SEX, LIES & DIAMONDS
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Cigar smoke filled the safe room at Jackson House. It was our regular poker night and as usual I didn’t trust anyone at the table to play fair. It wasn’t our way. Still, I didn’t want to bust anyone’s chops too much—at least not tonight. There were six of us at the table, each an integral part of the business—and business was damn good. Prohibition was in full swing and booze was my life. I was the biggest bootlegger south of the Mason-Dixon line and I didn’t have a problem taking out anyone who tried to snatch that distinguished honor away from me. That meant surrounding myself with the kind of men who didn’t have consciences—the kind of men who valued the importance of money over the importance of life. And for that, I made their lives easy. Very easy.
It was widely known I was the best in the business and I wasn’t to be trifled with. I didn’t like ending anyone’s life, but my liquor business was important to me—second only to my family. Besides, I’d never killed anyone. When you had money, you could arrange for that kind of thing. I knew there was blood on my hands, but at least it wasn’t on them literally.
We sold a good product and it was important to me to make my liquor genuine and for my people to be reliable. I bought all my bottles from an outfit in the Midwest. They were perfect imitations of real Scotch bottles. The liquor itself was made from Scotch malt that came to me by way of Canada and the Jersey shore, unlike the liquor that came into port in New Orleans via the West Indies—that we kept for our most prized and well-paying clients—and of course for ourselves.
One hundred barrels of Scotch could be cut into fifteen thousand cases of liquor using malt, flavoring, redistilled government alcohol and water. Today alone I’d acquired one hundred barrels. It was never enough to quench the thirst of the back alley speakeasies and apartment barrooms, and that was just fine by me. The more drinkers the better. I could stockpile as much as our secret warehouses could handle as long as I kept the law on the dole and the feds out of my hair.
Marty, a young man who’d recently moved up from gopher to runner was at the door of the safe room. Looking over my shoulder, I paused the poker game to tuck a royal flush into my chest. There was a pile of money on the table and I wasn’t about to give it up. “What?”
“There’s a John Drury asking to speak with you.”
Alphonso Balivino, my young right hand man and a hothead shot to his feet, knocking the table with his knee, causing the poker chips to rattle. “Drury? He’s got a lotta nerve showing his face here.”
“Sit down, Alphonso,” I growled. “Maybe he’s come to settle his account.”
“That’s the only reason that good for nothin’ son of a bitch should be here.”
I raised my chin to Marty and rolled my hand into my body, motioning for him to allow Drury entrance into the secret chamber of my home on Third Street in the heart of New Orleans.
Alphonso mumbled under his breath. “This better be good.”
I tossed my winning hand on the table with a labored sigh. “I agree.”
John Drury followed Marty down the staircase, matching him step for step a few paces behind. When he made it into the light, I could see he wasn’t well. Taking the cigar from my clenched jaw, I placed it in the ashtray set out for me earlier by our youngest houseboy, Oscar. He now stood in the corner of the room, keeping to himself. Drury stepped closer. I could tell by the desperation on his face he didn’t have my money.
“Mr. X.” He stammered and shuffled his feet. Truth be told, the man looked as if he might pass out. The dark circles under his eyes were only more pronounced by the pale nature of his skin. The shirt and pants he wore hung off his body, his coat draping over his skeletal frame like a wet rag. “Mr. X,” he repeated.
“I’m going to assume you don’t have the money you owe me, Drury.”
I watched John Drury swallow hard out of the corner of my eye as I stared a hole through Alphonso, keeping him in his place and away from Drury’s neck.
“You look at Kostas Xanthus when he’s speaking to you,” Al hissed.
Drury brought his gaze from the floor, squinting in the light when he finally caught my eye. “Not exactly.”
I shook my head. “That isn’t what I wanted to hear. I’ve given you more than enough time to get right with me and now you come here to my home, take up my time, and not exactly is all you have to say?”
Drury’s hands were shaking as he pulled a tattered and worn paper from his coat pocket. His eyes shifted from me to the other men gathered around the poker table. “Is there somewhere we can talk, Mr. X?”
I shook my head in disgust and stood, holding off Alphonso with my open hand when he took a step toward us. “I’ve got this, Al.” Pointing to the bedroom we used mostly for hookers, Drury walked ahead and I followed, watching his unsteady gait with concern. Not only was the man going to stiff me, he was surely close enough to death that I’d never see a penny of the hundred grand he owed me from running rum up and down the coast. I shut the door behind us and motioned to the sitting area.
Drury nodded his head to the closed door. “I won’t take up more than a few minutes of your time. I know Balivino is antsy to come in here and shoot me between the eyes.”
I stared at him without blinking and took a seat. What he said was true. There was no need to acknowledge it.
“I’ll get on with it,” he said taking a seat in the wingback chair across the small table from me. “I have an interesting proposition for you, Mr. X.”
“The only thing I’m interested in is the hundred grand you owe me.”
Drury dug inside his pocket. His feeble hands were as pale and bruised as the rest of him. I did my best to remain patient. The rash on his palms and open sores on his body told me he was in the last stages of syphilis. I smirked in disgust and shook my head. Another fool lost to the ravages of a hooker’s diseased snatch.
Finally freeing the small red bag from his pocket, he gently placed it on the table.
I raised one eyebrow. “What the hell is this?”
Loosening the strings on the red felt bag, I turned it upside down and allowed its contents to spill onto the table. “A diamond ring.”
“Not just any diamond, Mr. X.”
“It’s big. I’ll give you that much.”
“Four carats. Emerald cut. It’s called The Soul’s Eye. It was to be a gift from Napoleon to his beloved Josephine.”
The light overhead caught the stone and it nearly blinded me as I rolled it between my thumb and index finger. “Is that so?” I asked, not so convinced. “Even if that were true, what does this have to do with the hundred grand you owe me?”
Drury turned his head and coughed uncontrollably. The rattle in his chest was the sound of the Grim Reaper, coming to meet him—and soon.
“Oscar!” I shouted for the house boy who opened the door and presented himself immediately. “Get Mr. Drury a glass of water, please.”
Wiping his mouth in between gasps of air, I traded glances between the dying man and the diamond in my hand. “Say what you came here to say, Drury. I have a poker game to attend.”
He took the water from Oscar who quickly moved into the shadows of the room and waited for further instruction. Drury gulped it down as if he’d not had a taste of anything so wet or refreshing in days. Maybe he hadn’t.
“The diamond goes with this,” he said, presenting a yellowed and worn piece of parchment. “In 1841 a man named Henry Allock confessed on his deathbed to my great uncle—a priest.”
I held my hand in the air for him to stop. “Drury—I don’t have time—”
“Just listen to me, Mr. X. If you don’t like what you hear then you can tell me what to do because…” he paused. His sickly face and desperate eyes made me feel something I hated for any human—pity.
“Fine. Go on.”
“Allock was an old pirate—but not just any pirate, sir. He was one of Jean Lafitte’s men—the dreaded plunderer of the Seven Seas. This diamond, The Soul’s Eye, was part of a treasure that was buried by Lafitte and his men.”
I looked to the rock and back to him in disbelief. “You expect me to believe that this is part of Jean Lafitte’s treasure?”
Drury nodded. “When Napoleon was on the verge of defeat and a second exile, he wanted to remove the French national treasure from Paris and hide it. He commissioned Lafitte to take on the assignment. Lafitte smuggled part of the treasure out of France to be secured in the New World until Napoleon could be reunited with his wealth. Lafitte’s payment was one third of all the treasure illegally shipped from a port in the south of France to—”
Drury erupted in another coughing fit. This one worse than the first two. Wheezing, he took the last gulp of water from the glass. Oscar was quick to refill it and step away.
“Lafitte’s treasure is buried in here somewhere.” Drury nearly spat the words as he tapped his fingers on the paper, faded with age and frail from the many hands that had handled it.
“This is a great story, Drury,” I replied, opening the yellowed parchment to look at the map. “But that’s all it is. A story.”
A smile lit up Drury’s face like the sun rising in the east—slow and confident. “I figured you’d say that, Mr. X. That’s why I’m only giving this to you as collateral. When I find the treasure myself, I’ll come back, pay my debt and collect The Soul’s Eye.”
“You expect me to hang on to a rock and a piece of paper as collateral?”
“Mr. X, the diamond alone is worth—”
“It’s not worth a hundred grand, Drury,” I replied, cutting him off in a huff.
“It’s worth more than that, sir. It was to be a gift from Napoleon to Jos—”
“So you said.”
“Look, either you take the diamond and map as a guarantee and know I’ll be back for both of them with your money, or you kill me now. Because frankly, I don’t have anything else to lose.”
With deliberate pause, I closed my eyes. I didn’t believe a word Drury was saying, but the diamond was better than nothing. When a knock pounded out at the door, I put the ring back in the red felt bag and tied it, slipping it into my pants’ pocket and stood.
“Boss?” Balivino was back to check on me. To put the hurt on Drury.
“Yeah,” I replied without looking. I was too busy staring into the face of the dying man in front of me. Drury wouldn’t survive another couple of weeks, let alone a wild treasure hunt. “We’re finished here.”
I stood. Drury joined me, giving me a final nod before walking out of the room and past Balivino, knocking him in the shoulder.
“Watch it, buddy.” Balivino stared Drury down as he slipped through the narrow doorway without looking back. “Everything okay in here, Boss?”
I ignored his question and squinted at the faded map. I shook my head, skeptical that anything about it was authentic or true.
I faced my young confidant and crossed my arms. I didn’t want it getting out I was being soft on Drury after he stiffed me. “We’re good,” I replied, sliding the paper into my jacket pocket.
“Did the mooch pay up?”
“That asshole had the hundred grand?”
I gave Balivino a look of warning. “I said, we’re good.”
Taking my place at the poker table, I stared Balivino down and watched him slowly place his ass back in the chair opposite me, afraid to question a second time. “Oscar?” I called out. The tiny houseboy rushed to my side. Everyone at Jackson House had been taught to keep anything they heard to themselves. Oscar was no different. Leaning into his ear I whispered. “Did you see anything tonight?”
The young boy didn’t look at me but stared straight ahead, filled my crystal glass with whiskey and shook his head no.
“Boys,” I barked, patting the ring in my pant pocket. “The night is young and I intend to plunder and pillage. The name of the game is Five Card Draw.”