Things had gone quickly bad from there, as Louis the Fourteenth appeared in the corridor soon after, and if there had been swords to draw, they would have been drawn, and Rafferty and Josephine seemed to lose the power of speech as Amelia Earhart and King Louis debated, in a condensed and strident form, the trade-offs of history and commercial progress, of intellectual rights and property rights, of good taste and bad, of his arrogantly patronizing tone and her strident hysteria. And then finally Delphine stripped off her mask and said, "Mama, let's go. We'll fight these people till the bitter end," and her adversary stripped off his mask, revealing a face that Josephine found herself feeling instantly kindly toward, for it had the same blue flash of eyes and baby-bottom cheeks of the man she'd just danced with. Then Delphine's hand was under Josephine's elbow and they were moving away and Josephine barely had time to glance back, and she and Rafferty shared a last look, wistful in its blankness.
Josephine tried to force her mind away from the whole incident as she lay that night in her bed and listened to distant laughter and the faint pop of a faraway firecracker. The irony was not lost on Josephine: her stirring up her daughter against the man with whom she would, that very night, dance, and dance quite wonderfully. And Desiree Jones waltzed into Josephine's mind, Desiree the beautiful octaroon orphan of Voodoo Vampire, reared as the daughter of the great Voodoo Priestess, Lily DeSang. Early in the book, Desiree had fallen in love with a dashing white New Orleans lawyer, the wealthy Marcellus Breckinridge, and though, as a result, she had incurred the frightening rage and the formidable threats of her Voodoo mother, she left DeSang and became Breckinridge's mistress. Now the two of them were dancing, Desiree and Marcellus, in the second-floor ballroom of the disputed LeBlanc House and the words were clear in Josephine's head, she'd risen from her traveling coffin in forty-five bookstores across America and read: Desiree danced with her heart whirling faster than her body. She was in his arms; she belonged to him alone at last. And then, even as he lifted her up in a grand spin, her gaze fell upon the window and there she was. The face was unmistakable and ghastly in the light from the great chandelier. It was Lily DeSang. Desiree tried to resist these eyes. But they were the eyes of the only mother she'd ever known. And she drew Marcellus to a stop and she excused herself and she headed for the balcony door.
"Don't go," Josephine whispered into the dark. But Desiree did not stop. She moved to the door and out into the night.
Lily was before her, quickly, gliding across the balcony, and Desiree wanted to stand up to her, wanted to tell her she loved her but it was time to find a life of her own. She did not have a chance. Lily put her arms around Desiree and for a moment it seemed that everything was going to be all right, her mother would understand. Then Lily bent near and Desiree felt the two points of pain flare in the side of her neck and a terrible coldness came over her and a weakness and she knew she would always be the darkly dutiful daughter of Lily DeSang and there was a knock at the door. Josephine started and sat up.
"Mama?" It was Delphine's voice. She was staying the night in her room in Josephine's house, avoiding the Mardi Gras madness in the Quarter. "Are you awake?" she asked, low.
"Yes, dear. Come in."
Delphine slipped into the room and sat on the edge of Josephine's bed. "We haven't talked yet about . . . you know."
"And his minion."
"I didn't even know who he was until you arrived. That was Rafferty McCue, you say?"
"The restaurant owner," Delphine said, her emphasis making it sound like car thief. "From the Ninth Ward," she added, which sounded even worse. "I'll drive him off Magazine Street. Believe me."
This was what Josephine had kindled in her daughter. She felt suddenly like Lily DeSang, after having bitten her daughter in the throat and shaped her to her own dark will. But how could she undo it? And did she really want to? Josephine hardly knew this man. He was a fetching face, some sweet banter.
"Why doesn't he leave you alone?" Delphine said.
"We only danced."
"I didn't know."
"These people are bad news," Delphine said, patting Josephine on the hand as if she were the mother. "Thanks for the pep talk this morning. You're still my top client." Delphine rose and headed for the door.
Josephine tried to balance the little she had of Rafferty against the weight of her work, her legend, the renewed vigor of her daughter's allegiance. Delphine's hand was on the doorknob and she turned to her mother. Josephine jumped up and crossed to her, saying, "Hug hug." The phrase surprised both of them. Cutesy talk had been banned between them before Delphine even had breasts. But Josephine knew where that talk had come from. And Delphine complied, squaring around and offering her torso. Josephine hugged her and found, to her surprise, that she wished she could take back the bite.
At the same moment, in the bar named Desire, Rafferty and Max sat at a corner table in robe and cloak, their evening's faces propped side by side against the wall behind the salt and pepper shakers, and Max said, "Did you know?"
"She said she was a writer. That's as far as I got before the shit hit Amelia Earhart's propeller."
"I'm sure that's where she was heading."
"Heading where, exactly?"
Max puffed in exasperation at his father. "Getting you to back off from the LeBlanc House."
"It seemed to be the daughter's beef."
"It's the mother's holy ground we're trampling on."
Rafferty sagged inside. He didn't wonder why. The face of this Josephine Claiborne floated still in his head, sweeter to him than the princess in her mask. But Max was smart in these things. The woman who'd awakened him was merely after something. Then a thought lifted him. "Wait a minute," he said. "There was no way for her to know it was me."
"There's no basis for a suit," Max said. "That's crazy."
"I didn't have my mask off all night. Not till . . ."
"Dad. That's not the basic point. Lawsuit or not, they can make things nasty for us. She's got a lot of power in this town, power with the people. PR." Max paused and leaned across the table. "We want this restaurant."
This last was said with more passion than Rafferty had heard in his son's voice in a long time. Max missed his mother badly. After her death, he'd trimmed his feelings back as neatly as the ivy on Harvard's walls. The LeBlanc House seemed to be changing all that. Rafferty heard the neon in his son's voice and he was grateful for that. And yet he could not hold Max's bright eyes before him. His gaze turned inward where all he could see was Josephine's face emerging, luminously naked, from behind its mask.
Rafferty spent the next day hiding in the little office off his kitchen on Chartres Street. Max was somewhere with his girlfriend, who was a lawyer, and it was impossible to guess whether they were partying or going over contracts, and Rafferty closed his door and even the tempest of Mardi Gras felt far away. He threw himself into the restaurant paperwork and he studied the menu, trying to see the culinary gaps, and he left his confinement only to scramble himself some eggs with onions and Tabasco sometime in the middle of the day. It was late when he finally pushed back from his desk and stared at the ceiling and let himself actually think about the question that had been running in him all day: What was there to do about this woman?
Forget her, was one answer.
He tried that one by sliding back under his desk and groping around and finding the menu and looking at it one more time. This restaurant and the one on Poland Avenue and-yes-the new one that was springing from his dear and only son's mind and talents on Magazine Street: these were his life at fifty. These were his work and his identity and they were the bond with what was left of his family. But his eyes fell on an appetizer-one he did especially well-and he felt itchy with the desire to spear an Oyster Bienville on a tiny fork and place it on Josephine Claiborne's tongue.
What was another answer? Talk to her. Try to see her.
His hands, eager and naÔve as they were, went at once to the phone book, though Rafferty didn't hold out much hope for the quest. A woman of her fame would never be listed. But his hands worked on and his forefinger went down the Claibornes and there she was: Josephine Claiborne. The hands were vindicated and they charged on, picking up the phone and dialing the number, though Rafferty was fluttery with trepidation.
A recorded message answered at once. He recognized Josephine's voice. "Hello," it said. "This is Josephine Claiborne. You've reached my special fan hot line. I'm busy at work on a brand-new book . . ." and she went on to talk about the Civil War and the beautiful Southern belle who was in fact a vampire using her dark powers to try to defend the Confederacy and find eternal love, as well. But Rafferty wasn't absorbing much. He was caught by the sheer sound of her, by the thought of her lips shaping words. Then she was saying, "If you'd like to leave me a message, you can speak after the beep. And thank you so much for reading my books."
Rafferty felt a clutching in his throat as he waited for the beep, his hands, still dreaming of placing an oyster on her tongue, not letting him hang up.
In the house with the machine that was about to sound its beep, Josephine had been acting out a day similar to Rafferty's. She closed the door of her writing room and closed the shades, even to her Writing Tree-she was not superstitious; she could find words on her own-and she fired up her computer and Marie Therese was there for her at once and the words flowed and flowed and finally Marie Therese was ready to bite her love and bring him into the Dark Forever of her own life and Josephine stopped. She was, herself, breathing heavily. But she was no longer inside Marie Therese. She was Josephine. And Josephine's lips trilled with the yearning to kiss a man she knew not to kiss.
She turned away from her computer. And she saw the light on the answering machine beside her reading chair. A fan was calling. She could use the adulatory distraction of a fan right now. Delphine had made her promise when the fan hot line was installed to pick up the phone occasionally and talk to whoever was there. It was good public relations. And right now it seemed very good therapy. So she rose and went to her chair and sat and she reached out and then hesitated, even as the machine was about to offer her fan a beep. She beat the tone by only a second, lifting the handset and putting it to her ear and saying, "Hello?"
On the other end, Rafferty made an incoherent sound from surprise and nervousness and desire, though all of this hardly registered on Josephine. She simply had the impression that someone was choking, though quite softly.
"Are you there?" Josephine said. "This is Josephine. Not the machine. I'd be happy to take your message personally."
"Are you all right? Are you choking?" she asked, though now there was only silence.
"I'm sorry," Rafferty said. "You took me by surprise."
"It's you," she said.
"I hope you mean Rafferty."
"I'm sorry. I was going to leave this Josephine Claiborne the novelist a little message."
"Go ahead," Josephine said, quite softly.
Rafferty started choking again.
"Would you like me to beep for you?" Josephine asked.
"It wouldn't do any good. You've called my bluff."
"You have nothing to say to me?"
"Just . . ." Rafferty struggled to figure out what exactly he wanted here. Then he knew. "Just that I'd like to see you sometime. Without a mask and without historical figures nearby to put us at odds."
"Those weren't historical figures," Josephine said. "Those were our children."
"Yes," Rafferty said. "You're right. The children we love and are devoted to."
"And who would control us, if they could?" Rafferty crimped up the end of his sentence to make it a question. He was thinking of Max. He didn't know about this woman's daughter.
"Or we, them." Josephine thought of herself and Delphine, but wondered if it was Rafferty himself who loved neon and whorehouse plush and, if he did, how they'd ever decorate a room together.
The two fell silent again. Finally Josephine said, "When?"
"I'm an impatient man."
"Fat Tuesday," Rafferty said.
"We should be discreet."
"I think I know a place."
A stingray glided by, directly over Rafferty's head, and then a porcupine puffer as big as a fire hydrant. Rafferty stood in the center of the underwater tunnel of the Aquarium of the Americas, surrounded by half a million gallons of water. As he'd expected, the place was nearly empty, with the revelry building to a climax just a few blocks away. He lowered his face and half a dozen bright silver Mexican lookdowns, their mouths drawn into frowns, slid by, their bodies suddenly turning into knife blades, nearly vanishing, as they wheeled around and faced him head-on. "Hello, girls," he said, their thin elegance reminding him of fashion models.
"Do you often talk to fish?"
He turned. It was Josephine.
He smiled. "While I was waiting I confessed to a monkfish."
"What was your sin? Buying the LeBlanc House?"
"I thought we'd leave that for a while."
"Yes," Josephine said. "I'm sorry."
They watched a little flurry of coming and going before them-a parrotfish, then a royal gramma and a queen trigger, then the lookdowns reappeared, gliding past. Josephine said, "Aren't those the girls?"
"Yes they are."
"They're very skinny."
"Yes they are."
"Is that what attracts you to them?" Josephine asked.
Rafferty knew she was joking, but he also knew enough to take a little leap with her. He looked at her until she turned her face to him and he said, "You are quite wonderfully slender."
Josephine's eyebrows lifted and then she smiled. She found she liked being caught off balance by this man. She said, "You do know what a girl wants to hear."
Rafferty put on a very serious face. "Right. 'You're skinny' and 'I'd just as soon cuddle.'"
Josephine laughed, lifting her head back to do so and exposing her throat, which seemed to Rafferty as kissable as her lips. When she stopped laughing and was looking again at him, something more serious had come over her. She said, "Do we talk too cute sometimes?"
"We haven't had enough times yet in order to even have a sometimes," Rafferty said and he regretted answering her serious question with more cuteness.
"Wow," Josephine said. "That's true, isn't it."
The shadow of some great fish passed over them, but they did not look up. They studied each other's eyes for a long moment and finally Rafferty said, "It's pretty much life-story time, isn't it."
"I think so," Josephine said.
And so they walked among fish and spoke of things that were relevant and irrelevant to the present moment and it was impossible to tell these two kinds of things apart. Rafferty grew up in the Irish Channel and his father was a policeman, but Rafferty preferred his mother's kitchen and he learned to cook, much to the dismay of his father, and after high school he started in the kitchen at Brennan's and he kept his eyes and ears open and then, with the help of some independent money his mother had-and which he paid back, at his insistence, with loan shark's interest-he started a restaurant on Poland Avenue, and he called it Rafferty's. He married a fellow kitchen worker from Brennan's and she had died three years ago after fighting ovarian cancer for longer than anyone figured she would and they had one child, Max, who had his mother's eyes and her mix of practical good sense and bullheadedness and, yes, manipulativeness.
Josephine grew up in the house she now lived in and the Claiborne of Claiborne Avenue was a distant uncle, and her father was wealthy from oil and her mother was wealthy from her father's oil and Josephine went off to Vanderbilt and she married by reflex upon graduation, when the only life she had imagined for herself was being married, and a mere six months before an acrimonious divorce, her only child came of that marriage, Delphine, who thankfully bore nothing recognizable of her father and who studied English literature at Radcliffe and started her own public relations firm, which took Josephine as its first client.
Josephine had always written. She was an only child and perhaps that had something to do with it. She always wrote stories, telling the things to the paper that she otherwise would have told to her sisters in their beds in the dark, especially in the dead quiet dark when Fat Tuesday had turned into Ash Wednesday, when the thrilling blare of Mardi Gras had suddenly turned into silence. That was a night when she'd always stayed awake to write the stories she yearned to speak.
And after speaking all of this, Rafferty and Josephine themselves fell into silence as they sat before a tank of jellyfish. Rafferty's mind tracked through Josephine's story and came to a thing that Rafferty spoke almost to himself. "That's tonight," he said.
Josephine shook off her own meditation on Rafferty's life. "What?"
"The night of the year that made you a writer. It's tonight."
Josephine liked the way he spun what she'd said. "Yes. It did do that."
Rafferty watched a great moonjelly throb its way upward in the tank. After a moment Josephine said, "Was your wife witty?"
"Yes." Rafferty thought he sensed a flinch in Josephine. He added softly, "I'm not seeing her in you."
Josephine didn't realize that this was the little stutter in her until Rafferty said it. Somewhat to her surprise she felt a twist of resentment at that, as if he'd abruptly put his hand on her breast, although, also to her surprise, that's where her breast presently wanted his hand. She looked away. "Yow," she said.
"Yow?" Rafferty asked.
"Yow," Josephine said, knowing instantly she could not find a way even to begin to explain.
"I see," said Rafferty, and he sort of did see the part about his knowing what she was feeling. "And your husband. Do I remind you of him?"
"If you did, we wouldn't be sitting here."
Rafferty found that this pleased him very much. He was prepared to be retrospectively jealous of the man. He wondered if he should tell her as much, but he decided against it. That was surely near the top of the list of things a girl does not want to hear. He regretted now even bringing it up, for he could feel Josephine pulling into herself. "We've had a little too much life-story time," he said.
"I think you're right."
"At least it brought us to this moment," Rafferty said. The words suddenly sounded glib to him. He checked to see if he meant them. He did.
Josephine might have wondered about his sincerity as well, but he'd done it again, spoken truly a thing she herself was feeling. "And it gave us the children we're proud of," she said, and upon hearing her own words she checked to see if her devotion to Delphine would destroy what was happening with this man. She did not know.
A brooding silence came upon them both and finally Josephine said, "I should go."
"All right," Rafferty said, something that seemed like panic rising in his chest like a jellyfish. He added, trying not to sound desperate, "But I didn't even get a chance to buy you a cup of coffee."
It was all on Josephine now. All she needed to say was, I don't think that would be a good idea, or even, Some other time, and they could go straight to the place where part of her feared they were inevitably heading. And yet, she said, "Tomorrow."
"Yes?" Rafferty said, though it felt more like a gasp to him.
"Another thing I've always loved is Jackson Square on Ash Wednesday. It's like those hours in the dark."
"I'll meet you there at noon," Rafferty said.
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