BOURBON STREET BURN: Sommerville Suspense #2

# 5 Stars! “Detailed ongoing nightmares motivate psychic Anabelle Sommerville to travel to New Orleans to try to understand her past life in Bourbon Street Burn: Sommerville Suspense by Anastasia Amor. With her present life eerily matching aspects of her past life almost 200 years earlier, renowned restaurateur Anabelle meets a Voodoo priest, ghosts, and even a vampire – all with ties to her life as New Orleans’ best chef Belle Duville. Travelling back in time, thinking she will observe what happened with the help of a unique New Orleans drink, a Sazerac, Anabelle is surprised to actually relive many horrifying events. Not sure whom she can trust, Anabelle depends on her abilities as a witch with a brown belt in karate, and makes sure she plays her cards close to the chest. What started out in the past is continuing to play out in the present, with more and more characters becoming involved in the mystery of hidden treasure, unfulfilled loves and unclaimed property. Anabelle has to keep her wits about her to ensure that she doesn’t fall victim to underhanded dealings a second time or, even worse, get stuck in the past.

New Orleans is the perfect setting for a great paranormal fiction fantasy story and Anastasia Amor uses every bit of it to the fullest in Bourbon Street Burn: Sommerville Suspense. Amor captures the present ambiance of the city, along with the historical allure, with strong characters and an exciting plot. The blending of the two lifelines provides plenty of interest while keeping you guessing exactly what stakes each person has in the overall outcome of the adventure. A great read with excitement, intrigue, action and lust galore; you will be sorry to come to the end, wishing there could be more.  Melinda Hills Readers’ Favorite

Chapter 1: THE FOOL

TO DIE FOR…

Shimmering vintage bourbon enhanced with Peychaud’s bitters, a dash of quality French Absinthe and the piėce de résistance—a squeeze of lime. With one slight change it was his concept. Rene sniffed, tossing a strand of black hair back from his forehead. He knew his version was more popular than Antoine’s. So what if he was a fraud for using their recipe. Stealing paid off. The wealthiest citizen of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, was the most notorious pirate of them all. Lafitte gave them what they wanted, just like Rene Renard.

Tilting his glass to the light, the restaurateur admired the sparkling shades of bronze before bringing the Sazerac to his lips and throwing it back. The liquor burned his throat, searing its way down and finally punching his gut like exploding dynamite. Rene coughed, quickly reaching for the white linen handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket. After wiping his mouth he examined the red-stained cloth before tossing it on the table in disgust. Pushing the dinner plate loaded with steamed oysters away, he jiggled the table to steady himself and stood to his full height of six feet.

Staggering to the stairway Rene gripped the wooden railing tightly, teetering up the winding staircase, his tall frame casting a wobbly shadow on the creamy wall. At the landing he paused to stare at an oil painting in an elaborate gilded frame. In a high-waisted lacy peach gown, a silk wrap over one tawny shoulder, the blonde exuded a deliberate air of sexuality. The artist had painted her so that no matter where the viewer stood, her eyes would follow. They were bewitching eyes, a brilliant azure as blue as the Gulf.

Like a bloom on the verge of opening, she waited for a single glimmer of sunlight, a ray to pierce through the clouds. He would never be that ray. She had made sure of that.

On the upper floor he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the excessively decorated room he admired. The larger than life Egyptian statue at the entrance stood proudly, arms crossed, ebony eyes glimmering with ancient wisdom. The pharaoh wore a shoulder-length headdress, made of tiny rivulets of black embedded in gold, and a floor-length robe, blue triangles scattered down to a round base.

Inside the lounge, tasseled Moroccan pillows in turquoise and bronze silk were artfully scattered on red velvet couches and a leopard print settee. Above the furniture hung a row of oil paintings, pretty ladies cheeks dotted brightly with rouge, wearing cap-sleeved gowns in the post-French revolutionary style.

Rene grimaced at the irony. The fashionable women on these walls were whores rounded up in Paris, shipped as cargo to New Orleans and put to work in brothels, yet their squalid lives were far better than the guillotined aristocrats, their heads impaled on pikes, eyes blindly staring over the entrance of the royal palace.

The blood bath in France caused a domino effect all the way to the colony of Santo Domingo. Revolution wrought havoc on the island. When the slaves set fire to the family plantation, Rene’s father abandoned his wife but took her jewels and little Rene to safety.

In a small ship, along with other free men and merchants, they sailed to New Orleans, a city of opportunity for enterprising individuals. It wasn’t long afterwards, Rene Senior married and little Rene’s life became a living hell.

His stepmother whipped him into obedience for minor infractions before she ended the marriage and headed north up the Mississippi with an American steamboat captain. Deserted, Rene Senior’s fascination with bourbon grew as did his negligence of his son.

Celisse, his father’s mistress, invariably locked him in a closet while her lover, a brawny blacksmith built like a bull and hung like a horse, came to visit. Their raunchy couplings progressed from wall to bed and ended on the cold, marble floor. Through the crack in the door Rene learned about sex as Celisse made the bull her beast, whipping him on the buttocks before throwing the belt away to tear off her dress. When Celisse shrieked like a banshee, claws embedded in the big man’s back, the rutting would come to an abrupt end. Yet young Rene had to wait, wondering anxiously if she would let him out before he wet himself.

Rene grew to be suavely attractive to the ladies, but that was on the outside. Inside, a river of rage coursed through his veins. He hated women. Most of all he despised Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen with her superior airs. When he recklessly voiced his thoughts, a chicken head, grave dust and the guts of an animal were left in a cloth bag on his doorstep.

Rene knew he was going down. Phlegm gathered in his mouth. He spat on the floor as if to rid himself of the Voodoo curse.

Rene was Creole, his ancestors French and Spanish, and somewhere in his Dominican roots there was a black grandmother. None of that mattered for a majority of New Orleans’ citizens. Mixed blood was the norm but high society intermarried to maintain a pure lineage. Rene found that out when he became interested in a French landowner’s daughter, the pretty Chanel de Jardin, a minx who was definitely not as virginal as she pretended. Her family thought he wasn’t good enough but Chanel had a mind of her own. She teased him relentlessly in her provocative gowns. One day, Rene cornered the fake virgin and gave her what she wanted.

Chanel cried rape. The community believed the lady. Rene was a restaurateur with a dubious pedigree. He was promptly arrested. His only chance to escape jail was to hire the woman whom he hated. In return, Marie Laveau wanted the deed for a house on Rampart Street.

The next morning gris-gris was left on the judge’s chair. Chanel recanted and fell head-over-heels in love with Rene. Their nuptials were the event of the season. Within a year Chanel gave birth to a son they called Robert.

Shortly afterwards, Chanel caught the dreaded yellow fever and died. Rene pretended he was grief-stricken but deep down he was relieved. He had Chanel’s wealth to squander at the tables or so he thought, until Marie Laveau told Rene he owed her. Chanel’s death was Marie Laveau’s doing and now she wanted the restaurant. Stupidly, Rene ignored her. He had ideas that would make him rich that didn’t include a partner.

Although fine dining was a pastime New Orleans’ residents enjoyed, it didn’t pay nearly enough. Rene supplemented his income with prostitution and drugs. The lounge in which he stood, resplendent in rich reds accented with gold, was the place where men chose a girl and smoked the hookah. The other rooms were for gambling, or buying stolen goods.

From a shelf Rene reached for a decanter of bourbon and poured three fingers of the deep brown liquor into a glass. Out of his jacket pocket he pulled a flask of laudanum, brought it to his thick lips, and slurped noisily. Rene followed that with a bourbon chaser.

Like bullets from a firing squad, stomach acid drilled his gut. In seconds the chemicals compounded, numbing him as smoothly as creamy rich butter spread on a fresh baguette. His mind detached from his body and he floated on a fluffy cloud, slipping into a state of euphoria. Like the Negroes singing at Congo Square, screeching at the top of their lungs, he felt good. He would miss the dancing, drugs and debauchery. A man guffawed grotesquely as a crystal highball glass vaulted in the air, crashing into the wall, shattering on the marble floor in a million clear fragments. Inside Rene’s foggy brain he realized it was his own voice he heard.

From a burgundy curtain he wrenched a braided sash and laid it flat on a high table, forming an “S”. He attempted to circle the rope, fumbling several times in frustration and ended up repeating the process, this time keeping his work tight. Knotting the end of the corded section, Rene let it hang loose while he tugged the opposite end into a sizeable loop.

With one hand he pulled a chair out and climbed up, holding the rope. Swaying slightly as the drugs numbed his body, Rene tossed the cord around the wooden beam above and tightened it before lowering the noose.

For a moment he considered a fresh start in Baton Rouge away from Marie Laveau’s power. But deep down he knew his life was shattered like a wooden shack after a category four hurricane. A friendly game of bourré had turned out not so friendly—the cheater took his fortune as easily as he slit throats. There was no other option. Head through the noose he kicked the chair away, his last thought for vengeance. He was after all, Renard, the fox!

Legs dancing wildly, Rene’s throat jammed. Like a bullfrog singing a sunset serenade, his eyes bulged out of their sockets, blood vessels erupting in rivers of red. A brown stain originating at the seat of his pants widened and streaked irregularly down his dangling legs to the top of his expensive gray-patterned alligator boots. Rene hung lifeless. Dead as a rattler snapped up in a gator turtle’s jaws.

***

The clatter of hooves grew louder. Outfitted in a fancy, red leather harness, a feathered plume on its head, a gray mule trotted slowly forward, pulling a carriage, loaded with passengers. The driver wearing an old-fashioned buttoned-up white shirt tucked into breeches held up by suspenders was also the tour guide.

Coming to a stop, he shouted out, “We are in the French Quarter, folks, called the Vieux Carré. Rebuilt after the fire in the eighteenth century, the wooden houses were replaced with eighty-five square blocks of Spanish buildings.”

The guide swept his hand in a grandiose gesture at the white L-shaped structure on Chartres Street. “Y’all is lookin’ at the oldest survivin’ buildin’ of the Great Fire, the Ursuline Convent. Worth a visit, folks.”

He shouted over his shoulder, “Y’all heard of Bourbon Street? Anyone been to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop?” There was a rumbling reply from one of the passengers. “Yup, nothing like Nola tap beer or try the New O’leans’ Hurricane cocktail, ladies.”

The tour guide’s voice took on that sing-songy tone that guides have from repeating the same story day after day. “Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon was owned by our most respected pirate, Jean Lafitte. He was a hero in the war against the Brits. No one knows how he died but his spirit has been seen at the Blacksmith Shop.” The rest of his commentary was lost as the mule clipped away.

Bourbon Street attracted tourists like flies to a praline. A Mecca of strip clubs and bars. They flocked there for a buzz or to scam a loser who had one. Drugs, murder and crooked politics in New Orleans was the reason for the Big Sleazy handle. With each horrifying death a ghost took up residence.

I was standing on Ursulines Avenue where the taxi had dropped me at the corner across from the convent. Its high white walls towered majestically over the formal manicured gardens. The right wing of the convent had long rectangular glass windows edged with fully-operational shutters on the first floor matching those on the second floor. Higher up the brown-shingled roof held six tightly closed casements.

The opposite wing had a series of arched stained-glass windows and most likely contained a chapel. I could imagine the pews filled with nuns in black habits kneeling in prayer, in search of answers.

Like them, I needed a solution. Each night my brain burned as if attacked by a swarm of Louisiana fire ants. The nightmares were slowly eating away my life. Inevitably, I had to go to New Orleans.

The Hotel Memoire, the lettering in scripted gold on a green awning, billowed in the breeze over the doorway of the red brick building weathered with age. Inside, through the glass doors, the lobby was situated to the left. A chunky girl who would have looked more comfortable behind the wheel of a Massey-Ferguson tractor stood behind an antique desk, her head bowed over a ledger. The cropped fuchsia tank, distressed low-cut jeans, along with rows of blue tattooed skeletons on her forearm reminded me the “Q” in Quarter stood for quirky. Pushing back a strand of candy floss hair from her silver eyebrow ring, she directed me to the bakery across the street while she arranged for my room to be readied.

The early Toronto flight, blah airport food, and a long boring wait at O’Hare browsing shops geared to Cubs fans, made the trip to New Orleans about as enjoyable as a root canal. Once I left my suitcase with the desk clerk, I didn’t exactly bolt across the street but I managed an enthusiastic trudge towards the fragrant baking scents wafting in the air.

At a window table I sank into a retro plastic chair, the plush aqua seat held up by a metal frame. Stirring two packets of sweetener into my coffee, I revisited the dream which haunted my nights.

As an experienced bartender I recognized the sparkling bronze of the Sazerac cocktail in the man’s hand. It was found exclusively in New Orleans. Now I had to find the hotel where he killed himself.

Reflectively, I tipped my cup and sipped the bitter brew. Caffeine jolted the spark plugs in my motor, revving all the way to my starter, but I needed more. As I picked up the freshly baked chocolate beignet I told myself how stupid I was to be eating it. The gluten in the wheat would do a number on my gut. But that would be later and right now I needed the chocolate.

Silky cocoa wrapped in a delightful doughnut slowly melted from the heat of my mouth. I held it in as long as I could before reluctantly swallowing what could only be described as the nectar of the gods. I am a chocoholic. Restraint is not part of my MO, modus operandi, or in plain English, method of operation.

“Stop, fool! They won’t let you into karate with a muffin top!” My Logical Voice barked in my brain like Tommy the Trainer.

Really? Ripped power machines—in karate? More like toothpicks or big boys with beer guts. Good luck making the cover of “Men’s Health”, guys.

There was another female in the club, a slim brunette training to take down her ex. She had a snowball’s chance in hell. Women lacked the upper body strength. Her best defense was to scream and run. If she lucked out, a strike to the junk would take the three hundred pound SOB to his knees, sniveling like a baby, and give her a chance to get away and stay alive.

I’m petite. Pushups, squats and kicks gave me muscle but didn’t alter the fact I’m a light-weight. It also did nothing for my love life. Men are wild about pencil-thin girls with sky-high legs to their armpits poured into tiny spandex dresses.

My Hormone Voice sighed. “A real man appreciates a woman like you. And what about passion? Those bulimic super models haven’t got a clue about that.”

Hormone was right. I had passion and more importantly attitude. Logical could chug-a-lug protein shakes loaded with kale and berries. I had the super antioxidant—chocolate. My brain released a pleasure bomb as I swallowed with more gusto than a starving bag lady camped out behind a McDonalds’ dumpster. A lethal tweak of white powder had nothing on this cocoa explosion. My psychic senses flew into a state of heightened awareness. Flinging the door open like Wonder Woman on Red Bull, I powered across the road.

Ursulines Avenue was an urban sauna, moist heat seeping through the crumbling sidewalk cracks like steam rising from an overboiling kettle. I was a mess. My sweat-coated arms shone like Gulf water after a major oil spill.

Once inside, the Hotel Memoire was considerably cooler, a trace of air conditioning escaping from the lobby. The hallway had vintage décor. A worn Oriental rug carpeted the corridor where a small antique wooden table partnered with French Provincial chairs.

The spacious hallway gave me a start until I realized it was an optical illusion created by a mirror on the wall. Glancing at my reflection, I could see the hairspray had failed. My hair had the limp look of overcooked spaghetti. As I wiped a speck of mascara away from my cheek a woman appeared behind me.

Piercing onyx eyes, a short broad nose and plump lips, made for an attractive face until her upper lip curled into a snarl. When her long tapered fingers reached out to grab my shoulder, I backed off and then remembering my karate training, raised my arm to block her. There was no need. The woman swept down the hall, as if propelled by a silent motor. She disappeared around the bend, leaving the passageway frigidly cold like the inside of a meat freezer, a musky smell of over-ripe peaches lingering in the air.

I had that gut ache I get when I’m super nervous but Anabelle Sommerville is not a coward. Mr. Alligator Boots from my nightmare might be connected to Peaches the ghost. Nasty as she was, I had to confront her. For protection I gripped the turquoise stone on the silver chain around my neck, gave it a quick squeeze and rushed after her, down the corridor to a light airy room opening onto an inner courtyard scented with Bougainvillea.

Golden light filtered through the trees onto the balconies and into the garden, a magical hidden patch of rain forest in a concrete city. A stone cupid spotted with green algae spouted water in a high arch into a pool surrounded by hibiscus trees, moisture wetly coating the broad leaves and open orange flowers. The unpleasant smell of rotting peaches was gone and to my inward relief so was the ghost.

When I retraced my steps to the lobby, a blonde cherub had replaced the farm girl at the desk. She wore a sleeveless blue print sundress scattered with daisies, one bare bicep notched with a detailed brown yin-yang tattoo.

By the window two thirtyish brunettes sat at a table. One looked like a young Sly Stallone, heavy-lidded brown eyes and a boxer build, broad shoulders encased in a “Who Dat” sweatshirt. Her head was shaved to a fuzz with the exception of the bangs fringing her eyes. Across from her, an ebony-haired beauty with the delicate features of a Russian gymnast sipped coffee, a pinky tilting upwards.

When I set my bag down the desk clerk gave me a gap-toothed smile.

“Where y’at?” she said. “I’m Sandra.”

“Hey. I’m Anabelle Sommerville.”

“You phoned?”

I nodded.

The cherub glanced down, muttering to herself distractedly, a look of consternation as if the ledger was written in Klingon. She flipped pages forward and back as she sang in a squeaky off-key voice, a pop song about a tiger.

I cleared my throat, hoping to draw her attention back to me without appearing rude.

Her dark brown eyes flicked up and she said, “There might be something.”

I was worried. “I reserved a room weeks ago. When I came here earlier the girl told me to go to the bakery while she arranged it.”

“Jenny Ellen?”

“Pink hair?”

“Um-hm.” Sandra glanced back at the ledger, a pearly fingertip trailing to the middle of the page. “You have the courtyard room.” She stared off into space a moment before she began to write a notation in the ledger.

“Wait. I need to ask you something.”

Sandra perused my face.

“What I’m about to say may seem odd but I had a premonition to come here.” At this point I was sure I sounded like a nutjob but I continued, conscious of the brunettes from the window table listening in. “I envisioned a white clawed bathtub with a pedestal sink, a shower and toilet in the corner. The walls were a deep purple with white trim. Would that be the courtyard room?”

“No-oo. Sounds like the balcony bathroom, described to a ‘t’.” She smiled broadly. “Say, ya must be psychic.”

“I’m a witch,” I blurted out. It was meant to be a joke, but from the silence in the room I got the distinct impression the women took me seriously.

Sandra chirped happily, “How awesome. You know I’ve met Voodoo priestesses before but a witch right here?” She shook her head in wonder. “I am so into it. Voodoo, Wicca, you name it.” Leaning her elbows down on the desk, she said confidentially, “I’ve had my aura read.”

Auras surround people in soft colors extending from their body to several feet beyond. I was lucky. Sometimes I saw them.

“The priestess said my aura was olive green.” Sandra’s lips twisted in a frown. Her forefinger tapped the book with what I took to be displeasure.

I focused on Sandra. Light filmed her body and a yellow haze extended from her figure. My words came out in one breath. “I see yellow—a bright daffodil yellow.”

Sandra grinned. “Aw-ww, cool. What does that mean?”

“You are in a joyful space in your life.”

“That’s so much better. I’ll give ya an upgrade to the balcony room suite. Same price.” She handed me a plastic key card.

“Thank you. Wonderful.”

Avoiding my eyes she glanced nervously back at the ledger, her lips pressed together.

Chapter 2: TEMPERANCE

 My suitcase barely fit into the small tapestry-upholstered elevator. From its appearance, I guessed the narrow chamber was built in the early part of the nineteenth century. I pressed the button labeled “4” and waited. The elevator groaned dangerously as it lurched up to the fourth floor. A sign inside read: “Treat her as you would your grandmother. She is old”.

With a thud the lift shuddered to a halt. The door opened to narrow carpeted steps leading to a landing.  At the top the metal door plates read “400” and “401”. I stuck the plastic key card into the left slot and pushed the door ajar.

Sunlight filtered in from the balcony door window. The room was furnished with a lace-covered daybed, two green and gold brocade chairs and a wooden table, the legs carved in curves, feet ending in claws. A black and white family portrait dated to a by-gone era hung above the day bed in a wooden frame, the print worn and peeling.

A solid white door opened to another room painted ivory, embellished with an Egyptian print wall-paper border but what caught my attention was the king-sized bed, high like a “Princess and the Pea” bed done up in fluffy green pillows, emerald sheets and a matching duvet. The suite was much larger than a single room and must have cost considerably more.

Fronting the bed, two wing chairs upholstered in gold brocade stood on either side of a round wooden table. A copy of the Times-Picayune lay on the tabletop beside the hotel phone.

French doors opened to another balcony, between a row of high windows, all curtained by heavy red brocade. On the opposite wall, a flat-screen television sat alongside a mirror on a long dresser. I walked past a high chest of drawers and entered the bathroom.

It was exactly the way I’d pictured it. A pedestal mirrored sink, a toilet and a shower took up the corner. A white porcelain bathtub on lion-clawed feet was situated in the center of the room, a jar of sea salts and a bar of soap perched on the bathtub ledge. If I wasn’t so anxious to eat, I would have filled up the tub and taken a leisurely bath.

About to slip off my dress and pop into the shower, I heard a knock. I traced my way back into the outer room and swung the door open.

With a grin, Sandra said, “Ya mind me visitin’?”

“Come on in.” I was surprised but shouldn’t have been since I blurted out I was a witch. I waved her to the wing chair.

Sandra made herself comfortable. From her skirt pocket she pulled out a small silver case. “Okay for me to smoke?”

“Cigarette?” I didn’t particularly want my room reeking of tobacco but I owed her one.

Sandra dug into her pocket and flipped out a doobie. “No, weed,” she said, sweeping the joint from side to side.

This was getting more and more like a trip down the rabbit hole. I opened the balcony door in anticipation of the sweet odor and plopped into the other chair, prepared to go with the flow.

My guest was not a first-timer. She withdrew a pink-floral Bic lighter and brought the thickly rolled reefer in brown cigar paper to her lips, lighting it in that efficient way users acquire over a period of time. After puffing rapidly to get the joint going, she hesitantly started her story.

“My daughter and I lived with mom west of Canal on the upper floor of a restaurant. It wasn’t fancy but suited us. One night I was working late so I stayed here with my daughter. Dana was four.” Lines etched her forehead as she exhaled slowly.

She passed me the joint. I inhaled and waited for her to continue.

“This calms me and takes the pain away. After the divorce, my ex gained custody.”

“You don’t ever see her?”

“He’s from a prominent Louisiana family.” She blew a smoke ring. “He won’t allow it.”

“I’m so sorry. Have you seen a lawyer?”

“He has money. Enough to make my life hell if I fight him.” Sandra leaned back, her expression wistful.

“Put positive thoughts out there. It will help.”

With a deep drag, Sandra exhaled, her face losing the tense lines between her brows. “Thanks, Anabelle. It’s a charming name by the way.” She passed the blunt. “I’ve been thinking about changing my name. Do ya think I should call myself Sandra or Sandie?”

“You don’t like Sandra?” I inhaled and handed the joint back.

“Ya think Sandie is too much?”

I examined her fresh, youthful face. “No, you make a good Sandie.”

Sandra leaned back against the chair, the cherry-tip glowing brightly. “I’ll be Sandie from now on.” Holding up the reefer, she said, “Say, Anabelle, those women downstairs wanted ya to give them a reading.”

I shook my head. Even though I could sense things, I was hardly ready for actual readings.

Sandra nodded, her lids half-mast, smoke escaping her lips. “That’s okay. Told them to leave you alone.”

A sense of peace came over me much like a soldier on leave but with the realization that the enemy was out there in the form of Peaches and Mr. Alligator Boots. Eventually, I would have to battle them or go crazy from lack of sleep. “Why did you give me this suite, Sandie?”

She regarded me intently. “To tell the truth, Anabelle, ya kind of blew me away, being a witch and all.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“I feel a connection like you’re a sista from anotha mista. And you are gorgeous.”

“Oh-hh,” I said, taken aback by the compliment. “Thank you.”

Abruptly, the room chilled and a haze of white formed by the window. The stench of over-ripe peaches filled the air. A woman appeared, in a flimsy, long white dress, her lightly tanned shoulders bare.

“Who are you?” I whispered, trying to keep the fear at bay.

Her coal black eyes pierced me like a knife. “My name is Delphine.”

“Why are you here?” I managed.

“Because of you!” The apparition picked up the ashtray from the table and threw it against the wall. Miraculously, the glass landed in one piece on the floor.

Chills ran through me.

“Anabelle!” Sandie’s voice was faint as if she was far away.

Delphine’s hazy form filtered into sunlight pixelating like a badly coded download.

Sandy squeezed my shoulder. “You okay?”

I was surprised to find myself standing beside Sandie looking down at the ashtray, intact but for a hairline crack. “Just now I saw a spirit woman wearing a long white gown.”

Sandie’s eyes widened. “She’s a poltergeist. Do you think you’re in danger?”

My fingertips were so cold I warmed them in my palms. “I can handle her,” I whispered. There was a reason I was here or I wouldn’t have visualized this very suite.

My eyes flicked to Sandie. A putrid green crept like a snake into her yellow aura. I had the distinct feeling Sandie was keeping something from me. I was picking up a ton of anxiety. “Talk to me.”

Crushing the tip of the joint into the ashtray on the floor, Sandie tilted her head up. “Why did you come to the Quarter?”

“Something in my past life is reaching out for me. I’m convinced I can find the answers here.”

“So ya came alone?”

“You mean without a man?” My stomach twisted in a knot, thinking about him. The breakup had been bad and if I didn’t solve this mystery I’d have a financial nightmare to return to, maybe even lose my share in the restaurant. “There was one.”

“I get it.” She muttered, “Dicks,” under her breath.

I met her eyes. “Your turn.”

Sandie`s eyes flicked around the room nervously. “Maybe as a witch ya can deal with them better than I could.” She stared at her fingertips.

“The spirits?”

“I don’t like coming into this room alone, especially at night. Scares the crap out of me.” Her eyes averted to the door between the master bedroom and the sitting room, “They slam that door over and over.” She shuddered. “Could be a logical explanation like a draft ’cept Dana saw them.” Her eyes nervously flit to the master bedroom. “I should go.” Sandie took the pen from the table and scribbled on the pad. “My cell number.” Making a quick exit, she clicked the door shut behind her.

A gusty breeze shook the balcony door, flinging it wide open against the wall. I left it that way and started towards the other room. As I came to the heavy wooden door between the rooms it slammed shut inches from my face. A twist of the knob and a push did nothing. Putting my body weight behind it all the way, I forced my way into the master bedroom. Curious as to why it was so difficult, I stared at a row of nails at the top of the frame pointing downwards as if someone wanted to keep something out.

Inside the master bedroom the balcony doors were open. Sunlight filtered on the green cover of the bed in a cloudy haze. Before my eyes a man’s form appeared. He was stretched out the full length of the bed, his hands clasped behind his neck, long muscular legs encased in tan pants, tucked into high boots. That part looked great. The rest of him was perfect. Dark hair curled onto his forehead from under a blue bi-corne hat. A loose long-sleeved cotton shirt open to his broad chest covered a pair of wide shoulders. When I stared his eyes verdant as forest foliage looked curious as if he was not sure of what he saw.

Shapely lips curled into a smile. “Bonjour, cher,” he said in a deep voice. “I thought you’d never come.”

“What the heck!”

His laugh was as charming as his low voice was sexy. “Come sit with me.” He patted the duvet.

I was speechless.

“You haven’t changed much. A little blonder but just as beautiful. Those turquoise earrings bring out that unusual blue of your eyes.”

I sank down on the edge of the bed and glanced up. He had a strong face, a significant chin, and a slightly crooked nose, handsome in an interesting way. “Tell me why you are here.”

“To see you.” With a quick tug he pulled his hat off. “Such pink cheeks. Are you blushing, cher?” He added something in another language.

“What language are you speaking? It sounds strange.”

“Perfectionist,” he said, with a teasing grin. “Truthfully, no one speaks proper French here.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s New O’leans. We’re criminals from France, slaves from Santo Domingo, free blacks, deported Acadians from Canada—” He trailed off and gave me a direct look. “I entirely understand how you must be conscious of our faulty French being Parisian.”

This was news to me. “How did you ever get that idea?”

Suddenly, he jumped off the bed, bowed deeply, sweeping the air with his hat. “My apologies, cher. You obviously don’t remember a thing. Let me introduce myself. Alain Ducoeur, at your service.”

My first impression was this was not a regular sort of guy, besides the fact that he spoke with an odd accent. On the dresser I spotted a pistol and at his waist there was a knife. Major clues. I looked around again for a sword but didn’t see one. Besides being a ghost, he most certainly was a pirate.

My second impression was that he was tall. No surprise there. Men, and I might also add most women, have a few inches on me. My glance swept over the debonair pirate ghost. “I am Anabelle Sommerville.” I held out my hand.

“A pleasure.” He took my hand and kissed my wrist. He motioned to the bed. “With your permission?” Not waiting for my reply he sat down beside me. “Chocolate?” From his pocket he pulled out a bonbon, unwrapped it, and presented it to my lips. “You will love this.”

My resistance is nonexistent when it comes to chocolate. The sinfully-rich chocolate melted slowly, trickling dark delight down my throat. As the elixir kicked in, my mouth reluctantly released it and I mumbled, “That was wonderful. Thank you. But why chocolate?”

He grinned widely. “I know your addiction and what it does to you, cher. Frankly, I want to kiss those beautiful lips.” And with that his lips caressed mine as softly as the touch of butterfly wings.

Astonished, I pulled away. “Shouldn’t you be on the other side?”

He turned his head towards the doorway, displaying a handsome Hollywood profile. “You mean in there?” he said with a grin, motioning to the other room. “No, definitely not. I paid Delphine plenty. Besides, I like this bed.”

“Tell me about Delphine.”

“The angry vixen who owns this establishment?”

Delphine had appeared to me twice. I had a feeling Ducoeur knew all about her and why she was presenting herself to me. Grabbing his sleeve, I pulled his arm down forcing him to gaze into my eyes. “Please, Alain, she bothers me.”

He laughed. “Never mind that troublesome female.” A forefinger stroked the area between my brows.” She’s not worth causing frown lines.” He took my hand and drew it up to his lips. “You know me,” he said, before caressing my wrist tenderly, “very well indeed. And now that you’re back here in New O’leans I want you to get to know me all over again.”

Suddenly, the middle door banged shut. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Sandie had warned me a draft could cause the doors to slam or were there more spirits? My thoughts trailed off. I looked back at the devastatingly handsome Alain Ducoeur or what was left of him—an orange haze. An impression was left on the duvet and the air inside was warm and balmy, a hint of sea breeze lingering.

Chapter 3: THE MAGICIAN

I left. It was not because Alain Ducoeur scared the bejesus out of me. Really, it wasn’t. History intrigues me. Who was I kidding? The pirate spirit was sexy as all get out. There’s nothing like a man of mystery to charge my battery. But this was creepy. Alain Ducoeur was dead.

When the elevator shuddered to a stop on the main floor, I heaved a sigh of relief. I was almost free and clear. My fingers smoothed over the turquoise stone pendant. Turquoise is protection for the wearer, especially for a Sagittarius and from the looks of fierce dark-eyed Delphine and her drama I might need it.

The front door opened to oppressive humidity. Concrete sidewalks aligned with the street joined up with more concrete and only touches of green trees broke the gray. Hell couldn’t be hotter than this.

Instinct pushed me towards Chartres Street. A block down, I turned onto Governor Nicholls Street. The houses here were soothing shades of neutral and earth. When I passed a doorway with messages to Angelina scrawled in red felt pen it dawned on me the gray building was the Angelina Jolie condo. As awesome as this was I needed to forget about a-listers and find out where the man in my nightmare had hung himself.

At the corner, a metal plaque on a residence explained the cross street was once called “Real”. The three-story building, windows draped, had such an eerie vibe I wondered if this was it. Scooting across the street I approached the two dusky-skinned men in T-shirts and jeans sitting on a stoop.

“Excuse me. Can you tell me anything about that house?” I pointed to the gloomy mansion.

They stared up. At first I thought they didn’t speak English but then the small man resembling a rodent, hair mottled like a squirrel’s summer fur, wrung his hands together as if he were squeezing a walnut and said, “It’s haunted.”

Well that summed it up. I gritted my teeth and stared at the other guy hoping he could share a little more.

Sadly obese, haunches spread over most of the stoop, leaving the tiniest portion for his little buddy, his doughy cheeks quivered as he whispered, “Evil place that. Madam Lalaurie and her hubby tortured slaves. Firefighters found bodies and mutilated folks on the third floor. They wanted to lynch the Lalauries but the police let them escape. No one kin live there no more.” He slowly rubbed the cross strung on a row of black and white beads around his neck between his thumb and forefinger and closed his eyes as if in silent prayer.

Squirrel muttered, “The dude who bought it got cursed. Even after he moved away to run his dead daddy’s restaurant the black magic stayed. He lost everything.”

My eyes flicked to the house flowing with dark energy. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

Squirrel crossed himself. “Dude hung himself.”

I knew it! “Do you know where that restaurant was?”

He shivered as if talking about it would bring a curse down on him. “Still is, but that dude is long dead and gone.”

I looked at Jabba the Hut.

“Ain’t no good come out of you goin’ there, girlie.” His eyes sank back into their sockets, pupils like tiny black pin-heads.

“Thanks,” I said.

Crossing back, I passed the Lalaurie House walking briskly, trying to make as much space between me and the negative force radiating from the gray walls as soon as possible. I didn’t need any of that energy on me.

The encounter with the men threw me off so much I almost missed him. In a red borg-lined basket on a window ledge, a cat, gray stripes on his back, white legs and chest, and a white-tipped tail was stretched out. The massive cat was incredibly long. I was compelled to go in.

The bell on the door jingled as I swung it open. A slim young man in a lab coat, his hair styled in a military cut came forward to greet me. “Hello, I’m Doctor Rou. May I help you?”

“Hi. I couldn’t help but notice your cat. Would it be all right to pet him?”

If the vet thought the request was strange, he didn’t let on. “I’m sure he would enjoy that.” He glanced over at the tabby and the feline nodded as if in assent.

As I scratched the big guy’s chin and looked into a pair of hypnotic slanted eyes, I understood why medieval people feared cats. Felines can be daunting. When my cat Minnie stares unblinkingly, her vibrant green eyes message telepathically, warning me of danger. Her instincts are right on and I felt this large feline had the same intuitive ability, yet Minnie’s noble brown-tipped nose was nothing like this boy’s mystical wine-red triangle. Together with his gigantic size and demeanor, this feline was almost alien in appearance.

Lightly stroking the jungle cat’s head my thoughts turned to Zee, my newly rescued tuxedo cat, golden eyes, round as globes and a pitiful meow that begs attention. What Zee lacked in brains he made up with affection, a rumbling purr relieving my stress in seconds. If ever I found a man who was a combo of those two, I’d be head over heels.

“You don’t need men,” Logical said stoically. “Stick to your mission and you’ll know why that idiot killed himself and then you can go home and find a nice Canadian boyfriend to settle down with. No, wait,” she snickered, “you had one of those and you know how that worked out.”

Hormone smirked. “The girl’s single and open to possibilities.”

Logical scoffed. “One night stands, you mean.”

“Sh-hh,” I muttered to the voices bickering in my brain when I noticed the brass name tag attached to the leather collar around the cat`s neck.  I turned to the vet busy scribbling notes at the desk. “This kitty’s name is Morpheus?”

“The Greek God of Dreams.”

This had to be a sign. My bet was Morpheus was channeling into my dream. I rubbed the cat’s head and let my hand trail down his back. When I picked off a loose tuft of fur, Morpheus gave me the evil eye. Quickly, I withdrew my hand. That was definitely a cautionary warning. “Thanks for allowing me a visit,” I said to the vet.

He stared intently. “You’re psychic, aren’t you?”

“I’ve been told so.”

The vet’s coal black eyes narrowed as if seeing something disquieting. “Good vibes to you.”

“Thank you.” As I left, I wondered if that’s all I needed.

A couple arm in arm passed me in the street. I envied those people walking through life in pairs doing everything with their soulmate. But if I was lonely for an instant all that was forgotten as I strolled down Royal Street.

Whimsical could only describe the parade of Spanish homes, balconies entertaining American flags mounted between black wrought iron railings, glittery Mardi Gras mannequins in gold lamé dresses, pirates in elaborate red wide-brimmed hats and ivory angel statues, wings spread ready for flight.

At the corner I came to a cross street where a forest green bungalow headed a myriad of colored homes from orange on one end of the spectrum to a gorgeous robin’s egg blue. A click of my camera later I found myself stepping back as a woman of indeterminate age wearing a pale blue tank and a mid-calf denim cotton skirt pulled up on a bicycle.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said.

“That’s quite all right,” the woman said, stepping down and parking before swinging around to face me, taking me in through round wire-framed glasses. Her curly, auburn hair was windblown around a fresh rosy face, splattered with freckles. Off the bike, she stood tall and stocky. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“You have?”

“I sensed a significant visitor.”

Not knowing what to make of this I glanced back at the bright green house, bungalow style with green cement steps, black iron railing and a low-pitched black roof.

Through the front window I could see into a room furnished with a couch above which a green lace cross was fixed on the wall. A narrow purple candle was situated on a white tile floor where a pentagon within a circle was drawn in black.

“Nice house.”

The woman smiled, her pert nose crinkling, and gestured to the row of houses. “You’re not from here, are you?”

I shook my head.

“This is a camelback shotgun house. The frontage is narrow to avoid high taxes. The back’s two-story. They say if you shoot a shotgun from the front it exits the back.”

I nodded, hoping she’d tell me about the altar and the candle, but she parked her bike at the side of the steps and said, “They call me Shotgun Sue.”

I took her hand and shook it. “Anabelle. Why Shotgun?”

“Because of the house.” She laughed. “Luckily, they didn’t decide to nickname me Camelback. Sightseeing?”

“On my way to see Marie Laveau’s tomb.”

Sue scratched her chin thoughtfully. “Not a good place to go alone.”

“Oh?”

“Not long ago, a woman was shot point blank in the face for the amount of money the kids could have pried out of a parking meter.” She reached into her pocket and brought out a cell phone. When she started texting, I took that as a cue to leave.

As I started down the street Sue called out, “Wait, darlin’. Got a bodyguard for you. You’ll love this man. Amusing and a talented photographer. He’s keen to take pics. He’ll meet you at the cafe on Royal. Cell number? ”

A second later a text came in. c u in 5. Markus

The cynical side of me was wary, yet the way this happened made me believe it was fate. “Thank you, Sue. Appreciate it.”

“Thank Markus.”

“And I will know him how?”

“By the expensive camera.” From the top step, Sue pointed to the cross street. “Go a block past St. Ann Street. It’s on your right,” she added, before clicking the screen door shut behind her.

On Royal Street, I saw a cafe similar to a popular Canadian standby. Timmy’s is a tradition. The board above the counter was the menu but there the similarity ended. Grits, chili, Po Boys, and beignets were the headliners, followed by coffee and tea, presumably iced. A young cashier, a blue lion tattooed on his shaved head wore a brown apron over baggy shorts and a plaid shirt. He was making a latte and paid no attention to me.

At a table near the counter a pony-tailed Asian, sporting a black shirt and jeans hunched over a coffee. Across the table from him a woman with the dead eyes of a meth addict jiggled her chair up and down like a see-saw. Her torn Mickey-Mouse tank top hung loosely over torn jeans. She smelled like sour sweat and cheap perfume.

The couple glanced in my direction. “Where y’at?” the woman said, her red lipsticked mouth parted to an orifice of black stubs. Her aura came in dark, almost black.

“Good, thanks,” I said, backing away from the sketchy couple. I was ready to hit the street alone when something caught my eye. At the counter a brunette wavy hair to her waist, was making a T-shirt purchase—a cartoon dog in a NOPD police uniform arresting a cat in a burglar’s mask. It looked cute.

“Buy one. It’s for charity,” a husky voice drawled over my shoulder.

“But it’s for a guy,” I said, to the trim tall man with beard stubble and black aviator sunglasses beside me. He was wearing an olive T-shirt, and khaki shorts. His hair was hidden under a charcoal toque tight to his head, a few dark curls escaping onto his neck. A heavy camera hung around his neck.

“No guy to buy for?”

I was about to cut him off when I clued in. “Hey, are you Markus?”

He grinned. “Anabelle?”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Same here. Sue told me you needed an escort to the cemetery.”

“Are you okay with that?”

“Sure.” He grinned, his smile charismatic. “I don’t mind at all. We could go now,” he looked around, “unless you’d like a coffee first?”

“No, I’m good.” I checked him out. Over six feet tall Markus had the build of a professional athlete and a smile that brightened a room. If this was a musical I’d be breaking out into a corny rendition of a “girl meets boy” Broadway tune. Luckily for everyone, I avoided embarrassing myself and followed Markus out the door.

Thick with locals and tourists, we maneuvered around posts and people. “I appreciate this,” I said over the din.

“I wanted to take some photos of Louis No.1 anyway. Kind of a coincidence that Suzy texted me, isn’t it?”

“You think it’s dangerous?”

“New O’leans is. There was a shooting on Bourbon a while ago. Nine people hurt.” His full lips curled into a smile. “Don’t worry. You’re with me.”

“And if they have guns?”

Markus smiled, patting his jean pocket. “I have a device they don’t sell in most places.” He took out a silver pen from his pocket. “It’s powerful chemical spray that could kill a bear. Got it in Montana.”

When I made brown belt in karate the master said I was good. I could hold my own out in the street but I definitely felt better with an armed male in my corner.

Markus held up his elbow for me and I latched on. Walking together felt comfortable.

“You’ll find this interesting. A couple of blocks from here there’s a priest who keeps a record of killings.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Someone shoots someone from the Seventh Ward and the next day it’s a random shooting in the Ninth.”

“A war zone attitude.”

His chin clenched. “Not much different than what I saw in Iraq. These kids have bad parenting. Discipline is a good whoopin’.”

I got the distinct impression we were talking about his life. Mine wasn’t as brutal, just lonely. After my father left, my mom got sick and died of cancer. I had sisters but we grew up with different foster parents and lost touch. But with every “yang” I believe there is a “yin”. Even the worst experiences give something back.

At the corner perched on a stoop in front of a gift shop, an old black man, a felt hat on his head, wearing a red shirt under overalls strummed a guitar, singing a bluesy melody about his baby and how she’d left him. I had bills in my bra but no change. “You have anything for him?”

From his jean pocket Markus dug up coins and threw a handful into the open guitar case on the sidewalk. He jerked his chin to the cross street. “This is where we head north.”

We hadn’t gone more than a hundred feet when the rain started. A bar on the right advertised Bloody Marys, two for six dollars.

When the drops pelted down and the wind whipped up, Markus said, “Let’s pop in here.”

We settled on wooden low-back stools at a long round bar. It was a typical pub, dark inside with square tables, the patrons drinking beer. Right now we were the only ones at the bar. A teenage boy, scraggly brown hair falling over his face was washing glasses. A tall brunette with lengthy extensions came over.

“Two Bloody Marys,” Markus said to Josie, the brunette bartender. I knew her name from the plastic name tag pinned just above the neckline of her tangerine lace top. She winked in answer.

At the back of the room a band made up of a white accordion player, black guitarist and mulatto drummer were warming up. A slim attractive girl with flaming orange hair, a board hanging from her neck, joined them.

“This band is different. What is that thing the girl has? It looks like something pioneer women used for scrubbing clothes.”

“It’s a frottoir. He flicked his eyes to the accordion player. “When the Germans came to New O’leans the accordion became part of the La La. The black Creoles added the blues. It’s like gumbo soup. Itty bitty music bits mixed together.”

The girl jumped around like a yo-yo on a string, hitting the spoons on the washboard while the old bearded white guy in a checked shirt and overalls sang the lyrics.

“La La, eh?”

“Called Zydeco, now.”

A hefty blonde appeared carrying a violin. She joined in as a backup singer when she wasn’t fiddling.

Outside a tropical storm poured buckets of rain. It cooled the street, but inside the atmosphere was hot. Patrons left their beers on the tables and partnered up to swing on the hardwood floor, dancing a two-step. I’d never seen anything like it.

Our drinks arrived. Gigantic red cocktails loaded with string beans soaked in tomato juice and vodka. The Bloody Mary hit me hard. I had questions for Markus but before I could speak he grabbed my hand.

“Let’s dance.”

A step to the left, a shake, and then a foot back. Sashaying back and forth, I caught on fast and negotiated a one-handed swing without falling flat on my face. Two songs later we returned to the bar breathless and laughing.

Leprechauns, green hats and a poster of “Brad Pitt for Mayor” decorated the bar. I pointed to the poster on the pillar next to me. “What’s this about?”

Markus’ tone was serious. “Brad’s a hero for the work he did after Katrina. The Quarter survived unlike the ninth ward. Just a swamp of dead people, animals and sewage there.” He gazed at me steadily. “Where are you staying?”

I grinned. “Near Brad. A street down.”

With his sunglasses now on the counter, a fine pair of dark-lashed hazel eyes met mine. The light from the lamp above reminded me of the sun as it disappears into the ocean with a flash of green. They say the green ray is lucky but scientists explain it away as an illusion. I didn’t think Markus’ eyes were anything but magical.

“What hotel?”

“Hotel Memoir” was barely out of my mouth when my jaw dropped. Markus pulled off his wool cap. It was like tearing the wrapping off a gift. Beats me why I thought he’d be bald. Touchable, dark waves tumbled onto his forehead. Drop dead edible.

Josie’s eyes glazed over. She muttered “Doggone!” and glared resentfully at me before serving another customer.

I took another look at Markus over the rim of my glass. “So tell me about you.”

Markus speared a bean and held it in his mouth the way I savor chocolate. “Well, I’m from Louisiana originally but lived out west the last few years. Came back two years ago. I’m interested in my family’s French roots. The last few months I’ve searched the area. My last name is Cadeaux with an ‘x’. Not the usual French spelling I was told.”

“Oh, but it is.” I felt myself blush. “In French it means presents.”

Markus frowned. “I wish I knew more French.” He leaned in. “Maybe you can teach me?”

“I’m not an expert.” His eyes threw me off. I felt like a nervous teenager. I had forgotten how exciting it was to flirt.

Markus took his paper coaster and started folding it. “How is it you know French?”

“High school.”

“Where?’

“The English part of Canada. My mom had German roots.”

“And your dad?”

“Spanish. He left when I was two.” I tipped back my glass, the spice nipping my lips. “I’ve forgotten a lot of the German I learned and even more French.”

“I admire your abilities. I wish I could speak another language.”

Feeling the kick of the cocktail, my words came out slowly. “Did you like it out west?”

“Louisiana is home.” He contemplated his drink. “What do you do there in Canada?”

“Mostly I’m a chef in a restaurant.”

“Interesting?”

“Not like here.”

He nodded, his eyes far away.

I wondered what he was thinking. He was too hard to read.

Glancing outside, Markus said, “Rain’s stopped, Anabelle. Let’s see No. 1 before it closes.”

The brunette bartender peered over at us. “Y’all want another?”

“No, thanks.” As delicately as I could I dug into my bra and tugged out a ten. “Drinks are on me.”

Markus lifted an eyebrow.

“No purse, no robbery.”

His eyes swept to my cleavage and winked. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”

The sun climbed out from behind fluffy clouds, rays of gold streaming into a rainbow of red and violet in the distance. There were only a few blocks left to walk. As we headed to the edge of the Quarter, the sidewalk crowd thinned and we came to the wide street running parallel to Louis No. 1. When the traffic cleared, we crossed.

White stone gates rose high on either side of the entrance. Creamy rectangular mausoleums, roofs pitched forty-five degrees were next to shabby rippled upright cement boxes, gray walls exposed underneath. Chocolate and russet brick structures, crumbling with neglect, the size of garden sheds, were further along. Random cement paths, dotted with metal drainage grates every few feet, connected the tombs.

I craned my head to see a white towering monument, an angel perched on the roof in the distance. Thinking that could be it, I started out with Markus behind me. Just ahead a group of tourists led by a wiry, bearded guide suddenly stopped in front of a small white structure. His voice carried as he recounted the story of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

“Many folks have come here to ax fer things. See those rows of x’s? A hundred years ago, lots of folks couldn’t write their name so they put them x’s there. People have sighted her. Her spirit remains here in Louis No. 1.” He added sternly, “Don’t be stayin’ here after them gates git locked. She can be angry when people invade her privacy and ya wouldn’t like how she punishes those who anger her.”

He gestured to a pile of coins, lipstick and roses lying in front of the mausoleum, silver and green glass and plastic Mardi Gras beads mingling with purple and gold ribbons strung from a ledge where silver keys and jewelry perched. “Those are gifts from people axing for love, money or whatnot. Knock three times on the tomb if you want to make a wish. Many have come back to leave a present after it’s granted. Now, let’s move on, folks.”

The guide motioned for them to proceed and I was left alone in front of the tomb. X’s in groups of threes were scattered in red and blue, randomly marking every side of the mausoleum along with hearts and happy faces.

“You came to make a wish, didn’t you?” Markus’ voice from over my shoulder was soft, in a dialect I couldn’t readily identify, more noticeable when I was tuned to his voice, no longer distracted by his remarkable eyes.

When I turned he was adjusting his complex Nikon unlike my simple point and click Canon.

“I’m thinking about it,” I said, taking a photo of the front of the ancient stone structure with the words “Marie Laveau”, engraved in capital letters.

Markus kneeled on the scruffy grass aiming his Nikon towards the sky. “Well, what’s the verdict?”

“Don’t laugh. I think I will.”

Markus looked fleetingly at the tomb. “I would be in trouble if I did.”

At the side of the structure, focusing on the white clouds shifting in the clear blue canopy of sky, mystical reminders of all those indefinable unknowns, I asked for love and for an end to the nightmares before lightly knocking three times on the mausoleum wall.

When I looked around, Markus was gone. From above there was a sharp cry of a bird. A cluster of palm fronds trembled as a crow shot out into the air. Could the priestess have heard my request or was the crow a warning to leave?

A hot breeze wetly caressed my face with humidity and suddenly I realized I was no longer alone. A woman appeared her, lithe body in a long white dress, red turban wrapped around her hair, and a green shawl over her shoulders. From where I stood her face was the color of brown honey.

Dark eyes met mine. “Belle,” she drawled. “I am Marie. Different now as a spirit but still the same friend you had. Don’t be afraid. Come here.”

I hesitated.

“I have something for you.”

Now I was curious. Taking no time to reconsider I crept nearer. “What is it?” Before I could run, I saw the green shawl warming her shoulders was actually a gigantic living snake. The enormous python reared up, undulating back and forth.

“Do not fear. Zombie is my friend. He helps me speak for the great loas. Papa LaBas has told me your story and of the forces against you.” From her pocket she pulled out a small cotton bag tied with a pink ribbon. “This will help on the river to truth.” She snatched my hand, forcing my fingers apart. The bag was shoved into my palm and she pressed my hand tightly shut. “Place the gris-gris under your pillow. The magic will protect you.”

In the distance a bell clanged and a voice shouted something incomprehensible. As I turned to speak to the Voodoo Queen, her wispy figure turned away and swept down a path. I tucked the tiny bag in the pocket of my dress.

From behind a mausoleum, I caught sight of Markus, camera in hand, coming toward me. “Hey, cher. We need to leave.”

I glanced back at the passage between the tombs. A haze surrounded the alley.

“You okay?”

I nodded.

“They’re locking up.” Markus put his hand on my back to guide me to the gate. I don’t know if it was the empty cemetery abandoned by tourists or seeing Marie’s spirit that made me suddenly glad for his company, feeling not so alone in this struggle to unveil the forces in my past life.

At the entrance, the guard, a brawny black man, a sullen expression on his face had started to secure the gates with heavy iron chains. He glanced over and growled, “Yer late.”

“Sorry, bra.” Markus called out over his shoulder as we started out. “Enjoy your day.”

Traffic rushed rapidly in both directions on Basin Street.

“Let’s go.” Markus kept protectively close to my side, his hand coming up to stop me when I failed to notice a car. Once on the other side, we headed back to the Quarter. He glanced at me sidelong.  “What was your wish?”

I shook my head. “If I tell, it will never come true.”

Markus pulled his sunglasses perched on the top of his head down over his eyes. “Something is still bothering you. If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re pale. Almost as if you’ve seen—”

“A ghost?” I feigned a laugh. Not wanting to talk about the spirit I’d just encountered, I said, “I haven’t been sleeping well. I have nightmares about a man who killed himself back in the 1800’s.”

“So you dream about the past.” Markus brushed a strand of hair away from his eyes. “Have you ever seen a psychic for help?”

“I did. She was exceptional maybe because she’s aboriginal.”

“I have a touch of that in my roots.” His eyes sparkled green as he spoke. “Natives can be very perceptive. I often pick up on emotions.”

The direct look that Markus gave me brought heat to my cheeks. I wanted to reach up and run my fingers through his thick wavy locks. “I thought you said you were French.”

“Mostly. That part knows how to keep a woman guessing.”

“And you’re trying to do that?”

He smirked. “How about a photo here against the building?” The sign straight ahead was for a restaurant called “Six Sisters”. I leaned against the railing, throwing my head back in what I hoped was a model’s pose.

Markus adjusted his camera after each shot. “You’re a natural.”

“Let’s see it,” I said, squeezing in closer against his arm.

“Later.” Markus clicked the lens closed. “Let’s get you to a psychic.”

He leaned in. His lips touched mine so softly my heart raced and warmth flowed through my body. Markus’ smile dazzled but it was his eyes which drew me in like a moth to a flame.

“Anabelle, I know this restaurant on the river. Will you join me tonight?”

Chapter 4: JUPITER

The priest called on Papa LaBas, the crossroads saint, the go-to loa for those who were lost or in doubt of what course they should take. Papa LaBas, much like St Peter, guarded the gates to heaven, but he was the Voodoo version. He needed to be appeased, given his due, so to speak—something like life insurance. Payments were made on a regular basis. Every few days Philippe gave a dollar to the homeless because he knew the saint would get riled up if he didn’t.

As a Voodoo priest he believed he had the ability to communicate with saints and they, in turn, could speak to him. He was usually full of self-confidence but this thing was driving him insane. His past life was beckoning like the Death card in the center of his readings. It meant change in tarot not death, but still the energy coming forward was evil like Katrina, growing larger and stronger every day until it crushed the levee and flooded New Orleans, changing it forever. That’s what he was afraid of. His protective shield was losing power and forces from his past life were pushing into his present. He had to find out what happened back then and come to terms with it before it destroyed him.

He took comfort from the display of the rum bottle, cigars, and candies arranged neatly on the table. Doctor Philippe lit a candle and made a wish for help. Lightly stroking the python hanging from his shoulders, he felt the saint’s presence.

The candles flickered as if Papa LaBas was blowing in answer to his silent wish. Satisfied, the priest took the albino snake and placed him gently in a woven basket behind the chair. The snake reared up, a pale eye steadily watching before he sunk down deep into his bamboo house to sleep for another few hours.

From a gap between the curtains, Doctor Philippe saw Jacqueline at the cashier’s desk—shoe-black hair to her shoulders, a green tattoo next to her left eye shaped in the sign of Pisces, two fish swimming in opposite directions, and brown Magnolia tattoos sketched on her creamy arms. The girl sported a cropped black top and was squeezed into a pair of skinny blue jeans. Doctor Philippe knew that Jacqueline loved drama. Under the thick Cleopatra wig she wore to the shop, Jacqueline was a pretty blonde.

The clients loved Jacqueline. She explained the charms in a way the non-believers understood. On the other hand, the two male clerks in preppy designer shirts and narrow jeans treated the customers with disdain. Doctor Philippe made a mental note to give them a warning to wise up.

The Voodoo priest’s attention swung back to Jacqueline speaking to the visitor. Her hands gestured animatedly as she explained in her perky voice, “Cats are like familiars for a witch. They make spells happen.”

“I met an unusual cat at a vet’s clinic on Royal. He had the unusual name of Morpheus.”

“Really?” Jacqui’s eyes widened. “He’s my boyfriend’s cat.”

The customer’s reply was barely audible, her whispery voice suggesting a soft sea breeze ruffling the Gulf on a clear windless day. He caught a glimpse of her when she turned towards him. This was the woman he had been waiting for. From the strong blue outer aura and a fiery inner orange, he knew she was an intuitive, greatly blessed. Was she good or evil, and would she journey with him to return to the past?

A flash of foreboding spurred his sixth sense. Doctor Philippe’s head ached like a pressure cooker threatening to explode. Pain shot from the nerves at the base of his neck to his throbbing temples. The headaches came much too frequently lately. Doctor Philippe knew it was a build-up of negative energy.

He had to cleanse the room. The ashtray heaped with dry sage and sweet grass was ready. Drawing it in closer, the priest lit a match and blew on the flame to keep it going. When smoke rose from the herbs he picked up a large green feather and fanned it to each corner of the chamber. Satisfied he had cleared the energy he sat down.

When a bell tone signaled an incoming text he clicked it open.

Is she there?

Doctor Philippe tapped out: yes.

The priest stood and opened the curtain. He took the petite blonde’s right hand as she came in, not to shake in greeting but to read her palm.

***

An arresting man with a shaved head and steely gray eyes wearing a pale blue denim shirt and jeans stood to greet me. He had an indescribable strong energy, unlike anything I had ever encountered. Jacqueline had told me Doctor Philippe was a Voodoo-Wiccan priest from Haiti.

“Have you seen a psychic before?” Doctor Philippe asked as he pulled me forward.

I took a seat in front of him, our knees inches apart. “I have, Doctor Philippe.”

“Call me Philippe,” he said, studying my palm. I was getting strange vibes from him. His aura was a deep mauve with a fiery red centre—mystical yet infused with passion.

“There are two life lines. The second one is long,” the words streamed from his lips as if from some inner force.

I was apprehensive, knowing he could be the key to deciphering my dreams.

“You had two break-ups.”

I pursed my lips. He was a fake babbling a trumped up story. “I’ve only had one serious relationship.”

Doctor Philippe went on patiently as if I hadn’t caught him in a lie. “The other liaison was a long time ago. You were in love but something blocked your path.” His forehead crinkled in consternation. “I see swords drawn. Blood spilled. You’re a warrior. Watch out for enemies.” He closed his eyes a moment before he added, “Your Orisha is the Queen of the Seas. Water is good for you. And to answer your question, you could be happy here in New O’leans.”

“You know why I’m here?”

“I sense confusion.”

I stared at him. “I’m afraid to sleep.”

Doctor Philippe got up quickly. “I break in half an hour. We could go meet up down the street at the Hotel Belfoire for lunch. I could tell you more.”

I nodded. What harm could it do?

Chapter 5: THE WORLD

The gold shield on the bartender’s lapel read “Chuckie”. He was a living breathing potato, thick spouts bagged in black dress pants and a white golf shirt. Skin the color of coffee dosed heavily with cream, he was a Creole—a black mixed with white or Hispanic. Calling him homely was being kind. In this case the mixture was an experiment gone horribly wrong. Tiny eyes like raisins squinted at me from a pudgy face before he took hold of the oyster and shucked it.

A pile of shells was heaped high in the sink. He selected one and opened it. His disfigured hands caught my attention. Deep scars the color of pink worms marred his skin. My guess was he’d made a living on a fishing boat shucking oysters long before he worked at the Hotel Belfoire.

“What kin I git you?” he drawled, the easy Southern hospitality missing from his tone.

“A Sazerac, please.”

Chuckie grunted, dropping the oyster in a large bowl filled with shells before shuffling over to the shelf lined with rows of standard bottles of liquor. He selected Canadian rye whiskey and brought it to the counter. His squinty eyes ogled the skin revealed by the scooped neckline of my dress.

Someone needed to teach potato man manners but it wouldn’t be me. I wanted to pry open this clam. “Worked here long?”

“A while.” Chuckie swung around, picked a bottle of a pale liquid off the shelf, the label written in a fancy script I couldn’t make out, and set it on the counter.

“Bartending?”

From a shelf he tugged out a glossy menu and slid it across the counter. “And cookin’.”

I looked around. Elegant old New Orleans. Mirrors and paintings hung on ivory walls, ceiling-high windows filtered sunlight in from outside, and a dozen square tables covered in red linen were scattered throughout. It was high end. The hardwood floor in warm oak extended from the bar to the dining room. Through the open doors I could see tables set in white linen, the cutlery and plates ready for dinner.

The bar room was almost empty but then again it was midway between lunch and dinner. An older couple more interested in food than conversation, shared oysters at one of the tables in the rectangular room.

At the end of the semi-circular bar, a couple of college girls, one with straight auburn hair to her shoulders and the other a curly bobbed brunette, both in tight tube tops and shorts held Pimm’s Cups in perfectly manicured coral tipped fingers. Feigning sophistication they exchanged quips with Chuckie, tossing their bangs back in synchronicity.

From the menu I gathered the Belfoire specialized in oysters but I didn’t like eating anything raw. Reluctantly, Chuckie shuffled back to my end of the bar, credit cards in hand.

“Are there steamed oysters?” I asked.

“Yup,” Chuckie grunted, his attention once again diverted to the girls like a cat watching two juicy mice wondering which one to torture first. He headed to the cash to complete the transaction and gave the girls a receipt before going over to the bar to pack ice into an Old-Fashioned glass. His eyes narrowed, watching their mile-high legs as they sauntered off, pink flip-flops slapping the steamy street.

Getting back to business, Chuckie dropped a sugar cube in a second glass, splashed Peychaud’s bitters on top, and crushed the sugar. Then he added bourbon and Legendre Herbsaint.

“Herbsaint not absinthe?”

“Has the same anise taste,” he muttered.

Pouring the contents through a strainer into the glass, he added a twist of lemon before serving the Sazerac.

This is it, I thought, examining the sparkling bronze cocktail. The same drink the man in my dream had before he killed himself. I tipped the glass back. “I heard certain restaurants started the Sazerac tradition.

He shrugged.

“You know any place where they use lime?”

“Renard’s on Bourbon at St. Ann.”

So Jabba the Hut was right. I had to go there.

Chuckie reached over and picked up an empty glass from the counter and wiped the spot it left with a cloth. “You want anything from the menu?”

“When my friend gets here. You know Doctor Philippe?”

“He your friend?”

“Mm-mm.”

Chuckie turned away quickly but not before I saw him cross himself. “Conjure man,” he muttered.

I wanted to talk but Chuckie made for the far side of the bar where a pretty light-skinned black bartender tended a customer. A plastic name tag with “Dee” was pinned to the pocket of the black vest she wore over a white cap-sleeved collared blouse. Straight ebony hair in a blunt cut brushed her cheeks as she leaned forward to the barrel-chested man sitting on the bar stool across from her. The tiny black skirt and three inch pumps gave her a sleek look which she used to full advantage.

The man’s brown linen trousers were held up by suspenders over a long-sleeved striped shirt, and a hat covered his balloon head which I suspected was hairless under the straw fedora. Fluttering her eyelashes and smiling, Dee enticed the old geezer to add a few bills to the pile of tip money on the counter.

Chuckie came up behind Dee. “See her at the bar?” His eyes flicked to the blonde sitting further down the bar. “She a witch.” He squeezed Dee’s arm. “Take over fo’ me, girlie.”

Paying less attention to Chuckie than the fly buzzing around the cash register, Dee thought: Shucker Bateau should hustle his nasty ass right back and tend to the white gal, witch or not and stay the hell away from her. He was uglier than homemade sin but it was more than that. He gave her the skivvies the way he huddled up close to her. She swore she could feel his woody.

“What you goin’ on about? If you hexed, there be nothin’ fer you to do nohow.” Dee jerked her chin towards the blonde and said, “Go, she’s waitin’.”

***

Distractedly, I mulled over the menu wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake to meet up with Doctor Philippe. Chuckie had that caught-in-the-headlights look a fox gets on a dark stretch of highway when a car jets past, inches away from killing him.

Before I could text, Doctor Philippe slung himself in the seat next to me.

“Hey,” I said slowly, momentarily taken aback by the man’s icy gray eyes. I was not a fan of shaved heads—there was nothing like a good handful of hair to run my fingers through, but I had to admit combined with the hawk nose and full lips he was interesting.

“Jacqui said you are busy.” With dark shadows under his eyes, Doctor Philippe was not just tired, he was not sleeping any better than I was. Something was eating at him in a bad way. It suddenly occurred to me he needed my help even more than I needed his.

“It’s good to take a break.” He smiled slightly. Doctor Philippe signaled Chuckie. “A Dixie and half a dozen oysters for me and for this lovely lady…” he paused, raising an eyebrow.

“Oysters Bienville, please.”

Nobody looked more anxious to leave than Chuckie but he reluctantly returned bringing a long neck and a glass before disappearing into the kitchen.

Doctor Philippe took my hand and closed his eyes. When he opened them his gaze was direct. “I see a book.”

“What kind of book?”

“A diary.”

“I can’t see how this is relevant.”

Doctor Philippe shook his head, his eyes glazed and far away. He hesitated as if he was working hard to find the words to describe something incomprehensible. “That journal was tucked away.”

“And if I find it would I understand why I’m having these dreams?”

He nodded.

I sensed he was hiding something. “Why are you so interested in my past life?”

Doctor Philippe hesitated and then said, “My past is linked to yours.’

“How?”

Before he could answer Chuckie appeared with oysters. He glanced furtively at Doctor Philippe before placing the plates on the counter along with paper napkins and forks.

When he shifted away to the fridge out of hearing range, I asked, “Have you worked as a psychic long?” A whiff of woodsy aroma as I leaned towards him was unexpectedly enticing. I wasn’t sure if it had to do with his psychic ability or the Voodoo he practiced. Psychics have the ability to attract the opposite sex. I set up a barrier. At this point his influence could be just as much negative as positive.

Casually, Doctor Philippe picked up a shell and sucked out an oyster drawing my attention to his full lips. “For the last ten years I’ve had a TV show but decided to center on the store. The employees do most of the work, anyway, making the items and ordering books.”

“What was the TV show about?” I forked up an oyster baked in a thick sauce, a blend of parmesan cheese, mushrooms and bacon, a gourmet’s delight.

“The first season was about hauntings and past lives.” Shoving the glass away Doctor Philippe drank his beer straight from the bottle and then setting it down he wiped a thin edge of foam off his upper lip.  He sat back in the high bar stool. “On a day like this nothing goes down better.” He turned to me. “You enjoyin’ New O’leans?”

Doctor Philippe was quite charming when he relaxed. “The French Quarter is good.”

“Where you stayin’?”

“Hotel Memoire.”

Doctor Philippe shot me a look.

“You know it?”

“Nice area. Close to some exceptional restaurants and of course, music.” His forehead furrowed as his eyes studied my wrist.

I glanced down aware of the heat coming from the small white scar I’d had all my life. It was raised and pink.

Doctor Philippe ran a finger over the inflamed scar. A chill raced down my spine.

I withdrew from his touch.

“What’s it from?” The Voodoo priest sucked up an oyster from its shell while keeping his eyes on me.

“A scratch I think.”

Doctor Philippe’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t know?”

I shook my head. “I asked my foster parents but no one knew anything about it.” I remembered the crow calling out at the cemetery. “Do you believe in totem animals?” I asked.

His cool eyes stared into mine. “Definitely, I’m French, Choctaw and black. My training is all over the map.”

I examined his face for his mixed heritage but saw only the French part.

He ran his finger over the jagged scar. A tremor shot down my arms. Doctor Philippe’s voice faded and I entered a white haze much like a cloud. I heard voices.

A dark-hued man built like a tank, a bandana tied on his square head, wide khaki pants fluttering in the breeze, brought his fist into a man with skin the red tone of a Native American. From his pocket waistband Tank pulled a knife. The steel tip glinted in the sunlight filtering through the clouds. The Native grabbed the knife and twisted it away. They struggled. Somehow I knew the Native was the one to help. Picking up a bucket, I brought it down on Tank, hard enough to give the other man a chance. A gun fired. Tank fell back on the deck, a crimson puddle spreading over his chest.

A chain reaction followed—clashing swords, shouting and gunshot fire. A hand pushed me away from the men. The voice belonging to the hand yelled, “Take this, cher”. Green eyes sparkling with excitement met mine.

My eyes swept over his powerfully built body. A loose long-sleeved cotton shirt, open at the neck, fell over breeches tucked into long black boots. He was armed with a sword in one hand and a revolver in his belt. Unruly dark curls flew about in the wind as he handed me the sword. “Use it if you must.”

It was Alain Ducoeur and he definitely was a pirate.

The rocking vessel heaved from side to side, along with my stomach and its contents. Waves struck the deck hard, spraying a fine mist over my body, my clothes and hair clinging to my skin.

“Go hide before they kill you!” my inner voice screamed.

Even if I could find a place to hide, the boat was rocking so hard it was too difficult to walk. The sword tucked into my belt, I gripped the railing to support myself. No longer able to control the cramping, I grabbed a metal pail and gagged, emptying my breakfast into the bucket.

I looked up. Scruffy men with wild feverish eyes of jackals on a hunt, were battling it out. Bone-chilling screams filled the air as blood painted the deck red. Blood splattered my face. With my sleeve I wiped it clean but in doing so loosened my grip on the sword. It didn’t take much to knock it away.

The man’s head had the shape of the back of a thumb, wrinkled and concave. A black patch covered one eye. His scarred nose minus a nostril, twitched like a dog getting the scent of steak on a grill.

From the deck I grabbed an oar and deflecting his punch, I twirled the oar around, clipping his ear. He shook his head as if to rid himself of the pain, and moved rapidly forward, his sword held high. I backed into the railing. Thin lips curled into a triumphant grin under a pencil moustache.

With all my strength I brought the oar up and struck down but he sidestepped as deftly as a tango dancer. I wasn’t prepared for a sharp kick to my ribs. A split second too late to break the fall, my hand smacked the deck. The pain jolted through my arm.

He took full advantage. Snatching a handful of my hair, he pinned me to the deck and mounted my inert body, imprisoning me with his thick thighs. He pulled me close, rank body odor a mixture of sweat and booze so strong I struggled not to gag. He growled, “Where is it?”

His weight was suffocating. When I wiggled my hips he pulled over enough for me to snake my hand to his lapel. Locating his hand, I held it close to my chest, and shot my left hand straight up, spearing his throat. He jerked back.

Another jerk of my hips unbalanced him enough to swing a leg over his thigh and roll off. Springing to my feet I brought my leg up in a side kick, making contact to his temple.

He drew back but came at me again firmly cuffing my cheek. Tears welled up in my eyes but there was no way I would give in. Seizing an opening I brought a foot up and kicked his groin. My foot connected but like a crack addict he was oblivious to the pain. I was picked up like a sack of potatoes and thrown against the cabin wall. As I lay stunned he pulled out a knife and dug the edge into my throat.

“Where has he hidden it?” he hissed, between clenched teeth.

At that moment I thought I was done. No matter how much I struggled he would kill me even if I knew the answer. Belle must have died here.

But I was wrong. A gunshot deafened my ears. Clumps of brain matter splattered on my face and clothes as the man slumped over, his knees crumbling beneath him. He dropped limply to the deck.

“Cher, are you all right?” A pistol still gripped in one hand, Alain Ducoeur pulled me up. With a handkerchief he wiped my face. “I think I’ll need to bathe you,” he said, with a grin. “Go down to the cabin and wait for me.”

“What’s this all about? What’s he after?”

“Lafitte’s treasure. They think I have it.” He patted my butt. “Go quickly woman.”

I glanced around before heading down the steps. Ducoeur’s men were dumping the dead into the bayou. The fight was over.

Downstairs, the open cabin door revealed a dark-haired man at the desk rifling through the contents of the drawers.

I was instantly suspicious. “Who are you?”

Springing up, he came towards me, eyes narrowed into dark burning embers. From his belt he pulled out a gun and pointed it at my chest. “Where is it?”

“Anabelle!” A low voice tugged me out of the white haze. I was back at the Hotel Belfoire, Doctor Philippe squeezing my hand. The memory faded into a steamy mist.

Doctor Philippe lifted his head, his eyes far away. “I could smell it.”

“What?”

“Swamp.” Doctor Philippe shut his eyes. His face lost color.

“What did you see?”

“A ship.”

I nodded. “Anything else?”

Doctor Philippe’s expression was serious. “I saw you but not as you are now. Your hair was a golden blonde and your features were similar but different. Do you know how you got the scar?”

Strange how he thought the scar was so important. I glanced down and focused on the jagged line. A flame shot up from the scar, startling me. And then as quickly as it ignited it fizzed out.

“What is it?”

The priest grabbed my trembling hands. This was not me. A helpless woman caught in a net from a past life, flopping around like a fish out of water, gasping for air.

“Tell me,” he urged.

Uncomfortable with the physical contact, I pushed him away. From my purse I took out a twenty and threw it on the counter. “Thanks, but I have to go.”

“Wait,” he said, grabbing my elbow. With his other hand he flipped open the catch on my purse and dropped in a business card. “My cell number. You will need my help. Believe me you can’t deal with this alone.”

I didn’t look around but I could feel his eyes drilling a hole in my back as I closed the glass door behind me.

 

***

Shucker watched the blonde until she disappeared into a flood of tourists. She was far too tiny for his sort of bedroom romp. He preferred a tall girl’s long legs hooked tightly over his shoulders.

It was no coincidence she sat with Doctor Philippe. The priest’s eyes were cold enough to freeze a brother’s soul, like a black vulture settling on Chuckie’s body to feed on his entrails. Nervously, he rubbed his cheeks upwards to his shiny shaved head and squeezed as if to prompt his brain for answers. Sweat dripped off his brow. There was only one thing to do. He had to see Auntie Ruthie.

“I’m goin’,” he yelled out to Dee. The uppity bitch grimaced and went back to flirting with the old coot.

Known as Toad to the locals, he was the unfortunate owner of saggy jowls which by some quirk of nature adhered to his scrawny neck. Some thought Chuckie was ugly but in the bartender’s opinion, a white or black man with a waddle jiggling, was beyond gross.

Dee needed a real man and Chuckie would see that he was that man. This time he wouldn’t take no for an answer. With a glance at Doctor Philippe, Chuckie flung his apron behind the counter and slamming the door in his hurry, hit the street. He had to get to Auntie Ruthie’s shop on St Ann before closing.

Arms flung wide, wild-eyed as a bull pierced by a matador’s sword, Chuckie shoved a wizened gray-haired lady back, barreling down Royal. She swung her cane in the air in retaliation narrowly missing his broad backside. Chuckie didn’t care.

Nobody was spared the tree-trunk body as he careened through. A young couple collided into a display of modern art in their hurry to avoid him. Chuckie didn’t care. He was in a panic and only Auntie Ruthie could help.

As a Hoodoo woman, the old lady supplied people with herbs and animal powders. A month ago he’d asked for gris-gris to use on a college girl. Auntie Ruthie’s potion was so strong the beotch’s brain shifted into cruise control, doing everything he asked with a big grin plastered on her face. Luckily, no one reported her missing for the two days she spent in his bed. Chuckie ended up dumping her on the Tulane campus. Security found the co-ed naked, rolling in the grass laughing insanely, having no recollection of where she’d been or what she’d done.

He had to be careful this time. The composition of the potion could have been lethal and he would have gone down for it had the girl reported her story to the police. They’d charge him with possession or worse. Luckily, the gris-gris was more powerful than roofies. Chuckie thanked the loas no one came after him.

The heat was beginning to slow him down to a steady trudge as he turned north on St Ann towards Rampart. When he spotted the shotgun house, he stopped and wiped his brow. The outer room facing the street connected to a room in the back where the old lady sold gris-gris and charms.

Chuckie stepped inside slamming the screen door lightly behind him. He wandered down the hallway where a black pit bull was penned in a small sunken room, a lounge area furnished with couches and table, and a fireplace off to the side. The dog barked in warning.

“Shuddup, Big Daddy,” he said, as he always did before going further. He was filled with apprehension, dead sure he had been singled out by the Voodoo priest.

Auntie Ruthie’s store was the room at the end of the hallway. She sold charms and amulets, made up potions for a few dollars and told fortunes. When he poked his head in, Auntie Ruthie’s frizzled gray head was hunched over a gris-gris bag, loading it up with who knows what. Her shriveled coal face looked up, the raisin eyes receding in shadowy sockets identical to his but hers had misty-gray veils from the cataracts creeping over.

“Where y’at, Shucker?” From the dark corner of the room a plump black girl stopped her beading to examine Chuckie’s sweaty face. “You runnin’ from the po-lice?”

“Shaddup, Eurma. And don’t be callin’ me Shucker, if ya knows what’s good for ya.” He was born Charles Bateau but with Bateau meaning boat and working an oyster boat for seven years, he’d acquired the Shucker handle from the speed he could shuck oysters, which was right quick. He hadn’t won any contests but his skill with the oyster knife was phenomenal at thirty-three shucks per minute. Not quite a competition winner but he came darn near close. He was proud he was good even if he had missed and wounded himself. It was the way women said “Shucker” that made him feel like a cockroach. They always looked at his hands, disgust in their eyes and then back at his face as if he was one big scab. All of them, white or black, thought he was a freak.

Eurma smirked. “Well, you sure as dung have a boner about somethin’.”

“Yer mouth is flappin’ louder than a barn door in a storm. I need to speak private. Wait outside, Eurma.”

“Dumb as a bag full of hammers, ya are, Chuckie Shucker,” Eurma shot back.

Chuckie’s eyes flattened like a shark’s. “I’ll knock you so hard you’ll see tomorrow today if you speak like that ta me agin.”

Feisty Eurma was not stupid. She hurriedly jiggled to the door.

Auntie Ruthie peered up over her reading glasses. “Hush, baby.”

“Like two possums in a tow sack,” Chuckie said, eyes glued on Eurma’s booty.

At the doorway Eurma turned about and hissed, “You is sick.”

Chuckie’s cheek twitched like a panicked moth trapped in a jar before he lunged forward. Eurma ran, making it half way down the hallway before Chuckie’s foot connected to her substantial behind. The girl struggled to keep from falling, righted herself with a grunt and took off to the bedroom. He heard the door click.

“No need to hurt her, Chuckie,” Auntie Ruthie said quietly. “Eurma works hard doin’ God’s business.”

“Thinks you mean loa business, Auntie Ruthie.”

“Voodoo gods or t’other. Same thing. Now sit, boy, and tell me why you here.”