Chapter 1 – Into the Inferno
I’ll never forget the moment he came walking back into my life. I was lying on a thin mattress in my cell at the Orleans Parrish Prison. It was a less than festive atmosphere for spending Christmas Eve. I had just been contemplating how my life couldn’t get any worse when a guard announced that I had a visitor. I laughed out loud. Perhaps he’d poured himself some Christmas cheer and was feeling merry. He was known as the drunk of the cell block, but I didn't mind as he was at least a happy drunk. If your going to be under another man's charge, I prefer intoxicated and happy to brooding and athletic.
“No joke, old sport,” a voice replied. I hadn’t been called old sport since I was ten years old. I turned and looked up. A cold shiver ran through my veins. Everyone had heard how the great Sherlock Holmes had disappeared over the Reichenbach falls. My Uncle, the great John Watson had been devastated beyond measure. But the famed detective stood before me now, studying my pathetic state through the bars. I blinked, thinking him to be an apparition, but he didn't vanish as I almost expected he would. His gray eyes stared with a somber expression I couldn't read. It wasn't pity or disappointment. No. It was something else. Something deeper.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” the guard said. “Mr. Deveraux has come to bail you out.”
“Is that so,” I said. “I must say I’m surprised to see you, er Mr. Deveraux.”
“I have no doubt,” he said with a grave smile. “What do you say we get out of this place?”
“I’m all for it,” I said, getting up. To my utter amazement the guard put a key in the lock and opened the cell door. I thought that surely this was some sort of cruel joke.
“I thought I had to stay until my hearing,” I said. Sherlock shot me a look, as if to say I should keep my mouth shut.
“Turns out it was all a big misunderstanding,” the guard said. “Mr. Deveraux has cleared up the matter to the Judge’s satisfaction.” He patted his pocket and smiled. I assumed this meant that he had received his own Christmas bonus. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was only a few months since a lynch mob had stormed this very prison and taken justice into their own hands. Not one of them had been tried. New Orleans was a city that made its own rules. A fact that had never once been on my side, but my luck seemed to be changing, or so I thought.
The guard’s rosy cheeks made him look like Santa Claus as I stepped out of my cell. I forced myself to walk slowly. It never serves you to let a prison guard see a glimmer of hope in your eyes. It’s the main goal of their occupation to squelch it, no matter how drunk they may be. But the guard slapped me on the back like we were old friends at a party. I half expected him to offer me a drink. It seemed too good to be true. My heart pounded in my ears as I headed for the exit. We had to pass through several locked doors and at each one, I waited for the ruddy skinned guard to start laughing and say it was all a joke. Sherlock or Mr. Deveraux, whatever you wanted to call him, walked silently by my side like an executioner on his way to the gallows. I should have been wondering what had brought him here. Why he had sought out a worthless pickpocket, but I'd never had my fathers gifts of deduction. Nor did Uncle John as best I could tell from the stories he'd told me of his adventures with the legend that stood beside me. Instead, all I could think about was getting to the other side of those bars and back out of Dante’s inferno. Ironically it was this particular piece of literature from which I had been named. Dante Watson is the cursed moniker I'd been labeled with. Anyway, when a man offers you your life back, you take him up on it. Alive. Dead. I didn’t care if he was my fairy godmother as long as I could see the world without gray bars running through it. Nothing else mattered or so I thought in all my youthful naivete. I had no idea that once I walked out into the crisp December air, my life was never going to be the same.
Still, there were a few blissful moments before reality settled upon me. I nearly fell to my knees on Tremé street and kissed the ground. My friends, nothing in this world is as beautiful as freedom. It gives everything a different perspective. My eighteen-year-old-self had never experienced such a change in circumstances. It was like falling in love for the first time, only instead of a lover, it was with my own life. To this day, walking out of that prison, was the most transformational experience I’ve ever had. Like being born again. All the childlike wonder you’ve lost comes rushing back in one blissful leap. Fresh snow blanketed every surface like the powdered sugar on my mother’s beignets. I could almost smell them baking in her kitchen. Could almost feel the warmth of her presence there with me despite her being gone some ten years now. I could almost remember what she looked like. I saw beauty and possibility in every inch of that once wretched street.
Sherlock was keeping a nearly impossible pace, but I followed him like a schoolboy without a care in the world. He led me into a public park. The same one where our city’s police chief had been murdered by gangsters, hence the lynch mob of a few months prior. It was dark and my eyes struggled to adjust. There were no streetlamps burning in this stretch of the grounds. Perhaps the blowing snow had put them out. He stopped and I nearly ran into him. He spun around to face me and was so close I could smell a hint of a strange tobacco on his clothes.
“We don’t have much time,” he said. “There’s something I must tell you and I’m afraid it isn’t pleasant.”
“Nothing could be more unpleasant than the place I just left,” I said. “I thought I’d freeze to death before..."
“It’s about your father,” he interrupted. My mood immediately ebbed. I hadn’t given my father much thought, so high was I on my sudden good fortune. As a police officer, he must have been aware of my incarceration, but he hadn’t come to visit. He could have used his position to get me out instead of leaving me to rot, but that was never his way. My father was all about actions and consequences. He’d been preaching them to me my whole life and I’d been doing my best to ignore them just as long. We’d never seen eye to eye on so much as what to eat for breakfast and I knew his conspicuous absence could only mean that he was trying to teach me a lesson. If I went home, he wasn’t going to be pleased to see me. Even if it was the Christmas Eve holiday.
“What about him?” I said stiffly.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I don’t have time to mince words. The situation we face is most urgent so I’m forced to come out with it…your father has been murdered.”
I must have let out a small cry because he reached out and grabbed my shoulders to steady me. A terror ripped through my body. White hot. If a grizzly bear had snatched me up, I’d have been no less afraid. He seemed to sense this and let go. My terror left like waking from a nightmare and I wondered if it had been a figment of my imagination.
“But who,” I stuttered out, trying to regain my composure. “Why?”
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “But they’ve taken Emily and I fear that we haven’t much time.”
If you liked this and are looking to create a mystery of your own, check out my post on fifty creative ways to kill a character.