Chapter 1.

                                                                                        New Orleans, Louisiana



          The wild sensual laughter, scantily clad women, singing and dancing, drunken shrieks,

jugglers, bells, drums, brass bands, delectable aromas, explosion of fireworks and the delighted

squeals of children did not distract the wiry man ferreting his way through the throng of Mardi

gras revelers crowding Jackson Square. Masked, and cloaked to the ankle, he moved against the

flow of people parading down Chartres Street and up Royal. As he penetrated deeper into the

darkness of the docks and warehouses and heard his boot heels echo off the pier and skip across

the murky water he heaved a sigh of relief. He glanced back and smiled at his clever perception 

of the torch lit tide of humanity as strikingly similar to the coal black Mississippi River streaked

with oily, golden light from the fires along its shores. Most New Orleanians, certainly most

whites, would not dare go here at night, but this was his home and had been for so long that it

was one of the only places he felt safe. A big part of freedom is being allowed to protect oneself.

This he knew all too well, for most of his life he had a master. At least here he could do that -

protect himself. Such justice was swift and decisive and, well…suffice it to say that he was very

good at protecting himself.
          Occasionally, someone would pass in the shadows and the presence of danger would

tingle the snakelike, whip scars across his shoulders and back. His hand rested confidently on

the ivory handled Bowie knife in his red sash His gun was wedged warm and deadly beneath

his left arm in its leather holster. He almost hoped they would try something. But the human

denizens of darkness haunting the piers smelled danger like hounds of hell and moved on in

search of more vulnerable prey. After all, during Mardi gras there was an endless supply of

drunks to roll.
          Turning in at the dock where he was to meet his contact, he passed beneath the

Touchstone Warehouse and Dockage sign and stationed himself to wait impatiently behind a

stack of cotton bales two stories high. Not far from shore a steam ship hunkered, expelling

smoky vapors that merged with the low overhang of clouds approaching swiftly from the east.

The river gently sloughing against the dock and the occasional skitter of rats were the only

sounds interrupting the deathly stillness. Lightning lit the low ceiling of clouds as a tugboat

horn blew a long plaintive note.
          Recognizing the steady footfalls of the night guard echoing off the building like a

warning, he moved further into the depths of shadow. The guard, momentarily aglow in the gas

lamp attached to the warehouse atop the levee, passed by and turned the corner. Removing his

mask and shoving it in his pocket, he took out his gold watch and checked the time. He's late,

he thought, the arrogant, rich bastard.
          " Dezant? " a voice whispered.
          " Yes, dammit! Where are you Chellini? Must you always approach like a wharf rat? "
          A tall, thin, hatchet faced man emerged from the shadows pawing at his soup strainer

mustache. " It pays to be careful, " he mumbled.
          Dezant snorted contemptuously.  " Where's Touchstone? "
          " He'll be here shortly. "
          Dezant cursed bitterly. " I can't wait long. "
          Chellini shrugged. He knew Dezant would wait for the kind of proposal Touchstone had

to offer. To Dezant money was everything and the criminal food chain all he respected.
          Far out on the river an ocean going vessel slowly made its way downstream. Desultory

and dusky, it skulked along without lights - probably a smuggler. Chellini hawked and spat in

the river. There was a splash down river followed by the sound of rowing. Soon, a pirogue

containing two men appeared and glided to a halt beside the dock. The rower stood, tied the

boat securely and then steadied the boat as the other ascended the wooden ladder to the dock.

They advanced slowly with pistols cocked and ready. " Chellini? " a deep voice growled.
          " Over here, " Chellini replied.
          The approaching men were silhouetted against the sudden flash of lightning that lit the

river with blue-white light. The larger of the two beat out a hollow cadence on the dock with

the stump attached to his left leg. Thunder rumbled as they squared off with Dezant for the

first time. Hand shaking was way too close for comfort at this meeting. Introductions were

circumspect and perfunctory, weapons holstered but close at hand.
          The two men facing Dezant stood in stark, under different circumstances even comical,

contrast. Touchstone was immaculate and meticulously attired, uncommonly short, thin and

shiny bald. His eyelids hung deceptively at half-mast over pallid, emotionless, blue-white eyes.

The other, referred to as Patois, was huge and rough shod with alert, intelligent, hard

black eyes shining out of a head and face almost completely covered with short, thick, curly

silver-dusted, black hair that extended beneath his shirt like fur.
          Touchstone wasted no time on preliminaries. " Do you know why I asked you here? " 
          " Only generally, " Dezant replied.
          " Meaning? " Touchstone said as he raised his chin and sighted like a sharpshooter down

his aquiline nose.
          Derzant was never one for riddles. He glanced briefly at the river and said with a touch

of sarcasm. " I assume you are interested in hiring me for my professional abilities."
          The little man waited a moment, chewing at his lip and scrutinizing Dezant with his

reptilian eyes. " Have you ever heard of White Snake? "
          " The pirate? "
          Touchstone nodded.
          " Who has not? "
          " I'll take that for a yes. I want him destroyed. "
          Dezant was stunned for a moment. Most of his victims were petty thugs or political hits,

sometimes to even a score on the field of honor. His network was composed of enforcers,

collectors, pimps and stooges. He made most of his money working with Mickey Finn

shanghaiing unfortunate young men. White Snake was reputed to be a very dangerous and

powerful man with supernatural powers. Dezant recovered his wits enough to ask, " He’s in the

city? "
          " He is headed this way and will arrive by steamer in a week or so. His own ship, the

White Goddess, is hidden away somewhere down the coast. "
          " You want me to kill the White Snake? "
          " No. That’s not enough. I want him destroyed. All that is required is that you carry out

my orders to the letter. "
          Dezant scratched at his two days growth of beard. " How much? "
          " Name your price. "

          Dezant was confused by his own reaction. His hesitancy defied common sense. He never

refused work if the price was right. For some reason his deepest fears and suspicions had been

awakened by this man. He felt as if he was striking a deal with the devil himself. " I must think

on it, " he said.
          The larger man was set to pounce. Chellini backed away. The little man bristled and

hissed menacingly, " Monsieur, you already know far too much. Do not waste my time. I came

here for a yes or no answer. " Dezant was no fool. He took that to mean the man intended to

accept only one of the two responses and his own life hung in the balance.
          " Well, that is my profession. "
          " Shall I take that for a yes? "
          Dezant hesitated just long enough to preserve his remnants of professional pride before

conceding. " Oui. Oui. Very well. You have your yes. Now let's talk money. "