Thursday, November 25, 2010

Torch in the Night, Prologue


The Southern Belle

New Orleans, March 1862.

Andre Durand walked briskly along the dock — while the country was collapsing all around him. He was literally on a life-and-death mission — it was Durand versus the government. The entire South was in open rebellion. Speed, stealth, and determination were required for a chance of success.

Darkness camouflaged his aquiline features as his tall shadow approached the black silhouette of the sternwheeler. The Southern Belle was a workboat, less elaborately decorated than the floating palaces her name suggested. Before the war, the small boat had been carrying passengers and cargo. To Durand, her two disproportionately tall smokestacks with their flared crowns and their guy wires looked like hanging trees.

By birth, Durand was a Southerner — by choice, a proud Creole. His family had lived in Louisiana long before it became American, long before anybody had dreamed of rebellion or of a rebel government. He was loyal to the Union. He would not stay here and let the rebels force him to fight against the only country he loved. Besides, Durand knew that it was impossible for the South to win this war. As a businessman, he was aware of the economic superiority of the North. Even though the rebels had scored some initial victories, the Union had to win in the long run. She had more men, materiel, industries, railroads, whatever. He did not believe that the Europeans would come to the rescue of the South, either. They were not that stupid. Neither did he believe in slavery as a sacred institution to secure the Southern way of life — nor in the secessionist talk of ambitious Southern politicians. He would rather be damned than defend these slave states ruled by dynasties of slave drivers. He had nothing to win from fools who enslaved others by force to live on the scanty product of their physical labor. One resourceful mind like his, if left free, would create more wealth in a day than a whole state of brute slave drivers and their countless victims could ever dream of producing in a century.

Besides being a businessman, Durand was a brilliant chemist. Durand Liquor, his invention, was becoming the most popular liqueur in America. It had been distilled right here in New Orleans, but with secession looming, he had moved his business to Brooklyn, the second city of the State of New York. He had returned to New Orleans one last time to save important records belonging to his company, which had been left behind in the chaos of secession. Of some papers he had additional copies in his Brooklyn archives, so he might simply have burned them to keep them from falling into rebel hands. However, for other formulas there existed no duplicates, so he had to take them home to New York. Now, the documents were safely on board the sternwheeler he had chartered, the Southern Belle. Her master had demanded an outrageous sum for running the gauntlet. Durand had paid him in gold, without complaint.

When he walked up the gangplank, Durand could not help but wonder how slim his chances actually were. His only hope was that the gunboats and batteries of the belligerents would not bother to fire at an unarmed civilian steamboat. But he knew they would, because they could not know that the Southern Belle was a noncombatant. Of course, they would suspect she was carrying contraband. Maybe they could slip past, steaming at night only, hiding near the bank by day. But what if they encountered one of those indestructible new weapons, an ironclad? Two of them had duked it out at Hampton Roads, after the Virginia, as the rebels called her, had given hell to the United States Navy. Only one thing was certain: Those files were too important to be left where the rebels might seize them, in a city that had to become a war zone sooner or later.

Now Durand was standing in the wheelhouse, next to the old pirate. "Cast off, Captain Legrand. It ain't gonna get any darker."

Instead of an acknowledgment, Legrand fed the brass cuspidor. That he followed up with a volley of orders bellowed through the jungle of his tobacco-streaked, formerly white beard. Durand turned his back on Legrand, to look back at what skyline the Queen of the South had. So the Southern Belle steamed, her single wheel turning ever more rapidly, smoke puffing ever darker, out into the murky expanse of the languid Old Man River. The low-lying city behind the levee at the end of the docks receded. Durand had traveled down to New Orleans by what railroads were still running, had bypassed rebel troops on horseback when there was no rail service, hiding in the underbrush if necessary. Traveling with several wooden crates of records and the strongbox he had come for, the land war torn, the sea patrolled by the United States Navy blockading the Southern ports, this was the only avenue left open to him.

Unbeknownst to Durand, a sneaky shadow emerged from behind some stacks of crates back on the dock. The stranger focused his stare on the riverboat shrinking into night and distance. "Run, you nigger-loving, gorilla-worshiping scalawag. Run for your dear little life. Even if you run the gauntlet, you'll never make it — you traitor to your native state." He would rather be damned than let that individual who refused to serve his people get away with that.

While the lights of the city were fading into the distance, Durand became ever more painfully aware that he was taking a terrible chance. Like he knew nothing about the spy on the dock, the rebel knew nothing about Durand's cargo. With the Southern Belle traveled the darkest secret man had ever devised. In the wrong hands, it would destroy the world.

Read on…

Or buy the full story.

No comments: