Black Orchid Blues

Black Orchid Blues

by Persia Walker


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936070909
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 03/22/2011
Pages: 270
Sales rank: 793,190
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Persia Walker is the author of the 1920s Jazz Age novels Harlem Redux, which the Boston Globe called "a full, vibrant portrait of that storied era when Harlem's pulse was the rhythm of black America"; and Darkness and the Devil Behind Me. Her short story "Such A Lucky, Pretty Girl" appears in the anthology The Blue Religion. A native New Yorker fluent in German, she is a former news writer for the Associated Press.

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Akashic Books

Copyright © 2011 Persia Walker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-936070-90-9

Chapter One

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 remember her performance. No matter who was singing it, Queenie's voice would come to mind.

Sure, she was moody and volatile. And yes, whatever she was feeling, she made sure you were feeling 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 was my job to cover the best of them. However, I finally did find time to stop and see Queenie a couple of 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. 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 midwinter 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 mic.

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 offered 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 her 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 legs, 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 mic, 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 everything 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?"


"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 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 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 added, "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?"

"Mm-hmm," 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 fairly immune to 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 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 ran away from home or was 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 lose their innocence 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 asked when he rejoined me.

He glanced at the ring, smiled. "Honey, everything about me has a history."

"Care to tell me this one?"

He fluttered his large hand and held up the ring for a long, loving look. Then he smiled. His golden eyes were 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 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 coatcheck girl, Sissy Ralston, emerging unsteadily from the area of the entrance. They wound their way past the tables, coming toward us, hands held high. Directly behind them, a man emerged from the shadows. He wore a 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 true 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 decorated veteran of the 19th Infantry. He 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 simply 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 coatcheck girl, so terrified they could barely put one foot in front of the other.

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


Excerpted from BLACK ORCHID BLUES by PERSIA WALKER Copyright © 2011 by Persia Walker. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Black Orchid Blues 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anyone who enjoys psychology and fiction blended together would definitely enjoy this book. The intrigue, the mystery, the underbelly of a world that is inaccessible to those who don't live the life; all of which was well crafted. I was blown away as the main character unfolded the story and answered all the questions that lingered throughout the book. Absolutely enjoyed it. Will definitely read more books by this writer.
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Ravenswood_Reviews More than 1 year ago
"BLACK ORCHID BLUES" BY PERSIA WALKER (REVIEW) Persia Walker writes the kind of mystery-thriller that draws you so far in you cannot stop reading until the end and even then you don't want it to stop. With her ability to plunge you into the past and weave a reality of that time period so thickly around you, she leaves you no room to wiggle your way out. "Black Orchid Blues," is the kind of mystery that leaves you breathless and amazed. You will never suspect the truth behind "Queenie and Lanie" this is a one of a kind story. You need to meet these characters and immerse yourself into their world! -Kitty Bullard / Great Minds Think Aloud Book Club