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Blood & Bourbon

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Amelie I, Chapter VIII

Cruel Truths

“You think he has it in him to kill Kristina?”
“Everyone has that in them. It’s only a question of what draws it out.”

Christina Roberts to Jill d’Agostino

Wednesday morning, 26 August 2015

GM: The next day’s classes pass by. Ms. Perry gives a very enthusiastic lesson on the Lafitte brothers, who she laughingly admits to finding, “Such bad boys! The baddest of the bad—after that scoundrel John Law.” Yvette and several other students tease her goodnaturedly for her “crush.” Amelie may be particularly interested to hear about the less famous Pierre Lafitte, who was a blacksmith. Ms. Perry even touches on “their watering hole,” Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop & Bar in the French Quarter. It’s reported to be haunted by ghosts—like countless other buildings in the Vieux Carré.

Amelie: Amelie doesn’t display the kind of interest someone might expect over one of the Lafitte men being a blacksmith. There were still hundreds of artisans like that in those times and they were nothing special. It’s the rest of the brothers’ story that’s fascinated with. Like usual, she regularly puts her hand up to ask questions and add tidbits of her own.

GM: Ms. Perry has Amelie stay after class ends and mentions that she called Yvette’s mother. Mrs. Devillers was very grateful for the warning and said she would have a bodyguard escort her daughter to the LaLaurie House, “Just in case.”

Amelie: It puts Amelie at ease to hear there’ll be a bodyguard, but not by too much. At least Yvette’s mom knows the place is dangerous in case anything happens to the girls. All Amelie has to do now is clear whether Rachel can come along and focus on protecting them during the night.

GM: The history teacher also says that she hopes Amelie’s talk with Mrs. Achord was “useful to you,” although she does not press for further details.

Amelie: Amelie tentatively nods along and makes an off-handed comment that the focus on the imminent school dance made her worry about the therapists’ opinion of her. All in all, though, it was good to talk to someone in more detail.

“It seems eyes are on me for this dance, so I’ll be going. I already have a dress I can wear, as well.”

GM: Ms. Perry waves off Amelie’s initial concerns about the school psychologist’s opinion, adding, “You see a therapist for yourself, not for them. Don’t worry about what she thinks.” The young history teacher also expresses how glad she is to hear that Amelie is going to the school dance. She’ll be attending herself, too. “As a chaperone,” she smirks. “Gotta keep the boys from getting too fresh after you dazzle them in your dress.”

Amelie: “I went to a public school. And worked at a tourist attraction for geeky out of shape boys and men who sweat in armor they’re strapped into for five hours. You don’t have to worry about me,” Amelie laughs.

Wednesday evening, 26 August 2015

GM: Amelie’s aunt mentions during dinner that, “I’m having a friend over for dinner tomorrow. You’re welcome to either join us or go treat yourself at one of the city’s restaurants, as you’d prefer.”

Amelie: Amelie expresses a bit of surprise, and more interest, at the mention of one of her aunt’s friends. “I think I’d like to stay, if you don’t mind. I’m curious to see one of your friends. I’ve only ever met your assistant.”

GM: “Her name is Jill. But all, right we’ll be having a late dinner at 8:30.”

Amelie: “That’s just fine. I’ll move my study time to earlier, then. I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

Thursday morning, 27 August 2015

GM: The next day at Ms. Perry’s class, Yvette nods agreeably when Amelie mentions having a friend she wants to bring along.

“Ah ’ave another class with Rachel, Ballroom Dance. She should be fine.”

Thursday noon, 27 August 2015

GM: At lunch, Rachel is quite happy over Amelie’s news that she can come to the slumber party. The new student appears to have scored some major points with her circle of friends as Rachel asks, “Would it be okay if all of us came? Do you guys want to?”

“This is on Friday, right?” Megan asks. “Let me get back on that, I might have a family thing going on.”

Hannah thinks a moment. “I think I could swing it. Night in a haunted house sounds pretty fun.”

“If we don’t get murdered in our sleeping bags,” Rachel cheerily adds. “I’d say ‘murdered in our beds’, but the house probably doesn’t have any.”

“Poor us,” Hannah remarks between a forkful of salad.

Amelie: Amelie is still anxious over the visit, but she keeps her feelings to herself and simply plans how to get them through it all. She’s already found the house’s floor plans online and familiarized herself with its layout and escape routes. There’s even going to be a bodyguard now, although Amelie can’t say whether they’ll be a help or harm.

It’s a spirit-raiser to hear the other girls get so excited, though, so Amelie just smiles and nods. “I’ll have to ask Yvette, but I don’t think she’ll have issues with any of you. It’ll be more fun with so many people. I dunno if they have beds or anything, but I bet the house is ready for show at least. So we won’t be choking on dust bunnies.”

GM: “Great!” Rachel smiles at Amelie’s assent. “I call dibs on the room where they found the murdered guy covered in his own crap.”

Amelie: “I think that room was made into a larger room when it was converted back to one big mansion for that actor guy.”

GM: “Yeah, that actor,” Hannah says. “Whatshisname, wasn’t there a meme that he was dead?”

“Rick Towers,” Megan fills in. “I thought he was dead. Alcohol poisoning?”

“Well dead or alive, he’s not going anywhere.” Rachel. “He had this insane pyramid built at St. Louis for his grave.”

“So, what, he thinks he’s a pharaoh?” Hannah snorts. “Celebrities.”

“He’s not even dead yet and there’s already this tradition springing up around it.” Rachel. “Girls are leaving lipstick kisses all over the grave. Well, pyramid.”

Megan frowns. “My grandma wouldn’t like that. Those old cemeteries… they don’t have a lot of room. He’d probably have to get rid of a bunch of other graves for his pyramid.” Her frown deepens. “I don’t think I like that. I mean, I’m glad he likes the city and all, but he isn’t from here. He shouldn’t get to come in and wave his Hollywood money to tear up that old cemetery.”

Hannah looks up from her phone. “Sounds like the curse got him. He got hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, then his wife divorced him. And he’s pretty deep in debt too.”

Amelie: Amelie nods along. She knows the actor and has seen all the cheese he’s vomited out over his manic career.

“Wonder why he took such an interest in New Orleans. Or if the bank will repossess his grave. But I have to agree, it’s pretty disgusting to take up so much room, having a place with land you can’t bury people in sounds so strange. I’d already decided I wanted to be buried in one of those tree pods. Do you think he left a national treasure or something before he vacated the house?”

GM: “Guy was broke. He probably grabbed anything that wasn’t nailed down.” Hannah.

“Tree pods?” Meg asks.

Amelie: “Crazy as he was, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hid fossils under the floor boards. And yeah, they’re these little biodegradable graves, they bury you, and your body gives nutrients to grow a tree. No grave, just a tree. I thought it sounded romantic.”

GM: “Huh. I could go for that. Sounds better than biodegradable coffins.” Hannah.

“Yeah, it does. I wanna be buried at Lafayette though. Well, not buried, you know what I mean. But all my family has plots there.” Megan.

“Same. Literally. Same cemetery.” Rachel. “Maybe we’ll be neighbors.”

“That’s kinda creepy and comforting at the same time.” Megan.

“Wanna write our wills together then, in case we all die at the LaLaurie House?” Rachel suggests with a smile that might or might not be joking. “Or maybe we could just write them there.”

“Okay, that’s only creepy. Writing your will in a haunted house.” Megan.

Amelie: Amelie chuckles at the exchange and adds, “Who knows what infernal otherworldly powers might make us write a contract to sell our very souls without us knowing.”

GM: Amelie’s phraseology draws second looks from Megan and Rachel.

“Writing your will is kind of a contract though. It’s really acknowledging you’ll die,” Hannah says thoughtfully. “So writing ours in the house would be saying, if you think about it… that we’re signing our lives over to the house. That we know we’re going to die in there.”

Megan looks even more discomfited than before.

Hannah adds, “Well, uh, hopefully we aren’t.”

Thursday afternoon, 27 August 2015

GM: The end of Ballroom Dance with Mrs. Flores heralds the end of the school day. Amelie’s phone rings as she walks across the now-crowded exterior campus. Younger girls walk to the school buses as the older ones almost uniformly head towards parked cars.

Amelie: Amelie can hear the song’s chorus playing over the buzzing in her shirt pocket, and can never help muttering along with the lyrics. “Pineapples are in my head…”

She answers the phone quickly after. “Hello?”

GM: The caller ID is ‘unknown.’ The voice on the line is young and female. “Uh, hey. It’s me.”

Amelie: “Miranda! It’s good to hear from you. How are you?”

GM: “Good, I guess.”

Amelie: “Did you go to school today? I can come find you if you wanna talk in person.”

GM: “No, I’m okay. Just… waiting around until my dad picks me up.”

Amelie: “That’s good. Does he pick you up often? You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to. I know how difficult family can be.”

GM: “Sometimes,” Miranda says. “When he feels like it, I guess.”

Amelie: Amelie nods and starts casually looking around the school parking lot for Miranda. Even if they talk on the phone, she still wants to keep her eyes on the girl.

“That sounds like it can hurt. Can I wait with you? I can show you something cool.”

GM: “Well I think it’s stupid,” the preteen counters. “Our housekeeper picks me up faster.”

McGehee, as best as Amelie has previously been able to discern, lacks a single designated parking lot that would be an eyesore in the historic neighborhood. The closest thing it has is a space behind Bradish Johnson House and a particularly large weeping willow that can hold up to maybe twenty cars. A sign indicates it is reserved for faculty use.

Students, meanwhile, simply park their cars against the sidewalk facing the school’s long wrought iron fence. Parking ‘spots’ are given on a ‘first come, only one served’ basis. The girls who obtain these lucky spots can drive off campus at their leisure, while the less fortunate must walk a block or more to wherever they have been able to park their vehicles. The limited spaces no doubt encourage carpooling among friends, which is probably more likely in any case with the small student body.

Amelie doesn’t have an easy time picking out one student from so many other identically-dressed ones, but she eventually spots Miranda waiting by the flagpole just off the sidewalk.

Amelie: “I’m sure she does. Do you and your dad do anything when he picks you up, though?”

Amelie keeps walking and maintaining the conversation until she finally spots Miranda, then casually approaches her while they talk.

GM: The mousy- and pimple-faced girl looks slightly alarmed by Amelie’s abrupt appearance. “How’d you know I was here…?”

Amelie: Amelie taps to hang up her cell and drops it into her breast pocket. “You said you were getting picked up. This is where people park. You okay, hun?”

GM: “Yeah, I’m fine,” the preteen repeats, adjusting her backpack over her shoulders. “It’s just boring waiting around.”

Amelie: Amelie smiles just a little and offers her messed up hand for Miranda to look over. “Well, I brought you something cool. Look, I got into a knife fight. I took pictures, too.”

GM: “Oh, that must’ve been fun,” the girl says with plainly affected nonchalance.

Amelie: “Oodles,” she replies in kind. She takes out her phone to show the girl her palm’s freshly-cleaned stab. “Gross, huh?”

GM: Miranda looks it over. “Who’d you fight to get that?”

Amelie: “Honestly, I was just blindsided by a fortune teller near Jackson Square. She didn’t like me asking about the LaLaurie House.”

GM: “Oh. Well they’re all scammers or crazy.”

Amelie: “Yup. I acted like a tourist,” she mutters bitterly. “How about you? Do you do anything fun on weekends?”

GM: “Yeah, stuff,” the preteen says vaguely.

Amelie: “No fair. Secret stuff? Wild drinking parties? Stalk the nights in a costume?”

GM: “Just… stuff,” she says with a shrug. “Same as anyone here does.”

Amelie: Amelie smirks. “If it isn’t a pain, you should take me sometime. I’m new to the city, I don’t know what people here do.”

GM: “Well… they eat a lot,” Miranda fills in. “There’s a bunch of restaurants here.”

Amelie: “The food’s pretty bland where I grew up. I’ve been meaning to try a lot of food. How about… hobbies? Nothing on your end?”

GM: “No, there’s nothing to do in this city,” she complains.

Amelie: Amelie can’t help but smile at the irony. Miranda is bored in a place her older classmate is excited to be in.

“Well, there’s a lot of stuff you can do. Take up an instrument, focus on fitness, oh! Art. New Orleans has a huge art scene. If nothing else, you can do your best now, and move somewhere more interesting. Like I did. The place I lived before this only had a few thousand people.”

GM: “Well the place I lived had way more than this boring city,” Miranda goes on. “But I had to move here and it sucks.”

Amelie: “Hmm… Los Angeles? New York?”

GM: “Chicago.”

Amelie: “Moving is tough. I miss the stuff I left behind a lot, too. But hey, the University of Chicago is great. I don’t think your folks could say no if you wanted to move back for that.”

GM: Miranda pauses, then answers, “I guess. In seven years.”

Amelie: Amelie frowns lightly and puts a hand on Miranda’s shoulder in an attempt to cheer her up.

“I could teach you to rollerskate or something to pass the time. Parents… have a way of trapping their kids. All we can do about it is do our best to surpass them and be happier, so we know we don’t owe them anything.”

GM: The preteen doesn’t look sure what to say to that, then mumbles, “I just miss my mom…”

Amelie: There’s a pang of sadness for them both in Amelie’s gut as she rests a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder.

“I know how you feel, Miranda. I’m sorry.”

GM: Miranda looks surprised by that admission. “Oh. Where’s yours?”

Amelie: Amelie smiles bitterly. “We don’t know. Just that she wanted to leave, so… she did. I try not to think about it. Among other things. How about yours?”

GM: “She’s in Chicago, my parents are divorced.” A beat. “I’m sorry your mom left.”

Amelie: “I’m sorry your parents divorced. You have more to deal with than I do on that front. But if your mom is in Chicago, I bet you could ask to spend parts of your summer with her. Get back to the big city.”

GM: “No I couldn’t,” Miranda answers glumly.

The two are interrupted, however, by the arrival of a black Chevrolet SS. The man who gets out is a tall figure in his early middle years. His close-cropped beard and mustache are streaked with salt and pepper, which together with his angular face and fit, lean frame, give him a vaguely wolf-like countenance. He’s dressed in a gray blazer and black button-up shirt.

“Miranda. Good to see you’re making friends,” the man remarks as he rests a hand on her shoulder.

Amelie’s attentive eyes note that two of his fingers don’t bend like the other three. He’s angling his hand accordingly.

Miranda looks up. “Dad. You’re early.”

“I got off early. Are you going to introduce your friend and me?”

Miranda looks at Amelie. “So you probably guessed that’s my dad.”

“Mr. Ferris,” her father supplies.

“And this is…” Miranda starts, then trails off. “I actually don’t know her name…”

Mr. Ferris gives a faintly indulgent smile before turning to Amelie. “Then there’s no time like right now to find out.”

Amelie: “Amelie,” the young woman supplies in kind. She offers a strong and firm handshake to the man’s prosthetic-less side. “Amelie Savard, I’m in senior year.”

GM: Amelie finds the man’s answering grip to also be quite firm. “You play many sports, Amelie?” he asks.

Amelie: “I fence, sir. A good deal of the grip comes from manual labor growing up.”

GM: “Fencing. That’s a practical sport.” The words might be a compliment.

Amelie: “In the modern world, maybe not so much,” she jokes, cracking a smile. “Why do you ask?”

GM: “Curiosity,” Miranda’s father smiles back. “Anyways, we’re due somewhere. I’m glad that you and Miranda know each other’s names now. Did you have any plans to hang out?”

Amelie: Amelie knows exactly why and flexes her arms in the uniform rather proudly. “Not yet, sir. That’s up to you, anyway, Miranda. You have my number, if you ever want to hang out just let me know. I’m only busy this Friday.”

GM: Miranda looks up at her dad, then says, “Uh, okay, maybe Saturday?”

Amelie: “I’d love to. We’ll figure out what we want to do during the week. We’ll make New Orleans fun, promise. I’d ask you to come on Friday, but we’re having an overnight stay in a ‘cursed’ house. Might not be a comfortable night.”

GM: “A cursed house?” Miranda asks curiously.

Amelie: “The LaLaurie. I’m pretty nervous about it.”

GM: “I dunno what that is.”

“It’s an old house in the Quarter. The owner tortured her slaves,” Miranda’s father explains.

Amelie: “And they say the house is haunted and cursed because of that. People think it’s pretty dangerous.”

GM: The gray-bearded man looks at Amelie. “Do you?”

Amelie: Amelie holds up the bandaged hand. “I’ve been convinced. But my hands are tied, thanks to my research partner. So I’m just hoping strength in numbers will… help. I mean, the place has been apartments and a lounge.”

GM: “You’ll be lucky to have full use of that hand again when the bandages are off,” Mr. Ferris remarks, though Amelie feels as if the man’s attentive gray eyes have long since made note of her wound. “If that’s where you got hurt, we won’t chance things with my daughter.”

Amelie: “The hand will have full function, thankfully. And it’s not. I interviewed a very passionate local about the house.”

GM: “Do you two have each other’s phone numbers?” Miranda’s father asks.

Amelie: Amelie nods. Now that Miranda has called her, she has the younger girl’s number too.

GM: “Good. You can arrange something maybe this weekend,” Mr. Ferris smiles. “My daughter and I have to be going now. I hope you can have those bandages off soon. Miranda, say goodbye.”

“Bye,” the preteen says.

Amelie: “Bye, Miranda. The bandages will be off by Saturday, we’ll go do something fun. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Ferris.”

GM: “I’m always glad to meet a friend of Miranda’s,” Mr. Ferris says in farewell. He gets the door for Miranda, then gets in on the other side. The black Chevrolet soon recedes past the neighborhood’s live oaks, palm trees, and other greenery.

Amelie: Amelie slowly unpacks the encounter in her head. It helps in figuring out if Miranda has some sort of out of school reason for spying on her, at least.

She turns on her heel and strides off towards the streetcar stop. Miranda might not be coming, but there’s a lot to do before the big night.

Thursday evening, 27 August 2015

GM: The doorbell to Amelie’s and Christina’s home rings promptly at 8:30. Her aunt moves to answer it.

Amelie: Amelie stands in place and smooths out the clothes she picked out. She still wonders about her sense of style even after the painstaking day she spent with Kristina. Her aunt’s assistant suggested various pieces of clothing, but never actually told her if there was anything wrong with her own choices. Their efforts culminate in the first occasion where she’s not wearing a school uniform or casual t-shirt and jeans. Low black heels, Blue King blouse, brown Romewe dress over it all, and an ascot keeping the neck tight. She hopes it’s not too dressy.

The ringing bell makes Amelie jump slightly. She watches the door with anticipation, curious to see what kind of people her aunt associates with.

GM: “Christina, how are you,” greets a woman’s voice from the other side of the door.

“Jill,” Christina answers as they hug. The light patter of rain intersperses the pair’s greeting. “I’m glad you could make it today.”

When her aunt pulls away, Amelie sees that Jill is a buxom-figured woman in maybe her early 40s with wide hips, ample breasts, and wavy auburn hair that falls past her shoulders. She’s dressed in a cashmere blouse, darker slacks, bangle earrings, and a flimsy-looking light coat (though it might be raining, anything heavier would be unbearable in the city’s muggy heat).

“Me too. Work has been hectic.” She turns to regard Amelie. “And this must be the niece you told me about. How are you, duckie,” the woman half-asks, half-greets as she moves to hug Amelie as well.

Amelie: The person Amelie sees is NOT who she was expecting. Her outfit suddenly isn’t the part of her appearance that she’s questioning, but she does her best not to show the surprise on her face. “Amelie, Miss! It’s nice to meet-!?” The hug catches her completely off-guard, and she looks to her aunt for a moment before returning it. “Nice to meet you. I’m doing well.”

GM: “Mrs.,” the woman corrects mildly as she sets down her purse and removes her coat. “But you can call me Jill,” she smiles at Amelie. “And don’t you look scrumptious in that dress.”

“The food’s already out, to re-purpose that adjective,” Amelie’s aunt notes with faint amusement. “Come, let’s eat.”

“Yes, let’s,” Jill concurs.

Amelie: Amelie isn’t used to compliments about her appearance. She mutters a “thank you” and adjusts the dress’ fit on her broad shoulders as she follows the older adults to sit and eat.

GM: Christina has already set the table and laid out the food, which consists of a creamy white cauliflower, gold potato, and milk bisque soup. No plumes of steam rise from anyone’s bowls: Christina has elected to serve the meal cold, even if the house’s air conditioning protects everyone from the worst of the stiflingly hot summer weather. Brown butter croûtons, deep red pomegranate seeds, and bright green chives provide the soup’s finishing toppings. Toasted buttery garlic bread (served warm) and a tall bottle of wine provide two complements to the meal’s main course.

“That’s the real reason I arrive late,” Jill observes with a titter as the three sit down and tuck into the soup. “The food is already out. Now tell me a little about yourself, Amelie, I’ve only heard about you from your aunt. She says you’re going to school at McGehee?”

Amelie: The food is perfect as always. Amelie remains cautious about spilling any over her clothes as she takes her first spoonful of soup.

“Yes, it’s been amazing so far. I’m looking into the engineering club, there’s a dance coming up, so it’s really been keeping me on my toes. Academically and socially.”

GM: “That’s news. I’m glad that you’re looking into clubs. They’re a good place to network,” Amelie’s aunt remarks.

Amelie: “I was under the impression there was an engineering class, not a club. I learned differently thanks to the great teachers I’ve got.”

GM: “Would that be Ms. Perry or Mrs. Flores? You seemed to like them the best.”

Amelie: “It was Ms. Perry, actually. Either way, I’m looking forward to it.”

GM: “This Mrs. Flores wouldn’t be Diana Flores, would it? I think I’ve had her husband as one of my clients,” Jill remarks between a bite of garlic bread.

Amelie: “I’m not sure about her first name, actually. She teaches Ballroom Dance, if that helps?”

GM: “Oh yes, now that’s her, the former ballerina. Her husband is in the state senate.” Jill gives a tsk. “Former husband, at least, which is such a pity. They made a lovely couple on the campaign trail together.”

“Jill works as a political consultant,” Amelie’s aunt fills in.

Amelie: Amelie frowns at that news, buts nods understandingly. “I guess you don’t share your more personal details with students. Divorced and with a longtime injury, that’s a shame. She’s a great woman.”

GM: “That is a shame if she had to give up her career. A man she could at least do without,” Christina remarks.

“She may not have,” Jill reflects. “Ballerinas rarely dance past their mid-30s. It’s a very physically demanding career—it takes such a toll on their bodies. Quite a few ballerinas go on to teach dance after they retire. So they’re almost definitely the same Mrs. Flores if she’s your instructor.”

“Those who can’t do, teach,” Christina quotes as she fishes several pomegranate seeds into her spoon.

Amelie: “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard that saying without it being meant as an insult,” Amelie muses as she stirs her soup. “Still, at least she teaches a very popular class at a very good school.”

GM: “That certainly is something,” Jill agrees. “So what are your plans once you graduate, Amelie? Your aunt mentioned that you were passionate about smithing.”

Amelie: “I think it’s an untapped market in a place with so much history. The krewes, all the reenactment societies, and I’ve even gotten some interest for what I can do so far as antique restoration. And then of course, I can ship commissions nationwide with the USA’s lax shipping laws. My school’s been… hinting that I should consider college as well, which I will. After my business takes off.”

GM: “Oh how exciting, starting your own business!” Jill exclaims. “I remember back when your aunt was starting up hers, when she first came to the city. That was a lot of work, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was. And worthwhile,” Christina answers. “Breaking into the market and building up a name was a big challenge at first. Things were smoother sailing after those early days.”

“Yes, it’s all about networking these days,” Jill agrees. “Do you have many contacts and customers lined up so far, Amelie?”

Amelie: “A few. I’m being offered an interview with the Rebecca M. Whitney Foundation board. They’ll offer me an ISA to help me get it off the ground, if they like it. But I have to have some work to show them first. Then I have a few teachers who have contacts they may be willing to share with me, like Mrs. Achord, her husband is a member of a reenactment society.”

GM: Jill raises her eyebrows over a sip of wine. “My, that’s a bold move going to the Foundation out of high school. Your aunt is so painstaking in everything that she does, I suppose you’re more of a gambling woman?”

Amelie: “Oh, I don’t plan to accept them right out of the gate, I’d like to speak with them first. But I plan on building this business up right out of high school whether I accept the ISA or not. The way it was worded to me sounded like a huge commitment.”

GM: “Yes, most ISA proponents usually tout how the student doesn’t have to pay the loan back if they don’t make enough money. But I think that’s an optional provision or something, Christina?”

“That’s up to the loan provider,” Amelie’s aunt answers. “ISAs fall under contract law. The lender who writes the contract can set essentially whatever terms they want. They can exempt low-income students from having to pay the loan back, but they don’t have to. Or they can include more obscure provisions such as that the student has to fall within a certain income threshold by X years, and then for Y years without interruption, to have their debt forgiven. Or they might offer a provision to buy out the debt with a flat sum, or allow another lender to buy the student’s debt. I don’t know what terms the Whitney Foundation specifically offers in its contracts.”

“Mmm, yes, maybe that’s it,” Jill thinks. “I just remember hearing from one of my clients about a well-off girl who had a falling out with her parents, so they refused to pay for college, and she took out an ISA from the Foundation. Then she didn’t graduate, or maybe just didn’t get a good job, and was still on the hook for the full debt. And with the way interest balloons…”

Jill laughs. “But I’m sorry, this isn’t a polite dinner topic. I don’t mean to be so doom and gloom, anyway. Like your aunt says, it sounds like terms can vary. Maybe I heard wrong, or it wasn’t the Whitney Foundation I heard about.”

Amelie: “TV where I grew up really paints a grim picture of the USA, I was already going to thoroughly read through anything before signing it! But thanks for the concern,” Amelie says, looking between the older adults. “So, how did you two come to know each other?”

GM: “Oh, we met around eight or nine years ago, when we both first came to the city,” Jill answers. “The flooding damage was the easiest part of Katrina to clean up, you know, the hurricane impacted so many other things. Like political district lines, after how much populations changed. I’d been living in Baton Rouge and moved to New Orleans, since there looked to be so much work available in the city.”

“Your aunt was in a similar place. She’d just moved here from New York to set up her consulting business. We were in a similar place, both new to the city and wanting to establish ourselves. So when we met at some professional function or other, we simply struck off.” Jill smiles. “It’s easier being new when you know someone else who is.”

“All of that’s true, though she’s leaving out the part where she still knew a thousand and one people in the area, not to mention its particular ways of doing things, and I knew no one and next to nothing,” Christina adds with some wryness. “It’s more accurate to say that she helped me.”

Amelie: Amelie listens and enjoys the two reminiscing. It’s nice ti imagine the two of them building their respective businesses up side by side. The hurricane caused so much destruction and displacement, but in these women’s case it seems like it did some good by bringing them together.

“I’m happy to hear you had each other in either case. I imagine post-Katrina New Orleans was not exactly the most reassuring environment to start a company or a practice.”

GM: “Oh, your aunt is kind to say that, but it has been almost a decade. I’m sure some of the details have slipped past us both, after that long,” Jill lightly laughs at Christina’s words.

“In some ways it was very inhospitable. That’s one detail that hasn’t faded,” Amelie’s aunt half-answers both women. “So much infrastructure had been disrupted. There were still thousands of abandoned cars lying everywhere, and blue tarps over so many roofs. But there was opportunity, too, to get in on the ground floor of markets when the city rebuilt. The early bird gets the worm.”

Amelie: Inhospitable. Amelie understands what they mean. It’s ironic New Orleans could be that, with how ingrained Southern hospitality and politesse seems to be among all the blue bloods she goes to school with.

“Well, just a few years later, and I’d have to say it looks like you both succeeded in getting that worm. Though I hear another saying a lot, that the second mouse gets the cheese. I imagine you both had competition?”

GM: “Of course,” Jill smiles. “And we’re hardly the only logistics and political consultants in the city. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable in our little niches.”

Amelie: Amelie nods and pointedly looks around the room. Comfortable indeed.

“I can only hope to follow your examples. During my first day we had speakers during our orientation, none of them owned a business. The closest was Vera Malveaux, but she married into the company. Though I have to sympathize with her, considering her scar.”

GM: “Oh yes, it’s very sad what happened to that poor woman,” Jill sighs. “It made sensational headlines at the time. Some corrupt or mentally ill police officer, this hulking giant of a black man, savaged her half to death one night for seemingly no reason at all.”

Amelie: “That seems to happen in this city,” Amelie offers. She takes another spoonful of soup with her bandaged hand. “Still, it was interesting to see her. She seemed like a strong woman. Minus the rumors that seemed to leak out during her speech. Painkillers and nun daughters.”

GM: “I remember all the stories. I was younger than you when it happened, in fact. We heard about her attack even in Baton Rouge. Most of the Malveauxes still lived in the state capital then, and Matthew was engaged to Vera Dyer. They almost called off the wedding.”

Amelie: “He still married her, despite what happened to her face? Was it a marriage of convenience, or did they actually have a thing?”

GM: “If she was such a strong woman, why wouldn’t he have still married her?” Christina asks with some amusement.

Amelie: “You don’t usually think ‘likes strong women’ as a trait most CEOs have. You always picture them with trophy wives, don’t you? For once maybe it’s good I’m wrong.”

GM: Jill fishes two croûtons into her spoonful of soup. “From what I hear, the two don’t get along very well these days. They only had one son, and he ended up being a priest instead of an executive VP in the family company—his uncle pushed for that, I’m sure, and Matthew didn’t stop it. Vera supposedly hasn’t ever gotten over that.”

Amelie: Amelie pauses for a moment. “How old is this priest son? Vera Malveux didn’t look that old.”

GM: “Adam Malveaux is relatively young for a priest. Early thirties, I think,” Christina answers. “His mother is in her fifties or sixties.”

Amelie: “Do we know what church?”

GM: “St. Louis Cathedral, of course. He is the archbishop’s heir.”

Jill taps her chin. “I’d thought he was assigned to St. Patrick’s. Though he is going to preside over St. Louis sooner or later, of course.”

“Yes. Father Connelly is getting old,” Amelie’s aunt agrees.

Amelie: “Huh. Well, in that case, I think I’ve met him as well. When I was in Jackson Square, I stepped into the cathedral and spoke with a priest about that age, taking care of an older priest who seemed a bit sickly.”

GM: “Hmm. I really could have sworn he was assigned to St. Patrick’s,” Jill muses, then smiles. “But that’s good for you, duckie, rubbing elbows with the old families. Just the sort of thing you want to be doing for your business.”

Amelie: “Especially one on his way to being such a figure in a historic building. If he was my client, I could do a lot for the building. I mean, if that was indeed him. I’ll have to find a picture.”

Amelie tucks back into her soup and thinks on everything they’ve spoken about so far. She’s been talking enough that she reels back her own part in the conversation to let the older adults catch up with each other.

GM: “Say, duckie, while we’re on the subject, you wouldn’t happen to have any finished pieces of yours lying around, would you?” Jill asks first. “I’d love to see any, your aunt says that you’re very talented.”

Amelie: Amelie nods, stands up, and excuses herself from the table. She remembers her pure elation when Christina brought this out to her. She couldn’t afford a storage locker in Canada, and the foster system wouldn’t allow her to possess weapons, so she mailed it to her aunt for safekeeping. She didn’t trust her father to take care of an absolute masterpiece like this: the product of weeks of screaming, swearing, and hammering the rage of puberty into a forged piece of iron.

Pic.jpg Amelie is beaming with pride when she returns to the dining room. She holds her masterwork’s long and thick scabbard against her forearm, right under the big steel crossguard: like a squire who’s presenting their knight with their weapon for an upcoming battle.

“Careful when you pull it out. It’s sharper than hell.”

GM: “Oh my, this does feel authentic,” Jill laughs when Amelie presents her the large sword hilt-first. “Let’s just hope I won’t impale myself…”

She grasps the hilt with both hands and gives a solid pull. Amelie has seen plenty of tourists handle other products from her family’s forge the same way: they all expected the swords to be much heavier than they were.

Her aunt’s friend gives a half-laughed, “Oh!” as the large blade comes out easily. Amelie briefly fears Jill is about to drop it—and worse, clip her feet with the hellishly sharp edge—but the woman’s awkward grip turns instantly steady as the same lethal thought seems to flash across her mind.

“I feel like I just drew forth Excalibur from the stone,” Jill chuckles, before her arms start to sag and she lays the sword flat across her lap. Her expression turns more serious as she continues, “And I say that because this seems like a sword fit for a king. I don’t know too much about weaponsmithing, but I can tell when an artist has put their all into something. You did, didn’t you—give this your all?”

Jill strokes a finger along the blade’s edge. “I can just picture it… you bent over the forge with a great steel hammer, pounding and bludgeoning the blistering-red metal into shape, sparks flying every which way like fireflies in summer.”

Her aunt’s friend closes her eyes and murmurs, “And in each one, a fire—an inferno in embryo! Stillborn conflagrations that could annihilate a thousand lives! Oh, for weapons of war to be birthed from fire, it is only appropriate.”

She looks back up at Amelie and chuckles, “I’m sorry, duckie, you’ll have to excuse me getting carried away—I actually minored in poetry in college. But this feels like a sword worthy for King Arthur, truly. I’m very impressed.”

Amelie: Amelie listens to the praise, but her gaze stays locked on her creation. She watches like a hawk in case the edge slips from Jill’s hand—someone who doesn’t even see the entirety of its beauty. She’ll show her.

“I can make beautiful swords, gaudy ones. I can lay gold and ivory, set jewels, and carve bones. But this is a subtle beauty. A lethal beauty,” she starts, dipping a finger into her water glass and taking the blade’s flat with her other hand. She gently slides her wet finger down the flat to reveal a pattern so subtle that it would look like bad polish to an untrained eye. But the moisture makes it shine and shows off flowing yet uniform waves and twists that cross against each other like rivers. They’re as neat as a row of military graves.

“1095 Carbon steel. S7 shock steel. 9260 Silicon-manganese alloy steel. Stacked, tac welded, heated, and forge welded. Then folded. It’s called a Herring-bone Damascus pattern. And those specific steels together are part of my masterpiece. This sword broke two of my hammers, ruined the back half of my anvil, cost 300 pounds of coal when I decided I didn’t want to introduce chemical heating to the mixture. I ground it on a machine half way, and then hand ground it to the point it is now. The handle is purple heart, my favorite wood, and one that doesn’t like to absorb moisture. The pommel I made by hand, and it, the guard, and nail, are all W10 tool steel. No ornamentation, no wasted space. I worked on this every day after my normal work for a month. Slow, steady, focused attention. My only surviving work.”

GM: “That all sounds very, very impressive,” Jill repeats. “I know next to nothing about swords, but it’s clear how much of yourself you’ve put into this.”

She carefully sets the sword down when Amelie touches a wet finger to it. “I sounds as if chemical heating is inferior, somehow? Is using coal the smith’s equivalent of making something by hand?”
Jill laughs again. “Well, any more than you already do, clearly.”

Amelie: “Oh! No, not at all. In fact, it’s usually superior. The difference is the heat diffusion. If you use chemical heating, you use a sword forge, which is basically a rectangle made of stone with 10 to 20 blowtorches on the inside. It’s usually great. But coal heats and radiates, it takes much longer to heat up but you get a much more complete heat at a much more complete rate. Metals react differently to heat. Shock steel is… incredibly force-resistant, and heat-resistant, so it heated to hammering temps much slower,” she explains, taking the sword back and gripping the handle like it’s made for her. It feels good to have it in her hands again, but she slowly re-sheathes it after rubbing the wet spot dry, then carefully leans it up against the wall. “I made the scabbard as well.”

GM: “Oh my, I had no idea that the type of heat used was so important to how the final product turned out. Do you hear a lot of facts like these over dinner, Christina?”

Amelie’s aunt smiles over the rim of her wineglass. “Now and again.”

“It’s that Damascus pattern I find the most remarkable,” Jill continues. “The fact the sword has a literally hidden layer of beauty to it, which no one would even notice if they didn’t think to dab water over the metal.”

Amelie: Amelie actually flushes a bit when she hears that she goes on tangents around her aunt, but clears her throat.

“Well, it’s just that type of Damascus. It’s subtle, and tightly packed. If you look close you can see it. But certain patterns can make stars, dot matrix, circles, squares, there’s even one called ‘vines and roses.’ It’s all about how you work the metals, how many layers you use, and… well, luck. No two are the same.”

GM: “That’s all fascinating, duckie, it really is. I don’t think anyone could doubt that smithing is its own form of art after listening to you talk.” She smiles. “Or seeing your pieces. Do you have your own smithy set up yet?”

Amelie: “I’ve heard it’s been likened to baking,” Amelie offers. “I don’t have anything set up yet, no. Getting all the equipment is a bit expensive. Though I just need used equipment, I can maintain and upgrade mechanics and electrics on my own.”

GM: “Well, if you won’t think I’m crass for actually bringing up figures during dinner, but how expensive is that equipment? Your aunt and I know some people who might be happy to fund more of these.” She smiles again, but this time towards the sword as well.

Amelie: Jill’s words knock Amelie off-center. The insinuation of such generosity makes her reflexively look over towards her aunt, almost for permission to talk about it.

GM: Christina simply nods encouragingly.

Amelie: It takes a moment for Amelie to tabulate the amount in her head, if only to convert the prices she knows into USD. She explains that once she has a few basics she can mostly make her own tools. She names a figure that includes the monthly rent for an industrial district space to line up with Louisiana fire code. All in all, it’s a surprisingly low figure. The most expensive thing is what she calls a ‘power hammer,’ a machine that can deftly pound around thousands of pounds of die steel to draw out billets of red-hot steel. Power hammers usually cost under ten thousand dollars.

“…I mean, I should find a used one. Hopefully an older one, they’re usually more mechanical than pneumatic.”

GM: Jill simply nods along as Amelie quotes the various figures and replies, “I’ll talk to the people I know and see what they have to say. You’re very lucky to have a piece that impressive to show off.”

“Yes, she is,” Amelie’s aunt agrees. “You need a finished piece to impress people with, but you can’t make new pieces until you’ve impressed people enough to fund you. That’s an ugly chicken and egg scenario.”

Amelie: “I likely would have had to pay out of the nose for time in an independent forge. The nearest guild is a state over, so it would have been a nightmare. I’m lucky I have a favorite aunt who could keep my pieces—my future safe,” Amelie beams. Her cheeks are already starting to feel sore after tonight’s volley of praise.

“I can make armor too. Full knightly sets. And furniture.”

GM: “Oh, you could simply pay an independent smith to use their facilities? That might actually not be a bad idea,” her aunt muses. “Or spending a weekend over in the next state. Which one is that?”

“Knightly armor. Oh my,” Jill laughs.

Amelie: Amelie winces slightly at the thought of having to go and use another blacksmith’s shop. She kept hers pristine. Barrels lined the walls like a distillery, full of pieces and scraps of certain metals. Her tanks were locked in protective cases. Her saws and presses were greased and sharpened every night. She has too many memories of yelling at her drunken father’s guest smiths ruining her space and bitching about her systems.

“It’s in Mississippi, but it’s something I’d honestly like to avoid. I like to control my environment after my accident a bit more than most people.”

GM: “We can see what the future holds so far as getting your own space, and talk about things from there. For right now, who’d care for some dessert?” her aunt asks.

“Oh, yes please,” Jill answers.

Amelie: Amelie perks up at the mention of dessert. She spares her sword one last look before leaving it where it is and returning to her seat. A sweet note isn’t a bad one to end the night on.

GM: Dessert is a chilled affair, consisting of salted vanilla ice cream with drizzled gooey brown caramel sauce and honey-roasted pecans. Even with the house’s air conditioning on, it feels just right in this weather. The city’s heat is an almost palpable thing, even past the windows and at night.

Jill and Amelie’s aunt ask a few more questions about Amelie’s work, but also talk about state and municipal politics. Neither woman seems to find it a dinner-inappropriate topic, nor do they spend much time talking about partisan issues: they mainly chuckle about about politicians’ personal dramas and how crooked officials in Louisiana are. FBI investigations into their activities sound quite common.

“The upcoming elections should be interesting ones, anyway,” Jill remarks. “There’s the mayoral race to watch in 2017, of course, and this year there’s supposed to be a challenger who wants to unseat Senator Kelly. In the primary, that is, not the general election.”

“Well, good luck to him with that,” Christina replies. “I think it’s more likely that we’re going to see Cherry making a run for the seat once Kelly finally retires or dies. That would be something to see her and Malveaux serving in DC together.”

“Oh, wouldn’t it. I’ve kept an ear out, and I hear Cherry’s daughter is now working as a waitress.”

“That poor girl. Do you think that…?”

Both of them laugh.

“I’m sure she has rather enough problems,” Jill chuckles.

“Yes, me too.”

“The poor thing, though,” Jill remarks wistfully. “It’s difficult not to want to help.”

“Yes. But in the long run she may be much better off.” Christina then turns to her niece. “Since we’re just about finished here, Amelie, Jill and I have some work-related business to discuss. Would you mind giving us some privacy?”

Amelie: Amelie keeps quiet for most of dessert, letting the older adults talk as she finishes up relatively quickly. She’s sure the sugar will make it harder to sleep, but the fact she’s up past her normal bedtime should also help with that. She soaks in the politics, noting names and events, but stacks everyone’s bowls together and excuses herself once her aunt asks for privacy.

GM: When Amelie declares her intention to go to bed, Jill offers her a hug and adds, “I’m so glad to have met you, duckie, it’s clear you’re very talented,” before she leaves.

Amelie: Amelie already gave the woman a hug at the door, but leans in and gives her another one. She resolves to ask her aunt later why Jill keeps calling her ‘duckie.’

She gives Christina a small hug too, then carries her sword and an armful of dishes out of the room. She leaves the latter in the kitchen and rolls her shoulders as she heads up the stairs to wind down for the night. It’s a shame she can’t stay to hear about the two’s actual work.

There’s a pause, though, when she passes a vent in the hall and inspiration strikes. A quick mental map of the house brings her to her bathroom. She tosses the dress off her broad shoulders, sinks down to the floor and presses her ear to the grate. She slows her breath to catch the conversation downstairs.

GM: “…well, she seems sweet,” sounds Jill’s distant voice through the grill.

“Yes, she is.”

“So how has it been, living with a teenager?”

“She’s twenty, actually. But better than I expected. Especially after the home life she came from. My brother-in-law is a real piece of shit.” There’s a faint noise that might be Amelie’s aunt sipping from her wine. “She’s been very responsible, though, and seems to be looking towards her future. Some of her ideas are a little harebrained, but that’s the important thing. I thought about asking her if she wanted to see a therapist at first, but I don’t think she needs one.”

There’s a pause before Christina continues, “It’s still had its ups and downs, though. Her school wants to expel her.”

“Oh, no, what for?” Jill asks.

“For ‘behaviors at odds with the values of the school and posing a disruptive influence to the academic and social success of other students.’”

“Ah, yes. She doesn’t quite fit in with that crowd, does she?”

“No. She doesn’t,” Amelie’s aunt answers. “Maybe enrolling her at McGehee wasn’t realistic of me, especially when she’s older than all the other students. The women there all know who I am, too. God knows they wouldn’t have admitted any relative of mine without your friend.”

Amelie: Amelie stays rigid and unmoving as she lays there, but it’s all she can do to contain her emotions when the realizations dawn on her. Of course she couldn’t trust a school therapist. Of course even mentioning ruining the school’s perfect little college acceptance numbers would make her enemies. That’s odd all the women would know her aunt, too. Is she a wedding ring chaser? A gossip?

It hurts when her aunt calls her ideas harebrained, but she pushes that to the back of her mind. Of course her future isn’t solid, of course what she does isn’t stable. It’s… complicated.

Still, she stays quiet as a mouse, feeling a little numb as she keeps listening.

GM: “She could make this go away too,” Jill offers.

“I’ve asked you for enough favors,” Christina answers. “We can do that if I’m not able to make the school back down on my own.”

“So what are your options there? Could you appeal to the board of trustees?”

Amelie’s aunt might shake her head at this point, but she can’t make out anything besides ventilation ducts. “No. We’d be able to fight this if it were a public school. Private schools operate under contract law. They can essentially throw her out for whatever reason. I can still sue, though, which is what I’ve been threatening.”

“They don’t know you’re disbarred?” There’s some amusement in Jill’s voice.

“No. They don’t know me as well as they think.” There’s the faintest smirk to her aunt’s voice at those words. “Not that it matters, I’d hire another lawyer even if I wasn’t. But people are usually more intimidated when they think you’re the lawyer.”

Amelie: Amelie starts planning already how she can help her aunt make this right. There’s people in the school who can help for sure: teachers who like her, the headmistress, even that career counselor. She’ll just need to draw less attention and do more under the radar ass-kissing.

GM: “How much have you scared the headmistress, then?” Jill asks with a similarly audible slight smirk.

“She was willing, for now, to essentially put Amelie on probation, and have her attend regular meetings with the school psychologist, who will teach her how to fit in. Her assignment this week is to go to a school dance.”

“That’s not too bad,” Jill replies.

“I agree. It’s not. She could stand to meet some people closer to her age than you or me. Though I’m not sure the girls at McGhee are ideal there either, or even that it’s necessary. She’s getting good grades despite coming from a bad place, and I don’t want to push her too hard.”

“But it was either that or deal with her being expelled,” Jill fills in.

“Yes. What’s that quote, ‘there are no good options in this city, only ones which are less distasteful’?”

“Too true.”

“A dance with boys should also quiet down the headmistress’ ‘fluidity in gender identity’ complaint,” Christina continues. “She all but said that she thought Amelie was going to rape the other girls. Especially with how she’s older than they all are.”

Amelie: Amelie rolls her eyes so hard she almost feels them pop out her head and hit the bathroom floor.

GM: “I said that she cut her hair short because she’s a smith, and long hair is an occupational hazard.”

“That does make sense. I suppose it could easily catch on fire.” Jill laughs. “You didn’t really say that though, did you?”

“No. I just said she wasn’t gay and there was no need to consider conversion therapy. Lord knows I wouldn’t have paid for that anyways.”

“So would you say things are in hand, then?” Jill asks. “No need to bring in anyone else?”

“No,” Christina replies. “Not at this point. And some of what the school wants to impress upon her is actually a good idea. I mean, god knows the bit about being a sexual predator was a load of nonsense, but they do want to encourage her to apply for college.”

“You think she should do that?” Jill asks.

“I think it’s more that she doesn’t grasp the impact that the decision could have on her future, especially her business plans,” Christina replies. “She doesn’t believe she needs to attend college because she already knows her trade. Well, that’s fair, you saw that sword of hers yourself.”

“Oh, yes.”

“But she wants to start this expensive-sounding business, all by herself. Who is going to provide startup capital to a random 21-year-old with only a high school diploma? She says she knows people at McGehee who’ll contribute funds, but behind her back they want to expel her. She even cited her therapist’s husband, for goodness’ sake, the woman who said her ‘gender is unanchored because her mind is unanchored.’ Or because her father abused her, whatever nonsense that was.”

“Mmm, yes,” Jill seems to nod. “Her work does speak for itself. But work can speak very quietly next to other things.”

“Right,” Christina agrees. “She doesn’t know how to deal with the sorts of people who go to McGehee, on any basis besides the relative merit of her ideas.”

“My, that sounds cynical,” Jill offers.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Christina says with a sigh. “I have to remind myself that she is only twenty.”

“Well, you never did want to be a mother. I think it’s only fair to need the occasional reminder.”

“Yes. That’s true.”

“It’s not as if I know much better how to deal with teenagers or near-teenagers, anyway…” Jill briefly trails off. “Nathalie passed before Amelie’s age.”

“How are things moving along there?” Christina asks quietly.

Amelie strains her ears against the grate. Whatever response Jill gives is too muted for her to pick up.

Silence, or perhaps further inaudible conversation passes between the two. Amelie briefly wonders if her aunt has shown Jill to the door, or if they’ve simply moved to another room, until Jill speaks up, “But let’s talk about yours.”

“All right. Where was I?”

“About her still being twenty and thinking if you work hard you’ll succeed.”

“Now who’s being cynical?” Christina asks.

Whatever reply Jill gives seems to be nonverbal, or perhaps she simply doesn’t before Amelie’s aunt goes on, “I suppose that’s the thing I need to impart, anyways. How these people would be flinging money her way if she was one of them, but she’s not. Say she somehow scrapes together funding, and starts up the business. Then what? Does she know how to balance books? Advertise? Attract customers among the people here, image brand herself, deal with suppliers? Manage employees, if she doesn’t intend to do everything herself? She’s a stellar smith, obviously, but that doesn’t mean she’s qualified to run a business. Especially at twenty.”

“Do you think she’s not?”

“I don’t know whether she is or not, to be honest. She’s not lived with me for very long. But she’s not considering all of the details. Such as renting a space, when she has no meaningful credit history, or-”

“Details, Christina.”

“Yes. I think she might be better off simply working under another smith, at least initially. She’d still get to do what she loves, but without any of the risks, responsibilities, and plain extra work of starting her own business.”

“And you’d like her to go to college.”

“I think that would be a very good idea. I have no idea whether there’s even any smiths in the city who could or would take her on. But going to college, she could open so many doors for herself. Both as a business owner and in case the business doesn’t pan out. I’m even paying extra for her to take AP classes, which there’s no point in taking unless you go to college. She’s very serious about her studies, but I don’t think she gets how no one cares about high school grades outside of college admissions.”

“Mmm. She did say she wanted to attend MIT. But…”

“Yes, that’s obviously a pipe dream,” Christina fills in. “It’s the same as McGehee, except we don’t have any pull there.”

“So why doesn’t she want to attend college?” Jill asks. “You said she’d been enjoying her schoolwork.”

“Student debt, I think.”

“Hmm. Well, I could ask around, see about scholarships or early-issue grants or anything else like that.”

“I wouldn’t say no. I obviously don’t have any kind of college fund set up for her.”

Amelie: Amelie doesn’t usually get emotional. She prides herself on having her mother’s stone face. But she’s forced to put her hand over her mouth as she lays there. She bites into its bandages to hold back the stinging feeling in her eyes that threatens to rip a sob from her throat. She doesn’t let it, but grips the grate and forces herself to face the truth. That for the first time in her life, she can’t brute force this.

She presses her face closer, trying to hear more.

GM: “Do you plan to talk with her about this?” Jill asks.

“After things have settled a bit. When the bandages come off her hand, at least.”

“I saw that. How did she get those?”

“Some lunatic attacked her in the Quarter. She was lucky to get away. Even luckier not to suffer any lasting damage to her hands, or to even be that traumatized.”

“Oh, that’s very lucky. I’ve told you about that friend of mine, the pianist, who had his hands crushed.”

“He wasn’t so lucky.”

Amelie: All Amelie can think is too late. It’s difficult to calm down, but the rational voice still kicking around in her head tries to convince her that this is a good thing. A good step.

GM: “Yes, he wasn’t,” Jill replies. “Do you plan to talk with Amelie about all this—the school wanting to expel her, that is—or keep it under wraps?”

“Oh, she has enough to deal with right now. Mrs. Achord said that the two of them got along, so hopefully that will continue while I take care of things behind the scenes. And who knows. Maybe she’ll learn to fit in better at school. That’ll help even after she graduates.”

“For certain,” Jill agrees. “One last piece of advice. However things pan out for college, don’t let her take any money from the Whitneys.”

“You’ve had some dealings with them.”

“I know what I’m dealing with.”

“Warren has had more than one of my girls star in his films,” Amelie’s aunt replies.

“Take my advice please, Christina.”

There’s a pause. “All right, I will.”

“Speaking of Warren, though, has he had any ‘interesting’ requests lately?” Jill asks.

“He’s seen some new snuff films. Real ones. He’s taking a break from directing his own fake snuffs to directing ‘remakes’ with Kristina.” Amelie’s aunt continues more amusedly, “She wasn’t sure what to charge him initially. She thought to treat it like a PSE, but that didn’t seem quite ‘it.’ Half the time he doesn’t even fuck her. He just slashes fake blood packets over her neck, stages a faux hanging, or what have you.”

Jill laughs. “That second one is new.”

“It’s fairly simple how they do it. The noose around her neck is real, but she wears a harness around her torso that holds her up. It did mean she couldn’t be fully naked during the hanging, though, which Warren was disappointed by. I’m sure a real studio could manage it, but this is obviously a ‘home’ production. And he wants it to feel authentic.”

“Yes, authentic,” Jill remarks. “Do you know yet where he’s seeing these real snuffs?”

“Not yet,” Amelie’s aunt replies. “I’ve told Kristina to ask him about it when he’s in a talkative mood after some fucking. And to get some wine in him first.”

“Good,” Jill concurs. “Warren likes to pretend-play at being the debauched sybarite. But after enough play someone might be able to tempt him into the real thing.”

“You think he has it in him to kill Kristina?” Christina asks.

“Everyone has that in them,” Jill answers. “It’s only a question of what draws it out.”

“Hmm. I’d say about as much as anyone else, to be quite honest. Maybe less. You think someone is pushing him in that direction?”

“Someone would certainly stand to benefit from doing so. A tape where the Whitney heir murders an escort would be excellent blackmail material,” Jill replies. “Something like that would be so very hard to stage.”

“I could pull Kristina out. But if Warren can’t use her, he’ll just find some other girl,” Amelie’s aunt considers. “If you’re right.”

“If I’m right,” Jill agrees. “If she can find out more about those snuffs from Warren, then we can make moves of our own.”

“Until that time, then,” Christina finishes. “I could go for some more ice cream. What about you?”

“Just one scoop, please.”

“One scoop,” Amelie’s aunt echoes.

There are a few further sounds of movement, but no longer any discernible voices.

Amelie: Amelie’s initial burst of emotion has long since cooled, but it’s plummeted to the opposite end of the spectrum. She can feel her veins turn to ice as she listens, eyes and mouth wide open. The hand she was biting just a moment ago clamps over her dropped jaw as if to keep it attached and silent at the same time.

She remembers her day out with Kristina. How normal she seemed. Now she realizes that money may have come from Kristina getting faux-hanged, and in danger of the real thing, every day she spends with this maniac. The snuff films are almost secondary to the fact that the two speak so casually about them, or that someone she touched hands with played them out.

But the worst of it all is her aunt and that kind lady she met today. They act as though this is normal. An everyday reality.

Amelie remembers her first night in New Orleans. She remembers driving by the grave of Josie Arlington. She remembers Tantsy’s choked words about the world and its ugliness. Most of all, she desperately tries to remember the kindness and care that her aunt has shown her. But maybe that just makes it worse.

The young woman’s mind races as she slowly slides to her feet, creeps over to the door, and locks it from the inside. She turns the lights out and sits on the bed with her sword, processing everything she’s just heard.

She lives with a madame. A woman who was disbarred from practicing law and now pimps out women, maybe even ones her own age.

The clock ticks. Amelie lies in bed with wide-open eyes and grips her sword’s scabbard through her half-buttoned shirt. She stares into the dark until the emotions bottom out. Finally, exhaustion grips her brain, and plunges her into nightmares.


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