The G-String Corpse
by Charles Boeckman
(excerpt from "Strictly Poison")
DETECTIVE Mercer Basous of the New Orleans police department left his car at the curb of a narrow street in the Vieux Carré. He hurried along close to the weathered brick walls of the ancient buildings, seeking shelter from the rain that drizzled down on the glistening cobblestones; a most gloomy morning to investigate a possible homicide.
He arrived at his destination, The Gables, one of the many excellent restaurants in the French Quarter. It was a favorite of Basous’. If one must look into an act of violence on such a cold, gray morning, he philosophized; at least he was able to do so among pleasant surroundings.
The restaurant was not yet open for business, so he entered a courtyard and knocked on a side door. It was opened by Anthony Pizano, owner of The Gables, a good friend of the homicide detective.
“Basous!” exclaimed Pizano. “I’m really glad to see you.” He appeared nervous and disturbed.
“Good to see you, Anthony,” Basous greeted, carefully wiping his shoes on a mat. Then he said, “What a miserable day!”
This side door opened into the kitchen. The stoves and ovens were cold now. Cooking utensils hung silently from racks over the tables. Dishes were stacked. It was quiet and deserted, but in a few hours the room would be teeming with cooks and waiters scurrying around to cope with the noon business.
Basous’ long, homely face softened with the memory of the many excellent meals he had enjoyed from this kitchen, but he forced himself to stop reminiscing and attend to business. “Now what is this about a possible murder, my good friend?”
Pizano took an umbrella from a rack and led the way back out through the courtyard to the curb. “I was taking some trash out this morning, and when I lifted the lid on the garbage can, I saw this…” He raised the lid.
Basous looked into the can. He murmured an exclamation in his mother tongue, Acadian French, reached into the can and pulled out a woman’s robe. It was covered with blood.
“Do you have any idea who this robe could belong to?”
“Yes. Shelly Lyons.”
“Shelly Lyons? ‘Miss Nudity’? The stripper who works at the Godfather Club on Bourbon Street?”
“Yes. She lives in an apartment, in this building, above the restaurant. The tenants in the building use the garbage cans out here. Since she’s the only woman living in the building, it must belong to her.” Then he added,
“After I saw the robe in the garbage this morning I went upstairs and knocked on her door. There was no answer. I became alarmed and phoned you.”
“Well, that was the right thing to do, my friend. Let’s try her door again. Maybe she’s a sound sleeper.”
They crossed the courtyard to a winding stairway that reached the second floor where the apartments were located. In the hallway, Pizano indicated the residence of Miss Lyons.
Basous hammered on the door, but got no reply. “You are the landlord of this building, are you not, Anthony?”
“Then you must have a passkey to these apartments.”
“Yes, but I didn’t want to use it without having the police present. A landlord can get into a lot of trouble these days over things like that.”
He proceeded to unlock the door and they entered the apartment. The living room was tastefully furnished. It contained, in addition to other furnishings, a thick white carpet, an expensive console television and some sophisticated record and tape-playing equipment.
“Miss Lyons must earn a good living,” Basous observed. Then his eyes fell on a large nude painting of Shelly Lyons. It was a misty, ethereal impression, executed with delicacy and sensitivity. “What an incredibly beautiful woman,” Basous murmured.
Her features were flawless. Her hair was a soft, pale cloud. Her deep-blue eyes were luminescent, her skin so delicate as to be almost translucent. Her moist lips were parted. Basous almost expected her to whisper something intimate to him, so convincing was the effect.
“Yes. She has a lot of class for an exotic dancer. Smart, too.” Pizano waved his hand toward a bookcase filled with books on a wide range of subjects, from biographies to the arts.
“Who did the painting?”
“Nathanial Dowling. He’s one of the tenants in this building. Has a small shop on Royal Street.”
“Yes, I know the place.”
Basous gazed at the painting for another moment with the worshipful expression of a homely man gazing on an unattainably beautiful woman. Then he resumed his professional manner. “Let’s see the rest of the apartment.”
When they entered the bedroom, Basous exclaimed, “Mon Dieu!” and Pizano, a devoutly religious man, gasped and crossed himself. Blood was splattered over the floor and furniture, makeup bottles had been swept from the vanity to the floor where many had smashed, bedclothes were half-pulled from the bed, a bedside table and lamp were overturned.
They searched the rest of the apartment, but found no trace of Miss Lyons.
Using his handkerchief to pick up the phone, Basous got his partner, Lieutenant Roy D’Aquin, on the line and requested that the detective meet him here, bringing along a man from the police laboratory.
Then Basous asked Pizano, “Now, who are the other tenants in this building?”
“There are two other apartments. One is occupied by a traveling drug salesman, Harold Black. He’s only here on weekends. The other tenant is the artist, Nathanial Dowling.”
“Let’s go see if Mr. Dowling heard anything last night.”
They knocked on the artist’s door, but got no reply.
“Well,” said Pizano, “he sometimes spends the night in his shop. Has a cot or something in the back room. Miss Lyons might have been the only person in the building last night.”
Basous thought about the bloodstains and said, “Not the only person. Well, we might as well go downstairs and wait for D’Aquin.”
Down in the restaurant kitchen, Pizano made a pot of Louisiana coffee, strong and black with chicory, and served it to Basous with a platter of French pastries.
Basous’ long, horselike face reflected an expression of pure ecstasy as he tasted a croissant. “Anthony, you have absolutely the best pastry cook in the city. Now then, let me ask you this: who would know Miss Lyons intimately—could give us information about her personal life?”
“Hmm. Well, I suppose you could begin with her employer, Isaac Iwanski, who owns the Godfather Club. He’s been something of a parent to her since she came to the city five years ago and began dancing at his club.”
“Bien!” said Basous. “Now if I could have just one more gâteau à l’abricot.”
D’Aquin arrived presently with the laboratory man. Basous set the man to work on the bloodstains in Miss Lyons’ apartment, instructing him to search thoroughly for fingerprints. Then the two detectives left in Basous’ car.
“First,” he said, “I want to pay Nathanial Dowling a visit. He lives in the same building and might have heard something last night.” Basous drove carefully through the narrow, wet streets of the old city, his windshield wipers snapping busily at the steady downpour.
Nathanial Dowling, a pale, slender man in his mid-thirties, had an ascetic face with aquiline features and cold, blue eyes. He was a type still found in some regions of the South, the last of a long, decaying line of aristocrats dating back to the plantation era. His ancestors had owned slaves and fought in the War Between the States. Now Dowling, a bachelor, stocked his antique shop with the last of the family heirlooms stripped from the family’s decaying mansion. He also dabbled in art. His shop was a dusty junk heap cluttered with bric-a-brac. Interspersed among the antiques were his oil paintings.
Yes, he said, he was acquainted with Miss Lyons on a professional basis. Six months ago, he’d needed a model. She had posed and he’d given her the painting as payment since he couldn’t afford a model’s fee. No, he was sorry, he couldn’t give them any information about unusual sounds that might have come from her apartment last night, since he spent the night here. He showed them the cot in a corner of a back room which served as his painting studio. He was sorry to hear she was missing and hoped she would turn up not seriously injured. He said it without a great deal of concern.
“A haughty man, that one,” D’Aquin muttered as they drove away. “He made me feel like a tradesman who should come in the back door.”
“I don’t think he’s ever quite forgiven his grand-père for losing the Civil War,” said Basous. “Let’s see if Isaac Iwanski can tell us something about the beautiful Shelly Lyons.”
The Godfather was one of those small, bare-skin joints on Bourbon Street that looked tired and seedy by daylight but brightened up at night with flashy neon, perspiring go-go dancers and a small but loud band.
The two detectives found the proprietor, Isaac Iwanski, in his office, a cluttered room not much larger than a closet. Iwanski was a spidery little man with a shiny bald head. He wore suspenders. When informed that his star performer was missing under circumstances that indicated foul play, he went all to pieces. “My God!” he cried. He paced around the tiny office in a state of agitation. Then he collapsed in a chair, weeping openly. “I loved that little girl like she was my own daughter. This is terrible.”
“We don’t know for certain what has happened to her, Mr. Iwanski,” D’Aquin said. “She may be quite all right.”
“Oh, no!” Iwanski cried, gazing at them with tearful, grief-stricken eyes. “She’s been killed. I’m not surprised. She’s been expecting it. For months that poor girl has lived in terror. It’s that rotten husband of hers. He said he’d kill her. Well, now he’s done it.”
“She was married?” Basous asked with surprise.
“Yes. Separated for the last year, though. But he wouldn’t leave her alone. Kept threatening her, hounding her. I told her it was a mistake when she married that no-goodnik. ‘Papa Isaac,’ she told me (she always called me ‘Papa Isaac’), ‘I’m in love.’ Then she told me who it was—Grove Niblo. ‘Oh my poor child,’ I said to her, ‘you’ve picked yourself a life of trouble.’ But she wouldn’t listen. She was a woman in love.”
“Grove Niblo,” Basous repeated, again surprised.
“Sure. You’re a policeman. You know him—a syndicate hoodlum, a man deep in organized crime. What a tragedy she should ever get mixed up with that man. He was crazy-jealous all the time. Never gave her any peace. Made her stop dancing. Mistreated her constantly. A year ago, she left him, but he swore to get her back. He vowed he’d never let another man have her alive. What a pity she didn’t meet young James Turner first.”
~ To read more, see Strictly Poison by Charles Boeckman ~
Copyright © 2015 Charles Boeckman. All Rights Reserved.