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Jules Duchon was a real New Orleans vampire. Born and bred in the working-class Ninth Ward, bitten in and smitten with the Big Easy. Driving through the French Quarter, stuck in a row of bumper-to-bumper cars that crept along Decatur Street like a caravan of bone-weary camels, Jules Duchon barely fit behind the steering wheel of his very big Cadillac taxicab. Even with the bench seat pushed all the way back.
Damn, he was hungry. His fat fingers quivered as they clutched the worn steering wheel more tightly. It was only nine p.m.; early yet. He didn't used to get this hungry, back in the old days. Could he be coming down with diabetes? Jules thought about this. Could somebody like him get diabetes? Half the population of New Orleans over the age of forty had it, and Jules was well past forty. He had half a mind to drive over to Charity Hospital and get himself checked out. Yeah, right, he thought to himself. He rubbed the side of his nose and tilted down his sun visor, forcing himself to look at the clipping from last week's Times-Picayune he'd pinned there. new orleans fattest city in nation, study shows. Front-page news. Talk about restating the goddamn obvious. Them scientists actually get paid to tell us this stuff? He glanced quickly at the visor's lit vanity mirror, where his reflection would be, if he could still cast one. What the hell; he knew what he looked like. He still had the delicate, whitish complexion that women had made such a fuss about during his younger days. Back then, they'd said he looked like Rudy Valentino in The Sheik. Now he looked more like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
"Diabetes or no diabetes, if I don't get something down my gullet, I'm gonna keel over." Waiting at a stoplight, Jules considered his options. The streets and sidewalks of the French Quarter, glistening with a recent rain, were bustling with tourists. But that was the problem. Too much of a good thing-there were people and eyes everywhere. The light turned green, and Jules crossed Canal Street, heading for less popular parts of town. He would have to dig into his wallet for tonight's meal.
A few minutes later he was trolling past the New Orleans Mission, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter. It squatted in the shadow of the Pontchartrain Expressway, an elevated highway that separated the business district from a vast slum called Central City. Jules chewed his lower lip as he scanned the long line of human refuse that waited on the broken sidewalk outside the mission's door. Then he spotted her, standing near the end of the line. He'd seen her around town before, sitting on bus shelter benches or panhandling in front of fried chicken joints. A big-boned woman, as his mother used to say. Her thick, chocolate-brown neck was nearly hidden by a motley heap of metallic beads left over from last winter's Carnival parades, and her upper body oozed out the armholes of a tank top several sizes too small for her. Yeah, she fit the bill.
Jules stopped his cab, a Caddy Fleetwood of mid-1970s vintage, pressed the wobbly rocker switch that jerked his electric windows reluctantly to life, and stuck his head into the humid night air. "Hey, baby. You interested in some dinner?"
The woman swung her head around, her sparse eyebrows raised in surprise. "You talkin' to me?"
"Yeah, baby. I asked if you were hungry. You look hungry."
The woman took half a step toward the cab, giving its vast white bulk the once-over, then eyeing the equally imposing white bulk of its driver. "What you selling, mister? You a dealer? I ain't got no money to be buying no drugs, now."
Jules sighed heavily. His hunger was growing exponentially. "You hear me say anything about crack? I want some company, is all. I wanna buy you dinner."
The woman crossed her big arms in front of her ample chest. "I got me dinner right here, thank you. An' it's free."
"C'mon, you don't want to be eating the slop they got here. I'll get you some real food. An oyster po' boy and all the fixin's. We'll have us some fun, maybe take in some music afterward. Give a lonely guy a break, huh? How about it?"
The look of resistance on the woman's face softened as she contemplated a belly full of fried seafood. Wavering, she turned to her friend standing in line ahead of her, an older woman missing most of her front teeth. "Miss Gloria, whatchu think?"
The old woman appraised the Cadillac for a few seconds, then gave her friend a shove toward the street. "Go on now, Bessie darlin'. Dat's the best offer you be gettin' all week."
Her beads jangled loudly as Bessie made her way slowly around to the passenger's side. Jules leaned over and opened the door for her. Before getting in, she said, "Now, if I go with you, I get me a comfortable place to sleep for the night, right? That's the deal."
Jules licked his lips as he drank in her large figure, silhouetted in the weak glare of a streetlight. "Sure, baby. You'll be sleepin' real comfortable tonight. Deal. Now slide on in."
They drove back through the deserted central business district to a sleazy stretch of St. Charles Avenue. Jules parked in front of the Hummingbird Grill and Hotel, a brick-faced, 150-year-old building that had once been part of a row of luxury town houses. Its once pristine bricks were now coated with decades' worth of grime. Rattling air-conditioning units dotted the building's facade like mechanical zits. Jules liked the Hummingbird. It was cheap, it never closed, and it was a century past its prime. The place had character.
Jules popped open the Caddy's electric door locks. "Here we are, baby."
Bessie was unimpressed by their destination. "Shee-yit," she said, a petulant frown pulling down the corners of her mouth. "I thoughts we was gonna eat someplace nice."
Jules was already halfway onto the sidewalk. "The Hummingbird is nice. Food's real good here. 'Specially the seafood. You'll see. C'mon."
Jules tried hard to remember his manners. He held the restaurant door open for his guest. She walked infuriatingly slowly, waddling through the foyer like an obese seal. It took every bit of his fading willpower not to nibble her neck as she paused to peek up the dim, narrow stairway that led upstairs to the hotel; but he reminded himself that good things come to those who wait.
Jules selected a table close to the kitchen, as far from the windows as they could get. He wanted nothing to distract her from her meal. While waiting for the waitress to bring menus and silverware, he amused himself by rereading for the hundredth time a handwritten sign posted near the pay phone by the cash register: no talking to imaginary persons. Jules got a kick out of that, being kind of an imaginary person himself. He wondered whether the waitress would be breaking house rules when she came over and asked him for their order.
After a couple of minutes of waiting for a server to come and furtively admiring his companion/dinner, Jules lost his patience. He half stood and snapped his fingers loudly, finally managing to catch the eye of one of the two waitresses on the floor. "Sweetheart. We need dinner here, not breakfast."
The waitress favored him with a half wave. "Hold your horses, dawlin'. I got ten other customers to take care of. Be right with you."
By the time she brought over the menus, Jules had made their selections off the chalkboard posted by the kitchen door. "The lady here'll have an oyster po' boy with a helping of red beans and smoked sausage and a side of corn bread, thanks."
Bessie thumped the table in protest. "Hey, what's wit' you? Don't I get to order what I wants?"
Jules quickly patted her arm. "Baby, it's more classy when the man orders for his lady. You want that po' boy dressed?"
Slightly mollified, Bessie turned to the waitress and said, "Dress it with tartar sauce and my-nezz and tomatoes and pickles, and don't skimp on them ersters!"
The waitress scribbled a few abbreviations onto her pad. "Got it, dawlin'." She turned back to Jules. "And what can I get for you?"
Jules frowned slightly. "Umm. Just good, hot coffee for me, sweetheart. And keep it coming."
Bessie's eyes widened. "What? You mean you just gonna sit there and watch me eat?"
"I'm not hungry, baby," Jules lied through his sharp teeth. "But it does my soul good to watch a pretty lady enjoy a big meal."
"Whatever floats yo' boat." Bessie took a long sip of water, staring at Jules over the rim of the glass. "Say. Y'know, you jus' about the whitest white man I ever seen."
Jules smiled, careful not to expose his teeth too much. "Yeah. I get told that a lot. Got a history of skin cancer in my family. So I tend to stay outta the sun."
The waitress brought a heaping basket of corn bread and placed it in front of Bessie. Jules grimaced when he glanced at the dish of spreads she set down. "Miss! Hey!"
The waitress turned back toward their table. "Anything the matter, dawlin'?"
"Yeah. Dump this low-cal margarine crap. Bring us some real butter, huh?"
"Ho-kay." She raised an eyebrow as she scooped the dish up from the table. "Some people worry 'bout their calories, nowadays. Rest of the food'll be out in a second."
Jules decided to ignore the insult. He gulped down his first cup of coffee as he watched Bessie slather great hunks of corn bread with butter. The po' boy sandwich, when it arrived a few minutes later, was more than a foot long-thick slices of French bread embracing dozens of deep-fried oysters, the whole concoction dripping with gobs of mayonnaise and creamy tartar sauce. The generous portion of syrupy red beans was replete with fat logs of sausage that overhung the bowl. Jules watched the light of the green neon sign outside the window glisten off the pools of grease that floated atop the red beans. His date appeared to have an appetite as fierce as his own. Already the po' boy was half gone. Jules's eyes half closed with pleasure as he imagined his repast to come. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a small shrill voice repeated the headline of the newspaper article he'd pinned up in his cab. Really, he shouldn't be doing this to himself anymore. But he buried the annoying voice with an avalanche of delicious anticipation. Hell, he could start dieting anytime. Why tonight?
By the time Jules was halfway through his third cup of coffee, Bessie had finished her meal. She wiped a few crumbs from the corner of her mouth, more crumbs than remained on her plate. Jules pushed aside his coffee cup and patted her plump hand. "Man alive, I love seein' a woman eat. You all filled up? Want some dessert?"
Bessie patted her round stomach and grinned. "No thanks, baby. I be stuffed solid."
"Good." He grabbed the check off the table. "Let's go, then."
She paused in front of the stairs by the cash register after he paid the bill. "Ain't we goin' upstairs? I could use a little lie-down after that meal."
"No, baby. We're goin' for a little drive. I've got me a nice cozy camp out by Pass Manchac, on Lake Maurepas. We'll have our lie-down out there."
Jules sighed with contentment as he headed up the on-ramp onto Interstate 10. The big Caddy was in its element on the highway, its air-pillow suspension letting Jules imagine he was piloting a yacht through gentle seas. As soon as they passed the western suburbs of Metairie and Kenner, they left the artificial glow of civilization behind, and the sky quickly filled with stars. It was a night for music. Jules reached for the pull knob on the radio.
"You like oldies music?"
Bessie grinned. "Sure! I likes any kind of music."
The radio was preset to the only station Jules listened to-WWOZ, a community radio station that specialized in old-time New Orleans music. Soon he was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the Dixie Cups, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, and Fats Domino.
He glanced over at his passenger. Bessie was staring intently out the window, watching the distant lights of fishing boats and oil platforms on Lake Pontchartrain as the Caddy sped along the Bonnet Carré Spillway. He figured she must not get out of the city much. "Enjoying the ride, baby?"
"Oh yeah." She turned around toward him. "What's it like, drivin' a cab for a livin'? You like it?"
Jules turned the music down a smidgin. He regretted having started a conversation. It never seemed right, somehow, getting too friendly with his meals. "It's all right, I guess. It's a living."
"You always done this?"
"Naw. I used to work in the coroner's office. Did it for years. Now there was a sweet job. Lots of on-the-job bennies. But then my boss couldn't get himself elected no more, and the new guy wanted to bring in his own people. So after twenty-seven years, I was out on my ass."
Jules went quiet. The bitterness of that memory seeped out of his head and into the car, turning the air-conditioned atmosphere somber. His boss at the city coroner's office had been maybe the best friend he'd ever had. Doc Landrieu had known almost from the start exactly what Jules was, and for decades he'd looked the other way while Jules discreetly satisfied his appetites with the blood of the recently deceased. Life was so sweet then. He'd had his meal ticket, in every sense of the word. But the city was constantly changing; longtime residents moved out to the 'burbs, and the new people didn't vote the same. Nothing ever stayed the same, he'd found. At least nothing good.
B.B. King came on the radio, singing "The Blues Is All Right." It was a song about being sad, but the way B.B. sang it, so enthusiastic and joyful and glad about being alive, Jules felt his sour mood evaporate. He began drumming his fingers on the steering wheel again. The Caddy passed beneath the sign for Interstate 55, and Jules took the turnoff that would lead him north to Lake Maurepas.
At that late hour, the elevated highway was deserted. The Caddy was an isolated blob of light gliding swiftly above a slumbering landscape of cypress tree stumps and wooden fishing shacks. Alligators silently stalked nutria, plump water rats, through a maze of swamp grass. Jules carefully watched for his favorite exit, a fishermen's route to a narrow dirt road by the water, half a mile from the closest camp. He spotted it, then gingerly braked the Caddy to a near crawl and aimed its big white hood down the off-ramp.
Jules felt Bessie's hand squeeze his thigh. "We near your place, huh?"
"Yeah," he replied. "But you're gonna kill me. I just remembered that I left the keys to my camp back at my house in town."
Her hand immediately left his thigh. "You did what? What'n hell we gonna do now?"
Damp gravel crunched beneath the Caddy's whitewall tires as Jules parked close to the turbid water's edge. "Don't sweat it, baby. Cab's got a backseat as big as Alaska. Nobody's gonna bother us out here. It'll be just like we're inside the cabin. I promise."
"Shee-yit. I does all my lovin' in the backseat of a damn car."
Jules cut the ignition. "Hey, at least dinner was A-One, huh?"
"Yeah, you right," she reluctantly admitted. "Dinner was plenty good."
Jules turned the key just enough to keep the radio and power accessories running, then opened his door and lowered himself slowly to the gravel. The air was surprisingly cool; Jules figured it must be their proximity to all the water. "You're gonna have to get out for a bit. Takes me a minute to move the seat all the way forward."
Bessie didn't budge. "Ain't no snakes around here, is there?"
Jules sighed heavily. By now, he was shaking with hunger, and all the coffee he'd drunk felt like acid at the bottom of his stomach. "No, baby. And if there were any around, the car would've scared 'em all off. C'mon now."
Bessie slowly swung her door open and tiptoed down to the ground. Jules pressed a switch on the door sill, and the electric seat groaned into life, moving forward at the pace of continental drift. Two minutes later it had gone as far as it could, the seat cushion mashing into the dashboard.
"Can I get back in now?"
Jules walked around to the back of the car. "Just another minute, okay?" He opened the trunk and removed a folded plastic tarp and a sheet-cake-sized foil baking pan. Then he opened the driver-side rear door and awkwardly spread the plastic tarp over the seat. The baking pan he placed on the floor.
Jules walked around to the other side and opened the back door for Bessie. "What's that plastic wrap doin' there?" she asked, her voice more than a little petulant.
"Them's genuine cowhide leather seating surfaces. Gotta take good care of them, or they won't look worth a shit. Didn't your mama used to put slipcovers on her good couch? Same principle here. Big folks like you and me, we're liable to make quite a mess when we're doin' our business. Gotta take care of the seats."
Bessie turned up her nose, but she obligingly crawled onto the tarp-covered seat, dumping her Mardi Gras beads on the floor. Even with the front bench kissing the steering wheel, it was still a snug fit. While she was squirming to make herself more comfortable, her hand brushed against the baking pan. "And what's this here thing doin' here for?"
Jules peered into the dark space. "What's that? Well, I'll be damned. Some dumb-ass customer must've left that there earlier this evening. Well, guess it won't do us no harm."
Jules waited until Bessie stopped squirming, then he commenced the arduous task of climbing in on top of her. Trying to slide forward, grasping for handholds, was like struggling to scale a woman-shaped mountain of Jell-O.
"Hey! Watch with the knee, buster!"
Finally, his overtaxed heart pounding from exertion, Jules reached what he figured was his optimal position. His cold nose nuzzled Bessie's warm, fragrant neck. Jules tried to sort out the different elements that made up her scent. Cinnamon, for sure. A hint of chocolate, or maybe cocoa butter. And unmistakably, the smoked tang of the sausage she'd eaten an hour before. He kissed her neck, his salivary glands working double time. Ah, bless you, New Orleans . . . greatest food in the whole goddamn world . . .
"Oohh baby," Bessie cooed, "you be shakin' all over-"
"Yeah, baby, it's been too long, it's been way too long-"
Aretha Franklin's voice boomed from six speakers, declaring to all Manchac swamp, "What you want, baby I got it!" Jules surrendered to his appetite, a desperate, living hunger that knew it would soon be sated. He nibbled her now moist neck, searching out her jugular vein. He couldn't find it. He nibbled harder, frantic, but all he could sense was flesh and more flesh, a nigh-impregnable collar of blubber.
"Oohh baby, the way you bitin', you my lover-man, baby."
"Yeah, baby, sure," Jules stuttered, his voice laced with real terror.
Bessie shifted beneath him. "But how we gonna get all these clothes off now? The way you got us jammed in here, we's like pig's feet in a full-up jar. I can't move hardly nothin'-"
"Uh, you let me worry about that, huh?" Shit! He had to think of something. He honestly didn't think he had the strength left to make it back to the city and start all over again. His armpits were soaked with sweat, despite the cool breeze that blew up the back of his shirt through the open door. He kissed her neck mechanically, his mind racing. She moaned again, louder this time, and the flesh of her neck shimmied beneath his parched lips. Then he had an idea. A desperate ploy, but it might just work. He reached his hand under her dress, praying that he remembered where everything was. Her legs parted slightly, but there was still a formidable obstacle course for his thick fingers to overcome. It was like playing blindman's bluff in quicksand. Okay, there were her panties; he was moving in the right direction. Please, please let him remember-
Bingo! He must've hit the magic spot, because her moaning took on a new, deeper timbre, and her back and neck arched with pleasure. Suddenly, her neck had contours-her thick jugular appeared through the flab like Atlantis rising from the deep. Instantly, before it could submerge again, Jules bit deep.
"Oh baby, you the greatest!"
Okay, not as deep as he would've hoped. Jeezus, it's like bitin' through elephant hide. But the first tiny trickle of blood was heaven. Jules gathered the dregs of his strength and worked his jaws like a punch press, plunging his sharp canines deeper.
"Ouch-aaohww baby! Cut it out! You hurtin'-ekkk!"
Suddenly blood surged into his mouth with the force of a fire hose. Jules gulped it down as quickly as he could, but even his most ravenous efforts couldn't prevent waves of overflow from splashing into the pan on the floor below. Her blood was manna, caviar, ambrosia. Oh, the incredible amazing richness-! He gulped and swallowed so prodigiously that his body forgot to breathe, but he didn't care. The fresh triglycerides her blood teemed with hit his system like the purest heroin ever mainlined. The Cadillac spun around him; his ears filled with heavenly music (could that be his dear, long-departed mother's angelic voice leading the choir?); the warm, spasming body beneath his seemed to liquefy, simultaneously caressing every molecule of his vast form with omnipresent pleasure.
He had no idea how long he remained on top of her. By the time a series of annoying sounds pulled him back to full awareness (sounds, he soon realized, that were coming from himself, as he alternated between belching and sucking the last few rapturous drops from her neck), Bessie's body had gone cold. He wanted nothing more than to lay his head back down upon her soft, cool neck and doze for a week, but he glanced at his watch and realized that sleep would be suicide. Groaning at the injustice of the earth's unpausing rotation (why can't there be more hours in a night?), he forced his somnolent muscles into action, ignoring their protests as he pushed himself, massive posterior first, out of the Caddy's scarlet-soaked backseat. He was careful not to upset the baking pan, which was filled to the brim with precious, New Orleans-prime crimson nectar.
He made his way slowly to the trunk, still fuzzy-headed from his enormous meal. Inside were a half-inflated spare tire, assorted pieces of a tire jack, a pile of old newspapers that he'd been meaning to take to a recycling bin, two badly wrinkled spare shirts, a pistol, a potato, and a crate filled with empty glass pickle jars.
Wishing ruefully that he had some slack in his pants pockets, Jules balanced the potato and the pistol atop the empty jars and lifted the crate from the trunk. He rested the crate on the great bulge his stomach made as it sagged over his belt, then turned halfway around before realizing that his weak knees couldn't support both him and his cargo. Muttering with irritation and impatience, he set the crate down on the damp gravel and pushed it along with his foot as he maneuvered back around to the open door.
Twice, the potato rolled off the top of the jars and bounced into the water. Twice, Jules cursed a blue streak as he fished it out, until he decided it would be better to leave the pistol and the potato by the water's edge anyway.
Back at the car, he pushed Bessie's stiffening legs out of the way and sat uncomfortably on the doorjamb. He took a bottle of sodium citrate solution from the crate and poured some into the pan of blood, in order to prevent clotting and extend freshness, a trick he'd learned from Doc Landrieu. Then he began plucking jars out of the crate, unscrewing their tops and dipping them carefully into the blood. After five minutes of cautious labor, he had filled eight jars. The ninth jar he hugged between his thighs as he gingerly tilted the pan above it, securing the last few precious red droplets. He held this last jar in his left hand and its top in his right, hesitating. He stared at the jar's viscous contents, glistening almost black in the dim moonlight, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, what the hell. I'll need all the strength I got for what I gotta do next. A little lagniappe won't kill me."
He lifted the jar to his gore-stained lips. Already the blood had lost some of its freshness, tasting only like vintage Chardonnay instead of nectar of the gods; he floated in the clouds a few minutes, rather than being shot to Mars in a rocket. Returning to terra firma, he felt embarrassed and guilty at his lack of willpower. Hell-that jar could've gotten me through a couple of dry nights. Disgusted with himself, he threw the empty jar as far out into the swamp as he could (it was a pathetic throw, but he tried not to notice). Then he forced himself to stand.
"Night's not gettin' any darker. Time to get to work, son."
After ten minutes of sweaty, joint-grinding exertion, he had managed to drag Bessie's body out of the Cadillac and down to the water's edge. Grunting, he sat heavily on the alga-stained gravel. He picked up the pistol, a cheap Saturday night special he'd bought in a pawnshop, and the wet potato, his poor-man's silencer. He stared at Bessie's face, gone a milky chocolate instead of its normal dark chocolate, still frozen in an expression of pained surprise. Suddenly, sitting next to a dead woman in an empty swamp, ghostly silent except for the rumble of a distant car on the highway, Jules felt unbearably lonely. The space behind his eyes was pounding, and he was feeling a little sick. Who would fix him his chamomile tea, to settle his stomach? In all the long decades since his mother had passed, there had been no one to fix him tea and bring it to him in bed. No one except Maureen, his one great love, the woman whose bite had forever transformed him. And she hadn't spoken to him in ten years.
He briefly considered loading Bessie back in the car, taking her back to his house, and letting nature take its course. She'd been an okay companion. Not a scintillating conversationalist, but at least she'd appreciated his music. And she'd be lively in the sack, for sure. He set the pistol down and gave her another look.
He frowned. "Naww. What the hell was I thinking? Look at her. She's got an appetite bigger than mine, even. No willpower. No self-control. Too softhearted and softheaded. Let her become a vampire and before you know it this town'll be up to its ass in homeless little-old-lady vampires, bringing the heat down on the rest of us. And then the gig'll be up. Naww. Just get it over and done with."
In all his years of undead life, Jules had only made another vampire once. Maureen had lectured him long and hard about predator-prey ratios and how important it was to keep the number of vampires in New Orleans strictly limited. He'd only done it once, when he'd been dying for a sidekick, a pal. And he hadn't been all that happy with the way things had turned out.
"In this business, you've gotta be ruthless. Pity's good for nothing but a stake through the heart."
His lower back spasmed with sharp stabs of pain as he rolled Bessie over onto her stomach. He squashed the potato onto the .38's stubby barrel, then rested the potato at the base of Bessie's skull, where her brain stem would be. Wipe out the brain stem, and a corpse stays a corpse. Just like Maureen had taught him so long ago, back when pistols had been more elegant things. Jules pulled the trigger.
Knees aching, he rolled her body into the swamp and gave it a good push. It floated into an island of tall grass and partially disappeared. With any luck, it would sink into the mire before the sun got too high. And if somebody ended up spotting it, it wouldn't be any big deal. The cops would call the killing a drug hit, or conjecture that the victim had been some whore dumb enough to double-cross her pimp. That was a great thing about New Orleans. Dead bodies were nothing extraordinary.
Jules pulled the plastic tarp from the Caddy's backseat and rinsed it off in the water. Then he folded it up, stuck it under his armpit, and dragged the crate of blood-filled jars back to the trunk. Damn, his crummy knees really hurt tonight. He opened the trunk, peeled off his red-stained shirt, threw it on top of the spare tire, and pulled on a relatively fresh one. A glint of silver at the bottom of the trunk caught his eye. It was the head of his cane, poking out from beneath the tire. Jules pulled it out. It was a good old cane. He'd bought it back in his salad days, when a sharp-looking silver-headed cane had seemed exactly the fashion accessory for a young vampire-on-the-make. It was more than a fashion statement now. On nights like tonight, he needed it.
The D word flashed through his brain. Diet. As much as he hated to think it, it wouldn't go away. His damn knees kept reminding him. For the sake of his health, he had to lose some weight.
Jules cut off the radio on the forty-five-minute drive back to the city. He was in one foul, low-down mood. Why couldn't pleasurable things just be pleasurable and that was that? Why did the world have to be so complicated and twisted, so that the things you loved best were the very things that were worst for you? Even from behind the closed sun visor, hidden from his sight, the newspaper clipping taunted him. new orleans. fattest. city. in. nation. He wanted to crumple it up. He wanted to tear it into a hundred tiny pieces, toss them out the Caddy's window, and watch them sink into Lake Pontchartrain. But he couldn't make himself do it. The damn clipping would just stay in his head, anyway.
Back in the city, driving along Tulane Avenue on his way back to the French Quarter, Jules approached the imposing edifice of St. Joseph's, the largest church in New Orleans. His mother had taken him there for Mass every Easter when he was a boy. Compared with their neighborhood parish church in the Ninth Ward, St. Joseph's had been immense, easily the biggest building little Jules had ever set foot in. The stained-glass windows looked a thousand feet high, and he'd imagined that every Catholic in the state of Louisiana could fit inside, with room to spare for folks from Mississippi.
Tired and dejected, wanting to rest a minute, Jules pulled over to the curb in front of the church. The area had been gorgeous when he'd been young, a neighborhood of mansions to rival those on St. Charles Avenue. Now the church's closest neighbors were a check-cashing joint, a cheap-jack furniture store, and a twenty-four-hour greasy spoon patronized mainly by housekeeping staff from the nearby LSU Medical Center. Jules hadn't looked this long at a church in years. Back in the late 1960s, after Vatican II, Jules had satisfied his curiosity about the controversial changes by attending evening Mass at this very church. His mother had raised him right, after all; even half a century as a vampire hadn't eradicated his upbringing, and he'd been nostalgic for his old churchgoing days. Sure enough, the switch from Latin Mass to English had made a difference for Jules. The priest's intonations had merely caused him to be violently sick to his stomach, instead of making his skin smoke and his hair catch fire.
So why had he stopped in front of St. Joseph's tonight? Jules listened to the hum of traffic from the nearby elevated highway as he tried to figure himself out. Was he feeling guilty about what he'd done? He rolled down his window and hocked a gob of phlegm into the street. That was ridiculous, too ridiculous a notion for him even to consider. "Everybody has to eat, don't they?" he told himself. "Do steak lovers feel guilty about the cows? Do vegetarians get all weepy when they're dicing carrots? Hell no! So why should I be different?"
Jules shifted the Caddy's Hydramatic transmission back into drive. It had been a tiresome night; it was time to head home. He passed by Charity Hospital and the tall, modern hotels that lined both sides of Canal Street, choosing a route that would take him back through the Quarter. Almost as soon as he turned onto shadowy Decatur Street, however, he had reason to regret his choice. This hour of the night, the street was teeming with vampires. Not real vampires, mind you. Just skinny kids with an attitude.