Black Orchid Blues: A Lanie Price Mystery

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Queenie Lovetree. What a name! What a performer! When she opened her mouth to sing, you closed yours to listen. You couldn’t help yourself. You knew you were going to end up with tears in your eyes. Whether they were tears of joy or tears of laughter, it didn’t matter. You just knew you were in for one hell of a ride.

Folks used to talk about her gravely voice, her bawdy banter and how she could make up new, sexy lyrics on the spot. Queenie captured you. She got inside your mind, claimed her spot and refused to give it up. Once you heard her sing a song, you’d always think of her when you heard it. No matter who was singing it, her voice came to mind.

Sure, she was moody and volatile. And yes, whatever she was feeling, she made sure you were feeling it, too. But that was good. That’s what could’ve made her great — could’ve being the operative word.

I first met Queenie at a movie premiere at the Renaissance Ballroom, over on West 138th Street. The movie I’d soon forget – it was some ill-conceived melodrama – but Queenie I would always remember.

It was a cold day in early February, with patches of dirty ice on the ground and leaden skies overhead. It was late afternoon, an odd time for a premiere, so the event drew few fans and, except for Queenie, mostly B-level talent.

It was a party of gray pigeons and Queenie stood out like a peacock. For a moment, I wondered why she was even there. She was vivid. She was vibrant. And when she found out that I was Lanie Price, the Lanie Price, the society columnist, she went from frosty to friendly and started pestering me to see her perform.

“I’m at the Cinnamon Club. You must’ve heard of me.”

Well, I had, actually. Queenie’s name was on a lot of lips and I’d heard some interesting things about her. I could see for myself that she was bold and bodacious. I decided on the spot that I liked her, but I couldn’t resist having a little fun with her, so I shrugged and agreed that, yeah, I’d heard of … the Cinnamon Club.

Queenie caught the shift in emphasis and was none too pleased. She raised her chin like miffed royalty, pointed one coral-tipped fingernail at my nose and, in her most regal voice, said, “You will appear.”

I smiled and said I’d think about it.

The fact was I had a full schedule. A lot of parties were going on those days, and it as my job to cover the best of them. However, I finally did find time to stop and see Queenie one night two weeks later. I called in advance and Queenie said she’d make sure I had a good table, which she did. It was excellent, in fact, right up front.

To the cynic, the Cinnamon Club was little more than a speakeasy dressed up as a supper club, but it was one of Harlem’s most popular nightspots. It was on West 133rd Street, between Seventh and Lenox Avenues, what the white folks called “Jungle Alley.” That stretch was packed with clubs and given to violence. Why, only a few weeks earlier, two cops had gotten into a drunken brawl right outside the Cinnamon Club. One black, one white––they’d pulled out their pistols and shot each other.

That was the neighborhood.

As for the club itself, it was small, but plush. The lighting was dim, the chairs cushioned and the tables round and tiny and set for two. All in all, the Cinnamon Club seemed luxurious as well as intimate.

It was packed every night and most of the comers were high hats, folks from downtown who came uptown to shake it out. They liked the place because it was classy, smoky and dark. For once, they could misbehave in the shadows and let someone else posture in the light. That someone else was Queenie. The place had only one spotlight and it always shone on her.

Rumor had it that she was out of Chicago. But back at that movie premiere, she’d mentioned St. Louis. All anybody really knew was that she’d appeared out of nowhere. That was late last summer. It was mid-winter now and she had developed a following.

You had to give it to her: Queenie Lovetree commanded that stage the moment she stepped foot on it. Every soul in the place turned toward her and stayed that way, flat out mesmerized and a bit intimidated, too. Only a fool would risk Queenie’s ire by talking when she had the mike.

A six-piece orchestra, one that included jazz violinist Max Bearden and cornetist Joe Mascarpone, backed her up. Her musicians were good — you had to be to play with Queenie — but not too good. She shared center stage with no one.

At six-foot-three, Queenie Lovetree was the tallest badass chanteuse most folks had ever seen. She had a toughness about her, a ferocity that kept fools in check. And yes, she was beautiful. She billed herself as the “Black Orchid.” The name fit. She was powerful, mythic and rare.

Men were going crazy over her. They showered her with jewels and furs and offers to buy her cars or take her on cruises. In all the madness, many seemed to forget or stubbornly chose to ignore a most salient fact, the one secret that Queenie’s beauty, no matter how artful, failed to hide:

That Queenie Lovetree wasn’t a woman at all, but a man in drag.

When Queenie appeared on stage, sheathed in one of his tight, glittering gowns, he presented a near-perfect illusion of femininity. He could swish better than Mae West. His smile was dirtier, his curves firmer and his repartee deadlier than a switchblade. From head to toe, he was a vision of feminine pulchritude that gave many a man an itch he ached to scratch.

That night, Queenie wore a dress with a slit that went high on his right thigh. Folks said he packed a pistol between his thighs, the .22-caliber kind. If so, you couldn’t see it. You couldn’t see a thing. Queenie kept his weapons tucked away tight.

Gun or no gun, he smoked. When he took that mike, the folks hushed up and Queenie launched into some of the most down and dirty blues I’d ever heard. He preached all right, signifying for all he was worth, and that crowd of mostly rich white folk, they ate it up.

During the set, Lucien Fawkes, the club’s owner, stopped by my table. He was a short, wiry Parisian, with hound dog eyes, thin lips, and deep creases that lined his cheeks.

“Always good to see you, Lanie. You enjoying the show?”

“I’m enjoying it just fine.”

“I’ll tell the boys, anything you want, you get.”

After Queenie finished his set, the offers and invitations to join tables poured in. He took exuberant pleasure in accepting them, going from table to table. But that night, they weren’t his priority. He air-kissed a few cheeks, exchanged a few greetings and then slunk over to join me.

“The suckers love me,” he said. “What about you?”

“I’m not a sucker.”

“Well, I know that, Slim. That’s why you’re having drinks on the house and they’re not.”

He sat down and turned to the serious business of wooing a reporter.

“So, what do you think? Am I fantastic or am I fantastic?”

“I’d say you’ve got a good thing going.”

“You make it sound like I’m running a scam.”

I hadn’t meant it that way, but given his fake hair, fake eyelashes and fake bosom, I could see why he thought I had. “I’m just saying you’re perfect for this place and it’s perfect for you. Everybody’s happy.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “For now.”

“You have plans for bigger and better things?”

“What if I do? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Not a thing. I’ve always admired ambitious, hard-working people.”

“Honey, I ain’t nothing if not that.” He leaned in toward me. “People say you’re the one to know. That you are the one to get close to if somebody’s interested in breaking out, climbing up. Because of that column of yours. What’s it called?”

“Lanie’s World.”

“That’s right. Lanie’s World.” He savored the words. “And you write for the Harlem Chronicle?”

“Hm-hmm.”

“You think you can write a nice piece on me?”

“Well,” I hesitated. “There is some small amount of interest in you, but—”

“Small? People are crazy about me. The letters I get, the questions. They want to know all about me. Where I come from, what I like, what I don’t, what I eat before going to bed.”

I shrugged. “But they’ve heard so many different stories that—”

“I promise to tell you the whole truth and nothing but.”

“Well, thanks.”

I’d been in the journalism game for more than ten years. I’d worked as a crime reporter, interviewing victims and thugs, cops and dirty judges. Then I’d moved to society reporting, where I wrote about cotillions and teas, parties and premieres. It seemed like a different crowd, but the one constant was the mendacity. People lied. Sometimes for no apparent reason, they obfuscated, omitted, or outright obliterated the truth. And often the first sign of an intention to lie was an unsolicited promise to tell the truth, “the whole truth and nothing but.”

In some areas, of course, I was sure Queenie would be factual, but in others … It didn’t matter. I’d decided to interview him. I was sure to get a good column out of him. I just wasn’t sure this was the place to do it.

People kept stopping by. They shook his hand and praised him and begged him to join them. Men sent drinks. They sent flowers and suggestive notes. But they were out of luck that night. After every set, he’d rejoin me, tell me a little bit here, a little bit there.

“I like action,” he said, “lots of action, diamond studs and rhinestone heels. I love caviar and chocolate, sequins and velvet. Most times, I’m a lady. But I can smoke like an engine and cuss like a sailor. The men all love me cause I treat them all the same. I call them all Bill. By the way, you got a ciggy?”

I shook my head. “Never took to ‘em.”

He turned and tapped a man sitting at the next table. “Butt me, baby.”

“Sure,” the guy said, grinning. He produced a cigarette and lit it.

Queenie flashed a dazzling smile, said in a husky voice, “Thanks, Bill,” then turned his back before the fellow could make a play.

“Bill” shot me a rueful look. All I could do was give him a sympathetic smile.

During one of the longer set breaks, Queenie invited me back to his dressing room, “so we can talk without them fools interrupting.” He described how at age fourteen, he’d fallen in love with a sailor, who smuggled him on board ship and took him to Ankara.

“He was the greatest love of my life, but that bastard sold me.”

“Sold you?”

“Yeah. To a guy in a bar.” He saw my expression and said, “But seriously. I’m not lying. And that guy turned around and sold me, again — to a sultan for his harem.”

Believable or not, Queenie’s tales were certainly fascinating.

He described corrupting wealth and murderous intrigues. Sultan’s wives were poisoning each other and one another’s children in a never-ending struggle for power.

“For a while there, it was touch and go. I didn’t eat or drink nothing without my taster.”

“How terrible,” I said, with appropriate horror and sympathy.

At the next break, he talked about his further adventures in Europe. When he was nineteen, he said, the sultan sent him off to an elite finishing school near Lake Geneva, in Switzerland.

“Honey, I couldn’t take that place. I made tracks the minute they weren’t looking. Went to Paris. Got me a nice hookup. Performed at the Moulin Rouge. Would’ve stayed there, too, but a rich uncle came and found me.”

“A rich uncle?”

“Hm-hmmm,” he said, with a perfectly straight face. “He’s dead now. But that’s okay, ‘cause now I’ve got lots of rich uncles.” He gave a wicked wink. “A girl can’t have too many, you know.”

I just had to shake my head. At my expression, Queenie threw his head back and laughed. His shoulders rocked with deep, raunchy amusement. He laughed so hard, tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Oh, shit,” he said, trying to regain control of himself. “I’m ruining my makeup.”

I’ve seen and heard enough to be well beyond what shocks most people. So, it wasn’t Queenie’s stories that got me. It was the obvious pride and conviction with which he told them. People talk about being larger than life, but it usually doesn’t mean a thing. When applied to Queenie, it did. And his tales were as tall as tales can get. Sure, they were hokum. That was obvious, but it was okay. It was more than okay because it would make rip-roaringly good copy.

Back out on in the clubroom, watching him onstage, I mused about his real history. No doubt it was like hundreds of others. He’d been a touring vaudevillian, or had grown up singing gospel in some church down South, then either run away from home or been kicked out. He was a young boy with a pretty face, the kind that would attract certain types of men. Boys like that, out on their own, they get their innocence lost fast. Queenie was no exception.

No doubt, he’d spent years on the circuit, in smaller clubs, dark and dirty. Underworld characters had smoothed his path and a wealthy man or two had taught him to love the finer things in life, men who lived double lives, with women during the day and men at night. Now, Queenie was here, in New York, the big time. It was his chance, and he was going to run with it, milk it for all it was worth. I certainly couldn’t blame him.

Queenie liked to flash a big diamond ring. When he sang, the ring caught the light. It was a lovely yellow diamond, set in yellow gold, surrounded by small white diamonds. I had a good eye for jewelry, but at that distance I couldn’t say whether it was fake. If it was real, then it was worth ten times a poor man’s salary. If it wasn’t, then it was a darn good imitation and even imitations like that cost a pretty penny.

“That got a history?” I indicated it when he rejoined me.

He glanced at it, smiled. “Honey, everything about me has a history.”

“Care to tell me this one?”

He fluttered his large hand daintily and held up the ring for a long, loving look. Then he smiled. His golden eyes were very feline. His husky voice just about purred. “Not this time, sugar. But I will, if you do a good piece on me. If you do it right, then I’ll give you exclusive access to Queenie Lovetree. You’ll be my one and only and I won’t share my shit with anyone but y—”

Gunfire exploded behind us. I jumped and Queenie’s eyes widened. Heads swiveled and the music shredded to a discordant halt. Then someone gasped, another screamed and people nearby us started diving under tables.

At first, I wondered why.

But as people scrambled to get out of the way, I could see the club’s bouncer, a man named Charlie Spooner and the coat check girl, Sissy Ralston, unsteadily emerge from the area of the entrance. They wound their way past the tables, coming toward us, their hands held high. Directly behind them, a man emerged from the shadows. He wore a big Stetson, a big black one, pulled down low to cover his eyes, and a long, black trench coat, with a turned-up collar.

It was a very sexy look, but the real eye-catcher was the Tommy gun he held on his hip, his black gloved hands firmly grasping the two pistol grips. It looked real; it looked deadly; and he had the business end of it pressed against Spooner’s spine.

The bouncer was a good guy, a war veteran of the 19th Infantry. He had war medals and was married, with a kid on the way. He’d been on the job six months, had taken it, he told me, because he could find nothing else. Now his olive-toned skin had turned ashen gray; his usually jovial face was tight with fear. He had survived bombs and missiles and landmines overseas. Had he gone through all that to die in a stupid nightclub robbery at home?

I knew the Ralston girl, too. That child couldn’t have been more than sixteen. She was just a kid trying to earn money for her family. Her father had died the year before and her mother was a drinker. Sissy was the sole support for her seven-year-old brother and six-year-old sister.

There they were, the bouncer and the coat check girl, so terrified they could barely put one foot in front of the other.

Death march. I flashed on stories my deceased husband had told me about the war, stories of both soldiers and civilians being marched to their execution, of whole villages being lined up against a wall and shot. A chill went through me. I tried to think, tried to get hold of the fear and think.

A million questions shot through my mind.

Was this the result of some bootleggers’ war? Or was it supposed to be a robbery? If so, would he take the money and run? Or was he the type to kill us all just for the fun of it?

He was covered. That meant he wanted to make sure no one saw him. Did that mean that if no one did anything stupid, just gave up the jewels and the wallets and fancy time pieces, he’d let us all live to tell the story?

I looked out over the crowded room, at the white faces peering out of the smoky gloom, and didn’t see a hero among them, thank god.

The gunman shoved Spooner and Ralston to the small open space just before the stage and had them stand side-by-side.

“Everybody, wake up!” he yelled. “Take your seats and show your hands.”

But we were all too scared to move.

“I will count to three and then start shooting — for real. One … two …”

My heartbeat was pounding a hot ninety miles a minute, but my hands and feet felt cold. From the corner of my eye, I saw Queenie slip his right hand under the table. The gunman saw it too. He swung around and leveled his gun on us.

“Bring it out,” he said. “Nice and slow.”

Queenie gave him an insolent look and mouthed the word, “No.”

I was stunned. I’d talked to Queenie long enough to know he thought he could handle anyone and anything, but what the hell was he thinking of? Okay, so he had pride. He didn’t want people to see that he was scared. But this was not the time to act all biggity and try to impress people. He could get us killed.

“Queenie,” I hissed, “do as he says.”

“No.”

The gunman’s lips twitched, but he said nothing. He looked Queenie in the eye, made a slight adjustment in his aim, and squeezed the trigger.

Copper-jacketed pistol rounds erupted from the muzzle in a sheet of flame; a shower of shiny brass cases rained down from the breech. The firepower released with the slightest pressure of the gunman’s finger would’ve been enough to kill five men, much less one.

The stream of bullets ripped a trench in Spooner’s chest. Blood splattered everywhere. The Ralston kid crumpled in a dead faint. People shrieked. Some ducked down again, but others raced for the door. They were screaming, tearing at each other.

“Shut up and get back here!” the gunman swung around and yelled. “Shut up or I’ll mow you down.”

The bouncer looked down at himself, at his ravaged chest. He plastered his big hands over his gaping wounds, as if he could hold in the blood. Then he looked up at me, in mute sadness. He stumbled forward a step and his heart gave out. He sagged to his knees and fell, face down.

The gunman looked up from the dead man and pointed an accusing finger at Queenie. “You!” he said. “You made me do that!”

Queenie had gone gray under his elaborate makeup, gray and speechless. He had finally gotten it. This was not one of his tall tales, where he could play the star. This was real.

“Back to your seats everybody!” the gunman yelled. “Get back in your seats and show your hands. Do it, or I’ll start shooting. And I won’t stop till the job’s done.”

This time, folks moved. They scrambled to get back in place.

The killer turned back to Queenie and me. “Come over here, the both of you, where I can see you.”

We stood up and edged out from around the table, but kept our distance from him.

The gunman was taller than me, but not by much, which made him short for a man. The coat seemed to have padded shoulders, but I had the feeling that he would’ve appeared broad even without them, that he was built like a quarterback, muscular and stocky.

For the most part, he’d successfully masked his face, but part of it showed above the mask. His eyes had a distinctive almond shape and they were light-colored: blue or gray, I couldn’t be sure. The band of skin showing over the bridge of his nose, it was light, too. In other words, this was a white guy. Last, but not least, I detected an accent. European, northern European, perhaps. So, not just any white guy, but a European white guy. He’d sure traveled a long way to cause trouble.

“Now, you,” he told Queenie, “take the heater out or she’s next.” He pointed the gun at me.

I half-turned to Queenie to see what he’d do. Please, don’t do anything stupid.

Queenie slipped his hand through the slit of his dress. And lingered there.

He was going to try something dumb, like shoot from down there. I could see it in his eyes.

Don’t do it. Don’t do it.

Queenie looked at me and I looked at him. If he pulled a dumb stunt like that and I managed to survive, then I was going to kill him myself. That’s what I was thinking and that’s what I put in my eyes.

I guess he got the message.

He eased out with a small black handgun and aimed it downward. My lungs expanded and I inhaled big gobs of sweet relief.

“Put it on the floor and kick it over here,” the gunman said.

Queenie did as told. He kept his eye on the submachine gun the whole time. I still didn’t trust Queenie not to try something and I guess Mr. Tommy Gun didn’t either, so I understood why he was keeping his weapon trained, but I was beginning to wonder why he was training it on me.

“Get over here.” The gunman indicated the space right before him.

Queenie glanced at me. His eyes held doubt, fear and resentment.

“Do what he says,” I whispered. “Please. Just do it.”

“Come on,” the gunman growled.

Queenie’s gaze returned to the gunman. Stone-faced, he held up his gown, then stepped delicately and ladylike over Spooner’s body. He stood before the gunman, chest heaving, eyes narrowed and said with tremulous bravado, “Well?”

The gunman slapped him. He was half a head shorter than Queenie, but wide and solid. Queenie swayed under the blow but didn’t stumble. He seemed more stunned than anything. His hand went to his lip and came back bloodied. His jaw dropped in alarm.

“My face! You piece of shit! You hurt my face!”

The gunman slapped him again. This time Queenie went down. He tripped backward over Spooner and landed on the floor in a pool of blood. He screeched at the blood, scrambled away from the body, and got to his feet. Blood smeared his hands and dress. From the look on his face, he had finally gotten the message.

The gunman gave me a nod. “You! Come here.”

Queenie and I exchanged another glance. Then I took a step forward. The gunman produced handcuffs and tossed them at me. I caught them instinctively.

“Cuff up the songbird,” he said. “You,” he told Queenie. “Hands behind your back.”

If there was one thing I’d always told myself I would never do, it was to be an accomplice to a crime, to in any way assist a kidnapper or killer in harming me or someone else. I had read, and written, so many stories in which the victims had cooperated with their killers. They had done so in the minute hope of surviving, but all they’d really done was make it easier for their killer to get them alone, isolate them and do what he felt needed doing.

I’d always said I would resist. I wouldn’t cooperate. I wouldn’t make it easy. No me. Oh, no.

But now, here I was, and things appeared differently. They weren’t so cut and dry. For one thing, someone else’s life was at stake, not just mine.

“Well,” the gunman said. “Shall I shoot you or shoot somebody else?” He glanced down at the Ralston girl, still unconscious on the floor. “How about her?” He turned his gun, took aim.

“No!” I pulled Queenie’s hands behind his back and slipped on the handcuffs.

He flinched at the touch of cold steel. “Please, no, Slim. You—”

“It’ll be all right,” I said, trying hard to sound calm.

I snapped the cuffs shut, and when the gunman ordered me to step back, I did.

He made Queenie stand next to him, checked the cuffs and nodded. Then he grabbed Queenie and started backing out. He wound his way to the rear exit, back stage left, and kept the singer in front as a shield.

Queenie panicked. “Oh come on now, people! Y’all ain’t gonna let him take me like this, are you? Somebody do something. Please!”

People stayed frozen to their seats. No one was willing to play the hero. Not in the face of that weapon.

Queenie’s eyes met mine. “You! Slim, you—!”

The whine of police sirens rent the air. The cops were probably headed to another emergency, but the killer assumed the worst. He pushed Queenie aside and sprayed the room with gunfire. All hell broke loose. People stampeded toward the door. Wall sconces exploded. The room fell dark. Plaster and dust showered down.

I heard screams. I heard cries. I dove under a table and covered my head. Bullets ripped up the floor two inches from my face. I couldn’t believe it when they didn’t touch me.

“Motherfucker! Get your hands off me!” Queenie cried.

I heard the back door bang open. I heard a scuffle and a scream. Then the door slammed shut and all I heard was the heavy thumping of my terrified heart.