Right from the start, you knew Katrina was a contender, a brawler of a hurricane who left nobody standing in her wake. Her first match and she laid New Orleans out with a haymaker more devastating than anything I’d seen in all my years in the ring. She left The Big Easy down for the count, broken and bleeding on the canvas.
You watched it all, sitting safe at home, looking at us like a made-for-TV movie. No hard feelings … really. In the end, I wished like hell I had chosen Topeka as a place to land; tornadoes I can handle. But the lure of the deep, soothing Southern heat as I passed through New Orleans was too hard to resist.
I remember sitting in an outdoor bar on Bourbon Street, the scent of magnolias seducing my head, sipping a cheap Scotch and soaking in that moist, thick air. I could feel it easing the ache in my hands, warming away the years of pounding muscle and bone in the ring. Like the weak-kneed sucker I was, I caved and that caused me to make the stupidest mistake of my life. I decided to stay in The Big Easy, sparring in Malloy’s Boxing Emporium, doing odd-jobs around the joint and waiting for the sky to fall in on all our heads.
We had plenty of warning so I made sure to stock up on a few necessities. First, I swiped an inflatable raft from a garage near the gym and hid it behind one of the storage units that belonged to The Crying Hotel; I’d been calling that run-down fleabag home since I blew into town. Stashed three liters of Highland’s Mist in my closet and bought a week’s worth of cheap meals to warm up on my hotplate. Strictly against Roy-Boy’s rules but fuck him, considering the circumstances. If I was getting KO’d, I planned on doing it with a full stomach and one hell of a buzz.
* * *
The night before Katrina danced in I had a knock on my door.
Roy Thibideaux stood there, a short, fat Cajun with bouffant hair the color of shoe polish and dark glasses. A decade ago he had made a minor name for himself as a Roy Orbison impersonator in shit-hole casinos in forgotten towns in Nevada. He figured Elvis was overdone and Roy O. had been a better singer anyway. Called himself “Little Roy” Thibideaux. In my opinion The Voice deserved one helluva better monument. At any rate, Thibideaux made a few bucks, and unlike yours truly, actually saved them. That’s when he bought the flop-house on top of one of New Orleans few hills, added the “lounge” and began serenading the barflies with Pretty Woman every Saturday night.
“Thibideaux. To what do I own this honor?”
“Gotta proposition for you Mason, my man.” He had to crane his neck backwards just to look up into my eyes.
“I’m not your man and I’m not that desperate. Get your ass to the French Quarter if you’re looking for that kind of action ”
“Christ, Mason! You’re too fuckin’ ugly for me. I ain’t never seen a nose lean that bad in my life.”
“Yeah. It’s a goddamn work of art. Come on in.”
He looked around. I was pretty good at keeping my place at Roy-Boy’s neat, despite the occasional roach the size of my dick that scurried across the walls. Trust me, those bastards grow huge in Louisiana.
He paused in front of my collection of books and shot me a quick glance. “Shakespeare? You gotta be shittin’ me.”
“I learned a few things along the way. Reading was one of them.”
“You are full of surprises, my man.”
“Like I said, I’m not your man, Roy-Boy.”
“Just listen for a god-damned minute. The Cryin’ Hotel sits on one of the highest parts of this town and this storm ain’t gonna be like the last one, Mason. This one’s special. Katrina’s gonna put Little Roy on the map. And I’m gonna need muscle to help me.”
“You want me to be that muscle.”
“You’re one huge fucker and if that don’t stop somebody dead in their tracks, that mug of yours sure as shit will. One look at your face, Mason and that’s all the back-up I’ll need.”
“You’re a real sweet-talker, Thibideaux.”
“Call me Little Roy.”
“Now that’s something I could never do to Orbison; got too much respect for the man. Get to the point.”
“How’d you like to live here, room and board free? Little extra spending money. Chivas on the house.”
A free ride anywhere was not to be ignored, not with what Malloy paid me on the side to swab tobacco off those goddamned floors. The upgrade in Scotch sounded sweet, too.
“Sit down. I’m listening.”
* * *
The little bastard had been making plans ever since Ivan raped the Gulf Coast the year before. He had a gut feeling a bigger, badder storm would hit and he was betting Katrina was going to be his Sugar-Mama. If she dumped like they said, then we were gonna be ass-deep in water and alligators before she was finished. The Crying, on her tiny mole-hill, just might start to enjoy a little more popularity.
I hired on. Surprised the fuck out of me, too. But free rent, just for hanging at the bar and sipping a classier brand of hooch while he black-mailed the desperate, seemed like a walk in the park. So, I did just that, while Roy-Boy waited for whatever Mother Nature flushed out from under the Mississippi mud and deposited on his doorstep.
The talking heads on the Weather Channel were right. Katrina turned out to be the real thing. She hit the Big Easy with a one-two combination of wind and rain that sent the town spinning into the ropes. And The Crying stayed dry. Early on we began to see our first supplicants drifting in, looking for high ground and an illusion of safety. I grabbed a tattered copy of The Continental Op and took my place at the end of the bar. It was the easiest gig I ever landed and Katrina was doing most of the work for me.
The first to arrive was a couple from the Garden District. They negotiated quietly for Roy-Boy’s “premiere suite”. It had a kitchenette and the only private bathroom in the joint. As the husband handed over an emerald necklace and a wad of cash to clinch the deal, his well-tended wife grew pale when a large silverfish scrambled across the bar in full view. She turned stricken eyes towards her husband, who squelched any protest by squeezing her hand until the flesh grew white with the pressure. They carried their own bags to their rooms in strained silence.
The only time I actually moved was when a Colombian drug-dealer objected to handing over the contents of his briefcase. I understood his reluctance; packed to the brim as it was with bags of fine white powder. It was worth a small fortune. He let loose with a string of invectives in fluent Spanish and Roy-Boy took a step backwards to make room for me. I reached over the bar, grabbed him high on the front of his leather jacket, twisted tightly, hoisted him off the floor a good eight inches with one hand and frisked him with the other. Removed a nine millimeter from a shoulder holster and let him squirm there a minute or two as his face went purple from lack of oxygen. He handed the briefcase over without a whimper.
After the main levee breached, I watched out a filthy window as the first couple of bodies passed by like driftwood. Roy-Boy’s generators kept the electricity going throughout the black afternoon and those that could find boats or life-rafts were drawn like June bugs to the lights of the hotel. They shelled out whatever Roy-Boy demanded of them; all were equal under the eye of the storm. People traded favors when they couldn’t meet his price and Roy-Boy suddenly found himself in the spotlight again.
Then the women walked in.
* * *
The older one was attractive in a rode-hard-and-put-up-wet sort of way; a working-girl from the French Quarter there to barter for safe haven. The one who stopped conversation and wrenched neck muscles was her daughter. Eighteen if a day, wavy blonde hair, long, pale legs. She was dressed in a short blue sun-dress and she looked as sweet and innocent as a Renaissance saint. The mother sashayed up to the bar and began to speak with Roy Boy. The girl stood, smiling uncertainly in the center of the room, all male eyes turned her way. She was clearly uncomfortable so I tore my gaze away from her perfect profile and directed it back to the book in my hand. But my ears were on the conversation a few feet from me and I listened in as the street-walking Madonna pimped her virgin child away.
The deal-making didn’t last long and I watched Roy-Boy lick his plump lips as the mother walked back and spoke softly to her daughter. A cry of protest rose as the girl glanced in Roy-Boy’s direction. Her mother shushed her quickly and led her to a table to continue their talk. It was intense, watching the girl cry as her mother motioned to the chaos outside, browbeating her into compliance. I knew who carried the day when the whore crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair, satisfaction written across her face. I slammed back my shot of Chivas in one swallow.
I recognized the type. My own mother held the same occupation while I was growing up. Betraying a child for a month’s rent comes easy for some people, but it’s the first time you’re shafted that you always remember the most. From the age of six, up until I reached thirteen, I was rented out to as many uncles as she could bullshit into staying a while to pay the bills. Thankfully, by early adolescence, I had gotten big and strong. One day I left Des Moines behind, as well as two badly battered corpses. Nobody there gave me a second thought, just assumed the murderer had dragged me away and they’d stumble across my body someday.
I had an ugly feeling that the weeping girl across the room would think about today each time the lights flickered during a thunderstorm.
* * *
As the influx of stranded slowed, I changed to a table as far from the bar as possible. I was sick to death from looking at Roy-Boy’s face all day. A couple of barfly regulars had exchanged their services for shelter and they schlepped around, sweeping the floor, chucking empties out a small window to join the tons of flotsam that oozed by in filthy water; doing Roy-Boy’s grunt work in between shots of rot-gut vodka. The hooker headed over to the jukebox and began making moves towards the rich businessman, his wife’s eyes going mean and her lips getting thinner as she glared at them. I watched over the rim of my scotch as the whore’s daughter rose and began to walk towards me. She reminded me of a young Sandra Dee, sweet as fresh buttermilk on a summer morning. Katrina, jealous bitch, roared outside and I could barely make out the girl’s words.
“Hi. My name’s Lena.”
She held out her hand and I just looked at it. Embarrassed, she lowered it to her side. It still wasn’t enough to keep her from perching nervously on the edge of the chair opposite me.
“You don’t say much, do you?” Her slim fingers savaged a paper napkin.
“He says he’ll let me and Ma stay here.”
“I heard. Do as he says and he keeps his word.”
“We gotta pay him and we ain’t got no money.”
“It’s the only safe place we could git to. He’ll put us out in this shit, if he don’t git what he wants.”
“Could you help us? Ma says I gotta fuck him.”
The way she looked at me, all sad and hopeful, made me want to rip my beat-up face off and hide it under the table. Beauty and the Beast come to New Orleans…
“He’s always got an angle.”
“It’s just…I always kinda hoped the first time would be special.” She wiped tears, shining like diamonds, off her cheekbones. I handed her another napkin and tried to ignore a twist in my heart.
“Most people’d laugh, considering Ma’s line of work. But I never let any of her Johns come near me. Could you help me? Yer big and you could make him leave me alone.”
Suddenly, I found it impossible to meet the girl’s eyes, and I forced myself to keep my voice hard and indifferent. “I’m the man’s enforcer, kid. I sit, I look ugly and I make things go his way. That way I get to stay here, just like you and your old lady.”
“I guess we all got a price.”
Her voice had gotten smaller. It was hard to hear her with the howling wind and the trees screaming as they were ripped from drenched earth. I saw her blanch as Thibideaux, stuffing his face behind the bar, wiped gumbo off his chin and leered across the room at her. Poor, god-damned kid. What a way to loose your cherry.
“You’re on your own, honey. He owns the place and he’s got us all over a barrel. Every solitary soul here has met his price. Had to, or face them ‘gaters swimming down Bourbon Street. The two of you aren’t any different.”
She stood and her slender legs could hardly hold her steady. She smiled at me, a glimpse of the sunshine swallowed by the storm outside and I felt my insides rip a bit.
“Thanks fer listenin’.” She squared her shoulders. “You know, you ain’t so ugly. And I think you got a good heart. Don’t let him drag you down too far.”
I watched her walk back to her old lady’s table, then headed for my room, depressed and desperate to get out of the bar. I watched the log-jam below. Rooftops, cars, corpses all clogged the street beneath the hotel. Best as I could see it, there was no way out for the kid. Her mother had made the deal with Roy-Boy and Lena would have to pay the piper. Still, she had kind words for me and that hadn’t happened to me in decades. Few people bothered to look past the chipped face to see if there was something more than the thug on the outside.
No matter how much scotch I put away, there was no getting Lena out of my head. I passed out until late evening.
* * *
When I woke up, the first thing that hit me was the rank odor that wafted from my body. Jeezus, Lena had sat opposite me and I had stunk worse than the sawdust on Malloy’s gym floor. I rummaged through the closet until I found a clean tee-shirt and jeans then hit the shower. I took the time to work out the kinks with a few crunches and push-ups. I hadn’t gone to seed too much; a bit top heavy through the shoulders maybe, my eight-pack was now a six-pack and I carried the beginnings of a couple of love-handles above the hips. Not bad, but nothing was going to help that face, though. Swallowing a fist full of Ibu, I headed for my seat at the bar. The Colombian had been drafted to tend drinks and wisely held his tongue as he poured the straight-up scotch I ordered. Lena still sat with her mother and I was relieved that nothing had occurred while I was unconscious upstairs.
Then the entertainment began. Roy-Boy took the floor, dressed in full Orbison regalia, his karaoke machine programmed with every song The Voice had given the world. Then the deluded asshole proceeded to stomp all over the dead bones of one of the world’s greatest artists.
I pray to Christ there’s a special place in hell for celebrity impersonators.
The festivities finally got out of hand when he asked Lena to dance. Her revulsion was clear for everyone to see as he ground against her while crooning Dream Baby into her ear. Even the Colombian was looking sympathetic. The hand that had been pressing her ass forward until she rubbed against his swollen crotch, slid around to the front of her thigh, reached the edge of her short skirt then swiftly came up to probe the cleft, covered by innocent white cotton. I thought she was going to faint by the time he released her. He brushed his fat finger below his nose and inhaled; his piggy, black eyes bored into her soft, blue ones. She froze, like a fox does when a Mack truck barrels straight towards it.
“Later, baby. You and me…”
Lena made a small, choked sound and fled the bar. Roy-Boy strutted over to the girl’s mother, pulling the tight, black pants from the crack of his ass. I looked down at my hands and was surprised to see a thin trail of blood oozing between my fingers. I opened my clenched fist and stared at the shattered remains of my shot glass. I ordered another one from the Columbian, who smiled at the bits of glass on the surface of the bar. An idea began to form as a fiery sip slid down my throat.
The whore left an hour later, winking at Roy-Boy as she headed up to their room. I was sure this was it. Fifteen minutes went by before Roy-Boy followed. The Colombian cut a look my way.
“Poor little one … she gonna have a rough night, that’s for sure.”
“Wish there was somethin’ could happen to help her.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a shortage of miracles in New Orleans these days.”
“Miracles sometimes come in strange packages. A hombre with cojones…”
“… Might stand a chance if there was someone around to do crowd control.”
“These sheep would not be a problem. Big question is how much you want to pay me.”
“It’d be worth a suitcase full of blow to whoever took the job.”
“You just hired some back-up, amigo.”
“I’ll bring it by on the way out.”
He nodded and turned the music up as high as it could go. I took off quickly but I heard Lena cry out before I was a full flight of stairs below her room. I took the steps three at a time. The whore stood sentry at Roy-Boy’s door and she grabbed my arm as I reached for the knob. I punched her full in the face. She dropped like a sack of grits.
I rammed full-force into the door. It shattered on impact and I saw Thibideaux between Lena’s white legs, erect and ready. Her face was covered in tears and snot and her eyes were wide with horror. He turned just as my hands grabbed his neck. I enjoyed his look of terror more than anything in my life; then I began to methodically beat the fat bastard to death. While most of my fury was because of the girl on the bed, I have to admit a portion was in honor of Orbison. The son-of-a-bitch would never fuck with Blue Bayou again in my lifetime. I kept on stomping him until I felt a gentle hand on my arm. Lena stood beside me, nude, the sweat on her skin gleaming under the glare of the naked over-head light bulb. My anger flared again as I saw livid scratches down her shoulders and a bite mark on her right breast. I turned to savage the lump on the floor with renewed fury but Lena restrained me, her eyes seeking mine.
“Mason, he’s dead. We gotta get outta here.”
Then she reached up and did something nobody had done, not even when I was little. She kissed me softly on the cheek. She hesitated a second, then covered my mouth with those satin lips of hers and stayed there, long enough for me to feel a little rush of dizzy pleasure.
“The quicker we get out of here, the faster we can git where nobody knows us.”
“All right, get dressed. I’ll gather up some stuff we’re gonna need.”
“I’ll git Ma.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“She’s the only one who saw you come in this room, Mason. Believe me, she’ll sell you out for a twist. She’s gotta come with us, baby, like it or not.”
“Then go wake her up. I had to cold-cock her to get in here.”
She got dressed and rushed out to wake the hooker. I pried open a small floor safe and removed the briefcase, the Columbian’s nine millimeter, the cash and the jewelry. Everything except the coke went into a pillowcase off the bed. Lena ran back in.
“She’s awake. Let’s go!”
I took a last, satisfied look at the bloody mess on the floor then walked out. The hooker glared at me.
“Wipe that look off your face, before I wipe it right off your skull.”
She looked away but she got up off the floor and followed us down. The Colombian was waiting outside the bar. His grin became incandescent when I handed him the briefcase. He popped it open to check the goods and I heard Lena draw a breath in protest.
“He earned it. Nobody came up to help Thibideaux, did they?”
She shrugged and took my hand.
As we left, I heard the Colombian shout, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Roy-Boy has left the building and there’s a new Heffe in town…”
* * *
I’m here to tell you that hell isn’t made up of brimstone and sulfur. The devil’s dominion is water and wind. Dawn rose as we floated silently through reeking floodwaters, the raft pushing aside bodies made buoyant by their own trapped gasses. Invisible creatures waited below to fill us with poison or twist off an arm in a death roll. Savages emerged as the rain lessened, scum who’d blow your head off for the stuff in your backpack. New Orleans’ underbelly had been exposed by the Storm of the Century and I doubted that anything would ever fully cover it up again.
I upgraded the raft for an abandoned motor-boat. It was small but fit the three of us, although if it had been up to me, I’d have made extra leg room by feeding the whore to the alligators. It started like a champ and I decided to head for St. Martinville, further in land and higher up. When we ran out of water, I stole a Jeep and a chainsaw from a garage and we strapped the boat onto a trailer. It was damned slow going. Houses were strewn around like Lincoln Logs slapped down by a petulant two year-old and live electric wires sparked and writhed everywhere you turned. We cut through trees that blocked us as we went, pulling them out of our way and clearing a path for the SUV. We set out in the boat again once we reached the Vermillion River and I aimed for Bayou Teche and St. Martinville. When we arrived after dark, New Orleans was a two day, distant memory.
The town was littered with trash but fairly dry. Nobody was out wandering the streets. Stunned, they remained denned within their mildewing walls, terrified of the world that lurked beyond the reach of a MagLite’s beam. As we glided into the small harbor at the foot of The Evangeline Oak I leaped thigh deep into the bayou and slowly waded to shore, towing the boat behind me. After I clambered onto dry land, I turned around and saw Lena pointing the nine millimeter at her mother.
“You fuckin’ bitch. You sold me to that bastard in a New York minute.”
“Shut up!” The girl screamed. “If we hadn’t run into good ole Mason here that fat pig woulda raped me and you woulda let it happen.”
“Sweetie Pie, that’s not what…”
“I ain’t your fucking Sweetie Pie. And you ain’t never gonna get the chance to dangle my cherry in front some nasty ol’ perv you want to scam, again!”
The gunshot was more muted than I thought it would be. A large hole appeared in the hooker’s forehead and the back of her head exploded, spraying bone and gray, bloody pulp to hell and back. She fell backwards into the murky waters without another word. Then Lena turned the thing on me.
I was pissed. “Why the hell didn’t you do that in New Orleans? I had to haul her ass all this way for nothing?”
“That would have been out of character, wouldn’t it Mason? Little ole me leavin’ Ma behind to rat out my big, bad hero?”
“I found it touching.”
Those soft blue eyes of hers had grown cold and black and I could sense something rotten uncurling inside her, something she had kept hidden from view until now. It was kin to the same thing that sprouted in me at the age of six. Recognition had come too late.
“Good, ain’t I? When I’m through here, I’m heading for LA. I’m gonna be the biggest star Hollywood’s ever seen. I got looks, talent and a mean streak to match any of those sharks out there. Throw the shit in yer pockets into the boat next to Roy-Boy’s stash.”
I did as she said.
“Now turn around and start heading for that first house down there. Don’t look back and I won’t have to kill ya.”
I followed her orders and began to walk. I felt the bullet hit my back before I heard it leave the chamber.
“You ugly sum-bitch. You didn’t really think I’d fuck you either, did ya?”
I heard the motor start as darkness came crashing down.
* * *
There are good folk here in St. Martinville. They believed my story of how the wife and I had traveled from Grand Isle, taking in the young hitch-hiker along the way. How he robbed us blind and left us for dead. They planted the hooker with the fake name I had given her, and they took me in after I got out of the hospital and are nursing me back to health. The morons from F.E.M.A. have footed the bill and I have a nice little pocketful of relocation dough saved up.
I spend most of my recovery under the Evangeline Oak, on one of those quaint little benches used by the old men of the town. Those gents that wear vests and berets to the Park, carry silver-headed canes and speak in French-Canadian patois. The sun has returned and it soaks deep into my battered hands like warmed lanolin. There is a sense of peace here that I have always looked for, my whole life. But it’s not for me. Never has been, really.
I listen to the gentle lapping of Bayou Teche and Lena’s pretty face leaps to mind. That’s okay. I want to remember just who I’m looking for when I hit LA. When we meet up again, she’s going to wish she had just kept her mouth shut and screwed old Roy-Boy that night, back in New Orleans. When she’s worn-down and begging for me to end it, I’m going to start right on in again.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll bring back some fond memories as I finally squeeze the life out of that smooth, white, lying throat, and I hum a little Dream Baby just for her.
D.A. Davenport is a writer living in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. She has written and published five short stories and hopes to do many more. She is married and her small family has grown in the last two years. Her son married a wonderful woman and one year later they added another shining light to her life, her first grandson. Life at sixty is very, very good!