HONOR THY FATHER
All X-Men characters are the property of Marvel Comics; all rights reserved. This is a work of fan-fiction. No permission was granted to use these characters. This story may not be reprinted or published without written permission of the author and may not be used for profit of any kind.
The thin switch from the pecan tree came down hard and fast, again and again. It sliced into my back and legs over and over, with only the worn material of my baggy, cut-off charity-barrel trousers to absorb a small measure of the blows. Papa was so angry; it felt as if he would never stop, as if his disgust of me had no end. Most children would get a reward or, least ways, get a pat on the head if they refused to do something wrong, something that would hurt...or kill...someone else, but not poor little Remy LeBeau, no. All I ever get is more pain. Seems like that's all it'll ever be for me.
I squeezed my eyes tightly and bit down on my lower lip until it swelled, vainly trying to deflect the stinging pain in my lower body to somewhere else. It didn't really work, but it did hold back the involuntary tearing in my eyes, the tears I refused to cry. It don't matter what people do to me. I never let myself cry. With all the misery of my twelve years, the tears would never stop if I ever let them start.
"There--this time maybe you learn your lesson and do like I tell you!" Papa grunted, his left arm worn from tightly gripping my mangled hair and the back of my well-worn shirt in his hand, his right arm bone tired from wailing away at my shredded extremities. No longer supported by Papa's rough hand, I fell down hard, a major lack of sensation in my back and legs. My chin scraped the ground below me as I hit it, blood and dust mixing in the fresh wound dug into me as my skin slammed into the dirt. I turned my head and rested against my right cheek as the late afternoon breeze blew dust, leaves and bits of chicken feed around my limp body. In the distance I could hear Papa's heavy footsteps receding in the direction of the house, his blood-tinged switch sounding with a 'ping' as it hit the inside of the trash bin next to the back porch. Muffled muttering confirmed all the things I already knew Papa felt about me: "boy don't know how to mind;" "too damn sassy;" "didn't have it to do to take him in, no;" "make me damn mad!" Mercifully, the slam of the screen door severed any more hateful words before they assaulted me, not that I hadn't heard them all--or worse--before. He may act as my father to the outside world and he may have chosen to give me his surname, but in his heart I'll never truly be Jean Luc LeBeau's son.
Being adopted yet unwanted by the clan LeBeau, there isn't much I haven't heard about my lack of worth to them--that is, with the exception of a few curious abilities of mine which suit the family's less-than-savory needs. Papa and his son Henri tried from the beginning to soften the harsh treatment and cruel words other family members gave me. Their efforts cushioned the hurt to a degree that made things bearable, gotta say. If not for that, I'd have been likely to hit the streets again. I'm a boy who grew up on the mean streets of New Orleans, me, so I know a thing or two about survival and cunning. I also know that if it weren't for that wild, explosive power locked within my awkward, skinny body and my uncanny ability to snatch and grab pretty much any item, that sulking, angry man--leader of all of New Orlean's thieves--would have probably left me to die on those streets, as sure as rain is wet, yeah.
Some time passed before I realized that I'd fallen asleep there in the grassless space between the kitchen garden and the chicken coop, the strong scent of tomato plants and okra stirring my senses. The sharp snap of the window frame having been slammed upward woke me as Papa leaned into the screen and called out to me. "Remy! Get you'self up from there and put some of your Tantie's salve on your legs, boy! Then get to bed, you hear? We got work to do tonight; can't have you falling asleep on the job, no."
I wasn't sure at the time which was worse: the returning sting of my wounds or the reminder that I had "work" to do with Papa tonight, a caper I did not wish to take part in. Stating that fact is what bought me this switching of a lifetime. Papa don't take "no" for an answer.
I've been a thief all of my life, long before ever meeting Jean Luc last year. Thieving was all I could do to survive, having been abandoned to the streets at some point beyond my memory. A purse set down for a careless moment, a wallet poking out of a pocket, a loose clasp on a watch or bracelet--all of these were means of survival to a poor, hungry kid raising himself in the back alleys of the French Quarter. And, as is usually the case, there were bigger and meaner snatch-and-grab artists around who lived to rip off the stuff ripped off by smaller prey. I was a clever enough thief and a scrappy enough fighter to fend off most attacks against me, and I rarely got caught in the act of a crime. Then came the night that I tried to steal the wallet of the tall, red-haired, dashing restaurateur, Jean Luc LeBeau, as he locked up his place of business for the evening. He was a juicy-looking mark to me and nothing more, and, judging from the fine suit he was wearing and the shiny shoes on his feet, I figured him to be just ripe for the picking. I was so wrong. I had no way of knowing that this mark of mine was the legendary king of the Guild Of Thieves Of New Orleans and the patriarch of the Guild's infamous Clan LeBeau. Being an ignorant little somebody, all I cared about was that his wallet was bulging and I might could get me something to eat if I helped myself to it. He was not amused to catch my steady little hand leaving his pocket with his wallet held tightly in my grasp. With lightning reflexes, he grabbed a large clump of my hair tightly, close to the scalp, to prevent my escape.
"What you think you doin', boy?" he growled at me, his teeth gleaming with flashes of the dim street lighting. I was trying so hard not to let him see my face...oh who am I kidding? I didn't want him to see my eyes, those blood-red eyes of mine that will forever separate me from normal folks. With my eyes glowing in the late evening darkness, I was sure to either scare him into a heart attack, which I didn't want to do, or make myself so identifiable that it wouldn't do me any good to run because I'd be easily hunted down. Being as fast on the draw as I was on my feet and figuring that I'd never break the grip he had on me, I opted to use the thing that my hated, hideous eyes do best--charm people into submission.
"I find your wallet, Monsieur!" I told him with such chirpy, well-mannered conviction that I would have believed it myself, if I hadn't known it was a bold-face lie as black as the back of my eyes. Holding the wallet out to him, I locked eyes with his so as to work my natural ability to hypnotize on him. I had to convince him of my innocence while his senses were dulled by my hypnotic gaze and soothing patter.
"You ought to be 'shamed of yourself, Monsieur--a big ol' man like you hurtin' a li'l nothin' boy like me, an' here I'm tryin' to help you out an' all, too. That's a sin an' a shame, homme; yeah, that is. You don' wanna hurt me, no. I think you wanna let...me...go..."
In attempting with all of my might to pull away from the unwittingly dazed man, I did something stupid: I broke my gaze with him. I remembered it later when I wondered why my usual getaway routine didn't work on that man, but at the time I was on a roll and forgot my standard self-preservation plan. C'est la guerre.
"You pretty careless to drop an important-looking hunk of leather like this, Monsieur," I scolded him, and, as proof of how I'd learned to charm that silver lining off of a dark cloud, I added, "And I think you owe ol' Remy a little reward for giving it back, yeah!" I snuck a quick, guarded look up at his tawny face, a big, beguiling smile draped all over my own. He wasn't buying. Damn.
I struggled, I pushed, I kicked, I shoved...and then my shoulders sagged at the point when I knew I'd had it. That man was NOT letting me go. It would be the police next, then the juvenile authorities, the questions, the stares, the confinement...and then I'd probably end up somebody's lab rat while the government caretakers let some ghoul take me apart to figure out why I'm a red-eyed freak with powers like them weirdo types I've seen them talk about on the TV in the store windows. I don't remember now if that prospect scared me more at the time than the alternative: going back empty-handed to that hole-in-the-wall dive I lived in with the rest of Fagan's Mob--a self-contained crimewave of little kids used by a couple of adult thugs to keep the streets of the Big Easy unsafe for tourists and residents alike. Adrian and Rene gave us a leaky roof over our heads, a dirty mattress to try to catch some sleep on and maybe a little bowl of Cajun Stew to keep body and soul together if we swept the streets for valuables every night, but we were only privileged to those luxuries if we did well. Come back empty-handed and we got a cane to the back and chucked back out onto the streets to face the rats and the rain to try our luck again. I had to be good to survive or go back to living in the sewers where I'd learned to hide when people who had seen my eyes tried to hurt me. I might have been the king of the sewer pipes and couldn't no rat take me never, but that still didn't make it a palace, no.
Figuring to throw in with the lab coats, I gave up struggling and let the big man win. "Now you showin' some sense, boy," he had said, and when I looked up I realized that he was smiling at me.
"I ain' gonna hurt you, li'l one. You know who I am, huh?" he asked as he shifted to sit on the top step at the back door of the restaurant so as to better look me in the face. No longer interested in acquiring his wallet or charming him into submission, I shifted my gaze from his eyes to that dazzling gold pocket watch and chain suspended from his vest pocket. Hope springs eternal, after all.
That man was still tightly gripping my hair and that did make me a titch angry, so I spoke up. "I don' know you name, Monsieur, but you still the fella what's hurtin' me, yeah. I'm thinkin' it's about time you let me go, 'less you want to start payin' me for my time!"
And then I heard the last thing I'd expected to hear: laughter. "You are the funny li'l one, ain' you, child!" he choked out between fits of howling. "An' how much do you think your time's worth, petit?" he asked, his eyebrows arched high above his hooded brown eyes as his long, auburn ponytail sailed in the late evening breeze.
Shifting my gaze back and forth from his vest pocket to his face, I boldly replied, "How much you think this watch is worth, Monsieur?" I asked, making an exaggerated grab for it as I did, trying for one final attempt to save my spot in Fagan's den, should I be able to break free. But he'd been watching my eyes all along and anticipated my move, shifting his body to put the watch chain just out of the reach of my slender, child-length fingers.
"This watch was given to me on his death bed by my father, Jacques Sebastien LeBeau--for over one hundred years the great patriarch of the Guild Of Thieves Of New Orleans--as he passed on control of the clan and the Guild to me, his only son. NOW do you know who I am, li'l one?"
I may have been an ignorant boy from the gutter, but every crook who walks the streets of New Orleans knows the fame of Jean Luc LeBeau, the best thief Louisiana ever saw. I just never knew what he looked like, and I sure didn't know who he was when ol' Rene dragged me down the alley and told me that I'd better hit this mark or die trying.
"I do beg your pardon, Monsieur," I replied contritely to him, my head dropping in fear. "You please to take pity on me, sir. I didn't mean you no disrespect. I'm just a poor li'l thief trying to make my way in the world, doin' what I got to do to survive. I ain't had no food for three days, Monsieur--honest!"
Honest. That's rich coming from one thief to another, yeah. But he bought it. Something in his eyes told me that he felt sorry for me, and the pain of his grip on my hair lessened to show it. "Sit down here, boy. I want to talk with you." Fearing the worst if I didn't, I sat on the step below him, not daring to come any closer to a god among men.
He asked my name, his big, heavy hand holding my scrawny arm in a light grasp, assuring that I didn't bolt from him. I told him, "Remy," advising him that I didn't have any other name as I'd never had any folks...or I didn't remember them, at least.
"I don't have no li'l boys no more, Remy," he said as he stroked at his mustache with thumb and index finger, his golden hoop earring catching my eye as it glinted in the pale light of the moon. "Both my boys--Henri and Bobby--they grown and gone. My wife, she's long gone to her heavenly reward, so there ain't gonna be any more children in my home, you see. And you...you're a good li'l thief, boy--the best I've laid eyes on in a long, long time. I could make you even better, yeah."
I scoffed at his remark and shook my head. "I can't be too good if you caught me so easily, Monsieur," I said bitterly, all the while thinking about the beating I was going to get for screwing up so royally at pinching his wallet, once Adrian and Rene caught up with me.
"That wasn't your skills that let you down, no," he assured me with a broad grin. "It was your stomach that told on you. I could hear your belly growling over the jangling of my keys, easy. Didn't need to tell me you hungry, boy. They can probably hear that on the other side of Jackson Square, child."
In a soft voice, he continued, "Listen...why you don't come home with me, Remy? I can take care of you, even make you better--teach you many things."
A sudden realization came over me then, one that made my blood run cold and my skin crawl. "No, thank you kindly, Monsieur," I declined his offer flatly, snatching my arm away from him at last, just as quickly as I could. "I don't do that no more and you can't make me, neither!"
Startled, he stared at me with honest, wide-open eyes, a look of surprise on his face. "I'm offering you a home, boy, and I ain't got it to do, no! A roof over your head, some food in your belly--and a chance to be the best thief in the city! What's wrong with that? You got you a better offer tonight, cher?"
I shook my head as I backed away from him, the pain of the memories of previous encounters with men who had said they wanted to do so much for me flooding my brain and fueling my anger. "There's only two things a man ever wants with a boy like me, Monsieur," I advised him, as if he didn't know. "One is thieving, and if you're who you say you are, you don't need no half-pint like me to get what you want. Everyone knows that you're the best there is and that the riches of the world fall into your hands like leaves from a tree. The only thing a boy can do for you is in your bed, and I swore no one was gonna to do that to me ever again, no! I'd sooner be dead than used by anyone again..."
"Non! Non! Non! C'est odieux! C'est detestable!" he shouted as he jumped to his feet, his hands balled into fists and his accent getting stronger with the raised volume of his voice. "I would never...I would never touch you the wrong way, boy! I would never hurt you or use you like that! You've got to believe me, Remy. I'm a respectable man--a powerful man. I mean you no harm. If I did, do you think I would have let loose of you just now? Eh?!"
Casting his eyes to the sky, he whistled from deep in his throat, calling out, "Mon dieu! What have you let happen to this poor little child, heh? My sweet savior, Jesus--what kind of monsters you put in this boy's path that he thinks such a thing of me, eh?! You open his eyes, Lord, you hear?! You help him to see that I mean him no harm. I just want to help the boy. You talk to his heart and please to let him see the truth, yes?"
Finally ending his ranting, he reached out to me in earnest, his eyes pleading with mine. "Come home with me, Remy, and you'll see. I promise to take care of you and help you. I would never hurt you, boy--never. And I would never use you or make you do what you don't wish to do. I swear."
Something in the crack in his voice spoke of kindness, of caring and of loneliness. I didn't want to believe him; I had no reason to. No one had ever done anything for me because they cared about me. It was only ever about using me for whatever they wanted, then casting me aside when I no longer served their needs. But Jean Luc did his best to seem genuine, and in that instant my hard, protective shell cracked. For a brief moment, I made myself dream that it could happen, that someone could really want me, maybe even love me.
Jean Luc took my hand and led me to his mud-splattered red and white 1948 Dodge delivery truck with the white wall tires and the big clunky grill, and the two of us made for his friend Mattie's home in Slidell, off of Lake Pontchartrain. Mattie, the lady everyone, black or white calls "Tantie," being that she's like everyone's aunt, is a traiter--a healer--and he wanted her to have a look at me, as well as add the womanly touches that an old bachelor man would have trouble with. I'd bought his con and accepted his offer of help, even when I knew he was lying through his teeth, as, of course, he was, all the time. Of course he wanted to use me; that's why he wanted to teach me to be a better crook. He'd had every intention of training me to be the best thief I could be...all the better for him to get whatever he wanted from anyone he wanted. I didn't know at the time that he knew the men behind Fagan's Mob. It took me a while to put enough cards together and come up trumps on the connection. I'd been set up to rob him so that he could charm me into his clutches, like the dimwitted fly into the web of the spider. The adoption papers were signed and notarized within days and I was bound over to legally become Jean Luc's boy to mold into his image. The most resourceful and clever of the boy thieves of New Orleans and I walked right into a trap I'll never live to get out of. Life just ain't fair. But on that night a year ago, Papa taught me straight off the most important lesson I've ever learned and I remind myself of it daily: don't never trust nobody.
After applying some of Tantie's pungent homemade medicinal salve to my wounds, I crawled into my cold, creaking bed, lying there minute after minute in the hazy moonlight wondering what Papa had in store for me later on. Whatever it was, it had to be mighty important to him to beat me into doing it. Normally, a bit of pleading or laying down a guilt trip about him taking me in and what I owe him for it has been his standard method. Usually he's avoided hurting me badly or raising my anger too much. Most folks living with a "devil child" with dangerous powers have better sense than pushing their luck. But being capable of instilling fear, guilt and feelings of obligation are powerful weapons in the hands of a cunning adult leading an unholy alliance with a dependent child possessed of volatile abilities, and Jean Luc has never hesitated to use whatever method of controlling me worked the best. My biggest fear is that now that he's crossed the waters into the land of this kind of hateful punishment for defying him, there's no telling where it will stop.
Most of Papa's night capers begin around 2am. Lots of times, we don't knock off until 4 or 5am. Those are pretty rough hours for a school boy to keep. I've spent many a day at school being punished by Sister Clare Marie, with me being made to hold all of my books and stand facing the wall in the back corner of my homeroom, all for falling asleep because Papa had me out all night. Then I'd get a swat for coming home with a note from the good Sister saying that I wasn't paying attention in class. Papa don't like being embarrassed in front of the folks up to the Church. It messes up that air of respectability he's known for...at least in their eyes. Every member of Clan LeBeau has belonged to the parish of St. Martin de Tours since the first arrivals landed from their long journey down from Acadie in 1756, the victims of Le Grand Derangement--the Great Expulsion--at the hands of the British. St. Martin is the patron saint of Cajuns and meant to protect us, but so far I think he's been sleeping on the job while I've been praying.
I expect I must have finally dozed off because, before I know it, a rapid knock hit my bedroom door like thunder. "Remy? You up, boy? It's 2:30 and we got to be leaving," Papa called out in a whisper. I don't know why he was bothering to whisper: we were the only two in the house.
Startled but now aroused, I called back to him, "Oui, Papa," as I shuffled around to get my clothes on: a black pull-over sweatshirt, a pair of worn-out sneakers and dark brown hand-me-down pants several sizes too big for me and held up by tightening one of Papa's old belts around my waist. I went to the antique basin in the corner of my room, poured a little water from the pitcher and splashed it onto my face, trying to wash the sleep from my eyes and the fog from my brain. Grabbing a rubber band from the top of the bureau next to it, I gathered up my messy hair and tied it into a short ponytail to make sure it wouldn't get in my way later.
Stopping to look at myself in the mirror, I thought of all of my classmates who were safely tucked into their beds, warm and happy, secure in the knowledge that they were loved and cared for by the adults around them. "Must be nice," I thought, but the thought was quickly shattered by the sound of Papa stomping down the hall. "Where you at, Remy? Come on, boy--let's go!"
I followed his black-cloaked figure down the stairs and into the parlor, dreading every step as I did. From the drawers of the built-in cabinet near the kitchen door, Papa loaded his pockets with items we might need: a small metal detector in two parts, a bandana, a glass cutter, a small roll of duct tape, a handful of screws, bolts, wingnuts and washers, a small gray swag-bag...and a blackjack. It seems too often that violence ends up being a part of these "family outings" of ours, so I made one last attempt to find out just what was really going down.
"What we stealing, Papa?" I asked him, my eyes trailing the ground and a frown clouding my face.
Reluctant to answer at first, Jean Luc eventually smirked and considered my question. "We ain't 'stealing,' Remy. We're 'rescuing' some jewelry for the Benefactress, Candra. I told you a little about her: she bestows her blessings on the Guild if we honor her. A bad man--a 'wise guy'--stole some jewelry that she wants brought back to her. She has asked the Guild brothers to get this for her, so for the honor of the family I took this assignment myself. So you see, boy, you are helping the Guild, and as a future member, you should WANT to help us please the Benefactress. As a member of Clan LeBeau, you should want to help your Papa. You see?"
"It's stealing, Papa," I reminded him, since talk of the great Benefactress always seemed to cloud his judgment, just as it made him smile like the old Baptist ladies talking about the Rapture in their big hats and go-to-meetin' dresses on Sunday mornings. "The nuns made us memorize the Ten Commandments, and it says we ain't supposed to steal and we ain't supposed to kill--and if we're taking from the Mafia, we're going to end up stealing and killing."
Papa's shoulders dropped and he studied my face real good before he started in on me. That was way better than the slap I was sure I was about to get, but it was early in the round yet. He shook his head and muttered something in Cajun French which started with "goddamn old penguins" and ended with something about "damn church school stealing his money." There were more bad words in between there, but I didn't catch them all. Finally, taking a long breath, he reached forward and put his hands on my shoulders, but not before pulling my chin upwards to meet his gaze.
"Listen at me, boy. Firstly, don't be talking about no 'Mafia' 'round this neck of the woods. We call 'em 'wise guys' if we call them anything at all, you hear? Second: The LeBeau family have been members of the Guild Of Thieves since the Guilds began hundreds of years ago. Of COURSE we steal, boy, but it's for the good of the Guild...for reasons I can't tell you about until you are old enough to pass your test and become a member. As for them Ten Commandments: you so smart? Recite them."
He folded him arms and stood there, head cocked, waiting for me to begin. Me and my big mouth: I ain't never gonna learn to quit while I'm ahead. After a momentary false start, I was ready to take a stab at it. "Ummm, the first one is 'I am the Lord, Thy God. Thou shalt not put no heathen gods before me.'"
While I scratched at my unruly hair and my scattered memories, Papa smirked and said, "Close enough. Keep a-goin'."
"Number two is 'Thou best not take the Lord's name in vain, no.' The third one is 'Remember to get you'self to Mass on Sunday,' and the next one is to 'Honor your Mama et Papa...'"
Suddenly, Papa's arms went out like an umpire making a call of 'safe' at home plate in the seventh inning of the seventh game of the World Series. "Stop!" he yelled, a satisfied smile on his face. "That's all I want to know, boy. You hear that? 'Honor your Papa.' Big number four--right after God gets his stuff out of the way. Ain't nothing about killing or stealing 'til way later on, yeah. And you know why that is, Remy? 'Cause they ain't as important! Ain't none of the rest of that mess as high up on the list as doing what your father tell you to do. Now march your little ass out to that truck like I tell you to and don't ask me no more questions, damn it."
A short drive later and Papa was steering the truck off the I-90 and down the Pontchartrain Expressway into the Warehouse District via the Greater New Orleans Bridge. We drove up Tchoupitoulas Street, then hooked a right on Girod until we hit the waterfront. He told me we were searching for some buildings between the Piazza d'Italia and the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel. Papa said that there was a small warehouse tucked back there that housed barrels of salt cod as a cover for illegal activities. That's the one we were looking for.
We abandoned the truck on a side road off of Notre Dame, with Papa turning the lights off and quietly coasting it to rest behind the Pelican's Nest lunch counter which wouldn't open for business again until after 10am. From there we walked in the darkness, the musty fog off the river prickling our faces. We were careful to avoid any overhead lighting as we continued cautiously along until we saw the Claremont Fish Company sign hanging over the green wood-panel doors of the rickety-looking warehouse we had been searching for.
Papa took a long, hard look around for any signs of security guards before approaching the old warehouse. Yanking my sleeve, he signaled me to follow him to the south side of the building where there were small porthole windows which overlooked the mighty Mississippi. Thankfully, there were no bars or shutters on these windows, the proprietors probably thinking that they were too high up and too small for any crook to get through.
As quietly as it could be done, Papa fashioned steps out of two empty crates resting not far from the windows. Even at that, it was far too low for anyone to be able to reach the window without further help. Then Papa directed me to climb onto the crates with him, after which he hoisted me up onto his sturdy shoulders and instructed me to stand. I was scared of falling, but I was more afraid of not following his orders, so I pushed against the building until I found myself standing high enough to meet the porthole.
"Here, hold your hand out and put these in your pocket, Remy," he said.
I searched the darkness for his hand and held mine open to receive...the washers, wingnuts and screws he'd pulled from the drawer...?
"And don't put them in your back pocket, no!" he ordered in a raspy, low drawl. "You got holes in that pocket."
I shrugged and dropped the array of junk into my front right pocket instead. That one had a plaid flannel patch sewn on it that had already suffered a little fraying, but at least it covered up the big hole that used to be there. He then passed me the duct tape he'd brought along. "Put a little piece on the glass, and be sure you fold up the end. You can use it to make sure the glass comes to you, 'stead of falling in, you know?"
Whispering down to Papa, I asked him to pass the glass cutter I'd also seen him put into his pocket earlier. "No--use your power, Remy. Do what you do when you blow up them bottle caps down to the river."
"How'd he know about that?" I thought to myself so loud that I swear I heard it. I've always done that in secret, hiding away among the tall grasses off Bayou Teche to teach myself how to use my powers...and have some fun, too. I have to entertain myself because no other boys in the area will play with me, except once in a while when Papa's sister Elizette's boys Theoren and Etienne come over for a visit. They can only play with me if we sneak off together, though, because Tante Elizette can't stand to look at me and doesn't want her "precious babies" to be "infected" by me. I'm already shunned for being adopted "trash off the streets" and for my eyes. The last thing any of Papa's people need to know about is that I have some sort of unstable power in me that could likely blow them to Kingdom Come. I may just as well walk around the school grounds at recess with horn-rimmed glasses, a pocket pencil protector and a sign hung on me saying "Please beat me up and steal my lunch money." Like I need to ask to be belittled and attacked. When you're the local freak, it comes with the territory.
I can never be sure about my "power," as Papa calls it; it seems to have a mind of its own. Not knowing just what makes it do what it does--it makes objects glow bright and then explode--it's hard for me to figure out what to do to make it start. Sometimes I touch a bottle cap or a pebble or piece of wood and it doesn't do anything; then, sometimes, the same thing will sizzle and spark and blow up like a quarter stick of dynamite. A hard pinch to my backside reminded me that I'd better stop mulling it over and do something about the present situation, so I pressed the tip of my index finger to the pane of glass and traced along the edge of it. At first it didn't seem to do much of anything but smear the dirt around and scare a little spider nesting on the glazing. I tried it again, this time telling my finger that it had better help me.
"I know you're in there, whatever you are," I whispered to my fingertip. "Come on, now. Do what you supposed to do. I MEAN it!" I concentrated hard and soon I could see a faint trace of bright pink light etching across the window as my finger circled the glazing and met where I'd started. I quickly drew a heart pierced by an arrow in the center and added "Belle," my "petite jolie blond" sweetheart's name, for good measure. She'd like that, yeah. The pane popped right out of the glazing and fell forward into my waiting hands.
"That's good, yah, boy!" Papa whispered excitedly, taking the glass from me. He stopped to look at the love-sick heart I'd drawn, smiled in a sad sort of way and then carefully put it to lean against the wall from the top of the crate on which we stood. "Go on, then, Remy," he called up to me. "See can you get inside."
It looked kind of tight to me, but then I'm kind of like a rabbit: if I can get my big head of hair and narrow my shoulders enough, I can pretty much fit through the top of a wine bottle. Using my arms as leverage from inside the window, I pushed my head through the porthole and forced my shoulders up and forward until it hurt...bad. My back muscles throbbed as they squeezed together, the broken glazing tore at my skin and bones in my neck crunched, but I'd made it in up to my waist. The rest was easy. I reached out to a pallet on which barrels were piled up to the ceiling so that I could support myself as I pulled in my legs. Being nothing more than a small boy, my weight against it didn't budge the load one bit.
I balanced myself between two of the huge pallets and put my arm back through the window to give Papa the thumbs up. Almost immediately, I could see the small metal detector angling in toward me, so I grabbed the base of it and pulled in the handle after it. In the vast, unlit room, the red gleem from my eyes bounced off of the barrels around me, but it wasn't enough to clearly see the floor. Holding the metal detector carefully, I looked down into the pitch black below me, prayed that there was nothing but floor below me and pushed off the pallets, dropping down into the depths beneath me. When I hit the floor, I rolled with my knees tucked in, just the way I'd learned from years of jumping from rooftops to fire escapes to pavement whenever the light of dawn threatened to end the cover of darkness. That's what I did: I prowled the rooftops of the Big Easy in search of whatever trinkets I could spy in the windows and streets below me, all to appease the bosses back at Fagan's Mob HQ...all the better to get a bite to eat and a place to lay my head. Jobs like this one...this was a piece of cake compared to what I'd been used to, so I almost looked forward to the new adventure of it...until it came to the inevitable fighting and butchering that would be the result of it.
Switching on the detector, I began to push around the control switch until I could see the digital readout on the handle indicating that it was looking for "precious metals." Creeping from aisle to aisle, I followed the sound of the faint blips and the flash of the tiny red light on the base of the unit, watching it accelerate as I carefully put one foot in front of the other down one aisle and up the next. I worried about the place having electronic eyebeams or some such security device, but I didn't see anything that looked like a wallplate for one. With no lights in the room and my ability to see clearly in the dark, I knew why Papa found me to be invaluable for this job--that and the unusual entranceway he'd picked. I just wish Papa and I had more normal father/son outings than this sort of business. A nice fishing trip, play some fiddle and guitar reels with some of the cousins, go to a fais do do, maybe, or a trip down the bayou in his father's ol' piroux--something fun to do together would be such a change. But Papa's too much like the stories I've heard about his father. All work and no play made Jacques a very dull man and not much of a father to his boy, Jean Luc. Sure runs in the family, yeah...
After what seemed like forever and a day, the little flashing light grew stronger and more steady, speedily going on and off as it guided me to whatever it had picked up on. At the strongest source--a stack of barrels that looked like all of the others at first glance--I turned off the detector and leaned it against the edge of the metal support against the stacked pallets. Reaching forward, I began to tap lightly against the wood of the barrels until I found one with a hollow thud instead of a stuffy flat sound. Gently rubbing my finger along the seam on the top cooper's band, I charged it with just enough energy to make it "ping" and drop down, letting it be caught by the bulging of the slats below it. The top rim of the slats popped open, allowing the rounded cover to slip down into the barrel a bit, where it came to rest on the protective raffia beneath it. I pried it up with my fingertips and began to feel my way inside, pushing the raffia aside and poking about until I felt cold, soft, slick metal and something icy and hard. It was either the driest hunk of ice I'd ever come across or the biggest hunk of precious stone I'd ever see. My bet was that it was the sort of thing that would have made even the Queen of England envious.
I scooped up the jewel and chain but then thought better of it. Remembering my ragged pockets, I reached all around me and tucked my sweatshirt into my pants, then pulled so tight on my belt that I almost swooned. After pushing the extra length of the belt through the loop, I reached back in and pulled out the necklace, dropping it down my back. It came to rest like a pliable length of frost against my spine, finally curling up at the base of my back as it came to rest. Picking up the metal detector, I sidled my way back across the slick concrete floors of the warehouse, searching out the dim light of the dark blue early morning through the tiny circle up on the wall. It was then that I realized just how hard it would be to get back up to the window, a feat that would be impossible with the detector in hand. I'd be forced to leave it behind.
"Sacre'...!" I swore under my breath. Papa was on the other side of the wall, so I wasn't going to get in trouble for swearing; he was probably doing enough of it on his side, worried that I was taking too long. I was.
Slowly, steadily, methodically, I crept up the sides of the large pallets, the stench of the lye, salt and icky fish filling my lungs and making my head ache. All I could think of was how happy I would be when I was back home, curled up in bed and joyously asleep, the one refuge I have from the daily troubles of my world. After what felt like forever, I got up high enough and pushed my way out through the window, diving through with my legs outstretched, exiting just the opposite of how I entered. My sweatshirt snagged on the broken glazing as my stomach put pressure on it. I could feel it pulling back out of my belt's hold. I squeezed my stomach tighter and tighter until it took the pressure off of the sill, then slid a bit more until I was resting on my ribcage. It hurt. Bad. The channeling for the glass forced itself into me, the pressure causing me to take shallow, short breaths. Then, slowly, I lowered myself until I was hanging by my hands waiting for Papa to grab my legs and help me down. I didn't happen. My heart sank, and, with it, my gut soured. I knew without looking down that this had somehow all gone wrong.
"Come down here, kid!" It was a gruff, Northern voice I'd never heard before. "Jimmy Lee, climb up there and get him."
I squinted through the darkness and tried to get a look down to see where Papa was, but by the time my eyes swept what I could see of the pavement, whoever the hell Jimmy Lee is when he's at home had taken hold of my ankles and started to yank on me.
"Let go of the ledge, you little brat! Let go, I said!" he yelled, moving his hands up to my calves for a better grip.
I let my body go limp, knowing that dead weight is a lot harder to handle, especially when you're balancing yourself on a flimsy stack of crates. Just as I suspected, Jimmy Lee didn't have a great stance to begin with and completely lost his footing as my body flopped down on to him. He rocked a bit and then fell over backwards while I used his momentum to flip forward, kick off of the wall and jump out of the way of the thug who ran forward to help his tumbling friend.
"Too bad, mes amis!" I called out, standing far enough away from any of the four of these guys to allow me a chance to look around and assess the situation. Now I could see Papa: he was being held with his arms twisted tightly behind his back by a thick-looking thug wearing an ankle-length coat and bandana tied pirate-style to the side. I could make out that Papa was struggling with the man, but the gorilla grabbed hold of Papa's long, red ponytail with his other big hand and yanked his head back real hard to make him stop. He couldn't have known Jean Luc if he thought that would stop him. Papa's head is too hard for that.
The man who was shouting the orders at Jimmy Lee was as wide as he was high. He dressed real nice--Armani, if I had to call it--from what I could see in the late night gloom, what with the fog rolling around us and all. Didn't catch his name. I think his men were careful not to give it. He never took his eyes off of me, to his credit, even when ol' Jimmy Lee was rolling around on the ground complaining about his back killing him because of his fall. I stood pressed close to the wall as if I could blend into the shadows while I tried to think fast what I could do to help Papa. Mr. Big Man wasn't having it, though.
"Don't just stand there! Get the boy!"
"Run, cher! You hear me, boy? Run!" Papa yelled, renewing his fight to get free. "Don't worry 'bout me--get you'self outta here!"
I couldn't leave him. As much as I was mad at him for forcing me into being a part of this, I couldn't just take off on him, neither. "Never forget family, Remy," he's always told me. "Family is the key." Why I even listen to him I will never know. He's never caused me nothing but heartache. Still...he's my Papa. He's more family than I ever had before he took me in. Gotta do what you gotta do...
I cut a beeline across from the building and hid behind a dumpster in aid of angling myself along the backside of the fight scene. I was lost to the enemy in the dank of night, cloaked by the steamy fog. By the time they'd caught a glimpse of me darting across the alley, I was again hidden in shadow. There were several possible objects they could have begun to check behind to find me, besides the dumpster: there were a couple of large bushes on the fringe of the neighboring parkway, or a small shack which probably used to house a night-watchman or guard but was now abandoned, or even the big man's big Cadillac car which was parked next to the shack. But the Big Man's patience was wearing thin.
"Damn no good thievin' Cajuns," he hissed, throwing a match to the ground after he lit a cigar. "Good for nothing Gypsy snake eaters, the lot of you," he added, turning toward Papa and spitting into his face. "You tell that bastard of yours to come out and bring the Emerald Lady to me or Mike here will turn you into a pretzel, and then we'll do the same to the kid for good measure. It's your choice, Frenchie. What's it gonna be?"
Papa's eyes closed, his head still being cocked backward by Mike as he firmly gripped his ponytail. He looked resigned to having failed. At this point he was probably more worried about not seeing another day than the thought of losing the Benefactress' hunk of jewelry, but knowing Papa, one could mean the same as the other.
"Come out, son," he eventually called to me. "Give them what you got in your pocket, boy." I knew Papa wouldn't bring me out into the open unless he had a plan, so I complied, slowly stepping out of the shadows into the space between the Cadillac Seville and the warehouse. My eyes burned like red hot coals in the darkness, causing the big man's henchmen to take a step backward in shock and fear. I swore I heard Jimmy Lee brown his trousers. Biggy, ruffled but still the boss, adjusted himself to the situation quickly, rallying to steady his men.
"Come here to me, you little freak job. Then your old man won't get hurt," Biggy said. "And don't try no funny business 'cause I'm not in the mood for it, twerp. These men of mine--they eat crap like you for breakfast, so don't get any ideas into that messed up little head of yours." Ewww. This guy sounded like he stayed up late watching them old Jimmy Cagney crime dramas on the classic movie channels, just so he'd have some criminal patter for times like these.
When I was within ten feet of Biggy, Jimmy Lee and the other guy crossed the alley and came over to me. Jimmy backhanded me to the ground while his buddy laughed quietly. Poor ol' JL was probably still pissed off about his back. Papa tried to wrench away from Mike again, but the big goon yanked Papa's arm up and twisted it so much that he lurched forward as a reflex.
"Get. Up," Biggy ordered me in testy fashion, and, presumably because I hadn't acted quickly enough to please his boss, Jimmy's pal reached down and hoisted me up by my left arm, nearly yanking my shoulder out of place.
"Hand it OVER, you little backwater dirtbag," he said, vigorously shaking my arm until I felt like I was tied to Tantie's old ringer-washing machine. It was then that I realized that the shaking was causing the necklace to slide past the spoon of my back, not a good thing since my tucked-in sweatshirt was no longer as secure as it was before I'd gotten caught on the window glazing moments ago.
Not pleased with the rough treatment to say the least, I yelled, "OK!" in Biggy's direction and dug into my front pocket. I grabbed as many of the nuts, washers and screws into my palm as I could, squeezing them tightly for as long as I dared to.
"TODAY?!" Biggy sighed, waiting for what he thought would be the return of his stolen property. At that, I tossed the bits of metal fasteners along the ground, some near the feet of Jimmy Lee and company and more in an arc between where Mr. Big stood and where Mike held Papa. The bits and pieces rolled, spun and bobbled and soon all came to a stop along the ground and under his car. They all did just what they'd been doing in the drawer for most of their existence: nothing.
"What the hell was THAT?!" Biggy yelled, a laugh caught in his throat. His men didn't wait for permission: they all started laughing hysterically.
"Where'd you get this stuff? Your kiddie kar fall apart on ya?!" Mike snorted, bending Papa's head backward until they were looking at each other. "Hey, man, your voodoo kid--he sick in the head or something?"
"Filthy swamp rats--they're all sick in the head," Biggy sneered, finally feeling that the jokes were wearing thin. "I'm going to take my time you're wasting out of your hide, kid," he warned, coming toward me and, in doing so, he stepped on a couple of the screws. He scraped the ground with his shoe, flinging some of the bolts both next to where Mike and Papa stood and also under his car and the dumpster nearby. "I'm not playing with you another second, you lousy, gator-eating thief," warned Biggy, waggling a chubby finger at me. "I'm going to make such a mess of you that your old man here will have to pick you up with a turkey baster."
"Non, we are leaving. Adieu, Monsieur," I bid Biggy, my face just as straight as a poker player's.
"You wish, you rotten little sh..." he replied, but that was all that he had time to say as the array of metallic objects I'd thrown before him began to go off with a deafening charge. The shock of seeing his boss fly backwards like an overloaded pelican caused Mike to let go of Papa abruptly, allowing the quick-witted Jean Luc to make a run for it. Jimmy Lee and his pal--the nameless wonder--were hurled into the wall of the warehouse as more chunks of hardware exploded under and next to them, and Mike, not to be outdone, slipped and fell on several screws which had, so far, only shown the power to be a nuisance, but which, upon contact with him, began to visibly build up energy and eventually blew up with enough force to make him bounce on the pavement and knock him out cold.
Grabbing me by the waist as he ran by, Jean Luc threw me under his right arm and carried me off like the winning football at a New Orleans Saints game. Just as we rounded the corner, rays of firelight flared from the area in which we'd stood only moments ago, followed by a loud explosion and then the amazing thud of a heavy object hitting the pavement.
"Pooooo-wooooo! Great gosh-a-mighty, child!" Papa cackled. "Must have had a full tank of gas in that there car, yah, Remy!"
Laughing hysterically, Papa stopped a moment to kiss me on both cheeks and on the mouth, scratching me with his unshaven stubble. "Time-delayed charges! How you do that, boy, heh?!"
I shrugged, looking a little guilty. "I...I don't really know, Papa. I guess I was just lucky."
"That weren't luck, boy," he said as he put me down to allow me to run to the truck with him. "That was what they call 'divine providence' working for you, child! Your patron, St. Remy--he was looking out for us tonight. You remember to light a candle for him when them nuns take y'all to Church tomorrow, you hear? He done good for us tonight, darlin'. Remind me to give you a dime for the candle before you leave in the morning."
Not long afterward, Papa and I were flying back along the I-90 towards Cajun Country, a feeling of relief engulfing the both of us. I pulled my arm into my shirt through the sleeve and reached around behind me to find the necklace and then inserted my arm back into the sleeve to push my hand and the piece of jewelry through. "Here it is, Papa: This is what all the fuss is over, ain't it?"
Grabbing the necklace from me, he secured it in the little gray swagbag he'd tucked into his breast pocket and then looked at me. "Yes, that's what the fuss is over, Remy. The Benefactress, this will please her. She sure gonna be tickled to see it, too. Got to keep her happy, you know. It means everything to our way of life, yes it do."
I knew his secretive relationship with Candra was important to him, but I've never been told exactly why he and the other Guild brothers spend their lives stealing riches for her, only to live like paupers themselves. But then, I'm sure it's something to do with the fact that Papa, Tante Mattie and the rest all look like healthy folks in their forties...when they were all born in the mid-to-late 1800s.
"How did those crooks back there ever manage to steal that necklace from the Benefactress, with all her fancy powers you told me about, Papa?" I asked, confused, since Papa had marveled that my strange abilities reminded him of the mystical powers of the Great Externals--immortal, god-like beings, of which Candra is one.
"I said that the necklace was stolen, Remy. Didn't say nothing about them stealing it from...from her. You don't need to know no more than that. You done good tonight, all the way 'round, child. I'm proud of my little boy, yeah. We gonna grab some food and then get on home." He'd done it again. He used me for his own gain. Figures.
Papa pulled off the highway and stopped at an all-night gas station that had a small market attached to it. He bought a big muffalata sandwich stuffed with strong-smelling meats and a couple of bottles of soda pop, as well as a bag of Beer Nuts to munch on during the drive home. Once back on the road, I kept looking in the side mirror, trying to see if we were being followed, but I couldn't see any headlights on the road behind us.
"Don't worry, Remy," Papa advised, reaching over to stroke the back of my head. "They ain't gonna be back there. Your Papa know better than to slip up like that, yeah. Besides, you done good 'cause you done painted them a pointer, boy."
I looked at him, puzzled at his remark. "What pointer, Papa? I didn't leave them with nothing but their ears ringing."
At that, he burst out laughing again, then allowed the moment to last before saying more. "Bebe', a pointer's what you leave behind to frame someone else for what you've done. You left a pointer fingering our rivals, The Guild Of Assassins, when you put li'l Belle's name on the glass pane. That means that with a name to start from, Crestford and his gang will get enough information off of the streets to lead them to the wrong 'stupid Cajuns.' That will take the heat off of us. Don't you worry, non, 'cause li'l Belle's gonna be fine. Her grandpapa'll see to that. T'ain't nothing that ol' Marius Boudreaux and the Assassins can't handle, thought I sure could pass me a good time watchin' him try, yeah!"
Papa laughed so hard that I thought he'd choke. He sure was having trouble keeping within the lines on the highway. Startled, I sat there, blank faced and brooding. I'd never intended to finger my sweetheart's family as the perpetrators of tonight's heist. No wonder Papa smiled so when he saw the glass.
When we got home, I was exhausted and so angry at myself that I could barely hold up my head. We sat together at the dinner table, with Papa using a big serrated knife to cut the muffalata sandwich in fourths and then served my half up to me with my soda. I was so upset about the pointer that I couldn't stand the thought of food.
"Eat you sandwich, cher," he directed. "It's all over and you done damn good tonight, Remy. The Guild brothers own you a debt of gratitude, too. Ain't much likelihood as to them showing it, but you just remember that: they owe you. The Benefactress, she sure gonna be pleased."
Like I cared. I'd just brought all of waterfront gangland down on my Belle's family and Papa couldn't be more pleased to have the Mob after his sworn enemies. At that moment, I hated him. I hated those men, even though I hoped that I hadn't hurt them badly...'cept for Biggy. I didn't like the way he talked bad about my people.
I hated myself for always being used by people I should be able to trust. Why isn't there a Commandment that says "Thou shalt not use helpless little children to commit theft or incite a crime wave?" Where's THAT Commandment? I've got to ask Sister Clare Marie about that. But then it'll be just like when I got swats with a ruler on my hand because no one would rat on the boy who was doing the talking. I asked her why she'd hit me when she knew I couldn't have been the troublemaker because the voice came from up front and I was at the back of the room holding my books, being punished for my own transgression: sleeping in class again. She said, "The good have to suffer with the bad, Remy."
"Then what's the incentive to be good, Sister?" I had asked her, puzzled by such a callous attitude on the part of someone who should be more saintly.
"There's no way around it, Remy," she said as she tapped her ruler against the inside of her hand. Then I was merely told to turn around and be quiet, less my punishment extend to another day. So much for Theology, grade school style.
Without a bite to eat or a word to Papa, I left the table, stopping only to put a saucer of milk down for my cat, Gigi. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Papa shrug and start into eating my share of the sandwich. When I was halfway up the stairs, I heard a faint, guilty-sounding, "'Night, son," but I didn't reply. 'Night...at 5:20am, and I gotta be up at 7:30am to get ready for school. Thanks, Papa. Not.
I roll up in bed now, still smarting from all the hurt from today. Only in Papa's world would we get up on Sunday morning, get all gussied up to go to Mass, sitting up all proud in the pew Great-Grandpapa Francois donated long ago when the bayou was new to him, and then spend the night committing a robbery and running like the devil be on our tails. It don't make sense--least ways, it wouldn't make no sense to someone on the outside. Like the way Papa treats me bad but says he cares for me. I figure he does...sort of...but it's hard for him to show it when it's at odds with the family and all he's got to do to keep the Guild together. I can hear him down there now, trying to work it all out in his head too, while playing a sad little waltz on that pretty little concertina his papa gave him back when he was a boy. That's how he says he's sorry, by playing me a lullabye that's as ancient as our people, as sorrowful as the bad parts of our history, but with just enough spark to be hopeful. It's in his music that I know he's truly sorry he hurt me, and though I don't really understand it all, right now...I guess it's enough.
Lying here thinking back on all that's happened, I have to wonder if it's always going to be like this for me, with me being pushed into doing things I hate for Papa's sake. I could run away, yeah, but to what? There's nowhere for me to go except back to the streets to live like a sewer rat again. And now that I know that the Guild Of Thieves controls most everything that goes on in those streets, there would be no point in going back there. I wouldn't be escaping Papa and his men. I'd just be in the same shape but without this creaking old bed. I really don't want to run away because...in spite of it all, I love Papa and I know he needs me. It's like Sister Clare Marie said: there's no way around it. I'm right about one and only one thing in life, sure as tongue can tell: life ain't fair, and no one will ever be better proof of it than I am.