Digging for the Dirt
Author's Notes: It's been a rough several months. As I've dealt with a sick parent and my time, inclination, and focus for writing has dwindled, my output has all but evaporated. So, I'd like to thank all the readers who've been following this story and waiting patiently for updates. I promise more will come. Just not as quickly as I'd like, and isn't that how it always goes?
Asterisks mark points of interest or further research.Digging for the Dirt
“Her name was Eugenia Fitelet,” Olympe said. “She has a husband and three children. I am sure they are looking for her. I will put the word out to bring them here.”
She pulled a threadbare pall cloth over the woman's slack, discolored face.
The woman January had given Last Rites to lay on a cloth covered table in a small alcove off the nave of the Mortuary Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua*. The small chapel, built to house funerals for the yellow fever victims buried in the cemeteries behind the building, was a longer walk than the cathedral of St. Louis, but January knew the priest who lived in the rectory, knew the traffic in and out of the chapel would be light, and knew there would be privacy.
He tried not to think about how many bodies lay in white-washed sepulchers beyond the chapel and its rectory – victims of illness, victims of the undead, and perhaps the undead themselves.
The priest, Father Renaudi, had pulled the curtains to give them privacy. There was a bank of flickering candles, lit by supplicants, and two rows of benches. January stood beside his sister. Lieutenant Shaw and Marie Laveau stood at the body's feet. Hannibal sat on the first bench, holding Lucy's hand. Ari sat on the other side of her, an arm around her shoulder.
January had not sent the notes out until after dawn. He found he could not risk either some street urchin's life or the lives of his family and friends by communicating with them before dawn. Lucy had been fairly sure no vampire would try the church, both from mortal superstitions retained after death and from the amount of holy symbols and holy water there.
Olympe and Shaw had arrived almost simultaneously. Hannibal followed shortly after with Arizay. Baxter traveled on Arizay's shoulder and immediately hopped into Lucy's lap and snuggled against her. Laveau was there less than an hour after her note could have reached her. They were still waiting on Mayerling. With Ari supporting Lucy, and Hannibal clucking over her, the remainder of the adults had begun with a silent consensus.
Shaw examined the body first, then Lucy. He knelt in front of her and very gently took her hands, noting the state of her knuckles – red, abraded, and split open in two instances – then her throat, then her ankle, which January had wrapped with a cold compress to keep the swelling down.
“Well, now, miss,” Shaw had said, “ain't often I see a boy of your age marked up like a prize fighter, let alone a girl.”
Lucy's disguise had, of course, not fooled him for a moment.
“You killed this vampire thing while trying to protect the woman?” Shaw had asked.
“Yes, sir,” Lucy whispered.
If she'd noticed or taken offense at Shaw's personal odor, she kept it to herself. In fact, the child was so subdued, January worried she might have gone into shock. At his request, Father Renaudi had brought blankets to drape around her and a cup of watered wine to sip.
The priest, of his own initiative, had brought in the aspergillum and sprinkled the corpse, January, Lucy, and each person to step into the small side chapel. He'd also placed communion wafers on the corpse's eyes and one in its mouth. Then he had inscribed the cross in sacred oil on the body's forehead, back of the hands, and feet. Father Renaudi was an older Franciscan priest – in his late forties – and newly assigned to this parish from one in Genoa. Either way, it was clear the priest was familiar with the folktales and legends of what January had thought to be pure myth until two days previously.
“And how did you kill this vampire?” Shaw asked Lucy.
While Shaw was officially investigating a number of mysterious deaths, there was no danger of him accusing little Lucy of any crime. After all, there was no vampire body to produce, and no jury – not even one made up of les blanquittes
- would convict a girl of killing the woman who lay before them. But January did not doubt Shaw would question Lucy as closely as he would any victim or witness.
Lucy met his eyes steadily, blinking only occasionally. “She was much stronger and faster than the last one, sir, so the fight took longer. She grabbed me by the throat, which is when I broke her forearm. When she dropped me, I managed to break her knee, but she knocked me down, and I had to throw her off, and then punch through a board she tried to hit me with. She threw me against one of the walls, and I hit my head kind of hard. She grabbed me by my shirt. I had to rip it to get enough leverage to snap her neck.”
“Can you show me how you did that?” Shaw asked.
Lucy blinked twice while the question sank in.
“I was in front of her, so I didn't have the best grip.”
She put one hand on Shaw's chin, thumb on top, fingers underneath the jaw. With her other hand, she reached around and grabbed the hair at the crown of Shaw's head.
“Push back and up, and then a hard twist with a minimum of sixty pounds torque. Humans only take forty-four pounds of torque to break their necks, but vampires are tougher.”
Shaw held very still until Lucy released him.
“That didn't kill her, though,” Lucy explained. “It would a person, but not a vampire. It gave me the chance to search her. I took these things.”
She dug into her pockets and pulled out the plunder she'd taken – jewelry, money, but also several scraps of paper, a pocketbook, a pencil stub, and hair pins. She handed them over to Shaw without a thought.
“Then I staked her,” she finished.
She took the wooden stake out of her sleeve and handed that to Shaw as well. He checked the tip of it, balanced it in his hand, and gave it back to her.
“Best you hold on to this, I think,” he told her.
He stood and stepped over to January. “You see any of this, Maestro?”
January shook his head. “I went straight to the woman here, and when I found her mortally wounded, I performed the offices of the Last Rites, as any layman may. However, I saw the vampire that Lucy identified, and when the fight was over, there was no vampire and no other body in the alley. I was close to the front of the alley. No one could have gotten past me without me seeing it.”
“And night before last,” Shaw inquired, his light gravelly voice mild as milk, “anything you care to revise about your statement concerning that?”
His previous story had clearly unraveled.
“As I told you, Mamzelle Fuentes was a patient at the charity hospital. Mamzelle Sinclair found me there. She was looking for her friend. While I carried Mamzelle Fuentes to my home, Mamzelle Sinclair encountered the vampire which had already killed Calhoun. She destroyed it. I don't know if she saw Calhoun's body. I found it when I went back to check the next morning.”
Shaw had removed his hat on entering the church, and now he scrubbed at his head.
“Maestro, if'n I didn't know you and Madame Janvier so well, if'n we hadn't faced some manner of death and dismay half a dozen times as brothers in arm, I'd be well disposed to think you'd gone lunatic on me. Sefton, himself, doesn't tell half so good a yarn when he's well and truly indisposed. But . . .”
And here, Shaw paused, regarding his hat as he turned it clockwise in his hands.
“I mentioned I was at the Capitol during Jackson's inauguration, and what a sight all that was. There was a traveling show, with a menagerie, critters the like I'd never seen in person – lions and white bears and an elephant. Some I'd never even heard about – a thing built like God Himself had gotten fanciful with a deer, legs taller than a man, a neck that stretched so high it could have eaten dinner off a second floor dining room table. One of my cousins swore that no such creature existed, even though it stood right before him.”
He put his hat back on his head.
“I'd like to think I possess a few more brains than cousin Heggie, in that, when presented with something that clearly oughtn't to be, I will revise my suspicions of Creation's handiwork before I discredit its Maker. What you say, and what this young lady says, can't
be, but it's the only damned thing that does explain all that's been going on.”
Shaw sighed gustily.
“Believe me, Lieutenant,” January answered, “I find myself in the same predicament, minute by minute, and hour by hour.”
“Tweren't a thing the police commissioner would accept in a report,” Shaw said. “An' your girls, hellfires though they may be, surely aren't prepared for the totality of this.”
January shook his head. Lucy still sat, neither moving nor speaking unless someone addressed her. Ari glanced up at him, worried.
“I think it would be best if we combined what resources we can, bring in those we trust, tell what can be believed to those as is in danger, and plan from there,” Shaw said.
January released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. There was much he could do, with his network of contacts in the world of the free colored. He even had some reach into the far murkier world of slaves. He might, just might, be able to convince one or two French creole that there was a danger, but he'd never convince them of the nature or the need to take action. Shaw's remark had removed half that worry. Creole society might abhor him as an uncivilized lout, but they understood he was the law's man to his bones.
While they'd spoken, Olympe had made her own work around the corpse, outlining it with brick powder and sprinkling it with verbena water. As she worked, Marie Laveau turned to Lucy and knelt before her as Shaw had.
She took Lucy's face in her hands. In comparison to the voodoo queen's rich coppery skin and strong features of African, Indian, and European blood, Lucy looked pale as paper and fragile as a china doll.
“Mmm, he was no gentle rider, Samedi,” Laveau mused. “You still wear his marks. It takes a strong soul to bear up to him, when he chooses you as a mount.”
Lucy flinched, revulsion plain on her face.
“Oh, he's not a demon, cherie
,” Laveau told her, “but he's no angel either. None of the loa are, and being ridden doesn't leave you any dirtier or cleaner than you started. Just tired. You do this thing, what he asks, and you'll have him in your debt, which is no small thing. And I will give you whatever aid I can.”
“My head hurts when I try to remember it,” Lucy admitted, still whispering.
“So, don't you try to remember it,” the voodoo queen told her. “You got enough to worry you, p'tit
. Don't fret, either. You're not alone, not you or your friend. The loa, they look out for you. They brought you to Monsieur Janvier. They haven't left you.”
Lucy closed her eyes, and Marie smoothed her short hair back. The girl seemed to have fallen asleep while sitting up. She slumped over onto Ari's shoulder, and the older girl put her arms around her friend.
“She needs sleep and comfort,” Laveau told them. “She's a warrior hunting lions, but no one ever told her sometimes the lions get into the village before your can stop them.”
“Madame, you know about these things?” January asked.
“Some,” she conceded. Her expression, so open and compassionate with Lucy, slid back into its customary inscrutable state. “There are stories, you understand, both from the home of the loa and our people and from other lands as well. There is gossip, sometimes, which fits no human pattern.
“I've no doubt these things – and others belike – do exist. New Orleans is a fairly inhospitable land to them, as even the poor here are missed eventually, and the rich do not move without a platoon of relations, servants, and slaves watching their every move. If, as the stories say, these things cannot abide sunlight, they are also at a disadvantage here.”
“You know ways of fightin' these things?” Shaw asked, his tone of inquiry as purely professional as January had ever heard. Not even the queen of voodoo unnerved the man. Not even under these circumstances.
“Some. I know better how to protect others from them. This child and her friend were born with a mark of power on their souls, the mark of the Slayer. It is the Slayer that kills these things, destroys them utterly. I met a Slayer once when I was a child, and my understanding is that there is only ever one at a time. Two, I have never heard of.”
She caught January's shift of expression.
He sighed. “Odd as it may seem, Madame, there are some details of this business that I can't share with you or Lieutenant Shaw. Suffice it to say, the girls are strangers in a strange land.”
Arizay looked significantly better, even in the flickering candlelight. Her color had returned to normal, and she moved with a sharp, strong energy that had been missing the previous day. Lucy, other than her shock and exhaustion, also looked better. The last of the orange cast to her skin had faded.
“It's okay, Loose,” Ari whispered to her. “It's okay. You remember what Buffy and Giles said, okay? Sometimes, they win a round. Sometimes, we lose someone. That's why we keep fighting.”
“I should have been faster,” Lucy sniffled.
Ari made a sharp, rude noise. “Yeah, with that yellow fever shit Doctor January was talking about? And no idea of the terrain? And practically no one to split patrol with you?”
She glanced up at January. “No offense, señor. It's just usually, it's three or four of us and a heavily armed Watcher.”
“None taken,” January answered. He still felt like he'd been wrung out and beaten like a wet rag rug.
“You know,” Ari said to Lucy, “it's weird, but it's like we got our own Watcher now. Señor Enero, he's a lot like Giles. Now these other people know, they gonna help us. Nobody wants vampires in their town.”
“Well, that's true,” Lucy admitted. “Will you help us?”
“If'n we can,” Shaw said. “You need to tell us everything you can, though.”
Ari and Lucy exchanged a significant look.
“Understandin' they's some thing you may not be able to,” Shaw amended.
He stood, loose-jointed as a marionette and as unassuming as a milkmaid, but neither Arizay nor Lucy looked to be taken in by that.
“He's kind of like Columbo, isn't he?” Lucy asked Ari, whispering.
“Except, I don't think Columbo carried two Kentucky long rifles, a skinning knife, a Bowie knife, two pistols, and hold out knives in both boots, the small of his back and under his left arm,” Ari said. “Other than that, yeah.”
January managed to look just in time to see Shaw jerk in surprise.
“Fu-” Shaw stopped himself, cleared his throat. “Pardon me, Mamzelle Fuentes. I don't recall as I's ever had a soul spot each individual item on me without a certain amount of duress bein' applied to me.”
“It's the way your coat hangs,” Ari told him, “and the wear marks on your boots and trouser legs, the worn spot on your sleeve, and a couple of guesses. But seriously, you need some new clothes. Get them tailored so your hardware doesn't show.”
“If we could return to the matter at hand,” Hannibal gently reminded them. “And, by the by, Lieutenant, do not find yourself cutting a deck of cards with either of these juvenile cut-throats. They'll do more financial damage than the upcoming nationalization of the banking system.”
“Much obliged,” Shaw said, nodding. “Ladies?”
“Okay.” Lucy inhaled. “Vampires. Undead. I don't think Madame Filaret is in any danger. In order to become a vampire, they have to drink your blood and then, you have to drink yours. Traditionally, it takes three days for the transformation to take place, but depending on the sire – that is, the vampire that starts it – it might be one night. It might even be immediate. Some master vampires are really, really strong. Usually, the older they get, the stronger they are.”
“How many vampires are we talking about?” Shaw asked.
“Multitudes,” a new voice answered, entering the chapel.
Maestro Augustus Mayerling was a tall, spare, wiry man – as full of spine and spring as any of the rapiers he fought with. He was far from handsome, with a beaky nose and gaunt features crossed with dueling scars. He kept his graying blond hair cropped close, dressed in a somewhat old fashioned, formal Prussian manner, spoke French with a clipped, precise accent, and took in the entire scene with the same absorption of detail that Shaw had, but none of the camouflaged nonchalance of the lieutenant.
He was the owner and only teacher in New Orleans' most prestigious academy d'armes. During his ten or so years in New Orleans, Mayerling had fought tens of thousands of bouts for teaching, for testing, and for the sheer joy of pitting himself against an opponent. But in his own time in New Orleans, January had heard of only three true duels Mayerling had fought. He had killed his opponents in less than fifteen seconds each, with such detached, clinical objectivity, that his mere interest in a matter of honor was enough to send lesser men running for the hills.
“The Germanies,” he said, “you understand, are infested with such things. The peasantry have the wits and will to keep them in check where they can, but all too often, a master vampire will chose a member of the aristocracy to turn. In doing so, they net not only the money necessary to secure physical safety during the day, but the influence and prestige which allows them to hunt without constraint.”
“He's right.” Lucy nudged Ari. “Remember how it wasn't until Spike and Drusilla got Prague so stirred up that the whole of central Europe went on vampire hunts?”
Mayerling raised two finely drawn white eyebrows at the girls.
“What you are seeing,” Mayerling continued, “and what I have been hearing inklings from my students, are only the disobedient fledglings of a master vampire. Any master worthy of the state of living death would keep a tight rein on all its children until it was ready to strike. A year ago, there may have been a handful of vampires in New Orleans, but they were rats. This is something far larger and far worse.”
Every soul in the chapel stared at him. January was about to phrase a question, when Ari made a sound of pure astonishment.
“You were a Slayer
?” she gasped.
Mayerling gave her a precise bow of ten degrees and clicked his heels together.
“NOT DEAD!” Lucy spoke over her. “He's
Ari looked like she was about to say something, but looked at Lucy, then at Mayerling, then back at Lucy, befuddled. She blinked. Lucy nodded at her.
“He's not dead, and you don't stop being a Slayer until you die, right? Usually, I mean.”
“Uh,” Ari managed. “Yeah. That's it. That's . . . how come you're not dead?”
“It was Sorores in Mortuis
,” Lucy said. “Wasn't it?”
Mayerling gave her a genuine, though slight, smile. “Clever girl. Indeed. There came a time when I would have died in the commission of my duties. Did
indeed die, you might say. The agents of Sorores in Mortuis
made it possible for me to emerge from my destined role into this mortal life.”
“An' these Slayers,” Shaw asked, “bein' possessed of strength and speed beyond a mortal man's, does that explain -”
Mayerling gave him a very firm shake of the head. “Never think so, Lieutenant. While my training as a Slayer certainly included the more tradition forms of combat by arms, a sword through the heart will no more kill a vampire than it will a tree. No, once freed of my obligation, I was also deprived of its birthright. I bear no more strength or speed than any other mortal who has committed himself to the art and science of honorable combat.”
January glanced at both Laveau and Olympe, wondering if they'd picked up on what Lucy had so desperately tried to cover. If Laveau had met a Slayer and knew enough about them to understand that only one was called to her role at a time, she would guess Mayerling's secret.
Laveau only watched with heavy lidded interest, betraying neither surprise nor unexpected focus. Of course, it was entirely possible that she already knew. It would be the heart of foolishness to assume there was a secret in this town Marie Laveau was not privy to.
Lucy and Arizay looked over the adults gathered around them. Hannibal – gentle, wisest, and most vulnerable to human foible; Shaw – a hardened lawman with the guile of a life in the backwoods of Appalachia; January – a man of two and more worlds, medicine, music, faith, years in France knowing the freedom few men of color ever experienced, returned to his tropical home and the injustices peculiar to it; Laveau – a name even the two girls had recognized and gone wide-eyed at, nearly two centuries later; and Olympe – a voodooienne in her own right, mother, sister, free woman of color, and one who normally had little use for even the children of les blanquittes
“Watcher, hell,” Arizay muttered. “We've got our own damn council.”
Lucy sat, petting her rabbit, who blinked sleepily, as if all talk of vampires or a woman slaughtered like a head of livestock had nothing to do with it, embodiment of Divine Retribution or not. Lucy's eyes flickered back and forth, as if she were reading a book. It was the most animation she'd shown since the fight. She was clearly chewing over something.
“What is it, child?” Mayerling asked, curt but not unkind.
“Where's the master vampire from?” Lucy asked, frustrated over a knotty problem she could not untangle. “If it's an American-”
“No,” January said, shaking his head. “Any American entering town with enough money to secure property and slaves enough to make preying-”
“Hunting,” Mayerling corrected him.
“Hunting possible would have been noticed by both the American and the creole societies, even if the creole societies only took notice in order to snub him.”
“It might be a woman,” Marie Laveau said, raising her eyebrows.
“All the more reason 'twould call attention to itself,” Shaw answered. “Lady of wealth and station can't enter this place without presenting herself to each and every family, and a lady of wealth and no station would need all the more money for agents to purchase her necessaries.”
“I would have heard of it,” Olympe said. “And if not me, then Madame Laveau.”
“One of the old money families?” Arizay asked.
January shook his head again. “No member of a creole family goes unaccounted for more than an afternoon. Less, if the family member is a woman, especially if she's unmarried. The only ones with much freedom are the young, unmarried men. There's an expectation that they will take a year or more to amuse themselves before settling down to marriage.”
“And I end up dragging half of them out of gutters before they drown in them,” Mayerling said, contempt and exasperation for his rich, feckless students written on his face.
Lucy was still thinking hard. “Monsieur Janvier,” she started uncertainly.
“Go ahead, Mamzelle.”
She bit her lip, looking around at the adults and unsure of her place. Unlike Arizay who simply assumed she was anyone and everyone's equal unless proven otherwise, Lucy seemed to wait for a sign of acceptance. For all of the hints that Lucy's family was far wealthier than Arizay's, she suffered a poverty of confidence.
“Well, Madame Janvier said that sometimes a slave owner, a white man, will free a slave woman he . . . he likes and . . . sort of set her up like she's his wife, but not quite.”
Ari rolled her eyes. “His little somethin' somethin' on the side?”
“They're called plaçees,” January told her. “It means, well, a woman under contract. The contract is her guarantee from her protector that he will provide her with a home and support while they are together, and should they part, a certain sum and perhaps an annuity as well as ownership of whatever he's given her previously.”
Lucy had that expression of utter bafflement while Ari watched with cynical derision.
“Why?” Lucy asked. “I mean, if a guy wants to screw around on his wife, why not just go to a prostitute or have an affair? It's what half the guys who dated my mom were doing.”
Even Shaw was set off-balance by her matter of fact reference to her mother as a woman of low character.
“They are concubines,” Mayerling explained. “In the Biblical sense. Men of power and wealth may avail themselves of whatever pleasures they may – taking slave women against their will, visiting brothels, and perhaps arranging assignations with women in their social circles – though that is a dangerous affair apt to end in blood shed by either the man or the woman's husband. Sooner or later, though, the majority wish to avail themselves of the comfort of a woman's adoration and care. Some may not find it with their wives. Some may and yet still crave it in the arms of another woman.”
“Men suck,” Ari concluded.
“Not all of them,” Lucy muttered. “It's just that . . . so far all the vampires have been either black or colored, slave or free and poor, so I don't think the vampire is white, because . . . Monsieur Janvier, do the plaçees have a choice in taking the contract?”
“The second and later generations do,” he told her.
“Our mother,” Olympe Corbier added, “was told she and her children were sold to Monsieur Saint Janvier, who then told her he was freeing her, giving her a house, and setting her up in plaçage. She cut cane before; you can be sure she said yes.”
It was the kindest thing Ben had ever heard his sister say in reference to their mother.
“But that's not really a choice,” Lucy said.
“Sure it is,” Ari answered, snorting. “A few years of closing your eyes while some stinky old guy paws you. It's not even every night. You get a house, nice clothes, good food, and your kids are safe. Or
you could go find a job walking the streets and hope you don't get beat up by your john or your pimp.”
“No, that's not it,” Lucy said, frowning in frustration. “I think the vampire's probably black or colored, but they have to have money. And . . .”
“It could be the child of a plaçee,” January said.
She continued to frown, but now it was with a desperately unhappy twist, like she couldn't stand the picture she saw before her.
“What, child?” Laveau asked.
She looked up at the Queen of Voodoo, seeing the same answer in her eyes.
“You're a vampire master, and you're colored or black or whatever, but you're not white. The white people are the ones who bought and sold your mother, maybe killed your father, and they're still doing it. Maybe you've got enough money to buy an old house and board it up. You've been around, so you're strong enough to start turning new recruits, and none of them are white. They're slaves. Or, if they're free colored, they're as poor as slaves. And you're making a lot of them.”
Beside him, Shaw let out a low, slow blasphemous whisper. Even Hannibal looked worried.
“I don't know all my dates,” Lucy said, “but I know there were slave revolts. The only one that succeeded was in Haiti, and it's still the poorest country in the Western hemisphere because none of the other countries would do any business with it after the revolt.”
“Was that the one,” Ari started.
“When the revolution began,” January answered her, “thousands of white and free coloreds fled to Louisiana. After Dessalines crowned himself emperor, he ordered the execution of any whites who would not surrender their lands. Thousands were slaughtered. His secretary said the Haitian constitution should be written on parchment made of a white man's skin, his skull the inkwell, and his blood for ink.*”
“Dessalines was a field hand,” Hannibal pointed out, “and suffered far more abuse than the child of a plaçee would.”
“That didn't stop Helier's hatred,” January pointed out, referring to a the grown son of a plaçee who'd helped kidnappers steal free men and women into slavery. “His hatred may have run in one direction. It wouldn't take much to send it in another.”
“Especially if you have the power to hurt the ones you really blame,” Lucy said, her eyes cast down.
“You think this vampire – man or woman – is going to create a slave revolt in New Orleans?” Olympe asked.
“Worse than that,” Ari said. “Vampires make slaves every time they turn a new vamp. They'll kill off les blanquittes
– maybe turn enough of the weaklings to keep the money in the system – and then they'll run the town. It'll be worse than regular slavery, because at least the white people don't eat your kids if you look like you're getting uppity.”
“You're dealing with two creatures, then,” Mayerling said. “One is most certainly a vampire and hates the slave owners and all whites. The other is perhaps a vampire, but certainly holds the wealth and the power over the first and sees this as the opportunity to extend their power over an entire metropolis.”
“You're looking for a plaçee and her grown child, probably a man,” Marie Laveau said. “And they're old.”
“They've waited a long time,” Shaw said, sounding as though the realization of what they fought was as exhausting as the fight itself.
“Many have waited longer,” Olympe said, giving him an even, unfriendly stare.
“The last Slayer I knew of was in Havana,” Mayerling said. “She died perhaps two years ago. Whoever took up her mantle, I don't believe it was in the New World. That may have been what triggered this.”
“We are in so much trouble,” Lucy whispered.
“Oh, stop being so dramatic,” Ari chided her. “Buffy handled The Master when she was our age, and she didn't have a voodoo queen or the loa on her side.”
“Right, because the loa always
do what you expect,” Lucy said. “We're screwed.”
“'God's will,'” Hannibal quoted mildly, “'I pray thee, wish not one more man. He that outlives this day and comes safe home will stand a tip-toe when that day is named.'”*
“You know, he ended up dying of dysentery,” Lucy said reproachfully.
“How long's this pair been plotting, d'you think?” Shaw asked.
There was a moment as they considered it.
“Plaçees don't simply disappear,” Olympe said. “Nor their children – unless they're light enough to pass, and then they move away and never return.”
“At least thirty years,” Laveau said. “Even in the epidemics, there would have have been a body to bury and a service or gossip about a missing body.”
January covered his eyes with one hand and exhaled, his breath and strength leaving him as he realized what he would have to do. He would almost rather have had to search the bayous and levees all the way to Jefferson Parish to find the vampire responsible and fight it bare handed than this.
“Maestro?” Shaw asked.
He took a deep breath and lowered his hand. The girls were watching him with concern. Hannibal managed to keep his lips from twitching into a smile, for he had certainly put together the idea of reviewing thirty years of the voluminous gossip of the demimonde with the one person – beyond and perhaps even above Marie Laveau – who kept every scrap of family scandal, movement, twitch, purchase, and spat at her finely manicured fingertips.
“Maestro Mayerling, would you be so kind as to take Mamzelle Lucy under your care for the remainder of the day?” January asked.
“Certainly,” Mayerling agreed. They had worked together on more than one occasion, and like Hannibal, Mayerling saw little sense in judging a man's value by the color of his skin. As he was also, apparently, a former Slayer, Lucy would be the safer and perhaps the happier in his care.
“Lieutenant, Olympe, Madame Laveau,” January continued. “If you would be so kind as to check with any and all contacts you may have for any information regarding what might amount to a place a vampire might recently have taken as a sanctuary – someplace unoccupied, someplace which can be made proof to light yet still allow access-”
“If it's a master with a few years and any style,” Arizay added, “it'll be a place they can claim as they're own. They won't squat in someone's house while they're out of town.”
January nodded. “As well as any places which perhaps have been out of social commerce for the time period but not left to fall into ruin.”
Such a place would stand out like a sore thumb in New Orleans which, cosmopolitan as any city in the New World, was still small enough that everyone knew everyone else's business, even if they didn't know one another directly.
“And you, Monsieur?” Mayerling asked.
January sighed again, wishing this particular cup would pass from his lips. He'd have to go with very little warning, which meant recriminations, which meant the only way he would get any information from her would be to bring a social marvel she could then disseminate to all her friends – which meant bringing Arizay.
“I will be visiting my mother,” he stated. “Mamzelle Arizay, would you do the honor of accompanying me?”
“You want me to bring a claymore?” Ari asked. “'Cause you don't look so thrilled to be seeing su sanctissima madre
“No weapon would make a difference,” January answered. “And no matter how skilled a fighter you are, Mamzelle, don't cross swords with her. She can slaughter, gut, skin, butcher, dress, joint, and cook a rival's reputation and will to live before her tea cools and do it just with words. She does, however, know every particular about every soul who's ever drawn breath in a fifty mile radius, and she'll be able to tell us who we are facing.”
Arizay considered him for a long moment.
“I'm going to have to wear a dress, aren't I?” she asked. She was wearing one currently, only, January was certain, because Rose wouldn't have let her leave the house in pants.
“Yes, and you're going to have to be on your best behavior,” he told her. “Or rather, Lucy's best behavior. And follow my lead.”
Arizay made a disgusted noise. “The things I do so I can stake some vamps.”
“Perhaps we should make plans to meet at my salon before night falls,” Mayerling suggested. “My students have not returned yet, so there will be ample privacy.”
The others agreed.
“Let me attend to Mamzelle Lucy's injuries again before we leave,” January said.
“Hey, Baxter,” Ari called to the rabbit, “you wanna join us at La Casa de Madre Mismo Medio?”I would be delighted.
January glanced at the others and saw that Olympe and Shaw treated Arizay speaking to her pet rabbit as a mere foible in a sea of troubles. Madame Laveau, though, had glanced, blinked, and then stared at the rabbit. After a moment, she gave herself the tiniest shake, settling back into her customary repose of sang froid
Well, January thought to himself, as she communes regularly with the loa, she was probably the best prepared of any of them to face the incarnation of Divine Retribution in the form of a sleepy rabbit.
“Really, Benjamin, you could have sent a note round yesterday,” Livia Janvier Levesque told him as she allowed him to kiss her on the cheek.
Livia Levesque, just past sixty years older, was still slender as a maiden, and her latte colored skin was smooth and glowing with the care only a woman of wealth and leisure could spare. She wore a becoming gown of deep pink organdy with a matching tignon, pearls around her neck, and several rings of elegant wealth. She was not the wealthiest retired plaçee in New Orleans, but her cut-throat business sense and acumen put her in the running, and none of the others could compete with her in beauty, poise, or style.
She was at her rooms in a Mandeville hotel, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. It had taken the entire morning to get there. First, he and Arizay had to return home so he could bathe quickly and change into appropriate clothes. Then they'd made their way to the summer homes of New Orleans new and old rich, first by streetcar, then a closed carriage secured by Arizay's winning smile and a very large bribe, as no person of color, free or otherwise, was legally allowed to ride inside a cab. There was such a large population of plaçees and their families out here to escape the stink and disease of New Orleans in the summer that so long as one was discreet and paid well, it could be done. January had been extremely thankful for the chance to nap, however lightly, while Arizay kept watch.
“I'm sorry, Mama,” he told her. “I was overwhelmed with settling our new student. I thought you would like to meet her.”
Arizay stood next to and a little behind him, a parasol in her lace mitted hands, her dress laced, ruffled, pleated, and starched to perfection. She had kept up a running, muttered commentary just under her breath during the rides and the final walk, not quite loud enough for him to catch what he was sure would be a catalog of curses to do a muleskinner proud. Now, she was demure and sweet-faced. He feared the worst.
“Well,” Livia sniffed, “and not before time either. Considering the talk I've heard and no news from you on the matter? It was quite thoughtless of you.”
There was, he knew and had long ago resigned himself to, no winning an argument with his mother. If confronted with a truth she found distasteful, she simply shifted the battlegrounds to a better prospect. It went better if he agreed with her.
“Mother, may I present Señorita Arizay Fuentes, the cousin of Jeannette Dubois. Mamzelle Arizay, this is my mother, Madame Livia Levesque.”
Arizay gave another curtsy fit for a court, which earned an interested raise of the eyebrow from Livia.
“Señor,” Arizay said to him in a chiding voice, “you are teasing me. This can't be your mother. She looks younger than you.”
And as easy as that, Arizay was welcomed into the Levesque home while Benjamin stood to the side shaking his head in disbelief.
Tea was served, and Arizay ate and sipped like a bird, if only for fear of spilling something on her dress. Baxter was presented and promptly ignored. He curled up on the edge of Arizay's hem and only opened his eyes or twitched his ears when one of Les Madames, the butter colored cats his mother kept, crept close.
“You are never Jeannette Dubois' cousin,” Livia told her, drily. “That family hasn't enough brains to fill a pinbox.”
“Hush, Benjamin. And your eyes have a completely different cast, attractive rather than bulging.”
Arizay looked up from the Limoges teacup she stirred with a small silver spoon. She hid the smallest smile and lifted a shoulder in a coy shrug.
“I was raised, Señora, never to contradict my mother's opinion on such matters,” Arizay said. “I am told that I resemble my father's side of the family much more strongly than hers.”
“And you were raised where again?”
“Los Angeles, Señora, at least until Papa saw fit to move us to the United States and then send me here for schooling.”
Livia gave January a hard, sour look, as if accusing him of bringing someone whose bona fides she could not establish out of hand.
“Oh, Papa owns a portion of Rancho Los Cierros, but his cousin – Ernesto Delgado – had already gone East to Philadelphia, married quite well, and had a hand in fur commodities.”
Arizay and Benjamin had worked out the story on the walk over, and Arizay assured him she would keep any embroideries short and memorable, so that she couldn't be tripped up later.
“When Tio Ernesto got himself killed in that idiotic duel, Papa decided to use his interest in the business to take charge. Los Angeles, he said, was too backcountry. He wanted schooling for my brothers and myself. Personally, I think he wants us out of the way while he strips the flesh off the bones of that company and buys his way into better society. Since I'm as tired of the smell of cattle and vaqueros as he is, I can't blame him.”
Jamuary closed his eyes and prayed.
“Does your father make a habit of such business practices?” Livia asked, in a disinterested voice. “Cake?”
“Thank you, Señora, but I must watch my figure. And it's been my experience that Papa would sell the Pope to the Comanches if he thought he could make a profit. Half the reason I'm here instead of a finishing school in Philadelphia is because I overheard one too many conversations and asked a few too many questions. Dios
, Señora, I'm lucky I wasn't sent to a convent in Toledo with just enough of a bribe for the mother superior to keep me on my knees in front of an altar for the rest of my natural life. I think he's still hoping to marry me off to his advantage.”
“Shocking,” Livia noted. “One of the Tulares boys did the same with his two youngest daughters. I could hardly blame him on the youngest – ugly as sour milk and crook-backed to boot – but the other was pretty enough and could have served if he'd dowered her decently. You'll remember her, Ben. You taught her for a few months before you left for Paris.”
It had been three years, and that sweet-faced girl and her prettier sister had been terrified of their father and relieved to be given a haven where they could follow their vocations. Both had written to him while he was in Paris, before Ayasha's death.
Yet, while Arizay spun tales of parent, siblings, cousins, distant relatives by marriage, and tangled family alliances he could barely track and knew
she could not have been making up on the spot, his mother answered scandal for scandal and machination for machination until the two of them had the measure of each other.
His mother, he knew, would live off this store of gossip for at least three months – or until someone with ties to Philadelphia disproved all of Arizay's inventions – and was satisfied that Arizay was neither an opponent nor a bore. She approved of Arizay's plan to find a pliable man of good fortune to marry and use him and his connections to blackmail her father for the sheer fun and contentment of dealing him as he had dealt her. She even made a few suggestions, just as Arizay hinted at possible business secrets to take advantage of.
It still took nearly an hour to bring Livia around to the subject they needed information on. Bella, her slave, brought fresh tea and lemonade, and closed the jalousies over the southern windows to keep the sun out and opened those on the western side to catch the breeze off the lake.
“Well,” Livia said, “there's none to match those cousins of your sister's fat custard of a protector. I've heard it said Duquay's slaves actually killed him and his sons and run the plantation like an African village. No one's been on that property in over twenty years. Not since Duquay's wife killed herself.”
“Minou tells me they're merely quite eccentric,” January assured her.
“As if Henri would share the truth with her,” Livia sniffed. “He's terrified of that mother of his, for all that she looks like a particularly poorly bred sheep.”
“And do any of the plaçees ever manage such a feat?” Arizay asked, her eyes sparkling with malicious gossip.
Livia dismissed it with a flick of her right hand. “None of the French creole here would be so tasteless as to take a plaçee to their plantation, even if their wife had died. I suppose some of the country men might have, if they'd no children by their wife . . .”
“Whatever became of that property dispute between the Havelards and the Dufresnes?” January asked, hoping the juxtaposition of topics might spark something.
“Oh, that slut of an aunt put a claim in for her child, muddying the court case even further,” Livia informed him. “Not that anyone seriously believes the boy was actually sired by Guy Dufresne, a pale and spunkless excuse for a creole if I've ever seen one. And what's to be had of it? The land's so subdivided and leased out there's no way to bring it under one hand, and it'll never find good use again. The house has been shut up for more years than I care to think about, and none of the slaves will go near it, not even on threat of a beating, lazy beasts.”
Not if her life depended on it would Livia Janvier Levesque ever admit that she had once been a field hand herself and would have spent her life at it if she hadn't been purchased and freed by St. Denis Janvier when Benjamin was only six years old.
“I suppose you can't blame them,” she continued, “after the stories that came out of that place before Guy Dufresne died. Apoplexy, they said. I should think so, if any of it was true.”
January searched his memory for that story but couldn't find it. That should have been a warning sign. Any gossip was grist for the mill in New Orleans society. Adultery, children who bore no resemblance to their father but a striking one to a former suitor, duels, affairs – they were all the daily bread and butter of social intercourse in his mother's circle.
“Ghosts?” Arizay asked, feigning delight.
“If there are, I wouldn't be surprised. I'd have thought the child long dead if it weren't for the suit Vivienne Dufresne filed two years ago at the start of the roulaison*. Clever that. Guy's brothers couldn't leave the plantation to file countersuits in time.”
“What happened?” Benjamin asked.
For the first time, Livia hesitated, glancing at Arizay, gauging her capacity for scandal. Arizay gave her a cool gaze of interest and the smile of a jade.
“The house has been unoccupied since Guy's death and the fight over the inheritance,” Livia said, clipping her words. “His brothers claim the boy is no blood of the Dufresne family and refused to surrender a franc to Vivienne in her widowhood. Shortly after the boy's birth, Guy had one of the slaves, a quadroon house slave of good value, whipped nearly to death, gelded him, gutted him, hanged him, and then had him burned alive for good measure. He made his wife watch the entire scene without a word of explanation.”
Arizay's composure evaporated. “Holy sh- Mierda santa!
You mean . . .”
“I understand the boy – she named him Etienne – was quite light skinned and resembled his mother. There was no conclusion to draw. Vivienne had squirreled away a tidy sum of money and retained control of her dowry - the house itself - but no decent society would have her. I'd have thought she'd depart for friendlier shores, but apparently, she's determined to make the Dufresnes pay for the value of her slave.”
Benjamin took a deep breath, reordering Lucy's hypothesis in his head. A plaçee and child would have been more likely, certainly. A white woman with a child by a slave? It was virtually unheard of in this land, where a man's honor was dependent on his wife's virtue. More than one man had killed his wife to show that his honor was unstained, even if it meant being hanged a few months later. And the child had survived? To adulthood? The only instances he'd ever heard even breathed had happened if the woman had enough money to flee to Europe and send her child to a boarding school as soon as it was weaned.
To remain here, with a child of not just dubious, but irredeemable, parentage should have been impossible, short of the woman being completely disowned and left to fend for herself in the gutters of New Orleans. What hold did she have over her dead husband's brothers and other family?
It made a terrible sort of sense. If Vivienne had cared at all for the man who'd fathered her child, she could have taught her son to hate the men who'd killed him. It wasn't impossible. The bond between owner and slave could be twisted into vile cruelty, or it might find another tie between two souls.
It took another twenty minutes of commonplaces before he could make his excuses. Arizay was a little pale under her banter, and not just because all the tea she'd drank had caught up with her. As they were gathering their belongings, she tugged on his sleeve urgently.
“Doctor Enero, I got a problem,” she whispered.
“Just tell my mother you need to freshen up,” he told her. “She'll take you to her bedroom.”
“No,” Arizay hissed, blushing. “I've got cramps. My period'll probably start on the trip back. I figured I had at least another five days. I'm pretty regular. But I guess being sick – anyway, what the hell
am I supposed to do? You guys don't have the stuff I'd buy at the drug store. You don't even have drug stores
“Benjamin, is there a problem?”
“Ah . . . a moment, Mama,” he asked. He ducked his head past Arizay's head, so it looked like they were both examining the same beaded hurricane lamp. “Go to the kitchen and tell the woman there, Bella. She'll give you some clean rags.”
“Are you fucking kidding
me?” Arizay demanded, her voice still not rising above the tiniest thread of a whisper.
“No,” he told her. “I've no idea how it's done in your time, but this is how it's done here and now.”
She straightened, smiled at Livia and asked if she might speak with Bella. Quiet arrangements were made. Arizay was given the use of Livia's bedroom, and Benjamin and his mother exchanged pleasantries on innocuous topics like one family's inability to pay their bills, the laughably horrid dress of puce Delphine Cretien had worn at the last sociable, and his mother's prediction that his wife would end up killing herself and all her students in a laboratory experiment if Benjamin did not do something about it.
Livia led them to the door to her suite - she owned a vacation home in Mandeville but leased it to a sugar broker for his family and paid cheaper rent at the hotel - and as she opened the door, Baxter perked up, yawned, ran a paw over his nose, and glared at Benjamin's mother.Madame Levesque
, he said clearly enough for all three to hear. Be nice, or you and I shall have further dealings.
Not many could have pulled off his mother's calm expression and near lack of reaction. The only thing January noticed was her pupils dilating, her nostrils flaring the smallest amount, and a sudden jump in her throat as she swallowed.
"It was enjoyable meeting you, Señorita Fuentes," Livia said, only the slightest crack in her voice betraying her. "I would be delighted to see you again, though perhaps you might leave your animal at home next time."
Arizay smiled with completely false sympathy. "I'm afraid I don't get much say in whether Baxter comes with me or not, Señora, but thank you very much."
Livia didn't grunt, but she looked like she'd taken a hit to the stomach.
On their way out, January could have sworn he heard Ari muttering phrases like "damn stone age technologies," “grass fucking skirts” and “goddamn bone through my nose”. Baxter relaxed in her arms.
"Where on Earth did you come up with those stories?" he finally asked her. He found he couldn't wait to recount the events of the afternoon to Rose and Hannibal.
"Telenovelas, soap operas, Dallas
, that sort of thing," Ari replied, and January immediately memorized. "My favorite was always La Reina del Sur
. You figure, it goes for 120 episodes, there's material to use, and since I got Lucy hooked on it, she can back up what I fed your mom. You should be glad I didn't stick any secret agents or ninjas in there."
He honestly didn't know whether to laugh or weep.
1. The Mortuary Chapel of Saint Anthony of Padua is now Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. It is the oldest original church building in New Orleans. In trying to determine, for instance, the floorplan, I was frustrated by the limitations of Internet resources. Neither Wikipedia nor Google could point me towards floorplans of the Mortuary Chapel or St. Louis Cathedral (of that time, as very little of the original building remains). Nor can I find anything resembling an early 19th century streetplan or map, just a scant handful of landscapes that aren't very helpful. However, the website for Our Lady of Guadalupe does show an alcove with lit votives, so I'm taking a chance in assuming that such a niche existed shortly after the chapel was built in 1829 and would have been available to January and the girls.
2. Regarding Augustus Mayerling (and yes, this established canon in the series), it's not as unlikely as you might think. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry on La Maupin. Someone seriously needs to write a screenplay about that particular lady. There's also well established historical accounts of women who donned men's clothes and joined the army to follow their lovers or husbands into combat. Not to mention, Fa Mulan. There's a lot
of non-fictional kick ass ladies out there.
3. And a bayonet for a pen. There was no
love lost between Dessalines' imperial rule of Haiti and the Europeans who'd once ruled it. Yet, in order to receive recognition as a sovereign state by France, which it had rebelled against, the Haitian government promised more than $60 million in reparations during the first half of the 19th century, effectively beggaring the country and eliminating any chance it had of building an infrastructure, educating its population, or lifting itself out of poverty. The effects are still visible today.
4. “We few, we happy few, we band of buggered.” (St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V, Act IV, Scene III, via Spike)
5. The Roulaison was the sugar harvest every year, usually in November, just when the sugar cane had reached ripeness but before it could be killed by frost. There was often only a window of a handful of days, so the entire population of the plantation – including owner, wife, and children – were put to work. Acres of cane had to be cut, carried to the boiling shed, crushed to extract the juices, and then reduced in a series of cauldrons to the final product. Work proceeded around the clock, and the slaves were pushed to the point of exhaustion and beyond. Injury and illness claimed more than their fair share. With the constant fires in the boiling shed and the burning of the fields after harvest, fire was a constant fear, especially as trash cane – leaves, maiden stalks, and crushed cane – piled up. At the end, a generous slave owner allowed the slaves to celebrate and provided food and drink. Then, the owner and his family would often vacate the plantation for New Orleans until the following spring, when it started all over with the planting of new cane.