Benjamin January investigates the murder of a mysterious Englishman in this absorbing New Orleans-set mystery.
When British spymaster Sir John Oldmixton offers Benjamin January a hundred dollars to find the murderer of an Englishman whose body has been found floating in the New Basin Canal, Benjamin turns him down immediately. As a free man of colour in New Orleans in the sweltering July of 1839, he knows this is not something he should get mixed up in.
But when clues to the dead man’s identity link the death to another murder, in another July in January’s past, he is reluctantly drawn into the investigation. Nine years ago in Paris he failed to catch a killer – with tragic consequences. Now in New Orleans he must unravel the earlier murder, the one that took place during the great revolt against the Bourbon kings, to solve the second killing. At stake is not merely a hundred dollars, but hidden treasure, the fate of an innocent woman – and the lives of January’s wife, son and unborn child.
About the Author
Barbara Hambly, though a native of Southern California, lived in New Orleans for a number of years while married to the late science fiction writer George Alec Effinger. Hambly holds a degree in medieval history from the University of California and has written novels in numerous genres.
Read an Excerpt
The offer was good.
In the sweltering nadir of a summer season wherein everyone with any money in New Orleans had left town for the lakefront or the North – and even the barkeeps of the saloons were paying musicians in booze rather than coin – Benjamin January was sorely tempted by the words: 'a hundred dollars, in addition to recompense for whatever expenses you may incur'.
He had, however, no desire to be hanged for treason.
And he suspected that 'a personal service requiring both intelligence and the utmost discretion' from Sir John Oldmixton of the British Consulate might very well involve that.
'I thought you said Sir John Oldmixton helped you find Dominique, when she and her daughter had been kidnapped by slave stealers when you were in Washington? Benjamin's wife Rose straightened up – carefully – from mixing the tub of plaster, the latest in the unending cycle of small repairs required to keep the crooked old Spanish house on Rue Esplanade looking its best. On the roof above the low attic dormitory, January could hear his niece and nephew moving cautiously about, digging out the sprouts of resurrection fern which would grow anywhere in New Orleans the moment the owner of the property turned his or her back.
In two and a half months, the first students in two years would arrive at the boarding school which had been the dream and occupation of Rose's lifetime. And the place had better, January reflected, look like somewhere a well-off man would feel comfortable sending his daughter, albeit the daughter of a mistress of color.
He stepped quickly to Rose's side and gave her a hand up. She was a strong woman, for all her thin gawkiness, and she had borne one child already in safety. But Little Secundus (as they called the prospective newcomer) was due, literally, any day, and over twenty years' experience as a surgeon had shown January a hideous spectrum of ways in which childbirth could go wrong.
Another reason, he reflected wryly, not to get himself hanged as a traitor if he could help it.
'Sir John Oldmixton,' he said, 'looks like the most respectable man in the world. He's efficient, self-effacing, well-dressed, with impeccable manners, tactful, charming, and can carry on a conversation about anything. Towards the end of our stay in Washington City I began to realize that that was his job at the British Ministry. To be the person that nobody would suspect of running a spy-ring that employed everyone from professional slave stealers to the wife of the assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. I don't know what he's doing in New Orleans, but my guess is that he's up to no good.'
Had it been winter instead of summer, January would have walked the length of the attic and put Oldmixton's note into the little brick fireplace. Or perhaps, had it been 1836 – before the bank crash that had closed the doors of a third of the businesses in the twenty-six states – instead of 1839. But he put the note in his pocket, before beginning to plaster the weak or flaked spots in the walls of the dormitory – in the muggy humidity of the Louisiana summer it would take weeks to dry – and resolved to think no more about it.
The fact was, that a hundred dollars would come in extraordinarily useful.
The house – bought with windfall cash shortly before the cascade of bank closures had swallowed up every penny January and Rose had saved – was an old one. It had stood for three-quarters of a century some five or six streets back from the river on the wide thoroughfare that led from the wharves to Bayou St John. For a long time it, and the neighborhood that stretched behind it along Rue Burgundy and Rue des Ramparts, had been well-kept, if slightly shabby; streets of pastel stucco cottages owned by plaçeés, the free ladies of color who had achieved a 'place' as the mistress of a well-off white gentleman. The arrangement was a common one in the French Caribbean, where law forbade the union of black and white. Men frequently maintained these shadow-marriages for years in a world where real marriages – white marriages – were often entered into from considerations of family, property, and position in society.
Both January's mother, and Rose's, had been plaçeés. Rose's white father had paid for her education, even as the white protector of January's mother had paid for his, despite the fact that January's father had been some other man's cane-hand. But times were changing. The French society that regarded it as only right that a man should care for his own children, though they be by a woman of mixed race, was rapidly being replaced by American planters who thought nothing of selling off the children they begot on slavewomen – none of this plaçeé nonsense for them! And the financial ruin that had for two years now gripped New Orleans – along with the rest of the United States – had demolished the annuities of many of the ladies of the Rue des Ramparts, forcing the sale of the cottages given to them by protectors a decade or two before.
The men who bought these cottages, seeking to turn a speedy profit in the harder times, had found it easy to put in two or three girls and a madame, to take what advantage could be taken of the river trade, since nobody in the history of mankind ever lost money running a whorehouse. And prospective investors in such property could be assured that complaints from the neighbors – mostly free men and women of color annoyed and revolted by the deterioration of their neighborhood – would be disregarded by the white city council.
Many city council members owned these shabby little bordellos themselves.
Thus January, with the district behind his school growing coarser and poorer than it had been, thought it behooved him to invest what little money he and Rose had in setting apart their ramshackle house as distinctly as possible from those along Rue des Ramparts. The wide esplanade onto which the house faced still had its rustic charm, and the inhabitants of its larger houses still had influence. In these harder times every toehold of advantage had to be made the most of.
So January turned to – nervously watching Rose from the corner of his eye – and plastered, swept, painted and whitewashed for all he was worth ... And didn't throw Sir John Oldmixton's note into the fire, an omission he later regretted.
A few days later – Wednesday, the third of July – January took advantage of the relative cool that followed a particularly long, afternoon rainstorm to paint the front shutters the bright, clear blue that his aunties back on Bellefleur Plantation in his childhood had described as 'haint blue': proof against evil spirits of any ilk. Education at the St Louis Academy for Young Gentlemen of Color – and subsequent training in the sciences of healing, both in New Orleans as a youth and later at the great hospital of the Hôtel Dieu in Paris – had largely erased his early belief in the platt-eye devil and the efficacy of graveyard dust, but he still liked the color. Good pigment was costly, but, he guessed, worth it. Once the outside was spruced up, the six rooms of the main floor could be done (eight, if one counted the tiny 'cabinets' that served as pantry and stairway to the attic) in the cheerful yellows and oranges that the Creoles – French, Spanish, and African alike – adored. He already guessed that this would make some of the furniture look shabby ... But first things first. Assisted by his niece and nephew, who had lived under his roof since the hard times had set in (his sister Olympe's husband, the upholsterer Paul Corbier, hadn't worked at his trade in two years), and by his friend the fiddler Hannibal Sefton, January laid tarpaulins over the boards of the high gallery, and had just gotten Gabriel and Zizi-Marie started when a neat, open carriage drawn by matched grays drew to a halt before the house, and Sir John Oldmixton stepped out.
There was no mistaking the sturdy form, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested in tailored linen that rendered him deceptively ordinary. He looked just as he had two years ago, when January had met him in the national capital: smooth black hair, smooth pink face, twinkling blue-green eyes. These brightened as he looked up at the high gallery – like many of the oldest Spanish houses of New Orleans, built to ride out Mississippi floods that had at one time regularly submerged the streets five and six feet deep. 'My dear M'sieu Janvier!' His French was perfect and his smile one of genuine pleasure as January descended the steps and took his extended hand. 'So this is your castle? Your description didn't do it justice.'
'Mine, and my wife's.' On the gallery, amid the ladders and draped canvas, January made introductions. If Sir John thought it uncommon for a scrawny white gentleman in shirtsleeves to be helping a family of color paint their shutters – Hannibal was probably the only white man south of the Mason-Dixon Line who would have done so – he didn't by the slightest blink betray it, and Hannibal's bow of greeting wouldn't have been out of place at the Court of St James. 'You'll take coffee, won't you, sir?' asked January. 'Zizi-Marie, my niece – Sir John Oldmixton. Sir John, my nephew Gabriel Corbier, Mr Hannibal Sefton ... Zizi, if you'd do the honors ... You must excuse Madame Janvier today, Sir John. I fear she's indisposed.' Women in Europe weren't immured during pregnancy as they were more and more coming to be in 'good society' in America, but even the very French society of the French Town in New Orleans drew the line at the concluding weeks of a woman's term. (Not, reflected January, that the very Americans who frowned upon a woman venturing forth from the moment she suspected herself with child, weren't perfectly ready to work a slave woman until she gave birth in the fields ...)
'I'm afraid you find us very much at sixes and sevens ...'
'I abase myself.' Oldmixton inclined his head. 'Yet I feared that, having had no reply to my note, my communication with you had perhaps gone astray ...'
'No, sir.' January ushered him through his study – the room traditionally allotted as the bedroom of the master of the house, in the accepted French Creole fashion – and into the parlor, while Zizi-Marie went in through Rose's bedroom at the other end of the house and then through to the pantry where the coffee was. 'I received it.'
'Ah.' Oldmixton met January's eyes, still with his slight, elfin smile. 'It is a personal favor,' he added after a moment. 'It has nothing whatsoever to do with my capacity as a representative of Her Majesty.'
'I would never dream of thinking such a thing, sir.'
The Englishman's smile widened, and he laid his hat, stick, and gloves on the side table, and took the chair January offered him. 'The fact is that a friend of mine has met with an ... unfortunate accident. His body was found Sunday morning in the turning basin at the end of the canal from the lake. A dangerous neighborhood, I am informed. Certainly an insalubrious one, and I did notice that poor Harry wasn't attired to be inconspicuous in such surroundings. He was usually quite careful about dressing to blend in with his company.'
January nodded. As a free man of color in a city dominated more and more by Americans, to whom all black men were slaves or potential slaves, he had early learned the value of camouflage.
A white man, of course, would do the same thing only to avoid being mugged and robbed by the local plug-uglies.
'I have reason to believe he was carrying personal papers,' Sir John continued. 'Papers important only to myself and to members of my family, but it is of the highest importance that I find them, and find them quickly.'
'So the interest is in the papers?' January settled in the chair opposite the swept, cold hearth. 'Not primarily in poor Henry's murderers?'
'Naturally, I would like to see the fiends brought to justice —' He didn't bother to put much indignation in his voice, nor did the twinkle leave his eye. But it was more of a glint than a twinkle, like the blade of a stiletto, small enough to hide in a sleeve, but long enough to penetrate the heart.
'Or at least learn who they were?'
'Oh, that, at the least. When last we met in Washington City, m'sieu, you impressed me as a man who can gather information from a wide variety of sources not available to me as a foreigner, and a white man. In London one may disguise oneself as a servant, since servants see and hear what polite society veils from its own members. In New Orleans this is not the case. And you impressed me, if I may say so, as a man capable of extrapolating from fragments of information, where and how to search for the next fragment – something, again, which a man not familiar with the patterns of New Orleans society would be unable to do. This is not a quality one encounters in the official police force, whose concern is primarily – and rightly – with the vast majority of crime, which hinges upon simple violence and opportunistic greed. The broad, outer circles of Dante's Hell.'
'You flatter me.' January turned and smiled thanks as Zizi-Marie – seventeen and uncharacteristically scatterbrained these days in the throes of first love with a harness-maker's apprentice – brought in a japan-ware tray with the coffee things and a little plate of pralines.
'If I intended to flatter you, my dear m'sieu,' purred Oldmixton, 'I would be much more fulsome. I speak only the truth. I need a man of your capabilities. Can I count on your help?'
January dunked an edge of praline into his coffee, and savored the combination of chicory-bitter and molasses-sweet. His nephew Gabriel had made the pralines, as he did all the cooking for the household. Rose, though she could tell you why vicia fava had to be soaked in soda overnight and what the followers of Pythagoras had thought about them, could barely boil beans and rice. The parlor walls around them were already blotched with plaster repair-patches and it was here that the painting would start, and his estimate for paint for the whole house, inside and out, was almost equal to the little hoard of coin tucked behind the bricks of the parlor chimney. Three students were scheduled to arrive on the fifteenth of October, when the wet heat of summer finally began to ease and the danger of hurricanes abated. He had three piano students starting around then as well. Until that time, beans and rice was going to figure prominently in the lives of everyone in the household.
Quietly, he said, 'I'm afraid you're going to have to excuse me, sir.'
The Englishman's eyebrows went up.
'You're offering too much,' January explained. 'That tells me that there's something about these "personal papers" that you're not telling me. If you're that worried that the New Orleans police might recover the papers, instead of a private party, I'm wondering why. It's not that I don't trust you, or Her Majesty or Lord Melbourne or any of those other nice folks. But there's just ... something about the situation that doesn't listen right to me, as my old aunties used to say. And I can't really say what it is.'
Oldmixton laughed, and threw up one hand. 'There! Serves me right for offering what you're worth. I suppose I couldn't interest you for twenty-five dollars ... I didn't think so.' His smile vanished, and his tourmaline eyes turned hard. 'There's something about the situation that troubles me as well,' he went on. 'Brooke's body had begun to stiffen when he was taken out of the water – Brooke was his name, Henry Brooke. So he'd been dead for some hours when he was thrown in. And, as I said, he was dressed in morning-wear. He and I were to meet Saturday evening, an appointment he never kept. He'd never have visited the neighborhood around the turning basin in bottle-green superfine and a silk vest, let alone a top hat – which was retrieved this morning from a local mudlark. And I suspect that were he shot in that neighborhood, it would have been with something more formidable than a muff pistol.'
'A muff pistol?'
Oldmixton must have heard the sudden sharpness of January's voice, because he looked at him curiously. But when January said nothing more, he explained, 'The way the ball deformed, it looked like it came from one of those old screw-barrel kinds ... Do you know them?'
'Yes,' said January softly. 'Yes, I know them.'
'Does it mean anything to you?'
'Nothing,' said January, 'now.'
Excerpted from "Murder In July"
Copyright © 2017 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked the part where January and his family were at the market an met up with their friends and were talking about what had happened.