Authors: Jimmy Fox
Tags: #Mystery: Thriller - Genealogy - Louisiana
|Jimmy Fox - Nick Herald 01 - Deadly Pedigree|
|Nick Herald |
|Tags:||Mystery: Thriller - Genealogy - Louisiana|
Mystery: Thriller - Genealogy - Louisianattt
Copyright © 2012 Jimmy Fox
All rights reserved.
ISBN 13: 9781479151660
eBook ISBN: 978-1-62346-173-7
To my parents, Sylvan and Rosalyn,
for the freedom to dream,
the passion to learn,
the courage to write,
and love beyond words.
urder has a family tree. Its ancestors and descendents are causes and consequences. Every act of murder gives birth to an eternal bond, spanning countless unwitting generations, scorning the limits of mortal time. This bond, this spawn of murder, instantly and forever alters all that has passed, all yet to be, insatiably reaching across the ages to lock events and individuals together in unbreakable, deadly kinship.
The frail man slowly pulling himself up the stairs needed no words to comprehend this truth. He heard, always, in every tongue devised by man, the weeping of the dead, without number, to confirm it. Language was irrelevant, impotent to express what he knew with every cell of his being, what it meant to be a member of this fatal family.
The stairway was steep, and nearly as hot and muggy as the New Orleans summer afternoon outside. The old man touched his chest and stomach alternately, as if not sure where the pain was worse. Sweat covered his blanched face. He clung to the handrail for support. His breath came short and shallow.
More than once the old man froze after ascending a few steps and covered his face with trembling hands.
Darkness. Cannot breathe! Is it the grave, so often escaped? Those voices, long ago. The same today, but different. Were they not utterly destroyed? Do they yet live? Yes. They rise up from the blood they spill. Black rivers, oceans of blood, pressing down upon me now.
“Let up dude. You’re gonna kill him.”
“So? One less kike in the world. Big fuckin’ deal.”
“Give him some air, dude. Old man, can you hear? You gonna stop what you been doin’? Hey, old man! Listen: keep your mouth shut, mind your own business, or we’ll be back.”
“Yeah, asshole. Next time we won’t use a fuckin’ pillow.”
Each time the terror assailed him, he shook off his fear and proceeded upward, drawing strength from a secret source.
Now, his chin set defiantly, his gaze fierce, he pushed up the left sleeve of his outdated but carefully preserved sport coat. His shirt cuff rode easily up his bone-thin forearm to reveal blue-green tattooed numbers.
“You think you have won again?” he said bitterly to the echoing staircase, as if to an old invisible adversary. “No, no! I will have the final victory. You will remember, you will all suffer. This time, this time it will be you.” He fastidiously rearranged his damp shirt, tie, and coat.
From an inside pocket he removed a slim, dimpled silver flask. He coughed and took a furtive swig. Then he smoothed the two clumps of white hair on either side of his fragile skull and resumed the struggle toward his destination.
ew Orleans dances to its own addictive music, Nick Herald mused, as he angled the latest issue of the New Orleans phone book to catch the light from the windows along the east wall of his office. The Yellow Pages ad he’d placed was supposed to perk up his business. It wasn’t working.
There was an article somewhere under the debris on his desk, where his feet were propped, that said genealogy was fast becoming America’s favorite hobby, rivaling stamp collecting.
Not here, buddy! New Orleans–another world, another reality.
Clients were not exactly getting busy signals from his office phone, or lining up at his door, here in the Central Business District of the enigmatic city he had considered his home for the last fifteen years.
The ad had been a foolish waste of money, he now realized–more proof of his lack of commercial smarts. Despite the hyena pack of resentment that ate at his soul, he wished he were back in a familiar classroom at Freret University, preaching to uninterested undergrads the gospel of English literature. The paycheck had been regular.
“Can’t even see the damn thing,” he grumbled, squinting at the ad. Louisiana mosquitoes were bigger than the phone number and address. What a rip-off.
NEW ORLEANS GENEALOGICAL
SERVICES WORLDWIDE, INC.
J. N. Herald, Certified Genealogist, Ph.D.
He looked up. One of these days, he would get around to changing those blown light bulbs. He refused to admit he was succumbing to failing eyesight, yet another symptom of encroaching middle age.
Sure, it was the bad light. He shifted the dozens of folders on his messy desk and found his drugstore reading glasses.
The ad, in better focus now, seemed to strike the proper dignified tone he’d wanted, even if it was too small. Lawyerly, doctorish. So what if it strained the nature of his set-up here? He ran a one-man operation, yes; but he could call on genealogical stringers all over the country, all over the world. At least those lucky few he’d paid on time and in full; the others wouldn’t give him the local time of day. And so what if he wasn’t really incorporated? On the battlefield of business, as in the ivory tower of a college English department, Machiavellianism ruled supreme. In his former career, he’d learned that lesson too late.
Was his minor deception ethical? he asked himself, as he stood up and walked over to the windowsill for the dregs of the coffee. Hey, it was an imperfect world. Nobody had elected him to fix it?
Next question, please.
The tooting of a big ocean-going ship on the river, the faint roar of a streetcar and other traffic clamor, and ephemeral brass-band notes from deep within the French Quarter merged with the asthmatic drone of the window air-conditioner. If it rained later, as the white anvil clouds rising above the humid city seemed to promise, he could jog down St. Charles Avenue without risking a heat stroke. That would be better than sitting in his office, breathing stale memories, wasting electricity.
Nick still dressed with the indifference to taste of a college English professor; but because he seemed younger than his actual age, he looked more like a dissolute graduate student at the end of his monthly stipend. Today, as usual, he wore baggy khakis, a wrinkled once-white Oxford shirt, and a pair of Clark’s sand-suede desert boots that had seen better days. When he needed a touch of formality, he donned a coat and tie hanging in a closet of the outer office. Too much thinking, too much drinking, and twenty-or-so years of recreational jogging had left him a bit too lean for his 5’10” frame. His hair was dark brown with only a few irascible gray ones; he wore it a bit longer than was wise for a professional genealogist, who, as a rule, dealt with people of a more conservative bent, especially here in the South. But haircuts were expensive.
That morning, in the office bathroom, he’d scraped his morose face with a dull razor; already he had an early five-o’clock shadow to go with the dried blood of nicks. His thick eyebrows extended in a nearly continuous bar above his brown eyes, which now surveyed the dusty still life that was his office.
Stacks and stacks of books, manuscripts, documents, and letters leaned precariously against the office walls and crowded every inch of shelf space. His apartment was full, too. He collected indiscriminately, compulsively. It had all started after his ejection from the faculty of Freret University.
Why did he impoverish himself gathering this material, traveling wherever in the area there was a likely repository of irreplaceable genealogical material about to be consigned to the dump? He saw his collection as a kind of witness-protection program. These yellowed and crumbling products of human interaction were those witnesses. Someday, they would reveal a lost connection, rescue a reputation, or resolve a mystery. His own career might have been salvaged by just such testimony.
As a genealogist, though, he’d learned never to trust any written record without question; false records, like mindless machines, repeat the lies of their creators.
was his credo, as it had been for Descartes. He kept a small bust of the seventeenth-century French philosopher in a place of honor, high atop a section of shelves. It was a souvenir of a happier time, the summer he directed a study group in France and England. The bust had become something of a household god for him, a constant reminder that we can know only part of any story.
Nick’s humble office occupied two rooms on the fourth floor of a 1920s building, on an easily missed oblique street of downtown New Orleans, across Canal from the French Quarter. He had chosen the neighborhood precisely because it was off the beaten track. His address allowed him the solitude that, more and more, he had come to treasure, while still keeping him somewhat accessible to intrepid clients. If he lacked the acquisitive drive to be a genealogical tycoon, at least he could enjoy his marginality.
The neighborhood was a perennial casualty of the boom-and-bust cycles of the Louisiana economy. Empty lots, with tile floors of the buildings that had once occupied them, spoke of surgical arson. Nick had a relatively good view of the river through one such gap. New Deal-Art Deco government buildings and neo-Doric banks hulked over the modest, short block–symbols of power and success Nick envied and at the same time despised.
Lately, this section of downtown had become a mecca of affordable addresses for small businesses. The buildings now wore “For Sale or Lease” signs for only weeks instead of years before they were snapped up. It was a seller’s market. Somebody was making a mint where yesterday tourists were advised not to walk.
Between “Gemstones” and “General Merchandise,” his ad was nearly lost in the clutter. Nick now admitted to himself that he had bought the ad in the hope of striking up a friendship with the young saleswoman. A date would have been cheaper, he thought now, looking at the bill that had arrived at his post-office box that morning.
He sighed and opened a drawer in his desk. It wasn’t the first time he’d done something stupid in the name of love–or lust. And it wouldn’t be the last bill he swore he never received, when the dunning began. He crammed the bill into the drawer, among the many others, and slammed it shut.
Then he turned to his typewriter and got back to work.
His research was finished on this project. A thousand dollars waited for him–if he could justify the inflated bill. That feat was going to be trickier than the project had proved to be. It was big money, for him. Yet he hated to see the job come to an end, since it was the only one he had at the moment, phone-book ad notwithstanding.
He had been commissioned to do an extensive family tree for a woman who believed, based on family lore, that she was descended from the royalty of Sweden. Nick had found that this certainly was not the case. The truth was that her forefathers had been blacksmiths and shepherds since the dawn of history in Ireland.
There was no disgrace in the lack of royal ancestors; most of the world’s population was in the same boat, not to mention the fact that once every royal family was non-royal. But Nick knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. He could do more if she wished, follow other limbs, twigs, and roots by mail and fax and phone, but it would be even more expensive, and of course, this extended research wouldn’t change his findings. The facts of genealogy, he’d learned from his studies, can’t be forced, though force might make genealogy.
But genealogy could be
, through a bit of fudging by a creative, needy researcher. All he had to do was carefully withhold certain information, and then maybe he could milk this project–
A noise interrupted his ruminations.
Was that his office door? Maybe his old typewriter had a new complaint. He certainly wasn’t expecting anyone. It was two-fifteen. He could use some lunch, he suddenly realized, as he continued to listen.
There was definitely someone in the office now, Nick was sure. Maybe the janitorial crew, back for something forgotten that morning. Hell, it used to be all they did was empty the trash can, and that rarely. A new vitality had energized the neighborhood, which probably explained this annoying, unusual zealousness of the cleaning guys.
The wooden floor in the small anteroom gave a few initial creaks, and then there was silence.
“Is someone there? Can I help you?” Nick said, at once irritated, curious, and a bit apprehensive.
“Where…where are you?” replied a quavering voice.
Before Nick could reach the doorway that separated the two rooms, an elderly, unsteady man stumbled around the corner, taking mincing steps in the shackles of age and pain.
“Oh my! Such a nice office you have here,” the old man wheezed. “So many books…everywhere! That’s good. You are a smart fellow. And it is so cool in here! Thank God! Just give me a minute, just a minute, to get my breath.” He leaned against a section of the tall bookcases opposite the windows and wiped his forehead with an extraordinarily fine handkerchief. Nick saw the initials in ornate letters: M C.
He wondered briefly if the old guy was a member of his reading classes at the public library, or an escapee from one of the nursing homes where he sometimes gave genealogy lectures. He certainly wasn’t a janitor. From the old school, one of those who still dressed up, in their own sad way, to go downtown. A dandy once, probably, judging from the handkerchief; but he’d lost the knack.
No, Nick couldn’t place the old fellow. It was obvious to him, however, that his visitor was in serious respiratory distress. He must be feeble of mind, too, if he thought the office was blissfully cool, with that one pitiful air-conditioner.
“This is where they do the research, the research on the family?” the man asked finally.
“Yes, that’s correct. I’m Jonathan Nicholas Herald, and my business is genealogical research. People call me Nick, though I’ve been called worse–mostly by my ex-wife’s mother.”
The old man apparently didn’t catch the humor in Nick’s efforts to put him at ease. Maybe he couldn’t spare the breath to laugh.
“I do all the work myself,” Nick explained, trying to polish his image a bit. “I find it’s more efficient that way…would you like to sit down?” He cleared papers and books from a chair in front of his desk. “How about some coffee? It’s no trouble, really.”
The old man might very well be in the early stages of a heart attack.
Great! Just what I need: OLD MAN FOUND DEAD IN GENEALOGIST’S OFFICE, SUSPICIOUS CIRCUSTANCES…another scandal to bust me out of another career.
“Thank you, no, no coffee. Just the chair. It is so hot on the stairs. You know, it is bad for my cough.” Having sunk with exhaustion into the offered chair, the old man coughed and made use of the silver flask from his coat for a few medicinal sips.
Nick was amused, but didn’t want to insult the old fellow by showing it. He remembered a great-uncle who had the same trick: a chronic, probably fake, cough to sneak in nips of whiskey.
“Maximilian Corban. Max. That’s me,” he began. “I am an old, sick man, alone in the world. I want that you should find someone who has my blood on–who has my blood in their veins. I am getting close to the end, and I want to go to my rest knowing there is someone who might say Kaddish for me.”
Not the way most people refer to their relations these days, Nick thought, this macabre emphasis on blood. But the old man’s native language was obviously not English. Relieved his visitor seemed to be recovering, Nick sat down at his desk. He didn’t have to ask what the Kaddish was; he had inexpertly stumbled through Judaism’s sacred prayer for the dead over a few departed family members and friends. Nick’s father was Jewish; and once, in those sunny days of youthful optimism before he had reached his present exalted level of skepticism, he had considered himself a believer in the undemanding Reform variety. But that time was as distant to him as a two-hundred-year-old census. Now, he no longer believed in very much that didn’t pay the rent.
“Well, Max, my services and fees are all laid out here on this sheet, along with the accrediting organizations I belong to, and a little bit about my academic qualifications. I’d be happy to work for you, if you find my terms acceptable.”
And I’d make a perfect heir, if you’re looking for someone to leave your estate to, Nick thought but did not say.
“This seems very high,” Corban complained. “What is this, brain surgery?”
“Genealogical research isn’t brain surgery, but it is a specialized field. I assure you, my work is worth it. You’ll notice that I’m a published genealogical author.”
This guy’s no dummy. He disarms you with pity, then pounces. Careful, don’t scare him off; you need this old fellow.
Nick glanced at the drawer of bills as a reminder to remain civil. He concentrated on the businessman’s mantra:
The customer is always right. The customer is always right
Corban shook his head, fidgeted, seemed on the verge of leaving–if he even remembered where he was, which Nick doubted. He coughed, put up a shaking hand to beg a moment’s pause, and then brought the flask to his mouth. Apparently refreshed, he leaned forward with startling intenseness on his face.