by Stephanie Roman
I broke a large icicle from the railing and stepped off the porch onto Claiborne Street. A speeding carriage heading towards the river drenched my boots with freezing slush. February was one of the coldest months in New Orleans, but no one had seen ice like this. Not in my lifetime. Although the year was just beginning, 1899 seemed cursed.
I was investigating the city’s eighth murder in two months. Correction: possible murder. A working girl in the District named Peaches. No one had heard from her for several days, and the talk in the brothels hinted she was the tragic victim of a jealous lover. But these girls thrive on fantasy. I needed proof.
The interview at her mother’s house revealed nothing. From what I could understand through the thick Haitian accent, the distraught woman hadn’t seen her daughter in nearly a week. A small altar to Baron Samedi sparkled violet with candles as I left.
I crunched along the six blocks to Cirque House where Peaches had a room. The house had one of the worst reputations in the red light district. Not many men I knew took advantage of its services—only those on the force who derived pleasure from the most brutal aspects of our work. The kind that roughed up the girls we arrested or didn’t mind if their gun “accidentally” went off and killed a criminal before trial.
But Peaches was the police chief’s favorite girl. With skin like creamy café au lait that tasted even sweeter, he would tell us. He’d whisper his most forbidden desires just to watch her cheeks glow with the natural rouge that bore her name. I promised him I’d find out what happened to her.
When I rang the bell at Cirque House, the madam pulled me inside. “Come out of the cold, honey! We’ve got a fire in the parlor…and a warm reception in every bedroom.” I tried to explain I wasn’t a customer. But she hushed my protests and said: “Now relax and tell me what you’re after.”
“I’m looking for Peaches,” I began slowly. “Does she still work here?”
“Why of course! I’ll make sure she’s not occupied.” The madam winked and retreated.
As I lounged on the arm of a velvet settee, a tiny gray maid wandered in. I asked if she had noticed anything unusual at the house. She said she only kept the parlor tidy, cooked meals for the working girls, and cleaned the bedrooms “you know…after.” When I mentioned Peaches, the maid’s eyes showed white and she scurried off without another word.
The madam returned and led me down a draped hallway to a cold, dark room. Heavy perfume stifled me as I entered. A body was lying on the bed. Horrified, I backed out and grabbed the madam.
“Now honey, don’t fidget,” she purred. “Peaches brought in some of our best customers. She had a visitor booked almost every hour the day it happened, so there’s no telling who did it. Funny thing is, the gentlemen who visited afterwards never complained. Must have been an irresistible temptation. And who am I to judge a man’s soul if their money’s still good?”
She stared hard at me. “So you going to have a turn or aren’t you? Her next guest is waiting.”