My novel, World's End, is finally available in a new paperback edition that includes material not in the original. It's set in World's End Parish, modeled loosely on Plaquemines Parish that sits between New Orleans and the Gulf. The old political machine there taught the Godfather and the district attorney of Orleans Parish a thing or two. (Please remember if you purchase through Amazon that the old hardcover version differs from the new one. http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-End-James-Conaway/dp/0989725561/ref=sr_1_5_title_1_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396611429&sr=1-5&keywords=james+conaway).
(The first of three installments)
(The first of three installments)
NECO'S WIFE, BEA, caught a cab and got out at Jackson Square, picking coins from her purse to pay the driver. She had not been to the Quarter in years and the new Artillery Park appealed to her: clean, people crossing safely to the levee to view the Mississippi. She went down Decatur, passed the Cafe du Monde, headed toward Esplanade. It was a beautiful morning, and she swung the leather handbag against the folds of her dress with a carelessness she didn't feel. Bea wore a straw hat with a scarf that she hoped would somehow make her less conspicuous but found herself appreciated by the usual sort of men — brash, and half her size.
She passed Tujaque's, then Cuccia's, and Ruggiero's. All those Italians. She paused on the pavement, in front of the Central Grocery and examined the window display: cans of scungelli, Cafe Bustello, olio Siciliano. She felt like she was in a foreign country, far from her suburban bungalow the only thing Bea recognized Zataran's crab boil. Neco had told her to search Decatur and the first blocks of Dumaine, St. Philip, and Ursulines for a room to rent. If she could not find one she was to go to a real estate office on Royal. He wanted some kind of view, he had said, of the French Market or the streets leading into it.
She noticed a man in a work shirt on a gallery high above the street, leaning on the balcony. The sign in the window downstairs said Rents and Bea stepped up and twisted the ratchet bell. A thickset woman in a robe and carpet slippers appeared, holding a kitchen spoon in one hand. Short gray hair stood out from her head, slat-like. She said, "No women."
"It's for my brother," Bea lied. "He's a golfer. You know, professional."
"Yeah? It's twenty dollars a week, in advance."
"Could I see the room?"
The woman led her through parlor with a television set on a metal stand facing a collection of stuffed dolls arranged on a threadbare sofa. The place reeked of boiled kidneys. "You have cats?"
"Hate cats." The woman climbed bare stairs and moved along a hallway lit by a single bulb. She unlocked a door with a key on a ring in the pocket of her robe, and stuffed the ring back inside. The bed sat at an odd angle to the wall, next to the wash basin. An electric fan rested there — the only convenience in a room that appeared too small to contain Neco Bovnik.
Bea went to the window and pulled the curtains aside. Beyond the gallery she could see the intersection of Decatur.
"Share the bathroom," the woman said. "And tell your brother... What's his name?"
Bea panicked. "Destrehan."
"Tell Mr. Destrehan no women."
Bea paid, received the key and went back down the stairs alone. Outside, she stood looking toward the river. People seated at tables set out on the sidewalk were drinking coffee or tall, cool mixtures of fruit juices, called Pimms Cups. She wanted to go there and rest, but knew better.
Late that afternoon, her old sky-blue Pontiac joined the traffic seeping through the Quarter. It crossed Burgundy, Dauphine, Bourbon, and Royal, rocking to a halt at each stop sign, then lurching forward, scattering pedestrians. She drove resentfully, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, Neco next to her in silence, sitting low in the seat. He wore dark glasses, a red golfer's cap, and a loose shirt stamped with a floral print that was as alien on him as a pinafore. Bea had bought the cap and Hawaiian shirt at a shopping center across the river, along with the golf bag of imitation leather and a few clubs which lay on the back seat.
Bea drove the wheels of the Pontiac up onto the curb and rocked to a halt. Neco pretended not to notice her agitation. He looked up and down the street, then got out and opened the back door. He took out the golf bag, and lifted a scuffed cardboard suitcase that was much heavier than it appeared to be. She slid across the seat to the open window and gripped the sill with both hands. He was impatient — just standing there was dangerous — but he reached down and awkwardly patted her hand. "Be seein' ya, Bea."
But something in his manner — the set of his mouth, a quick movement of a thick, hairy arm exposed by the outlandish shirt — cut her off. She slid back under the wheel and jerked at the gear shift.
"Now take care of yourself, Bea."
The Pontiac lurched back into the street. Neco watched it turn left into Chartres, as he had told her to do, then slung the strap over his shoulder, picked up the suitcase and headed toward Decatur, the key to the rooming house in his shirt pocket. The man he saw reflected in the windows was large, methodical, on holiday and about to T-off.
At the boardinghouse he unhurriedly fitted the key into the lock and opened the door. With one foot he slid the suitcase into the dim, musty hallway, glancing back to scan storefronts between him the French Market. Satisfied, he stepped inside and waited for his eyes to adjust.
A short woman with stiff hair stood in the stairwell.
"Destrehan," he said. "My sister rented the room."
"Oh, yeah. Top floor, corner. You got to register."
She fetched the book and he signed it on the banister, barely enough light to see. The sound of a television set carried out from the parlor.
"Where you gonna play?"
""What?" he asked.
"Golf. You gonna play out to Gentilly?"
"How is it out there?"
But Neco was already headed up the stairs.
The gallery on the third floor was exposed to the rooftops of the Quarter, and a forest of exhaust vents and crazy chimneys between the house and the levee. He walked toward the room at the far end, passing a man in work clothes leaning against his own jamb. He raised a plastic cup containing a dark liquid, no ice, a gesture of welcome. Neco ignored him.
His own room was small, as Bea had said, with bright green walls and an iron bedstead. A fan sat on the bureau, and he switched it on. The tiny blades jerked this way and that, in a futile effort. Neco dumped his load on the bed and raised the window shade on a view of two-hundred-year-old brick and a good shot of Decatur beyond the slope of the carpenter's-chisel roofline. He tossed the sunglasses and the golfing cap up beside the fan and slipped out of the shirt and carelessly hung it in the closet. Then he opened the suitcase.
It contained underwear, a shaving kit, a six-pack of cola, four cans of sardines, a box of saltines, a carton of cigarettes, and a Thompson submachine gun. He had taken out the two screws and removed the wooden stock before leaving his house, so that the gun fit easily among his other effects. He lifted it by the grip, like a large pistol, and placed it on the bed. He unfolded an oilcloth and lined up the six clips he had brought. Each metal sheath contained a dozen .45 caliber slugs, filed flat across the tips.
He dumped the food and the clothes into one drawer of the bureau and stowed the suitcase beneath the bed. He took the straight razor from the shaving kit, held the golf bag across his knees drew the blade lengthwise along the fake leather. It split neatly. Twice Neco measured the cut with the Thompson, twice he lengthened it. When the gun at last fit, muzzle down, he unzipped the ball pouch and stored the clips inside.
Ready for practice now, he lay the golf bag at his feet and drew the magnum out of his belt. He turned and pointed the pistol at his own image in the mirror. Without looking away, he reached down and slipped the Thompson out of the slit in the bag, placed it again across his knees, still without looking, unzipped the ball pouch and brought out a single clip. He jammed it into the breech and released the bolt, sliding a cartridge forward. Holding the wooden grip, he brought the muzzle of the machine gun up until he could see the reflection of an inch of worn rifling inside the barrel If he touched the trigger, the mirror would shatter and a dozen slugs shred the pasteboard wall and propel his boozy neighbor over the balcony and into the street below.
Neco unloaded the Thompson and repeated the procedure twice more. The last time he unloaded he ran his hand slowly over the cold metal. The Thompson had belonged to his father. He replaced it and the clips in the bag, and stood the bag in the closet, lit a Picayune and drew a chair up to the window.
(Next: Neco connects.)
(Next: Neco connects.)
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