Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood & Bourbon
Adán Méchant-Cyprès d’Gerasene Peripherals
Adán St. Cyprien was born on Eden Isle in St. Tammany Parish, along the northeastern cypress-swamps of Lake Pontchartrain, in 1916. His indigent French-Creole family dwelt in a humble pine-hewn cabin. His father, Tomás, had been taken by his own father to the region to “escape New Orleans and its evil ways that rivaled Sodom and Gomorrah.” Tomás himself was a strict but fair father, who taught his children how to survive by trapping turtles, fishing for sturgeon and paddlefish, and diving for clams. They traded what little excess they had for those few items they could not obtain or make from the land and lake. One of those items was medicine. When Adán and his eldest brother, Timothée, became sick with the ‘yellow jack’, Tomás swallowed his pride to beg for aid from the nuns of the local isle’s church, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School. They graciously gave the family a package of paracetamol and their prayers. Tomás gladly accepted the former, and in time, both of his sons recovered.
In repayment, or tithe of gratitude, Adán volunteered every tenth day of his time at the church. There, the boy served the Ursuline nuns, performing menial chores such as weeding the church grounds and scrubbing its tomb markers. During these tasks, the young boy often lingered nearby rooms and windows, eavesdropping on ecclesiastical and secular lessons. Noting this, one of the nuns, Sister Jolicoeur, kindly taught him his letters and catechisms, and was surprised at how readily he learned both. After a few more private lessons, with equally surprising results–such as Adán memorizing the entire Epistle of James after only a few readings–Sister Jolicoeur convinced the local priest, Father Maggard, who in turn convinced Adán’s parents to allow him to attend the catholic school, courtesy of a scholarship.
Despite Adán’s thirst for knowledge and intellectual aptitude, the young boy initially had trouble integrating with his new life, as he was not used to the highly structured setting and rules, much less sitting in a chair. The astute youth was also keenly aware that his clothes, dialect, and prior education (or relative lack thereof) marked him as a poor bayou-born Creole. In contrast, his ‘peers’ were relatively wealthy, white, and well-educated students whose parents paid for their children’s parochial tuition and boarding fees. Those tensions only intensified as Adán quickly caught up to, and then surpassed his peers in both scriptural and secular knowledge. Moreover, Adán’s curiosity and rough politesse meant he occasionally drew the ire of his teachers when he asked piercing, but highly unorthodox questions.
However, Adán’s studies almost came to a premature end when his elder brother, Timothée, once again caught yellow fever, and then seemed to pass it to Adán’s sisters and mother. Desperate for a cure, the family sold their only item of significant value: an heirloom liturgical relic that was a 14th-century Medici porcelain figure reportedly commissioned by Cardinal Ferdinando de’Medici. and later possessed by his 15th-century descendant, Pope Leo XI, and his close friend, St. Philip Neri. Despite this esteemed historicity, the porcelain figure sold for a meagre thirty dollars. Yet, the money still allowed Tomás to transport his family¬–all save Adán–to Abita Springs. There, he hoped the famed artesian waters would cure his sick son, daughters, and wife. Upon hearing of the desperate journey, Adán had wanted to accompany his family, but his father demurred, nominally citing the importance of his religious study, but in truth fearing that Adán would at best be another mouth to feed and shelter, or worst, also become ill.
Left behind and overcome with worry for his family members, Adán struggled to reengage with his studies. At the same time, his scriptural learning and questions were no longer driven by idle curiosity, but had became painfully personal. Namely, he wondered why there must there be sickness and death, and why did the priests no longer seem to possess the miraculous healing powers of biblical prophets and apostles? Once again, the Epistle of James–and specifically the fifth verse of its first chapter–guided his path. Namely, from the Vulgar Clementina, he read and readily recalled its translation:
Si quis autem vestrum indiget sapientia, postulet a Deo, qui dat omnibus affluenter, et non improperat: et dabitur ei.
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.
So inspired, Adán left the church grounds to privately pray for understanding and wisdom. He traveled deep into the swamps, far from any other human soul. There, he shed his clothes as if in reverse imitation of the antediluvian Adam. The young boy then knelt and prayed with all his fervor. Night fell, and he heard predatory, hungry things stalking the woods, but he did not relent. Instead, he further poured out his soul, his pleading words like a never-ceasing stream of incense up to heaven.
Then, just as he felt a claw-like hand on his neck, the cypress tree in front of him became engulfed in flames. The claw and any other predators instantly retreated. Adán opened his eyes and beheld the burning cypress. In its bowers, twelve seraphic pelicans nested, their pure-white plumage gleaming like lightning. In the roaring flames, Adán heard the voice of God–or what he presumed to be God. The voice called him by name, then told him that his brother, sisters, and mother were all dead. Adán could not help but weep. But the voice comforted him, explaining that their souls were in heaven, where they were free from sickness and all other mortal pains. As if sensing Adán’s questions, the voice continued, expounding on the purpose of sickness, disease, and death, explaining that death ultimately is a divine gift, a doorway through which all save the most damned souls can cross freely. Many other things did the voice share with the young boy, but it ended by foretelling that Adán’s father would return from his sojourn on the morrow and attempt to take Adán away from his studies. The voice warned Adán that he must not let this happen, for he was being called to serve God’s will in other ways. Elated, yet humbled, Adán asked what he should do to prevent his father and the nuns from ending his studies. In reply, one of the angelic pelicans flew down from the burning tree. Sensing some unvoiced command, Adán offered a palm to the seraphic bird. In response, the pelican opened its mouth, regurgitating a burning fish-hook that punctured Adán’s hand. The boy felt it immediately–not just the pain of the partial stigmata, but also power.
The next morning, true to the voice’s prophecy, Adán’s father returned from Abita Springs, informing Father Maggard that Adán’s brother, sisters, and mother had all perished from the yellow fever. Tomás also announced that he had come to reclaim his sole living child, as he would need his help to maintain their cabin homestead. Although Sister Jolicoeur tried to explain the boy’s scholarly aptitude and promise, Tomás was adamant–and also seemed in no mood for further discussion, as he seemed not only heartbroken and exhausted, but also ill and jaundiced. Reluctantly, Sister Jolicoeur retrieved Adán. The boy both comforted and disquieted her with assurances that he already knew what had happened–and must happen. Seeing his father, Adán calmly related that he must remain behind and complete his studies “as God wills it.” Irate at the boy’s seemingly sanctimonious defiance, Tomás harshly recited the fifth commandment:
“Honor thy father and thy mother!”
Adán countered calmly by reciting Luke 14:26:
“If any man come to me, and forsake not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
Nigh apoplexic with fury, Tomás attempted to drag his son forcibly back to their cabin homestead. Yet, just as he grabbed the boy, Tomás’ fever overcame him. He violently collapsed, blood leaking from his nose. Spasms overtook his body, and he began to violently wretch black vomit. Recognizing the fatal, if surprisingly sudden, symptoms of yellow fever, Father Maggard and the gathered nuns hesitated, unsure what they should or could do. Adán, however, calmly approached his father and unwrapped his bandaged hand to reveal his pierced palm. Anointing his father with the stigmatic blood, Adán called upon God to restore not only the dying man’s body, but also his faith. At the benediction’s conclusion, Tomás was miraculously hale.
As Tomás regained his health and speech, he slowly rose, then turned to Father Maggard. He proclaimed that Adán should stay and complete his training, glancing to his son, as he added, “As God wills it.” Tomás then left without another word, leaving the shocked priest and nuns with their strange ward.
Adán never saw his father again–at least not in life–as Tomás and their homestead were reportedly washed away by hurricane storm-surges on June 16th, 1934. In the same year, Adán completed his minor seminary at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School. True to his teacher’s predictions, he had become an exemplary scriptorian and religious scholar. His other ‘gifts’ had been rarely displayed, and never again in such a dramatic manner. Notwithstanding, his tutors had great aspirations for him, and none ever questioned whether Adán would continue his path to becoming an ordained presbyteratus.
At the same time, neither Adán nor the others at Our Lady of Lourdes ever really answered how the poor, orphaned teen could afford college, much less a graduate-level seminary. For all his ecclesiastical and scholarly education, he had no significantly marketable skills and even less money. Moreover, the state and country were in the nadir of the Great Depression. Jobs were few and far between, even for those with employable skills and vocational experience. Yet, true to the motto of the seminary whose admission he sought, Adán believed that Deus providebit: ‘God will provide.’
And He did.
Yet, as is common with providence, divine aid came only after a trial of faith. The need for work drove Adán back to the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ from which his grandfather had fled. News had trickled to Eden Isle that workers were needed to help excavate the swampland south of the Gentilly Ridge and north of Bayou Bienvenue for the rerouted Intracoastal Waterway. With naught a penny to his name, Adán departed his beloved tutors and long-time home at Our Lady of Lourdes. Reaching Lake Pontchartrain’s shores, he contemplated whether he should walk the NO&NE railway line or the equally hazardous I-10 Twin Span Bridge that connected St. Tammany Parish with New Orleans. As he contemplated his path and tried to ignore the growing hunger in his belly, the recently ordained lector paused to pray. A local fisherman happened upon the praying would be priest, and teasingly asked:
“I don’t reckon da Almighty has any recommendations on bait, eh?”
Still kneeling with eyes closed, Adán replied, “I can ask the Lord if you wish–though you may do the same, as God’s grace allows all men to petition His throne through Christ’s intercession.”
“Well,” the redbone, heavily bearded fisherman said with a feigned chuckle, “I haint sure I done understood all dem fancy four-dollar words, but me and da Lord aren’t exactly on speakin’ terms dese days.”
That confession gave Adán pause, leading him to shift the petition of his prayer, silently asking aid to rekindle the man’s faith–‘as God willed it.’ What next ensued was a lengthy talk between the lector and fisherman. The former introduced himself, sharing tales of his upbringing in the cypress swamps and church, as well as his present mission of seeking employ in New Orleans to pay for college, pursuant to serving as a Catholic priest. The latter in turn introduced himself as Pierre Jeansonne, who like his father and brother, Andre, worked a fishing trawler on Lake Pontchartrain. Pierre related how the fishing had been poor as of late, with money being particularly sore. His mother in law needed a surgical operation, but was on her deathbed as the family could not pay for the necessary but expensive anesthetics the city surgeons required. Sympathetic to the man’s plight, Adán inquired if Pierre’s mother-in-law had received a priestly anointing. Pierre scoffed, saying he and his kin had long ago lost faith in a “Church dat seemed only good at takin’ coin, or a God dat seemed fine wit watchin’ his world go to da shitter.” Those confessions in turn led to a longer series of theological conversations that stretched to sunset, with both men sharing their soul’s deepest questions about the divine, even as Adán tried to stoke the last embers of Pierre’s faith.
By the end, Pierre seemed almost ready to take up again his abandoned faith, but he faltered as he looked at his empty fishing pole. Rising, he bid the would be priest good fortunes, and half-heartedly asked the lector to say another prayer that his wife would forgive him for spending the entire evening talking to a stranger versus catching dinner for his family. Adán, however, halted the man, saying there was no need to ask for his wife’s forgiveness, as “God had an answer to his first petition.” Perplexed by the lector’s remark, Pierre paused to watch as Adán plucked a blade of St. Augustine grass, tied it in the liturgical outline of a fish, and then dipped the object in what looked to be a deep puncture wound in the lector’s palm. Adán then passed the anointed ‘bait’ to the fisherman, bidding Pierre to cast his line into the lake for him to catch “as God wills it.” The experienced fisherman wanted to scoff at the bait, but there was something in the lector’s gaze that halted his tongue, if not doubts.
Thus, Pierre attached the ‘bait’ to his hook and cast his line. Immediately, he caught something–something large. It took all of both men’s strength, and the help of several passers-by, to pull in the catch: a giant 12-foot gulf sturgeon. Uncannily, the line never snapped. Yet, the greatest part of the miracle was revealed when Pierre went to retrieve his hook and “lucky” bait, as the man spotted something else inside the fish’s mouth. It was a rusted money box, and inside was a collection of 18th-century Spanish doubloons. The antique gold was more money than either man had ever seen, and would more than cover Pierre’s familial surgical fees. Pierre broke down in tears, thanking Adán and praising God.
Demanding the “holy man” accompany him to his house, Pierre introduced the lector to his family and related the miraculous events. They shared a joyous meal, during which Pierre promised to not only ferry Adán to New Orleans, but also to use whatever remained of the doubloons’ post-surgery proceeds to pay for Adán’s college education. Adán accepted the man’s offer with a humble bow, proclaiming, “As God wills it.”
With Pierre–or God, depending on one’s view–paying for Adán’s college tuition, books, room, and board, the lector enrolled in the Jesuits’ Religious Studies program at Loyola University of New Orleans. Much like his beginning at Our Lady of Lourdes, Adán struggled to fit in with his new environs and peers. The sheer scale and size of the university, much less the metropolis that surrounded it, was beyond anything in the rural man’s experience. He had expected a cloistered religious institution akin to a monastery. Instead, he discovered that the vast majority of Loyola’s students were pursuing secular vocations, such as dentistry, law, pharmacy, music, and business. Things like football bewildered him, especially the fervor of its collegiate and community fans. Their borderline bloodthirst reminded him of his readings on the Roman Colosseum’s spectators. He was glad when the Jesuits discontinued the Wolf Pack’s football team in his sophomore year, especially as the unused field paved the way for the construction of the Memorial Library–though it would not be finished before his time ended at Loyola.
Even without football, the university was still rampant with worldly influences and related sins. In the recent wake of Prohibition’s repeal, Adán was surrounded by all manner of drunkenness, both in and off campus. Neither his family nor the sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes had drank alcohol, save for sacramental wine, so Adán was shocked at seeing the drug’s effects on his peers, but also astonished that anyone would willingly partake of something so “diabolic”, as it clearly “enslaved the mortal mind and body and drove it to all manner of frivolity and debauchery.” Naturally, Mardi Gras also did not suite the would be priest.
Even amongst his fellow seminary students, Adán often felt like the shepherd-boy David amongst King Saul’s war captains. Given the high cost of tuition, his peers came from even richer, more established families than that of the youths at Our Lady of Lourdes. Similarly, Adán’s rural accent and austere, threadbare clothing (as Pierre did not consider his friend would need money for a wardrobe) made him even more of an outsider than he had been in Eden Isle’s church. Most of his well-heeled peers mocked and derided him, and their derision only increased as Adán quickly became a favorite among the professors for his surprising erudition, memory, love of learning, and critical thinking.
He did make a trio of friends, though. By the end of their freshman year, the four would-be-priests became half-mockingly known as Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The sobriquets came courtesy of Adán’s first dorm-mate, Saul Freneau, as the old monied scion liked to consider himself King Nebuchadnezzar, “Monarch of Marquette Hall.” Yet, even with those friends–who increasingly fell into Saul’s circle–Adán often felt more ashamed than included after some of his friends, like Thaddeus Malveaux, confessed that they were only studying to become priests out of familial obligation. Others disclosed more selfish ambitions of political and economic power. Both camps further disheartened Adán when they started accepting Saul’s invitations to co-ed parties, or worse, trips to Storyville’s red-light district. When they in turn started to invite Adán to join them in their “levities”, Adán was not sure which invitations saddened him more: his friends’ attempts to include him and mollify their consciences, or Saul’s intent to tempt and tarnish the “peckerwood prude.”
Nevertheless, Adán resisted all such sinful enticements and cloistered himself inside his second-story Marquette Hall dorm and the Bobet Library above it. He only exited to attend lectures, find new reading materials, and begrudgingly eat in the dining hall when his dorm-mates rightly decried his thinness. Otherwise, his only ‘hobby’ was visiting the city’s many churches, as he enjoyed partaking in and, when permitted, assisting with their sacraments and services. Additionally, he adored studying the local churches and cathedral’s famed historical architecture, as he considered their structures and decorations to be testaments of divine glory and the power of communal devotion.
Thus, notwithstanding all the venial distractions, Adán soon settled into content rhythm. This rhythm included Loyola’s academic summer breaks when Adán would return to Eden Isle, to visit with his former teachers at Our Lady of Lordes and help Pierre and the other Jeansonnes with their fishing business. They were happy, comfortable times.
But as God so often desires, Adán’s comfortable life was soon discomforted.
It occurred near the end of his senior year, on the Friday before Shrove Tuesday. Just before dawn, his three ‘friends’ and then-dorm-mates returned from a series of debauched Mardi Gras celebrations. Unlike prior years, they neither collapsed with sybaritic exhaustion nor teased Adán about their hedonistic exploits. Instead, they were frantic and fearful, physically dragging Saul Freneau into the room. Saul jabbered, howled, and swore in a foreign, feminine voice even as he tried to strangle, scratch, and bite his fellows. Although Adán had never witnessed something like this before, his copious readings led him to suspect a form of malign possession. Alerting his dorm-mates to the possibility, he suggested they tie their demented friend to one of the dorm’s beds. They were dubious, but desperate, so they did as he directed.
Meanwhile, Adán sought his thesis advisor, Father Simon Fontenot, a learned if heterodox Jesuit with whom Adán had had ongoing conversations about the biblical exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, the related writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the implications for Christian ethics regarding animal rights. Father Fontenot, however, was absent–as were most faculty during Loyola’s academic break during Mardi Gras. Yet, when Adán touched Fontenot’s office door with his stigmata-marked palm, the door opened. Thinking the man might be inside, he explored. Still not finding his advisor, and concerned for Saul’s state, Adán borrowed several texts, sacramentals, and icons he had seen the priest refer to when discussing exorcism. So empowered, he returned to his dorm. There, he found the others had gagged Saul after the man had tried to bite off his own tongue.
Adán drew upon his ecclesiastical training and faith to perform the exorcism. He recited prayers according to the rubrics of the rite, making use of the Jesuit priest’s relics. He invoked God’s name, as well as the name of Timothée and his other dead relatives as representatives of the Church Triumphant. He drew out his rosary–its wood beads hand-carved from the same cypress tree of his vision–and recited St. Michael’s Prayer against Satan and the Rebellious Angels:
“Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae caelestis,
Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute, in infernum detrude.
(“Blessed Michael, archangel,
defend us in the hour of conflict.
Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil
(may God restrain him, we humbly pray):
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell
and with him those other wicked spirits
who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.
As Adán completed the invocation, fresh blood began to well from the long scabbed-over wound in his palm. He then bade his awed companions to unbind Saul’s gag. Saul–or whatever had possessed him–immediately began screaming a host of invectives and made all manner of vile prophecies, including Adán’s damnation. Unheading those words, Adán called upon the Archangel Michael, compelling the unclean spirit to identify itself. It gave the name of one of Saul’s infamous ancestors, Madeline Freneau. Adán then banished the unclean spirit by using his rosary-touched blood to paint the sign of the cross upon Saul’s brow. With the ritual complete, Saul instantly became still and silent, collapsing into a deep sleep.
Exhausted from his own spiritual labors, Adán slumped into a nearby chair. He brushed aside his friends’ questions of what he had done–or more specifically how he had done it. Instead, he bade them explain themselves and how Saul had come to such a state. That tale–which was further filled-in when Saul awoke and appeared once again in his right mind–indicated that Saul and the others had attended the Knights of Momus’ bal masque, with ‘escorts’ from Storyville. Saul, however, had left early with his companion in order to seek more “exotic” adventures. His companion, who identified herself by the clearly false name of Mademoiselle Marie Délicieux, took the old monied Freneau to Rosa Bale to attend a séance. Saul was happy to liberally part with his family’s money, and even the blood offering she demanded, but the drunken young man foolishly insulted the mambo, repeatedly accusing her of being a charlatan and boorishly asking what “gimmicks” she used to “con” her clients. Naturally, the Ventrue mambo did not take kindly to her dignitas and faith being besmirched, especially not by a drunken kine.
In retaliation, Rosa summoned the devil-cursed wraiths of Madeline Freneau and her lover, Alcide Cancienne. She caused the former to possess Saul and the latter to possess Marie. The ghosts immediately tried to reenact their last, murderous meal. Saul vaguely recalled chasing the Alcide-possessed Storyville prostitute into the streets, where they engaged in a manic, murderous game of cat and mouse. Privately, he told Adán of haunting memories of violence unwillingly wrought by his on hand. He recalled catching Marie in a French Quarter alleyway, where he ripped her hair and mask, beat her with a brick, and then started to strangle her. However, Saul believed, or at least fervently hoped, that he had not killed her, and Adán guessed that he would have, had the Freneau wraith not seen a krewe of devil-dressed partygoers and mistaken them for the diabolic minions of her former St. Charles Avenue lover.
Fortunately for Saul, at least, Madeline’s flight took him providentially into the path of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When ‘Madeline’ pushed them aside, screaming about “Le Diable”, and tried to run, they gave chase, thinking it was another of Saul’s rakish pranks. When they finally managed to catch him and overpower him, they realized that something far worse was afoot, especially as Saul’s masquerade costume was speckled with blood. Unsure what to do, they had taken Saul back to their dorm. For Adán’s miraculous assistance that followed, they expressed fervent appreciation. At the same time, they also expressed concern that their deeds, if made known, could lead to their expulsion, of in Saul’s case, imprisonment.
Adán, however, was far more concerned about Marie’s fate, for even if she had survived Saul’s brutal attack, she was likely still possessed by Alcide’s evil shade. Adán convinced the initially reluctant Saul that finding and rescuing Marie was not only his first step in penance, but also the most likely action to keep him being charged for murder. So roused, Saul, Adán, and the others took to the streets. The search was difficult, particular with the French Quarter choked with Mardi Gras celebrants and parade litter. On Toulouse Street, they found a group of French-Arcadians from the nearby ‘Great Gumbo Orgy’ who saw a girl that matched Marie’s description. They related that she had psychotically thrown herself through a storefront glass window and then begun to roll and crawl through the broken glass. When they approached her, thinking her mad and in need of aid, she threatened to kill them with a knife-like shard of glass. Entering the alley the gumbo celebrants said the wraith-possessed woman fled into, the five companions found a disemboweled cat, with its entrails arranged in a Satanic pentagram. After that, they lost track of their quarry. Exhausted, Saul and the other students convinced Adán to rest and regroup back at Marquette Hall–though Adán made Saul promise to return and help him find and free the young woman from the unclean spirit.
When they reached their dorm, Father Fontenot was waiting. Alerted to his office’s intrusion, the Jesuit rightly suspected Adán as the prime suspect for the absence of his exorcism relics. Those suspicions were confirmed when he inspected the lector’s dorm, finding his books. Moreover, he also found evidence of an attempted exorcism: as the four belts they used as makeshift restraints for Saul were still tied to the sweat-drenched bed. Thus, Father Fontenot was not surprised when the five students returned to their dorm-room with Adán carrying the remaining icons and relics. All five, however, were very surprised, if not worse, when they shuffled into their room and found Father Fontenot sitting at Adán’s desk. The priest did not provide them time to properly recuperate from their fright before he affixed a particularly stern gaze upon Adán, saying:
“Exodus teaches us that thieves, even if able to return their stolen possessions, must make a twofold restitution, lest they be sold as slaves.”
Beckoning his pupil to follow him, Father Fontenot gave Saul and the other three students a final, sobering rebuke before departing:
“You may yet inherit your families’ fortunes, but remember the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians–‘Nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’”
Once back in the Jesuit-professor’s office, Father Fontenot first ascertained the safety of all of his relics, then meticulously questioned Adán about all that had transpired. The priest listened intently, then admonished Adán that he was only ordained as a lector, and did not belong to the higher order of exorcists.
Adán, fearful of being expelled–or worse, excommunicated–tried to invoke David’s use of the tabernacle’s holy showbread despite not being a Levite priest. However, Father Fontenot easily parried his pupil’s line of reasoning.
“And here I thought you were Daniel, not David?” the Jesuit jested, then added without humor, “But David asked the priests’ permission; he did not sneak into the tabernacle when no one was around, pilfer the holy bread, and then run back to Nob.”
Adán tried to reiterate that he had not ‘snuck’ anywhere, but Father Fontenot cut him off:
“No, Adán, an error has been made, and–,” he said firmly, “–the Church Militant must rectify it.”
Yet, rather than levy any of the myriad punishments that swirled in Adán’s mind, Father Fontenot stood up and passed back the book containing the formulae of exorcism, and said solemnly:
“Adán St. Cyprien, the Lamb of God has bestowed upon you the charism of an exorcist, and by His holy name and the Statuta Ecclesiæ Antiqua, I confer upon you its order. Receive, and commit to memory, and possess the power of imposing hands on energumens, whether baptized or catechumens. Amen."
Overcome with gratitude and relief, Adán thanked the priest, explaining that he had expected to be punished. Father Fontenot smiled, though a pained sadness was in his eyes:
“Who says you have not?”
While Adán pondered that cryptic remark, Father Fontenot proceeded to instruct him further in the sacraments of Senergumenic exorcism, including the Benedictine formulae of Vade Retro Satana, and exorcism variants of the Memorare, Sub tuum, and Quicunque Vult. Although much of this instruction was material that the priest and pupil had already discussed–and had proved pivotal in Adán’s exorcism of Madeline from Saul’s body–the Jesuit shared many new revelations. Chief among these involved the induction of the newly ordained exorcist into the Society of Leopold, also known as the Malleus Maleficarum and the Shadow Congregation. As part of that process, the Jesuit explained the purpose of the secret society of apostolic life, the Society’s 1231 founding by its namesake Leopold von Murnau under Pope Gregory IX, its 15th-century rise to prominence under Bishop Ambrogio Baudolino and Pope Innocent VIII, its release from the Holy See’s direct service several decades ago in 1908, and its many varied sects and sub-orders. Father Fontenot identified himself as belonging to the Order of St. Ambrose, the order responsible for scholarly and ‘in-situ’ research on energumenic influences and activity. Father Fontenot disclosed that he had been grooming Adán for induction into his own same order, but that Adán’s recent actions made the priest ponder whether the more confrontive Order of St. Longinus might be more appropriate.
To ascertain God’s will, Father Fontenot said he would need further prayer and communion with his superiors–whose names he poignantly did not share with the recent inductee. In the meantime, he charged Adán with making ‘restitution’ by tracking down the location of another energumenic relic that had been lost to the Society. When Adán expressed concern about allowing the mambo to continue practicing “witchcraft”, the priest nodded, but said that such was the affair of the Order of St. Longinus. Adán, however, persisted, disclosing that he and Saul had sworn a vow to find and free the young woman possessed by Alcide’s shade.
Sighing, Father Fontenot rebuked his pupil:
“You of all souls should not forget the Epistle of James,” then quoted its fifth chapter, twelfth verse, “But above things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and nay be nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”
Still, the priest relented, acquiescing to if not quite blessing Adán’s and Saul’s endeavor. He then dismissed his physically and mentally exhausted pupil, but not before reminding Adán to protect the orders’ secrets. As if to reiterate its importance, he asked the new Leopoldite:
“And why did the Lord command us not to cast our pearls before swine?”
“Because they will trample them as things of naught versus holy,” Adán answered.
“Yes,” the priest nodded. “But the Lord’s injunction had a second reason–a warning that the swine will ‘turn again and rend you.’”
With that ominous warning, Adán returned to his dorm. His friends anxiously asked him what had befallen in the many hours with Father Fontenot, but Adán waved them off, holding his tongue. Eventually, they stopped asking, especially once the semester resumed, as all were swiftly overwhelmed by the rush of finals and graduation.
Particularly for Adán, the last few months at Loyola were brutal. His private instruction with Father Fontenot continued, even increased. Nor did the exacting Jesuit lower his academic standards, as he fully expected Adán to complete his thesis with the same rigor as any other student aspiring to the Notre Dame Seminary. In his ‘free’ time, Adán hunted for the Society of Leopold’s lost relic. That search started in the university’s library, but swiftly transitioned to off-campus excursions. During such forays, he also always kept an ear out for any lead on Alcide’s host. Saul always promised to help that search, but he also always found a reason to renege and delay his aid. So stymied, Adán’s search for Marie bore little to no fruit.
In the meantime, Adán’s investigation for the relic turned up several leads. The relic was a pair of vertebrae of St. Columba of Sens, the once pagan noblewoman of Saragossa who was baptized in Venice and later imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in the local amphitheater’s brothel’s to be raped, tortured, and killed alongside other Christians. Spared from rape by a she-bear, Columba and the bear were sentenced by Aurelian to be publicly burned in the amphitheater. However, the bear escaped, and God sent rain that quelled the Romans’ fires. Unrepentant, Aurelian had Columba beheaded near the fountain d’Azon. According to Adán’s research, Columba was later buried by a blind man who recovered his sight after praying for her intercession, with the Abbey of Sens later built over her tomb. Her remains, however, were reportedly destroyed by Huguenots in the 16th-century.
The reason for the destruction varied, with some accounts claiming the Huguenots did so as part of the French Wars of Religion. Other accounts suggested they were trying to recover, versus destroy, Columba’s body, to use as a symbol of their martyrdom, as Columba was said to have advocated for tolerance and peace between the Christians and pagans. A few rarer accounts, however, indicated that their act had to do with Columba being the patron saint of witches in Galicia, with her allegedly interceding both against witches and for witches. Further details, however, could not be found in Loyola’s archives or any other library associated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Fortunately, Adán’s prior visits to New Orleans’ churches was not restricted solely to Catholic ones. Indeed, over the past four years, he had made several trips to the Protestant Christ Church Cathedral. There, he studied not only the 19th-century architecture of its extant cathedral, but also its four earlier iterations. During those visits, Adán had gained the favor, if not friendship, of the cathedral’s rector. Thus, when Adán told the rector he was researching Huguenots and Columba of Sens, the rector said he would look at the cathedral archives and ask some colleagues.
A week later, Adán found a typewriter-punched letter beneath his pillow. Its message was terse:
Riverside corner of Canal and Bourbon.
With a prayer on his lips, Adán followed the rendezvous’ directions. He waited several minutes, and was about to leave, when a Rolls-Royce Phantom glided down Bourbon St., and stopped in front of the recent Loyola graduate. Its rear passenger door opened. Inside was dark, save for the small ember-glow of a lit cigarette.
“Get in,” ordered a voice from inside, then added, “the night vapours are simply dreadful on one’s lungs.”
Trusting that God would protect him while on His errand, Adán climbed in, only for the vehicle to speed off into the night. It would be his first but not last ride in that seemingly driverless luxury vehicle, and it was the beginning of a delicate working relationship with a man who eventually identified himself as Sir James Gallier IV. Sir Gallier was the descendant of James Gallier Sr. and Jr., the famed if ill-fated architects who built not only New Orleans’ civic hall, Théâtre de l’Opéra, Luling Mansion, St. Charles Hotel, and Leeds-Davis Building, but also the second and third buildings for Christ Church. Moreover, Sir Gallier–or Jamesie as he eventually had Adán call him–was a Knight of St. George, of the Congregation of Vasago. Jamesie shared that a long-time rival of his in the Congregation of Foras was also searching for the vertebrae of St. Columba. Moreover, Jamesie confided that he had information on the relic’s whereabouts, but would rather help another procure it over his rival–provided the other did not intend to use the relic for “nefarious ends.”
Yet, long before Sir Gallier revealed the above secrets, or further ones, he first put Adán through a gauntlet of tests to confirm the truth of Adán’s character and aims. Some were simple tests, such as Sir Gallier ‘accidentally’ dropping a loose emerald-studded cufflink when he opened the door, as if to tempt the young man’s lust for lucre. Others were more devious, such as when Jamesie hired some local dockworkers to stage an all-too real looking, street-side beating of a confederate. Jamesie had his violent stooges time their ‘act’ so that Adán and Jamesie would pass them in the Phantom, just as Jamesie began to relate some key secret about Columba’s relic. Fortunately, Adán ‘passed’ the test by halting the knight and car and leaping out to rescue the ‘attacked’ man. A third test involved Jamesie taking Adán to a mental asylum, where an alleged vodou-witch was possessed by El Taumaturgo, a demon who professed knowledge of the relic–as well as Alcide’s location. The demon-possessed witch offered Adán the knowledge of both if the young Leopoldite gave her his “virgin seed.” Adán adamantly rejected the pact and exorcised the demon–though not before both witch and fiend swore vile vengeance.
The last experience, however, rattled the would-be-priest, and made him question Jamesie’s motives to the point he nearly broke off his meetings with Jamesie. Summer had had begun, and the recent Loyola graduate longed to return to the simple, pure life of fishing Lake Pontchartrain with Pierre and his godly kin. Yet, just as Adán prepared to tell Father Fontenot and Sir Gallier of his intentions, the British-blooded ‘knight’ announced that he was sufficiently convinced that Adán had the “cœur de lion.”
During their next witching-hour drive in the Rolls-Royce, Jamesie revealed that both his grandfather and great-grandfather were commissioned, while designing Christ Church’s buildings, to include two secret spaces for the twin reliquaries of the veterbrae. Allegedly, the vertebrae–the very same which were cleaved by the Roman executioner’s blade–were all that remained of St. Columba. The Huguenots’ nominal leader, Jeanne d’Albret, had planned to give the vertebrae to Catherine de’ Medici as part of their peace treaty and children’s betrothal. Learning this, several Huguenots stole the relic. When Jeanne informed Catherine of the theft, the queen consort sent Jeanne a pair of perfumed gloves that were skillfully poisoned by her perfumer, René of Florence. Jeanne perished two months before her son’s wedding, and Catherine’s agents searched for the relic in vain. The relic remained safe in Huguenot hands for several generations, even as the likes of Marie de’ Medici continued to hunt for it during the Huguenot rebellions of the 1620s. Yet, as Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau and violent dragonnades nearly exterminated the Huguenots, a group fled with the relic across the Atlantic to Louisiana. It would be guarded and passed down for multiple generations, till it was interred in Christ Church’s first consecrated building in 1816–and then later hidden in its second building in 1837, then in its third during the next decade, and finally in its fourth several decades later.
Yet, when the Great New Orleans Hurricane of 1915 destroyed the cathedral’s steeple, the relic was lost–or more specifically one of the two vertebrae was. Jamesie shared his doubts that the steeple’s destruction was due to a ‘mere’ hurricane, noting that while many buildings were damaged by the storm, only Protestant churches–including the Presbyterian Church on Lafayette and St. Anna’s Episcopal Church on Esplanade–utterly collapsed. Rather, James had come to suspect that some manner of witchcraft or sorcery had been used to channel the hurricane to specifically target New Orleans’ Protestants, or at least their sanctums. He posited that Christ Church’s cathedral also would have fully collapsed, if not for the relic’s protection.
James shared with Adán his uncertainty as to whether the assailants–which he intimated might have Catholic ties–had been intentionally seeking Columba’s relic, or if they had been more opportunistic thieves after the magically toppled steeple revealed one of the reliquaries. Jamesie claimed the Knights of St. George sought to protect the remaining vertebra–whose location he refused to share–but also to reclaim the lost one, or at least prevent it from being in the “wrong hands.” Fortunately for Adán, Jamesie considered his rival knight in the Congregation of Foras among the ‘wrong-handed.’
Thus, Jamesie agreed to help Adán recover the missing vertebra. To that end, he shared with the young exorcist that a specific group of longshoremen had been oddly asking after the relic–the one not stolen–hinting that anyone with information would be “taken care of.” Thus, rather than return to Lake Pontchartrain and the Jeansonne’s, Adán went ‘undercover’, working on the docks of the bustling, if rough Port of New Orleans. Sir Gallier was instrumental in helping Adán forge a cover identity and teaching him the “intricacies of obfuscation and deception.”
This ‘education’ was difficult for Adán, as it required him to not only live among rough and often godless, blaspheming men and similarly loose women, but it required him to lie–to claim to be things he was not. Seeking spiritual counsel from Father Fontenot, the Jesuit commiserated with the young man’s discomfort, but he advised that he continue his path, explaining:
“You once compared yourself to David, and today, I abjure you to consider how the youngest son of Jesse acted while amongst the Philistines. When he dwelt in Ziklag, upon whom did he lead raids?”
“The Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites,” replied the young scriptorian. “All of whom were Israelites’ enemies.”
“Indeed,” the Jesuit priest replied, “but did King Achish know that?”
“No, Father, he believed David led raids against the Israelites.”
Adán faltered in his answer, not because he could not recall the intellectual answer, but because of its hitherto unconsidered moral implications.
“Because… David deceived him…”
“Yes, and before then, when David was discovered hiding among the Philistines and was brought before King Achish, what do the scriptures tell us?”
Once again, Adán hesitated, nodding slowly as he contemplated his unspoken answer, which the priest voiced:
“The Book of Samuel records he pounded his head on the city gate, and foamed at the mouth, with spit dripping from his bead.”
“He pretended to be insane,” Adán agreed, “causing Achish to declare him a madman rather than his fated foe, and cast him out of his house.”
“And did such deeds deny David the crown of Israel or the blessing of God’s prophet, Nathan?”
“No, Father Fontenot… that came later….”
The Jesuit priest, nodded, but then admonished his pupil to stick to “today’s lesson.” When Adán admitted that he could not refute the priest’s logic, he still struggled to reconcile it with the myriad other scriptures that warned against deceit and falsehoods.
“I… am not sure I fully understand, Father.”
“Nor, I, my son,” the priest replied. “But I know the work you do now is God’s will.”
At that pronouncement, Adán sat silent for a long time before he eventually gave his answer:
“As God wills it.”
Still, even with his spiritual conflict resolved, or at least mostly quelled, Adán did not find it easy to deceive the ‘King Achishes and other Philistines’ of New Orleans’ docks. Granted, his summers with the Jeansonne’s did give him a passing familiarity with commercial fishing rigs and docks, but he was once again a stranger in a strange land–and this time, he had to assimilate rather than cloister himself away. Moreover, there were no erudite, ecclesiastical authorities he could impress with his scholarly aptitude and scriptural knowledge. Instead, his dock-bosses and peers admired crude braggadocio, lewd jokes, ability to hold one’s liquor, and bare-knuckled boxing skills–none of which were ‘talents’ Adán possessed or wanted to possess.
Still, spurred on by Father Fontenot’s support, Sir Gallier’s tutorship, and increasingly potent and disturbing visions of what would occur if he did not recover the relic, Adán managed to adopt the mien of a ‘madman.’ His cover identity–one Bruno Legaré–had him being from Lake Charles, where his father, a union dockworker, had earned the favor of the International Longshoremen’s Association and allied Teamsters during the violent, ten-week Gulf Coast longshoremen’s strike of 1935, and used that favor to leverage a job for his relatively unexperienced son in New Orleans, where most maritime traffic had permanently diverted to after the strike. That ‘pedigree’ earned Adán some measure of slack, if not respect.
That meagre respect grew when Adán threw himself into the dock’s illicit boxing circuit. He lost terribly, especially as the bet-taking ringmasters placed the bantamweight against experienced heavyweights, as the crowds enjoyed the bloodsport. Still, being nearly beat to death on several occasions, only to still arrive to work on time and without complaint, earned him his peers’ and bosses’ appreciation. Moreover, when the circuit-bosses rigged a fight so that Adán ‘won’ against a towering alley-champion named Gator Johnson, his renown swelled. Unbeknowst to Adán, Gator Johnson had taken the fall for some extra cash, but he couldn’t stand being heckled for losing to the comparatively scrawny bantamweight. When he threatened to expose the circuit-bosses’ duplicity, they gave him a new pair of concrete shoes and took him for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. To divert suspicion, they spread rumors that Adán had killed the man for disrespecting him, stealing his broad, or some other machismo-sufficient cause. As others accepted or at least shared the dark gossip, Adán’s respect amongst the seedy, rough longshoremen soared.
Due to that newfound esteem, one of Adán’s dock-bosses began to hire him to do some “off the books” jobs. Initially, these jobs involved unloading or loading what he later learned was unregistered cargo for the Black Hand. Next, he was asked to act as a lookout for NOPD patrols during meetings between the union bosses and mafia lieutenants. Adán loathed each of these tasks, and the corrupt men for whom he presumably did them, but he reminded himself that he was ultimately doing God’s–not Mammon’s–work. During these morally precarious times, he found particularly solace in silently reciting Psalm 34, which David presumably wrote about his time masquerading amongst the Philistines.
Notwithstanding, there were moments when his façade almost broke. Chief among these was after a meeting between the local union bosses and the Black Hand’s then-underboss, Carlos Marcello. The mafia had wanted to assure the unions that “business as usual would continue as usual”, notwithstanding Don Carollo’s two-year-stint in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. At the meeting’s end, Adán’s chief dock-boss, Tito, approached Marcello as the latter walked to his chauffeured car. The conversation they had was painfully, if providentially, close to where Adán had been stationed as a ‘guard.’
“C’mon, Carlos, just between you and me–,” Tito had said, “–you really think Old Silver Dollar Sam’s gonna shed his stripes soon?”
“Jesus on a stick, Tito, you think I’d lie to all you boys?” the mafia underboss replied with false hurt. “It’s like I said–Sam shot a fucking fed in ’30, did four measly years, and popped out of the pen with a senator kissing his cojones the same year. This time, it was just a little coke charge, capiche?”
Adán all but bit his tongue at being forced to listen to the mafioso first take the Lord’s name in vain, and then brag about the Black Hand’s corruption of justice. Fortunately, neither Tito nor Carlos noticed. Instead, the former pressed his inquiry:
“Yeah, yeah, I remember, but this time they’re talking about shipping him with a one-way ticket to Sicily.”
“Jesus fucking Christ, Tito!” the underboss exclaimed. “You worry more than a fucking nun about to get her cherry popped. It’s like I said, we–“
This time, Adán could not keep silent, but all but growled at the blaspheming, lewd underboss. Noticing the snarl and withering glare, Carlos turned to the undercover dockworker and shouted:
“Hey, buddy, you got a fucking problem?!” Turning back to the dock boss, he added, “What’s your kid’s problem, Tito, because if he don’t straighten out his face, I’m gonna give him a fucking problem!”
First confused, then conciliatory, the dock boss replied, “Bruno? He’s a good kid, just a tad touchy. ‘Member how I was telling you about Gator Johnson getting his lights knocked out, then cut? Well, that’s the guy who did it.”
“Him?” Carlos asked, his shock diverting his earlier ire. “Tito, I’ve eaten shrimp at Antoine’s bigger than him.”
“Well, it’s as you say–“ Tito replied with a shrug, “–it ain’t the size of the dog in the fight–“
“–but the size of the fight in the dog,” the underboss finished with a chuckle. “Sure, why not, after all, it’s easier to choke a guy with chicken wire than anchor chain.” Giving Adán another look-over, he said to the dock boss, “Look, Tito, I’ve got an upcoming thing where I could use some extra muscle of the chicken wire variety. Send your boy tomorrow to Catfish Freddy’s, and I’ll make sure you get a piece of the pie.”
Placated by the promise of profit, Tito agreed, leaving Carlos free to depart without further question. It also paved the way for Adán to do God’s will amongst the Philistines.
The next day, Adán reported to Chiafreddo “Catfish Freddy” Putanesca at his Acme Truck Line garage. Like Carlos, Freddy was similarly surprised by the bantamweight’s mismatched appearance and reputation, but the impatient ghoul had “bigger fish to fry.” Namely, as he explained to Adán and the other gathered ‘crew’, the Black Hand planned to infiltrate the Boston Club, the city’s elite, ultra-exclusive gentlemen’s club. More specifically, the mafia had caught wind that the Boston Club would be soon hosting a lavish midnight ball, after which time its members and a few, select guests would play a tournament of the club’s eponymous card game. Individual table winners would earn items donated by club members, many of which were of historical if not material value. However, the tournament’s grand champion would earn an exceeding rare artifact: the vertebra of St. Columba. Freddy told his crew that one of the Black Hand’s Old World benefactors greatly desired the item–and if possible its matching piece. Much later, Adán learned that this ‘benefactor’ was Don Vico Giovannini, who claimed kinship not only with the fellow Italian d’Medici who had vainly had hunted the relic, but also the Roman Emperor Aurelian who had beheaded Columba, back when the Giovannini were known by their original, millennia-old surname of Ioveanus. As Freddy related, the Black Hand’s benefactor suspected that the auction would entice the other piece’s owner to attend.
Indeed, this was precisely the aim of the auction’s instigator: Rhett Carver, the Nosferatu Invictus and de facto primogen of his clan. In mortal life, Rhett had been one of the Boston Club’s founders, alongside John Randolph Grymes. In his Requiem, Rhett continued to claim the club as his domain, granting him influence over local and state politics and commerce, as the Club included prominent judges, state legislators, governors, lawyers, businessmen, diplomats, and bankers, while also hosting the likes of American presidents, generals, and British nobility.
True to Sir Gallier’s suspicions, the relic’s theft had been perpetrated by ‘Catholics’–though not of the living variety. Rhett and Rosa Bale–both allies of Savoy and heterodox members of Lancea et Sanctum given their mélange of Vodou and Catholicism–had joined forces to channel the hurricane of 1915 to strike against their enemies. New Orleans’ Protestants were particularly ‘safe’ targets, as neither had the protection of Vidal or Baron Cimitière. The destruction of their spiritual and mercantile bastions, such as Huguenot-owned sections of the French Market, also would foster Rhett’s political-economic schemes in the First Estate–all of which would benefit Savoy, their would-be prince. Their ritual proved successful, if extremely expensive and dangerous, but the pair believed that if they possessed both vertebrae, its power could help gain better control of future hurricanes, allowing them to make more targeted, direct attacks against Vidal’s and the Baron’s forces. However, neither Rhett’s mortal contacts nor Rosa’s ghostly spies had been able to identify the second vertebra’s exact location or owner–though their quarter-decade hunt had revealed the relic was somewhere in the Crescent City. Thus, Rhett had devised his card-tournament scheme to draw out the owner of the second vertebra.
And it worked.
When Adán related what he had learned from the Black Hand, Jamesie used his high society connections to secure an invitation to the exclusive tournament. As his ancestor had built the Boston Club’s current clubhouse on 824 Canal Street, the Knight of St. George was able to share many of the structure’s architectural and geomantic defenses and secrets. These clandestine passages and passcodes would prove invaluable to the Society of Leopold, as Father Fontenot passed on all that Adán had learned to his superiors. Both Father Fontenot and Sir Gallier commended Adán on his service, just as both said they would handle the rest of the messy, undoubtably dangerous affair.
However, the young exorcist felt compelled to see the task through to its end, even if it was a bloody one. Part of this desire was due to zeal, but another motivation was caution. Namely, Freddy and the Black Hand expected ‘Bruno’ to be part of his crew of ‘busboys’ tasked with surreptitiously eavesdropping on the tournament contestants and attendees. Thus, they hoped to identify who had the other vertebra, rig the game, and/or potentially steal the ‘grand prize’ (which the Black Hand planned to do if their benefactor failed to win the tournament). If Adán did not play his part, he reasoned the Black Hand might suspect their mission was compromised, which could foil the vertebra’s recovery. Reluctantly, both Jamesie and Father Fontenot agreed with their pupil’s logic, though both warned him to be careful.
They were right to have done so.
Just as the Black Hand ‘busboys’ were to begin their shift, Chiafreddo shared their mob’s back-up plan. In the event that their patron’s cardsharpe lost, or someone else tried to steal the relic, they had rigged the tournament room, so they could flood it with nerve gas. Meanwhile, the ‘busboys’ would don their gas-masks, sealing the doors and making sure no one escaped.
The Giovannini, meanwhile, had summoned the wraith of the infamous Earl Beardie, the same cardsharpe who had been cursed by the Devil to play cards till doomsday, and whose lineage included not only Mackenzie Bowes, but the Devil Child of New Orleans. The Giovannini nigramancers found it all-too easy to tempt the ghostly card addict into their scheme, and they provided Lord Glamis a host that few would suspect: Percy J. Parker, a descendent of the more famous Boston Club members and brothers, John M. and Arthur D. Parker. However, the Giovannini’s plan did not account for Rosa Bale’s numerous spectral spies stationed in the 45-foot dining room. Moreover, none of the guests and schemers–not even Adán–were prepared for the Brotherhood of St. Athanasius.
When Father Fontenot had passed on Adán’s discoveries to his Leopoldite superiors, the Shadow Congregation’s leaders had called upon Phineas Constantin, the mulatto leader of the local Brotherhood of St. Athanasius. Brother Constantin, or ‘Stan’ as he was known, led the local Brotherhood in a form of anarchist communism that tried to emulate St. Peter’s practice of proto-communism in Jerusalem. As part of the Society of Leopold, Stan and his group were known more for their brutal efficiency than their precision or concern for collateral damage.
True to that reputation, the Brotherhood barged into the clubhouse, bypassing the geomantic wards with the information Jamesie had shared with Adán. Under the thin pretense of being a working-class mob protesting local labor laws, the Brotherhood stormed the tournament hall, then violently assaulted those–like Rhett Carver, Earl Beadie, and Rosa’s ghosts–whom they divined were supernatural entities “in league with Satan.” In the resultant chaos, Chiafreddo signaled his crew to strike, and nerve gas began to pump into the room. So exposed, the poisoned mortal guests and Leopoldite intruders began to sweat, convulse, and involuntarily soil themselves.
Adán, meanwhile, donned his mask, then knocked out one of his Black Hand ‘colleagues.’ He then opened the door he was supposed to be guarding, preventing most of the room’s inhabitants from asphyxiating or going into cardiac arrest. Then, taking the gas mask off the knocked-out mobster, Adán fought his way through the chaos to rescue Jamesie, placing the extra mask over his toxin-afflicted friend, and helped him upstairs. There, they faced several of Rhett’s ghouls, which had been charged with guarding the relic that had been hidden in a billiard table. Adán tried to defend him and the aged Jamesie against the ghouls, but he was quickly outmatched. He would have been undoubtedly slain or worse, had not the puissant Knight of St. George summoned a goetic demon that slaughtered the Nosferatu’s ghouls.
Thus, Adán and Jamesie were able to flee with the relic before the Vidal-backed police arrived to quell the unrest and cleanse the scene of its myriad Masquerade breaches. Chiafreddo and several mobsters were able to flee, and eventually concluded that ‘Bruno’ had betrayed them. Meanwhile, most of the Brotherhood were slain, or worse ghouled by the Lancea et Sanctum. This later group–which included Brother Constantin–was eventually detected and eradicated by the Shadow Congregation, but not before several of the ‘double agents’ passed on significant Leopoldite secrets to their vampire domitors. Furthermore, Adán initially returned to Father Fontenot empty-handed. Jamesie had refused to relinquish the vertebra, as he was wroth with the Society of Leopold for almost causing his murder and near-loss of the relic. Adán’s own temper was hot, as he felt betrayed by Jamesie–first for not relinquishing the relic, but second for his demonic summoning. Harsh words were exchanged between the Catholic and nominal Protestant, and when the former exited the latter’s Rolls-Royce, Adán promised he would never take another breath inside the “Hell-tainted machine.”
Thus, with his prospects of attending Notre Dame Seminary slim, his relations with the Society of Leopold in tatters, and the Black Hand searching for him, Adán returned to Eden Isle and the Jeansonne’s to heal his physical and spiritual wounds. While the former quickly healed, the latter were more persistent, as Adán struggled to find God’s will in all that had occurred. He never doubted his own will to do God’s, but he worried whether he had strayed from the path of righteousness. Moreover, Adán was unsure what he should do next. Those questions only increased when, after partaking of the Feast of Corpus Christi at Our Lady of Lourdes, he sat at Sister Jolicoeur’s deathbed. Her final words to him were simple, yet piercing:
“God is not done with you.”
Her death and subsequent funeral made him ponder his childhood and first vision–experiences that seemed unfathomably distant. He tried to seek the old cypress grove, but found the swamp had been drained for commercial development. Unsure what to do, Adán eventually returned to the Jeansonne’s. There, Pierre gave him an unmarked parcel that had appeared during Adán’s absence. The butcher-block paper had no indication of its sender or intended recipient, but the fishermen had sensed it was meant for their adopted ‘priest.’
Opening the parcel, Adán saw it contained the vertebra of St. Columba. A typewritten note accompanied the relic:
Perhaps mine are also the wrong hands
May yours be better, Cœur de Lion
Adán was shocked by the gift, but his prayers of gratitude soon became prayers for guidance, for he was unsure what he should do with the relic. Similarly concerned that his presence could cause harm to his adoptive family, he borrowed a small boat and sailed into the center of Lake Pontchartain to fast and pray. As the days passed, and his starved body ate itself, Adán struggled to divine God’s will. So intent was he on some esoteric epiphany, that Adán missed the heavens’ more exoteric omens.
On August 15th, 1938, a hurricane crashed into Louisiana’s southern coast. Its sudden fury caught Adán completely unprepared. Lake Pontchartrain’s waters whipped into giant waves that towered over his small sailing vessel. The hurricane’s wind savagely tore apart Adán’s sails just as Jamesie’s demon had devoured the Nosferatu ghouls. Adán tried to pilot the boat back to Eden Isle, but the massive waves broke over his boat, swiftly swamping it. As the boat sunk, Adán tied St. Columba’s relic around his neck. The waves dragged him to the depths–and what he was sure was his death. His prayer to God in that moment was similar to that of the Lord’s disciples upon the storm-wracked Sea of Galilee, petitioning not only for himself, but also the hard-won relic:
“Lord, save us! We perish!”
No sooner had he silently prayed those words, then did the hurricane’s fury miraculously cease. As Adán surfaced, he realized he was under the eye of the storm. Knowing that the providential relief would be temporary, he tried to swim to the storm–as his boat had sunk to Pontchartrain’s depths. Yet, belong long, his long starved and already enervated muscles began to fail him, even as the winds and waves resumed. The shore was in sight, but he could swim no farther. As he started to sink a second time, he felt something, or someone, take hold of his hand and lift his head above the water.
It was hard to see amidst the storm, but Adán recognized the face that stared down at him. It was his father’s. Tomás’ spirit had pulled him up onto a floating bole of cypress–the very same from Adán’s first vision. Cut down by loggers, the tree had been swept out into the lake by the storm. Riding upon it, Tomás’ spirit shone like a pillar of bright blue fire. Tomás wept as he bade farewell to his son:
“As God wills it.”
Tomás’ spirit then ascended up a heavenly ladder, disappearing from mortal view. Yet, the bright manifestation had alerted Pierre to Adán’s location and plight. The Jeansonne’s had been looking for their ‘priest’, but they had been forced back to shore by the redoubling storm. With the aid of the buoyant cypress, Adán was just able to hold on and float long enough for Pierre, his brother Andre, and their neighbors to haul him from the water like the miraculous fish of four years past. Once safely sheltered inside, they marveled at the good fortune of seeing “St. Elmo’s fire” shinning from the cypress branch. Adán–half-drowned, near-starved, and utterly spent–could only call out his father’s name before physical and spiritual exhaustion pulled him firmly into sleep’s embrace.
When sleep’s embrace ended, the hurricane had passed. So too had Adán’s indecision. He returned to Father Fontenot and relinquished the relic to the Society of Leopold. Having successfully completed his ‘two-fold restitution’ to the Jesuit and regained the Shadow Congregation’s favor, Adán was accepted to the archdiocese’s Notre Dame Seminary and ordained a subdeacon of the Church Militant.
In comparison to his last year at Loyola and time as Bruno Legaré, the three years of his magister divinitatis program were relatively placid. With the Black Hand and Rhett Carver still looking for ‘Bruno’ and St. Columba’s relic, Adán was fortunate enough to complete his major seminary in Lafayette’s diocese. As he did at Our Lady of Lourdes and Loyola, Adán excelled in his academic coursework. He especially gained mastery in ecclesiology, systematic theology, liturgy, canon law, and patristics. Additionally, the seminary’s curriculum deepened his fluency in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Moreover, his formal induction into the Order of St. Ambrose meant that most of his Leopoldite duties entailed performing research in church archives, civic records, and university libraries versus fieldwork. Once again, he was able to safely immerse himself in esoterica, and his erudition and dedicated scholarship earned him esteem among his teachers and peers.
Chief among these was Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur. Joseph was the very antithesis of Adán’s ill-devoted peers at Loyola. When World War II broke out, Father Lafleur valiantly joined the Military Ordinate of the United States. As part of that pastoral organization, he would serve in the Pacific Theatre, before he and 749 other Americans were held as prisoners of war aboard the SS Shinyo Maru. When the USS Paddle tragically sank the infamous hellship, Father Lafleur died to help 82 Americans survive. Adán very well may have become a martyr alongside Father Lafleur, as he almost joined the Military Ordinate.
One thing alone held him back: a long-delayed, but not forgotten, vow to free Marie from Alcide’s possession. Thus, contrary to his seminarian peers’ expectations, Adán neither joined the Ordinate nor transitioned from his scholarly research to pastoral service as a presbyteratus. Instead, he postponed that long-sought honor to continue his academic education, obtaining the bishop’s approval to seek a Sacrae Theologiae Licentiatus¬, or Licentiate of Sacred Theology, back in New Orleans.
Most of his Leopoldite superiors lauded the decision, as the additional education would make Adán a more useful member of the Order of St. Ambrose. Father Fontenot, however, opposed the plan, noting that it increased the risk of Adán being recognized by the Black Hand. Additionally, the few surviving members of New Orleans’ Brotherhood still blamed the now-ordained deacon for their failure at the Boston Club.
Still, Father Fontenot helped his stubborn pupil secure a position at the recently reconstructed Jesuit Church of Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street in the Central Business District. Of all the archdiocese’s churches, Immaculate Conception had always been Adán’s favorite, at least from an architectural perspective. Beyond its historicity, he adored the aesthetics and engineering involved in its Neo-Venetian Gothic style and Moorish and Byzantine Revival elements, including its enormous nave, niches with archangel statues, Solomonic column, stained glass windows, gold-plated altar from Lyons, 32-feet Open Diapason pipes with Moorish Revival stenciling, and marble statue of Mother Mary with its gilded, lit background. He also loved the church’s unique cast-iron pews with Moorish tracery, rosettes, and cryptic icons and scriptural symbols. The latter became the focus of Adán’s master’s thesis, specifically a certain pew that–according to Adán’s hypothesis–depicted the origins of Longinus’ predestined spear-head, including its antediluvian crafting by Tubal-Cain, use by Lamech, loss in the Great Flood, and meridian discovery by Phaecus the merchant, who gave it in corrupt tribute to Pontius Pilate, who in turn bestowed it to Longinus. Adán’s thesis led him to Lamech’s Song of the Sword, research into the lost Book of the Wars of the Lord, archaeological treatises on the tomb of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, and repeated, if unexplained references to an archangel with tripartite heads of a calf, serpent, and wolf.
When not conducting this research or engaged in other graduate studies, Adán served as Immaculate Conception’s deacon; bearing the paten, Book of Gospels, and processional cross during services. Additionally, his labors for Immaculate Conception–for which he was provided a stipend–had him work in the church’s associated Jesuit High School, a prestigious all-male, college-preparatory secondary school in Mid-City. There, Adán was reunited with one of his old Loyola friends: Thaddeus ‘Teddy’ Malveaux, known formerly as “Shadrach” and most recently as Father Malveaux.
Also a recent graduate of Notre Dame seminary, Thaddeus had, true to his family’s expectations, become the next ‘Father Malveaux.’ The grandson of Édouard Malveaux, Thaddeus was assigned to the archdiocese’ cathedral, but he also had been tasked by his family to assess whether James Malveaux, his third cousin once removed and student of Jesuit High School, might have the proper qualities to be Thaddeus’ own eventual replacement. Upon Adán and Thaddeus’ reunion, both filled in the other as to their past activities (though Adán was clearly discrete on certain details). Thaddeus also shared the state of their other college friends, with whom Adán had lost contact. Namely, ‘Meshach and Abednego’ had gone off to fight the ‘heathen’ Japanese imperialists, but Saul Freneau had remained behind to run his family’s estate after his father’s death during the recent “Boston Club riot.” Adán shared that he was still trying to find Saul’s escort from two years past, but had run into a dead-end, as most of Storyville was razed during his time in Lafayette to build the new Iberville Projects. When asked to help, Thaddeus uncomfortably demurred, saying that “visits to a former red-light district and asking around about a prostitute would be most unbecoming for a man of the presbyterium–or one trying to join it.” Adán thanked his old friend for the warning, and the two parted, though they would remain in correspondence over the years and meet during gatherings of the archdiocese’s clergy.
Unbeknownst to Thaddeus, Adán continued his search for Marie whenever he could. And though ‘Shadrach’ had denied him any intentional aid, he had given him Saul’s contact information. When Adán phoned Saul, seeking his help in honoring their mutual vow, Saul refused to speak to him. After listening to Saul’s servants provide an increasingly thin set of excuses as to why their master could not speak, Adán went to the man’s house. Saul’s servants would have turned away the deacon, if not for the intercession of Saul’s younger sister, Ava-Michèl Freneau.
An invalid, Ava, or Evita as her brother was wont to call her, was always happy to entertain. Furthermore, she was intrigued as to why a Catholic deacon would be visiting her brother–as Saul had swiftly fallen back into the life of hellrake.
“If you’ve come seeking a donation from my brother,” she said, as a servant pushed her wheelchair-bound body, “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, Father, as Saul claims our family’s accounts are redder than the fields of Saint-Mihiel.”
“I am but a humble deacon, mademoiselle,” Adán replied. “And I come not on official church business, but rather for a personal matter: an old promise that Saul and I made while at Loyola to help a young woman in need.”
With that answer, Ava’s interest was doubly piqued, and part of her wondered whether she was that “young woman in need.” Thus, she escorted Adán–or more technically had him escort her, by pushing her wheelchair and managing the mansion’s elevator–to see Saul. En-route, the two talked, and both found the other an articulate, attentive, and thoughtful conversation partner. Adán also could not help but notice that the young woman was beautiful. After all, the deacon was celibate, not blind. Indeed, Saul’s sister was attractive, but not in the sultry, voluptuous manner lusted after by Bruno’s ‘peers.’ Rather, Ava’s soft, symmetrical, and pale features reminded Adán of Immaculate’s marble statue of Mother Mary. Suddenly aware of how intently he was regarding her face, he forced his eyes to look away, only then noting the Basque rosary ring she wore upon her finger. Its shape was the same of Sister Jolicoeur’s, but it was carved from a single piece of jet.
Following the deacon’s gaze, Ava laughed demurely, “Contrary to popular opinion, not all of the Freneau are godless reprobates.” Raising the rosary ring with her sole non-paralyzed limb, she added, “It’s made from the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela. Saul gave it to me on my First Communion, in hopes that I would follow after its last bearer and became a nun.”
Hearing such a tale about ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, Adán was momentarily speechless. As if reading the deacon’s thoughts, Ava’s smile faded as she spoke:
“Yes, believe it or not, but my brother used to be exceptionally devout.”
“What… what happened?” Adán asked, his sheer surprise overcoming any sense of propriety.
“Polio,” she said, casting her eyes down to her lap. “When I caught it, Saul believed that if we–which really meant, he–just prayed long and hard enough that I would be healed. He read and reread and read again the biblical stories of Jesus healing the paralyzed men at Capernaum and Bethesda. While our parents hired physicians, Saul persuaded them to make exorbitant donations to the local churches. Though just a teenager, he petitioned local priests to heal me. Some tried. None succeeded, at least, not the way Saul hoped. I tried to lift his spirits–maybe the prayers and blessings had ameliorated or at least halted my palsy? After all, I still have control of one of my limbs, and I can breathe and swallow all on my own. Not all polio victims are so blessed. But Saul… he took it hard. It broke him. His heart… his faith…”
At such revelations, pity and shame filled Adán’s spirit–pity for the palsied girl and her faith-shaken brother, but also shame that Adán had never bothered to learn why Saul was so antagonistic towards the Church and those that believed in it. Overcome by such emotions, he reached down to grasp the young woman’s hand, then spoke the only words he could before tears choked his voice completely.
“I’m sorry… sorry that I was…, that the Church… could not, did not heal you…”
The smile returned to Ava’s face as she replied:
“There is no need to feel sorry–not for me. Even if you could call upon the Almighty right here and now and command my legs to walk, I would not have you do it. My condition has been a blessing. Yes, it has been, to quote St. Paul, a ‘thorn in the flesh’, and as a younger girl, I did beseech the Lord to have it ‘depart from me.’ But I have learned to take comfort in the Lord’s reply to Paul: His grace is sufficient for me, and His ‘strength is made perfect in weakness.’ ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’ If only I could make Saul understand: polio didn’t ruin my life–it protected and purified it. True, I am an invalid, unable to walk or run, and unlikely ever to marry or bear children, but my condition has kept me from all manner of temptations. And ultimately, my condition–like all of our mortal lives–will be but a mote of dust compared to the eternities to come, and if I am faithful, I shall not only walk and run, but fly with the angels. No, the one who needs healing is my brother, and not from any physical infirmity.”
Awed by the private homily, Adán reverently kneeled and proclaimed:
“Solomon must surely have seen your day when he said a virtuous woman is far more precious than rubies.”
At Adán’s gesture and praise, Ava blushed like a rose. Yet, before either could respond, both were startled by the sound of Saul shouting–for he had been summoned by his servants, only to find Adán kneeling and holding his sister’s hand:
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF BEELZEBUB ARE YOU DOING—Adán, are you PROPOSING to my sister?!”
Shocked by Saul’s presence, volume, and mistaken accusation, Adán released Ava’s hand, stood up, and tried to stammer a reply. Ava’s response was more coherent, and far sterner:
“Saul, there is no need to yell–my ears, unlike my legs, work perfectly. And we have spoken about you using those kind of names.” Gesturing to Adán, she then added, “And Deacon St. Cyprien was merely expressing his sympathy for my palsy, though I would hope, dear brother, that should a man as fine as the Deacon ever propose to me, that you will find a more temperate response.”
Still flustered, Adán watched as the siblings glared at one another, till eventually, Saul glanced away as if losing a hand of Boston de Fontainebleau. Gesturing to Adán, he strode off to a parlor:
“Come on then, Belteshazzar, let’s get this over with; I can only deal with only one religious fanatic at a time.”
Once inside the parlor, Saul all but filibustered his old dorm-mate, contending that he simply could not afford to make a donation to pay for the Church’s “newest gold-leafed balustrade, ten-foot candle, or imported teak paddle for spanking wayward war-orphans.” Rather than inheriting a wealthy estate, Saul claimed that what the Great Depression didn’t take, his father had squandered with spurious investments. Worse, the deceased Freneau patriarch had racked up numerous gambling debts to his fellow club members on lost card games and horse races. With those club members all calling in their debts, Saul simply didn’t have enough money to cover it all, unless he sold the Freneau mansion. Rather than lose face with New Orleans’ high society or make his sister homeless, Saul had desperately turned to the mob for a ‘loan.’ While that allowed him to cover things with the Boston Club, the Black Hand’s ‘interest rate’ was steep, and Saul was well aware of what the mob would do if he failed to pay them back.
When Adán was able finally to explain that he had come not for a donation but for assistance in their vow to free Marie, Saul was first confused, then angry:
“That was over four years ago, Adán! Why can’t you just let it go?! The others have, even Thad.”
“We made a vow, Saul; they did not,” the deacon said with warring ire and disappointment. “We swore on the same cross that cleansed you of the unclean spirit.”
Saul walked to a window, unable to stare Adán in the eye as he spoke his next words:
“So you say. I was drunk, all but passed out. The charlatan probably just drugged me, hoping to rob me. The girl was likely in on the con. But it was fine, nothing that sleep wouldn’t, or didn’t, cure. You just saw what you wanted to see, just another of the many religious fantasies that you, my sister, and the rest of your lot like to delude yourself with.”
Saul’s denial cut Adán like a knife in the dark, but the deacon found his heart pierced more with sadness than anger. He was silent for some time before he arose and escorted himself out–though not before reiterating St. Peter’s pronouncement to Ananias:
“Thou hast not lied unto men, but God.”
Adán all but shook the dust off his clothes as he left Saul’s home, believing that his work with the impenitent Freneau had come to an end. Yet, within a few days, he received a letter from Saul’s younger sister. In it, Ava apologized for her brother’s “calloused heart”, but also expressed gratitude for Adán’s visit and his kind words to her. It was a letter he could have left unrequited, but he penned a brief reply thanking her in turn for her hospitality and “beatific heart.” He mailed it, thinking their correspondence finished, only to receive a new missive from Ava the following day.
This time, her letter was much longer. Most of its content was naturalistic observations colored by whimsical fancy, such as her noting how the oak-hung Spanish moss outside her window recently swayed “like a line of Oriental dancers dressed in celadon veils”, or how a pelican had alighted atop her gabled roof, bringing to mind St. Aquinas’ hymn, Adoro te devote. Yet, the letter also contained more weighty matters, chief of these being her worries that her father’s soul had been consigned to Purgatory’s fires for his unpaid gambling debts and the plight it created for his children.
The tenderness of this last subject prompted Adán to pen a comforting reply, rationalizing that it was his duty as a deacon to preach and evangelize. He shared St. Catherine of Genoa’s presentation of purgatory in opposition to Tertullian dogma or the speculative presentation of Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii. He also reiterated church catechisms that, because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.
More letters followed. Their correspondence always had a theological element, be it a shared homily, scriptural inquiry, or doctrinal discussion. Yet, as time went on, their exchanges increasingly included more personal, if quotidian topics, such as a particularly striking sunset, a humorous response on a high school student’s exam, or a perplexing riddle from the Times Picayune. Each shared details of their personal and familial pasts. Some of these stories were happy, like Sister Jolicoeur giving Adán and the other children sweet-bread treats during Paschal week. Others were sad or somber, such as their mutual adjustment to being orphans. Ava shared her thoughts on the war’s progress, and Adán provided updates on his seminary research on the spear of Longinus.
Yet, on the eve before Adán defended that thesis in the late winter of 1944, Ava visited him at his small apartment in the Iberville Projects. Unbeknownst to Saul, she had booked a taxi, whose driver had then pushed her to Adán’s thankfully first-floor door. When Adán responded to her gentle knock at his door, he was shocked by her presence. Despite all their correspondence, he had not seen her since their first meeting.
“It’s a little early for Pascal bread–,” she said, opening the pastry box in her lap and revealing a handmade king cake, “–and it’s not penia like Sister Jolicoeur used to make for you back in Eden, but I thought, with it being Epiphany’s Eve…”
Adán was truly touched by the gift, especially as he had spent most of the day searching for Marie in the Lafitte projects, Iberville’s black-segregated counterpart in nearby Treme. Like so many other days, his efforts had proved unsuccessful, as his skin color and ecclesiastical collar made most of the Lafitte residents wary, especially since Adán had little to go on, save for the woman’s presumably fake name, ignoble career, and vague, second-hand reports of her quadroon features. Feeling somewhat despondent of ever finding Marie, and not wanting to leave the crippled woman unattended, he invited Ava inside. While revelers outside loudly proclaimed the arrival of Carnival season, Adán and Ava shared the petite king cake in his austere apartment that had more books than furniture. Indeed, never having ‘entertained’ a guest before, the flustered deacon tried to find a non-existent pair of chairs for them to use.
“I already brought my seat,” the wheelchair-bound Ava teased good-naturedly.
“Oh, I… yes, of course,“ he stammered, absent-mindedly running a hand through his hair. “It’s… it’s been a taxing day.”
“Well, I can imagine it’s quite usual to feel nerves before defending your thesis. A bit like wedding day jitters, perhaps?”
Further flustered by her matrimonial reference, Adán took a moment before he shook his head, “No… not the thesis. After all, writing the final manuscript was the most laborious part of the process. It was–It’s just that…”
Ava put down her plate and fixed her “bleu ciel” eyes on Adán; her petition for him to confide his woes silent, but undeniable. His reservations dissipated like the dew before dawn. He shared his half-decade long search for Marie, as well as his lack of progress. He did not explicitly name Saul’s involvement, but she astutely guessed it all the same. Though she had no immediate counsel, her kind ear provided Adán some measure of renewed hope. After finishing the cake together, Adán saw her to a cab, though not before she left him with a final gift: a white handkerchief embroidered with a vulning pelican and the first line of Adoro te devote.
“In case I need to wave surrender during the thesis defense?” he quipped with a gentle smile.
“Ultimately, all of us surrender–it is merely a question of to whom.”
“Too true,” Adán nodded, then tilted his head in thought, “Who penned that maxim, by the way? It seems familiar–was it St. Jerome of Stridon–or no, St. Thérèse of Lisieux?”
“Ava-Michèl Freneau of New Orleans,” the young woman replied with a winsome smile. “Her canonization is still in question.”
As God wills it, was the deacon’s parting thought as he watched Ava’s taxi disappear into the Twelfth Night.
The next day, no handkerchief was needed for Adán’s thesis’ defense. Yet, its completion and that of his Licentiate of Sacred Theology meant it was finally time for the post-seminarian to surrender himself to the presbyterium. His ordination was scheduled for what would have been the end of Mardi Gras (if WWII had not canceled it), on the following Ash Wednesday. Although Adán had wished his ordination to be a purely spiritual event, Thaddeus insisted that he allow his old friend to organize a celebration, with Adán eventually capitulating, so long as the celebration was the day before his ordination, on Shrove Tuesday.
“Very well, we shall throw a going-away party to Belteshazzar!”
“I am being ordained a priest, not an anchorite.”
“For you, Adán, I expect there will be little difference. All the same, invite whomever you wish, and I will take care of the venue, catering, and decorations.”
“Decorations?” Adán asked skeptically.
“Yes, Adán,” Thaddeus patiently replied. “Parties do tend to have them. Perhaps it’s time to reread Mark 16:15, specifically the first line of the Lord’s command to his disciples.”
“You mean ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation’?”
“Yes, namely the first half: going into the world.”
“I believe the Lord was advocating evangelism, not party attendance.”
“If you’re going to teach others about God’s grace, sometimes you have to go to places where other people actually are. Regardless, my soon-to-be Father St. Cyprien, call your friends and let them know about the party–or feast, if you would rather call it that. I hear we Catholics are fans of those.”
Chuckling, Thaddeus ended the call, leaving Adán to ponder what mortal friends he could invite. Frankly, most of his ‘closest’ companions were long dead, and he doubted the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Polycarp, and Aurelius Ambrosius would condescend to a Shrove Tuesday ‘party.’ Still, he eventually contacted a few of his former Notre Dame and Loyola teachers, such as Father Fontenot, as well as some star pupils at Jesuit High. He also invited Pierre Jeansonne, his brother Andre, and their families. Notwithstanding, he delayed calling the one person he wanted the most to see, as he felt some degree of impropriety, if not in the invitation, then in his feelings behind it. Perhaps it was a venial temptation–but eventually, the otherwise stalwart man succumbed.
Yet, when he tried calling Ava, he was ‘greeted’ on the phone by her brother:
“Thad tells me you’re finally becoming a priest. Good for you. Although I wonder if I should call up the archbishop and tell him all about how you’re unfit to be a priest.”
“My interest in Marie is pure, Saul; I also wish to set her free as we swore to do so.”
“Oh, I’m not talking about her, Adán–but thank you very much for telling my sister all about that Mardi Gras trollop. She hasn’t stopped hounding, needling, and nagging me about it since she snuck back into the house on Epiphany’s Eve. No, Adán, I’m talking about how you’re clearly unfit to be a priest. Why, you don’t even have the decency to pretend to molest little boys. Rather, your attention seems unnaturally fixated on a young crippled woman.”
“My friendship with your sister is purely platonic,” Adán replied with a growing heat in his face.
“Oh, spare me another one of your delusions, I’ve read your ‘love letters’ that she keeps tucked under her mattress–as well as a few of her discarded drafts to you. Jesus fucking Christ, man, Adoro te devote!”
“It’s a Eucharistic hymn, Saul, that’s–“
“Don’t try shoveling your bullshit into my lap, Adán. I didn’t skip that many Latin classes–so let me spell out its translation in case you’ve forgotten, which I know you haven’t: Adoro te devote means ‘I DEVOUTLY ADORE YOU’!”
“Thomas Aquinas was writing about his love for Christ!” Adán protested, though the defense somehow rung hollow in his all-too hot ears.
“Belteshazzar, you play the cloistered zealot pretty well, but you fucking stink at playing dumb, so I’m just going to cut straight to the brass tax. Here’s the deal: you care so much about us keeping our word, right? Fine, I’ll hold my end of the bargain. I’ll help you find Marie.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Adán said, his face still burning like it had gotten slapped by an iron.
“Do you want my help or not?!”
Adán hesitated, but eventually swallowed his pride, “Yes, Saul. I want us to keep our vow and find Marie. She needs help.”
“Fine, I’ll help you find the prostitute. But in return, you have to swear to me that you will NEVER come see my sister, NEVER write to her, and NEVER call her EVER again.”
“Saul, that’s not–“
“Or admit that you LOVE her and tear off that slave-collar around your neck! Admit that for all your sanctimonious, holier than thou bullshit that you’ve developed feelings for her–feelings that are FORBIDDEN by your precious church and its damned canon laws! Go on, Belteshazzar, show me how important it is to keep your word! Show me how much you care about poor, poor Mademoiselle Marie Délicieux! I mean, if she was really possessed by an unclean spirit, then surely finding her should be more important than sending letters to your ‘purely platonic’ pen-pal!”
Adán’s face felt like it had been dunked in a gasoline-soaked fire barrel. In his apartment, he could only stare at his nearly blank walls. As his gaze slide off those barren walls, it fell upon the remains of Ava’s handmade king cake–and the infant porcelain figurine she had hid inside the cake. The figure reminded him of his family’s centuries-old porcelain heirloom. For the first time in his adult life, he wondered whatever had happened to the priceless saint-touched relic.
Dimly, he heard his voice finally give Saul an answer:
“Very well, Saul, if keep your word, I give you mine.”
“Not good enough, Belteshazzar. You need to swear it.”
Adán was quite for a long time before he finally spoke–perhaps more to drown out Father Fontenot’s old admonition than to appease Saul:
“If you help me find the woman we call Marie, I promise to never contact your sister again. This I swear on the Lance of Longinus that pierced the Lord’s side when he hung upon Golgotha’s holy tree.”
“Excellent,” the eldest Freneau said with the sharp satisfaction of a man biting the tip of a cigar. That tone, however, became black as midnight as Saul added, “But if you break your word, Belteshazzar, I swear to you that I will find out–and then I’ll find you and throw you in a den of lions so fucking hungry and vicious that not even your precious church and all its fake saints will be able to save you.”
Adán could almost feel Saul smash the phone’s receiver into its cradle. Hanging up his own phone, Adán was not sure which he feared more: Saul once again breaking his vow and Adán never finding Marie, or Saul keeping his word and making Adán keep his. The fact that he was unsure made him all the more fearful.
So troubled, he spent the next week in cloistered prayer and meditation. When Ava’s letters started pouring daily through his front door’s mail-slot, he left his apartment and sought asylum inside his parish church. It was as if all of the tumult of the cancelled Mardi Gras was trapped inside his heart. His conflicted thoughts raged like the hurricane-beset Lake Pontchartrain that nearly killed him. This time though, it was his spirit, not body, that was in jeopardy, as he was forced to confront not only his undeniable feelings for Ava–but also their equally undeniable prohibition by canon law.
If he had been but a seminarian, he likely would have abandoned his ecclesiastical path, but he had already been ordained as a deacon. He knew his catechisms and canon law all too well; the sacrament of the Holy Orders had conferred upon him an “indelible spiritual character”–he could never again become a layman. True, he could be released from the duties and responsibilities connected to the clerical state. He could no longer engage in ministry within his diocese, no longer celebrate Mass or confer the sacraments, no longer be called “Father” or wear clerical clothing, and no longer be supported financially by the Church. To the world, he would appear to be a layman, working at an ordinary job and living the normal life of the laity. Yet, loss of the clerical state would not carry with it an automatic dispensation from the requirement to stay celibate, and any marriage, whether inside or outside the church, would be invalid by canon law and incur excommunication. Canon law was clear; he had to either deny his love for Ava or deny his faith. Even if Saul failed to keep his vow, Adán had to keep his.
It was a dark night of his soul, though one that lasted nearly ten days. The other clergy of the parish believed the fervency of his prayers and fast was simply a more extreme, if otherwise mundane preparation for his ordination as a priest. He was extolled for his virtue and zeal, as he ate and drank nothing save his daily sacramental wafer and wine. He was near delirious and starved when Thaddeus eventually found him praying and weeping to Mother Mary’s statute–her marble face so very much like Ava’s.
Father Malveaux was shocked at his friend’s emaciated state. He immediately decided to call off the ‘party’, and he tried to convince Adán to break his fast and eat. Adán stubbornly refused, until Thaddeus told him that their old friend, ‘Mishach’, or Michel “Michael” Montobon had returned home from the war. That alone convinced Adán to leave Immaculate Conception—“at least for a little while.” Thaddeus took Adán to a local restaurant and ordered three meals and drinks, with Adán assuming the third was for the soon to be arriving Michael. Thaddeus then convinced the near starving man to break his fast and eat, though he himself seemed too somber to initially eat himself. Eventually, Thaddeus spoke:
“I had planned to tell you about Michael after your ordination.”
“I can see why, but I am glad you told me now. Where is he by the way?” said Adán, looking up each time the restaurant’s door opened.
Father Malveaux closed his eyes. “I told you the truth, Adán. Michael did return home today, but… but not in the way we hoped. I received a call today from his mother. The 141st Infantry–Michael’s army unit–as well as the rest of the 36th Infantry Division has been fighting in Italy. They tried to break through the German defenses on the 20th, yet after crossing the Gari River, Michael and his men were cut off from reinforcements and took heavy fire from German Panzergrenadiers. They… suffered heavy losses. After two days of hard fighting, they had to retreat. Michael and more than a thousand of our boys never made it back…”
Adán’s heart and head reeled. He had been the closest to ‘Mishach’ out of all of his Loyola friends, in part because the typically gentle young man had treated Adán as his personal confessor. Indeed, shortly before their graduation in 1939, Michael had painfully confessed to Adán that he struggled with “homoerotic temptations” and thus doubted not only the appropriateness of him becoming a seminarian, but also the eternal welfare of his soul. Michael had taken comfort in Adán’s reply, namely that a man’s soul was defined not by his temptations, but by how he responded to them–a message which he had borrowed from Saints Teresa of Ávila and Francis de Sales:
“Let the enemy rage at the gate; let him knock, pound, scream, howl; let him do his worst. We know for certain that he cannot enter our soul except by the door of our consent.”
“We always find that those who walked closest to Christ were those who had to bear the greatest trials.”
With that news of Michael’s death, that old sermon resurfaced keenly inside Adán’s soul. In that moment, he felt he finally had his answer. He might undeniably love Ava, but it was how he resisted the temptation of that love and heeded his vows which would define his discipleship. Yet, even as that theological epiphany pierced his heart, his mind detected an anomaly in Thad’s story.
“But, Shadrach, you said Michel returned home? Even… even if he died in the first day of fighting, today is only the 22nd… they couldn’t have shipped his body back… not so soon.”
Father Malveaux grimly nodded. “Yes… his mother, she claims she saw Michael’s spirit appear to her in a dream. She thought it only a nightmare, the worries of a mother with three sons fighting on the frontlines. But then… then she received the notice from the Army today of Michael’s death. She called me to let me know, but also to minister to her. She was beset with grief, but also horrified and worried about her son’s immortal soul. In her dream, or vision as she became convinced, Michael was in terrible pain–not just of body, but of spirit. He said things to her… not all of which she chose to repeat. But there was something she shared. She claimed that Michael had made her promise to let you know that he had ‘tried to resist the enemy at the gate, but he did not expect him to howl so sweetly…’ I did not understand the reference. His division never made it to the city gates of Cassino. Do you know what that might signify?”
Adán did, but he felt the privacy of Michael’s admission–even if not under the confessional seal–should be honored. Instead, he posed his own question:
“Was there anything else she shared?”
Thaddeus nodded, “Yes, there was, although she was not sure she understood it either. He allegedly told her that he would ‘try to make things right’, that he was going to go after ‘the one who got away’ and ‘free the woman from the other cursed fornicator.’”
“Alcide,” Adán immediately declared. “He’s going after Alcide, in hopes of achieving penance.”
Thaddeus shook his head. “But… that’s… that’s not…”
Adán merely quoted Paul’s words to the Corinthians about death:
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep…”
The almost priest then stood up, only to have his enervated legs try to give way. Steadying himself upon the restaurant table, he bade for Thaddeus to help him, saying they needed to speak with Saul immediately. The priest initially hesitated, thinking that Adán was in no condition to do anything save rest, or else he would be ordained tomorrow in a hospital. Eventually though, he relented, paying their bill and assisting Adán outside. There, the streets were fortunately clear of what otherwise would have been throngs of Fat Tuesday celebrants. The hailed a taxi, and rode to the Freneau estate.
During that drive, Adán tried to push away thoughts about whether he would see Ava or what he might say to her. Yet, when they arrived, Saul was ready for them, or specifically for Adán. With no sight of Ava, ‘Shadrach and Belteshazzar’ were swiftly escorted to Saul’s parlor, though only the latter was permitted entry. Much to Thaddeus’ displeasure, Saul made the priest wait outside the room so he could “talk of private matters and promises” with Adán.
Inside, Saul waved an envelope with the smug gusto of a man who has just won a one-way ticket to Heaven, or at least one out of Hell. He told Adán that after their call, he had hired a private detective, one Enrique Salvador, to track down the prostitute. Much to Saul’s surprise, it had taken Enrique less than two weeks to find the woman and tail her for a few days, locating her residence, all with photos as proof.
Saul waved the envelope in Adán’s direction. “I called several times, even sent one of my men to your two-dollar apartment. But here you are finally. I must admit, I was beginning to worry that old Belteshazzar was going to break his word…”
“I keep my vows,” Adán replied, with a bruised but unbroken conviction.
“How very nice for you–and for me,” Saul said, tossing the dossier into the near-priest’s lap.
As Adán looked over its content, he confirmed Saul’s claims. He also was shocked by the PI’s level of detail and scope of discoveries–discoveries that had eluded Adán for years. As Adán read over those details, Saul provided his own smug summary:
“Her real name’s evidently Madeleine Dorleans, though she always spells it differently–Madelin, Madelynn, Mattilyn, Madilynne, and so forth–as if she hasn’t made up how her own name is spelt. Amongst the low-caliber class she associates with, she’s more commonly known as Mad Ellen, Elynn, Helen, or the like. She’s definitely a few eggs short of a dozen–so I’m sure you two will get along fine. She constantly talks to herself–with some ‘conversations’ reportedly turning quite violent. She’s a leader of a prostitution ring, cult, or secret society, called the Order of the Garter. Which it is depends on who you ask, or whatever Madeleine’s current mood is. Its members signify themselves by carrying the old Storyville blue-books, as well the Latin pass-phrase that used to emblazon them: Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense, ‘Shame on Him Who Thinks Evil of It.’ Word on the street is that she knows you’ve been looking for you. It sounds like she used to fear you. Used to.”
Saul sat down behind his desk, a more serious and almost compassionate look crossing his face as he added:
“After the PI dropped off the dossier, I asked some of my business partners about her–the ones who gave me a ‘loan.’ I’ve been forced to launder a lot of their money, but the deal seems to benefit both of us, most of the times. When I asked my contact about Madeleine, he warned me to be careful and not to underestimate her. Seeing my disbelief, he shared that the Black Hand hasn’t taken kindly to her muscling in on their prostitution business. When they sent a few of their ‘blackjack negotiators’ to convince her to fold or join them, she allegedly beat them to a bloody pulp with all the skill and ferocity of a Golden Gloves’ champion. So… for what it’s worth, Belteshazzar, good luck and be careful.”
“You’re not coming?” Adán asked with open surprise. “But don’t you care if–“
“No, Belteshazzar, I don’t care. I promised to help you find the whore–and that’s it. That was the deal. She’s holed up at 235 Basin Street, in Lulu White’s old Mahogany Hall that some charity group converted into a poor house. Oh, how the mighty have fallen…”
“Indeed,” Adán agreed, though as he looked at Saul, he was contemplating not a place but a person that had fallen from grace.
Adán’s exit from the Freneau estate was more sorrowful than the last. True, he had gained Marie’s, or Madeleine’s, long-sought location. Yet, as he glanced back at the Freneau estate, he saw Ava staring at him mournfully from her second-story window. In that moment, he felt a far greater loss.
Still, Adán pressed onward, his spirit aflame with zeal even as his body was sorely depleted by his recent fast. Thaddeus pleaded with Adán to wait and recover his strength, or better yet, allow the police to intervene, given that Madeleine was involved in an illegal prostitution ring. Indeed, when Adán rejected that proposal to seek out Father Fontenot, Thaddeus left him to contact his families’ NOPD allies.
Meanwhile, Adán petitioned the now aged Father Fontenot for the Society of Leopold’s aid. Father Fontenot, however, advised a more temperate response. Namely, he suggested that Adán–having shared the information on Madeleine’s location and activities–had already performed his duties as a member of the Order of St. Ambrose, and should allow the local Brotherhood to carry out the more “exoteric” aspects of the Society’s work. Adán, however, was unwilling to leave Madeleine’s fate to the Brotherhood:
“Father Fontenot, if I had let the Brotherhood ‘handle things’ back at the Boston Club, many more would have died, and St. Columba’s relic would have remained in nefarious hands.”
“Perhaps,” the elderly priest conceded, before adding, “but beware, my favored pupil, let you suffer the same fate of Uzzah of Gibeah as he tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant.”
“Uzzah was of the lineage of Abinadab, not of Kohath. Only the latter had the ecclesiastical authority to transport the ark. You yourself ordained me an exorcist–and charged me to impose hands on energumens. Now I have discovered one in my parish, and I ask for your blessing.”
Father Fontenot sighed. “Ultimately, it is not my blessing you need. Remember your Greek: what does hamartia signify?”
“It is the word for sin.”
“Yes, but what is its etymology?”
Adán pondered the question for a moment, then answered, “It is an archery term, which means to ‘miss the mark.’”
“Correct again, Adán, so be careful, lest in your will to do God’s, you do only the former.”
Thus twice-warned, but reluctantly blessed, Adán left Loyola to fulfill his vow. As he traveled from Riverbend to Storyville’s remnants, the streets of New Orleans were eerily empty for a Shrove Tuesday night. When he reached Mahogany Hall, he halted before the four-story marble edifice and its entrance’s stained glass fan-window. There, he closed his eyes and invoked Mother Mary’s protection:
“Sub tuum praesidium
Sancta Dei Genetrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne despicias
in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.”
(“We fly to Thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen.”)
With that besought aegis, Adán openly entered the lion’s den.
Inside, the lions were waiting for him–and hungry. No sooner had Adán crossed the Hall’s threshold, then he was seized by several cultist-thugs, gagged, and hauled to the ex-brothel’s fourth-floor parlor. There, he was cuffed and strung from the room’s giant chandelier, his toes barely scrapping the floor.
Madeleine Dorleans then entered. She laughed, caressing her hand over his face and collar. She ‘welcomed’ him to her establishment and home of the reborn Order of the Garter. Her voice had the cultured, archaic dialect of a 19th-century gigolo that Adán suspected was Alcide’s.
Yet, to Adán’s surprise, Madeleine’s entire mien soon changed, her posture becoming more masculine, even muscular, with a dockside, gladiatorial saunter. His shock then turned to bright agony as Madeleine hit him with a brutal jab and then cross that shattered his nose. Adán barely had time to register the pain before he took a vicious rear uppercut to his gut, followed by a lead hook to his head. The savage, expertly thrown blows nearly killed Adán, leaving him concussed, half-conscious, and bleeding, both internally and externally.
Yet, even as Adán struggled to stay awake, his broken body if not addled mind recognized the specific boxing moves. It was Gator Johnson’s trademark ‘death roll’ combo. Unbeknownst to Adán, the Giovannini had found Gator Johnson’s shade, as it was trying to get vengeance against their Mafia allies. Recognizing they had a common enemy in the still at large Bruno, they had bound the dead boxer’s ghost to aid their search for Bruno and St. Columba’s relic. Yet, before he could find the man, Gator Johnson had ran afoul of the Alcide-possessed Madeleine, who enticed the wraith to become an energumenic ménages à trois.
Back at Mahogany Hall, Adán tried to focus his blurry, double vision on his attacker. Whether by virtue of that double-vision or Leopoldite-taught benediction, he saw Gator Johnson’s ghost–the huge black man’s drowned frame superimposed over Madeleine. Seeing ‘he’ was recognized, Madeleine cruelly smiled. Spectral gulf water oozed from the boxer’s mirrored smile.
The smile–or smiles–soon faded, however, as Madeleine seemed to once again ‘transform.’ This time it was a thick, feminine voice–that of the vodou-witch from the asylum. That voice soon began to spit and curse–though not at Adán, not at first:
“Agwé-damned imbecile! Ya almost done killed ‘im–we be wantin’ to savor our revenge, nice ‘n slow as one of Damballa’s seed swallowin’ his supper…”
As Adán slipped in and out of consciousness, so too did Madeleine’s ‘identities’ war against one another for control of their host. As they bickered amongst ‘themselves’, Adán recognized not only Alcide, Gator Johnson, and the witch–who had evidently committed suicide after Adán had exorcised her demonic lover–but the demon itself. Whether by Alcide’s invitiation or his former lover’s master, El Taumaturgo had buried deep in Madeleine’s soul like a tick, growing fat by feeding upon the other spirits’ dark desires.
One of those other spirits was Ahab Argabrite, the maternal grandson of the 19th-century Alderman Sidney Story, who had spearheaded Storyville’s past regelation, if not legalization, of prostitution. Ahab had died in the Boston Club, poisoned by the Black Hand and then inadvertently trampled by the Brotherhood–though not before losing a wager against Percy J. Parker–or more accurately the wraith of Earl Beardie. Prior to the tournament, Ahab had all but bankrupted his family due to his speculative investing, gambling with his club peers, and penchant for expensive whores. Ahab had hoped the tournament would allow him to recoup some of his losses. Yet, he had lost his table’s game against Earl Beardie when the devil-cursed ghost goaded Ahab into betting the “peace of the grave”, as the Ahad had otherwise lacked any other ante. When Ahab had ‘awoken’ as a wraith, he eventually followed his penniless family as they became tenants of the ex-brothel poor house. There, he had fallen under the sway of El Taumaturgo, who promised the man a way to restore Storyville’s once-lucrative Order of the Garter.
Shortly thereafter, the demon had enticed another wraith to join the ghostly orgy inside Madeleine’s body: Phineas Constantin. Prior to the events of Boston Club ‘riot’, Brother Constantin had been a devout, if brutally zealous, Catholic. Yet, being ghouled by Rhett Carver had broken his spirit and faith, especially as the blood-bond had compelled him to spy on and sabotage the Shadow Congregation. When the Brotherhood detected his duplicity and inhuman corruption, they had hunted him down like a rabid dog fit only for destruction. In doing so, they had finally broke what little remained of the ghoul’s ruptured faith, and his last words had been ones of blasphemy and hate. When he arose as a wraith, he had been easily tempted by El Taumaturgo, as the demon convinced him that the Order of the Garter would not only fulfill his thirst for vengeance but also create a ‘communal order’ where all things, even flesh, were shared fully and without limits amongst its members. As a consequence, the Order of the Garter had become not only a prostitution ring, but an anarchist-communist cult, where every member shared their resources and bodies in a “carnal communion” that mirrored the legion of spirits sharing Madeleine’s body.
Those spirits also shared enmity for Adán, and as part of that collective malice, they had been all too happy to corrupt the guilt-tortured wraith of Michel Montobon. The war-slain Michel had hoped to confront Alcide and free Madeleine, and thus redeem himself in God’s eyes for his ‘sins of the flesh.’ However, the nascent wraith had been utterly unprepared for the combined might of the other shades, as well as the demon’s devious seduction.
True to the fiend’s prediction, Mishach’s ‘revelation’ hurt Adán far worse than Gator Johnson’s blows:
“I’m free now, Adán,” the former seminarian-turned soldier said with Madeleine’s lips and the expression of a morphine-delirious addict. “I am no longer trapped in a man’s body. I no longer hear the devil howling at my door. Rather, in this woman’s body, I am finally free of my unnatural temptations, for I am no longer a man. I can finally ‘know’ the man I love–you, Adán, it’s always been you! I can be your Eve. I can bear the fruit of your womb. It is finally as God wills!”
Adán could barely speak above his tears, half-dislodged gag, and dislocated jaw:
“Michel… the devil no longer howls… because you have let him in… you have given him the keys… to your soul’s door. You must… resist!”
“No more resisting!” Michel’s wraith angrily, lustfully proclaimed. With the demon, witch, and Alcide all goading Michel, their mortal puppet violently striped the deacon bare and began to consummate the wraiths’ death-warped desire. Emaciated, strung up, concussed, and bleeding, Adán was physically spent like the water in Hagar’s bottle in Beersheba’s desert.
Yet, just as with Hagar, Adán’s tears and prayers were answered. Unlike Hagar, Adán was saved not by an angel, but by Enrique Salvador. After investigating Madeleine and the Order of the Garter, the detective had been staking out Mahogany Hall. He had watched as the deacon walked into that den of iniquity, only to be swiftly bound. Yet, the deacon’s entrance and captivity provided Enrique the perfect opportunity to sneak into the manor. Stealthily subduing several distracted guards, Enrique was able to find Lulu White’s hidden safe in which the recently deceased woman had kept ledgers with secrets about her rivals, including Marguerite Defallier and her Invictus allies. These were Enrique’s true prize, but the detective’s conscience got the better of him when he overheard Adán’s cries of pain and torment.
Thus, Enrique rushed up the stairs, blackjacking several more of Madeleine’s goons. He broke into the bedroom and drew his revolver, intent on putting a bullet in Madeleine’s skull. His aim, however, was spoiled, not only by a pack of released hounds that attempted to savage him, but also by the tortured deacon’s cry for clemency–for Madeleine.
The errant bullet fired high, piercing Adán’s palm. As the blood ran down the deacon’s cuffed hand and wrist, Adán found a hidden reservoir of power. He slipped his blood-slick hand free, his broken body barely registering the fresh pain. He yanked hard with his other wrist, causing the already damaged chandelier to break off from its ceiling rose. The latter crashed directly upon the unsuspecting Madeleine, knocking her to the ground and momentarily unconscious.
While Enrique fended off the cultists’ attack dogs, Adán staggered to Madeleine’s prone body. Reaching forward with his injured hand, he used his stigmata-welled blood to paint the medieval Catholic formula for exorcism, reciting the accompanying benediction of the Vade Retro Satana:
“Crux Sacra sit mihi lux,
Non Draco sit mihi dux.
Vade retro Satana!
Nunquam suade mihi vana.
Sunt mala quae libas,
Ipse venena bibas.”
(“May the Holy Cross be my light,
May the Dragon never be my guide.
Never tempt me with your vanities.
What you offer me is evil,
Drink the poison yourself.”)
So rebuked, the seven unclean spirits screamed as one. It took all of Adán’s spiritual puissance and faith to tear the incorporeal parasites from their host, and with a potent prayer to God, he shunted their spirits into the seven dogs savaging the detective. So disoriented and afflicted, the beasts turned and fled, crashing through the parlor’s Tiffany glass windows. The canines plummeted four stories to their mortal deaths.
Only then did Madeleine regain her own voice. She stared at Adán as if was Christ himself, naked and baptized with blood, suffering, power, and mercy. So awed, she exclaimed:
“I am free! Sweet Jesus, I never believed I would be free!”
In answer, Adán humbly repeated Christ’s words to the father of the demon-possessed child, as related by the Gospels:
“All things are possible to those that believe.”
Whether recognizing the scriptural passage or simply being moved by that father’s same desperate faith, she knelt before him and pled:
“I believe, I believe–help my unbelief!”
“As God wills it,” Adán proclaimed, then promptly passed out from his injuries.
When he awoke, he was clothed and bandaged–as was Madeleine, who was devotedly tending to the slowly rousing deacon. She related that Enrique had taken them to Charity Hospital, which he had archaically referred to as San Carlos Hospital. After advising discretion when speaking with medical staff, he had then left to allegedly “take care of the paperwork.”
With Madeleine’s aid, Adán discovered the extent of his injuries: three broken ribs, a fractured jaw, a shattered septum, internal bleeding, his bullet-pierced palm, and a concussion with a related epidural hematoma and partial paralysis. The latter condition had required a craniotomy or burr hole, as well as a related morphine drip.
Due to that opioid analgesic and his neurological injury, Adán’s memories were fogged. He remembered searching for Madeleine–years searching for her–and a dim, muddled recollection of Mahogany Hall’s doorstep. After that, he could recall nothing till waking up in Charity Hospital. He assumed that he had simply saved her, though he could not recall how he obtained his injuries.
Wracked by guilt and shame, Madeleine was reticent to fill in those details. Indeed, her serial possession had stolen her control of her body for six tortured years, but El Taumaturgo had made sure she was aware of her many forced-upon sins, particularly against the man who had been trying to save her for more than half a decade. Her answers were evasive, and the first of many half-truths she would tell Adán:
“You… you fought off my captors… The Order of the Garter, they tried to… they fought back, but you… won…”
Adán accepted her explanations, only to slip back out of consciousness. For most of the day, his grasp of the world around him was tenuous. He had half-remembered morphine dreams, some beatific and others like visions of hell itself. The latter included falling into a millennia-long pit, where phantasmagoric swarms of locusts invaded every orifice of his body; his nose, ears, mouth, nethers, and eyes; where they devoured him from the inside untill he was naught but hollow skin like a bag of leather filled with dead cypress leaves. In another, he found himself overlooking a black sea that extended forever, filled with vast waves crashing on rocks that screamed for mercy but were unheard, not even by the host of sleeping cavalry that rested upon them, tending to their dead mounts. Upon spotting Adán, those knights had surrounded him and pierced him seven times seventy with their spears.
When he cried out, Madeleine would take his hand, and in his fevered delirium, he would hold hers like a drowning man clutching an extended sword. Sometimes he would call out names, the names of his dead kin, his past teachers, more ancient saints–and sometimes, he would call out for Ava, confessing his love with an anguish worse that his bodily wounds. It was in those moments that Madeleine first learned to hate the name–and the woman she had not yet met.
Still, Madeleine tried to comfort Adán, as she was well-acquainted with being a victim of both hellish ‘visions’ and morphine. Indeed, her first exposure to morphine had been in utero. Her Storyville prostitute-mother, Jessebelle Dorleans, had been introduced to the drug by some of her clients. Chief among them had been Madeleine’s alleged father, Gomer du Luc, a Navy physician who rigorously enjoyed his time in Storyville while his WWI ship harbored in New Orleans. After the horrors of treating so many war wounds, Gomer had nostalgically returned to New Orleans after the war, only to find Storyville’s legal prostitution had ended. He nonetheless started up a small medical practice, and he made a decent (if indecent) stream of income performing abortions for Storyville’s underground prostitutes. During one of these operations, Gomer had been reunited with Jess, who by then had become thoroughly addicted to morphine.
She had claimed Madeleine was Gomer’s daughter–though in truth, she was not sure given her vast number of clients and heavy drug use. Still, she had used the possibility to milk the man for money to “raise their child.” This pattern persisted, with the young Madeleine being made to visit her ‘father.’ Initially, those visits had been relatively happy, as he would buy her candy and take her on ferry rides to Algiers or the Gulf Coast. Yet, when some of Jess’ ‘competitors’ told Gomer that Jess was only spending the money on morphine and bragged about how Madeleine wasn’t even Gomer’s child, the morally damaged doctor snapped. As if to test Jess’ intentions, he started making his ‘child support’ payments directly in morphine–and much to his ire, she hadn’t batted an eye. Eager for more drugs, she ‘adopted’ an orphaned guttersnipe and blatantly tried to trick Gomer into thinking the boy was also theirs–and in need of more “support.” Yet, unlike Madeleine, the boy looked rather nothing like Gomer or his mother. After ascertaining the boy’s age, Gomer had bitterly declared that he could not have been the father, as he had been away for two years in France at the time of the boy’s conception. Jess had tried to suggest that the boy was confused as to his birthday, but she did not press the matter anymore.
Gomer, however, had been less willing to forget or forgive. The next time Jess needled him for “medicine to deal with all the stress of raising Madeleine”, the seething Gomer gave her a hot shot, a mixture of morphine and rat poison. When the toxin started to take effect, he had grimly watched her die, explaining what he had done and how he was happy to “exterminate such a pest.” He had then taken Madeleine into his own care, and initially, her life had improved. A few years later though, Gomer married a woman from Carrolton. She disdained Madeleine and continually inflamed Gomer’s doubts as to whether the girl was truly his or just another drug-hungry lie. Eventually, he became convinced she wasn’t his blood, and that decision, coupled with his hidden, but far from extinguished whoring and drinking, doomed her.
One night, Gomer had come back from another tour of Storyville’s illegal speakeasies and brothels. Drunkenly, he had awoken the barely pubescent Madeleine and said they needed to go to his office. She had followed cautiously, but her ill ease had turned to dread and horror when he forced her to strip in order to do a “physical exam.” When he began to fondle her, she had shouted and kicked him in his face. He had drunkenly screamed back, tried to hit her, and accused her of being a “whore just like her junkie harlot mother.” He had threatened to poison her just like Jess if she ever told anyone about her “exam.” Disgusted and terrified, Madeleine had snatched a metal tool tray and bashed the drunk doctor over the skull, knocking him out cold. Unsure what to do, she had raided his wallet and medical supplies–as Jess had well taught her that certain ‘medicines’ were worth a lot of money. With that stash, she had fled his office and returned to the only other home she had known: Storyville.
For a while, she did fairly well by frugally using her money and carefully selling small batches of the painkillers to her mothers’ ‘friends.’ But Storyville’s sins soon sucked her in like a whirlpool. She had to repeatedly flee and fight off would-be rapists and pimps. Most of the time, she succeeded. She kept a wary eye for her supposed father, who correctly surmised that she had stolen his supplies and fled to Jess’ old haunts. As she slowly sold off that stash, she frugally hid and stockpiled her monies. Yet, one day, she had returned home to find her money-stuffed mattress cut open and emptied. Despondent, she had turned to the one thing that always seemed to make her mother ‘happy’ or at least carefree: morphine. After that, it did not take long before she had adopted both her mother’s addiction and her former profession. A few years later, she no longer even cared that her most frequent customer was her alleged father.
Nevertheless, that oldest of professions led her to Saul Freneau–and their fateful night with Rosa Bale. Six years later, she was free of Alcide and the other unclean spirits. Yet, to her surprise, she discovered that Adán had banished not one, but two, devils: her body was utterly purged of morphine’s decade-long chemical enslavement. When Adán finally roused again in a mostly coherent state, she poured out all her personal and familial sins–all save those of the prior night–to the deacon. He spoke of penance, forgiveness, and grace. He spoke of the atoning, cleansing power of Christ’s blood, or how His infinite suffering could subsume all others.
She had heard others speak of such things, but never had she heard them from someone who seemed to so undeniably believe. It made her want to believe. When she confessed as much, the deacon said that even that mustard seed of faith was sufficient to begin her discipleship and attain God’s grace. Thus, in the last hour of Ash Wednesday, Madeleine burned the physical symbol of her former, sinful life: a Storyville Blue-Book. Adán took those ashes and anointed her forehead with the symbol of the Cross, intoning:
“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”
(“Remember, woman, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”)
In return, she pronounced her Lenten sacrifice: abstinence from morphine, fornication, and the many sins of what she proclaimed was her past life.
“As God wills it,” Adán spoke in approval, then slipped back into morphine dreams.
Adán spent most of Lent in the hospital. After Adán entrusted Madeleine with discretely contacting Father Fontenot, the Society of Leopold provided a cover story of the deacon being in a car accident, with the archdiocese postponing his ordination till his most severe injuries fully recovered. For Adán’s own Lenten sacrifice, he convinced his medical staff to help him ‘fast’ from analgesics, at least from sunrise to sunset, consistent with the Black Fast’s traditional timeframe. During the evenings, he broke his fast, not only from morphine, but with Lent’s traditional single meal. Often, this meal was with Madeleine, who brought him mussels, pretzels, and waffles. As they ate, he would answer her questions of doctrine and faith, teaching her the Catechisms and scriptures. She in turn would confess how she had faced and resisted certain temptations. Even addled by pain and opioids, Adán began to intuit that Madeleine’s confessions were sometimes incomplete, such as when he pressed her on how she was routinely obtaining the Lenten fare:
“It would be sinful of me to partake in a meal purchased carnally by your flesh.”
“St. Cyprien!” she cried, as she was wont to only use his surname after he forbade her from using his given name. “No, never, never again!”
“Then how did you purchase this meal, as you have not spoken of gaining honest employ. If you have, then speak plainly of it, that we might rejoice together.”
“Yes, I… I got a job, um… working as a… streetcar driver…”
Adán needed no divine aid to see through the lie. Instead, he simply held her gaze. As shame slowly stole over Madeleine’s face, she burst into tears, confessing how she was sincere in her vow to avoid her past sins, and rather than whore herself, she had stolen the food.
“Beloved daughter,” Adán replied gently, but firmly, “was not theft also one of your past sins? Your theft of your father’s medical supplies ultimately led you to your diabolic addiction. Indirectly, yes, but the Devil helps us pave our paths to Hell, brick by brick. With eternal damnation, he can afford to be patient, so we must be vigilant against his subtle deceits–including those we tell ourselves.”
“Yes, St. Cyprien,” she conceded, wiping her tears with the long, shape-concealing Lenten robe she had ‘found.’
“So let us not disparage the cost of Christ’s precious blood for an earthly meal that only satisfies the flesh for a fleeting moment. With each sin, we sell our souls to Hell, like Essau giving away his spiritual birthright for a mere bowl of porridge. Yet, even then, the Lord of Host offers His blood to purchase you, me, and all his children back from Hell. Let us not reject that blood-price.”
Madeleine pondered Adán’s short sermon, but her thoughts became snagged like a log-caught fishing lure:
“You said that God offers His blood to purchase me, but also you from Hell?”
“But… what sins did you commit that would condemn you to Hell?”
“Madeleine, though you call me your saint, I am just a man, and like all men, am fallen save but by the grace of God.”
“Yes, but you taught me that only mortal, not venial, sins could condemn a soul to Hell. So… what were your mortal sins?”
Adán laughed gently, “I wasn’t aware, Sister Dorleans, that you were taking confessions.” He then attempted to explain how without Christ’s atonement, all sins, even venial ones would condemn everyone to Hell. However, his explanation was interrupted by Madeleine, whose face had turned darkly curious and less than innocent look:
“Was it with Ava?”
“What?!” Adán exclaimed with shock, for they had never spoken of Saul’s sister, at least not of his conscious recollection.
“Did you fornicate with her? Before taking on the collar, is that why you–“
“No more, Madeleine,” the injured cleric said in stern rebuke that transcended his injured body. “I will not have you speak her name or make such accusations. Not here or ever again.”
The former prostitute-addict bowed her head, though her dark curiosity and gnawing jealously only grew at his adamant reaction. “Yes, St. Cyprien… I did not mean to upset you. Please, forgive me.”
Adán closed his eyes and rode out a wave of bodily pain. Exhaling in its aftermath, his voice was strained but soft:
“You will ever have my forgiveness. But… let us return to the original subject of discussion. It is true that man does not live by bread alone, but daily bread is still necessary to live.”
He then proceeded to tell her of several local charity houses and soup kitchens–places where she could not only receive meals, but also perform honest labor and avoid the temptations of “lucre.”
So Lent progressed. Thaddeus occasionally came by to visit, as did a few of Adán’s peers from Immaculate and students from Jesuit High. Most of the time, however, Madeleine had Adán to herself.
But eventually, Adán’s cranial surgery, related paralysis, and broken bones healed well enough to discharge him from Charity, just in time for Holy Week. His parish was delighted to have him back, just as his peers and superiors were glad to have his assistance with the week’s many liturgical ceremonies and duties. Adán too was happy to immerse himself in those rituals and related acts of service.
Madeleine, however, was less than pleased. She was not used to “sharing her saint.” And though Adán continued to help her with her Catechisms, it was not in the intimate one on one way they had spent their time in Charity. As if sensing the woman’s improper possessiveness, many of Adán’s peers started to block her from seeing him, especially when they discovered she lived in another parish. Adán was initially unaware of this growing conflict, and so was shocked when after the week’s Black Saturday and Easter Vigil services, he walked home to the Iberville Projects and discovered Madeleine inside his apartment. He was particularly alarmed since he had never shared his address with her.
The almost-priest did not take kindly to her confession that she had been trailing him to and from his home. Initially, she said it was because she had been having terrible dreams about the Order of the Garter and how it was going to harm Adán. When he inquired why she had not talked to him at Immaculate, she accused his peers of stonewalling her, which she attributed to them persecuting her for her past. She pled with Adán to let her stay with him. She accused several shelter leaders, upon learning of her past, of trying to pressure her into sexual acts for extra food and a place to sleep. Although some of these accusations were true, Madeleine had told too many half-truths and lies to Adán, causing him to think she was once again lying. Seeing he disbelieved her, Madeleine’s begging became even more pitched, saying that she not only needed his protection, but he needed hers.
When he still denied her request, she broke down and claimed she was pregnant and feared for the child’s safety. As if reading Adán’s thoughts, she loudly shouted that she had kept her Lenten vow, that despite “all the Devil’s temptations” she had “remained chaste and faithful.” Confused and increasingly alarmed by the woman’s histrionics, Adán asked her how then the child had been conceived. The question drove the woman to frantic, desperate tears and moans of despair. She looked at him longingly as if desperate to share some secret, then proclaimed that her conception was a miracle, something like Mary’s virginal pregnancy, that it was “God’s will.” These claims as well as her hysterical fervor made Adán think she had relapsed. She did not take his inquiries about such kindly, but began to smash his sole chair and throw his books, screaming how she would never poison her child like her own mother did, nor would she break her promise to Adán.
Unsure what to do, Adán tried to pacify the overcome woman. To prevent any more violence, he embraced her, causing her to sink into his arms and sob hot tears upon his collar. As soon as she seemed to regain some measure of composure, Adán released her, stepped back, and then tried to calmly, patiently explain that he would help her as best as he could. However, he insisted that she could not stay with him. It was the night before his already delayed ordination as a priest, and if any found out about her staying with him, it could jeopardize his entire life’s labor to become a priest and all the godly service he might thereafter render.
“But we… we would not be sinning. I just want to be with you…” she said with another sob and imploring look.
As if finally recognizing the emotion behind her gaze, he stepped back further, shaking his head:
“No, that is not God’s will. As a cleric of the Church, I especially must be mindful of Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians to ‘abstain from all appearance of evil.’ As should you, Madeleine,” he added with a tone that tried to be compassionate, yet firm, “For you are right that men will be particularly likely to see or think evil of you if they discover your past. The world does not see things as we do, nor understand the mystery of God’s mercies.”
Disappointed at Adán’s rejection, but placated or at least no longer hysterical, Madeleine nodded slowly, wiping her tears. “I… understand. I would never want to hurt you.”
“Nor I you,” Adán said. He then offered what little money he had to help her pay for a motel room “where she could feel safer.” Seeing her off, he then expressed his hope of seeing her at Immaculate’s Paschal services and his subsequent ordination.
He did not. Indeed, he did not see Madeleine for several months–though sometimes he thought he glimpsed her in crowded streets or services, only to vanish. Similarly vanished were several of his letters–including the unopened ones–from Ava. While their absence bothered him on more than one level, he accepted their loss, and indeed discarded the rest, believing that as a fully ordained priest, he needed to put such “worldly things away.”
But the world is hard to escape.
During the second week of Paschaltide, the newly ordained priest was serving in Immaculate’s confessional when he heard a familiar voice. Ava’s words pierced his heart like Longinus’ lance:
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one day since my last confession.”
There was a long pause in the confessional, as both man and woman, priest and petitioner were holding their breaths. Eventually, Adán broke the silence, reciting the Gospel of John:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
As if compelled by that promise, Ava spoke:
“Father, forgive me for I know not which sin to confess first.”
“Completeness of confession is paramount, but you may begin with the most grievous mortal sins, proceeding to the least venial ones.”
“But that is the problem, Father, for I do not know which is more grievous in God’s eyes: my love or my hate.”
Adán once more hesitated, as his words seemed to stick in his throat:
“Love of God and one’s fellow man constitute the two great commandments. Hate is antithetical to God’s love.”
“Well then, Father, which is worse: hate for one’s own brother or a priest of the Church?”
There was another pause.
“It depends on how and why we harbor the hatred and how we may have acted upon it,” the priest answered, his analytical mind nearly dissociating from the awakened sea of emotions inside his chest.
As if reconciling her own mind and heart, Ava was silent for some time before she spoke again. When she did, her ‘confession’ was painfully personal for both priest and petitioner. Namely, she related how she had, shortly after their Twelfth Night discussion, pressured Saul to fulfill his vow to help ‘Marie.’ Their discussion had become quite heated, with each of them saying things that she regretted–and thought Saul would to. Instead, he became harsh and cruel. He had accused her of “untoward desires” towards Adán. Although he claimed he was only concerned for her “safety and health”, he had all but posted guards to make sure she didn’t “sneak off into the night like a crippled bitch in heat.” Ava’s hurt, confusion, and growing anger had only compounded when she had written to Adán, seeking comfort and guidance, but had received uncharacteristic silence. At first, she had accused her brother and the family servants of circumventing her mail, but Saul had just laughed at another of her “imaginative delusions.” Worried that her brother or his mafia ‘friends’ might have hurt Adán or worse, she had tried to ‘escape’ her home to check on him, but had been repeatedly thwarted by the Freneau servants loyal to Saul. Eventually, she had convinced one of her sympathetic maids to look in on the then-deacon. When the maid returned, she had reported that Adán was not at home, nor had any of his Iberville neighbors seen him in days. Ava’s fears and accusations against her brother reached a fever pitch.
In one act of desperation, she had gotten hold of their father’s revolver and threatened to shoot her brother if he didn’t tell her what he’d done to Adán. She had been bluffing, as the gun was unloaded, but she was unprepared for Saul’s frank confession of how he hadn’t done anything to Adán, save for their ‘deal.’ That her brother extorted Adán into such a bargain galled her bitterly–but her sorrow and confusion were greater at Adán’s betrayal for agreeing to the ‘deal.’ Throwing the gun into a fireplace, she had broken down into tears and once again accused her brother of lying.
Later, Saul had taken great pleasure in making sure she had watched as Adán left the mansion with the dossier. In that moment, she knew that for all her brother’s cruelty and pettiness, that he had told the truth–precisely because it was more painful. In the weeks that followed, she had fallen into a dark depression.
Even when Saul had entered her room to gloat that, per Thaddeus’ report, Adán had become “quite the bosom companions of the long-sought whore”, Ava had made no visible response. Inside, the news felt like a dagger slipped between her ribs, but externally she had become all but catatonic. She had refused to eat, not out of any active spite but due an emotional numbness more paralytic than polio. Eventually, even Saul had become gravely concerned for her well-being, and had called a doctor. The physician had confirmed her good physical health, apart from her pre-existing palsy and recent malnourishment, but diagnosed her as having “clinical ennui” due to a lack of “reinforcing occupation or stimulating avocations.” When the physician had asked Saul if his sister had any pre-morbid hobbies, the Freneau patriarch had snorted derisively but said, “Church.” In reply, the doctor had remarked that, regardless of the man’s concern for Ava’s afterlife, he should allow her to resume her “Church hobbies” if he cared to save her mortal life.
Begrudgingly, Saul had allowed his sister to attend local parish services at St. Patrick’s. As Lent transitioned to Holy Week, so too had Ava’s spirits seemed to lift. Yet, as the catatonic depression dissipated, her shame and guilt at her actions, thoughts, and feelings had reawakened. Further introspection and counsel with St. Patrick’s clergy had provided her a measure of comfort, but also self-condemnation. Eager for forgiveness and greater clarity, she had convinced her house staff to help her attend another Sacrament of Penance at Immaculate. There, she hoped to confess her ‘sins’ to a man she felt she had wronged–and from whom she felt wronged.
“So you see, Father, I have sinned by hating two men I had loved.”
“Had?” the priest dared to ask, conflicted as to his question’s motive–and hoped-for answer.
As if sensing that conflict, she reached a hand towards the confessional screen, only to withdraw it:
“I suppose I still do love my brother, even after all he has done to me. I am trying to, at least. After all, how can I expect to accept God’s love, despite how I have slighted him, if I do not in turn strive to love those who have slighted me.”
Adán’s voice was genuinely happy as he replied:
“As Paul taught to the Ephesians, we are to be ‘kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.’ The Lord does not teach us that this injunction applies only to those who ask for forgiveness.”
“And what of the priest?” Adán asked, his heart skipping a beat.
“What do you mean, Father?”
“Do you still love him?”
“That depends, Father.”
“On whether it was a sin to love him in the first place.”
Adán wrestled with the question with the same fervor of Jacob against the angel, before reciting the Gospel of John:
“’God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’ Thus, love for another is never a sin, so long as it does not diminish our love for God, for that is the first and great commandment.”
“Well then, Father, I suppose I do not need to confess whether or not I still love him, for either answer would not be a confession of sin.”
At her ‘answer,’ Adán felt a certain tightness in his chest, even as he had to smile at her logic. He then pronounced her necessary Acts of Contrition for her venial sins of animosity, before completing the Sacrament of Penance:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Performing the Sign of the Cross, he dismissed with a final benediction of, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” she replied as the rite dictated.
He contemplated leaving the confessional to see her depart, but he ultimately chose to remain inside his booth, listening as one of Ava’s servants lifted her from her booth and returned her to her wheelchair. Long after she left and he performed the day’s last Sacrament of Penance, Adán pondered their conversation. He contemplated whether he should speak with his parish superior or dean about his confessional “conflict of interest”; however, he did not know how to do so without effectively breaking the sacred Confessional Seal. Ultimately, he rationalized that the exceptional circumstance was a one-time event.
Over the next year, Ava periodically visited Immaculate while Adán was officiating its confessional. Each time, her ‘confessions’ seemed sincere, though venial. They included minor disagreements with house staff and struggles to forgive her brother for some new slight or unrepentant sin. Yet, threaded through these mild, if penitent confessions were questions about how she might better serve God’s will. Over time, these questions became focused on whether she could, or should become a nun–and inquiries as to whether her physical disability prevented her from joining certain orders, such as the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula. Although common social mores and Ava’s physical condition had prevented her from attending public schooling, much less college, her family had paid handsomely for Ava’s private tutors. Thus, when her infirmities prevented her from joining the local monastic order operating Ursuline Academy, Adán helped her consider joining the Ursulines’ associated secular institute, as the Angelines or Company of Saint Ursula also were focused on educating women and girls.
Moreover, such a vow could allow her to remain incardinated inside New Orleans’ archdiocese and work within its diocesan framework. Consequently, she could serve directly alongside Adan, as his Jesuit duties aligned well with the Angelines.’ Although neither spoke aloud this possibility during Ava’s ‘confessions,’ this prospect was not lost on either of them–or, much to their chagrin, Saul.
This time, however, Saul was more devious and subtle in his opposition. Rather than directly confront Ava, lambast her desire to become a nun, or try to outright forbid it, he tried to ‘tempt’ her with the one thing she had most wanted but always thought would be denied her: marriage and children. For over a year, the Black Hand’s consigliere, Corrado Giacona had been pressuring Saul to give his blessing for Corrado’s son, Cesare, to court and marry Ava. Corrado’s mother, Crocifissa Pitta, had convinced him that he and his family were going to Purgatory (at best) for their Prohibition-era bootlegging, related murders, and other sins. As such, Corrado and Cesare were looking for a “good Catholic gal who knew her way ‘round the Rosary and nothing much else, if you know what I mean.” They hoped that such a woman, if married into their family, would perform the necessary indulgences and prayers to ease their sufferings in Purgatory. As Corrado saw it, Ava Freneau perfectly fit the bill. Consequently, he promised to square the Freneau’s debt with the mafia if Saul agreed to the ‘arranged’ marriage.
Cesare Plotius Giacona himself was ‘only’ a giovane d’onore, a “man of honor” or associate of the Black Hand versus a soldato or capo with direct ties to the mob. Rather, much like his grandfather Pietro Giacona, Cesare ran his family’s wine importation business, and still used the same sign from their former Beauregard residence: C. Giacona & Co., Wholesale Liquor Dealers, 1113 Chartres St. Since that business’ Veaux Carre origins and mafia-protected Prohibition dealings, Cesare’s company and profits had grown significantly. Indeed, as part of the Giacona’s largesse and attempt to gain Catholic indulgences (i.e., “God’s protection racket”), Cesare freely supplied all of the sacramental wine for New Orleans’ parishes, including St. Patrick’s and Immaculate. As such, the Giacona were well-known and publicly lauded by the local archdiocesan and deaneries’ leadership. Moreover, Cesare was known for attending St. Patrick’s services with fervent zeal, including copious use of its confessional.
After all, Cesare had many sins. Yet, unlike his immediate kin and extended ‘family,’ Cesare’s sins did not involve murder, extortion, drunkenness, whoring, robberies, or the like. To most, Cesare seemed to live an exceptionally chaste, nonviolent, sober, and honest life. Few outside the Confessional Seal, however, knew his dark secret: Cesare was a serial necrophiliac.
It had begun with his cousin, Ornella Mannino. Ornella had been his slightly older cousin, born of Giovanina Giacona and Antonino Mannino. Ornella, or Ella as most Americans called her, had always been a precocious flirt. She stole and broke the hearts of countless boys in Little Italy, collecting them like some children collected coins. She took particularly delight in teasing her younger cousin, Cesare, constantly asking for a kiss on her lips. When the shy boy demurred, Ornella and the other neighborhood kids and family would laugh, only to laugh harder as Cesare turned beet red and ran away. As the cousins became adolescents, Ornella’s ‘teasing’ became more forceful and sexual. During a trip to the Gulf, the pair had floated on inflated tire-tubes, far away from adult eyes. She took off her swimsuit, grabbed Cesare’s “little cazzo”, and dared him to touch her farfallina or “little butterfly.” Cesare was mortified, fell out of his tube, and nearly drowned trying to swim back to the shore. When his mother asked him what was wrong, he lied and said he saw a shark. The lie only caused his family to heckle him for being a coward or codardo for leaving behind his cousin. That heckling only grew worse when the redressed Ornella returned and claimed she scared away the shark with a sharp kick to its head.
One week later, the family mockery had barely died down when Ornella was gunned down while sitting on the Beauregard porch. Her murder was the latest casualty in the old blood feud between the Giacona and the Vattali, Cusimano, and Barreca. While Ornella’s corpse was temporarily laid on a wine cellar table in preparation for her viewing and funeral, the Mannino and Giacona left to repay blood with blood. Cesare “the Codardo” was left behind to guard Ornella’s body. As the hours passed, Cesare sipped more and more from the nearby wine, till light-headed and drunk, his thoughts turned dark.
“Oh, Ornella, what did you say? You’re asking for a kiss, now? Well, fine, I am no codardo, here is how a maschio kisses.”
The kiss was drunken, awkward, incestuous, and necrophiliac, but it was his first. After several more and another bottle of wine, he whispered to Ornella’s corpse, “Oh, now you want me to touch your farfallina? Well, fine, I am no codardo_…”
To his surprise and disgust, the act titillated him, arousing his long-dormant libido. Initially, he fought off the temptation to do more, even turning to a nearby Bible for strength. As he opened it to a random page, his eyes fell upon the 21st verse of the 22nd chapter of Mathew, and to his surprise, he saw his own name:
Reading onward, he saw:
…Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…
Sadly, the drunken teen did not finish the verse and see Christ’s second injunction. Instead, he became fixated upon the first. He spoke aloud his drunken, carnal mind, as if seeing if Ornella would ‘object’:
“Well, everyone knows they were talking about a gold coin. Gold… goes to Caesar. Cesare… that’s me… And your name… means ‘gold.’.. you told me so yourself… so… if God’s okay with it…”
It was drunken, awkward, incestuous, and necrophiliac ‘sex,’ but it was his first. When the wine eventually wore off, Cesare was overcome with guilt. His family just thought he was grieving for his cousin, but his confessional priest learned otherwise. When the priest told him to perform 10 Hail Marys and volunteer in a local church morgue to learn “proper respect for the dead”, Cesare tried to perform his penance, but the access to new ‘temptations’ was just too much for the young man. As before, he returned to confess his sin and sincerely promised never to repeat it. That pattern would continue for years. As an adult, Cesare’s “lapses” only increased as he could use his money and influence to illicitly procure ‘gold’ from Tulane’s medical school and related cadaver labs. Notwithstanding, his guilt and self-disgust only grew, as did his belief that, despite the priests’ absolution, he would burn in Purgatory for a very, very long time.
Thus, the otherwise celibate man was all too eager to follow his grandmother’s and father’s “insurance” plan to marry Ava-Michèl Freneau. After all, he had seen her many times at St. Patrick’s, where he had been impressed by her Catholic piety. It also didn’t hurt that she was half-Italian on her mother’s side.
The courtship was subtle and slow, if not all but imperceptible. Saul relayed to Cesare whenever Ava left to attend St. Patrick’s, and Cesare made sure he was there. He offered to help her to and from the confessional–saying such was part of his own Acts of Contrition–and made sure to have St. Patrick’s priests vouch for him. They shared pews, and between and after services they would engage in doctrinal discussions, most of which centered around familial sins, forgiveness, and the afterlife. Eventually, he offered to show her how his business did the pre-ecclesiastical preparations for the sacramental wine. That ‘date’ led to a related discussion of oenology, Cesare’s prime intellectual passion. That knowledge, as well as the way he seemed to enjoy wine’s historicity more than its consumption, further earned him Ava’s esteem. She also grew to pity him for the way many “godly folk” shunned him for his family’s ill reputation–something the Freneau descendant knew all too well. Indeed, he claimed that it was this ill repute that had foiled his hopes of marriage, as the only women who had wanted to marry him were “Catholics in name only, or not even that.” As the months passed, her pity and sympathy for Cesare bloomed, not into true love, but at least into a protective, empathic affection. His own feelings also developed during this time, as he found her presence as “soothing as the Balm of Gilead”, and his lust for “gold” diminished.
Thus, in mid-May of 1945, in the fresh wake of Nazi Germany’s surrender and on the last week of Eastertide, Cesare proposed. At the conclusion of the Feast of Our Lady, he knelt down on the steps of St. Patrick’s and presented her a bouquet of Paschal-roses and a Boudreaux’s engagement ring shaped like her rosary, with a main 3-carat cross-chiseled diamond surrounded by 10 smaller round-cut diamonds. Ava was shocked by the marital offer, as neither of them had ever discussed it. Nor had she considered them a couple–or thought Cesare had, as he had never so much as made any romantic gesture or attempt at physical intimacy.
Still, she did not tell him ‘no’–but nor did she tell him ‘yes.’ When she informed Saul of the proposal, he concealed his mirth, and instead sulked. Part of him truly loathed to see his sister married off–especially to secretly pay-off a debt to the mob. But he hid his true feelings and machinations, and instead loudly proclaimed that he did not approve of her marrying a “new money wino” and would not pay for her dowry “just so the mob could swallow more of the Freneau wealth.” True to his calculation, Saul’s bluster and threats only made her more inclined to accept Cesare’s offer.
Nevertheless, she remained uncertain. She desperately wanted to speak with Adán, but she hesitated, concerned that her new ‘confession’ would break his heart–or perhaps break hers if it did not. Ultimately, she told Cesare that she needed further time to pray and fast. When he pressed her again, she told him she would have an answer after the Feast of Pentecost. Yet, when the day of Pentecost arrived, she still struggled to divine God’s will. Thus, in her desperation–or perhaps motivated by her heart’s true longing–she sought guidance from the priest she “had loved.”
She found him dressed in Pentecost’s liturgical red, kneeling before Immaculate’s golden altar and its fresh arrangements of similarly red hydrangeas, lilies, irises, and geraniums. Eventually rising from his prayer, he saw her and beamed like a Louisiana sunrise. After all, the last time they had seen each other was from afar, when they had locked gazes as he left her home in search of Madeleine–and the time before that was in his apartment on Epiphany’s Eve more than a year past. The experience of seeing Adán made her temporally forget her visit’s purpose. She barely could speak when he approached and greeted her, and she all but shooed away the house servant pushing her wheelchair when the priest offered to give her a tour of the church’s liturgical bouquets.
“If a priest is allowed to have favorites amongst his parish blossoms, the copper irises are mine.”
“Copper?” she asked, still struggling to regain her voice–though the effulgent priest seemed oblivious to her nerves.
“Iris fulva,” the priest replied. “Their scientific names hails from the Latin for ‘tawny-orange.’”
“But red is the color of Pentecost?” she asked distractedly, her heart still half-stuck in her throat.
“Precisely–,” he beamed again, “–and that is why the copper lilies are my favorite. True red irises do not exist in nature, no more than natural blue roses do. Many botanists have tried, but all have failed. The Louisiana irises come the closest though, but even then, they are more russet, maroon, or copper than truly red. It reminds me of how, no matter how hard we try, we are inherently flawed. No matter how many good deeds we render, prayers we offer, sermons we hear, or scriptural passages we study, we remain an imperfect ‘red.’ Only in the pure red blood of Christ are we truly perfected. Transfigured. Seeing the copper irises reminds me to be both humble and awed at the miracles that God offers all of us.”
“Like its first name?” Ava posited, her own mind settled, or at least fully distracted, by the private homily.
“How so?” Adán asked, not following her remark, but curious, like any Jesuit would be.
“Iris, as in rainbow. God’s token of his covenant after the Flood.”
“Ah, yes, of course!” Adán exclaimed, beaming like a child who was just offered candy after he thought it had all been eaten. Chuckling, he added, “My poor Greek instructors would doubtlessly shake their heads and remind me that the Roman Rite does not mean that Latin is always right.”
When his mirth subsided, a look of tender joy overcame him, causing him to pause and place an affectionate palm upon her shoulder:
“Sister Freneau, you will make a most miraculous of Angelines.”
His touch and praise were simply too much for her. She burst into tears like a microcosm of the Great Flood itself, and it took her what seemed like forty days and nights to recompose herself. Unsure what was wrong, Adán came around her wheelchair and kneeled to face her. The gesture, however, only reminded Ava of Cesare’s genuflection, and her tears redoubled. She tried to answer his gentle inquires as to the nature of her distress, as well as wave off his meek apologies for any offense given by his remark. Eventually, he took her hands–both the hale and the palsied–and offered a simple prayer of peace. In that embrace of hands, she felt a wave of calm flood over her–even as she felt a tremble in her long-paralyzed hand.
The moment, however, passed when a quadroon woman approached, holding a 6-month old infant in her arms. The latter was dressed in a white gown.
“St. Cyprien,” Madeleine spoke, her voice tremulous yet hard.
Madeleine had disappeared for roughly eight months after Easter Eve of 1944. Adán had thought about searching for her, concerned that she had fallen back into prostitution and drug use–or worse, fallen prey to repossession. He had been comforted, though, when Father Fontenot shared that he had been in sporadic contact with Madeleine, informing him that she had joined the Society of Leopold, largely in gratitude of her rescue as well as emulation of her rescuer. Adán was concerned she had joined the Brotherhood of St. Athanasius, but Father Fontenot informed him that she was primarily doing volunteer work in Charity Hospital, where she worked to identify injuries consistent with supernatural victimization. And then, just as suddenly as she had disappeared, she had reappeared on Ash Wednesday of 1945, intent on having her and her infant child’s foreheads painted with ash by “her saint.” Adán had been pleased to see her, though shocked by the child’s presence, as he had come to believe that she had lied about her pregnancy, particularly since Father Fontenot had never mentioned her either being with or having a child.
Over the next three months, Madeleine and Adán–under Father Fontenot’s direction–had begun working together as mutual members of the Shadow Congregation. Typically, this had entailed Madeleine ‘procuring’ certain rare tomes or archives for Adán to study, or her spying on certain suspects identified by Adán’s more esoteric investigations. When Madeleine was called away on these ‘field missions,’ Adán most commonly cared for her child, a boy she had named Absalom Josué Dorleans (although Adán preferred the boy’s middle name as the first had infamous connotations). Their work for the Society of Leopold meant Adán and Madeleine spent increasing time together, which also came to include midnight boxing practice, advanced post-seminarian studies, and recording their investigation outcomes via Ampex acetate audio tapes–as Father Fontenot’s progressive cataracts had finally stolen his ability to read.
Given this increased contact, Madeleine had tried to once again convince Adán to let her and Absalom move in with him. Much to her sorrow, Adán had once again rejected that proposal. So spurned, she and the infant had moved in with Joseph ‘Jupp’ Zimmermann, a German-Italian member of the Brotherhood who had been denied US military service due to his bloodline. Adán had firmly disapproved of that ‘cover family’ on multiple levels. In the subsequent months, Adán’s and Madeleine’s conjoint missions had diminished, but they had remained in some contact, particularly when Madeleine requested that Adán christen Absalom during the upcoming day of Pentecost.
Thus, Madeleine had arrived to interrupt Adán speaking with a wheelchair-bound woman she did not know–though one who seemed rather intimate with “her saint.” Stepping forward, she extended the fussing infant to Adán:
“Your child’s christening, it’s time.”
“Your child?” Ava asked, her bewilderment temporarily holding her sorrow at bay.
“An affectation–,” Adán replied, rising to approach and hold Absalom, “–on Sister Dorleans’ part. She argues that since I am called the ‘Father’ of the parish, so too should all the parish children, particularly the fatherless, be referred to as mine.”
Ava nodded at the explanation, but she was concerned by the look she saw on Madeleine’s face as she regarded the priest holding ‘his’ child. It was one of pained, fervent longing and fierce pride. She understood it well, yet when Madeleine noticed Ava’s gaze, the former’s features took on a hard, possessive edge. She all but stepped between Adán and Ava, and then half-turned, placing a firm hand on the priest’s shoulder:
“Come, St. Cyprien, both father and child are needed at the font.”
Adán arched a brow in silent rebuke at her forward touch and continued failure to use his ecclesiastical title, but he still nodded in agreement, turning towards the font. Before the priest could dismiss himself, Ava all but blurted out:
“I–I need you for the Sacrament of Penance!”
“Find another priest,” Madeleine said with an edge that Adán missed, but Ava did not.
“No, I…” Ava said, unable to face the woman’s fierce stare, and unable to so publicly explain her plight. Fortunately, Adán intervened. He passed the child back to Madeleine, then spoke:
“All is well. Take the child to the font–I will be there in just a moment. Please, you know I keep my word,” he added with a gentle implore that made the hardened mother soften. Turning back to the palsied woman, he then said, “After the christenings, we can speak, so please stay, Ava.”
“Ava–as in Ava Freneau?!” Madeleine asked with a hiss akin to an unsheathed dagger. The private look she gave Ava was not fit for a church. With Adán’s back to her, he had been unable to see that look. Thus, he mistook Madeleine’s aghast, if not unpleasant tone to be due to discomfort at being reminded of Saul–the man who helped cause her 6-year possession.
“Peace,” Adán breathed, “remember the blood that has redeemed you. You are here, and you are safe.”
Taking Ava’s wheelchair, Adán ushered both women and child to the font. The journey was short, but painfully awkward. Trying to defuse the tension, Adán turned to Madeleine:
“You know, Ava would make a wonderful godmother to the baby. She is a godly woman, full of wisdom and knowledge of the Lord and His church. She has always wanted to be a mother, but has never had the chance to marry. So in lieu of the sacrament of matrimony, she plans to take her vows in the Company of Saint Ursula, which, like the Jesuits, is dedicated to imparting the gift of education. She and I could serve as Josué’s godparents.”
Adán’s innocently intended words were like scissor blades running the lengths of Ava’s and Madeleine’s souls. Ava could only look down, biting back a new bout of tears. Madeleine, meanwhile, tensed, till her tightened lips became a knife slit.
“No, Father,” she said tersely, “That won’t be necessary, and after speaking with Father Fontenot, I learned that you cannot serve as Absalom’s godfather. Brother Zimmerman will serve in that role.”
Adán was shocked and disappointed by Madeleine’s double-rejection. Yet, even as his heart felt bruised, his mind struggled to fathom why his Jesuit mentor would say he could not serve as the child’s godfather as he and Madeleine had long planned. Canon law did not forbid a priest from serving as a godparent; indeed, they were ideal candidates, as they amply met all of the church’s requirements: being at least 16 years of age, a confirmed Catholic who has received the Eucharist, and not being under any canonical penalty.
“Can’t? Why? Madeleine, I… I don’t understand…”
Then it was Ava’s turn to interrupt with her own unsettling epiphany, as she regarded the quadroon woman with an awakened scrutiny:
“Madeleine? As in the same Marie, or Marie Délicieux? The woman you have, or had, been searching for, for so many years? The woman who was a… with my brother… the one who was…”
Madeleine interrupted the clearly stumbling Ava with a venomous harshness that made her own infant cry, “I believe the words you are looking for are ‘whore’ and ‘possessed.’ ‘Demoniac,’ ‘prostitute,’ ‘energumen,’ and ‘harlot’ would also fit the bill. But yes, that’s me–or was me. But thank you for throwing that painful, shameful past into my face just before my son is going to be christened. Make sure to add ‘associating with my brother’s past whore’ to your list of sins to confess today.”
Ava was mortified, raising up her one un-palsied hand as if in surrender or to ward off the woman’s hate. “I… I am so, so sorry, I didn’t know you had… I shouldn’t have said…”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Madeleine said stonily, as she tried to soothe her child, but not before spitefully adding, “And maybe you didn’t know because it wasn’t your business to know, maybe St. Cyprien doesn’t tell you everything, maybe he and I have lives with secrets you couldn’t even begin to fathom–“
“Enough!” Adán all but shouted in his church. “This is the holy day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit descending upon the resurrected Christ’s apostles and followers, to empower the Church Militant with knowledge and power to do His will. I will not have that same Spirit driven from this house of the Lord by contentious malice and mean-spirited words. Here, we serve the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of Strife.” Turning to firmly face Madeleine and the still crying Absalom, he added, “If you wish to have another priest perform Josué’s paedobaptism, I can make the arrangements. Otherwise, please go to the font and wait for me there. Now.”
Fearing the priest’s loss more than his rebuke, Madeleine murmured an apology, then left as she was bidden.
Once she left, Ava immediately tried to share her own apology, “I am sorry, Adán–“
“Please–,” the priest interrupted with a strained tone while pinching his temples, “–at very least here, please call me ‘Father Cyprien.’”
“Yes, of course, my apologies, Father Cyprien,” she answered meekly, “And I am sorry, I didn’t mean to cause offense. In hindsight… I see that my intemperate and indiscrete words could be taken no other way. I should have held my tongue, waited for a more opportune moment and used more delicate words.”
Adán sighed. “I too bare the blame, but now is not a time for either of us to confess our failings. If you still seek the Sacrament of Penance, I can serve you after the scheduled christenings. Now I must go and serve the children and their families.”
With the aid of her recalled house servant, Ava watched Absalom’s baptism. True to the Roman Rite, the christening began with Adán pronouncing an exorcism over the child:
“Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him free from original sin, make him a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him. Through Christ our Lord.”
As the sacramental ritual continued, Ava could not help but feel a pang of longing. She watched with yearning, both maternal and matrimonial, as Madeleine held her infant over the font, with Jupp placing a supportive hand on her shoulder. She could not help but imagine herself holding a long-desired child of her own, with a supportive hand upon her own shoulder. A family. Her own family. And with Cesare’s proposal, she had an opportunity to obtain that righteous desire.
Then she beheld Adán pouring the baptismal waters over Absalom’s head, with the former proclaiming:
“The servant of God, Absalom Josué Dorleans is baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
There was a joyful celebration among the baby’s kin and friends, but Ava did not watch them as they left the church. Rather, she continued her vigil over her devoutly beloved priest, who had to quickly move on to the next christening, this time for another “servant of God” named Miloud Delacroix.
Watching Adán, Ava knew she did not love Cesare–that choice place in her heart belonged to another. Notwithstanding, the baptismal sacraments reminded her that matrimony, ultimately for a Catholic, was not about romantic love, but rather religious service. After all, matrimony was one of the two Catholic sacraments of service, alongside joining the Holy Orders. This notion was reinforced as she turned to Immaculate’s altar and regarded the statue of Mary–both Virgin and Mother. With a prayer upon her lips, Ava’s heart pondered which would be a greater service to her God: the solemn rite of Consecratio Virginumor subsuming her private desires to become a mother, thereby delivering the fruit of her womb as new servants of God?
By the time Adán had finished with Absalom’s baptism, Ava had made her decision. When he approached her, saying he was now able to take her confession, the woman shook her head:
“I need to speak with you, Father Cyprien, but we may converse here among the pews. Of my sins, there is but one I feel the need now to confess, and it does not require a booth, least not the one here at Immaculate. Namely, I have come to believe I have taken advantage of you and the Sacrament of Penance, and from now on, I will turn to my parish confessor at St. Patrick’s.”
The ‘confession’ pained Adán. He could not, and did not, contend against its truth, for he had experienced similar concerns, but the loss of their ‘confessional’ discussions would grieve him. Still, he took heart in the belief that her becoming an Angeline would allow their relationship to continue, if not further blossom through mutual consecrated service. Those hopes, though, were dashed by the next turn in their conversation:
“Father Cyprien,” she began, steeling herself to look the priest in the eye, “I have a great favor to ask of you.”
“Ava-Michèl Freneau, if it is in my power and authority to perform, I will gladly do it.”
“Will you marry me?”
Adán’s heart almost exploded with confusion, delight, and growing dread.
“Ava, if I could… I–“
She shook her head, momentarily covering her tear-tortured face with her un-palsied hand. Saying a silent prayer to Mother Mary, she pressed forward, not quite able to look Adán in the eye:
“No… I know your vows. I meant…or mean, will you perform the sacrament of matrimony for me? A man of the Catholic faith has proposed to me, and I intend to accept.”
A legion of thoughts and emotions immediately warred inside Adán, but his lips, if not torn mind, could only recite from Proverbs:
“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.”
“So… you… you will do it!?” Ava asked, delightedly grasping Adán’s stigmata-scarred hand in gratitude.
“As God wills it,” was all Adán could answer, though his words seemed to come from a dark, hollow pit at the bottom of his pierced soul.
For Adán, the five months before Ava’s wedding passed like a rushing freight train–and felt just as heavy. Fortunately, the Freneau and Giacona families took care of the copious wedding preparations, including obtaining Adán’s permission to marry outside his parish. Meanwhile, Adán retreated into his work for the Society of Leopold. Frankly, the horrors he researched and spied upon for the Order of St. Ambrose were easier to handle than the horrors within his own heart.
Madeleine was all-too happy to have more time with “her saint.” Their closeness also grew when Jupp was finally able to enlist in the waning months of WWII, as his German-Italian blood was less of a blackmark with the only remaining war-front being against Japan. In Jupp’s absence, Adán became Absalom’s de facto godfather, and the child was a singular source of joy for the man. That joy–and Madeleine’s and Adán’s bond–became all the more important to the priest when Father Fontenot passed away in late September. The Jesuit was one of the rare cases of a Leopoldite ending his Vigil peacefully in his sleep. Yet, with the Jesuit’s passing, Adán inherited not only several of the man’s religious relics, but also his place as head of the archdiocese’s Order of St. Ambrose. The role’s responsibilities were many, but Adán was delighted to more fully devote his days and nights to the Church Militant. It also distracted him from Ava’s imminent wedding.
Thus, when the day of the wedding arrived in November of 1945, Adán was bone-weary and numb with exhaustion. That numbness seemed to become increasingly mental and emotional as he was called upon to lead the marital ceremony. He said his lines and played his part, as if he was a hollow puppet being pulled by strings. During the ceremony itself, he kept his eyes focused on the church’s Gothic Revival architecture, and hardly looked at Ava, her brother, or her new husband.
Immediately after the wedding, his only direct interaction with Ava was brief, but pained. He expressed his sincere wish that she have the “full measure of marital happiness and love.” Seeing her tear up, he tenderly passed her his handkerchief–the very same one she had gifted him 21 months prior. When she tried to return it, he took her hand in his and gently squeezed, but he refused to take back the cloth. Before she could protest or say anything else, Cesare swept in, vigorously shaking Adán’s hand and thanking him for performing the ceremony. He then wheeled away his new wife into the throng of wealthy, influential guests who had come to give their congratulations to the couple.
As if distancing himself from that marital celebration, Adán turned his back on the crowd and attentively gazed up at the fan vaulting of the 85-foot tall, as well as its sixteen stained glass windows. Thus, while he was regarding the painting of Christ pulling St. Peter from the sea, he was unprepared for the sudden, but heavy thump of a hand upon his shoulder:
“Father!” shouted the voice that accompanied the forceful gesture, “I just wanted to give my thanks, and look you in the eye, face to face and man to man.” So startled, it took Adán a moment to place the voice and its owner: his old dock-boss, Tito. No sooner had he made that connection, then did Tito give him a crushing side-embrace, during which Tito leaned in and whispered:
“You’re a hard man to find, Bruno Legaré. And as Christ is my witness, I wasn’t really sure it was you up there, with me way back in the pews, so I just had to see for myself.”
“Think carefully, Tito, about what you do in the House of God” the priest said firmly, his eyes reflexively darting back to Ava.
“Oh, don’t you worry, Bruno–or should I say Father Cyprien–about me causing no scene, not here. Why, I wouldn’t dream of it. After all, the groom’s a giovane d’onore, son of the consigliere.”
To Adán, the revelation was like a slap with a tire iron. Seeing the priest’s reaction, Tito laughed loudly, playing his part by giving the priest another hard ‘congratulatory’ pat on the back.
“Why, you didn’t know?! Ah, that’s rich, that is.”
Pretending to wipe a tear from his eye, Tito continued, “Oh sure, the whole family’s here. And not just the Giacona’s, no, I mean the family. Carlos and Catfish Freddy–I’m sure you remember them, right? Why, even Don Carollo’s here. Oh, you probably didn’t hear about how his deportation got cancelled on account of the war. Why, old Silver Dollar Sam, he’s got Congressman Jimmy Morrison drafting a bill to award Silvestro with American citizenship. Ain’t democracy great!”
“What do you want, Tito?” the priest asked, as he tried to further turn and scan the crowd.
“Oh, me?” Tito replied with a light, cruel laugh, “I just came to see your old mug nice and close. That, and to give you a little present, courtesy of the family, from one Judas to another.”
The dock-boss and capo then leaned in and gave Adán an il bacio della morte, a kiss of death. Laughing, Tito provided some parting advice as a cruel lagniappe, “So if I was you, Father–and boy oh boy am I sure glad I ain’t–I would make sure you get your Last Rites read before leaving St. Patrick’s, because as soon as you step out of this church, the whole family’s gonna be waiting for you, and no amount of fancy boxing moves or sweet-talking is gonna save your collared neck.”
‘Patting’ the priest on his back again, Tito departed with a final shout, “Thanks again, Father, for all your service. I hope to see you real soon!”
True to Tito’s word, the mafia was present in force. They ‘behaved’ themselves while the couple remained inside St. Patrick’s, but more than one soldato had been posted at each of the church’s exits, preventing his escape. By the time the wedding couple and party left, the number of mafioso tripled. Adán was trapped. Furthermore, and to Adán’s shock and disgust, the other clergy of St. Patrick’s parish seemed to be fully in the Black Hand’s pocket, such that they rendered him no aid, or seemed to feign disbelief. Attempts to use the archpriest’s office phone were similarly blocked on account of the phone allegedly being “out of commission.”
Surrounded by his enemies like unto Elisha at Dothan, Adán prayed. Like Elisha, he petitioned the Lord to help him see that “they that be with us” were still more than “they that be with them.” Yet, unlike the seraphic host that delivered Elisha from the Aramean army, Adán’s rescue came from a single, elderly man.
“Well, Cœur de Lion, you seem to have gotten yourself in quite the bloody clanger.”
“Jamesie?” Adán exclaimed, excited but surprised to see the nominal Anglican inside a Catholic church.
As if guessing the priest’s surprise, “Oh, don’t get too cheeky with your hopes, lad. I didn’t take a page from Mary Stuart and embrace the Roman Rite. After all, look where it got her. No, I am here for more secular reasons, or at least, so I had thought before seeing you from the pews.”
“You were a wedding guest?”
Sir Gallier nodded as he leaned upon his cane. “On the bride’s side, though my heart wasn’t truly in it, as I have only the faintest of acquaintances with the Freneau’s. Though, to be honest, my old friend, it didn’t seem like your heart was in it either.”
Adán could only nod.
The knight raised a brow, but then continued, “Though I do have to say the post-ceremony entertainment was far more rousing. It’s not often I get to see the mafia give the kiss of death to a priest inside my proto-cathedral.”
“Your proto-cathedral?” Adán asked, with both surprise and some hint of rebuke.
“Forgive my license, but we Galliers do get a touch possessive over things we build.”
“I thought James Dakin designed St. Patrick’s?”
“Ah, ever the knight of history–but let me rectify a gap in your armor of knowledge. You are right that my family had no part in the original design, but Dakin’s crew bungled the execution on account of the lamentably high water table. Consequently, my great-grandfather was called in to take over construction of this marvelous edifice.”
Always a rapt student of ecclesiastical architecture, Adán’s interest suddenly became intensely personal:
_“Jamesie… you wouldn’t happen to know of any clandestine exits from St. Patrick’s, would you?”_
“Why, my boy, I thought you would never ask. The answer of course is a resolute ‘yes.’ Secrets are in the Galliers’ blood, after all. My great-grandfather could no more resist adding secrets to Dakin’s designs than a fish could refuse to swim or a lion refuse to roar. Though, if the rumors are true, the secret passageway is used today mostly by a group of Catholic vampires who perform Black Mass blood rituals, which for whatever reason, are not considered witchcraft by my fellow Anglican knights. What is your doctrinal opinion on the matter?”
Adán wasn’t sure if the Knight of St. George was speaking truly or teasing his Catholic counterpart, but he put aside that question to refocus the discussion:
“Jamesie, can you show the secret passageway?”
“Well, there’s the rub, Cœur de Lion. Last time I did something like that, you cast my pearls before the swine you call the Brotherhood of St. Athanasius. And we both know how well that turned out, don’t we?”
“Jamesie, I told you I had no notion of what the Brotherhood was planning, or how they would use that information.”
“Did you? Still, loose lips sink ships, as they say.”
“Jamesie, please, I do not have time for another one of your gauntlets. The mobsters outside will eventually bore of their blockade. I worry they, now knowing my identity, might strike out at my friends and loved ones. Please, Jamesie, I have a godson. If they were to harm him…”
“A godson? Well then, as one father to another, or sorts, I can empathize with your plight. How about this, I help your family out of this dog’s dinner, but then you help me out with a little jam of my own that all started around–”
“Jamesie–,” interrupted the increasingly exasperated priest, “–I do not have time for another history lesson now, however interesting and erudite it might be. I need your help now. Are we not friends?”
“Oh, we are, Cœur de Lion, we are. I thought my last little parcel to you proved that, even though you’ve still never apologized for all of the dreadful things you said about my automobile.”
“An honest man should not have to apologize for speaking the truth.”
“Perhaps, though he still may feel sorry for speaking it.”
“Please, Jamesie,” the priest begged.
“Oh, very well…”
With the help of the Knight of St. George, Adán stealthily escaped St. Patrick’s. In doing so, he slipped the Black Hand’s noose–at least for that night.
Much like the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus from King Herod’s wrath, Adán convinced Madeleine, and thus Absalom, to join him as he went into hiding from the murderous Black Hand. Their Egypt, however, was the Jeansonne’s home along the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Namely, the fishermen’s families had both moved from the largely deforested Eden Isle to Madisonville, where they fished the Lake, Bayou des Mats, and Tchefuncte River when not otherwise ferrying individuals and cargo to and from Mandeville and New Orleans. The Jeansonne’s readily embraced the return of Adán–though they made him promise, somewhat jokingly, not to take any more of their boats out into hurricanes.
Initially, Pierre and Andre were reticent about taking in the quadroon woman “their priest” brought back with him. Part of that reservation was undoubtedly the ingrained racism of the time, and part of it, ironically, was that they were not used to sharing “their priest” with outsiders. Pierre in particular disliked the direct, if not too intimate way she spoke with and sat near Adán. Ultimately, both fishermen came to begrudgingly accept her, in large part as their wives embraced the woman as their own. Their love, acceptance, and compassion were unexpected treasures for Madeleine, as she had never known healthy female companionship. Indeed, Pierre’s wife, more than any other person, taught Madeleine how to actually be a mother and care for Absalom–lessons that her own mother had certainly never supplied. In turn, Madeleine surprised and delighted the Jeansonne women with her “priestly” knowledge of Catholic doctrine and scriptures. In short, it was the happiest time of Madeleine’s life, as she had not only Adán and Absalom, but her first ‘extended family,’ not to mention one that loved and respected her.
When not fishing with Pierre, Andre, and their sons, Adán spent his time writing clandestine ‘epistles’ to the archdiocese’s Society of Leopold’s, assisting their operations as best he could, while also doing much to codify their protocols and clarify doctrinal issues the Shadow Congregation often faced. He also sent a similarly secret set of missives to Thaddeus. In them, Adán did not disclose his location, but he did explain the purpose behind his flight as well as his concerns for St. Patrick’s clergy–and the potential threat of wider mafia influence within the archdiocese. Although nothing was done about the “Mammon-tainted priests of St. Patrick”, Father Malveaux’s political influence helped shield the in absentia priest from immediate suspension or worse ecclesiastical punishments.
A year passed in relative peace. As October of 1946 came and nearly went, Adán became increasingly desirous to return to New Orleans. He believed he needed to confront his accusers within the archdiocese, as well as the Black Hand. Pierre and Madeleine argued against the plan, as both were sure the mob would kill him, especially as Adán seemed all-too willing, if not eager, to die a martyr. Madeleine begged Adán to stay, and when that did not deter him, she swore that if Adán returned, so too would she and the two year old Absalom. That alone made the priest stay, but he was increasingly thinking of a way to return to New Orleans like a “thief in the night.”
New Orleans, however, came to him–or at least a part of it. A part that refused to die.
On Hallow’s Eve of 1946, Adán went into the nearby bayou to hold his private Vigil of All Saints, where he fasted and prayed for the Church Triumphant to aid him in his righteous endeavors. Meanwhile, the Dorleans spent the evening at Pierre’s home, where his wife lead Madeleine, Absalom, and the Jeansonne children in making soul-cakes for Allhallowtide. Outside, a thunderstorm began to fall on Tchefuncte River. Driven home by the storm, Pierre entered the domestic scene, where he loudly complaining that his nets were “good fer catchin’ rain.” When he heard that Adán had not returned, the fisherman grew concerned and summoned his brother and their sons to go hunt for the priest–_“lest dat priest done try to drown himself ‘gain to study da archemtecture of St. Peter’s pearly gates!”_
Pierre’s wife, however, just laughed and accused her husband of wanting to go hunting since he couldn’t go fishing. “He jus’ worries, him do,” she said to Madeleine once they left, “as he loves yer man mightily.”
“My man?” the shocked Madeleine repeated, as she had never heard another use those words. “But he is not… he can’t…, he’s a priest,” she found herself surprisingly saying out loud.
Pierre’s wife just shrugged. “My man’s done named after St. Peter himself, the first bishop and pope, and da Bible says clear as day dat he was married. Besides, wont it da Almighty himself who done said dat it’s not good fer man to live alone? Who is I to done argue with da Good Book?”
With Madeleine left speechless, the Jeansonne matriarch led the children in an Allhallowtide song:
“A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One fer Peter, two fer Paul
Three fer Him who done made us all.”
The matriarch then sprinkled the children with flour to “make them ghosts” and led them in another round of the song’s chorus. Yet, they only got to through the first four words, “A soul! a soul!” before the front door blew open. Outside, a bolt of lightning revealed the shape of a hulking, drenched black man.
Gator Johnson had found them.
True to Adán’s fears, the Black Hand–particularly with the Giovannini’s backing–had long ago expanded their search for not only for the priest, but any of his friends. Fortunately for Adán, he had few living companions. Father Fontenot was dead, and his fellow clergy at Immaculate, Notre Dame, and Loyola had no clue where the man had vanished. Fortunately for Father Malveaux, he was well-protected, both by mortal and immortal guardians. Notwithstanding, those some clergy were able to share Adán’s close association with Madeleine. Thus, as the mob put out feelers for Madeleine’s whereabouts, their Giovannini benefactors did the same, with their nigramancers sending their bond-wraiths to hunt the Shadowlands for any who knew the woman or priest, as they still hoped to reclaim St. Columba’s relic.
Beyond the Shroud, those wraiths’ search came to the attention of Gator Johnson. After being purged from Madeleine’s body and then banished back to the Shadowlands with the hound’s death, he had wandered the Shadowlands, his hatred of the mob was only exceeded by his fear of the allied Giovannini. Still, he had neither forgotten nor forgiven Adán, so the wraith decided to hunt down the priest down himself and not only gain his own vengeance, but deny the mob theirs. Ironically, it had been the mob’s decision to drown the heavyweight boxer that gave him some power over water–a power that he slowly learned to use to detect souls’ spiritual ‘runoff.’ And given his half-decade possession of Madeleine, he found her spiritual essence the easiest to detect.
Thus, he had tracked her across Lake Pontchartrain to the Jeansonne’s house. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Shroud was exceedingly thin on All Hallow’s Eve, allowing Gator Johnson’s spirit to possess the storms’ rainwater. With that ‘corporeal’ form, he half-walked, half-sloshed into the Jeansonne’s home. His drowned voice roared incoherently like a crashing wave. His watery punches broke the Jeansonne’s kitchen table, hurling children and chairs left and right. His rampage, halted however, when he beheld–or sensed–Absalom. The water of his soul was familiar, and the wraith laughed long and cruel. He surged forward to claim, or perhaps kill the child, but Madeleine interceded:
“Take me instead! Spare the boy, please, please, Jesus, I beg you!”
Her selfless plea awakened an old, tortured memory in the wraith, a recollection from his mortal life. He had been a young child, of similar age as Absalom. The New Orleans hurricane of 1915 had also hammered Mandeville with unexpected fury. The 125 mile per hour winds had flattened his family’s shoreside shotgun house, trapping him and his mother under the rubble. As the storm surge forced Lake Pontchartrain’s water to swell, their collapsed house had begun to flood. Eventually, neighbors heard their panicked cries. By the time those neighbors dug out enough of the house to see the timber-trapped family, his mother had been barely able to keep her head afloat, and she had to hold up her young child with her fast-failing strength. Her last words had been screams–not for her own rescue, but for the toddler she had desperately thrust out to them:
“Take him instead! Spare the boy, please, please, Jesus, I beg you!”
First saving the child from her arms, the neighbors had then tried to move the timbers pinning the woman under the floodwaters–but they were too late. Such was Gator Johnson’s last memories of his mother–living nightmares he had all but forgotten as a man, that is, until the Black Hand had dropped him in the Gulf. As he drowned, those memories came flooding back, and his last mortal thought was how his mother’s sacrifice had been in vain, just as his had been for his own child.
Back in the Shadowlands’ version of the Jeansonne’s house, the wraith’s long-dormant eidolon manifested as a vision of his drowned mother, a shard of his soul that had long whispered to him to “be a man worthy of his mother’s sacrifice.” But his Shadow was strong, a twisted phantasmagorical version of Dalila Petit, an ex-lover who contemptuously berated him as “never going to be good enough, never gonna amount to anything but a failure, a waste, a boy who should have been allowed to drown, so at least his mother had a fighting chance.”
His soul so torn, Gator Johnson screamed and blindly swung a powerful, ghostly haymaker. He had meant to strike his Shadow, but it had goaded him into carelessly striking Madeleine in the Skinlands. As his water-possessed fist connected with her face, the plasm-tainted water rushed into her mouth and lungs. Instantly, Madeleine began to drown–right in front of Absalom. Horrified, Gator Johnson fled into the storm. His Shadow followed, cruelly reminding him that it was just as she had “told him so”: “he would never amount to anything more than a mother-killer.”
Inside, Madeleine tried to vomit up the wraith-water, but she soon lost consciousness. Acting on instinctual faith, Pierre’s wife grabbed a vial of holy water blessed by Adán and poured it down the dying woman’s mouth, and pronounced the related prayer of cleansing and protection from evil:
“By dis Holy water and by yer Precious Blood, wash away all der sins, O’ Lord!"
Making a sign of the cross, the Jeansonne matriarch then began to pound Madeleine’s back as if brutally punching out the ‘evil.’
And it worked.
Madeleine coughed, then violently expelled the wraith-water from her lungs, replacing the drowning fluid with blessed air. Cradling Absalom in her arms, she cried tears of gratitude. Her child had been spared–and so had she. Yet, some part of Gator Johnson’s spirit or memories lingered within the former energumen. Physically, this condition manifested as a persistent, watery cough and tiredness, akin to pneumonia-water inside her lungs. Spiritually, though, this condition granted her a connection with the Shroud, and specifically the dead boxer and his projected eidolon of his mother, Rebe Célestin.
Because of that connection, she surprised all, including Adán upon his arrival with the Jeansonne men, that she did not wish to banish or retaliate against the boxer. Instead, she wished to find him and help him “transcend his purgatory”, and achieve the peace of God. Moreover, she expressed a strong premonition of where they would find him:
“He doesn’t even know it yet, but his guilt is going to drive him back to Mandeville, where his mama died–and on All Souls’ Day, he’ll be drawn to her grave as sure as the sun will rise.”
Adán did not doubt Madeleine’s revelation, but he was unsure of the doctrinal implications of mortals assisting a spiritus immundus transcend Purgatory. Consequently, he spent the next day–which was providentially Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day–to study the question. Ultimately, he decided that such a thing was not only possible, but also God’s will. For just as the Church Triumphant helped the mortal members of the Church Militant attain Heaven, so too were the Church Militant able to help those in Purgatory via prayers, indulgences, and acts of service. Unlike the demonic pneumata plana like El Taumaturgo, Gator Johnson had clearly been a mortal, and thus his ghost had to be a Purgatorial spirit in the eyes of the Catholic priest.
On the next day, he spent his time in meditation, study, and prayer. Any last doubts were dispelled when his daily scripture study took him to the Sermon on the Mount, where the Lord proclaimed:
“But I say unto you, that ye resist not the one who is evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Although Adán still had no recollection of his ‘rematch’ with Gator Johnson in the Mahogany Hall, he keenly remembered his first boxing match against the heavy weight, and the right molar he had lost from a vicious left cross before Gator Johnson took his third-round fall.
Thus, on the morrow, Adán and Madeleine left Madisonville to search for the wraith in Mandeville. Although Adán could have piloted the boat himself, Pierre demanded he accompany them, as he was worried for “his priest’s” safety. His wife, meanwhile, agreed to watch Absalom in their absence.
True to Madeleine’s prophecy, they found Gator Johnson at his mother’s grave. To Madeleine, the wraith was visible as a faint outline against the softly falling rain. His plasmic tears further wetted the simple engravings of Reba’s tombstone:
Seeing the ghost, Madeleine called out to him. However, rather than using his boxing nom de guerre, she called him by his birth name, Tiego Célestin.
Tiego’s mother, Rebe had eloped with Oscar “Papa” Celestin, back when the famed jazz trumpeter played under the name of Sonny Celestin; alongside the likes of Buddy Petit, George Lewis, and Kid Ory; at Mandeville’s Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall. Oscar, however, had swiftly dropped Rebe and his stage name of “Sonny” in 1910, and left Mandeville for New Orleans to lead the Tuxedo Dance Hall’s house band as “Papa” Celestin. The next year, the estranged Rebe had a brief, but scandalous affair with another famed jazz trumpeter who frequented the Dew Drop: Bunk Johnson. Nine months later, Tiego ‘Johnson’ Célestin had been born, but Bunk was long gone on a tour with a circus band. Bunk, however, never showed, as he had learned that krewe members intended to do him bodily harm. Unbeknowst to Rebe, Tiego, or the Mandeville neighbors who ended up raising him, Bunk had fled to eventually settle in New Iberia.
In the years that followed, Tiego grew up on jazz and stories of its early legends. On that diet, as well as a childhood full of manual labor, he became tall and muscular, looking far beyond his years. When Mandeville’s famous Ruby Roadhouse opened up in the 1920s, he first worked as an errand boy (back when it was Buck’s Brown Derby) and later as a scullery boy and dish rat (when it became known as Ruby’s Rendezvous). When he turned 20, he tired of cleaning other people’s plates and soaking greasy plates, so he left the Roadhouse and Mandeville in search of his father. In 1932, he found Bunk in Rayne, Louisiana. Much to his chagrin, the previously famous musician had become a drunkard and hobo, who had no interest in teaching his alleged son how to play jazz. Instead, he related how, only a year prior, he had gotten into a fight, during which he had gotten his trumpet stolen and his front teeth knocked out. The theft of the first was bad enough, but the latter loss stole his ability to play. Consequently, he had been reduced to working for scraps, doing manual labor only fit for a beast. Thus, he had told his son:
“You don’t wanna learn no music another man can take away from you, so if I was you, I’d learn how to fight. Hell, become a boxer, and then you can worry about becoming a musician.”
Disheartened, but still taking the advice to heart, Tiego started boxing. However, finding a trainer and gym, and especially the money to pay for them, had been hard in the sparsely populated Acadia and Iberia parishes. Thus, like Adán, Tiego had ‘returned’ to New Orleans to find employ. He tried to get a job in the recently rechristened New Orleans Athletic Club, but the Great Depression meant that all the worthwhile jobs went to the experienced, connected, and white. Being none of those things, Tiego had nonetheless volunteered his time; helping to wipe down equipment, empty out spit buckets, and clean bathrooms; all in exchange for after-hours access to the boxing bags, ring, ropes, and other equipment that was otherwise only accessible to its club-members. His volunteer work had also allowed him to watch the ‘real members’ box and train–and he especially the ‘vicarious’ training regimen and advice dispensed by the club’s Hall of Fame trainer, Tad Gormley. This had continued for over six years, during which time, Tiego’s boxing skills blossomed to be the NOAC’s best boxer. If he had been born thirty years prior, he no doubt would have been put into the Olympic Club and fought before crowds of 10,000 fans. However, he hadn’t, and the Olympic Club had long burned to the ground in 1897. Moreover, Great Depression meant there was little chance of a black man from Mandeville supporting himself through boxing alone.
Thus, Tiego had picked up whatever menial job he could. Yet, when the Gulf Coast longshoremen’s strike began in the fall of 1935, Tiego had been able to get a job from Mr. A. E. Harris, head of the local “negro” longshoremen, as part of the New Orleans Steamship Association, or NOSA. Mr. Harris had hired Tiego for muscle as much as stevedore work, since his union was unaffiliated with both the International Longshoremen’s Association and International Seamen Union. Harris’ union worked through the 10-week strike. During this time, Tiego’s size and boxing skills had helped prevent Mr. Harris’ union from suffering the lethal fates of Henry Jones, Will Ballinger, and the twelve other strike fatalities, which had disproportionately affected black stevedores. True to Mr. Harris’ prediction and stratagem, the strike ultimately failed “all at once and nothing first–just as bubbles do when they burst”. In its wake, Mr. Harris’ had kept Tiego on, providing him with regular, though often part-time, contracts.
Notwithstanding, Tiego’s boxing prowess had not gone unnoticed–or unchallenged. When several ILA ex-strikers attempted to “even the score” after one of Tiego’s shifts, the black man had soundly trounced them, further drawing the attention of the mob-backed illegal boxing circuit. Knowing that plenty of other former strikers and white stevedores would pay good money to see the black man’s blood spilt, those ringmasters had enticed Tiego with a hefty purse. Tiego had readily accepted, as he had been eager for the money and even more eager to finally box in a formal ring. While he would be disappointed by his ‘ring’ (which was nothing more than a stacked-together crates in a warehouse), the money had been all he had hoped for–at first.
After his first few fights–during which time his ‘managers’ had made him adopt the more fearsome fighting name of Gator Johnson–Tiego had found himself with more money than he had ever seen, much less owned. Moreover, as his victories had begun to pile up, he garnered a growing level of local notoriety, if not fame. To the man who had grown up washing dirty dishes in the Ruby Roadhouse, the attention had been intoxicating. Indeed, it had made him feel like he was one of his idolized jazz musicians, whom woman wanted and men wanted to be. He had particularly reveled in his “career” choice when he discovered that his mother’s ex-husband, Papa Celestin, had been forced to disband his Tuxedo Orchestra for lack of gigs and take up work in New Orleans’ shipyards. The ‘fall’ of other Ruby Roadhouse idols–such as Kid Ory hanging up his trombone to raise chickens–only enflamed Tiego’s pride.
As if to further prove he was superior to his former heroes, he wooed Dalila Petit, the daughter of Joseph Crawford, better known by his stage-name of Buddy Petit. Dalila had been initially raised in LA, after Jelly Roll Morton and Bill Johnson had briefly lured Buddy in 1917 to perform in LA. When her father abandoned LA’s “sunny straitjacket” to return to New Orleans, Dalila and her mother had followed, though her mother would eventually return to LA. For Dalila, her LA heritage meant she was a “movie star just waiting to be found”, but when no casting calls came, the beautiful but shallow woman had decided she would “settle” for a movie star’s lifestyle. Initially, she had hitched those hopes on marrying an up and coming musician, and had found her most likely candidate in Chester Zardis.
Though nearly two decades Dalila’s senior, Chester had joined her father’s orchestra at age 16. During the 1920s, he had played New Orleans’ nightclubs as a bassist and tubist, alongside Kid Rena, Punch Miller, Fate Marable, and Duke Dejan. During the 1930s, Chester had played with Count Basie in New York City, performed with Fats Pichon’s band aboard the riverboat, S. S. Capital, and recorded music with George Lewis and even Tiego’s father before Bunk’s brawl-related ‘retirement.’ Chester himself had a history of fighting, which as a youth had landed in the Jones Waif Home.
That penchant once again reared its ugly head while Chester and Dalila were drinking at Noir Cherise, a local speakeasy turned nightclub. The couple’s carousing had developed into spats about Chester’s low-paying gigs and Dalila lamenting how Chester’s peer, Louis Armstrong, had already been in five movies, including his most recent cinema alongside Bing Crosby. The last straw, however, had come when Dalila had made a disparaging innuendo about the bassist’s “lackluster fingering skills”. So provoked, Chester began to physically assault Dalila, shouting that she made a better “dried up sponge than a jelly roll”. The short-statured man had slapped her hard, then balled up his fist as if to punch her face, but Tiego stepped in. The resultant scuffle was short, one-sided, and very painful–for Chester.
When the burly boxer casually threw down a wad of cash to the nightclub’s owner in “apology for the disturbance”, Dalila was smitten. What had followed was a torrid love affair, and within a year, she had become pregnant and delivered their baby boy, Rupén Zebulon Célestin-Petit. Initially, the couple and then family of three had been happy–but only so long as Tiego kept bringing home an ample winner’s purse.
But as Tiego’s cut became smaller and smaller, Dalila’s shrewish, belittling ways resurfaced. In an effort to please his wife, or at least escape her cutting contempt, Tiego had dared to complain to his ‘ringmasters.’ Affronted at the man’s gumption, they had callously replied that the crowds had lost interest in repeatedly seeing their Irish or Italian favorites be brutally, easily beat down by a black man. As a consequence, Tiego was given fewer and fewer opportunities to fight, with smaller and smaller cuts, earning him crueler and crueler harangues by his wife. Back into a corner by non-boxing opponents he could not simply out-punch, Tiego vented his frustration in the ring. At first, his more savage style had earned him some renewed interest and a meagre bump in pay, but it ultimately faded, leaving Tiego even more volatile and enraged. After a particularly scathing diatribe from his wife, he unleashed the full measure of his rage upon an unwitting opponent, one Seán ‘The Banshee’ Sheehan, before unintentionally beating the Irish heavyweight to a bloody, dead pulp. The boxing ‘ringmasters’ covered up the murder, but they took all of Tiego’s winnings and half of his monthly dockyard salary to cover all the ‘hush money’ and related police bribes. To make matters worse, Tiego’s boxing opportunities evaporated, as no one wanted to go up against the “Man-Killing Gator”.
Near destitute and guilt-sickened, Tiego had been thrown further off balance when he returned home one day from a dock-shift to find Dalila and Rupén gone. Dalila’s note had derisively told her former lover that she was leaving him and New Orleans, and sarcastically told him the only way she would consider returning was if his “gloves turned to gold”. Moreover, she had cruelly related that they were heading to LA, where Rupén could escape “his washed-up father” before he could ruin his life, just as he had “ruined” the life of both Rupén’s and Tiego’s mothers. Devasted, Tiego had tried to drown himself–with booze.
He almost succeeded too, save that he eventually ran out of money. Later evicted from his home, he slept on the streets until he sobered up enough to beg his old ringmasters for a fight:
“Any fight, I don’t care if I win or lose, live or die, I just need to be back in the ring. Boxing is the only thing that makes sense anymore… the only thing I have left…”
His ‘managers’ had found it all-too easy to convince the desperate man to agree to the rigged match against the bantamweight Bruno. His promised cut had been substantial, so much so that the drunken man had thought it would be enough to “buy back” Dalila’s love and his daughter. He had been mistaken, of course, and about so many things.
Dalila did not return. He was given some money, but it wasn’t half of what he was promised. Moreover, his loss had utterly ruined his hard-earned boxing reputation–just as it had drowned any meagre self-respect he had once had for himself. Thus, thinking he had nothing left to lose, he drunkenly demanded the rest of the money he had been promised, threatening to otherwise reveal how the match had been rigged. It was the last poor decision of his life–at least as a mortal.
Eight years later, the wraith of Tiego Célestin was ready to abandon himself to Oblivion’s hell. Yet, when he heard his name–his real name–from Madeleine’s lips, the tortured, guilt-sick ghost paused. Initially, he thought she too had become a wraith at his murderous hands, but then he recognized that she was somehow alive–even if ‘tainted’ with plasm. He was further confused by her promised help to guide him through the “expiatory purification of Purgatory.” Her desire to save him, to help him “make things right” and “choose the higher road” keenly reminded him of his mother–or at least his eidolon of her. With the barriers between the dead and living still thin on the last day of Allhallowtide’s triduum, Tiego approached her penitently, as if to accept her aid.
He stopped, however, when he sensed the presence of his old nemesis. His Shadow immediately manifested, as the false-Dalila was all-too aware of how close Tiego had come to ‘rejecting’ her. She viciously lied, claiming that Adán was responsible for them being apart, as she claimed that she had returned to New Orleans, looking for him and hoping to reunite their family–but that it had all been spoiled and ruined by Adán, the scrawny bantamweight who had stolen his pride, his champion’s belt, his money, his love, and his life. So enraged, as well as empowered by that dark Shadow, Tiego vented his hate and fury into the Skinlands, sucking up rain to form powerful fists that began to pummel and punch the priest.
Initially, Adán tried to defend himself, but his boxing skills were no match against the mortal heavyweight, much less in his immortal, inhuman form. Thus, to Tiego’s surprise, the priest dropped his guard, kneeled on the rain-drenched grass, and began to pray:
“Exorcizo te, creatura aquæ, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis, et in nomine Jesu Christi, Filii ejus Domini nostri, et in virtute Spiritus Sancti: ut fias aqua exorcizata ad effugandam omnem potestatem inimici, et ipsum inimicum eradicare et explantare valeas cum angelis suis apostaticis, per virtutem ejusdem Domini nostri Jesu Christi: qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos et sæculum per ignem.”
(“I exorcise thee, creature of water, in the name of God the Almighty Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, that you may put to flight all the power of the enemy, and to root out that enemy along with his fallen angels through the power of Jesus Christ, who shall come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.”)
Ignorant of Latin and most Catholic rites, Tiego thought the priest was trying once again to banish him, so he increased his furious attacks. Pierre rushed into the fray, to save his friend, but the big fisherman was easily knocked back, his head striking a nearby tombstone. As Pierre fell unconscious, Tiego resumed his attack against Adán. His watery jabs, crosses, and hooks brutally punished the priest’s body, breaking ribs, re-shattering his nose, and bashing in his right brow. True to the Lord’s scriptural injunction, Adán did not resist, but rather ‘turned his check’ and continued his invocation, albeit one broken but grunts of agony:
“Deus, qui ad salutem humani generis maxima quæque sacramenta in aquarum substantia condidisti: adesto propitius invocationibus nostris, et elemento huic, multimodis purificationibus præparato, virtutem tuæ benedictionis infunde; ut creatura tua, mysteriis tuis serviens, ad abigendos dæmones morbosque pellendos divinæ gratiæ sumat effectum; ut quidquid in domibus vel in locis fidelium hæc unda resperserit careat omni immunditia, liberetur a noxa.”
(“O God, who for the salvation of the human race has built Thy greatest mysteries in the substance, in Your kindness hear our prayers, and with the element to this, for many kinds of purifications of His well-prepared, the power of Thy blessing, Serve it; the creation of Thy mysteries, serving as an agent of divine grace; is sprinkled with this water in their houses or in the buildings of the faithful, that whatever might be free from all uncleanness, he is freed from every harm.”)
As Adán refused to fight back, much of Tiego’s fury evaporated. After all, he could not prove how much of a boxer he was if the priest did not fight back. Also, he realized that if he continued, he would surely kill the priest. Initially, this had given him–and his Shadow–great satisfaction, but the Adán’s pacifism in the face of Tiego’s tempest-like rage haunted him as surely as Dalila’s Shadow screaming at him to “cut out his lights–just like they said he did to you!” Over that din, he finally recognized the other shouting that he, in his murderous rage, had ignored. It was Madeleine, pleading for Tiego to stop:
“Spare him, please, please, I beg you!”
The plea once more resurrected his mother’s private martyrdom. He then saw her, his manifested eidolon superimposed over Madeleine. Both women were crying, and Rebe’s voice was especially raw and sorrowful as she spoke to her son:
“I didn’t save your life for you to take others.”
The eidolon-imposed Madeleine then threw herself over the savagely injured, barely conscious, but still praying priest. Yet, to Tiego, the woman appeared like a heavenly glowing white towel thrown over the body of not ‘Bruno,’ but Seán Sheehan, the last and only man he had murdered in blind rage. Horrified, he ignored Dalila’s undead diatribes. Sinking down to his knees, as if praying with Adán across the Shroud, he stared down at his glove-tied hands. They were red, stained with his murderous blood.
But then, Adán reached forward–and through the Shroud–to lay a hand upon those gloves, and completing the Latin rite for purifying water and making it holy:
“Non illic resideat spiritus pestilens, non aura corrumpens: discedant omnes insidiæ latentis inimici; et si quid est quod aut incolumitati habitantium invidet aut quieti, aspersione hujus aquæ effugiat: ut salubritas, per invocationem sancti tui nominis expetita, ab omnibus sit impugnationibus defensa. Per Dominum, amen.”
(“Against pestilent spirit or taint of corruption; all the wiles of the lurking enemy; provide for the safety and peace of the inhabitants of that which is, and if there be any, by the sprinkling of this water, so that health, through the invocation of Thy holy name, made secure against all attacks. Through the end–Amen.”)
Miraculously, Tiego’s his murder-red, soul-fettering gloves loosened, falling from his hands, then transforming into a celestial white hue. Meanwhile, the Shadow of Dalila screamed and vanished in a silver-screen flash, as if exorcised by the ritual and Tiego’s decision to stay his hand. That hand now reached forward, and with an instinct and power that he did not think he possessed, he touched the dying priest and prayed, echoing Madeleine’s pleas as well as his mother’s last words:
“Take me instead… Spare him… please… Jesus, I beg you…”
Upon that benediction, Adán’s wounds began to miraculously heal, bleeding off as Tiego willingly accepted those wounds into his own spiritual ‘flesh.’ The priest still lost his right eyesight, as his retina had been snapped by Tiego’s blows, but the ghost’s sacrifice saved the life of the priest he had just long desired to kill. Madeleine, in turn, ministered to both of the injured men as best as she could. Cradling Adán’s head in her lap, she heard Pierre moan as he groggily regained consciousness. She called out to the big fisherman. Pierre, upon seeing Adán bloodied and injured (though no longer mortally so), leapt up and lifted his priestly friend, vowing to get him medical aid.
Thus, Madeleine had been left with Tiego’s wounded, soul-weary shade. As the last evening of Allhallowtide came to an end, he shared his life’s sad story and related shames, in a manner similar to how she had shared hers with Adán in Charity Hospital a little more than two years prior.
In the last months of 1946, Adán recovered in the Southern Baptist Hospital in Uptown New Orleans. He never regained sight in his right eye, but his once-lost memories slowly trickled back. He recalled being abducted by the Order of the Garter when he had entered Mahogany Hall, just as he came to recall performing the Vade Retro Satana on Madeleine and shunting the unclean spirits into the hounds that were savaging the ‘undercover’ detective. Initially, he had no clue who that man was, until Madeleine explained. Notwithstanding, memory gaps still remained, and Madeleine was in no hurry to fill them. Adán initially thought her evasiveness was benign, a result of her being focused on helping TIego. Indeed, he too soon ceased trying to fill the blank spots when he returned to Madisonville and joined Madeleine in her mission to help Tiego transcend Purgatory.
During Adán’s time away, Madeleine had learned much of Tiego and his unresolved passions and regrets. For even past Allhallowtide, sh had retained her special ability to perceive and commune with the ghost, courtesy of her faith and unique case of ‘walking pneumonia.’ The exorcist-priest also found that his prayers and faith occasionally allowed his ‘dead’ eye to perceive Tiego as well as other beings beyond the veil of death. Drawing upon his theological as well as pastoral training, Adán assisted Madeleine’s ministry to the purgatorial spirit.
As part of this process, the trio revisited Tiego’s old Mandeville haunts, including the site of the Célestin’s hurricane-destroyed home. It and the surrounding lots had been purchased as part of Ernest M. Loeb’s budding plan for the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway. In contrast, the Ruby Roadhouse and Dew Drop still stood and remained in operation. Although Adán vastly preferred liturgical hymns to jazz, Madeleine had grown up in Storyville during the genre’s birth, and its music had been a sole bright spot of her early years. Tiego’s emotions were more mixed. On one hand, witnessing the resurgent post-war jazz scene made him happy, as he had feared the Great Depression had killed the music of his childhood and bloodline. At the same time, listening to the Roadhouse’s lively music and watching smiling couples dance at the Dew Drop made his morose. It not only reminded him that he was dead and unable to partake in such mortal pleasures, but also that he had forsaken his dream of becoming a musician to instead become a boxer, a path that ultimately made him a murderer.
To resolve the wraith’s conflicted emotions, Madeleine began ‘taking’ Tiego to Mandeville’s dance hall. There, she would dance ‘with’ the wraith, teaching him new songs and dance-steps while also learning to let go of the old. After all, letting go of a past life, and coming to peace with one’s past sins and poor choices, was something the sexually abused, former prostitute, and ex-demoniac was well acquainted with.
Meanwhile, Adán used his scholarly, investigative abilities to discover that both of Tiego’s ‘fathers’ had resumed their musical careers. Namely, after WWII’s conclusion, Papa Celestin had reformed his Tuxedo Brass Band and found renewed fame. Far more surprising and heartening to Tiego was the news of Bunk’s return to jazz. As the priest shared with the ghost, Bunk’s early compatriots–such as Louis Armstong, Sidney Bechet, and Clarence Williams–had been interviewed by the authors of an early book of jazz history, Jazzmen, during which time they had spoken highly of Bunk’s musical contributions in New Orleans. Those same authors had then tracked down Bunk, and after hearing of his plight, started up a collection among writers and artists. They had raised enough money to gift Bunk a new trumpet as well as a set of dentures fitted for him by Sidney Bechet’s brother, who happened to be a dentist.
“Whatever man may take by violence–,” Adán preached to the wraith, “–can be restored by the grace and charity that flows from God.” The priest then read the last chapters of the Apocalypse to the ghost, sharing how God would restore all good things lost and how the glories of Heaven surpassed that of Earth:
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea… Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away… I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
The priest’s testimony and biblical readings gave Tiego a measure of peace and hope–as well as a warning, particularly the passages that seemed to be speak of the Tempest’s end for the righteous, while the wicked would join the ‘lake’ which to him clearly seem an Oblivion-tainted maelstrom. The wraith had quickly learned to fear the Tempest–and particularly its maelstroms–as he had emerged from his caul (in wraith parlance, accepted his death and “awoken” as a ghost) inside a maelstrom-tossed, spectre-haunted portion of the Tempest that corresponded with the Gulf of Mexico. And while he had since learned significant power over water, both natural and spiritual, the already terrifying Tempest reminded him of the hurricane of 1935 that made him an orphan. Moreover, since the Fifth Great Maelstrom, the Tempest had become even more fearful and furious.
Notwithstanding, Tiego was further soothed by another gladsome discovery shared by Adán: a record. It contained Bunk’s first recordings, made and sold by Jazz Man Records in 1942. Tiego wept ghostly tears when Madeleine played it on the Jeansonne’s gramophone, amazed at his father’s musical imagination, subtlety, and beauty. With Adán’s and Madelein’s aid, he learned that his father had gained a resurgent cult of fans and had been touring in San Franciso, Boston, and New York City, alongside musical luminaries like George Lewis and Lead Belly. When they discovered that this tour was coming to New Orleans, Tiego found a way to attend–at least vicariously through the Shadowlands. ‘Shadowing’ his father, the ghost was once again awed by the man’s talents–nor did his joy significantly diminish when he witnessed how his father had remained a temperamental, passive-aggressive, and often drunken man. To Tiego, it suggested that a man might transcend his faults through using his divine-given gifts.
Tiego’s own gifts, much to his chagrin, were neither musical nor creative. Instead, his chief talent was pugilism. To Madeleine, he repeatedly shared that he sorely wished he could have competed in an official tournament, rather than solely in the mob’s illicit warehouse circuit. Indeed, the ghost had slowly come to believe in Dalila’s parting promise that he would be reunited with his family if his “gloves turned to gold.” For the boxer, this meant winning a Golden Gloves competition, a task that seemed impossible after his death. Yet, after his exorcism in 1944, Tiego had been finally free to wander the ghostly Shadowlands of New Orleans–where to his delight, he discovered that the Olympic Club, despite being burned down in 1897, remained. Moreover, he found its interior ‘haunted’ with wraiths trying to rival the great deeds of John Sullivan, James Corbett, Andy Bowen, and Jack Burke. Racism, however, seemed to transcend the grave, and he was once again ostracized and unable to join their ghostly bouts. Ironically, it had been his lingering in the Club’s shadows that had alerted him to the Giovannini-enslaved wraiths looking for Madeleine and Adán.
Given these frustrations, Madeleine thought that Tiego would need to learn a musical instrument to transcend his regretted career of violence over music. Adán, in contrast, believed that expiatory purification did not entail finishing a ‘bucket-list’ of unfulfilled wishes, but rather relinquishing unrighteous desires, fears, and doubts that had led one in life to reject the divine for the venial. To that end, he tried to convince Tiego that that he had chosen the boxing ring over the musician’s stage ultimately out of fear and pride, specifically the prideful desire to be better, stronger, and more powerful than his fellow man–and that this was the foremost thing for which he needed to repent.
That same pride made it difficult for Tiego to accept the priest’s counsel, especially since the gentle but still stinging rebuke came from the man whom he had long considered his nemesis. Adán of course had long ago tried to convince Tiego of the error of that past view, explaining how he had been an unwitting pawn in the rigged match. At the same time, Tiego found it galling that Adán’s participation in the dock’s boxing ring was in no way motivated by a love of the sport, or even its monetary prizes. Somehow, that admission seemed to further cheapen Tiego’s ‘fall’–something which his diminished but still-extant Shadow pointed out with cruel relish. Notwithstanding, Tiego eventually accepted that Adán was never his true nemesis. After all, despite the ringmaster’s lies, it was they, not Adán, that gave Gator Johnson his concrete shoes and last ‘swim.’
That truth reared its ugly head, near the end of Christmastide of 1947, when the Jeansonne’s received an unpleasant gift: a nutria rat nailed to their door. The mob, or specifically a crew of picciotti or low-level ‘soldiers,’ had finally found them. True to Dr. Bristow’s word, the mob never learned of Adán’s treatment at Southern Baptist Hospital. Instead, Madeleine had been spotted during one of her increasingly frequent trips to Mandeville. Ironically, the mobsters had been looking for Louis Armstrong, as the Black Hand was intent on running Satchmo out of the Greater New Orleans area.
The picciotto that spotted Madeleine was a mulatto-Italian named Malchus Vattali. Vattali and his would-be capo, Guiseppe “Pino” Barreca, decided not to inform their superiors back in New Orleans. This was partly for fear that they were incorrect, but also because the Black Hand was undergoing an unexpected transition in power. Silvestro’s luck had finally run out, as Congressman Jimmy Morrison’s bill had been exposed, and the godfather was in the process of being deported. Meanwhile, Underboss Marcello had been called to the Commission’s Havana Conference for the first full-scale meeting of the American mafia leaders since their Chicago rendezvous in 1932. Marcello had not yet returned, as he had left Cuba for New York to further cement his alliances. In the momentary power vacuum, the local mobsters had become embroiled in a lukewarm war against each other as capos viewed for supremacy, in hopes of becoming the new underboss, or even don if they played their cards right. Malchus and Pino wanted to make sure they alerted the right superiors down in New Orleans, as the former hoped to finally take the omerta (something long denied him due to his Africian blood on his mother’s side) become a true soldato, while the latter wished to be officially appointed the caporegime of his Mandeville crew.
On Candlemaas night, Pino gathered his group of callow picciotti and surrounded the Jeansonne’s home. Inside, Adán, Madeleine, Pierre, and Andre were discussing what they should do about the mob’s ominous warning. Pierre wanted to fight, and he emphasized his point by stabbing the air with one of his boning knives. The more city-savvy Madeleine warned against “bringing a knife to a gunfight”, as she, like Adán, had become very fond of their adoptive family and could not bear the thought of them being injured, or worse. However, she vehemently disagreed with Adán’s proposed plan of turning himself in to the mob.
“Madeleine,” he contended, “They are ultimately hunting for me. If not for my life, then for the relic they believe I have. They’re only going after you to get to me.”
“I disagree, St. Cyprien,” she retorted quickly, “The Black Hand’s not forgotten nor forgiven the Order of the Garter.”
“Da what?” Pierre asked, as neither Adán nor Madeleine had thought it appropriate to share that portion of Madeleine’s sordid past with the fisherman.
Before any either of them could answer, Pino’s crew unleashed a full magazine of a tommy gun as a ‘warning shot’ into the Jeansonne’s remote house. The spray of bullets shattered windows and wood, while also splattering and knocking over the family’s collection of burning Candlemass candles. Miraculously, none of the house’s inhabitants were harmed, though they had to rushed to put out fast-spreading fires. To avert further violence and spare his friends, Adán loudly shouted to the mobsters, announcing his presence and peaceful intention to exit the house. He then exhorted the gunmen to hold their fire “lest innocent blood be on your hands.”
Hearing the long-sought priest was inside and about to surrender, Pino thought he had hit the jackpot, as the Giovannini were offering a filthy rich reward for the priest, so long as he was alive. Thus, Pino ordered his crew to lower their guns, but whispered to his men to be ready to mow down the others, “since its’s harder to snitch to the cops when your guts are full of lead.” Despite Madeleine’s shouted protests, Adán walked out, but hovered near the door, as if his proximity would shield the house’s inhabitants. On Pino’s orders, Vattali and another of his men approached and began to roughly apprehend the priest. However, the tempestuous, protective Pierre rushed out, and stabbed Vattali with his boning knife, impaling the man’s ear and trapping the picciotto against his front door’s jamb. Vattali screamed, and in his pain, he unthinkingly tore free–and thus tore off most of his ear. The other mobsters began to panic, with some a hair trigger away from showering everyone in bullets.
Adán, however, reached down to hold Vattali’s ravaged ear in his stigmata-marked hand, and uttered a brief intercessory prayer of healing to Saint Jude and the Blessed Virgin Mary. To Vattali’s awe, his sliced-off ear suddently became hale and hole–even as his ‘old’ ear remained impaled to the Jeansonne’s door. The still kneeling mobster stared up at the miracle-worker in speechless shock. Meanwhile, Adán gently rebuked his old friend:
“Sheath your blade, Pierre. Christ did not reject Calvary’s infinite grail of torment. How then can I call myself His disciple if I refuse my own paltry cup of suffering.”
“You’s surrenderin’?” the big fisherman asked, dumbfounded and close to tears.
“As God wills it,” was the priest’s reply as he walked towards the other mobsters, raising his bloodied palm in surrender. Madeleine tried to rush out, to impossibly fight off the armed picciotti, but she was physically restrained by the now freely crying Pierre. Meanwhile, the young mobsters tossed the priest into the trunk of one of two mobster’s cars, a ’41 Pontiac Streamliner. The still dumbstruck Vattali, however, slowly rose, as if in a dream, and ‘freed’ his old ear-lobe. He cradled it in disbelief of his disbelief.
Ignoring the mulatto and his miraculous healing, Pino nodded to the rest of his picciotti:
“Grab the girl and the kid. They’ll give us the juice in case we need to really squeeze the priest.”
“And the rest?”
Pino just laughed, stepped into the Pontiac, and signaled his driver to depart.
The remaining mobsters approached, pushing past Vattali, and into the Jeansonne’s house, where the inhabitants had finally quelled the knocked-over flames. When one of the men snatched Absalom, Madeleine snapped, charging and furiously punching. Initially, both Black Hand and the Jeansonne’s were too stunned to act. So unchecked, she screamed and cursed, venting all her rage on the piciotto¬¬. When she picked up the nearby gramophone and tried to brain the now shouting, screaming mobster, the young man finally drew his handgun, a M1911.
“L-look, lady, I… I don’t, don’t w-wanna shoot you!” he cried out.
Yet, when the rage-deafened woman still hurled the heavy object at his skull, he reflexively fired. However, much like Enrique’s fated shot on February 26th of 1944, the bullet went high and wide. The .45-caliber projectile blasted apart the gramophone’s vinyl: a 1925 Okeh Records featuring the first recording of “Sonny” Celestin and his Tuxedo Brass Band.
As a young adolescent orphan in Mandeville, the record had been Tiego’s favorite. Not that he had ever owned it legitimately. But he had listened to it routinely when far richer folks played it at the Dew Drop and danced inside the hall, while he hauled garbage and scrubbed pavement stones. One day, he stole it, but to his foolish dismay he hadn’t realized that a record by itself couldn’t play. Still, he had imagined the music coming out of the vinyl record, just as he had imagined himself leading his own Tuxedo Brass Band. He kept imagining those dreams even after the Dew Drop owners caught up to him, took back the record, and beat the snot out of the boy for his theft. The injuries eventually healed, but the music, both imagined and real, continued to play within his dreams, transcending even death’s door.
Consequently, the destruction of the object, as well as Madeleine’s murderous pugilism, summoned Tiego more surely than one of Rosa Bale’s seances. He found himself drawn to–and into–the woman’s tears, sweat, and Shroud-tainted pneumonia. Yet, unlike the last time he possessed Madeleine, Tiego found himself fighting to protect, rather than violently oppress, the weak. And this time, the ‘weak’ included a mother fighting for her child against the Black Hand. Thus, in a rare moment of convergence, his eidolon and Shadow both urged him to fight. The former pleaded for Tiego to fight in order to “spare the boy.” The latter screamed at him to attack the picciotti, to gain some vengeance against the Black Hand and all the woe they had caused ‘them.’
Thus, with the projections of Reba and Dalila spurring on the reunited energumen, Tiego ‘coached’ Madeleine on how to fight off her attackers. She delivered a spine-cracking rabbit-punch to a man seizing Absalom. She then unleashed a flurry of fast jabs, driving back one of her own attackers, giving her the space to land a knock-out cross. She then closed in fast as the last invader tried to raise his tommy gun and mow down the entire crowd. Madeleine’s quick duck, then uppercut to the man’s chin, followed by a swinging hook took him down before another salvo could be fired.
Caught up in the ‘blood-sport,’ she advanced on Vattali, but the ‘three-eared’ mobster once more fell to his knees, surrendering and pleading for forgiveness. The shocked Jeansonne brothers barely held her back before Vattali blurted out something that stayed her and Tiego’s pugilistic fury:
“I-I can help! I k-know where, w-where they’re taking him! I can help you save him, please, please!”
Initially, Dalila’s Shadow screamed at Tiego to bash in the skull of the repentant picciotto, but she eventually relented. After all, Vattali could lead them to far more ‘boxing opponents,’ and if–or _when_–Tiego failed, she would be there to cruelly point out his inadequacies and put Tiego back on the path to spiritual oblivion. Thus, while Pierre’s wife shepherded all the children to one of the family’s bayou-hid hunting cabins for safety, Vattali, Pierre, Andre, and the still Tiego-rid Madeleine all piled into the mobsters’ ’33 Ford Vicky. The race to rescue Father St. Cyprien had begun.