A Request From Samedi
Disclaimer: The characters, universe, and details of
Buffy the Vampire Slayer are the property of Joss Whedon, 20th Century Fox, and Mutant Enemy Productions. Benjamin January,
A Free Man of Color and subsequent novels in the series as well as any related characters, plots, and unique details are property of Barbara Hambly and Bantam Publishers. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit will be made.
Author's Notes: For those of you who haven't delved into the world of historical mysteries, I cannot recommend Barbara Hambly's series enough. Ms. Hambly has a Master's degree in history, and her research into New Orleans of the 1830s creates a seamless, completely believable world. Given a choice of fictional characters I would like to meet and spend time with, Benjamin and Rose January are near the top of my list.
For those who are familiar with the series, this story takes place after the novel
Dead and Buried, but before
The Shirt Off His Back.
The portrayal of race relations during a time of legal slavery and a multi-layered society of rich, middle class, working class, and abjectly poor, black slaves, free blacks and coloreds, French creole, Spanish creole, and American immigrants makes for a challenging and touchy subject. Not much documentation of the lives of African slaves and their descendants during this time exists, and what little there is, is written by people who rarely saw their subjects as genuinely equal human beings. In this story, I depend primarily on Ms. Hambly's previous research and a handful of resources available online.
Accurate depiction of spoken dialect is another difficult task. The orthography of English is far from ideal to begin with, but an effort to show how the pronunciation and cadence of one dialect differs from what many consider “Standard American English” runs the risk of treating the dialects of the poor, the enslaved, and the excluded as “Other” and therefore less than the dialects of those with money, freedom, and power. That is not my intention.
Any tone or detail in the following story that does not portray the great respect I feel for the survivors of this era and its injustices is purely a lack of ability on my part and not a reflection of my deeply held conviction that all races, cultures, genders, and points of view have value.A Summer With January
“Oh my god,” Arizay moaned, lying down on the desk, “this is so stupid. Why do I have to do this?”
Giles didn't bother looking up from the papers he was grading.
“Would you like the pragmatic or the philosophic answer?” he asked.
“Either,” she said. “Both. Just let me goooooooooo.”
“Whining will get you nowhere,” Giles said. “The philosophic answer is that you must do this because a thorough grounding in history is vital to success as a Slayer. While most vampires don't survive their first year, the more powerful and dangerous ones are often quite old. Understanding the historical, social, economic, and religious contexts they spent their mortal lives in is absolutely necessary if you wish to defeat them. Or should I have you review the relevant texts by Sun-Tzu?”
Ari groaned again.
“Pragmatically speaking, you must finish your list of ten possible topics for your research paper – for which you are late - so that you can finish your weekly chore – for which you are late – so that you can join the others for movie night – which you will miss entirely if you don't get busy.”
“History is stupid,” Ari moaned. “I hate history.”
“History, Arizay, does not give a damn one way or the other what you think about it. It will survive the ages.”
Giles paused and glanced at Mary Poppins, who was present any time Giles was with the students, as a precaution against the flaw in his character which prevented him from marrying Jenny Calendar. Miss Poppins, however, only raised an eyebrow at his epithet. The house, however, rattled his coffee cup, which he snatched from the edge of the desk.
“You,” he continued, “on the other hand, will not, if you refuse to take advantage of one of the greatest resources available to you. Do you have any idea how difficult it used to be for anyone to receive a decent education? Let alone a girl? Let alone a girl of non-European extraction in this country? Let alone a poor
girl of non-European extraction-”
“All right! All right! I'll do it! Just quit with the monologuing already!” Arizay yelled.
“That was not a monologue,” Giles corrected her. “That was a lecture, of which I have uncharted, unmeasured, and barely tapped reserves.”
Groaning inwardly, because she knew any fuss would give Giles an excuse to lecture her some more, Arizay tapped her pen on her teeth, trying to come up with more ideas for a research paper.
Lucy had whipped off a list of more than fifty possible topics less than a minute after Giles had announced the assignment. Lucy read for fun. Lucy watched education shows and cable channels because she actually liked that stuff. And while Lucy would happily reel off another fifty ideas to help Arizay out, she was not around. Lucy was getting her chores out of the way so she could help make popcorn in the kitchen for movie night. Because that's the sort of person Lucy was. She helped.
If there were a pair of Slayers in Haven who were more dissimilar than Lucy and Arizay, no one could name them. Lucy was small, skinny, and flat-chested at fourteen. She wore her golden red hair longer than her waist, but had bangs that came down only to her eyebrows. She also wore glasses, even though Miss Calendar would have sprung for contacts. She was sweet natured, hard working, terribly naïve, and so completely credulous, Arizay had finally made up a code word to warn her she was about to be taken. Again.
Arizay, in stark contrast, was tall and especially curvaceous for a fifteen year old girl. She tried out a new hairstyle every couple of weeks, putting on everything from cornrows to dreadlocks to a feathered backsweep. Currently, she had bleached locks of her hair so they stood out gold against her normal dark brown, and had pulled the entire bundle back in a ponytail. Arizay knew she was loud and abrasive. She knew some of the other Slayers thought she was pushy and lazy. Miss Calendar had even sighed once and asked her if she could give up her cynicism for Lent.
But you put the two of them together, and as Xander had once commented, they would end up running the world from a subvolcanic headquarter or they'd be the first Slayers marooned on another planet for crimes too extensive and irritating to list. She was a bad influence on Lucy, which was just what Lucy needed. Lucy was a good influence on her, whether she wanted it or not.
After ten minutes of nearly silent torture, Arizay handed the list to Giles.
He glanced at it and handed it back.
“You may list only three weapons as possible topics, Arizay. Find seven other things to consider.”
Arizay gave a performance of protesting martyrdom and dragged her feet back to her desk. It took her another five minutes to choose out her favorite three weapons. Then she wrote “Sun-Tzu” since Giles had mentioned him. Then she added Lent, because she'd just thought of Miss Calendar's question.
Volcanoes? Were they history? They usually covered volcanoes in science class, but Lucy had said something about a volcano that killed a bunch of people and covered up an entire city, and when people dug it up, they found holes where the people had been and filled the holes with plaster so they got statues of the people who'd been killed when the volcano had erupted, all crumpled and twisted and dying. Totally cool.
“Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, and Herculaneum. You may use them as one entry.”
“Uh . . .”
“You were muttering in Spanish, Arizay, which I speak.”
“Oh,” Arizay muttered, embarrassed. She was usually more careful than that.
She wrote “Pom-pay and Her-Q-whatever” on her paper.
Lucy would have more ideas. Tons more. And without prompting, probably a lot of them would have to do with dead people. If there was one thing Lucy and Ari shared, it was interest in a wide range of morbid topics. So, yeah, dead people. There were probably lots of things to do with the dead people.
She stared at the paper for another five minutes.
She wrote down “zombies”. There had to be history on zombies right? Not in the magical sense, where they'd actually run into a few versions of zombies, but in the witch doctor voodoo sense. Right?
That was six entries. She needed four more. It was like pulling teeth.
She wrote “teeth”. Teeth had history, right? Like George Washington had wooden dentures and shit like that, right?
She wanted to be watching a movie right now. What did people do when there weren't any movies? Sit around and stare at each other? She wrote “what people did before movies”.
And just to tweak Giles' nose, she wrote “school for poor Latinas” and “tampons and condoms”. Technically, that was eleven, so she should be free and clear. She brought her list up to Giles' desk and handed it to him. To her disappointment, he read through it without blinking. He didn't even make a face.
“Excellent list, Arizay. You are free to go.”
Lucy waited for her in the kitchen with a small bowl of popcorn and Baxter the bunny, also known as Nemesis. Sometimes, Lucy would say “the bunny . . . from HELL
” for more drama, but Baxter would give her a look that very clearly said “do you want the lecture on the source of divine retribution again?”, and so she stopped doing that.
Arizay stomped in, already in a bad mood. Baxter looked up from the wild greens he daintily nibbled, but said nothing.
“I go to all that trouble,” she complained, “and what does he say? 'Excellent list, Arizay.'”
She made a face as she opened the refrigerator and took out a can of soda.
“I thought that was good,” Lucy said, a little concerned.
“I was trying for 'dear Lord, girl, have you no sense at all!'” Arizay answered, doing a spot-on imitation of Giles' accent.
“Oh,” Lucy said, understanding. “No, for that, you have to do stuff like say you love Barbie dolls and hot dogs more than anything in the world.”
“Or American football,” Xander added, coming in from the Great Hall. “Ari, you're the last one for chores. You've got half an hour. If you push it, you can make the movie.”
“Great,” Ari groaned. “What's left?”
She read over the large whiteboard Miss Calendar kept track of everyone's jobs and schedules on. On the long list of chores, everything was crossed out except one entry: tidy the graveyard.
“What?!” Ari demanded. “It's after dark!”
“Yup,” Xander agreed, taking out makings for a truly enormous sandwich.
“And it's really cold out there!” Ari added.
“And if you'd gotten it done any time in the past week, these things would not be a problem,” Xander answered. “Since you put it off, you get to do it in the dark and the cold. Sucks to be you, don't it?”
“But . . . it's creepy!” Ari protested.
Xander looked up from the refrigerator.
“Ari, you spend half your time begging to go with me on patrol so you can hang out in a graveyard after dark, hoping that some vamps show up so you can stake them. And now you're telling me that this graveyard – which is twenty feet by thirty feet, has had one burial in the last hundred and fifty years and is probably the last place a vamp or other undead will show up – is creepy? I'm confiscating your Slayer card.”
Outraged, Ari looked at Lucy for help. The little redhead shrugged her shoulders.
“He kind of has a point, Ari. But, I'll go with you.”As will I,
With the prospect of company, the chore didn't sound so very onerous.
The last burial had actually been a couple of months previous, when Xander had located the graveyard, and they'd had a graveside ceremony to lay to rest the last champion of Haven, Quintus Rutherford, 5th Baronet. The grave had begun to settle, the mound of earth naked until spring. The headstone had been installed only the previous week.
Bundled up in layers of sweaters, coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, Ari got to work. First was to sweep the brick path from the gate to the back fence. Lucy, similarly bundled up, sat cross legged on a marble tomb. She set an LED lantern on the ground in front of her, giving Ari light to work by. Once the path was swept, Ari was to rake up any leaves, but she could leave the scattered pockets of snow alone. Baxter made do with his thick fur and hopped from stone to stone, investigating each with a cautious sniff.
“Did you hear?” Lucy asked. “Popstar says we can attend the ball, at least until ten o'clock. That means we get to go shopping for dresses this weekend!”
“Ten o'clock!” Ari snorted. “Like I don't stay up six hours later on school nights back home.”
“Um . . . isn't that why you were flunking and in trouble for truancy?”
Ari made a noise Mary Poppins would have corrected her for. “Just 'cause some uptight teacher doesn't like it when I snore during her class . . .”
She focused on her raking for a few minutes, determined to get it done with time to spare for the movie. The trouble was, if she didn't do it up to Xander's standards, she'd only have to redo it, plus another chore, in the morning. Since the next day was Saturday, and the promise of shopping hung in the air, it was a risk she refused to run.
It was hard to maintain concentration, though, when there was a freezing wind blowing past them, and the moon was ringed with ice. In another couple of nights, it would be full, and they'd be running with Oz, which was always a blast. Ari found herself opposite the newest grave and considered it. Behind her, Lucy had started humming a song in a ridiculously low, gravelly voice and then changed to the words.
“All de frien' I had, all de frien' I had,
All de frien' I had dead an' gone.
Gone to de graveyard, gone to de graveyard,
All de frien' I had gone to de graveyard.”
Ari chuckled and started gathering the leaves for transport to the compost pile.
“You look that up, Loose?” she asked. “Or did Erik teach you that?”
Lucy laughed as well, but instead of her normal snickering giggle, it sounded like a rotten branch scraped against a washboard.
,” Lucy answered, using a basso-profundo tone that would probably leave her raspy the rest of the week. “I know dat song long time now. Maybe I say I wrote dat song. What you t'ink?”
The hairs on the back of Ari's neck lifted up. Lucy had certainly picked up some skills in clowning around and messing with people, but this was far beyond her fledgling skills. Ari started to turn around to face Lucy when she caught site of Baxter, perched on a nearby tombstone, and very, very worried.
Holding on to the rake, Ari turned to face her best friend in the world.
Lucy was still there, still sitting on the tomb, but she dangled one leg lazily off. Her black wool coat hung open in the cold air, and her white scarf hung unwrapped from her neck. Her face caught the light in such a way that her head took on the cast of a ghoulish skull, and the lenses of her glasses reflected no light, leaving only black holes where her eyes should have been.
“Where'd you get the top hat?” Ari managed to ask.
“Oh, I like my little props, you know,” Lucy grinned, showing white teeth, and gave Ari a tip of her hat. “You don' got no rum, do you? Been a long time since I wrapped my lips 'round a good bottle, and my balls are itchin' for a little fire. Dat's one, cher
Lucy held out one index finger, and in the chancy light of the lantern, it was thin and dry as bone.
“Baxter?” Ari whispered.Don't panic,
Baxter replied. He has not harmed her.
Mind racing and mouth dry, Ari ran over her few options. Scream for help? He – whoever he was – would be gone, maybe with Lucy, long before help arrived. Fight? Not without hurting Lucy. Besides, he hadn't hurt anyone. So far.
When in doubt, Xander had told them, keep them engaged. Get whatever information you could. Delay them as long as possible. They were on the grounds. The dryad should know something weird was going on. Nothing happened without her knowing.
“Um . . . so . . . who are you?” Ari managed.
It was one thing to discuss battle tactics over pizza and video games. It was another thing entirely to see your best friend possessed by a skeleton with a top hat.
Lucy jumped down from the tomb, swept her top hat off in a flourish, and bowed deeply.
“Well, right now, I happen to be dis petite
-” and here, she glanced down for a second, “fille
. Ha! I ain't got no balls, but dey still itch. How 'bout dat? An' no tits either!”
“I know who she is,” Ari insisted, her heart beating hard and her skin flushing just like Buffy said it would. “Who are you?”
Lucy grinned hugely. “Samedi, cher
, Baron Samedi. Sometimes called Baron le Croix or Baron Cemetery. You could say I'm wearin' my nice visitin' clothes, my Loose Suit.”
“Fuck you!” Ari snapped. “You get the hell out of her head before I drag you out by your itchy balls!”Arizay . . .
Baxter sounded almost panicked.
But Baron Samedi, wearing Lucy, only laughed with the voice of a sixty year old alcoholic cigar smoker.
“You listen to Compair Lapin, cher
,” the baron told her. “He and de Guede go way back. Now dat's two. You gonna put your t'ird question to good use?”
She'd been about to ask “what's the Guede?” but bit down on it instead. Three questions. Shit, the guy had some sort of rules, and it didn't matter if she knew them or not. She flicked a glance at Baxter, who watched the scene in absolute stillness.
She squared her jaw. Things hadn't gone to shit like this since before Giles and Buffy had talked her mom into letting her come to Cleveland. Before that, the bad stuff had been drunken neighbors, pushy teachers, or horny boys. Dealing with them was hardly a challenge. There'd only been a couple of times – cornered by a group of gangbangers or when her little cousin had fallen into a flooded culvert – that she'd been genuinely scared.
The gangbangers had spent a combined fifteen months in the hospital and another three years in jail when she was done with them. The cousin had been revived in the ER after she'd sprinted two and a half miles with the toddler in her arms. Those had been mortal dangers. This was different.
“How do I get Lucy back, asshole? And she better not be hurt, not in any way,” Ari demanded.
Again, the Baron, wearing Lucy, grinned, genuinely amused.
“Ha! You definitely de one, cher
. See, I got dis problem, back a ways. Once a soul crosses into my realm, dey don't go walkin' back out. It's my job to make sure the dead stay dead. No zombies on my watch, cher
, not if I'm conjured like I should be. But somethin's pullin' my people outta de ground t'ree days after dey put in it. Soulless like de zombie, but cunnin' like Compair Fox. Dey make more by killin' more.”
“Vampires,” Ari said.
The Baron nodded slowly.
, and petite fille
, both Slayers. You go deal wi' dis problem. Put de dead back wi' de dead best you can. I take you dere, climb off petite fille
, and when you done, I bring you back. You got my t'anks, and you claim a favor off me later.”
“How far away?”
“Ah ah,” the Baron answered, wagging his finger at her. “You got t'ree questions answered. Now you say oui
For all that it was still winter in Cleveland, she no longer felt cold. Vampires needed killing, and she was finally going to get to do it. Plus, she rescued Lucy, which was practically a hobby, and she got to claim a favor from this Baron guy. Giles would know who he was.
“Baxter,” she called to the rabbit, “you coming?”Try to stop me.
The Baron laughed, raspy and hoarse.
“Yeah,” Ari said. “Let's do this.”
The Baron's laugh grew louder and louder until it was no longer a human voice but the cold, howling wind pouring off Lake Erie and the tundra north. It cut through her like a knife, and she raised her hands to shield her face. The world turned and shifted around her, and the wind evaporated.
Lowering her hands, Ari looked around.
It was still night, but the chill of December was gone. Instead, her skin prickled all over with an instant bath of sweat in response to the sultry air. She unzipped her parka and pulled it off. They were still in a graveyard, but this one was tombs, vaults, and whitewashed sepulchers, all above ground. Baxter's eyes darted around, and he looked very rabbity.
Lucy blinked and covered her nose with both hands.
“What just happened?” she asked. “Why's my head hurt so much, and . . . why is it so stinky?”
Xander, Faith, and Mary Poppins skidded to a halt at the gate to the tiny graveyard.
“WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?” Xander demanded.
The graveyard was empty, save for a lantern left beside one of the graves, and a rake on the ground where it had fallen.
Faith jogged a quick circuit around the graveyard.
“No vamps. No footprints other than Lucy's, Ari's, and the rabbit's,” she reported.
The trees around them shook and moaned far more than the wind accounted for.
“I know! I know!” Xander answered. “She's about as close to a complete freak out as I've ever seen.”
“Can you blame her?” Mary Poppins asked. “Whatever that was, it strolled in without a by-your-leave, and she couldn't do a thing.”
“Xander?” Faith asked.
“Faith,” he answered, “first call Willow and alert her. We may need her to fly back. Then send all the Slayers out. I want a full quarter and search. Ask Giles to do what mojo he can.”
“Mr. Harris?” Mary Poppins asked, her hands folded over one another, white knuckled.
“Do you have any
idea what this is about?” he asked her.
“None,” she answered. “I sense that there was a presence here, something particularly powerful and . . . capricious, but not necessarily evil. It is, however, outside of my experience.”
It was a day of portends, beginning with meeting the Widow Paris in the markets nearest his home and school. She wore, as always, a tignon worked up in seven points, the mark of her position as the voudou queen of New Orleans. At her neck was a small crucifix on a gold chain. Her clothes were those of a wife of a well-to-do tradesman, and she carried a basket filled with leeks, strawberries, and a dead chicken. It was understood by the entire population of New Orleans, even the brutish Kaintucks, that the Widow Paris, sometimes called Marie Laveau, was not to be trifled with.
“M'sieur Janvier,” she greeted him, her smile guarded and her stance regal.
“Madame,” he returned, giving her a bow which barely diminished his gargantuan height of six feet and three inches.
“How fair the young mamzelles with you this summer?”
It was no secret that January's school kept three girls as boarders over the summer, between terms. Their mothers, placées each, had found it more convenient to keep their awkward or charmless daughters away from visiting and socializing in the rented summer houses at Lake Ponchartrain. The girls, each of them, had been relieved to be left out of dress fittings and social calls. The idea of a summer with access to Madame Janvier's library and laboratory as well as nights of ghost stories and speculations was a siren song.
Yet, even if the boarders had been a secret matter, there was no doubt in January's mind that Mamzelle Marie would know how many, from which families, and of what temperaments the girls were, no matter how he and Rose might conceal it. Just as he had no doubt that the voudou queen of New Orleans knew exactly what the hidden cell in the school's basement was intended for.
“They are quite well,” he answered, smiling his thanks for her consideration. “We are spared the summer illnesses. There's been no rumor of the cholera and only a few cases of yellow jack at the charity hospital.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she replied, the expression of her eyes giving no hint as to her real emotions. “Will you walk with me?”
Beside the near legendary voudou queen, January was still conscious of giving room and precedence to the white men and women on the banquette. Her presence might prevent a beating if he were to jostle a man of the French creole caste, but it would do nothing to protect him if a louse-ridden, tobacco and rum soaked American took offense at his existence.
They stopped at a coffee stand where the proprietor absolutely refused payment from Mamzelle Marie, though she offered it twice, and they stood in the shade of a flowering jacaranda tree, sipping from their cups.
“Interesting stories have reached my ears,” Marie Laveau said, stirring her cafe au lait, “from the men and women who come to me for help and from . . . other sources. I have questioned whom and what I can but found no direct answers. Will you tell me, M'sieur Janvier, have there been any uncommonly odd deaths seen or spoken of in the hospital where you do your charitable work? Have you heard anything from the men who drive the deadcarts or those who work in the city morgue?”
He frowned. To be asked so directly for information by Mamzelle Marie was unheard of. People brought her tidbits of gossip in attempts to curry favor. Her informant network spanned the entire city and all its quarters.
“There are the usual numbers of les blanquittes
who succumb to the ague, Bronze John, or any of the other tropical diseases which plague them so. The same can be said for the quadroons and octoroons. The Americans die by drink, knife, fist, or whatever other calamity they can bring upon themselves. But . . .”
And here he stopped and thought. He was only a surgeon, not a doctor, and between that and his black African hue, he had no say in the treatment of the patients brought to the charity hospital. He had never been comfortable with the common practice of bleeding a sick person, and was often horrified by the alacrity with which the New Orleans doctors reached for knife and cup. Still, anyone who could afford a doctor could expect to be bled in an effort to balance the humors of their blood and end the illness. But those who couldn't afford a doctor generally escaped such treatment. Except . . .
“There have been some,” he said slowly, “who have staggered or been carried in with every sign of having been bled extensively. Some have cut marks on their wrists and elbows, others have puncture wounds on their neck. All of them have been black – slaves sleeping out, runaways, or freedmen and women. All of them too poor to afford a doctor to be letting their blood. None of them show signs of dosing with salts of mercury, either, which a doctor would purge them with. Most of them die. A few survive. At least, they survive long enough to leave the hospital.”
After that, it wasn't likely they lived much longer. The life of a slave, runaway or otherwise, did not lend itself the time necessary to recuperate from any serious illness.
Marie Laveau nodded slowly to herself. “Should you hear or see anything else of note, M'sieur Janvier, I would be obliged if you'd tell your sister or send a note to me.”
January's younger sister, by the same full-blooded African father they had not seen since early childhood, was also a voodooienne, called Olympe Snakebones, for the snake vertebrae she wrapped around her tignon like beads.
“I'll do that, Mamzelle.”
The second encounter came as he walked through the gluey heat of the early evening to the charity hospital where he gave his work to God. A lanky, scarecrow figure with a floppy hat, worn jacket, and tobacco stained teeth joined his path. Abishag Shaw was as verminous and filthy as any of the flatboat Kaintuck pirates littering the Swamp, but his cold eyes spoke of fierce intelligence. He was the law's man, and over the last three years, January had come to trust the man with his life and freedom on many occasions. He'd never been disappointed.
“Maestro,” the lieutenant greeted him with a voice like a worn rasp.
“I do purely regret waylayin' you in this manner, Maestro,” the lieutenant began, “but I's hopin' to catch you 'fore you's taken up with those souls in need of your care.”
They paused at an intersection while a wagon driver screamed curses and laid into his mules with a whip better suited to dealing with a maddened bull. Shaw's eyes scanned the scene, narrowing with unspoken and unexpressed anger. Abusing one's beast of burden was by no means illegal, but as both men knew, legal did not mean just.
Shaw paused to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the gutter.
“Cabildo is passin' full for not bein' Mardi Gras, 'n more'n half of them foretellin' such doom as'd make that Trojan lady go pale with dread.”
It no longer surprised January that the barely literate Kaintuck might reference a character from the Iliad
“The drunk'n crazed ones'll carry on, screamin' about the dead walkin', but it's the sober 'n sane ones worry me.”
“How so?” January asked.
“You know as well as I do, maestro, man knows he's marked f'r death, he looks o'er'n his shoulder. They's all doin' just that, an' they don't know why.”
On the face of it, it sounded ridiculous. Any man unlucky enough to find himself in the Cabildo looked over his shoulder or came out of the building a corpse. But Shaw's instincts were at least as good as his own – better when it came to the criminal element.
“Just blacks?” he asked, wondering if Shaw's new predicament had some connection to Mamzelle Marie's questions.
Shaw scratched the half-inch long stubble on his neck. “Now there's a mystery, Maestro. They bring a black man in like that, he's for sure a runaway, even if he's got papers purtier'n Mr. Sefton's own handwriting. But no, all the ones lookin' like they've seen their own graves're not but Kaintucks, Pikers, muleskinners, and keelboatmen. The sort none of 'em be surprised to find a knife in 'em durin' a fight but would never occur to them to watch their backtrails.”
“I can't say I've seen any like that,” January answered, thinking as quickly as he could. Blacks dying and the roughneck Kaintucks walking scared? That made no sense. “But then, few of the hospital's patients are of that sort. They tend to stay in the Swamp, even if they're deathly ill, and you'll understand it's not a part of town I frequent.”
No free colored or black slave spent time in the Swamp. The risk of being kidnapped and sold up the river to a cotton plantation or simply being raped, beaten, or killed because a white man could do so without facing consequences was enough to keep all but the most desperate or insane out of the area. Even the police hesitated to enter that quarter without as many numbers as they could gather.
“There's been no gossip along those lines,” January admitted. His mother was a storehouse of information, rivaling even that of Mamzelle Marie's informant network. “Of course, the news related at my mother's dinner table addresses only the placees and the Creole families, never the poorer families and certainly not the 'American animals', as she calls them.”
There was the tiniest quirk of humor in Shaw's eyes, as they both understood the intricacies of where each stood in relation to the other in the byzantine labyrinth of social, economic, and family networks in New Orleans – rich families with generations of nobility, free colored, Americans, middle class Creole, the abjectly poor, and the slaves of hues ranging from darker than January's three-quarters African to lighter than the palest musterfino.
“Should you hear anything, Maestro,” Shaw answered, “I'd be most obliged if you'd send a note or stop by for a jaw.”
With that, he spat in the overflowing gutter, nodded to him, and went on his way.
The charity hospital was a scene of Dantean hell. With the shutters closed to keep out the miasma of yellow fever, ague, and God forbid, cholera, it was a dark and stinking oven. The patients, many of whom would die no matter what care was given them, each had a cot or a pallet, but most of the accommodations were crawling with bedbugs, lice, fleas, and other inhabitants. Just outside, smudge pots filled with hooves, hair, gunpowder, and sulfur burned constantly in an effort to drive off both the mosquitoes and the vapors of illness which always permeated the city during the hottest months.
As a surgeon, January wore the expected black wool coat over silk vest and linen shirt. It was similar enough to what he wore when he worked as a musician during the busy, colder months after the Roullaison, but at least during the Blue Ribbon balls and endless parties, the windows were open and the musicians were offered token refreshment.
There were more patients than the previous night, and more of them were either poor free colored or slaves who had their masters' permission to sleep out and find work on the levee in exchange for the majority of their earnings. There were also the poor whites, usually recent immigrants, who'd stepped foot onto the wet soil of the New World and been struck down almost instantly by illnesses they'd never even heard of.
Some of them had the orange complexion brought on by Bronze John, the yellow fever. The more African blood a soul had, the more likely they were to survive. Some shook with the feverish chills of the ague, sometimes called by its Italian name, mal aria
, or bad air. Again, the darker the patient, the better their chance of surviving. Usually, those with the ague would sicken for days, recover for weeks, and then be struck down again. The bouts either faded, or they worsened until the body succumbed, twitching and exhausted, and there was no way to tell which way any particular patient would go.
But there was no cholera this summer. Thank you, Virgin Mary,
January prayed silently, touching his rosary.
Bad as Bronze John was, with its blackened puke and delirium of fever, bad as the ague, bad as typhoid, or any of the other epidemics which could easily sweep the town, cholera frightened him to the marrow of his bones. Memories of mass graves in Paris, and of the moment he'd opened his apartment door and found his first wife, Ayasha, dead in a pool of vomit and voided bowels, reaching for a water pitcher, were engraved on his soul.
He set his hat and satchel aside and began checking individual patients. While most of them did bear the markings of bloodletting from the elbow, there were two – a white man mumbling in Greek and a colored woman of light complexion – who had wounds on neck or wrists. Wounds that looked like nothing but vicious bites, the flesh torn and chewed just above the veins. The bite marks weren't those of rats, dogs, cats, or even pigs. In fact, from his time stitching up the survivors of bar fights and riots, they looked like human bites. A chill crept down his spine.
He had no chance to investigate the wounds further as a patient tended by Dr. Ker began to scream and fight in a delirium of fever.
“Consiga de mi, vampiro!” the girl yelled, knocking aside the doctor's tray of instruments. “Pendejo! Me dejo va! Matanza del tu, perra!”
“January!” the doctor commanded. “Restrain her. Her humours must be balanced.”
Unwillingly, January stepped over, knowing if he refused, he'd be dismissed and unable to help any of the patients there. Ker took his lancet and grabbed the girl's wrist to hold it down as January reached over to hold her by the shoulders.
“Es bien,” January assured the girl. “Le estamos ayundando.”
“Chingao tu madre!” the girl spat back, arching with fury like a cat.
She was big enough to be a field hand, if she were a slave, but her nails were lacquered, and her hair showed a great deal of care. When she snarled, he could see she had all her teeth, and none of them were discolored or broken, a rarity among even the richer families, and she spoke Spanish. She was also, clearly, delirious with fever, soaked with sweat, and shaking with the chills of the ague. But all that was only an instantaneous impression in the split second before she grabbed him by his vest and shirt and shoved him so hard, his feet left the ground.
He hit the floor of the hospital on his back, stunned both with the impact and the surprise, and as quickly as he got to his feet, he saw the girl grab Dr. Ker by his right wrist and twist hard. From a distance of several feet, he heard the bones of Ker's forearm snap. Before the doctor could do anything but go bug-eyed with shock, the girl slugged his jaw so hard, January heard another popping break, this time like a plank being folded in two, the doctor spun three-quarters of the way around and fell like a piece of meat.
“You show him, girl!” one of the patients called out weakly in the sloppy gombo French of a field hand.
The girl fell back, panting with exertion, struggled with the blanket covering her, and after a few moments of fruitless efforts slumped back into exhausted sleep.
It took January a dazed moment to regather his wits, and he called for one of the other doctors.
“What on Earth?” the German doctor demanded in heavily accented French, helping January arrange Ker on one of the few empty and clean cots.
“Herr Doktor, I do not know,” January said. “Doctor Ker was preparing to bleed the girl. She pushed me and struck him twice.”
“Hmph,” the German doctor muttered to himself. “These are bad breaks. Can you splint them, Herr Januar?”
“Yes,” January answered immediately. One of the few reasons he continued working at this hospital, with Ker barking orders and addressing him as 'tu', the way one would speak to a child or a dog, was because Herr Doktor Kleinmann, spoke to him as man and a professional. Perhaps it was because January was one of the few people in New Orleans able to address him in his native German.
Kleinmann left to check on the girl, and January kept a close eye on them, but as Kleinmann only asked for a bowl of water and a cloth to cool the girl's fever, the girl barely stirred.
It was a good thing Ker was unconscious and limp as an overboiled noodle. January set his jaw first, where the strong muscles would contract with inflammation in only a short time, and bound it with leather straps. The good doctor was plump with good food and fairly easy living, but in the two months or more it would take to heal, he'd be drinking soup and fortified broth. The arm was both easier and more difficult to manipulate. The muscles weren't as strong in their contraction, but both the radius and ulna were broken in a twisted spiral fracture, meaning that the splint and later cast would have to envelope the man's arm from fingertips to shoulder.
Ker began to stir, moaning with pain, and at January's request, Kleinmann checked his eyes and gave the man a large dose of laudanum. A note had been sent to his residence, and two slaves were waiting to carry their master back home on a chair as soon as January had finished wrapping the splints with bandages soaked in wet plaster. He wrapped the entire arm in canvas, knowing that like as not, Ker would demand another doctor, a Creole, redo all the work, because he was incapable of believing a man as dark as January would be able to do it properly.
Once Ker was gone, January sat for a few moments, aware that more than half the night had passed and he'd barely taken a look at the patients he was supposed to care for. He was dead tired and light headed with the focus he'd given the work on Ker, and baffled by all he'd heard and seen that night. Strange deaths among the slaves, mangled, bitten wounds on others, and a girl who was able to shove him – all six feet and three inches, nothing shy of two hundred thirty pounds of muscle – so hard his feet left the ground.
He scrubbed at his hair, and considered what he might tell either Mamzelle Marie or Lieutenant Shaw.
“Pardonez moi, Monseiur le Doctor,” a girl's voice spoke in the prettiest schoolgirl's accent. When he turned to see her, she continued. “Je recherche une ami. Pouvez-vous m'aider?”
Vous, not tu, was the first thing he noticed. The second thing he saw was that the girl was clearly recovering from a serious illness. Her skin was tight across her cheekbones and so pale the freckles stood out. More than that, her complexion was bright yellow, a jarring comparison to her red-gold hair she wore in one long braid pinned up at the back of her head.
She was dressed like she'd raided someone's laundry line, with a dress pulled on and laced herself with no idea how to do it. She had bags looped across her chest and shoulders. She carried an unmatched bonnet and purse over her elbow and grabbed at her skirts like she was convinced she would be tangled, tripped, and killed by them at any moment. The hem of her dress – a worn but quality linen – was sopping with filthy water, and her shoes . . . what in heaven's name kind of shoes was she wearing?
“Monsieur? Mi ami est une fille de coleur. Elle est Espagnole.”
“It's all right,” he told her. “I speak English, but I'm not a doctor.”
“Oh,” the girl replied, looking relieved at hearing her native tongue and then confused by what else he said. “Um, okay. So, my friend, sir, she's Spanish, but American Spanish, a little older than me, but taller, and she's got more . . . um, . . .”
She gestured to her chest, and January blinked in disbelief. Where on Earth had this girl come from, and had she been raised by wolves?
“I think she got sick,” the girl continued. “She was taking care of me when I was sick, and then she didn't come back. She must have gotten really sick, because she's really tough, and . . .”
“What is your friend's name, Mamzelle?” January asked, certain he knew who the girl was talking about.
“Arizay Fuentes. Everyone calls her Ari,” the girl answered promptly.
That was another thing. The girl, for all her strangeness, appeared to be on her best manners and automatically addressed him as a girl might address a doctor or teacher or other professional, not a man of color, especially not one as dark as him. If she were American, that simply wouldn't be the case, yet her speech didn't hold the lilt of Irish or Scottish her hair and complexion hinted at. He couldn't place her accent, she wasn't French or Spanish Creole, and her diction hinted at education. She was a mystery.
“You say she's tough? Unusually strong, perhaps?”
She nodded immediately.
“I think she may be here. If you'll follow me, please, Mamzelle.”
On the way over to the other side of the ward, the girl held her skirts up a good three inches from the floorboards and looked up at him with more questions.
“Monsieur, I asked when I came in, and the man at the door said you were a surgeon,” she stated.
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
“So, why did you say you aren't a doctor?” she asked.
“Because I'm not.”
Now she looked even more puzzled than he did. “But . . . surgeons are doctors. They're like the fighter pilots of doctors.”
A fighter pilot? He envisioned a steamboat pilot in full armor, standing at the tiller with sword drawn.
“Surgeons are not doctors, Mamzelle,” January explained. “We deal primarily in injuries, not illnesses.”
Now the girl was baffled. “Why would- ARI!”
It was clear the young redheaded girl knew the Spanish girl who'd so fiercely dealt with Ker. She knelt on one knee on the cot and wiped the other girl's forehead, then shook her gently by the shoulders.
“Ari! Ari, wake up!”
“Mamzelle, she's very ill,” January began.
“Well, sure,” the girl agreed, “but as soon as I can get her out of here and take care of her, she'll get better. Ari? Ari!”
The young woman on the cot moved, her brows pinching together in pain.
“Loose?” she asked. “That you?”
“Yeah, I'm here, Ari. C'mon. I've got a place we can go, and you'll be back on your feet in no time.”
“My head really, really hurts,” Ari managed. “And I'm so cold. I feel like shit, Loose.”
“Do you know what she has?” the girl asked January, looking up in frightened appeal.
“From the fever and chills, she most likely has the ague,” January told her.
“I don't . . . I don't know what that is,” the girl answered, sounding panicked.
“Sometimes it's called mal aria
,” he began.
“Malaria?!” she gaped. “Oh, my gosh, I have got to get you out of here, Ari. Okay, hang on.”
She started pulling different bags off her shoulders, and setting them aside, until she found one she began hunting through for something.
“Mamzelle,” January interrupted her, putting a hand in her field of vision. “We can care for your friend here quite well. You're welcome to stay with her.”
“Are you kidding me?” the girl demanded. “In this
place? You call this place a hospital? It ought to be burned to the ground! How is she supposed to get better with that smoke outside and all the mosquitoes and the . . . the . . . shit and the vomit . . . and people saying all she needs is to lose half her blood supply or maybe some mercury
for God's sake, and everybody else around her coughing up tuberculosis and pneumonic Plague! Why don't you just shoot her and get it over with?!”
In the middle of her near hysterical outbreak, a small, white rabbit hopped onto the bed and placed its front paws on her knee. It was so unexpected, so completely at odds with the world around him, January wondered if he
weren't coming down with a sudden delirium or severely high fever.
But the girl stopped babbling and stared intently at the rabbit, her lip quivering. After a moment, she sniffled loudly and wiped her nose on her wrist, then turned to January.
“Monsieur, I'm very sorry for my behavior,” she managed. “But I have to get my friend to someplace clean and safe. She has to get better, because we have a job to do, and I can't do it alone. Is there anything you can do to help us? Please?”
Completely nonplussed, January blinked, and then his mind began to sort through the intricacies of the problem the two girls posed.
Had they both been white, he could have escorted them to the Ursulines. Had they both been colored, he would have sent a note ahead to Rose and asked her to make up two beds, but then, they couldn't stay in the girls' dormitory because of the possibility of contagion. The redheaded girl seemed to pick up on some part of his hesitancy.
“If it's malaria, sir, she won't get anyone else sick,” she said, respectfully. “Malaria's transmitted by mosquito bites, not coughing. I think it's the same for what I had, since she didn't get it, and neither of us exactly got any vaccinations before we were dumped here.”
His mind halted again, stumbling over the girl's words and the ideas behind them. The ague was so dangerous, because it arose from the swamp as a miasma that invaded home and market, church and court. You closed your shutters to keep it out and burned gunpowder, hooves, and hair to drive it away. Mosquitoes? Mosquitoes were everywhere. Not a single bed in New Orleans was without a mosquito bar, even if it had no sheets.
“Sir?” the girl asked. “I have some money. If there's a place I could rent a room? I haven't been able to find one on my own.”
Not if she and her friend had gone out together. Not if Senorita Fuentes spoke in her daily life the same as she did in the throes of fever. Any place that would allow a girl of color with a mouth like that, would shy away from an educated American girl who spoke French. Any place that might allow a white girl speaking French would want to know where her family was, and how she could possibly be on her own without some form of chaperon – brother, maid, or slave. Dressed as she was, she might be taken as insane. Yet a girl as pretty as she was, for all of her youth, would have been kidnapped from the streets and sold to a brothel before her first day in the city was over.
What on Earth wa-Monsieur Janvier,
a gentle tenor voice spoke silently, the ladies are in peril and only barely aware of it. Will you give them sanctuary?
He looked around for the speaker, but there was no one there save the patients in their delirium, himself, the girls, and the rabbit, which had to be a pet.
“Your friend, Mamzelle,” he asked, “is she free? Do you have her papers?”
“Papers?” the girl asked, baffled.
“The papers which attest to her freedom? Or is she your slave?”
It was common among the Creole families to give their young daughters a slave during late childhood. The two might be as close as sisters – might even be half-sisters, considering the way Creole men comported themselves with the household slaves – though it would never occur to either to describe their relationship that way.
“She's not a slave!” the girl gasped, shocked. “Arizay's my best friend. We've known each other for almost a year.”
The idea that the girl might be non compos mentis
occurred to him again. She might deny her friend was a slave, but to be shocked by the question? He shook his head to clear it. He needed to deal with what was in front of him.
“Mamzelle, in New Orleans, any person who is not white is considered a slave unless they have papers issued by the city attesting to their freedom.”
The girl's shock was amplified into horror. “But . . . she isn't
a slave. She doesn't have papers, but she just isn't
He wondered how well that argument would work at the Cabildo, or with any of the innumerable slave stealers if one decided to turn a profit off her. Then he was taken by the memory of the sick girl shoving him so hard he was lifted entirely off his feet. Ker's arm and jaw had broken like rotten sticks. Perhaps a verbal argument was not what Arizay Fuentes depended on. What about this girl in front of him, sitting at Arizay's side and holding her hand?
“Forgive me, Mamzelle. I have neglected to ask your name.”
She collected herself and offered her hand to shake, like a man would to another man of equal standing, wealth, religion, and social station.
“Lucy. Lucy Sinclair.”
He shook her hand, but only briefly, lest anyone see.
“Mamzelle Sinclair, please, do not take offense, but do not, under any circumstances offer your hand to a man unless he is white and has been introduced to you by someone of standing.”
“But . . . why not?” she asked, baffled.
He paused, trying to frame his answer. “It's difficult to explain, Mamzelle. Before I do so, will you tell me how you and Senorita Fuentes came to be here?”
“Oh, well, Ari hadn't come back for more than a day,” the girl explained, “so I went to look for her. Mostly I asked people selling things on the streets. I've checked three places so far, but-”
“Excuse me, Mamzelle,” he forced himself to interrupt. “I meant in a more general fashion. How did you and Senorita Fuentes come to be in New Orleans? You surely have not been here very long.”
She let out a long breath. “Less than a week, I think. Though I was so sick, I'm not sure how many days it was.”
She paused, troubled and chewing on her lip in a very unladylike way. After a moment, she turned her attention to the rabbit, who sat between her and her friend, waiting patiently. Mamzelle Sinclair, stroked the rabbit's fur and ears, looking ill at ease, but she seemed to find some answer there.
“It's . . . um . . . it's going to sound pretty crazy, Dr. January,” she started. He managed not to correct her. “But . . . Baxter says we can trust you.”
He nodded gravely. The child had to be referring to the rabbit, which only confirmed his guess of insanity.
“I was born in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Arizay is a year older. We're both . . . kind of . . . chosen by destiny to battle evil, and a week ago or so, Ari says – I don't remember this part - that Baron Cemetery sent us here to deal with an outbreak of vampires, because he doesn't like it when dead people go walking around.”
She looked up at him with a miserable expression showing she clearly understood he would believe she had left her senses entirely. Nor did he, until the rabbit put its paw on the girl's leg, stood tall, and spoke without making a sound.Benjamin January, son of Jumah, disciple of Apollo, these are two of the granddaughters of Lilith, marked since their birth as ones chosen to battle the forces of evil. They have been called upon to rid this time and place of the vampire infestation that threatens this small piece of Creation. Lucy speaks the truth.
“And you are, monsieur?” he managed, suddenly so lightheaded he put a hand on the wall.Nemesis, bound in mortal form, yet still a potent ally. I am friend, and sometimes guide, to both Lucy and Arizay. Informally, I'm called Baxter.
It was a wonder he didn't faint.