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Blood and Bourbon

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Story Four, Louis V

“The dead are out there. Anyone who swears otherwise has never stayed up late during a summer storm and listened to their voices.”
—Louis Fontaine


Thursday night, 17 September 2015, AM

Louis: Central City. The clouds cry, gently, as if ashamed of their midnight tears.

Inside the broken-in, Katrina-abandoned United Bakery, Lou listens to the rain’s patter on the roof and watches it slide down the unlit window. Despite his initial and follow-up search, the old man is on edge. It’s the rats. The hurricane waters have long rotted away the old bakery’s wares, but vermin are creatures of habit. Bad habits.

The old man hears their distant scratching and nocturnal scurrying. He can’t not hear them. It feels like they’re dancing, clawing at his hackles. He rubs his bum, sucks his gum, and sighs before turning to his last remaining co-conspirator.

“Chica,” he whispers with a dry, cough-like rattle. He wants a drink. He wants a lot things. He’s used to wanting though. Tonight, though, there’s a new, red-raw kind of want tugging at his soul. Indecision. He’s used to wanting. Used to not getting what he wants. But tonight, he’s not sure what he wants.

“Chica,” he whispers again, his neck hot with the sound of distant rats. He’s already called his cab. There’s not much time. There’s never enough time–unless, when there’s too much god-damned time.

He hears her breathing beside him. The sound is familiar yet haunting, a ghost capable of summoning old memories. Memories when they once shared the same bed. When they wore the clothes of husband and wife. Younger clothes. Clothes that no longer smell right or fit. But he remembers. God, he remembers. For a moment, he wants to reach out to her, for her. But the hand that once bore his wedding ring is gone. Just like their marriage, just like his youth, just like his surety of what he wants.

Gone.

He turns. Away. He closes his eyes. He shuts out the blackness, and listens to the rain. Rain, which has begun to hammer now, till it drowns out the rats. He sighs with relief, like the outside rain is pouring down his burning neck, cooling his vitae-hot veins. He listens. “Chica, I’ve always loved the rain. Welcomed it.”

“During the summer, when I was a child, no matter how hot it was, there was a shower almost every afternoon. The southern horizon would pile with storm clouds that looked like over-ripe plums, and within minutes, you’d feel the barometer plunge and see the oak trees become a deeper green and the light become the color of brass. You could smell the salt in the air and the odor that was like watermelon that had burst open on a hot sidewalk. Suddenly the wind would shift, and the oak trees would come to life, leaves swirling and Spanish moss straightening on the limbs. Just before the first raindrops fell, Lake Pontchartrain would be dimpled by bream rising to feed on the surface. No more than a minute later, the rain would pour down in buckets, and the surface of the river/lake would dance with a hazy yellow gold that looked more like mist than rain.”

The old man shifts under the weight of old memories. “For me, the rain was always a friend. I think that’s true for all children. They seem to understand its… baptismal nature. The way that it absolves, cleanses, and restores the earth.”

His hand drifts to the cross around his neck. "The most wonderful part of the rain was its cessation. No more than a half-hour, the sun would come out. The air, the air would be cool and fresh. The four o’clock’s would open, full of fragrance and color, and in the shade, children would play hopscotch with an innocence and joy that belied the pain and confusion of adulthood.”

“The rain was part of a testimony that assured us that somehow the summer was eternal–that even the coming of the darkness could be held back by the heat lightning that flickered through the heavens after sunset.” He hand slips, and he opens his eyes. All but blind in the dark, he nonetheless can clearly see into the past as he continues:

“The rain also brought me visitors that convinced me that the dead never left go of this world. After my father, died out on the salt, I’d see him inside the rain, standing knee-deep in the churning water, his hat tilted sideways on his head. When he saw the alarm on my face, he would raise in hand in salute, as if to say life, not death, was the real challenge. I saw lost gens d’armerie crossing rain-flooded streets in the monsoon season, the rain bouncing off their cocked hats and sliding down their deep blue frock coats. Their mortal wounds glowed as brightly as communion wafers, but they would call out to me, ‘Tout va bien!’ In time, others joined their ranks: the Guard de Ville, Chief Youennes’ boys, the Metropolitans, and more. I don’t remember when exactly they stopped shouting ‘All is well!’, but they did.”

“During the rain, I get calls from long dead clients, victims of unsolved cases, or lost loved ones. They call me on the phone during electric storms to check in, to assure me they haven’t forgotten, that they’re still waiting. The polite ones always apologize for the heavy static on the line–after all, it’s not even a long-distance call. It’s local.”

He turns around. “Chica, don’t ever let anyone tell you this is all there is. They’re lying. The dead are out there. Anyone who swears otherwise has never stayed up late during a summer storm and listened to their voices.”

GM: Outside the abandoned bakery, the overcast night sky rumbles as rain pounds and pours. Water slides down windows coated in grime and dust from their insides, seemingly unable to wash away the filth.

United_Bakery.jpg
Inside, the warehouse’s neglect is all the more apparent. Planks of wood, shards of broken glass, and other debris lie haphazardly strewn about the otherwise vacant, too-large space. Graffiti covers the walls. A black, demonic-eyed cat leers at Lou with a lolling forked tongue too large to fit into its mouth. “Upper class vandals” is ironically sprayed in blocky white letters next to the creature.

It wasn’t always this way. Lou remembers when the cold and deserted building was warm with loaves upon loaves of freshly-baked bread, and filled with the chatter of bakers at work. It was a distinctive light bread they made, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, shaped round and flat like a frisbee. The bread was for muffulettas, an Italian sandwich less iconic than po’boys, but no less tasty—or historied, being only a few decades older. Lou ate his first one before the grandfathers of the building’s former bakers were born.

He remembers an ingredients list seemingly as long as his life. The “salad” alone had olives, black olives, olive oil, celery, cauliflower, carrots, sweet peppers, onions, capers, parsley, pepperoni, oregano, garlic, vinegar, herbs and spices. The salad marinated a salty meat of some kind, usually salami, ham, mortadella, or all three. Melted provolone and mozzarella topped off the confection.

The newer ones came skewered through with toothpicks to hold the sandwich’s many ingredients together. They still couldn’t stop the bread’s sesame seeds from flaking off and making light patters against the paper wrapper.

United_Bakery.jpg
Lou could go for a muffuletta right about now.

They’re gone, old man, the mutant-tongued cat seems to leer at him. Katrina closed down the bakery, and the owners never reopened. The storm washed away everything that was clean and nothing that was dirty.

Outside, the rain pours, impotent against the grime on the interior windows.

No lights illuminate the warehouse’s cavernous interior. Bereft of the Kindred’s darkness-attuned senses, Lou and Chica must huddle by the rain-slick windows like the rats they can hear scurrying in the distance. He can just make out her silhouette, black as night, imposed against the rain-slick window.

There, in the dark, the wet, and the cold, the old man fills the abandoned bakery with memories as rich as his surroundings are barren. The rain and the gloom do not relent—but buoyed those centuries-old recollections, perhaps they do not need to.

At length, he tapers off like the rainfall itself eventually must. Chica is silent for several moments, then remarks, “Ain’t no rainbow in the darkness.”

“Thas’ what ya get afta every rainfall, Lou. A gay-as-AIDS rainbow. My pops, since I guess we’re flappin’ our gums ‘bout our daddies, said it was God’s promise t’ Noah that he wasn’t gonna drown the earth ‘gain, or some shit. Rainbows are his reminders t’ us. It’s his way of sayin’, ‘hey you fucks, I still rem’ber t’ pull the bath plug!’”

His old paramour chews on silence for another moment. “But there ain’t no rainbows in the dark, Lou. The rain jus’ keeps pourin’. F’ us, it’s no big deal. Night rolls around t’ day, the fags can go all Judy Garland over it. But the licks, who gotta bed down? F’ them, it jus’ stays dark. Sure, the rain stops, but they don’t ever see no promise that it’s always gonna. So they’re wonderin’, in the back of they heads, whether God is really gonna pull the bath plug next time or jus’ laugh an’ say, ‘ha ha, fucks, I’m leavin’ it in!’”

“I hope it rains all night, Lou. I think I’d like t’ see a rainbow.”

Louis: Lou sighs like a man exhaling what might be his last cigarette. “Me too, Chica, me too.”

Time pours like rain. Lou turns again, his gumshoe heel smearing desiccated mouse-droppings like skid-marks in the dark. There’s an awkwardness to his next words. “Chica, you know Cimitière better than most, better than me. What kind of… prince do you think he’d be?” The words seem hard on Lou’s teeth, like a mouth-punch with brass knuckles.

GM: Chica actually looks surprised at Lou’s line of inquiry. Her next words don’t have the sarcastic bite they usually do. “Well, Lou, firs’ thing to keep in mind about the Baron is, he don’ want to be prince. Never did, an’ my guess is, still don’t. What he wants is for the Lance t’ leave everyone into Vodou the fuck alone. That ‘cludes Vidal’s groupies an’ also any Licks who’d smile when they fuck ‘em over like Savoy an’ the Cottonmouths.”

“That’s his perfect world. The other Kindred cedin’ all things Vodoun, plus handin’ over Tremé an’ the Seventh, Eighth, an’ Ninth Wards to the Crones. Then leavin’ ‘em completely the fuck alone, t’ run things how they want, answerin’ t’ no prince. City within a city.”

“But that ain’t ever gonna happen, not with Vidal an’ Savoy at least. An’ he knows it. So yeah, the Lance has gotta go down. Both halves of it. What happens after…” Chica shrugs. “Well, that’d leave a pretty big hole. Somethin’s gotta fill it. Gotta be someone who’s prince, even if the Baron don’ want the job.”

“He ain’t really talked too much about what happens then. Guess he thinks we should focus on makin’ that Lance-free city happen first.” Chica spits to the side. “Cottonmouth an’ necro-incestuous-Mafioso-free too, ‘course. Fuckin’ sick the things they do.”

“But anyway. There’s still been talk, what the city’s gonna look like when—not if, we don’t believe in no if—Vidal an’ Savoy are gone. Baron might be prince, if there’s no other option, but he don’ want the job. Might plug his nose and do it anyway, or might foist it off t’ some other Lick. It’d be his call though, and he won’t let nobody be prince who don’t run things the way he likes.”

“How he runs Tremé, though. You get a good preview of what he’d be like as prince. Easier for mortals to meet him up close than Licks, actually. That says a lot. He’s a houngan who goes by the name Toussaint. Real popular wit’ a lotta folks. Been passin’ himself off as a buncha diff’rent houngans since way the fuck back. Longer than I been around. He’s close t’ the kine, close in a way Vidal an’ Savoy sho’ as shit ain’t. Hell, I don’t even see him livin’ in any digs as sweet as a lotta dealers.”

“He actually gets shit done, too. I heard the stories ‘bout Papa Iblis. Hell, you was around for ’em. What, five times Xola’s age, an’ five times as mean? Vidal had decades to ash him an’ didn’t. Yeah, sure, he was fightin’ a pretty long slog-fest t’ set himself up as prince. Maybe he woulda ashed Iblis, once things was settled down an’ he was comfy on his throne.” Chica rolls her eyes. “Or maybe he wouldn’t, ‘cuz he don’t give a flyin’ fuck ‘bout some poor niggas who call Mary Erzulie, and gave even less back when they was slaves. All I know is, Baron was the one t’ ash that sick shit Iblis.”

“He’s the houngan. The houngan. People in all those neighborhoods, the ones he wants to make his city in a city, he’s the man they go to for… fuckin’ everythin’. Yeah, sure, your usual love potions an’ magic fix-alls. But a lot more shit too. Your kid’s gone missin’, he’s your guy. Cops killed your boyfrien’, he’s your guy. Funeral’s too much f’ you to deal with, he’s your guy. Landlord won’t fix the brown water comin’ out of your sink, he’s your guy. You need money t’ make your boyfrien’s bail, he’s your guy. You pregnant in school an’ don’t know what to do, he’s your guy. You down sick an’ can’t afford no ER visit, he’s your guy. Psycho ex won’t leave you alone, he’s your guy. You want a houngan to say the words at your weddin’, he’s your guy. Hell, neighbor’s playin’ music too damn loud, he’s still your guy. He’s a priest, doctor, judge, shrink, an’ your grandpa who knows best, all rolled into one.”

“An’ he keeps the Masquerade. Des Jumeaux, they or the Baron have ways of making’ them look like him. You can run into Toussaint at Lil’ Dizzy’s, sometimes, chowin’ on po’boys in broad daylight. Or for any of that other shit that only happens at day.”

“An’ the people in his neighborhoods, they’re loyal to him, Lou, loyal ‘cuz he looks out for ’em when no one else does. He’s been there, helpin’ poor niggas out ever since you could buy ‘em as slaves. Kids grow up on stories of the things he, or I guess his ’predecessors’, have done for their grandpas, an’ it ain’t long ‘fore they’re goin’ to him for help with this or that. It’s a goodwill that’s old as dirt an’ strong as iron. Those people will go to fuckin’ war for him if he asks it.”

“Hell, that’s the big reason Vidal an’ Savoy haven’t squashed him. Why you think they haven’t, when you can count all the Licks who follow him on two hands, an’ he ain’t got the cash for a suite at the Monteleone? That’s ‘cuz he’s got friends, fuckin’ everywhere. The nigga who waits your tables. The nigga who picks up your garbage. The nigga who mows your lawn. The nigga askin’ for change on your way to work. The nigga who mops the floors there. Them and a thousand more. Ask any of ‘em, odds are, they can tell you a story’ ’bout how… well, I told you what sorta shit the Baron does. Odds are, they can tell you a story ’bout the time when he was their guy.”

Chica pauses. “I ain’t sayin’ he’s a saint, now. He’s still a Lick. Still drinks the same juice they all drink. Still serves the loa, an’ that’s mostly the Gehde, an’ that’s mostly Baron Samedi, wit’ a black hand than his white one. An’ sure as shit, you piss off a houngan with as much power as he got, dyin’ will be a fuckin’ mercy. Maybe he’s cursed people who you don’ think deserve it. The loa don’t really see right an’ wrong the way most folks do. An’ neither do he. The way he does see it, he does right by his people, an’ he fucks anyone who fucks them. Fact is, you ain’t ever gonna find an elder who’s as close not just to the kine, but to the little guy as he is, an’ who gives a damn as much as he do. Unless you think you can ash every Lick in the city, I say, Baron’s the best one to be in charge of ’em.”

“So yeah, Lou, that ain’t the kind of prince I think he’d make—it’s the one I know he is. Because to the poorest and most fucked-over niggas in this city, guess what, he already is ya goddamn butt-fuckin-ya-slut-motha-till-she-moans-an-drools-like-a-bitch-in-heat prince.”

Louis: Lou’s silent and still for a long time. He digests her words slowly. The rain ticks out time, a million-droplet metronome. After a while, he grunts, not in dismissal, but like a man who’s just lifted a heavy burden, or at least is bracing himself to do so.

“Chica,” he eventually says, his voice rough and loose like spilled gravel, “I realize you were right.” There’s a slight pause, even almost a chuckle. “Not all the time, but more than I thought. I’ve been sitting on the pot too long. It’s time to piss or get off the pot. It’s been time.” Another pause. “Maybe past time.”

There’s a heavy sigh and the echo of rain bouncing in the empty bakery. “But tonight… tonight forced my hand. Maybe badly. No, definitely badly. Things are going to get ugly. Uglier. Maybe the ugliest they’re ever gotten for me. For us. And that’s… that’s pretty much as ugly as it gets.”

“I was tired, Chica. Tired as Hell’s devils the day after Mardi Gras and then some. But now… now I’m restless. Because tonight, tonight, I learned… something that can change the game. Maybe change it in a way that we haven’t seen in centuries.”

He turns to face his old lover, or at least her lightless shadow. “Just knowing it feels like an armed atomic bomb sitting in my head. I’m not sure how or whether to disarm or launch it. Yet. I need time. Not too much, just a night or two to think and watch and see how the dust settles–_if_ it settles. It probably won’t. Which is why… I need you to leave me.”

He takes a step closer. “They’ll be coming for me, Chica. If and when they find me, you can’t be there. Instead, I need you to go to the Baron. I need you to go back to him, and give him a message. Earn back his trust so he’ll listen to it.”

There’s a reflective instinct to grab a cigarette, to dilute and crowd the naked, raw air with smoke. But he represses it. For now. “Maybe see Vendredi. Josue’s desperate to earn Cimitière’s favor. Maybe use the secret as a chip. Or maybe seek out Kendall. I don’t know if that water-hole’s all poisoned or not for you. But Cimitière trusts her.”

There’s a slight hesitation. “There’s also Curry. She’s got no love for the Lance, especially after mad-dog Meadows ‘got off the chain’ and tried to snuff her out like a decade-old cigar. But… I think the mambo’s a wild card. Better to try one of the others.” Another sigh. “But you know those tracks better than me. It’ll be up to you.”

He takes another final step and embraces her, holding her close in the darkness, and whispers into her ear. Those words are far from sweet nothings:

René’s confession of being as a double agent for Donovan. How the sheriff, Savoy, or Setites betrayed him.

He then also whispers quietly… that she’s to relay that to the Baron. Donovan is either a double agent working for Savoy or he isn’t, but the reality that he has double agents working with Savoy and the Setites should be enough to sow dissent and distrust. Let that leak to the Invictus, the Anarchs, or other groups. Foment dissent. If Donovan can be portrayed as disloyal to the prince, his position and the prince’s weakens. Even if Vidal still trusts him, he might have to act because of appearances.

It also ties into why the sheriff and his goons might be after her—and thus might help justify the Baron hiding her and standing up to them. Donovan clearly wants to hide his cross-factional dealings—or those who know about them. Lou knows enough about sorcery to know that in order to get the right answers, you sometimes need the right questions—and this can help steer the Baron to discover said truth if he wishes.

GM: Chica listens.

“Fuck me sideways wit’ a spatula. How the hell’d you find that out?”

Louis: The old man releases her slowly, like the waning grip of a dying man. His mind lingers for a moment on the fresh odor of sweat, blood, and gunpowder, and the deeper, schizophrenic aroma of spiced rum, fish tacos, bubble-gum, cheap cigarillos, pralines, spray paint, and crack cocaine. And beneath that, the indelible scent of a woman. They’ve changed so much. Lost so much. Of themselves, and of each other.

He steps back and shakes his head. Shakes his head to her, to him, to them, to so many things. “No time to explain, Chica. Just get that to him. He has the juice to confirm I’m not blowing smoke.” As if to underscore his sentiment, a taxi cab’s headlight spills down the street. He turns to go, though his eyes linger on her black pools of Louisiana gold.

GM: “You’re right, Lou. There ain’t time. Never is when you really need it.” Twin pools of Louisiana gold stare back at Lou—and then yank him in as Chica grabs his shoulder and holds him fast, as if refutation of their earlier embrace. “So you can hold the fuck up for a few moments more, ‘cuz I ain’t yo message-runnin’ biatch.”

His old paramour doesn’t chew her lip so much as gnaw. “Firs’, you’re right. I gotta go back t’ the Baron. Not jus’ ‘cuz you jus’ got me a meal ticket.” Chica slowly shakes her head, the glint of the distant headlights catching her gold eyes. “We can’t do this no more, or least I can’t. Runnin’ round fo’ juice, beggin’ fo’ drops, scurryin’ off like rats whenever the hammer come down like it’s about to… my mug ain’t as ugly as yours, Lou, but fuck me. I’m an old lady. I’m tired. An’ I—we—need the backin’ of onea the factions if we’re ever gonna be more than scurryin’ junkie-rats.”

“That tidbit of yours. It’ll get my foot back in the door. But you know the licks, Lou. You know they don’t, won’t ever trust a ghoul they can’t fix the collar on.”

Chica’s jaw sets. “You should hear it from me now, so listen up. I’m goin’ in. All the way.”

Louis: Lou’s heart sinks like it just got flushed down the toilet. His peripheral vision swims till all he can see are the taxi cab’s lights making the rain-splattered window catch golden fire. The rain, pounding in his ears. No, not rain, blood. Half-damned, half-redeemable. Half-mortal, half-monster. His. Hers. He gasps, tries to speak, but his inchoate voice is as haunted and hollow as a ghost’s.

GM: “Like you say, Lou,” Chica stares at him. “It’s time t’ shit. Or get off the pot.

Louis: Lou can’t, doesn’t look her in the eye. He doesn’t yell or struggle. He has no words. He has nothing. Nothing but pain. Loss. Regret.

GM: Chica grabs him by the collar of his shirt and sharply yanks it to force his gaze to meet hers.

Louis: He doesn’t resist. But he doesn’t look at her. Not really. His eyes are flat, empty, like something deep inside just died. Hard.

GM: “You gone stupid, Lou? Or was you just always? D’you really wanna spend eternity beggin’ for scraps? You really think we still human, all those years, all those lives? How much blood we drink, huh, that the licks jus’ happened t’ suck up first? Who’s the real vampires?”

Louis: Lou’s mouth opens like a fish slammed on the sidewalk. Opens, closes. Tries to breathe, but just dies a little, mouth opening and closing again. Are there words? Does he say, ‘I know’? Or ‘go’? Perhaps ‘no’. Lips. Eyes. Heart. They close.

GM: He feels Chica’s hands letting go of his shirt. There’s scorn in her Louisiana-gold eyes, frustration, tiredness, and even pain. “Fuck, Lou. What’s it you wanna do instead? Kill ourselves? Bein’ an indep ain’t an option no more. An’ you know it!”

Louis: The old man sinks as Chica lets go. He sinks, his insides pouring down his spine like a shotgun-blasted sieve. He doesn’t fall, though. That would imply there’s a ground to fall to, something solid underneath him. But he sinks all the same. Sinks into himself. The hurt. The pain. The truth. There’s not much distinction between anymore.

GM: “D’you fuckin’ get off t’ bein’ pathetic an’ miserable?!” Chica snarls.

Louis: Lou’s mouth opens like a razor slit, but his eyes stay shut, his gaze dead.

GM: She grabs his crotch and gives his mandhood a solid yank. “Huh!? Feels pretty limp t’ me, still!”

Louis: Lou doesn’t move. He doesn’t resist. He doesn’t even feel the pain, not the body’s when he’s spirit feels crucified. But his voice slides out like a broken vending machine that refuses to accept a coin.

“I… want… to die. As a man… I want… to see another rainbow… the angel… on the other side of the… bottle.”

GM: “Well, news flash, you ain’t been a man for a long fuckin’ time,” Chica snarls, though she does release his testicles. “But you had ‘nough pretendin’, great. I’ll take you out on a boat like you always wanted, t’ watch the sun go up.”

Louis: His voice is crushed, and each word cuts him like broken glass:

“Ve, Rosario.”

(“Go, Rosario.”)

GM: Chica stares at her old paramour. Her teeth grind as frustration, anger, hurt, and even loss war across her ageless face. Finally she growls, “Apuesto que lo estoy, Juan.”

(“You bet I am, Juan.”)

Echoing footsteps sound as Chica turns and disappears into the warehouse’s yawning depths. But before she vanishes completely, she turns back to Lou and calls, a penumbral figure hovering between shadow and darkness,

“Oh, if there’s one more thing ya want t’ blame yourself over, ‘cuz thas’ what you jack off to? Nonea this, an’ I mean nonea this, would be happenin’ now if we hadn’t gone chasin’ afta ya lil’ cracka bitch’s deadbeat daddy.”

Louis: Lou doesn’t look up or move, but the words pour out of him because there’s no more room inside. He’s too full of loss, hurt, and regret.

“Lo siento.”

(“I’m sorry.”)

He says it to her, to himself, to God, to everyone and no one.

“Lo siento mucho…”

(“I’m so sorry…)

He doesn’t expect an answer. He doesn’t expect forgiveness. He hasn’t earned it.

And he knows it.


Thursday night, 16 September 2015, AM

Louis: Scrape. Scrape. Scraaaaaape.

Lou’s hook scratches away the thin plaster, vandalizing the graffiti cat’s demonic eye. Beneath the spray-paint and dust, the mortar only extends a bullet’s depth. The old man slides out the now loosened cement block that has been broken in half, revealing a cunningly concealed cache.

It hurts. For the old man, it’s like picking at a scab, one that has been left to fester. His thoughts are like the broken cement block: flat, dead, and hollow. With his decision made–or forced–his bones and sinews move on auto-pilot, asking and receiving nothing from the shattered lights upstairs. But his old body obeys. It remembers. It endures.

His knuckle-scarred hand reaches into the clandestine cubby and pulls out a dust caked box. The old bakery box all but falls apart in his grip. He spreads out the items from the decrepit muffulettas box. A paint-faded nursery block with the letters ‘A’ and ‘Z’. A pewter figurine of a dog. A tiny pearl. A pipe. A glass bottle of sparkling water. A patina-touched cross. A large piece of bone-white chalk. And maps. Lots and lots of maps. Street maps, each and every one. All of the same city. His city.

The old man sighs.

He takes the now empty muffulettas and a few other things inside, then dumbly returns the container to its niche. He hefts the cement block with a quiet grunt, grateful for the visceral strain to distract his unraveling heart. He slides the block back inside. Without its mortar, the graffiti covered cache is less clandestine, but it has served its purpose.

Almost, the old man thinks as he turns back to the spread out items. He kneels, aged joints creaking. The rain continues to pour.

Lou takes up the nursery block like a die at Harrah’s. He closes his eyes, mutters a prayer, and tosses it.
The cube rolls and rattles till settles with the A upwards. Lou takes the white chalk and continues his invocation as he draws an elaborate design on the floor of the abandoned bakery.

It begins with a long straight line down, then another across. In the quadrants, four circles are drawn equidistant from the recently completed cross. Within those circles, other crosses are drawn. The design swiftly increases in complexity. Flowing lines, curves, asterisk-esque stars, some symbols resembling a pair of palmettos, fish, or pineapples.

Lou grinds the last stub of the chalk to complete the design, the white powder utterly spent. But the veve is complete. The old man places the old patina cross in the middle of the veve, but inverted, just as St. Peter was crucified. Next, he places objects at the center of each of the four encircled crosses: the pewter dog, the pearl, the pipe, and the water.

His lips continue to murmur their prayer which tastes of cobblestones, concrete, asphalt, and the dirt beneath. And blood. Because there is always blood. He lays the panoply of street maps along the veve’s axes. Still murmuring, he picks up the pipe, which comes alight with white flame. He interrupts his invocation only long enough to take a deep drag from the pipe, his aged lungs sucking in the voudon smoke. He then closes his eyes and pours out the loa-touched embers onto the maps. They instantly ignite, as if they were doused in all the gasoline ever used to traverse the streets they so depict.

The old mean breathes in the smoke. Heady, pregnant, impossible, but intimate. He continues to pray. He continues to suck in the vapors. He is tired. Each breath makes him as wearied as a whole week working as a beat cop. But he does not stop. Not until he is overflowing with it, not till the smoke is about to pour from his ears does he snatch up the pearl and drop it in his smoke-soaked mouth like a sacramental wafer.

Wasting no time, he uses the pewter dog figurine to pop off the bottle’s cap and then pours the sparkling water over the burnt maps, extinguishing the flames and washing away its ashes and the chalk veve. He picks up the flame-hot cross with his hook and brands his unshod feet with the inverted symbol. He does not ignore the pain, but he embraces it. Still kneeling, he finishes his ritual as he began it: by lifting the painted nursery block, eyes closed, and tosses with with a final benediction:

“Papa Legba.”

The ‘die’ rattles till it lands on the side painted with a Z. The old man does not miss how the object’s shadow looms large. And not just large, but in the shadow of a man, leaning on a cane, with features otherwise obscured by the fraying rim of a broad straw hat.

Then, as the last ember finally dies, all is darkness. And the old man is spent, his spirit and body overflowing with power and knowledge and yet equally spent and empty. He picks up the nursery block and figurine and slips them respectively into his pockets, then puts on his shoes.

A few minutes later, he all but staggers out of the bakery, glass bottle in hand. He ducks down a nearby alleyway, and scans the dark, rain-sodden streets. Once he’s convinced enough that he’s not being followed or pursued, he tosses down the glass bottle. As the glass shatters, he fixes another of the Big Sleazy’s myriad streets into his mind and steps over the debris, his cross-branded foot still red and raw as his bleeding heart.



GM: This time I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m gonna need two pair-a shoes
When I get through walkin’ these blues
When I get back to New Orleans


The old man takes a step.

Pain lances up his cross-burned foot.

I’ve got my suitcase in my hand

The old man takes a step.

Palm trees sway under a cool summer breeze as the red and yellow St. Charles streetcar roars past. Clang-clang. Clang-clang. How many times has he heard that sound? How little has it changed over the years?

Now ain’t that-a shame?
I’m leavin’ here today
Yes, I’m goin’ back home to stay
Yes, I’m walkin’ to New Orleans


The old man takes a step.

Powdered sugar on his lips. Powdered sugar over his shirt. The mess is worth it for Du Monde’s beignets. The coffee is black as oil and smooth as silk. No milk or cream in his joe, or fruit or chocolate in his pastries for him. He can’t remember the last time he looked at their menus. He knows what he wants.

Ya used to be my honey
‘Till you spent all my money
No use for you to cry
I’ll see you by and by
‘Cause I’m walkin’ to New Orleans


The old man takes a step.

Decatur Street, the waterfront, where he eats those beignets. Chartres Street, lined with clubs and ritzy apartments. Royal Street, galleries and restaurants. Bourbon Street, where ritz gives way to kitsch. Dauphine Street. Burgundy Street. Rampart Street. Out of the Quarter now. Basin. Crozat. Tremé. Marais. Villere. Roberson. Claiborne. Derbigny. Roman. Prieur. Johnson. Galvez. Miro. Tonti. Rocheblave. Dorgenois. Broad…

I’ve got no time for talkin’
I’ve got to keep on walkin’
New Orleans is my home
That’s the reason why I’m goin’
Yes, I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m walkin’ to New Orleans


He knows the street he’s on. Knows the street, like he knows every street in this city. He’s walked its asphalt, its cobblestones, its unpaved mud and dirt, its whatever, since before the wrinkled grandfathers of today’s wrinkled grandfathers could so much as waddle their legs.

The old man takes a step.

I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m walkin’ to New Orleans.


That’s all it is. Taking a step. Knowing, not where he wants to go, but where he is. Space is an illusion. Distance a lie. All places touch all places. All paths cross all paths. One need only see the crossroads. Know them, like the old man knows his city.

The old man takes a step.

I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m walkin’ to New Orleans.


The power was always his. For as long as he’s known the names of the city’s streets like the back of his palm, it has always been his. Now he knows.

The old man takes a step.

I’m walkin’ to New Orleans
I’m walkin’ to New Orleans…


Lou steps out from behind one of six mausoleum-like structures embracing a monument symbolizing the eye of the storm. Landscaped walkways curve out from it like the paths of encircling hurricane winds.

The distant voice of a rambunctious youth laughs as another rule is broken, another threshold crossed.

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Lou ducks behind another granite block. He stumbles out from the gap between the La Belle Esplanade, a red-painted Victorian house converted into a bed & breakfast, and its neighbor.

La_Belle.jpg
He knows this street, Esplanade Avenue, like he knows all of the city’s other streets. Four blocks with a bed and breakfast on each one. His trash bags should be outside the Five Continents, four blocks away.

The night is old, damp, and weary, like the old man himself. He’s not sure what hour it might be as rain steadily patters over the sidewalks. 4 AM? Late enough for humanity’s ignorant masses to be fast asleep, oblivious to the shadow wars fought just beyond their homes. Early enough for the Kindred to grow surly and resentful over the limited time they have left—yet not so limited they must flee back to the safety of their havens.

4 AM is a dark hour.

Louis: Mama Wedo’s death–curse echoes in his ears. Darkness…

Lou sighs, a sound lost in the pounding rain. Despite the pain in his freshly burnt feet, the old man presses forward. In his present attire, the old man resembles a bum hunting for booze or a dry place to sleep. Appearances aren’t always deceiving.

GM: The HH Whitney House, perhaps named for the banking family of the same name, is another old-world B&B set in a 19th-century, Italianate-style house offering an outdoor pool and hot tub. A bed past one of the rain-slick windows looks clean and soft. The cozily-illuminated rooms look warm and dry.

Few bums would not stare with longing.

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Louis: Lou shuffles past the bed and breakfast, knowing that even if he used the wad of cash he confiscated from René’s haven, the Whitney House would provide no refuge for the weary, half-damned, twice-doomed man.

China’s last words haunt his mind: Nonea this, an’ I mean nonea this, would be happenin’ now if we hadn’t gone chasin’ afta ya lil’ cracka bitch’s deadbeat daddy.

The essence of detection is cyclical. Around and around, chasing each other, footfalls sounding on black pavement, and the rain pouring down forever. Our necks are under persecution: we labor, and have no rest.

Lou continues to walk, hand and hook in his jumpsuit pockets.

GM: The old man eventually reaches one of the bed and breakfast’s black dumpster bins. There’s a thick metal lock clearly meant to keep out people like him, looped through barbed wire that would cruelly cut most bums’ fingers. Lou picks it open as the cold rain patters against his and pulls out “his” trash bags.

He hadn’t wanted to double back to his old office. He’d feared the prince’s agents were already there.

He hadn’t wanted the man responsible for picking up his trash either. Paul Christianbury, former dentist, exposed child molester reduced to driving garbage trucks for a living. A call to Ottis Wiggons saw Paul receive some strongly-worded “advice” to switch routes. He wasn’t “clean enough to pick up their district’s trash.” Another call and minor bribe to his new garbage man saw his bags dropped off here, far away from his office.

Sometimes that’s all man can do in this city. Just move the trash somewhere else.

Lou pulls open one of the newly rain-slick, black polyethylene bags to make sure it’s his. Coffee-stained old shirts. Outdated phone books. A three-year-old print of the Times-Picayune. Empty liquor bottles and greasy take-out boxes. A mummified snapping turtle. Mugshots taken with dusty polaroids and museum-piece daguerreotypes. Apotropes to various loa, black and red. It’s his, all right. The collected junk of too many lifetimes.

His rain-wet hand brushes against a glass vial. He pulls it out. The liquid inside is a dark coagulated red. Swishing the vial makes a sound that’s just barely audible against the rain, but Lou doesn’t see any of its interior liquid move. Some of it is already crusting against the glass.

Any ghoul without completely dumb senses would know what it is.

To Lou, however, it is also the last of his payment from Yi Huang for investigating who’d been threatening the Nosferatu’s mortal employees. Huang was grateful, for a vampire. He hadn’t even mandated that Lou drink it all right there. The rest could be saved for a rainy day.

Dark storm clouds angrily rumble across darker skies as the now-soaked old man looks over his rain-slick prize.

It’s a rainy day indeed.

Louis: As Lou holds the container, his ulcer-eaten heart cannot help but replay Chica’s words, the memory more raw and painful than any burns upon his feet. You gone stupid, Lou? Or was you just always? D’you really wanna spend eternity beggin’ for scraps?

You really think we still human, all those years, all those lives? How much blood we drink, huh, that the licks jus’ happened t’ suck up first? Who’s the real vampires?

The old man clutches the detritus of his lives and the curse of his half-life to his face. He thought he had cried till he was dry.

He was wrong.


Thursday night, 16 September 2015, AM

GM: Lou crawls out from the clump of bushes he never walked into. Rows of cloned McMansions bereft of artistic style or individuality stretch endlessly before him. The golf courses sit empty at this late hour. No ice cream trucks, dogs being walked, or tricycle-riding children are visible on the streets.

Lakeview.jpg
He takes a look at the sign he emerged behind.

Lakeview_Sign.jpg
The affluent suburban neighborhood sits comfortably snug against the south side of Lake Pontchartrain, though Lou cannot see the water from here. He has never seen a single black person during any of his visits to the area. It doesn’t even feel like he’s in New Orleans. There are identical development lots to this one in countless suburbs across the country.

He hasn’t seen any leeches either. Few of their kind care to hunt, much less make their domains in such a banal corner of the Outlands.

Louis: But the old man isn’t taking chances. Unlike Esplanade Ridge where he cared not whether he was seen by man or monster, here he moves disguised under the obfuscating glamor of the blood.

Drawing upon the half-damned power, however, hurts tonight. Hurts worse than normal. He’s Catholic, after all, and the old man knows how to nurse a bad case of guilt. His destination doesn’t help his heart, either. He looks up into the crying face of night and lets the rain wash away his tears. He only wishes it could drown his sorrows.

You missed a few, Lou says, thinking of the vampire–decimating flood as he looks up the firmament.

GM: Lakeview was one of the most severely flooded areas of the city during Katrina, Lou recalls. It was right in front of Lake Pontchartrain. Almost all of its residents had the means to flee the city before the water engulfed their houses, however. The neighborhood was rebuilt in a fraction of the time that it took the Ninth Ward.

The weary old man shuffles down the suburban sidewalk towards his destination. A black car with PALADIN SECURITY printed on the sides drives past him. The cap- and tie-wearing guards inside do not spare a glance his way.

Lou’s gumshoes sound against the rain-spattered pavement. Lakeview has no poor areas, merely ones further away from the waterfront where property values aren’t as high. His destination is a two- rather than three-story house with a modest garden and roofed porch that provides some respite from the falling rain as he wearily trudges up the steps.

Maria_House.jpg
Louis: The old man grunts as he shifts the massive trash bags slung over his back, the weight of a half-dozen lives distilled into several heaps of pseudo-junk. He knocks on the door in a particular pattern, twice, with his now blunt hook.

GM: The house’s lights are off. The old man receives no answer.

Louis: He would call Maria, but he purposefully destroyed his phone. He settles for knocking again until either of the house’s inhabitants let him in.

GM: Lou’s fist solidly raps against the door. He waits and knocks again.

Neither resident answers.

Louis: He considers just sliding down on the porch and fishing out a partially water-logged cigarette. He doubts he has enough non-drenched Marlboro’s to make it to dawn. Wake up, bastard, Lou bitterly thinks in regards to the house’s true owner.

He grunts again as he slides off his trash sacks and kneels, spine and knees popping. I’m on my knees now, you happy? Lou silently complains to his dead mentor.

Of course you’re not, he answers himself. He sighs, then swings open the door’s mail-slot with his hook and peeks in. He doubts Maria has bought a dog, but it pays to check first and save stitches later.

GM: The old man can just barely make out a wood-floored entry hall through the dark. No dog or other inhabitant responds to the mail slot’s opening.

Louis: He then gazes downward, checking to make sure Maria or someone has been picking up the mail.

GM: No mail is visible on the gloom-shrouded floor.

Runoff audibly drains from the house’s downpipe.

Louis: The worm of paranoia is far from satisfied. He shakes his head, water beads shaking from his neck, as he tries to shrug off the creeping fear that “his” safehouse has been compromised. He whispers into the open mailbox:

“Jacques, ouvrez-vous. C’est Jean-Louis.”

(“Jacques, open up. It’s Jean-Louis.”)

GM: His only answer is the rain’s steady falling.

Louis: Lou frowns. He considers trying to tempt or bribe the colonial bokor with news of his ‘favorite’ dysfunctional family from France, but he holds his tongue. Who knows who else might be listening.

“Damn, Jacques, je suis mouillé et fatigué.”

(“Damn it, Jacques, I’m wet and tired.”)

Mumbling similar pleasantries under his breath, he pulls out his tumbler key and pin and starts working on the front door.

GM: Lou finagles until he’s lifted the lock’s key and driver pins to the correct height, which still takes the deft PI fewer tries than he has total remaining fingers. He turns the knob. The door creeks open. The house’s interior yawns as dark as the night outside.

Louis: Stowing his lock-picks, Lou hefts his belongings into the house and closes the door as he steps inside. He cranes his old ears and other less definable senses for any sound of the house’s inhabitants–or other intruders.

GM: The downpour quiets to steady muffled plunks as Lou closes the front door. Bereft of what little light there already was from the overcast moon, the old man’s surroundings are plunged entirely into gloom.

He’s not too old, though, to miss the light padding sounds against the house’s floor.

Louis: Lou creeps after the sound. His hand hesitates but eventually pulls out a Colt Python from his shoulder holster. Much like his life, there’s no safety on his drawn firearm. He leaves his trash–bagged belongings against the now relocked front door for now.

GM: His gumshoes silently tread wood until they reach something soft. If the lights were on, he might be in a living room with out of style furnishings that haven’t been replaced in almost fifteen years.

They’re not on. It’s too easy to remember in the pitch black. The memories rise like phantoms from uneasy graves.

The swamp was just as dark. Juan was up to his knees in bog-water, sweat pouring down his brow as the buzzing mosquitoes hungrily feasted upon his dripping wounds. The wet, treacherous earth squelched beneath his feet and made him alternately sink and stumble as he tried to kill the man who’d taught him so much of what he knew.

Juan had a reason for wanting to kill him. It didn’t seem like it mattered. Not then. Not there. Not in the pitch-dark, godforsaken swamp, with the mosquitoes in his eyes, the hoots and hollers of the bayou’s wildlife in his ears, and the wild-eyed madman with that wickedly precise blade who was trying to kill him too. That’s all it was. Two men trying to kill each other. The swamp had a way of reducing such conflicts to the primeval essence of what they were.

Juan killed him, all right. He took everything the old man taught him and turned it back on him. Stabbed it through him. Rammed his own family’s ancestral blade through his gut until blood came out from his mouth too. “Sloppy footwork, Juan, sloppy,” his former teacher deliriously frothed in his last moments. Juan was gutting him like a pig and he still babbled about sloppy footwork.

Juan had tried to remember his reason for being out there, for killing the still-warm corpse lying at his feet. There were a few moments he couldn’t remember why. They terrified him more than the prospect of Jacques stabbing him to death ever did.

The swamp took away his purpose. His justice. Said it didn’t matter. Swallowed everything up in that fevered battle for survival, to kill or be killed. Swallowed it into the muck. Into the dark.

Rain distantly pounds and thunders against the roof. Here, in the pitch-black house built where Jacques Beltremieux died an ignoble and delirious death in the muck, and surrounded by the shades of his own memories, the old man could swear his rain-spattered gumshoes are not padding against carpet but squelching into the swamp’s muck.

This house is not the home of Mariángel Batifole, agoraphobic painter. It is the grave of a man whose hate burned too hot for even death to conquer. The swamp has not reclaimed it from banal suburbia. The swamp has always claimed it.

One need but turn off the lights to see.

One need but stare into the dark.

Louis: The old man holsters his gun. Not because he’s safe, but because the weapon will do nothing to protect him. Not here. Not now.

His psyche is like a battered pugilist stepping into a ring against a belted heavyweight–right after finishing a ten-round bout. He’s exhausted, spent, and he just raise his mental gloves. Cold sweat breaks out of his rain-drenched skin. His gut clenches, as if drawing away from the darkness. He sinks to his knees.

Juan had his reasons. But that doesn’t change that the fact that he’s a murderer. And what really scares him… what really changes him to shut his eyes like a scaring kid floating on a shark-encircled raft is the nagging question of whether his reasons were good enough.

Maybe the doctor had the right prescription. Or even worse, maybe Jacques has been wrong. About everything.

The old man raises his sole hand over his shut eyes and shivers. Even in sultry Louisiana, the dark night of the soul is always bone-cold.

His hand drops from his face. The distraught man reconsiders drawing his gun, but he’s unsure whether he might aim it at himself. Unsure whether that might not be so bad.

GM: Lou clamps his eyes shut, but the dark follows him. The memories follow him. Outside, the rain continues to thud and pound. Inside, something continues to steadily pad against the floor.

Or perhaps what it really does is squelch.

The noises eventually grow fainter.

The memories do not.

Louis: Lou opens his eyes. He doesn’t want to. But life has a way of moving beyond wants and needs. Then again, so does death.

GM: The darkness presses down nearly as heavily, save for a feebly glowing slit of moonlight around the drapes. Maria keeps them almost constantly drawn.

The steadily receding pad-squelch issues from ahead.

Louis: Lou swallows. His dry throat is like sandpaper. But he rises. And follows. Ultimately, he has nowhere else to go.

GM: The slit of lunar illumination recedes, then dies. The old man feels his feet climbing, like he remembers them doing before he killed Jacques. He’d clambered up the boughs of a cypress tree. Stared down at the older man, who was scrawling a crude cornmeal veve over meticulously arranged rotting logs, and plotted how to kill him.

Louis: Plotted, hesitated, dreaded, and regretted.

GM: Death is regret. It’s all the dead do.

Lou’s feet stop climbing. They’re somewhere level again.

Pad. Squelch. Pad. Squelch.

The noise stops after another minute. Silence stretches.

There’s a low creek. A thud. The pads become thumps. The sound fades, but comes… upwards.

The old man follows, climbing another cypress.

The air is thick and musty. There isn’t light again—just a less absolute dark. Lou can make out looming and indistinct shapes through the black.

There’s another creek.

A low scraping.

Heavy-sounding.

Silence.

A click-like sound.

Faint noises.

Then, the house—the swamp—creaks like a dry spine snapping. The already thick air becomes nigh-feverish, and fetid like a swollen pustule begging for a lancet. The horripilating, emetic pressure builds–then violently bursts. From some unseen tear, an indistinct shape issues into being like a gory afterbirth–or perhaps stillbirth.

Lou doesn’t need to make it out to know what it is. A man. Long dead.

No darkness, however, is too thick to obscure the ghastly visage of Dr. Jacques Beltremieux from his sight—nor pain the shade wears nakedly like an open sore. The right side of his face is a broken jigsaw of cruel scars, the most severe of which runs over the dark void of his right eye-socket. While his left bears a rheumy-yellow orb, the cheek and jaw below it are haunted by sickly bubbling boils that burn and weep like rancid, spermaceti candles. His balding pate is framed by wispy, ash-hued locks that are occasionally caught and pulled desperately by the severed, spectral fists of unborn children. It is some small mercy that Lou cannot see any now.

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The ghost’s never-changing mid-nineteenth century garb has the air of uncomfortable, anachronistic grandeur despoiled not just by time, but by the gaping stomach wounds that have only festered since his death a century and three-score years ago.

Lou would know. After all, he made them. In a gruesome twist of fate that convinces Lou the universe has a sense of justice—or simply macabre humor—a rapier’s basket hilt protrudes from Jacques’ belly, in the same spot where he stabbed Tante Mignon Lescaut to death. With the very same sword.

Yet, as Lou observes the spectral apparition’s outline, relying more on memory than sight, his centuries-honed instincts scream:

Wrong.

It’s as if he isn’t watching the shade of Jacques Beltremieux, but a skin. A facsimile, an inanimate puppet with a too-large hand stuck inside it, all the more grotesque for its lack of effort to even pretend to be the real thing. Just lying there—floating there—in the dark.

Wrong.

Louis: No rest for the weary, Lou groans inwardly with growing distress. Or the wicked, he adds bitterly.

The old man’s mind turns over possibilities like rough stones in a tumbler. Is he looking at Jacques’ true shade, or has another wraith taken his form? Perhaps his darkness and hate have finally, fully swallowed the soul of his dead mentor? Or is the fault in Lou’s own psyche; has another paranormal presence warped his emotions to make him see Jacques as a foe? No matter how he cuts the cards, it’s a bad hand, and the worm of paranoia starts a low keen that rattles the gumshoe’s spine.

Swallowing down the uncertainty–and the danger that lurks behind it–tastes like acid. The gravel in his voice is drier and weaker than usual as he calls out in the gloom:

“Cent lions… ou cent cheins?”

(“A hundred lions… or a hundred dogs?”)

The old man then waits, nearly holding his breath for the secret answer that would–or should–at least signify if another wraith or entity is masquerading as his old tutor.

GM: Napoleon once said, “If you build an army of 100 lions and their leader is a dog, in any fight, the lions will die like a dog. But if you build an army of 100 dogs and their leader is a lion, all dogs will fight like a lion.”

The darkness shifts. Lou cannot make out Jacques’ jigsaw-scarred face, but his old mentor’s equally hoarse and scarred-sounding voice is audible as he replies, “De toute façon, vous êtes sûr d’avoir des puces.”

(“Either way, you’re sure to get fleas.”)

The darkness smiles.

“Jean-Louis. Bienvenue.”

(“Jean-Louis. Welcome.”)

“Vos yeux rapides sont si faibles. Venez, parlons quelque part avec une meilleure lumière.”

(“Your quick eyes are so feeble. Come, let us speak somewhere with better light.”)

Louis: Lou blinks upon hearing the spectral figure correctly provide the secret answer only Jacques and he know. Unless the true Jacques betrayed their secret passwords, the worm of paranoia whispers.

Lou blinks again, refusing to go down that rabbit hole. He considers who might have supernaturally manipulated his senses… and that rabbit hole is even deeper. Darker. Jacques’ magically puissant victim, Tante Lescaut comes to mind, but so do all manner of suspects. Yet, few would know of his relationship with Jacques… he thinks.

But you don’t really know… the worm hisses.

Lou blinks again, his throat dry as his skin is soaked. “Docteur Beltremieux… où se trouve Mariángel?”

(“Dr. Beltremieux… where is Mariángel?”)

GM: The darkness laughs.

“Elle est endormie. Il est très tard.”

(“She is asleep. It is very late.”)

Louis: There is a part of the old man that just wants to sleep. But given his host’s beshadowed state, Lou doubts he’d ever wake. The irony of the slain mentor slaying his protege is not lost on him.

“Oui, très tard et très sombre,” he answers in a neutral tone.

(“Yes, very late and very dark.”)

GM: The darkness smiles back.

“Un moment opportun pour des hommes comme nous, Jean-Louis, si ce n’est pas un lieu commode. Viens. Parlons quelque part, tu peux me voir.”

(“A fitting time for men such as we, Jean-Louis—if a less than convenient place. Come. Let us speak somewhere you can see me.”)

Louis: Lou grunts. When the Devil has your dance card…

His hand slips into his pocket as he follows.

“Les choses ont changé.”

(“Things have changed.”)

And some things have not–maybe cannot, he bitterly muses.

Those thoughts, however, are arrested as Lou discerns that the earnestness of the shade’s attempt to escort him out of the room are motivated by more than poor lighting. He croons his ears and let his peripheral vision scan the area again… leading him to spot the other silhouette hunched in the room.

His hackles instantly rise, as does his previously pocketed hand with the nail and lighter. His nimble fingers rapidly flick open and light the latter. His old sinews tense like bridge-lines, ready to spring at or away from the whatever the light reveals.

GM: The tiny flame flickers into being. It doesn’t seem to illuminate the dark so much as drown in it—and it is still so dark.

The hunched-over figure faces away from Lou. They do not turn at the newly-kindled light, making their facial features impossible to discern. They wear a long, thick-looking garment made of pale green cotton. Its indistinct edges bleed off into darkness.

Louis: Lou takes a slow step forward, restraining his initial and rising distress.

“Est-ce que je suis interrompue, docteur?”

(“Am I interrupting, doctor?”)

“Vous et votre entreprise, c’est,” he adds, glancing back at his ghostly mentor–or at least his spectral form.

(“You and your company, that is.”)

GM: The shadow-drenched figure does not turn at Lou’s address. The tiny flame licks at the darkness.

The darkness smiles back.

“Pas le moindre.”

(“Not in the least.”)

Louis: The old man’s face remains flat as his brow raises.

“Soins à faire des presentations?”

(“Care to make introductions?”)

GM: “Ailleurs que ici, Jean-Louis. Ma société est une entreprise pauvre et ne vous reconnaîtra pas,” the long-dead man answers.

(“Elsewhere than here, Jean-Louis. My company is poor company and will not acknowledge you.”)

Louis: “On dirait beaucoup de dames que je connais,” Lou quips dryly.

(“Sounds like a lot of ladies I know.”)

GM: “Plus que vous le savez peut-être.”

(“More than you may know.”)

The darkness smiles.

“Plus que vous le savez peut-être.”

(“More than you may know.”)

Louis: Lou is so tired. If the figure is a corpse, as he suspects, it should keep a few more hours. Right now, all he honestly wants to do is sit down. In that semi-fugue, he lowers the lighter and the literal coffin-nail hidden behind it.

“À quoi devons-nous ajourner?”

(“To where should we adjourn?”)

GM: The flickering light bows.

The darkness swells.

“Le salon, bien sûr. Je mai être mort, Jean-Louis, mais je suis toujours votre hôte et vous mon invité.”

(“The parlor, of course. I may be dead, Jean-Louis, but I am still your host and you my guest.”)

Louis: Lou feels a tiny rivulet of water drip down his hairline and down his back. Its touch is cold.

“Encore une fois, j’apprécie votre hospitalité. J’ai des nouvelles que le bon médecin voudra peut-être entendre. Et certains, il peut ne pas le faire.”

(“Once more, I appreciate your hospitality. I have news the good doctor may want to hear. And some, he may not.”)

GM: “Les nouvelles sont comme le pronostic d’un docteur. Bon ou mauvais, il faut entendre,” the gloom-swathed shade answers.

(“News is like a doctor’s prognosis. Good or bad, it must be heard.”)

Louis: Lou makes a sweeping motion with his hook, as if to say, “Lead on.”

GM: The darkness recedes.

The cigarette lighter flickers.

Yet even the tiny flame’s dancing illuminations is enough for Lou to make out Jacques’ face. Something seems to spill over the gaunt shade’s already scarred and embittered visage, twisting it from mere suffering into a hatred so black and bitter that Lou feels almost sick staring at it.

Louis: Lou takes the look of hatred like a bullet to his gut. He probably deserves it. That doesn’t change its lethality though–nor the hard reality of what must be done. His hand and feet shift ever so slightly, readying himself should that murderous expression become more than just an expression.

GM: The darkness screams.

A chill wind blasts across Lou’s face as the air splits with the ragged cries of the damned. Barely conscious of whether the screams are his own, his mentor’s, or simply the tormented recollections of his past, the old man springs into action.

Louis: Lou’s own voice rises in pained harmony with the damned chorus. “Putain, je suis crevé!”

(“I’m so fucking tired!”)

With a preternatural grace and quickness utterly incongruent with the old man’s seemingly broken-down body, Lou flicks the aged, rust-gnawed coffin nail that was previously hidden by the lighter and catches it seamlessly with his prosthetic hook. Still moving in a prolix blur of coordinated moments, Lou steps forward, flame raised before his eyes while his other “limb” brandishes the now nakedly revealed nail.

The hook holds it fast and aims it like a raised crucifix against the spirit’s darkness.

“Rappelez-vous, Jacques!? Rappelez-vous, Mardochée? Elle n’était pas votre femme, mais elle portait toujours votre enfant avec des larmes de joie. Mais vous l’avez fait boire ce tonique. Vous avez transformé son ventre en une jeune fille en fer! Saviez-vous qu’elle l’a appelée, le bébé, votre fille à naître? Firline. Fille du Libérateur, Jacques!”

(“Remember this, Jacques!? Remember, Mardochée?! She wasn’t your wife, but she still bore your child with tears of joy. But you made her drink that tonic. You turned her womb into an iron maiden! Did you know she named her, the baby, your unborn daughter? Firline. Daughter of the Deliverer, Jacques!”)

He rushes forward, rain cold against his prickled skin and swollen joints, the nail from the fetus’ coffin held like a miniature stake. His voice grinds down to a whisper, despite the screaming around and inside him.

“Venez à moi, et je ferai ce que je devrais probablement il y a des siècles: je vais pousser ce clou vers le haut de vos yeux bêtises!”

(“Come at me, and I’ll do what I probably should have done centuries ago: shove this nail straight up your dick’s blind eye!”)

GM: The darkness shrieks.

Crashing noises sound from all sides as Lou is blasted off his feet. Even as he feels solid ground vanish out from under him, he lunges forward like a striking serpent, driving the tiny coffin nail into a translucent crotch made all the more incongruent by his knuckles passing cleanly through it.

The darkness wails.

The blue-tinged ectoplasm that leaks from Jacques’ punctured breeches is barely visible against the tiny flicker of Lou’s clutched lighter. The chill sensation is all-too palpable. Once more, the already thick air grows even more feverish and fetid, like a swollen pustule begging for a lancet. The horripilating, emetic pressure builds–then violently bursts.

The old man crashes to the floor, the cries of the damned ringing in his ears. He still cannot say to whom they belong.

Louis: Even if they don’t come from him–they still belong to him. He’s at least half-damned himself, after all, and tonight of all nights, it’s painfully apparent that not just vampires have poison inside their veins.

GM: The darkness looms. The lighter’s feeble illumination flickers. The old house groans and creeks.

Louis: Lou looks up, his bourbon eyes straining, his worm screaming that he cannot trust those eyes, his heart raped by doubt, regret, anger, and bile.

GM: The old man can neither see nor hear his old mentor’s shade—and precious little else.

Louis: “Je ne veux pas vous battre, Jacques!” he shouts, then speaks increasingly softly, weakly, like a deflating punching bag.

(“I don’t want to fight you, Jacques!”)

“Je suis fatigué. Fatigué de se battre… Fatigué de tout…”

(“I’m tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of everything.”)

GM: The weary old man’s only answer is silence.

Louis: Hearing it, he replies in kind. He rises slowly.

GM: The darkness waits. Time, measurable only by the flickering of his lighter, stretches.

Louis: The old man creeps back toward the green-clothed figure.

GM: They do not stir at Lou’s encroaching presence.

Louis: Thoughts break against Lou’s skull. He misses the rain. Honest, hard, and cold. Just like the truth. Here, he’s not sure what to believe. He presses forward.

GM: Lou presses closer with his lighter. The tiny flame illuminates a hunched-over woman on the cusp of old age, the upper crust of middle class, and the brink of a mental breakdown. Her blonde hair is short, her nails and makeup are subdued taupe and beige, and her fingers and wrists are unadorned save for several smudges of oil paint. She wears a thick, floral-patterned nightgown that buttons up to her neck, but Lou knows all-too well that her wardrobe changed little in the last few decades. Her once haute couture fashion has almost (but not quite) since become retro avant-garde. Her once youthful, tan face is marked by short, razor-blade wrinkles that Lou has seen widen into a web of old, unforgotten pain whenever her rain-colored eyes cry–an all-too common occurrence.

Maria_B.jpg
She does not react to the old man’s presence. She merely paints.

It is difficult for Lou to see what, in the dark. But the artist’s palette in her left hand, and the steadily moving brush in her right, are unmistakable.

Louis: “Madre mía,” Lou gasps, having utterly expected to find a dead corpse–only to see this…

GM: The brush in Maria’s hand continues to flick up and down against the easel’s canvas.

Louis: The occult gumshoe has encountered his fair share of mundane somnambulism before, but tonight he’s unnerved and unsure. “Mariángel?” he calls gently, not believing for an instant she’ll answer or stir, after failing to respond to the recent violence mere feet away.

GM: The painter’s brush mutely continues to flick.

Louis: The PI leans forward with his flickering light to inspect her artwork.

GM: The subject of Maria’s painting is a monstrous beast of horrific proportions. Six great wings with long, black feathers like grasping fingers, beat at a violently storm-tossed sky. Nine clawed and scaled hands slash through the air like descending lightning bolts. The monster’s lower body ends with innumerable writhing tentacles. Their fleshy underbellies are studded with a squid’s suckers and hungry, tooth-like spikes. The exteriors are dotted with furious, blood-shot eyeballs. The strange placement blurs one’s perception of whether the tentacles are mere appendages or biting, hydra-like heads.

Their owner’s intention, however, is all-too apparent. Dozens of smaller classical monsters, from medusae to cyclopes, are being gorily rent apart by the larger beast’s flailing tentacle-heads. Maria’s painting graphically depicts naked bone jutting from severed limbs, shrieking heads with gouged-out eyes, and fonts of spurting blood as the dismembered lesser beasts are cast into the raging, storm-tossed sea that surrounds the great central terror.

There are people. Men and women. Children, adults, and elderly. All are naked and bobbing helplessly through the sea. Some are being gorily dismembered by the smaller monsters. Others are being yanked into the air by the great terror’s tentacled heads. Their features are variously struck with awe, terror, or bizarrely incongruent calm reverie.

A gaping, fang-toothed maw yawns wide at the center of the great terror’s bodily mass. A naked young woman balances upon the thing’s tongue. She clutches to its jagged-edged teeth with white-knuckled, bleeding fingers, a painful handhold to stop from falling down its throat.

Her expression is a thousand things. Arrogant. Despairing. Wrathful. Outraged. Remorseful. Pained. Jealous. Haughty. Determined. Even… innocent. Maria has truly outdone herself in rendering the woman’s face. There are as many palettes of emotion, and seemingly contradictory ones as that, as there are colors on Maria’s palette. The woman is an almost hidden gem in the painting, so easy to overlook despite her central position within it.

She’s beautiful, too. Long platinum-blonde hair falls across her pinkish, naked breasts, whipped this way and that by the raging storm. Individual droplets of water are lovingly rendered onto each one. Dark shadows line the young woman’s face, and her emerald-green eyes blaze at Lou from the canvas almost pleadingly. Or perhaps accusingly. Even imperiously.

The longer he stares at her, the more alive her gaze feels—and the worse his gut seems to knot up. She could be a victim… or perhaps she deserves what’s happening to her.

Louis: “Madre mía…” Lou gasps, again, and nearly falls over. He’s not sure whether to bow down and worship it–or burn it right here and now. He settles for snapping shut his golden lighter and plunging his eyes in darkness. Some things a man should not see.


Thursday night, 16 September 2015, AM

GM: Time passes. The old man cannot say how much. No sound disturbs his dark vigil save for the pounding rain against the roof and Maria’s softly flicking brush.

A noise eventually interrupts the dark. Something thick against floor. From Maria’s direction.

Louis: The lighter springs open. Butane and striker produce flame and light.

GM: The tiny flame illuminates a shadow-drenched Maria taking down the painting off its easel.

Louis: He watches the woman. The real one. The other, he tries so very hard to ignore.

GM: The horrid—beautiful?—painting does not remain long in Lou’s vision. Maria turns it around and
stacks it alongside a row of further, wall-facing canvases. She sets aside her palette and brushes, disassembles the easel, moves her stool backwards, and walks away. Darkness swallows the seemingly sleepwalking woman’s receding form.

Louis: Lou is torn. Does he examine the other canvases, turn them over like a hand of blackjack in a dark gamble? Or does he fold and follow the somnambulist? His conscience—or perhaps failing courage—causes him to choose the latter.

GM: Lou follows Maria down the attic’s ladder. He watches as she folds it up, shoves it up, and closes the trapdoor.

The middle-aged woman strides down pitch-black halls and opens a door. She walks inside, turns, and with vacant eyes that do not register Lou’s presence, closes the door in his face.

Louis: Like a lot of ladies I know, Lou quietly grunts and silently repeats his earlier quip to Jacques. His light once more claps shut. The old man pads back to check on his heaps of treasured trash.

GM: He finds the bulging, mildly stinking black bags seemingly undisturbed from whence he left them.

Louis: Flicking open the lighter for hopefully the last time tonight, Lou uses its feeble light to untie the trash bags and rummage through until he finds a particularly nasty-smelling cardboard box. Dented and stained, the box is sealed with biohazard tape and labeled with large black marker letters: CAT URINE SAMPLES.

Lou stashes the coffin nail in a secure, yet easily reachable spot inside his shoe, then uses his hook to open up the taped box. He fishes through its jumbled contents, including a rubber ball and ten jacks, a mummified cat-head, a spare key to Lottie B.‘s trunk, and finally an angler’s head lamp he used on night fishing trips with the former police chief.

Stowing his lighter, Lou slides the last apparatus on his head. He clicks on its red light, then loosely bundles all his possessions back up. He then heads to the house’s spare bedroom–or at least what was spare bedroom last he visited the Lakeview home.

GM: The spare bedroom lies on the house’s second story. The dull crimson light makes Lou’s still-dim surroundings appear coated in a sheen of drying blood. Thick shadows lurk at the periphery of his sight.

Louis: Lou wasn’t lying when he said he was tired. Or maybe he was, because at this point, he isn’t tired. He’s exhausted. Still, old habits, like the old man, die hard. He sweeps the room for bugs or hidden surveillance, also keen to watch for the return of his ‘host’.

GM: Another old man’s voice pierces the gloom before he has any chance to perform his sweep.

“Il est de coutume de s’annoncer aux résidents du domicile avant d’emménager et d’apporter des valises à la place des sacs poubelles.”

(“It is customary to announce oneself to a home’s residents before moving in—and to bring suitcases in place of garbage bags.”)

Louis: The head-lamp’s red light mingles with the crimson dawn as Lou swings his head to check for sight of Jacques’ shade.

“Vous et moi-même avons tous deux évité notre juste part des douanes.”

(“You and I both have skirted our fair share of customs.”)

His hang-dog face hangs glumly.

“Désolé, Jacques. J’ai besoin d’aide. Ton aide.”

(“I’m sorry, Jacques. I need help. Your help.”)

GM: The doctor’s grim phantom swims into view. Bathed in the dim scarlet light, Jacques Beltremieux’s already scarred, bleeding, and one-eyed visage looks truly horrid. The newest dripping gash in the crotch of his breeches does little to improve the dead man’s countenance.

“Parlez-moi de ce besoin, Jean-Louis.”

(“Tell me of this need, Jean-Louis.”)

Louis: Lou tries to gauge the relative sanity or at least homicidality of his spectral mentor. He’s tired though, so very, very tired. Still, he eyes the injured wraith with some wariness as he asks, “Vous souvenez-vous de notre … conversation dans le grenier?”

(“Do you remember our… conversation in the attic?”)

GM: The doctor frowns. It’s an ugly look on an even uglier face.

“Je ne.”

(“I do not.”)

Louis: Lou shakes his head. Stupid, old man, the worm chides him, as he recognizes that the wraith’s wily Shadow would recall but not admit to doing so. Now, you’ve just hurt him. Again. Without needing to. Again.

Lou recalls once again the saint’s admonition to never use the truth to hurt someone, but he feels he at least owes it to his dead mentor.

“J’ai mentionné qu’il y avait des nouvelles que vous apprécierez et des nouvelles que vous n’aurez probablement pas? Vous m’avez attaqué.”

(“I mentioned there being news you’ll enjoy and news you’ll not. You attacked me.”)

“Désolé, Jacques,” he says, again.

(“I’m sorry, Jacques.”)

This night summons too many apologies. Lou’s eyes drop, first in shame, and then in growing unease as he regards the trash bags. He reflects back to how he searched through the bags in Esplanade Ridge for bugs, both insectile or electronic and found none. That you found, taunts the worm.

Lou shakes his head, then looks up at Jacques.

“Que voulez-vous entendre d’abord? Le bon, le mauvais ou le laid?”

(“Which do you want to hear first? The good, the bad, or the ugly?”)

GM: The ghost’s boil-ridden, jigsaw-scarred face stares back at Lou with a resignation only the dead—the truly dead, not the merely unliving Kindred—can possess.

“Tout ce qui est mauvais dans le monde découle de ce qui était autrefois bon. Commencez par cela, Jean-Louis.”

(“All that is bad in the world flows from what was once good. Begin with that, Jean-Louis.”)

Louis: Lou looks around the room, at the carpets, the bed, and other furniture. A hundred little areas where tiny eyes and ears might be eavesdropping. His skin nearly breaks out in a rash from the fact he hasn’t combed over the room. That skin chafes from the soggy utility jumpsuit. But Lou tries hard to ignore all those discomforts. After all, his host is dealing with a much bigger one: death.

He sighs and looks up at his spectral mentor with a fraction of a smile that always rounds down.

“Voilà les bonnes nouvelles, Jacques. Elle était belle…”

(“Here’s the good news, Jacques. She was good-looking…”)

GM: “J’étais vieux même avant ma mort, Jean-Louis. Et vous êtes un homme plus âgé maintenant que j’étais alors,” the dead man answers.

(“I was old even before I died, Jean-Louis. And you are an older man now than I was then.”)

Not tiredly. Not impatiently. Just the indifference to flesh’s pleasures that only the long dead may have.

Louis: Lou takes the comment in stride, and then resumes his tale. The telling is painful for the old man. Not only are the details still raw, but there are secrets, secrets he hasn’t shared with Caroline, or even Chica. Some of them, he’s kept back to protect them. Some, he’s kept back to protect himself.

But now, now he sheds like, and it is a sharp, hard process like scraping off barnacles from a boat’s hull. The worm hates it. It hurts. But life, he desperately hopes, has a way of moving past hate and hurt.

When his tale is told in full, he looks out the window to watch the rainy sunrise. His old bones don’t quite rest in his chair as much as they lay like reliquaries encased in flesh. The old man sighs.

“Vous avez quelque chose à boire?”

(“You got anything to drink?”)

It seems like the only logical thing to say.

GM: True sunrise fortunately remains some time off. Dawn is but a faint glow struggling under a dark horizon’s soggy weight. Lou is well aware that the Shroud will only grow thicker as Sol passes overhead, making Jacques’ own tie to the Skinlands more tenuous. Rare indeed are the wraiths who will discourse with the living under day’s full light.

The mention of “drinks” only elicits an all-too literally dead stare from the centuries-dead shade.

Louis: Since when did the Big Sleazy become a dry county? the alcoholic gumshoe grouses internally, then turns to regard his host.

“Jacques, une pensée ou un sentiment a grimpé ma colonne vertébrale ces derniers temps. Ou peut-être y a-t-il été pendant des siècles, comme une grosse tige qui me draine à sec par millilitres.”

(“Jacques, a thought or feeling has been creeping up my spine lately. Or maybe it’s been there for centuries, like a fat tick draining me dry by milliliters.”)

He continues, slipping the head lamp from his brow and slumping further into the chair, “Mais ces derniers … jours … pas de décennies, Jacques, c’est presque tout ce que je peux penser. J’ai peut-être tort. Peut-être que je me suis trompé tout ce temps, et même si je l’ai atteint au sommet de cette longue échelle, je l’ai trouvé, je ne le trouverais que sur un toit différent de celui que je voulais.”

(“But these past… days… no decades, Jacques, it’s nearly all I can think of. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time, and even if I made it to the top of this long ladder I’ve been climbing, I’d only find it leaning against a different roof than I intended.”)

There’s despair in his voice, a dark liquor that’s taken lifetimes to distill. “Je ne dis pas qu’il ne mérite pas une longue sieste au soleil. Il fait. Sinon pour elle, alors pour tous les autres qui ont payé le salaire du péché commis sous son nom. Mais…”

(“I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve a long cat nap in the sun. He does. If not for her, then for all the others who have paid the wages of sin committed under his name. But…”)

“Mais peut-être … peut-être qu’il est la mauvaise échelle … ou le toit. Peut-être que la Savoie est l’échelle droite. L’enfer, peut-être qu’il n’y a pas de toits, pas du tout…”

(“But maybe… maybe he’s the wrong ladder… or roof. Maybe Savoy’s the right ladder. Hell, maybe there are no roofs, not at least like…”)

The old man stops short of delving into theological waters with the ghost who was already a violent atheist before his death.

“Je suis fatigué. Et honnêtement, j’ai l’impression que mon billet est sur le point d’être frappé, Jacques, alors je ferais mieux d’être prêt à attraper ce chariot. Mais si je pars, je veux laisser la station un peu plus propre pour les personnes qui attendent en ligne. Peut-être que le salaud espagnol est trop gros pour nettoyer. Peut-être que j’ai appris cela. Cela ne veut pas dire que je l’ai bien compris. Ou peut-être que je … peut-être qu’il n’est pas le bon geste à nettoyer. Peut-être le pire, celui qui fait la meilleure partie de la station pue le pire, c’est la pile de merde qui vit à Evergreen.”

(“I’m tired. And honestly, I feel like my ticket is about to be punched, Jacques, so I better be ready to catch that trolley. But if I’m leaving, I want to leave the station a little cleaner for the next people waiting in line. Maybe the Spanish bastard is too big a mess to clean. Maybe I’ve learned that. Doesn’t mean I’ve come to terms with it though. Or maybe I… maybe he’s not the right mess to clean up. Maybe the worst one, the one that is making the best part of the station stink up the worst is the pile of shit living in Evergreen.”)

He looks up, not expecting the wraith to argue the point, and adds:

“Mais je suis un vieux chien qui est trop vieux et trop fatigué pour continuer à apprendre de nouvelles astuces. Si je fais cela, je pense que je n’ai qu’une chance, un sprint, un tour ou deux avant d’appeler le combat, d’une manière ou d’une autre. J’ai besoin de votre aide, Jacques. Je dois savoir passer d’une échelle à l’autre. Un mistep, et c’est une longue chute et un arrêt soudain.”

(“But I’m an old dog who’s too old and too tired to keep learning new tricks. If I do this, I figure I’ve only got one chance, one sprint, one round or two before they call the fight, one way or another. I need your help, Jacques. I need to know how to step from one ladder to another. One misstep, and it is a long drop and a sudden stop.")

Or worse, the other way around, Lou murmurs silently, a cold fist of fear around his heart.

He looks at the approaching dawn and cannot help but see it as a looming sunset. He frowns.

“Vous êtes sûr de ne rien boire? Aucun cabinet d’alcool ou une petite bouteille de scotch ou de tequila que Mariangel a caché?”

(“You sure there’s nothing to drink? No liquor cabinet or little bottle of scotch or tequila that Mariangel has hidden away?”)

GM: Jacques regards Lou’s words with the same unearthly patience he has come to expect from any of the restless dead. But where Tante Lescaut’s void-like eyes stared at Lou with vacant almost-noncomprehension, as if she were looking beyond him rather than at him, Jacques’ shade listens with a rapt, feverish attention too undivided in its focus to be anything but inhuman. The scarred-ridden ghost’s simmering wrath is a nigh-literal force when Lou mentions the prince’s archrival. He watches his old mentor’s boil-ridden sores burst in a shower of weeping, boiling-hot ectoplasmic puss. Jacques, however, merely continues,

“Si vous étiez Vidal ou son salaudier shérif, Jean-Louis, que feriez-vous pour appréhender Louis Fontaine, en sachant tout ce que Malveaux sait?”

(“If you were Vidal or his bastard sheriff, Jean-Louis, what would you do to apprehend Louis Fontaine, knowing all that Malveaux knows?”)

Louis: Lou’s expression sours, less due to the ectoplasmic pus–shower rather than his host “dodging” his second request for a drink. He nonetheless answers without hedging:

“J’ai frappé mon bureau. Avoir des yeux et plus regarder cela. Idem avec la fille. Ils s’attendent ou au moins à me préparer à la contacter. Dominez-la pour être son pion et demandez-la de me conduire dans un piège. Encore. Mais cela repose uniquement sur ce qu’elle sait. Vidal pourrait presser les Warlocks pour faire de Peter des ruses ou des secousses. De même, j’utilise mes anciens patrons, partenaires et contacts au sein de NOPD en tant qu’information, optimiser ou pire. Utilisez la sorcellerie pour tout ce qui précède. Demandez aux chasseurs et à leurs goons de parcourir la ville pour un soupçon ou un soupçon.”

(“Hit my office. Have eyes and more watching it. Same with the girl. They will expect or at least prepare for me contacting her. Dominate her into being their pawn and have her lead me into a trap. Again. But that’s just based on what she knows. Vidal could squeeze the Warlocks into making Peter cough up secrets or help with another set-up. Similarly use my old bosses, partners, and contacts within NOPD as intel, leverage, or worse. Use sorcery for all of the above. Have the Hounds and their goons scour the city for any hint or whiff.”)

He continues, “Et puis il y a Chica. Caroline pourrait leur dire peu de Chica, sauf qu’elle était capable de la jeter et qu’elle m’aidait. Polk aurait pu leur en dire un peu plus, mais pas beaucoup d’autre chose. Quoi qu’il en soit, ils vont essayer cette poignée aussi.”

(“And then there’s Chica. Caroline could tell them little of Chica, save that she was capable enough to stake her and that she was helping me. Polk could have told them a bit more, but not much else. Regardless, they will try that handle too.”)

GM: The shade does not nod at any of Lou’s conclusions, but merely continues,

“Je suis certain que vous vous souvenez de ce que le prince a fait pour que les supposés assassins de Bastien se révèlent.”

(“I am certain you recall what the prince did to make Bastien’s supposed killers reveal themselves.”)

Louis: “Avec cette situation, les deux ont des secrets dont il vaut la peine d’être tué, et ce que l’on n’a jamais eu besoin d’une bonne raison.”

(“With this situation, both have secrets worth killing for, not that either ever needed a good reason.”)

GM: “Alors peut-être qu’un autre devrait priver le catholique de ce qu’il veut le plus.”

(“Then perhaps another should deprive the Catholic of what he most wants.”)

“Peut-être qu’un autre devrait sembler tuer Louis Fontaine avant qu’il puisse.”

(“Perhaps another should appear to kill Louis Fontaine before he can.”)

“Il a vécu une longue vie. Il est bientôt dû pour le remplacement.”

(“He has lived a long life. He is soon due for replacement.”)

Louis: Lou sucks on the grim suggestion. It’s one he’s already considered. Been considering.

“Comme je l’ai dit, l’échelle est grande, et un autre échec ne permettra pas une autre.”

(“As I said, the ladder is tall, and another misstep won’t allow another.”)

Lou grows pensive, or more pensive at least, before adding, “Il y a deux autres chemins, Jacques, je dois considérer. L’un est un ancien. L’autre est celui que je n’ai jamais osé pisser.”

(“There are two other paths, Jacques, I must consider. One is an old one. The other is one I have never dared trod.”)

GM: A severed, infant-sized fist tugs at the long-dead doctor’s ashen hair. He stares at Lou with a dead man’s infinitely patient eyes.

Louis: The old man’s face is creased by age, dawn-shadows, and darker memories as he elaborates, “Dans un sprint final, je ne pouvais pas prendre un nouveau nom, mais un ancien, et prendre son rôle ouvertement. Le Loup de la Nouvelle-Orléans.”

(“In a final sprint, I could take not a new name, but an old one, and take its role openly. The Wolf of New Orleans.”)

“Rassemblez les paquets. Une dernière chasse. Allez dans la gorge.”

(“Gather the packs. One last hunt. Go for the throat.”)

He is silent for while as he lets the implications sink in. Then he continues, “Ou…”

(“Or…”)

“Je vais sous la couverture, plus profond, et dans la direction où ils sont le moins susceptibles de soupçonner.”

(“I go under cover, deeper, and in the direction they are least likely to suspect.”)

He then elaborates the details of this “third” option. When he finishes, he closes his eyes, and it takes him so much effort to reopen them.

“Je suis fatigué, Jacques. Même si je pensais que c’était le mouvement le plus intelligent, je ne pense pas pouvoir recommencer. Encore. Je pense que c’est ma dernière main.”

The words slowly grind out of his throat like diamonds returned to dust.

(“I’m tired, Jacques. Even if I thought it the smartest move, I don’t think I can start over. Again. I think this is my last hand.”)

GM: Blood steadily, soundlessly drips from Jacques’ gaping stomach wounds. Bathed under Lou’s crimson light, it is almost impossible to tell he is bleeding at all, but for the fact his moldering waist and frock coats seem to steadily shift and ripple—like sanguine rain batting against a window’s surface. The centuries-old wraith neither moves nor changes in expression as he rasps,

“Le loup est mort depuis plus de cent ans. Que doivent croire les chasseurs s’il revient? Qu’il soit une goule—ou l’un de leurs maîtres? Gagner leur confiance en l’un d’eux est un obstacle, mais pas impossible. Caiaphas Smith l’a fait. Pourtant, il est connu comme une goule depuis plus longtemps que tout chasseur mortel encore en vie—et beaucoup doutent encore s’il cherche à défendre la Veillée ou à nourrir ses propres faim.”

(“The Wolf has been dead for over a hundred years. What are hunters to believe if he returns? That he is a ghoul—or one of their masters? Winning their trust as one of the former is an impediment, but not impossible. Caiaphas Smith has done so. Yet he has been known as a ghoul for longer than any mortal hunter still living—and many still doubt whether he seeks to uphold the Vigil or feed his own hungers.”)

“Peu de chasseurs ont l’ambition de renverser le prince ou d’autres parasites plus âgés. Nombre d’entre eux ne cherchent qu’à détruire tous les sangsues qu’ils trouvent dans la rue. Les chasseurs plus jeunes et plus impressionnables peuvent se rallier facilement à vos côtés, L’espoir d’exterminer la ligne de parasites de Pascual et encore moins celui de Vidal: rechercher ces alliés, cultiver leur confiance et orchestrer une grève qui ne soit pas une expédition-suicide à laquelle peu de chasseurs peuvent consentir, cela prendra du temps quand il est pourchassé par les agents du prince, mais un autre homme peut le faire. "

(“Few hunters have ambitions of toppling the prince or other elder parasites. Many only seek to destroy what bloodsuckers they find on the street. Younger and more impressionable hunters may rally to your side easily, but you will need tried and seasoned veterans to have any hope of exterminating Pascual’s line of parasites, much less Vidal’s. Seeking out these allies, cultivating their trust, and orchestrating a strike that is not the suicide expedition few hunters besides yourself may consent to—this will take time. Time Louis Fontaine will not have when he is being hunted by the prince’s agents—but another man may.”)

“Vous proposez également d’infiltrer l’une des factions de parasites. Aussi dégoûtant que de prétendre être l’un de leurs esclaves, l’idée n’est pas sans mérite. Ils offrent un accès à l’information, aux ressources et à la proximité des parasites qu’aucun chasseur ne peut obtenir. C’est un endroit où Vidal ne pensera pas à te chercher, mais le prince le fera toujours, et le Krewe de Janus l’aidera peut-être même. Une goule voyous est une menace potentielle pour leur mascarade bien-aimée vos capacités démontrées. Il est plus facile d’infiltrer un groupe qui, en fait, ne vous cherche pas activement. Même s’ils ne le sont pas, la propre recherche du prince ne peut être qu’une pierre de taille autour du cou.”

(“You also propose infiltrating one of the parasites’ factions. As distasteful as pretending to be one of their slaves may be, the idea is not without merit. They offer access to information, resources, and proximity to the parasites that no hunters can. They are a place Vidal will not think to look for you. Yet the prince will still do so, and the Krewe of Janus may even be aiding him in this. A rogue ghoul is a potential threat to their beloved Masquerade—especially one of your demonstrated capabilities. It is easier to infiltrate a group that is not, in fact, actively looking for you. Even if they are not, the prince’s own search can only be a millstone around your neck.”)

“Vous aurez aussi besoin d’alliés, Jean-Louis, si vous voulez éliminer l’un des parasites âgés. Pendant tout le siècle que vous avez passé seul, quels progrès avez-vous réellement accomplis?”

(“You will need allies too, Jean-Louis, if you are to bring down any of the elder parasites. In all the century you have spent alone, what progress have you truly made?”)

The shade’s scarred, boil-ridden features darken.

“Tout cela ignore la malédiction de Wedo, qui selon vous fera de vous l’un des parasites eux-mêmes. Pensez-vous qu’il va simplement disparaître? Ou attendez-vous de mettre de l’ordre dans vos affaires? le pire moment possible—et nous ne devrions pas trouver de réconfort dans le fait que ce n’est pas le cas du vôtre. mais une autre pierre autour du cou. Le chemin de la main noire pour lever la malédiction sera beaucoup plus facile. Qu’y a-t-il d’autre péché sur des consciences aussi souillées et coupables que la nôtre? parasites et commettre d’innombrables autres. Tout cela avant le danger immédiat que votre malédiction peut poser à vos plans et à vos alliés.”

(“All of this ignores Wedo’s curse, which you say will cause you to become one of the parasites themselves. Do you believe it will simply go away? Or wait for you to set your affairs in order? A mambo’s curse is apt to strike at the worst possible time—and we should find little solace in the fact that yours has not. Not yet. Furthermore, earning the forgiveness of two petty criminals for killing their mother, criminals you yourself caused the imprisonments of, is a Sisyphean task and but another millstone around your neck. The black hand’s path to lifting the curse will be far easier. What is another sin on consciences as stained and guilty as ours? Better that you escape the curse through one act of atrocity, than become one of the parasites and commit countless more. All of this before the immediate danger your curse may pose to your plans and allies.”)

“Les parasites ne seront pas exterminés dans un jour, Jean-Louis. Si cela avait été possible, cela aurait été fait depuis longtemps par d’autres. Pourtant, vous dites que vous êtes fatigué et prêt à fixer la Veillée.”

(“The parasites will not be exterminated in a day, Jean-Louis. If that were possible, it would have long since been done by others. Yet you say that you are tired and ready to lay down the Vigil.”)

Two boils abruptly burst around Jacques’ rheumy-yellow eye. Pus runs down his scarred, wrinkled skin like furious tears. His face turns black again with hate that even death could not quench as he spits,

“A quoi dois-je reposer où je ne le fais pas, meurtrier?”

(“What right do you have to rest where I do not, murderer?)

Louis: Unpacking Jacques’ words is like untangling Christmas lights made of barbed wire. It’s…. delicate. Dangerous. And despite all his care, the words cut him. Deeply.

“Ce n’est pas un droit. Mais ce pourrait être le droit.”

(“It’s not a right. But it still might be the right thing to do.")

Lou drags a shovel hand across his face like a long, rough sigh.

“Jacques… ce que vous vouliez faire… ce que vous faisiez… appeler Sousson-Pannan… ça aurait tué tant d’innocents. Innocents, Jacques. Si nous devenons aussi monstrueux que les monstres que nous chassons, nous avons perdu la Vigile.”

(“Jacques… what you were tying to do… what you were doing… calling Sousson-Pannan… it would have killed so many innocents. Innocents, Jacques. If we become just as monstrous as the monsters we hunt, then we have lost.”)

He balls his first into mouth, biting momentarily before looking up with centuries-harrowed eyes.

“J’ai essayé… J’ai plaidé… J’ai échoué…”

(“I tried… I pleaded… I failed…”)

His hand drops slowly, and his voice is like ash in his mouth.

“Mais vous avez raison… J’ai accompli si peu… trop peu… et je suis… Je suis un meurtrier. La malédiction de maman Wedo ou non, j’ai la marque de Caïn.”

(“But you’re right… I’ve accomplished so little… too little… and I’m… I am a murderer. Mama Wedo’s curse or not, I bear the mark of Caine.”)

A grimace of resignation settles on his face like wet concrete as he regards his mentor.

“Peut-être que tu as raison. Peut-être que Louis Fontaine doit mourir, même si Jean-Louis ne le mérite pas.”

(“Maybe you’re right. Maybe Louis Fontaine needs to die—even if Jean-Louis doesn’t deserve to it.”)

GM: “Vous-ASSASSINÉ-moi!” Jacques roars, his sole yellow eye flashing like a bolt of pus-colored lightning. His other socket’s empty pit bores into Lou’s vision like a furious, pitch-black spear.

(“You— MURDERED —me!")

“Moi qui t’ai sauvé de la vie en tant qu’esclave de parasites! Moi qui t’ai appris tout ce que tu savais et fait de toi l’homme que tu es! Moi qui t’ai guidé, conseillé et abrité pendant un siècle et trois ans après ma mort—entre tes mains! Et maintenant, maintenant, tu PENSE même à abandonner ta Veillée, parce que tu es _TIRED?! _ Pfah!”

(“I, who rescued you from life as one of the parasites’ slaves! I, who taught you all that you knew and made you the man you are! I, who have guided you, counseled you, and sheltered you, for a century and three-score years after my death—at your hands! And now—now, you would even THINK to abandon your Vigil, because you are TIRED?! Pfah!")

The shade doesn’t spit so much as snarl. His scarred and chapped lips pull back from broken, bloody teeth teeth as he expels a foul ectoplasmic concoction of blood, puss, and spit at Lou’s feet. The awful residue is still as milk and honey next to the bitterness in Jacques’ voice. His hate-twisted, red-bathed face continues to rave as his cancerous boils furiously pop and weep,

“Tu n’as aucune idée de ce que c’est que d’être fatigué, Jean-Louis! Toi qui marche parmi les Skinlands, qui peut sentir le soleil sur ton visage, et qui peut manger, boire et rire jusqu’à en avoir mal à l’estomac! Vous pouvez toucher le front d’un enfant sans que celui-ci ne recule devant la terreur! Vous qui n’avez jamais senti un tourbillon se fendiller de votre âme, enduré les cauchemars d’un déchirement ou les murmures incessants de votre Lonbraj! Perdu! Vous qui avez tellement moins souffert au cours de ces siècles que moi, vous-même, l’architecte de mes propres souffrances, oseriez même respirer à mon visage ce que vous méritez—REPOS?! "

(“You have no idea what it is to be tired, Jean-Louis! You, who walk among the Skinlands, can feel the sun on your face, and can eat, drink and laugh until your belly aches with pleasure! You, who can touch an infant’s brow without it recoiling in terror! You, who have never felt a maelstrom flay your soul, walked a harrowing’s waking nightmares, or endured the incessant whisperings of your Lonbraj! You, who retain the ti-bon-age I have lost! You, who have suffered so much less over these centuries than I—you, the architect of my own suffering, dare to even breathe to my face that you deserve— REST?!")

Louis: The wraith’s enraged words hit Lou like a stampede of eighteen-wheelers. His already ravished heart becomes roadkill. Bloody, flat, and burst open. He all but falls out of his chair and collapses to his old knees.

“Je suis désolé. Vous méritez beaucoup mieux. Mérite bien plus. Désolé, Jacques. J’étais… confus, perdu. Je suis désolé. Tu as raison. S’il vous plaît, pardonnez-moi. Je le ferai bien, je ne quitterai pas. Je suis désolé.”

(“I’m sorry. You deserve so much better. Deserved so much more. I’m sorry, Jacques. I was… confused, lost. I’m sorry. You’re right. Please forgive me. I’ll make it right, I won’t quit. I’m sorry.”)

GM: The hatred twisting Jacques’ scarred face subsides. It doesn’t disappear so much as drain away to a familiar level of centuries-old bitterness that no words may ever erase.

“Qu’est ce que tu vas faire?”

(“What are you going to do?”)

Louis: Lou utters an old maxim amongst the Knights of St. Balacou:

“Apprendre. Plan. Préparer. Exécuter.”

(“Learn. Plan. Prepare. Execute.”)

The old man looks up and continues to his old mentor as webs begin spinning in his mind, “J’ai besoin de me reposer, puis de toucher soigneusement certains contacts pour voir de quelle manière les coups de coups sont liés à l’affaire Rempart Rue et ses conséquences. Avec votre bénédiction et, espérons-le, une aide, j’ai besoin de planifier la mort de Louis Fontaine. Après cela, un autre mort, Et j’espère que c’est une finale de plus pour les plus doux de la Grande Faiblesse.”

(“I need to lay low, then reach out carefully to some contacts to see which way the spin blows with the Rampart Street affair and its aftermath. With your blessing and hopefully aid, I need to plan Louis Fontaine’s death. After that, another death, and hopefully one more final for the Sleaziest of the Big Sleazy.”)


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