Drifting silently on the water about forty nautical miles off the Texas coast, Charlie Sweetwater sits aboard his boat, alone with his thoughts, when from the darkness he hears a man swimming toward him. But not just any man. His name is Julien Dufay, the wealthy French scion of a family-owned petrochemical dynasty headquartered in Houston. Charlie plucks the exhausted Frenchman from the Gulf of Mexico and delivers him back to his rarified world. But of course, no good deed ever goes unpunished.
As Charlie is drawn deeper into Julien’s erratic orbit, he discovers a man possessed. Dufay is consumed by his vision of discovering the site of Fort Saint Louis: the famed—and doomed—17th century settlement of French explorer, Robert Cavelier de La Salle.
Thanks to Julien, and his own restless curiosity, Charlie is pulled into a web of obsession, murder and greed. Julien wants to find La Salle’s long-lost colony (and the treasure of artifacts buried with it) as a legacy for himself, his family and the greater glory of France. But the project’s ambitious sponsor, Jean-Marc Dufay, is hell-bent on getting at the rich natural gas resources hidden beneath the site, even if it means using his own brother as a pawn to feed his ambitions. Standing in the way is the stubborn old man on whose South Texas ranch Julien and Jean-Marc are converging, along with his trio of scurrilous sons, who have their own covert agenda—an agenda that can be lethal to outsiders.
Charlie struggles to make sense of it all, with the help of the beautiful marine archeologist who is excavating La Salle’s shipwreck La Belle in nearby Matagorda Bay. But as he digs deeper into Julien Dufay’s danger-fraught quest, he discovers that history has a way of repeating itself, and that some ghosts just won't stay buried.
|Publisher:||Stephen F. Austin State University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Miles Arceneaux, from Austin, is the storytelling alter ego of Texas-based writers Brent Douglass, John T. Davis and James R. Dennis. Miles Arceneaux is also the author of Thin Slice of Life, which, like La Salle's Ghost, is set on the salty Gulf Coast of Texas.
Read an Excerpt
La Salle's Ghost
By Miles Arceneaux
Stephen F. Austin State University PressCopyright © 2013 Brent Douglass, John T. Davis and James R. Dennis
All rights reserved.
It was the anniversary of my brother's death, and one of those rare nights on the Gulf when the wind fell slack and the sea was quiet and still. I lay on the roof of my Chinese junk, floating silently on the water about forty nautical miles southeast of Pass Cavallo, letting my mind wander. My eyes followed the stars as they wheeled toward an indistinct horizon, and I pictured my brother looking up at these same stars, floating on the same gentle current, and I wanted to believe his last moments were peaceful, too.
I wanted to empty my head and dissolve into the vast expanse of sea and sky surrounding me. It was these moments when I felt nearest to Johnny—or to his spirit, if that's what you want to call it.
Every September I returned to the same area—to the place where I imagined Johnny died fifteen years ago, knocked in the head and tossed overboard on the orders of an evil, low-down son of a bitch. I had put that part behind me, but something, a desire to be close to my brother I suppose, kept me coming back.
On this particular night, there were no clouds and no moon— as dark as it can get on the open sea. Only my mast light intruded upon the darkness as I drifted between sleep and wakefulness. Then I heard the splashing. Or was pretty sure I did.
At first I told myself I had only imagined the sound—the sound of a swimmer's stroke, faintly splashing off t he p ort b ow, a nd I tried to shut the noise out of my mind. Once, years earlier, I had been absolutely convinced I heard Johnny calling out to me in the distance, calling for help just beyond the arc of light from the masthead. But on that particular night I was drunk as a Mexican opal, and my senses were not entirely trustworthy.
The splashing grew louder.
I stood and stared intently into the darkness, still hearing the steady strokes of a swimmer propelling his body slowly, methodically toward my boat. Soon after, I saw a figure in the water, or rather the luminous outline of a figure, surrounded by a ghostly blue-green light, a faint incandescent trail following behind like a ship's wake.
When my eyes finally convinced me there was actually a man out there, struggling to reach my boat, I lowered the Jacob's ladder and climbed onto the edge of the gunwale, preparing to dive to his rescue. But where was he?
The sound of splashing had ceased, and the Gulf was totally absent of light—except for a dim glow under the surface, like anunderwater docklight, drifting slowly downward, growing fainter.
I dove into the water.
When I reached the drowning man, he was still rotating his arms and kicking his legs in a slow, dreamy motion ... winding down, sinking down, drowning ... his movements haloed by the mysterious light surrounding his body.
He regarded me curiously with wide-open eyes before I grabbed him and kicked upward. When we broke the surface he gasped for air, thrashing momentarily and then docilely allowing me to tow him to the boat, too exhausted to struggle. At the boat ladder the swimmer hung limply on the rope.
"I do not have the strength, mon ami," he said, almost apologetically.
I climbed into the boat and then grabbed his arm to pull him up behind me. As he rolled over the gunwale, I looked down at the water and saw a massive oblong shape cruise past unhurriedly, surrounded by and trailing phosphorescence. Probably a fat tiger shark that had been following the swimmer in the darkness for no telling how long.
The man lay on the boat deck in the dim light, shivering and smiling up at me like a madman.
"Where in God's name did you come from?" I asked.
He waved an arm weakly to the north. "Out there," he said. "A long way. Since before the sun rise."
"That's a hell of a long time to stay afloat in the ocean, mister." I hooked my arms under his and pulled him up.
"Yes, a very long time," he murmured. His lips were cracked and blistered, his eyes swollen from the long immersion in saltwater. Even in the dim light it was clear he was sunburned and dehydrated to within an inch of his life. There were open sores where his saltwater-soaked clothes had abraded his chest and arms. I'd pulled cadavers out of the water that looked better than this guy. Why are you still alive? I wondered crazily, still thinking of spirits.
He staggered, and I guided him to a bench where he sat with his head down, his forearms resting on his bare thighs. After a moment he looked up at the mast light.
"When the night came," he said, "I swam for the only light I could see on the ocean. Your light. I thought I would never reach it."
He was grinning again, until his teeth started chattering uncontrollably.
"Let's get you below," I said, and walked him toward the cabin. He was shorter than me and of slight stature, but his arms were wiry and hard-muscled.
He looked around curiously. "What k-kind of b-boat is this?" he asked, as a spasm shook him.
"It's a Chinese junk."
"Ah, oui, of course. Then I am n-not hallucinating."
Inside the galley I wrapped the Frenchman (at least I assumed he was French) in a blanket, gave him some water and then administered some serious medicine—a tumbler full of Haitian rum. His hands shook so violently I had to hold the glass to his mouth.
He sat quietly on the cushioned bench while I changed into some dry clothes. Eventually his shivering stopped, and he sipped the rum. I made him some hot soup and strong coffee, and he accepted both gratefully, his aquiline nose disappearing into the mugs as he consumed the contents. A reddish, neatly-trimmed moustache and goatee boxed his thin lips, and he sported a stylish, close-cropped hairstyle.
"I could not believe my eyes when I saw your jonque," he said later. "I thought I swam all the way to Hong Kong."
"Well, that's where I found her," I said. "In the Victoria Harbor."
He nodded and smiled, which I took as a signal to continue.
"The previous owner was using the boat as a brothel until the city shut the business down. So, the madam agreed to sell me the vessel, and I sailed it here, to Texas. Over the years I've re-fit her to my liking."
"She is beautiful. And no longer a brothel, I suppose."
"No, I'm afraid not. Just an elegant grande dame these days, but she is named after a famous Chinese courtesan, I'm told."
"What is her name?"
"Well, I am glad to be aboard the Li Shishi, Mr....?"
"Sweetwater. Charlie Sweetwater." I leaned over and we shook hands.
"Good to meet you, Mr. Sweetwater," he said. "I am Julien Dufay."
He gripped my hand firmly and sat back, looking at me expectantly. I got the feeling he thought I should know him, but I drew a blank. I nodded and repeated the name silently to myself. Dufay, Dufay. The name was vaguely familiar but I couldn't place it, so I just told him I was pleased to make his acquaintance and was glad he'd decided to swim over from the Côte d'Azur to pay me a visit.
When I asked how he'd ended up in the water, he shrugged as if it was of no importance.
"I suppose I fall. Or someone helped me fall. I do not know which."
"You mean pushed you? Are you saying someone pushed you into the water?"
"No, not exactly. I was standing on the deck of one of our crew boats, heading for the oil platform, when the boat swerve suddenly, very abrupt, and then next thing I know, tout à coup, I am in the water."
"The pilot didn't turn around and look for you?"
He shook his head. "There were only three of us on the boat. Maybe at first they did not realize I am overboard. Or maybe...." He shrugged again. "Anyway, the current was very strong, and it carried me away quickly."
There was an offshore production platform about thirty miles to the northeast where I occasionally fished for red snapper and kingfish. I assumed Julien was a crewmember there, maybe a mudlogger or a data engineer. He seemed too refined for a roughneck.
"What about helicopters? Wouldn't the rig have called the Coast Guard?"
"Yes, later I hear the helicopters. But far away."
"I should radio in that you've been rescued, Julien."
He held up his palm. "No. We will wait until tomorrow. Let the bastards worry. I want to rest before I go back. Besides, it is so peaceful here on your—" he looked around appreciatively, "on your Chinese junk."
As Julien sipped his rum, a questioning expression appeared on his face. "Charlie, when I am in the water, swimming for your boat, the sea seemed to be ... on fire, shining with light and life. I am sure I am out of my mind."
"Phosphorescence," I said. "The algae emit light when they're disturbed. I've seen it before, but never so intense."
The Frenchman nodded thoughtfully. "It was comforting somehow. I wasn't afraid."
"You did good, Julien Dufay."
Before long his eyes began to droop, and I fixed him a bunk. I'd be tired too after swimming for eighteen hours. He fell asleep almost instantly. I went outside and climbed onto the cabin roof to resume the annual wake for my brother. When the sun finally appeared, a perfect orange egg yolk at the edge of the sea, I dove into the water and floated on my back, drifting in the current and soaking up the morning rays. Eighteen hours in the water. I suppose it was possible if you kept your head and didn't panic—and if you were a damn strong swimmer.
Around noon, Julien surfaced from the master cabin. He bounded up the steps and greeted me in the wheelhouse.
"Bonjour, Samaritain!" he said cheerfully.
He was wearing a pair of my swim trunks and was shirtless, only a few thin hairs on his robust chest. He had recovered remarkably well after the long rest.
"You slept well, I see."
"Yes, very well. Comme un loir. Where are we going, Charlie?"
"We're heading toward the harbor in Port Lavaca."
"Je vois," he said wistfully. Then his face brightened. "Can we sail her in? I would love to see this beautiful creature unfurl her wings."
"Not enough wind. It would take a full day or more to reach port."
"Bon! I am in no hurry."
For a moment I considered it, but thought better of the idea. The Coast Guard would already be aggravated that I had not immediately reported finding their missing person. I decided to change the subject. "Hey, I'll bet you're hungry?"
"Oui, I am very hungry. Une faim de loup!"
I cut the engine and let the boat drift while I went into the galley to fry bacon and scramble eggs. Julien wolfed down two full plates of chow and drank a quart of orange juice. After he finished eating, he leaned back in the booth and sipped his fourth cup of coffee.
"What is it that you do, Charlie Sweetwater? For a living, I mean."
"I'm a shrimper."
Julien grinned and kept looking at me, expecting me to say more. But that was about it when you boiled it down. My profession was shrimp. I either caught them or built and sold equipment that did. My sixty-five-foot gulf trawler, currently docked in Fulton Harbor, had been christened the Johnny Roger in honor of my brother.
"Well, of course we must have our shrimp!" he exclaimed. "It is sad to imagine a world without shrimp scampi, n'est-ce pas? Or shrimp creole?"
I laughed. "Yes, Julien. How could you make a proper paella without shrimp? Or a po'boy, for that matter? I have an almighty responsibility. But I do other things too. Think of me more as a bricoleur, a handyman."
Julien beamed. "Ah yes! The bricoleur, from The Savage Mind, by Claude Lévi-Strauss—a man adept at many things; a man who is good at putting preexisting things together in new ways. Am I right?"
"That's me, my friend. The savage mind."
Julien leaned over and slapped me on the arm. "Ha! Very good, Charlie."
I buttoned up the galley and we moved to the helm, where I started the twin six-cylinder Perkins engines (clean and quiet) and we pushed on toward the natural inlet known as Pass Cavallo.
On the way in, we talked about a wide variety of subjects, and in spite of my unfavorable preconceptions of the French, I found Julien to be forthright, interesting and irrepressibly optimistic—especially considering he'd almost drowned the day before, possibly with a little boost from somebody on his crew boat. I don't know what bothered me more, the fact someone might have tried to kill my new friend, or the fact he seemed unwilling to speculate on that very possibility.
I gave him the wheel for a few minutes while I brewed another pot of coffee. He couldn't seem to get enough of it.
He took the cup and gulped it with his eyes closed. "Extra!" he said. "Strong, black and made with a French press, just like the café my aunt would prepare. In fact, when I took the first sip this morning, it transport me back to her summerhouse outside of Paris. She would serve us coffee like this when we were children, not even twelve years. Now, over twenty years later, I drink this coffee and voilà! I have a flashback—triggered by the senses, in this case the taste and smell of your coffee—and I experience those wonderful childhood moments again. Have you read Proust?"
I admitted I had. When I'd enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Texas, my dad, Dubber, a shrimper, just shook his head in dismay. "Son, I guess if you're absolutely committed to not having a job when you get outta college, then you're doing exactly the right thing."
Julien continued. "Ah, good! Then you know these are the ideas Proust explored in his novels: how what we choose to remember, and what we do with these memories, even the ones that bubble up unexpectedly—how they shape us and make sense of the world, no? À la recherche du temps perdu —In Search of Lost Time. A wonderful title to his masterpiece. Anyway, I have tried to capture this idea of involuntary memory in an exhibit I have curated at my museum. It is very powerful. What do you think, Charlie?"
I was thinking my guest should lay off the strong coffee for awhile. After six cups, Julien's high-pitched voice and animated gestures had begun to remind me of a hardbop jazz improvisation, with a strong French accent.
Then, belatedly, it hit me. "You have a museum?"
"Bien, it is not mine, really. I like to think it belongs to the people of Houston, and of course, to the rest of the world. I just happen to work there."
"There, and on an offshore oil rig?"
Julien laughed. "I was scouting the rig for a film my wife is making. You really do not know who I am, do you?"
"Well, considering you are a worldly man, I would think you have heard of DeBergerac Drilling Corporation. We are a worldwide company, you know. My grandfather was one of the founders."
Of course I'd heard of DeBergerac, the largest drilling enterprise on the planet. Privately owned by a French family of the same name, its corporate headquarters in downtown Houston pushed upwards like a gleaming knife blade above all other buildings in that skyscraper-besotted city. The DeBergerac executives looked down on the bustling blue-collar metropolis and its oily ship channel from their lofty perch on the 80th floor with Zeus-like detachment. They had punched deep holes in almost every county in Texas and in much of the Gulf of Mexico, equatorial Africa and the Middle East. If you chose to look at it that way, I'd rescued something like two or three billion dollars worth of equity from the saltwater.
"I wasn't aware you could find oil in a museum," I said.
"Hah! Très drôle, Charlie. But we have our cultured side, too. The family, or some of us anyway, believes it is important for people to know we are not interested only in the black gold, as you Americans call it."
Then I remembered—the Dufay Museum of Modern Art near downtown Houston. It housed a collection of paintings, sculptures and assorted avant-garde objects that rivaled any personal collection in the world. The building itself, designed by some celebrated French architect with two hyphens and an umlaut in his name, was a major city landmark.
"I'll have to visit your museum someday," I said.
"Oui, absolument! I will give you a personal tour."
"You're on, Julien. But right now, I think it's important that I announce your return to civilization. I'm pretty sure people are still looking for you. And besides, the Coast Guard gets seriously pissed off when they waste time looking for someone who's already found."
Excerpted from La Salle's Ghost by Miles Arceneaux. Copyright © 2013 Brent Douglass, John T. Davis and James R. Dennis. Excerpted by permission of Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
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