I land the crop duster on a makeshift dirt runway that lies on the edge of an old plantation some sixty-eight miles outside of New Orleans. The white antebellum structure with its dark green shutters, wide lattice windows, and ornate wrought iron railing has seen better days, but in this setting with the sprawling grounds surrounded by moss-covered age-old oaks, it’s quite picturesque.
The large pillars of the house come into view as I climb from the cockpit, but I focus on the veranda spanning the entire front of the structure. Even from my position a fair distance away, I can make out the feeble frames of the men and women sociably lounging on thick padded wicker furniture.
And therein lies my problem.
Le Milieu roughly translates to mean “The middle,” or in this case, the middle ground, is the organization I was born into. One I was trained to lead, the same one I plan to bring into the twenty- first century, come hell or high water.
Sixty years ago, these seven people inconspicuously sipping tea on the porch at sunset were a force to be reckoned with. New
Orleans had never seen anything like them in over three hundred years of its existence. Honestly, I doubt it ever will again. History has shown there’s no honor among thieves , but mix a little self- interest with a dash of loyalty and you’d be surprised at the miracles you can work. Many want the New Orleans territory because of its strategic location. Its aquatic thoroughfares offer the perfect routes for shipping, receiving, and old-school Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. style smuggling.
Many contenders have thrown their hats, guns, thugs, and prayers in the ring for a shot at running the Crescent City. I’ve seen plays come from the sophisticated French Corsica, the Spanish Galician clan, the Irish Mob , Italian Mafia , and most recently the Mexican cartels, but none of them have anything on the network built, maintained, and expanded by Le Milieu.
The strength of the organization lies in the diversity of its leaders and their far-reaching influence in specific areas like prostitution, racketeering, theft, and laundering. The beauty of Le Milieu is that all the members are interconnected and somewhat dependent on each other. If one fails, we all fail. If one succeeds, we all succeed. We come together from different factions, finding a common ground to conduct business in a way benefiting the group collectively.
Brilliant fucking idea.
However, the leaders have grown lazy and morphed into a tired—albeit, still moderately successful—version of their younger selves. They’re happy to reminisce about the good old days instead of grinding to make better ones.
Not that I blame them. Their fatigue comes with age and their laziness comes with complacency. It happens to the best of us.
But it’s now time to hand over the reins to the next generation—to me.
I have put in the time, paid my dues, and I’ve come to collect.
Unseen eyes track my movements as I approach the porch. The stares weighted with mistrust and suspicion heighten my awareness bringing the gravity of this moment into crystal clarity.
It is now or never.
I feel no alarm when I catch a glint of metal in the late afternoon sun. The goons that double as security for Carlisle Boudreaux are hidden somewhere among the Spanish moss and curving oak trees and are packing enough heat to annihilate a small country. Said weapons are undoubtedly aimed in my direction.
The aînés, or “elders,” rarely carry weapons anymore and must be protected.
I’d expect no less.
Pointedly I walk down the drive canopied by oak trees, commonly known by the few who have walked this path as oak alley, with my arms held down by my sides and my hands clearly visible.
See, I can be nonthreatening. Never mind the snub nose .38 Special secured in my boot, the push dagger tucked neatly under the cuff of my long-sleeved button-down shirt, or the very special surprise strategically placed in the upper branches of the oaks just before my arrival.
I brought an arsenal to this fight. A gentleman must always be prepared, and I’m not one to be caught with my pants down unless my woman is splayed in front of me.
My grandfather, Magnus Thibideaux , is the first to greet me with a hug and a firm handshake upon my arrival. I see myself reflected in his high cheekbones and square jaw. More than the inherited aesthetics, I have his countenance, his ability to read the field, and his audacity to make the move. Consequences be damned.
In my grandfather I see the foundation of who I am and the map to become greater than his wildest dreams.
Aurolyn Guidry also stands and embraces me in a tight hug. At eighty-five, her deep brown skin is still smooth and wrinkle free. She wears an off the shoulder yellow linen dress fitted to her torso with voluminous sleeves . Her still svelte physique is reminiscent of the actress Jane Fonda who even in her eighties turns heads.
“Look what crawled up from the swamps to grace this old woman with his presence.” She plants a kiss on my cheek like she did when I was a child sitting at her kitchen table eating homemade beignets covered in powdered sugar while she and my grandfather retired to her bedroom.
As a child I didn’t realize Aurolyn was his mistress. They loved beyond the obligation and expectations that come with the exchange of rings. In almost sixty years of acquaintance, they have never shared a home or picked out a China pattern. They have something more profound, something deeper than tradition allows. She’s the keeper of all his secrets. The keeper of all their secrets. The only one he trusts in totality.The only person in attendance outside of my grandfather that I trust.
Aurolyn’s currency is information, the important kind. The kind with the power to topple government agencies and cartels alike. In her business—bribery and extortion—information reigns supreme.
“Evenin’, Mz. Aurolyn,” I say, turning on the charm that smoothed a bumpy road on more than one occasion. “Might I say you’re looking beautiful as ever.” She titters like a woman one third her age and swats my arm in a please motion that really means keep going.
“Mz. Josephine.” I incline my head, a smile firmly in place to the only other woman in the group swaying on the porch swing. I’m nothing if not a southern gentleman. I open doors and pull out chairs, and when there’s women present, they immediately get my attention, after my family of course, but definitely before the men.
Jo-Jo, a nickname only used by the other members, eyes me over the edge of a crystal flute filled with bubbling pink champagne she has balanced between her slender fingers.
“Bon aswè, renmen ” she says tersely.
“Good evening to you as well,” I reply. Jo-Jo chooses to speak in Creole, a pidgin language that is an offshoot of French. Her greeting isn’t one of warmth a person expects from a woman who shares memories and time with me and my family. She raises an eyebrow and looks me up and down. She knows my visit isn’t social. She’s a hard one to nail down, a wild card if you will. I read the rest of these members like an open book, but not Josephine Richard. Oh no, she’s a chameleon. Hazel eyes, light brown curly hair, and tan—not brown—skin allows her to walk the tightrope between black and white ethnicities. Her slightly Creole accent adds an air of mystery to an already complicated woman. Her disposition shifts given the right light or questionable mood . Even at eighty-two, she can emit a blinding rage that melts her icy beauty and challenges any opponent.
My grandfather told me her “chameleon factor” allowed her unfettered access to all areas of society. Known as the Magnolia Madam, Josephine is a procurer of women for a discernible clientele. I’m not talking athletes and movie stars. Think more presidents and industry moguls. Her ladies come with a menu of services, closed mouths, and truly unique abilities to pleasure the most deviant sexual desires.
“Hebert, Landry, Cormier, Boudreaux,” I say, addressing the other four men by their last names, but my attention rests on Carlisle Boudreaux. The old man and I have bad blood born in the rivalry between him and my grandfather. It was further forged in the death of my father and later solidified with the death of his daughter. The Boudreaux family have been the proverbial thorn in our side long before I was old enough to understand vengeance.
Oh, but I do understand now.
“To what do we owe this pleasure?” Carlisle’s southern Louisiana accent, one that we all share, is slow and sticky, and belies the irritation obvious in the ticking of his jaw muscle and the squinted eyes. “I’m sure we can all guess how you knew we’d be here this evening.” He turns a pointed gaze to my grandfather, who takes an aggressive step forward.
“Not your fight, Magnus.” Mz. Aurolyn places her hand on his chest. “Let the boy say his peace.”
Seven pairs of eyes turn in my direction. Some curious. Others guarded. One pair proud and one pair...angrily calculating.
“Le Milieu has grown stagnant in recent years.” I walk forward, only stopping when I stand in the middle of the group. Making a slow sweep with my gaze, I pin each person with a look before moving to the next. “The antiquated ways not only limit expansion and progress, but make us weak.”
I see my grandfather nodding from the corner of my eye.
“Every day we have other organizations pushing back and testing boundaries . Just last week the Mazzos stole three million in cocaine from the ISO containers at the port, and before that we had to wrangle those boys from the 8th Ward for cutting up three of our girls. We solved those problems but it’s only a matter of time before they find a chink in our armor.”
“And let me guess, you have the perfect plan,” Carlisle says with a sardonic laugh. I expect nothing less of him.
Carlisle is an OG, an old-school gangster who started out as a low-level street hustler and quickly ascended the ranks. The Mafia’s power was entrenched in the belief that there was honor among thieves . News flash , there ain’t. The cartels understood coordination, but their violence drew too many eyes and made too many enemies.
When a hundred men take aim at your back, it’s only so long before you fall. The cartel leaders fall frequently, lasting maybe a decade if they are lucky.
Back in the day the smugglers and the ferrymen were the bayou’s senior statesmen. They saw it all, knew more, and could get anything for anyone if paid the right price, but there was no quality control. What started as a tight network of skilled workers quickly became diluted and muddied with an influx of wannabes, never- weres , and never could-bes. In a city the size of New Orleans, there was little room for error. And trusting the wrong person was a quick way to get arrested or killed.
Carlisle Boudreaux saw this and had the forethought and willpower to fix the cracks. He’s the architect and default leader of
this organization. My hatred of the man doesn’t cloud my vision. I see him. I’d be a fool if I didn’t.That’s why I focus all my energy on him when I say, “As a matter of fact, I do.”
“By all means , please enlighten us.”
He mockingly bends at the waist, sweeping a hand in front of his chest.
“Oh, I plan to.” I wink, suffocating a smile at the red that immediately stains the russet skin of his cheeks. Turning my back to the open yard, I lean with feigned relaxation on the ornamental railing that lines the porch. All seven people in attendance are in front of me with an unknown number of guards somewhere in the foliage at my back, but I like these odds.
In any situation I’m my best bet.
“We have reached a fork in the road. It’s time for y’all to make a decision but understand either path comes with its own set of issues and obligations. The way I see it, we can do this, one of two ways.
"Lò oswa lanmò.” Gold or death.
The family motto my grandfather drilled into my head as a child. As his chosen successor this moment has been planned for months. Drafted, in part, by his hand. Pops is ready to stand down, let the younger generation fight the good fight and take up the mantle.
The saying is known and understood by all in attendance as a declaration of war. As we stand right now, the choices are limited. Either they buy safe passage to exit the life or they die trying to hold on to what is no longer theirs.
It’s player’s choice.
One I would never extend if I didn’t have the greatest respect for these people. An unnatural silence overtakes the group. Even the buzzing cicadas quiet in the trees. Grandfather is the first to move, coming to stand before me. He digs in the inner pocket of his starched linen suit jacket to remove a solid gold chit. He rubs the pad of his thumb across the engraved design, a shield split in half. A fleur-de-lis on one side and a snarling jackal on the other. It’s the only physical representation besides the small group gathered that Le Milieu is real.
My grandfather, the man who welcomed me in his home, raised me after the death of my father and taught me everything I know about this business and world, looks at me with pride.
“And the boy finally becomes a man. Bon pitit ou. Bon sou ou.” Good on you, son. Good on you. He cuffs my shoulder with a heavy hand, squeezing tightly before placing his chit in my palm. My gaze drops to where his fingers still cover the metal disk in my palm before he releases my hand.
“You are ready. You are worthy. Se plas ou. Pran sa ki pou ou,” he whispers, his eyes drilling mine. This is your place. Take what is yours. I let out a shuddered breath. His acceptance and pride wash over me, bolstering this decision and my actions.
Mz. Aurolyn follows my grandfather in this as she has in everything else in their lives. Digging through her small purse, she removes her chit and walks toward my grandfather. He wraps his hand around her waist, drawing her into his side to place a chaste kiss at her temple.
“I’m so tired,”Aurolyn says,shaking her head.“It’s long past the time for me—us—to retire.” She sweeps the group with a hopeful gaze before placing her chit directly on top of my grandfather’s.They retreat, leaving room for the others to come forward, but no one else moves.
“Although this scene is truly touching, I call bullshit. You hear me?” Andre Cormier points a shaking finger in my direction. “This isn’t the changing of the guard!” he shouts.
The man has no tact, and even less couth, having grown up isolated deep in the bayou surrounded only by his family and cocodril. He and his boy are the best smugglers I’ve ever seen. They know every curve of the mighty Mississippi River and every tree in the swamps, but that skill can be learned. I’ve had men working on it for some time now. They may not be as good as Andre, but I’ll be damned if they ain’t close, and what they don’t know we’ll get from that son of his. Ti-Jean Cormier can’t hold water in a bucket with a lid firmly in place. All I need is a little bit of pressure, and he’ll squeal like a feral hog.
“This is a goddamn coup! I’ll be damned if I roll over like a bitch waiting to be mounted.” His fat jowls shake with the force of his anger. His old gelatinous body springs forward surprisingly fast, but not fast enough.
I lower my head no more than an inch, giving the most imperceptible nod, but I have no doubt it’s seen. Andre storms off the porch with heavy steps and flailing arms. Spittle flies from his mouth as he continues to yell and swear, making his way down oak alley toward the cars parked at the property’s entrance. With fixed interest I watch him take his leave.
He’s about halfway down the road when a plume of crimson sprays in front of his face and a red stain grows on the back of the simple white cotton button-down . Andre stumbles to his knees before he does a face-plant on the freshly packed gravel of the path.
The moment suspends in time as the remaining four members of Le Milieu stop in various degrees of shock.
No one screams.
No one blinks. I don’t even think they breathe. Understanding dawns that I haven’t come in peace but action.
For all their preparation and secretive networks, it was ridiculously easy to get a shooter in place before they arrived today.
I’m not the small boy they knew twenty years ago. I’m a man fully grown and realized. One whom they all should fear.
Turning back to the group, I shake my head and tsk-tsks . “Tragic and senseless. No one else need be hurt—”
“Killed you mean?” Paul Landry’s deep voice cuts me off.
I fist my hands, my irritation at the foolish man quickly surfacing. He doesn’t know I’m a hair’s breadth from beating his ass. They should’ve stepped down years—decades—ago.
I waited patiently. I’ve proven my loyalty time and time again.
I’m a motherfucking general in this city. The streets answer to me.
I. Make. Shit. Happen.
Not some phantom make-believe heirs. The time has come.
I’m tired of waiting for the old men to see my value and pass the torch. If they don’t want to grant me the keys to the kingdom, I’ll snatch them from their lifeless grasps.
Shifting the gold pieces in my palm keeps me calm.
“Well, now, that is a choice. One that need not be made,” I say through feigned civility, lifting the golden chits. “This is all I require for your exit. Turn over your territories to me and leave the same way you came, with dignity and respect.”
“You’re hearing this right, Car?” Benjamin Hebert pushes rounded glasses up his nose. His slight frame dwarfed in a dull brown suit shakes with fear, but even in his terror he defers to Carlisle Boudreaux.
“Look at me!” I demand. “He can’t keep you safe. Not anymore. You want to leave here, Hebert? Hhmm? You look at me.” I take a couple of steps in his direction. Satisfaction wells in my chest when he cowers under my scrutiny.
“You want to leave here alive? Give me what I asked for,” I tap the center of my palm with a stiff finger. Give me the coin, old man. Make it easy on us both. Carlisle Boudreaux, unlike the others, remains calm. His demeanor unruffled as he soothes the lapels of his sport coat and extends a hand toward Jo-Jo, who gracefully stands before walking the short distance to his side.
“I don’t take threats kindly, boy,” he seethes.
“You think you’re ready to run with the big dogs?” He smirks and narrows his eyes.
“If you come for me, you better make sure your aim is true because I guar-an-damn-tee if you miss, I will come after you with every resource at my disposal. I will rid this world of you with the ease in which I terminated your daddy.”
We always suspected Boudreaux was behind my father’s murder but hearing him confirm it taps into a deep rage I didn’t know was there, and I’m not the only one. A guttural scream rips from my grandfather and together we charge toward the group huddled on the other side of the porch.
The shooter I embedded with the bodyguards and posted in the trees reads my actions and takes a second shot. The bullet intended for Boudreaux hisses past my ear and drops Hebert. Hebert, a mild-mannered accountant with a penchant for cleaning money who couldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight, crumples to the ground, a high-pitched wail leaving his mouth.
Almost immediately another round goes off. This time it finds a home in Boudreaux’s shoulder, knocking him back a couple of steps. That’s when I notice men running toward our location from multiple directions across the grounds.
They can’t get to him before I do.
I pull the push dagger from my sleeve, gripping it between my first and second finger. My feet trip over each other in my haste. Almost there. Almost...But I pull up short, dropping to my stomach when a barrage of bullets fire in my direction. Boudreaux’s men yank him, Jo-Jo, and Landry over the porch railing while others continue to fire their weapons, pinning me in place. In the middle of the firestorm I’m outgunned , outmanned, and once again outmaneuvered by Carlisle Boudreaux!
The ricochet of bullets grows faint. Car doors slam and tires squeal, kicking up rocks and dust as they speed away.
I take in the aftermath of the splintered wood and broken glass and two bodies on the ground unnaturally still. My grandfather’s
frame is curved protectively around Aurolyn.
“Pop?” I croak, crawling toward him. The adrenaline from the shootout wanes, leaving my muscles shaking and my pulse thready. I touch his shoulder with tentative fingers. “Pop, ou bon?” Pop,are you good?
He doesn’t answer.
He’s gone. I’ve lost the only family I have left.
Fuck! I choke back panic.
Gently rolling him away from Aurolyn so he lies flat on his back. The son of a bitch blinks up at me. His eyes are clear, and focused, and vibrant with life. I slump with relief, swiping my trembling hands over my face. “Magnus?” Aurolyn says, reaching out to twine their fingers.
“Right here, Lyn,” he answers with a dry cough. “It’ll take more than Carlisle’s goons to get rid of me.” Tears immediately spill down her cheeks as she moves closer to my grandfather, gathering him in her arms.
“My God, we’re too old for this shit,” she whispers. “Shh...dumplin’,” he says, stroking her hair and cheeks. “We’re
here, and we live to fight another day.”
“Oh, don’t you dumplin’ me,” Aurolyn chides, trying to move away from him. He stops her and cups her face, giving her one, two, three kisses. With each pass she softens until they’re kissing like teenagers.I stand, wincing at the sore muscles on my back and rib cage. Gingerly, I step off the porch, leaving my grandfather and Mz. Aurolyn in privacy.
I get a fair distance away before I look up at the starry sky and yell, “Fuck!” Staring at the small orbs of light millions of miles away, I’ve never felt so small, so insignificant.
He did it again.
That slimeball motherfucker, who murdered my father and robbed my grandfather of his rightful place, outsmarted me...again. I don’t know how, but Carlisle is always ten steps ahead. This time was supposed to be different. I put in the work. Most of the men on his payroll now answer to me. That’s how I got a sniper in with the guard.It’s why I walked in solo.That kernel of information was the last seed I planted to convince my grandfather to take another stand. It’s all been for nothing. He’s slipped through not just my fingers but my grandfather’s as well.
I walk farther into the lawn and search the tree line.
Where are you, darlin’?
A little farther down the lane a slender body slips through the branches to land with grace at the base of a tree. With confident strides, the woman dressed in military fatigues that hide the gentle slopes of her hips and breasts comes toward me, a rifle clutched to her chest.
Even from a distance with grease paint smeared over her skin, I know she’s gorgeous. Glacial pale green eyes glow against the backdrop of dirt and paint. High cheekbones flare with feline grace and pouty lips practically beg for my kiss, but with Devyn it’s not just her beauty that draws me in.
As a man of a certain reputation and influence, women are the easy part of my life. Power is its own aphrodisiac, and what it doesn’t do confidence does.
At least it did until I met a six-foot-tall force of nature with the ability to create and destroy in equal measure. She made me work to have her.
Ooohwee, it was a challenge. Like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Once she committed, took me as hers and agreed to be mine, there hasn’t been one obstacle in our path we didn’t barrel over and smash to pieces. Devyn isn’t only my lover, she’s my soothsayer and hard-nosed attorney. The woman can normally shoot the wing off a fly at a thousand paces and kill a man as easy as blinking. In her I found a confidant and co-conspirator all wrapped up in an inconspicuous shell most people never see coming. We meet halfway down oak alley now covered in a canopy of shadows formed by branches, leaves, and hanging moss.
“That was some...interesting shooting, darlin’ ,” I say in opening, unable to bite back a sudden grin even in the face of this... setback. “What happened?”
“One of Boudreaux’s men found me. I had to take care of it, but the adjustment cost me time.” She slings the tactical rifle over her shoulder. “We still have three on the run.”
“Two less than we started with. So, by my calculations, darlin’, we ain’t doing too bad. While they’re scrambling around like swamp rats scattering from an gator, their territories are unprotected, ripe fruit for the picking.”
Boudreaux is many things. Arrogant, intelligent, vain, boastful. But stupid isn’t on the list. He’ll go underground. I’m certain of it. Oh, he’ll fall off the radar all right. If not to recover, then definitely to strategize.
“I know...I just...” Her words peter out on a frustrated breath.
“Come here.” My voice is laden with disappointment, which makes my already heavy drawl weighted with unnecessary saccharine leisure.
She walks forward with no hesitation and wraps her arms around my waist, softly avoiding the tender spots she’s somehow already identified. At six feet, Devyn is only an inch or so shorter. There are no bent neck or tiptoes needed when we get up close and intimate. We stand eye to eye and shoulder to shoulder.
“It wasn’t perfect, but nothing in this world is. We got what we came for,” I say with purpose and I look into her eyes.
“Did we?” She searches my face.
“More or less. As of right now over fifty percent of the Le Milieu is mine. I’m pretty positive old Hebert and Cormier won’t mind in the least if I relieve them of their chits. I have four of the seven. Now let’s hit the war room to figure out how to get the remaining three.” I lean forward, my mouth hovering over hers.
“I need a victory kiss, darlin’, to commemorate with moment.”Her lips pull up in a smile when they meet mine.
This hollow victory wasn’t quite what I’d pictured when I thought about tonight, but I’m going to take the W, regardless of the mistakes and missteps.
Carlisle’s time is over. It doesn’t matter how far he runs or how deep he hides. I’ve uncovered his Achilles’ heel. Now, I just need to push and prod that damaging weakness until one way or the other the old man is eradicated from our organization. I have no doubt that I’ll find him. It’s a matter of when, not if.
So yeah, I’ll take this hollow victory for now because I know a bonified victory is on the horizon. I can feel it in my bones.
Tonight, I’ll reassess, learn from my mistakes and adapt, and when Carlisle peeks out from wherever he’s gone to hide, his payment will be due.
For now, I have a beautiful woman in my arms, and things are looking better than they were a week ago. New Orleans is mine. Carlisle won’t turn up here. He’ll have too many uncertainties. By now he knows his men are mine, and it won’t take a lot of digging for him to figure out that I’ve usurped his trade routes, killed his cleaner, and taken over his corner of the city. The attack on the plantation was only one portion of a multipronged plan.
For the first time in decades Carlisle Boudreaux is not on top. He’s a sinking ship and his narrow escape tonight doesn’t negate the fact that he’s taking on water and that in his absence the throne and crown have a new king.
Me. Yeah, I’ll take the W tonight. In preparation for the sweeter one coming. I finally tracked a loose end I’ve been trying to nail down for years. Found that frayed cord tucked away and hidden in Las Vegas just when I had about given up. But finding it–him, after all these years lit a fire under my ass. Pushed me to act. Now that New Orleans is mine, Las Vegas, that neon-ridden city located on the floor of a desert valley, is next up on my list.
My business there may be old, but it has in no way been forgotten.
He thought he could hide from me. Disappear in the transient, nondescript faces that change with the wind, but I found him.
There is a debt owed, and I do plan to collect.Taking over Le Milieu was just the first step of many and starting with a victory isn’t half bad.
By my record, we ain’t doing too bad at all.