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Shots rang out from upriver. A single bullet fired from a .44 caliber Colt Walker revolver shattered Joachim's right temporal bone, scattering fragments in the lobe, then passing through the hypothalamus, wrecking his autonomic nervous system, stopping his heart, before exiting through his left ear. Francesca heard Joachim make a gurgling sound. She turned toward him in time to see him sag and crumble, then fall into the mud on his back. Francesca screamed.
In an instant, she dropped her umbrella and was on her knees beside Joachim, cradling his head between her hands. She saw blood oozing from the hairline at his right temple. Francesca shrieked, "Oh, mon Dieu, non!"
Minutes before, at almost noon that Friday, the heavy downpour had become a steady light rain. In spite of foul weather on the afternoon of April 25, 1862, a large crowd of New Orleans's citizens remained standing in the mud atop the levee on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Smiling broadly, Francesca and Emily had broken into song when the first of Union Flag Officer David Farragut's warships came into view, rounding Slaughterhouse Bend. Francesca had thought this is better than the Mardi Gras that Mayor Monroe restricted last month. They had waved their umbrellas to and fro in time with the song. A half dozen or so on-lookers had joined them. Emily's mellifluous mezzo-soprano voice soared above the crowd:
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a....
Now, Emily retrieved Francesca's umbrella and knelt beside her, and, using two umbrellas, shielded both of them and Joachim's face from the rain. Francesca wailed and sobbed, repeating, "Non, non, non, non!" Her shoulders shook as tears, mucus, and rain drops streamed down her face.
With her bloody fingertips, Francesca closed Joachim's blue eyes. Her lower lip quivered as she again touched the bullet hole in his bleeding right temple. With his lips barely parted, Joachim's face still showed surprise. Francesca noticed that his blood felt sticky. She no longer heard the crowd moving about her as their screams had ebbed into a low buzz while others attended the wounded. Absent-mindedly, Francesca wiped her hands on the hem of the expensive ankle-length red hoop dress she had worn the previous evening to Joachim's party celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday. As onlookers murmured and gawked, she unfolded his bandana and covered his face and temple. She unbuckled Joachim's gunbelt and felt her corset pinch her waist as she pulled the belt from underneath his body. Then, from his pockets, she removed his watch and purse.
Still on her knees, using the last hole, she strapped Joachim's belt about her small waist under her coat and felt it slip down. But for her hips, his belt and holstered four-shot Allen & Wheelock .31 Pepperbox Model 1857 would have fallen into the mud. The pistol was less than the length of her hand, weighed not as much as a pound and had four fluted barrels that rotated, each of them two and seven-eighths inches long. Francesca cried, "Why? Why? Joachim, who took you away from me? Oh, Joachim, my love, my love, I swear I'm going to find out who did this to you. I promise you, the bastard will pay with his life."
She sniffed and her tears burst forth anew. Presently, Francesca brushed her wet cheeks with the back of her hands. Then, for the first time since she knelt by his side, she looked up. Francesca's friend, Brooke, and Joachim's friend, Louie, held out their hands to help her and Emily stand. In her grief, Francesca appreciated the warmth in Emily's quivering empathetic smile.
Standing in the crowd on the levee beside the river opposite the beginning of Bienville Street and now holding Emily's hand, Francesca blinked back tears and whispered, "See the scum walking toward Front Street?"
Emily and Louie nodded. "Uh-huh."
"Find out if those bastards are the ones who did the shooting. Later, I'll need to find them."
Emily glanced at the men. And then, she protested in a pleading voice. "Fran, I know it's hard, but forget them. They ain't worth the trouble. I'll help you take care of Joachim and get home."
Louie and Brooke agreed. Louie said, "Yes, they're worthless. Of course, you know we could just turn the matter over to the law."
"That is, if you can find a lawman who hasn't run off to Camp Moore with the soldiers," said Brooke.
Francesca stared at her friends for almost a minute before noticing several in the crowd gazing at her. Resolute, she set her jaw and shook her head. Her remaining brunette curls bounced and her bangs shifted. "Y'all, that's very kind. I need what I asked you to find out. In the meantime, I'll get men here on the levee to help me move Joachim."
Her friends looked from one to the other. Emily said, "I heard you promise revenge. Now, why do you think you're fit and able to go traipsin' off 'hind gunmen? Don't you 'member, there's a war on? Any ways, what could you do if you caught up to them? They could just shoot you, and that would be that. You know there ain't no mo' law to speak of here 'bouts." Emily glanced at the small pistol's bulge under Francesca's coat. "Besides, you know less about guns than I do, which ain't much."
Francesca sucked her teeth. "That's why the bastards ain't dead, yet."
Still holding Emily's hand, Francesca turned for another look at David Farragut's procession of United States Navy warships gliding upstream as more rounded Slaughterhouse Bend. She took a deep breath. Her voice was low, but firm, "Em, I've never been surer of anything in my life. I'll avenge Joachim's murder or die trying. Now, please go before they're out of sight."
Nodding and looking from Brooke to Louie, Emily hugged Francesca and said, "O-okay. W-we're going."
"Thank you, my dear friends."
The muddy hem of Francesca's dress covered Joachim's right knee and the top of his boot. She did not watch her friends depart. She remained close to Joachim's body and continued gazing, as if in a trance, at the warships and the stars and stripes they flew. Though grieving, Francesca wanted to remember the sight of the return of the grand old flag to New Orleans. She whispered to no one in particular, "Thank God, we're back in the Union."
A wet stubble-faced white man wearing a battered fedora, black coat, and wrinkled collarless white shirt stepped from the crowd and tapped Francesca's shoulder. "Er, Miss, I'm sorry to bother you heah in your time o' b'reavement. But I seed what happened. Some thugs just fired on anybody cheering dem Yankees. I'm sho' glad you didn't get hit. Damn shame, there ain't hardly any law ta speak of in these times."
Francesca turned her stern, tear-stained face and looked the short man level in the eye. "Yes? What do you want?"
The man snatched his hat off and fidgeted. He stammered, "W-Why, I-I-I'm sorry Miss. Er, I-I-I didn't mean ta rattle on like that. What I meant ta say was me and my cousin, Jimmy," he pointed, "over yonder, have a wagon at the bottom of the levee. We'll deliver the body for you to the undertaker of your choice."
The rain fell again in torrents. Francesca felt it had been a long time since she had smiled -not the ten minutes that had actually passed since she laughed together with Joachim, Emily, and others on the levee while waiting to welcome the arrival of Farragut and his ships. The ships were an even more formidable sight as they rode high on the river due to a recent freshet that caused the river to be nine feet higher than normal. Their big guns pointed down into the city's streets.
Francesca forced a faint smile as the small man clutched his hat by the crown and held it to his chest. "Sir, I'm sorry that I was a bit gruff."
He nodded. "Yes'm. It's alright. I understand."
"Thank you for your kindness. Please help me take my husband's body to the undertaker Peter Casanave up there on Bourbon Street. Tell him that my husband's father is Edouard Buisson."
The man smoothed back a wet blond and gray lock and donned his hat. "Yes'm, we can do that. Did you say, Pierre Casanave?"
"No, Peter, Monsieur Pierre's son."
"Now, where 'xactly on Bourbon is this heah Casanave undertaker?"
Francesca brushed damp hair from her face and tucked a tress behind her left ear. She pointed over the man's shoulder to the intersection of Water and Bienville Streets. "Go straight up Bienville to Bourbon. Casanave's is on the far corner on the right."
Balancing her umbrella between her shoulder and jaw, Francesca stirred the contents of Joachim's purse and pulled out three Confederate paper notes. She groaned at the irony. The two New Orleans Bank Confederate one dollar notes in her hand were printed by the American Bank Note Company of New York City and in the top center it bore the image of five enslaved black stevedores unloading a schooner. Francesca held out her hand with the two ones and a Central Bank of Alabama Confederate ten dollar note printed in Philadelphia bearing separate images of George Washington and enslaved black cotton pickers. "Oh, I'm sorry to ask, but will you take these Confederate dollars as payment?"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read a lot of mysteries - less so historical fiction, which often presumes prior familiarity with historical detail that I don't have. A good mystery set in New Orleans captures my attention, and when you add history that has no requirement of expertise, I'm in. The novel is set in 1862 New Orleans during the Civil War, when the Union Army occupied New Orleans, and delves into the social and racial structure of the city by presenting the life of a 'quadroon' (a person resulting from biracial sex, with three white grandparents) who moves in the world of rich white men. In an arranged union between women of color and white men in antebellum New Orleans, Francesca is the product of such a union, and her place in society and her abilities to move within it are strictly regulated. Through her eyes and the author's attention to historical detail readers are treated to insights on the intricacies of such a world. Part of what makes The Laced Chameleon such a well-done approach is that Francesca's world is vividly portrayed. She doesn't just fall into the role of an investigator - she's pushed in. Her skills at surviving her world will serve her well in her new role, because life just got a lot more complicated. And the attention to small details - such as the appearance of monies bearing separate images of George Washington and enslaved black cotton pickers, or the question of what kind of currency - Confederate or Northern - is acceptable payment - are little points that serve to reinforce the bigger picture of 1800s New Orleans. It's rare to find a historical mystery so well-grounded in the flavors and atmosphere of the antebellum South, and one which so thoroughly injects New Orleans atmosphere into every chapter. This backdrop strengthens the character of Francesca, her life, and her purposes and helps identify the source of her tenacity, creating a believable, living protagonist whose concerns and approach to life is well grounded in the politics and social mores of her times.