Beguiled

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One

New Orleans, 1895

Sunlight glittered through the windows of the St. Louis Hotel, casting bizarre shadows over the dead body of Jean Cuvier. A sparrow trilled a happy song in the courtyard outside the posh hotel suite, the sound eerie and disturbing. Layla Cuvier stared at the corpse of her husband lying on the floor and knew that from this day forward, her life would forever be changed.

No longer will I have to endure his touch.

Her eyes confirmed what Colette, her servant, had told her. Jean lay sprawled on the floor, his brown robe wrapped around him, his face a peculiar shade of pink. Needing the confirmation of what seemed so obvious, she reached down and touched his hand. The feel of cool flesh beneath her fingers sent a shudder through her and she recoiled in revulsion.

"Mrs. Cuvier, a doctor is on his way and the hotel manager has sent for the police," said Colette, wringing her hands in an anxious manner.

Layla felt numb as she stared at the man she had shared a house with for the last year. As his wife, she should feel sorrow at his death, but relief and a sense of peace filled her. She had barely tolerated Jean’s presence.

She rose and nodded to her servant and friend. "Please help me dress before the doctor arrives."

"Of course," the maid said, but glanced at her hesitantly.

"Did Mr. Cuvier say anything about feeling ill?" Layla asked, gazing at her husband’s still form.

"No. But I went to bed before you retired," the maid said. "Did you hear him call out?"

"After I shut my bedroom door, I heard nothing last night," Layla said, knowing the sleeping draught had ended her insomnia. The draught created a dream world filled with people and color, and a world so different from reality. Yet she would have heeded Jean’s call if she had heard his cry for help. "So many nights he slept in the chair."

And Layla loved the nights he left her alone.

"It’s so sudden. How do you think he died?" Colette asked.

"I don’t know. He hasn’t been ill." Layla gave Jean one last glance, stunned at his death. Their last conversation was an ugly reminder of his evil ways and she couldn’t help but wonder if his heart could have failed him. Though their marriage had been a farce, she had never expected him to die. "Let’s hurry. I’d rather greet the authorities fully dressed."

"Are you all right?" Colette asked gazing at her worriedly as they entered Layla’s bedroom. "You seem so composed."

Layla gave the woman a quick glance as she shed her nightgown. "I’m a little shaken, yet I feel strangely calm."

Calm and relieved, she hoped that now his ugly secrets would die with him and she could escape this farce of a marriage and return to her home.

Hurriedly Layla chose a black dress appropriate for a widow. She had barely gotten her ebony hair swept up off her neck in a coiffure that left wisps of curls swirling around her face when Colette opened the door to the police. They swarmed into the suite, covering the rooms like a bevy of ants.

Layla stepped out of her bedroom, and into the doorway of Jean’s bedroom to watch with interest as a uniformed policeman leaned over Jean’s prostrate body lying on the floor.

The voices of the officers seemed distant and removed and the scene before her surreal, like a colorful nightmare.

A short ugly little man dressed in a shabby brown suit separated from the others and walked toward Layla.

"Mrs. Cuvier?" he asked, his intimidating eyes focused on her.

"Yes?" She felt as if he stared deeply into her soul, but she had nothing to hide and met his gaze, undaunted by his beady gaze.

"Detective Dunegan of the New Orleans Police."

They walked the short distance to the lavishly decorated parlor of the suite.

"Please sit." She pointed to a chair in the small sitting area as she sat across from him.

"How did your husband die?" he asked. He took out a notepad and a pencil from his tattered coat pocket.

"I don’t know. My maid awakened me this morning with the news that she’d found Mr. Cuvier lying on the floor of his bedroom. I hurried into his room, where I found him lying there, his body already cold," she said, clenching her hands in her lap. "I have no idea how long he's been dead."

Layla glanced toward the bedroom, half expecting Jean to walk through the door, laughing that he had fooled them all.

"When did you last see him alive?" the detective asked.

She thought back to the night before. They had fought fiercely and she had been determined to return home to Baton Rouge this morning. She had intended to meet with an attorney to see what kind of legal recourse was available to her, but miraculously nature had taken care of things.

Now she prayed the ugly truth would die with Jean and she could return to her previous life. She licked her lips nervously.

"The last time I saw Mr. Cuvier was around midnight," she said, remembering how she had left him in the parlor asleep in the very chair the detective occupied.

A man stood in the doorway to Jean’s room with a stethoscope hanging around his neck. "Detective Dunegan, can I speak with you a moment5"

Through the open window, she could hear laughter in the courtyard of the hotel, the sound incongruous with the atmosphere in the suite.

The two men disappeared into the bedroom. Their muffled voices held an excited undertone, though she could not understand what they said. As the minutes passed, she sat feeling more nervous, wondering whom she should contact regarding jean’s death.

"Now where were we?" he asked. "Oh, that’s right. You said the last time you saw the deceased was around midnight." He paused and frowned at her. "Did you and Mr. Cuvier sleep in separate rooms?"

"Yes. My husband kept odd hours, and I have trouble sleeping and don’t like to be disturbed."

"So, you heard nothing in the night? He didn’t call out to you for help or assistance?"

"No, I took a dose of a sleeping draught not long after he came home." She gave the detective a puzzled glance. "Do you always ask these kinds of questions when a man dies?"

"I’m just doing my job, Mrs. Cuvier," he said matter-of-factly.

Layla glanced around and noticed that more and more policemen seemed to be filling the hotel suite. They stood around in little clusters talking, occasionally glancing in her direction. A few of the officers seemed to be combing the room as if they were looking for something.

"What are they doing?" she asked alarmed. She had never heard of the police doing this when someone died.

The atmosphere seemed charged with some ominous foreboding that she didn’t understand.

He ignored her question. "How would you describe your marriage to Mr. Cuvier?"

"Why are you asking me these questions? How could my relationship to my husband be any of your business?" she asked, distressed. "He’s dead! Shouldn’t you be calling the coroner?"

"Ma’am, the coroner is with your husband. Now please, Mrs. Cuvier, just answer the question."

She gazed at the detective, feeling suddenly uneasy.

"Our marriage was fine. My husband traveled frequently and we seldom saw one another," she said, a cold chill going down her spine. She glanced back to see a policeman coming out of her room holding her vial of laudanum in his hand. "Where is he taking my medicine?"

"Don’t worry, Mrs. Cuvier, it will be returned to you in good time," the detective said, not looking at her, but nodding to the policeman.

Uneasiness filled her every breath and she didn’t understand why the police seemed so engrossed with Jean’s death. "How did my husband die?"

"I’m asking the questions, Mrs. Cuvier," the detective said, ignoring her query. "Did you and your husband have an argument last night?"

She paused looking at the man, uncertain how to answer the question. "We had a slight disagreement"

You selfish bastard! The words she had yelled at Jean reverberated through her mind and she knew she could never tell them the whole truth about their quarrel. Otherwise they would think she had been involved in his death.

"What was the fight about?"

"It was such a minor disagreement, I scarcely recall," she lied. "I think I’ve told you enough. You need to tell me why you’re asking all these questions."

The detective gazed at her, his eyes cold. The room became silent and she felt like hundreds of eyes were focused on her. A creeping sensation started along the base of her spine and suddenly she felt afraid. Everyone stared at her as if she had done something horrible.

Even the bird that chirped noisily through the window had ceased its singing and all sound was suspended in uncanny silence.

"How did my husband die?" she insisted, her voice rising. The detective watched her, his beady eyes intent. "Tell me!"

"According to Doctor Benson, your husband was poisoned."

The room seemed to fade as Layla felt her body go numb. Poisoned? "Oh—Oh my. No. It couldn’t be, that’s impossible."

As soon as she uttered the words, she knew a whole host of people who would like to see her husband dead. And before the day was over, there would probably be even more who cheered at the news.

"Oh, God!" she said, realizing the depth of trouble that would soon surround her.

"Can you tell me what your husband ate or drank last night?"

Uneasy, Layla swallowed. "I don’t know what he had for supper, since he wasn’t here. I gave him his usual cup of tea before he went to bed."

She knew she had put laudanum in his drink, as she often did, but she had not intentionally killed him, and she had definitely not poisoned him.

Could she have given him too much?

A shiver ran through her. Did she, accidentally kill Jean with her antidote for passion? The detective stared at her, waiting.

He leaned in close, his voice demanding. "Did you poison your husband, Mrs. Cuvier?"

Her heart pounded in her chest. They would think that she killed Jean if they found out what she had learned last night, the reason for their fight, the fact that her marriage was a complete farce.

"Of course not! I would never kill anyone," she said emphatically.

"You’re extremely calm and cool, considering your husband just died. You haven’t shed a tear."

Layla couldn’t help but realize what he said was true. She didn’t feel any grief or remorse that Jean was dead, only a sense of relief at being free, but that didn’t mean she had killed him.

"My father arranged my marriage to Jean. Ours was more a marriage of convenience. But I would never poison him. That would be a sin."

Silence echoed in the room filled with people eager to hear her every word. She closed her eyes, hoping that when she opened them, she would awake and realize this was just a nightmare, not reality.

"You said you gave your husband a cup of tea. Did you put anything in his tea last night Mrs. Cuvier?" She glanced away, wanting to lie, knowing whatever she said would incriminate her even though she was innocent.

"I didn’t kill Jean!" she said gazing at him.

"Answer the question, Mrs. Cuvier," he said, his voice harsh and forceful. "Did you put anything in Mr. Cuvier’s tea?"

She swallowed nervous, knowing no one would believe her innocent. "I—I put a touch of laudanum in his tea."

A gasp sounded in the room.

She responded quickly. "To help him sleep. He didn’t sleep well. I did it all the time and he’s never had a reaction before." She clenched her fists. "I didn’t kill Jean."

The detective tensed, but said nothing. His pencil scratched noisily against his notepad as he hurriedly wrote her comments.

When he looked up, his face was expressionless, his eyes intense, like a hunter closing in on its prey.

"Mrs. Cuvier, I need to interview your servants. Could I ask you to wait in your bedroom? When I’m ready to continue our interview, I’ll let you know."

"You want me to just sit in my room and wait for you?"

He raised his bushy brows. "Yes, ma’am."

Layla stared at him in shock. How could he think she killed Jean? Sure, she hated him, but she could never harm him or anyone else, for that matter. This was crazy. Everything seemed to be spinning out of control. Since yesterday her life had disintegrated into shambles.

"I didn’t kill my husband," she said one more time as she rose from her chair. She walked toward her bedroom, her head held high, wanting to pack her suitcase, knowing instinctively that it would be the wrong thing to do. She sat down in a chair by the window and stared out at the courtyard below. How could this be happening?

She hated Jean, but to the world they had presented the image of a happily married couple, keeping their problems behind the closed doors of her bedroom. But to physically harm him would damn her forever, and even Jean wasn’t worth spending eternity in hell. She had prayed her life would change, but never this drastically. And never like this.

For what seemed like forever, though probably less than an hour, Layla sat looking out the window, watching the birds flitter about the courtyard as they flew from one tree to another. Caged and restless, she wished she could fly away so easily. Finally, the door opened and the detective walked in followed by two women. Layla refused to acknowledge them, fear gripping her insides with a tightening hook.

"Ma’am," the detective said, releasing a young blonde woman who had come in with him. "Tell these women how the man you’re suspected of killing was related to you."

What? They hadn’t officially charged her with anything. Was this some kind of trick? She turned toward the door and gazed at the detective, trying not to react to his words and contain a cool composure. "I told you I did not kill my husband."

The blonde woman with eyes red-rimmed from crying moaned. "What are you saying? No! You lie. You can’t be married to Jean."

Layla knew in that instant who the two women were and she didn’t know how to respond. She felt so ashamed, yet she had done nothing wrong. Jean had duped her just like the others.

"Did you marry Jean Cuvier?" the older distinguished-looking woman asked, her expression calm, though her green eyes shimmered with tears.

"Yes," Layla responded, a slight quiver to her voice.

"That can’t be. He married me. He’s my husband," the blonde woman said, her voice rising, her pain and hurt audible in the bedroom.

Layla resisted the urge to tell her she could have Jean. She had never wanted him.

"And mine," the other woman said quietly, as she sank down onto a nearby chair. "I’m Marian Cuvier. I married Jean twelve years ago at Saint Anne’s Cathedral."

The blonde turned abruptly and stared at her in disbelief. "No. That’s impossible." She paused, her face twisted into a mask of horror. "No. We were married four years ago. I don’t understand. He would never do something so horrible."

"And I married him a year ago," Layla whispered, painfully aware of how they had been deceived and how the world would soon know of Jean’s deceit.

"Impossible. Jean loved me. That’s . . . that’s bigamy!" the blonde woman said, shaking her head from side to side.

"Yes, it is bigamy. We were all married to the same man," Marian replied. Her voice sounded hollow and she appeared to be in shock. "And now we’re all Jean’s widows. The Cuvier Widows."

Layla stared at Jean’s wives and knew that though she had only found out about her husband’s perfidy twenty-four hours earlier, she would never reveal she knew beforehand of Jean’s terrible deeds. For if the detective found out, he would surely believe that she had killed Jean in response to learning of his deceit. And though she hated him for his lies, she could never have killed him.

***

Layla stood in the reception area of the attorney’s office, feeling out of place as she presented her back to

Nicole, Jean’s second wife. An air of suspicion and hostility emanated from the woman, making Layla want to return to the hotel. A week of suspicion and distrust had passed since Jean’s death.

The only reason she had come to the reading of the will was the hope that somehow she would be able to get her home in Baton Rouge back and maybe even her father’s business. The business seemed doubtful, since Cuvier Shipping had absorbed her father’s smaller company, her birthright. She only wanted the cash from the sale, if possible.

As if she hadn’t suffered more than enough shocks this week, when she had received the notice from Jean’s attorney to attend the reading of the will, the name had jumped out at her like a bad dream. Drew Soulier, a boy she had known a short time in school, though she doubted he would remember her. Children of riverboat owners seldom associated with judge’s children. And like his father, Drew was now a lawyer. Jean’s crooked lawyer, the very man she had recently learned had drawn up the contract between Jean and her father.

If she had been more involved with her husband’s life, she would have known that his lawyer was someone she knew, but she had avoided Jean and his business as much as possible. Especially in the days since her father’s death, when it became clear that Jean had lied to her father and absorbed his shipping company. Gone was her inheritance and now she stood in Drew Soulier’s office, her husband’s shyster lawyer, embroiled in a humiliating bigamy scandal.

A door slammed in the reception area, snapping her attention back to the present. Mr. Fournet, Jean’s business partner, followed Marian Cuvier. "I’m locking the door, Drew," he called. "The press knows we’re here."

Oh, God, the press. Tension emanated from Layla, for the last week she had hid from newspapermen, seldom leaving the hotel, avoiding even answering her suite door.

"Quick thinking, Louis," Drew replied.

Tail, dark, and imposing, Drew had changed very little in the years since she had last seen him. Certainly he had grown more handsome with his sparkling, emerald eyes, straight nose and strong jaw giving Drew the appearance of a serious attorney. But Layla couldn’t help but remember the way Drew helped swindle her father.

"Mrs. Cuvier, how are you?" Drew asked. He took hold of Marian’s hand and turned his charm on the woman who would pay his fees, Jean’s first and legal wife.

"I’m fine, Mr. Soulier," the cool, sophisticated woman replied as she glanced around the room taking in the other participants.

Layla stood opposite the second widow, Nicole, hoping Drew wouldn’t speak to her. What could she say to the man who had helped ruin her father and now herself in a room full of strangers? Nothing that polite society would accept.

Drew whispered to the legal Mrs. Cuvier something that Layla could not hear. His eyes turned and gazed in Nicole and Layla’s direction, and she felt certain he whispered about her.

"No," Marian said quickly. "Let us all hear Jean’s wishes at the same time," she said loud enough to make Layla realize they weren’t speaking of her personally.

"All right. As you wish," Drew replied and turned toward the other women. "Ladies, tea and refreshments are in my office. Please, go inside so we can get started."

He motioned for them to proceed ahead of him.

Marian entered first, followed by Nicole, and finally Layla entered the dark paneled room with two walls of bookshelves. This hierarchy seemed to apply to them even in the reading of the will.

Layla entered, her eyes downcast, hoping she could get through this without having Drew acknowledge her. She only wanted her home back. She longed to return to the city the French had named after the red stick that impaled the heads of bear and fish the Indians used as a boundary marker for the two tribes. Baton Rouge had always called to her heart.

Drew shut the door, enclosing them all together in the cramped room. Like a fine perfume, anxiety seemed to emanate from the women.

Nicole inclined her head in Marian’s direction. "Mrs. Cuvier."

Marian returned her nod. Layla, stood with her back straight, her eyes fixed on a distant object, though she could feel Marian Cuvier’s interest. She needed to say something to the lady, to tell her she had never meant to intentionally hurt her or her children. In fact Layla hated Jean even more for the terrible position he had put them all in.

Tension spun around the three women like a fine cloak, wrapping them in its arms, spurring Layla to act.

"Mrs. Cuv..." Layla stumbled over the name.

"I think it would be so much easier, if we dropped the formalities and called each other by our given names," Marian said, glancing at each woman.

Layla nodded. "Please. I intend to assume my maiden name again."

"I think that’s wise," Marian said crisply.

A taut silence seemed to hang suspended in the air. Marian walked around the desk until she faced the other wives.

"This is an extremely awkward situation we find ourselves in. The press is outside just waiting for us to succumb to arguing over whatever crumbs Jean tossed our way." She sighed and stared at them, her expression resigned. "Ladies, I have no desire to come to blows over a man who deceived me like my . . . our dead husband. I only wish to take care of my children and live in peace without them being tarnished by their father’s scandal."

Marian paused and gazed at each woman. "Keep in mind, I shall certainly do what I must to protect my babies."

Layla let out a long sigh. "I understand. But Jean lied to me as well."

Nicole removed her hat from her blonde hair and laid the bonnet on a nearby table. "Excuse me, but I loved Jean very much. Though I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t tell me the truth." She took out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "It’s so unfair that he died knowing all the reasons he did this but keep­ing the reasons from us. Surely there’s an explanation."

Marian glanced at Nicole as if she were speaking to a child.

"I’m sure he could give you one, but why do you care? He lied to all of us. If he were alive, he wouldn’t tell you the truth. He would just invent some new excuse to protect himself," Marian said, her voice kind but resolute.

Nicole shook her head in disagreement. "But I loved him."

"We all did at some time in our life," Marian said, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

"I hated him," Layla stated, her voice quivering with emotion.

Everyone stared at her in stunned silence and she knew she should have remained quiet, but the words had spilled uncensored from her lips, her eyes teary at the thought of how he had deceived them all and taken everything she loved from her.

She closed her eyes, wishing that this would just go away, fearing the coming days could only get worse.

"Ladies, we need to get started," Drew said, standing beside the door, ending their impromptu confessions. "Why don’t you all take a seat?"

Layla watched as Drew seated the three women in chairs placed strategically apart, while Louis Fournet stood at the back of the room his arms folded across his chest. When Drew glanced at her, she saw no sign of recognition in his gaze.

Drew cleared his throat. "Before I read the will, I want to acknowledge some facts and let you all know why I invited Louis Fournet. He is co-owner of Cuvier Shipping and for that reason I requested his presence here today." He paused, looking at each of them. "I must clarify my position in this difficult situation. If I had known of Jean entering into any act of marriage with more than one woman, I would have advised against such an unlawful arrangement I knew nothing of your supposed marriages."

Layla bit her lip to keep from retorting to his blatant lie. How could he not have known that Jean had married her after he had arranged the contract that bought her father’s business?

Drew glanced down at the will he held in his hands holding them all in suspense. "According to Louisiana law the only legal marriage the state recognizes is the first one to Marian Cuvier. I’m sorry to say, Nicole, that your marriage and Layla’s are not binding. Unless he names you specifically in the will, you receive nothing. If you had been his mistress and he had named you in the will, then you would inherit. But as an illegal spouse, you receive nothing unless you’re named in the will."

A tense stillness filled the room.

He cleared his throat and turned to Layla. "Jean wrote this will four years ago." He paused his gaze lingering sympathetically on Layla, as her stomach clenched with the realization. "I’m sorry, but the will was written before your marriage."

Cold reality washed over Layla, and she trembled in fear as she realized the extent of her loss. A gasp escaped as she opened her mouth, the words seeming to hang suspended, before she managed to speak. "I have nothing?" she asked, perplexed. "What will I do? Where will I go?"

She stood, feeling as if she moved in slow motion. "You don’t understand! Jean bankrupted my father’s business. My father made me marry him, just so that I would be taken care of. Our shipping company had been the family business for three generations before it was taken over by Cuvier Shipping. Now I have no means of support. I have nothing!"

Drew shook his head. "I’m sorry, Layla. Legally, everything belongs to Jean’s estate including the house and the business."

Layla swallowed the knot that seemed to swell inside her throat. She glanced around the room in disbelief. "I have to leave my home?"

"Yes, it’s in Jean’s name."

Tears pooled in her eyes as she tried to absorb this startling revelation.

"How long before I have to leave the house?" Layla asked, visibly trembling.

"Jean appointed me executor of his will. I’ll give you thirty days to find another residence. Is that agreeable, Marian?" Drew asked.

"Yes, please give her all the time she needs to find another place to live," Marian said, her voice filled with understanding.

"Thank you." Layla stood, her knees shook, but she couldn’t stand another moment here in this office with these women and especially Drew. "I have to leave ... I can’t stay ... I have to think about what I’m going to do. I must get out of here."

Flinging open the door to Drew’s office, she ran out into the entryway. A sob echoed in the hall as she fumbled with the lock, then yanked open the outside portal and hurried out, letting the door slam behind her. Jean and his ruthless lawyer had taken everything that she loved and left her with nothing but broken dreams and scandal.

***

Layla walked the length of the suite, wringing her hands, her heart pounding inside her chest, like the warnings echoing in her ears.

With no home, no money, and only the clothes on her back considered her own, she had lost everything. The law deemed everything Jean’s property. A mistress could have received more than she.

The suite seemed sinister since Jean’s death and with the reading of the will she determined to leave as soon as possible and return to Baton Rouge. She didn’t want to stay here with the constant memory of Jean’s body lying prostrate on the floor.

Frustration at the drastic changes in her life this last week made Layla want to lash out at anyone within hearing distance. When she had returned to the hotel, she had immediately released the servants, though Colette refused to leave her side. They had been together only a short time, but the woman insisted that Jean had paid her salary in advance and promised to stay until Layla was settled.

For the first time in her life Layla had no ties. No family, no friends, not even a relative living within a hundred miles. Her father and Jean had been her entire life and now both of them were dead. Alone and broke, she felt desperate.

Her only recourse seemed to be to return to the school where she had taught before she married Jean. There at least, room and board would be provided, though she received only a pittance of a salary. With the newspapers filled with stories of the three women, it was doubtful anyone would hire her, including the nuns at the Sacred Heart, but she had no choice but to try.

"Ma’am," Colette said, gazing at her anxiously.

"Yes?" She halted in front of the servant.

"The hotel manager left this note while you were out today." Colette handed her the crisp linen paper.

Anxious Layla broke the wax seal and quickly scanned the missive. "Holy Mother, protect us!"

She glanced up at Colette. "Mr. Sharp has sent me an itemized statement of the charges for our suite. He’s also inquiring as to when we’ll be checking out. I never realized how much it cost to stay here."

"Surely Mr. Cuvier wanted the expenses charged to Cuvier Shipping," Colette said.

"Maybe so. But I have no ties to that company any longer, and I doubt they would continue to pay my expenditures." Her heart sank, feeling as if the weight of the world pressed her down.

"Talk to Mr. Cuvier’s attorney. He can find a way to pay the hotel bill. After all, Mr. Cuvier brought us here."

Layla felt a moment of unease, yet what choice did she have? With no money to pay the bill her only other alternative was to sneak out in the middle of the night. She had never done anything so scandalous in all her life, but the thought of facing Drew again seemed even tougher.

"I don’t think I can face him again and be civil. I ran out of his office today," she said, remembering the young law clerk who chased after her and had seen her safely to the hotel. "We may have no choice but to leave in the middle of the night."

Colette shook her head. "You can’t! Reporters are crawling all over this hotel. Two have taken a room on this very floor. Plus, I noticed a policeman down in the lobby. They’re watching you. They’ll think you’re running."

Layla swallowed, pushing down the bile that threatened to rise in her throat. Colette was right. Running away would do no good. Drew owed her at least this small request considering the impact Jean had on her life, not to mention his own.

An overwhelming sense of anger filled her at her changing circumstances. She had hoped the news Frank, her godfather, had given her the night of Jean’s death would change her life for the better, not cause her to cringe in fear. But now she must keep his news a secret for she feared the police would use it against her.

"All right. I’ll send Mr. Soulier the bill."