Cruel Woman Blues
Behind us, the river was the New Orleans skyline alit with neon. Chilly late December and Carla's sweater felt soft and warm to the touch. With only flickering lights across the river illuminating the upper deck, it was hard to know where her sweater began and her dark hair ended. It didn't seem to matter as she stared at the top of the International Trade Mart.
"What a view," she said. "Lights and river sounds."
"No place like it in the world."
"Wyatt, you just like it cause it's free."
"It's not free. I paid a dollar, didn't I?"
"I paid the dollar," Carla said.
Despite her chiding, Carla had a grand smile. When I put my arms around her, she leaned against me, resting her shoulders on my chest. "You know what I really like about the ferry ride?"
"Being with me?"
"I like the river,” she said, ignoring me. “It's like a giant, powerful being. I feel more alive out here than any place in the City."
A passing tug's whistle signaled proximity to the docking point and we hurried downstairs to the lower deck. After rolling off the ramp, we parked the car, needing it only for the return trip to the City, at a dockside meter. The ferry had made its last run for the night. Everyone knows about Jackson Square and the Cabildo, but there are other places in and around the Big Easy that tourists rarely see. The Jazz Palace is one such place and Jazz isn't the only language spoken there. Musical tastes, ranging from hip-hop to zydeco, are eclectic in the City. Tonight it celebrated the blues and one of the premier bluesmen still alive and performing.
His name is Snakebite Thompson. Mama Tujugue, the owner of the Jazz Palace, had scheduled him for a single performance—one I had waited twenty years to see. Anticipation shadowed our steps as we tread the waterfront boardwalk to the Palace where dozens of blues fans had already gathered.
They were crowding into the converted warehouse as we arrived, hoping to secure a table close to the stage. Mama Tujugue met us at the door and let us in without charging admission. Her fine features highlighted the best aspects of all the many races contributing to her origins. She topped six feet in her stocking feet. Her very existence was an anomaly of life in the old South, more specifically, New Orleans.
Old New Orleans hierarchy embraced gradations in race and people of mixed blood often occupied places of special prominence. They even had names for these gradations. A mulatto is an offspring of one black and one white parent, a quadroon one white and one mulatto. There are dozens of distinctions—sacatron, octoroon, griffe, and marabon, to name just a few—all specifically describing mixtures of blood.
Now, Mama Tujugue was simply a beautiful New Orleans businessperson—show business. She did not mind accenting her heritage to play to the crowd. Tonight her bright yellow peasant dress ballooned from waist to ankles. In the matching turban that crowned her precisely coifed head, she could easily have passed for a famous New Orleans woman, circa 1750. She led us to a table near the stage where a local group was murdering their rendition of Basin Street Blues. Carla ordered an Abita, a local amber beer brewed across the lake in Abita Springs. I made do with water.
The Palace was a converted warehouse, cheaply renovated to highlight music and not architecture. Jazz posters and Mardi Gras banners draped from its exposed rafters and provided the only decoration. From the smiles I could see, no one seemed to mind the seediness. A half dozen harried waiters and servers hustled to serve those gathered for the occasion.
Shortly after midnight, Snakebite's band took the stage and the crowd tempo quickly turned from raucous too frenetic. The band launched into a finger and lip-limbering number that ended with a drum solo that brought down the house. As applause streamed from the audience, Mama Tujugue sent over more Abita for Carla and a pitcher of lemonade for me. When overhead lighting dimmed, the room became very silent.
Amid the suspense-heightening darkness, the drummer rolled out an expectant beat, the bass man joining with a three-note riff. Then, from somewhere on stage, vibrato strains from a throaty guitar began to immerse the room in electric sound, causing a wave of applause to swell through the audience. The spotlight, beam narrowed to a circle of blue, slowly began to enlarge, focusing on a point near center stage.
As the music grew louder, along with growing applause, Snakebite Thompson's face appeared behind a gooseneck microphone. His closed eyes and pockmarked cheeks combined in a contorted grimace, exposing the depth and pain of some unknown despair. Original black enamel, chipped but untouched, coated the old Fender strapped across his shoulder.
We watched, trapped in a timeless hypnotic trance, as Snakebite launched into his signature song, Cruel Woman Blues, his scratchy voice dueling with a pulsating melody produced by his throaty electric guitar. More applause erupted from the audience.
What a stylist. He was more than I expected, far exceeding his recorded performances on cheap vinyl. Snakebite Thompson was real, his effect momentous, but what occurred next sent everyone in the house into communal shock. A gunshot, fired from somewhere in the darkness, resonated through the warehouse and Snakebite's resultant scowl went without notice. Until he dropped the guitar and clutched his chest, that is.
The single gunshot awoke the audience from its trance, and no one waited around for the inevitable second shot. Rising in unison, they piled through the door, along with every member of the band. Everyone except Carla and me. Thinking better of charging into the line of fire, I wrestled her to the floor and under our table.
Wyatt, was that gunfire?"
Not answering her question, I rushed instead to center stage where Snakebite lay writhing on the floor, clutching his chest, blood pluming from beneath his hand. Anticipating another gunshot, I dragged him behind an electric speaker. The second shot never came. Wailing sirens, echoing from across the river, moved toward us. When they arrived, the old warehouse was almost empty. It didn't stop a dozen cops from bursting through the doors, pistols drawn. Rushing to the stage, they grabbed my collar, threw me face down on the floor and crammed a shoe into the small of my back. One big cop almost yanked my arms from their sockets as he cuffed me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax and ignore the cocked .38 pointed at my head.
"He didn't do it," Carla said, lunging out from under the table. "He only tried to help. The person who shot him is up there."
All eyes followed Carla's finger as she pointed toward the balcony. I even managed to wriggle around and look myself. That is when I saw the woman standing there, a smoking pistol grasped firmly in her hand. Jimmy Don O'Rear was the burly police detective investigating the shooting. He was young, a full thatch of red hair covering his big head. He was not smiling and he had the look of a man that rarely did. He ordered his men to un-cuff me, although I could tell they did not like his orders. Still, they did have a prime suspect holding a smoking pistol.
Although situated across the river, Algiers is a precinct of New Orleans. A sedate precinct compared with the others. Jimmy Don O'Rear seemed like a good cop with something to prove. I wasn't sure exactly what. Maybe that he was every bit as tough as his brothers from across the river. It gave me cause to wonder as Carla and I watched O'Rear's men cordon the crime scene with yellow tape.
Snakebite cursed a blue streak when paramedics loaded him on an ambulance bound for Charity Hospital, across the river. At least he was still alive. Now everyone's attention focused on the woman on the balcony. Jimmy Don's men quickly had her in cuffs. Carla and I followed him up the stairs, along with Mama Tujugue, upset and becoming increasingly unable to contain her growing frenzy.
"How long will this take?" she finally demanded.
"Till we're done," Jimmy Don said.
The detective's accent was a strange blend of north Louisiana redneck and Irish Channel patois. It did not matter because he was all business, and now the only business worrying Mama Tujugue was her own.
"Well you better get done mighty fast," she countered. "Tomorrow's Friday. My biggest day. I got a zydeco band coming in all the way from Breaux Bridge."
Mama Tujugue's announcement failed to impress Jimmy Don. "Save it for the Padre. We may finish up Monday."
"My banker will own the place by Monday."
Jimmy Don halted, returned Mama's harsh stare and held up his hand. "Get off my case, lady and let me question the suspect."
At the mention of the woman in cuffs, Mama Tujugue looked at her for the first time. Appearing to do a double take, her mouth gaped and hands dropped to her sides.
"You know this woman?" Jimmy Don asked.
"Geneva Thompson, I've known her all my life."
"Thompson? Is she any relation to the victim?"
"His wife," Mama Tujugue said.
Jimmy Don exchanged a knowing glance with his second-in-command, a blue coat sergeant with snowy white hair beneath his police cap.
"Sarge, it looks like we have a motive," he said.
"Geneva wouldn't hurt a fly," Mama Tujugue said.
"Well, apparently she did."
O'Rear broke away from Mama Tujugue's stare, turning his attention to Geneva Thompson. "Anything you want to tell us?"
Geneva Thompson was an attractive middle-aged woman, shorter and darker than Mama Tujugue, although about the same age. Mama put her arms around her and they both dissolved into tears. Jimmy Don waited until they regained their composure, and then cleared his throat to remind Geneva of his question.
"I did it. I shot my husband," she said.
"Now wait just a minute," Mama Tujugue said. "I didn't hear anyone advise Geneva of her rights."
"You a lawyer, ma'am?"
Mama cast Jimmy Don and the old sergeant a look that could kill before continuing her angry tirade. "No, but I suggest you do it right now and forget what Geneva just said." Then, with a harsh glare at Geneva, she added, "Now lady, you keep your mouth shut. Not another word, you hear?"
Through her tears, Geneva whispered, "I did it. I did it."
That's all Jimmy Don and the sergeant needed to hear. Nudging her toward the stairs, they prepared to haul her away in the patrol car.
"Wait a minute, Detective," I said. "This woman didn't shoot Snakebite."
All eyes were suddenly on me.
"Who are you?" Jimmy Don said, squaring his hips and staring down his Irish Channel nose at me.
"Wyatt Thomas. This woman is innocent. If you had eyes, you'd see it yourself."
"Look here, wise guy. I got a suspect with a motive and a smoking gun. What do you know about anything?"
"He's a former trial attorney and investigator and from across the river," Carla said, elbowing her way into the fray. "He's forgotten more about crime than you'll ever know."
Jimmy Don eyeballed Carla, then looked at me and sneered. "Lawyers, especially ex-lawyers, turn my stomach. If you don't have something concrete to add to this investigation, then get out of my way."
"This lady didn't do the shooting," I said. "A government sharp-shooter couldn't have made that shot from here. It came from the right side of the stage."
Jimmy Don glanced down at the fallen microphone, a good hundred feet away, and considered my remark. "How the hell would you know where it came from?"
Carla did not give me a chance to answer. Reaching beneath my jacket, she yanked the shirt loose from my belt, exposing the ropy layer of scar tissue on my stomach.
"Cause he knows what it's like in a firefight. Can you say the same, Detective?"
Jimmy Don studied the scar a moment and said "Gunshot?"
"You can see it is," Carla said. "Now do you believe him?"
I didn't let him answer. "The bullet caught Snakebite just below the heart, in his left side. Someone standing off-stage shot him, but it was not this woman. At least she didn’t shoot him from here."
"Then what's she doing with the pistol?"
"You might find out by having your men take a look down there."
"Who has access to that part of the building?" Jimmy Don asked, looking at Mama Tujugue.
"Band members and their families," she said. "A corridor leads to the stage from the dressing rooms. There are several tables at stage side for family members to watch the performances without dealing with the crowd."
Jimmy Don tapped the sergeant's shoulder and nodded toward the exit near the right of the stage. "Tony, take some men and check those dressing rooms."
Sergeant Tony bounded down the stairs and disappeared with a group of police officers along the darkened corridor leading to the dressing rooms. They soon returned with a woman, a much younger version of Geneva Thompson. Streaked mascara and a puffy face revealed her present emotional state. Before she could speak, Geneva Thompson blurted another confession.
"Baby," she said. "I'm sorry I shot your daddy."
"You know each other?" Jimmy Don asked, directing his question to Geneva.
"Enid’s my daughter, and Snakebite's."
I didn't miss the knowing glance exchanged between Geneva and her daughter, nor the implied instructions of silence it carried with it.
"We found her hiding in the closet in one of the dressing rooms," Sergeant Tony said.
"What were you doing in the closet?" Jimmy Don said.
"My name's not Thompson, its Barnett," she said, earning another admonishing glare from her mother.
No one, including Jimmy Don O'Rear, missed the glance this time. "Is this your mother?" he said. Chastised into silence, Enid Barnett only nodded. "Then Mr. Thompson is your stepfather?"
Enid nodded again. Telltale tears began streaming from her eyes. Outside on the river, a passing tugboat blew its mournful whistle.
"Leave her alone," Geneva Thompson said. "She's grieving because I shot her father. I've confessed to the shooting and now I insist you take me downtown, or whatever you do with criminals."
Jimmy Don shrugged, glanced at Sergeant Tony and pointed toward the stairs. "You got a point, lady. Who am I to argue?"
Sergeant Tony nudged Geneva Thompson toward the stairway and Jimmy Don started after them, but stopped abruptly when I said, "Wait a minute."
"I don't have time for this, lawyer-man. We've had four hundred murders since New Years and I've worked my share of them."
"Then you know as well as I do that she couldn't have made the shot from here."
"Maybe she shot him from over there and ran up here to get away. Maybe her daughter saw her do it and hid so she wouldn't have to finger her mother. Whatever, I have a confession and a smoking gun. Unless you can convince me in thirty seconds or less I got the wrong shooter, then stand back and let me do my job."
Jimmy Don's soliloquy started six feet away from where I stood and ended with the hulking detective standing six inches from my face, his own red from anger. When he finished, I waited until he took a deep breath and stepped back a pace.
"I'm savvy. I know you are doing everything in your power. No one is blaming you or the Department for the murder rate. I just see no sense in you booking an innocent woman."
"I didn't twist her arm for no confession."
"Maybe she's pulling the old wounded bird trick on you."
Jimmy Don gave me a crooked look, but said, "What the hell are you jabbering about?"
"I’m talking about the way a mother bird feigns a broken wing to draw a predator away from the nest."
Jimmy Don's eyes closed. He took another deep breath and I held up a finger to prevent him from cutting me off.
"What if Enid shot her stepfather? Geneva saw her do it, followed her to the dressing room, took the pistol and had her hide in the closet. Then she went as far away as she could get. Right here on the balcony. She held up the pistol so everyone would think she did it."
Jimmy Don's big arms folded tightly against his chest, but he was obviously considering my story.
"What's the motive?"
"I’d say either anger or jealousy. Help us, Mama T. You know Snakebite. Why would his stepdaughter want to shoot him?"
"Snakebite's the kindest gentleman I ever met. Wouldn't hurt a fly, but . . ."
Mama Tujugue looked first at Geneva and then down at the hardwood floor. Another tugboat whistle pealed across the river before she finally spoke.
"Snakebite's a womanizer. He chases anything in skirts. Always has. It's a game with him."
"Even his stepdaughter?" I asked.
By now, both Enid and her mother were crying. "I'm sorry," Enid said, clutching the older woman's neck. "You always forgave his running around. I couldn't let him do it to both of us."
Sergeant Tony released the cuffs from Geneva Thompson, quickly transferring them to Enid's wrists.
"Mama," I said. "Call your lawyer and go down to the station with Enid. Carla and I will give Mrs. Thompson a ride to Charity."
Later that night we drove across the Greater New Orleans Bridge to Charity Hospital, Geneva Thompson huddled alone on the backbench of Carla's Mustang. Carla's attempt at small talk sounded more like exhausted babble. It didn't matter because Geneva had too much on her mind to respond. My own brain had also numbed to near total shutdown.
Even at this hour, barges and steamers plied the busy river and jazz and neon beckoned tourists on Bourbon Street. The crime we had witnessed was of no great consequence—no more than a family squabble compared with the rapid spread of violence and burgeoning murder rate in the City.
Great Babylon, President Andy Jackson's wife had called the Big Easy. Maybe so, but there’s no place like it on earth, and it's still home to the greatest free ride in America.
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