It is oft said, commonly by those so willingly and woefully ignorant, that what we don't know cannot hurt us. In a land built on dissatisfaction, spite, and ruthlessness, it is quickly learned, among its inhabitants, that this is far from the case. In a run-down motel room, a man is suffocated to death with a pillow by those he betrayed. In an alleyway next to a cabaret, a wealthy couple is mugged and shot to death. In a church in the poor part of town, a parishoner steals from the donations to the church. Come sunrise, bodies will be found, money will be missing, orphans and widows will be made. Greed. Gluttony. Wrath. Envy. Lust. Pride. Sloth. This is a city where sin becomes a necessity to live.
Welcome to the Big Easy.
Monday morning. The first day of October. The sky was already grey with dark and heavy clouds, and the wind was already strong. The cool air had a tinge of moisture, perhaps a clue as to what one could look forward to for the rest of the day; It wouldn't be long before it would rain. The streets were filled only with the quiet of the morning, people who simply wanted to get to work without much trouble, though perhaps there was a certain fill of those who simply enjoyed the morning hours. Very ocasionally, an automobile would rumble down one of the roads, loud enough to occasionally warrant some distasteful looks. Of course, this was still New Orleans, and the ocassional odd figure wasn't too surprising. Figures such as the lanky man playing a soft and somber tune on his trumpet, slowly marching down the road near the ground of Tulane University. A grizzly and mean-looking fellow, as shabbily dressed as he was large, standing out by the Mississippi River not far from the port area, gazing into the waters. Two men dressed in solid black conversating outside of a police station. A young boy running around past whatever strangers crossed his path. Then of course, men like Paul Campbell, strutting out of his automobile and into some speak-easy in the middle of the Lakeview neighborhood eagerly shaking hands with the owner of the establishment right outside the doorway with his goons in tow.
John H. Turner was a man who commanded respect, even among plenty of white folk. Suffice it to say, a black man in charge of one of the largest local contruction companies has had to deal with plenty of 'troublesome' folks before, but the man was cold as stone, and smarter than most folks in general to boot. The second biggest name in the underground, John was a hero to the working class. He was born in New Orleans. Raised here. Lived it and breathed it. And the heat of Jim Crow wasn't going to scare him away anytime soon. He had already lived through situations like that of Robert Charles, and here he was. In his later 40s, his hair had gone grey, and his wrinkles grew deeper, but John was among the most physically intimidating folks around. And between his background in boxing (he was an avid fan of Jack Johnson) and his connections in the New Orleans underworld, someone who even Paul Campbell respected as a friendly rival, the thought of being lynched had become a backburner idea.
The smoke from John's cigarette drifted into the cold morning air as he walked about, deep in thought. He had been told something strange yesterday by Campbell after a bootlegging deal between him, Campbell, and Nikolas Muller (a man who controlled the dockside area of New Orleans, and the owner of a meat shop near Tourmaline Park). He had occasionally heard of the people going by the name of the Tarot before. He always supposed it was either a silly supersition or simply people blowing things out of proportion. Not that he was convinced otherwise, yet, but Campbell did tell John he should look into them. He wasn't sure, though. He had come this far without so much as hearing about them. Why should he investigate them? Campbell didn't exactly give any details, anyway. For the moment, John simply shook the idea from his mind. He had something else to do. The big names in the underground of New Orleans were beginning to weave a web.
Club LeBlanc. One of the newer establishments in town. Territory of probably one of the scariest women in town. He hadn't met Vivienne De Viliers before, but he had heard of her. Campbell was the one who pointed John this way, though. John supposed it was time for introductions...
Thomas Jones. Isaac Butcher. Aurelie Theriot. Ian Rowe. Four invitations to Club LeBlanc. Perhaps the letter was left on one of their beds. Perhaps, they came across it in a strange place. Perhaps some kid tossed it at them and ran off before any questions could be asked. All eyes are on you, and the longest nights approach us. You are hereby invited to the Club LeBlanc, where a future of greatness awaits. We all abide by deals, but we are ready to make the deal that ends all others. Oblige us, and oblige the tradition of the Deal. Our Associates await.
The bottom of the letter is signed off with a symbol instead of a name.
For Vivienne, the season revelled in an auspicious omen, save for the Axeman’s killings nigh on a decade since. How music that coming spring had teemed the evening of his threat, the city alive but on edge - a finger over its pulse as dance halls filled to capacity and every pair of hands that could play a tune were sold out on a silver dollar. De Villiers recalled it with significant joy, eighteen and stupid, Louis had taken her out that night to stay up till dawn.
Autumn always did feel like the right time for bloodshed, among wilting vines and rotting leaves. Petrichor as the rains came, soaking busy streets and clattering off slum roofs, accompanied by caterwauling cries of children and dogs pulling on rattled chains with every jolted bark. Club LeBlanc was distanced from that scene of her youth, born from the fruits of Vivienne’s late husband, Dallas. He was clever enough to haggle their price on the speakeasy, but he’d never been a businessman. Charisma only carried you so far and De Villiers was shrewd enough to notice that one too many loose ends would be better tied up without him. For a big man he cried like a baby, sloppy till the end.
One thing he ought to have understood is that a widow was far less intimidating than a divorcee. Preserving her reputation until the bitter end, Vivienne de Villiers wasn’t the type to forgive and forget. If he’d wanted one of those, he ought to have married into the church.
A brisk chill in the air provided some relief, cheeks hollowed with a drag of her cigarette - printing a smear of signature burgundy lipstick, encircling the filter. Smoke mingled with the scent of perfume, finely spritzed in the hollow of her collar and neck, the insides of her wrists - bergamot and jasmine, it carried over to every last thing she owned. Cold silk clung to her, adjusting the clasp for her stockings as she reclined on the iron wrought bannister of the small balcony. Providing a view over the skyline of a crisp morning, radio tittering with a transatlantic burr.
“Miss Vivienne? We’ve finished downstairs for the early opening, and your...” One of the girls called, standing in place of the french doors.
“Guest? Bless yuh cotton socks, sweetheart,” Vivienne crushed the cigarette butt with a sizzle, aiming a glance at the dark, swollen clouds above - well-manicured hands grasped her mink shawl closer, clawing red lacquered nails into the light brown of its mottled shine. “Make sure we got cawffee and as much liquor as a man can take for breakfast,” De Villiers paused by the young woman, glancing her up and down before she pinched the dancer’s cheek, “Good girl, run ahlong,”
By the mirrored vanity, Vivienne addressed her hair some, threading fingers upward for volume until the framed picture of Dallas caught her attention.
Pretty boys always turned out the worst. Her palm hovered over the black and white depiction of their wedding, his hand on her shoulder - the stern, unsmiling of it all. If one would’ve thought her to cradle it in nostalgic sympathy for her actions; they didn’t know the woman.
Her heeled toe swept forward the small makeup bin beneath the desk, dropping it at a split shatter. Fracturing right across Vivienne’s grainy monochrome eyes. Instead she leant in near the silver-backed mirror, reapplying another coat of hue to her lips and blotting between a piece of tissue.
Another lucky kiss of bergamot.
She descended the stairs from uptop, prowling down across the well-varnished floors and carefully curated tables. Little natural light was ever available in the speakeasy from it’s recessed placement in the building, the bar out front selling nothing but rootbeer, long having gone stale - however, further in Club LeBlanc’s interior shined. Soft glass chandeliers diffused low light, lamps and candles burning in every other corner with a long, well-stocked bar which ran adjacent to a small stage and lone piano.
One of the bartenders for the day shift had already arrived, slow hours but she paid staff well - surrounded herself in a culture of loyalty. Nice smiles and an iron fist you’d have nightmares about.
“Mornin’ Miss Viv, ma’am. I got yuh a cawffee and thuh local,”
DeVillier smiled, head tilting back with a grin of animal-white, “Now, yuh shouldn’t have, yuh bettuh not have put any sugah in it either, lord knows the day ah turn forty ah’ll indulge and drown myself soon aftah - ain’t no rest fur the wicked, Bobby,”
Delighted in the caffeine, and distinct but cheeky slip of whiskey, the hostess slipped back onto the stools.
“Yuh were up late, ma’am, think you shouldn’t of had a longuh lie-in?”
“An’ come down tuh my regulars in a nightie? That’s too much too quick, I’m a slow girl,” Viv gave a rhythmic, husky laugh, “Besides, honey, cold mornin’s are a treat. Good fur thuh skin - and ah wouldn’t be a hostess othuhwise. Oh, an’ remembuh … Campbell is on thuh house.”
The bartender nodded, lowering his head some, “Yes ma’am,”
If there was anything De Villiers liked, it was making sinister friends. Even if Orleanian’s were a little too wide-eyed for biting the bait.
Isaac Butcher (Ellis Island was less than imaginative when renaming his family, choosing to default to the father's profession) AKA "Isaac the Alligator" (a nickname applied for his toothy grin, notorious tenacity, and tendency to dispose of bodies through making generous donations of foodstuffs to alligators in and around New Orleans) knew many things to be true.
Demons are real, magic exists, and you just can't get a good cheesecake outside of New York. The last one was of the most concern to him, given that the first item only mattered insofar as he had sold his soul to one and the second was something he knew little about and had no real interest in prying into more.
To put it another way, Isaac Butcher was an extremely incurious man if something was outside his interest. Not that he was stupid, merely extremely petty and prone to misapplying what knowledge he did have. Still, he was to most people who knew him merely an extremely competent thug whose vocabulary far outstripped his ability to use it and any true brilliance in him was buried under a mountain of bad habits.
Something that did interest him was the letter he'd found by his bedside upon waking up this morning. Not only because of how whoever delivered it must have been able to do so without waking him, but also that they somehow found him despite him not being at his listed address. Adding to the difficulty of this feat was the fact Isaac had been sleeping in the bed of what some called a 'house of ill repute' and so also had to get past the Madame and any 'ladies of the evening' who'd have been up at that hour. Isaac had been there in the course of his duties though, not to sample the merchandise. He had no current task and so had been sent to work as a bouncer finally taking his own rest after no further patrons had arrived.
It was a cold morning, which rendered Isaac relatively lethargic. He wasn't cold-blooded like his namesake, but he still preferred enough warmth in the air that it was hard to tell the difference between the heat of the day and the heat in your blood. Right now he wasn't looking for a fight though, so he simply made his way through town in a more subdued fashion than usual. To an observer it might remind them of an alligator drifting through a swamp on it's way to a feeding spot.
And now Isaac was here, Club LeBlanc. And dammit, his stomach was rumbling. He needed to eat something soon or he'd have more to worry about than this letter. If his hunger got too bad Isaac started looking at people and seeing raw meat walking around in clothes. Flagging down a waitress, Isaac asked to know if they had any real food. They better, or he'd have to duck out quick enough to grab something and hope he was back in time
due to it being Vivienne de Villiers's club)
While he waited, Isaac reminisced on the first time he was here. VV (Isaac didn't like names that were more than a mouthful and found nicknames preferable) had required her husband's body discretely disposed of and Isaac had been happy to take cash for the job. It was a simple matter to prop the corpse like a drunkard sleeping off a belly full of rotgut in the back of his car, and from there it had been the work of a few hours to see to it that a local group of alligators were well-fed. Isaac remembered how he'd gotten some of the deceased's blood in his mouth and not disliked the taste. Darn, this was just making him hungrier.
Fishing about in his jacket for something to take the edge off his hunger, Isaac discovered a brown paper bag containing a sandwich he'd meant to eat yesterday. It was still good in his opinion and quickly vanished down his gullet. Not that it was all he'd be eating if he could help it. Even before selling his soul to Beur Isaac had had a prodigious appetite.
Let's see, VV was already here, some guy Paul Campbell had brought Isaac along as muscle to meet (John something or other), and a bunch of other faces Isaac was too hungry to recognize currently.
Dammit, what did a man have to do to get something to bite into around here?
Aurelie looked at the time. The seconds hand of the clock had stopped. She knew she shouldn't have stolen this, it never worked properly. She sighed. She was on edge since morning, since she received the invitation. Why was she being invited to Club LeBlanc, and by whom? She was tempted to using her scrying glass to take a peek but it was exhausting nowadays. She hadn't been sleeping and it was taking a toll on her. No matter how much she tried, she couldn't find out about that night when her family died and it was making her anxious, which meant that she tossed and turned all night. She was an information gatherer but this was the only information that she couldn't gather.
She threw the bottle in her hand on the ground in frustration. The glass shattered and a mouse squeaked somewhere in the house. She had been organizing her poison bottles and now she was one short. Great. Just Great. She had become a mess. She wondered if she could even steal for her client the coming weekend. It was a big task and she couldn't afford to lose focus or she'd be at risk of getting caught. She blew out a breath. What kind of life was she living? Was it ever going to improve?
She shook her head. She couldn't go in that direction. If she started thinking about that, she'd go into a dark place like she did all those years ago... No, she couldn't. She tried to distract herself. Her eyes fell to the invitation once again. Aurelie Theriot. They knew her full name. She rarely revealed it but they knew. And the message itself... It was so ominous. There was no way of knowing who was inviting her since the invitation didn't have the sender's name, just a strange symbol which puzzled Aurelie. She wished she could trace this back to the sender but it was quite impossible since she had found the invitation on her bed, with no other visible clue as to how it got there. Who could've come to her house unnoticed? That was her job! She rubbed her temples.
Overthinking was going to give her a headache, so it was better to attempt scrying once. She relaxed herself and emptied her mind, focusing on the mental image of the invitation. Then she looked into the glass, directing her focus there. She caught a glimpse of some blurry images, nothing was clearly visible. Then a single clear image appeared, it was Club LeBlanc's sign and then there was nothing more. Aurelie was too tired to try to peer in further. She didn't like going anywhere without knowing much about it but she had no choice. She was going to have rely on her intuition now.
She only felt the cold of the autumn air when reached the entrance of the club. She hadn't come sneakily here, like she did once or twice before to meet her clients. She was here as Aurelie Theriot, so she was going to present her best self. Not necessarily the nicest self though. She usually wore shirt and pants for easier movement and for hiding her weapons efficiently but today, she wore a flapper dress with gold jewelry. She still carried her knives but they were strapped to her thighs, under the dress. She hadn't done much with her hair because she wasn't as skilled as someone like the club owner Vivian. All of this still felt too much but there was reason she dressed up like this. She wanted to appear non-threatening, just some girl who liked wearing pretty things, albeit stolen. Before going in, she reached for her intuition and instantly, she knew that she had to keep her guard up all the time. Something or someone was going to pose a danger to her here. Possibly to others too but she didn't care about anyone else.
Taking a deep breath, she adjusted her silk shawl and entered the club. She looked around and saw Vivian flitting about. Aurelie didn't know where to go. She spotted a table where Isaac Butcher and a bunch of other people were sitting. Her intuition warned her about that table, so she guessed that was the right table. She made her way towards it, trying to walk as gracefully as possible and sat down in an empty chair.
Dawns were always surprising in New Orleans. Like a woman searching her husband’s drawers, the sun uncovered everything, shone a burning spotlight on the city’s previous nighttime activities. Hangovers were gained, bodies were discovered… and sometimes strange letters were found in even stranger places.
Ah, dawns. What wasn’t there to love?
In the early morning chill, few walked the streets, and fewer still outside Club LeBlanc. Tom watched the long building from a side street, before trailing his eyes back to the letter in his palm. Filled with more vague statements than a politician’s election speech, it was impossible to get a read on it. Truth or lie? Only one way to find out.
Out of those who were up this time of day, they strode with a certain lightness, their feet gliding across the pavement as they meandered past alleys in a dull comfort.
Tom was not one of them. With his veins buzzing with coffee and his mind swirling to last night’s scotch, he walked briskly and purposefully to Club LeBlanc. Dressed as he was – overcoat, hat and gun – he felt crude entering into the diffused underground light, hearing the clink of bottles and the laughter of sinners. There were a few others here, he realized. Whatever this meeting had been for, they’d wanted it in a public place. Already he could feel his fingers twitching for another drink, something to take the edge off. He’d heard about this place, of course. Owned by a missing man, then passed to his wife. A mystery waiting to be solved, if anybody cared enough to do it. Or so Tom thought. Sighing, he turned to the others in the speakeasy. Who knew which of these was the person he was to meet? So he decided to try a test.
“All eyes are on you,” he said loudly and to no one in particular, reading the first part of the letter and sitting on a barstool. “And the longest nights await us.”
If there was anybody he was supposed to meet, perhaps they’d take the hint and show themselves now.
The air didn’t feel right. Hadn’t felt right for days, not since getting chased off the accommodation car at the Kansas City Southern Station. For someplace so widely known as the Big Easy, security was wound so tight that it squeaked. Ian had tried several other stations since his arrival in New Orleans, but the railroad bulls were patrolling so thick that he couldn’t so much as look at a rail car without a pair of slavering yowling jaws snapping at him.
I’ll walk out of here, Ian had thought, except that that wasn’t working out either. Something always managed to distract him. Once or twice it seemed as though his feet turned of their own accord, and he wound up hiking back into the outskirts of the city, despite his best efforts. The air maintained a vibration of purposeful intent. It was becoming clear to Ian that he was meant to be here, and while no force on earth could pin him down, it could certainly frustrate and befuddle him into submitting to whatever whim Fate ultimately decided to toss his way.
It seemed inevitable. So Ian finally jungled up in a camp about a mile outside of his original departure; far enough from the city for some quiet nights, but close enough to see her glow on the horizon at dusk. Fortunately for him, whatever powers were at work were kind enough to afford Ian a couple of days to get settled in before slithering into position. When it happened, the shift in energies was so subtle, Ian would have never guessed at what was about to come down the pike.
Hapton Brewer, a well known liar and disreputable tramp turned up dead on the last afternoon of September, floating languidly down the muddy length of the Mississippi in an area where the more respectable hobos liked to bathe. True to their ways, the locals had pulled his bloated corpse from the murky water, and held a moment of silence for old Hap. Then they stripped him down and shoved the parts no one wanted back into the river. Among the man’s scant belongings was a nondescript folded piece of paper, one with Ian's name written on it. No one would have known who to give it to, had Ian not started rolling bones and running dice games out of his camp. Someone had heard of the elusive young man that had only been among them for a handful of days, and so the paper eventually found its way into his hands.
The rest wanted nothing to do with him after that, worried he was wrapped up in shady dealings with New Orleans’ darker undertones. Ian didn’t try to dissuade them. Particularly not after reading the written contents of the paper. He couldn’t be sure yet what it meant, but he felt certain that the collective intuition of the camp wasn’t completely out of touch.
The wind came in chill off the river as the sun broke on the morning of October first. Ian doused his fire and rolled up his bedding. As was his habit, he checked his pack to make sure no one had slipped up and robbed him in his sleep. There wasn’t much; a few bits and bobs, buttons, a needle and some thread, a stale heel of bread and a wedge of hard cheese, chalk, some twine, Ian’s snubnose Fitz Colt revolver, and a book. The book was particularly important. Wrapped in waxy parcel paper to protect it from the elements, Ian withdrew it momentarily to inspect the wrapping for damage before burying it back in his bag. Then he pocketed the pistol and set off into town.
Ian let his feet lead him, despite having no idea where he was going. He asked a few of the other camp natives about the location of Club Leblanc, but all they could give him was a smattering of unfamiliar street names, and the dire warning of “Y’all be careful of that woman who runs the place. I hear she’s a real devil.”
Ian managed, all the same. He was certain that this was meant to happen, whether by mortal machination or divine providence, and that he was going to end up exactly where he needed to be. Which was why Ian felt very little surprise at nearly walking past the club’s entrance. He might have missed it completely, were it not for a sharply dressed young woman with flaxen hair that just caught his attention before she herself vanished inside. Seeing her state of dress, Ian looked down at his own attire for a moment. At one time, the pants he wore had been black, and his button down shirt a pristine white. The dark duster jacket protecting him from the cold was as wrinkled as an old quilt, and the wide brim of his hat hung half limp into his field of vision. He smelled like coal dust, camp smoke, and human musk, and the thought occurred to Ian, however briefly, that maybe he should have taken a dip in the river before coming here.
The moment passed, and Ian let several long paces pass between himself and the blonde woman before following her inside. He had never been inside a place like this before. There were a number of unfamiliar faces gathered and gathering, though no indication of who might be involved and who was simply enjoying their drink. Ian hugged the wall like a shadow, searching for an out of the way spot to nestle down and wait, unsure of what exactly he was waiting on.
“All eyes are on you…”
Ian had barely gotten settled in when a man, having entered just behind him, practically bellowed the opening line from the letter to the room, projecting like an actor reciting his lines on stage.
“Well.” Ian chuckled quietly to himself as his eyes darted from face to face. “That ought to stir up something.”
Four strangers walk into a bar; Vivienne couldn’t decide on the punchline. She rotated her body, chin glancing off the top of her shoulder while inquiring on every new face which wasn’t a faithful patron. Some were familiar - more familiar than they ought to have been. De Villiers took a long draught of coffee as she got to her feet, heels on varnished floors amid the quiet morning.
“Isaac Butcher, in my veruh own establishment, it’s been awhile ain’t it, sugah?” Her hand landed on his broad shoulder, motioning for the waitress he’d spoken to, “What trouble he causin’?”
“Nuthin’ Miss Viv, says he’s out for a bite to eat is all,” The girl replied, fixated anywhere but her employer's face.
“Yuh like beignets, Butcher? Or were you lookin’ for sumthun .... raw,” Vivienne’s features dropped somewhat, lips twisted into a glassy smile.
The singer's reptilian gaze dragged across the table, releasing Isaac as she sashayed round, “Aurelie! Oh hun, you oughta said yuh was stoppin’ in, I’d give yuh ten tables away fruhm this brute -” She leaned in over the blonde, kissing the air either side of the woman’s face in a cloud of perfume and soft tobacco. “All dressed up too, you’re lookin’ sweet as pie - just don’t say yuh here with tall an’ snappy.”
Viv half propped herself up on the table ledge next to the thief, “Yuh want cawfee? Ah’ll get yuh sumn, stay right here … all-a these strange folks makin’ me dizzy - and ah ain’t been dizzy since the day I got spun ‘round by Silver Dollar Sam doin’ thuh Charleston.” Her head lolled back with a laugh, nails tapping in unison on the countertop.
The fella with the low-brimmed hat spoke aloud from his perch at the bar, snapping the landlady’s eye. “Well … ain’t this a day tuh open early, an’ ah thought we’d jus’ be havin’ one important guest.” De Villiers remarked with an unmistakable purr. She looped a strand of hair around the index of her finger, “Mmph, oh ah got a real feelin’ - call it a hunch, ahm stumblin’ into a pit-a vipers.”
A grin followed, “Cohld blooded … jus’ like you Butcher,” Vivienne swung her legs, slipping away into the club to flag down a passing girl with her coffee and fresh pot - piled with cups. It’d been for Campbell and whoever else would’ve accompanied; though she took the porcelain and filled it on the brim. Placing it gently in front of where the Detective kept to himself, “On thuh house …”
Vivi hung by the stranger’s side, shadow falling across the already dim scene, “Yuh got a smoke, or do yuh talk to yuhself often, sittin’ all alone? Don’t tell me ah been left out of a party in muh own den ‘uv sin,”
She jutted her chin toward the lingering boy by the wall, youthful in face, “He with you too? Mistuh…” Viv’s head tilted, glimpsing under his hat - “John Doe?”
A man awoke in a void. A void defined by its endless and all-consuming lack of truly anything, it seemed. The darkness was blinding to the point this man could not truly tell if his eyes were even open. Was he dead? In a featureless dream? He remembered so little. He was careful, as he always was with his actions. He knew what he was running from.... and he had been so...so careful. But here he was. "Hello!?" he called out, the sound escaping his lips and seemingly dying soon after as if this void devoured any and all things. Light, sound...hope....life. It was as his head seemed to grow more dizzy and heavy that he came to realize he was upside down. Something holding his ankles securely to the point he felt he was simply frozen, even as he struggled there was no movement or sway in whatever bound him.
"Mr. Deckard." A voice answered back in the darkness. The tone was authoritative, powerful, seemingly final even with such few words. The void seemed unable to affect the sound of this voice that ran directly up his spine and sparked nothing but fear in a single instant.
"Who are you!?" he immediately yelled back purely driven by the fear in his soul and the growing near frost-like sensation of his sweat dripping down his face.
"Ssshhhh. Patience." The voice responded as a small flame lit up just a fragment within the space. A pipe being lit and a few puffs of smoke somehow being visible, grey streaks moving down his vision. The light from this flame revealed so little, eyes too dark to define and the lower half of a face he could not clearly visualize enough to recognize. Just lightly tanned skin with well-trimmed dark hair across this stranger's chin all before the flame seemed to float away from the pipe and stay fixated in its point beside this individual, keeping said features as the only thing seeming to exist in this domain.
"You know why you are here. Puzzled naturally, but with a small dose of effort I am confident you know about your predicament." The voice said with no hint of sympathy, in fact, it seemed potentially amused. As if watching a child getting stuck in something and letting it naturally find its way out without even the hint of incoming aid. There was a pause as the man known as Deckard caught sight of the embers within the stranger's pipe burning ablaze. While Deckard could not imagine his own expression with the devouring blackness surrounding his body and mind, a look of growing realization came to take form. "There it is." said the voice with a long exhale. "The delusion is fading and the gravity of your situation truly has begun to settle in. You made a deal....Mr. Deckard, a rather generous one at that. You even were informed in a strong bit of detail about the consequences of you trying to escape payment.-"
"I.." Deckard's words were suddenly swallowed back into his throat as his throat seemed to close in a vice-like grip, his arms just as his legs no use to him as he could only look in further panic to the only visible feature before him.
"I am not the one you apologize to. Nor the one you further bargain with.... there are others who may entertain such things but I am simply the final tune in the song of your life. So hold your breath....and listen." the voice said in a calm lull. "Fulfill. Your end of the bargain.". That was all. No other words needed to be uttered as the colorless dark eyes that held to him as nothing less than a defeated quarry seemed to glow a dreadful crimson. The eyes revealed everything that was not said. The 'Or Else' or anything similar could not hold in compare to the threat being posed. The next moment Deckard felt nothing but pain, his bones and limbs suddenly feeling as if they were being crushed, torn, and moved in the most unnatural ways, only enhancing the terror that he felt. His mind imagining the horrors that might await him if light suddenly bloomed and revealed the state of his body. All while being unable to even do so much as scream. A true sense of hopelessness and fear emanating from this inevitable figure.
"You will not be given such a polite warning again...." The red-eyed figure said with a slow tilt of his head as his lips seemed to form into a smile that could be defined as anything except gentle. "Sweet Dreams."
A heavy textbook would hit the surface of a student’s wooden desk within the history classroom of Tulane University, with a startled student suddenly almost springing free from their seat as the professor held an amused but kind smirk. Looking to the student before the others that were present. “With that class, we have concluded our current unit on the Battle of Saratoga and the profiles of Benedict Arnold and General Burgoyne.” The professor said before his eyes went to the entry door of the classroom for a brief moment before giving the once sleeping student a soft playful flick on the forehead followed by innocent laughter from the rest of the classroom. “With that, we will call it a day. Make sure to prepare for the exam next week and I will see you tomorrow.” he said with a dismissive wave as the class quickly got up to leave.
“See you tomorrow Professor Dámaso!” a few of the students called out as the professor himself gave one final wave as he settled papers and his belongings at his desk. It wasn’t long after the last student found their way out before the low and melodic drone of a trumpet wafted into the room. The culprit leaned with his back against the door, playing a bout of smooth jazz on his instrument as he began slowly walking further into the classroom. Tall and lanky, dressed in a black tweed suit and a wide-brimmed hat, the man bobbed rhythmically with each deliberate step, and just as he stopped right after he made his way to the good professor, he offered a low bow, arms outstretched and hands circling in gesture.
“Oh Professor Dámaso,” Came the man’s raspy voice as he stood back up straight. “Forgive my intrusion, but I don’t seem to have an apple today! Only my meager melodies, oh intellectually savvy one.”
Amber eyes peered out from under the brim of the hat, as thin lips twisted into a grin, the asymmetrical face stained with a large burn mark across the lower left-hand side contorting into a gleeful expression. As the professor was greeted by this strange incoming figure there was an instant almost impulsive physical response. Gabriel’s fists clenched before he would raise a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration followed by a deep breath as his voice quickly discarded any pleasantries and kindness the man was known for.
“I believe we have had numerous conversations by this moment regarding playing your music in my presence or even meeting me here on university grounds. If only your wittiness was matched by your memory Faust.” he said as the door’s lock would clink and engage behind the new occupant. Gabriel now lowering his hand and turning to the man seemed conflicted between his normal professional and composed nature colliding with an obvious degree of distaste. “To what do I owe the pleasure. Whatever business you bring, better not originate from your barely sensible mind.”
“Fret not, fret not, no need to wet yourself in my magnificent presence,” Faust retorted. “Our lovely comrade in arms, Good Father Ahab, has delivered news of a new Deal. We're going to shake on it at Club LeBlanc. I believe Crowley is going to meet us there, though I suspect he’s not going to actually take part in things. Just there to make things go smoothly. He’s more a stageman than someone who gets his hands dirty.”
Faust pulled out a folded piece of paper from his breast-pocket, holding it between his index and middle finger, holding it out to the teacher.
“The names of those involved. Most of them are getting the one-above-all treatment, since most of them made deals already with lesser sorts. One inherited her father’s place in the spider’s web. The last one, though… very interesting: He has a book Ahab wants. Badly wants. And He has made it clear that we all should obtain the book just as well.”
Gabriel’s eyes would narrow and the curtains would fall and collapse over the windows, separating them almost entirely from the world. “This seems like a great deal of effort…..I never enjoyed so many of us in one place. For multiple reasons.” the Professor said with an obvious look towards Faust. Raising his hand, the paper would soar from Faust’s fingers and unfold in Gabriel’s palm as he read while unfortunately listening to his compatriot. His composure shifted slightly as HE was mentioned.
“I remember a time when I questioned these methods of ours. The far simplest solution is not in the cards as of yet. But in the end if He is catering to Ahab in such a way, another deal was made or this book is just that important.” he said after finishing his scan of the names. At least one of which he even recognized. “Well then...the sooner we finish this, the sooner you can return to your side of the city.” he said, finishing with a not so apologetic smile as he slipped back into the charm and facade that was Professor Dámaso. The door unlocking as he gestured towards the door.
Faust’s grin only grew wider, as he spoke once more; “Don’t you know? Every side of New Orleans is my side,” he said as he strolled up to and out the door. “And don’t forget your face, this time. He has us wear them for good reason, you know. Even I know that.”
Putting the trumpet back to his lips, Faust began playing his melodies once again, tucking his hat over his face to obscure it as he could.
“I have been doing this a long time, Faust…” Gabriel said. “While I will not disagree with Him. I have my position for a reason and I have never failed or exposed anything unintended.” he stated flatly. Although he did have a point. It was the safest option. But perhaps a small part of him wanted the slight bit of risk after so many years. “Well we better not waste another moment then. At least I will enjoy the venue.”
Isaac returned Vivienne's reptilian gaze with one of his own, only his seemed as if it was the natural expression for his face. His lips pulled back as he smiled, revealing teeth that seemed slightly more pointed than was normal for a Human.
"Elephants don't have nothing on an Alligator's memory, VV. Why, I recall our first meeting as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was new to this fine city but you were kind enough to give me my first job here."
Isaac liked Vivienne. Isaac respected Vivienne. But Isaac wasn't about to be given the cold shoulder without reminding Vivienne that he knew enough about her late husband's death to cause a great deal of trouble for her. After all, he was the one who disposed of the corpse. Sure the job had led to most of his current good fortune, but you had to be as cold-blooded as an Alligator to survive in the underworld. Gratitude was something you either could afford or not, much like the price of life.
"It gladdens my heart to see how well we've both done since then. And please, call me Isaac. My father's profession shouldn't define me as much as my own work."
His grin currently seemed to stretch beyond his face. Lots and lots of shiny, pointy teeth.
Still, the offer of food did much to improve his mood, even if it held that insult. Isaac let his menace drop.
"Current events have got me curious. So let's match the mood of 'blood in the water' with whatever meat you've got that bleeds red, cook it enough that it stops screaming, and pile it on the plate thick. All the better if it's got a good sauce."
Everyone knew Isaac the Alligator sought out meat from Klaus Mueller's slaughterhouses because it was as close as he could get to eating people without risking arrest. Of course that was steaming pile of gatorshit, but Isaac wasn't about to let the truth spoil a good rumor. Sure, Mueller's outfit had seemed like a good fit for him, but Isaac found that Paul Campbell was a more reliable employer and appreciated the surprising amount of finesse he could bring to a job. Isaac Butcher had yet to seek out the taste of human flesh.
That Isaac Butcher had a tendency to lick the blood of his victims from his hands after a beating and wondered what it'd be like to get something more substantial than that between his teeth was another matter altogether.
But now VV was trying to take away the pretty little dame before Isaac even got a chance to introduce himself.
"Now now, VV, I'd say 'brute' is an unfair label for a gentleman such as myself. Sure I work with my hands, but it's not like I'm lacking in manners."
The Alligator Grin returned.
"Besides, it's not like ten tables is anywhere near enough space if I had any ill intentions towards her."
Turning to Aurelie, Isaac went on a charm offensive. Being who he was it there was more 'offensive' to it than 'charm.'
"Don't let VV frighten you off me. You can swim in my waters without fear of a bite. Unless you want me to of course."
Not that he could resist a little harmless snapping at the thief.
"Of course I'd need you to keep your hands to yourself. The only gold on me is in my teeth, and you'd lose a hand trying to yank those out."
Children sang rhymes as they jumped rope. Sometimes it wasn't a complete rhyme, but if it was good enough it kept getting used. And the rumors around Isaac had led to the development of a new one:
"Whispered sounds behind you,
None will ever find you,
None will dare to look,
Grabs you in a blink,
Breaks your every bone,
Drowns you in the drink."
(I rewrote a rhyme from a D&D Ravenloft book, credit to Children of the Night: Vampires)
Isaac had few things he'd kill for, but someone finding out he'd taught that rhyme to kids was one of them. He'd copied an old rhyme, changed a few words, and sent it out into the world to add to his aura of menace.
At this point it was mainly his Boss's influence that kept the police from making inquiries regarding Isaac Butcher. But when that failed there was still his reputation. A cop came home to his kid singing "Alligator Isaac" and he started wondering if it wasn't worth letting sleeping gators lie. Let someone else handle it, someone who didn't have loved ones who lived near the water. It wasn't like Isaac was bothering anyone not already mixed up in the underworld, let them fight it out. Honest folks had nothing to worry about. Nobody got bit who didn't deserve it.
There were always excuses for why it was somebody else's job to turn Alligator Isaac into a wallet and boots. And whenever someone tried Isaac was always there the next day, grinning. With the person who was certain they'd done him in missing, presumed gator chow. Stabbed, shot, beaten, run over, every guy and his cousin had a story about how Isaac had survived what would have killed anyone else. Why risk it?
Better to stay out of the water.
And there was another insult from VV. She was lucky he had thick skin. Still, he could feel the urge to get something between his teeth. Those steaks better arrive soon.
"Comparing me to vipers? Now now VV that's simply unfair. You're lucky I have thick skin, a lesser man might have taken offense. The danger in a viper's it's venom. It lacks the strength to seize what it desires. Me? I'm straightforward. I go for what I want and you're not getting it away from me in one piece. And right now I'm here to find out if I want what's going on here."
Now the question was what's going to happen first: Isaac's meal arriving, him getting answers on what was happening here, or him having to use his on the job skills to get those answers. The first thing happening only delayed the question of which of the last two would occur.
Right now Isaac only had eyes for the two women, but any intrusion from the men in the room would gain his full attention.
Aurelie turned her head towards the source of that all too familiar melodious voice. An automatic smile came to her face despite her nervousness as the Club Owner made her way towards where she was seated. The cause of her nervousness wasn't the strange invite but the fact that she was sitting next to the famous Alligator of New Orleans. She had heard the poem on the streets and wisely heeded the warning laced with the words.
She shifted in her seat, angling herself to face Vivienne. "I didn't know I'd be coming here till this very morning. As hard as it is to believe, I got a surprise today." She reciprocated the club owners kisses, getting engulfed in the smell of the sickly sweet perfume mixed with that of tobacco. It was an odd combination but it didn't smell bad. It was overwhelming this close though.
Vivienne was almost like Aurelie's sister. When she had craved a familial connection the most, she had found this woman and it had changed her life for the better. She grew more confident and a sliver of hope came to her heart... She wasn't all alone in this ruthless place called the underground.
She squirmed in her seat as Isaac spoke. She wanted to scoff at the 'gentleman' part but thought better of it. The grin had deterred her. It sent a chill down her spine. She wasn't easy to spook but the whole situation since she found the invitation had made her uneasy and the fact that she hadn't been able to use scrying to find out what was happening had increased that feeling. The undertone of threat in the man's words did nothing to improve the situation. She tried to shake that feeling and focus on Vivienne's words.
She blushed slightly at the compliment that the woman so generously paid her. "I tried my best but I could do with a bit of help and a few tips from you the next time I dress up." That wasn't going to be anytime soon, she hated the dress and the fact that she had to sit elegantly at all times or risk indecent exposure. Pants were much better than this loose, frilly piece of clothing. "I'm not with him..." She replied a little uncertainly because she had a feeling that even though she hadn't come with the man, the reason she was here was going to change that, and her feelings were never wrong.
She nodded eagerly at the offer of coffee by the club owner. She really needed the caffeine today. "I'd like a cup." She watched as the woman laughed. Aurelie couldn't help but join in, the laugh was that infectious. Vivienne was the only one who could make her laugh. Otherwise, she was pretty snappish herself.
Isaac addressed Aurelie and she really wished he hadn't. She had steered clear of him all this time but now here he was, traumatizing her by his 'charming words'. She shuddered visibly. "I'll pass, thank you." She told him, putting on her sarcastic smile. "And don't worry, I have enough gold to not be desperate for some cheap tooth filling." She was being daring all of a sudden, throwing caution to the wind. It was probably Vivienne's influence.
The woman almost seemed to be talking to herself but Aurelie agreed with her words. Her intuition was blaring red alert at the back of her mind. She had half a mind to ask the club owner not to go and leave her with Isaac but she stayed quiet, observing the new entries. The man who spoke the words written in the invitation that Aurelie had received was someone she recognized. She scrambled for the name inside her brain and came up with Thomas. Yes, Thomas Jones. He was another person of whom she wished to steer clear. What was he doing here? Before she could wonder about that, her eyes fell upon a suspicious figure in the shadows. He was watching them like they were putting on some sort of show and she didn't like it one bit. She felt her intuition pull her towards the figure. He had something important, something worth stealing... But what? It wasn't gold, she could tell that by the state of his clothing. What could it be?
It didn’t take a genius to know something was off, but it did take a sly set of eyes. Tom took in the scenery and kept his head low. With what he’d said out loud, he probably blended in as much a frog in church, but then again, the point hadn’t been to ‘blend in’. As much as the illusion of free time hazed over him like cigarette smoke, he knew his job here was just that: a job. Reconnaissance, though he’d never call it that. He was a rat scurrying out for breadcrumbs of info that when strung together with logic and a healthy dose of guesswork would become his answers.
“On thuh house…” Vivienne de Villiers said, placing a hot cup of coffee before him on the bar top. Tom watched her movements carefully, noted the way she knew everyone here, had an air of easy confidence that was difficult to match. If he was a rat, she was a hawk, and Tom listened to her quietly while she talked, brushing over the cup with his fingers.
When she was done and inquiring after his name, he took a quick glance to the man by the wall and then snapped back to meet her gaze again. He suddenly felt out of his depth, but what was new about that?
“John Doe,” he repeated her words, played with them on his tongue. He couldn’t lie, but he wasn’t about to waltz in and give his name to anyone who damn well asked. Even the matron of one of the scarier speakeasies around.
“Something like that,” he said, looking up at her. What to say, what not to say? How much to keep to himself, how much to give? Conversation was a complex game, and not one Tom was keen on playing.
“And I doubt you’ve been left out of anythin’,” he said. “You don’t seem the typa woman to let much past her.”
His eyes moved past her face and into the depths of the rest of the club. Only now was he registering that he wasn’t so much a frog in a church as he was a frog in a mulcher. Even without the hawk standing across from him, just over the far side were two names Tom didn’t want to see individually, let alone together.
Theriot and Butcher. Vivienne knew them, they knew her, they knew each other. Was this some kind of trap? Tom figured he’d been keeping his profile as low as it could be, but somewhere along the track, had he slipped? It was a clever plan, luring him in with a letter. Was the coffee poisonous, a paralysing agent? Maybe then the Butcher would have his way with Tom and Ms. Theriot would be there to loot the rest. A clean operation.
But a few words snatched his attention, so much so that he snapped his head in the direction they came from. It was something Aurelie Theriot said.
“I didn't know I'd be coming here till this very morning. As hard as it is to believe, I got a surprise today.”
Immediately, Tom knew the words to be true, knew it in his soul the way a mother knows whether her child’s going to grow up into a murderer or not. It was a honest statement. She hadn’t known she was coming. She’d gotten a surprise.
Tom’s eyes flashed back to the letter. He’d gotten one too. The weight of the possibility that tonight could’ve been his last eased off his shoulders, and he took a sip of the coffee. It was good, but the info he’d gotten was better. Had multiple people received a letter? He mulled over the thought in his head, before looking back to Vivienne, wondering what she’d make of his response.
For some unknowable reason, he knew he had a long night ahead of him.