New Orleans, 1838. When Benjamin January suddenly finds that his services playing piano at extravagant balls held by the city's wealthy are no longer required, he ends up agreeing to accompany sugar planter Henri Viellard and his young wife, Chloë, on a mission to Washington to find a missing friend. Plunged into a murky world, it soon becomes clear that while it is very possible the Viellards' friend is dead, his enemies are very much alive - and ready to kill anyone who gets in their way.
About the Author
Barbara Hambly holds a degree in medieval history from the University of California and has written novels in many genres, from mysteries to science fiction and fantasy. Married to science fiction writer George Alec Effinger, she lives in Los Angeles and teaches at a local college.
Read an Excerpt
January was not terribly surprised to receive a cold letter from Eph Norcum's business manager the following day, informing him that his services at Mr Norcum's Valentine's Day ball, Washington's Birthday ball, and the bridal musicale in honor of his sister were no longer required. He hoped the planter's ire wouldn't extend to telling his friends, 'I don't want to see that murderin' nigger incompetent so-called doctor on any future occasion ...' – meaning on the orchestra dais of their Carnival celebrations – but in the course of the next several days it became clear that it did.
'Either that, or they all had money wagered on Gun as well.' He dropped to the worn planks of the gallery floor the equally frosty dismissal from Harry Fry's new wife.
It was the most recent of nearly a dozen, starting with Norcum's – nearly a week ago, now – and including not only those who had hired him for Carnival entertainment, but also the fathers of most of his few piano-students as well. From the assurance of a moderate income through the carnival season, and the hopes of picking up a few more students to eke his family through the starving summer, January found himself facing having his small savings exhausted by Easter, with no prospects for anything beyond.
'The wretched man would have his thumb in every business in town that still has its doors open,' remarked Rose dispassionately. She set aside the slate on which she'd been double-checking her husband's budgetary calculations and put on her spectacles again.
In palmier days – before President Jackson had taken it upon himself to dismantle the central bank of the United States and precipitate last year's financial collapse – Rose and January had run a small boarding-school in their big Spanish house on Rue Esplanade. Their students had been mostly the daughters of plaçées, those semi-official mistresses of white planters, brokers, bankers and landowners whose mixed-race children had for well over a century made up a caste of free colored in the town. These girls, of whom Rose herself was one, were traditionally schooled to be what their mothers had been, trained in deportment, music, a little sketching, and given sufficient familiarity with literature to be pleasing companions to the men who'd negotiate contracts with their mothers to give them houses and annuities. In contrast to most other girls' schools in the city, Rose had offered all the things she herself had hungered for as a child: mathematics, science, history, languages modern and arcane. The sort of learning that no girl – white or colored – was supposed to understand or want.
It was, as January's widowed mother had not been slow to point out, a foolish waste of time and capital and a good way to end up bankrupt. ('And don't expect ME to provide for you when you do ...')
The times had proven her correct in this. Even parents willing to provide such an unlikely education for their daughters in good times were now forced to make hard choices. Invariably, they saved what funds they had, to educate the sons who would, with luck, bring in money to the family as a whole. The girls would have to wait, as girls always did.
'Mama says Norcum's still rich because he's a slave-smuggler.' Gabriel, January's fifteen-year-old nephew, emerged on to the gallery through one of the long French windows on the heels of Rose's remark. 'He brings them in from Africa through Cuba to Texas, Mama says, for half what Virginia slaves cost —'
Mama was January's sister Olympe. Two years younger than himself, like nearly everyone in New Orleans Olympe was struggling to provide for the children in her household too young to work. When circumstance had made it impossible to hire even a little help in keeping upthe big old house, January had taken in Olympe's two older children – Zizi-Marie, seventeen, and Gabriel. Gabriel could make two handfuls of beans and rice into a banquet gods would stand in line for, and Zizi-Marie helped Rose with the housework when she wasn't at her father's shop learning the upholsterer's trade. Olympe's husband – Paul Corbier, a highly skilled upholsterer – hadn't had a commission in over a year, and the family was living on Olympe's earnings as a voodooienne and herb-doctor.
'Well, then we can all have the satisfaction of knowing he'll go straight to Hell when he dies.' January turned Rose's slate around right-ways-up toward him and considered the neat columns of figures: taxes, food, fuel. Repairs on shoes, new sheet-music so that January could stay au courant on his work, provided he could get any. Small articles like new gloves and cravats, for who would hire an entertainer who looked shabby? Modest provisions for the church and the 'burial society' – a social and benevolent organization – to which he belonged.
In three weeks it would be Lent.
He looked at the figures on the slate and felt like a farmer who sees locusts descend upon his corn.
'He can't tell the French not to hire you, can he?' Gabriel scooped up Baby John from where Rose had left the infant – now three months old – on a blanket in the mild winter sunlight.
'He can't,' agreed January. 'But he hired me – and the other Americans hired me – back before Christmas, so the Destrehans and the Marignys and the Roffignacs all hired Damien Jouet or Marc Paillard to play for them.' He named the other two best-known piano-players in New Orleans. Like himself, they were the sons of free colored mothers, whose white protectors – in their cases, the boys' fathers – had paid to have them taught.
Like himself, he knew that both men were living on the edge of disaster. In better times, every musician in town subsisted on private lessons. These days, French Creole and American newcomer families alike were all having their sons and daughters instructed by whatever Aunt Unmarriageable happened to be either living in their households or at least eating at their tables three or four times a week.
'Well, beat that with a chain,' grumbled Gabriel. 'Maybe I could quit Maître Clouard and look for work —'
'You'll do nothing of the kind.' Five days a week, Gabriel assisted the principal chef at the Hotel Iberville, learning the art and science of French cookery. This exchange of service brought in no money, but January's instincts told him it would eventually provide the youth with a handsome living.
'I think –' January bent sideways in his sturdy willow chair to pick up Mrs Fry's discarded note – 'I need to speak to Lieutenant Shaw.'
Rose glanced from the slate, eyebrows lifting. Silent.
'City Guards won't hire a black man,' Gabriel protested.
'I should hope not,' Rose remarked. 'Considering the number of runaway slaves we've hidden under this house in the past year.'
January shook his head. 'But I've worked with Shaw finding missing people, or solving puzzles ...'
'Like last year,' agreed Gabriel enthusiastically, 'when you helped him get the man who killed his brother —'
'You were away for six months.' Rose gathered Baby John from Gabriel's arms and didn't look at January. Between them the words hung unspoken: You almost didn't come back.
'He may know someone who needs a job done. A job they can't ask the Guards to do.' January extended a finger to his son, marveling again at the infant's tiny perfection, as if he'd never seen a baby before. Baby John – no one would ever think of calling that miniature professor of philosophy Johnny – was already taking after Rose's slender build, his coloring halfway between January's nearly-pure African 'beau noire lustre' and Rose's quadroon café-crème. The brown eyes that looked back into January's were wise, and solemn, and a thousand years old. If I have to be gone another six months, reflected January, or get myself shot at or half-drowned in the river or poisoned or blown up in a steamboat or all the other fool things I've been mixed up in to get money for this house, these people whom I love ... Men have done worse.
And he remembered the fighter Gun's face, when he'd gone walking among the white men to a fight he knew he wouldn't survive.
Abishag Shaw, Lieutenant of the New Orleans City Guard, agreed to keep his ear to the ground for unofficial work, when January finally ran him to earth late the following afternoon. 'Dang little around,' he added, and spat tobacco in the general direction of the sandbox in the corner of the Cabildo's watchroom. His aim was far worse than Norcum's, and the worn granite of the watchroom floor was fouled with brown dollops – like vaguely sweet bird-droppings – for yards. 'Carnival ain't a time when folks plot murder in the dark, bein' mostly too drunk to work out the details —'
Two sturdy Guards entered the watchroom from the Place des Armes outside, dragging a gaggle of flatboat ruffians and two black prostitutes, all shouting at one another at the top of their lungs: 'Sure as I stand here as an American, I will not be cheated by the likes of you —'
'You lyin' sheep-stealer! I shit better Americans ever' time I pull down my pants ...'
'I'll listen around.' Shaw unfolded his slow height from behind his desk, like the improbable love-child of a scarecrow and a gargoyle. 'Won't be anyone who owes Eph Norcum money, though. 'Scuse me, Maestro ...'
Two river-rats had broken free of their captors and – ignoring a clear path to the Cabildo's outer doors – had thrown themselves upon one another like rabid dogs.
January stood back by the desk and watched as Shaw knocked heads together, tossed the largest man effortlessly into a corner and assisted the other Guards in subduing the rest. The whores added their mite to the fray by leaping on to the backs of the peacemakers, shrieking like harpies. When blood started to flow, January made a wide circuit of the confusion to reach the corner of the sergeant's desk and collect a confiscated bottle of rum.
'That little one got a fine set of teeth,' remarked Shaw, returning after a few strenuous moments holding a bloody wrist. He already sported a cut above his left eyebrow and a bandage on one hand – by this point in the carnival season, most of the Guards were looking pretty shopworn. 'An' I would warn you,' he added as January mopped the tart-bite with rum and bound it up with a clean bandanna from his pocket, 'that most of them that would seek to hire you, the job would turn out to be you goin' to some deserted bayou in the middle of the night an' gettin' slugged over the head, an' wakin' up on the auction block someplace in the territories.'
January gritted his teeth, knowing the Kentuckian was right. Slaves were the one thing that hadn't gone down in price, and nobody much cared where they came from or if they insisted they were actually free men who'd been kidnapped ...
After letting his words sink in, Shaw added, 'You know Norcum tried to swear out a warrant on you for murder.'
'That's ridiculous! Sir,' he remembered to add, as the desk sergeant – returning through the courtyard door nursing a cut lip – gave him a frosty glare. Shaw was, after all, white, though January's mother wouldn't have had him in her house.
'Well, he lost a sight of money on that fight.' Shaw flexed his bandaged wrist. 'Thank you, Maestro ... An' you needn't worry none. Captain Tremouille's brother-in-law had money on the other fella.'
'That sound you hear,' said January grimly, 'is my heart singing with joy.' Only three dollars remained in the household cache behind the bricks in the cellar, and he was getting desperate. The next stop would be the wharves, or the cigar-rolling shops on Tchapitoulas Street.
'Thought you'd like to know.' Shaw spat again. 'It'll blow over. Most things do.'
This January knew to be true.
'But it's damn little comfort,' he said to Hannibal Sefton, when he encountered his friend the fiddler two evenings later among the brick pillars of the market, 'to think that as a trained surgeon, and a trained musician, the only thing I'm really valued for is the twelve hundred dollars I'd fetch as a cotton hand.'
'Di tibi, si qua pios respectant numina –' Hannibal handed him the cup of coffee he'd fetched from old La Violette's coffee- stand – 'praemia digna ferant ... No, amicus meus,' he added, and pushed back the nickel January laid on the table, 'permit me to expunge the guilt that overwhelms me every time I play for Norcum or his sycophantic friends.'
He carried also three pink pralines on a square of clean newspaper, which he set before January. 'It's the least I can do ... And believe me, I will always do the least I can.'
'Far be it from me to let a man welter in his guilt.' January inclined his head magisterially. Hannibal, January's oldest friend in New Orleans, was the only white man in town who would be seen publicly eating and drinking with blacks, for which the white population regarded him as rather degenerate.
Sugar-grinding season was over, the fields burnt. Farther upriver, the cotton was all picked. In curing-houses upriver and down, rack after rack of wooden molds dripped slow threads of molasses for the edification of armies of cockroaches. In slave quarters, men and women repaired garments and fingers sliced by sharp-cut cane-ends, or torn by the stickers of the cotton plants, and marveled at the wonder of being able to rest with fall of night.
The planters came to town to bargain with factors over this single, massive pay-day of the year; to settle up the year's accumulated debts. To meet other planters, relatives, friends; to attend the theater and hear music other than the field-hollers of their slaves and the amateur recitals of their neighbors' daughters. To see something other than endless fields of whatever crop they depended on: dark-green sugar, or brownish-red cotton starred with white. To enjoy newspapers less than a week old, or books that hadn't been read threadbare over the course of the year.
New Orleans stirred to life. Mardi Gras parties spilled masked revelers out on to the brick banquettes, improbably clad as French aristocrats or Turkish warriors. Both opera houses presented Auber and Mozart and spectacles more vulgar – The Castle Spectre and All For America! – to bring in Kaintucks' money.
The wives of planters cried out that they didn't care that cotton was down to fourteen cents a pound – it had been thirty-two the year before last ... if they were to convince people their credit was good, they couldn't do so in dresses three years out of date. If they were to find suitable husbands for their daughters, young Marie-Celeste or Marie-Anne or Marie-Thèrése would have to appear in the latest style ...
Looking out from the shadows of the market to the line of barn-like white steamboats beyond the levee, smokestacks dark against the twilight sky, January reflected that had he not recalled what the wharves looked like in flush times, he could have been seduced into thinking that times were getting better. Slave gangs chanted the old hollers, in language they'd learned by ear from their parents, as they hauled on the cranes or manhandled the crates of purchased goods – cheap shoes, coarse cloth for slave-clothes, all the salt and cheese and cane knives and blankets that those isolated kingdoms would get for the next year.
In the winter of 1836–7, each wharf had been four-deep in steamboats, stacked with dirty-white bales to their roofs: cotton, which had sold for over twice what it brought these days. In the winter of 1836–7, captains and supercargoes had cursed their way along the bustling wharves in search of stevedores, instead of the work gangs loitering in the hopes of a cargo. In addition to the regular gangs – smaller than they had been, because the men who rented their slaves to the dock gangs had often sold a man or two – there were men January knew as bricklayers, drovers, clerks even, hanging around or going from gang to gang: Can you use another man? I'll work for a nickel a day ...
A nickel would get you beans and rice, with maybe an onion thrown in for lagniappe.
'At least you have the comfort of knowing that your carcass is worth money,' added Hannibal, and coughed. He seemed in better health than he had earlier in the winter, though skeletally thin; he had acquired a new waistcoat, and had put up his long hair in a pair of tortoiseshell combs, by which January deduced that he had a new girlfriend somewhere.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Good Man Friday"
Copyright © 2013 Barbara Hambly.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love this series! You can' t help but to fall in love with the historical treasures Ms. Hambly creates! Can not wait for the next one!
My favorite part of this book is having Poe as a secondary character who helps solve the mystery. Poe is sometimes known as the father of the detective story, and Ms. Hambly appears to be having fun showing us how January “influences” Poe. As always the plot is interesting, the characters are well-drawn, and the world-building is excellent.