Bloody October - Chapter 1

Friday, September 12, 1997
     To say that I knew John Devereux in those early days would imply that I understood him as I would come to, in time. True, I had known him and called him my friend for nearly two years by that afternoon. Much had changed after that first night on the road back from Baton Rouge. The man I had met in the corner of the dim nightclub wore clothes that I would charitably call “out of date.” His gray suits and parted hair bespoke of an office executive who hadn’t left the house since the 1960s. But, since making my acquaintance, he had purchased enough black clothes to outfit a funeral parlor. And, he, like me, dressed that way at night when we darted and dashed through the nightclubs and dive bars of the lower French Quarter.
     That early September evening, he wore one of his old suits, and looked every bit the part of someone wearing his grandfather’s clothes. When I called and woke him, I suggested he avoid dressing “the part.” He knew what I meant, but, speaking through the last haze of sleep into the phone, he wanted to know why. I only told him that I would explain in person. We met at the Rue Café on Magazine Street at around five. I suggested a table near the picture window that faced the street. With the sun’s light fading, but present, he reluctantly complied. I ordered two cups of coffee and returned to the table to sit.
     John rested his cigarette next to mine in the ashtray. The smoke and the steam from his mug rose in front of him, briefly clouding the space between us. His fedora rested next to my elbow. Through the great window to our right, I could see the end of the day’s traffic trickle by outside. The New Orleans summer had given way to the earliest days of autumn, in air if not in date. The cool weather had reached the city a few weeks earlier than usual.
     “These will kill me one day,” I said, picking up my own cigarette.
     “I’m just lucky,” he replied. 
     John winked as he took another drag. That afternoon, only minutes before, I’d put off quitting for another year. Part of me wanted to keep up with John’s appetite for liquor and the endless chain of cigarettes that he smoked. He lived exactly how he wanted to because he could. I sometimes tried, but I could never compete.
     “You could at least, you know, pretend to restrain yourself around me. Not all of us are like you.” As far as we knew, no one else was like him.
     “Jason, does it really bother you that much?” he asked. He held up the half-smoked butt for a second, and looked down at my own smoldering in the ashtray.
     “No,” I said. “I’m quitting next year.”
     “I suppose we’ll talk about it then,” he said.      
     “What are friends for?” I asked. 
     Before knowing me, my friend had kept his secrets well. He’d asked me to reintroduce him to the world, even if it only meant the bars, restaurants, and local characters near his house in the lower Quarter. His request seemed odd at first. But, I took it in stride and we took to the town, leaving an endless string of gothic bars, empty glasses, and smoked cigarettes in our wake.
After meeting me, we still kept his greatest secret. 
     But, word had crept away from us gradually—the “V-word,” of course—either through drunken half-admissions or his noted aversion to daylight. We never said it, but others did. Most people laughed at the idea, but a few believed it.
     “Sometimes, he comes out during the day,” I would argue. And when he did, he stank of sunscreen and always wore a hat. Nevertheless, he had been seen in the shops and cafés near his home often enough. That alone quieted the worst of the rumors.
Still, the stories swirled from his home on Barracks down the street and through the bars like so much music and smoke. It stood to reason, then, that a passel of corseted girls and would-be blood junkies hung all over him in search of the truth—and when he could make them like him. They ignored his denials and continued asking. He seemed to enjoy the company of the girls, but John had sworn off relationships decades before I knew him. His resolve eventually gave way, though, and his reputation as a minor lothario gradually emerged. The rumors enlarged a handful of trysts into grand affairs, replete with a vampiric super-villain, swooning heroines, and a supporting cast of lovable drunks and nightclub divas. As with the other stories about him, he largely ignored them. 
     I enjoyed the odd one-night-wonder myself, but I envied the ease with which John met women. I was rarely privy to anything more than the meeting, though, and certainly no particulars worth transcribing.
     Whenever I asked about the interim, before we’d met, he would only grumble
“Maria,” and wave his hand. I’d pieced together bits of the story—she’d died in the 1950s, but of what he would never say. I suspected cancer, but never asked. A few others might have come and gone remained alone for much of the past forty years—until he asked me to reintroduce him to the world.  
     “So, why did you get me out of bed at this ungodly hour?” he asked. 
     Without a word, I dropped the manila envelope I’d concealed in my jacket. The thick packet clattered to the floor beneath the table.
     “You dropped—” he said, as I shook my head slightly. “What?”
     I leaned across and lowered my face. John and I could read each other better than anyone, and he knew I meant to play it cool. He moved in, and his eyes gleamed cool and hard. He knew when to get serious, and it had kept him alive for a long time. I drew a yellow Post-It note from my breast pocket and passed it to him. “Read,” I whispered. As his eyes jetted back and forth, I heard his voice in my mind speaking the words.

 

     Pick up the envelope and hide it in your jacket. Go into the men’s room with the envelope and act like you’re using one of the stalls. Open the envelope and look at the pictures. Look at them for as long as you need to. She was one of yours. While you’re gone, I’m going to leave. Come to my apartment in one hour. Flush the pictures and this note. I’ve got more copies.

 

     John nodded. After only a second, he bumped his cigarettes off the table with a clumsy elbow. Leaning over to pick them up, he quickly shoved the envelope into his gray sports coat. Standing up, he walked to the men’s room and looked back at me for half a second. I jerked my eyes at the door next to him. He waited for a moment in front of a corkboard cluttered with advertisements for art galleries, concerts, and anything else you could imagine. I pushed my black glasses back up from the end of my nose. He nodded slightly and pushed the narrow wooden door open with his shoulder.
     With a handful of cocktail napkins, I dried the sweat forming on my bald head. I grabbed my jacket, my notebook, and my smokes and walked out of the coffee shop on to Magazine Street. The fading September sun continued its slow descent across the New Orleans sky, with Halloween just beyond it. In a city ruled by history and its dead, I knew that more of both would lie before us—me and John, the only real vampire I knew. 
     I walked between the cars waiting in traffic like nothing had happened—a lone man in black, crossing from one side of the street to the next.

 

***

 

     Let’s just get all this out in the open. 
     In a city and a decade full of people that wanted to be vampires, John was the only real one either of us knew of. We’d never met any others. According to him, he’d stopped aging at about thirty and started drinking blood. If he went without it, he told me, the hunger never ended. He’d even grown fangs. My friend was an accident of fate or nature or a trial experiment conducted by whatever you think of as God—a prototype or a pilot aired once and never spoken of again. As far as I knew, he’d just happened. And, though he needed to drink blood, he could—and did—eat or drink whatever else he wanted. He wasn’t allergic or opposed to crosses, silver, or garlic. In fact, he ate tons of the latter in the Italian food he frequently gorged himself on (and Mexican, and the piles of fried seafood and chicken available throughout the city). And, he gained weight from none of it. He really didn’t like sunlight, but it didn’t set him on fire. If he had to get up early for some reason, it took a dozen hits of the snooze button on his alarm clock. It’s not easy to wake up when your body tells you not to go outside until dark. 
     He was immortal, though he’d never tested the limits of that. 
      I met him at a bar in Baton Rouge, and then saved him from a car accident almost immediately thereafter. That was 1995, and I was a journalism student at a liberal arts college in New Orleans—a boy in black given away by grateful parents to academia. Two years later, that September, I was something of a journalist for the gamut of free weeklies that cluttered the coffee shops and bookstores of New Orleans. Editorials, humor pieces, movie reviews, and low-level muckraking—I wrote anything they asked, and submitted everything I could think of. It was all quick and dirty, written fast and for an easy couple of bucks. The editors called me “the holy trinity” because I was good, fast, and cheap. I’d never once asked for a raise or negotiated a higher rate. I’d earned a reputation as a guy that could fill a rag overnight, even writing under other names to disguise my output. 
     The gothic scene had taken over the American musical underground. I was part of it, but I had largely avoided writing about it. You can’t keep many friends if you write about their top ten most embarrassing bar moments from the night before. But, a perfect storm happened around that time, especially in New Orleans—one of vampire novels, horror movies, and a retro music movement of moody baritones, synthesizer beats, and macabre verses. 
     “Goths” they called us for short, though we were the least likely group to raise a sword against Rome or anyone else. It was hard to think of violence when you were too busy lighting clove cigarettes and examining outfits at vintage clothing shops.   
It was the perfect time for John to venture outside of his home, where he’d long secluded himself.
Ten years before, barely anyone outside of New York, Los Angeles, or London knew what a goth was or who the hell listened to Bauhaus. That band had broken up in 1982, when most of the current black-clad mob wore diapers. But that year, whispers of a reunion circulated through the bars and clubs, as the smoke from cloves mingled with beats by the Sisters of Mercy, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. 
     “Goth is Back!” all the music magazines said. I was right there to see it.
     Back then, they didn’t really have books with names like What is Goth? that explained the order of things. A Germanic barbarian tribe’s name was once insultingly appropriated for a style of medieval architecture during the Renaissance. The style of architecture’s name was kindly appropriated for a genre of supernatural literature in the 1800s. Then, the style of literature’s name was used to describe some horror movies in the early part of the century. Finally, the description of those horror movies was, in turn, applied to a bunch of moody British rock bands in the 1970s and ‘80s. Those bands and the handful of black-clad punks that preferred them over the Sex Pistols faded to ash grey amidst a few burning embers—whispers of secret nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles—until the early 1990s, when everyone realized they were worth keeping around. 
     I had always liked vampire stories and preferred black clothes. I didn’t just want to wear it. I wanted to live it. When I found the music that catered to that kind of thing, I knew which road I’d travel. My parents saw it too, and they begged me to leave home for college—LSU, Ole Miss, or anywhere else that would keep me out of the French Quarter for four years. I’d realize the error of my ways, they told me in so many kitchen table arguments over meals growing cold. They forcibly raised me Presbyterian, but what religious parent doesn’t assume their child will naturally fall in step, left foot first and head bowed? Loyola University New Orleans (a school driven by liberal arts and Catholicism) presented an acceptable compromise. Off I went, determined to become a journalist and tell the world all the true stories fit to print. 
     That’s why I’m writing about John. Whatever the papers, the police, the true-crime specials, or the rumors say now, he was my friend. I want to tell the truth. 

 

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© 2013 by Kurt Amacker