Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood & Bourbon
History of Jean-Marc d'Léandrie
The Testament of Jean-Marc the Evangelist
The beast regarded the man with an indolent rage. Its silent expression clearly said it would gladly bite the man’s head off if not for the drizzling rain and arthritis in its aged legs. Of course, there were also the metal bars that separated them, but Jean-Marc wasn’t so gauche as to point out that banal truth. After all, even tabloid journalists have their limits.
“How’s it going, Mel?”
The lion didn’t respond, save for a slow, fang-exposing yawn.
“Fucking doldrums again, eh?” Jean-Marc remarked, then added, “But cheer up, Detective, it’s almost feeding time.”
And we both know how much we love feeding time. Especially since—
His thoughts were interrupted as Audubon’s big cat zookeeper entered, a middle-aged black man wearing plastic overalls. He hefted a heavy bucket filled with bloody meat. The sanguine aroma made both man and beast salivate. Jean-Marc had to stop himself from licking his chops like the caged lion.
“Marc,” the zookeeper said with an evasive eye, “I can’t be doing this no more. My boss, he… he wouldn’t like it none if he found out I was lettin’ non-staff back ‘ere, ‘specially wit it bein’ after hours. So… this is the last time, a’ight?”
Jean-Marc smiled. The zookeeper, Daronté Du Pleiss, was like most sinners: all-too quick to disavow the Devil in public, but oh so coy in private…
“I believe what you meant to say was that this is the last time. Unless I brought you another set of courtside Pelican tickets. Which, I did.”
Jean-Marc slowly fanned out the basketball tickets as if he was the Sanhedrin counting out Judas’ thirty coins. He had scored the season tickets from the Pelicans’ star player, Jacaubré Brion, after Jean-Marc had done a ‘catch and kill’ for the professional athlete. According to his accusers, the ‘player’ had gotten indecently rough with a few of his girlfriends—which was doubly damning since Jacaubré was married. With all of the witnesses gag-ordered by NDAs, the athlete’s reputation—and lucrative endorsement’s—were safe, but only so long as Jean-Marc sat on the story. And so long as he did, Jacaubré’s ‘gifts’ continued to trickle in. Personally, Jean-Marc wasn’t the most avid of basketball fans, but he was never one to let a good thing, or bad, go to waste.
He waved the tickets in Daronté’s direction, then watched as the zookeeper had his own turn to salivate. Still, the zookeeper hesitated, setting down his slaughterhouse-bucket to nervously pace, one hand absent-mindedly grabbing the cross necklace tucked beneath his zoo uniform.
“I… I dunno, it’s risky…”
“Come on, Daronté,” Jean-Marc whispered, “we both know how much your son loves going to the games, how he brags to all his schoolmates and neighborhood friends, telling them about how his dad is a ‘front-row friend’ of the famous Jacaubré Brion. C’mon, Daronté, we wouldn’t want to disappoint the kid…”
“Fine, but you watch, and then you’s go,” the zookeeper said, letting go of his cross to grab the tickets and hastily hide them in his pocket.
Jean-Marc swallowed his private smile, savoring how he had used one sin’s ‘wages’ to purchase another. He had become especially attuned to those ironies ever since his ‘conversion.’ His thoughts, though, were once again interrupted by the visceral sloshing of blood, as the zookeeper re-hefted the bucket and began the lion’s feeding regimen. Jean-Marc watched with delight as the beast tore into the sluiced hunks of bloody horse meat, raw bones, and rabbit carcasses.
Even before his ‘conversion,’ Jean-Marc had always loved watching ‘Private Eye Mel’ eat. Officially, the zoo-trapped lion was named Richard, after the English king. But Jean-Marc didn’t approve of the trite name, so he came up with his own, inspired by the metal plaque that announced the beast’s abbreviated scientific species: P.l. Mel., short for Panthera leo melanochaita. Initially, he hadn’t decided what ‘Mel’ was short for, but as of late, Jean-Marc was leaning towards Melech, after the idolatrous god-king of the biblical Ammonites, whose ‘crown’ was taken by King David. In medieval times, Melech was considered the wage boss of Hell.
“For the wages of sin is death.”
“Whassat?” the zookeeper called back, his attention foremost fixed upon his grisly job.
“Nothing,” Jean-Marc lied, shaking his head with a worried frown. He hadn’t meant to say anything, but he had found himself doing that increasingly. Reciting scriptures. Most of the time, he didn’t even know their sources in the ‘Good Book’—or whether they were instead in the ‘Bad Book’ he had been learning so much about lately. He had never been a scriptural scholar, even before he became a severely lapsed Catholic. But ever since being ‘born again’ by Father d’Gerasene’s blood, he found his thoughts frequently drifting to scriptures and biblical stories like a lovestruck teen daydreaming of their first crush. He knew it should have bothered him—but all he could muster was a mild unease mingled with an ineffable awe and masochistic desire for more.
For a moment, Jean-Marc considered attacking Daronté. The zookeeper’s back was to him, and he was distracted. It would be relatively easy to stalk up to the man and knock him out with a well-executed chiến lược. From there, it would be child’s play to take the man’s key, and toss him into Mel’s feeding cage. The satiated beast probably wouldn’t eat Daronté, not at first, but Melech would likely kill the intruder for trespassing on his sovereign prison.
Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour…
Before Jean-Marc realized what he was doing, he started creeping up on the unsuspecting zookeeper. He halted himself, though, his head fuzzy as if he’s been drinking too much. Which, in a manner of speaking, he had.
“Why you do it?” Daronté asked, turning around to face Jean-Marc now that his task was done. If he noticed that that tabloid writer had stealthily closed the difference between them, he didn’t seem to care.
“What’s that?” the journalist asked, refocusing his attention.
“Why you come ‘ere, and watch Lil’ Richard eat his supper?”
“Little Richard?” Jean-Marc asked somewhat incredulously. To underscore the question, his gaze drifted to the quarter-ton male lion who was casually licking the blood from a paw that could easily shatter a human skull.
Daronté shrugged. “We in N’walins, ain’t we? Lil’ Richard actually came ‘ere, played Club Tiajuana, recorded at Cosimo’s studio, and riffed Tutti Frutti just across Lake Pontcartrain at the Dew Drop. But I ain’t never seen no royal Brit highness come down to N’walins.”
“Touché,” conceded Jean-Marc.
“A what now?”
“Never mind,” the journalist replied, his interest in the conversation waning as swiftly as it had waxed. He checked his smartwatch, the latest UMe model and replacement to his smashed Solaris, and looked for any interesting push-notifications. The zookeeper, however, didn’t take the hint, but posed again his earlier query:
“So, why you do it? I mean, you don’t seem no perv tryin’ to get off on it. And you ain’t never asked to feed ‘im or try to release Lil’ Richard like a crack pipe nutter. And I know these tickets ain’t no cheap seats, so why you do it? What’s in it for you?”
Jean-Marc paused and looked up from his newsfeed. He contemplated spinning a yarn for the curious, gullible zookeeper, but he decided the truth was sometimes far crueler than any lie:
“Every man has his private peccadillos, Daronté. One of mine’s a penchant—that means hobby—for collecting defunct or bellied-up newspaper prints. My pièce de résistance is a series of articles from 1884, published by L’Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orléans and its fiercest rival, Le Courrier de la Nouvelle Orleans. These papers were like the Celtics and Lakers of New Orleans’ journalism—they absolutely hated each other, as did their respective readers. Anyways, during the 1884 World’s Fair, a Frenchmen from Julia Street temporarily donated a lion allegedly from Paris’ Jeadin des Plantes to Audubon’s first animal exhibits. Even amongst the fair’s other exotic splendors, the lion drew particularly large crowds and widespread renown, as it was supposedly the last living Cape Lion on Earth. Most scholars had thought the subspecies had kicked the bucket a decade or two earlier. But there it was, a giant-ass lion with the Cape’s telltale black mane. The lion was dubbed Lézaire by L’Abeille, since it, like the biblical figure of Lazarus, had seemingly come back from the dead. Le Courrier tried to retort with its own sobriquet for the beast, but it never stuck. Anyways, Lézaire became something of a locally disputed symbol.”
“For some of, uh… your people, the color of the beast’s mane as well as its African origins meant Lézaire represented them. Also, they figured the Confederacy had tried to make them extinct as a ‘subspecies’ of people rather than property, but had ultimately failed. After all, they were still riding Reconstruction’s coattails. The more cynical colored folks, like those from the New Orleans Tribune, took the symbolism even farther, noting how the lion escaped extinction but still remained locked up in a cage, just like how former slaves had survived the Civil War, but had become ‘locked up’ by the fast-spawning Jim Crow laws.”
“Not to be outdone, the local Bourbon Democrats claimed Lézaire as their own symbol, as the ex-slave owning plantation farmers, businessmen, and professionals—or at least their power, authority, and riches—had been hunted to near-extinction by Union occupation, Reconstruction, and Radical Republican carpetbaggers. Yet, almost two decades after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, the ‘Redeemers’ were back, once more as the true ‘kings of the south.’ Also, the Bourbon Democrats, or their sympathetic journalists in Le Courrier used Lézaire’s South African connections to draw a comparison between the Redeemers’ post-Reconstruction victory and ousting of Yankee and Republican carpetbaggers to recent events in the Boer Republics, where the local white, but black slave-owning Boers successfully ousted the British’s ‘northern aggressions and encroachments’ during the First Boer War.”
Now it was Daronté’s turn to look disinterestedly at his watch: a fake Rolex that looked like it came out of a cheap toy capsule vending machine.
Noting he had lost his audience’s attention, Jean-Marc cursed silently. Not that he cared much for Daronté’s opinion, or expected the ill-educated zookeeper to understand, but rather, he realized he had unintentionally slipped into a de facto history lecture. That wasn’t the tabloid journalist’s traditionally pithy style, but it was like someone else he had come to intimately know, someone who had a penchant for pedantic catechisms.
Hell, most men became like their fathers, but fuck if I want to become my new one…
As if to prove he still retained his own identity, he tried to reengage Daronté with a tabloid headline:
“But Lézaire was a phony-ass fake.”
“Whussat?” the zookeeper said, looking up, perhaps drawn more by the cursing than anything else.
“The lion—he was as fake as a Tinder profile pic. But they only found out after the World’s Fair, after a bidding war between some Bourbon Democrats and a bunch of local black Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th Calvary Regiment. Pooling their resources together, the black soldiers won the bid, with the support of the Audubon Nature Institute. In fact, Daronté, the man who formally represented the Buffalo Soldiers, officially bought the lion, and gave Lézaire to the zoo was a Lt. Du Pleiss. Probably one of your relatives.”
“Oh, shit, really?” the zookeeper said with renewed interest and a slight puff of his chest. Of course, Jean-Marc had no clue if the zookeeper was related to any Buffalo Soldiers, much less the ones involved in the lion’s late 19th-century purchase.
But sometimes a story needs some fucking spice, a little lie or two to leaven the loaf.
“But you’s said the lion was a fake?”
“Hell, yes. No sooner did the zookeepers let the beast bathe, did they discover that Lézaire’s mane wasn’t really black. He was a natural blonde, but had been given a dye job good enough to fool folks from a distance. After all, how many people had seen a real Cape Lion to tell the difference? Oops. Obviously, the hoodwinked soldiers, zoo, and scientific community were livid. The scandal only thickened when they discovered that the French conman from Julia Street had vanished. Muck-racking reporters from the Tribune accused the Bourbon Democrats of being part of the scam. Allegedly, their bidding war had been but a ruse to bilk the black soldiers of their war-won life savings, further disenfranchising the former slaves. Not sure if that was true, but it made for a hell of a hot story.”
Jean-Marc looked with private satisfaction as the story seemed to ignite some anger in the usually placid zookeeper.
“So what, you’s like a fuckin’ sheet-wearing KKK white boy who gets off to watching a poor-ass black man take care of a lemon lion your people fucked some niggers into buyin’?”
Jean-Marc quickly extended two placating palms. Shaking his head, he replied, “Not at all. From my experience, white supremacy is even faker than Lézaire’s dye job. God made us all equal, just as the Devil made us all equal sinners. And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be invited to Kevin King’s dinner parties, as I’m what the old folks would call a quadroon or quarteron.”
“A what now?”
“Means I’ve got one-fourth African ancestry. Can’t really tell, and most folks just figure I’ve got Arabic blood. These days, it’s hard to know which ancestry, false or true, lands me in worse water.”
The zookeeper gave the journalist a disbelieving look-over, then shrugged. Glancing back at the lion, he asked:
“So what’s all this got’s to do wit Lil’ Richard?”
Jean-Marc smiled, this time sharing it with Daronté, or at least the lounging lion:
“Melech—or Little Richard as you call him—is descended from Lézaire. He’s like his great-great-great-grandson or something close. Doesn’t matter how many ‘greats,’ because here’s the fucking rub. A few years ago, a group of zoologists from all over the world did a bunch of genetic and phylogeographic studies—don’t ask me what the fuck those are exactly—with lions from southern and eastern African. But their results caused them to redo how lions are classified, with a bunch of lions living in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa all being genetically close enough to be lumped together as Panthera leo melanochaita. This didn’t exactly make anybody’s primetime headline, but it did inspire some researchers at Tulane to collaborate with folks from here, the Transvaal Museum, and the Paris Museum of Natural History. They compared genetic assays from Cape lion skulls in the museums with DNA from this lion right here—and surprise, they found out he’s a quarteron Cape Lion. So, it looks like Lézaire was the real deal, after all. He was just one of the rare Cape lions who had tawny manes. Pretty fucking hilarious, right?”
“I… guess…” Daronté said, as if not entirely getting or caring for the punchline.
“That’s exactly it!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, walking closer to the cage and its now-pacing beast. “No one really gave a fuck! People were far more excited and interested in a story that looked like the truth than one that actually was. It doesn’t matter if Lézaire or this lion actually are Cape lions—people only care if they look like them, or look like what we fucking expect them to look like. It’s all about the masquerade! And the best, or worst, part of it all was that that the stories that got the most ink weren’t about revelations of truth, but rather the ones that covered the fucking scandals and lies!”
“I guess so, but—” the zookeeper said, as if to object to Jean-Marc’s story, or at least its damning implications for humanity.
“But nothing, Daronté,” the journalist interrupted, taking another step closer to the lion’s cage. “Go ahead and tell me I’m wrong. Tell me that most people care more about the hard truths versus the comforting lies, that they don’t prefer news that tears down other people’s glass houses so you don’t have to look your own in the eye and see all its cracks. If I’m wrong, then surely you’ll run home to your boy and tell him the truth—that Jacaubré Brion doesn’t know you from Adam, and you only scored the tickets by abusing the trust your boss has in you. But you and I both know you aren’t going to do that…”
So accused, the shame-faced zookeeper hung his head. Staring down, he fished out the Pelicans’ tickets. Once more, his other hand reflexively gripped his half-hidden cross necklace. So engrossed in his own thoughts, if not guilt, Daronté didn’t notice Jean-Marc’s continued approach to the lion’s cage, especially as the man resumed his ‘sermon’:
“Truth is like a king we pretend to idolize, or a God we pretend to worship, but we actually lock up in a cage, so he can’t get out and disturb our lives and beloved lies.”
Jean-Marc placed his glass-pierced palm around one of the cage’s metal bars, provoking the beast within to violently pounce against its prison, slashing and roaring with hungry, murderous fury. Jean-Marc well understood the emotion, and wisely retracted his hand, but did not step back.
In the background, Daronté looked up with shocked alarm, and shouted at Jean-Marc to get away.
The Evangelist paid him no mind, but rather whispered to the roaring lion mere inches away:
“But we know the truth, don’t we, Detective Melech? You’ve cracked the case. God is real, and so is the Devil. And the bars that mortals place between themselves and the Damned have no power, for we’re all locked inside the same prison. And the wardens, the Sanctified children of Caine, secretly walk among Adam’s children, devouring whomever God wills. Forever and ever, until the end.”
The Evangelist finished his benediction with the Sign of the Inverted Cross, then stepped away from the still-raging lion. Outside, the rain had finally stopped, but a larger, darker storm was brewing in the night sky. Jean-Marc tipped his hat at the still-stunned, half-rambling, half-shouting zookeeper, and gave his parting ‘blessing’:
“See you next time, Daronté, and make sure you say ‘hi’ to the kid and Jacaubré for me. Unless you tell them the truth, but we both know you’d never do something so honest—or so cruel…”
Pseudepigraphon of Jean-Mac
The headlines sung like a bilious, choral hymn.
Blasphemy on Burgundy Street!
Wayward Priest Goes the Way of Saints Peter and Paul’s
Henry Sinclair: Twice-Abandoned by the Archdiocese
Local Ex-Pastor to be Excommunicated
Father Sinclair: Scapegoat for Archdiocese Scandals?
Archbishop Sacks Sinners’ Priest—Again!
Help Me, I’m Carrying Father Sinclair’s Love-Child! Confessions of a Parish Sex-Slave
Jean-Marc couldn’t help but smile, particularly when he saw how many hits his last click-bait article was raking in:
Another Tattler Tell-All, he privately chuckled with a frisson of schadenfreude, Paola Quiñones is going to lose her fucking shit. Better call Bert, though, just in case she tries to slap me with a defamation or false light suit. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she cuts Hibernia’s powerline just to fuck with me. Speaking of power…
He set down his heavily modified Sunpad tablet, and wheeled himself into an adjacent, sound-proofed room filled with overclocked ASIC processors and industrial fans.
Cryptocurrency mining has its perks, but it’s fucking murder on the electric bill.
Ignoring the artificial wind and machine-radiated heat, Jean-Marc made his rounds, checking on the stressed hardware as well as its darknet, blockchain computations. Unlike most of the dark web’s ‘clientele,’ Jean-Marc didn’t use the digital black markets for child pornography, drugs, or cyber arms. Rather, the tabloid journalist used it mainly for surfing whistleblowing sites and chat-rooms, where he searched for ‘hot takes’ and anonymous conversation, if not digital companionship. Still, Jean-Marc’s hands were far from clean of the dark web’s sins. After all, he regularly used its resources to obtain counterfeit credentials, purchase stolen credit card data and similar digital dirty laundry, host botnets, and perform phishing scams and social engineering hacks.
A Paleolithic diet is one thing, but physical dumpster-diving is for fucking Neanderthal rubes.
Notwithstanding, Jean-Marc was careful to always digitally ‘wash’ his hands with a Pilate-like thoroughness. Picking up his special, darknet-reconfigured tablet, he switched to another overlay network using custom-encrypted software. He surfed some relevant prediction markets, including his own, a darknet portal he named Daniel’s Dreams. Technically, he had titled it after the biblical prophet who foresaw the future, but it also sounded like the name of a kiddie porn site. On the darknet, the latter attracted traffic and thus increased Jean-Marc’s crowdsourced auguries. Logging in as Nebuchadnezzar2.0, he purveyed several, locally relevant wagers:
Which Will Trend Higher: #HereticHenry or #SinnerSinclair?
Clearly the latter, thought Jean-Marc, It has assonance and alliteration. That, and my botnets are spreading it around the web like a syphilis-infected sorority.
The next wager, however, made him pause:
Will Henry Sinclair Commit Suicide?
Oh, Henry, I do not like the odds they’re giving you, not one bit. Personally, I think you’re more likely to overdose, but maybe that’s splitting hairs. Still, you’ve got to really mean it in order to become my lion’s next star.
Reading the market’s associated comments, he saw the initial discourse on Catholic doctrine pertaining to suicides had devolved into dark, mean-spirited humor that was hardly related to the wager on Sinclair’s life:
Multiplying by zero is just suicide in math: you don’t really get a solution, but the problem goes away.
Where do suicide bombers go when they die? Fucking everywhere.
What is the best time to commit suicide? Ate a glock.
Wife said she would rather commit suicide than have dementia, as she’d never want to place that burden on me. I said, “Honey, that’s the fifth time you’ve told me that.”
Chuckling darkly, Jean-Marc decided to add his own quip:
I like to call random numbers and ask whomever answers if it’s the suicide hotline. When they say ‘no’ I yell, “GOD DAMMIT, I CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT!” Then I fire my gun in the background and drop my phone.
The sad part was, his story was true. It had been years ago, shortly after college when he spent more time drunk than not. During that dark nadir, there had been times—in between drunken black-outs—where he contemplated eating one of those bullets. What ultimately stayed his hand was spite, as he cared far more about making others suffer versus easing his own.
But it hadn’t always been like that. Staring into the black mirror of his tablet, Jean-Marc couldn’t help but reflect on how it had all begun—and how it had all turned to shit.
Or maybe it was always shit…
The Exordium of Jean-Marc the Evangelist
He had few recollections of his first years in Algiers, save for a distal, lingering scent of something foul. The man he briefly knew as his father, Jude Poisseau, had grown up in East New Orleans, alongside Jean-Marc’s mother, Dinah Olivia d’Léandrie. Both were children of black WWII veterans who used the GI Bill to secure low-interest mortgages to escape Algiers and purchase then-new houses near Chef Menteur Highway, in what would become the Cerise-Evangeline Oaks neighborhood. Proximity as well as discrimination drew Jude and Dinah together, as the predominately white neighbors in Bonita Park, Kenilworth, Melia, and Dona Villa did not take kindly to having “niggers in their midst,” and none ever seemed to care that Dinah, unlike Jude, was ‘half-white,’ courtesy of her Vichy French mother and Algerian expatriate. Bused to black-segregated schools in the lower Ninth Ward, Jude and Dinah became best friends, who spent their summers together at Lincoln Beach, the African American counterpart to the ‘whites only’ Pontchartrain Beach amusement park. Later, the pair became high school sweethearts who once again spent their summers at Lincoln Beach, but as adolescent staff working the park’s rides, games booths, and restaurant tables. When desegregation caused the park’s closure in 1965, the just 18-year-old Jude proposed to Dinah, who quickly, joyously accepted. However, the then 16-year-old Dinah needed her parents’ permission to marry, and the d’Léandrie’s refused, on account of Jude’s joblessness and poor prospects (much of which were tied to his race).
Not to be denied, the young lovers ran away, seeking sanctuary with Jude’s maternal grandmother back in Algiers. As if to further spite Dinah’s devout Catholic parents, the unmarried couple joined the local Mount Olivet Episcopal Church. When Dinah turned 18, they decided to remain unmarried, as Dinah threatened her parents that she would “continue to live in sin” until her parents gave her their blessing to marry Jude. The equally proud d’Léandrie’s only doubled down on their opposition, and true to their prediction, Jude struggled to find work. Occasionally, he found odd-jobs doing salvage on Algiers’ derelict railways, scavenge work for Buck Kriehs, or hauling trash from the Federal City Inn and Suites to the local dump. Dinah also picked up whatever work she could, sometimes waiting tables at the Crown and Anchor or helping cater crayfish boils, weddings, and other community events at the Algiers Courthouse.
Twelve years later, the common law couple remained childless, but not for lack of trying. Although Jude was concerned about his ability to feed another mouth in the family, Dinah desperately wanted children. In classic Catholic guilt, Dinah’s mother repeatedly told her daughter that God had struck her womb, making her barren as a punishment for dishonoring her parents and for living in sin. Over time, Dinah had come to believe in this ‘curse,’ and one September night of 1977, she prayed at Mount Olivet, begging that she would “do, endure anything to have a child.” As if to seal her desperate promise, she took out the last token of her own mother’s love: an heirloom Frankish penny. She then threw the age-blacked silver denier into the only wishing well she could readily find: a storm drain.
The next day, Jude was offered a job to help tear down Lincoln Beach and salvage the steel and aluminum of its defunct rides and similarly reclaim its abandoned copper wiring. The job didn’t pay the greatest, but it was a long one, one that could easily last 8 or so months. Dinah was less optimistic, as she felt it wrong that Jude’s hands should be the one to tear down the place where they had fallen in love and became betrothed. Jude countered, saying that “desegregation destroyed the place, I’m just making sure its death don’t go to waste.”
Without further argument, he took the job. The hours were long, especially as the carless Jude had to rely on rides from friends and coworkers. Dinah soon became lonely, so she convinced a coworker of her own to lend a car to drive to the beach, where she hoped to surprise Jude at the end of his shift with a threadbare, but lovingly made picnic to celebrate their ‘anniversary.’ Trying to avoid getting a flat tire, she parked the borrowed vehicle well away from the demolition site. Picnic basket in hand, she got out to walk the rest of the way.
She never made it. Instead, she was attacked by a group of white men who threw her to the ground; smashed and stomped on her picnic basket, jars, and food; and then brutally gang-raped her. When they were done, they left her bleeding on the asphalt, though not before one flicked a hard, small coin at her battered face as if he was ‘paying for services.’ As she slowly realized the coin was her own discarded denier, she heard his parting laughter and words:
“I don’t know about God, you black cunt, but I’m pretty sure the Devil heard your prayers.”
Jude and his coworkers eventually found her unconscious on the street. They rushed her to the hospital, and the physicians saved her life, only to quickly discharge her as Jude could not afford an extended hospital stay. Thus, Dinah was left to slowly, painfully recover in their Algiers home, while Jude was forced to return to his salvage job at Lincoln Beach, as Dinah’s medical care was an unexpected as well as painfully high expense. Worse, Jude’s boss convinced them not to call the police, as the salvage operation was of dubious legality. Moreover, Dinah was unable to identify any of her attackers save for their race, as it had been dark and violent.
By the time the summer of 1978 arrived, Lincoln Beach was stripped back, and Jude was once again out of a job. Moreover, the recovered Dinah was swollen with child, and the couple had rejoiced that they would finally be parents. Yet, when she delivered her one and only son on June 24th, their relation turned to horror as the baby was clearly a quadroon—far too white for Jude to have been the father.
The next months were agonizing for the couple. On one hand, Dinah felt like she had been duped. During her entire pregnancy, she had believed she had been carrying Jude’s child, as if God had taken pity on her after her attack and restored her barren womb to fertility. Yet, subsequent testing confirmed that Jude was sterile. Thus, her only baby would be the one that was a product of violent gang-rape. Her son, who she named Jean-Marc, was initially a constant reminder of that night. Yet, as time progressed and she reluctantly cared for the infant, she saw increasingly more of herself in her baby—for it was ‘her’ baby.
Jude, however, had no such comfort. ‘His’ son wasn’t of his bloodline, nor would he ever be able to have one. As it had initially for Dinah, Jean-Marc’s lighter skin color was a constant reminder of the boy’s fell origins. Furthermore, Jude had not disclosed Dinah’s rape to any of his friends or family. Thus, all who saw the quadroon boy assumed that Jude had been cuckolded—and by a white man, no less. It drove Jude mad with grief and rage. He tried to drown those emotions with alcohol, but it only fed the demons. Eventually, those demons consumed him.
In the autumn of 1979, Jude returned home from a night of hard drinking, which led to an explosive confrontation between the man and his common law wife. In the next room, the 16-month-old Jean-Marc was napping on the living room rug, when he was awoken by his parents’ shouts and screams. Crawling toward the kitchen, he was started by a terrible, deafening sound, only to hear his father’s lifeless body fall to the cheap linoleum floor amid a splatter of blood. When the police eventually came, Dinah informed them that Jude had found her handgun—something she had purchased for extra protection after her rape—and then used it to drunkenly commit suicide. In a rare act of pity, the NOPD decided to let the ‘widow’ slide for the illegal firearm possession.
But pity did not put food on the table. Beset with grief, Dinah struggled to support herself and Jean-Marc, especially since she did not have access to safe, affordable childcare, since most of Jude’s family had passed away or left New Orleans. Dinah almost turned to her parents, but her pride outweighed her desperation.
This desperation, however, was glaringly apparent when a then-young Mary St. George came to do a house visit. Given the NOPD’s report, the social worker had been charged to do a follow-up visit on behalf of local child welfare services. What she found was a house without electricity, a kitchen without food, an incontinent toddler without diapers, and a single mother without a job. Mary tried to help Dinah, but Child Protective Services had little resources to offer—at least not until they took Jean-Marc into state custody.
When Mary returned with a court order to take the toddler, Dinah protested. At first, her resistance was verbal, but when that proved impotent, she became physical. At one point, she violently pushed Mary back, causing her to trip, and then crash awkwardly into a wall. Her impact knocked a picture frame off the wall, which then fell and struck the social worker’s temple, causing a small gash that was still deep enough that it needed stitches. Per Louisiana law, the assault constituted a felony, with a mandatory sentence of 1 to 3 years of prison time. Thus, the next time Mary came to Dinah’s house, she did so with two NOPD officers.
While Dinah was sent to the parish jail and unable to post bond, Jean-Marc was placed temporarily in the Catholic foster home run by the Somascan Fathers and Brothers of St. Jerome. Wracked by guilt or at least pity, Mary St. George decided to foster the young boy. He might well have become her first adopted child if not for his maternal grandparents.
Ironically, it was an article by the New Orleans Herald that alerted the d’Léandrie’s to their daughter’s imprisonment. They promptly visited Dinah and tried to get her freed. Dinah, however, refused their offer to pay for her legal defense, though she did swallow her pride enough to tell them of Jean-Marc’s plight. It took a while for the d’Léandrie’s to penetrate the byzantine bureaucracy of the child welfare system, but they were able to eventually demonstrate their familial ties to their grandson, and consequently assert their right to have him placed in their kinship care. Thus, Jean-Marc was swapped from one stranger to two new ones.
Not that I remember any of that shit. I was less than two years old. Still, it makes for a good fucking sob story. After all, pity can sometimes open doors better than a crowbar.
In contrast to Algiers, New Orleans East would be Jean-Marc’s childhood home—or at least the one he remembered, or cared to remember. There, he grew up in his grandparents’ Cerise-Evangeline Oaks home. His grandfather, Jim d’Léandrie, had retired from both the Marine Corps as well Sigmund Pines’ construction crew, but he volunteered at the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, back in Algiers. Thus, most of Jean-Marc’s childcare fell to Grand-mère Léa d’Léandrie. She spoke to him solely in her own native French language: “Pas cette bêtise coloniale, mais du vrai français” (“Not the colonial drivel, but true French”). As any young child his age, he absorbed it up like a sponge, and his grand-mère was utterly delighted. As long as he followed her strict rules—which included eating every bite on his plate, including Roquefort cheese and pate; sleeping in his own bed; saying his Catholic prayers; and accompanying her to luncheons, mass, and shopping trips—she spoiled him with affection, attention, and candies.
Eighteen months later, Jean-Marc’s mother was finally released from prison. Dinah was anxious to reclaim her child, but the courts decreed that she remained “unfit,” so long as she remained on parole and did not have a stable income with adequate housing, food, and similar life necessities. Until such a time, legal guardianship was transferred to her parents. To add insult to injury, the 3-year-old toddler had spent more time under his grandmother’s care than his mother’s, and he seemed to barely remember her. From the simple perspective of a child, grand-mère had become mère. Léa and Jim invited their wayward daughter to return ‘home,’ and Dinah begrudgingly accepted, since it allowed her to be with her son. Yet, that arrangement soon proved unacceptable to Dinah, as Jean-Marc’s continued preference for Léa was like a knife being repeatedly jammed in her heart. Additionally, her own mother’s approach to parenting was the same, as the French expatriate treated her daughter just like her grandson: as long as Dinah obeyed Léa’s strictures and built her life around her mother’s, Dinah was showered with affection and attention—and nothing less was accepted. Unable to tolerate those conditions, Dinah eventually left, declaring she would make her “own way” and only return once she was ready to reclaim her “stolen son.”
Other the next decade, Dinah repeatedly relapsed on that promise, flitting in and out of the d’Léandrie’s home in Cerise-Evangeline Oaks. Inevitably, the strong-willed women would clash, and Dinah would depart again in proud defiance. Léa did her best to shelter Jean-Marc from these “taches désagréables de la vie” (“unpleasant blemishes of life”), and she largely succeeded. Although far more authoritative than most American parents, the French expatriate was ultimately an attentive, caring ‘mother,’ at least to Jean-Marc, whom she quickly stopped referring to her as her grandson and instead called him her “Bébé” (“Baby”). And unlike his biological mother, Jean-Marc was a far more obedient child. He ate his vegetables, he learned his Catechisms, and never forgot to say the four ‘magic words’ of French culture: “s’il vous plaît”, “merci”, “bonjour”, and “au revoir.” Thus, it was no surprise that Jean-Marc quickly became Léa’s and Jim’s favorite child.
The preferential status would persist as Jean-Marc entered public schooling. Unlike his mother who had to deal with segregation and busing, Jean-Marc was able to attend his local schools alongside his ‘white’ neighbors. Moreover, his lighter skin tone and French accent made most children and teachers assume he was ‘foreign’ versus ‘black.’ That confusion was heightened since Léa daily flat-ironed and oiled his normally ‘savage curls’ into a ‘domesticated’ wave. Moreover, his well-ingrained manners and obedience towards authority figures made him well-liked by his teachers and administrators. Consequently, Jean-Marc faced far less persecution than his mother had.
Still, he made few true friends in school, preferring to be at home with his ‘grand-maman.’ Léa saw no problem with this dependence, though she did eventually take issue as the boy began to gain weight. Part of this was simply the awkward biological bulking up of preadolescence, but mostly it was due to his avoidance of physical exercise and outside play with his peers. However, Léa solely blamed the ‘problem’ on Jean-Marc’s candy consumption. She cut him off, hard and fast. Jean-Marc did not take it well. As any kid, he enjoyed his candies, but his resultant defiance was driven by something deeper. He had tolerated, even embraced and ultimately defended, his grandmother’s firm rules because they had previously been fair—and consistently rewarded. If he had broken some stricture or disobeyed, he would not have lamented or railed against being denied those rewards. But her flat denial of any sweets and desserts galled him. It made him re-examine all of the complaints his ‘real’ mother had spat at Léa. It also made him begin to question the Catholic faith he had been blindly following, since it had been utterly based upon his trust in his grandmother. After all, if his grandmother could arbitrarily, suddenly deny her long-promised rewards for obedience, who was to say God wouldn’t do the same?
That’s right, God. My path to blasphemy and damnation all started because Grand-Maman made my fat piggly ass go cold turkey on fucking candy.
Initially, Jean-Marc’s defiance was merely verbal—though that alone earned his grandparents’ firm displeasure. That displeasure and rejection only intensified Jean-Marc’s resistance. He broke out of his room, then would sneak into the kitchen and gorge himself on whatever sweets he could find. When his grandmother discovered his theft, she had Jim spank the 12-year-old boy with a hard-backed Bible and then made the humiliated pre-teen write the eighth commandment 40 times (i.e., 5 times 8, since his ‘sin’ had involved not only theft but dishonoring his parents). She did not take kindly when the cry-stifling Jean-Marc shouted back that the fifth commandment only says to honor one’s “father and mother,” not grandparents. In retaliation, she made sure his 40 lines had impeccable penmanship. Any minor flaw meant he had to restart the entire list over again—as she said she wanted his repentance to be “bien complete” (“thoroughly complete”). Eventually, the boy finished his list with perfect penmanship, and he never again stole sweets from his grandparents—but only because Léa stopped buying them. In retaliation, Jean-Marc began stealing a few dollars here and there from his grandparents’ purses and wallets. The amounts were small enough that they never noticed, and likely never suspected their grandson would stoop to such a flagrant ‘crime.’ Jean-Marc used the money to buy candy and junk-food from his peers at schools. It was a venial sin, but Jean-Marc was a repeated, unrepentant offender.
Yet, whether in divine punishment or merely due to serendipity, Jean-Marc’s ‘sins’ and disfavor with his grandparents were soon followed by increasing peer rejection and bullying. Most of his peers were ‘true’ whites who spoke a Yat dialect, and the middle-schoolers now clearly detected the ‘otherness’ of the French-accented quadroon. Being fat just made things worse—a lot worse—especially as he was always trying to ‘score’ his next ‘hit’ of sugar. In time, the meanest bullies made sure other classmates stopped taking the boy’s stolen cash, but rather made Jean-Marc ‘earn’ his treats by performing humiliating deeds, like licking the bottom of a bully’s shoe, taking off his shirt and wiggle his rolls, or squealing like a pig on the playground. In time, that hazing succeeded doing what his grandmother had failed to achieve: break him of his sweet-tooth.
However, by the time Jean-Marc refused to play along with the bullies’ abusive trades, the social damage done to the middle-schooler’s reputation was irreversible. Indeed, the only group of children more widely rejected and despised were the second-generation Vietnamese immigrants of Village de L’Est. And it was among this group that Jean-Marc made his first and closest friends.
It happened during Jean-Marc’s seventh grade. A group of bullies had tried to tempt Jean-Marc with a Ding-Dong. When Jean-Marc refused to do the ‘truffle-shuffle’ for their amusement, they offered it to him for free, only to ‘accidentally’ drop it, and then stomp on it. After Jean-Marc didn’t give them the satisfaction of picking up the plastic-wrapped treat from the ground, they pushed him to the ground and tried to make him lick up the smooshed snack. When most of the playground erupted in cruel laughter, Jean-Marc tearfully ran away and hid behind one of the school’s utility sheds. To Jean-Marc’s surprise, the ‘hiding spot’ was already taken by one of his classmates, a similarly overweight, Vietnamese boy named Lê Văn Phật Tổ—which most kids cruelly called ‘Fat T,’ or simply ‘Fatty.’ In the wake of the Vietnam War, his family had immigrated to the United States, and like many others, had found asylum in the Village de L’Est, and more specifically, the apartment complex of Versailles Arms. Despite being a natural-born citizen of the United States, Phật Tổ; and his year-younger sister, Lê Thị Hoa; still struggled with English. However, both were fluent in French. Consequently, Jean-Marc and the Lê siblings were able to freely, if not semi-secretly converse.
That connection only grew when Phật Tổ offered to share with Jean-Marc his “chè” or dessert. It was banh dau xanh, a traditional Vietnamese sweetcake made of soft mung bean, sugar, and oil. Jean-Marc was hesitant at first, but the manners instilled by his grand-maman caused him to accept with a “merci.” To his delight, he found that he liked the pastry, and he accepted Phật Tổ’s offer to share the hiding spot. Phật Tổ’s weight had largely ostracized him amongst his own Vietnamese peers, and so it did not take long before the otherwise friendless, overweight boys became close friends. In time, that friendship came to include Phật Tổ’s sister, Hoa, a shy girl who barely spoke yet always had her nose in a school library book, for she loved to read, but had few at home. Apart from his friendship with Phật Tổ, Jean-Marc earned Hoa’s gratitude when he began to ‘borrow’ books from home, as his grand-maman had a respectable collection of French books.
The trio, however, were convenient targets for both the Yat and Vietnamese bullies. As the school-year ended, the children went on a multi-grade field-trip to the Audubon Zoo. During the visit, a group of Vietnamese boys followed Hoa into a bathroom. One of the boys, Nguyễn Nhâ’t Duc, also known by his bastardization name of ‘Duck’, attempted to claim Hoa as his girlfriend. When she refused, Duc snatched the book she had reading—a collection of poems by Jean Rimbaud (on ‘loan’ from the d’Léandrie library)—and tried to flush it down the toilet. When that failed, though it still ruined the 19th-century book, Duc had several of his friends hold Hoa against the wall, and forced the girl to kiss “her boyfriend.” More might have occurred, but a non-affiliated group of women walked into the bathroom, quickly ushering out the Vietnamese boys, the latter of whom pretended they couldn’t read English and thought they were in the boy’s bathroom. Hoa dared not speak a word, but when she eventually emerged, she tearfully confessed to her brother what had happened. Jean-Marc had picked up enough Vietnamese to understand the general gist, and so enraged, he walked up to Duc and pushed the smaller, but leaner and more athletic boy down. Little did Jean-Marc know, but Duc was a child prodigy of Vovinam, and claimed direct descent from the martial art’s founder, Nguyễn Lộc. Thus, Jean-Marc never expected the vicious counter-attacks: a diagonal Đá Cạnh kick, followed up by a Đấm Lao, a backfist swung reversely to Jean-Marc’s temple. The combination of blows knocked out Jean-Marc cold. When he came to, he was surrounded by school teachers who had been told the fat boy had overheated in the sun, fainted, and fallen and hit his temple against the ground. Jean-Marc was too embarrassed, and hurt, to try to convince his teachers otherwise. Concerned for the child’s welfare, the cautious school staff called his grandmother.
When she arrived, Jean-Marc reluctantly told her what had happened—or some of it. Rather than admit he had been lending Léa’s rare books to Hoa, he claimed he had been reading the books and was assaulted by the Vietnamese classmates who had also ruined the book. Léa accepted the story as the full gospel truth, though it enraged her all the same. In her protective fury, she called the school principal and successfully demanded to have the boys suspended and make a formal apology to Jean-Marc. Much to Jean-Marc’s chagrin, that only made Duc and his friends bully the trio of misfits even more.
Furthermore, the suspension forced Duc and the other Vietnamese boys to tell their own distorted ‘stories’ to their parents. The most dominant version retold in the Versailles Arms contained, much like Jean-Marc’s tale, enough truth to be believing. In that partial reinvention, Jean-Marc had attacked Duc because he was jealous that Hoa had kissed ‘her boyfriend.’ Duc retaliated, regaining his ‘honor,’ while Phật Tổ just stood and watched it all “like a coward.” When these rumors reached the Lê family, Phật Tổ’s eldest uncle, one Lê Văn Bảo Lộc, was particularly affronted, as Lê Bảo (or Mr. Lee as his American clientele called him) ran a Vovinam dojo on Alcee Fortier Boulevard. When Phật Tổ and Hoa reluctantly told the ‘true truth’ to their father and uncle, both men were further enraged and blamed Phật Tổ for neither first protecting his sister nor secondly defending her attacked honor. Bảo Lộc was particularly upset, since many of his students were Phật Tổ’s Yat peers, and some had begun to question whether they should continue their “karate lessons” from a sensei whose own nephew couldn’t protect his sister. Thus, the Lê family decided that Phật Tổ would take Vovinam lessons and restore his family’s honor, if not financially dependent reputation. As an extra precaution, Hoa was also enrolled.
The heavyset and frankly slothful Phật Tổ hated the physically demanding Vovinam, but he feared his equally demanding uncle even more. Yet, in an attempt to make his involuntary lessons less wearisome, he convinced Jean-Marc to attend. Bảo Lộc agreed to accept the other heavyweight boy, since he had at least tried to defend Hoa’s honor. Léa, however, was not so keen on the idea of her son doing an ‘independent’ activity away from home, much less a hobby that “violence glorifiée” (“glorified violence”).
Yet, in a rare act of marital disagreement, Jean-Marc’s Marine Corps-retired grandfather asserted that he would take the boy, and that it would help him become “more of a man and less of a doughboy.” Thus, during the summer of ‘91, Jean-Marc began his daily lessons at “Lee’s Karate School,” chauffeured in his grandfather’s Falcon Motors muscle car. Most of the time, his grandfather would wait in his car, listening to cassettes of old jazz musicians, and often that music would do most of the talking on the 10-minute drive to and from their home on Bundy Road. But as Jean-Marc persevered with his lessons past the summer, finally hit puberty, and began to grow in height while slimming down in weight, Jim began to talk more with his grandson. Namely, the elderly man started to fill the car rides’ relative silence by regaling the boy with hitherto unshared war stories as well as tips about dating and other ‘manly’ things. Jean-Marc was grateful for the paternal attention that largely had been missing in his life. He also came to rely upon those ‘tips,’ especially when the 14-year-old boy asked Hoa to be his first girlfriend, and then was bewildered how to act after she said ‘yes.’
In some sense, that situation perfectly summed up his 8th grade. On one hand, things were better than ever. He had not just friends, but a best friend as well as a girlfriend. He had gained several inches and lost several pounds. With the Lê’s sharing their desserts with Jean-Marc, the young man was no longer buying snacks. The bullies still remained, but they had less ‘ammunition.’ The trio were also less ‘safe’ targets too, since Jean-Marc, Phật Tổ, and Hoa had all earned their Lam Đai blue belts. Still, none of them was a match for the yellow-belted Duc, who had not forgiven the trio, and especially Jean-Marc, for his suspension and forced apology. Thus, Jean-Marc largely lost his bullies, but he gained a more determined and dangerous rival. He gained a girlfriend, but he had to awkwardly navigate what that meant¬—which was particularly difficult since both came from distinct cultural backgrounds and neither had any experience to guide them. He gained a best friend, which also meant he had to deal with someone who became jealous if he spent too much time talking to Hoa. What further complicated things was that Jean-Marc wanted to learn Vietnamese (mostly to talk more freely with his terse girlfriend), and Phật Tổ wanted to sorely talk in English to get rid of his thick accent. Acne, hormones, wet dreams, and everything else that went with puberty only made things weirder.
But shit, whose middle school years weren’t awkward as fucking hell?
Things had also changed at home. He was no longer Léa’s “Bébé,” but he also was no longer in serious trouble or conflict with her. She seemed a little hurt when Jean-Marc starting asking his grandfather, rather than her, for advice, but she never openly complained or besmirched that blossoming relationship. Perhaps to fill that void, Léa bought a computer, including a dial-up modem. It radically changed the d’Léandrie’s home. Once connected to the internet, Léa was able to communicate almost instantaneously with her extended French family in Europe and Algiers, many of whom she had not conversed with since she had expatriated to the United States in 1945. The Internet similarly opened exponentially wider horizons for the hitherto sheltered Jean-Marc. Moreover, his aged grandmother largely relied upon Jean-Marc to help her learn how to set up the hardware and use its less than user-friendly software. Jean-Marc had some school-related exposure to computers, and he proved a quick study, especially with the aid of Phật Tổ, who had long been enamored by computers and gaming consoles, like the widely popular Tellus Typhoon. This meant that Jean-Marc not only learned a lot about computers, but that he also had limited parental oversight. It was not long before Jean-Marc was once again sneaking out of his bedroom—but this time, his illicit appetites had matured well beyond cookies and junk food.
For Jean-Marc, the summer of ’92 rushed by in a heady blur. He continued training in Vovinam, largely to see his girlfriend. After one of these training sessions, the couple had their first kiss: an awkward exchange that neither Hoa’s brother nor uncle thankfully witnessed. Phật Tổ started working in his family’s nail salon, where his greater mastery of English meant he was swiftly tasked with placing orders and handling non-Vietnamese deliveries. Meanwhile, Jean-Marc’s grandmother flew back to France to visit her physically estranged but digitally reconnected family. She had wanted Jean-Marc to accompany her, but the boy secretly chose his girlfriend and related adolescent desires over his grand-maman. His grandfather stayed behind to watch over the teenager—and to cut down on costs (“Flying across the Atlantic is damned expensive when the government isn’t footing the bill.”). As the last month of summer raced to its end, Jean-Marc and Phật Tổ prepared to attend Marion Abramson High School.
Life had other plans.
First, his grandfather had a stroke during one of his volunteer shifts at the Academy. It wasn’t fatal, but it left the elderly man paralyzed on one-side of his body, unable to walk, and slurred of speech. Not wanting to ruin his beloved wife’s once in a lifetime reunion, Jim had Jean-Marc cover for him when she made her daily phone calls, and made his grandson swear to not tell her, since she was due to fly back anyways in a few days. Jean-Marc reluctantly agreed, and it was the first lie he truly regretted telling. Over the next few days, Jean-Marc took care of his stable but weakened grandfather. So isolated, the family were unaware that Governor Jameson had declared a state of emergency in lieu of Hurricane Andrew’s expected landfall. Instead, the elderly and young man were only alerted to Mayor Barthelemy’s evacuation order after Jean-Marc received a call from Phật Tổ asking where the d’Léandrie’s were going to take shelter. The shocked teen barely had time to ask what Phật Tổ was talking about, before there was another call beeping on the other line. Clicking over, Jean-Marc was both shocked and relieved to hear his mother’s voice.
Dinah was at their door in less than 20 minutes, packing them into her car and taking them to her apartment in the higher ground of Esplanade Ridge, namely one of the eight apartments of the once-grand Luling Mansion. There, they weathered the category 5 hurricane’s distal but still damaging passage. During the storm, Dinah and Jean-Marc reacquainted themselves with each other’s lives. After the 15-year-old shared his life’s recent twists and turns, Dinah related some of her experiences traveling up and down the Gulf Coast, including forays into Mexico. She reported that she had only recently returned to New Orleans, but had already secured a steady job working at a nightclub in Faubourg Marigny and had a house in nearby Tremé. Thus, she happily proclaimed, she was “finally ready to get her baby boy back.”
Officially, Hurricane Andrew caused 65 total fatalities, but Jean-Marc would come to say he was its forgotten 66th casualty. With Louis Armstrong Airport shut down, and several adjacent airports similarly out of commission, Léa’s transatlantic flights home were delayed and rerouted. Moreover, all of her frantic calls to the d’Léandrie’s Cerise-Evangeline Oaks home went unanswered. By the time Léa finally returned home, Dinah’s legal petition to regain custody of her son was all-but wrapped up. The lightning-fast speed of court was without precedent. Allegedly, the court said its haste had to do with Jim’s failing health, Léa’s international absence, and Jean-Marc’s imminent start of high school. Later Jean-Marc would learn the ludicrously rushed process was due to Dinah’s employer, a rich and powerful man who owned multiple nightclubs in Faubourg Marigny, including the Carnival Club and Vortex.
Thus, much to the chagrin of Jean-Marc and his grandparents, the teen was forced to leave his long-time home, caregivers, and friends, and move into one of the Tremé District’s shotgun houses. His mother had finally gotten him back.
The poor, predominately black, and crime-ridden neighborhood was a strange and unsettling world for the young man. His freshman year at Joseph Clark High School was equally disorienting and distressing. The unfamiliar teens teased him for his milky skin, smoothed hair, and foreign accent. His Vovinam saved him from some physical abuse, but it provided little protection against gun-carrying gangs. He often called the Lê’s, but it was Phật Tổ who had to finally let Jean-Marc know that Hoa had “dumped him” for Duc. The dejected teenager would have retreated to the Internet, but the only ‘electronics’ his mother owned was an electric can opener she used to feed the local stray cats. Otherwise, his mother worked long night hours, often coming home exhausted, as if she had hit up a dozen blood-banks for quick cash. So drained, she slept through most of the day, and largely left Jean-Marc to fend for himself. Somehow, the teen managed to survive his first two years at Clark High. His grandfather wasn’t so lucky.
Jean-Marc skipped the last day of his sophomore year. A local would-be gangbanger had threatened to soak Jean-Marc’s hair in gasoline and set it on fire—all because his school-attending girlfriend has casually said she liked the sophomore’s hair. Rather than risk seeing whether the insane thug would keep his word, Jean-Marc used his small collection of pennies and nickels to buy a bus ticket to Village de L’Est to visit Phật Tổ. Little did he know, but his grandfather had driven to Clark High to surprise his grandson and take him to the same location.
Still mostly paralyzed on the right side of his body, Jim had retaught himself to drive using his left foot and arm. His manual dexterity and reflexes, however, were a bit compromised, and when he parked in front of Clark High, his old muscle car bumped fenders with the gangbanger’s vehicle. Enraged, the gangbanger began cursing out the old man, to which the retired marine verbally took him to task. Unwilling to back down in front of his adolescent crew, the gangbanger picked up the gas-can he had reserved for Jean-Marc’s hair and began pouring it through Jim’’s rolled-down windows. When the gangbanger pulled out a lighter, intending to spook the old man, Jim tried to frantically climb out of the car, but his paralyzed limbs stymied his efforts. The gangbanger, however, thought the old man was calling his bluff, so he flicked the lighter. He had meant to only further scare the man—but the tiny flame ignited the gasoline fumes—which in turn lit the whole car’s interior on fire. the gangbanger panicked and fled the scene with his crew, leaving the burning, half-paralyzed war vet to painfully drag himself to safety. By the time the ambulance arrived, the elderly man was already dead from smoke inhalation.
Jean-Marc wouldn’t hear of his father’s death until he caught the last bus from New Orleans East to Tremé. When he crept back into his mother’s shotgun house, Dinah was waiting for him. “Did you do it?” were the first words out of her mouth, and only later would he understand that query and terrible accusation. Dinah’s dark suspicions had been fed by the cops, who suspected Jean-Marc had caused the fire and then fled. After all, there were no witnesses to the crime (or none that came forward), and the boy’s location had been a mystery. Fortunately for Jean-Marc, he had his time-stamped bus tickets and Phật Tổ’s testimony as alibis. Seemingly offended that the youth had spoiled their working theory with ‘facts,’ the police largely gave up their investigation, and the case went cold as Jim’s grave.
Searching for Answers
Notwithstanding his legal absolution, Jean-Marc still felt responsible for his grandfather’s death. Léa, however, set the blame squarely if indirectly on Dinah’s shoulders. After all, she reasoned, neither Jean-Marc nor Jim would ever had been at Clark High if Dinah had taken her “Bébé” back. Distraught with grief, the elderly Catholic woman further lashed out at her sole daughter, claiming that God was continuing to punish her—that both Jim’s and Jude’s deaths were because of Dinah’s refusal to repent. Unable to bear such terrible diatribes, Dinah snapped at her father’s funeral service. As if to publicly shame her Catholic guilt-spewing mother, she shouted for all to hear about how she had prayed for a child, only to be gang-raped and then deliver a rape-conceived son, which caused her husband such terrible grief that he threw away his life. Naturally, everyone at the funeral was shocked into silence, including Léa. But none were more stunned, confused, and hurt than Jean-Marc. For all of his life, he had been told that his father was Dinah’s belated husband, a man who had “died in an accident.” Moreover, he had assumed that Jim and Léa’s refusal to talk about Jude was due to grief.
In the weeks that followed, Jean-Marc single-mindedly dogged his mother for details. He had first called his grandmother, who shared what she knew about Jude, but she honestly confessed that she had known nothing of Dinah’s rape, Jean-Marc’s related parentage, or Jude’s death (save that the latter happened)—while also promising Jean-Marc that none of it changed the way she loved him. That was bittersweet consolation for the teen, as he was hungry, no ravenous, for the truth—a truth that only his mother seemed to know. He waited up for her till she came back home from her shifts, and tried to badger and plead for her to tell him about his past. When that didn’t work, he started showing up to her work, causing embarrassing scenes that required the nightclub’s bouncers to roughly throw him out—and then keep him out. After that, he started hiding her keys, to extort her into telling him the truth or otherwise make her late to work—which these days seemed to be the only thing she cared about. His final escalation was making anonymous calls to local health inspectors, to whom he lodged repeated, fictitious complaints against the Vortex.
Ha, my favorite was accusing the nightclub of handing out condoms pricked with HIV-infected needles, though I also said they were spiking their Bloody Mary’s with actual blood… Fucking ironic how close I was with that last one…
The nightclub’s powerful owner easily handled the resultant ‘investigations,’ but Jean-Marc had made his point. The very next night, Dinah returned from her shift, spent as usual, but also livid—and trying to hide an undercurrent of terror. Jean-Marc hardly cared when she chewed him out, especially as she then finally opened up about her early life with Jude, her coin-tossed prayer at Mount Olives, her rape at Lincoln Beach, and how Jean-Marc’s surprise parentage had rocked Dinah and Jude. Yet, when Dinah related the story of Jude’s suicide, Jean-Marc’s suspicions arose. By this point, the young man had heard enough lies, especially from his mother, to know when she was being evasive or fraudulent. When he tried to further interrogate his mother, she clammed up.
Still, she had given him a lead, as she had unintentionally shared the name of the police officer that responded to Jude’s shooting: an Officer Dónall ‘Donald’ Doyle.
In the remaining summer months of ’94, Jean-Marc spent his time wholly devoted to investigating Jude’s death. Part of him wanted to track down his mother’s rapists—which undoubtedly included his real father—but he had no leads. Thus, the almost 16-year-old teen went to the nearest NOPD station, and started asking around for Officer Doyle. It was a longshot, but luck favored him, as Sergeant Doyle had been recently reassigned to the 1st District. At first, the police officers told him to scram unless he had a crime to report. “What about my dead-beat dad not paying his hush-money child support?” the youth had flippantly lied, “Because that’s what my mom’s been saying about Donny Doyle.”
That quickly got the man’s attention, and it wasn’t too long before the sergeant showed up on his doorstep, aggressively demanding to know what kind of game the boy was playing. When Jean-Marc started asking about Jude’s death, Sgt. Doyle’s initially nervous reaction enflamed the boy’s suspicions. Still, the cop related the official story: Jude was drunk and shot himself fatally in the chest. He had been the beat-cop that had responded to neighborhood reports of gunfire and filed the paperwork on Jude’s ‘suicide.’ Jean-Marc was unsatisfied.
Hell, I wasn’t even 16, but even I knew it was fucking weird for a guy to shoot himself in the chest. Angle’s all kinds of awkward. No, you wanna do a final curtain call, you aim for your head. Temple, forehead, chin, mouth… but not your fucking chest.
When Jean-Marc confronted Sgt. Doyle with his doubts, the cop tried to casually bat them away. (“Drunk people do crazy shit; your mother’s old man, he wasn’t right in the head.”) When Jean-Marc demanded to see the police and autopsy records, Sgt. Doyle laughed. He lauded the boy’s “gumption,” but effectively told him to get bent. When Jean-Marc tried to threaten the cop, saying he would file complaints that claimed Doyle had been one of the white men who had raped his mother, Doyle once again laughed, but no longer kindly.
“See, the thing about being a piss ant is that, sure you can be a pest, but if you’re too much trouble, you just get singled out and squashed. But maybe… maybe you can help me out by pestering someone else that’s been bothering me…”
Doyle then related how he was trying to make detective grade, and had been charged with busting a minor ring of bike thieves. “Piss ant stuff.” The bike thieves were primarily targeting middle-class kids and adults in Mid-City where Doyle was assigned, but he suspected the thieves were from Tremé. In that neighborhood, the white Irish-American cop stood out like a sore, bleach and blue-painted thumb. “Find out who’s yanking the bikes and where they’re storing them, and I’ll consider giving you the info on Jude’s death.”
Jean-Marc wasn’t sure if the cop was genuine in his offer, or was simply trying to get rid of him by sending him into a lion’s den. Still, he was determined to find out the truth.
To successfully go ‘undercover,’ he stopped ironing his hair and picked it out till it became a frizzy fro. He raided his mother’s clothes, finding a few pieces of clothing left by some of her short-lived boyfriends over the past decade. These articles included a stained beater she used as a cleaning rag, a pair of baggy drawstring shorts, and one of his mother’s rarely worn cross necklaces. He also drew on some crude ‘tattoos’ with a ballpoint pen. He didn’t make for a convincing gangster, but he at least looked like a kid who was trying to look like one.
He spent the next several weeks, trying to casually ‘case’ the neighborhood. He would dip into Lil’ Dizzy’s diner to see if he could overhear any news. At the Louis Armstrong Park, he noted several kids riding frankenbikes, and after asking where he could “score” one, he was told to look for a red van in the flee markets of Congo Square. Stealing money from his mother’s purse, he began to loiter around the Square, till he eventually found the red van. From that vehicle, a young woman and her preadolescent son, who went by the name of Fizzy, were selling clearly chopped-shopped bikes and ‘spare parts.’ Jean-Marc purchased one, then used it to surreptitiously follow the bike thieves. He was quickly outpaced though, but he still managed to get the van’s license plate. Sharing that information with Sgt. Doyle, they learned that the vehicle was registered to Tyra Levois, mother of Francis Levois and sister to Clarence Levois, who worked at a salvage yard in the lower Ninth Ward. It was enough to get a warrant to search the van and possibly Tyra’s shotgun house, but Doyle suspected that the thieves were storing the pre-chopped bikes in the salvage yard. To get a warrant for yard, he needed more concrete evidence to connect Tyra’s van to the yard.
Using the rest of his mother’s stolen money, Jean-Marc bought a single use disposable camera, which he hid in a hoodie, as well as a bus ticket to the Ninth Ward. With a map of the ward memorized in his head, he walked to a street corner nearby the salvage yard’s entrance. It took him several tries before his ‘stake-out’ bore fruit. The first time, he waited all day and night, but never saw the van. The second time, he was assaulted by a teen about his age who thought he was trying to sell ‘crack on his corner.’ Jean-Marc’s martial arts training saved his hide, but not before the Ninth Ward kid promised to return with his ‘crew.’ Without further bus-money, Jean-Marc rode his frankenbike the nearly 4 miles from Tremé to the Ninth Ward salvage yard. This time, he chose a different street corner—though as evening fell, he found that it too was ‘taken.’ Fortunately for him, it wasn’t claimed by a gun-toting crack dealer, but rather a prostitute about his age. Whether bored or trying to get rid of Jean-Marc, she propositioned to have sex with him in exchange for his bike. Both aghast and tempted, the young man somewhat incredulously asked where they would “do the deed.” She jutted her chin in the direction of the salvage yard, saying her aunt had a van in the yard they could use.
He accepted, and it was the first but not last time he paid for the services of the world’s oldest profession. She protested a bit when he took out his camera and said he wanted to take some pictures, but she acceded when he offered his shoes and mother’s necklace (“it at least looked like gold”). Thus, when he left the Ninth Ward that evening, he walked home on foot, in his socks, and no longer a virgin, but with ample photographic evidence of the Levois’ bike cache, chop shop involvement, and underage prostitution. The pictures of the latter, he kept to himself.
The rest he offered to Sgt. Doyle—but only after the cop got him the records on Jude’s death.
Doyle explained that the official records supported the story he and Dinah had told Jean-Marc—because that was how they had doctored them. Partly in repayment for Jean-Marc’s aid (which would earn the cop a promotion) and partly to alleviate his own guilt, Doyle privately confessed that Jude didn’t shoot himself: Dinah did. As the first responder on the scene, the then-rookie cop had found Dinah crying over Jude’s body, while Jean-Marc as a toddler had been crawling across the blood-splattered linoleum. Doyle had already been well-acquainted with the drunkard Jude. In fact, he had just let the man go instead of locking him up in a drunk tank after Jude got into a fistfight with another local barfly who had been harassing Jude about whether he thought about his “wife eating a white dick whenever he looked at her bastard baby.” Doyle had been called to break up the fight, but his shift had been about to end and he wanted to get back to his own wife and newborn baby. Rather than arrest the clearly drunk and violent man, he had decided to “skip the hassle and paperwork” and let Jude go home. There, Jude and Dinah had gotten into a verbal fight, that had quickly turned physical. To protect herself, she had grabbed her handgun. Jude had backed off, even apologized, saying his complaint wasn’t with her, but with the boy, who he threatened to murder. She screamed at him to back off, to back away from her and “their” son. That word choice only enraged him, and he had picked up a kitchen knife and turned to the crawling toddler. In maternalistic panic, she shot him: the man she had loved, to protect the boy she had loved even more. When Doyle had finally gotten that full story from the sobbing, hysterical ‘widow,’ he made the guilt-sick decision to cover up the shooting and make it look like Jude killed himself. “In a way, he did.”
Jean-Marc was left speechless by the revelation. He barely registered Doyle’s “apology” and departure, but rather numbly waited till his mother returned home from another one of her draining shifts at the Vortex. When he confronted her with “the truth,” she tried to first deny it, but she quickly broke down and tearfully confirmed Doyle’s account. “I gave up everything to protect you—even if it meant I was no longer worthy of being your mother.” She hoped he would understand, finally understand all of her pain, her sacrifice, and her guilt—and finally, truly accept and forgive her.
He didn’t. Instead, he rejected her, disgusted and ashamed. Taking what little he owned, he ran away, and headed back ‘home’ to Cerise-Evangeline and his grand-mère. Confessing all that had happened (or at least all of Dinah’s sins), he begged Léa to take him back, to go back to the way things were when he was her “Bébé” and life made sense. As the elderly widow’s heart was similarly broken and yearning for those simpler years, she eagerly accepted him back. Back in Tremé, Dinah was devasted, but in her shame, she did not legally fight to regain her son, especially as her patron was happy to be rid of the troublesome youth.
When school began later that fall, Jean-Marc transferred to Marion Abramson High School, where he was reunited with his estranged best friend, Phật Tổ. Like Léa, the Vietnamese youth quickly accepted Jean-Marc back into his graces, especially since the still overweight, computer nerd didn’t really have any other friends. Jean-Marc’s reunion with Hoa was far more muted, but all involved were coolly civil, including Duc. And while New Orleans East was becoming a multiracial area with rising crime rates, Abramson High remained largely populated by working class Yat students that were a far cry tamer than the hardcore thugs of Clark High.
The next two years were relative bright, if still bruised, spots in Jean-Marc’s life. He largely excelled in his academic courses, graduating 8th in his class, with Phật Tổ as his class’ salutatorian (and would have been the valedictorian if he hadn’t been so lazy). At his best friend’s urgings, he joined the school’s AV club (of which Phật Tổ was president) as well as the school’s yearbook club and associated newspaper, The Commodore Chronicler (of which Jean-Marc became president-editor). During the summers of ’95 and ‘96, he resumed his Vovinam training under ‘Uncle’ Lê and worked alongside Phật Tổ as a paperboy, delivering the Times-Picayune to Cerise-Evangeline and the adjacent neighborhoods of Bonita Park, Melia, Donna Villa, Seabrook, Plum Orchard, and Village de L’Est. Otherwise, he stayed at home with his grandmother, or accompanied her on her increasingly rare public forays. With her failing eyesight, she often had Jean-Marc read to her from her collection of France-imported books. Still, the elderly woman went to bed early, which left Jean-Marc once again unsupervised as he spent almost all of his evenings and nights on the d’Léandrie’s Internet-connected computer. Those digital activities only increased when Phật Tổ convinced his extended family that he could build a computer—if they bought the parts—that would help the family’s nail salon and dojo.
For Prom, Phật Tổ went stag, but Jean-Marc used a good chunk of paperboy money to book a call girl as his “long-distance girlfriend,” wowing his best friend and classmates. At graduation, Phật Tổ, much to the audience’s chagrin, gave his salutatorian speech entirely in binary. Dinah watched Jean-Marc get his diploma, but she was not invited to the post-graduation celebration at Léa’s house. During that meagre party, which included more senior citizens than seniors, Jean-Marc and Phật Tổ compared the status of their college applications. Phật Tổ didn’t get into MIT, Harvard, or Princeton, but he was admitted to Berkley, Stanford, and NYU. Jean-Marc was accepted by Emerson, Northwestern, and NYU, but he was also given a significant scholarship to Loyola that would pay for his tuition and books (but not room and board), after winning a local essay competition. Notwithstanding, Jean-Marc was planning on going to NYU if he could persuade Phật Tổ join him over Stanford. He was doubly surprised and saddened when Phật Tổ told him he would not be attending college, “at least not this year,” as his family lacked the money and needed his digital expertise at home. Based on that revelation as well his grandmother’s ailing health, Jean-Marc decided to go to Loyola, with the plan to transfer to NYU as soon as Phật Tổ could join him.
In the fall of ’96, Jean-Marc joined the freshman class at Loyola, enrolling in its journalism major. Like so many of his peers, he dreamed of earning Pulitzer Prizes as well as lesser known accolades, such as the Bastiat Prize and Sydney Award. He joined and slowly worked his way up to become one of the lead writers for his university newspaper, The Maroon. He attended classes and parties, made and lost friends, had sex that he occasionally didn’t pay for, and further developed his digital social life, which allowed him to stay in close contact with Phật Tổ as well as his grandmother, though her progressive macular degeneration eventually limited their contact to his summer, spring, and winter breaks. Each year, Phật Tổ would claim he’d start college “not this year, but the next one for sure,” and eventually Jean-Marc simply stopped asking or talking about transferring to NYU.
During the spring of Jean-Marc’s senior year, the journalist major had to complete a professionally relevant internship. His connections at The Maroon helped him snag a prestigious internship at The Times-Picayune. There, he was paired with a mentor, a young rising star reporter by the name of Deborah Carriere. More than any other journalist, Deborah—or ‘Bee’ as she preferred to be called, in reference to her name’s prophetic etymology and defunct local newspaper, L’Abeille—helped shaped Jean-Marc’s investigative skills and journalistic worldview. Within a few weeks of their year-long partnership, he grew to idolize her—if not more. In turn, she came to view him as her protégé—if not more. During this time, they got tangled up in more ways than one, chasing after a story.
Story. That’s what they call the goddamned things. Stories. Not truths, not facts. God-fucking stories.
Bee—who may or may not have started a torrid ‘working’ affair with Jean-Marc, despite being his boss, not to mention a married woman with a kid—had a lead. With Jean-Marc’s help, they followed a diabolic trail of breadcrumbs. Like Hansel and Gretel, they eventually found what seemed like a sugar-sweet nest that secretly hid a child-eating monster. In their case, the monster was the dean of Loyola’s Joseph A. Butt College of Business.
Butt College of Business. That’s literally its fucking name. Hell, given its former dean, maybe it should have been called Butt-Fucking College of Business. Or maybe College of Business of Butt-Fucking? Hmm, file those away, maybe I can slap on a hastag and get it to trend.
The college dean, a locally esteemed widower and philanthropist, had long been using his dead wife’s money to pay for secret “companions.” Mostly male, mostly young. Real young. When interviewed—or more accurately backed into a corner and blackmailed to cough up the dirt—Christina Roberts had sworn that all of her supplied escorts to the dean had been of legal age, though “certain competitors may have had less scruples.”
Uh huh, sure, and the Lance of Longinus was a pogo stick.
However, Jean-Marc and Bee were not the only ones who had uncovered the dean’s dirty secrets. So had the Black Hand. Underboss Benedetto Giacona had become aware of the dean’s fetish, and then used his computer skills to hack into the dean’s kiddie porn archive. With that blackmail, he extorted the dean into admitting his dim-witted son, Dino, into Loyola on a full-ride scholarship for “cultural merit.” It had been Dino’s unlikely presence in Loyola that had first led Jean-Marc and his mentor to the story.
But like Hansel and Gretel, beasts gobbled up their trail. Namely, when Jean-Marc and his mentor tried to publish the article, they were stonewalled. When they threatened to leave The Times and post it online, or even go to the lowly tabloids if necessary, they soon became the ones threatened. Jean-Marc’s car suddenly started having nearly lethal mechanical problems, leaving him busted up and admitted to Charity Hospital for close to six weeks, during which time he missed his grandmother’s passing and later funeral to instead half-starve in a body cast with a temporary colostomy bag and catheter.
Hell, I think the fucking medical bills almost killed me more than the car crash—and likely would have had not Grand-mère left me everything in her will.
His mentor, meanwhile, was told in no uncertain times that if she tried to publish the story, that her affair with her intern would be made public, and she’d be guaranteed to lose custody of her child. That latter threat was what ultimately killed the story.
But who cares? After all, it was just a fucking story.
When Jean-Marc got out of the hospital, he found his name was worse than mud with The Times, and other reputable news outlets wouldn’t touch him. He had been blacklisted. His mentor and former lover refused to see him, and she had destroyed all the files, all the evidence they had collected. That betrayal had hurt him the most, even more than the mob’s death threats and being blacklisted. In a fit of anger, he tracked down her husband and told him all the sordid details of the affair. He didn’t even care when the cuckolded husband slugged him in the jaw. It was his first ‘hit’ of tabloid muckraking—and he liked it. Loved it.
Still, like all addicts, there were times he felt remorse, even guilt. Times when he questioned whether there wasn’t a better way. One of those times was in 2004 when he ran into his former mentor at a cafe. She was with her reconciled husband—and they seemed happy, genuinely happy. Disturbed by that revelation, he all but accidentally walked into a nearby Catholic church on Baronne Street. It was Pentecost, and the church was decked in liturgical red, while a host of babies were being baptized. The sight stoked some long-dormant seed of hope in humanity, maybe even faith in the divine. On a whim, he entered a confessional, where the priest helped him slowly ‘confess’ his story. When Jean-Marc was done, the priest told him that, to gain the solace and joy he was seeking, he needed to not only ask for forgiven to those he had wronged, but also to forgive those who had wronged him, including Dinah and Deborah, even if they remained impenitent. Particularly at that last injunction, he had balked.
He had stormed out of the confessional, accidentally tripping over a censor and an arrangement of red irises, which loudly interrupted an infant’s baptism. As the crowded church celebrants turned to regard the boorish intruder, Jean-Marc had felt mortified. Lashing out, he shouted at the family baptizing their infant:
“You’d better watch where that priest holds your baby, as I heard he’s really into the ‘laying on of hands’ with the little ones. Then again, maybe you should do the kid a favor and just dunk him under the water and leave him there. The rest of his life is just going to be one shit show after the next, ’till he learns that everything he loves and respects is fake, false, and fucked up!”
The church was instantly quiet, and stared at the venom-spewing man. Yet, to his surprise and horror, they did not chase him out of the church, nor shout back at him. Rather, they looked at him with pity—even kindness. An altar boy offered to help him up, but Jean-Marc pushed the kid away, only to run away in terror, issuing a stream of blasphemous curses and the bitter tears of the unrepentant.
After that fateful day, he never went back to that or any other church. And he never looked back. Instead, Jean-Marc only pushed forward with his sleazy tabloid journalism and infotainment, performing catch and kills for the famous and powerful, blackmailing, stealing, cheating, defaming, lying, and all other sordid sins. Yet, those sins helped him become one of the star reporters of The Tattler, one of the national tabloids recently absorbed by RED Network. He secured and sometimes ghostwrote exclusive tell-all “autobiographies” of death row convicts, serial killers, domestic terrorists, and the other most hated, yet enamoring dregs of society. He wrote blogs and editorials under pseudonyms, and sometimes even his own name, such as Acta Diurna. Along the way, he gained friends, or at least favors, as well as many enemies—with sometimes the boundaries between the two becoming blurred.
These included the Times’ editor, Jackson Kibbe. In person, the incorrigible gossips and flirts are semi-civil, even cattily affectionate—or intimate as some rumors have suggested. Yet, online, the pair are each other’s most vicious critic—and Jean-Marc takes great delight in counter-posting on whatever forum Axis makes a comment, regardless of the topic or position.
Similarly, Jean-Marc has long ago washed his hands of the Times, and they of him. But in the private world of the dark web, Jean-Marc frequently converses with Slim Ray. Beyond the Landry’s and d’Léandrie’s being distally related, the tabloid journalist’s forays into darknet territories has led to more than one interaction with the Stanford-trained data analyst and gray hat.
Otherwise, Jean-Marc stays away from the Times and its staff, but otherwise has significant connections with NOLA’s other media outlets, including The Gambit, Olive and Blue, Tulane Hullabaloo, Louisiana Weekly, McKenna Publishing Company, and the New Orleans Levee. Outside of digital and physical print media, he has ties to national TV networks as well as local TV outlets, including a parasitically symbiotic relationship with Isaiah White. Moreover, his social contacts extend well beyond traditional media and other journalists, but cover the entire spectrum of local and state communities, from high society professional athletes, movie starlets, and politicians to criminal lowlifes, taxi cab drivers, and garbage kingpins.
Apart from these professional contacts, Jean-Marc has few close friends. Not counting darknet chat avatars, his closest friend still remains Phật Tổ, although these days, most of their communication is done on a darknet forum that uses custom software they mutually invented. Phật Tổ still lives in Village de L’Est, with the rest of the extended Lê family. Uncle Lê still runs his dojo, though most classes are now taught by Nguyễn Duc. Jean-Marc occasionally attends, much like a lapsed Catholic who pops up for a few weeks around Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Some months he trains more regularly, typically whenever he has a temporary paramour who thinks doing martial arts together will be “straight fire,” “fleeky,” or “adorbs.” Duc and Phật Tổ have since become allies, or at least professional partners, as Duc is an influential enforcer for the Triad’s presence in New Orleans, and Phật Tổ helps to launder a lot of the Triad’s money through his local cash advance business, cryptocurrency, and cyber-pirating operations of bootleg blockbuster movies that are sold physically in New Orleans’ slums.
Hoa ended up marrying into the local Trần family, specifically to a balding, money-obsessed man who fancies himself the king of New Orleans’ dry cleaners and laundromats. Years of heavy exposure to harsh detergents have not been kind to Hoa, but she remains a bookworm. When Jean-Marc is feeling particularly charitable, he drops off a new or rare book to her. When he isn’t, he drops off his dry cleaning.
Time has similarly changed his relationship with Dinah. She still works at the Vortex, though the middle-aged woman is now a bartender versus cage dancer. Jean-Marc has made amends, if not peace, with his mother—but mostly because he wanted to be allowed into the Vortex and other local nightclubs, where many of his informants frequent. As part of that ‘entente,’ he lets Dinah stay in their mutual childhood home in Cerise-Evangeline, as Léa willed it to him. Technically, he still owns the property, but he pats himself on the back for not charging his mother rent—though he does expect her to pay her own utility bills. Occasionally, she calls him for money. Some of the times, she actually needs it, but most of the time, it’s just an excuse to have lunch or dinner with her son and sometimes his newest paramour. It’s a pretty flimsy relationship, but it’s honestly better than what they’ve had for most of their past.
He still keeps in contact with Doyle—now a captain of the 1st District. Sometimes, they catch a game and a few drinks together at a local pub. Unlike most of his other contacts, Doyle has routinely invited the tabloid journalist into his home. He’s frankly eaten more Thanksgiving dinners with the Doyle family than with his own mother, and he’s friends with Doyle’s adult children, or as much friends as the muckraker is with anyone. They still trade information and favors, such as Doyle’s divulging information on the gangbanger responsible for Jim’s death. But most of the time, it’s as if Doyle simply wants to know that Jean-Marc was a baby worth saving, that Jude’s death was an acceptable trade-off.
In contrast, he has absolutely zero direct communication with Deborah. He knows she still works at the Times, and she could not help but know about his own professional ‘accomplishments’. During the rare press meetings where both of them are present, neither talks to each other, and the one time that it seemed like Deborah was about to try, Jean-Marc all but ran away. Notwithstanding, he follows her regularly online, reading not only every one of her articles, but also all of her social posts. He knows it’s not healthy, but there’s a sliver of masochism he enjoys by looking at her Instagram posts of her and her family, or Facebook posts she exchanges with her husband.
His non-digital dating relationships come and go like New Orleans’ rains. Sometimes slow, other times hot and fast, but they all eventually go down the drain. The closest thing he has to a long-term relationship are his ‘dates’ with Leslie St. George. When he’s feeling particularly honest with himself, he’ll admit that he loves her—or loves her as much as any man can love a woman that he pays to have sex with. Sometimes, that love is almost brotherly. After all, both were technically Mary’s foster children. He’s even floated the concept of coming to Mary’s Sunday family meals. Sometimes, their ‘dates’ don’t even include sex, just casual shopping. He typically asks her opinion on any new decorations, wardrobe additions, or even potential new paramours. He always hopes that she’ll become offended about the last, but she never does. Instead, her advice always seems to have his best interests at heart, as if she’s concerned about him getting his heart broken, or being with someone who won’t appreciate him.
Meanwhile, he still nurses his bouts of jealousy. He frequently stalks her—digitally, and wavers between wanting to know nothing and absolutely everything about her other ‘dates.’ Sometimes, he mixes business with pleasure, trading high society information and gossip about their respective circles. Other times, she reminds him that “it’s all business,” which leaves him wondering how much money it would take to truly “buy versus rent” her. He would ask her, but he’s afraid she would say an amount he could never afford, or worse, that no amount would ever suffice. And then there are the times—well after the business of pleasure has finished—that she decides to stay in his bed and sleep off whatever expensive wine they were drinking or falls asleep watching a foreign French film with him on his couch. Then, as she snores quietly as a porcelet, he gently caresses the small of her back and tells her that he loves her—and she smiles, mid-sleep. Those are truly the best and worst times, as he wonders whether she might actually love him back.
But isn’t it always the most beautiful lies that damn us the worst?