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The rain slapped sheets across the windshield, blurring the yellow glow of the streetlights. Mike heard the clang of a St. Charles streetcar on the median less than a hundred feet from the street, but could not see it in the night darkness.

This was upscale New Orleans, where blocks of multimillion-dollar houses – most unfriendly and pretentious – hunkered among surrounding sections of third-world-style poverty shacks teeming with angry, sick people. He’d long ago started to refuse the stand-up parties – those that involved leaning on hundred-thousand-dollar grand pianos while Mozart or Chopin was expertly, if not loudly, rendered. These were archaic, lifeless caves, excessive living space with echoes. Hell yes, he was jealous, too. The owners had generations of family wealth that he had never had. And they shunned him socially for his lack of aristocratic heritage. He couldn’t help being born poor. It would make more sense, and irritate him less, if these aristocrats turned him away because his breath reeked. Well, maybe their self-perceived splendor was what money did to the soul. He never believed he’d wanted that. Of course it was a rationalization. He’d never had the opportunity to give it a try. He was Cajun, brought up by his mother, worked his way through school next to the privileged, so he was never accepted as one of them. And he believed at times that it was his hard work to grow and thrive in spite of his background that had made him the best surgeon in the state, chief of surgery at the third largest hospital in the country. He’d done it, goddamn it, without the contacts of the upper echelons of New Orleans society. Except, of course, for Clayton. His teacher, his mentor. Clayton guided his promotions and appointments. Professionally, not socially. In the world of surgery. He owed Clayton a lot – at the least, sympathy and guidance that might save Clayton’s career.

He pulled into the drive of Clayton’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century stone house. It had been more than a year since he’d been here. There were sixteen surgeons on service, and, except for department and university functions, Mike never socialized with his colleagues unless absolutely necessary, even after he was appointed chief four years ago.

A lightning flash illuminated the huge live oak in the front yard as he pulled his car under a small portico at the rear of the house to avoid the roof runoff. In the rain-slashed glare of a single spotlight, the wind whipped the banana leaves at the edge of the house. Clayton would probably be in the modern add-on solarium at the rear. The floodlight over the back door was dark, and Mike felt for the bell button and rang.

Catherine, Clayton’s wife, answered. He peered into her wary eyes. He wondered how much she knew. She was two or three years younger than Mike, and more than twenty-five years younger than Clayton. Mike could not imagine Clayton discussing the details of his daily work with her. And to him she’d been pleasant, but distant, always aloof, giving a sense of perpetual subconscious eagerness to be elsewhere. Mike had seen her a few times in the last couple of years, just to say hello in a grocery store, or on the street when she was with Clayton during Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival.

“Clayton in?” he asked. She stood back and he entered.

She wore a gray workout suit with white side-stripes. Her black hair was in a ponytail, and in the weak ambient light that filtered in from the dining room her face was unusually pale; she wore no makeup. He had always found her attractive, and even in workout clothes she had an elegance he admired.