Thursday afternoon, 25 February 2016
Jean-Marc: 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…”
Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood & Bourbon
Jean-Marc I, Prologue II
Thursday afternoon, 25 February 2016