Monday, December 2, 2019

Amarillo - a short story

I can't remember when I wrote this short story but I know why I wrote it. I grew up with a mean, red-headed older brother, and a father that had returned from the Second World War with an anger problem he never overcame until the day he developed Alzheimer's. It all came to me when I heard the Bob Dylan song Brownsville Girl that resonated all the way to my soul. Like so many of Dylan's songs, it told a story. I chopped out this short story and it's crude and unapologetic. Hope you love it.





Amarillo

W
e crossed the Panhandle at sundown, heading south toward Amarillo. Jim hadn't moved in over an hour. He just stared out the window at crimson light bleeding up from the horizon. Finally, he fidgeted in his seat and folded his arms.
He just stared out the window at crimson light bleeding up from the horizon. Finally, he fidgeted in his seat and folded his arms.
"You know, little brother, this reminds me of a movie I seen once."
 Hoping to free him of the blue funk weighing on him since we left Wichita, I said, "Tell me about it."
Jim leaned back against the seat, closed his eyes, and took a long, dreamy breath.
"Don't remember much. A kid trying to make a name for his self shot an old gunfighter in the back. Left him for dead on the edge of the town."
"What happened?” I asked.
 "Sheriff waylaid the kid and beat him senseless. By then folks from town had gathered, wanting to string the boy up on the spot. The dying gunfighter wouldn't have none of it. Turn him loose, he said. Let him feel what it's like to live life in the sight of a gun."
"What's it mean?"
 Jim offered no answer. His eyes had closed and stayed that way until I braked the Ford on the outskirts of town. Not knowing where to go from there, I nudged him, waiting until he shook away his bad dream.
 "Teddy Jackson's place. Down the road a ways," he mumbled. "Next to a used car lot."
 We passed miles of used cars, cattle pens, and wrecking yards, finally finding Teddy Jackson's trailer house behind a twelve-foot fence topped with concertina. The sign on the gate said Teddy's Junk House. When I stopped the old Ford Jim reached across the seat, leaning on the horn until a woman with a thatch of thick red hair came out of the trailer and shined a flashlight through the windshield.
"Closed up. What the hell you want this time of night?"
 "Here to see Teddy," Jim said.
 "Well, he ain't here. Come back tomorrow."
 "I'm Jim Droon and this is my brother. Teddy's expecting us."
 The red-haired woman must have known we were coming because the muscles in her face relaxed, and she said, "We won't see Teddy till the bars close down."
 Swinging back the gate, she let us drive into the lot, smiling when Jim winked at her. Flushing visibly red even beneath dim fluorescent light flooding the junk lot, she straightened her yellow hair bow.
 Darla was her name. She took to Jim right off and him to her. The trailer was a mess, Teddy's junk occupying every inch of floor space. It did not bother Jim. Without asking permission, he sprawled out on a faded sofa older than both of us were. Darla didn't seem to mind and before long they were sharing tequila straight from a bottle. I passed when they offered me a swig. We had not eaten all day and I didn't think hard liquor would help the dull ache in the pit of my gut.
 Darla and Jim were in a world of their own so I walked down the hall to the bathroom. When I finished my business, I rummaged through the kitchen, looking for something to eat. All I found was a single can of Lone Star, its top already popped. With nothing better to eat or drink, I sipped flat beer till it got too hot.
 "How do you like our little corner of the world?” Darla asked when I returned to the couch.
 "It's so -"               
 "God forsaken?"
 "You got it." Jim grinned when I said, "But it reminds me of Kansas, all big and open. We had a tree once, you know?"
 Darla rubbed a dark bruise, shaped like a buffalo's head, on her calf. "Only one tree?"
 "Yeah and it didn't last long. When Mama was working and Daddy off playing pool, Jim siphoned gas from the tractor, poured it on that tree and set it on fire. Said it bugged him the way wind caused it to brush against the screen door."
 Leaning forward on the couch, Darla said, "Hey, Jim, what did your Daddy do when he found out?"
 By now, Jim was all grins. "Let little brother tell you. He's better at it than me."
 Glancing away from Darla's expectant eyes, I said, "Jim didn't want a whipping so he sneaked off to town, but not until he left the half-empty gas can beside my bed. Daddy come home all sotted up. Found the burned-up tree and can of gas. I didn't know what hit me when he yanked me out of bed by the hair, beating me with the buckle of his belt till I begged him to stop."
 "You survived," Jim said. "Besides, that's why you're the little brother, little brother."
 Just before midnight, Darla said, "Amarillo's a hell hole. Ain't enough life here worth embalming. Been thinking of hitchhiking back to Dallas. Where you boys headed?"
 "South," Jim said.
 "How far south?"
 "Till the wheels burn off that ol' Galaxie."
 "San Antone," I said. "Jim says it's like paradise. Jobs for everybody. Beautiful weather."
 I did not miss the glance Darla shot Jim. "Well, don't take everything you hear too seriously, kid. San Antone's okay, but for my money the place to be is Dallas, any time."
 Shaking my head, I said, "We're going there for sure. Jim says they pave the streets with gold."
 Darla laughed and she and Jim kept right on drinking till the bottle was empty. About two-thirty we heard brakes screeching outside the fence and I sensed it was Teddy, coming home from an all-day drunk. We watched him stagger out of his dented blue Biscayne. When he saw Jim, recognition flooded his ratty eyes.
 "Jimmy," he said, latching his arms around Jim's neck. When he kissed him on the mouth Jim didn't flinch, but I saw a strange look flicker and die in Darla's green eyes.
 "Get in this house," Teddy said, steering Jim back toward the trailer door. "Who's this you brung with you?"
 "Little brother," Jim said.
 "Looks bigger than you," Teddy said. "Darla, I'm starved. What's to eat in this place?"
 Darla stalked off to the kitchen, returning with a bowl of stale rice soaked in red sauce I had somehow missed. She didn't bother heating it up and Teddy didn't seem to mind, eating it straight from the bowl without offering any to me or Jim.
 "Jim and me spent time in McAlester," Teddy said. "Hard time. Jim kicked the shit out of a guard." A wicked grin spread over his skinny face. "What a man your brother is. What a man."
 "Shit, Teddy. You're the one," Jim said. "You always had a plan. The rest of us were just doing time."
 "A plan is what I got right now," Teddy said, edging closer on the sofa.
 Teddy had finished the red rice. Now he filled a shot glass with tequila. Darla had passed out on the couch and Teddy sipped his drink, staring at Jim. "There's a bank in town, ready for the breaking. You boys interested?"
 Jim said, "Maybe. At least in hearing what you got to say about it."
 "End of the month payroll," Teddy said. "Probably forty thousand dollars, or so. Twenty each."
 Teddy paused as Jim reflected on the amount he had mentioned. Leaning closer, he said, "I drive. You walk in, hand them the note, collect the money and walk out. I'll pick you up on the corner. Nothing to it."
 Not believing what I was hearing, I waited for Jim to laugh, or at least change the subject. He did neither.
 Instead, he said, "How many guards?"
 "Just one," Teddy said. "That's the beauty. They got all the money in the world and no security. We'll waltz right in, take what they got and hit the road without a hitch."
 I tried to catch Jim's eye but he glanced away. Considering Teddy's scheme, I guessed.
 "When?” Jim finally said.
 "Tomorrow. Right after they open up."
 "Won't give us much time to case the place."
 "That I already done," Teddy said.
 "You think about it," he said, patting Jim's cheek before sauntering off to bed in the next room. Darla rubbed her eyes, blinked herself awake, and followed him. Jim kicked me off the sofa, wrapped his hands behind his head, and grinned.
 "You wouldn't rob another bank, would you Jim?" I asked.
 "Not me, little brother, us."
 "If Teddy wants to rob a bank, let him do it alone. He don't need you."
 "Teddy's just a driver. He can't pull this job alone. Besides, Teddy and me shared a cell in McAlester. He's smart and knows how to make things work. If he says this is a good bank to rob, then I believe him."
 "If he's so smart, why did he wind up in McAlester in the first place?"
 Jim ignored my question and said, "We need Teddy to drive and I need you to back me up."
 "But what about San Antone?"
 Jim stared at the ceiling, smiling his crazy smile, and said, "This is San Antone."
 "No way. You promised Mama and you promised me. I won't let you screw your life up again."
 Jim's eyes had closed but I knew he was listening because of that grin on his face I had seen all my life.
  Quit your belly-aching, little brother," he finally said. "Neither of us is going to rob anything. I was just kidding."
 "You sure?"
 Jim passed out on the couch, the only answer to my question a coyote, somewhere down the road, howling at the moon. Propping my shoulders against a wall, I closed my eyes but mental meandering prevented sleep until almost dawn when Jim nudged me awake with his foot.
 "Get up, little brother. We're going into town and get something to eat."
 My gut ached. So did my head, but during the long night, I had somehow convinced myself it was all a joke. When my stomach growled I remembered my hunger and the bacon and eggs Jim was promising.
 Teddy, Darla, and Jim were not quite ready to go so I chewed on a piece of cardboard until they killed the last of the tequila. Temperatures had dropped below freezing during the night and we had to push the Ford to start it. The ride to town seemed endless and we found the streets deserted when we got there - like winter on Mars.
 Jim and I sat in the back seat of the Galaxie, Darla riding shotgun, as Teddy circled the block. They both looked strung out and it worried me. Maybe it was just last night's Lone Star but the atmosphere in the car made my gut feel like slag lead. Finally, Teddy stopped and let us out.
 "I'll park this heap around the corner," he said. "Just come running."
 Darla reached through the window, giving Jim a hug and frantic kiss and waving as Teddy pulled away. Drawing me like a magnet, Jim drew a deep breath, patted his chest and started down the street,
 "Why aren't they coming with us?"
 "Cause Teddy's lazy and looking for a closer place to park. Cafe's just down the street and I ain't waiting."
 When we rounded the corner, I looked in both directions for the pancake house but did not see it. Instead, a bank door beckoned and I realized Jim had suckered me. Grabbing the front of my pea-jacket, he shoved a big revolver under my belt and pushed me through the front door.
 "Don't do this," I said.
 Jim grabbed my shoulder, cupped my ear and whispered into it. "All you have to do is stand right here and wait on me. I'll do the dirty work and no one will even know you're involved."
 "I'd follow you to hell. But robbing a bank -"
 "You never robbed a bank before?"
 "Jim, you know I ain't"
 Jim's eyes began to glaze. "It's pure sex, kid. Pure sex."
 Now my knees were shaking, my heart thumping against my ribs. Across the room, one fat guard propped up the wall, drinking coffee from a plastic cup. Jim strolled past him, straight to the nearest cashier where he pulled out his pistol and stuck it in the woman's chest. Outside the bank, I had felt like I was about to puke. Now, time began passing like a slow-motion Technicolor pan across the room. As if I weren't really there, but knew I was.
 "You're too young to die, beautiful," Jim said to the scared woman. "Put your money in this sack and signal your boss over here, now."
 The young woman's body stiffened like a chopped stump. Color drained from her face and saliva drooled from the corner of her mouth. Looking at her, it made me wonder if she would piss her pants before I did.
Don't shoot me," she said. "Please!"
"Put the money in the sack," Jim said, his words growing progressively louder. "Then call your boss over here."
 The woman's voice was also growing louder and had become noticeably shaky when she called to a well-dressed man beside the open vault.
 "Jeremy, over here."
 With a glance of disapproval, the young banker in a blue suit approached the booth. He had no chance to comment on the cashier's disrespect before Jim stuck the pistol in his face and eased the two of them down the row. Jim followed Jeremy and the woman into the vault.
 I glanced at the big clock on the wall and waited. Although it seemed like forever, less than five minutes passed before Jim strolled out of the vault. He was alone. Slung over his shoulder was a heavy-looking bag and I thought we were home free. Instead, fate suddenly dealt us aces and eights.
 Jeremy or the cashier must have tripped an alarm from inside the vault. A siren began wailing and people started screaming and throwing themselves to the floor. The fat guard pulled his pistol and dropped to his knees, fanning the bank. Jim was almost to the front door when the man yelled for him to halt. Without waiting for a response, he began shooting. His pistol erupted, my heart counting three explosions.
 The first bullet caught Jim in the shoulder, spinning him around. The second took off a chunk of his right ear and the third struck him square in the belly. I watched helplessly as he staggered back against the wall, pluming blood painting a crushed rose across the front of his jacket.
 It was not over. The fat guard rushed forward, jamming his pistol in Jim's face. Amid screams of the people in the bank and sirens wailing outside, he prepared to pull the trigger. I had already started for the door, but I could not leave, knowing I had to save Jim. Use the gun he give me. Yanking it from my belt, I pointed it, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.
 All my luck had ebbed sometime the day before. Catching sight of the weapon in my hand, the fat guard squeezed off a round from his pistol at the exact instant. His bullet burned a hole through my leg, igniting sharp pain just below my right knee. My bullet lifted him off his feet, crushed him against the wall, robbing his breath until no life remained in his eyes. He was dead and it was me that had killed him.
  Somehow, reality fazed me less than intense pain surging through my leg. Steadyng Jim before he collapsed to the floor, I fought back my nausea, wondering what weird anomaly of life caused blood to gurgle from my brother's mouth while letting his eyes remain clear as Amarillo's cold December sky.
 "Get us out of here, little brother."
 Trembling bodies lay sprawled on the floor, blocking our path to the door. I stepped over, through and between them, hauling Jim to the front door, the bank's alarm still screaming bloody murder, distant sirens blaring as we stepped outside.
 Down the street, Teddy and Darla waited in Jim's Galaxie. Teddy saw us first, slamming the car into reverse, burning rubber all the way down the road until he reached us. Amid all the confusion a crow cawed, somewhere overhead. For a moment, I thought we was back home in Kansas.
 "Teddy, Jim's shot. Help us."
 The front door opened and Darla bolted out, rushing toward us like an excited chicken, wrenching the moneybag off Jim's shoulder instead of helping me with him. The car door slammed behind her, old tires screaming as they burned rubber around the corner and disappeared.
 "Bastard," Jim said, weak from loss of blood. "Get me out of here. I swear I ain't doing no more hard time."
 The crowd gathered on the sidewalk scurried out of our way as I moved us along with no idea where to go. Then it appeared before us - a cross topping a church steeple and red brick fencing a churchyard. I dragged Jim through the gates.
 "Inside," I said. "The priest will give us asylum."
 "Dumb shit," Jim said. "We're bank robbers. There's no asylum for us."
 I pulled him forward anyway. By now, my right leg was numb from the knee down and my head felt as if I had taken two dozen fast circuits on a broken tilt-a-whirl. Fighting the urge to throw up, I pushed through the heavy oak doors, into the main chapel of the church. We made it to the third pew before I collapsed.
"They're coming," I said.
 Jim's laugh surprised me. When he spoke, I had to lean closer to hear him.
 "You know, little brother, last night I dreamed about that movie again - the one where the kid shot the old gunfighter."
 Blood had soaked my jeans and I felt faint and sick but Jim's throaty voice swam inside my head like a trapped goldfish. In response to his question, I could only nod.
 "The gunfighter just lay there in the dirt," he said. "Half dead, but staring at me as if I was a cockroach he wanted to stomp. So were the sheriff and all the town folk."
 "Just stay quiet and the priest will get you a doctor. You'll be fine."
 Ignoring me, he said, "It was me, the dirty bastard who shot the gunfighter in the back." He laughed and coughed up blood that foamed down his chin and neck. "This morning when I woke up, I could still feel the noose around my neck."
 Jim slowly massaged his neck as more blood gurgled from his lips and a cold glaze crept over his blue eyes.
 "Hang on. They're coming for us now."
 "Too late. I'm gutshot, little brother. Maybe I'll see you back in Kansas sometime, and maybe that old gunfighter again, somewhere along the way. Gotta go now. Daddy's coming. Take care of him for me, will you?"
 Jim's body went slack in my arms as the church's heavy oak doors swung open and I gazed up helplessly at the dozen men pointing angry pistols and rifles at me, and through the portal, I could see hazy clouds dulling the pink winter sky.
 A chill breeze, leaving a pall in my heart, gusted down the aisle. It whistled like Daddy's belt, causing me to remember the sting of its buckle. Hard and cold as it flailed long red whelps across my back.

###



Born near Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption, and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma where he continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans and the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Please check it out on his AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Craters of the Moon - an excerpt






I'm working on French Quarter Mystery No. 9 tentatively titled Craters of the Moon. Here is the first chapter. If you haven't begun reading the series yet, I'd love for you to check out Big Easy, Book 1 of the series. Big Easy is also available at BN, Apple, Smashwords, and Kobo. I hope you love it, and will also love Craters of the Moon when it's completed and available in the spring of 2020.


Craters
of the
Moon

A novel by
Eric Wilder

Chapter 1

S
arah Hartel couldn’t believe her luck. Though she’d participated in digs in South America, Southeast Asia, and even the Sahara Desert, none had been as physically uncomfortable as the one she now found herself on. August is hot in much of the United States. In New Orleans, it is both warm and almost unbearably humid. Though she’d been in New Orleans for only a few days, she already hated the weather and her latest assignment.
An archeologist and anthropologist, Sarah loved the study of ancient cultures. While more than three-hundred years old, New Orleans was young, even by European standards. As an employee of tiny Deweese University, she had no choice in her current assignment. Seth Daniels, Sarah’s boss and the head scientist on the dig didn’t seem any happier.
“What the hell, Seth! We should be working in Egypt or China. Does anyone give a damn what we find here?”
“If someone didn’t care, then we would be in Egypt or China,” Seth said.
Seth was forty-something though his longish hair helped maintain his boyish looks. His bouncy brown waves failed to produce the response he desired, and he almost always wore a broad-brimmed hat to compensate for it. Seth had never married, the career that often took him from continent to continent precluding any long-term relationship.
Sarah had tied her brown hair in a bun, an Army-green Boonie hat like the ones worn by jungle soldiers covering her head. The hat was soft, and in the city’s heat, she’d taken to using it to wipe the sweat dripping down her face. Though she wasn’t startlingly beautiful she had expressive green eyes and sparkling teeth that made her quite attractive. Still in her early thirties she’d never been in a serious relationship, possibly because of her short temper and reserved demeanor.
Sarah and Seth were only supervising. Four grad students serving as assistants were doing the digging. None of them looked particularly happy. Seth pointed to the nearby Creole townhouse that had partially collapsed because of the weight of time.
“Most of the property in the French Quarter is privately owned. When an owner allows you to dig, you take the opportunity,” he said.
“Seems a bit random to me,” Sarah said.
“At least we have a wall around us and don’t have to contend with gawking tourists staring over our shoulders,” Seth said.
Sarah glanced at the eight-foot-high masonry wall that enclosed the courtyard where they were digging. Spanish moss-draped almost to the ground from the live oaks, and a large butterfly was flitting in a hedge draped with blooming honeysuckle. Bushes and flowering vines that had gone untrimmed for perhaps decades had almost overgrown the open space.
Sarah’s tone was sarcastic when she said, “Thank God for small favors.”
“I’m no happier about this than you are. Doesn’t matter because no one gave us a choice,” Seth said.
“I hate it,” Sarah said.
“Get over it,” Seth said. “We won’t be here for long at any rate because the water table is only five feet deep.”
“What was this place?” Sarah asked.
“The New Orleans home of some rich planter who probably had a plantation on River Road. Overseers and slaves did most of the work, and the plantation owners spent much of their time socializing here in New Orleans.”
The grad students had staked out two eight-foot by eight-foot excavation sites and were digging using shovels and sifters. Work came to a halt when a young grad student named Maggie squealed. Seth sprang from his portable chair and ran to the hole.
“What the hell is it?” he said. “A snake?”
Maggie was from Australia, petite, with honey-blond hair and a killer body. Everyone participating in the dig knew she was sleeping with Seth.
“Found something, Professor Daniels,” Maggie said.
The other three grad students called the two supervisors by their first names. Seth loved the young woman’s Aussie accent, her loving attention, and was oblivious to the talk going on behind their backs. Grabbing Maggie’s hand, he helped her out of the hole. Sarah joined them.
“An old coin,” Maggie said. “It’s heavy.”
Seth took the coin, practically unrecognizable from its coating of encrusted dirt to a work table erected beneath an open canopy. Sarah and Maggie watched as he used a microscope to view the coin.  With a descaling tool, he began removing the grime.
“We got this,” Sarah said. Catching Sarah’s tone, Maggie gave her an angry look before returning to her excavation site. “What is it?”
“An 1812 gold Napoleon. Now we know what timeframe we’re dealing with,” Seth said.
“That’s eight years after the Louisiana Purchase,” Sarah said. “What’s a French coin doing here?”
“Gold,” Seth said. “No matter what nationality issued it, you can buy anything with gold.”
Seth dropped the coin when a grad student called out. “I’ve got wood.”
Seth and Sarah stood at the edge of the excavation. The hole was almost five feet deep, groundwater beginning to seep up over the grad students’ boots. As they watched, the water continued to rise, turning the loamy soil into mud.
“What is it, Beau?” Seth asked.
Beau and a red-headed Irish exchange student named Sean had doffed their shirts covered in sweat and mud. Beau was from France and was also an exchange student. His dark hair and eyes and deep tan were the antitheses of Sean’s pale complexion and blue eyes. Both he and Sean spoke with accents.
“Don’t know yet,” Beau said.
 Sean’s shovel struck something with a thud.
“What is it?” Seth asked.
“A coffin, maybe,” Sean said.
The excavation site had become a mud hole as another grad student named Joey crowded in to help. Joey was a local of African-American descent. Like Sean and Beau, globs of mud coated his shirt, pants, and boots. When they finally broke the suction, the three filthy grad students wrestled a rotting coffin out of the hole, laying it to rest beside the canopy.
Joey returned to the other hole where he was working as Beau and Sean pried open the top of the wooden coffin. The cypress box was laden with mud, an arm bone poking through the mire. Maggie was taking pictures.
“Wash the mud away and let’s see what we have,” Seth said.
Joey called from the other hole before they could begin the task. “There are more coffins over here,” he said.
Though unpaid, the four grad students were all receiving extra college credit from UNO. Seth and Sarah were visiting professors, and Seth would be bestowing grades, the reason the other students weren’t happy with Maggie. Seth turned to Sarah.
“This little project just got bigger,” he said. “Hope our workers don’t mutiny on us.”
“No one was expecting to find bodies,” Sarah said. “Should we contact the authorities?”
“This is private property, the new owner planning to restore the townhouse and put in a pool. The bodies need to be moved and reinterred elsewhere. Meanwhile, we can classify the bones and find out who and what we are dealing with.”
“Why weren’t the bodies buried in a cemetery?” Sarah asked.
“Don’t know,” Seth said. “There were aboveground cemeteries in New Orleans in 1812. Maybe we’ll get a handle on it before we finish the dig.”
Seth’s answer failed to satisfy Maggie’s curiosity, and she commented in her Aussie accent.
“Perhaps they were slaves and couldn’t be buried in the cemetery.”
“Everyone in New Orleans, even the slaves, were Catholic and received proper Catholic burials. These people were buried here, below ground, for a reason. We may learn what that reason was, and then maybe not.”
Seth glanced up at Sarah when she said, “Maybe they weren’t from New Orleans.”
Joey interrupted their thoughts. “Seth, you better come see this,” he said.
The students had washed all the mud out of the cypress coffin. They were staring at the jumble of bones as Seth and Sarah arrived to take a look.
“What is it?” Seth asked.
Joey gestured with the palm of his hand. “The skeleton of an African-American adult male,” he said. “There’s no skull or hands.”
“That’s not all,” Beau said.
Seth gave the two men an assessing glance. “What?”
“The hands and skull aren’t just missing,” Joey said. “Looks like they were lopped off.”
“Maybe with an ax,” Sean said.
Seth got down on his hands and knees to get a better look.
“You’re right,” he said.
“What’s it mean, Professor Daniels?” Maggie asked.
“Don’t know. Let’s get the other two coffins out of the ground and check them out,” he said.
It was late afternoon before Joey, Sean, and Beau had managed to wrestle the other two coffins out of the holes and even later before they had the mud washed away from the skeletal remains. Sarah, Seth, and Maggie watched the process through completion.
“Just like the others,” Beau said. “No skulls or hands.”
Seth blinked and rubbed his forehead. “Jesus!” he said. “Ninety degrees in the shade, and this is a problem I didn’t need.”
“I’ve got one more,” Joey called from one of the holes.
“Another coffin?”
“A body wrapped in swaddling cloth,” Joey said.
“What the hell?” Seth said.
Sarah, Seth, and the grad students watched as Joey handed what looked like a body wrapped in a sheet to Beau. Sean helped Joey out of the hole, and they brought the body to where Sarah, Seth, and Maggie were waiting. Beau laid the bundle on the ground and then glanced up at Seth, waiting for directions.
“There’s not a skeleton in there,” Beau said. “It’s too heavy for that.”
Seth was frowning when Joey joined them. “You found that in the hole?” he asked. “It’s barely muddy.”
“Where else would it have come from?” Joey asked.
“Open it up,” Seth said. “Let’s see what we got.”
Maggie shrieked when Joey pulled the cloth away to reveal the face of a young Creole woman. She had long black hair and a café au lait complexion. Her eyes were closed, her arms folded across her chest. She was probably in her mid-thirties, quite beautiful and naked. Despite being beneath five feet of dirt for more than two hundred years, the body showed no signs of decomposition.
“Good God All Mighty!” Sean said.
Seth bent down and touched the woman’s neck. “The body is warm though I don’t feel a pulse.”
“Impossible,” Joey said. “I dug her out of five feet of mud.”
Seth fingered the gold chain with a charm attached that was around her neck.
“What is it?” Sarah asked.
Joey answered before Seth had a chance to. “It’s a veve,” he said. “A voodoo symbol.”
“How do you know that?” Seth asked.
“I’m from New Orleans,” Joey said. “I know.”
“We need to get her to a hospital,” Sarah said.
Seth grinned. “She’s been buried for more than two hundred years. She can’t be alive.”
“How can you say that?” Sarah said. “We need to get her someplace where they can check her out.”
“No,” Seth said. “Whatever’s going on here is important. It’s our discovery, and I’m not turning her over to the whims of the City of New Orleans.”
“Then what do you intend to do?” Sarah asked.
“The anthropology department at UNO has a refrigerated room for storing bodies. Call them and have them bring a van. The other skeletons also need to go.”
Though Sarah wasn’t smiling, she began punching in a number on her cell phone.
Late afternoon shadows were covering the courtyard when the van arrived from UNO to pick up the skeletons and the body. The grad students had erected a makeshift shower attached to a branch of a towering live oak. Sean, Beau, and Joey had stripped down to their boxer shorts and were washing away the mud beneath the slow spray.
Not to be outdone, Maggie stripped to her panties and joined them. Sarah couldn’t help but notice the look of jealousy on Seth’s face as he watched the grad students’ shower and then dress in clean clothes. Joey was drying his hair when he approached Seth and Sarah.
“I’m introducing Beau and Seth to the local culture and taking them club hopping. We’d love to have you join us.”
“Thanks,” Seth said. “I have other plans.”
“Sarah?”
“Not tonight,” she said. “I have notes I need to edit.”
“Suit yourself,” Joey said.
He, Beau, and Sean waved as they left the gated compound. Seth’s broad smile spoke volumes about how he felt when Maggie appeared in a light blue miniskirt and low-cut blouse dramatically emphasizing the young woman’s ample cleavage.
“Maggie and I are having dinner and drinks at Antoine’s,” Seth said. “Care to join us?”
“Thanks,” Sarah said. “As I told Joey, I have work to catch up on.”
Sarah watched Maggie and Seth leave the compound and then spent several hours working on her notes. The sun was low on the horizon, shadows creeping over the courtyard when she stripped off her clothes and stood under the makeshift shower, washing the day’s grime off her body and out of her hair.
The once beautifully manicured French Quarter courtyard had become overgrown with native weeds and vegetation. The lily pond that once played host to golden koi was cracked and devoid of water. None of the fountains worked, and the branches of the live oaks extended to the brick masonry. Sarah jumped when something peeked around the corner of the abandoned Creole townhouse.
The creature had the snout of a dog, although its teeth were longer. Brown was the color of its hairless body that had the look of old leather. A fin extended down its back to its bony tail. It was standing on its hind legs. When Sarah screamed, the creature ran away behind the house. She didn’t know what to think as she hurriedly pulled on a fresh set of khaki shorts.
“What in holy hell was that?” she said.

###


Born near Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption, and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma where he continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans and the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Please check it out on his AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Primal Creatures - an Excerpt

In Louisiana, Cajuns have another name for a werewolf. They call it rougarou. Deep in the swamps and bayous, the creature is very real. In Primal Creatures, Wyatt Thomas, New Orleans' favorite private detective, is coming off of a bender of epic proportion. After making his way back home, he learns Bertram Picou, his best friend, and landlord has secured an investigation that will take him to a secluded island resort south of New Orleans. The Goose Island Monastery is located on the island, as is a fishing village populated by descendants of escaped slaves. Voodoo is afoot as are actors and artists,  strange monks, an eccentric old birdwatcher and a pack of dangerous rougarous. I hope you enjoy reading Primal Creatures, a book the Preturnatural Post described as "a colorful zydeco of a read that's part mystery, part thriller, part travelogue, and all fun."

Prolog

Fingers of lightning laced the cloudy sky as the sounds of lovemaking issued from a patch of tall grass, a woman’s throaty voice disturbing the night’s stillness. For just a moment, a full yellow moon poked through the clouds.
“Stop it, Rance. You know I don’t like it that way.”
Laughter followed the woman’s words. “That’s a first. I didn’t think there was any perversion you didn’t like.”
“Maybe I’m just in the mood for something new.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
The woman had no time to explain as an ominous howl echoed across the shallow waters of the bay, momentarily interrupting the midnight chorus of frogs and crickets.
“What was that?” she asked, squeezing the man’s arm.
“Sounded like a wolf to me.”
“Oh shit! Are there wolves on the island?”
“No one ever told me if there are. Maybe we should find our clothes and go to your cabin.”
“Pussy,” she said.
She squealed when Rance bit her neck. They both stopped what they were doing when another roar, closer this time, riveted their attention again.
“Whatever that was, I don’t like it. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Our clothes are down by the water,” the woman said. “Whatever’s out there is between us and the bay.”
“Forget the clothes. Sounds to me like it’s circling us. We need to move it.”
Confused for a moment, they didn’t know which way to go. When a tree limb cracked ten feet away, the woman screamed.
“Oh shit! It’s right behind us.”
Not waiting for her companion, she sprang to her feet, squealing again as the underbrush resonated with the sound of something extremely large moving toward them. The man tried to follow but fell when he caught his foot on a tree limb.
“Oh shit!” he called. “I twisted my ankle.”
Ignoring his cry of pain, she sprinted through the tall grass, the full moon lighting her way. Tripping on a vine, she stumbled face-first into moist earth as another howl pierced the night. It was followed by crazed growling, and her lover’s tortured screams as the creature that was stalking them began its attack.
Fear surged up her spine when she stopped and turned, watching for a moment as the shadow of some creature ripped into his victim. Sensing her presence, it wheeled around, red eyes blazing and bloody fangs flashing in the moonlight.
Grabbing her breast, as if her heart might suddenly stop beating, she screamed again. Revived by the sound of her own voice, she ran from the melee, unmindful of briars scratching her bare skin, or broken branches bruising her feet. She didn’t stop running until she reached the berm surrounding Goose Island.
Unable to climb over the concrete structure, she sank to the damp ground and covered her face with her hands, listening to a dying man’s last cry for help. Though she waited for the creature to find her, the attack never came. Instead, dark clouds opened, releasing a driving rain.
When the deluge finally ceased, the howls and cries of distress had ended, and moonlight illuminated the footbridge across the berm. Unmindful of her nudity as she climbed over the bridge, she raced toward the distant monastery without looking back.


Chapter 1

When a glass of cold water in the face awakened me from a drunken stupor, I sprang up from the bed, staring into the blue eyes of an angry, redheaded woman.
“Is that what it takes to get you out of bed?”
“Chrissie, I. . .”
She didn’t let me finish the sentence.
“I felt so sorry for you when you showed up at my door. I understand your ex-wife died of cancer, and your runway model joined a convent. I’ve heard it over and over. I’m tired of hearing about it.”
“Chrissie. . .”
Her finger pointed at her chin when she said, “Up to here. Grow some balls and stop feeling sorry for yourself. I’m sick to death of all your drama, and I can’t abide it anymore. Get out of my bed and out of my life!”
“Chrissie. . .”
“Just get your clothes on and go. I’m done with you for the last time, Wyatt Thomas.”
The clear anger in her voice left little room for misinterpretation. Stepping on my shoe when I slid off the bed, I rolled an ankle and sank to my knee.
“I’m going,” I said, holding up a palm when she took a step toward me.
“Is that all you have to say?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Maybe something like thank you Chrissie; you’re a remarkable woman Chrissie. Just don’t say I love you because I don’t believe you anymore.”
“Thank you, Chrissie. You saved my life.”
“Can it! I don’t need you or your lies.”
Hesitating a moment, I said, “I thought you needed me as much as I need you.”
“For what? Someone to bring you more booze? Cry on my shoulder, and then expect me to have sex with you all night? I’m done, now get out.”
“I’m going,” I said, pulling on my pants. “I can’t find my socks.”
A cup whistled past my ear, sending shards of glass through the air when it crashed into the wall.
“Screw your damn socks! Get out of here and don’t ever come back.”
Chrissie’s voice had become increasingly louder. Grabbing the shirt from the bedstead, I slipped it over my shoulders, reached down and clutched my shoes, ducking a vase flying over my head. I was out the door and down the stairs before she had time to find something else to throw.
An elderly couple glared at me as I hurried away. They weren’t the only ones that had witnessed the incident. A regular from the Irish pub where Chrissie worked was giving me the evil eye as he hurried up the stairway. He seemed to know where he was going and didn’t bother stopping to say hello.

Eight in the morning, Bertram’s neighborhood bar was all but empty. Bertram wasn’t alone, his collie Lady at his feet, my tailless cat Kisses treading on the countertop, rubbing against his arm. He was polishing a glass with a bar rag, dropping it when he saw me. Lady’s tail began banging the floor, and Kisses jumped off the counter, into my arms.
“Well, look what the cat drug in,” he said with a big Cajun grin. “Guess I don’t have to say you look like warmed over shit.”
Born on a Terrebonne Parish bayou, Bertram was one hundred percent French Acadian. He had a small mustache, and thinning hair, usually topped by a south Louisiana trapper’s hat. His costume aside, you only had to hear him speak to know he was the real deal.
“Glad to see you too, Bertram. Thanks for taking care of Kisses while I was out of pocket.”
Fishing under the counter for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, he poured whiskey into a glass. When I pulled up a bar stool, he shoved it in front of me.
“You drink it,” I said. “I’m off the sauce.”
“Oh yeah? Since when?”
“About an hour ago. Since Chrissie kicked me out of her apartment and explained, in no uncertain terms, how the cow eats the cabbage.”
“Maybe you better tell me about it.”
“You don’t want to hear. My ears are still ringing from the dressing down she gave me. In all my years, I never realized what a son-of-a-bitch I am.”
“Well now you know, maybe you can start doing something about it,” Bertram said without cracking a smile.
“I needed that,” I said.
Bertram’s bar was on Chartres Street, in the French Quarter. The building had been there for decades, the same wooden floor and ornate counter built by craftsmen from a different era. Panties, bras, and other assorted fragments of personal apparel—testimonies to losses of inhibitions—decorated the rafters above the place where Bertram usually held court. Taking the whiskey, he sipped it with a wink and a sly smile and then replaced it with lemonade in a tall glass of ice.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “I been wondering what happened to you. Kisses, here, was kinda getting used to Miss Lady and me.”
“I can see,” I said, rubbing the cat that hadn’t left my arms since she’d jumped into them.
“You look fine. Are you okay, I mean about Desire and all?”
Desire was the beautiful woman I’d fallen in love with that had left me and joined a convent after the suicide of her twin sister Dauphine. Bertram rested his elbows on the countertop, staring at me with his dark eyes, waiting for an answer to a question I was still wondering about myself.
“Everything’s feeling strange, though my mind’s a lot clearer. Chrissie helped a lot.”
“I thought you said she kicked you out.”
“Sometimes a kick in the head is what it takes. She said I don’t need a mother and that she doesn’t need a dysfunctional drunk of a son.”
“Brutal.”
“It’s what I needed, not another bottle of Black Jack.”
“When did you figure it out?” he asked.
“About halfway through her rant; after I’d ducked the cup and vase she threw at me. I was almost dressed when it crashed against the wall. I just grabbed my shirt and headed for the door.”
“I see you ain’t got no socks on,” he said.
“Hell, I’m lucky to have my pants and shirt.”
“You’re smiling so it must not be too bad.”
“Hey, I finally remembered why I left her in the first place. Remind me not to get serious with a redheaded Scottish lass again, no matter how pretty she is.”
“You’re right about one thing. She’s a good looking woman.”
“I’m going to send roses and tell her how much she helped me. Then I’m swearing off relationships for a while.”
“Good idea. You look about ten pounds lighter. I doubt you’d have lasted another two weeks. You eat lately?”
“Tell you the truth, my mind’s a bit fuzzy right now. Then again, I don’t remember much since I liberated the bottle of Jack Daniel’s from beneath your bar. Has it been two weeks?”
“Give or take a day or two. I’ll whip you up some grits and eggs if you’re hungry.”
“Bertram, you’re a life saver.”
I waited at the bar, Bertram whistling a Cajun tune as the aroma of cooking eggs wafted from the kitchen. He quickly placed the steaming plate in front of me, along with a bottle of hot sauce, grinning as I sprinkled a liberal dose on the fried eggs and grits.
“Guess the whiskey didn’t hurt your stomach any.”
“I’ll live. What’s happened since I left?”
“Mardi Gras ended, and most of the tourists went home. At least for a while.”
“Guess I missed it.”
Bertram gave his mustache a twist. “Mama Mulate got her wish.”
“Oh, and what wish was that?”
“She was jealous about Father Rafael’s job as a rent-a-priest with the cruise line. He got her an interview with them, and they hired her to lead a voodoo trip to Jamaica as a rent-a-mambo.”
Mama Mulate was my sometime business partner, Tulane English professor, and full-time voodoo mambo. When I had questions, she always had answers.
“You’re kidding.”
“She and Rafael left port yesterday, bound for Jamaica with a stop in Haiti along the way.”
Rafael Romanov had married my ex-wife Mimsy sometime after we’d divorced. We’d become acquainted following her untimely death, at her wake, and soon became friends. Though defrocked, he was technically still a priest. Cruise line passengers are comforted by having a priest on board, performing weddings, conducting services, and so on. A shipping company specializing in cruises had readily hired him, not caring that he was defrocked.
“They’ll be gone a while,” Bertram said. “Mama thought she’d died and gone to heaven when they called her with the job offer. Pays pretty decent, too.”
“Well, I’m happy for her. She deserved a break. I could use one myself.”
“Your holiday is over. You got a job waiting for you,” Bertram said.
“Oh?”
“You told me to check the answering machine in your room. A man called to see if you’re available. Since I didn’t know when you’d be back, I took the liberty to give him a call.”
“Oh?”
“Said he needed you for two weeks to a month and wanted to know how much you charge.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“I said hell yeah, but a job taking that long would cost him ten grand, plus expenses.”
“Did he hang up on you?”
“Why hell no. I said you got clients backed up in the wings, waiting for your services.”
“You didn’t.”
“He said money was no issue if you’d put him first in line, that is.”
“No way!” I said.
“Then what’s this?” he said, pulling a cashier’s check out of his cash drawer and showing it to me.
“Oh my God! Bertram, I’m going to make you my business manager.”
“You do that. Meantime, just pay me the rent you’re behind on because of your moonin’ around.”
“You got it,” I said, unable to suppress the silly grin growing on my face. “Did he say why he needs me?”
“Only that he wants you to call him soon as possible.”
Bertram handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. Thanking him again, I grabbed Kisses and headed up to my room at the top of the stairs.

I’d rented the apartment upstairs from Bertram’s for going on three years. It was small, a single room with a tiny bathroom. Still, it had its charm, and a covered balcony, complete with draping ferns, overlooking Chartres Street.
When the nights weren’t too hot or too cold, I’d sit on the balcony in my old rocking chair, enjoying the sounds of tourists passing on the street below. That’s where I was my feet propped up on the iron filigree railing giving Kisses a few well-deserved caresses when I remembered the message from the person that wanted to hire me. I called him on the phone beside my bed.
“This is Wyatt Thomas. I have a note to call you.”
“Quinlan Moore. You know who I am?”
“The movie producer?”
“Bingo. I sent your agent a check. I’m sure you’ve put it in the bank by now.”
“What exactly do you want me to do, Mr. Moore?”
“Nothing I can explain over the phone. We’re filming in Jackson Square. Can you come by the set?”
“Sure. When?”
“Tomorrow, first thing, if that’s not too soon.”
“No problem.”
“We’ve got most of the square blocked off while we’re filming. Just show security some I.D., and they’ll bring you to me. Can you do it?”
“I’m just around the corner,” I said.
“Fine, Mr. Thomas. I hope you’re not going to flake out on me.”
“I’m not a flake, Mr. Moore and my dance card is open.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”


Chapter 2

Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, is a Mecca for the motion picture industry. Fueled by valuable tax breaks, movies are more advantageous to shoot in Louisiana than in other states. Many successful productions hit the can there. The movie filming down the street from Bertram’s was witness to the trend.
Quinlan Moore’s production company was shooting scenes in Jackson Square, seemingly oblivious to the tourists, participating extras, or those there just to watch. The director sat at the center of the action on a tall chair, barking out directions that no one seemed to pay much attention to.
His entourage flanked him, tending to his every whim as if he were a star quarterback in a crucial football game. A flock of pigeons, arguing over which one would get the majority of popcorn some tourist had spilled, didn’t seem to care. When a young man wearing a jacket that said security approached me, they flew off in a flurry of beating wings.
I glanced up at the frowning young man with muscular arms and a blond crew cut.
“You got business on the set?” he demanded.
“I’m here to see Quinlan Moore. I have an appointment.”
“Then show me some identification,” he said, not impressed. After a peek at my I.D., he said, “Come with me. Mr. Moore’s waiting for you.”
I caught a backward glimpse of the stars as he led me away from the filming. The crowd watched in rapt silence as they exchanged what was apparently a meaningful kiss. I didn’t get a chance to see the outcome, but heard applause and encouraging shouts as we walked to an R.V. parked on the street. I waited as he knocked on the door.
“Mr. Moore, your appointment is here.”
The young man didn’t stick around once the door opened.
“Mr. Thomas?”
“That’s me.”
“Come in,” he said, holding the door open.
The inside of the R.V. looked like an expensive hotel room, complete with original paintings, Persian rugs, and the pungent smell of pot someone had recently smoked. Moore motioned for me to take a seat in a plush, leather chair.
“Get you something to drink?” he asked.
“No thanks.”
I watched as he poured himself a glass of vodka from the well-stocked bar. He seemed young and looked nothing like I’d anticipated. Nerdy, in fact, with a little, black mustache much like Bertram’s that shouted inexperience. I was wrong.
“You look surprised, Mr. Thomas. Not all the movers and shakers in the movie biz are over sixty.”
“I didn’t mean to be so obvious with my expressions. I’m sure you’re the person most qualified for the job, or else you wouldn’t be here.”
“Bravo. I can say the same for you. I didn’t just choose your name out of the phone book. You come highly recommended.”
“Glad to hear that.”
“In a town filled with detectives, you’re the only one that seems to possess the esoteric qualities I most desire.”
“Such as?”
“Someone with a deep understanding of ghosts, magic, voodoo, and the paranormal. Am I mistaken, Mr. Thomas?”
“Perhaps you give me too much credit. Every citizen of the Big Easy knows about the things you just mentioned.”
Moore smiled and sipped his vodka. “I’m convinced no one knows more than you do.”
“I hope I don’t disappoint.”
“I knew you were the best person available when your agent told me your fee. No one would charge that much unless they were the best there is.”
“Thank you, Bertram,” I said beneath my breath.
“What was that?” he said.
“Just mumbling to myself,” I said.
As I gazed into his dark eyes, I saw something that seemed familiar to me. “Do I know you from someplace?”
“Bravo again, Mr. Thomas. You’re everything I expected, and a keen observer. The face you remember is that of Dr. Darwin Porter.
“I beg your pardon.”
“I’m also an actor and played Dr. Darwin Porter for three years on the T.V. series Central Hospital.”
“Of course. I was a fan of the show. Why exactly do you need the services of a private detective?”
I nodded when he said, “You know how many movies are filmed in Louisiana each year?”
“Hundreds, probably. I hear we’re in third place, behind only Hollywood and Bollywood.”
“You heard correctly. This is a prime venue for us. We move quickly and sometimes film two or three movies in a row, often using much the same cast and crew.”
“I could tell by the production going on outside. I’m impressed,” I said.
“One of our production offices is right here in the city, and many professional film workers make their homes in the state.”
“But.”
“But many of our people aren’t from Louisiana, and it’s not out of line to compare New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana, to a foreign country. You know what I’m saying?”
“I think I do.”
“Weeks and months away from home are difficult, even if you’re making twenty million dollars doing so. Our production company needed a place to give our players a little rest.”
“I’m listening.”
“A monastery not far from here was all but destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Our production company, with help from the industry, rebuilt it, turning it into a world-class resort and spa. Our leading actors and production people often spend time there between movies. They even look forward to it.”
“Where is this place?”
“In a remote area of southern St. Bernard Parish, at a place called Goose Island.”
“I see.”
“Rance Parker was staying there when he was killed.”
Rance Parker, recently up for best actor, was one of the most popular movie stars in America. I’d seen him at a Mardi Gras party in the Garden District less than a month before. I was unaware he was dead, and Moore’s announcement caught me by surprise.
“I’ve been out of pocket a while. Rance Parker’s dead?”
“You have been out of pocket. Everyone else in the world has heard about Rance’s demise.”
“Mind telling me how it happened?”
“That’s my problem. No one knows. His death certificate says he died of a heart attack.”
“And his death occurred at the monastery?”
“Like I said, it doubles as a retreat.”
“And you don’t believe the stated cause of death?”
Moore didn’t answer my question, saying instead, “His body was horribly maimed.”
I had to pause a moment. “I’m finding this hard to understand. Was Rance Parker attacked and horribly maimed, or did he have a heart attack?”
“It seems the former is the most likely scenario,” he said.
“If that’s the case, then a medical examiner was involved. What did the report say?”
Quinlan Moore cleared his throat, and we waited through an explosion on the set outside the R.V.
“Something I must explain. I have a slight conflict of interest here. The medical examiner wasn’t involved. A good thing. If the press had gotten wind of this, there’d have been a feeding frenzy. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“Now I am confused,” I said. “You had something to do with the way the case was handled?”
Moore gave me an icy look.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Look, Mr. Moore, I’m not trying to be combative. I’m on your side. Just spell out your problem to me. I’m a little slow sometimes.”
“Our production company has three of Rance’s films in the can. They cost millions to make but should pay out many times over, as long as the wrong stories don’t start coming out. You know where I’m coming from?”
“What about the police?” I said, not answering his question because I didn’t know the answer.
“That’s not our problem.”
“Then what is?”
“I have to know if it’s okay to continue sending our best people to the spa for rest and relaxation. I want you to visit the monastery and get me some answers.”
“And what exactly do you expect me to find?”
“Who or what killed Rance, and is the monastery a safe environment. You think you can do it for me?”
I was still thinking about his phrase, who or what, when I said, “I’m an information junkie, and I’ll probably discover more than you’ll want to hear. Then what?”
“When we know what we’re dealing with, then we’ll know what to do,” he said.
The movie had continued filming outside Quinlan Moore’s fancy trailer, bullets, screeching rubber and blaring police sirens reverberating through the thin walls. I waited a moment for silence.
“Is the monastery we’re talking about the one where monks build burial caskets and sell them around the world?”
He nodded. “The monks still do their own thing, including the building of caskets. Legally, they own the monastery and the land it’s on. They share in the profits of the spa but don’t manage the daily operations.”
He nodded again when I said, “You have a staff that handles that.”
“Not only our people, but artists, writers, and creative souls from all over the world spend time at the monastery turned spa and resort. It’s become a valuable concern.”
“I see.”
“I know everything I’ve told you so far must sound a bit cryptic. I’m sorry it has to be that way. Can you help solve my little problem?”
“I’ll do my best. You want me to visit the monastery and get some answers for you.”
“And be discreet about it. I don’t want anyone knowing your true purpose. Are you an actor, Mr. Thomas?”
I smiled. “My late wife thought so.”
Moore gave me an appraising look as if assessing the possibility I could make it in Hollywood as an actor.
“You’re good looking enough. When this is over, maybe I’ll have you read for a part.”
I smiled again. “One job at a time.”
“Then your answer is yes?”
With the ten thousand dollars freshly in my bank account, there could be no other answer than yes, even though I was still confused about what he wanted me to do.
“I’m your man.”
“Wonderful,” he said. “Pack casually. I’ll send someone to pick you up and take you there.”
“When?”
“After lunch tomorrow. Why, is that too soon?”
“I’ve been away from home for several days, and I don’t have anyone to take care of my cat. She’s barely let me out of her sight since I picked her up from the person that was keeping her.”
It was Moore’s turn to smile. “Take her with you. She’ll love the island, and you won’t have to find anyone to take care of her.”
“You sure?”
“If it makes you happy, it’s okay with me. Believe me when I say I’m used to working with demanding people.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“The person picking you up thinks you’re a mystery writer. Everyone there, including the monks, will also think you’re a writer.”
“So then I’ll be undercover.”
“Can you handle it, Mr. Thomas?”
“No problem.”
“You can use your real name, but your pen name will be Jethro Wolfe.”
“Anyone on the Internet can Google a name.”
“Yes, well there is a Jethro Wolfe, author of a single mystery novel, Blood Horror.”
“What if someone there knows Mr. Wolfe?”
Quinlan Moore smiled. “They won’t. I’m Jethro Wolfe, and I wrote Blood Horror when I was a freshman at U.C.L.A. You’ll use my pen name and no one will be the wiser.”
“I’m on it, Mr. Moore.”
“Magnificent. Here’s my business card, and take this with you,” he said, handing me a carrying case.
“What is it?”
“A laptop. You’re a writer. Remember? You’ll need it to create the appropriate illusion. The card has my personal numbers.”
“You want me to call you?”
“I’d prefer you keep me posted by email. Only call if you have something that can’t wait, even for an hour. Now, I’m off to Antoine’s for lunch.”
As I carried the computer out the door, I didn’t bother telling him I’d never used one, much less know how to email him. Since I didn’t want to give the money back, I decided to worry about it later.
Another car crashed as I exited the trailer. It took a moment to realize it was all part of the movie being filmed, the action framed by the antiquity of the Cabildo, and St. Louis Cathedral behind it. Bertram’s eggs were only a memory in my growling stomach. Since Moore hadn’t invited me to lunch with him at Antoine’s, I made do with a hot dog purchased from a street vendor.
Clouds had begun covering the French Quarter. I hadn’t gone far when warm rain began to fall. Tourists crowding Jackson Square didn’t seem to mind.


Chapter 3

I was up early the next morning, Kisses kneading dough on my chest to get my attention. The time I’d spent away with Chrissie seemed forgiven, and we’d easily fallen back into our old routine. As she ate from her bowl on the balcony, I finished packing for my trip to Barataria Monastery, not knowing what to expect when I arrived there.
“I’m taking another trip, and you’re coming with me this time,” I said, putting her in my cat carrier.
I scooted my suitcase and the carrier outside by the stairs, shutting the door behind us. Kisses took everything in stride, not seeming to mind that we were taking a little trip.
“I didn’t make you mad, did I?” Bertram said as I descended the stairs, bag and cat carrier in hand. “I thought I did a decent job taking care of Kisses while you was out of pocket.”
“The job you got me. Someone from Barataria Monastery is picking me up. My new employer said I could bring Kisses with me.”
“Now that’s the kind of boss to have,” he said.
“By the way, thanks again for negotiating my fee. I’m not sure Moore would have hired me if you hadn’t asked for the moon.”
“Just the way some people are. They judge the value of most everything by how much it costs. Good thing I ain’t like that.”
“That’s a fact, Bertram. I can’t disagree with you.”
“Ain’t the Barataria Monastery where they make the coffins?” he asked.
“Yes. What else do you know about it?”
“Nothing much. Just that it’s about forty miles south of here, but it might as well be in a whole nother country. What you going there for?”
“There was a suspicious death. My employer wants me to look into it for him.”
“You got that right, Cowboy,” the man sitting with his back to us at the bar said.
I immediately recognized the voice of homicide detective Tony Nicosia.
“Tony,” I said. “You’re out early.”
“Maybe I didn’t go to bed last night.”
Tony was sipping Scotch from a tall glass and smiled when he glanced at me. Probably mid-forties, he had the brooding eyes of a longtime, homicide detective. Despite all the murders he’d investigated over the years, he’d somehow managed to keep his sense of humor. At the moment, he didn’t look very happy.
“Glad to see you’re among the living.”
“Barely,” I said. “How are you?”
“Making it. Both of my partners are in the hospital, and we’re having a little shake-up at the precinct.”
“Shake up?” Bertram said.
“The Feds have been up our ass ever since Katrina. I’ve been suspended from duty. Maybe even fired. I’m not sure which.”
“What the hell for?” Bertram asked.
“Corruption, excessive force, and brutality.”
“You never done none of those things.”
“Thanks, Bertram. I wish you had some sway with the Feds.”
“Sounds as if they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” I said.
Bertram agreed. “That don’t seem fair, long as you’ve been on the job.”
“Don’t seem to matter,” Tony said. “You a lawyer, Cowboy. What rights do I have now?”
“Ex-lawyer. It would be beneficial to see who’s doing what to whom.”
“The Justice Department’s monitoring the N.O.P.D. now. Gonna change everything, from what I hear. They think the whole force is corrupt.”
“No offense, but well-deserved for some,” I said.
“Well, try doing my job a day or two and see how easy it is. Got any other pearls of wisdom?”
We both knew someone that could give him all the answers—the Assistant Federal District Attorney in New Orleans.
“Eddie Toledo can tell you more than I can. Why don’t you call him?”
“Fast Eddie and I had a little falling out since I kneed him in the nuts.”
“Mama Mulate told me about it. You two ain’t kissed and made up yet?” Bertram asked.
“He’s too busy saving New Orleans to worry about me. Meanwhile, I’m out of a job.”
“You’re drinking early.”
“Gettin’ fired is the least of my problems. Lil kicked me out. I’m staying in Tommy’s apartment till she cools down. If she ever does.”
“Hope it’s nothing permanent,” Bertram said.
Tony grinned. “I stepped in it this time. She’s pissed, and I can’t say I blame her.”
“You get rid of that young girlfriend you had?” Bertram asked.
“She’s history, just like my job.”
“Call Eddie. He may be mad at you, but he knows you’re an honest cop. He’ll help you. I can’t give you any advice about Lil. When it comes to relationships, I’ve been batting zero lately myself.”
“Thanks. Now, why are you going to the Barataria Monastery?”
“A P.I. job. Movie star Rance Parker just died there.”
“You must know all about it. You read the Picayune every day.”
“I’ve been out of pocket for the past two weeks. What’s the deal?”
Tony killed his shot of Scotch and motioned Bertram for another.
“Rance Parker. Up for an Academy Award last year. He was filming a movie in N.O. Took a few days off afterward and spent time at the monastery.”
“And?”
“He was killed.”
Bertram said, “I heard he died of a heart attack.”
“I have a little insider information that says it isn’t so,” Tony said.
“Then what is the cause of death?” I asked.
“This is scuttlebutt I heard from my detective friend in St. Bernard Parish and wasn’t in the papers. Whoever, or whatever killed him ripped him to shreds. Tore his genitals off. He was naked when they found him.”
“Sweet mother of God,” Bertram said. “What was he doing at the monastery? I thought they only made coffins there.”
“It’s a retreat. They got first-class accommodations, fabulous food and lots of peace and quiet. Costs a bunch, from what I hear. The movie companies send lots of their people there.”
“So Rance Parker was chilling out at the monastery after filming a movie in New Orleans. I just saw him at a Mardi Gras party,” I said.
“He loved New Orleans and was trying to buy a place here,” Tony said.
“What else did your detective friend say?” I asked.
“That’s about it. I could call and get the straight skinny on it, though.”
“You been in the bottom half of St. Bernard Parish recently? Delacroix’s at the end of the road. I’ll bet the cops don’t even patrol that far south,” Bertram said.
A horse-drawn carriage passed outside on the street, the sound of hooves echoing off the cobbles and buildings.
“I’m starting to get the picture,” I said.
“Hey Cowboy, I don’t want to horn in on your business, but now that I’m out of a job, I could use some extra money. Let me know if a P.I. case comes along you aren’t interested in.”
“How much do you charge?”
“Don’t have a clue. Why?”
“The person that hired me pays well. You could do a little legwork for me. Interested?”
“Hell, I’ll help you out for nothing.”
“No way you’re doing anything for nothing. I just bet Quinlan Moore wouldn’t mind having another pair of legs, especially someone here in the city, working his case.”
“Let me negotiate this deal for you,” Bertram said.
“Bertram’s the best,” I said with a grin. “He’s going to be my personal manager from now on.”
“Your ass,” Bertram said. “For ten percent, maybe.”
Tony handed us a couple of business cards. “It has my home and cell phone numbers on it. You won’t have any luck catching me there for a while. Don’t matter none because I always have my cell phone with me.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem. I’m going stir crazy hanging around doing nothing.”
I stuffed the card into my shirt pocket. “I’ll call you soon as I get my bearings, and find a phone to use.”
Tony smiled. “I almost forgot, you’re not exactly tech-savvy.”
“Hell,” Bertram said. “I don’t even think he can drive.”
“Knock it off you two,” I said.
“I’ll talk to my Chalmette buddy and see if he’ll give me the straight poop on Rance Parker’s murder.”
“Thanks,” I said as a large man in worn jeans and sleeveless tee shirt appeared in the doorway.
“One of you Wyatt Thomas?”
“That’s me. You must be the person from the monastery.”
“You look familiar,” Tony said. “Do I know you?”
The man shook his shaved head. “Don’t believe so.”
“What’s your name?” Tony asked, not letting the matter drop.
“Dempsey Duplantis.”
“I got cousins named Duplantis,” Bertram said. “Ayoù tu deviens, bro?”
“Sorry, man. I’m a little hard of hearing sometimes. What’d you say?”
“I was just asking where you from.”
“Arkansas. My parents moved there when I was just a kid. I came back to Louisiana after Katrina. These your bags, Mr. Thomas?” When I nodded, he picked them up and headed for the door. “I’ll wait outside till you’re ready. No hurry.”
“He ain’t got no Arkansas accent,” Bertram said as Duplantis disappeared through the door.
“No, and that’s a gang tattoo on his neck. Mr. Duplantis, or whoever he is, has spent time in prison. Looks like you got your first suspect, Cowboy.”
“Thanks,” I said as I fingered Tony’s card in my shirt pocket, hoisted the cat carrier and followed Dempsey Duplantis out the door. “Wish me luck.”
“Sounds like you gonna need it. Glad this gig’s paying you so well,” Bertram said.
 “Set up a few more jobs while I’m gone, and I’ll give you that ten percent.”
Duplantis had already stowed my bags in the back of an expensive-looking Land Rover. The tailgate was still open, and I slipped the carrier beside them. The man with the shaved head and gang tattoo on his neck was waiting for me behind the wheel, the city’s skyscrapers and bridges spanning the Mississippi rapidly disappearing in our rearview mirror.
As we headed south, out of town, I noticed he’d covered his neck with a red bandana. Unlike the tattoo on his neck, a wolf howling at the moon was in full view on his hairy arm. Like Bertram had said, a few miles south of New Orleans was like being in another world.
“Nice vehicle,” I said. “Must have cost a fortune.”
“The monastery doesn’t have to worry much about money.”
“Oh? I know they sell handcrafted coffins. I didn’t realize there was that much money in it.”
“Not the only thing they do there. The place is a haven, known all over the world. The reason you’re headed there.”
“My agent booked this little sabbatical for me, and I don’t know much about the Barataria facilities. Maybe you can fill me in.”
Duplantis hesitated before answering. By now, all vestiges of the city were gone, replaced by the Mississippi River on one side of the road, low-lying islands in an endless marsh on the other. A flock of brown pelicans lifted out of the water and flew across the blacktop in front of us.
“The monastery is on Goose Island. People come from all over to spend time there. Writers, painters, actors.”
“Like Rance Parker?”
“He stayed with us quite a bit, usually between movies he was filming in Louisiana. Said the place took his stress away.”
“You knew him?”
Dempsey Duplantis glanced at me and frowned. “Everyone there knew who he was. Hell, the man was a movie star.”
“What I meant is, did you ever talk to him, one on one?”
“Sure, he was a regular guy. No pretense, you know. We even went drinking together once.”
“Oh?”
“A small bar in Delacroix. Parker liked the Cajun dancing and zydeco band there and got along with the locals. Hell, even in Delacroix they knew who he was.”
“What about his death?”
Duplantis looked at me again, frowning this time. “If you read the papers, you know as much as me. I was at the airport in New Orleans, picking up an arriving guest.”
“Just curious. He supposedly died of a heart attack. Word on the street is something entirely different.”
“There’s talk of that. One of the gardeners on the island told me he was torn up pretty bad, like a pack of wild dogs got him, or something. Parts of his legs and arms were chewed off. I don’t know if it’s true or not.”
“You have to be kidding.”
“Like I said, it’s second-hand information. I do know his widow flew in and got the body. Had it cremated in New Orleans.”
“He was married?”
“You wouldn’t have known it. Guess he didn’t want his female fans to find out he wasn’t available.”
A smirk spread across Duplantis’ face, and he brushed his day-old growth of beard with a calloused hand.
“What?” I asked.
“Hell, that man had the morals of an alley cat. He’d have screwed a snake if he’d got the chance. I’m not throwing stones you understand.”
“I’m not exactly a saint myself.”
“Rance Parker sure wasn’t.”
Dempsey Duplantis grew silent as if he were withdrawing into himself, realizing he’d said too much. The highway, if you could call it that, paralleled the Mississippi River. A similar road, only a mile away but impossible to get to from where we were, followed the other side of the river. The shallow water beside the road was alive with birds.
“I’m a mystery writer. You never know. Parker’s death might be a theme for my next novel.”
“No problem,” Duplantis said.
“What’s the retreat like?”
“Plush. The guests have their own personal bungalows. Never more than a dozen guests at any given time. Several restaurants with chefs from New Orleans that rotate on a regular basis. Swimming pools, hot tubs, and health facilities. Masseurs and masseuses. Hell, you know how much it costs.”
“Like I said, my agent booked this gig for me. How much does it cost?”
Duplantis grinned. “If you don’t know, then I hope you’re rich and famous. Ten grand a week.”
“Whoa!” I said. “I must be selling more books than I thought.”
“You better be. You’re booked for two weeks, and open for two more if you decide to stay on.”
Dempsey Duplantis grew silent. It didn’t matter because I was tired. Less than thirty miles south of New Orleans, we were surrounded by water, stunted trees draped with Spanish moss, and low-lying islands. Leaning back against the Land Rover’s headrest, I closed my eyes and took a much-needed nap.
###


Born near Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption, and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma where he continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans and the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Please check it out on his AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.

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