THE LOWER QUARTER
The man murdered during Katrina in a hotel room two blocks from her art-restoration studio was closely tied to Johanna’s being kidnapped into sexual slavery in Belgium ten years ago. Missing from the crime scene is a valuable artwork painted in 1926 by a renowned Belgian artist (Eugeen Van Mieghem), which had once been owned by the man who paid for her virginity. And Clay Fontenot, who enabled all that and many more forms of violation is the scion of a powerful New Orleans family. Johanna wants revenge on her own terms. The question is whether she will take vengeance herself, as she powerfully wants, or one of the men who are drawn to her will serve as her surrogate.
Marion is an artist from the Quarter who has returned after Katrina to rebuild her life. She would like no longer to make her way as a masseuse and dominatrix, but she falls in thrall to her own desires and the ungovernable force of Clay Fontenot’s violent demons.
When Eli, a convicted art thief, is sent to find the missing painting, all of their stories weave together in the slightly deranged halls of the Quarter.
$16.95 | Paperback | 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 | 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1-60953-119-5 | Carton Quantity: 24
She wasn’t the first customer back. Two others already sat at the counter. One she remembered: the lovely, buxom singer with a vodka-tonic habit and a litany of grievances that ranged from minute quotidian irritations to fifteen hundred dollars in unpaid parking tickets. Johanna could fit the woman into the history of the Quarter that she had learned and arranged in her mind. The other patron was a young man she’d never seen before. He wore work boots and rested his wrist on a drab-green hardhat. Part of the new history, she supposed, jarred by the idea of change from without.
The bartender she knew as well as almost anyone in town, which made him an acquaintance: Peter.
“You’re one of the first to swim home,” he said.
“You think they’d at least clear my tickets, give those of us coming back a clean start,” the singer was saying to the worker, whose face was turned away from Johanna as though this were a dream her mind had failed to fully populate. A world conjured by a tired god, or perhaps merely a lazy one.
“The usual?” Peter asked Johanna as though they’d both been there the day before, as though every board game and newspaper in the place was not stacked soggy in the corner. As though the place always smelled like sulfur and wet dirt and mushrooms and that’s what people wanted.
Her nod had its effect. The pencil came from behind his ear, scrawled the name of a sandwich on the ticket. Peter’s hand ferried the ticket from the counter to the bald cook, who smiled at the order but didn’t look up.
“He’s happy to be back to normal,” Johanna offered.
“For this town.” This was something she’d heard people say. The people who said this had certain kinds of bumper stickers on their cars, but she couldn’t remember which ones. She was still figuring out the zoo, its more straightforward taxonomy, and had not yet quite ordered her history of the city—based on types, ethnicities, currents of arrival—to the present. She wasn’t sure she would ever graduate to living human beings, though some categories were simple enough: rich or poor, free or not free, good or evil. She was not simple enough to deny ambiguity, to deny that there are shades of gray, but neither was she so naïve as to believe that black and white don’t exist in this world. She’d seen good and she’d seen evil, enough to know that both were as real as their more complicated mixes.
Peter laughed. “But maybe abnormal enough for you to drink a whole beer? Nothing on draught yet, so our arrangement is off for awhile.”
She shook her head. “Charge me for a whole bottle then, but pour the usual amount.”
He pressed his hands into the bar in front of her, leaned weight into them. “I never asked before, but now is different.”
She scanned the place. The window-doors were bright with the day, making the rest of the room darker, dim enough to obscure change. The single pool table still occupied the open area just inside the doors. The floor’s concrete remained a dingy color, not something to notice. “Different, yes, but different how?”
“Because now I know if you don’t ask people what you want to know you may never get the chance. Sometimes you see them tomorrow, sometimes not. Don’t people where you’re from drink beer for breakfast?”
“Beer?” Johanna removed her hands from bar top to lap. “I think beer for breakfast is more here, more New Orleans. For me, it’s just that I like the taste but not the rest of it.”
“AA, twelve steps? That’d be against their rules, no? Having a taste?”
“Nothing like that. That’s not a problem I have. Even if I did, I don’t like groups. I just don’t like how it makes me feel, fuzzy, not in control.” She drank the beer he’d poured in two small sips and tasted hops on her breath. “So what was something you wanted to ask somebody and can’t now, because they’re gone?”
“Besides you and the beer?”
“Besides me, yes. You got your chance to ask me your question, it turns out.”
Peter was cleaning the bar with a white towel, in small circles. He looked down at his hands as though just now realizing that they belonged to him and did his mind’s bidding. He stilled them and looked up. Again, even though she knew to expect it, the green of his eyes surprised her against his black hair. “Black Irish except we’re French,” he’d said to her once in the flat accent that he said everyone spoke with where he grew up—a small town somewhere west of New Orleans, a place she was unlikely ever to visit.
“Okay,” he said. “There was a girl who used to come in here once or twice a week, usually pretty late, say three in the morning, and she’d nurse one drink and smoke a whole pack of cigarettes like she was really mad at someone. I always wanted to ask her who she was mad at and what for.”
“Everyone’s mad at someone, right?”
“I was just curious, specifically. It was a thing I wanted to know. Don’t you ever look at people and wonder about them? Wonder what makes them tick, or what’s going on inside their brains?”
Johanna shrugged and pulled her wallet from her back pocket to pay. “I guess I tend to take people at their face value.”
“What you see is what you get?”
She handed him a twenty-dollar bill and watched him from behind as he counted change from the till. Before he turned around she said, “Not what you see, maybe, but what they do is what you get. Thoughts are between a person and himself. What someone does, that’s what matters to other people, what changes the world.”
“I’m not sure I agree.”
“See, whether or not you agree is between you and you. Only if you argue with me does it have anything to do with me.”
Peter stared at her, head barely tilted but tilted.
Johanna offered the closest thing she had to a smile. “And now you are thinking that it was better when you didn’t ask your customers questions.”
He shook his head, grinned. “That’s between me and me, but what I was thinking is that today is the most you’ve ever talked by a long shot. Anyway, as soon as I get some of this stuff cleaned up, we’ll do what we can about getting some beer on tap again. Even the check pads are soaked.” He gestured to the tall stack of wet newsprint, game boxes, and receipt pads in the corner behind the bar. “This is the only dry paper in the place.” He pushed a folded paper on the counter toward Johanna.
She flipped it open: the back of the front section. The headline read: “Tourist found in Hotel Richelieu victim of murder, not storm.” Under the headline stared out a face she had not seen in ten years or on this side of the ocean. The same wide cheekbones, but the washed-out eyes were locked rigid, the pupils smaller than life.
Peter cocked his head. “Good time to kill someone, I guess, right when a hurricane hits. Not like it’s going to be a top investigative priority.”
Ladislav had been less than two blocks from where she lived and worked. He had died there, that close to her. He had seen her, maybe, without her knowing it. The room went from warm to cold, and Johanna shivered with the recognition that there is no such thing in the world as a coincidence that large.
She looked directly at Peter, willing her face to form a flat surface with nothing behind it—words on a page that signify nothing in the real world. “I guess that would be a good strategy.” She re-pocketed her wallet and walked back to her studio, leaving the newspaper where it lay, as though it held nothing of interest to her.