July 1862, Occupied New Orleans
It had been one of those hot, stifling New Orleans days when the air pressed down dense and breathless with the threat of a coming storm. Nightfall was still hours away, but already the sky hung gunmetal gray and ugly overhead, the peaked white roofs of the tombs glowing pale in the fading light of day. A jagged flash of lightning split the gloom, and Emmanuelle quickened her step, the black skirts of her widow's weeds swaying against the worn frock coat of the white-bearded old man whose arm she held as they hurried through the great, rusting black iron gates of St. Louis Cemetery.
"Perhaps we should not have come this year," Dr. Henri Santerre said as they turned down a weed-choked alley between the high peristyle tombs. About them, the hum of the locusts intensified until it was like a vibration in the thick, hot air. "Or at least we should have left the hospital sooner. There are too many soldiers on the streets tonight for my taste."
They spoke in French, as they always did, Emmanuelle's voice thick with emotion as she said, "I refuse to allow the presence of General Benjamin Butler and his vermin in blue to prevent me from visiting my parents' grave."
"Emmanuelle . . ." The old doctor touched her hand where it rested on his sleeve, his pace slowing. "Remember, my child: You can hate what a uniform stands for and what it does, without indiscriminately hating every man who wears it."
Emmanuelle pivoted to face him, the sweet scent of the jasmine sprays she carried wafting up to mingle with the odors of dampness and decay pressing in all around them. "Uniforms do not kill and maim and destroy. Men do."
"So do women, sometimes."
She gave a startled laugh and swung away from him. "Sometimes." Kneeling on the shallow granite steps leading up to the crypt beside her, she laid the flowers against the marble slab sealing the entrance to the Maret family tomb, and added more softly, "Only, not nearly as often."
He merely grunted, his gnarled, arthritic hand descending on her shoulder and gripping tightly for support as he eased himself down, his back to the tomb. He did not kneel, and she knew he would not pray, although he would sit beside her for as long as she did. Then they would visit his wife's grave, on the far side of this city of the dead.
Slipping her rosary from her pocket, Emmanuelle began, the smooth rosewood beads passing rapidly through her fingers. Normally, she would say the entire rosary, but when thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and the clouds dropped lower, stealing even more of the fading light, she felt an apprehensive shiver that seemed oddly out of place in the evening's heat. It wasn't like her, this sense of uneasiness, of lurking danger. Thunder rumbled again, closer, and after only two decades, Emmanuelle decided to stop.
"She would be proud of you if she could see you today," Dr. Santerre said quietly when she raised her head. "Your mother, I mean. They both would."
Emmanuelle looked away, her throat suddenly tight. "Would they? I don't think so."
"That's because you've always been too hard on yourself."
She stood, shaking her head. She was stiff from kneeling, and when a sudden gust of hot wind caught her full black skirts and billowed them out around her, she staggered. Her heel slipped from the smooth stone base of the tomb, and she stumbled with a small cry that brought Dr. Santerre lurching to his feet. He reached for her just as she heard the whiz of something rushing past her.
Henri jerked backward as if he had been struck, his spine slamming against the door of the tomb behind him. She watched in numb horror as bright red blood soaked the old man's vest to bloom out in a flare around a small wooden projectile protruding from high in his torso. His pale gray eyes widening, he stared down at his chest, then at Emmanuelle.
"Mon Dieu," she said in a strangled whisper, and stretched out her hand to him.
"Run," he said, blood bubbling up from his mouth as his legs slowly folded beneath him and his eyes rolled back in his head.
She felt the wrenching tear of conflicting compulsions, a scalp-tingling fear for her own life at war with a healer's instinct to help this man who had been like a father to her for so many years. But Emmanuelle knew death when she saw it. Picking up her skirts, she ran.
Major Zachary X. Cooper, U.S. Cavalry, leaned one shoulder against the frame of the French doors opening off the general's study and watched as the summer storm burst over the city of New Orleans. Rain poured from the darkening sky in windswept sheets that nearly obscured the faint glow of the gaslights lining the leafy street of tall mansions. There was something almost primeval about the way it could rain in this city, Zach thought as he watched the water rise in the gutters and spill in ever deepening ripples over the sidewalks; something at once elemental and decadent about the moist heat of the days and the soft velvet of the nights. It was like a dangerous woman, this city--as reckless and seductive as sin.
He could hear, behind him, the sounds of leave-taking as "Colonel" Andrew Butler wove his drunken steps toward the front of the house. Zach stayed where he was. The less he had to do with the general's opportunistic brother, the better for his career--and his temper.
"Thanks for waiting, Cooper. Here."
Zach turned to accept the crystal glass of French brandy held out to him by General Benjamin Butler, the so-called Beast of New Orleans and Zach's commanding officer. He was an almost comic-looking figure, Butler, with his short, stout body, overly big head, and squinting, crossed eyes; comic-looking, shrewd, and dangerous--as the people of New Orleans had learned.
"I've had another communication from Washington," Butler said, his movements characteristically quick and nervous as he crossed the priceless Turkey carpet to send a sheet of elegant stationery bearing a familiar letterhead skittering across the leather top of his massive mahogany desk. The desk, like the Uptown house around them and the brandy in Zach's glass, had once belonged to a Confederate general. Butler might not have shown much talent in the field, but he had a real genius for making other people's property his own. Settling into the dead Confederate general's chair, Butler templed his fingers together and squinted at Zach over their tips. "It seems the Secretary of State has been forced to apologize to the Dutch for what he calls our 'unnecessary and rude' handling of their consul."
"Huh." Zach set the brandy to rocking in his glass, the heavy golden-brown liquid gleaming in the candlelight, the heady scent of expensive liquor filling the air. "If the Dutch consul didn't want to be stripped of everything but his socks, he shouldn't have refused to hand over his keys when I asked for them. What did the Secretary of State have to say about the eight hundred thousand dollars in Confederate silver we took from the consul's vault?"
Butler leaned back in his chair, his hands dropping. "Oh, Washington has every intention of keeping that. I'm simply supposed to order my provost marshal not to forcibly relieve any more foreign nationals of their drawers." His thin lips curved upward and parted to display an unusually fine set of even white teeth. The general's smile was his best feature; he knew it, and used it often. "So consider yourself warned."
Zach tasted the brandy in his glass. It was good, very good, but did little to calm the hum of anticipation and determination quickening his blood. "Actually, General," he said, deliberately keeping his voice casual, relaxed, "I've been wanting to speak to you about--"
Butler smiled again. "No, I'm not sending you back to your old cavalry regiment. I need you here."
A gust of warm, moist wind caught one of the open doors, slamming it against the wall. Zach went to secure the latch. "Sir," he said, his grip on the latch tight, his grip on himself tighter. "This army needs trained cavalry officers. The Southerners have been riding circles around our troops since the war began."
It was true, all of it. But it wasn't the only reason, wasn't even the main reason Zach was so desperate to get back to his old regiment. Most men would consider it a gift--a blessing, even--this assignment as provost marshal, this easy, secure city life filled not with punishing marches and bloody cavalry charges but with brandy in crystal glasses and evenings spent at the theater or opera. But not Zach. He'd long ago come to terms with a soldier's fears, the fear of the kind of death and mutilation that could come in an instant with the slash of a saber, the whine of a bullet, the devastating impact of a cannonball. What Zach feared was something else entirely, and the longer he stayed in this city as provost marshal, the more inevitable it became that he was eventually going to have to face that fear, whether he wanted to or not.
"Our cavalry boys are getting better," Butler said now, his smile broadening at the expression on Zach's face as he swung back around. "I said they're getting better. I didn't say they are better."
"They could be. With the proper training."
Butler jerked forward. "Listen, Zach. I've no doubt you're a fine cavalry officer. But you're also a damned good provost marshal. I need you here, both to help control this city and to quiet the howling wolves in Washington who'd like nothing better than to get me out of here. However much they might object to your methods, you're a West Point man who spent years fighting on the frontier. They respect that." The general blinked. And they know you're honest, said those strange, mismatched eyes, although Butler would never admit, aloud, how important that was to his continued survival.
Like far too many generals in the Union army, Butler was one of Lincoln's political appointments, a lawyer who'd never seen a day of military action before Lincoln pinned the stars on his uniform and sent him out to do his best to get all the mothers' sons under his command killed. Only, Butler was too busy exploiting his despotic authority over the city of New Orleans to spend much time trying to carry the war up the Mississippi. The mothers' sons under Butler's command were growing rich on booty--like the general himself.
"With all due respect, sir, this was only supposed to be a temporary assignment while I recovered from my wound."
Butler smiled again, a purely spontaneous smile of amusement. "You think you're recovered now, do you?"
"You might not think so after spending an eighteen-hour day in the saddle."
"I've been making it a point to ride every day, sir."
"And you rode particularly hard today, didn't you? Hell, even my wife could see the pain in your face when you limped into her dining room tonight."
The general thrust up from his chair in one swift movement. "Enough, Major."
Zach set his jaw against a surge of angry disappointment so intense, he could taste it. "Yes, sir."
The two men eyed each other steadily for a moment. It was Butler who turned away. "Here. Have some more brandy."
"Thank you, sir, but I--" Zach broke off as a knock sounded.
The general raised his voice. "What is it?"
"Fletcher, sir. For Major Cooper." A tall, thickset captain with a flowing mane of fiery hair and a splendid pair of handlebar mustaches filled the doorway. Rain glistened on his full, florid cheeks, darkened the cloth of his cape, pooled on the hardwood floor around his polished black boots. His pale eyes darted across the room to Zach, and the mustaches twitched. Captain Hamish Fletcher knew why Zach was here. And he obviously knew, by whatever he could see in Zach's face, that Zach's request for a transfer had been refused. "There's been a murder."
The twist in Zach's gut was instantaneous and vicious. It was like a nightmarish echo from his past, a realization of what he had feared the most. There's been a murder, sir. Another murder, sir, Another, another . . . He felt the muscles in his throat tightening up, tighter and tighter. For one appalling moment, it was an effort even to draw breath, so that it was Butler who answered, his voice tinged with irritation.
"The riffraff of this city get themselves murdered at the rate of something like four or five a month," he said, brandy bottle hovering in midair as he looked up. "Last week it was an Irishman. Next week it'll be an Italian . . . or a Negro, or a German, or a Pole. Do you propose to come running to Major Cooper with each one?"
"No, sir," said Hamish, his accent a peculiar combination of his parents' Scots and the New York City neighborhood where he'd grown up. "But this one is a wee bit out of the ordinary. It's a Creole." His gaze flicked back to meet Zach's. "A doctor."
"A Creole." Butler let out a derisory huff and sloshed a generous measure of brandy into his glass. "It's past time the Creoles of this city learned they're not nearly as important as they think they are."
Hamish's gaze held Zach's steadily as Zach tossed off the rest of his brandy and set the crystal glass aside. He had control of himself now, control of that sick, shameful fear. It was still there--he thought it would always be there--but he'd pushed it down where it wouldn't bother him, where he didn't need to deal with it. Butler was right: Men got themselves killed in this city all the time. There was no reason to think this murder would be any different, no reason to think it was the beginning of something ominous. Something that would happen again and again.
Something like what had happened before.
"I'll come," Zach said, reaching for his cape. "Where's the body?"
"St. Louis Cemetery. It's where he was killed," Hamish added when Zach swung around to stare at him.
"Convenient," Zach said, and buckled on his saber with hands that were utterly, convincingly steady.
It was still pouring when the hack let them out onto the rotting, broken wooden sidewalks of Basin Street.
"I left a couple of troopers here," said the captain, sounding very much like a policeman--but then, before the war, in New York, that's what Hamish Fletcher had been. It was something Zach could never understand, why any man would want to be a policeman, why he would deliberately put himself in the way of having to deal with the worst a city could spew out, every day, day after day, for a lifetime.
Excerpted from Midnight Confessions by Candice Proctor. Copyright © 2002 by Candice Proctor. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.