Josephine Claiborne paused, her hands hanging over the keyboard, as her lovely vampire heroine, Marie Therese, first laid eyes on the handsome Union captain she would love and devour. Josephine was suddenly conscious of her own body. Knowing what her character must inevitably do to protect herself, to nourish herself, she had grown breathless. Her lips tingled. She bared her teeth. This stopped her. I'm getting a little too much into this, she thought, and she turned to look at her Writing Tree, a great, gnarled live oak just outside her window. Through the lift of its dark arms she could see a gaggle of tourists on St. Charles Avenue, their faces raised to her window, ropes of beads around their necks, and beside them, pointing through the tree at the great lady at work, was Delphine. Josephine was surprised that her daughter was conducting the literary tour herself today, though it no doubt had to do with shorthandedness during Mardi Gras. Delphine had written the script of the tour, and Josephine knew it by heart, so she could read her daughter's lips: "This is where Josephine Claiborne lives alone, weaving her dark tales of love and death from the well of her own solitude."
Josephine growled at this-at the sentiment and at Delphine's penchant for mixing metaphors-and she looked back to the computer and she tried to focus on her own words again. Then her hands dashed on. The Union captain took Marie Therese in his arms and they waltzed out the balcony doors and into the hot Louisiana night.
A chorus of voices arose from the street. "Bring your face close!" they cried. Josephine lifted her hands and turned back to the window. This was her cue. The phrase was her signature, slipped into every book. She wiggled her fingers at the benighted Union captain, wishing to go on without stopping, but she'd promised Delphine always to make an appearance when she heard these words, and so she rose and lifted the window and Delphine waved and Josephine waved back and the tourists cheered.
"We love you, Josephine!" one cried, and the others took it up.
"More than Anne Rice?" Josephine called, and she could sense Delphine's disapproval, though her smile stayed fixed on her face.
"Yes!" they replied as one.
Josephine was supposed to say something nice now. I love you, too. Or, You're all too wonderful. She was glad they loved her more than anyone, but she was pissed at this interruption and so she merely waved and cried, "Buy my books!"
The unflappable good nature of these literary tourists softened Josephine. She regretted her grumpiness. So she gave them a double dose of Delphine's script, softening her voice as much as she could and still be heard: "I love you, too! You're all too wonderful!"
Josephine drew back in. She hunched over the keyboard with the flounce of a concert pianist and she read the passage on the screen before her. "You're all too wonderful," Josephine whispered to the words she'd just written.
Meanwhile, down St. Charles and across Canal Street and in the midst of the welter of the long Mardi Gras weekend in the French Quarter, at a table for two next to a window on Chartres, the most desired lunchtime table in arguably one of the three best restaurants in all the Vieux CarrÈ, if not all New Orleans, namely Rafferty's-though there was a bit more than a touch of resentment from some of the old guard that a restaurateur who made his mostly cultish reputation in a ramshackle, lunch-only seafood place in the Ninth Ward would dare to cross Canal and insinuate himself onto Chartres, even within sight of Jackson Square-at this table for two sat Rafferty himself, Rafferty McCue, with the curtains drawn beside him and his restaurant empty and its lacework iron door locked and a sign upon it reading "Gone to Mardi Gras, bring your appetites with your ashen foreheads on Wednesday." He watched shadows of the revelers dancing on the curtains like a Balinese puppet show and he wanted to be content where he was, alone at this table, though he was beginning to think Aspen would be a better place, with most of the other uptown New Orleanians who opted out of the krewes and the balls.
Max sat down opposite him with a rustling of paper.
A great shadow headdress had appeared on the curtain and stopped and quaked there, and it struck Rafferty as quite wonderfully feminine in its feathery roundness. For the past few years, as his widowerhood had become a habit, he'd grown intensely conscious of feminine things.
"Dad, you need to read this."
Rafferty turned to Max, who was waving a stack of contracts at him. Perhaps Rafferty was showing his mood on his face, because his son took one look and amended his order: "Or just sign."
Though Rafferty had only recently slipped past fifty, he was more interested these days in choosing the pompano or stirring the roux or shaking every hand at every table in the place than he was in the things his Harvard-M.B.A. son was only too happy to handle. "I'll sign," he said.
The contracts were before him, Max flipping the pages to the red-arrow tabs. Rafferty started signing. "We're ready to do more, right?"
"You're not getting cold feet." Max's voice had turned suddenly brittle.
Rafferty raised his eyes to his son.
"It's a great property," Max said. "The best double-gallery house on Magazine Street. It's big and it's ready for the Poland Avenue treatment."
Rafferty focused on the next dotted line.
"I don't want to make you do something you feel is a mistake," Max said.
Rafferty didn't think this was strictly true. He lifted his pen in mid-signature and looked up, not knowing whether to be irritated or playful. Either way, he'd say the same thing, so he said it: "Is that true?" As Rafferty expected, his son's eyes widened ever so slightly in panic.
"This isn't a mistake," Max said, a little breathless.
"But if I thought it was a mistake, you wouldn't want to make me do it?"
"If you thought it was a mistake but it wasn't?"
Rafferty could see Max trying to decide whether to lie or not.
Max chose a middle path. "Well," he said, "maybe I'd want to make you do it."
"But you wouldn't try."
Max looked abruptly away and down, as if a small boy had suddenly tugged at his sleeve. "OK, Dad," he said to the floor, and then he looked back at Rafferty. "You're right. No more bullshit. I want you to do this no matter what you think about it."
Father and son looked at each other calmly, no bullshit between them for the moment, and then Rafferty gave Max a slow, warm smile. "I trust you, Max," Rafferty said, and he meant it. Even while Max was at Harvard, he'd revived the Poland Avenue location, which was rooted in Rafferty's personal history and which almost faded away when he'd brought the family recipes to the Quarter. Max had done it with lots of neon and a Cajun band and a TV ad with Rafferty in a Saints uniform throwing a jumbo shrimp, like a sidelines pass, into Mike Ditka's mouth. Now the tourists actually came to the Ninth Ward to eat fried green tomatoes and oyster shooters and Redfish Rafferty elbow to elbow with Harry Connick Jr. or Anne Rice or Dr. John or even Edwin Edwards taking a lunch break from Harrah's or his latest trial. So if Max could be manipulative at times, a bit of a patronizing prick, that was probably part of being a top-tier M.B.A. "It's your baby," Rafferty said to his son.
Max reached out and briefly squeezed his father's forearm. A beat later he nodded at the idle pen.
Max had already prepared for the contract signing: news of the purchase was in the next morning's Times Picayune. Rafferty sat on his wraparound porch having coffee with chicory and he lowered his paper and humphed softly, mostly in appreciation of his son's initiative, though if Max had been there, Rafferty would have ragged him for his presumption. He lifted the paper again while a mile down St. Charles Avenue there was, prompted by the very same news story, a sudden sharp yawp on Josephine Claiborne's breakfast veranda. Delphine, who was the yawper, also jumped to her feet and Josephine sloshed her own coffee with chicory into its saucer. "What is it?" Josephine cried, fearing fire ants.
"They've grabbed the LeBlanc House."
Josephine thought of terrorists. "Why on earth . . . ?"
"They want to string it with neon lights and fill it with whorehouse plush."
Josephine tried to figure out whose radical political agenda was that tacky.
After a moment, Delphine realized she wasn't getting through to her mother. She said, "Those people who own the Rafferty's restaurants. They've just bought LeBlanc House." Delphine collapsed back into her wicker chair. "They'll destroy it with light and noise and bad taste. They'll defile Voodoo Vampire."
Though it was early in the morning and though Josephine's novelist's mind wanted to linger with the alternate story of tacky terrorists on Magazine Street, she put her coffee down and, perhaps from the ongoing dream of her new novel, she felt as if she wanted to bite something. Voodoo Vampire had been her first big bestseller and the LeBlanc House was the setting for the novel's grand-ball scene.
"It's easily one of the three or four most popular spots on the tour," Delphine said.
Josephine waited for more. But Delphine grumped under her breath and sighed and then returned to her coffee.
"So?" Josephine said. Something was suddenly nibbling around in her, a prickly little pain.
"I'll change the script."
Josephine waited again. Delphine handled Josephine's press and publicity, but her public relations firm was much more than Josephine Claiborne now. It was a microbrewery, a senatorial candidate, the Association of New Orleans Street Performers, Bayou Viagra Hot Sauce, and more and more all the time. Josephine understood the nibbling even as it grew fiercer. She felt neglected by her own daughter. She felt jealous. She was ashamed of these feelings but it didn't stop her from saying, "That's it? What was that whole leap-in-the-air-and-shout thing about?"
"I'm damn angry." She sipped her coffee.
"This is something I never noticed before," Josephine said. "That a surge of anger has this languor afterward, like after sex."
Delphine narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out the rebuke.
"Darling, you sent me around in a coffin for the Voodoo Vampire book tour. What's happened to your initiative? They defile my vampire space and you go back to your coffee?"
Delphine looked at the cup in her hand.
Josephine silently upbraided herself. Stop this right now. There's nothing to be done about the LeBlanc House. More important, Delphine deserves her own life away from you. And she said, "Isn't there something?"
Delphine jumped up again. "You're right, Mama. Let's kick their ass."
"Go for the jugular, sweetie," Josephine said, feeling shamefully pleased at her daughter's attention.
On the night of this day there was a masked charity ball in a great ballroom in a Vieux CarrÈ hotel with a bar named Desire, and Rafferty put on a black cloak and the mask of Mephisto, and Josephine put on a bouffant satin gown with an overskirt of chiffon starry-skied with rhinestones and a sweetheart bodice of brocade fruited with silver fringe pearls, aurora borealis stones, sequins, and bugle beads, and she wore the mask of a princess, the very face she imagined for Marie Therese DeSang. The room swirled with waltzing princes and pirates and whores and goddesses and gods and sailors, and beneath the churn of violins and the deep thump of percussion was the soft clash of bangles and chains and plumes and trailings of fur and silk and feathers, and the dancers swooped and spun and others of their kind crowded close watching or leaning together or swaying or bending to press their words through the music, and all the eyes in these faces of porcelain or canvas or leather or felt were wide and fixed and the brows neither rose nor fell and the cheeks were high and rouged red, and the only unmasked faces in the place were fixed, too, as chins clutched violins and eyes closed and bows swooped and fell and swooped to the dark flow of the Masquerade Waltz and near the orchestra an Aztec sun king who had once tasted true absinthe was briefly transported by the thought of his mother waltzing with him, many years ago, and he spilled his Pernod on the goddess Mnemosyne who backed abruptly into Joan of Arc in full armor who lurched into the path of a high-hatted lawyer and his creole mistress whose crinolines deflected them and in so doing moved another couple and another and the eddy of dancers reshaped along the floor until Shakespeare swung his Dido into a tuxedoed waiter in a jester mask whose lifted tray tipped from his fingers and fried oysters tumbled down Eurydice's chest and into her cleavage and she invoked the hell where her well-meaning but stupid husband had stranded her and he himself who was dressed this year as an Indian chief lifted his tomahawk as if to have the scalp of the waiter but in fact he only jostled the passing Mephisto just enough to bend his path into a turning princess and so it was that Rafferty and Josephine collided.
"I beg your pardon," Rafferty said and he lifted her hand and bent to it and placed the mouth of his mask there and the gesture had come from the music and the glitter of this princess and he held his face there, unable, of course, to work the lips into the appropriate action. Rafferty and Josephine held the pose for a moment, she waiting, he contemplating what it was he was doing, and then he said, "Kiss kiss," and rose from her hand with a flourish of his cape. They looked at each other, mask to mask.
"Blush blush," Josephine said.
"Flirt flirt," Rafferty said.
"Ah, but how, precisely? You've gone quite vague."
"Wink wink, then."
"Good. Blush blush eye-flutter eye-flutter."
"Wink wink brow-wiggle brow-wiggle leer leer."
Josephine cocked her head at this man. "Please. I expected better than a leer, even from the devil himself."
"The devil is much more mundane than anyone suspects," Rafferty said.
"Perhaps you're right. Certainly this Southern belle is quite different from what you'd expect. Leer away then. I must make do."
And they stood before each other, having riffed together, instinctively, in a way that had been rare for each of them but which felt very good here with the music and the welter of strangers around them, and Rafferty said, "Are you free to waltz?"
And they took each other in their arms and slid into the flow of dancers and his cape billowed and her rhinestones glittered, and mask before mask they danced spinning beneath a great chandelier and past first Amelia Earhart in flying togs and then, a brief time later, past King Louis the Fourteenth in a golden robe and both Amelia and Louis turned to look, and Josephine and Rafferty whirled on before the orchestra and each was thinking, I know nothing of this body holding mine he could be half my age she could be ugly, and they spun on, their feet moving lightly, synchronized as if they had done this for years together, and they quickly concluded that they'd thought wrong, I am agelessly sexy I care nothing of her looks if she has this wit, and Rafferty said, "Are you alone?"
"No." And Josephine knew he meant, Are you with a man, but she hesitated a beat onetwothree and another onetwothree and she wished to see the face behind his mask to see if his misimpression mattered to him but she could not and then onetwothree she said, "I'm here with my daughter."
"And I'm with my son."
"I'm smiling," she said.
"So am I," he said.
"Why?" The question flew from her of its own will and they spun on.
"We are so far only masks to each other," he said, elaborating on her question, revealing to her, actually, what she'd just meant, and this made her smile again, though she did not say so.
"And quite incompatible masks," she said.
"Do you think?"
"Are you not the very devil himself, sir?"
"Is your princess incorruptible?"
"God no. She has fangs."
They danced on not speaking further, their feet never missing a step onetwothree and Amelia Earhart looked again and though her fixed, famous face did not show it, the look was intense, and Josephine caught a glimpse and she said, "That's my daughter we just passed. Amelia Earhart," and Rafferty turned his face to see and Amelia was gone but there was a great golden robe and another face intent upon the couple and Rafferty said, "That's my son Louis the Fourteenth."
"Your son was once very unkind to one of my characters."
They swirled past the orchestra with Rafferty silently trying to figure this out and Josephine realizing she was very pleasantly awaiting whatever it was this man would say next. Then she understood his hesitation. "Your son Louis," she said. "He banished her to Louisiana before there was a New Orleans, though she wreaked a terrible revenge. She was a character in one of my books. I'm a writer."
Rafferty instantly picked up where he'd broken off. "He must have had a good reason. To banish her."
"Please," Josephine said, "I should know."
"Forgive me. He is my son."
"He is grown. You can't protect him forever."
"Should I speak to you honestly then of your daughter's overrated flying skills?"
And the music quickly built to a crescendo and stopped. Rafferty and Josephine stopped, too, but they did not let go of each other. They found themselves in the same place: wishing for music, not wanting to let go, wearying of their own arch indirectness.
Rafferty said, "Would you like to step outside of this room?"
She would and they did, he taking her hand and leading the way through the crowd and both of them feeling the fleshy immediacy of the touch of a new hand and wondering what was happening. Then, in the corridor outside the ballroom, with a new waltz muffling into life behind the closed doors and with the brightness of the light here, they both of them, without thinking, lifted their hands to their masks and with a faint quaking inside, as if they were two new lovers rendering themselves naked together for the first time, they stripped off their masks.
Though it was not uncommon in Josephine's novels for her heroine to suck the blood of any man who was interested in her, nevertheless taking great sensual pleasure in the act-the foundation of her wide popularity with modern women-and though she considered herself a true writer, expressing her own personal view of the world in her work, she found that this man's face pleased her inordinately, the boyish cheek-pinchiness of it, and she felt a serious warm fluttery thing beginning in her, and she didn't want to suck his blood at all, merely nibble on his earlobes perhaps. What did this response betoken in her? She declined to answer as she stood naked-faced before this man who was even then feeling a similarly tender thing, the habit of Rafferty's aloneness falling away at once before this woman's lovely thin-nosed high-browed face with the tracings of a rich life of the senses around her eyes and mouth. He wanted to take her in his arms once more, and it was Mardi Gras, after all, it was New Orleans, after all-he wanted to kiss her. Rafferty and Josephine stood sweetly suspended like this for a long moment and before either of them could move or even speak, the music surged loud from the direction of the ballroom and Rafferty's eyes shifted just slightly to see Amelia Earhart emerge and then stagger at the sight of him. She revved her engines and buzzed the field.
"You're Rafferty McCue," Amelia said. "We're going to sue your ass."
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