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Desire Street



Awards: Edgar Allen Poe Award Nominee, Fact Crime

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About The Author

Jed Horne

Jed Horne is city editor of The Times-Picayune (New Orleans). This is his first book.

Awards

Edgar Allen Poe Award Nominee, Fact Crime

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EXCERPT

Desire Street
PART ONE
ONE
This much is certain and always was. That on a Thursday afternoon in late September 1984, a housewife named Delores Dye--Dee to her husband and friends--ran afoul of a thief as she loaded a shopping cart of groceries into her car out front of a New Orleans supermarket.
The skies are hazy in the hot afternoon, and the parking lot of the Schwegmann Bros. Giant Supermarket is perhaps a third full. The general hubbub of passing traffic, the stream of cars and vans and delivery trucks and light pickups is deepened by the throb of heavy equipment: a pipe crew laying a gas line along the curb that divides Old Gentilly Road, an artery leading east to the suburbs, from the vast field of tar in which Delores Dye has parked her red Ford LTD.
At sixty, Mrs. Dye is spry and vigorous enough to leave at least one eyewitness to her death convinced she is much younger. Reared Mormon, a rodeo queen in her day, she has strayed from her Wyoming homeland, but not from her values. She is, by all accounts, a no-nonsense woman in a no-nonsense marriage. Her husband is a small-time contractor in the construction business. She bills the customers, pays the subs, banks the money, keeps him on an allowance, shops, cooks, cleans. She has raised two sons and intends to have a hand in raising the grandson one of them, at long last, has provided her.
Mrs. Dye is not unmindful of crime, even here in Gentilly, a modest, thoroughly middle-class neighborhood which--like every modest middle-class neighborhood and some very posh ones as well--is not far from a stretch of rotting slums and the enormous, half-empty public housing projects they surround, this being New Orleans, one of the poorest cities in America, especially if you are black.
Out of habit, or perhaps in response to some special premonition, Mrs. Dye has set her purse in alongside the groceries before slamming the lid of the trunk. She has her keys out and is moving toward the locked driver's-side door when her assailant makes his move, materializing out of the anonymous comings and goings in the parking lot to grab her wrist and make his demands. From the construction site along Old Gentilly Road, more than one of the men witness to the death of Delores Dye will first mistake this minuet--the man's hand to the woman's wrist, turn once, turn again--for an exchange between lovers, a quarrel perhaps, or a moment of affection. The distance obscures Mrs. Dye's age and its marked contrast with that of her assailant, a young man, variously described as eighteen or twenty-nine, with bushy hair or, as some would have it, braids. He is black, as are most New Orleanians; she is white. But this is a city long since accustomed to cross-racial romance, if not, in some quarters, entirely comfortable with it.
And then, never having begun at all, in a split second the dance was over. Perhaps Mrs. Dye kicked up a fuss and foolishly refused the young man's demand for her purse and her keys. Perhaps, in the tension of the moment, she had been unable satisfactorily to explain that her money was in her purse and her purse was in the trunk. Or perhaps her assailant had planned all along to pull a .32-caliber revolver from his left pocket and, with the nonchalance of a parent tucking a stray hair behind a daughter's ear, press it to the side of Mrs. Dye's skull and fire once, a clean kill that eliminates the closest witness to his crime.
But there are others.
"She just dropped to the ground," is how one of the gas-line workmen would remember it. "She just dropped out. She ain't kicked or nothing, just fell out."
Just as coolly, the gunman then proceeds to step around Delores Dye, her skull circled in its widening aura of blood and brain fluid. Heslides into the driver's seat, fires up the motor, and, without so much as a nervous lurch or an impatient beep of the horn, glides slowly into the line of cars exiting the parking lot. The gunman's strategy is apparent: hide in plain sight, blend in, ease on out of the crime scene without causing a ripple in the macadam millpond of the supermarket parking lot. The implementation of that strategy, the finesse and composure, the icy nervelessness with which the gunman turns homeward-bound grocery shopper, border on the superhuman--or the subhuman, depending on your point of view. An impressive attempt at camouflage, except that it is utterly unsuccessful.
The workman impressed by how cleanly the gunman felled his prey is one of at least a half dozen witnesses to the murder of Delores Dye. Five of them will provide accounts comprehensive enough for police to take seriously.
Bobby Territo, young, white, and scared to death, was in a company pickup heading east along Old Gentilly Road when he glanced to his right and, so he claimed, saw the woman drop to the ground. "Damn, that nigger just shot that lady!" Territo remembered exclaiming. In court, he would apologize for the racial epithet, knowing full well, as would the prosecutors who called him to the stand, that his embarrassment only lent credibility to his account. Having yelped loudly and with his windows open, Territo was then appalled to glance in the rearview mirror and see that the Ford had slipped into the line of slow-moving traffic directly behind him. Trembling violently, certain he was to be shot, Territo sank down so low in the driver's seat that he could barely see over the dashboard or work the clutch, which began to lug badly, causing the truck to lurch and stagger, verging on a stall.
But then, without incident, the Ford passed him on the right, slowly skirting the construction site and heading for the turnoff onto France Road at the far end of the parking lot. One of the hard hats had the presence of mind to shout to the man at the controls of the crew's jackhammer, mounted on a long arm that jutted out from the glassed-in operator's cab: Swing the crane around, and bring it down on the Ford's roof, he yelled. But the operator missed the chance to pin the car, perhaps having thought better of using company equipment in a demolition derby, and the Ford passed the work site unimpeded. Now it veered right, onto FranceRoad in the direction of a famously pestilential labyrinth of brick boxes and damaged lives known as the Desire public housing project.
 
 
The call came a little before midnight, and it came from his father, which Lowell Dye found odd because, as is often true among fathers and grown sons, the wife and mother--Delores Dye--was the family switchboard, the communicator, the envoy and negotiator. Robert Dye had just heard from the police, or was it the coroner's office--someone in authority. "They have a body there. They think it might be your mother. And they think she may have been murdered."
There are different ways to deal with the unspeakable, and one way is to seek refuge in the mundane. For Lowell Dye, half awake but instantly beside himself with anxiety, that refuge lay in ragging his father for not calling earlier and, for the two of them, in faulting the goddamn police for taking so long to track them down.
In fact, the elder Dye had placed a call to his son earlier in the evening--it was unlike Dee to be AWOL--but Lowell and his wife, Jan, hadn't picked up. Robert put the steaks out anyway; they were salted and thawing on the countertop. Hours ticked by, and still no sign of Dee, no call to confirm the likeliest explanation, that she and a friend had stopped by the World's Fair, along the downtown riverfront. Like most government productions in a famously corrupt state, the exposition, then in its final weeks, had been a financial sinkhole touched by scandal. But it was a great hit with local residents, many of whom, like Dee Dye, had acquired season passes and used them regularly.
In fairness to the police, tracking down Mrs. Dye's next of kin had been complicated by her inveterate frugality. The same instinct that sent her to a discount chain like Schwegmann's had also inspired her to register the car with one of Lowell Dye's aunts who lived over the line in Jefferson Parish, the white-flight mecca of 1950s-era ranch houses that had crowded out the older wooden bungalows and doubles just across the Seventeenth Street Canal from Orleans Parish. The sales taxes were lower in Jefferson by a mill or two. There were savings to be realized. Twenty bucks a year? A hundred? The principle of the thing would have mattered more to Delores than the amount.
Witnesses had provided police with snippets of numbers from the getaway car's license plate, but when police cobbled them together and called the Jefferson Parish address to inquire about the woman listed on the registration, Mrs. Dye's relatives ducked what they thought was an effort to nip them for the evaded registration fee and suggested that the cops had a wrong number. Police thought better of disclosing that they were seeking survivors of a murder victim and continued their search until they reached Robert.
"Will you come with me?" Robert asked Lowell.
Lowell looked at the phone in his hand. Come with me? Come where?
"To identify the body."
Maybe it wasn't her, Lowell thought to himself. Right? Why would they need someone to come down and make an identification if they already knew who it was? Grasping at what shreds of hope could keep him from falling apart completely, Lowell stumbled out of the bedroom. Like every kitchen in New Orleans, his and Jan's had its share of plastic go-cups, the colorful customized beakers that Mardi Gras parade clubs--krewes, in local parlance--print with their names and insignia and toss into the sea of upstretched arms that wave like eelgrass along Carnival parade routes. He loaded a cup with ice, then filled it to the brim with Jack Daniel's.
It was about ten minutes from Lowell Dye's lakefront home near the Jefferson Parish line to the place where he had grown up and where his parents still lived, a squat brick house on Wildair Street. Dye honked. Waiting for his father to come out, he could contemplate the pocket park across the street, a neighborhood asset that had made their place action central for sports-minded friends of Lowell and his brother, Robert junior, back in the good old days before they were swept into the more structured rigor of high school athletics and college and work and women. Before Robert junior moved off to Florida with his bride. Before Jan and Lowell had been blessed with the birth of their son, Jason, little more than a year earlier.
The drive to the coroner's office was dead air, interrupted by spasms of chatter in which Robert Dye nursed the possibility that his wife had gone to the World's Fair. Or maybe the car broke down. Or ... Lowell kept his silence. Soon the damp grid of empty city streets deposited them at the coroner's office, carved into one flank of the immense criminalcourts building, the oldest and, in its way, most magnificent structure in a government complex that also included the city's police headquarters, the district attorney's office, and the sprawling, ever-growing collection of concrete bunkers that comprised the parish prison. Not the least remarkable thing about the Orleans Parish coroner's office was the sweet and fetid stench that wafted from the loading dock, a place visited both by body wagons and by the waste service that hauled away a big-city coroner's ample production of blood and tissue. It was the smell of human flesh, as unmistakable and matter-of-fact as the smell of garlic outside the back door of an Italian bistro.
But Lowell's more vivid memories, once in the waiting room, were of a fedora'd newspaper reporter, ordered by the city desk to keep the all-night vigil that might yield, in time for the bulldog edition, the identity of the Schwegmann's murder victim. That, and a weird bit of embroidery hanging on the wall, an old-time sampler with a slogan stitched into it that, in his state of mounting distress, baffled Dye completely.
"I kept looking at it--I'm reasonably astute, right?--but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what it meant."
In due course, an aide intercepted father and son, and they were led out of the room and down a flight of marble stairs. It was the mixture of the ordinary and the very very strange that made the experience excruciating, the juxtaposition of the macabre and the intimately familiar in a pattern as distinctive as a fingerprint. And there was the suddenness of the exposure: the opening of a drawer, the slab rolling out from the wall and ...
Two decades later the memory of it still knocked the wind out of Lowell Dye, turning his voice to a whisper: " ... and baby, like, there she is. I mean, it's her."
The sheet had been pulled down to the dead woman's waist, exposing the white-and-blue patterned blouse. And sure enough, there was a toe tag on her foot, like in a cheesy TV drama. The entrance wound was appallingly tidy, a small caked hole in among the strands of gray-blond hair covering her left temple. The barbarity of what had befallen Delores Dye told in her closed eyelids, livid purple, the color of grape juice. It was as though she had been punched in each socket, except that the blow had come from the wrong side, from inside her skull.
Robert Dye was in shock, frozen in contemplation of his wife of four decades, the war bride he had met in a West Coast dance hall and who had followed him back to New Orleans. The woman who ran his drywall business and raised his sons. He could have stood there all night, lost in his thoughts. Or so his son feared.
Lowell could not take another minute of it. "I went, 'Dad, let's get out of here. Let's get out of here. That's her. Okay? That's her. Let's go.'"
In the car, they quibbled over whether to call Florida. Robert wanted to reach his other son. Lowell couldn't see the point in not waiting the few hours until dawn broke and his brother, a honcho with the National Park Service, would be up and about. The father yielded and stepped out of the car on Wildair Street, suddenly a widower and needing to be alone with his thoughts. Lowell was about a block from his own place when he realized that he could barely see. He would remember the strangeness of the sensation. He wasn't sobbing, nothing that cathartic. It was as if all his grief had narrowed to laser intensity and afflicted his eyes, only his eyes. They began to leak torrentially. A friend had come over to be with Jan in his absence, and it wasn't until the two women heard his car pulling in and opened the door and asked what had happened that he hit an emotional trip wire and fell apart completely. The sun had come up before the last of the shudders had coursed through his exhausted body and he fell into a fitful sleep.
"What can I say? She was the best friend I ever had in my life," Lowell would reflect years later, "the total loving package." He settled back on the sofa as he spoke, a bachelor again after a series of failed marriages, childless now that his only son was off at a boarding school in Arizona. "She wasn't a debutante; she never went to college," he continued. But Lowell had gotten his mother interested in reading: trashy novels at first, then serious ones; then he moved her into nonfiction--histories and self-help books and then the biographies that became her passion.
"How do you describe a woman who was wonderful and motivating and so totally worthy of your trust? I've been around too long. I mean, I haven't had it with my wives. I don't have it with my kid. To have that yanked away, it was ..." He fell silent, searching futilely for the right word, which does not exist. He gave up and looked around for his drink. "It was devastating," he said quietly, sinking back into the sofa cushions.
Sons are meant to love their mothers, and Lowell Dye was devoted to his, awed by the saga of her childhood as part of a vast and patriarchal Mormon family that had migrated west from Illinois, not to Utah but to Wyoming. Of thirteen siblings, a half dozen were brothers who, amalgamating the 160 acres each could claim under the Homestead Act, put together a goodly chunk of Wyoming, near the Wind River Indian Reservation, and ranched it together. One of the brothers was a Marlboro cowboy. Literally. Good-looking enough to land a modeling gig with the cigarette company and see himself on billboards. And all of them were rodeo riders, talented ones. In time, they became well known on the circuit that included the Cheyenne Rodeo and the annual Pioneer Days blowout over in Laramie. That might have given Delores an edge when it came to picking a queen for those events--Lowell would never give up the photograph of her on horseback, a sash proclaiming her title--except that she didn't need an edge, not a big, good-looking woman like her. Big in all the right places, her husband didn't mind telling his buddies.
They met in California in '43. In San Jose, midway between the Alameda naval base, where she was working, and the camp at Salinas where he was getting trained for combat. Two kids--she had just turned twenty; he was twenty-three-trying to pack in a little living just in case the war had something else in mind for them. Within a year they were married, and after the war they came straight back to New Orleans, Robert's town, in time for the boys to be born there. Robert Dye did some college on the GI Bill (Tulane) only to get caught in the Korean War draft. After that it was time to get down to business. Their partnership was a natural one.
"She was a very resolute person and could do things that I was hesitant about," her widower would reflect years later. "I couldn't get on anybody, you know. But somebody owed us money, she could do it. She could haggle. And wheel and deal. She took care of all that. If I had to buy a new piece of equipment or a truck or something, she did it. Billing, payroll, she did it." And because she knew how to charge things against the company--new cars, improvements on a home that was also an office--the Dyes, Robert said, lived a little better than most folks would suspect you could on a business with a crew of laborers that never grossed more than $300,000.
Given the chemistry of his love for his mother and all that she stood for, the murder would have been enough to unhinge a son as devoted as Lowell, even a son past thirty, with his own wife and toddler to buffer him. But right from the start Lowell's grief was compounded by another emotion: guilt, and the self-reproach that came with it. Delores Dye's murder was, of course, sheer coincidence, the accidental intersection of two lives--an unsuspecting housewife and an armed desperado for whom any target would do, the more vulnerable the better. The irony Lowell Dye would nurse bitterly to his dying day was that his mother wouldn't have been anywhere near the Schwegmann's parking lot but for a secondary coincidence, one that took rise in her devotion to him.
Delores Dye was a creature of habit. For decades she had done her shopping, as well as her banking and most of the other chores related to the drywall business, on Friday, not Thursday. And the week of September 20 would have been no exception but for one thing. Lowell and Jan had made weekend plans. They were heading over to Gulfport, a couple of hours east on the Mississippi coast. A friend was getting married, a Saturday affair that, to be fully savored, would mean showing up Friday night for the rehearsal dinner and the looser, boozier good times that would follow into the wee hours.
Hearing of these plans, Lowell's mother had offered to take Jason, the grandchild she had yearned for longer than most Louisiana housewives are kept waiting, the grandson--the first of many, she hoped--that her Mormon upbringing had told her was not only her right but her obligation. Her dreams had been delayed, first by the lack of children from Robert junior's marriage, then by Lowell's perpetuation of his bachelorhood late into his twenties. At last Jason had been born in July of the previous year, and an elated grandmother had taken the baby on as if he were her own.
True to form, that very weekend she proposed to combine quality time with the baby's self-improvement. She wanted to try her hand at toilet training him. She knew to be tactful about it: "Do you think Jan would mind?" That was her question to Lowell during a phone call to his office earlier in the week. He chuckled over her solicitude. Mind? Who would mind having their kid toilet trained?
As the prospect of her weekend with the baby drew nearer, Deloreshad called Lowell a second time. Why didn't they plan to drop the baby off first thing Friday rather than waiting until after work? That would get them out of town earlier. Maybe they'd beat the rush-hour traffic. Lowell saw merit in the idea and was certain Jan would too. All that would be required was for Delores to move to Thursday the chores that she habitually did on Friday, a departure from routine that Lowell had not seen more than a half dozen times in as many years. And was Jan comfortable with the idea of the toilet training? Lowell assured his mother a second time that it would be fine. And Jason's grandmother had added a baby's potty seat to her shopping list.
She finished the banking first, two stops, two different banks: one to deal with the payroll account, one to draw weekend cash from the family account. From there, as far as these matters could be reconstructed, she drove out Old Gentilly Road, past the hodgepodge of fast-food joints and tire dealerships, past the leafy oak allée at the entrance to the Dillard University campus and the strict white-trimmed brick of Baptist Theological Seminary. The Schwegmann's was on her right. There were parking slips nearer the supermarket entrance, but it would not have been like Mrs. Dye to angle for one. She'd be damned if she'd see her Ford all nicked up with ding marks from doors swinging open. And so she circled around and pulled into a slip on the outer margin of the lot, a more isolated spot, less trafficked, and, as a young thug calculated with some interest, less likely to invite interference.
Most accounts of Mrs. Dye's final minutes would begin with the tussle in the parking lot or the gunshot, seconds later, that took her life. A high school student named Edward Williams provided a longer narrative, which began inside the supermarket. Williams thought he had noticed the woman as he paid for a bottle of Big Shot soda to see him through the long bus ride home. And he remembered a man lurking over by the sporting goods section, within eyeshot of Mrs. Dye as she cashed a check at the cashier's window. A black man, like Williams, and not much older. Or so Williams would tell police.
Williams had left the store and was killing time at the bus stop on the far side of the parking lot when he noticed the woman again, now pushing a clattering shopping cart. She emerged from the tightly packed rowsof cars bunched near the store's entrance and pressed on toward a more isolated car, a big red Ford--or was it a Thunderbird? They were harder to tell apart in those days. Williams had popped open the Big Shot and was scanning the boulevard for some sign of his bus forging through the thickening afternoon traffic, when something drew his attention to the red car. It may have been the woman's scream, though it was barely audible above the jackhammers and diesel rumble of the construction crew laying pipe along a stretch of Gentilly that began maybe two hundred feet east of the bus stop.
Glancing toward the car, Williams saw that the woman had been joined by the man he had seen in the store. They seemed almost to be in a playful mood: the woman darting around the car, the man grabbing at her, like lovers playing hard to get before they fall laughing into each other's arms. And then suddenly it wasn't playful at all. The sound of a single shot rose above the background din, and Williams watched in astonishment as the woman dropped instantly to the ground.
The details of Williams's story would vary over time. He would contend that in the split second before the gun went off, the woman beat her assailant about the face and kneed him in the groin. That might have been consistent with Mrs. Dye's feistiness, but it might also require that a suspect in her murder have evidence of facial abrasions not placed there by the police themselves in the rough-and-tumble of the arrest. In any event, other witnesses reported no such lashing out by Mrs. Dye, and prosecutors made nothing of Williams's account of it.
With the exodus from the city gathering force and the pipeline work adding to the congestion, two or three cars might stack up at the parking lot exit before the first in line could make the right turn into the divided boulevard's eastbound lanes. To Williams's horror, that placed the killer on course to crawl past the bus stop, only a few yards from the bench where he sat with mounting dread that as witness to a murder, he would be rubbed out then and there.
The driver's-side window was open, according to Williams. And now his anxiety verged on outright panic as the gunman swiveled his head toward the bus stop and locked eyes with him, a look "of death," as the witness would recall from the stand. Williams shut his eyes and foundhimself muttering a prayer for deliverance. When he looked up again, it was to see the Ford's tail end, its brake lights popping on and off impatiently as the gunman nudged out into the prospective anonymity of passing traffic. Now Williams rushed to the woman's side, and, just before her eyes fluttered shut for good, Mrs. Dye had reached out as if to grasp his hand. Or so he claimed.
Copyright © 2005 by Jed Horne

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