Okay, so we like Susianne Baptiste's work. Which, of course, is why she's both here and in our debut issue, making fine use of her running character Simone Broidveaux. Something to do with the way she paints New Orleans, or the way that candle wax drips...but we digress. Says Susianne of bringing Mike Logan to the Big Easy: "My hometown is a very unusual place, and I thought it would be fun to place the urbane Gotham-dweller in a city where the two main religions are Catholicism and Voodoo."
"Jingle, jangle, jingle, here comes Mr. Bingle!" The bed bounced in time to the singing. Although rudely awakened from deep sleep, Mike Logan kept his angry response to a minimal grumble and a cold-eyed stare. His girlfriend Simone was unruffled. A wreath of gold garland in her hair, she sang her odd little jingle while offering a plush, winged snowman of sorts -- Mr. Bingle, no doubt. Almost at once the exotic, delicious cooking aromas assaulted him as well as the sound of Aaron Neville crooning Christmas carols. "Joyeux No'l, cher," she bubbled, and kissed him ardently, giving him her tongue. She tasted sweet, of syrup and alcohol. He wasn't surprised; it seemed that New Orleanians were inordinately preoccupied with liquor. Perhaps that was their way of coping with weather, which was warm and insufferably humid, even at Christmas. It was, however, still preferable to the bleak, snowy darkness of New York City in winter.
"You sleep too late," she admonished, passing him a steaming, fragrant cup before lighting a cigarette.
The chicory additive in the local coffee was mellow, bitter, and somehow comforting. He managed to raise a salacious eyebrow. "You keep me up too late."
"Only because I ain't seen you in so long, me. You're lucky Toussaint gave me a couple days off, sugar. Folks are killing each other right and left in this town. Pretty soon, nobody'll be left except the poor people in the Projects and us cops."
"At least you wouldn't have to look too hard for suspects," he remarked with typical New York sarcasm.
"Ohhhh...kiss my grillades, you prick." She slid out of bed, leaving Mr. Bingle in her place. He admired her legs as she straightened her burgundy chemise. "You better be awake for the party tonight. Everybody wants to scope you out. I'm gonna go set the table."
"I thought you were the main course, Simone."
"Nah. I'm dessert, me."
For his visit, Simone decorated her small French Quarter apartment to the point of decadence. She even threaded purple and blue garland through the wrought iron of her balcony. It was the first time in many years that she even felt the need to acknowledge the holiday with more than a few drinks. Zeal for holiday celebrations had been absent from her life. Her partner's death during a routine drug bust four years ago left her with a bleeding, traumatic wound to her soul. A wound that, only now, was beginning to heal with the help of Mike Logan. A typical polytheist that passed for a Catholic in New Orleans, she thanked both the saints and voodoo loas that she took an assignment to New York to work the extradition of a local murderer. Otherwise, today she would be drunk and miserable, wishing that she had been first through the door that night in the Calliope Project.
Seeing the small, twinkling tree nearly swallowed by bright packages; the host of decorations in festive but questionable taste; and smelling the rich, seductive fragrances emanating from the tiny kitchen gave Logan a curious feeling of comfort, stability, and nostalgia. Simone Broidveaux was the first woman in ages who kept him interested for more than two hours. She had a tough vulnerability that he liked immediately upon meeting her. But it was her tenderness, nearly hidden in flamboyance, that touched him so deeply.
They sat together on the hardwood floor, surrounded by the sparkling detritus of discarded wrapping paper and half-opened boxes. It was scarcely noon, yet Simone had a large, frosty glass of strawberry wine at her side. A former undercover narc and Quarter native, it was her custom to drink at any hour. She tried on every piece of jewelry Mike gave her, wrapped her hair with the African scarves, and smothered him extravagantly with kisses of childlike sweetness. For a long moment, his cool green eyes studied her as she sat on the floor, wearing everything given her like a little girl playing dress-up. The strap of her chemise had slid down her arm, exposing a beauty mark on her shoulder, a dark blot against her magnolia skin. He wanted to convey his feeling for her with more than sexual overtones, but was unable and uncomfortable expressing his sentiments. Simone, however, had no such reservations. She gently touched the back of his neck and said, "I love you, baby," before getting to her feet.
The lavish table she set was a stark contrast to their casual attire. Simone turned down the speed of the ceiling fan before lighting the candles. The large, carved earrings Mike brought her from Harlem swung from her ears like Christmas ornaments as she fluttered around the table. Mirlitons stuffed with shrimp, plates of okra, black-eyed peas, and steaming bowls of gumbo were brought from the stove. Knowing that Simone was too unconventional to bake a turkey, he was nonplused by the platter of fluffy rice slathered with a tomato-based sauce she set before him. "That's sauce piquant, heart," she commented, which explained nothing. It was nonetheless spicy and delectable. Oddly, he couldn't discern if the main ingredient was beef or chicken.
"Aw, no, babe." She spooned the gumbo enthusiastically. "It's nutta." His dark eyebrows knit with puzzlement. "You know: nutria."
He felt like a hopelessly ignorant city dweller whose only contact with wildlife was an occasional dirty pigeon. "What's a nutria?"
Simone sopped up some sauce with a dab of French bread. "I reckon ya'll'd call 'em a swamp rat."
Horrified, he spat out what he was chewing. She'd actually cooked a rat? "Jesus Christ!"
His sudden outburst startled her. "What?" she asked fearfully. "Doesn't it taste good?" She followed him doggedly into her bathroom. She watched, aghast, as he stuck a finger down his throat to induce vomiting. "What's wrong with it? It's fresh! Toussaint just shot it yesterday!"
"It's a motherfucking rat!"
"Whoop-dee-fuckin'-doo. We eat gators, too."
"Serving rats is grounds for assault."
Simone had finished the dishes, but not her apologies. Not that she was unforgiven. She understood that the channeling of aggression, via verbal domination and punishment, was a precursor to sex. She rose on her bare toes to look him directly in the eye. "Mirandize me, then," she whispered huskily and turned on her heel.
It excited him when she outright dared him. He snagged her handcuffs and caught up to her in the bedroom. Roughly, he forced her arms behind her, snapping the steel around her wrists. A soft, trembling moan escaped her. His voice was a hot, seductive purr touching her ear as he recited Miranda to her. Her struggles were futile as she begged for a lawyer.
"When I'm through with you," he whispered against her neck. They stood at the foot of her bed. Mike urged her forward, bending her over the black iron rails. He pulled up her chemise and massaged her soft, hot skin. Her breathing was sharp with apprehension, anticipation. Simone then felt the delicious pressure of his weight against her back, his teeth grazing her nape with soft, yet feverish love bites. An erotic moan rumbled in her throat as he penetrated her, deep into her sizzling wet depth. As his hands greedily squeezed her ample breasts, he felt her skin become slippery from the heat and her desire. Darts of pain shot through her as his rough, urgent thrusts slammed her hips against the cold iron railing. Simone cried out as her body submitted to gratification, with her lover's fierce, relieved breathing heavy and humid against her cheek.
Mike gently stood her upright and held her quietly in a strong, protective embrace, with occasional kisses to her temple. At last, Simone turned her head up and captured his mouth in a warm, loving kiss more symbolic of their affections than their recent turbulent passion.
The ceiling fan spun lazily overhead, cooling and drying their freshly showered bodies. The room was redolent of incense and scented candles flickering on Simone's small voodoo altar. Wineglass in hand, Simone slid her bare foot with slow, enticing deliberation up and down Logan's leg as he talked to her about New York. She ran her fingers through his rich dark hair, hungering to lick the long, black lashes that fringed his expressive eyes. He flatly despised his new supervisor, a woman "barely qualified to write parking tickets." The job was becoming difficult, he said, because she was so incompetent. Changes like this meant, of course, that the NYPD was going straight to hell.
"You just don't like taking orders from a woman," she teased.
He licked his lips and flashed her a roguish grin. "Not always."
Simone leaned back against the pillows and kept her face impassive. "Go to the altar and bring me the red and pink candles." He hesitated a beat before getting up to retrieve the red votives, which he placed on the nightstand. He then climbed back into bed and laid back, watching her expectantly.
Simone straddled him, her small hands pressing and exploring his hard, silky body. She reveled in the strength of his muscles, could almost taste it on her tongue. Her breathless, husky voice began an erotic chant in a French-sounding language. Taking the candles in her hands, she twirled them slowly, drizzling the hot wax on his bare chest in a primitive heart pattern. Logan flinched as the wax pellets seared him, but moaned appreciatively at the sensations that followed the momentary stab of pain. Tightly he clasped Simone's thighs as she rubbed her hot wet sex against him.
She pried his fingers loose and slid down beside him. Her teeth and tongue caught his zipper, inching it slowly downward. She heard a sharp intake of breath and watched his hands curl around the bed railing. Her hands passed over the measure of his long legs, her sharp, pointed nails occasionally scratching him. Her tongue slipped up and down the length of his hard cock before taking it into her mouth. She sucked him in long, hungry strokes, as his hands pulled at her hair, his body moving in its own rhythm. A deep, ecstatic groan of pleasure tore itself from his chest. His grip on her hair tightened cruelly as he climaxed, emptying into her throat. Simone lay still, her jaws aching as she swallowed the sour, salty fluid.
A fine sheen of sweat covered his body. Simone dabbed some drops away with her tongue and then rested her head on his chest, listening to his heart slow to a normal pace. She felt his hands stroking her hair, her body; they were affectionate and gentle.
"You wear me out, Simone. I won't be fit to go back to work."
She took a long draught from the wineglass. "Thirsty, baby?" Without waiting for a response, she dipped her fingers into the wine and pressed them against his lips, into his mouth. He drew insistently on her fingers, licking the last drops of wine before releasing her.
"Another round, bartender," he rasped against the palm of her hand.
Simone sat up on her heels, skimming off the chemise. She painted the raised center of one dark rose nipple with wine and leaned over Mike, until the glistening, erect tip pushed against his lips. His hands encircled her waist as his tongue licked at her nipple, teeth scratching her as her soft animal cries urged him on.
He forced her onto her back, kissing her lips, her eyelids, his presence overpowering her. She was pinned to the mattress, his weight crushing her, the smell and taste of his body flooding her senses. In a reflex, her fingernails scraped down his back as he gripped her thighs, strong fingers sinking into her flesh. "Oh, my love," she whispered as he entered her, plunging deep inside of her. She bit down on the pain and pleasure, riding the blur of sensations, wishing it would never end.
The Kajun Klub, despite the dime store decorations and strands of lights, was a dive. Like most cop bars. Some bizarre comedy tune about the New Orleans Twelve Days of Christmas was playing repeatedly from the jukebox. Logan had never known people like this, these people who embraced a good time with their entire soul. Because he was with Simone, they all but embraced him as well. He was, however, uneasy with their show of affection and bewildered by their proverbial kindness to strangers.
Simone bubbled as she introduced him to a rough-looking man with acne scars, small, shrewd eyes, and a red bandanna. He was a relic of her Narcotics days, someone obviously dear to her, with a viselike handshake and a big Texas drawl. "Whar y'at, boy?" His name was Billy Joe, but Simone called him "Bad Moon." When she danced away for a moment to dispense holiday greetings to another friend, the wiry narc sized up Logan with an unnerving appraising stare. "Listen up, son. That little girl is precious to me. If you mess with her, I'm gonna fuck you up real bad." He drained his shot of Black Jack. Logan didn't know whether to curse or laugh. So much for the kindness of strangers.
For the most part, he liked her fellow detectives from Homicide and Vice. Although their accents could have come straight from Brooklyn, he found their odd phrases and occasional smattering of bastardized French difficult to understand. Yet they shared a sense of kinship and loyalty that was far beyond what he was accustomed to in New York. He could see immediately their dedication to their jobs, each other, and having a good time.
It was after 1:30 am, and the crowd had begun to thin out. A lithe black youth swaggered in, his clothes so oversized that it was amazing he could walk and not trip over himself. He ignored the stragglers and headed directly for the bar. "Yo, man, cough it up," he ordered, a small automatic appearing in his hand.
Before Logan realized what was happening, every patron of the bar trained a weapon at the youth's head with a barrage of clicks. The would-be robber's hands reached into the air, face masked with fear and confusion. A dark stain of urine spread slowly on his oversized jeans.
"I guess you didn't see the PANO sticker on the door, asshole."
"Sheeyit! If we call it in, somebody'll have to drag their butt out and do a shitload of paperwork. Not tonight."
"How about we just take this dude out back and beat the shit out of him?" This from Simone's Homicide Commander, Toussaint. "That'll teach him not to commit armed robbery in Orleans Parish again."
Simone giggled. Mike shot her a troubled glance. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"How about it, boy?" Bad Moon stared down the barrel of a nasty-looking Colt Anaconda. "You want to spend your Christmas in the hospital for fucking with some po-lice officers?"
"No, sir," the youth stammered.
"Take his gun," Toussaint said at last. "Somebody call him in and see if they's anything outstanding."
"Then we can kick his ass," Simone laughed.
Mike and Simone sat in her vintage blue Barracuda with the top down. They were in City Park, admiring the colorful lights and magical, fantasy decorations dripping from the oak trees. "Celebration in the Oaks," it was called. From toy soldiers to carousels, thousands of tiny lights and delicate wires brought the gifts of Christmas to life. Sensuous smells of rich earth and moldy oaks filled the night air. Except for the occasional animal chirp or distant ship's horn, all was peaceful.
"What the hell was going on back there in the bar, Simone?"
"Nothing, honey. Just a little fun. Don't be so uptight. You forget where you are." She rested her head on his shoulder. "I wish you didn't have to go back to New York tomorrow night." Her voice quivered. "I want you to stay here with me."
He touched her hair gently. "You know I have to go back, honey. I can't just walk out. I've been there too long."
"I don't like this, seeing each other every few months for a few days at a time. I don't like us being separated like this."
"Hell, Simone, I don't like it either. I thought we agreed to see how it went between us before we decided what to do."
"But don't you like it here?"
He hedged. "Well ... yeah ... from what I've managed to see other than your bedroom." Truth told, he wasn't sure what to think of this city of slate and neon, of its staunch Catholicism and its wallow of hedonism. "When are you coming back to New York?"
"Whenever I can get time, I guess. If people stop killing each other for five minutes."
"And you're always telling me how dangerous New York is."
"Fresh air still beats Times Square. Could we be sitting out in Central Park right now and be safe?"
"That's a trick question. If we were in Central Park right now, we'd be dead of exposure before a mugger ever got near us."
"Nah. Just put on that new sweater I got you by Maison Blanche."
Mike rolled his eyes. "Why is everything you buy or wear either strange or purple?"
"Why's everything you wear boring?" Her arms around his waist tightened. "Don't leave me. I'm gonna miss you. I love you."
He supposed that what he felt for her was probably love, yet he couldn't bring himself to say it. As much as he wanted Simone in his life, he didn't want his life to change. "I know, baby, I know." He kissed her softly, holding her close to fend off her tears. Until daylight they remained in each other's arms, the fantasy land of Celebration in the Oaks around them. Nothing, reflected Logan, could have been a greater gift.
"Christmas In The Oaks" is excerpted and abridged from Wild Magnolias, also by Susianne Baptiste.
artwork courtesy Monika Hoex