My name is Pearl – Pearl Elise Antoinette Batiste and I was born to the most illustrious, mulatto comfort-girl in all of Storyville better known as The District.
In a moment of stunned, and appalled disbelief, I clutched the sheets to my bare skin. I nudged Charlie with my big toe and encountered his cold and clammy flesh. Dear God! Upon further inspection, I deduced that poor Charlie had indeed passed on to the great unknown. What was also, unknown, was whom, what, when where or why someone had committed such an indecent act. As I paced the floors of my increasingly small parlor, I knew I had to devise some sort of strategy for my own survival. Unfortunately for me, that would never happen as long as I was in close quarters with the decidedly dead, and soon to be stinking, body.
I flitted about my bedroom, throwing another quilt over the Charlie corpse, and pulling as many of my petticoats, lace knickers, and corsets into my only luggage bag. The certainty of my destination was lost to me, but the first course of my plan was to pay my friend Lieutenant Bennet a visit. One of the perks of being lady of my disposition, is my dealings with men of all varieties. I learned from my mamma that it pays to have friends in high and low places.
As the sun rose higher in the morning sky, the temperature in my quaint boudoir was also rising. I filled my basin with water and scrubbed the remnants of Charlie’s last earthly pleasure of off my thighs. I pulled on a delicate gown that I knew Stephan would admire, and pinned my dampened ringlets up into a tight chignon. Retrieving my bag, I spared a final glance at my comfy home, and Charlie’s dead body.
“Lord, please bless his soul wherever it may be.”
Exiting out the door at the back of my apartment, I peeped up and down the alley. It was just as quiet as I hoped it to be. No need attracting unnecessary attention or conversation over where I might or might not be going.
Pushing into phase one of the ‘Keep Pearl Batiste out of the clink’ plan, I had my rather dear friend, Roger at the carriage stand, give me a ride back to Sweet’s. After dropping me off, he was to get a message to Lt. Bennet to meet me here within the hour. I trusted Roger would keep my word, since I’m sure he wouldn’t want his wife to know that he was such a regular customer. I also promised him free visits for a month. That seemed to satisfy his feeble curiosity, for he didn’t even so much as insinuate a question of what I needed him to do. Men like him were very easy to negotiate with. Another lesson from my dear mamma.
It was much earlier than I would normally have come in, so I slipped into my designated room and locked the door behind me. See, my dearly departed mother may have started out in a 5 cent “crib”, but Sweet’s was a more elaborately developed establishment. Not quite a Basin street mansion, but much more than a house with meager outfitted rooms. My first “client” had been entertained in such a room. One bed, one table, one chair, and one bathroom on each floor! There was no way I would ever go back to such a tawdry standard of living. Hmph! Not ever one to have a problem with nerves, I found myself pacing to and fro. This would never do. I can not and will not go to jail. Worrying and the act of trying not to worry helped me to work up a sweat. Sweets’s was not equipped with the ventilation for full dress, except for the lounge area. At least here I could take a proper bath, even if it was with cold water.
While I scrubbed my body with a lavender-scented cake-bar of soap, the lock jiggled to my door. I froze mid-scrub and held my breath as I listened for any other strange sounds. Could it be the mystery murderer? The person was either trying to frame me or murder me. The door was once again silent, but my bath was ruined, and I didn’t want to take any chances. Slowly, I reached my arm inch by inch towards my towel, careful not to splash or flutter the water in my tub. Just as my fingertips grasped the terry cloth wrap, my lock clicked and the door swung open. I gasped, and in my fright I lost my footing. I slid forward, flopping without an ounce of grace, over the side of the tub.
“Merde!” I hissed on the way down. Looking up, I came face to face with the laughing grey eyes of Stephan. In a rare moment of embarrassment, I clutched for my towel, covering the bare flesh that he had already seen. Pearl Batiste embarrassed? Ridiculous, I know. See, the matter of my profession does not leave much room for shyness or being coy. But, Stephan wasn’t my customer. We were generational associates, if you will. His father was one of my mother’s best customers and he made sure that Sweets’s and the ladies that worked here were always looked after.
We’ve known each other since the first time he entered Sweet’s at the age of seventeen. His father was hell-bent on making him a man. Well, his nature was hell-bent on staying bent! His lady took pity on him and instead of sowing his oats, he taught me how to read. There has never been anything else between us besides our friendship, but he was the only man I had ever been close to, who hadn’t seen me unclothed. Until today.
“Will you stop laughin’ and be a gentleman! My robe, please!” I turned away from his continued amusement at my predicament, and pointed in the direction of my robe.
“Pardon my manners, Lady Elise.” He followed my demand and returned with my robe, watching as I wrapped it around myself and then helped me up. Yes, he called me Elise. He was the only person to do so. Said he didn’t want to call me what my customers knew me as.
“So, I was summoned. How can I be at your service?” Stephan took a seat, while I continued my new habit of pacing.
“Well, I’m afraid I’ve been set up,” I began.
“Set up? Is there a client that you are being forced to see?”
“No, not that kind of set up. I’ve been framed.”
Stephan looked as if I wasn’t speaking a language he understood. I poured a glass of water and sat on the edge of the bed to begin my sordid story.
“So when you went to bed he was alive, but this morning he was stabbed in the back?”
“Yes, with my knife! I assumed he would let himself out, but in the morning he was still… in my bed.” I don’t know why my shame had chosen today to make a surprise visit, but I wasn’t in the mood for unwanted emotions!
“Elise…this is very bad for you. How will you ever prove that you didn’t commit this murder?” Stephan rubbed his brow in distress.
“That is why I need your help. Even if I say he attacked me, I will still be sent on a one way trip to the work house. I will kill myself first! I swear it!” I pummeled the mattress in my fury. Stephan left his chair and came to my side.
“Now, now. I won’t hear of it. Don’t bother with this worry of going to a work house, and for the love of gumbo, do not speak of killing yourself. I would kill you if you did that,” he chuckled at the end of his speech in an attempt to cheer me up. There was no cheering up for me. My future was always overcast at best, but now the fog was rolling in thick.
“I’ll help you, but first we have to go back to your apartment so I can see for myself,” he announced.
“No! Oh, no! Please, don’t make me go back there!” The thought of Charlie’s grungy excuse for a body made me cringe on a good day. The thought of his cold corpse made my empty stomach recoil. Stephan pulled me up by my shoulders, forcing me to face him.
“Listen to me! I will help you, but you have to do as I tell you. You came to me for my help, so cease with your tantrums and do as I say. Do we have an understanding?” His words were uttered in a harsh whisper, but he might as well have yelled it from the rooftop. I’d never noticed how manly Stephan was. How handsome he was. We stood there, our faces inches apart as he waited for my response.
“Yes,” I whispered in return.
“Yes, you understand me?”
“Yes, Stephan. I understand.” He cracked a grin, but his tight grip on my silk covered shoulders didn’t lessen. Oh, my! Why is he looking at me like a turkey on Thanksgiving? Time seemed to tick slowly as my heartbeat raced faster. What is he thinking? What is he thinking? What is he thinking?
Then, he just let me go. I straightened my back and gathered my garments to get re-dressed.
What has become of my predictable life?