From CHAPTER ONE
Cribs of unpainted clapboard lined both sides of the street like horse stalls, with
barely enough room for a bed with a dirty mattress and a washstand. The hovels
rented for a dollar a day and women charged a quarter for the pleasure they could
offer. Some featured a wooden panel that could be opened and lowered from above
so the strumpet could lie in view of the street the way a slab of meat might be laid
out in the grocer's window. The only sounds were catcalls, curses, the breaking of
glass, and the occasional screech of rusty hinges or dry bedsprings. Faint music
drifted from a saloon a block over on Villere, where a small dance band played for
the drunkards and their hussies.
The new electric lamps barely illuminated what appeared to be a convention of
stumbling cadavers and furtive rodents. Men who either could not afford a clean
woman or chose to traffic in foul flesh wandered or scurried about. Few lingered,
preferring to get what they came for and then disappear back into the night. Those
who arrived too drunk to navigate might wake to find themselves stripped down to
their union suits. Now and then, one didn't rise at all and they'd call for a wagon.
The coppers patrolled in pairs when they bothered to pay a visit.
Gregory found a spot down a narrow walkway that led from Conti Street into a
courtyard. He settled in this solitary cavern to watch and wait. Out on the street,
filthy harlots with their brains burnt to cinders on whiskey, hop, or disease
staggered about, calling out to any man who happened to pass. Most were trash
white, others were darker-skinned, and a few fell into a muddled middle.
"Come get some of this here," one pale creature shouted in a broken flute of a
voice, as she lifted her skirts to expose her bare crotch. "Who wants some? Ten
cents! Ten cents!"
Another dropped to her knees in a doorway, one hand held out as she waited
for a man to pay for the service she offered. Several more ambled along with small
mattress pads folded under their arms, ready to lie down in any dark place that
would serve. And a trio hung like buzzards on a corner, their flat eyes flicking in
sharp twitches and fingers stroking leather saps and wooden bats as they scanned
the banquettes for drunks to roll. All of the women wore Mother Hubbards that
had once been white but were mostly splattered with patterns of spilled whiskey,
dried blood, and God knew what else. To Gregory's eye, not a single one was
Presently, he heard a voice in the courtyard and turned to watch a man bend a
woman over a trashcan and toss up the hem of her dress. After a rough
half-minute, the fellow let out a hoarse cry. He lurched back, buttoning his
trousers, then stumbled off. The harlot straightened, hitched her petticoats, and
spread her legs to allow what her customer had deposited to dribble onto the
cobblestones. She dropped the skirts and shuffled away. Gregory knew he could be
on her and done with it in a matter of seconds, but that would be too easy and not
worthy of his craft. So he returned his attention to the street.
The bells had just struck eleven when the door to a crib across the way slapped
open and a tall stick of a man reeled out. A woman appeared, leaning against the
frame, yawning, a pint bottle in her hand. Gregory studied her. Cast in the feeble
glow of the streetlamp, her chin and cheeks were stark, her nose rounded enough
to mark her as some brand of Creole. She was thin but still young enough that her
flesh had not yet begun to sag. Though she was as decent as a whore on this street
came, she displayed signs of the curses that had brought her there. The way she
swilled the bottle, for one thing, downing it by fast inches until it was empty and
she could pitch it into the gutter. Gregory watched her lick her lips of the last
drops of whiskey and rouse herself to scan the banquette for a customer who would
pay her enough to buy a fresh bottle. And so it would go through the night.
He knew that the work would be simpler later, but he wanted this next one
fresh. So he moved to the banquette and stood waiting until her eye fell upon him.
She lifted her chin, offering a welcoming smile of gray teeth as she allowed her
kimono to fall open to the chippie underneath. He crossed the narrow street and
opened his hand to reveal a gold dollar.