Rain pelted the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter, forming pools of water, like little ponds, as rainbows of oil danced across their surface. The day’s heat, trapped in those stones, rose like a steam bath as the rain cooled the hot streets, making an already humid night, more so. There was a feeling to the night, thick and hungry, like an unseen power wielded its influence over the city. But, it was of no concern to Nic Beuve as he lit another cigarette, the last one barely extinguished. He welcomed the night—day only brought pain. Raising a glass of whisky to his mouth, he listened to the sounds of cars as they drove past, splashing water on those still out walking. The French Quarter never slept. Like a miniature New York, businesses opened early and bars stayed open late. Laissez le bon temps rouler—“Let the good times roll” was the Crescent Cities motto.
Throwing back the rest of his drink, Nic scanned the back of the bar looking for Henri, the bartender. The night was still young, and he was still sober. The Bayou, a neighborhood bar, owned and operated by the same Cajun family for three generations, was Nic’s home away from home. Maman Rose, the current proprietor, took care of her customers and didn’t water down the drinks. Dark wood paneling hosted black and white photos of the swamps around Louisiana. Pictures of moss covered trees, a Heron standing in the shallows of a slow moving Acadian river, and Cypress trees, standing tall, surrounded by the black water like sentries of a forgotten time.
The musty smell of the river, drifted in through the door, when another local walked in and sat down at the bar. When Henri came from the back, Nic raised his empty glass indicating he needed another round. Henri, a local Cajun, with black hair and a devilish smile the ladies fought over, nodded once showing he’d seen the request. Just another night of solitude and whiskey, to take away the bitter taste of loss, Nic thought. He couldn’t seem to shake this feeling and if he weren't careful, he’d spend the rest of his miserable life drinking away his pain. But, at that moment, he didn’t seem to care.
Hope Delaney entered through the backdoor of The Bayou, her first day on the job as a cook. She’d looked for a position that kept her out of the public eye, somewhere to hide while earning a meager living. She’d come to New Orleans hoping to blend in, or preferably, vanish. Eyes down, as she entered the back, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone, just do the work she was hired to do, and then go back to the one room hole she called home.
Maman Rose had hired her the day before, and she could have kissed the woman. She’d had some money when she’d slipped into the night, enough to keep her safe for a while, but now that money was gone. Desperate, out of money, and afraid she wouldn’t secure a job before her new landlord wanted another week's rent, she’d walked into The Bayou with the paper folded to the help-wanted section on a wing and a prayer. Unfortunately, she needed to be paid under the table, she couldn’t risk using her name or social security number, and that was always the hitch with an employer. Maman Rose, a big, boisterous Cajun woman, with coffee colored skin and a rich Cajun accent had seen through her immediately, knew she was on the run and took Hope under her wing.
“Pauve ti bete, I don’t know what’s chasing you Cher, but Maman Rose will keep you safe,” Rose had replied while looking her up and down. Hope hadn’t answered the woman’s questioning eyes. Keep your head down, don’t look people in the eyes and they won’t remember you. Don’t stay long in one place, don’t make any friends, and be ready to run at a moment’s notice. That had been Hope’s motto for the past three months.
The air was thick with scents from the kitchen as she entered the back of the bar. Cajun spices wafted through the air like honeysuckle on a warm day back home. Each new town she’d lived in came with new and different smells. New Orleans came with the smells of magnolia flowers and spices so abundant that if you had an ounce of Cajun blood in you, you’d feel at home.
Hope didn’t have a clue how to make Gumbo, Crawfish Étouffée or Shrimp Creole, but that didn’t stop Rose from hiring her. Tucking her hair into a hairnet, and throwing on a blue jacket Rose had given her to cook in; she entered the kitchen, and headed to the man Rose had introduced her to as Big Daddy. He stood well over six feet, and if she had to guess close to three hundred pounds. Somewhere in his fifties, from the looks of him, his caramel colored skin beaded in sweat from the heat of the kitchen, and his bald head was covered with a matching blue cap to keep the sweat from running down his face.
“There she at,” Big Daddy smiled as Hope waited for instructions. He looked her up and down shaking his head. “Cher you notin’ but skin and bones you. When it slows down, Big Daddy gonna feed you yes he is.”
“Big Daddy that’s kind of you, but I can eat when I get home.”
“Bebe, don’t tell me lies. You gonna eat while I stand over you, can’t have my kitchen staff fallin’ over from hunger. What dat’ say bout’ Big Daddy, pauve ti bete?” Hope nodded, knowing when she’d lose a fight, and since her last meal was stale bread that morning, she had to admit having a full stomach sounded like heaven.
Big Daddy watched as Hope acquiesced and shook his head. Bon Dieu, Rose was right, he thought. She looked like she hadn’t eaten well in weeks, and the haunted look in her eyes told him they needed to keep an eye on this ‘tite ange. Maman Rose knew a lost soul when she saw one, and though this woman was in her late thirties, she was clearly lost.
Moving to the vegetable station, Big Daddy dumped a basket of colorful vegetables into the sink for Hope to wash and then cut. Yellow corn, plump and juicy, red peppers, big and firm, and crisp green cucumbers all would be used in the meals that night. The corn would go in the crawfish boil, a favorite at The Bayou. Local Cajuns set traps and brought them fresh crawfish daily. His regulars could go through hundreds of pounds of them in one night.
“Cher, I want you to start slow now. I know you don’t have experience wit’ Cajun cookin, so Big Daddy ain’t gonna rush you.”
“Okay, Big Daddy, and thank you,” Hope answered, as a small smile crossed her lips.
“Arrete sa petite fleur, we take care of our own, bebe.” Nodding again, Hope moved to the sink and started washing the vegetables, while worrying at her lip. How long would she be able to stay this time? A week? A month? He’d find her if she stayed too long, she knew that, he’d found her once already. Luckily, for Hope, she’d seen his man first and escaped. John was ruthless, always got what he wanted and he wanted Hope dead, and wouldn’t stop until she was. Ten years she’d endured abuse, scared if she left her husband he would kill her, scared if she didn’t leave he would. And she was right, he had tried to kill her, but now he couldn’t and she was determined to stay that way, or die trying.
Standing at her workstation, listening to the rhythmic slice then pound of the knife hitting the cutting board, her mind drifted to an evening not long ago, when she’d been cutting vegetables for her own dinner. She’d never eaten that meal; it ended up on the floor of her kitchen, another victim of a violent temper. The loud crash of a pot landing on the floor, broke Hope from her chilling thoughts of abuse, and focused her thoughts back on her job. She had to concentrate; she couldn’t afford to lose a finger daydreaming, or in this case, a waking nightmare.
Maman Rose watched Hope from behind the bar, the kitchen pass-thru giving her a view of the entire kitchen. She knew when she’d laid eyes on the woman she was running from something, or someone. Her own Chantelle had that same look when she’d come home to her Maman. A woman only looks like that when she flees for her life, and the way Hope had kept her eyes lowered, not making eye contact with anyone, not getting close, only answering with yes or no, Rose knew it had to be a man. Probably some no account fool, who thinks beating a woman until her soul is broken, and can’t remember what it’s like to breathe deep and feel safe, had no doubt taken a hand to her. It takes a soulless man to raise a fist to someone smaller, to control them with strength and temper, Rose thought.
“Dieu, just look at her. Too thin, and jumps at da’ slightest noise she do.” If her eyes were better, Rose was sure she could see the poor woman tremble like a dog who’d been kicked. “Da’ man who’d raise his hand to dat’ ‘tite ange should have bad gris-gris cast on his ‘tite boule,” Maman Rose mumbled to herself and slightly smiled at the thought of this unknown man’s balls shriveling to the size of a pea.
“Bon Dieu, remind me not to piss you off,” Henri chuckled, watching the new woman with interest.
“Mebbe’ you shouldn’t hound around so much if you don’t want your balls cursed,” Maman Rose laughed as she turned towards the bar, her eyes moving over her regulars. Frank, the auto repairman, who couldn’t keep a wife due to the fact he couldn’t stay away from bars, was seated in his regular spot enjoying a plate of Big Daddy’s crawfish. As the headlights of a car passed by the window, it illuminated the end of the bar, and her eyes caught on the sight of Nic Beuve. Talk about another lost soul. His pain came from another place entirely, a place that only God and time could heal. No man should bury a child before him, but Nic had buried his only daughter a little over a year ago, and as time passed, he seemed no closer to forgiving himself for not being able to save her. No, no man or woman should bury a child; it’s not the natural order of things. It breaks a person, traps them in a state of loss so deep they sometimes can’t break free.
Watching Nic, as he took another drink of whatever poison he needed to sleep at night, Maman Rose’s lips began to curl into a smile, that any wise man could see, she was up to something. Fortunately, for Nic, when he raised his eyes and found her smiling, he wasn’t in the mood to decipher the inner workings of a conniving old woman. If he had, he would have downed his drink, left the bar, and never come back.
“I know that look,” Henri announced as he watched his boss grin the grin of a woman who had a plan. Henri looked behind him at what he figured was her latest victim, and saw Nic Beuve looking puzzled as they stared at each other.
“What you got running through that evil mind of yours?”
“Maman gonna kill two birds she is.”
“Mebbe’ you should leave well enough alone,” Henri advised.
“And mebbe’ you should get back to work and leave da’ fixin’ to me.”
“You da’ boss.”
“Till da’ day I die, and don’t you forget,” Maman Rose laughed and then slapped Henri on the back.
Moving down the bar, feeling pretty darn good about her plan, Rose tossed a menu in front of Nic. His eyes dropped to the menu, and then looked back at the old woman. He didn’t want to eat; it would kill a perfectly good buzz.
“Cher, you need to eat.”
“Rosie, I need to drink.”
Rose’s eyes softened as she leaned into the bar, her big bosom’s lying across the glossy wood. “What you need to do is forgive you,” she replied in her Cajun accent, rich with French flair, yet Americanized over time. Lifting the glass to his lips, and swallowing more of the smoky whisky that burned his throat, but took the edge of his anger and guilt, he placed the glass down as he rose from the stool.
“C’est pas de ton affaire,” Nic replied.
“Mon ami, you been comin’ here for years, and mebbe’ it’s not my b’nez how you deal wit’ your pain, but as your friend, no, I won’t sit by and watch you drink till you die.”
“I’m not gonna drink until I die, I’ve got Nicky to think about, now let it go.”
“No, Cher, I won’t. You did what you had to do, and it was right what you did for Chelsea. Forgive you and move past dis’ guilt.”
“I’m not gonna talk about this again, Rosie. I’ll see you Thursday for crawfish,” Nic sighed as he threw bills on the bar and turned for the door.
Picking up the menu she’d thrown on the bar and grabbing the empty glass that Nic had left, her eyes followed him as he shoved through the door. “We shall see, mon ami,” Maman Rose whispered as she watched Nic pass the window, “We shall see.”
A man has a lot of time to think when he doesn’t sleep, but sleep would be a relief from the constant thoughts that plagued Nic’s mind. The overwhelming guilt he felt for his only daughter’s death meant he didn’t deserve those few hours of peace. No, he didn’t deserve peace with his baby gone from this world; he deserved far worse.
A parent is supposed to protect their children, keep them safe, battle their demons real or imagined, until they spread their wings and fly. But, Chelsea had tried to fly too soon, and nothing he did stopped her from using drugs.
Nic lay there thinking as he did every night, wondering where he went wrong. He thought how at fifteen, she became despondent, pulled away from him, fought with her mother and snuck out at night to meet friends. By sixteen, it was obvious she had problems that were far from normal teenage angst—then he’d found her stash of drugs and knew.
Nic stared at the ceiling, the shadows from the fan blades spinning like a carousel as he lay there thinking. They gave him something to look at while he tried for the millionth time to figure out what had gone wrong. What had he missed? Why couldn’t he save his little girl?
The only person who had those answers, he’d buried over a year ago, along with a piece of his heart. Blonde hair, big blue eyes and a smile that would melt your heart, Chelsea was daddy’s little girl—his heart and soul. Rolling to his side, her picture on his bedside table, Nic reached out and touched the frame.
“Ma petite fille est gone,” Nic whispered to his daughter’s picture. Chelsea stared back at him with smiling eyes as she laughed at the camera. He’d taken that picture on her fourteenth birthday, and by her fifteenth, she was moody and had no need for what was left of their family. He and his wife had divorced two years prior, and Chelsea and his son Nicholas spent their time between two homes. In his heart, he knew the divorce had been the catalyst for her behavior. And if he could do it all again, he would have suffered through his wife’s midlife crisis, and the men she brought into their bed, if it would bring his daughter back. He’d worked long hours to provide for his wife, to keep her happy, but in the end, Kat had sought attention elsewhere. No house big enough, no wardrobe large enough had kept her faithful, and he’d walked away.
“Mon Dieu.” Nic bit out, “Look what my pride has caused.”
Closing his eyes, he thought back to the last time he’d seen his daughter alive. Thin, broken, angry that he’d put her into a rehab clinic for a month—she’d spat at him for leaving her there. He’d had no idea how bad her addiction was until he found her passed out in her room; a needle stuck in her arm. She’d spent three days in the hospital from that almost overdose, and then he packed her off to rehab, kicking and screaming the whole way. The last words out of her mouth had been “I hate you, Papa.” He knew she didn’t mean it they’d always been close, but at that moment, he figured she did. He’d given her that and told her “I know you do ‘tite ange, but Papa loves you even if you do.” Then he’d kissed her forehead and tried not to look back at her anguished face, but he had, and it killed him to see her that way.
“It was for the best,” the doctors had said. “Private facility, one of the best in the country,” they’d told him, but his angel was smart, so smart. She’d found a way out, called a friend who had drugs and then she’d taken too much. After one week at the clinic, they’d called to say she’d escaped. Six hours of searching had ended with a knock at his door from the parish police, confirming his worst fears. His baby was gone.
Breathing hard from the memories, his baby’s ashen face, relaxed in death, was forever etched in his mind. It drove pain, like a hot, sharp knife, into his chest with the faintest memory. He could see her lying on that cold metal table, and he’d wanted to fold her into a blanket, and wrap her in his arms like he did when she was a baby. Nic brought his fists to his eyes and tried to rub the vision away. “Jesus, how did this happen? How the fuck did I let this happen?” he asked the room. But, just like every night he laid in the dark, since his daughter’s death, the only answer he ever had was the same. He’d been working when he should have been watching.