Wearing black and whispering

Here’s another excerpt of Mr. Robert’s Bones, which starts another 5-day free run at Amazon on July 30.  (If anyone wants a review copy, I’ll send a pdf now and a free hard copy once the review is up on Amazon.)

xxx

The penthouse office at the foot of Canal Street was spacious, well-lit, with plate glass windows on every side. The south view overlooked the Mississippi River Bridge, to the east stood the historic jumble of buildings that made up the French Quarter, to the west the high rises of the Central Business District, and to the north the long view to Mid City.

Into this well-ordered space, where people worked energetically at their desks and cubicles, strode an imposing figure – fortyish, handsome and severe. He ran his large fingers over the dark hair flowing back from his receding hairline like liquid coal, with bits of silver on the side, as if some of the coal had been burnt to ash. It must have been an optical illusion of the glass-filtered sunlight, but the gel, or whatever it was in his hair, pulling it back into a short, tight ponytail, seemed to slick back not only the hair but the face, slanting the corners of the eyes up slightly and adding, by design or otherwise, intensity to the otherwise easy command of his gaze.

“Hi, Mr. Rex,” peeped a young woman at one of the desks, a salutation Mr. Rex acknowledged with the faintest nod of his head and without breaking stride.

“Mr. Rex,” said a bald man, “The rezoning uptown didn’t go through.”

“We don’t need the rezoning any more,” said Rex. “We’ve got the councilman.”

Still continuing with unbroken stride, Mr. Rex approached the door to an inner sanctum within the spacious glass chamber. A plaque graced the door:

REX ENTERPRISES
MR. TYLER REX
PRESIDENT

Rex opened the door and entered a waiting area before the executive office proper. A distinguished businessman with the air of second-in-command sat on a couch by a coffee table holding a neat stack of five or six magazines. Mr. Rex slowed his pace.

“What’s the progress on St. Peter Street, Cutter?”

“No go, Mr. Rex. The Finneys won’t sell.”

Rex gave Cutter a contemptuous look. “The Finneys need money. We need the property.”

“But Mr. Rex …”

“Admit no obstacles, Cutter. Tell the Finneys I’ll give them 80% of the assessment value today. Next week it’s 50%.”

“Yes, Mr. Rex.” Cutter bowed and motioned to leave but stopped at a gesture from Rex.

“And Cutter. Call Mr. Abadie. I believe he’s the assessor for the third district. Set us up for lunch tomorrow, say one o’clock at Galatoire’s.” Cutter nodded and left.

Mr. Rex gazed out of his great glass cube toward the north. Had his almost superhuman knack for finding and using all of the pressure points of power been accompanied by a superhuman kind of vision, he might have seen about three miles in that direction another house in the neighborhood that concerns us so deeply. It was a sangria red house that stretched way back, two-storied but long and flat, with no sense of verticality about it. At the front of this house was a large dining room; not just a dining room but a commercial dining room; not just a commercial dining room but the one presided over by Francis and Lorene Serio. Francis had been a bit shifty and aimless back in the 60s, but when his Uncle Anthony died in an arson attack on a gay bar in 1973, Francis took over the Serio family’s bar and grill, married his old high school sweetheart, Lorene, which caught her as much by surprise as anyone, and ran a responsible business. So respectable was the new Francis Serio that he tried not to work the faux marble counter in his U-shirt overly often, in acknowledgment that his body was toward the hairy end of the Homo sapiens spectrum and discerning customers might consider the wife-beater attire unhygienic.

We must assume that the extended rear part of the house was the family estate, with noisy kids and dogs and stray spinsters from the home country upstairs wearing black and whispering mysteriously over rosary beads. The front room, though, spilled effortlessly onto a broad, solid patio, with what looked like a second story above it — enough space for a crawl-in attic or a colony of Lilliputians, but not enough to accommodate anyone of boisterous Serio blood.

As the staff inside called out orders, wiped tables, or generally pretended to be busy amidst the pop and smell of frying bacon, William Jensen, Ph.D., sat on the patio between a concrete column and a crepe myrtle, sipping a cool one with his old friend, Allen. On this afternoon, the sunlight passed through the leaves of a pecan tree and filtered onto the patio in single smoky rays, as if distilled in the passing. Meanwhile, Jensen and Allen, in the grand hierarchy of male bonding rituals from the NFL chest bump to the riotous road trip to the barbecue cook-off, took their humble place with a clink of their longneck beer bottles.

“William Jensen Einstein,” grinned Allen, fair-haired and wiry, shaking his head in mock-incredulity. “Back in the little leagues.”

“Just scouting for the majors, Allen.”

“Will, you ain’t missed nothing. Nothing ever changes here. Mayberry RFD.”

Jensen eyed two cops coming onto the patio. “And here comes Sheriff Taylor and Barney Fife.”

One of the cops, Jarvis, had the bearing of authority. He was shorter than average, but bursting out of his uniform with his weightlifter’s body. To this peculiar specimen of traditional masculinity, the tall, broad-shouldered partner seemed subservient.

“Back in the third district, eh Will,” queried Jarvis in a blue-collar, longshoreman accent. It wasn’t exactly a question, but Will Jensen was well-bred enough to take it as such and answer.

“Sure thing, Jarvis, back from the riotous college life to the land of law and order.”

Jarvis sent his partner to Serio’s counter inside with an imperative, “Get us two coffee and chicory,” and turned back to Will.

“Yeah, you right. Third district crime down 10% this year. No thanks to that knucklehead police chief Mayor Guste put in.”

Jensen thoughtfully laid a finger against his long nose and smiled almost imperceptibly before answering.

“But the papers say Mr. Guste is a man of principle.”

It was enough to start Jarvis’s blood into a gentle percolation.

“Mr. Guste needs somebody to knock him upside his knucklehead.”

Jensen, smiling more broadly: “Now, now, Jarvis. We don’t want you driving back up the crime rate.”

The joke brought Jarvis’s dander back down and he laughed as his partner returned with the coffees.

“Ok, y’all don’t drink and drive,” said Jarvis by way of peroration.

But Jensen couldn’t quite let go.

“Jarvis, this is New Orleans. The last great refuge of the drunken driver.”

As if remembering something important, Jarvis turned back and put his rough, puffy face close to Jensen’s smooth face, staring at, or through, the persona of its surface, returning Jensen’s wry gaze without wavering.

“Be careful, Will,” he said, suddenly grave in demeanor. “I’m not kidding.” Then he wheeled abruptly and walked back to the squad car.

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