Authors: Jimmy Fox
Copyright © 2014 Jimmy Fox
All rights reserved.
ISBN 13: 9781499638738
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014909522
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
North Charleston, South Carolina
To Melisa, my muse, then, now, forever.
et out, you bum!” the furious man at his opulent desk shouted. “And take this crap with you!”
The judge hurled the offending final report at the genealogist responsible for discovering the bad news.
Nick Herald ducked just in time.
Sitting in a comfortable leather chair in front of the judge’s desk, Nick hadn’t expected so violent a reaction. His painstakingly researched family history grazed his brown hair and fluttered on to knock over some costly antique clutter behind him. Exquisite Scotch from the heavy crystal glass Nick held splashed his new-to-him Hickey Freeman houndstooth sport coat—a Goodwill-store find—and his crisply laundered khakis.
He’d even sprung for a fashionable coiffure, and just a touch of tint to hide some of the gray, at a tony barbershop catering to big shots like the judge, a departure from his usual beauty-school haircut, which, though it wasn’t always symmetrical or bloodless, was cheap . . . and the girls nervously wielding the scissors were sweet.
A waste of time and cash, all his efforts to look the part of the respectable professional.
This big client of his—make that former client—was a Louisiana Supreme Court justice and a member of the tight circle of old-line
New Orleans families still clinging to remnants of tainted fortunes, obeying secret social codes, guarding endangered privileges, and getting quite testy with those who have the gall to cross them.
Talk about killing the messenger!
Nick thought bitterly, on his feet now, retreating across a massive, splendidly complex rug of Caspian provenance toward the door of the book-filled study in which he happily could have spent the rest of his working days.
Months of research down the drain, and I can’t even finish my drink!
For the past two hours, things had gone quite well in the air-conditioned chill of this scholarly refuge. Judge Chaurice had hung on every word and had seemed delighted with Nick’s presentation. Then Nick reached the dicey part, the facts that would certainly keep the judge’s son from marrying the daughter of the captain of New Orleans’s most prestigious Mardi Gras krewe. This marriage was the event the judge had hoped to celebrate with a lavishly printed family history flaunting the Chaurice clan’s illustrious deeds and spotless origins. Nick, however, had uncovered a spot. A great big spot.
Family honor is a life-and-death matter in New Orleans, as the Dueling Oaks in City Park would confirm if they could speak, although these days, injured pride is usually dealt with in the courtroom or at the business end of one’s own pistol. What hasn’t changed is that the laurels go to those who can sip champagne in white tie or ball gown while lugging around a filthy burlap sack full of inherited lies.
Usually in the courtroom
, Nick reassured himself, for at this moment the judge looked capable of an old-fashioned murder born of pure pique.
In 1728, France began to ship young women of allegedly good character to New Orleans for marriage to the female-starved, morally challenged men of the wild new settlement hacked from a swampy crescent of the Mississippi River. These
filles à la cassette
arrived with their
belongings in a small chest resembling a casket and were promptly put under the care of Ursuline nuns.
But the judge’s immigrant matriarch on the paternal side wasn’t a “casket girl.” Family tradition had rouged reality: Nick found that she was in fact a prostitute and later a bordello owner who, when her professional days were done, devoted her considerable fortune to a charity hospital for women of all walks of life. The judge had heard enough before Nick could mention this particular tidbit of meritorious ancestral philanthropy. The family burlap sack of lies was already spilling far too much accurate family history for the judge’s taste.
Nick stooped to retrieve his splayed spiral-bound report. Another missile came his way, this one a check the judge had angrily scribbled and wadded up.
“Three hundred?!” Nick complained with some heat, looking up from the crumpled check in his hand. “Hey, Judge, if you weren’t ready for the truth, you shouldn’t have asked me to find it. Do you have any idea how much work I—”
The thickset man’s face turned the color of a boiled crawfish. His gray jaw-line beard quivered with a prairie prophet’s ire. “Sue me!!!”
The butler slammed the front door in Nick’s face.
Nick took off his wool coat, flipped it over his left arm, and impulsively raised his right fist to pound on the door. But he stopped himself.
Sue a judge? Yeah, right. Doesn’t Louisiana have more lawyers per capita than any other state? Fat chance finding one for that case
Trying to calm down, he breathed deeply for a few seconds, staring at his distorted reflection in the glittering curves of the big brass fleur-de-lis doorknocker.
He peered down a mirrored corridor of his own family history . . . his thin face took on the emaciated look of his father’s Jewish ancestors living hand-to-mouth in an eighteenth-century East European shtetl he had yet to pin down; and his light brown eyes had grown huge and luminous with medieval mysticism and a wandering poet’s forever unrequited yearning, the spiritual legacy of his mother’s Catholic Provençal line—or so he’d always liked to speculate.
Doubt. Doubt everything
. The surface version can’t be trusted: it is but a misleading impersonation of the past. Just look at the judge. The cream of New Orleans aristocracy?
Nick touched his eyebrows—thick, but not a mink stole draped across his forehead, as his distorting reflection showed. His nose?—still the same straight triangle. And his cleft chin did not in fact slope to insignificance, as the golden, surreal image before him suggested.
He grinned; stumbling on a metaphor that helped him connect the dots always gave him goose bumps. The true genealogist fearlessly runs his hands across the face of the past, using imagination and methodology to feel the mysteries of ancestry, who we were and who we think we are.
Yes, this was the crux, the mission, the glory of his vocation.
Nick had always been curious about the inside of the judge’s Second Empire mansion, which was a star of the Garden District. At least he’d accomplished that much this morning.
He closed the heavy black wrought iron gate behind him and walked to his car. The sun bathed bustling Prytania Street in muggy October afternoon heat. It had taken years, but finally the city was beginning to shake off the knockout punch of the flood that Katrina had delivered.
Three hundred dollars. Up yours, Judge!
Not enough to keep the wolfish creditors at bay or to satisfy his chronically underpaid assistant, Hawty Latimer, who’d used her
phenomenal computer and research skills in preparing the top-notch presentation for the judge.
Enough, though, for a late lunch for two of oysters en brochette, Crabmeat Yvonne, heavenly bread, and a bottle or two (or three, what the hell) of Montrachet at Galatoire’s! His companion: a pretty, champagne-haired young woman who worked at the Historic New Orleans Collection in the French Quarter. He’d made the date to celebrate his big genealogical triumph, now big bust.
Veronique was of French birth, and, like the Quarter itself in its enduring Gallic hauteur and bohemian insularity, she had lost little of the prideful sensual allure and xenophobic snarkiness of mother France. She seemed to Nick a rare and enchanting scent from Hermès, an exotic, feudal fragrance so beautiful in the free American air it makes you drunk, has you holding your breath to keep it in, an addictive pleasure that will cost you a year’s salary, at least—and you don’t give a damn! Nick had been trying to charm her for weeks, and the time seemed ripe for a higher level of intimacy. Culinary indulgence is a hallowed New Orleans form of foreplay.
It didn’t hurt either that she’d thought he was some handsome foreign actor the first time she’d seen him, perhaps part of a crew in town to milk Louisiana’s graft-friendly film tax credit. His vanity drew him to her almost as much as her attractive perkiness.
He tried to get his battered white MGB/GT to start and thought about the possibility of serializing the rejected project in a genealogical or historical journal. That would show the pompous SOB! Or maybe he could persuade his occasional sponsor, the eccentric treasure hunter Edward Coldbread, to publish it. Four other extended works of genealogical scholarship by Nick under Coldbread’s imprint had scored a pair of prizes and moderate, but short-lived, financial success.
At a deceptively young-looking forty-five and in the second career of his life, he wasn’t much bothered by assaults on his self-esteem. He’d learned to be resilient, and perhaps too cynical, in the years since his “resignation” from the English staff at Freret University, a.k.a. “Yale on the Bayou,” actually on regal, leafy St. Charles Avenue, where the judge’s son attended law school—naturally.