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Blood and Bourbon

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Story Thirteen, Jean-Marc Prelude

Tuesday night, 16 February 2016, PM

Jean-Marc: The city smelled of hot sweat and half-hidden sin.

Just like a shameless, fecund harlot whose flimsy facade of modesty is meant only to tease and titillate.

Oh, that’s a good one, mused Jean-Marc, Gotta tuck that one away for a future piece, though the alliteration might be a bit too much. No need to over-sugar a good beignet.

The man took a long, slow inhalation, as if savoring New Orlean’s scent.

Yes, just like a shameless harlot whose facade of modesty is meant only to tease.

And just the way I like it, smiled Jean-Marc. The man sauntered past the urban boundaries of Vieux Carré into what was once Faubourg Ste. Marie. He preferred the old name; Central Business District just doesn’t have the same ring, no flair, no soul. Then again, Jean-Marc usually wasn’t one to care about souls–even his own.

He took another swig from his bottle of Bourdeaux wine. It was a 2005 Château Pétrus, a fine Merlot vintage–though in New Orleans its year was infamous at best. To Jean-Mac, the ‘venial scandal’ made the red wine taste all the sweeter. Not that it needed the help. After all, it was one of the finest bottles of wine he had ever tasted.

Damned well should be, too, Jean-Marc privately groused, Given that I blew more than two grand on less than a liter of the damned stuff. Still, his irritation was, like the Crescent City’s pretense of modesty, nakedly insincere.

After all, he thought with a returning smile that reflected the neon marquee of the Orpheum theater, Some days you just deserve to spoil yourself.

And today, at least according to Jean-Marc’s twisted ‘ethics’, was one of those days. Just this morning, several national tabloids had printed his expose on the Archdiocese of New Orleans and how over eighty of its currently serving priests had been involved in sexual abuse of children, nuns, and secret wives. Within a few hours, his article–or at least the most salacious (and mostly true) parts–were being passed around the Internet like a Rohypnol-laced red cup at one of Duke Elmhearst’s frat parties. By the afternoon, even prime-time cable networks like RED had picked up on the story, and their talking heads had further stirred the pot.

Much like the media’s autocannibalistic orgy, Jean-Marc’s path meandered. He dipped inside one of the CBD’s local department stores, Godchaux’s, to pick up a present for one his favorite ‘girlfriends’: Leslie St. George. After digging up her real name, Jean-Marc had long stopped using her pseudonym of Kristina Winters.

“Seriously, it’s a snooze-fest of a sobriquet,” he had told her during one of their ‘dates’, “Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for using another handle. Hell, I only publish a quarter, maybe a tenth, of my material under my real name. But my dear, sweet, luscious fucking legs, you live in La Nouvelle-Orléans. If you’re going to come up with a fake name, let it at least be something with a little panache or Rabelaisian éclat. Kristina Winters… it’s like calling a vintage of Bourdeaux something atrociously banal like Bob or Karen. Your ears just vomited, didn’t they? Of course they did, because they, like you, are far too couth and chic."

Stepping back outside, he followed their agreed upon protocol of leaving the receipt inside her gift. This time, the present was a handbag: a baptismal white leather affair made by Mark Cross. It wasn’t Gucci or Louis Vuitton, but he appreciated the irony of the brand’s name, particularly the ‘passion’ Leslie would give him for the ‘Cross’. Still, the handbag left him $745 poorer. Passing by Gallier Hall’s Greek Revival architecture, he idly wondered how much of the handbag’s refund would go to his ‘girlfriend’ versus her boss, Ms. Roberts. He swallowed those thoughts just like his next swig of his Château Pétrus.

Hell, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it, just like this damned good wine.

His thoughts turned back to his nationally circulating piece. It had taken him six years of hard investigation. Well, some of it was hard. After all, the line between artistic license and libel had long ago become fuzzy for Jean-Marc, just like how his head felt from the bottle of red. But the fuzziness helped him look past the bribes, false credentials, and blackmail. Just the usual ‘tabloid tricks’. It wasn’t his most solid piece of investigative journalism. It had holes, some of which were pretty gaping. He could have spent more time on it, verified all his sources, double-checked the purported facts and dates. But six years is a fucking long time–long enough. And there’s bills to pay. The boys at Harrah’s don’t let you play for free. Here and there, he may have ‘gilded a few lilies’, thrown in a few names of priests who might have been honest, good, and innocent men versus child-sodomists and nun-rapists. Then again, he didn’t really believe that honest, good, or innocent men existed.

So even if they didn’t molest some choir boy–, Jean-Marc rationalized to himself as he stepped onto Camp Street, –they were probably up to something else. That’s just life–a big bucket of shit we’re all swimming in. Ain’t nobody clean, so you’re either eating it or shoveling the shit.

And Jean-Marc definitely preferred to shovel. It didn’t matter whether it was a state senator’s son caught wearing blackface for a high school Halloween party, the newest starlet of Zodiac Productions busted for a DUI, or a respected philanthropist suspected of tax fraud. Ever since his days at Loyola, he had learned to love digging up other people’s dirt and rubbing it their ‘better-than-thou’ faces. And no one, in Jean-Marc’s eyes, was more sanctimonious than the Catholic church.

He took another hit of the red, then stared up at the towering Gothic architecture of St. Patrick’s church.

Looks like a giant ass-plug.

He raised his middle finger to church and to the heavens above it.

Well, God is a giant pain in the ass, so maybe it fits. Hmm, file that away too, maybe save it for a snarky tweet.

Resuming his stroll home, he gleefully considered how the article and related press coverage would hurt the church.

Hell, maybe it’ll finally bankrupt the archdiocese? If it does, shit, they should give me the fucking Pulitzer and Sydney Award. Oh, that would be so wicked delicious. They’d have to close down some more churches for sure, just like ’08 all over again. I wonder which one’s they’d axe… They’d soon as hand over the fucking Lance of Longinus as shut down St. Louis, but maybe Immaculate Conception? St. Alphonsus?

His speculative schadenfreude took him all the way to 812 Gravier Street, at the corner of Carondelet.

Ah, home, shit home.

As he had with the church, Jean-Marc gazed up at the historic Hibernia Bank Building. He took some pleasure in knowing the 23-story skyscraper was 355 feet tall; whereas, Patrick’s belltower was only 185 feet fall.

Take that, God, Mammon’s prick is way bigger than yours!

He laughed hard–perhaps a bit too hard at the crude jest–and then entered the lobby. On the way to the elevator, he passed by the floor’s retail bank and all that had remained of Hibernia Bank. If his sources were accurate, even their relocated St. Charles offices were about to be swallowed up the bigger Whitney Hancock or Bank of Columbia.

“Big fish eat the little fish, bigger fish eat the big one,” he drunkenly sung to himself as he stepped into the elevator and pressed his floor button: 21. He wasn’t surprised that he had the elevator to himself. The joint development venture hadn’t finished converting the upper bank floors into their planned 176 mixed-income apartments. He also wasn’t surprised when he entered his flat and found himself once more alone. Tabloid gossips make for coveted party conversationalists, but few want them around much longer.

Inside, the apartment was dark, but its large windows provided a sumptuous view of the city that sprawled out below and around the Hibernia building. Its fellow skyscrapers of former Faubourg Ste. Marie provided an angular backdrop of shadows and light that simultaneously obscured and revealed the Louisiana night-sky. Further off, the less vertically piercing wards of New Orleans glittered like an opera diva’s gem-studded brassière.

And just as fucking hot and sweaty too, I imagine, the man mused, momentarily taking in the grandeur of the sight that siphoned so much of his salary.

Not wanting to ‘depreciate’ that view, he didn’t bother turning on the lights inside his apartment. He still hadn’t decided whether he loved or hated his apartment’s interior. It was done in the Transistional Style. Jean-Marc wasn’t entirely sure that meant, though his “interior decorator”, an old Loyola acquaintance, had described it as a “mélange of fashions that incorporates the traditional old world and contemporary world of chrome and glass, blending curves and straight lines to balance the masculine and feminine”.

Yeah, whatever the fuck that means.

He did know that it was cheaper than some alternatives, as it meant minimal ornamentation, decoration, and accessories. His floors, walls, and even upholstery were all monochromatic, all the same shade of an ambiguous, pretentiously named gray that in certain light could look like a blanched blue, tan, or green. Otherwise, the only color in his apartment was from a few pieces of artwork, foremost of which included a massive oil painting of a winged lion–the symbol of Mark the Evangelist. It had been a joke from several of his friends, but he liked it.

After all, aren’t I a fucking evangelist? I tell the truth–or at least the tabloid headlines kind of truth. Short and powerful like a jab to the mouth. None of the obscure as hell, purple prose of St. John, or the pedantic, who-the-hell-cares minutiae of St. Matthew. Nah, my style is more like Mark’s. Shock and awe. Who got killed, who got fucked. Miracles, scandals, disasters. That’s all people really care about–the only truths that matter.

Unable to admire the oil painting in the dark, Jean-Marc sauntered over to his favorite couch, its soft, cashmere fabric the same gray as nearly everything else in his apartment. He set down the Godchaux’s shopping bag and bottle of half-drunk Bourdeaux on a nearby coffee table. Its high-gloss lacquer trapped some of New Orleans’ tequila, crimson, and amber night-lights. Stepping past the table, Jean-Marc plopped himself down onto the goose-feather and down-filled sofa. He then fished out his phone, a Sunburst Solaris. He had heard rumors of the smartphone’s secret backdoors and security breaches, but he had jail-breaked the device and added some patches. Plus, he figured that all of the newest phones had similar skeletons in their digital closet–just ones that were better hid.

The devil you know…, the man reflected as he unlocked his phone. He scrolled through his feeds, and became delighted to see how his article had started a firestorm. Posting a few comments here and there, he poured several strategic shots of textual gasoline onto the digital blaze. Satisfied with his ‘evangelism’, he opened up a custom chat-app and fired off a message to Leslie, seeing if she was available for a ‘date’.

Setting his phone down on the table, he waited for her reply. Sinking back into the sofa’s comfort, he gave a contented sigh. Yet, that sybaritic solace was soon broken when he heard a small, rustling or oscillating sound from within his apartment. He sat up and leaned forward to better listen.

What the hell is that?! he groused unhappily, Busted air compressor? Cockroach? Fuck, please let it not be cockroaches. I hate bugs.

Yet, no sooner had the sound started then it stopped. Jean-Marc tugged his earlobe, wondering if he’d drunken too much wine–or at least as much to start hearing things. Yet, just as he began to forget the incident and relax again, something flew out of the darkness. It landed with a small, flittering ‘thwap’ against the Godchaux’s shopping bag. Jean-Marc would claim he didn’t give a tiny shriek–but he did. After composing himself, he leaned forward once again, his eyes straining with little but the Solaris’s blue LEDs to help him see. Yet, even with that dim illumination, he spotted his intruder.

Is that a… cricket, or no, grasshopper?

His second guess was closer, as it was a locust. Jean-Marc watched as the insect crawled up the dangling strap of the Cross handbag. Although Louisiana had more than its fair share of bugs, locusts were not one of them, and the man wondered how it had found its way inside his skyscraper apartment.

Probably the construction, maybe it got sucked up the ventilation system? he mused idly, before reaching out to flick the fat insect away. As he did so, the locust leapt. It landed hard against the neck of the wine bottle, only to then leap away into the darkness. Its weight and movement tipped the bottle of Château Pétrus, causing it to fall and spill its ludicrously expensive red liquid all over his phone.

“God damn it!” the irate man yelled, and frantically tried to save both his phone and what was left in his two-grand bottle of wine. But the already imbibed alcohol made his hands fumble, causing him to knock the bottle off the table, only for it to uncannily crack against his porcelain tile flooring, spilling more of its precious contents. Reaching down to retrieve the bottle, his palm was painfully pricked by a silver of glass, causing him to reflexively drop and fully shatter the bottle. He swore as the last of the Bourdeaux spilled onto his floor.

“God damn it!” He roared again, flinging his likely ruined phone against a wall in a rage, “God damn this fucking night, and God damn me!”

“He has,” came a voice from the shadows.

Jean-Marc instinctively froze. Some animalistic, subconscious part of his brain processed that he was in the presence of a predator–and he was prey. Yet, the more rational part of his mind recognized that paralysis was a paltry defense. He silently cursed himself for keeping his Herculean handgun locked up in his bedroom. Without other options, he slowly reached down and gingerly felt for the neck of broken wine-bottle, hoping to find a make-shift weapon to defend himself.

Fear and alcohol muddled his thoughts. He couldn’t remember if he had relocked his front door after entering–or even if the door had been locked at all. He silently cursed himself again for throwing his phone away, as he was effectively in the dark now, with the city lights doing little to reveal his ‘second’ intruder.

“Who’s there?!” Jean-Marc shouted, his voice echoing against the gray walls, floors, and ceilings of his apartment. Against the sound of his own hammering heart, Jean-Marc heard something ‘plink’ against his floor with the light staccato of tapped porcelain.

“To you, I am Hãsîl,” spoke the intruder with a hollow, dead voice.

Hasil? Jean-Marc tried to scroll through his mental Rolodex, checking if the name rung some bell. Maybe a handle from one of my chat groups? No… wait, sounds Arabic… yeah, shit, I did do that one tabloid piece on the Saudi prince. Okay, it was more like twelve… but, shit, yeah, I did just ghostwrite that alt-right piece suggesting Westley Malveaux didn’t just take a drunken dive off Talal’s yacht, but got off’d by the Saudi as part of a power-move–a fuck-off to the Americans to stay out of the oil business. It was just click-bait, but what if…

Once again, Jean-Marc cursed himself for not having his gun, but he turned to the one weapon that had so often served him well through his years: his tongue:

“Look, Hasil, was it? If this is about the thing with the prince, consider it done. I’ll pull the plug on the whole fucking site if it floats Talal’s boat.”

Jean-Marc couldn’t help but flinch when a locust jumped up on his couch and begin to crawl towards his arm.

Damn, is that the same motherfucker or another one?

His attention, however, was soon drawn back to the darkness as his intruder spoke with a mirthless tone:

“Oh, I do serve a prince, but not the one of which you speak. Nor do I come on his behalf. That said, I am… disappointed that you would retract the piece. Are you not Jean-Marc the Evangelist? The Winged Lion would not so cravenly withdraw his words, but rather sealed them with his blood when the offended pagans of Alexandria placed a rope around his neck and drug him through the streets until he was dead.”

Shit, was Jean-Marc’s first panicked thought, as few besides his closest friends or rivals knew of his painting and private sobriquet. Furthermore, talk of martyrdom also didn’t ease his fraying nerves.

“Well," he said, "Maybe I’m a little more attached to my neck, so forgive me if I’m no saint.”

“Forgiveness used to be my divine mandate–,” the intruder whispered bitterly, “–but no longer, Jean-Marc.”

Double shit, Jean-Marc thought, then flinched again as a second locust leapt up on the handbag’s protruding strap. Despite the more immediate danger, he couldn’t help but try to brush away the insect, What is with these fuckers?

“They smell it,” the intruder said, as if answering Jean-Marc’s unspoken question.

“Smell what?” the man asked, both confused and irritated, as a third locust leapt onto the handbag.

Hamas.

“Hama-what?”

Hamas,” the intruder reiterated, and then elaborated as if Jean-Marc was back at Loyola attending a lecture, “It is a Hebrew word, occurring sixty times in the Old Testament, where it is used most prominently to describe mortal, versus divine, violence.”

“ותשחת הארץ לפני
האלהים ותמלא הארץ
חמס׃.”

“Or to translate in the lay tongue–,” the intruder continued, “’the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.’”

Jean-Marc shook his head in the darkness, unsure whether he was involved in an imminent shake-down, hit, lecture, or sermon. He wasn’t sure which he’d prefer.

“Look, I don’t know anything about all that,” Jean-Marc said. “I’m not a violent man, I just write–“

“Aren’t you though, Jean-Marc? Otherwise, I and they would not be here. Know that you are no longer among the living. Any falsehood you now speak is not made to men, but to God alone.”

Triple shit, Jean-Marc silently swore, This fucker’s a religious fanatic, probably a deluded zealot stirred up by today’s piece, looking for blood…

“It is your delusions that should concern you this night, Jean-Marc,” the dark voice intoned. “For despite your protestations of innocence, you are a violent man. Or have you so soon forgotten your bodily violence against the harlot.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?!”

“The harlot you intended to give this ‘gift’ to, the one that reeks of hamas. One of your nights of fornication was frustratingly curtailed when she told you her mother was sick. You let her go, in one of your few acts of charity. But you became enraged when you later discovered she had lied to you. Her mother had been fine, she just played on your sympathy, so she could go to a party aboard the Saturnalia. Warren Whitney’s lucre has always been filthier than yours, but it has also always been so much more.”

“Wha–h-how could you know that?!”

“You nursed your bitter hurt for a week, till you next fornicated with her. Then your rage boiled up. Things got ‘rough,’ as you would say. But the truth–even the tabloid kind–was that things became violent. You nearly strangled her to death. You wanted to strangle her to death. You coveted, Jean-Marc. Power, control. In your lust and rage, you wanted to own and use her as you and you alone wished.”

“But I didn’t!” Jean-Marc protested, not even noticing as a fourth locust crawled unto the handbag, while a fifth leapt onto his sofa. His face was hot, like it had been slapped with a plugged-in iron, and he felt not only shock but shame as he was forced to relive that dark moment:

“I didn’t strangle her–not… I backed off, I apologized, I swore it would never happen again, I made things right, she told me I made things right…”

A single tear streaked down the man’s face, and he wiped it away with his bloodied palm.

Across the room, the intruder seemed to draw in a deep breath, as if savoring some heady scent–much as Jean-Marc had done during his nocturnal stroll that now seemed so long ago.

“Yes,” the stranger said with an impassioned breath. “The Evangelist now speaks truth. But there is a second meaning to hamas, as the word also denotes ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘wickedness’, as for example, used by the prophet Isaiah:"

“ויתן את־רשעים
קברו ואת־עשיר
במתיו על לא־חמס
עשה ולא מרמה
בפיו׃.”

“’And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.’"

“But unlike the Lamb of which Isaiah prophesied, you, Jean-Marc, you have done hamas, and your mouth has been filled with deceit. You have done much violence with your evangelism–and you have done it willingly and without penance, wallowing in your covetousness, jealousy, hatred, and pride.”

With each word of condemnation, another locust seemed to appear out of the darkness, till Jean-Marc was surrounded by a swarm that crawled over the table, sofa, and walls behind him. Terror seized him, and like a man desperate for aid, he uttered a vain prayer to the God and faith he had long ago abandoned and so repeatedly blasphemed.

His only answer was another set of ‘plinks’ as something tapped against his porcelain tile floors–something that was drawing nearer to the swarm-surrounded man.

“Vae desiderantibus diem Domini: ad quid eam vobis? Dies Domini ista tenebrae, et non lux.”

This time, perhaps by some dark miracle, Jean-Marc needed no translation, but perfectly understood the eschatological recitation from the Book of Amos:

(”Woe to them that desire the day of the Lord: to what end is it for you? The day of the Lord is darkness, and not light.")

Once more there was the tapping of porcelain, and the intruder’s voice was much closer. As before, it spoke another dark malediction, its voice the rustling of dead cypress branches. But this time, its malediction was accompanied by a growing, stridulating chorus of locusts–that, to his horror, had begun to crawl onto and over his flesh:

“Et quintus angelus tuba cecinit: et vidi stellam de caelo cecidisse in terram, et data est illi clavis putei abyssi. Et aperuit puteum abyssi: et ascendit fumus putei, sicut fumus fornacis magnae: et obscuratus est sol, et aer de fumo putei: et de fumo exierunt lucustae in terram et data est illis potestas, sicut habent potestatem scorpiones terrae: et praeceptum est illis ne laederent faenum terrae, neque omne viride, neque omnem arborem: nisi tantum homines, qui non habent signum Dei in frontibus: et datum est illis ne occiderent eos: sed ut cruciarentur mensibus quinque et cruciatus eorum, ut cruciatus scorpii cum percutit hominem. Et in diebus illis quaerent homines mortem, et non invenient eam, et desiderabunt mori et fugiet mors ab ipsis.”

(”And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.")

Jean-Marc screamed in terror. He tried to rise and run, but his foot slipped in the “damned” wine, causing him to trip and fall. One of his arms fell into the broken glass, further shattering it and lacerating his flesh. The locusts’ hymn of hunger grew. In despair, the prostrate man cried out to the darkness, his tears falling like the rivulets of blood from his body:

“W-what do you want? Please–please, just tell what you want, whatever it is, I’ll do it, j-just tell me, please…”

In the stygian dark, the kneeling, bleeding man felt a hand on his cheek. Its touch was cold and hard, like the porcelain beneath him. Then, with a gentleness that seemed to mock Jean-Marc’s pain, the inhuman hand tilted the ‘Evangelist’ to look up. Doing so, Jean-Marc finally saw his tormentor.

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Its shape mimicked a small, slight man clad in liturgical vestments, but its ‘flesh’ and clothes were fused and fashioned entirely from time-worn porcelain. Outside, the city lights gauntly stretched into the room, reflecting off the figure’s pale porcelain face like a ghostly halo. To Jean-Marc’s horror, that inhuman face regarded him with only one ceramic eye. Its other orb was an empty, abyss-black pit from which locusts crawled and flew into the room. The porcelain horror smiled, revealing sharp ceramic fangs:

“Why, Jean-Marc,” the hollow monster proclaimed, “I desire what I have always desired: God’s will. For your unrepentant sins, for your hamas, I call you to serve God’s wolves, since you would not serve His lambs. By the Undying Rite of the Lancea et Sanctum, I call you—command you—Jean-Marc the Evangelist, to accept the blood of the Damned, since you would not accept the blood of the Redeemed.”

“I-I… I d-don’t understand,” the man blathered amidst his tears, horror, and wounds. “I-I jus–“

But the monster silenced him with a porcelain finger pressed against his lips.

“You will, Jean-Marc. But for now, be silent:"

“Ideo prudens in tempore illo tacebit quia tempus malum est.”

(”Therefore, the prudent shall keep silence at that time, for it is an evil time.")

“Verily, Jean-Marc, I tell you that it is indeed an evil time. So listen and learn how it came to be, from the Malediction and Torments of Longinus, to the Hagiography of St. Cyprien the False, whose confession you shall hear and pen so that others might fear and learn the damnation that awaits them.”

The inhuman terror then closed its sole remaining eye and drew its porcelain hands together in supplication:

“Archangel Vahishtael, Amoniel of the Dominions; Sanctified Longinus of the Spear, and the Five Martyrs; St. Daniel of the Theban Legion, Maron of Icaria, Pazit of the Mount, and the crucified Adira and Gilad; hear my confession:"

“As Adam, I was born in Eden, where I conversed with God amid paradisiacal glory.”

“As Adam, I was tempted by a serpent, and partook of the forbidden fruit.”

“As Adam, I fell from grace, and was cast out from God’s presence.”

“Forever and ever, until the execution of all things,”

“Amen.”


Thursday afternoon, 25 February 2016

GM: 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.

Probably.

“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…”


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