A bell chimes at the front of the cafe. In walks the very man Alastor has come to expect. Five forty-five on the dot, before the day has even begun. The sky is still milk-glass blue dawn, bayou breathing up its spirits of the night before, the hour of brief reprieve before the devilish heat rolls in. Still, it’s hot, always hot in New Orleans, and it shows in how his ill-suited shirt already sticks to his chest.
The poor out-of-towner had looked so lost and frustrated the first morning, Alastor had let him in out of pity. Now, he comes to anticipate his arrival just before business hours.
“Bonjour˖, détective,” Alastor says, already fetching a cup and the pot of coffee.
“Bonjour, Mr. LeBlanc.”
The detective’s flat accent never fails to bring a smile to Alastor’s face. “Comment ça va˖?” he asks in his sunny way.
The detective purses his lips as he doffs his hat and takes his seat. His brow furrows a moment, hat frozen mid-swing. “Ça va˖,” he manages with a smile, placing his hat on the seat beside him.
“Ça va?” he echoes sympathetically. “No 'ça va très bien'˖?”
The detective smiles in polite, but tired, anticipation of his coffee. Alastor pours and then slides the cup toward him. “Don’t get much sleep in this town,” the detective mutters, giving up on trying to keep his paltry French going.
Alastor switches effortlessly to English, albeit with a distinctive twang. “Lively lil’ town, isn’t it?”
“You’d think people would keep off the streets. Madman on the loose,” the detective mutters very nearly into his coffee, taking a grateful sip. The coffee here is twice as bitter as what he’s used to, but it’s damn good.
“There’s a saying down here, cher˖. Laissez les bon temps rouler.”
The words roll right off his tongue, sweet and thick as syrup, perk him up nearly as much as the coffee. “Which means?”
“Let the good times roll,” Alastor says with a lift of his brows, bright grin gleaming against his dark complexion. “No matter the dark days, we folk are bound to have a good time.”
The detective can’t help but bask in the brilliance of that smile. “Huh.” He smirks and takes another sip of his coffee. “Well, it isn’t the… bon temps rouler that’s keepin’ me up at night.”
“No? C'est quoi˖,” Alastor asks, planting a hand on his hip.
“It’s the damned heat.”
Alastor laughs, giving the detective a once-over. “You sleep in that suit?” he teases.
The detective’s eyes widen slightly as he looks up into that impenetrably hospitable face. “What?”
“One way to beat the Louisiana heat at night. Have as little as possible between you and that night air.”
And with a twinkle of those dark eyes, the proprietor turns gracefully to return the coffee pot to its home. The detective has heard of ‘Southern hospitality,’ but he is almost one hundred percent certain that Alastor LeBlanc has been flirting with him.
It was hard to distinguish at first. Everyone in this town received him with a warm welcome--well, until they realized he was a yankee detective called down to snoop around. The folk around here didn’t seem to take kindly to their private business being raked through; least of all by an outsider. Nevermind that his sole purpose here was to ferret out a serial killer in their midst.
But Mr. LeBlanc’s kindness never faltered.
Mysterious and kind--that’s how he would describe New Orleans.
“Hearty breakfast is what you need, détective,” Alastor says as he strides toward the kitchen. “Grillades and grits.” It’s not a question. The detective has never once ordered food--only had it graciously provided to him. Alastor combs his hair back from his brow, tossing a smile back at his lone patron. “Had some chance˖ hunting in the evenin’. Make you somethin’ beaucoup bien to lift your spirits.”
He salutes Alastor with his mug. He’s never one to turn down a free meal.
The Southern hospitality settles deep in his bones as he wipes the last bit of buttery grits from his mouth with his napkin.
“A splash more?” Alastor asks, circling round to the detective’s table with the coffee. As he sees the empty plate, a smile smears across his lips, smooth and dark as chicory coffee.
“I’d better,” he agrees with a sigh. “You feed me too well. I have half a mind to crawl right back to the hotel and sleep that off.”
“Best use it t’ fuel your work, Mr. Oxley. Our community’s countin’ on you,” Alastor chides him as he tops off his coffee.
The detective lifts his square jaw to look up at that easy, generous smile. It’s rare Alastor calls him anything other than ‘détective’ or ‘cher.’ Even with that charming twang, it sounds like an order when he uses his name.
Dark eyes drift to meet those pale ones. Penetrating eyes. Everything about Mr. Maximilien Oxley is ill-suited for these parts. He’s too pale, too cold, too suit-and-tie. Even his charm is brittle. But there is one thing about him: everyone is equal in his eyes. Equally culpable, equally suspicious, perhaps, but equal nonetheless.
“Y’ workin’ too hard if a lil’ grits s’ enough to lull y’ to sleep, cher.” Max is no longer his only patron, but Alastor lingers. It’s the only time he gets to see the outsider. He would be remiss to squander the opportunity. Max has interrogated damn near half the town if the rumor mill was to be believed. But not him. Not the very man he should have had his eye on. “When d’ya ever find the time to rest your weary head?” he asks sweetly.
Alastor always makes polite conversation, but rarely about what he does in his free time. Another tally in the ‘he’s flirting with me’ category by Max’s count. “I’ve been known to sit for a spell with a glass of whiskey…” he replies slowly, his next question on the tip of his tongue.
“The great gumshoe ain’t always stuck to the pavement, huh?” Alastor quips back, quick as anything.
Not what Max had expected him to say. Then again, when had he ever been able to predict what this enigmatic, always smiling man was about to say? “What about you, Mr. LeBlanc?” He keeps the conversation aloft. All the pleasantries over his mornings here, and he’s hardly asked Alastor a thing about him. “Where do you find the time?”
“Ohh, there’s no rest for the wicked, Mr. Oxley.” Those lips curl warm around his name.
“Call me Max.” While they’re on the track of becoming more familiar.
“Max…” Alastor hadn’t expected the buttoned-up detective to shorten his name so. Now he had to wonder what that middle V initial stood for. “It ought not be whiskey y’ drinkin’. Bourbon’s the thing.”
“Oh yeah?” Max had to wonder if this was a personal recommendation or an offer. Only one way to find out. “You know of any good places?”
“My, my… We’re hardly acquainted an’ y’ wanna buy me a drink?” Alastor could not deny the thrill he felt. There was no mistaking the invitation in Max’s words--and it hardly sounded like an invitation to an interrogation. How entertaining.
“You’ve been keeping me alive. Coffee and breakfast every morning. Least I could do is buy you a drink,” Max says smoothly. Alastor’s reply had been nothing short of coy. He wasn’t imagining things. (Of course he wasn’t--he was a detective and a damn good one. He could tell when someone was flirting with him.)
“Mighty hospitable a’ you, Mr.--... Max. That’s mighty hospitable a’ you, Max.”
Max is charmed. He’s damn near smitten. He’s certainly intrigued. And he’s not about to let this slip from his grasp unconfirmed. “So… is it a date?”
“Peut-être.˖” Ever enigmatic, it’s at that moment that Alastor takes his leave to round the rest of the cafe, leaving a nigh-spellbound detective drawn almost half out of his chair in the wake of his magnetic presence.
. . .
“I hear y’ don’t care much for jazz, Mr. Wallis,” Alastor says conversationally. He turns to his stunned guest hanging limp by his wrists hoisted to a hook in the ceiling. “If’n y’ don’t mind, I’ll put some on.”
As the radio hums to life, a low groan escapes his captive.
“I hear y’ don’t care for a lot a’ things a’ culture,” Alastor says as he surveys his tools, running his fingers along the table of mis en place thoughtfully. “Least of a certain kind a’ culture.” With a grin as sharp as his blade, Alastor picks his first instrument. The weight feels comfortable in his hand; natural.
The man is coming to. He faces the familiar sight of Mr. Alastor LeBlanc, local proprietor; a quiet, private man who always wears a smile. He faces that enormous blade in his hands. His eyes fly wide and he is suddenly very alert.
Alastor chuckles and gestures casually with the blade. “The blade’s not meant t’ scare ya, Mr. Wallis.”
This does little to assuage the fear in those wide, glassy eyes.
“S’a matter a’ precision. Assures a quick death.” Alastor’s grin glitters as he considers the blade. “More mercy than a man like y’self deserves, wouldn’t ya say, monsieur?”
The man attempts to talk around the cloth tied tight between his teeth.
Alastor chuckles. “Ohh, you’ve said more than enough already, monsieur. More than enough. F’give my impropriety. I do so prattle on sometimes…” Almost as quickly as he winds down, he winds back up again. “But I do so love a captive audience.”
As if those words were not enough to scare the fear of God into Mr. Wallis, the gleam of those mad eyes is.
“Y’ ever butcher a pig y’self?” Alastor tilts his head with interest at the man. “No…” His eyelids lower over dark eyes, that smile stretching wide across his lips. “No, y’ daddy never taught ya. He wouldn’t. Not when y’ got boys to do that for ya.”
The wild eyes of this animal before slaughter follow Alastor with terror. Ah, but these aren’t the eyes of a noble animal. These are the eyes of a predator, cornered and turned into prey.
“No, no, not a gentleman such as y’self…” Alastor sneers, that smile turning ugly. Something snags his attention--a particular phrase playing from the radio. His head tilts, light and graceful, and he taps his toe to the high-hat beat.
“Maybe…” he hums, turning on his heel back toward the man. “Maybe y’ should have.” Alastor nods faintly in time to the beat, waving the knife like a conductor’s baton. “Y’ know the worth of a lotta things, Mr. Wallis,” he says, words lilting to the music. “Look at you dressed in the worth a things!”
The sniveling man flinches at the flick of the blade, but it merely parts a button from his shirt. He draws in a desperate, shaking breath.
“But I don’ think you know the worth a th’ most precious thing.” Alastor’s eyes have landed dark and mirthless on his captive. He presses the flat of the blade against the man’s fat chest and takes a step closer. “Do y’ know what the most precious thing is, monsieur?” His blade trembles--not from his grasp, but from the juddering fat beneath it.
“C’mon!” Alastor cheers him on, eyes flashing wide. “Ya see the point I’m trying to make?” The air of the still room is shorn by the sharp gasps of panicked breath from around the gag.
“Ahh, it’ll come to ya, monsieur…” Alastor promises him with a sweet smile. “Y’ know what I can’t abide by, Mr. Wallis?” he asks. He wants Mr. Wallis to know very well what has landed him here. Let there be no question why him. “The huntin’ of th’ innocent.”
Mr. Wallis blinks. Barely dares to blink as that blade glitters all too close to his throat.
“I, personally, don’t care much f’r chasing folk around. No, no--no fanfare for me. No torches an’ hollerin’ an’ yellin’...”
The trembling intensifies, choked pleas spilling from his throat.
“Ya like it don’t ya?” Alastor sneers with that oppressive grin, pressing the blade against his neck. “Stringin’ up good folk. Makes ya feel powerful.” He chuckles, shaking his head slowly.
“Well, I take pleasure in my work, I do. I get a certain… envie.˖” His eyes widen, pupils dilating. “A… joie de vivre.˖” That smile splits wide, the corners of his eyes crinkling with pleasure. “Ahh, monsieur, I’ve given you a hint there. Has it come to you?” He taps the knife on his captive’s chest.
The man looks bewildered.
Alastor is nonplussed. “La vie˖!” he shouts, a sudden burst of manic energy. “Misere Grand Beede˖, you are stupid.” He laughs, slapping a hand to his own face as the giddy climax nears. “La vie is the most precious thing.” He sighs with pleasure. His little one man show is coming to a close. What a shame he has to enjoy this sliver of reparation alone.
“I hunt t’ provide for my community, monsieur. You’re a scourge on my community.” The tip of that knife draws the first red pearl of revenge from the man’s breast. “Y’got blood on y’ hands, Mr. Wallis. But that’s alright… Y’ can still serve y’ community jus’ fine…”
. . .
Alastor stops mid-step on the rickety stairs that lead up from the back entrance of the cafe to his shop-top suite. “Why, if it isn’t my fav’rite out-a’-town sleuth,” he says, dragging his palm along the tired banister.
The shaded bulb at the top of the stairs casts a long yellow pool down the stairs, shadows sharp as claws jutting up from beneath. In that light, it’s unmistakable--the smiling cafe proprietor is covered in blood.
“...” Max’s mouth opens, but no sound comes out. He’s seen many a gruesome scene, but nothing quite so stomach-churning as the figure before him: the kind, unsuspecting Monsieur LeBlanc streaked in viscera, caught by the humid-smudge glow of that bulb.
“What brings y’ ‘round my back door this hour a’ night, Mr. Oxley?” Alastor asks with all the warmth and ease Max has come to expect from him. “I know I open up early for y’, but…” He turns fully to face Max, steps lightly back down the stairs. He’s hyper-aware of how his trousers cling wet to his thighs with blood, of the quiet squelch of gore soaking his socks. It’s all he can do to keep his breathing calm and even.
Not for fear--no, no--but for the thrill of it.
“Y’ didn’t take me true when I said there’s no rest for th’ wicked, did ya?” Alastor chuckles. “Well… that’s not strictly wrong, neither…”
There’s a common misconception that death stinks. Left long enough, rot and decay will set in, but a fresh corpse--disregarding any involuntary discharge of bodily waste--doesn’t smell like much.
Pennies. The smell of copper hangs in the thick, humid air between them. Max finds himself thinking inexplicably of a candy store. Glass jars barely containing all the sugar-coated sweet smell--just a penny a pound. Death smells sweet, too.
“Y’ caught me jus’ comin’ home after a hard day’s work,” Alastor tells him quietly. His eyes are darkly hooded, but the light still manages to catch them; a wild spark in the shadows.
“You live around here?” Years of training and experience go clean out the window when faced with the utterly unexpected. There must be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Alastor LeBlanc is covered in blood and speaking to him in his usual jazz-rhythm croon despite it.
“Upstairs,” Alastor replies.
“Oh,” Max manages lamely.
“Now, did fate plan this rendezvous, cher, or was there somethin’ y’ came t’ see me about?” Alastor asks.
Max can only follow for so long before instinct--or common sense--kicks in. “Is that--”
“Blood?” Alastor supplies and picks at his shirt. “Why yes, détective. Tout à fait.˖”
Max’s finger hangs in the air with an unspoken question.
“Oh, no no no,” Alastor laughs. “Not mine.”
Max’s brow darkens.
“Y’ gobbled up those grillades so quick this mornin’, I had t’ make sure I’d have more for y’ t’morra.”
Relief crashes down on Max, pushes a breath out of his chest. “You went hunting,” he says; a revelation.
“Yes,” Alastor agrees, smile spread butter-on-rye across his lips.
“Clean the meat yourself,” Max supposes.
“Bien sûr.˖” Alastor’s eyes widen, as if offended Max would assume otherwise.
Max laughs off the rest of his tension.
Alastor tips his head, as if ignorant to the joke. Then, “Oh. Oh, cher, what must y’ have thought of me!” He laughs. “I must’a given y’ such a fright.” His dark eyes glitter upon Max, drinking in how easily the suspicion slides off him.
“I didn’t know what to think!” Max admits with a laugh.
“Well, givin’ you a fright has its benefits,” Alastor says.
Max feels those eyes watching him closely. “How’s that?” he asks, a grin tugging at his lips.
“Think that’s the firs’ time I’ve heard y’ laugh.” Alastor smiles with interest. “Really laugh. Y’got a nice smile, détective. Y’ should wear it more often.”
Max brushes a self-conscious hand over his mouth, but that grin persists.
“C’mon, then, Mr. Oxley. For y’ trouble.” Alastor tilts his head vaguely upward.
Max blinks, sure he’s somehow missed something.
“Wouldn’t be right sendin’ y’ off with those nerves!” Alastor insists, then turns on his heel. “Come up for a nip, cher.”
“A--” Max clears his throat. “A what?”
“Well, s’ not the best place in town, but it’s close.” Alastor glances over his shoulder as he ascends the stairs, blood-stained nails tapping out a little rhythm on the banister, that friendly jazz beat still playing in his head.
Max is inexorably drawn toward Alastor’s ascending figure. He finds himself on the bottom step of the staircase before his wits catch up with him. “Now, Mr. LeBlanc,” he begins stiffly, “I wouldn’t advise inviting strange men to your place of residence…” he finishes with a slow grin as he takes the next step.
“Oh, quite righ’, quite righ’” Alastor’s grin glows in the lamplight. “Are you strange, Mr. Oxley?” he asks from the top of the stair, gaze tipped back.
Max advances with a curious smile. “Perhaps stranger than most,” he says. “But maybe less strange than a midnight butcher.”
Alastor’s smile glitters. As Max ascends step by step, Alastor bends at the waist to loosen blood-slick laces from his shoes. Fingers slip past the cuff of his trousers, hook on the hems of damp socks. He straightens, socks tucked in shoes, shoes hanging from his fingers, limp at his side.
“Eh bien… Laissez les bon temps rouler, mon cher.˖”
˖How goes it?
˖Not 'very good'?
˖What is it?
˖'joy of life,' passion
˖Miserable clumsy old man
˖Well then... Let the good times roll, darling.