Sneak Peek into The Convicts

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Chapter 1

March 30th, New Orleans 1815

The odors and sounds of the city met Bart even before they rounded the final bend in the river. The creaking of merchant ships, and the shouting of men on the docks as they loaded and unloaded fresh cargo were distinctly heard from his place at the bow. Now that the British blockade had been lifted, the peace treaty ratified in Congress, commerce and trade could continue.
Bart was fortunate enough to miss the battle just down river a couple of months prior, along with nearly all of the martial law limitations that Andrew Jackson had enforced over the citizens. Though the trip to Natchitoches was far from convenient, he was able to bypass a rather messy altercation. Now, he returned with one less reformed loup-garou and with more questions as to how his own enterprises had faired during his absence.
Bleached sails came into view, their masts swaying with the wind as they navigated down the muddy Mississippi. Ships from all nations were anchored at the docks or easing their way out of the harbor. Bart held fast to the line as he leaned over the railing to catch a glimpse of the port. Not part of the Americas for even a decade, New Orleans was steadily becoming a booming hub, just as the politicians had predicted. Situated upon the mighty river that snaked north along the borders of her neighboring states, it was the ideal place for all incoming and outgoing trade to help fuel westward expansion.
But Bart had never been interested in the efforts of the French, Spanish, or the Americans that owned this land over the last century. This place wasn’t only ideal for trade, but for a certain mission of his that few knew about, but nearly all had speculated. The unique terrain became his ally when hiding his activities along the edges of the cypress swamps to the south of the river.
For now, he had a few men to see and some affairs to settle with the customs house. Then he could return to the place that had been his home for almost a hundred years.
He felt an uncanny wash of relief at the sight of the port city. It was emitted by his inner wolf, but not necessarily shared by him. Bart was one of the few loups-garous he knew that enjoyed sailing, whether it be across the ocean or down a river that concealed deadly sandbars. His wolf, however, did not agree and as soon as his boots made contact with the dock after walking down the gangplank, he was overcome by a silly urge to kiss the stable ground.
Of course, he refrained and carried himself like the gentlemen his reputation demanded of him. Anyone might have seen him as a man just past his prime with touches of silver that streaked through his hair and beard. No one would have ever suspected that he was older than this very city and the country they now called home.
His dark eyes trailed up to the impressive stone buildings with their arcade facades – indicative of the Spanish influence from their relatively short period of reign over the territory – and mansard roofs that reminded him of the great homes and government buildings in France. Down the straight, dusty avenues and roads that were laid out like a sprawling grid, carriages, carts, and pedestrians made their way from shop to shop.
The voices that drifted out of every window and rose to a dull roar all over the city were as varied as the faces they belonged to. French, American, German, Irish, Spanish, and the Free People of Color all mingled together in an inspiring display that brought a smile to Bart’s lips. Despite his status as a well-off merchant and plantation owner, he was often lumped in with the later aforementioned people group due to his lighter, mulatto complexion. And ever since the Americans had come, he’d suffered for it.
His status, wealth, and fabled generosity made him infamous within New Orleans amongst every class. It either made him enemies or blessed him with connections. As he passed St. Louis Cathedral on La Place d’Armes and continued down St. Peters Street, several men looked his way and either smiled or sneered. Women who also met his gaze covered their blushing cheeks with their fans as they turned to giggle with their companions. He smirked to them, and touched the brim of his hat in greeting, but it was rare that he ever stopped to speak with any of them. It was a habit of his not to spend too much time within the city, unless absolutely necessary.
And if he were to speak, he’d have to check himself before uttering a single word. It was a chore to mask his British accent from the public and slow down his enunciations to emulate the speech of those around him. If he were to reveal his true drawl, especially after the most recent war, he’d certainly raise suspicion. It was only with a select few that he could relax, only because they knew the truth.
He turned left down Royal Street. Years ago, two fires had eaten away at the establishments here, allowing for stronger brick homes to be erected with their elaborate wrought iron balusters and overhanging balconies that shaded the walkways along the roads. Another architectural gift from the Spanish after nearly a quarter of the city was destroyed in 1788. Bart remembered it as a terrible year for New Orleans and he stayed close to his home during the reconstruction.
Craftsmen of all trades could be found here, and Bart followed the scent of barley, yeast, and beer a few blocks away. Inside the brewery, the back of his skull tingled, alerting him to the presence of more of his kind. More loups-garous.
He had heard them in the back room, arguing in intermittent German and Gaelic. Bart shook his head ruefully and passed through the public tavern where working men came to refresh themselves with a glass of beer. This brew had earned a notable reputation for itself over the last few years. One benefit of being a loup-garou and incapable of becoming intoxicated was that when it came to matters of alcoholic beverages, they focused on the taste and not its ability to put men in their boots. Lorenz Hiedenhem and Carney O’Malley may have been the best damn brewers in the whole southern region, and Bart had the good fortune of claiming to be the one who brought them together. If only they could stop bickering over every batch.
He stepped through the archway into the back room and found them screaming at one another, voices raised. Even without his sensitive hearing, he would have known they disagreed on the amount of molasses that was added to the last brew all the way from Burgundy Street. The air was saturated with the aroma of hops, yeast, and other herbs used to help give their brand its unique flavor. Word of their success had reached all the way to Boston on the east coast and merchants from all across the states would make a point of stopping by their tavern when they came to port in New Orleans.
The brewery consisted of three stories. Three steps down from the entryway was the bottommost level. Barrels brimming with beer were lined against the stone walls, awaiting transport or consumption. Several barrels were reserved for beer that was in the final stages of fermentation, a leather hose trailing from their spouts to the second-floor landing.
Bart didn’t attempt to silence his ascension up the flight of stairs, looking for the two younger loups-garous. A strong fire burned in the second-floor furnace, its heat making the water in the brew kettle above him simmer and steam.
One more flight of stairs brought him to the place where Lorenz and Carney stood near the railing that skirted around the opening to the mash tun below. The German waved wildly with one arm while his other mindlessly stirred the half-processed brew with a giant dipper. Carney put some distance between himself and the loup-garou who was older and far more dominant and stood on the other side of the chillers where recently heated beer was cooling after being boiled for a couple of hours in the brew kettle.
Bart had never been interested in the brewing process, but he had heard it explained so many times by either Carney or Lorenz during conversation that he could most likely brew his own beer from beginning to end in his sleep.
As soon as Bart crossed his arms, they finally took notice of him near the top of the stairs.
“You’re back!” Lorenz exclaimed, coming forward to give him a hearty slap on the shoulder. “It feels like you’ve been gone for months.”
“It’s only been one month,” Carney corrected, his pale red brows furrowing.
“I said it only feels like months,” the German loup-garou snapped back at his apprentice. “Not that it literally was months since he left.”
“Is it just me, or do you two seem to look for an excuse to argue about everything?” Bart asked, his deep English accent contrasting so frankly with the other Europeans.
Lorenz replied in the negative, while Carney gave a decided affirmative. It never ceased to amaze Bart how these two managed to maintain an operation as delicate as beer brewing with only themselves to man the facilities.
Sometimes he wondered if it had been a mistake to let them both stay in New Orleans together. Lorenz had established the brewery even before Carney was born in Belfast, but the Catholic loup-garou had few other options than to flee to one of the rare places in the New World who took kindly to those of his faith. He and Lorenz cracked each other’s skulls on more than a few occasions. But once they were on any other subject than work, one could look past the fiery red hair of the Irishman and the dark blonde of the German to see that they were as close as brothers.
“How was your trip?” Lorenz asked.
Bart gravitated toward a small table near the dirty window and took one of the chairs. Carney took the other while his business partner was trapped in the task of stirring the mash as the barley and wheat blend steeped in the hot water.
“It went well,” Bart replied, smirking to the two loups-garous. “Nashoba seemed to get along well with the Chickasaw around Natchitoches. I think he’ll be a fine fit there.”
Carney’s blue eyes looked heavenward. “Lord knows I didn’t think that one could be turned around, but you’ve surprised me again.”
Bart smiled, though he would never admit he concurred with Carney’s first impressions. The rogue Choctaw native was a savage loup-garou before he came onto the plantation. It took several months to break him, but after a while, Nashoba stopped craving the flesh of humans and could conduct himself like any other civilized man. It was difficult to let him leave, especially since his home had been in the Louisiana wilderness for as long as he could remember. But sometimes complete relocation was required for these extreme cases.
“How many more convicts are on the plantation?” Lorenz questioned as he leaned against the railing.
Bart didn’t often appreciate the slang that others applied to those loups-garous he rehabilitated at his home near the swamps. They were criminals, but to dub them as convicts, or rougarous as some of the locals would have unkindly labeled them, seemed like a sort of condemnation. He hadn’t met a loup-garou yet that he couldn’t break.
“Just three,” he answered.
They continued to talk, mostly about business both with his plantation and at the brewery.
“That reminds me,” Lorenz said as he scratched beneath his neckerchief, which hid a nasty scar he had earned when he became loup-garou, “a man came here looking for you a few days ago. I told him you were out of town, but he didn’t seem to mind.”
At this, Bart’s wolf stiffened. If someone was looking for him, it could have meant a number of things. Either it was another loup-garou in search of help, a potential business connection who thought they could make him a proposition, or someone who did not mean him well.
“Who was he?”
At this, Carney chimed in. “He was werewolf,” he replied in a lower voice in case anyone might have heard him over the simmering brew kettle. “I think he was a soldier, but they all left after Andrew Jackson sailed back up the river to Kentucky.”
Bart leaned back and laced his fingers over his stomach, feeling the cool metal of his vest buttons under his palms. “What did he want?”
Lorenz shook his head. “He didn’t say. Only to tell you that he’d be waiting at the inn on the corner of Bourbon and Du Maine. Said he wanted to take you up on an offer you made a long time ago.”
Bart squinted, peering through the many years’ worth of memories for any unkept promises or abandoned offers. At first, he could think of none. And then it came to him in vivid relief.
“It couldn’t be,” he muttered, more to himself than the other two. He looked up, refusing to hope but daring to venture a guess in his heart. “What did he look like?”
“Looked like he’d been in the sun for a long time,” Carney said as he folded his arms over the edge of the table. “Black hair, brown eyes.”
“No, they were green,” Lorenz contented. “Maybe a really dark green, but they weren’t brown.”
“I got a closer look at the man than you did. They were brown.”
“Hazel?” Bart asked quickly.
Lorenz snapped his fingers. “I believe they were.”
“Oh, and he was from England too,” Carney added.
He didn’t need to hear anymore. Bart stood from his chair, nearly knocking it over. He paid them a hasty goodbye and hurried out onto Royal street. If he was right, which he dearly hoped that he was, he had been waiting for this reunion for nearly a hundred years.
Those smiles and nods he so generously gave to any passersby before were reserved, his mouth set in a grim and determined line as he weaved through the crowd down Royal Street. One left turn onto Du Maine and the tavern came into sight. His nose picked up the old scent, the one he remembered from so long ago, faint traces of a memory he had been afraid to hold onto for all this time.
His wolf spurred him on to walk faster, but he slowed as he reached the tavern. His senses spiked as they had outside the brewery and he took a breath to steady himself before rushing through the doors.
Bart’s eyes skimmed through the faces looking for him. Tavern goers, including merchants, traders, sailors, and some citizens of New Orleans, all congregated around tables. Laughter and conversation roared through the long room, but it all dimmed to Bart when he spotted his son toward the very back. With a mug in his hand, his dark hair was combed back and tied with a black ribbon; much like in the same fashion as he had worn when they first met. The lines of his swarthy, handsome face were more distinguished, matured from the youthful looks of a man in his twenties.
Hazel eyes met his and a smile curved over his mouth, one that Bart never expected to receive in his lifetime. They had parted on bad terms. That was never denied. Bart had told himself a thousand times that he would look for James again when the time was right, but all his inquiries in the Caribbean brought up nothing, just like they had before. His son had a marvelous talent for disappearing without a trace.

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About Sheritta Bitikofer

Sheritta Bitikofer is an author of eclectic tastes. When she's not writing her next paranormal or urban fantasy novel, she can be found volunteering at her local animal shelter, shooting archery at a medieval reenactment event, doing Zumba, watching a historical documentary, or having coffee with her husband at their favorite café. A wife and fur-mama to two rescue dogs, she makes time to write engaging and moving stories about shifters, vampires, and magic that enthrall readers from cover to cover.
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