My head was throbbing, home to a drumming match between Ginger Baker and Gene Krupa; at the moment Baker’s battering bass just edging it. My mouth felt like somewhere that no self-respecting budgie would go near and my eyes were bleeding. Bleeding useless at the moment but slowly clearing, and Baker, thankfully, giving way to ol’ Eugene’s slightly more tolerable tom-toms.
The gentle, almost-purring sounds from my bed-mate reminded me of the prize-winning Russian Blues I used to ‘own’. It was my new friend who had spotted the sign outside the Old Orleans Opera House on Bourbon Street, in the city’s infamous Vieux Carré, exhorting passers-by to step through its ever-revolving doors and ‘laissez les bon temps rouler’. Another sign read, ‘Huge Ass Beers’ and once inside yet another sealed the deal: ‘Buy 1, Get 3’. We must have, more than once my head was telling me. I just hope I remember her name before she wakes up. I slowly realised that my bleeding eyes were nothing of the sort. It was the room, decorated in a dozen shades of red and I was waking up in a tart’s boudoir but struggling to stop myself drifting, drifting back to sleep, flashbacks competing with that bizarre room.
There were large bottles of russet-red liquid, seductively dripping condensation. Six, seven, more? Zydeco crashing from the band. Washboards, fiddles, accordions, drums. Was that a triangle? Check shirts in every shade of every colour, their wearers every size and shape imaginable. A very large coloured gent shucking plump oysters behind the bar. And me, dancing with a stranger. Me? Dancing? But I don’t, ever.
A perfect circle suddenly appearing in front of me. Fight! Sliding slowly, silently, to the floor. Flashing lights, discordant sirens. Huge, grinning, uniformed men the colour of Erebus standing over me. Long wooden batons slapping against the palms of their massive hands. Guns strapped to their thighs. Bulging, muscular arms picking me up as if I was a babe in arms.
‘You awake yet?’ She said.
‘Not sure.’ I whispered, random thoughts still coming from all directions.
‘Well, you’d better get up or we’re gonna be late for the Judge.’
My heart stopped. ‘Judge?’ Wide awake now.
‘You haven’t forgotten, have you?’
What was she talking about? A million thoughts hit me all at once, and then one smacked me firmly between the eyes: Angola.
Since 1901 that very word had struck fear into the hearts and minds of many, both men and women, who had suffered the misfortune or just plain bad luck to come anywhere near a Judge in the State of Louisiana. Some called it the “Alcatraz of the South”, some, “The Farm” but there was no disguising the Louisiana State Penitentiary and its claim to fame as the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, and I’d chosen to spend a couple of weeks in the city that still provides it with many of its inmates. As always when I travelled to somewhere new, I’d devoured the history books until I knew this Bedlam of a city better than many of its natives.
I laid there. frantically trying to remember what had happened the night before but it was no use, my mind kept returning to Angola. I suppose it had left an impression because one of its most famous inmates was one of my favourite blues guitarists. Lead Belly, christened Huddie William Ledbetter, was incarcerated in Angola not once but twice, the first time in 1930 after being found guilty of attempted murder. Another musical memory, equally unedifying, the first couple of lines from the Neville Brothers’ song, ‘Angola Bound’:
“I got lucky last summer when I got my time, Angola bound
Well my partner got a hundred, I got ninety-nine, Angola bound”.
She stirred, her legs reaching hesitantly for the floor, not sure if they were still able to support that gorgeous body. As far as I could remember she’d downed as many Abitas as I had and at that moment I wasn’t even sure I had legs. She got out of bed and slowly took a step. Success! Another, then another, more confident now.
‘Shower’, she mumbled. ‘There’s Tylenol in the dresser. We mustn’t be late, we need to make a good impression on the Judge so don’t you dare go back to sleep.’
No use, eyelids with a mind of their own, can’t keep them open, drifting, drifting away…ninety-nine years…Angola bound…
‘Wake up! Wake up!’ She screamed, and I winced as talons stung me back to something approaching consciousness.
‘If we’re late the Judge will start without us an’ you’ll be guilty as sin in his eyes an’ they’ll be getting ready to load you on the bus’.
‘Bus? What bus?’ Awake now, but struggling to sit up.
‘The Farm bus an’ it don’t stop ’til it gets inside those gates. ‘An you’d better pray it’s not Virgil K. wearing the robes today.’
‘Virgil K?’ This was getting complicated.
‘Judge Virgil K. Wilkie the fourth’, she announced, almost proudly it seemed to me.
Now my brain was firing on all six. Last night; the bar; the fight; that copper picking me up, and it wasn’t just for my benefit. I was obviously more involved than I’d thought. It suddenly occurred to me that I could be up shit creek here with no means of forward propulsion. My eyes raked the gloom for my jacket. She must have guessed what was going through my mind.
‘Don’t bother looking. They took everything last night. You ain’t going nowhere ‘cept Jefferson County City Hall to meet the Judge. An’ if you don’t get your ass moving we’re gonna miss the ferry’.
So, no chance of my doing a runner then. Not without my passport and cash. ‘Look on the bright side my son’, I thought. This’ll make a great ‘Postcard from New Orleans’ when I get home and I should be able to dine out on this story for a few months at least. They can’t charge me with much more than drunk and disorderly. I couldn’t have been actually involved in the fight, no lumps, bumps or bruises, and nothing hurts, except the head of course. Take whatever this amusingly-monikered Judge chooses to dish out like a man. Apologise to good ol’ Virgil, offer to pay for any damage, lots of remorse and take whatever’s coming on the chin. Only fair, seeing as how you managed to avoid doing so last night. Keep cool and whatever you do don’t mention the fact that the Yanks were a bit slow out of the starting blocks in 1939. No problem. Now, a quick shit, shave and shower then it’s off to catch the ferry. Hang on a minute.
‘What ferry?’ I said, suddenly realising I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. Jefferson County? Where the fuck was that? And why was this, this obviously very knowledgeable young ‘lady’ being so helpful? Maybe she was looking to leverage (as they say in these parts) her fee. Did we agree a fee? Buggered if I could remember. Is the meter still ticking? And more to the point, if I’d been arrested and charged last night, why wasn’t I waking up in a cell?
She was looking at me as if I was an imbecile.
‘The ferry ‘cross the river to City Hall where the court house is, now get in the shower an’ I’ll find us a cab’, she said, already half-way to the door.
‘What about breakfast?’ I pleaded.
‘If we’ve got time we can grab a po’ boy when we get there,’ her fading voice disappearing through the door.
I dragged myself out of bed and soon I was being pummelled into submission under what felt like the Niagara Falls, in a wet room that could’ve held the entire New Orleans Saints football team, and then some. I suppose, given her ‘profession’ it may well have done.
When I emerged I felt almost human and the two drummers had finally settled their differences and gone home; just as well Buddy Rich wasn’t involved too.
She was back. The tart with a heart looked nothing like she did last night, her amber eyes and silky-smooth, café-au-lait complexion betraying her Creole ancestry. A simple dove-grey business suit, an almost sheer, white cotton blouse and plain black shoes made her a stranger in this place. The discrete marcasite brooch in the shape of an alligator with ruby-red eyes completed the transformation. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Wall Street boardroom but sitting at the table, not serving the coffee.
And she was ironing my shirt! I felt guilty now; I still couldn’t remember her bloody name and it didn’t seem like the time to ask. Maybe later.
‘The cab’s waiting. Here!’ She said, throwing my impeccably-ironed shirt towards me. ‘I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen on the way to the ferry!’
I followed her out of the door, feeling scruffy without a tie, and walked into the thickest fog I’d ever seen. This is how London must have been back in the day but then out of this still, silent miasma shone the most amazing trumpet-shaped flower, the size of a saucer, seemingly suspended in mid-air. Pink-veined, tissue-like petals the colour of custard, a dollop of raspberry jam at their centre, stopped me in my tracks.
‘What is that?’ I said, pointing to the solitary plant. She looked over her shoulder, her eyes following mine.
A beaming smile. ‘That’s my pride and joy, my Morning Glory. Beautiful ain’t it?’ The smile quickly vanished. ‘Now get in the cab. The driver’s not sure if the ferry’s running in this fog.’
‘What do we do if it’s not?’ I asked.
‘Then we’ll just have to stay in the cab an’ go over the bridge.’ She replied, as though everybody knew that.
As the cab slowly pulled away I remembered my research: The Huey P. Long bridge, carrying two railway tracks and a multi-lane highway across the Mississippi, named after a former governor of Louisiana who apparently stopped at nothing in his quest to rise to the top in the State legislature. Whatever, he was assassinated in 1935 so he obviously upset someone on his way up the greasy pole.
Sure enough, the ferry had been suspended earlier that morning, not an uncommon event at this time of year according to…what was her name? Patience, my boy, it will come. We set off again. and now that I was of sound mind again needed some answers from my lady friend.
‘Please don’t think me ungrateful but do you mind telling me why you’re going to all this trouble for somebody you’ve known for less than 24 hours? And why am I not being taken to the courthouse by the police?’
‘First of all,’ she replied, after making sure the well-worn plexiglass partition was firmly closed, ‘since meeting you last night I’ve made absolutely zilch from our business arrangement. OK, I haven’t had to even scratch the surface of my ‘repertoire’ but time’s money as my attorney and my accountant keep telling me and I’d like to get some.’
‘Fair enough, but how did I end up back at your place last night? I certainly didn’t walk.’
By now the cab was spiralling down the exit ramp out of the stygian gloom and was approaching the riverside road, the melancholic Mississippi deathly quiet at this early hour. Its mirror-like surface untroubled until a huge brown pelican landed with a splash, a tangle of feet and wings, and the strangest head a bird could possess. How it originally managed to get airborne beggars belief.
‘Fortunately for you, my cousin Joe happens to be a sergeant in the N’awlins police and was the first to arrive after the fight started so he took charge when the cavalry arrived. He saw me an’ you in the middle of it all but managed to keep us out of it when the nightsticks started swinging. When it all calmed down he got us into a back room an’ I talked him into letting me take you home if I promised to deliver you to the courthouse first thing this morning.’
‘Why didn’t he just let you get me out of there and forget he ever saw us?’ I asked.
‘Cos you were reason the fight started an’ the lady you molested (the emphasis on the first syllable made it sound even more obscene) took exception to having her ass squeezed. Well, her boyfriend did.’ She explained.
‘Molested? I squeezed her arse?’ It must have been more than six beers then.
‘Yep, I was watching.’ She was grinning, enjoying my discomfort.
‘Well how come there’s not a mark on me if the boyfriend saw it too?’.
‘It really was your lucky night. When he made a grab for you, he knocked over a table an’ soaked a couple of rednecks sitting there drinking their beer. Fortunately for you they got to him before he got to you. An’ then you passed out just as all hell broke loose. When cousin Joe an’ his boys got things under control your dancing partner told him what happened an’ that she wanted to press charges. She tried to get you arrested for attempted rape but when Joe pointed out that this all took place in the middle of the dance floor she backed down. An’ before you ask, I’m not sure what the charge is but knowing Joe it’ll be fairly minor. He doesn’t want me involved as a witness so he’ll expect you to plead guilty so as I’m not called. That’s why instead of taking you to the drunk tank with the others he took both of us to my place and helped me get you into bed.’
The cab pulled up at the front of an imposing building. Even in the fog I could admire its magnificent triple-arched entrance surmounted by four huge Corinthian columns spanning the first and second floors, topped with a triangular pediment. Beaux-Arts I suppose you’d call it; a bit like New York’s Grand Central Station. The colour scheme could charitably be called ‘lively’: beige walls, white columns, grey window-sills and a burnt-orange cornice. Strangely, we seemed to be the only sign of life. The cab sped away, the fare (plus tip, doubtless) added silently to my ‘account’.
‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing my elbow, ‘we haven’t got much time.’
‘Isn’t this City Hall?’
‘Yes, but the Courthouse is round back. This ol’ place hasn’t been used in a long while. Building’s not safe inside, so they say.’
‘Breakfast?’ I asked, more in hope than expectation.
‘No time now. Come on! We’ve got to find Joe. I’m hoping he’s got the Judge to agree to deal with you in his office before court opens for business. Joe’s well known and trusted by most of the judges here. Knowing Joe, he’ll have something up his sleeve.’
She almost pulled me along as we skirted the building and to the rear was a soulless glass and steel box about ten stories high. God, I hate ‘developers’, a misnomer if ever there was one. There were people milling around outside in small groups, some looking as if they belonged here, others looking as if they didn’t and probably wishing they weren’t. Not just me then.
We climbed the half dozen steps to the double entrance doors, our progress halted by a pair of large uniformed men both with the ubiquitous revolver hanging holstered on the hip. One of them was holding a short metallic ‘wand’ attached by a cable to a box on his belt. He passed it over us both in turn before waving us through into the spacious foyer. Inside there were more people just like those outside with enough ‘uniforms’ dotted here and there to ensure their well-being.
‘Hannah!’ A voice from behind shouted.
Now I remembered; her name was Hannah. I turned and saw yet another, different, uniform walking towards us. This one, bearing a sergeant’s stripes, Cousin Joe.
‘Hi Joe.’ A brief embrace. ‘I said I’d get him here, didn’t I?’
‘I never doubted you for one minute lil’ cousin but you sure cut it fine. We haven’t got much time, you know V. K. doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
My heart sank. V. K. Wilkie, the Judge Hannah warned me about. Joe turned to me, his expression troubled. No hug for me then.
‘Well mister,’ he said, extending his right hand, ‘you look a whole lot better than you did last night. How’re ya feeling?’
He could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty, slim, with a tanned, mildly wrinkled, gentle face but not someone to fall out with. He radiated authority and seemed to have a straightforward intelligence which more than made up for his lack of inches; no surprise then that he’d made sergeant.
‘Better than a couple of hours ago,’ I replied, thankful that he’d released his vice-like grip.
‘That’s good to hear because we may have us a problem here.’
Us? I don’t think so.
‘What’s up, Joe?’ Said Hannah. Maybe she could see her fee (plus expenses) slipping away.
‘That fella those two cowboys roughed up last night is in a coma and the docs can’t say how he’s gonna turn out. Lover-boy here might end up wishing he’d never come to the Big Easy for his vacation.’
‘Shit.’ Me this time. ‘What’s going to happen? Shouldn’t I get a solicitor? I mean attorney. There must be someone I can call. What about the consulate? I’m sure there’s one in New Orleans.’ Getting desperate now.
‘There’s an Honorary Consulate here but there was a fire in the premises below and it’s closed while it’s being redecorated. In the meantime consular business is being dealt with by your Consulate General in Houston. That’s in Texas.’
‘I know where Houston is for Christ’s sake.’ My raised voice causing those nearby to glance in my direction.
‘Calm down, fella,’ said Joe. ‘I’m trying to help here. There’s time enough to get those people involved later if we need to.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, sheepishly. ‘What do you suggest I do, Joe? I still don’t fully understand why I’m here. How did you arrange for me to see this Judge without the usual formalities?’
‘Well, you’ve got Hannah here to thank for that,’ he said, lowering his voice, obviously not wanting to be overheard. ‘She can be very persuasive when she wants to be and blood is thicker than water. That, and the fact that this Judge owes me, big time. Not long back I stopped him when he was driving home from a party. Let’s just say that he and the woman in the car were both way over the limit, and she wasn’t the woman he’d walked down the aisle with. I had a quiet word with him last night and he was more than happy to deal with you in his office instead of the courtroom. Said something about you pleading guilty to a misdemeanour, paying a fine and flying back home on the next plane out. Now, with this coma business I don’t know how he’s going to handle it. But anyhow, he’s waiting for us now and he’s not a patient man so let’s go.’
We walked over to the lift; I noticed more than one man turning to take in Hannah’s ample charms as we passed, and who could blame them. We got in, Joe hit number eight and we went up in silence. The eighth floor was plushly carpeted and the distance between the polished rosewood doors meant that the offices that they hid from view were not small. Joe stopped and with a sharp double-tap knocked on the otherwise anonymous door to room 806.
I counted three seconds.
‘Come in.’ The voice deep, cultured. Joe led the way.
On the desk, the antique brass sign inlaid with what looked like ivory confirmed that this was indeed the office of Judge Virgil K. Wilkie IV. He rose from his sumptuous bottle-green leather recliner and strode round the desk to meet us. He was not how I’d imagined him. I’d already noticed his golfing trophies and a couple of putters leaning against the wall so I wasn’t too surprised to see a fit-looking man probably in his sixties, his even tan emphasised by immaculately cut, thick white wavy hair.
Without any kind of greeting he got straight down to business. He and Joe had obviously had dealings like this before and he completely ignored Hannah and me.
‘Joe, we’ve got ourselves a situation here which could get kinda messy. It’s not quite as simple as it was when we spoke last night and I’ve got to be very careful how I handle it.’
I wasn’t used to being ignored. ‘Judge, I…’
He turned, steel blue eyes meeting mine.
‘When I want to hear from you son I’ll let you know. If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t be in this mess so butt out.’
Not the sort of language Rumpole would use but the withering look left me in no doubt that this was good advice.
‘Just before you arrived Joe, I had a call from the Lieutenant Governor for chrissake. He wants to be kept in the loop on this one. And now that the family of the guy in the coma is involved, his obviously well-connected family I might add, there’s no way that I can deal with this here, it’s getting far too complicated. If I’m not careful we’ll have ourselves a diplomatic incident on our hands.’
As he was saying this he reached behind the desk and touched something. I heard a soft ‘click’ and a door opened on the opposite side of the room. Two men wearing identical, perfectly-tailored charcoal suits emerged, almost silently, never once taking their eyes off their target. Me. They stood off a pace, close enough to restrain but not quite close enough for me to attack; no strangers to this scenario.
‘Please come with us.’ One of them said quietly but in a way that left no doubt that refusal was not an option.
He led me through the open door, his friend falling in behind. On the way I heard a frantic Hannah exclaim, ‘What’s going on here! Where are they taking…’. I heard no more, the door closed behind me with that same soft ‘click’. We’d entered what looked like the secretary’s office, she’d probably been told to delay her arrival that morning.
‘Who are you? What’s happening?’
‘F.B.I.’ came the reply.
‘Special Agent John Robinson and,’ nodding in his partner’s direction, ‘Special Agent Sandy Lampert from the New Orleans field office of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.’
They each pulled out a heavy leather wallet holding a shield-shaped badge surmounted by an eagle. They certainly looked authentic.
‘Please, Agent Robinson, would you mind telling me what this is all about.’
‘Well, William, you don’t mind if I call you William?’
‘Feel free, which is more than I do at the moment.’
An almost imperceptible glance towards his partner made him walk quietly to the adjoining office door. Just as carefully he tilted his head so that an ear almost touched it. A couple of seconds passed.
‘All clear.’ He said, his voice slightly high-pitched for a man but, as far as I was concerned, he had a gun and that was all I needed to remember.
‘Well, William, you’ve probably heard of the FBI, but what you may not know is that one of our primary priorities is to combat public corruption at all levels. Corruption in government threatens our country’s democracy and national security, impacting everything from how well our borders are secured and our neighbourhoods protected…to verdicts handed down in courts… to the quality of our roads and schools. And it takes a significant toll on our pocketbooks, too, wasting billions of tax dollars every year. Our investigations here in New Orleans focus on violations of federal law by public officials in local, state, and federal government, such as bribery, contract and procurement fraud, antitrust, environmental crimes, and election fraud.’
A pause for breath. They ought to get this guy to write their Wiki article.
‘You may not realise this but you could be the answer to our prayers.’ He said this, as if he really believed it.
‘Me? I still haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.’ I really hadn’t.
‘OK, but before I go on, I need to tell you that it’s entirely up to you whether you help us or not. If you do, that’s great and we really will appreciate it but if you choose not to, well that’s fine too and I guarantee you’ll be free to leave here and that you’ll come to no harm. We’ll square it with British Airways so you can get back to the UK, or anywhere else you’d like to go, on the next flight outta here. Obviously, we would insist that you sign a document forbidding you to talk about any of this, ever. You’d just have to forget that any of this happened.’
Obviously. Now I was worried. The words ‘guarantee’, ‘no’, and ‘harm’ rarely belong in the same sentence.
‘Go on.’ But as I said it I had the feeling that I was really saying, ‘sure, why not, anything to help our colonial cousins.’
‘OK, William. Here’s what’s going down. This investigation has been going on for nearly four years and although we know that a very small percentage of our judges are corrupt we’ve never been able to get anyone to stand up in court and give evidence against them. Unfortunately that’s what happens when the mob’s involved. That’s the mafia, William.’
I knew it, those three words, same sentence.
He continued. ‘We’ve had Judge Wilkie in our sights for nearly all of those four years but he’s been around for a long time. Before he became a Judge he was a defence attorney and he wasn’t always too choosy about his clients. Some were definitely mob connected and they usually walked. Witnesses suddenly withdrew their testimonies or wouldn’t appear in court for no apparent reason. Being threatened by mobsters usually has that effect on people. At the very least he must’ve known what was going on and he was almost certainly being paid well over the odds to represent these people. Once you do that then you’re hooked. Then he became a Judge and some of the verdicts he’s passed down have been suspect, to say the least.’
‘But the Judge doesn’t decide guilt or innocence.’ I countered.
‘No, but a subtle misdirection or a carefully worded summing-up of the trial can sway the jury in the defendant’s favour.’
‘But I still don’t see how I could possibly be the answer to your prayers.’ I said.
‘What we’d like you to do William is to agree to testify, in court, against Judge Wilkie. When he agreed to collude with Joe to deal with you outside of the usual procedures he committed both state and federal offences. Because you’re not from these parts, or even this country, Wilkie’s mob friends won’t be able to exert their usual pressure. You’ll be safely hidden away. If all this goes to plan it won’t ever get to court, which means that you won’t either. When he realises the position he’s in we expect the Judge will be only too pleased to plea bargain his way out of it. If we’re right about him, and we think we are, he could give up a whole load of bad guys.’
This wasn’t a huge shock, I’d already guessed it was something of the sort.
‘How did you know about what happened last night? It can’t just be a coincidence?’
‘No, it wasn’t a coincidence, William. Hannah isn’t all she appears to be: she’s a very experienced FBI agent who’s been working under-cover here in New Orleans ever since the investigation started.’
To say I was astounded didn’t begin to approach understatement.
‘Do you expect all your female agents to do this sort of thing as part of their regular duties? I’d just love to see the job description.’ I still couldn’t believe it.
‘No, of course not. Hannah plays the part amazingly well. She never lets that type of situation get to its logical conclusion. Did it with you? Do you remember exactly how many drinks you had last night?’
Now he was getting a bit tetchy. But he had a point. I remember lots of bottles but that’s about it.
‘We have state-of-the-art pharmaceutical labs that can produce pills to induce almost any state of mind you can imagine. Getting you falling down drunk was child’s play for Hannah.’ He was calming down now.
‘Is Joe really her cousin?’ I asked, ‘and for that matter, wasn’t the Judge a bit surprised when you showed up this morning?’
‘Yes, they really are cousins. Joe’s worked with us on many investigations over the years. As for the Judge he thinks we’re here to pull you in on a drug-related matter. That call he got from the Lieutenant Governor covered more than just last night’s incident. Oh, by the way, to put your mind at rest, the coma story? The guy’s just got a few cuts and bruises.’
This was getting complicated. I wasn’t going to ask how everything came together in the short space of time since I’d arrived in New Orleans, how Hannah picked me to play the patsy, the fight, the well-connected boyfriend. Everything seemed to have been set up very nicely, thank you, and now the Judge was done up like the proverbial kipper.
I suddenly thought of something else.
‘If I agree to all this and you keep me incommunicado what happens to my work back home? I’ll be well out of pocket.’
‘William.’ He said. ‘You’re a freelance I.T. consultant back home. You’ve recently split with your girlfriend so you’ve no real ties at the moment.’
How did they find all this out in just a few hours?
‘If you help us William, you’ll find that when you return home you’ll have a steady stream of new clients. You’d be amazed how many I.T. contracts the US embassy and its various offshoots award each year. Don’t sweat the money. Contact your existing clients, apologise profusely and tell them you’ve broken a leg on holiday and will be hospitalised here for at least three months.’
‘I might be grateful for a broken leg if this goes tits up.’ I replied.
‘Does this mean you’ll do it?’
It occurred to me that if I didn’t help them they could probably make my existing contracts disappear just as easily. It looked as if I didn’t have much choice.
‘One more thing. Where would you keep me until the trial or the Judge rolls over?’
‘We’ve already thought about that. Where would you hide a tree, William?’
Ah! That old chestnut. ‘In a forest?’ I replied, playing along, but at the same time thinking that a couple of months in the Blue Ridge Mountains might be quite pleasant.
‘Precisely.’ He came back. ‘And we think we have the perfect place just a couple hours drive from here.’
Not the Blue Ridge Mountains then.
‘Do I have to guess?’ Impatient now.
‘No, William, you don’t; fact is I’m pretty sure you don’t even know about this place.’
The suspense was killing me.
‘It’s called Angola.’
You could have heard a pin drop. A very small pin. And for some strange reason I started sweating.
‘Wake up! Wake up!’ Hannah was shaking me. ‘You’d better get up or we’ll be late for the Judge.’
‘Judge?’, I whispered.
‘You haven’t forgotten, have you?’
What was she talking about? Oh yes, the Judge. His Honour (probably without the ‘u’) Judge Vernon J. Wilkinson III.
‘Of course not my precious, how could I, but I’ve just had the most amazing dream. It must have been the fizzy beer they drink here. It’s a shame bitter’s not made it across the pond yet.’
We’d had far too much to drink last night but the three-hour happy hour was hard to resist. Helped of course by the music, Zydeco mostly, and dancing but the evening ended far too soon when some locals started brawling. No idea what that was about, I think I passed out just about then. When I came round the place was full of local police and one of them was picking me up off the floor. Can’t even remember how we got home but Hannah’s nothing if not resourceful; nothing seems to phase her.
She switched on the light. The red light. No real surprise, everything in this place was a shade of red. Carpets, curtains, the flock wallpaper, woodwork, bed linen, towels, everything. Everything except the fire extinguisher fixed to the (red) bedroom wall. That was white which rather spoilt the effect; it had to be I suppose, if there was a fire you’d never find a red one.
We’d chosen to return to the Big Easy after having such a great time earlier in the year when my beloved was asked to present a paper at one of the American Chemical Society’s shindigs. This trip was far more important though.
We’d come here to get married.
We’d settled on New Orleans back then so we looked for somewhere a bit different to stay. And found it! It really was a brothel back in the city’s heyday, in the area known as Storyville, and the current owners had decided to recreate it using old photographs and contemporary documents they discovered when they bought it. It was just like it used to be; without the working girls of course. They just knew there’d by plenty of gullible tourists who’d love to brag about spending a couple of weeks in a brothel.
‘Come on you, shower. You know there’s only one ferry that will get us to Gretna on time. If we miss it the Judge’ll be annoyed and may not be able fit us in.’
We’d discovered Gretna back in March. It was settled by early German immigrants who named it Mechanikham. In the late 19th century it was renamed Gretna after a local blacksmith started to perform weddings there, as they did at Gretna Green. It’s in Jefferson parish, right across the river from downtown New Orleans and the quickest way to get there is by ferry. The City Hall seemed to be the perfect place to tie the knot. So there and then we completed the paperwork and booked a slot for that same day in October when we both celebrated our birthday.
After my fire-hydrant of a shower I felt ready for just about anything. As I opened the bathroom door, Hannah, in that lilting contralto of hers, was just starting the refrain of a favourite of mine:
‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t …’
‘Oh! I didn’t hear you come in.’ she said.
‘You shouldn’t have stopped. By the way, did you know it’s Louisiana’s state song?’
‘No, what a coincidence, it looks like we were meant to get married here.’
‘What are we doing about breakfast, my angel?’
‘Well, as long as we don’t miss the ferry we’ll have time to get one of those po’ boy things we had yesterday so get dressed, the taxi will be here soon.’
With that, Hannah handed me my newly-ironed shirt. An angel, definitely. She looked stunning. A lightweight, olive-green linen suit paired with a burnt-buttermilk raw silk blouse accentuated her natural Welsh warmth and she only needed the delicate white-gold scorpion earrings to make me the proudest man in Louisiana.
‘Remind me where we go to meet the Judge?’ I asked, fiddling with my tie, also silk, carmine, a wedding present from a friend in the Far East.
‘It was in that letter they sent us a few weeks ago. Hang on, yes, here it is.’ She said, rooting about in the depths of her latest bottomless handbag.
‘It says we are to meet Judge Wilkinson in his office on the eighth floor, room 806.’
‘Room 806.’ I said, neither question nor statement. A strange feeling, I couldn’t describe it.
A car horn sounded long and hard. The taxi, time to go.
She opened the door and stood there for a long moment.
‘Good Lord!’ Her chapel upbringing to the fore. ‘Have you ever seen fog like this before?’
A shiver ran down my spine as I approached the door and looked out. For once, I didn’t know what to say. But I would have bet all the tea in China that just a few steps along the path we’d see the most amazing trumpet-shaped flower, the size of a saucer, seemingly suspended in mid-air…
© William 2018