an elbow on the dressing-table and held up her hand preemptorily for her
maid, who'd been gently dusting talcum powder into the fingers of a pair
of long white kid gloves. Livia Janvier didn't even glance at the maid
as the young woman set to work easing and moulding the soft, close-fitting
leather over her mistress' knuckles and palm. When January's mother was
dressing to meet her protector--the man who had bought her and her two
small children from slavery eleven years previously--she displayed a meticulous
patience, a concentration like an artist's that January found fascinating
to watch. "Don't you stay out late after you get done playing tonight,
p'tit," she added. "And make sure that M'sieu Davis pays you. Promises
It went without saying that January's mother, slender as a bronze lily
at the age of thirty-six, would not give her son so much as a nod when
they separately reached the Marine Hotel. January would be present at
General Humbert's birthday dinner strictly as a hired musician, a profession
he'd worked at since the age of sixteen concurrent with such medical studies
as were available to a young free man of color in that time and place.
St.-Denis Janvier, his mother's protector, was one of the guests, a select
gang of the wealthier businessmen of the town assembled to honor the elderly
war-horse. Most of them would be accompanied by their mistresses. It was
not the sort of party to which one brought one's wife.
And Livia Janvier--she'd taken her protector's name, as many free colored
placees did--wasn't the sort of woman who'd admit to being the mother
of one of the musicians. This would have been true even if her son hadn't
been all of nineteen years old, six feet three inches tall, and very obviously
the offspring of an African rather than a white man. As the guests came
into the hotel's dining-room that night, to the bright strains of a Mozart
overture, it was St.-Denis Janvier, and not Livia, who caught January's
eye and smiled.
January knew most of the other guests by sight. In 1812, New Orleans wasn't
that big a town. The women present were mostly friends, or enemies, of
his mother. These ladies of the free colored demimonde were by and large
placees--placed--with a single protector, though one lady he recognized
as a highly-paid courtesan. About half the men were businessmen and planters:
he noted the tall, powerful form of Jean Blanque the banker, whose name
graced nearly every financial transaction in the town and whose young
and beautiful wife (not present) was the daughter of Barthelmy de McCarty,
brother of the wealthiest planter in the district. De McCarty came in
just behind Blanque, joking with his brother Jean Baptiste. Both of their
mistresses, exquisitely-gowned women of color, wore silk tignons--headscarves--that
were plumed and jeweled mockeries of the law that forbade women of African
ancestry, slave or free, to go about in public with uncovered hair.
Bernard Marigny was there, a lively little French Creole planter notorious
for his gambling and his duels. As he came in he was laughing over something
with a tall, black-clad gentleman whom January recognized as Jean Lafitte.
If you wanted anything in New Orleans, duty-free or difficult to obtain,
you could probably get it through Jean Lafitte. Four years previously,
when it became illegal to import slaves into United States Territory,
Lafitte had surfaced, lounging around the blacksmith shop he and his brother
owned on Rue Bourbon or drinking with businessmen and planters in the
Cafe Tremoulet. Somehow, the handsome young Gascon always had a slave
or two to sell. Of course these slaves were always warranted born in American
territory. Of course the sales were private, between gentlemen, nothing
on the open market. Lafitte sold brandies, too, and fine French silks.
. . . In fact, anything you might want.
And cheaply, as if United States customs duties did not exist.
Though Lafitte didn't have a mistress with him, he didn't arrive at the
birthday dinner alone. In addition to Marigny--who was friends with everyone
in town except his own wife--Lafitte entered with his usual coterie of
"friends:" a planter named Huette, who had a place on Bayou St. John where
boats could be landed that came off the lake; the fair-haired Pierre Lafitte,
his newest mistress on his arm; a dark little man named Laporte who kept
the books for the Lafitte brothers; and Jean Baptiste Sauvinet, one of
the most prominent bankers of the town. Lafitte moved in the highest circles
of French Creole society, among the men, at least.
There were others, less respectable, whom January had seen only at a distance
in the cafes and the market. The fierce and jovial sea-captain Dominic
Youx. Cut-Nose Chighizola, whose face was a mass of scars--at the moment
he was explaining in voluminous Italian-accented French to a planter named
St. Geme how he'd lost his nose in battle against the Spanish. The dark
and sinister Captain Beluche, of the "Bolivian" privateer vessel Spy.
Vincente Gambi, another Italian, strode along on the outskirts of the
group, glancing at the silverware and the cut-crystal pitchers on the
tables as if calculating their worth. He had, January noticed, what looked
like a couple of fresh cuts on his face, superficial but adding to his
appearance of coarse menace.
The placees of these "friends" drifted behind them, gowned in silks and
chattering among themselves. They were less fashionable, more sumptuous,
and far more heavily jeweled than their town counterparts. Down on Grand
Terre, where Lafitte had his headquarters these days, the free colored
ladies lived with their men openly, as wives, instead of keeping separate
establishments as the town placees did. January noticed that his mother
and her friends kept their distance from them, not in open enmity, but
with a cool politeness that spoke volumes for what was going to be said
about their dress, speech, and taste in ornamentation over chicory-laced
coffee the following morning.
Hesione LeGros was one of these Grand Terre ladies.
January noticed her because she was one of the youngest, probably his
own age, and also one of the darkest. Among the free colored community,
as among the whites, dark skin and African features were not admired.
January had grown up with the knowledge that his own huge size and African
blackness were a reminder of the slave father whose name his mother never
spoke, and this knowledge was ground in upon him every time any stranger,
white or colored, heard the delicate strength of his piano-playing and
From the first time he'd played a recital, he'd been aware that they would
not have looked so surprised if he were fair-skinned or white.
Most of the placees were quadroon or octoroon, complexions shaded anywhere
from soft matte walnut to the hue of very old ivory. A few, like his mother,
were mulatto, of African mothers and white fathers. The wealthiest businessmen
of the town favored the lightest-skinned women: fairness itself was a
commodity. Hesione--though January didn't learn her name until years later--was
richly dark. Unlike most of the others she pointed up undeniably African
features by wearing a gold silk gown so vibrant it bordered on rust, a
color no white woman would have dared to put on. A necklace of topaz and
citrine ringed her throat like a collar of fire, and plumes dyed gold
and black blossomed above her tignon. As January played--Mozart rondos
and snippets of Rossini, light-handed on the five-octave Erard in the
corner of the Marine Hotel's dining-room--he looked out over the jostle
of heads and backs and saw that nodding explosion of sable and flame,
like the single oak on a little island in a marsh.
The tables were set out in the old-fashioned French manner, sparkling
with the hotel's very fine silver and Limoges-ware dishes. Oysters in
lemon, gumbo of shrimp, Italian pates and vol-au-vents; artichokes and
turkey-poults and turtle roasted en croute. As the hotel servants went
around with the wine--which the new owner, Mr. Davis, bought from Lafitte
at a substantial discount--the conversation grew louder. The bankers speculated
as to what full statehood in the United States was going to mean now to
Louisiana and freely slandered the new Governor Claiborne and all his
works. The planters cursed what the war between the Allies and France
was doing to sugar prices. January heard for the first time about the
sinking--by pirates--of the American brig Independence, a subject brought
up by a pink-faced British planter named Trulove and hushed at once by
Jean Blanque: "The less said of that," the banker murmured with a glance
toward the table of Lafitte and his cronies, "the better for all it will
be." News had reached New Orleans only that day of the Independence's
destruction. Brought by a man named Williams, the sole survivor of the
"What I want to know, is," persisted Trulove, who like everyone else in
the room was fairly drunk, "what was a dashed Massachusetts merchantman
carrying from Africa to Cuba in the first place, eh? Dashed Americans
complain about Lafitte and his men smuggling slaves in through the Barataria
marshes, and what are they buying along the coast of Africa, eh? Bananas?
Tell me that!"
"I shall tell you nothing of the kind," replied Blanque gently, laying
a restraining hand on the young Englishman's arm. He hadn't anything to
worry about, really, for Lafitte and his men were roaring with laughter
over Dominic Youx's tale of the Bishop of Carthagena and a shipload of
whores from Port-au-Prince. January let his hands float from song to song,
alternating popular overtures and opera-tunes with the quadrilles and
cotillions that he'd play when hired by the wealthy for balls. Though
he was studying medicine with a surgeon named Gomez, he had always loved
music, and St.-Denis Janvier had paid for him to be taught by one of the
best instructors in town. That instructor, an emigre Austrian named Kovald,
was only lately dead. January played the antiquated airs of Pachelbel
and Purcell that the grim old musician had loved, sadness in his heart
that his teacher had not lived to return to Vienna. Had not lived to see
Napoleon defeated and cast out, as he must, January believed, one day
With the after-dinner cognac came the cigars, the ribald laughter, the
sly jests. In short order there would be trouble. For twenty-two years
France had been torn by violence, Europe subjected to bloodletting and
fire. There were men in the room whose fathers had been beheaded in the
name of the French Republic, whose family fortunes were destroyed by the
Revolution and by the Emperor who had climbed to power in the wake of
chaos. Any minute now, he thought, someone was going to say regicide or
Corsican upstart--or accuse someone of having the manners of an American.
. . .
January knew the signs.
"Now that Bolivar's in in the south, the whole Spanish empire's going
to crumble," prophesied Joffrey Duquille. He was a big, robust saturnine
planter, with the obligatory reputation as a womanizer and a duelist.
"A man can get letters of marque in Carthagena, and go after anything
flying the Spanish flag. . . ."
"Lafitte should have known better than to go after an American ship, slaver
or no slaver. . . ."
The air condensed to a golden roux of wine and food and pomade; the candles
in the wallsconces burned low, and the crystal-hung chandeliers dripped
wax onto the tablecloths. The great dining-room seemed stuffy and close.
A servant opened the long windows that looked down onto Rue Chartres and
January slid into "Childgrove," a country-dance tune that could be endlessly
embroidered. His mother, at Blanque's table with St.-Denis Janvier, flipped
open her sandalwood fan and looked down her nose as Cut-Nose Chighizola's
mistress took the scar-faced privateer's pipe from his mouth and blew
a cloud of smoke herself. Chighizola gestured extravagantly, and shouted
to Hesione LeGros how he'd lost his nose escaping from an Algerian dungeon.
. . .
Talk pattered on all sides, like summer rain.
"Shut up, you fool, he'd never have done something that damn-fool stupid!
Sink an American ship? He knows what side the bread's buttered on. . .
"It's all Spanish prizes of war, after all . . ."
". . . a giant black, six, seven feet tall and as wide as a door, coming
down upon me with a battle-ax . . ."
". . . pegged the interest at ten percent, plus an additional two percent
the first two years. . . ."
The voices were getting louder. The Italian captain, Gambi, announced
into a momentary hush, "Privateer this and privateer that, bah! Like there
was any disgrace in being a pirate! Pirate is what I am and I don't care
who knows it! Nobody tells me who I'll sink and who I'll spare!"
Excerpted from Wet Grave by Barbara HamblyCopyright
2002 by Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In such stunning
novels of crime and character as Die Upon a Kiss, Sold Down
the River, and A Free Man of Color, Benjamin January tracked
down killers through the sensuous, atmospheric, dangerously beautiful
world of Old New Orleans. Now, in this new novel by bestselling author
Barbara Hambly, he follows a trail of murder from illicit back alleys
to glittering mansions to a dark place where the oldest and deadliest
secrets lie buried . . .
1835 and the relentless glare of the late July sun has slowed New Orleans
to a standstill. When Hesione LeGros--once a corsairs jeweled mistress,
now a raddled hag--is found slashed to death in a shanty on the fringe
of New Orleanss most lawless quarter, there are few to care. But
one of them is Benjamin January, musician and teacher. He well recalls
her blazing ebony beauty when she appeared, exquisitely gowned and handy
with a stiletto, at a demimonde banquet years ago.
want to kill this woman now--Hessy, they said, would turn a trick for
a bottle of rum--had some quarrelsome customer decided to
do away with her? Or could it be one of the sexual predators who roamed
the dark and seedy streets? Or--as Benjamin comes to suspect--was her
killer someone she knew, someone whose careful search of her shack suggests
a cold-blooded crime? Someone whose boot left a chillingly distinctive
print . . .
at taverns, markets, and slave dances reveal little about Hellfire
Hessy since her glory days in Barataria Bay, once the lair of gentlemen
pirates. Then the murder is swept from his mind by the delivery of a crate
filled with contraband rifles--and yet another telltale boot print left
by its claimant. When a murder swiftly follows, Ben and Rose Vitrac, the
woman he loves, fear the workings of a serpentine mind and a treacherous
plot: one only they can hope to thwart in time.
All too soon
they are fugitives of color in the stormy bayous and marshes of slave-stealer
country, headed for smugglers haunts and sinister plantations, where
one false step could be their last toward a...Wet Grave.
Hambly was born in San Diego, California in 1951, she grew up in Southern
California, with the exception of one high-school semester spent in New
South Wales, Australia. She attended the University of California, Riverside
and spent a year at the University of Bordeaux, France, specializing in
in medieval history and eventually obtaining a master's degree in the
subject. She has worked as both a teacher, a technical editor and and
a karate instructor (she holds a Black Belt in Shotokan karate and has
competed in several national-level tournaments), but her first love has
always been history. Ranging from fantasy to historical fiction, Barbara
Hambly has a masterfulway of spinning a story. Her interest in fantasy
began with reading The Wizard of OZ at an early age and it has
continued ever since. She was the president of Science Fiction Writers
of America from 1994 to 1996. She married George Alec Effinger in 1998
and now lives in Los Angeles, California.