Chapter Eleven - Dorian

Saturday night, the storm had faded to a faint rumble in the distance and clouds on the horizon, headed out into the Gulf. I drove the truck into the city and parked near a bar called the Apple Barrel in Rene's neighborhood. I could hear music from the street, and when I went through the door I was greeted by the scents of smoked meat, sawdust, and beer, a press of bodies, and a trio made up of saxophone, cello, and drum kit on a little stage set off by green velvet curtains.

Angelique and Rene were seated at a small square table near the stage. I made my way to them, and Rene rose with a merry, "Sarge!" and shook my hand heartily with both of his. Angelique greeted me much more demurely and kissed my cheek. As they had before, though, her eyes darted to over my shoulder and her face took on a look somewhere between confusion and wonder, but then her eyes met mine again and she gave me a brief, though sincere, smile.

"I brought a friend for you to meet," she said into my ear once we had settled at the table again.

"Angelique," I began, "I appreciate the thought, but I don't--"

"There he is now," she said and my head whipped around to see a young man approaching our table, a pitcher of beer and four mugs in his hands. He was slight and slender, with dark hair that fell carelessly around his heart-shaped face, and crystal-blue eyes that met mine without faltering.

He smiled. I smiled back.

"This is Dorian Mayeux," Angelique said as he took the empty chair beside me. "We grew up together."

"Malcolm Carmichael." We shook hands, and then out of respect for the music were quiet for a while, sipping our beers. Dorian's and my eyes met more than once, and I was charmed at the way he would smile and faintly blush and look away again.

When the song had ended and the band left the stage, Dorian leaned close to me and said, "Where did you serve?"

"European theater," I said.

"Me, too," he said and I must have shown my surprise, because he smiled in a resigned sort of way and said, "I was a turret ball gunner in a B-52. Small build, you see."

"You hardly seem old enough to have been in the war at all."

"I was a little bit younger than I admitted to being," he said lightly, and I chuckled. "What brings you to New Orleans?" He said it the say Rene did, the drawling N'Awlins that I was growing to love.

"I'm a private tutor for a boy named Caleb Thibodeaux," I said, and the three of them exchanged a glance. "You must know the story, too."

"I know it," Dorian said. "I know Mr. Thibodeaux the elder, a little. I'm a clerk at the county court, and he still hears cases sometimes."

"Is he a good judge?"

Dorian sipped his beer, expression contemplative. "He's known for his harsh sentencing, especially on juvenile offenders, and he doesn't socialize with the clerks. What is he like at home?"

"He keeps to himself," I replied. "He only interacts with the rest of the family at suppertime. He hasn't tried to make friends with Caleb, as far as I can tell. Caleb is more of a possession than a family member. Emmanuel usually refers to him as either 'the boy' or 'my grandson.'"

"That sounds like the Judge Thibodeaux I know."

"And what do you know of Mr. Thibodeaux the younger?"

Dorian smiled to himself, his gaze dropping. "I've seen him in the Quarter a few times. He's very handsome."

"He is that," I said, and our eyes met again.

"But I wouldn't say I know him. I don't know anybody who would say they know him. I would say his only friends were his brother and his sister-in-law, and everyone else came in a pale second. I would even say that without Simon, Noel Thibodeaux is a bit lost."

"That sounds like someone who knows him."

Dorian shrugged, looking away as the trio got back onto the stage. "You live in the same house as he," he said simply, but didn't follow up on the thought as the music resumed.

Between sets from the trio, I learned that Dorian belonged to an amateur photography club, that he was going to law school at Tulane and shared a house with five other students, and that he also didn't like to talk about the war. That last was fine with me; I'd noticed over the years that the more an ex-G.I. talked about his war experience, the less he'd actually done.

When the trio played their last set and the bartender said, "Last call!", we said goodbye to Angelique and Rene, and Dorian walked with me to the truck. He lingered as I unlocked the driver-side door, and I leaned against the truck instead of climbing in.

"It was lovely to meet you," he said, blushing faintly again. "I hope you'll come into the city more often."

"I think I might," I said. I placed my hand on the back of his neck and coaxed him closer, and he leaned against my chest.

"Rene warned me," he whispered as his gaze flitted between my mouth and my eyes, "you're fascinated with Noel Thibodeaux. I don't blame you. He's a mystery, and people love mysteries."

"Are you?" I said. "Are you fascinated with him?"

"He's like the moon," Dorian said. "Untouchable. You're -- you're here. I can touch you and you can touch me." He took my face in his hands and kissed me. "But not tonight." He smiled and stepped away, and I watched him go down the street until he was lost in the Saturday-night crowd.

Smiling myself, I climbed into the truck and drove back to Fidele, my thoughts full of Dorian and the conversations we would have the next time we met -- until I came into the house and heard soft piano music again.

I went to the music room, drawn along by the sound as surely as if it were a siren song and I a sailor, and saw that Noel was at the keyboard, his eyes closed as he pressed the keys.

Dorian was lovely, but as I gazed at Noel I realized he simply could not compare. Not his face, not his body, not his history -- what little I knew of it -- and certainly not the pull that I felt toward him, not when the pull I felt toward Noel was almost a tangible thing, like a rope pulling me to shore.

I stood in the doorway for a few minutes as I listened to Noel play. It was a classical piece rather than ragtime, and not one I recognized enough to name it. Still, it was beautiful, heartfelt, and the way Noel played it made me want to sit at his feet in adoration.

I turned to go when Noel said, still playing, "Did you have fun tonight?"

"Yes," I said. "We went to a place called the Apple Barrel. Good music, good beer." I added, "I met someone."

There was a pause. "Good."

"Did you and Caleb go to the movies?" I went into the music room and sat beside him on the piano bench.

"We saw the Disney picture, 'Alice in Wonderland.' Caleb enjoyed it, I think. He stayed awake until the end, at any rate."

"And you?"

He shrugged. "It was a kids' picture." Abruptly, he stopped playing and turned to me. "Would you come with us next time? I think we'd both like having you along."

I couldn't help but smile. "I'd be happy to. I like the movies."

We had another one of those moments where we gazed at each other wordlessly, eyes roaming over each other's face. Dorian was sweet and delicately lovely, but he didn't make me want to kiss him so badly my lips ached for a taste of him, not the way Noel did. I wanted to kiss him, I wanted to hold him, I wanted to ask him to play more music.

I said, "I wish you had come with me tonight."

"Then you wouldn't have met your someone."

"I still would have met him," I said. "But if you had been there, everyone would have understood if I wasn't interested in him."

"Weren't you interested in him?"

"Not as interested as I am in you."

"Malcolm," he whispered.

"I want to kiss you."

"Don't."

"I know." Still, I pressed my palm to his cheek. His eyes fluttered closed and he turned his head just enough to brush his lips against the inside of my wrist.

But then he pulled away. "Good night, Malcolm."

"If you came to my bed, I'd never turn you away."

He sighed. "Good night, Malcolm," he said more emphatically, so I hauled myself to my feet.

"Good night, Noel," I said and went upstairs.

It was late and I should have gone to bed, but instead I took out my sketchbook and drew a few simple panels of Sir Errant and Sir Tristan succumbing to their attraction. If I couldn't have Noel, at least Errant could have his perfect knight.

The next Saturday was a rainy one. Caleb was listless and yawning; breakfast eaten and his chores done (cleaning Tumulus's litter box with my help, tidying his toys) and the weather too wet to play outside, I collected his toy cars and suggested that he play with them while I helped Mrs. Bell make lunch in the kitchen.

Caleb nodded, yawning again, and as we made our way to the kitchen I asked him, "Why are you so sleepy, little man? Did you wake up early?"

He only looked up at me a moment, then watched his feet as we climbed slowly down the stairs. Anything that couldn't be answered with a yes or a no tended to get ignored, until he got his hands on his crayons and paper and tried to draw an answer. Those didn't always make sense, as talented as Caleb was -- children are happy to explain their drawings, but of course Caleb could do no more than hand a drawing to me and look at me expectantly.

"Maybe we'll have you nap a little earlier than usual," I said, and again he shrugged, and yawned hugely.

The weather had been growing stormier all week, as Noel has warned me it would as the autumn progressed. This meant more time indoors, which also meant Caleb had excess energy in need of burning off. To keep Caleb from getting too restless, I made use of every open room that I could, from the music room to the library, Tumnus scampering after us or twining around our ankles. He was good with the kitten -- I never heard her squeal or hiss at him -- and it seemed Noel's experiment was successful. No more getting up in the night, and certainly no wandering outdoors alone.

Still, this wasn't the first time he was unusually sleepy, and I wondered if there was something else keeping him awake at night -- maybe the same something that made my door creak and my room cold, and left deep red scratches on my sides and back.

When we reached the kitchen I set up him in the corner with some unused pots and pans to make a city for his cars, and joined Mrs. Bell for our cooking lesson. Today's dish was hot roast beef sandwiches with au jus to dip them in, so she set me to slicing baguettes open for the leftover roast beef she would warm in the oven just before it was time to eat.

We chatted a bit, as usual. She told me the goings-on in her church -- who was marrying, who had died, whose children were causing their parents pride or strife -- and then I said, dropping my voice in the hope he wouldn't realize we were talking about him, "Do you ever notice any usual marks on Caleb at bath time?" and she frowned as she stirred the au jus in its pot.

"No more than the usual boyhood scrapes." These occurred on a daily basis -- Caleb was fearless, and as a result always had a bandage on an elbow or a knee. "Mr. Noel would never lay a finger on him, and Mr. Emmanuel --" She paused, her lips pressed together, and then said, "We would see to it that he wouldn't."

"No, of course Noel wouldn't," I said. I would put nothing past Emmanuel, but his threats to beat Caleb into talking were empty. As long as Caleb stayed out of his way, Emmanuel had nothing to do with him.

A sad state of affairs, I thought, given how he had essentially blackmailed Noel into bringing him here rather than living in the city; but given all that I had learned about the family, it made sense that Emmanuel would believe it was only right and proper that Caleb, his eventual heir, be brought up at Fidele.

I watched Caleb make a car drive up a sloping cookie pan to jump off the pot it was propped against, and said to Mrs. Bell, "If you do notice something, will you tell me?"

"Of course," she said. "And Mr. Noel, too."

"Of course," I said. Noel loved Caleb like his own child, but Noel was also unused to children and their needs, and possessed the Thibodeaux temper. More than once when their frustration with each other came to a head, I saw Noel close his eyes, uncurl his fists, and regulate his breathing to keep himself from yelling or worse.

Caleb was not a perfect child. Like most children his age, when he was tired or hungry he got cranky, and he had days when he was just out-of-sorts. Since he couldn't express himself with words, his bad days resulted in throwing his toys or his food, crumpling his worksheets, or hiding under beds or in a wardrobe in one of the unused rooms.

We kept these episodes from Emmanuel, even when we had to hunt through every wing of the house for Caleb. According to Noel, Dr. Dufresne said this was a way for him to grieve and we had to be patient, but I knew this was difficult to remember when Noel and Caleb glared at each other other with matching lowered eyebrows and set jaws.

Still, I left the discipline to Noel unless Caleb misbehaved badly during school hours. For small things, I had him sit in one of the school desks for five minutes without any paper or crayons. For bigger things, I would simply say, "We'll have to tell Uncle Noel about this," and it made either Caleb contrite -- which I would also tell Noel, to lighten whatever punishment Noel was considering -- or made him sulk. Noel vacillated between punishments that were too harsh or too light, so I advised him on what a five-year-old could handle, as did Dr. Dufresne. For the worst things, Noel usually decided on sending Caleb to bed without his half hour of radio; for the smaller, he agreed that a few minutes without toys or crayons was enough. And sometimes Noel merely held Caleb, even when he wept and struggled, and stroked his back and rocked him until Caleb calmed down.

When he wanted to play, the nursery was stocked with every toy a five-year-old boy could ask for. Caleb had a rocking horse and plastic swords with glass jewels in their hilts, stuffed animals and little wooden cars, green plastic soldiers and cap guns, an entire fleet of bathtub toys beyond your basic rubber ducky. He had a kite to fly when the weather was good, and rain boots and a slicker for when it was wet; watercolors, crayons, and reams of paper for us to practice writing and math as well as make pictures just for fun. Noel's firm had misprinted a letterhead a year or so before, and so Noel brought home boxes of paper for us -- better that it was put to use, he told me, then it sit in a supply room and take up space. Caleb covered pages and pages with drawings, not just his school assignments -- I would say, "If I have two apples and you give me three apples, draw me how many apples I have now," for example, and Caleb would painstakingly draw five apples -- but also the usual childhood subjects, his parents, the people in the house, Tumnus, the adventures of his favorite toys.

He was a good child, really -- I don't want to paint him as a bad or spoiled one -- and very sweet, and there were far more good days than bad. He liked to sit in my lap while I read to him, he and Noel always gave each other good-night kisses, he put his arms around Willie's neck whenever Willie carried him somewhere -- usually up the stairs at the end of a long day, for there was a great many stairs in that house and Caleb's legs were still short -- and he would hug Mrs. Bell around her waist until she said, "Let me go now, child, I need to move."

What to do about the sleeplessness, though, I had no idea. He played without much enthusiasm as Mrs. Bell and I cooked, and she said, "What's your parents' school say about tired children?" as he yawned again, wide enough that it looked painful, and rubbed his eye.

"Naps," I said. "Or quiet time -- an hour or so with the lights low and soft music playing, so they can read or draw or just relax a little." That was a good idea, I thought, I should write to Dad for advice. "You don't hear him getting up at night at all?"

"No, Mr. Malcolm. Of course, I sleep soundly." She paused, then said, "I haven't told Mr. Noel this, but sometimes I wake up and Caleb's gotten into bed with me. The cat, too."

"He has," I said, looking at Caleb again. He was just pushing a car back and forth now as he lay on his stomach on the kitchen floor, his head pillowed on his arm. "And he doesn't do anything to indicate why?"

"No, sir. Bad dreams, I expect. His father had them, too."

"Noel didn't?"

She stirred the au jus. "Mr. Noel didn't sleep much, before he left home."

That much hadn't changed. Twice now since I'd come to Fidele, I woke in the night to the sound of jazz piano -- sometimes so soft I wondered at how I heard it, given my war-worsened hearing -- but aside from sitting up to listen for a while, I didn't disturb Noel as he tried to soothe himself to sleep.

I said, "If you don't need me I think I'll try to get Caleb to nap a little."

"Go on," Mrs. Bell said. "Lunch will be ready in an hour."

"Thanks." I went to Caleb and leaned on my cane to stoop down. "Hey, Caleb. Want to go back upstairs for a while?"

He blinked at me, frowning a little.

"Maybe even sleep some more before lunch?" I suggested gently. "You can bring your cars with you, if you want."

Caleb frowned more deeply and gathered the cars in his arms to hold them to his chest.

"We can bring your cars, and your Teddy, and Tumnus if she's agreeable." At his continued frown, I said, "And I'll sit with you, if you want."

He looked at Mrs. Bell, and then nodded and got to his feet. I put some of the cars in my trouser pockets so he could hold my hand as we went upstairs. I was slow enough that Caleb tended to jump from one step to the next when we were on the stairs together, but there was none of that today.

In his room, I put Caleb to bed with his cars and his Teddy, and Tumnus appeared from wherever she had been napping to curl against his side. I sat at his play table and took out my pocket sketchbook.

"Close your eyes, honey," I said. "I'll be right here."

He watched me as I started to draw, and then with a sigh squeezed his eyes shut like he thought sleep was another chore to get through. I sketched ideas for the comic -- maybe my knights should face a sorceress? Maybe a wounded king, like in Arthurian tales? -- with one eye on Caleb as he sighed and tossed, to the point that Tumnus got up in her most dignified, catlike manner and moved to the foot of the bed instead.

I was starting to think maybe a nap wasn't the best idea after all when my skin pricked, and the air in the room abruptly turned cold enough I could see my breath when I exhaled. I stopped drawing, didn't move at all, as Tumnus's ears perked and her eyes grew wide, and Caleb pulled the blankets over his head.

A shape appeared beside Caleb's bed, a vague outline of a woman, who bent over Caleb and passed her hand over him as if she meant to caress his hair. But where the other figure to do this had been tender and fatherly, there was nothing tender here -- it was possessive, as if she were claiming Caleb as her own child.

Tumnus arched and hissed. The sound broke the spell and shoved me to my feet, as I remembered my own dream and the cry of Give me back my baby! and Rene's tale of poor, mad Charlotte. "Don't touch him!"

The shape paused, and then looked at me with a featureless face that was nonetheless so full of hatred that I took a step back. The shape turned from Caleb and flew toward me -- and then through me, leaving me cold down to my fingertips.

For a moment I couldn't move, it was such a shock, but when Caleb peeked at me over the blankets I said, "Stay there," and stumped out to see where the shape had gone.

There was nothing in the passageway, nothing that shouldn't be there. Portraits of Thibodeauxes past hung on the walls. Copper tubes that brought hot water to the bathroom ran just above the skirting board. But when I exhaled my breath froze, something that never happened even on a rainy day such as this one, and I heard the distant echo of sobbing.

I went slowly down the passageway to the vestibule. The housemaids were in today, but I doubted either of them would sit in the vestibule to cry. Emmanuel was in his study and Noel was in the farm office, last I knew, and neither of them would shed tears where anyone could see them. These sobs were feminine, young-sounding, hoarse and broken-hearted.

The vestibule was empty, and the sobbing sounded no closer when I stopped at the top of the stairs. Thunder rumbled overhead and lightning flashed, and the lights flickered.

I took a deep breath, looked around to make sure I was alone, and said softly in French, "Charlotte, I'm so sorry." I paused and waited. The sobbing continued. "I'm sorry you lost your baby. But you're frightening Caleb. He's just a little guy, Charlotte."

The sobbing cut off abruptly. Thunder rumbled again. Footsteps ran up behind me. Thunder rumbled as a pair of hands shoved me as hard as they could.

I went tumbling down the stairs.

I blinked my eyes open to see Caleb kneeling beside me, his face red and tears streaming down his face. "I'm okay," I said and started to push myself upright, and I heard doors slamming open and footsteps coming down the stairs.

"Malcolm? Malcolm!" Noel said and knelt beside me too. "Don't move yet. What happened? Did you fall?"

"Someone pushed me," I said, not moving as we were joined by Alex, and Noel felt my ankles and my neck. "Someone pushed me from the top of the stairs."

"Who pushed you?" boomed Emmanuel from the passageway that led to his study, and Noel winced as Emmanuel joined us in the vestibule. "Was it the boy?"

"Father," Noel began.

Emmanuel grabbed Caleb by the ear. "I've had enough of this. The boy won't behave, won't be normal, and the two of you encourage it. Well, enough! I'll make him talk."

"Mr. Thibodeaux--" from Alex, and another, more alarmed, "Father!" from Noel as Emmanuel started to drag a frightened, crying Caleb out of the vestibule.

Before he could go far, Noel snatched Caleb from Emmanuel's grasp and into his arms. Caleb wrapped his arms and legs around Noel and sobbed into his neck.

"It's okay, peanut, it's okay," Noel murmured to him, and snapped at Emmanuel, "Don't you fucking dare lay a hand on him, old man."

"Spare the rod, spoil the child!"

"Bullshit!" Caleb made a little whimper, and Noel whispered to him, "Sh, peanut. It's okay." He said to Emmanuel, his voice softer but no less dangerous, "Touch him and I don't care what you think you know about me, I will take him away and you will never see him again. Understand me? Never."

Emmanuel stood there, his chest heaving and his face red, his hands fisting and unfisting, and he looked at Noel, Alex, and me one by one. He huffed and stormed back down the passage to his study.

Thunder rumbled and the rain pounded harder on the windows. Alex said, "Noel, I think we ought to get Malcolm somewhere he can rest a bit."

"I'm all right," I said. "Where's my cane?"

"I'll get it," said Alex and climbed the stairs to fetch it from where I'd dropped it.

Mrs. Bell rushed in from the kitchen and held out her arms for Caleb. "I'll see to Caleb, Mr. Noel," she said, and Noel looked down at Caleb for his approval. "Come with me, sugar. Let's dry your tears."

"It's all right, peanut," Noel whispered to him. "I'll be close by. We need to look after Mr. Malcolm and make sure he's not hurt."

Sniffling, Caleb nodded and went into Mrs. Bell's arms, and she bore him off to the kitchen. Noel watched her go, frowning, and then came to me.

"Don't move yet," Noel said and started feeling my head. "If you have a bump we ought to get you to a hospital."

"I don't think I hit my head," I said, but stayed still so he could investigate my head and neck.

"I don't feel any bumps. Move your fingers for me?" I wiggled them, and my toes too. Noel sat back on his heels and scrubbed his hand through his hair. "How do you feel?"

"Aching a bit, otherwise all right."

"Maybe we should bring him to your bed, Noel," Alex said. "It's closer to the stairs in case he need to call for someone."

A muscle twitched in Noel's jaw, but he said, "Yes, all right," and the two of them got me upright and up the stairs, to lay me on the bed in Noel's bedroom.

Alex leaned my cane against the night stand. "Is there anything else you need me for today? I'm worried about Julia and the children being alone in a storm like this."

"Go on," Noel said. "We can finish next week."

Alex nodded, said, "Get some rest, Malcolm," and left. I murmured thanks and put my hand over my eyes. My body ached from the tumble down the stairs, and a dull throb pulsed through my head.

Noel had seated himself on the bed beside me, and after a few minutes of silence except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall, finally said, "You said you were pushed."

"Yes."

"By whom?"

"I don't know. Someone I couldn't see."

"Malcolm," Noel said seriously, "was it Caleb?"

I removed my hand from my eyes. "No. Caleb was in his bed. I heard someone sobbing and went to see who it was, and while I was on the stairs someone pushed me -- too high for Caleb to reach."

Noel sighed and scrubbed his hand through his hair. "And you didn't see anything?"

I hesitated, then said, "Not in the vestibule. There was someone in Caleb's room before."

"There was? Who?"

"Charlotte Thibodeaux," I said, and Noel blinked like I'd snapped my fingers in his face.

He recovered in a moment, and laughed shortly. "Indeed," he said and rose from the bed. "You were planning to go into the city again tonight, weren't you? I can give your friends a call and tell them what happened."

"I wanted to meet Rene and Angelique again," I said. "Their number's in the small black notebook on my desk."

He nodded and left me, and I sighed and tried to relax. Noel knew something was going on; either he feared I would leave if he confirmed it, or he was of the belief that if he ignored it, it would go away. But if there was anything I had learned about ghosts in the last six years, they only went away if they felt like it.

I moved again, trying to get comfortable as the pillow crinkled under my head. I moved once more, then realized there was something stuck in the pillow case. I stuck my hand inside and pulled the something out.

It was the note I had written to Noel the second night at Fidele, where I promised to kiss him whenever he wanted. The folds of the note were worn, as if the note had been folded and unfolded many times, and the ink of my signature was blurred.

I couldn't help but smile, and as I heard Noel stop in the hall to place the phone call to Rene Gaspard, I put the note back where I'd found it.

>> Chapter Twelve