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Siren

“We are credited with a fleet that Edward Teach himself would have given his black beard and liver to assemble. You are depicted with sea snakes in your hair and a voice like Circe’s, that has drawn me to a thousand crimes. And when we couple it is on the ocean bed, amongst Spanish bullion strewn with the skulls of the drowned, their eye sockets bulging with emeralds and rubies.”

Such is Jean Laffite’s ironical warning to privateer Léonore Roncival. But the danger is real, and more intimate than either dares to admit. 

They first meet when Jean Laffite invades her island, and they stand opposed in a dramatic struggle when the United States take on Britain in the War of 1812. This historical adventure, that American Booklist hailed as 'a grand and glorious delight', sweeps from the coral cays of the Caribbean to wealthy and extravagant New Orleans. It is the story of freebooter Léonore Roncival and the legendary pirate, Jean Laffite. A story of desire and possession, of warships and islands, and the treacherous reefs that lie between.

DID YOU KNOW?
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans is coming up in 2015! Siren will be released in Kindle to help commemorate the renowned American victory against crushing odds. 

 

I started researching Jean Laffite back in 1998, and from that moment I couldn't resist writing Siren. What could be more dramatic, when he's a pirate, she's a pirate and they have to decide whether to fight each other or the English? The turbulent years from 1809 to 1815 were an extraordinary time in the story of America, culminating in the Battle of New Orleans, one of America's most glorious victories. Jean Laffite (yes, that's how he spelled his name) was an amazing man—tall, dark, handsome, and dangerous to cross. I wanted his passionate rival to be a much stronger woman than the pale and powerless creatures the movie makers have depicted in films about Jean—and I hope you'll find Léonore Roncival lives up to that promise!

In 1809, when Leonore Roncival inherited a coral island in the Caribbean from her privateer father, she had no clear plans for the islanders' future. But the pirate Jean Laffite made up her mind for her. In an invasion made possible by the treachery of her own lieutenant, Laffite found her half-naked in her private cove, took over fortress and village, and laid claim to the island. She managed to turn the tables on him only because some of her men remained hidden in the forest and mounted a surprise attack under cover of darkness.

        Three hours later she stood on the beach within a circle of flares and studied the last of Laffite's force drawn up to face her on the sand. Behind them, rocking gently in the waves, was the tender from Laffite's Raleigh, with four sailors seated between shipped oars.
        All the inhabitants of the island, men, women and the few children, were gathered about her in a giant crescent on the sand. Her new lieutenant, Santo, stood at her side, watching the men who waited before them at the water's edge.
        Barrel-chested Dominique You, his gray eyes narrowed, paid no heed to the weapons trained on him. He was clearly a man without fear, but she had seen his face when two of his cannon were taken off the Raleigh, and the sight seemed to bring him physical pain.
        Laffite's captain, beside him, was a picture of murderous resentment. One hand was bound up in clean linen and held in a sling across his chest, his skin was gray and he was swaying on his feet, but the look he gave her and Santo was one of energetic hatred.
        The man who had betrayed the island stood between them both, looking down at the sand where two trunks and a bag of his effects were waiting to be loaded into the tender. People had murmured when these were brought to the beach; now that everyone knew his treachery they saw no reason why he should take anything away with him. But Leonore had insisted that he be allowed his possessions. He was leaving behind him the work and achievements of ten years, forced to join people who held him cheap, and meanwhile he must witness Santo standing already in his old place. He was a broken man.
        She addressed her armed men at the shore. "Shove them into the boat. All except Monsieur Laffite."
        This confused everyone, but their gear was thrown into the tender nonetheless and the men forced to board. Dominique You was reluctant to leave Laffite on the sand but eventually climbed into the boat under the influence of two bayonets and a quick, low word from his leader. She said, "You are all free to go. But do it in the next twenty seconds or we open fire."
        There was a deep growl at this from the people around her and she saw even Santo stiffen. No one really comprehended what she was doing. If she were to keep their loyalty, the events of the next few moments must spell the clearest of messages to their understanding.
        "I am counting."
        Again at a signal from Laffite, the boat began to leave the shore. It was a strange departure: the ill-assorted group on board sat at awkward angles, gazing alternately back at the flame-lit beach and out to the Raleigh, moored amongst the reflections of its yellow riding lights that shimmered on the indigo water of the lagoon. And in the foreground was Laffite's tall, nonchalant figure, facing the hostile crowd.
        She walked toward him and the others instinctively drew in. "Monsieur Santo, two men. I want his arms behind his back." Santo gestured to the men. "You have what I asked for?"
        Her lieutenant nodded and she saw his broad shoulders relax. She was making it evident to all that she had conferred with him before taking these steps. It was a confirmation of his new status that would ensure respect for him and order on the island for at least one more night.
        Then she faced Laffite. It occurred to her that she should be triumphant but instead she trembled inwardly, with exhaustion and resentment. All her choices, from the second he set foot on the island, had been taken in response to the situation he had dictated. In one day he had changed for ever her vision of the future, and the only relief in this extremity was that no one but he could possibly guess what he had done to her.
        "The tide is high again. The Raleigh must leave now, to get over the reef. If she strikes it in the dark, it will be by your own miscalculation in coming here."
        He said nothing and the midnight gaze was unfathomable. The diamond in his spotless white shirt winked with the easy regularity of his breathing and his face showed no hint of the brutal pressure the men behind him exerted on his arms and shoulders.
        She pitched her voice so all could hear. "Monsieur Laffite, as you confessed to me tonight, you came here for the brigantine, the arms and the Roncival treasure."
        There was a rustle of interest and curiosity behind her. But she was not going to tell him where the brigantine was, beyond the western end of the beach, in a channel cut in the stream where they careened the big ships. When he arrived, most of her men had been working on the vessel, which had been dismasted and hauled up into the trees to keep it concealed.
        "The brigantine is a phantom that is not yet destined to appear to you. But Monsieur Santo and his men were with her when you sailed past the point. The sentries ran there with the warning."
        He spoke for the first time. "So you had them hide first and attack later. How did you make the signal?"
        "With a mirror. From my chamber." She kept her voice quite clear. "I shall leave you to speculate about the magazine. As for the treasure: I am the only person on earth who knows where that is. And you are the last person on earth I would choose to tell."
        The crowd was now quite silent around her. A few moments more, and it could be the silence of complete approval. But everything depended on how she handled Laffite; and at this crucial point she was assailed by powerful uncertainty. She was facing one of the most feared men in the Caribbean and the Gulf, and something about his very stillness underlined the multitude of means he could use against her if she let him go. Yet on the other hand, in his arrogant and perplexing way, he had talked before of an alliance.
        She stood even closer to him and the silence intensified, as though everyone's thoughts were leaping high like the torch flames into the night air, without a soul daring to speak.
        She forced out the words. "You were right, Monsieur Laffite. You need some lessons in diplomacy." She managed a slow, taunting smile, into his eyes. "We all know what you came for. And you got none of it." She raised her bare arms and put them on his shoulders, against his neck. He moved involuntarily, as though at the sudden coolness against his hot skin. The people behind her drew a concerted, expectant breath.
        "You spoke of allies. That's as may be. This is farewell."
        She had planned it. This was a gesture calculated to sweep into oblivion the imposition of his body on hers in the cove. To stage another encounter where the ambushed prey this time was male. To burn away one searing injury with another and expose him to the mockery he thought he had reserved for her.
        There was a murmur of startled amusement when her arms tightened and her lips approached his; there was a roar of ribald disbelief when she closed the embrace; but she heard neither. She had expected resistance, yet he did not or could not summon it. The response, from his lips alone, enveloped her as though his trapped arms encircled her waist and they stood pressed together in a dark haven, far from the shouts and laughter and fire of their present meeting place. It was as though he spoke through the firm lips that were moulded to hers, in words that hummed in her ears, filled her head, seized her by the throat.
        Her arms tightened and her body swayed against him. The moment swelled, occupied by one loud, single heartbeat. His mouth moved on hers and her senses expanded to take in the scent of his skin, a hint of oak from the sea chest where he kept his clothes, smoke in his black hair.
        It took memory and will to break the bond. It took a flash of her former outrage to erupt into her mind, and with violent haste she flung her arms wide and staggered back.
        White fire burned behind her eyes and for a second she could not even focus on his features. Another tremor ran through her and to stay upright she retreated another step and rested one hand on Santo's shoulder.
        "Now take off your clothes."
        The air exploded with a raucous shout and her gaze became concentrated again, in time to see the handsome face before her alter at last. He grimaced in stunned disbelief, then clamped his teeth together so that the bones stood out starkly above his lean cheeks. His eyes, glittering, raked hers briefly then looked up and beyond her as though searching for help from the sky.
        She had goaded him profoundly, putting him more effectively at bay than any of the people around her could have imagined. Now their crowing laughter, whistles and catcalls expressed, in delicious compliment to them both, exactly what everyone expected to see when he was stripped of his breeches.
        She let the pandemonium last half a minute. Then she beckoned forward the man with the grenade.
        Laffite saw him at once and froze, but it took the rest of the crowd a moment or two to catch the full, dire significance. Meanwhile she repeated her order and the two men behind Laffite shifted their grip and tugged the black coat from his shoulders and over his arms. Twisting, he ripped it from their hands and flung it on the sand in front of him.
        "Stand back."
        His tone was such that they could not have moved more promptly if he had held a pistol.
        He did not meet her eye. Instead, as he began to unfasten the shirt, he directed all his mute scorn at Santo. She kept her hand on Santo's shoulder, watching the methodical disrobing as the cries, whistles and hooting around them, by some strange sympathy, began slowly to diminish.
        He kicked off his shoes. Then his long fingers, which had finished unraveling the ties of the shirt, slipped the diamond from the lace cravat and let it fall. At that moment the tide, creeping further up the sand, sent the tip of a wave curling around his feet and the jewel tumbled forward under a sheen of water. There was a quick murmur from the onlookers but he did not glance down.He pulled the shirt from around his waist, twitched it over his head and threw it up the beach. He did not look at her, but there was no fear or embarrassment in his eyes, and no hesitation as he bent and with swift movements stripped himself smoothly of breeches and hose.
        He straightened, and there was a hush.
        In the light of the torches the tall form was golden. The one mark upon his skin, the bloodied bruise made by her teeth when he first caught her, served only to emphasize the smoothness of the hard, curved contours of his chest. His body seemed shaped not by his rough life of seafaring and enterprise but by some sculptor who had thought only of beauty and pleasure in its fashioning. He stood as he had when he faced her in the cove, and the set of his straight shoulders, the easy stance of his lean hips, lent him the same unconscious grace.
        The black, unreadable eyes were fixed on the brute with the grenade. She had not the slightest doubt that he recalled her first angry threat, when she told him what they did to intruders on the island. Now she tried, and failed, to read his expression as he examined the grenade she had chosen: the tight cylinder packed with gunpowder, the corded wick, the rough wooden shaft in the grip of the man's broad hand.
        She would never know how much she might have thrilled or terrified him in the last few minutes. All she knew was that the sight of the weapon had quelled some of the havoc wrought in him by her embrace. And meanwhile what filled her own eyes was the lithe, strong body where ease and strength resided together in generous proportions, perfect balance.
        She took her fingers from Santo's shoulder and Laffite instantly looked up. She saw at once, to her bleak surprise, that his concentration had been not on the weapon but on her.
        She tore her gaze from him and beckoned.
        There was movement in the murmuring crowd as a woman came to her. After the hilarity of the last few minutes, people's voices sounded overwrought, uncertain. Feet shifted uneasily in the sand and she sensed the subtle beginnings of doubt and withdrawal.
        She smiled at the woman and took from her a money bag and a length of cord. Making sure everyone could see, she plunged her hand into the bag and held up a fistful of coins. "I should regret to see a guest depart with nothing to show for his visit. So here is Spanish silver, offered with our compliments."
        She gestured to the man with the grenade and he came up the sand towards her. "Wrap this around the cap and tie it."
        She watched him as he fastened the money bag, listening to the sounds of speculation, amusement and guarded approval start to stir amongst the bystanders. When the weapon was ready she gave it to Santo and sent the other man to light a taper at the nearest torch.
        Intent on this last maneuver, she watched Santo walk to the water's edge and take up a position facing the lagoon, a yard away from Laffite. She waited until the man with the taper joined him before she could bring herself to look into Laffite's eyes again. Thus she did not witness the moment when he realized that, against all the odds she had lately proposed, he was going to live.
        So she was not ready for his grin. Alight with savage irony, it held also a spark of his laughter from earlier in the day, of the flash in his eyes when she first appeared before him.
        Santo kept one shoulder turned from Laffite's motionless figure. Without waiting for her command, he touched the wick of the grenade to the taper and extended it behind him. There was a tense hush, pulsing with the beat of the count, then Santo's brawny arm swept forward and the grenade arced, end over end in a spinning tracery of sparks, out over the sleeping lagoon toward the ship.
        A few feet above the surface it exploded with a crack that split the bay, and a red gout of flame opened like a wild rose in the darkness, scattering the coins in a burst of incandescent seeds that flashed over and over across the water until the last one hissed into a wave top and went out.
        "There's the treasure, Monsieur. Now swim for it."
        The torch flames quivered with a boisterous outrush of air as everyone on the beach uttered a final shout of mirth.
        He wasted no time. He stepped back into the sea, swept the deepest of bows to the multitude, straightened and gave her a look from which all hint of a smile had disappeared, then turned and dived smoothly into the waves.

“The Siren” is Léonore Roncival, privateer and mistress of a coral cay during a time when four great nations were disputing the territories of the Caribbean and the Mexican Gulf. In Léonore’s story, history provides a scaffolding for her dream of islands.

Many of the characters in her unique struggle are historical figures, from William and Sophronie Claiborne, Andrew Jackson and lawyer Edward Livingston, to less public people like Adélaïde Maselari, mistress of Pierre Laffite. I chart Jean’s real life in Siren: the establishment of Barataria, the auctions at the Temple, the friendship with General Humbert, Jean’s profitable dealings with the citizens of New Orleans and his long contest with the governor. Siren also includes Jean’s handling of the English flotilla, the Laffites’ war with the Customs officers and the Legislature of Louisiana, the fate of Barataria and the bargain with General Andrew Jackson. And those who meet Jean for the first time in Siren will be pleased to know that in Battle of New Orleans he behaved with the gift for strategy, the coolness and courage he displays within the pages of my book. Two hundred years on, the Battle of New Orleans is celebrated in the city over Christmas-New Year of 2014-15.

I am grateful to the Laffite Society historian Jean Epperson, who praised Siren for its historical authenticity and remarked: “I’m impressed by your geographical knowledge of the region.”

No one knew where Jean Laffite came from, but he and his older brother Pierre set up shops in New Orleans in around 1805 and grew wealthy by selling imported merchandise. Next they obtained letters of marque as privateers from the Republic of Cartagena (see the map), built warehouses on the islands of Lake Barataria and began raiding Spanish ships for their treasure and cargo, which included slaves. Thus the Laffites and their horde of bandits amassed a fortune by smuggling a huge range of contraband into the Territory of Orleans, which in 1804 had become US territory after the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon.

The notables of New Orleans favored the easier-going life they had enjoyed under the former French and Spanish administrations, and the new governor, William Claiborne, found his Legislature less than keen about prosecuting the Laffites, who had friends and customers among the influential families, some of whom even owned ships that operated out of Barataria, commanded by pirates like Dominique You (who, research tells us, may have been another brother, Alexandre Laffite) and ‘Uncle’ Renato Beluche.

In 1813 the Territory became the state of Louisiana. By this time the US was at war with England, and the fear grew that British fleets would come marauding down the eastern seaboard to capture New Orleans, the great southern port through which all the produce of the West issued to the world. The unthinkable happened—an English army devastated Washington itself, and New Orleans became their next target. And who should hold the back door to the city but Jean Laffite and his thousand Baratarians?

At once wooed by the British, who paid him a secret visit, and hounded by Governor Claiborne, who had at last been allocated some troops to send out against him, Jean Laffite famously decided to join forces with the defenders of New Orleans. Quite how this happened, and why, is one of the mysteries in the life of this enigmatic man. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring it with me in Siren.