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Read by Rene Auberjonois
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 16, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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About this Book
About the Author
The Agent Pendergast Series
Also by Preston & Child
Table of Contents
Three people occupied the large, dimly lit library within the mansion that stood alone and aloof at 891 Riverside Drive, New York City. Two of them sat in armchairs before a crackling fire. One, Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast, was paging listlessly through a catalog of Bordeaux wine futures. Across from him, his ward Constance was absorbed in a treatise titled Medieval Trephination: Tools and Techniques.
The third occupant of the room was not seated, but instead paced irritably up and down. He was a strange, comical figure: small of stature, dressed in a swallowtail coat, with all manner of odd charms and relics dangling from his neck on silver chains, which clanked and jingled with his movements. As he walked, he supported himself upon a cudgel-like cane whose handle was carved into the semblance of a grinning skull. Now and then his stomach could be heard to growl in empty complaint. This was Monsieur Bertin, Pendergast’s old childhood tutor in natural history, zoology, and more outré subjects. He was currently in New York City, visiting his old protégé.
“This is outrageous!” he called across the library. “Fou, très fou! Why, in New Orleans I would have finished dinner hours ago. Look—it’s practically midnight!”
“It’s not yet half past eight, maître,” Pendergast said with a faint smile.
A form appeared in the doorway of the library, and Pendergast glanced over. “Yes, Mrs. Trask?”
“It’s Cook,” the housekeeper replied. “She’s asked me to tell you that dinner will be half an hour late.”
Bertin gave an expostulation of disgust.
“I’m afraid she overboiled the pasta,” Mrs. Trask went on, “and will have to make another batch.”
“Tell her not to concern herself about it,” Pendergast replied. “We’re in no rush.”
Mrs. Trask nodded, turned, and vanished from sight.
“No rush!” Bertin said. “Speak for yourself. Here I am, a guest in your house—starved like a prisoner in the Bastille. After tonight, my digestion will never be the same.”
“Believe me, maître, it will be worth the wait. Tagliatelle al tartufo bianco is a very simple dish, and yet nevertheless of great refinement.” Pendergast paused, as if already tasting, in his mind, the meal to come. “It is made of the finest fresh white truffles, finely shaved; butter; and tagliatelle pasta. Cook is using truffles from Alba, of course, in the Piedmont. They are the finest in the world—by weight they cost almost as much as gold.”
“Gah!” Bertin said. “I will never understand this Yankee fascination for undercooked pasta.”
Now Constance spoke for the first time. “It’s no Yankee fascination. The Italians themselves prefer their pasta firm: al dente—to the tooth.”
This explanation seemed only to irritate Bertin. “Well, I like my spaghetti soft—just like my rice and my grits. So that makes me a philistine, oui? Al dente—bah!” He turned to Constance. “Ask your guardian about ‘dents.’ Now, there’s a story to pass the time while one is dying of hunger.”
He left in a huff, the sound of his cane gradually diminishing as it clacked across the floor of the reception room beyond.
For a moment the library went quiet. Constance glanced over at Pendergast. His eyes were lingering on the doorway through which Bertin had just exited. Then he turned to Constance. “Bertin is certainly an edacious fellow. Pay no attention. By the time we reach the main course, his good cheer will have returned, I assure you.”
“What did he mean by a story about ‘dents’?” Constance asked.
Pendergast hesitated. “You wouldn’t care to hear it. I’m sure. It isn’t pleasant. And… it involves my brother.”
A brief, unreadable look passed over Constance’s face. “That only whets my interest more.”
For a long time, Pendergast did not speak. His gaze went very far away. Constance said nothing, waiting patiently. Finally, with a deep breath, Pendergast began.
“You know the children’s fable of the tooth fairy?”
“Of course. When I was a child, my parents would slip a penny under my pillow in exchange for a tooth—when they had any money, that is.”
“Quite. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, where I spent much of my childhood, we had that same quaint legend. Except we also had an additional, or perhaps parallel, legend to go with it.”
“A few of the young children in our neighborhood believed the usual fantasy, as you’ve just described it. But the majority believed something quite different—that the tooth fairy wasn’t an ephemeral being who visited at night. No, the tooth fairy of the French Quarter lived nearby, just down the street from our house in fact, and he was none other than a person whom we all called Old Dufour.”
“Dufour… A French name, ‘of the oven.’ I believe that would be the equivalent of Baker in English.”
“His full name was Maurus Dufour, and he was a recluse of ancient and uncertain age who lived in a decaying mansion a few blocks away, on Montegut Street. He probably hadn’t been out of his house in fifty years. I have no idea how he managed to eat. As children, we sometimes saw his hunched shadow at night, moving against the dimly lit windows of his domicile. Naturally, the neighborhood children told all sorts of wild and frightening stories about him: that he was an ax murderer, that he ate human flesh, that he tortured small animals. Sometimes the older neighborhood delinquents would go there at night and throw a rock or two through his windows before running away—but that was the extent of even their bravery. Nobody would have ever summoned the courage to, say, ring the doorbell.” Pendergast paused. “It was one of those old mansions built in the Creole style, but with a mansard roof and oriel windows. It was a fright, with most of the windows broken, the roof slates loose, the porch about to fall off, and the front garden overgrown with dying palmettos.”
Constance leaned forward, a look of growing interest in her face.
“How this particular tooth fairy legend got its start, nobody knew. All I can tell you is that it had been in place as long as any of us children could remember. And since Dufour was a recluse, and an object of terror, nobody could ask him what he might know about its origins—or what he thought of such an absurd notion. You know how it is, Constance, that these legends can sometimes sprout up among children and take on a life of their own, passed down from one generation to the next. And this is especially true in a place like the French Quarter, which—despite being at the center of a large city—was still highly insular and provincial. French remained the language of the old families, and many people didn’t even consider themselves American. In many ways it was cut off from the outside world, where Creole superstitions and strange beliefs—many of them very old—were allowed to flourish and spread… and suppurate.” Pendergast gestured toward the library’s empty doorway. “Take our famished friend. He is a perfect product of that insularity. You see the odd things he wears around his neck? Those are not eccentric decorations; they are amulets, gris-gris and charms to ward off evil, attract money, and, above all, help him maintain sexual potency in his declining years.”
Constance made a slight face of disgust.
“He believes in, and practices, obeah, rootwork, and voodoo.”
“Not for him, growing up in the environment he did. He was as respected as a medical doctor would be in any other community.”
“Go on with the story.”
“As I said, most of the young children believed that Old Dufour was the tooth fairy. Here is how it worked: when you lost a tooth, you had to wait for the next full moon. Then, just before bedtime, you would sneak over to the Dufour mansion and leave the tooth in a particular place on the front porch.”
“What kind of place?” Constance asked.
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2012
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