“Next block up,” T-Ron said. “Just a little to the right. See ‘em?”
Squinting into the sun, it took a minute to spot what the kid meant. A pair of large white sneakers looped around the electric line stretched across the intersection. They dangled in the air like a sign of some kind.
“I’ve heard of this,” I told T-Ron. “David mentioned something similar once. But I thought this kind of thing was in the past.”
“In the past,” T-Ron said, an odd note in his voice. “You mean before the storm?”
“Yeah,” I said. “They still do this?”
T-Ron squinted into the fading sun, shielding his eyes with his hand.
“Not as common as it used to be, they say. But still happens. Whenever you see a pair of treads hanging like that, best to turn and go the other way.”
It was something foreign to my own life. Tennis shoes looped around an electrical or phone line, or even a clothing line, held a definite meaning, at least in New Orleans. They served as a warning that you were about to enter enemy territory, similar to the prominently-displayed shrunken heads that, according to every 1950’s black and white Tarzan movie, marked the outer edges of a headhunter tribe’s territory.
But it was a custom, so I’d been told, supposedly exiting the city around the same time as the vast majority of the population of the Lower Ninth Ward.
A custom, like most of the people, swept out of the city by Katrina.
“So the gangs are back to doing this again?” I asked, waving my hand in the direction of the marker.
T-Ron, who I’d picked up as a guide only a few hours earlier, shrugged.
“Not so much, these days. I don’t remember any of that, you know. But according to what I hear, most of the boys left town with the storm, ending up in Houston.”
While I didn’t know his exact age, my guide looked to be no more than twelve or thirteen, which would leave him with no real memory of the hurricane that had nearly destroyed his home town.
“Did they stay?”
“Some, I guess. Some didn’t have a choice, got tapped when they took on the locals. A lot of them got rounded up by the cops.”
“Houston cops?” I asked.
“Turned out to be a lot tougher than ours. Some of the boys weren’t ready for how hard of a town Houston was. Those that eventually came back” – shrug again – “weren’t quite the same as before they left.”
“So whose shoes are those?” I wondered. “And how long have they been up there?”
T-Ron looked up at me, an entire universe of knowledge beyond my grasp floating behind those eyes.
“They’ve hung there long as I can remember,” he said. “Ain’t nobody going to mess with those treads. They belong to him.”
“Who?” I queried.
“You know who. It’s why you’re down here poking around. Him.”
Before arriving, I knew practically nothing of New Orleans. David, through various letters and e-mails, not to mention his occasional visits home, had provided me some cursory understanding of the place, but nothing, even pictures he’d posted online, had prepared me for the reality.
Nearly a decade after the storm that had so ravaged the Gulf, parts of the city, especially down in the Ninth Ward, still resembled a war zone. Not surprising, considering what it had gone through.
And as T-Ron took me on a tour that day I had a hard time processing it all. Beyond the actual filth, the dirt caked into the walls of the houses left standing, we had to dodge broken pavement, exposed tree branches and rotted overhangs.
The people all had a haggard, hopeless look, as if nothing would ever work out for them again. I got lots of glares, and more than a few snickers, to let me know just how out of place I was down there.
At some point in that day, I began to wonder if finding out what had really happened to my brother was worth all of this.
“So you saw them?” Lindsay asked me later that night.
“Sure did. The kid took me right to them.”
“He didn’t try to rip you off, did he?”
“Naw. I may be new at this, but I was smart enough to not actually show my money until I was ready to part ways with him. Where did you find him, anyway?”
“Around. Spend enough time down here, moving in and out of the various neighborhoods, and you meet all kinds of street kids. I’ve known T-Ron off and on for around four years now. Not sure where he lives or how much family he has, but he’s one of those kids who always seem underfoot out on the street.”
We were drinking wine at a small café on the fringes of the French Quarter. Fairly tall for a woman, Lindsay stood around five seven or so, and wore her red hair straight down to her shoulders. She also wore tinted glasses with almost non-existent frames, in an attempt, I speculated without hardly knowing her, to distance herself from the geeky academic she’d no doubt been in high school and college.
A friend and academic colleague of David’s, she was nearly ten years older than me, and already beginning to show a little gray in her hair.
Then again, an associate professor at Tulane, she’d been doing cultural research in the city since before the storm, keeping up with it even after David’s death, so one would think she’d be showing a lot of gray.
“Wasn’t really that unusual,” I said, yanking myself back to the main topic of conversation. “A pair of shoes dangling from some high wires. From what people say, that kind of thing used to show up on every other block down there.”
“True,” Lindsay said, pausing to sip her wine, “except for who those shoes supposedly belong to.”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling my voice starting to go remote. “I still can’t really believe it, though.”
“You don’t think it’s true?”
“You mean that there’s an immortal gangsta who spends his time looking out for his little section of the Lower Ninth? Not hardly.”
“Lots of confirmation to his existence, even if unofficial.”
“According to the cops, High-Y is dead,” I said. “They put him down the night the storm hit. All the reports confirmed it.”
“But it could have been faked” she said.
“A dude nearly six, six in height? Armed with an honest-to-God Bowie knife? How could anyone have mistaken him for someone else?”
“Don’t forget when he was gunned down,” Lindsay reminded me. “That’s as much a part of the story as anything.”
“When they got him?” I asked. “Meaning what? The night the storm hit, or the night they say he gutted my brother like a fish.”
David and I hadn’t been all that close, not surprising with the age difference between us, but as a kid I’d pretty much hero worshiped him. Trying to decide on either the military or college, he ended up going both routes, enlisting for a single hitch in the navy, then heading off to the university for a degree in criminology. Somewhere along the way, he hooked up with a group planning on doing some kind of intervention work with the drug gangs in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
That’s when my parents got worried, but at fifteen I just figured he was off on another adventure.
David spent his last weekend at home before heading down to the Big Easy, and even I could tell he wasn’t his usual self. Between the slight facial tic, occasional staring off into the distance and only chuckling, rather than laughing, at our dad’s best jokes, it was pretty obvious that he’d kind of changed his mind and wasn’t really looking forward to his new work.
But heck, my bro had served on board a destroyer. How much dangerous could this social research gig be than that?
A whole lot more, as it turned out.
“So when did High-Y’s sneakers first appear on that wire?” I asked.
Lindsay finished off her glass and signaled the waiter for another.
“Right around a year after the storm,” she said.
“When people began trickling back in,” I said.
“You got it.”
“But this High-Y character didn’t trickle back in because he’d been killed on August 28, the night of the storm.”
“Correct again. If the cops had been just a bit quicker, they may have saved your brother.”
“You don’t know that,” I said. “Hell, far as that goes, we don’t even know for sure that’s
how he died.”
She looked at me.
“Was it hard on you guys? Never finding his body or knowing for sure what happened to him?”
I didn’t say anything, just sat there staring at the table, thinking of that one night that had haunted my family for the last decade.
Hard on us? You could say that. Mom and Dad were freaking out over the news reports of the storm, trying like hell to get a hold of David. Remember this was in 2005, and while cell phones were out and about, they weren’t quite as ubiquitous as they are now. And even if they had been, it’s doubtful that anyone could have gotten through to New Orleans during the last week of August, 2005.
As the days and weeks mounted up, still with no word from their eldest son, my mom become even more unhinged. Dad ended up heading down there, vowing to go through every makeshift, temporary morgue and hospital in existence until he found his boy.
According to dad, the local authorities were as sympathetic as they could be, but hell, they had just too goddamned much on their plate to deal with. With literally hundreds of bloated, disfigured bodies littering the streets, trying to identify one more was pretty much beyond them.
Eventually, he came back home, defeated and demoralized, leaving the three of us sitting around waiting for news that never came.
“You could say it was hard,” I said, “but that wouldn’t even be close. It took nearly a month for some of the people on your team to contact us, and all they had to give us were rumors from the street, things that sounded just too goddamned unbelievable.”
“It was all the info we had to go on,” Lindsay said. “David had kept us apprised, but those last few weeks, tracking down High-Y had become almost an obsession with him.”
“An obsession,” I muttered.
“Yes. He thought he had a shot at being one of the first people to pinpoint and confirm the origin of an honest-to-God urban legend, and by that point none of us could dissuade him.”
I thought about that for a minute, but really couldn’t think of anything to say.
“What did David tell you about him?” Lindsay asked.
“Not much beyond the basics,” I said. “That there were stories about some sort of immortal thug, who’d haunted New Orleans since before admission into the Union.”
“Well, that plus his theory that somebody, either in or out of the gangs, was keeping the legend going, planting evidence and spreading stories, as a way of protecting themselves. I know for sure that he never thought High-Y actually existed.”
“Most of us never swallowed it either,” she said. “At least until some time after the hurricane, when we started hearing rumors about how High-Y had shanked David the night it hit. Before too long, it became practically common knowledge on the street.”
“But no body ever found,” I said.
“No.” Lindsay looked down at her wine glass for a moment.
“Lots of people never recovered after that night,” she murmured.
“How’s it going, bro,” one of his e-mails had started off. “Got to tell you, things are a lot tougher down here than you’d think. Even if you take everything the media says about how rough and corrupt this place is, and do it up ten times, you’re not quite grasping it. Parts of this city, especially the Lower Ninth, are literally divided into tribal areas. It goes beyond the gang signs and boundaries of an LA, Chicago or St. Louis. This is even more brutal, in large part because of the cops. Whether because of low pay, being on the take or flat out incompetence, you have a couple of the housing projects here that even the SWAT teams won’t enter. Can you believe that?”
I flagged the waiter down and ordered another round for both of us.
“David said that this High-Y character was more of a myth than an actual person. That even in the heart of the Ward, few people would admit to ever meeting him.”
“That’s right,” Lindsay said. “He was supposedly some kind of Lord High Enforcer of all the gangs. Working in the shadows to keep the peace among the factions.”
“Judging by this town’s homicide rate, he didn’t do a very good job.”
“Depends on your point of view. Lots of the Ward’s residents thought if he hadn’t been around, wherever he was, that things would have been flat out carnage.”
“But what I could never figure out,” I spoke slowly, struggling to find the right words, “is how David managed to find him when no one else could, and what he wanted from him. You guys were down here doing academic research. Why the hell did my brother chase the lion into its den?”
Lindsay’s face tightened, and a shadow seemed to pass across her.
“Because of our research, what we found out. I’m guessing, now, that David never told you?”
“Told me what?”
Lindsay tapped her fingers on the wrought-iron table for a moment, then reached into her purse and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper.
“This isn’t an original, of course,” she said as she unfolded, “it’s a copy of a copy. The original’s over a hundred years old and is kept in the library at Tulane.”
She placed the paper, face down, on the table between them.
“Do you have any idea what the street name High-Y might have originally meant?” she asked.
“I’ve no clue,” I said, “but if I had to guess I’d say it might be a reference to skin color?”
Lindsay gestured towards the paper, and I took it and turned it over.
It was a reproduction of an article from the Time Picayune, and at first glance it seemed done in an old-fashioned script. I wondered for a second if it was some kind of joke article, but I didn’t really have time to think of that before the headline caught my eye.
FREEDMAN SOUGHT FOR INCITING UNREST
The story, the printing kind of small and hard to read, told the story of a large Negro man suspected of causing some sort of ruckus among the newly-freed slaves of Louisiana. The usurper was described as large, standing well over six feet tall, of a distinctly “high yellow” skin tone and wielding a Bowie knife against his enemies.
“High yellow,” I said as Lindsay nodded. I took a closer look then, and felt everything inside of me began to slow down.
“This isn’t some sort of joke article, is it.”
“No,” Lindsay said. “If you want, tomorrow I can take you to the university library and show you the actual item. I can also show you a few other artifacts, including some personal journals from around 1700 that tell of a runaway slave hiding out in the bayous and making trouble for the slave owners. Same description, same knife.”
I placed the paper down before me on the table, unable to take my eyes off of it.
The clipping was from March of 1867.
“This is why David took the chances he did,” Lindsay said.
“You mean he thought that the person in this article was the origin of the legend?”
“No, Chris. David thought High-Y was the person in the article.”
The simplistic view of New Orleans, at least pre Katrina, depicted a holdover of the antebellum South. The romantic French Quarter, a few plantation mansions remaining in the old section, people dawdling through lazy days in the humid southern summer. Jazz music and liquor at night, Mardi Gras raising the roofs each spring.
The truth was always something different, and along with so much property, money and life, Katrina, not to mention Rita coming along about a month later, swept away a lot of the illusions.
The people of the town, especially the poor, never held those illusions, and for most of them, at least those who managed to return, the back to back hurricanes only made clear to the outer world what they’d always known.
Yes, Nola did have the ornate balconies, the cobblestoned streets, the women flashing for beads during Carnival, and all the rest.
But the city, as my brother had discovered during his time here, also held other, darker and more ancient elements.
Elements such as High-Y.
The taxi, which picked me up on St. Charles Avenue, just outside of Tulane’s main campus, dropped me off about ten blocks from the abandoned tenement I’d visited the day before. The cabbie absolutely refused to go any closer to the now-renovated projects, and I could tell that he was looking for some way, without bringing up my skin color, to dissuade me away from whatever errand had brought me to this section of town.
I paid him off and walked away, ignoring his final protestations.
It was the middle of the morning, the sky rather overcast, the breeze bringing with it an hint of moisture, cleanliness, from somewhere beyond the Ward.
Another illusion, one of the last few I was desperately trying to hold on to.
This time, I didn’t stop half a block away. The street looked deserted, though I pretty much figured it wasn’t. Nevertheless, using the sidewalk I strode right up to the electrical wire which held High-Y’s shoes. The shoes that had marked, not his drug territory, but his shelter, his haven.
One of the other pieces of information Lindsay had given me the night before.
“That’s insane,” I told her around about our fourth glass of wine. “There’s no way David would have believed anything like that. He wasn’t stupid.”
“‘Course he wasn’t. He was one of the brightest people I’d ever known. And don’t ask me how he got onto it, because I have no clue. But I think you misunderstood me.”
“I hope so,” I said, “because it sounds like you said that my brother believed some kind of gangbanger in the twenty-first century was actually hundreds of years old.”
“See,” she said, “probably my fault for not making it clear. I didn’t mean that David thought High-Y from the projects was the same man who’d led the insurrection after the Civil War or the old slave from before that.”
“No. So what did you mean?”
“David had the idea, and if it was right he was rather brilliant, that someone was deliberately fostering that image, doing their best to make the urban legend seem true.”
“To what end?” I asked. “What good would it do anyone to try to pull something like that off?”
“That’s what your brother was trying to find out,” she said without looking at me, “when he was killed.”
I’d always imagined the phrase “skin crawling” for just a figure of speech, at least until I approached that old building. Standing right under the sneakers, looking all around me for any sign of another person, I could literally feel a hundred sets of eyes on me, untold numbers of the local residents probably just waiting to see what would happen to Whitey.
I hadn’t asked Lindsay to come along with me this morning, seeing no reason to put someone else in jeopardy. And when I’d tried to contact T-Ron, willing to offer him more money just to give me some protective camouflage, he wouldn’t answer.
But I had to know. My life had been on hold for nearly a decade, ever since David’s death.
The disappearance, and probable murder, of their eldest son had torn my parents down to nothing. In the furor after the storm, in the near unbelievable carnage and chaos, they never found David’s body. Lots of stories, about how the street thug known as High-Y had slaughtered him in one of the back alleys, but no real proof.
Then again, David never did return home, and as far as his university buddies could determine, the rumors were more or less true.
My dad began drinking even more than he had previously, and before my eyes turned into a raging bigot, a regular Archie Bunker. Or maybe he always had been, and only now realized he had nothing to lose by expressing his opinions of anyone of a different color than him.
And my mother?
Mom just kind of collapsed in on herself, stopped caring about what she looked like, what she ate or what anyone thought about anything. Never the most outgoing of people, she became almost a complete hermit. She quit her job and spent all her days and nights just waiting for dad to come home from the nearest bar.
I’d done my best to build a life for myself. Sports in high school, then on to a decent college. Had a couple of serious girl friends, though never one that stuck around for too long. Eventually, I took up drinking, just like dear old dad, and ended up just drifting from one low-end job to another.
The month before, I’d lost my latest job, and this time something kind of snapped inside of me. I figured it was time, once and for all, to make as much sense as I could out of the senselessness of David’s death.
So I sold my car, cashed in a couple of loans from friends, and headed down to the Big Easy. It took a little bit of knocking around to find David’s old colleagues, but slowly but surely I got on his track.
Which led me to here.
Not entirely a surprise, the edifice was as deserted as it appeared. At least of human life.
But as soon as I stepped across the threshold I could hear the scurrying and slithering of all sorts of lower forms.
The building had probably been on its last legs even before Katrina, and I figured the structure must really be in bad shape if noone had bothered to move in, even informally, in the years since.
Or, I wondered, did those dangling shoes really have the power to keep anyone, no matter how desperate, away?
I paused just inside, listening. Aside from my own harsh breathing, and the aforementioned slitherings and scurryings, I didn’t hear much of anything.
I moved to the staircase along the far wall, my feet partially sinking into the spongy wood.. The early morning humidity, plus the lack of ventilation in the closed-up building, already had my shirt sticking to my chest and back.
A fear of splinters, not to mention whatever had been there before, kept me from placing my hand on the stairwell, causing me to go slower than normal as I headed up, testing each riser as I went to ensure its solidity.
About halfway up, a stair riser creaked below me.
I stopped motionless, not turning around but listening as hard as I could. I heard no more creaks and wondered if some sort of animal was wandering around, frozen into immobility by my own stillness.
Finally, knowing I’d have to sooner or later, I turned and looked back down the way I’d come.
A man was standing on the third riser from the bottom.
The only light in the building came from outside, wending its way through various gaps and rends in the walls, but it was enough for me to see him rather clearly.
Tall fellow, really tall. I couldn’t tell, looking at a downward angle, if he reached the mythical six feet six, but he probably came close enough that it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference.
Broad shoulders and probably a narrow waist, though with him wearing a baggy sweat shirt, the sleeves cut off, it was hard to tell. But those cut off sleeves revealed a pair of massively-muscled arms, one of which held a big, ugly blade.
Definitely a lighter-skinned Negro, the kind that, in a less politically corect time would have been called high yellow, from which he no doubt got his name.
He held the blade at a partial angle, not leveled though clearly in my direction.
I couldn’t find a trace of emotion on that face, as expressionless as a piece of wax.
“You’re not a ghost,” I said, “a ghost wouldn’t have made noise on the stairs.”
Still showing no expression, the figure began waving that long, nasty silver blade back and forth in front of him.
He no doubt intended the move to terrify me, and it was having the desired effect. But I’d come this far, halfway across the country and over a decade in time, and no way would I back down now.
I had to know, dammit. I had to know the truth of David’s death.
“They call you High-Y,” I said, my words seeming to momentarily hang in the tenement’s stillness before dropping off into non-existence. “And they say you’ve patrolled this area for a long time.”
The rhythmic sweeping of the blade stilled for a moment, then began again, infinitesimally faster than before.
“There’s stories of a large man, light skinned, involved in the Prohibition business during the twenties, enforcing the boss’s kill orders. And I saw a reproduction of a newspaper story from just after the Civil War, about an upstart high yellow Negro terrorizing the carpet baggers.”
He tilted the knife up in a vertical line, holding it about shoulder level before sweeping it back down. My eyes stung with sweat, but I didn’t dare even blink.
“And everybody thinks you’re the same one. My brother came down here, right before the storm, looking for you. He had it figured out, that someone, or maybe several someones was keeping the myth alive. That’s right, isn’t it?”
For once, a break in that impassive face, a slight smile just as the blade did a figure eight in the air.
“And he found his proof, he must have, which is why you did him in. Well, not you, but the one before you. So what’s the deal? How many of you have there been? Going how far back?”
I felt as if I was babbling, which only made me babble even more. But somehow I had to do two things.
I had to get the truth out of the enigmatic figure down at the bottom of those stairs, and I had to get out of there.
The knife stopped moving, remained frozen for a moment, and the man took another step upwards.
This time, the riser didn’t creak.
“What I don’t know, and can’t figure out,” my voice by now had risen to a near falsetto and I had to fight to get it under control, “is who’s behind you? Who could have had the necessary resources and foresight to keep something like this going for so long?”
Then a voice sounded, not below from the giant, but behind me, at the top of the stairs.
“You are one stupid white man,” it said.
I whirled and saw T-Ron standing about six risers above me. Only now, he didn’t appear as a helpful, generous kid just wanting to earn a buck.
Now he looked hard, his eyes soulless, a gangbanger in training.
“Wha “ was about all I could get out.
“Shit, man. Where you think you are? Don’t you know this is Nola? Don’t you know anything about what they say about old time folks around here? Huh?”
It took me a minute, but then I thought I got it. I couldn’t believe it, but it was the only thing that made any kind of sense, no matter how warped.
“You’re talking about voodoo? You saying High-Y is some kind of zombie?”
The kid laughed, his mirth sounding like a merciless bray.
“Voodoo? What the fuck kind of fool are you, white? This is something a whole lot older, a whole lot deeper. Goes all the way back, farther than anyone knows. And you still ain’t getting it. Look at High-Y there, take a good look at him.”
A bit leery of turning my back on the kid, I nevertheless half turned and looked back at the being down below.
Except now he wasn’t below anymore. Somehow, without any notice or sound, he’d made it to just two risers removed from me, which with his height put us almost on eye level with each other.
“Take a good look at him, white. Voodoo? Zombie? That’s the biggest joke of all. Look at him. This is his territory, his domain to keep. And ain’t nothing, no slave whips, no Klan lynching, and no blue with his nine that’s going to drive him away. Look at him close. And if you still don’t get it, you completely hopeless.”
By that point I wasn’t listening to the kid because I’d already seen the familiarity. Not in the body, of course, nor in the height. Not in the color, naturally, or in anything about the facial features.
But in the eyes.
I knew those eyes. I’d known them my whole life.
But I hadn’t seen them in nearly a decade.
“David?” I whispered, so shocked that I wasn’t sure I spoke at all. Behind me, T-Ron began laughing again.
“Knock one down, another comes up. He just keep going and going and going. What you think about that, pale?”
I didn’t answer, couldn’t answer.
I had nothing left to say as High-Y’s blade sliced into my body.
BIO: A high school teacher, former college instructor and fiction writer living in central Missouri, Kevin R. Doyle’s short stories, mainly in the horror and suspense fields, have appeared in over twenty-five small press magazines, both print and online. In 2012 his first e-book, "One Helluva Gig," was released by Vagabondage Press . In January of 2014, Barbarian Books released his first full-length mystery novel, "The Group," and in February of 2015 Night to Dawn Magazine and Books released his new horror novel, The Litter.