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       Madam Tellier's Lover (Part One of Three), p.1

           C.M. Blackwood
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Madam Tellier's Lover (Part One of Three)

  Madam Tellier’s Lover:

  Part One of Three

  By C.M. Blackwood

  “We dance even if there’s no radio.

  We drink at funerals.

  We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large

  And, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t.”

  – Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2016 C.M. Blackwood.

  A title of LION & LAMB Publications.


  No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.


  Chapter One: Monsieur DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast

  Chapter Two: Beulah Landon

  Chapter Three: The Making of Madam Tellier

  Chapter Four: The Invitation

  Chapter Five: Alphonse and Dora

  Chapter Six: The Dinner Party

  Chapter Seven: The Beach

  Author’s Note

  Chapter One:

  Monsieur DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast

  This is a story that began in New Orleans. The French Quarter, to be precise.

  Maybe you didn’t know it, but for over a decade now, Madam Tellier’s house has been the pinnacle of the Quarter. After the devastating hurricane that swept through the city, but which was kinder to the Quarter than to other areas, she inherited the remains of an old bed and breakfast from a Frenchman with a handlebar mustache.

  He telephoned her a few weeks after the storm, and informed her that he was a distant relation with business to discuss. She asked what sort of business it was, but he wouldn’t answer directly. He only said that it involved a certain matter at 145 Rue Frenchmen, and that she should meet him there. So, when the mayor re-opened the area a week later, she arrived to speak with the Frenchman.

  On Frenchmen Street.

  He was waiting for her on the sidewalk, standing with his face towards a building in the long street wall. The building fronts were like so many stained, uneven teeth in the mouth of an old woman who was particularly fond of black tea.

  There was little prelude to the opening of their conversation. The Frenchman simply looked her up and down, and gave a little huff.

  “I’ve lived in this damned sewer trap for almost fifty years now,” he told her, so agitated that he was practically shouting.

  Adrienne Rivet (that was her name, at the time) looked at him carefully, but was obviously unperturbed. She was, after all, a woman who wasn’t easily ruffled.

  She was thirty years old, and was of average height – but really, that was the only average thing about her. Her face was a fine Norman face, oval-shaped, strong yet feminine. Her skin was powder-white, even without the powder, and her cat-like eyes were the color of shining emeralds. She had her thick flaxen hair styled into a fashionable pixie cut, very full on the top and the sides, with a flawless front that ended just above her golden eyebrows.

  She watched the old man for a long moment. He was a very old man, more than eighty. He wasn’t very tall to begin with, and his crooked back didn’t help matters much, being bent in the shape of a weakened tree after years of wind and rain. His skin resembled that of a sailor’s, wrinkled like leather from too much strong sun.

  Which was strange – seeing as he’d hardly stepped out of the building in front of them, for the past fifty years.

  But, since Adrienne Rivet was unacquainted with the nature of that particular building, she merely raised her eyebrows inquiringly, and stared at the old man.

  Finally noticing how she was looking at him, the old man glanced at her, and began to laugh. “Ha!” he barked. “It’s obvious that you think I’m mad. No doubt you think this is a lovely little set-up?”

  He gestured towards the place he’d been scrutinizing so intently when she came to meet him.

  Adrienne looked to the tall, narrow building, and considered the question. Its front was practically untouched by the storm, except for one window at the upper right, which had been broken by a tree branch.

  There was a thin, towering birch that grew in the middle of the sidewalk, in the center of a hole in the concrete, surrounded by cedar chips. It seemed that it had grown angry during the hurricane, and had lashed out with one of its scrawny arms to attack the upper window. Even now, the branch was sticking through the window, bent in the middle as if it had an elbow.

  And then there was the roof, of course. Or, rather – there wasn’t a roof. It had been blown completely off.

  Other than these two inconveniences, though, it was a pretty little building. The façade was fashioned of light-colored brick, with white stucco trimming around the windows. The steps were made of faux marble, and the railings were painted white. The entrance consisted of a pair of lacquered cherry doors, with bronze handles.

  The building’s sign was very small, and was situated beside the right-hand door, with a little cast-iron lamp fixed just above it. The sign read “M. DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast.”

  Adrienne looked at the old Frenchman, and asked, “Are you Monsieur DuPont?”

  He laughed again: that same, harsh bark of mirthless laughter.

  “Ah, no!” he exclaimed. “I am Monsieur Debussy. DuPont was my uncle.”

  “But now you own the building?” Adrienne persisted, unimpressed with Debussy’s caustic manner.

  “Yes,” Debussy answered, more quietly now. “I own the building, and the business that is run behind its closed doors, every evening of the week.” He glanced at the vacant, ghostly edifice, and then amended, “Or, which was run, before the storm – and for one hundred years before that. Fifty with me; and fifty with my Uncle Henri.”

  Adrienne trained her eyes on the side of his drooping face, and said, “Is now the time I’m supposed to ask you what kind of business it was?”

  “Ah – no!” Debussy repeated. “Not was, Madame. Not is, either – but will be. After the repairs are made, and the new owner arrives, business must resume just as usual.”

  Adrienne looked at him sharply. She had played his game for a few minutes, wondering if there was anything to be gained by it. But now she was growing impatient.

  “You’ll forgive me for pointing out, Monsieur,” she said, “that I have no idea what you’re talking about. You called me to tell me that you are a distant relation of mine, with some mysterious business that has, even more mysteriously, something to do with me.” She raised one eyebrow, and gave him a piercing look. Then she added, “I think it’s time for you to tell me exactly why you asked me here.”

  The old man didn’t argue. He didn’t even make any disagreeable rejoinder. He just nodded seriously, and looked from Adrienne, to the building, and back again.

  “It was my intention to give this place to you,” he said bluntly.

  Adrienne couldn’t help the expression of shock that started over her face. Soon, though, her surprise turned to suspicion, and she narrowed her eyes at the Frenchman.

  “Why would you want to do something like that?” she demanded.

  Debussy refused to look at her. “I’ve been holed up in this place for half a century,” he muttered bitterly. “I’ve seen more blackness and sin than anyone has the right – or the responsibility – to see. I’m sick to death
of it.”

  He laughed quietly, and added, “But then – no doubt my death isn’t far off. This place has killed me. One foot’s in the grave already, and soon the other will follow after it.”

  As he stared at the old building, with a strange combination of hatred and nostalgia in his watery eyes, Adrienne thought it best to be silent. She wanted to ask him again what he was talking about, but she didn’t think he’d answer her.

  Finally, he shook himself, and turned to look at her. “It’s my belief,” he said, his voice having grown very loud again, as if he were making a very important declaration, “that I am your second cousin, twice removed. I am fairly certain, anyway. It could either be you, or a young lady who drank herself to death on the Rue Bourbon three years ago. But she’s dead, and you’re not, so I’ll settle for you.”

  Adrienne hardly understood why she asked the question, but suddenly she felt the desire to inquire, “Did you ever meet the other woman? The one who died?”

  “Once,” Debussy replied, with a grimace of disgust. “But she was far too slovenly to be the granddaughter of my own grandpapa’s brother’s son – so I quickly dismissed her. Cousin Edmond was an elegant man, very stylish and proper in all his ways.”

  He examined Adrienne carefully, and nodded in what seemed to be an approving manner. “But the name of Edmond’s wife was unknown,” he went on. “It took years of digging on my part. I suppose I could have missed the truth entirely, and I could be talking to a complete stranger right now, who has nothing at all to do with me or my relatives. But I’ll take that chance.”

  He looked desperate, all of a sudden. His eyes shone with a strange, weary light, and he reached to lay his hand on Adrienne’s arm. “I want to give the place to you,” he repeated. “Will you take it?”

  That dubious look had re-entered Adrienne’s eyes, and she was looking at the old man now, clearly wondering if he actually was mad.

  “What about the business?” she asked. “Will you explain what you meant?”

  The Frenchman cleared his throat with a mighty hem-hem, and scratched the top of his head.

  “It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. “People come for certain services; they are satisfied; and then they go on their way.”

  “And what might these services be?” Adrienne inquired, though she was already fairly sure that she knew. All in all, she suspected that the false advertisement of “bed and breakfast” might not be very far off. Well – excepting the breakfast, that was.

  “The kind of services many gentlemen find that they require,” Debussy replied plainly. “And a handful of women, also.”

  Adrienne looked him over with searching eyes. “I suppose this business is a thriving one?” she asked.

  The old man nodded.

  “It pays a handsome sum?”

  Another nod.

  “And you want to give it to me?”

  A third and final nod.

  At this point, Adrienne could have flooded the old man with a torrent of additional questions; but she merely pursed her lips, and looked back at the building. She wondered, of course, why on earth the old man would want to give the business away, when he could have sold it for enough money to live on for the rest of his life. He was very old, after all.

  But why ask any questions that would hurt her own prospects? If he wanted to give her the place – why argue with him?

  The truth was that she was in dire straits. She had never been much good at holding office positions (it seemed that she could never get on with either the supervisors or the employees), and she was just about at the end of her rope.

  For a few years, she’d lived with a wealthy woman named Beulah Landon. But then the woman died of a heart attack, and that was the end of that.

  Of course, there was nothing left for Adrienne in the will. It all went to Beulah’s demonic spawn, as Adrienne had known very well that it would.

  Last year she’d become a barmaid on Bourbon Street, and somehow, she’d managed to hold on to the position. The hours suited her, and her employer was strangely lax in his expectations. If she allowed him the privilege of watching her undress in the women’s locker room every fortnight or so, he remained content with her poor performance.

  She rented a room on a dark back alley, in a rundown tenement lorded over by a short, fat Italian with greasy shoulder-length hair. The rent was low, but the Italian had a bad habit of following her up to her room after her shifts at the bar. He had an even worse habit of trying to get into the room. She’d put a stop to it, by dropping a hammer on his foot – but the solution was only a temporary one.

  In a word, then, Adrienne didn’t miss a beat, before extending her hand to the Frenchman, and announcing, “I’ll take it.”

  His cold, hard manner suddenly evaporated, and he fell on Adrienne’s arm like an actual cousin who wanted to embrace her after a years’-long separation. It seemed, for a moment, like he might even drop to his knees in relief.

  “Thank the Lord above,” he cried, wringing Adrienne’s hand. “Why He would choose to favor an old sinner like me, I have no idea. But I’ll take my blessings with a grateful heart.”

  With these words, he pulled an old-fashioned iron key from his pocket. “This will open every door in the house,” he said. “Now it’s yours – and I wash my hands of it.”

  He released Adrienne, and made a symbolic motion of cleaning his hands, one against the other. But then he paused, and looked at Adrienne with what seemed to be an embarrassed expression.

  She frowned at him. “There’s something you haven’t told me,” she guessed.

  “Well – there is a small thing,” the old man said in a faltering voice. “Just a trivial matter.”

  “And what would it be?”

  Debussy put a hand to the back of his neck, and furrowed his brows. “Some years ago,” he said, “I found myself in financial difficulties. I was forced to turn to a certain – er, gentleman – for assistance. He gave me money in return for a stake in the business. A one-third stake, to be precise. Not enough to control it, but enough so that I couldn’t sell it without his permission.”

  He paused, scratched his head uncomfortably, and went on, “This man is not interested in selling. Since he came into the picture, business has more than doubled, and he wishes to continue on with it. I, however, want nothing more to do with it – so it leaves the question of the two-thirds stakeholder.”

  “Me,” Adrienne said, filling in the blank for him.

  “Yes,” the old man returned, still looking ill at ease.

  “But there’s more,” Adrienne observed.

  “Well – yes. This particular gentleman – my business partner – is not a handsome man. What’s more, his personality is rather beastly. He has never been able to find a wife.”

  He paused again, swallowed thickly, and added, “He requested that I find a female to take my place. Rest assured, you will still be the primary owner of the business – but – well, you must marry him.”

  Adrienne didn’t answer at first. She just looked at him, thinking carefully. Yet her face betrayed nothing.

  “I won’t agree to anything yet,” she said. “I want to speak to the gentleman.”

  Debussy nodded frantically. “Fine, fine,” he said. “I will arrange a meeting. Be here tomorrow at eight in the evening.”

  He turned away abruptly, and began to shuffle off down the sidewalk.

  “Will you be here?” Adrienne called after him.

  “No,” he answered, without looking back.

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