Rich DiSilvio

The MASQUE

By the looks of it, Victor Laveau literally had it all.

Victor was tall, dark, and not just handsome, but almost unworldly gorgeous. Some townsfolk in New Orleans said it was due to his unique mixture of French, Italian, Native American and African American roots.

Ever since a child, Victor had been adulated profusely: whether by his teachers—who marveled at his almost angelic, sweet face—or by his classmates—the girls swooning as he strut by them, while the boys wished desperately that they had his magnificent, good looks. In fact, many called him Adonis.

However, now at thirty-two years of age, Victor had come to a startling realization; his stunning good looks had been the bane of his life. As he grew older, many people were either too intimidated to approach him, or those who did soon tired of him, as the praise and entitlements he had received for his sterling good looks quickly waned when the blaring reality struck them: namely, Victor’s only asset was his pretty face. In essence, Victor was a blank slate. He had rested on his lovely laurels his whole, lazy life and never excelled at anything: not school, where he graduated second-to-last in his class; not sports, where he was always the last one picked by his team mates; not the math or chess clubs, neither of which could he figure out; and not even the most basic trades could his inept fingers master.

Dejected and living alone in a small house on Dauphine Street, Victor Laveau was at least fortunate in death—that is, after his parents had died in a car accident twelve years ago he was left with just enough money in the estate to maintain the house and feed himself. Otherwise, Victor’s meager salary of a hundred and ten dollars a week—being a part-time groundskeeper at the local Saint Louis Cemetery—would have hurled him into his own grave.

However, as Victor sat on his dead parents’ worn-out sofa, looking mindlessly at the Kardashians, his eyes suddenly lit up! An advertisement about the upcoming New Orleans Mardi Gras splashed on the screen, impelling him to sit upright. Having been lost in the numbness of depression for months, Victor had forgotten all about the carnival, or even the Mystic Knights of Adonis parade, which offered him the rare opportunity to flaunt his beautiful face. However, Mardi Gras was the only day each year that truly stimulated his dead and lonely heart, as he could hide his beautiful face behind a masque and not be shunned by the townsfolk, who had chosen long ago to ignore or disparage him. It was Victor’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card—at least for a day.

Therefore, the TV ad struck Victor like a taser; Mardi Gras’s famous Fat Tuesday was three days away, on February 28, 2017! Victor leapt to his feet and dashed to the mirror. He gazed at the graceful lines of his face: the perfectly chiseled chin, the full luscious lips, the thick head of black hair, the smooth tan skin, and those magnetic blue eyes that had melted many young women’s hearts in the past, at least for several minutes, until they realized they were speaking to a pepper-head—colorful outside, hollow inside.

As Victor stared at himself, he knew he had to think of something different this year. Last year’s cheap plastic mask had only covered his eyes, and the townsfolk had mocked his chintzy costume, calling it “dull and boring”, while Thurston Harrison, the town bully, had even ripped it off his face and crushed it with the heel of his army boot. Not that Thurston was ever in the army, as his only kills were of little animals that he liked to torture or maim first.

Victor stood by the mirror for twenty minutes, frustrated that his mind was blank—creativity never being his strong suit, nor was anything else.

“Damn it, Victor! Think!” he growled at his dazzling reflection. “Sometimes I think you’re dead already!” Angrily, he pivoted away, but suddenly stopped and turned back toward the mirror. “Dead. That’s it! A skeleton!” Speaking to himself as if to another person, he continued, “Oh, Victor, Victor, never mind a cheap plastic masque, I’ll paint you up so completely, they’ll never be able to see an inch of that beautiful skin of yours or be able to pull it off!”

Elated with his novel idea—or so he thought—Victor dashed out to buy face paint. Two days later, when the day arrived, Victor woke up early, ran to the mirror and started to paint his face. He dipped the paintbrush into black paint and splashed it all over his supple skin, closing his eyes one at a time to make sure he covered his eyelids. He waited ten minutes until it dried, then with a fine sable brush, he dipped it in white paint and drew in the bony mandible, cheek bones, and remaining skull on his forehead. He smiled, happy with his creation, and darted out the door.

With a prideful bounce in his step, Victor pranced several blocks to the heart of the French Quarter. As he strolled down Bourbon Street—bustling with people, some laughing and others drinking alcohol—he could smell the spicy Creole food in the air, while his eyes scanned all the fancy and bizarre costumes. He was waiting for a barrage of compliments, but it suddenly hit him; his novel skeleton idea was not so novel. In fact, it was painfully common, as hardly anyone acknowledged his presence. Worse still, was the menacing thunderclap that rumbled down from the heavens, while storm clouds gathered and unleashed a deluge of rain.

Victor dashed to gain cover under a fancy wrought-iron balcony and came smack up against a large picture window; his handsome reflection staring back at him, for the rain had washed away his skeletal paint, leaving only a few gray streaks. As others also squeezed under the balcony for shelter, several townsfolk noticed him, as one quipped sarcastically, “Nice costume, pretty boy Laveau!”

While the meanest of the lot, Thurston Harrison, chided, “Go home, Laveau…you Adonis reject!”

Victor cowered from the assaults and retreated back to his house. Heatedly, he slammed the door, then marched up to the mirror and barked, “You screw up! You damn, no good, screw up! You make me sick!” He grabbed his handsome face with both hands and squeezed it, then twisted it, as if wishing to rip his skin off to reveal the real skeleton underneath.

Adverse to pain, Victor’s fingers let go. He stared at his now reddened face and wept. He walked in a daze and slouched into his parent’s old worn-out sofa. Dejected, he shook his head as his tear-filled eyes inadvertently landed on his father’s bookshelf. He pinched his eyes tight—to eject the tears—then reopened them to see the spine of a book, which read: The Life of Maria Laveau: The Voodoo Queen.

Victor was not much of a reader; in fact, not a single book had he opened in the twelve years since his parents died. Even then, they had only been Marvel comic books or a Doc Savage novella.

He reached over and grasped the book. He leaned back and read through several pages, reminding himself of his mysterious ancestor Marie, who had become the most famous practitioner of Voodoo in New Orleans, and perhaps all of America. He had never paid much attention to her, or the rumors of her special powers, as he viewed Voodoo as a joke—or rather, a bad joke. As far as Victor was concerned, it was childish gibberish. He often laughed at all the people going to the Marie Laveau Museum in town, and thought they were all lunatics, as he recalled what one old newspaper had said about her: namely, Marie was “the notorious hag who reigns over the ignorant and superstitious as the Queen of the Voodoos.”

Being a part-time groundskeeper at Saint Louis Cemetery, Victor was also well aware of how Marie’s mausoleum attracted thousands of curious visitors each year to adorn her tomb with flowers, spiritual artifacts, pentagrams, and offer prayers, expecting her to return from the dead, or at least vanquish the evil spirits that haunted their lives.

However, as Victor now sat on the sofa and read through the pages, he could feel his brain’s amazing transformation: the rust of self-pity was slowly dissolving, as a surge of confidence now cleansed and awakened his senses. The stories of Marie’s startling abilities he now found intriguing. He never knew that her craft, which many from all stations in life sought, combined African Voodoo with Roman Catholicism. Three hours later, he slid the book back into its slot on the shelf, and resolved himself to studying hard over the next year. His goal: to make the most unique masque New Orleans had ever seen!

Over the ensuing months Victor read books on woodcarving, metal sculpture, glassworks, and consumed the illustrated books of famous fine artists: yet not those who painted realism, impressionism, or abstraction, but those who explored the cosmic horizons of the imagination, such as Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, Frank Frazetta, H.R. Giger, and others.

For months he sat at the dinette table with paper and pencil and drew hundreds of sketches of strange masques. Yet none, he felt, were bizarre enough. He gazed up at the calendar: he had four months until Mardi Gras. Yet it suddenly struck him: he was thirty-two and would be thirty-three on the day of the next Mardi Gras—the same age that Jesus died. Moreover, the festival happened to fall of February 13! With his new awareness and reverence for spiritualism and superstitions, he now had reservations; would he, at 33, die on the 13th? Or be crucified, figuratively speaking, somehow?

Victor grasped a cup of hot cocoa and sat pondering these ominous thoughts as he sipped and stared into space for several minutes. Then he slammed the empty cup down and picked up a pencil, sketching one masque after another: altering the shape of the lips here, the eyes there, or replacing a commonplace feature with something more unnatural, yet always keeping a fine balance of maintaining a somewhat humanoid face, one that was ugly, yet artistic. Then with a final stroke of his pencil, Victor smiled. He was finished. He created the winner!

He dashed down the street and purchased a variety of materials and tools at Mel’s Hardware Store, and then set to work. Diligently, Victor grasped a large piece of pinewood and a chisel, and carved the skeletal framework, then used clay to mold the droopy cheeks and eyelids. He fired up the small rented furnace and formed the two penetrating, glass eyeballs with cat-like pupils. Carefully, he shaped several nuggets of bronze into talons, which he placed on the masque’s ugly cheeks and head. Next, he pulled out his scissors and cut up purple silk fabric to form an odd bat-like drape that he hung between the nose and mouth. For the final touches, he whittled oak to form its sharp little teeth, and even used white Styrofoam to craft an egg, which he placed on its head. The egg, Victor believed, symbolized his long-awaited rebirth, a rebirth that would soon occur through the mystical power of his masterpiece—his ugly masterpiece. For Adonis would at last find fame and fortune via deformity.

With the last-minute touch ups of painting the needle-like teeth white and the droopy cheeks magenta, Victor stood back and admired his ugly, artistic masterpiece. A huge grin enlivened his handsome face. Victor hadn’t felt so alive and confident in all of his useless life, and he eagerly set about slipping into a pair of black pants, a black shirt, and black shoes. There was no need, he knew, to bring attention anywhere else; his unique and ugly masque would unquestionably command the scene, as it would dominate everyone’s attention and garner the admiration and respect he so desperately craved and deserved. 

Adrenaline ran through Victor like nitromethane through a dragster, with all pistons firing at high octane. Excitedly, he slipped the ugly masque over his handsome face, bolted out the door, and raced down the streets. As he arrived at Bourbon Street, he slowed down to a proud and steady beat, as onlookers gasped and gaped in awe. Youngsters recoiled in horror and clutched their mothers’ skirts or fathers’ arms, while adults of all ages marveled at the bizarre apparition.

Underneath that ugly masque, however, Victor’s gorgeous face beamed with delight, as crowds flocked around him, offering high praise or bulleting him with questions, as one man asked, “Oh my God! Where did you buy that masque? It’s fantastic!”

 “Thank you, good sir,” Victor replied. “But, this masque is unique. It can’t be purchased anywhere.”

Meanwhile, a mother, whose scared daughter clung to her hip, inquired, “Dear Lord! Did you make that?”

“Yes, ma’am. I most certainly did. It’s one of a kind.”

“It’s grossly… magnificent! Yes, hideous, yet oddly appealing somehow.”

Victor cordially thanked her and all his admirers as he continued to strut through the crowd like a movie star: adulated by fans, yet oddly enough, ugly as sin. He couldn’t get over it; the reactions were as bizarre as his masque. Nevertheless, Victor savored the moment as if Lord Voldemort—ugly, but wildly popular.

But as Victor turned the corner, his heart began to race; the moment he had waited for arrived, as Thurston Harrison pushed his way through the crowd and approached him. Victor gazed through the huge glass orbs of the masque, waiting anxiously for his obnoxious neighbor’s response: did he recognize him or not?

Thurston shook his head in amazement. “Damn! That’s gotta be the coolest mask I ever laid eyes on!” He reached into his backpack filled with beers and ice, pulled out a Corona and extended it to the eerie specter before him. “You look like Death itself. I’d be honored if you’d have a drink on me.”

 Victor hesitated; he seriously wanted to pour the drink on him, but then he thought of Marie Laveau and her Voodoo/Christian powers. What he had learned was that they weren’t sinister spells, as many sought Marie out to heal the sick, enhance their lives with positive vibes, or exorcize evil spirits. Victor shrugged his shoulders. “Sure, why not, how could I refuse anyone who honors me?”

Victor grasped the bottle and slipped it through the large gap between the masque’s nose and its mouth: the mouth being located a foot below the nose by a thin skeletal bone and sat at the middle of Victor’s chest. Locating his real mouth, Victor took a healthy swig.

As the minutes rolled into hours, more and more people gathered around Victor in awe and walked along side him down Bourbon Street. As they paraded among the city’s unique French and Spanish Creole architecture, the sounds and smells of its world-renowned music and Creole cuisine filled the air. Meanwhile, out-of-towners and his once nasty neighbors all bought the sensational masquerader one drink after another: a Budweiser here, a shot of Jack Daniels there, a Corona, a Heineken, and so it went.

Victor Laveau was in a state of euphoria. This Mardi Gras was the pinnacle of his life. People from all walks of life praised him and asked all sorts of questions:

“How did you make the masque?”

“Where did you get the idea?”

“Could you make me one?”

Surrounded by an adoring mob, Victor gave out autographs, posed to take pictures with fans, and even offered his phone number to a few people who had an interest in having masques designed for next year’s gala. One entrepreneur, Nick Marcello, pushed his way through the crowd and handed Victor his business card. He leaned toward his ear and whispered, “I’d love to partner up with you, or at least license the design for my fledgling costume company. We can make millions!”

Victor was on cloud nine, as he stuffed the card in his pocket and winked. “I’m rather busy right now—” he glanced at the card, “Nick. But I’ll call you.”

As admirers pushed and shoved Victor deeper into the frenzied mob, Marcello tipped his hat and weaved back toward the parade.

Meanwhile, many hours passed as Victor drank one complimentary drink after another. His bloodshot eyes rolled to the sluggish sea of suds in his head as 4 AM rolled around. Victor bid his new friends good night, and staggered homeward. Ossified and disoriented, Laveau lost his bearings and proceeded to wobble through a series of dark alleys, while whistling or singing silly songs along the way. Regardless of the slurred speech and butchered lyrics, Victor was elated—he did it! He was a success.

†††

Victor woke up, disoriented, as he lay on his back in a strange alley. He gazed lazily upward at the dawn sky, only to see a towering figure standing above him. The mysterious shape blocked the sunlight and cast a shadow over his bewildered face.

Victor squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust and focus on the dark blue silhouette above him.

 The policeman finally spoke: “Get up! You’re under arrest!”

Victor blinked hard and shook his head, causing the sea of suds to crash into the side of his skull, creating a pool of pain. Slowly, he sat upright, holding his throbbing head, as he uttered, “I’m s-sorry for loitering, officer. B-but, must you arrest me? It’s M-mardi Gras, for Christ’s s-sake.”

The policeman pulled out his pistol. “I said, get the hell up!”

Another officer approached. “Is this the dirty bastard you radioed me about, Jim?”

Victor’s head recoiled. “Dirty b-bastard? Me?”

“Yeah, you! You prick. Don’t play dumb,” Jim spat, losing his patience.

“I d-don’t under-sstand,” Victor said with his lazy, liquored tongue. “What’s t-this all a-about?”

Jim’s partner shook his head. “Come off it, asshole. I was told you were caught red-handed.” He glanced at the masque lying next to the drunkard on the cobblestone alley. “And there’s your ugly masque that my partner told me about.”

Jim added, “And we have a witness, too. You’ll be toast, soon enough, Laveau. So, get your ass up, so I can cuff you.”

With that, Jim kicked Victor’s shoe, while his partner read Victor his Miranda rights.

Victor looked over, grasped his masque out of the gutter, and wobbled up to his feet. He gazed at officer Jim. “How’d you know m-my n-name?”

“Never mind, Victor. We know everything.”

“If that’s s-so, then do you m-mind telling me w-what you’re arresting me for?”

Jim’s lips twisted as he glanced at his partner. “Don’t you hate it, Bob, when these dirt bags play dumb?” He looked back at Victor. “Let me refresh your Ale-ing memory, Mr. Lowenbrau. You murdered Mel Thornton, proprietor of Mel’s Hardware Store.”

“What!?” Victor shrieked, as adrenaline rushed to his head. “That’s im-ppossible! You have t-the w-wrong guy. I s-swear.”

Jim shook his head as he once again looked at Bob. “When the hell will these idiots come up with new lines?” Cringing like a whimpering child, Jim mimicked: “You have the w-wrong guy. I s-swear. I’m innocent, officer, really I am, I swear!” He looked back at Victor. “Guys like you make me sick, Laveau! I knew Mel, he was a seventy-four-year-old gentleman and respectable businessman in our neighborhood. Then a punk like you comes along and caps him. For what? To steal a hundred and forty dollars from his register. Is that what a man’s life is worth to you?”

Victor was still zonked by the alcohol, but now felt nauseous. He listed toward officer Jim, then vomited—the vile chunky liquid jettisoning out of his body and splattering Jim’s trousers and shoes.

“Ah, shit!” Jim bellowed. He looked at Bob. “Cuff Linda Blair, while I clean up.”

Bob whipped his handcuffs around Victor’s wrists and walked him to the squad car. Victor wiped his soiled mouth on his shoulder, and again pleaded, “I’m t-telling you, officer. I d-didn’t do it. I w-wasn’t even t-there. I s-swear!”

“Sure you weren’t. By the smell of your breath, Victor, I’d say you could have been anywhere and not remember. But the party’s over. You killed Mel Thornton. And, an eyewitness saw you, who happens to know you. So this is a pretty open and shut case.” He placed his hand on Victor’s head and carefully lowered him into the backseat. “Now I advise you to shut up and enjoy the ride.”

With that, officers Bob and Jim drove Victor down to the precinct.

†††

Three weeks later, Victor was sitting in a courtroom before the Honorable Judge Loren Baker. At Victor’s side was his appointed court attorney, Jacque Pardue, who sat shuffling papers in his disheveled, hand-me-down suit.

Meanwhile, District Attorney Bill Burgess had grilled the only two character witnesses Pardue produced. With his flair for melodrama, Burgess had chided them for having defended a murderer and drilled into the jurors’ heads that officer Jim Kelly’s report was substantiated by an eyewitness.

Jacque Pardue had only half-listened, as his daughter’s first birthday party weighed heavier on his mind than this oddball, whom many local citizens had eagerly testified against, citing his strange reclusive lifestyle and grave-digging fascination as evidence of a warped mind. The rookie attorney looked at Victor and whispered, “Listen, Victor, Louisiana carries the death penalty. So your life rests in your hands. Take the stand. Get up there and defend yourself!”

Unwittingly, Victor rose from his chair and approached the bench. He swore on the Bible and confidently took the stand, eager to settle this with the truth, once and for all.

Burgess, who was as rotund as Orson Welles and feisty as DA Jim Garrison, wasted no time and went on the attack. “So, Mr. Laveau, as I clearly stated for the court, the events that occurred at Mardi Gras on February thirteenth were that, you fashioned a ghastly masque, which garnered great attention.” He glanced at the jury. “I’d like to expand on this first part of the exposition, because it’s quite important.”

Fixing his piercing brown eyes back on Victor, he continued, “After all, with your infamous Voodoo ancestor being Marie Laveau, and your bad luck occurring on the thirteenth, I’d say bad luck is a family trait. Isn’t that so, Mr. Laveau?”

Victor gazed at Burgess, who appeared to resemble a bulldog and, evidently, bit like one, too. “No. Allow me to correct you,” Victor said with poise. “Actually, sir, I was told that the alleged murder occurred at six-thirteen in the morning, on February fourteenth.”

Burgess snarled; he rarely made such mistakes, but opted to press on. “Whatever. The point is: you walked into Mel Thornton’s hardware store that morning, wearing your custom-made Voodoo mask, asked him for all his money, then went to open his register. In response, Mr. Thornton rightfully pulled out his licensed revolver, which he kept under his counter for such occasions. However, you wrestled it out of his hands and shot him!”

Turning toward the jury, he elaborated, “Yes, Victor Laveau shot and killed Mel Thornton. And for what? A measly one hundred and forty dollars. Then he ran out the door. Yet the drunken murderer collapsed in an alley, only to be caught by officer Jim Kelly, who, moments before, had been alerted to the crime by Clara Parker’s scream, who had witnessed the murder.”

“That’s not what happened!” Victor blurted, losing his patience. “I wasn’t even in Mel’s store!”

 “Mr. Laveau. Clara Parker—your neighbor for twenty years—just so happened to walk in the store that morning. She saw you! In fact, you bumped into her on your mad dash to flee the scene of your cold-blooded crime.” Burgess’s lips curled. “So, how do you explain that?”

“I can’t, sir. Because I don’t remember being there.”

“Ah!” Burgess exclaimed, as his eyes widened. “How convenient. You don’t remember. Do you have an alibi? A witness, perhaps, who saw you elsewhere that morning?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. But I don’t remember because I drank an awful lot that night. Evidently, I blacked out.”

Burgess laughed. “Yes, evidently,” he said while glancing at the jury. “Like I said, how convenient. But the fact of the matter is, Clara Parker did see you, and, at that moment, you weren’t lying in the alley blacked out, Mr. Laveau, because you were in Mel Thornton’s store. It’s also a known fact that you work as a part-time groundskeeper and gravedigger at Saint Louis Cemetery, making only a hundred and ten dollars a week. So by your standards, the hundred and forty dollars you made on that one morning was a killing—on all accounts! Right, Mr. Laveau?”

“Wrong! Mr. Burgess.”

“Allow me to piece this all together for you, Mr. Laveau. You had the motive: the need for money. We have the weapon, with your fingerprints on it. And we have an eyewitness, who not only saw you, but knows you, Mr. Laveau. There isn’t a single piece missing in this puzzle. Not one!”

Victor cracked his neck and huffed. “Wrong, again. There are two pieces missing! First: I don’t need money; I inherited my parents’ estate. So there’s no motive. Second: as I told you, I blacked out because it was Mardi Gras. Many people got plastered that night. But I’m not a drinker, sir. So, I admit, it knocked me for a loop.” Victor leaned forward.  “How could someone in that condition do anything?”

Burgess shook his hefty head. “Mr. Laveau, I can believe you’re not a drinker if you don’t know the full effects of a blackout. It doesn’t necessarily mean a person is out cold. A person can fully function: they can talk, walk, dance, drive a car, almost anything. However, they’ll have no recollection of those activities when they regain consciousness. Hence, the term blackout!” Burgess cracked a subtle smile; knowing he now had Victor right where he wanted him, as he said, “Therefore, let me rephrase it for you. Is it possible that you did it, and don’t remember?”

Victor didn’t bat an eye. “No!”

Burgess squinted; it wasn’t the answer he expected. “Why is that?”

“Because I’m not a killer, sir. I wouldn’t hurt a fly, never did. And there are plenty of them buzzing around the cemetery.”

Burgess rolled his eyes and gritted his teeth. He needed to lure him into answering correctly, and he should have had it by now. “But, since you couldn’t remember, Mr. Laveau, is it possible?”

Victor bit his lips as he thought it over. “Well, anything’s possible, I suppose. But—“

“Thank you! That’s all, Mr. Laveau!” Burgess exclaimed as he buoyantly pivoted around with the grace of a three-legged elephant. Facing the jurors, he straightened out his Luca Falcone 3XL suit and said, “You heard it from his own lips—anything is possible. You saw and heard all the evidence: the motive, his need for money; the weapon, the pistol in Exhibit A; the eyewitness, who, without a shadow of a doubt, saw him; and the testimony of police officer Jim Kelly, who arrived on the scene and found Victor Laveau lying in the alley with his hand-made Death Masque: the one-of-a-kind face-mask that Laveau wore when he held up Mel Thornton’s hardware store and shot him dead for a hundred and forty dollars!”

Victor went numb, as if his whole body were injected with Novocain. He tried to speak, but couldn’t, as Burgess looked at the jurors and hammered the last nail in Laveau’s coffin. “Furthermore, my fellow citizens, it’s imperative that you recall the ten character witnesses at the outset of this trial. As they clearly stated, they have known Victor Laveau anywhere from ten to thirty years, and all agreed: Victor Laveau is, and always has been, an odd ball: a loner, an unstable recluse, often sullen and prone to depression, a deadbeat obsessed with the occult. This child relative of notorious Voodoo worshiper and black-arts queen, Marie Laveau—who even crafted the most bizarre and hideous masque that New Orleans, nay, possibly the world has ever seen—obviously has pure evil in his DNA.”

Burgess pulled out a hankie and wiped his fat, sweaty forehead, then walked up to the jury box and placed his meaty paws on the railing. Leaning forward, he said, “We even found Voodoo dolls in his home, which you saw in Exhibit B, and presented several neighbors who accused him of casting evil spells on them. Why? Because they allegedly spoke ill of him… him, Victor Laveau: the weirdo, the wacko, the warlock! Who wouldn’t speak ill of him!? This menace to society, this crazy cretin, this vicious murderer!”

He pointed heatedly at the defendant. “Victor Laveau must never be allowed to walk the streets of our good city, or stalk its innocent citizens, ever again!” Burgess’s bulldog eyes scanned each juror’s face. “As such, it’s imperative that you find Victor Laveau guilty of murder on all accounts and request the death sentence!” He paused for added effect, then concluded, “Remember, my friends, the only way to rid us of evil…is to terminate evil!”

Victor sat mute and paralyzed with shock. He couldn’t believe the vile and scary picture painted of him. He was painted to look like some hideous alien being by this H.R. Giger of DAs. It was terrifying, as he barely managed to glance at his attorney, who sheepishly buried his head into his case folder and feigned being busy.

As the jurors were instructed to leave their seats and deliberate, Victor sat dazed and holding his throbbing head. To his further dismay, it was only fifteen minutes, when the jurors returned. In horror, Victor listened to the final verdict as a lump welled in his throat.

“We find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder,” said the head juror.

Victor felt nauseous, as the Honorable Loren Baker declared, “Victor Laveau, judged by your peers, the State of Louisiana has found you guilty of first-degree murder. And having witnessed first-hand your refusal to admit your guilt amid the overwhelming evidence presented, I duly sentence you to death by lethal injection.”

Victor keeled over and vomited.

†††

Laveau was carted to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in West Feliciana Parish. Surrounded by the Mississippi River on three sides, some called it the Alcatraz of the South. However, most simply called it Angola, being that it was built over the Angola Plantation that used to import its slaves from Angola, Africa.

Dejectedly, Victor sat in his cell, on tier F on Death Row. He couldn’t believe the chain of events that brought him to this dank and dingy pit, nor could he believe that he killed Mel Thornton, even if he were blacked-out. He sat on his metal bunk staring at the cement floor as his hands gripped his ailing head. With a grunt, he tugged on his hair. How could I have done it? his mind squealed. I knew Mel. I bought all my crafting tools from him. Bought them, not stole them. He shook his head. I don’t need a lot of money, never did. This doesn’t make sense.

He released the tight grip on his hair, then squinted. And what exactly did Clara Parker see that morning? He sat upright. She said she saw me. Yet, I was wearing the masque. So she didn’t really see me. So whom did she see? He scratched his chin. As Mr. Burgess would say, isn’t it possible that someone took my masque while I was blacked out in the alley, killed Mel, then returned it to me… to frame me? Victor gritted his teeth. Christ, I was the perfect stooge, a scapegoat!

†††

Three days later, Victor clutched a piece of chalk and crossed out another box on the calendar, each daily box getting closer to the one with the big red X, marked for D-day, or April 23. It was April 5 and the prospect of death weighed heavily on his mind.

However, three days ago, Victor had called Nick Marcello, owner of the fledgling costume company. They had become friends since Mardi Gras and Victor asked him for an odd request: specifically, a piece of hair or a possession of each of the four people who were at the crime scene, those being, Clara Parker, officers Jim Kelly and Bob Hansen, and the corpse: Mel Thornton.

Nick had at first thought Victor was jesting or had gone insane, but soon changed his mind once Victor explained his transformation, which had occurred over the past year while studying his great ancestor Marie. It had not only opened Victor’s eyes but also his senses and abilities to otherworldly dimensions, aspects of himself that he never realized he had. Nick readily conceded, especially since Victor’s trial and conviction had made headline news across the nation, while interest in Victor’s “Death Masque”—as it had been dubbed—had skyrocketed. That Nick would become his partner—or at least acquire licensing rights to the masque if he helped Victor prove his innocence—significantly boosted his motivation. Added to Victor’s request was that Nick should bring him the four Voodoo dolls he had made during the trial and kept at his house.

Nick walked toward Victor’s cell with the box—which had been x-rayed and physically inspected by security—and handed it to him.

Victor grasped the parcel eagerly. “Thank you, Nick. This box is a life saver, literally.”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know how you can be so sure, Victor. Me personally, I don’t believe in this whole Voodoo nonsense. I just like the money I make from selling ugly masks and crazy costumes. But your partnership offer, or licensing deal, lured me into this crazy scheme.” Nick sat on the bunk beside him. “As you requested, I managed to get samples from each: I followed the two officers to Starbucks and swiped their empty coffee cups; I intentionally bumped into Clara on the street and asked her for two fives for a ten; and I happen to know the owner of the funeral home where Mel was waked, so getting a sample was a piece of cake—or rather, a piece of hair.”

Victor chuckled. “That’s fantastic, Nick. You did good.”

Nick peered down at the four Voodoo dolls. “S-sooo what exactly do you plan to do with… them?”

Victor smiled. “Each one, once pinned with the specific trinket that you collected, will become a spiritual representation of the corresponding person. As I mentioned, over the past year, I’ve studied and practiced Voodoo, and just recently I’ve unleashed the powers within me to see visions and connect with people through these dolls.”

Nick laughed. “Yeah, I get it. Just like in the old movies, like Comin’ Round the Mountain, when Lou Costello and Margaret Hamilton have a hilarious fight by sticking pins into Voodoo dolls of each other. You’re a real laugh and a half, Victor.”

“Okay, if you say so. But it’s not so funny. At first, I didn’t believe it myself, but I suppose I just have the right DNA for it.”

Nick’s grin withered. “So, you’re serious?”

“I am. After all, I am a Laveau.” Strumming his air-guitar, he added, “Like Jimi Hendrix said, I’m a Voodoo Child. Lord knows I’m a Voodoo Child!”

Nick managed to chuckle as he shook his head. “Well, for your sake, I hope so.” He patted his thighs, anxious to leave, being uncomfortable in a prison cell. “Well, if you need anything else, give me a call. You know I want you exonerated as much as you do. Right, potential partner?”

Victor smiled. “Sure I do. And not potential, just impending partner.”

Nick twisted his lips and shrugged, not convinced. He got up, embraced Victor, then called for the guard, who escorted him out of the prison.

No sooner did Nick leave, than Victor eagerly pinned officer Jim’s paper coffee cup to one doll, officer Bob’s cup to another, Clara’s five-dollar bills to another, and Mel’s hair to the last doll’s head.

He picked up Mel’s effigy and stared deep into its two round beads for eyes. He touched its head, rubbing Mel’s hair as he closed his eyes. Willing himself into a deep trance, Victor pressed the Voodoo doll against his forehead, melding his consciousness with the transcendental mysteries of Mel’s departed spirit. For twenty minutes he sat gently rocking to and fro with the doll pressed tightly to his head, when suddenly a dim flicker of light appeared in the darkness of his mind. A faint dreamy vision slowly materialized. As Victor intensified his concentration, his whole body began to quake as images flashed across the theater of his mind, when, suddenly, he was jolted awake by a shocking image!

He pushed the Voodoo doll away and gazed at the crude effigy of Mel. He shook his head and wiped the sweat off his brow as his heart raced. He couldn’t believe any of it; the fact that he had such a powerful vision and, more astoundingly, what he saw.

Victor rubbed his pulsing temple as his mind reeled: Did I really connect with Mel’s mind through his spirit? Or was the vision I just saw a fabrication of what I wanted to see? He scratched his head. No! That’s not what I wanted to see, I had no expectations. And dear God, that image! That damn image!

He turned his gaze toward the Voodoo doll of officer Jim Kelly. “You son of a bitch!”

†††

Over the next three days Victor embraced each of the three remaining Voodoo dolls, focusing all his energies on one effigy per day. With his eyes closed, Victor had communed telepathically with the two police officers and eyewitness, whereby he received vivid images about their recollections of that fateful morning. Victor was mortified at what he saw, and once he organized all four separate visions in his mind, the entire chain of events fell into place and played like a live video, which Victor now saw vividly:

At 6:05 AM that morning, officer Jim Kelly walked into Mel’s Hardware Store. “Good morning, Mel.” He said with a sardonic bite. “You’re three months behind.”

Mel’s eyes bulged; he didn’t expect Jim so early. He wanted to dash out the back door, but it was too late. “Listen, Jimmy, you gotta give me more time. I’ve been hit hard with my wife’s oncology bills, and I—”

“I don’t care to hear your bellyaches, Mel. We all have problems, and if I let every one of you whiny weasels off the hook, where would that put me?”

Mel nervously edged his way toward the counter and discreetly slid his shaking hand underneath. As he spoke, he opened the drawer. “But you make a good salary, Jim, and you make a pretty penny off of every business owner in town.” A bead of sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Moreover, you’re a cop for Christ’s sake, you’ll have a great pension once you retire in a few years.”

Mel placed his gnarled hand on the pistol; he was well aware that Jim had brutally battered Hamid—the Dunkin Donut’s owner next door—for being two months late, and Mel had enough. Especially that the love of his life was slipping into the next world, Mel had little left to live for and wasn’t about to swallow anymore crow from a rat bastard like Jim Kelly.

Purging his fear with raw vengeance, Mel spat, “I have no pension, and pretty soon no wife. So, you can eat shit, Jimbo!”

Mel pulled out the pistol, but Jim had already observed the old man’s nervous tell signs and lunged at him. Before Mel knew it, he was on the floor wrestling with the agile cop. Jim manhandled the pistol out of Mel’s hand and rammed it straight between his eyes. “You dirty ol’ piece of shit! You have the balls to try and kill me!? Well, eat this!”

With a pull of the trigger, the gun recoiled with a pop as a chunk of lead bore through Mel’s forehead into his brain. The ghastly sight even ruffled Jim as his senses rushed back into his hothead. He looked around to see if anyone was present, but he was the first one to stroll in that morning. He darted to the front door, locked it, and flipped the “Open” sign around to “Closed”, then pulled out his private cell phone. As he punched the speed dial for his mistress, he shut off the store lights.

“Hello? Clara?”

“Uh, yeah, Jim,” she said with a yawn. “What has you calling me at this early hour? Is Janet on to us?”

“No, no, just listen. Hurry over to Mel’s Hardware Store A-SAP!”

“What’s wrong!? You sound terrified.”

“I can’t explain, but… oh, shit, I really messed up this time, sweetie. Just get here, fast!”

Clara was well accustomed to her lover’s hot temper and penchant for fighting, and, by the sound of his frazzled voice, suspected he had really done it this time. “I’ll be right there, sweetheart. Don’t worry, we’ll clean this mess up, somehow.”

Fifteen minutes later, Clara stepped into the store and into a world of bad, as her eyes bulged at the bloody corpse on the floor. “Oh, shit!”

Jim was still wiping the blood off his face with a paper towel. “Tell me about it!” He glanced down at the body. “This old piece of shit tried to shoot me.”

Clara sighed. “Well, then it was self defense. You have nothing to worry about.”

Jim shook his head. “Well, the thing is…I c-can’t say a word about this.” He stammered. “You see, I was sort of squeezing him for dough, and—“

Clara’s pretty face wilted. “You stupid imbecile! Why? Why would you need to do such a thing?”

Jim snarled. “Don’t give me your Mother Teresa bullshit, Clara! You have expensive tastes: for jewelry, clothes, cuisine, and all those designer bags I pissed away my money on. And don’t forget how my wife and three kids suck me dry. I need the extra cash just to keep up with all of you. You’re all killing me!”

“Killing you!” Clara retorted with piercing eyes. “You mean you killing innocent people!”

 Jim pointed adamantly at the body. “We don’t have time for this nonsense, we have to do something with this heap of shit, and quick.”

Clara gazed at the wrinkled old carcass lying in a pool of blood and closed her eyes. Irritably, she shook her head and huffed, then, as if the Mega Millions winner, her eyes opened as she looked up at Jim. “I don’t believe it, but today’s your lucky day.”

Jim snarled. “Lucky, my ass. Cut the crap! Do you have any ideas or not?”

“Yes, I wasn’t teasing you. In fact, I have an excellent idea.” Her face and body became animated. “On my way here I saw my loser neighbor, drunk as a skunk, in an alley, out cold.”

“Yeah? So what?”

“So, run there, you big lummox, get his finger prints on the pistol, then get back here ASAP and toss it on the floor next to Mel. The drunken fool is even wearing a masque, so it will look like a hold up.” As Jim’s face began to beam, she added, “I’ll keep a look out and make sure no one comes in.”

Jim leaned over and kissed her. “You’re the best!” Eagerly, he wiped the gun clean with another paper towel as Clara briefly explained the weird tales about her weird neighbor, who was now lying in an alley, two blocks away.

Jim darted out the door and, ten minutes later, returned. He placed the gun on the floor and looked at Clara. “Ok, witness, go home. I’ll call you later. Love ya!”

As they exited the store, they kissed and parted ways, as he made his way back to the alley to arrest Victor. He radioed his partner, and minutes later, officer Bob arrived on the scene; an innocent pawn to Jim and Clara’s sinister scheme.

†††

Sitting on death row while these vivid images rattled his head, Victor sprang up and summoned the guard, who escorted him to the phone. He called Nick Marcello and, once again, asked him to do some legwork: namely, call the two eyewitnesses he’d seen in his vision who saw Clara Parker leave her apartment at 6:15 that morning. Which happened to be two minutes after Mel was killed.

Nick drove the two witnesses to the police station, where they were duly questioned. Clara was brought in, and it didn’t take long for her to break down. Clara revealed the entire plot, partly due to a burning incentive: Jim had broken off the affair, fearing their relationship, if discovered, might implicate them, not to mention the fear that his wife Janet was on to them.

On April 21, Victor Laveau was sitting in his cell, gazing nervously at his calendar. It was just two days before D-day. The guard appeared, pulled out his keys and opened the cell door. Nick walked in.

“Well, I have bad news, Vic.”

Victor’s worried face turned pasty white.

“You’re a free man!” Nick bellowed. “You got the governor’s pardon!”

Victor sprang up and shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” He gazed back at the calendar and tore it off the wall. He ripped it into shreds and threw the pieces up, like confetti. With a luminous grin, he turned and hugged Nick. “Thanks for all your help, buddy!”

Nick smiled. “No problem, partner!”

†††

The sensational story hit the news and Victor Laveau became a national celebrity. He opened his own Psychic Voodoo Shop in the French Quarter, where he enhanced the lives of thousands by his prescient advice, while also solving criminal cases for the New Orleans Police Department.

People from all over the world flocked to see him and take photographs with the stunningly handsome psychic, who had also acquired a wide network of friends.

Victor and Nick Marcello became partners in their new joint costume venture and earned seven figures in the first year alone, selling Victor’s exclusive designs, with the best seller being a forgone conclusion: namely, Victor’s wildly famous—and uniquely hideous—Death Masque.

Celebrating their first anniversary of success, Victor sat at a lavish table, full of the finest gourmet foods, in his new mansion along with Nick and a cadre of friends. With a grin and a warm heart, Victor stood up and embraced Nick. As he did, his eye caught a glimpse of his famous Death Masque on the wall, causing him to reflect on the strange chain of events; for, quite ironically, unlike King Kong, where beauty killed the beast, here a beastly masque had brought beauty and joy into his life. With a toast and good cheer, Victor and friends laughed and enjoyed a glorious evening, being just one of many.

 

From SHORT STORIES IV: Fantasy & Sci-Fi by Rich DiSilvio (Coming 2019)

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