“Ready to claim your golden ticket into Hell? You’ve already been paying the fare, after all.”
Wednesday night, 16 September 2015, AM
Caroline: The first sign that something is amiss doesn’t quite register. The type of thing Lou notices out of the corner of his eye and catalogs by habit, but doesn’t immediately set off red flags. The dumpster in the alley is full. Almost overflowing in fact, with big black industrial bags. The second sign however jumps out like a jungle cat in the night—the suburban parked at the end of the street. Black tinted windows. No front plate. It’s just too conspicuously out of place in the run-down neighborhood. Too clean.
Then there’s the smell. Or, the lack of smell as he steps out onto his floor. It doesn’t smell like home. That is to say, of rotting food and human filth. Finally, there’s the coat hanging on the hook by his door. Black. Expensive. Female.
That hook wasn’t there this morning.
Louis: The old man’s mind and heart are still addled, but not so addled as to miss so many damnable clues. He man stares at the coat. He notes its exceptional length as if it’s still reaching for the legs that once graced it. He sees a single strand of hair on its otherwise immaculate sable. It’s blonde. Blonde as hell.
Lou’s face grows tight like he’s just been slapped. He’s not sure whether to grab his gun or his key. He’s not sure whether either will do him any good.
He settles for running his shovel-wide hand through his dishwater-gray hair, adjusting his hat and making a pitiful attempt at straightening his tie. The best trouble always looks good from the outside, he reminds himself as he enters, breath half-held.
Caroline: The door opens without his key—someone kindly unlocked it—to reveal a scene like that out of a nightmare.
Floors scrubbed viciously clean, down to bare wood. Excess furniture gone, probably never to be seen again. Magazines, newspapers, and accumulated filth of ages callously removed from their imperfect order. His desk arranged, his shelves filled with various long-buried knickknacks of ages past dug from their unholy graves and lined up in little neat rows. There’s even a pair of freshly laundered suits hanging on a rack. The smell is indescribable, a mix that includes the faint hint of cleaning supplies buried under fresh lavender. There’s not a hint of vomit, trash, or bodily odor. It actually smells… pleasant.
Worst of all, sitting in a neat little metal folding chair in the middle of the scene, like a spider in her web, is the likely architect of this atrocity.
Legs that go on for miles, made all the more noticeable by the four-inch heels that barely sheathe her feet, more sandal than shoe. Pale skin that never saw a ray of sunshine it liked. Tasteful understated jewelry that gets the point across: she’s richer than you. And that dress. That form-hugging dress that shows off every curve. Toned shoulders, a trim waist, graceful collarbones. The curve of her leg pressed against the fabric. The low cut that shows nothing, but tempts everything. And that tiny white gold crucifix, small and understated, nestled between her breasts on a threadlike chain. It matches her hair, pinned back and away, but even paler than her perfect skin. Green eyes rise to meet him.
“Good evening, Lou.”
She holds a phone in one hand and a clutch in the other, and rises gracefully when he enters.
Louis: Lou’s expression turns apoplectic. Not the kind stemming from indigent anger, but the stroke kind.
Caroline: “I hope you don’t mind. I brought my own chair, well, had Carla bring it earlier. I remember the state of yours last time. Though that seems to have taken a turn for the better.”
Louis: The old gumshoe stammers, “I-I… y-you… my… my… you… I-I…”
Caroline: “Oh, me? No.” She shakes her head, that perfect hair not moving. “That’s not really thing.”
Louis: His bourbon eyes focus and unfocus, blink and unblink as if to make the phantasmagoric vision vanish.
Caroline: “Did it once cleaning up after… well. I think you know.” There’s a flash of shame across her face.
Louis: The admission seems to give Lou back the faintest hint of footing.
Caroline: “It does make me appreciate the effort that it takes though to do something like this. She really doesn’t charge enough for what she does.”
Louis: “I need a drink,” Lou finally speaks, his gums and tongue suddenly all-too dry. And it’s not just his mouth. It’s in his veins, his marrow. The need.
Caroline: “By all means.” She gestures to his desk, where a pair of old glasses sit. There’s also a bottle of Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, USA. Sitting beside it.
What’s in one of the glasses might be more interesting however. The clear plastic vial with a blue screw on cap laying, peeking out the top, holds a liquid that is red and syrupy. Too red.
Louis: The sight of the sanguine ichor stops Lou in his tracks like a coronary. He tries not to look at it, like a Greek tragedy of a man battling the medusa and doomed to lose.
Caroline: She grins. “No living were harmed in the acquisition of that vitae. Well, unwillingly harmed. They were busy staining their souls all over me with their debauchery, but everyone walked away, and with smiles at that.”
Louis: Lou doesn’t answer at first. His tongue is too busy being hellishly hot and dry. He turns his back on the vial and the blonde devil beside it, then grabs the bottle of whiskey and takes a long, slow swig.
Caroline: “Honestly, Lou, there’s a glass for a reason. As shocked as I was that she was able to find two without chips or cracks.”
Louis: “Glasses are for sharing or sparing,” the PI says rather lamely as the hit of bourbon punches his throat. “I don’t think either are on the table tonight.”
Caroline: “Better to spare the rod than the bottle, I guess?”
Louis: The last words slip from his lips like confessions, his eyes glancing back like Lot’s wife at the vial and the fiend.
Mixing up metaphors, old man, Lou chides himself. Mixing up everything.
He takes the bottle from his lips but not his hand. He knows better to ask after his things, the boxes, to totally play all his hands. He’ll go dumpster diving later if need be. It wouldn’t be his first.
Caroline: “I suppose not.” Heels click on the hardwood floor as she advances on him, an ivory-smooth limb reaching across his body for the bottle. “But spare me the drunk routine for now.”
Louis: Lou lets go of the bottle. He looks her in the eye for the first time. His voice is like rough gravel, but it’s no longer shaking.
“Some masks, if worn too long, cease to become masks.”
Caroline: “Should I feel sorry for you, Lou? You make your own prison here. You carve your own fetish masks, just like those witch doctors in the Ninth Ward, and you don it just as eagerly.”
Louis: “Who says I was talking about myself,” he retorts, not quite with anger, but sadness. Regret. Bitterness. He takes off his hat, his trench and throws them over his desk.
Caroline: She rolls her eyes and snatches up the coat. Carries it, and the hat over to the same rack where the fresh suits wait. Intentionally looking away? It’s hard to say.
Louis: Lou starts to protest, but instead uses the opportunity to stash the bewitching vial in the desk drawer. There are ugly truths that neither want to show or be shown.
Caroline: When she turns back her expression is grim. “And what’s my mask. Tell me, run your story of who I am and what I’ve become like they run their cons on tourists in the Vieux Carré.”
Louis: Lou doesn’t answer. Instead, he slings his gator-skin briefcase on ‘his’ desk, and begins to take out a bunch of papers spreading them over the surface as if he can only reclaim the space by cluttering it.
“Speaking of con artists in the Vieux Carré,” Lou finally says, “I’ve found your old man.”
Caroline: The look on her face says she doesn’t want to let the last topic go, but she slowly bites her inner lip, a gesture too small for most to notice, and the tension bleeds away.
“Did you now? Is he hiding under a rock with the rest of the snakes?”
Louis: Lou sits down, his old joints weary but newborn compared to his soul. Fortunately, the booze–and now hidden vitae–help both. In the short-run at least. Lou looks up at the inhuman monster parading in beauty and asks, “Ready to claim your golden ticket into hell? You’ve already been paying the fare, after all.”
Caroline: “We both know I’ve had that ticket my pocket since I woke up. The only question is when the park opens.” There’s bitterness in her voice.
Louis: “And when it closes,” Lou adds with an equal measure.
Caroline: “I didn’t ask for this, and I don’t want it.” Her voice cuts high at the end. “But I suspect that you as well as anyone in this cesspool understand that I’m not eager to show up to Disneyland early.” Is that an edge of fear in her voice?
Louis: Lou sighs. She’s made her choice. And so have you—God damn us both for it. He shifts in ‘his’ chair, grimacing as its unfamiliar contours press against his bent spine and sore muscles.
Caroline: “You had your chance.”
Louis: Lou fingers his own cross necklace beneath his shirt, then grunts. “Well, I’d offer you a smoke, a drink, and a chair, but under the… circumstances…” He waves his hook at Caroline’s chair.
Caroline: She huffs, a too-human action, and slowly settles back into her own chair as she puts her own composure back together. “I know you meant well.”
Louis: Lou shrugs again, as if trying to dislodge the compliment–or blame.
Caroline: “You saw I was alone, and afraid, and weak, and you thought you could save me before I did something terrible. Before I became a monster.”
Louis: Lou doesn’t look at her as he replies, “I know you didn’t ask for this. And that counts for something. You’ve been used badly, like a dictionary in a stupid family.”
Caroline: “But that was never an option. There’s no saving us. We’re monsters long before that first bit of vitae touches our tongue. The only question is what kind of monster we’re going to be before we all go down to burn together.”
Louis: Lou looks up, this time his face having an expression of not just surprise but curiosity. Like a man looking at a barrel and wondering what kind of bullet is loaded therein. “And what’s that?”
Caroline: “There’s no afterlife waiting for me, Lou. There never was. There’s not a life anymore either. He snuffed that out like a candle in the dark. But… as awful as this is, it doesn’t have to be all bad. It doesn’t have to be all claws and teeth, all pain and violence, all suffering and making them to suffer in turn.”
Louis: Lou doesn’t argue, doesn’t even speak, but his brow raises slightly as if in objection or confusion. He lets the unspoken questions and disagreement hang in the air like a noose. Death is patient, after all.
Caroline: “Maybe I can carve out something. If I can get past this business. Do some good to offset all the bad. Find some joy to offset all the sadness.” There’s something there, something she’s not quite disclosing. “It’s not a life. I’m not alive. But it’s all I have left. All he left me with.”
Louis: Lou regards the contents of his briefcase like the dealt tarot hand. He can’t help but notice an actual bent major arcana card sitting on the top. The Fool.
He feels the words slip through his lips like wet sand. “Your murderer should be brought to justice. You deserve that much and a whole lot more.”
He picks up a file. “What do you think they’ll do to him?”
Caroline: She looks up, crosses her legs, and leans back.
“That’s the question, isn’t it? All of this. Where does it come from and where does it go? The why of it. That first night you said you didn’t think it was coincidence. I’m beginning to think you’re not just a paranoid old man. I think you’re a paranoid old man that, just like a broken clock, is right twice a day.”
Louis: Lou seemingly accepts the complimentary abuse by picking up a glass and extending it, as if asking Caroline to fill it up.
“Let’s not lay the flattery on too thick, Ms. Malveaux. Otherwise, I might think you’re trying to hoodwink me.”
Caroline: “We can fence all night if you’d like, Mr. Fontaine. Dance on down to the Dueling Oak you know better than I. But perhaps another night would be better timing? How about for tonight you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”
Louis: Lou spares a glance at his empty glass and sighs in resignation.
“As I said. I’ve found the address were he’s hiding from his sun-tan appointment. And I want to help see him brought to justice. Our original contract was for me to find him, and so after I give you this address, our business is officially resolved–unless you want otherwise.”
Caroline: “I think we’re a bit beyond contracts.”
Louis: He waves a hand. “Informally. Also, you’re going to need help to bring him down.”
Caroline: “More than you know. The address. Anything else on your end?”
Louis: It’s hard to tell whether Lou’s face knowingly smirks or winces at Caroline’s first remark. He then turns back to his file, flicking it open.
“A little more.”
Caroline: She gestures with one smooth hand. “By all means, then, continue.”
Louis: He relates how he followed ‘Chester’ back, found and intercepted his message, and subsequently made circuitous contact with her sire–all the while tracking down his daytime home address in a certain rough neighborhood without being detected to his knowledge.
Caroline: “Well, I suppose that does explain why you were so busy you couldn’t write.” There’s a bit of a smug smile on her face, like the cat that ate the canary.
Louis: “Enough to pay the bills,” Lou shrugs.
Caroline: She arches an eyebrow. “Some more than others? My turn I guess. I have his elder ghoul cuffed up. And my oh my, the things he said.”
Louis: Lou can’t help but nodding, clearly impressed. “Kelford’s quite a catch, Ms. Malveaux.”
Caroline: “Someone was holding back,” she murmurs.
Louis: “I’m assuming he didn’t cough up René’s bedroom, otherwise I don’t think this”, he waves at the room and her, “would be happening here and now.”
Caroline: “Sadly not, but he had some interesting things to say. Before I begin though, why do you think he did it? My dear daddy, that is?”
Louis: Lou looks down at his still empty glass. “Hell if I know.”
Caroline: “And why leave me to wake up? To make a mess and almost certainly be found?”
Louis: “Conjecture’s cheap and common, but truth is rare and has the sticker tag to match.”
Caroline: “Why drug my best friend that night, knowing, perhaps that she’d reach out to my family and spark a manhunt?”
Louis: Lou looks down again, then adds, “You want me to pour you some of the former for free, or help you get your hands on the latter?”
Caroline: “I want him held down, helpless, so I can ask him in person why he did it. I want to go back in time and undo it, to live again. I want a great many things. But I’ll settle for a running theory.”
Louis: Lou sucks his gums, considering more than a few spinning plates.
“This truth might come back to bite, but this one’s lagniappe. If you want the truth, you will have to wrangle it from him yourself—before the rest of your kind get their claws in him. The prince’s people can make what you did to poor ‘Chester’ seem like a simple Sunday luncheon chat.”
“And if the truth shall set you free, your kind play its gaoler like flies on five-day fish.”
“But you wanted conjecture,” he remarks as he scratches his chin.
Caroline: “There’s only one reason that jumps immediately to mind.” Those eyes. Hard. Harder than they were a week ago.
Louis: “Only one? I’d say your mind’s not jumping high enough, Ms. Malveaux,” Lou says with a snort that’s more tired than condescending.
Caroline: “Regale me, old man.”
Louis: He runs a hand though his hair.
“Here’s just a few from the small plates menu. Maybe one faction is playing the other, trying to hustle and create bad ‘blood’ between your rich, powerful family and the ancilla who claims them as prized pawns. Or maybe it’s nothing so strategic but was an act of poisoned passion. He could have seen you, been totally ignorant of your name and birthright, just seen your beauty and been swallowed up with lust and terrible loneliness. Or maybe neither you nor your family have anything to do with it all, that you were chosen more at random. After all, he’s sleeping with Setites, and it could have been some debauched initiation rite. Take your pick. There’s plenty more where they came from. But it’s like trying to read the newspaper once it’s been recycled into toilet paper.”
And at this point, the paper’s been used, he adds silently to himself.
Caroline: “Interesting theories,” Caroline replies, tight-lipped. “Let me fill in some blanks on that paper for you though, old man.”
Louis: Lou twirls his hook as if to say, ‘by all means’. “But first, how about you fill my goddamned glass?”
GM: A ringing phone sounds from Caroline’s clutch bag.
Louis: Lou doesn’t quite slam down his empty tumbler in disappointment, but he can’t quite chuckle with chagrin either. Your luck’s shit, old man.
Caroline: The Ventrue picks up.
GM: Choked, ragged breathing sounds in her ear. “Caro… line…?” It’s a man’s voice. High-pitched and scared. It was slurred only a few nights ago. First from sleep, then drink.
Her brother gulps.
“There’s… a guy… got a gun to my head… he says… you’ve got ten minutes to drive to… the Dungeon, or…” Westley laughs. There’s not a trace of humor in the sound. “He’ll… ‘throw me to the lowest circle.’”
Caroline: Caroline’s never noticed how inconvenient breathing is until she no longer has to. Until that tightness in her chest that comes with a moment of panic and anxiety is no longer suffocating.
Louis: Lou’s now-free hand drifts to his briefcase. Otherwise, he listens, watches, and waits. He may be playing this round, but these aren’t his cards.
Caroline: Still, other signs are evident of her distress. Her knuckles go even more bone white than her skin as she clenches her free hand into a fist and grips the phone too tightly. That free hand snakes out to Lou’s desk and snatches a pen—a big black sharpie—from the neatly arranged cup full of its fellows. She rips off the top and writes in big black letters for the ghoul:
Brother. Hostage. The Dungeon. 10 Minutes. The last bit is circled, but she’s not silent even as she waits for Lou’s response.
“Put him on the phone, Westley.” Her voice is so steady it might be mistaken for calm, but her brother knows her too well. This isn’t her calm voice. It’s her furious one.
GM: Her brother gives another broken, half-sobbed laugh.
“He says… if you don’t come… you’re just like all the rest of them… and you… deserve what he did…”
Louis: Lou reads over the note, his own facial expression as flat and joyless as dirty dishwater. He pens a written response next to Caroline’s question mark.
BDSM club. Your kind. He underlines the last phrase.
Caroline: “Tell Trayvon, or Brock, or Ashlyn, or Nicloas, or whatever fuckboy toy it is to get on the phone,” she snarls.
Father Malveaux? she circles. His domain.
GM: “It’s… I don’t… it’s him, Caroline…”
Caroline: She draws an arrow at his confusion to brother and writes, call in?
GM: “He… says… talk all you like, but the clock…”
Louis: Lou silently taps her written query and nods. It’s a slow deliberate nod. A heavy gesture with likely heavy consequences. He flips out his new burner and sends a text to Chica.
Party in the Quarter. I’ve got the red cups. Swing by my place, bring your dancing shoes.
To the ignorant voyeur, the missive seems harmless, even obnoxiously mundane. Yet, between the long-time allies, the text has another, far less quotidian, meaning.
GM: It’s only a moment before Lou gets a barely legible text back.
im tere. no drink ima kik yor wrnkly ass 2 nex week
Caroline: “Put him on the fucking phone, Westley!” Caroline snaps.
GM: There’s a gurgle on the other end.
“He’s… not… says only through me… says… nine minutes now…”
Caroline: “Of course he does. He’s as much a coward tonight as he was that night.”
GM: Westley manically sobs over the line.
“Caroline, what’s… why’s this happening…”
Caroline: Her face contorts in fury, grief, shame, and perhaps most of all frustration, and red rings her emerald eyes. Silence reigns on the line for a moment before she composes her face with great effort.
“Because we deserve it.” The words are bitter. Dark. Torn.
“I’m sorry, Westley. I’m sorry, Wes.” She swallows and shoves iron down her throat. “Tell that monster I’m coming for him.” She swipes ‘end’ on the call.
And not a moment too soon, as the ragged sound that rips its way from her throat can best be described as a scream. She buries her face in one hand and drops the phone, visibly fighting for control of herself in a way Lou can only imagine, but also recognizes so well.
Louis: Lou’s hand relaxes, but does not withdraw from his gator-case.
Caroline: “He’s going to torture him, and then he’s going to kill him.” It’s as much a question as a declaration. “And I can’t stop it. I just murdered my brother.”
Louis: Lou’s face doesn’t harden as much as it sharpens with hard-won scars. “No. That guilt isn’t at your feet.”
Caroline: “Isn’t it? I could surrender to him. Beg him to let Wes go. I could have let them take me yesterday. I could have offered to trade him his ghoul back for Westley. But I’m too fucking selfish for that.” An unnatural sob wracks her slim form, habit rather than actual anatomical need.
Louis: Lou doesn’t argue. He’s had this conversation too many times with too many people, including his own reflection. He’s never found the right answers.
Maybe because they don’t exist.
Caroline: She lets out a long breath, fighting for her composure again, and finally manages to get control of her breathing. “All right.”
She looks up and blinks away what might have been tears. “I need to call Father Malveaux. And we need to figure out what we’re going to do next. Before he hurts someone else. Someone that doesn’t deserve it.”
Louis: Lou nods again. “Make the call. First.”
Caroline: “I don’t actually have a direct line to him.” She scrolls through her contacts and settles on Wright. “This should be a fun conversation.”
She presses the send key even as she rises to her feet. She always feels better when she can pace on the phone with the belligerent hound.
GM: The phone rings several times. Then it answers:
Caroline: The word is so coldly impersonal, wrapped in her grief, that it burns.
“Thought you should know, he abducted someone out of the Central Business District tonight. One of Father Malveaux’s. I was hoping you might have a line so I could give him the details.”
GM: “Hold the fuck up,” Wright preempts. “One of Father Malveaux’s whats? Ghouls?”
Caroline: “One of the mortals he claims as his domain.”
GM: “An’ how you find that out when you think he hasn’t?”
Caroline: “Because he called me.”
Louis: Lou, meanwhile, begins his own preparations. It begins with reaching for the pistol grip of his sawed-off shotgun and loading rock salt shells like a metronome.
GM: “Girl, Father Malveaux’s domain or not, when your sire calls you up t’ say ‘hey, how’s it hangin’! that’s somethin’ you tell us. Les’ hear it all.”
Caroline: “Show up at the Dungeon in,” she checks her phone, “nine minutes, or René hands him over to the lowest circle.”
GM: “I ain’t showin’ up to your mama’s goddamn fuckpad,” Wright snaps. “I said hold the fuck up, girl. ‘Splain what happened, A t’ Z.”
Caroline: “It’s my brother.” She bites her tongue so hard that it bleeds. “René made him call and deliver the ultimatum. Show up at the Dungeon or René will hand him over to the lowest circle. That’s all I got. A phone call.”
GM: Wright grunts. “Okay. Hold a mo’. I’m passin’ this on t’ the father—an’ Donovan—then I got more Q’s f’ you.”
Caroline: She forces herself to look down, try to remain calm, even as she feels the precious seconds tick away in Westley’s life.
GM: The old-fashioned analog clock she bought for Lou’s office ticks. Eight minutes left.
Caroline: The longest minute of her life.
GM: More time ticks by. Seven minutes left.
Louis: Lou finishes his preparations, stowing both the shotgun and various other implements into his briefcase before shutting it. The click of its locks echo in the otherwise too-still office. The old man rises.
Caroline: Caroline paces like a trapped animal, her movements too swift and graceful to be human.
GM: The numbers on her smartphone change. Six minutes left.
Caroline: How far is it, really? Can she even make it there in time? Caroline isn’t quite sure how fast she actually is when push comes to shove. Even as those thoughts bore their way into her mind, however, her rational reptile mind cuts them to ribbons. Get there and do what? Watch him get tortured?
Louis: Lou steps out from behind the desk and interrupts Caroline’s tortured thoughts. He doesn’t try to comfort her. He doesn’t have any comforts. But he does try to give her knowledge, even if the truth is often more painful than silence.
“Mother Iyazebel. She’s an ancient elder. The Dungeon’s hers.” He looks around at the place that was formerly his office. “It’s time to go, Ms. Malveaux.”
Caroline: “And do what?” she snaps back. “Barge in guns blazing?”
Louis: Lou shakes his head. “You need to go get in that shiny black SUV and be ready for that phone call. Me? I’ve got a gas bill to take care of.”
Caroline: She looks at him, stares really, then at the bag in his hand. “Am I going to see you again?”
Louis: Lou slides on his fedora and tips the brim. His watery-bourbon eyes regard her solemnly. Her tries to put on a smile for her, but the expression doesn’t fit his face.
“If anything goes wrong, your trouble comes hard, and it doesn’t do any good to sing the blues, because down here, you’re just another guy in the chorus.”
He then walks to the door, suitcase in hand, bullet-shaped thermos swinging from his hook. He turns back to regard her one last time, his face caught in the shadows of trench’s collar.
“For what it’s worth, doll-face, I don’t want to die. But if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
The door shuts, and frames his figure for one fleeting moment in bleary glass, a gray shadow against black.