nights off except Sunday. I don't much care to drink on my night off."

"Maybe dinner then?"

She eyeballed me from underneath long, sooty lashes. "You know where to find me, Detective."

Stella sashayed down the steps toward her Packard Coupe, the same vehicle that collected Charity the night before. That sway could not only stop traffic but make it go backward. Her smart-mouth hadn't done much for me, but the way she moved sure as hell did.

The earthy tones from a distant saxophone floated on a zephyr. Damned fool asking her for a date. I listened to the staccato of Stella's high heels attacking the sidewalk and grow faint with each deliberate step, mocking me. A burp of smoke curled from her Coupe's exhaust as the vehicle disappeared into the haze of twilight. The moon was a golden glob of honey camouflaged just slightly in a cradle of cirrus. The breeze off the river caressed my face like a woman's hands. I breathed deep and tasted the fragrance of the city. It was a night made for contact of some kind.

Stella was no tramp who would do a guy for postage stamps, or support some yo-yo like Charity had apparently done. She was a sliver under my skin, like something stuck to my shoe, something I couldn't shake off, but I brought my attention back to the homicide case. If you let your mind drift too far, somebody will steal your wallet.

I muddled through some bureaucratic paperwork and then slung my jacket over my arm, put on my snap-brimmed fedora and left the station. Although my stomach was getting sore at me, there was an uncomfortable undertow to my thoughts. I drove by the Mad Hatter wondering if I really wanted to see Stella's metamorphosis from her sweetheart street-wear into some sleazy getup which surely included pasties and a slip of material over her garden of delight.

The backbeat of a drum and laughter emanated from the place — two earthy, fundamental sounds of New Orleans. Across the street, a cone of sallow light from a streetlamp illuminated two figures standing in a doorway. I could almost smell the scent of warm bodies and cheap cologne. I hung a Camel from my lip and reached for my lighter. I held the shiny object, turning it over in my hand, rubbing my thumb against its smooth surfaces and thought how Stella's skin might feel. I lit up. The tip flared red in the gloom as I inhaled deeply, letting the nicotine wander soothingly through my lungs. I exhaled slowly, wishing the escaping smoke would expunge a few of my demons along with it.

My thoughts leapfrogged from Stella to Charity, to the corpse lying in the morgue with the new mouth carved into his neck like a homemade party mask, to the violent nature of the human species. I looked at the couple in the doorway one last time. I was overwhelmed with emptiness, tortured by loneliness and an urgent hunger, realizing the laws of lust are as immutable as the laws of nature. Then I flipped the cigarette out the window, dropped the clutch and drove away, letting life move on for everyone else.

On the river, a lone horn wailed a single note, deep and mournful. And the tug of my third vice was stronger than ever.

* * *

The phone rang at six Sunday morning cutting through layers of sleep like a cat's claw. I bolted upright into wakefulness, tripping over a bad dream. My eyelids snapped open like a runaway shade.

"What," I asked, already knowing the answer.

At 8AM, I was at the crime scene. A street cop started a rambling dialogue of the situation.

"Do me a favor, Sarge. Pretend I'm your wife and skip the foreplay," I told him.

"Here it is. Another slug was opened up at the throat last night, cut from ear to ear, just like the last one."

I nodded and entered the room where the fresh kill rested. The body lay splayed on the kitchen floor with a gaping, funhouse grin under his chin. His dead skin was the color of rain-soaked newspaper, his life blood spilled like oil through a blown gasket. I decided to revisit the queen of the Mad Hatter, one Ms. Barton.

10AM in the French Quarter. I parked my jalopy in front of a marble statue of a Confederate soldier covered with pigeon drippings. A wisp of steam rose from wet pavement reminding me of things left unburied in a city carrying something otherworldly from its nooks and crannies, and above-ground cemeteries. This was a town shrouded with superstition and only as safe as the strength of its levies. But the soul of the city — Vieux Carre — had a strong, resilient heartbeat.

The elegant decadence of Mardi Gras hung in the air like overripe fruit to accompany those feelings of otherworldliness and passion — all of it reminders of why I stayed in this mosquito-laden Parrish.

A group of kids strolled in my direction. When they saw me, they quieted and parted to go around me like a stream around a boulder. I felt sure they sensed something better left undisturbed about me. I reflected on the thin line between life and death, between these kids and the scene I'd witnessed only hours before. It's a flimsy mask that divides beauty and ugliness, between innocence and a bloodbath. But this wasn't the time to dwell on how quickly the barrier could be penetrated. I had other fish to fry.

Beyond a wrought-iron gate stood a courtyard draped with wisteria vines and dappled with shadows from an ancient live oak. It dripped tattered banners of dusty Spanish moss. A wind-chime hung on a branch. It tinkled in a faint breeze. Ghost music. A serenade for the dead. I climbed the balcony to Stella's bungalow and knocked on the door. The metal peephole opened. A greenish-gray eye the color of fine Burmese jade studied my face. I listened to locks disengage and a chain slide free.

Stella looked at me with a lazy smile. My subconscious could smell the nicotine on her lips which called to me like a naked woman riding a wild stallion.

"It is Sunday, Detective Peters, but couldn't you have called first?"

She wore an elegant silk robe which sculpted her body into an amazing thing. She might as well have been wrapped in a package that read, Danger: Handle with Care. Her business, after all, was to elicit the very response I was having.

"Are you alone?"

"Isn't everyone?"

"You look like a million bucks," I told her.

Small upturns lit the corners of her mouth. "In Confederate money maybe, this time of day."

A sense of humor. A radio sat in a corner of the bungalow's living room. Big band music for lovers was playing. It wasn't the Blues, but it wasn't bad.

Stella turned the radio down. "You know, detective, you could see more of me than this for a buck a drink at the club."

She looked more beautiful than the photo of the dead movie star that graced the cover of Silver Screen laying on an end table. "Don't get me wrong, doll. I'm not looking to see you that way. I mean..."

"Relax. I guess I'd rather have you show up than a couple of thugs with bent noses and eyes like bloodhounds. Sit down and I'll pour you a cup of coffee, unless you would prefer something stiffer to soothe whatever ails you."

"Coffee's fine." I sat on one end of the living room sofa. Stella returned from the kitchen with two steaming cups of java and sat on the opposite end, a fresh fag lodged between her first and second fingers. The sight made me hunger for a Camel, but I merely took a sip from the cup and watched the languid ribbon of smoke rise alongside her face forming a hypnotic sway that pleaded for company.

"Can you tell me where Charity has been since you picked her up at the station?"

"Yes. She stayed with me that night, and then with a friend last night. Why?"

"There was another homicide last night, not far from where Charity and her chum, LeBeaux, were shacked up. This guy's throat was slashed from ear to ear with a straight razor, same MO as LeBeaux. If your friend can confirm Charity's whereabouts, she might be in the clear."

"I'm sure Janie will say Charity and she were together the entire time. So this clears her?"

"Let's just say whoever did the deed last night got their cutting lessons at the same school."

Stella took a deep drag on her cigarette and exhaled slowly, seductively. "That is very good news. Not about another stiff, I mean the fact that it had nothing to do with Charity."

My eyes traced their way up Stella's long neck to her deep icy pools that sparkled through a greenish-gray landscape. "There is another connection. The type of character this stiff happened to be."

"You mean another loser, working over his old lady, someone who deserved what he got?"

"That's pretty close."

"The fewer like them, the better." She placed her smoke in an ashtray, raised her arms, and ran her hands through her hair as if to comb out whatever thoughts lodged in her pretty head.

"Let me tell you a story," Stella said. "I had a cute little trick working for me a couple of years back. She was taken in by this sweet-talking customer. I told her he was bad news, but she was headstrong, hadn't been around much. Can you guess what happened?"

"I have a pretty good idea."

"He ended up torturing and killing her." Stella was a volcano ready to blow. And still, she was beautiful. "Thanks to a magnificent job by your cronies at NOPD, they never caught him."

"Take it easy, Stella. I sympathize."

Stella observed me closely. "Sorry, flat fo...Bill. I guess that's a little harsh. Your job isn't easy, scraping victims off the walls and trying to find their killers, but what has your case got to do with Charity now?"

"Nothing. It has to do with you."

My final word hung in the air between us. Stella's hands dropped from her black mane. "Look. I don't know what your angle is, but I'm just a hardworking gal looking out for my girls," she said with an edge that could have cut a diamond. "Whatever you're trying to buy, Peters, I'm not selling. I'm not looking to get cozy with a cop. Get the picture?"

"In Technicolor, but I've been looking for you, Stella. In fact, you're exactly the person I've been looking for."

"What makes me so special?"

I looked at the stubborn set of her jaw and dove to the heart of the matter. "Get this news flash and hang on to it. I found something at the crime scene this morning. A tube of lipstick. I believe I could make a strong case about who it belongs to."

"That's ridiculous."

"There have been several murders around town in recent months. Some cut, some shot. There's been a similarity to all of them — men who abuse those weaker than themselves. Pretty, isn't it? Just the kind of man you profess to despise, guys who you'd as soon cut up as look at, bottom-feeders who deserve what they get."

Stella jumped to her feet nearly upending the coffee table. "Now wait a minute, buster, you can't hang this rap on me. I can find alibis a mile long and two miles wide concerning my whereabouts on almost any night you pick."

"Maybe, but I'm guessing your fingerprints are all over that little gold tube, and maybe a cigarette butt with your brand of war paint."

"You really think I would kill because I have a low opinion of men who use women? If I wanted to do some joker in, I'd poison the SOB. You can't mean you'd let me take the fall...wait a minute." She dashed to the far side of the room and picked up her purse.

I stood and walked up behind her. I was pretty sure she didn't carry a heater inside her bag, but you can never be absolutely sure of anything when dealing with a cornered female.

"When did you take it?" she asked angrily. "When I used the powder room at the station or when you escorted me out? I wasn't carved out of a wet mouse turd yesterday, ya know."

I took her by the shoulders and spun her toward me. "Simmer down, doll face. Don't pop your cork."

She held out her wrists. "Are you going to cuff me? I bet you like to play with handcuffs?"

"Don't worry, sister. I won't tell if you won't." I took her hands in mine. "I'm not planning to give the evidence to the lab boys."

"Did you pull that little stunt because you believe I'm a murderess?" Her tear ducts were on the verge of springing a leak.

"If I pulled a stunt, it's because I like the way you think. And even more, I like the way you look. We're not on opposite sides. I admire your swagger, your shape, the cut of your jib."

"I don't understand. What about the murders?"

"I think you will appreciate me all the more when I tell you last night's murder was necessary to give Charity an alibi."

Stella looked at me with curiosity.

"I've established an alibi for one of your little chickens. Last night's execution should keep the NOPD from dropping on the Mad Hatter like a bunch of dive-bombing pelicans. And I'm not going to implicate you."

"I still don't get your angle. Why the phony evidence?"

"I know you're the woman who can replace one of my three vices with something more wholesome. I hate those little punks that smack women around as much as you and I have more names on a list I keep in my noggin. That's an important thing to remember. Never keep anything that will tie you to a crime. Protecting you and your girls from further accusations isn't too high a price to pay, is it? Nobody knows I'm following up with you and nobody needs to. We're on the same team, you and me."

"So you swat away the bad guys like they were mosquitoes?"

"Like the scum they are."

"A rogue cop just looking out for my best interests as long as I play ball, huh?"

"Looking out for our best interests. The only justice in this world is what you create yourself, chere."

Stella looked at me in a new light. "You're a very strange man."

"One of a kind. Aren't you the lucky one?"

"They say there's something in a man's eyes that always gives away his vices. I think I can see it now."

"My vices have rather large appetites." She now knew the power I could wield. What we knew could land both of us in water hot enough to boil crawfish. She looked trapped, but I wanted her to feel the thrill of a new relationship enriched with an enticing secret. "Relax. It'll be good, you'll see. We will be a rhapsody. Moonlight and magnolias."

Stella's face reflected resignation as if suddenly realizing she'd struck a deal with the devil. Her voice took on the quality of a caress. "I get it."

I lit two Camels with my trusty Zippo. I was glad I had her, but she had me also, not that anyone would believe her. She was quite a prize, but others would see no more than an uptown stripper who fell for a flat foot investigating a homicide.

Stella's radio was playing Bennie Goodman's rendition of Begin the Beguine. It seemed like the right song for the two of us to start a relationship on. While her mind would always be a work in progress, I could possess her body which might help on nights when she, a little booze, and Billie Holliday seemed too little to replace my urge to play a different kind of rhapsody, to make the city a safer place for women.

That's all I've done, really. Not such a terrible vice, but perhaps the hours of pretending to investigate acts I've committed could be better spent with Stella, willingly or unwillingly, in my arms.

The veil of cigarette smoke was thick in the air, forming an undulating cocoon around the two of us. The room suddenly seemed as small as a phone booth. She had nothing to say about my plans for her. A lot of talk always means lies. It goes along with the protective mask everyone wears, not just on Mardi Gras, but year round.

Stella opened her eyes slowly as if they were the counterbalanced lids of a doll's eyes. It was a little spooky even for a man who had done the things I'd done. An odd stillness came over her.

"I'll cook up a couple of steaks, Bill," she finally said. "I have a special spicy Cajun sauce I think you'll like."


J. T. Seate's publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs. This is his third short story to appear in omdb! online.

Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com, www.whispershome.com, and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.


Copyright © 2013 J. T. Seate. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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