The soaked streets sparkled like freshly polished leather. Twinkling residue of street lantern incandescence and billboard glitz dripped from the buildings into noisy rivulets of watercolor neon streaming the anorexic gutters. Above the drowned lanes, torrents of vague human shapes flooded the sidewalk. The bodies flowed in a single direction except for one, like a stone in the creek; the others crashed into and rippled around him.
A passerby checked the agitator in the chest. His budged slightly but did not break stride.
“Hey man, what the fuck?”
“Mmm,” mumbled the agitator, more concerned with lighting up.
He fumbled with a carton of Lucky Strikes from his inside coat pocket. Shakily he set a single butt to his lip and went back to his coat for matches. The book was cerulean with pink little starbursts that looked like toy jacks. In the center in coral outline was a mermaid, tail and all. Her generous perky tits were hinted at behind two smiling starfish. In the same color, printed in Vegas lounge script were two words seperated by symbol: Surf & Turf. He flipped the lid and found only three soggy matches.
“So this is how it’s gonna be, huh?” Eyes peeked up into the falling downpour. His lips creased at the corner of his mouth; a slight, sarcastic smirk.
He struggled to light the first match and tossed it. The second gave a slight spark but died short of his mouth. It too was tossed. He ripped the third and final match from the matchbook and imagined an angry, unfaithful prayer to any God that might pity an old soul, allowing him to die by his own fatal vices; on his own terms.
After a few rubs the match caught on the rough flint strip on the book and lit. It lasted long enough to light his cigarette. He sucked in a heavy lungful of the nicotine. The gentle, warm sizzle of burning paper calmed him.
“Thanks,” he thought. “Whoever gave me this one.”
He lifted the cigarette from his lips and blewly calmly out. That’s when he noticed it. A sticky black stain like oil dribbling from his fingers that reeked of rust. It was blood. A lot of blood.
“On second thought–”
Ishmael: King of Black France
An Examination of Lust, Envy and the Last Good Soul in Noirleans
A Noirleans Account
by [Beat] Bastards:
with concepts from
Here it’s all Mardi Gras beads and Harlequin masks. And cajun food. I hate Cajun food. Okay, it hates me. Three bottles of Pepto and I still couldn’t sleep. Might’ve been something else pink kept me awake, tough to say. Either way, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Goddamn her. It’s like she had some kind of super pussy and I was dyin’ for another taste.
Sure, whatever, get offended. If you can’t take your heroes with questionable morals, and a real bad case of heartburn, it’s time to drop some coin and change the tune; this song ain’t for you.
Otherwise we’ll take this little diddy from the top.
I first met her at The Surf & Turf.
The Surf & Turf is one of two themed nightclubs, which is a kind way to say “fetish joint.” Don’t have to think too hard about this one. Mermaids: conch shells, glittery blue fish tails and rosy pink tits. I don’t much get the appeal – at least, I didn’t – but if you like your ladies a little less lady and a little more Flipper, then Surf & Turf is some Grade-A tuna.
Whole thing’s fishy from the start: located in the Poseidon District – the part of the city that was made into a bay thanks to the hurricane – the club’s buried under enough water to hide a corpse, or a few. Only way in, an amphibious tram from the parking lot to the club. No stops in between. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.
Then there’s the rumors. The dope had it that the club was owned by the lunatic dandy known only as Mock Turtle and he’d been trading political favors for blowjobs from the fish-chippies; buying up and stocking collateral. I was sent there to see if any of it had legs.
And unlike the Fish Called Wandas Mock Turtle employed, this certainly had legs. So many it was a damned octopus.
This sloppy cephalopod was first plopped in my lap two weeks ago. The one setting it there had the face to match, too. It weren’t no pretty bird, tweetin’ sweet in my ear. Nope, this ditty is nothing but the blues. The deep sea blues.
He asked to meet at Crawdaddy’s. We were off to a shitting good start. Crawddady’s was a dive off Poseidon specializing in gumbo, etouffee and amateur hour rock. I already hated this job. My stomach was gonna hate it something awful.
It had been an arid, sticky day, leaving a hot and bothered Poseidon to stew impatiently. Her sweaty fragrance reeked of fetid brine; northeasterly trade winds massaging her to a formidable lather; salty howls seeped between her gammons, coating the isolated waterfronts with the vulgar stench.
Ishmael’s dusky umber skin shimmered sinopia under neon shower as he stoked a cigarette. Above him, a brightly fluorescent crayfish struggled to strum an acoustic guitar with massive pincers, its barren metal joints groused wincingly in practiced repetition. Beneath the Sisyphus crustacean, the word ‘Crawdaddy’s’ was laid in neon cursive; except for where the capital ‘C’ wheezed severely in and out of blackness leaving the script to occasionally stammer ‘rawdaddy’s.’
A wholly more enjoyable joint thought Ishmael as he pushed faintly plum waves of smoke through his nose, out into the fluorescent rain.
From inside the roadhouse warbled the angry sneer of a guitar that was promptly drowned in a wave of distortion. A bass followed headlong into the wave, sucking and spitting for air. The bush league drummer, drunk at the wheel, wasn’t paying attention and sped the ship right over his band mate flotsam. Ishmael finished his cigarette and stamped it out. He loosened another and stuck it behind his ear; an emergency life-preserver in case he too, started to drown in the din.
He put his left palm and shoulder to the thin steel door and nudged. The discordant surf shoved past Ishmael splashing noisily across the pavement. He peered through the porthole in the center of the door, fully expecting to see a shipwreck; chewed up bits of human hamburger, shredded life boats, empty. The empty bit was right. Of the six people in Crawdaddy’s, three of them were the band, one was the bartender and another was dead off the hooch. That left just one, the “client.”
Ishmael trudged across the empty floor to the bar, taking his time and keeping an eye on the client. His face was weathered and greasy like blistered cow hide. Oily dark brown locks dripped down his thick stubbled face. It clearly hadn’t been cut in months and they way the guy ate, like a condor, threshing wildly through the larger bits and then agonizing meticulously on the left over gristle.
“Christ,” bemoaned Ishmael aloud. He’d been rubed. The “client” was nothing but a skid rogue, trying to turn a quick buck he could shoot into his arm.
“Sounds like you could use a drink,” interrupted the bartender. She had her hand at the bottom of a beer glass, wiping it dry with a towel.
“A real stiff hooker, yeah.”
“I’m your girl, then.” She smiled, set the glass down behind her, chucked the towel in the nearby sink and then pushed herself up against the bar. “What can I do you for?”
“A Bagger Vance.”
The bartender scrunched her shoulders up her neck and tilted her head ever-so-slightly as if to pantomime “your funeral.” She turned back to the bar, hunting down a highball glass. “Coming right up.”
Ishmael took a break in his character study for some anatomy lessons, catching the bartender bending over for his glass. In the growing gap between her kick flare jeans and corded shoulder top, he caught glimpse of her lower back. Her skin was shiny copper. She had a decent hourglass, thick throughout and thicker in the areas that mattered. Her black hair was well cropped framing in her burning coal eyes and impish grin.
“Well, this joint’s got one thing going for it, ain’t it?” Ishmael thought to himself.
The bartender finished mixing his drink, and set it on a coaster in front of him. “It’s been that kind of week?”
“It’s been that kinda week all my life.” He slide the slice of lemon across the highball rim and took a heavy sip.
“Was it as good for you as it was for me?”
“Better,” laughed Ishmael. He turned to face the boozehound, the shipwreck and the tramp. “How do you keep from going Sergio Leone all over this place?”
The bartender chuckled. “I leave my six-shooter at home.”
“Smart, real smart.” Ishmael hit the glass again, turned toward the tramp again. “I should probably leave my bean-shooter with you, then.”
“Hit it then split it, huh, just like that?”
“Afraid so, dove,” resigned Ishmael. “Papa was a rolling stone.”
He threw back the last gulp, and tossed a fistful of dollars on the table. “I’ll need another before I go. Stop the bleeding.”
“And when he died, all he left us was alone?” The bartender snared the used glass, replaced it with a new one –ice and lemon wedge– and began mixing the shots.
Ishmael grabbed the finished drink and flashed the best smile he had. “This job ain’t killed me yet.”
“Is it true, what they say, that Papa never worked a day in his life?”
Ishmael doffed his cap and set in front of her own the bar. “Wherever he laid his hat was his home.”
The bartender looked down at his cap and grinned, said nothing. Ishmael stood, drink in hand and walked toward his client.
The tramp was swimming his way through a bowl of gumbo-something. It looked about as pretty the tramp wearing it as it did in the bowl. Ishmael slid a chair out beside him, set the drink down and then set himself down. He sat there for a few minutes, just watching. The tramp didn’t seem too concerned. That was unusual. Usually these bos were skittish little shits, afraid of even the slightest aberration, real or not. This guy –whoever he was– sure wasn’t afraid of the bogeyman.
“You want a towel? To dry off?”
The tramp pushed on, shoveling three quick spoonfuls into his mouth before looking up, leaving most of it on his lips and chin.
“You Ishmael, the dick?”
“A regular Moby, yeah.”
“Cool, man — that’s real cool.” His words scattered erratically, like a busted record. “You, man, you should try the gumbo; its good here.”
Ishmael gripped his glass and coolly slid a large gulp to the back of his throat. ”Smells like cat piss.”
“Then call me Cheshire, man, ’cause I, I love me this cat piss. If that’s what it is, yeah.”
“Fine,” Ishmael paused for a return to his drink. “What the hell am I doing here, Cheshire?”
“Right, that.” Cheshire made two heavy swipes into his gravy thick cat piss, grinning happily. “I heard some of you dicks’re willing to become, well, ah, private investors, for informants.”
“You got the wrong Sherlock, I ain’t crooked.” Ishmael removed the lemon wedge from the rim of his glass and pressed the ends of the rind together, soaking his drink with juice.
“Whoa, no offense. I ain’t saying you a crooked man!”
“And I sure as hell don’t chase down leads I gotta pay the bills on.” He tossed back the final swig of his drink, angrily rolling the ice cubes around the bottom of the glass.
“If you knew what’s I was holdin’ you might think something different. But I’m a principled chap, and I’m willin’ to impart you a little sample. Call it — call it a motion of good faith.” The hard final consonant rolled off Cheshire’s tongue like a dull ‘F.’
“Stop with the alphabet soup, and spill something that makes sense.”
“Fine, yeah, I’ll spell ‘er out for you if I gotta.” Another rancid spoonful missed its mark, dribbling down Cheshire’s stubbled chin. “I’m what you call, a, ah, silent partner. Yeah, silent in that I knows a lot of things people ain’t supposed to and I keep silent about ‘em, for a price.” Cheshire zippered his mouth shut with his pointer and thumb and then undid the motion. “I had you meet me here, at this place ’cause I figger it’s time to start singing, try out my voice and such.”
“Right, it ain’t no secret that Surf & Turf, that Poseidon club for fishmongers is run by that queer little Mock Turtle chap. We all know that.” Cheshire dipped low to the table and drew close to Ishmael. His breath pungent like a truck stop restroom. “He’s bent like he come up from the deep too quick. You’d likely find enough mulched dead-ones to feed his fishies for a handful of years if you peeked under the floorboards. But what you don’t know’s that he uses them goldfish he got as political currency. You hear me?”
“I hear you, Cheshire,” remarked Ishmael, disinterested. “But it’s all jazz. I’m more of a hard rock man.”
“Fair enough, you need something a little heavier.” Cheshire clicked his tongue across his bottom row of teeth, his eyes pinned toward the ceiling in thought. “He’s gonna sink this fuckin’ city. Madman, that one. But not really sink it, dig? More figurative, or metaphor-like–”
“Cheshire,” interrupted Ishmael. “You’re a babblin’ brook, and damn it, if you don’t straighten out, I’ll sink you.”
“Fine, fine.” That seemed to get through. Cheshire’s demeanor shifted a bit, to his idea of workmanlike. “Mock Turtle’s been inviting all the town bigwigs down to the club to party with the hens, and them fish lips been sucking down more than saltwater if you catch my drift.”
“Beside being able to shake some coin out of some highbinders’ wives, that don’t do me any good.”
Worry not, Mister Moby.” Cheshire’s dark empty eyes suddenly burned hot; his face twisting into a wide, aloof grin. “That’s where this fish fry gets tasty. See, not only does Turtle have all ‘em on hidden camera, but he’s forcing the mermaids to do it, against they will. He threatens to have em filleted if not. He’s got enough monopoly money to buy this whole board, friend.”
Ishmael’s brow arched. He eyed Cheshire suspiciously. “If this fish tale’s got legs, Christ.”
“It’s a real Darwin, swear.”
“How’d you come by all this? And if you tell me Mock Turtle’s got you on payroll, I swear–”
“My, no,” assured Cheshire. “One of his guppies and I was tryin’ to get right at the same cleaners. I got it all from her.”
“And your lady’s name?”
“Viola, like the flower.”
“That would Violet.”
Cheshire shot Ishmael a quizzical stare. “If that’s true, it makes her ink a little awkward. You’ll guess her by the flower on her left shoulder blade.”
“Suppose I check this Viola — or Violet — out and all this don’t hold water?”
“Then you can drown me in it!” Cheshire protested.
“No,” Ishmael corrected. “You and I never met. If this all goes pear-shaped, you kept it that way, clear?”
Cheshire’s head bobbled in agreement.
“Dinner’s on me.”
Cheshire again bobbled.
Ishmael reached back for his wallet, grabbing a small stack of bills. As he flicked through individual twenties, Cheshire watched each motion with held breath and hawkish intent. When he reached forty over the bill, Cheshire grinned. Ishmael tossed the sum to the table.
“Don’t spend it all trying to find Wonderland, Cheshire.”
Ishmael stood, placed his wallet back in his pocket and without another word moved back across the dive, toward the bar. The bartender had returned to drying glasses, apparently trying to polish them into diamonds. Ishmael leant up against the bar, staring directly into her eyes, and sliding his hand toward his hat.
“I’ve come back for my hat,” he explained.
“Then take me home, Papa.”