III. UN BALLO IN MASCHERA.
The Maori of New Zealand say you shouldn’t start a story and not finish it. It’s not good—not good for the soul. To tell the truth, my outing to the muddy banks of the Mississippi by English Turn with detective Gresham yielded no more clues to the death of Billy Gordon. I knew it wouldn’t. I did, however, learn from detective Gresham that they had found a gold chain and a small skull around the remains of the boy’s neck. It was like the chain and skull that Arthur wore one day to Mass. They sell those chains and skulls at the Internet Café. Detective Gresham said I should look into that connection. Perhaps that café is where our killer first sees his victims.
I wanted to use the drive to talk to detective Gresham and to get to know him more, too. Besides, who can resist an adventure with a handsome young man? As we approach English Turn, detective Gresham tells me he comes from an old, moneyed New Orleans family.
“I don’t have to work if I don’t want to,” he says. He is neither proud nor humble about this fact of his life.
“A man must have a purpose beyond pleasure,” he says. “I could spend my days planning our krewe’s Mardi Gras ball and parade,” but all that seems empty to me, so, I became a police officer.”
With his family connections, he rose to the level of detective in no time.
Then detective Gresham shared with me an insight. That insight led me to conclude he was wise beyond his years.
“The problem with our murderer is that he is a bad artist, but does not realize it,” he said. “Our villain thinks death can preserve beauty is some imaginary deep freeze. Death preserves nothing. Only life can be beautiful. That is why adolescent beauty was so vital for the ancient Greeks and is preserved in the Church.”
I was silent for a moment, thinking about what he said. I looked out the car window and saw the sunlight dancing of the muddy river as it made its way with all that it carries from up north to Head of Passes. I want him to go on, to say something about the gentle sadness we feel when we are startled by beauty while knowing it is passing, but this is not the time for a lecture on aesthetics. We have a murderer to catch. I am delighted to be part of the chase, and sense the excitement the detective feels, something like what a hound must feel, hot on the sent of a fox.
The next morning, while saying Mass, I have a hard time concentrating. My mind keeps going back to that lonely spot on the river and the ruin of a young life. I sense Arthur behind me and feel his beauty radiate like a glow that highlights the gold of the altar. He is the perfect server to this sacrifice. He is the living metaphor, the sacrificial lamb, a male without blemish. I have never had a vision of the beautiful angels that surround the Throne of Heaven, but I have seen beauty in the flesh, here. It hurts, especially when you grow older.
After I finish praying the Lord’s Prayer and say, “Et ne nos inducas in tentationem; sed libera nos a malo,” I feel a warm glow around my heart. Yes, Lord, free us from evil. Free us, too, from all who cannot make the choice for life instead of death. Free us from all who would harm Arthur and his like.
When Mass is over, I ask Arthur to tell me more about the Internet Café he and his friends go to after school.
“It’s a cool place,” he says. We mostly play games online like “The Walking Dead.
“The Walking Dead?” I ask. “Is that about New Orleans politicians?
“No, Father.” Arthur says, smiling. “It’s about zombies.”
“Will you go with me to the Internet Café where you bought your chain and skull.” I ask.
“Gee, Father, I don’t know, all my friends hang out there. What would they say?”
“It’s an important favor to me, Arthur. I will explain my reasons later.”
Arthur pauses for a moment, then says. “OK, Father. Let’s go, then.”
“Do you sell many of these chains and skulls,” I ask the clerk at the Internet Café. He’s a young man dressed in Goth black, with a piercing anywhere he could place one. His black hair is waxed into spikes with red tips. Looking around I see the first half of the shop is cluttered with the paraphernalia of witchcraft and voodoo. To the rear, the other half is filled with banks of computer stalls.
“Some, every now and then,” he says. “The high school kids like them.”
“Not really. Just the guy who bought fifteen last month.”
“Yeah. He said he was having a costume party. You know those rich people down by English Turn.”
“I believe they call those parties “masquerade balls” when rich people have them,” Arthur interrupts.
“My goodness, Arthur, you have been reading,” I say surprised, turning my attention from the clerk to Arthur.
“I got the credit card receipt right here,” the clerk interrupts.
I sense he either wants to help me or impress Arthur.
“See. I was right. Look here. Rodney Gains from English Turn,” he says.
“Thank you, young man. You have been more than helpful. I’d like to hear more about what you sell at the cafe and the Internet, but I have to hurry back to the rectory, now. Perhaps next week, I will return.”
“Sure, Father, any time.
“Let’s go, Arthur. We have research to do. Tomorrow, when you come for morning Mass, I want you to bring me your skull and chain.”
Once back at the church, I decided to look into the background of the family for whom old Monsignor Reynolds had recently said a marriage Mass. The next day I went to the library and got on the Internet.
Mr. Fulton Gaines was the only son of a father whose family made a fortune in cotton. The family managed to hold on to their wealth, even during the War Between the States. Fulton married late in life after military service and extensive travel in Europe. Then he was made a judge because of his political connections. He had a daughter, Melissa, and a son, Rodney. It was his son, Rodney, who Monsignor Reynolds married recently.
I made a few phone calls to well placed sources. I learned that Rodney Gaines was a troubled young man. His marriage was not a solution to his problems, but instead it aggravated them. Although Rodney’s father tried to keep quiet his son’s expulsion for St. Alban’s Seminary, word got out. Then there was the unfortunate pregnancy of that girl that forced his marriage. “He does not love her,” a confidant maintained. He got her pregnant to prove something to his fraternity brothers, but the rumors are that he is really gay. Ask the guys in his fraternity house who he did and did not hit on. Still, because of the ultimatum he got from his father, get married or no inheritance, the pregnancy worked to Rodney’s advantage,
“Here’s the Craigslist add we think Rodney Gains answered,” detective Marc said, smoothing a folded paper from his coat pocket onto the breakfast table.
“Discreet teen slut wants some new dick – 18, white, 116lbs, 5’7″. English Turn area. I like it rough. Totally into rape play, tying up, all that. Fuck my boy pussy hard. You should be white, in shape, and drug free. I’ve never done anything with anyone over 30 so I’m ready to try, guess my limit is 35.”
“So, Billy was sixteen, but pretending to me eighteen?” I ask.
“Yep,” detective Marc answers. “That way he could place an add and hook up with a john. He was making enough money hustling to buy drugs and share a room with some other hustlers on Decatur by the Old Mint. When someone discovered he wasn’t eighteen, well, things might have gotten out of hand. Eighteen is prostitution, whereas sixteen is rape. You’re looking at jail time when you have sex with a sixteen year old in Louisiana,” detective Marc says.
“Is that why you think he murdered Billy?” I ask.
“As good a reason as any,” detective Marc says. “Especially, when you’re crazy and your family will cover for you because they’re rich.”
“A real life “balo in maschera” with mistaken identities,” I suggest.
“And betrayal and politics, too.”
“But why would he dump the body in the river so close to home?”
“I don’t think the murder was committed by English Turn. It probably happened some place up river. Gretna, perhaps. It was just Rodney’s bad luck that the kid floated down river to almost his doorstep.”
“The floating dead, not the walking dead,” I say, hoping to add some wit to an otherwise grim discussion.
“Do you think he killed other young men, Father?”
If his attempt at confession is any indication, my answer is yes, but we need evidence to prove that. Right now we are building a good case for what happened in New Orleans.”
“What a shame,” I say. “He had many advantages. Now he may be a New Orleans’ serial killer.”
“He won’t be the first,” detective Marc adds. “Even if Rodney Gains is the serial killer of beautiful boys, then he would not be our most famous serial. The dubious honor of being the most famous serial killer in New Orleans goes to the Axeman. In the early 1900s, he terrorized the city. To this day the crimes have not been solved.”
“What happened?” I ask.
The murders stopped as suddenly as they had begun. Unlike our “altar boy” murderer, who everyone wants to hush up, because it involves teenage boys, the Axeman got press coverage every day. The press even published a letter purportedly written by him just before the murders stopped. Here is a copy. I keep it in my desk as a reminder: ‘…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…If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people…’”
“Well, you could hear New Orleans Jazz all the way up to New York City that night.
“Thank you for taking the time to see us, Judge Gaines, detective Gresham says. “This is my associate, Father…”
“Yes, I know him from St. Sebastian’s,” the judge says, interrupting Marc before he can finish.
“We were honored to marry your son and his beautiful bride,” I say. I want to be diplomatic.
From the parlor of the Gains’ mansion on Fairway Oaks Drive, Palladium windows open unto a view of the grounds. On a clear day, you may see across the pond to the golf course, but today a gray mist hangs over everything. The Gains mansion at English Turn was built in the 60s, and then remodeled after Katrina. Stepping inside is like going back in time two hundred years. Antiques are everywhere. Thickly woven red and blue oriental carpets highlight the polished floors. A crystal chandelier hangs like a spider of light from the foyer ceiling.
“Come, have a seat,” the judge says, gesturing with his had to the library.
When we enter into the library, I notice there is a faint odor of old things that were not carried into the present with care. It is the odor of dust and damp drapes. It is the odor of old books and money, but not the odor of gold. The judge owns many things from the past, but seems to care for few of them. He strikes me as a man of glass, not a man of gold. I understand anew why the body of Christ is kept in the tabernacle on the altar ever fresh in gold.
“Is your son home?” detective Gresham asks.
“I’m sorry. He left this morning to join his wife in Europe. Please, may I offer you a drink?” Judge Gains asks us.
I wanted a sherry, but when detective Gresham refused because he was on duty, I decided against it.
The judge is a portly man, balding, but impeccably dressed is a dark, three-piece suit. He wears a ring on the large fingers of both hands. The judge has held his seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court or many years, now, and is due to retire. Nevertheless, will not make the decision to retite. Many are indifferent to his being on the court because he always rules with the majority. No one can remember him involved in any controversy. People remember his son’s parties more than they remember his legal decisions.
“When do you expect him to return?” detective Marc asks. “We were hoping to talk with him about a police matter.”
“I believe they will be in Paris about two weeks,” the judge answered. Can I be of help?
“Is that your son in the portrait hanging behind you?” I ask.
“Yes. I had it commissioned right after he graduated from college.”
“He’s a handsome young man.”
“With a beautiful and fortunate wife, I might add,” the judge says.
I realized from the painting that Rodney would age well. His youthful beauty would mature but not be lost. As the ancient Greeks knew, beauty is beautiful even in autumn.
When detective Marc nods to me, I take the skull and chain from my pocket and show it to the judge. “Do you recognize this?”
The judge protests, and claims he never saw such a thing. “What does any of this have to do with my son? If you want to talk to him when he returns, I will have my lawyer here as well.”
“Well, what do you think?” I ask detective Gresham as we leave the driveway of the Gaines’ mansion.
“It’s Louisiana. The rich will always take care of their own.”
We were mostly silent on the drive back to New Orleans, listening to police banter on the radio. Charles Bukowsi wrote, “New Orleans was a place to hide. I could piss away my life, unmolested. Except for the rats.” I wonder if Billy Gordon ever read that description of New Orleans. Why did he come here in the first place? Did his beauty make an appointment with death he was unable to cancel?
Many men want another life. That’s why they come to New Orleans. They want to be beautiful so they will be loved. They want beauty to love them so they will feel worthy. Do you blame them? Look at the condition of the world. Adam made us all orphans.
Men do many strange things in the name of love or the distortion of love that we may call obsession. How many came here, if not slaves to cotton or to their passions? I have been in New Orleans ten years now, and I am still wondering about this settlement where the river is deepest and the current is strongest.
A light rain begins to fall as we drive. The gray of the sky seeps into the gray of the river. Atmosphere is a constant, so I feel for the moment one with the French colonials who first came here. They had to accommodate the heat and the swamp, while holding on to the sacraments. Because there is no stone here, they made their churches out of wood. There was no snow, either, just cotton. They carried across an ocean the book that said, “Deus caritas est,” God is love.
When we reach the ferry dock at Algiers, detective Marc asks, “Would you like to be my guest for lunch at Commander’s Palace?”
“That would be nice. I’m famished.”
“I’d like to talk with you about your old lover.”
“What makes you think I had a lover?”
“I’m a detective.”
“And a damn good one I’m proud to say.”
“I may be a good detective, but I’m hardly a good lover,” detective Marc adds. Outside, an attendant wearing a lime green safety vest signals us to get in line for the lower deck of the ferry.
The unmarked police cruiser rattles and clangs over the gangplank onto the ferry. Detective Marc breaks the car, and looks at me. “You know,” he says, “Every time I hear that clanging sound I think of the drag of chains, and the slave market that used to be here in Algiers.”
It’s been two weeks since the accident that killed Rodney Grimes in a flaming crash on Highway 23 near Belle Chasse. Fortunately, no one else was killed in the car crash. Only the cypress tree was scarred by the impact of Rodney’s silver Bentley going up in flames. Rodney’s grieving wife has decided to remain in Paris, indefinitely. Since then, no more bodies of boys have shown up in the river.
The dark confessions have also ended. Just ordinary sinners come for mercy, now. They return home resolved to try harder. Arthur is safe and studies Latin with me. The other day he asked me what pronunciation of “Cicero” I prefer. I told him among friends you could call him Tully. Arthur plans to attend St. Alban’s Seminary next year. If he does well in Latin, I’m certain I can get him a scholarship.
Detective Gresham is a frequent visitor for breakfast at the rectory, now. Yesterday, he said we must turn our attention to other matters. Two gay tourists from the Netherlands have gone missing from their hotel. They were last seen talking to a dark, shadowy figure at Blinkers, a gay bar in the Quarter.
It seems a few of our New Orleans residents are no longer limiting their fatal interests to pimps and drug dealers. New agreements will have to be negotiated with them. The services of a priest are needed. Reports from those who walk around Jackson Square in the early morning fog are also adding to our suspicions. Cloaked figures have been seen in the shadows where they should not be, then flap away into the fog.
Robert Klein Engler lives in Des Plaines, Illinois and sometimes New Orleans. Many of Robert’s poems, stories, paintings and photographs are set in the Crescent City. His long poem, The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering.is published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He has received an Illinois Arts Council award for his “Three Poems for Kabbalah.” If you google his name, you may find his work on the Internet, or link with him at Facebook.com to see examples of his recent paintings and photographs. Some of his books are available at Lulu.com and amazon.com. Visit him on the web at RobertKleinEngler.com.
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