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By D.J. Donaldson
Astor + Blue EditionsCopyright © 2014 D.J. DONALDSON
All rights reserved.
New Orleans — 1738
Albair Fauquel's hands and feet were numb, their circulation cut off by the leather thongs that bound them. His ears still smarted from their encounter with the rough rope that now chaffed the tender skin of his neck. Below the gallows, a jeering crowd shook a sea of raised fists in his direction. Someone in the back began to chant, "By the neck until dead, by the neck until dead!" The chant spread through the mob until the sound was deafening. Beside Fauquel, also wearing a rope was Malaqua, Fauquel's Haitian slave. Malaqua's eyes were tightly shut and his lips moved in silent communion with a god unknown to most of his tormentors. When the hooded hangman had slipped the rope over his head, Malaqua had fouled his clothing, and the smell now filled his master's nostrils. Unlike Malaqua, Fauquel was not afraid. He was angry.
A man in a powdered wig and dressed in a black cloak and black stockings and shoes mounted the gallows and unrolled the parchment he carried. The chanting stopped. In a sonorous voice that carried with ease to those farthest from the gallows, the charges were read.
"Inasmuch as you, Malaqua the slave, and you, Albair Fauquel, have conspired with the powers of darkness to cause a productive member of this community to commit the most heinous acts against his family and humanity and then, contrary to God's holy ordinances, take his own life, and whereas the evidence against you has been considered sufficient by a panel of your peers, you will this day be hanged by the neck until dead. Do either of you wish to speak?"
Malaqua seemed to be in a trance and gave no sign that he wished to respond. But Fauquel did. In a voice as strong as that of the parchment reader, Fauquel said, "When my land was taken, it was wrong. And today you wrong me again. But I tell you this, one day I will return and right this wrong as I did the other. And the streets of this city will run with blood as friend slays friend, fathers slay their children, and rampant suicide sends the souls of men by the hundreds to everlasting hell."
With this threat, the crowd went mad. A month of heavy rains had turned the ground around the cobblestoned square into a quagmire of foul-smelling muck. A man on the edge of the crowd scooped up a handful of the stuff and molded it into a wet ball with some Spanish moss from a nearby cart. Pushing his way through the throng, he let fly toward the gallows. It missed its mark, but was an inspiration to others.
Soon the air was thick with flying mud, and the ladies in the crowd screamed and fled to protect their dresses. A well-aimed handful struck Fauquel in the face, and the crowd cheered. Through a mouth full of grit, Fauquel spoke again as the cheer subsided. "Beware the songs you loved in youth," he shouted, his eyes burning with hatred.
Mud spattered the parchment reader's shoes and he gave the sign. The hangman pulled the wooden lever connected to the holding pins of both trapdoors, and the floor fell away from the condemned men. As they fell, the din that a moment before had battered the parchment reader's ears ceased as though cut with the blade of a guillotine.
The sound of Fauquel's neck snapping carried across the square like the crack of a whip. His eyes bulged grotesquely, and his face turned purple. The front of his trousers darkened with urine. Malaqua was a heavy man, and when he reached the end of his rope, his head was partially torn from his body.
The sound of retching could be heard from several quarters as ladies in attendance found the sight more than they had bargained for. Quietly, the mob turned and went back to their homes and shops.
New Orleans — The Present
"Daddy, Daddy." With her arms spread wide and her chubby legs tapping out a rhythmless beat on the blacktop, Lila Hollins, age two, gradually picked up speed. Oblivious to what it might do to his trousers, Barry Hollins, her father, dropped on one knee to catch her. Lila was a miracle, courtesy of the doctors at the Tulane fertility clinic. Before Lila, Barry and Pamela Hollins had felt incomplete. Now they were whole.
"Hello, baby. How's my sweetie?" Barry plucked Lila up in his arms and smothered her with exaggerated kisses. Eyes sparkling, she giggled and squeezed her daddy's nose.
"I swear. You act like you hadn't seen her for weeks the way you carry on," Mother Keltner said, wiping her hands on her apron. Pamela's mother had been living with them for about a month, and it was not at all like his buddies at work had said it was going to be. She more than earned her keep by doing all the cooking and taking care of Lila while he and Pamela were at work. She knew when to express an opinion and when to keep one to herself. More important, she was likable, all of which made it hard to understand why Pamela's sister was so set against taking her in.
A second car pulled into the drive and Pamela Hollins waved at them through the windshield. With Barry's help, Lila waved back. As his wife walked toward them, Barry took in every movement. His friend Aubrey's wife and Sammy's too still looked as good as ever ... up close. But at a distance, it was obvious they were losing it. Calves and ankles beginning to thicken, once-firm buttocks now pushing acceptable limits, a subtle change in posture as though the years were pushing down on them like a winepress slowly being closed. But not Pamela. At forty-two, she still had the figure and carriage of a girl, and even now, standing here in the yard with the sun still up, he wanted her.
"Hi, babe," she said, kissing him lightly on the lips, and Lila on the forehead. "Have a good day?"
"You make them all good," he said, patting her on the fanny.
Mother Keltner clucked her tongue and shook her finger at him in mock scorn. "You two! Next thing, the neighbors will be calling the police on us for public lewdness, and I'm too old to go to jail."
"Yeah, you'd look awful in stripes," Barry teased. Turning to Pamela, he saw that she was troubled. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Boss still riding you about that contract mix-up?"
She shook her head. "No. It's not that. Somebody went through the parking lot today and cut the antennas off all the cars. Ours, too."
Barry adjusted Lila in his arms, took a few steps to the side, and looked again at Pamela's car. All that remained of the antenna was a six-inch stub. "Don't worry about it," he said, walking back to her. "I'll fix it on Saturday. No real harm done."
Pamela's face remained clouded. "But it was such a mean thing to do. I don't understand people like that."
He reached up and put a stray curl of his wife's hair back in place. "Forget it. They messed up your antenna, don't let them ruin your dinner, too." He looked at Pamela's mother. "So what are we having? Venison? Squab under glass?"
"Hamburgers and beans," Mother Keltner replied.
"It'll be ready by the time you get back from the store."
"Meaning we're out of ...?"
"No problem," he said, handing Lila to her grandmother.
Pamela reached into her purse and took out her car keys. "Here hon, take mine. It'll be easier."
The car was not actually Pamela's, but rather, belonged to her mother, who had insisted that it become family property when she came to live with them. Inspection of the vandalized antenna revealed that it had been lopped off at an angle with a pair of bolt cutters that left the tip clean and sharp. This evidence of planned destruction of property was more irritating to Barry than if the antenna had been broken off in an impulsive act.
It was the first time he'd driven the car and he didn't expect that the seat would be so close to the dash. His knee collided with the steering column, and the pain made him curse. Guiltily, he looked toward the house ... Good ... Lila was inside, out of earshot.
His groping hand found nothing that felt like a seat-adjusting lever, and he had to practically stand on his head to find it. By the time he got underway, the pain in his knee had lessened to the point where he could appreciate how well the car handled. Much better than his, in fact. According to Pamela, though, it got lousy mileage. He nudged the blower on the air conditioner up to high and turned all the vents in his direction.
A kid on a motorbike suddenly appeared beside him and then sped away. Surprised, Barry looked in the rearview mirror and tried to figure out why he hadn't seen him coming. When he saw how little of the road was actually visible through the central oval and two portholes that served as a rear window, he understood. Better remind Pamela to be extra careful when changing lanes.
Figuring it wasn't worth driving all the way to Schwegmann's just to save twenty cents, he headed in the direction of the 7-Eleven six blocks away. At first he drove without thinking of anything in particular, but soon his mind was on Lila, and then on his own childhood and his favorite toy. His jack-in-the-box. Jack had red cheeks and freckles and was dressed in yellow-and-black stripes. When you turned the handle, the box played "Pop goes the weasel. All around the cobbler's bench, the monkey chased the weasel ..." A trickle of saliva dribbled down his chin, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Puzzled, he studied his hand as though he'd never seen it before. There were no tissues in the car, and he was wondering what he could wipe it on when he thought of Jack. He could wipe it on Jack ...
"All around the cobbler's bench ..." The tune ran lazily through his brain, and he began to bob his head in time to the music. Two blocks from the 7-Eleven, he began to whistle the tune softly, and his head stopped moving. His eyes became fixed on the road ahead. Saliva filled his mouth, and soon he could only whistle a few bars before having to swallow. He was still whistling and swallowing when he went in one side of the store's drive and out the other. At the Hebert Street intersection, he ran a stop sign. Over and over, between swallows, he whistled the tune ... "Pop goes the weasel."
Art Meloy was taking the few minutes before dinner to spray some Ansar on a patch of weeds where his lawn ran beside the Hollins's driveway. When Barry got out of the car, Meloy suggested they play some golf on Saturday. But Barry paid no attention. He walked toward the house, still whistling the same song, a few bars at a time, followed by a short interval while his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. Meloy shrugged and went back to his weeds.
Barry went in the front door and through the den to the kitchen, where he heard Mother Keltner and Lila in the pantry. He walked over, shut the pantry door, and turned the key in the lock. "Pop goes the weasel." He hadn't blinked since the music began, and there were now tiny hemorrhages in the whites of his eyes. Hearing the shower running in the upstairs bathroom, he picked up a chair from the breakfast table, went up the stairs, and wedged it under the bathroom doorknob. "Pop goes the weasel." Then he went into the garage, got the gasoline for the lawnmower, and took it back into the kitchen, where he drenched the walls and floor. He proceeded from room to room, methodically wetting all the rugs and draperies. In the den, he poured the pungent fluid over his football-watching chair with the diligence and care of a fine craftsman whose reputation rides on the thoroughness of his work. "Pop goes the weasel."
He rattled the gasoline can against his ear. Satisfied that there was enough left, he took the gun-shaped cigarette lighter from the drawer next to his chair and placed it on the table. Deliberately, he upended the gas can and played the spout over his clothes. The tune in his head blocked all other sensation, and he neither felt the cold liquid that plastered his clothes against his skin nor smelled the heavy fumes that filled his nostrils. He sat down, picked the lighter off the table, and pushed back so that the hidden footstool under the chair slid out. With his feet up, he waited for the tune loop in his head to roll around again to the chorus. When it got to the next "Pop," he pulled the lighter's trigger!
He continued to whistle until the flames burned away the flesh on his lips. For a few seconds longer, there was just the sound of rushing air. The superheated smoke in his next breath cooked the delicate lining of his lungs and then he heard the tune no more.CHAPTER 2
"Ummmm." Eyes closed in pleasure, Kit Franklyn pressed the back of her head deeper into the down pillow as David Andropoulas, assistant DA for the city of New Orleans, ran his tongue slowly up her thigh. She buried the fingers of both hands in his thick black hair and pulled him upward. Then the phone rang.
"Aggggh. Don't answer it," David pleaded, his lips moving against her hot skin.
"Have to." She pulled herself into a sitting position and plucked the receiver from its cradle. "Hello."
"This is Andy Broussard," a resonant voice said. "If you're free, I'll take you on a call."
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
Her "thanks" was cut short by a click as her new boss, the chief medical examiner for Orleans Parish, hung up.
"You're leaving, aren't you," David whined.
"That was Broussard. We're going on a case."
As she slipped from under the sheet, David grabbed for her and missed, his fingers grazing the firm flesh of her flank. "Five more minutes," he pleaded.
"Can't." She turned on the light and picked up her panties from the chair where he had thrown them.
Lying on his belly, David watched her silken triangle disappear behind the pink nylon. It was so like her, he thought, not to turn her back or insist on dressing in the dark. With her auburn hair free from the tortoiseshell combs she always used to hold it primly back from her face, she looked positively smoldering.
He very much approved of the way she downplayed her looks in public, wearing lip gloss instead of lipstick and doing little to call attention to her large brown eyes or hide the sprinkle of freckles on the bridge of her nose. He had liked her natural look from the moment he saw her, but more than anything, it was her self-assurance that had first attracted him eighteen months ago when they both were campaign workers for an ultimately unsuccessful candidate for Congress. The sweet body he had discovered later was pure lagniappe.
"How can you just shut your feelings off like that?" he asked, throwing his legs over the edge of the bed.
She shrugged into her bra, pulled her dress on, and padded into the bathroom to fix her face and put the combs back in her hair. "It's called discipline. You ought to try it." In the mirror, she could see David leaning against the doorframe, his arms folded across the fur on his chest.
"I just did. Can't say I care for it."
"Don't be so immature."
"Why is it immature to want to keep doing something you enjoy?"
"If you had your way, we'd spend most of each day in bed."
"Shows I'm healthy."
"Oversexed more likely."
"I will always consider it one of Nature's greatest perversities," he said, "that women were made so undersexed that when one with a reasonable appetite comes along, we say she's a nymphomaniac and we send her to a shrink ... to a psychologist or psychiatrist for help."
David's use of the word shrink did not escape her notice. He had never said so directly, but she was sure that he thought very little of her profession. His ill-chosen word smothered any regrets she had for running off. She touched a finger to a tin of lip gloss and ran the finger around her mouth. "Stick to legal opinions, counselor," she said, cleaning her finger with a tissue. "At least there you know what you're talking about." She threw the tissue into a hammered brass wastebasket and brushed past him. "... And put your clothes on."
He followed her into the bedroom. "Did I miss something here? Why are you so sore all of a sudden?"
"I don't have time to talk now. Broussard will be here any minute."
"Later then ... over dinner."
She looked at the ceiling. "I have no idea how long this will take."
"Look, it's ..." David picked up his watch from the nightstand. "It's three-thirty. Say we make it for eight. That'll give you over four hours. If you see you can't make it or you finish earlier, call me at the office. I need to make up for taking the afternoon off, so I'll just work until I hear from you."
Excerpted from Cajun Nights by D.J. Donaldson. Copyright © 2014 D.J. DONALDSON. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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