Saturday, November 3, 2018

Garden of Forbidden Secrets - an excerpt


My new book is Garden of Forbidden Secrets. It's Book 7 of the French Quarter Mystery Series and is set in New Orleans. I always like writing about New Orleans and this book is no exception. I’m also a huge basketball fan and enjoyed creating Taj Davis, a veteran NBAer, for this book. If you read my last book Sisters of the Mist then you’ll remember I left Eddie Toledo dangling in the breeze. I’ve resolved his dilemma in this book and I’m seriously thinking about spinning off Eddie into a new series. After you read Garden of Forbidden Secrets I would love to hear your reactions and thoughts. It's available for pre-order on AmazonNookiBooksKobo, and Smashwords. Thanks for your support and I hope you love Garden of Forbidden Secrets when it comes out on March 1, 2019.

Garden of Forbidden Secrets
A novel by
Eric Wilder

Chapter 1


The only way to deal with a bad situation is to embrace the problem and kiss it on the mouth. Taj Davis was beginning to doubt his lifelong philosophy as he followed a bellman down the hallway of a New Orleans hotel.
Thirty-four years old, Taj was ancient by NBA standards. His surgically repaired left knee still ached whenever he jumped. Arthritis had begun affecting his fingers, though none of his coaches or teammates had yet noticed the knots deforming the digits of his shooting hand. As he followed the hall of the French Quarter hotel, he felt every year of his age.
Taj had hoped to play in Cleveland during his final years in the league. An early morning call from an assistant coach had informed him his dream was not to be. He’d had about three hours to pack his apartment before taking a taxi to the airport and flying to New Orleans, the NBA city that had acquired him in an unexpected mid-season trade.
The bellman stopped in front of a door, the odor of must and age greeting them as he followed the little man into the room. The bellman, dressed in a red velvet coat, sat the suitcase on the bed and smiled as he palmed the twenty Taj handed him.
“You’re Taj Davis.”
“Right on. What’s your name?”
“Tommy. You way bigger than you look on TV. How tall are you?”
“Six-nine. You like basketball, Tommy?”
The little man massaged the stubble of beard on his chin. “Nothing much I like better. My favorite team is the Pels. One of these days, they gonna be champs.”
“Hope it’s sooner rather than later,” Taj said. “I’ve dreamed of a championship ring. I’m running out of time to find a winning team to help get me there.”
“I hear that,” Tommy said. “Hope you’re good enough to replace Zee Ped. He been filling up the baskets lately.”
“I have no idea why the Pels traded their best player for me,” Taj said.
“Nobody around here knew a thing about the trade until a few hours ago,” Tommy said.
“Neither did I. An assistant called this morning and told me to meet him in the locker room. He had my locker already unpacked, a plane ticket and itinerary for me when I got there. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to anyone. I had to leave most of my stuff unpacked in my apartment.”
“You serious? You mean today was the first you heard about the trade?”
The curtains on the large room’s windows were open. Taj nodded as he glanced out at the flashing neon of the French Quarter and running lights of boats out on the river.
“No clue,” he said. “I know it’s late. Any chance of scoring something to eat around here?”
“You kidding? This the Big Easy. Most places in the French Quarter don’t even get started good until at least midnight.”
“I mean here in the hotel. This move has me dogged totally out. All I want to do is eat, take a hot bath and then crash.”
“I hear that. Tell me what you want. I’ll have someone bring it to you.”
“Ribeye, rare, and a bottle of your driest cabernet.”
“If you like Cajun and Creole, the chef makes the best gumbo in town,” Tommy said.
“Just steak. I’m not much on seafood.”
“Better learn to like it,” Tommy said. “You could be here awhile, and this is the gumbo capital of the world.”
“Hope you’re right about me spending some time here. This is my third team in the past five years. I was hoping to play my final season in Cleveland. Tell you the truth, I’ve never eaten gumbo,” Taj said.
“I’ll bring you a cup, along with the steak. Give it a try. Nothing else like it on earth.”
“If you say so,” Taj said.
“Ever stayed at Hotel Montalba before?”
“First time. When the Cavs are in town, they stay in one of the newer hotels on Canal. How old is this place?”
“Going on two-hundred years. The oldest hotel in the French Quarter.”
“Love it,” Taj said. “The elegance, architecture, and service are impressive. What’s not to like?”
“Maybe the evil spirits lurking around every corner,” Tommy said.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Me and everyone else in town. You will too after you been here awhile. Hell, you might not make it through the night before you see one.”
“You know something I don’t know?”
Tommy massaged his chin again. “I already said too much. I better go put your order in.”
“Not so fast,” Taj said. “You have something to tell me?”
“This old hotel ain’t just haunted it has more ghosts than St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 over on Basin Street.”
“And . . . ?”
“This room, 1413.”
“Go on.”
“It’s really room 1313. This is the thirteenth, not the fourteenth floor. The hotel stopped using this room before I started working here.”
“How long has that been?” Taj asked.
“Almost thirty years.”
“Bet you have lots of stories to tell,” Taj said.
“On just about anything you want to know about New Orleans.”
“If the hotel doesn’t use this room anymore, then why am I staying here?”
“We’re extra busy with people coming into town to see the Christmas lights. Management put you here because they couldn’t turn down a call from the Pels. This was the only room that wasn’t booked.”
Taj stared at the panorama through a corner window. “Even if it’s haunted, it has to be the most beautiful suite in town,” he said. “I can’t imagine a better view of New Orleans. Why on earth would the hotel let a few spirits of the night stop them from using it?”
“Maybe because someone was murdered here,” Tommy said.
“Whoa! Somebody was killed in this room? Are you making this up?”
Tommy’s smile had disappeared. “Guess I should have shut my mouth when I had the chance.”
“You started it, now finish the story.”
“You’re not gonna get me fired, are you?” Tommy said.
“Course not,” Taj said.
“A cleaning lady found a body in the bathtub. The murdered woman’s head was missing.”
“Crime of passion?”
“No idea,” Tommy said. “The murder was never solved.”
“How is that possible?” Taj asked when Tommy grew silent. “Wasn’t she a guest?”
“Like I said, it happened before I started work here.” Tommy handed Taj the antique key to the room. “I better put in your dinner order.”
The little bellman hurried away down the dimly lit hallway. It was the weekend, the Pels on a road trip out west. Taj had until Monday to report to the training facilities. He’d visited New Orleans often during his tenure in the NBA, though he’d never ventured far from the Smoothie King Center, or his hotel room. Tomorrow, he intended to change all that.
After another glance out the window, he shut the curtains. Mid-December, the weather had turned cold. Though not as frigid as temperatures in Cleveland, the humid climate in New Orleans was uncomfortable. Taj turned up the thermostat, opened his suitcase, found a sweater, and pulled it over his head.
Checking his email on the cell phone entertained Taj until a white-smocked waiter knocked on the door. The serving cart he pushed sported a white tablecloth, fine china, and silverware. After opening the bottle of wine and filling a glass with a ceremonial flair, the waiter accepted Taj’s twenty, departing after saying almost nothing.
“Nice,” Taj said, sipping the cabernet.
As Taj twisted the tap on the antique porcelain tub and tested the water with his palm, he’d forgotten Tommy’s story of murder. When it grew hot, he returned to eat his steak. He turned up his nose at the steaming cup of gumbo, pushing it aside without tasting it.
As steam wafted up from the tub, Taj sat the wine bottle and his glass on the barbershop tile floor, and then stripped off his clothes. Not bothering to check the temperature, he slid over the side, sinking into the water to the top of his head.
Taj had a powerful frame for such a big man. Used to battling in the paint, he had a chest covered with bruises, contusions, and even a few cuts. The hot water soon began to soothe his sore body, and he finished drinking the wine straight from the bottle. After draining the last drop, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
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Sometime later, Taj’s hand relaxed, and he released his grip on the bottle. His eyes popped open when it shattered on the tile. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, though the water had become tepid. Worse, the lights had gone out, the only light coming from a crack in the curtains. When he got out of the tub, he stepped on broken glass.
Finding a towel, he wrapped it around his bleeding foot and hobbled to the window. Unable to find a light switch, he pulled open the curtains, red flashing neon from the French Quarter flooding through the window.
The room had grown icy cold. Sticky globules dripped from a windowpane and Taj recoiled when he touched the gooey substance. The inhuman sound of something coming up behind him caused him to wheel around.
Not a person easily startled, Taj backed against the wall. Heavy feet shuffling across the floor, along with the rattle of chains, made him do a double take. As he drew a gasping breath into his lungs, what he saw almost caused him to choke.
Neither man nor beast, it was a cloud of white light with flashes of reds, yellows, and blues. Something alive, though anything but human, the thing reeked of death as it floated toward him. The droning noise emitting from the specter sounded like the muted whine of a revving chainsaw.
With his fists clenched in a fighter’s stance, Taj took a swing at the advancing demon. When his hand passed through the apparition, he realized he needed to run instead of fight. Sidestepping the entity, he stumbled to the door. As he glanced over his shoulder at the demon, he couldn’t get it to open.
Taj slammed his fists against the door, trying to break it and get away from the supernatural being behind him. When it opened of its own accord, he fell on his face into the hallway. With the bloody towel still wrapped around his cut foot, he sprinted into the arms of an inebriated couple returning from a French Quarter bar.
Taj towered over the man and woman. Despite the alcohol they’d both consumed, nothing had prepared them for a meeting with a naked giant with a bloody foot. They were both screeching as they hurried away. A dozen doors opened, staring out at the naked man with wild eyes and coated with blood. Hearing the commotion, Tommy came running.
When Tommy saw Taj standing naked in the hallway, he grabbed a bathrobe from a service cart and tossed it to him. Before Taj could secure the tie around his waist, Tommy had pulled him into an elevator and punched the down button.
“What the hell, man? You gone crazy?”
“Son of a bitch!” Taj said. “You weren’t kidding. That room is haunted. I’ll be damned if I’m going back there.”
“Good God! What did you do to your foot?”
“Stepped on broken glass,” Taj said.
“You’re bleeding all over the carpet. Until I can get you downstairs, we need something to slow the flow.”
Tommy stopped on a lower floor and found a handful of towels in a linen closet.
“Damn glad it was you that showed up and not the police,” Taj said. “My first day with the Pels might have been my last.”
“Got that right,” Tommy said. “You look like you been in a knife fight and got the worst of it.”
In the fluorescent lights of the elevator, Taj could see the little man was correct. Blood already covered the bathrobe, and he felt light-headed.
“You’ll be okay,” Tommy said. “We got a doctor on staff downstairs. He’ll fix you up. What you got in your hand?”
Taj didn’t realize he was holding anything until he looked and saw it.
Recoiling, he let the object drop to the floor. “What the hell is that thing?” he asked.
Tommy stared with his mouth open as he nudged the gruesome item with the toe of his polished shoe.
“Good God almighty!” he said. “Looks like a voodoo doll that somebody dunked in a bucket of blood. Where’d you get it?”
“No earthly idea,” Taj said. “I know nothing about voodoo.”
“Then what about your tattoo?” Tommy asked.
The bathrobe had splayed open across Taj’s broad chest, revealing a strange tattoo.
“I’ve had this thing since I was old enough to remember seeing it. Where it came from, I can’t tell you. You think you know what it is?”
“Hell yes, I know. It’s a voodoo symbol,” Tommy said. “Around here they call them veves.”
“Voodoo symbol? You’re shitting me,” Taj said.
“No, I’m not,” Tommy said.
Then what the hell is it doing on my chest?” Taj asked.

Tommy wrapped the bloody doll in a towel and picked it up. “The witch doctor who marked you with it is the only person that knows.”

 Chapter 2

Though Taj Davis wasn’t oblivious to pain, he’d learned to live with it during his thirteen years in the NBA. He hadn’t flinched when the hotel doctor deadened his foot before stitching up the wound. Used to boots and casts, the thick sock over his bandaged foot and special sandal he wore seemed mild to him.
Tommy had retrieved Taj’s bags from room 1313. After changing into a Cavs warm-up, the tall basketball player had fallen asleep in a comfortable chair, in the lobby of the old hotel. Tommy was still at work when Taj awoke the next morning.
“Management’s real sorry about what happened last night,” Tommy said. “We moved your bags to a room on the second floor.”
Tommy smiled and shook his head when Taj asked, “Are there ghosts on the second floor?”
“Ghosts are everywhere in the Big Easy. Don’t matter none. Your new room is the safest one in the hotel,” he said.
“Why are you still at work?” Taj asked.
“Everyone in town loves the Pels. The hotel’s paying me overtime to stick around and get you settled in your new room. Ready to check it out?”
Taj grimaced when he got out of the chair and put weight on his foot.
“Dammit!” he said. “One day with the Pels and I’m already on the injured list.”
“Doc White said the cut isn’t deep. You’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“No severed tendons or nerves?”
“Nope. Just a little soreness. Doc fitted you with a specially padded sandal.”
Taj tested it with his weight. “You’re right. It’s a little sore, though not bad.”
“You sure? The hotel has a wheelchair you can use.”
Tommy’s offer brought a grin to Taj’s face.
“No wheelchair, or crutches for me,” he said. I’ll be fine.”
After following Tommy to the elevator, Taj wasn’t so sure. Instead of an antique key, the little bellman opened the door with an electronic card. When they entered, there was no smell of must or age. Except for the view that didn’t hold a candle to the one he’d had the previous night, everything was perfect.
Taj’s suitcase was waiting on the bed, his hanging clothes on a rack. He almost panicked when he realized he didn’t have his wallet. Tommy grinned when he handed it to him.
“Lucky for you, I’m not a thief,” the little man said. “Must be a couple thousand dollars in there.”
Before tossing the wallet on the bed, Taj gave him a twenty from it. “I’m not much on credit cards,” he said.
“With the money you fellas earn in the NBA, it must be nice.”
“I’ve had a couple of big paydays. Now, I’m on a veteran’s minimum salary.”
“Still a million bucks, or more, I’ll bet,” Tommy said. “I’ll never make that much my whole life.”
“Just dumb luck on my part,” Taj said. “Not everybody is six-nine.”
“Ain’t many big men can ball like you do,” Tommy said.
“Kind words are music to my ears. You just earned yourself an extra twenty,” Taj said.
Taj grabbed his wallet and handed Tommy another bill from it.
 “Hey, thanks,” Tommy said. “If everything’s okay, I’m on my way to the house for a little sack time. At least if my old lady don’t want to go dancing.”
Taj grinned at Tommy’s retort. He stopped the little bellman before he could get out the door.
“One question before you go,” he said.
“Ask me,” Tommy said.
“I don’t have to report to the team until Monday. Where can I get some info about the tattoo on my chest, and the bloody voodoo doll I was carrying last night?”
“Some things are best left alone,” Tommy said. “What happened last night is probably one of them.”
“Ain’t happening,” Taj said. “I need answers. Forgetting about last night isn’t an option.”
“Your balls and not mine,” Tommy said. “Lots of voodoo shops, mostly tourist traps, in the Quarter. There’s one a few blocks from here on Dumaine. Might be someone there that can help you.”
You think the voodoo doll came from that shop?”
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Tommy said. “I don’t have a clue.”
“Sure about that?” Taj asked.
“There are lots of people that practice voodoo in Nawlins. I ain’t one of them.”
“What about the blood? Where did it come from?” Taj asked.
“From that cut on your foot,” Tommy said. “Where else could it have come from?”
“How did the damn doll get into my room, and why didn’t I know I was carrying it when you found me?”
“This is New Orleans,” Tommy said. “Live here as long as I have, and you come to expect the unexpected.”
“Not the answer I’m looking for,” Taj said.
Tommy glanced at his watch. “Maybe someone at the voodoo shop can give you some answers. Me, I’m fresh out and tired as hell.”
“What’s the name of the voodoo shop?”
“Dr. Voodoo’s Spells and Hexes,” Tommy said, hurrying out the door without waiting for Taj’s next question.
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Taj took a cab to Dumaine. After signing an autograph for the star-struck cabbie, he stood outside Dr. Voodoo’s Spells and Hexes, staring at the voodoo dolls, African masks, and drums in the picture window. A cold breeze was whistling down the street. As two lightly dressed tourists brushed past him on the sidewalk, he pulled the black leather trench coat tighter around his neck.
A bell on the door, pealing the theme song of some horror movie Taj barely remembered, sounded when he entered. As the door shut behind him, welcome warmth and the odor of pungent incense accosted his nostrils. The sound of voodoo drums emanated from speakers hidden behind the rows of African masks and grotesquely carved effigies. The little shop was empty of tourists and Taj jumped when someone behind him spoke. A portly man with a cookie duster mustache was grinning at him when he wheeled around.
“Didn’t mean to scare you, big guy. Hep you?”
Taj showed him the bloody voodoo doll. “I’m wondering if this doll came from your shop.”
“Whoa, don’t hand it to me. Where’d you get that thing?” the man asked.
“My hotel room. I was hoping someone could tell me something about it.”
“Aren’t you Taj Davis?” the man asked.
“I am. You?”
“Tammany Louis Lafourche III,” he said. “I’d shake your hand, but I don’t want to touch that thing you’re holding.”
“You have voodoo dolls all over the store. What’s wrong with this one?” Taj asked.
“It’s covered in blood. Most of my dolls come from China. I can see right off the bat the one in your hand is the real Magilla.”
When Taj leaned forward, Lafourche took a step backward.
“Even if I’m big and black, I promise I won’t hurt you,” Taj said.
“I’m not worried about you,” Lafourche said. “It’s that thing in your hand. It’s bad news.”
“How so?”
“From the looks of that bandage on your foot, I’m guessing the blood on the voodoo doll is yours. Am I wrong?”
“It’s mine. So what?”
“You got that wound by design, is my guess.”
“An accident,” Taj said. “Stepped on broken glass.”
“Someone has hexed you, is what I think,” Lafourche said.
Taj glanced at the shopkeeper, searching for a grin, or some other sign he was having his leg pulled. Lafourche wasn’t smiling.
“You don’t believe in that sort of thing, do you?”
“I was born and raised right here in New Orleans. Not only do I believe it, I know it’s true.”
It was Taj’s turn to smile. “Who would have a reason to hex me?” he asked. “I’ve only been in town since last night.”
“I heard,” Lafourche said. “Everyone’s talking about you joining the Pels.”
“Is that bad or good?”
Lafourche hesitated before answering. “Mixed feelings, mostly bad. Zee Ped’s an All-Star. Everyone knows you’re good but . . .”
“But what? You think I’m too old?” Taj said, finishing Lafourche’s sentence.
“Almost ten years older than Zee Ped. He’s the best player on the Pels. At least he was.”
“Sorry,” Taj said. “I had no choice in the matter. I’m as confused as you are about what I’m doing here.”
“May have something to do with that thing in your hand,” Lafourche said.
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“Someone may have wanted you here.”
“For what reason?”
“Maybe unfinished business. You’d know the answer to that better than me,” Lafourche said.
“I don’t know anything. I came here for answers, not more questions.”
“I’m as in the dark as you are,” Lafourche said.
“You know about voodoo dolls. It’s how you make a living. What makes you think this one is real?”
The drumming soundtrack segued into an African chant as Lafourche leaned back against a display case filled with polished wooden masks and pottery effigies.
“I’ve owned this shop for eighteen years. While most everything here is little more than tourist souvenirs, I’ve learned a thing or two about voodoo,” Lafourche said.
“So you’re telling me this is a real voodoo doll?”
“It didn’t come from this shop.”
“What about another shop in town?” Taj asked.
“That doll didn’t come from a shop. A real voodoo houngan or mambo made it. A ceremony was performed, you can bet good money on it.”
“How do you know?” Taj said.
“Your doll’s made of bleached cloth wrapped around two sticks of different sizes. Those sticks represent the cross. Bet they’re even made from the same kind of tree they used to crucify Christ on.”
“What’s Christianity got to do with voodoo?” Taj asked.
“Vodoun is a religion brought over by slaves from West Africa. When they reached the West Indies, it began changing. Vodoun, Catholicism, and pagan Carib beliefs got all mixed up at the sugar plantations and morphed into what we now call voodoo. At least until it reached New Orleans, and then it changed even more.”
 “You’re white. I always thought voodoo was only practiced by blacks.”
“You’d be wrong about that,” Lafourche said. “A Jew was once the most powerful voodoo practitioner.”
“Do you practice voodoo?” Taj asked.
“I bought this shop from an old voodoo woman. A real voodoo woman. Voodoo dolls are my main business, and I learned everything I know about them from her.”
“Just the dolls or all about voodoo?”
“Few people know what voodoo is really about. Practitioners can be powerful, and dangerous. I’ve purposely kept my nose out of their business.”
“I don’t have that luxury,” Taj said. “What’s the deal with this voodoo doll?”
“When it’s cold outside, my business is slow,” Lafourche said, glancing around the shop.
Catching the drift, Taj reached for his wallet and handed him a twenty.
“Does that warm things up for you?” he asked.
“I’m still a little chilly.”
Taj handed him two more twenties. “Warm enough?” he asked.
Lafourche stashed the bills in the pocket of the cracked leather vest he wore over his threadbare Western shirt.
“Like I said, the two sticks represent the cross. Bleached cloth is wrapped around the sticks to form the doll.”
“That it?” Taj asked when Lafourche paused.
“The cloth is the property of the victim of the doll. The person who made the doll either stole it from the intended victim or paid someone to steal it. Once the houngan or mambo gets it, they bleach it in a voodoo ceremony. Then they use it to make the doll.”
“Get real!” Taj said.
“The more personal the connection, the more powerful the spell. The rotations around the sticks, the direction it’s wrapped, and where it’s tied off at, all have meaning to the person that made the doll. The more precise the construction, the more powerful the spell.”
“Surely, you don’t believe all that malarkey,” Taj said.
The African chant coming through the speakers transitioned back into drumming. Lafourche glanced around the little shop as if expecting to see someone listening to the conversation.
“Let me just say I wouldn’t want to be the person this doll was made for. If it’s you, then you got a problem. Hell, the whole damn town’s been hexed, because the team lost its best player to get you.”
When Lafourche turned to walk away, Taj grabbed his shoulder.
“Wait just a minute,” he said. “I paid you sixty bucks. Is that all you got?”
“Like you said, I’m white. What the hell do I know?”
“More than me,” Taj said. “I paid you, and I have more questions.” Taj pulled three more twenties from his wallet and thrust them at Lafourche. “Will these help jog your memory?”
Lafourche shook his head. “Keep your money. I’ve told you all I know.”
“At least, point me in the right direction.”

“There’s a cemetery tour starting in twenty minutes. Maybe the tour guide can help you fill in the blanks. Want me to sign you up?”

 Chapter 3

Realizing Tammany Louis Lafourche III was unable or unwilling to answer any more questions, Taj let the shop owner sign him up for a tour of the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Lafourche disappeared in the back and didn’t return, even when the same young couple he’d passed on the sidewalk entered the shop to the chiming of bells.
“Are we in the right place for the cemetery tour?” the young woman asked.
“It’s what I’m waiting for,” Taj said.
The couple looked no older than mid-twenties, the woman’s Midwestern accent hinting they weren’t locals. Her denim shorts, and the lightweight maize and blue parka, zipped open enough so he could see her University of Michigan tee shirt, suggested she’d expected warmer weather in New Orleans. The stunning young woman had long, red hair, creamy-white skin, expressive blue eyes, and stood about five-feet-seven.
The slender young man was wearing an identical parka and had his head in a guidebook. When he glanced up and saw Taj, he pushed his John Lennon glasses onto his forehead. They weren’t into sports, because neither of them recognized him.
“I’m Amy,” the young woman said. “This is Brian. We’re students at Michigan and decided to visit New Orleans over the Christmas break.”
“I’m Taj,” he said, shaking the young woman’s hand.
“Are you from out of town?” Brian asked.
Before stashing the voodoo doll in his trench coat, Taj had stuffed it into a baggie Tommie had given him.
“Something like that,” he said.
Amy with the wavy red hair was smiling. Brian had a look of terror on his baby face. Taj was used to the reaction. People aren’t always prepared to meet a physically imposing six-foot nine-inch black man dressed in a knee-length black leather trench coat.
“I’m a history buff,” Taj said. “I heard these cemetery tours aren’t to be missed.”
Brian’s concerned expression vanished. “Us too,” he said. “I’m majoring in American history and hope to teach someday. It’s my passion.”
“What about you, Amy?” Taj asked.
“Don’t know yet what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
The chime on the door sounded before Amy could ask him what he did. An older man, wearing a yellow vest over his jacket, rubbed his hands together to warm them. The plastic nametag hanging from his neck pegged him as the tour guide.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Wind has picked up out there, and I had to run back home and get a heavier coat. I’m Garlen, your tour guide.”
Taj noticed the dirty look Amy flashed Brian at Garlen’s mention of a heavier coat. Her reaction lasting only a moment, she was smiling when she shook Garlen’s hand.
“I’m Amy,” she said. “Brian is the one who looks like an aspiring college professor. Taj is the gentleman in the black coat.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Garlen said. “Hope that windbreaker keeps you warm enough, young lady.”
“Brian said the weather in New Orleans would be mild this time of year.”
“It is,” Brian said. “At least when compared to Ann Arbor.”
Amy gave Brian another dirty look.
“The humidity in New Orleans makes every little chill seem much colder than it really is,” Garlen said. “At least we’ll be out of the wind when we reach St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.”
Garlen, like Amy and Brian, apparently had no idea who Taj was. As he followed them down the Basin Street sidewalk, it was all right with him. Though Taj knew most of the graves in New Orleans were above ground, he wasn’t prepared for the eerie feeling of déjà vu warming his neck upon seeing the brick and stone monoliths. Garlen was correct. The wall around the cemetery blocked the wind when they entered the gate.
“This is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans,” Garlen said. “The spiritual home of many famous citizens. Mark Twain called our cemeteries “Cities of the dead.”
“This place is amazing,” Brian said. “The tombs are so large and ornate and the paths between them so narrow, they seem to close in around you. What do you think, Amy?”
“My skin is crawling,” she said.
“You can’t be serious. This place is awesome. What’s the matter?”
“Spirits of the dead; I can feel their cold breath on my neck,” she said.
“You’re shivering,” Brian said.
“Brian, I don’t like it here. I want to go.”
“You're irrational,” he said. “It’s broad daylight. There are no ghosts.”
“You stay. I’ll walk back to the car and wait for you there,” she said.
Casting a distressed look at Garlen, Brian shrugged his shoulders and followed her out the gate.
“So sorry,” he said.
As cold rain began to fall, Garlen turned to Taj. “Under the circumstances, I’m calling off the tour. They’ll give you a rain check at the shop.”
“Wait,” Taj said. “I have questions I need someone to answer for me.”
“Next time,” Garlen said. “It doesn’t just rain in New Orleans, it pours.”
Rain began dimpling the dark leather of Taj’s coat, as he watched the tour guide disappear through the front gate. An unexpected voice startled him back to reality.
“Get in here before the sky opens up.”
An older black man was holding open the door of an outbuilding Taj hadn’t noticed when they entered the cemetery. As the rain began falling harder, he followed the man into the little building.
There were no windows, the air stale, the little room lighted only by a blazing potbelly stove and a few candles. There were a couple of ramshackle chairs and an old cot draped with pillow and bedclothes. The floor was dirt. Through the crack in the door, Taj could hear the drumming of rain growing heavier by the minute.
“Who are you?” Taj asked.
The man chuckled. “The keeper of cemeteries and lost souls.”
“You’re the caretaker?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m Taj. What’s your name?”
“People call me lots of things. You can call me Sam. You told that man you got questions.”
“And I was hoping for some answers,” Taj said. “Guess I’ll have to find them someplace else.”
Sam chuckled. “You weren’t going to get the answers you need from him. Hell, the girl with the prissy boyfriend knows more about spirits than he do.”
“How do you know that?” Taj asked.
“Old Sam here knows lots of things.”
“But she’s white.”
“Not much difference between white and black in Nawlins.”
“That girl’s from Michigan and not New Orleans.”
Sam fluffed the pillow on the cot. “Some people don’t have the foggiest idea where they’re really from,” he said.
Taj let the comment pass. During his tenure in the NBA, he’d developed an eye for his opponents' height, weight, and age. Sam was about five-eight and probably somewhere north of fifty years old. Despite the gloomy day, he had a pair of dark sunglasses perched atop his head. The stub of his lit cigar came out of his mouth only when he talked. Moving the pillow aside, he plopped down on the cot, propping his feet up on a packing crate. Taj grinned when he noticed the holes in his dirty white socks.
“Gonna be raining awhile,” Sam said. “Take a load off and grab a chair. Like I say, that white man don’t know a damn thing about voodoo, anyway.”
“Think I’ll stand,” Taj said, glancing at the rickety chair he doubted would support his weight.
“Want something to drink?” Sam asked.
“Sure. My body is wet, but my mouth is kind of dry.”
Sam retrieved a gallon jug of red wine from behind his cot. After unscrewing the metal cap, he slung the bottle over his shoulder and slugged the cheap wine straight from the container.
“Nothing much better than a pull of MD 20-20,”
Taj took the bottle, laughing before he took a swig. As wine dribbled down Taj’s chin, it was Sam’s turn to laugh.
“Haven’t had any Mad Dog since I was a freshman in college,” Taj said.
“Good for what ails you,” Sam said. “Have another taste.”
Taj waved off the offer as he handed the jug of wine back to Sam.
“One pull was all I needed.”
“Suit yourself,” Sam said.
The rain had begun falling in sheets, humid air flooding through the partly open door.
“How’d you know my question was about voodoo?” Taj asked.
“Hell, boy, your silk shirt is open to the waist. Even in the dark, and half covered by that big old gold chain around your neck, I can see the veve tattooed on your chest.”
Sam chuckled again when Taj said, “You know what it means?”
“Only the houngan or mambo that put it there knows the answer to that. And maybe the loa they’re attempting to influence.”
“That’s what I heard,” Taj said. “How do you know so much about voodoo?”
“Who says I do?” Sam said.
“Do you?”
“Ain’t no one from Nawlins that don’t know something about voodoo.”
Taj reached into his coat for the voodoo doll. “What can you tell me about this?” he asked.
Sam, unmindful of the blood, took the doll. “Somebody got it in for you.”
“Because?”
“Cause this is your doll.”
“How do you know that?”
Sam removed a hair from the doll and handed it to Taj. “Looks like it came from your beard.”
“That’s crazy talk. It probably stuck to the doll when I was handling it,” Taj said.
“What about this?”
Rain continued falling outside the little room as Sam dropped something into Taj’s palm.
“A fingernail. What makes you think it’s mine?” Taj asked.
“Is it?”
A sliver of purplish skin hung from the fingernail. Taj glanced at the ring finger on his left hand at the blackened nail he’d damaged in a recent basketball game.
“If it is mine, how would anyone have gotten it?”
“Voodoo practitioners have long arms. Might surprise you who could have got it for them. For a price.”
Taj recalled the woman he’d met in a bar after the game that night. An overly friendly young woman with a southern accent.
“I’m having trouble believing all of this,” he said.
“You believed it enough to come looking for answers,” Sam said.
“You think someone’s trying to kill me?”
“Getting hexed with a voodoo doll don’t always mean a person’s trying to kill you.”
“Then what does it mean?”
“Somebody is trying to control your actions.”
“A voodoo witch doctor?”
“Practitioners make their living casting spells. More than likely, someone hired them to do it.”
“And why on earth would they do that?”
Sam shook his head. “You wronged anyone lately? Screwed someone else’s wife, or took something that didn’t belong to you? Hell, man! It could be almost anything.”
“I’m not a perfect person, though I can’t think of anyone I’ve wronged lately,” Taj said.
“Then search your soul. You did something to somebody, and they’re pissed off about it. That, I can promise you,” Sam said. “Or . . .”
“Or what?”
“Somebody might be trying to send you a message,” Sam said.
The heavy door banged against the wall as a gust of wind blew it open. Sucking the air out of the room, it extinguished all the candles as it slammed shut again. Sam padded across the dirt floor, relighting the candles with what looked like a flame coming directly from his fingers. Taj waited until he’d returned to his perch on the cot.
“I need help,” Taj said. “I’ll pay you well if you can help me.”
“I don’t need your money, and I’ve already told you a bunch. What you need is the right person to help you,” Sam said. “A smart houngan or mambo.”
“Can you refer me to one?”
“There’s a powerful mambo I’ve dealt with,” Sam said. “I’m betting she can help you.”
“Please tell me who she is.”
Realizing Tammany Louis Lafourche III was unable or unwilling to answer any more questions, Taj let the shop owner sign him up for a tour of the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Lafourche disappeared in the back and didn’t return, even when the same young couple he’d passed on the sidewalk entered the shop to the chiming of bells.
“Are we in the right place for the cemetery tour?” the young woman asked.
“It’s what I’m waiting for,” Taj said.
The couple looked no older than mid-twenties, the woman’s Midwestern accent hinting they weren’t locals. Her denim shorts, and the lightweight maize and blue parka, zipped open enough so he could see her University of Michigan tee shirt, suggested she’d expected warmer weather in New Orleans. The stunning young woman had long, red hair, creamy-white skin, expressive blue eyes, and stood about five-feet-seven.
The slender young man was wearing an identical parka and had his head in a guidebook. When he glanced up and saw Taj, he pushed his John Lennon glasses onto his forehead. They weren’t into sports, because neither of them recognized him.
“I’m Amy,” the young woman said. “This is Brian. We’re students at Michigan and decided to visit New Orleans over the Christmas break.”
“I’m Taj,” he said, shaking the young woman’s hand.
“Are you from out of town?” Brian asked.
Before stashing the voodoo doll in his trench coat, Taj had stuffed it into a baggie Tommie had given him.
“Something like that,” he said.
Amy with the wavy red hair was smiling. Brian had a look of terror on his baby face. Taj was used to the reaction. People aren’t always prepared to meet a physically imposing six-foot nine-inch black man dressed in a knee-length black leather trench coat.
“I’m a history buff,” Taj said. “I heard these cemetery tours aren’t to be missed.”
Brian’s concerned expression vanished. “Us too,” he said. “I’m majoring in American history and hope to teach someday. It’s my passion.”
“What about you, Amy?” Taj asked.
“Don’t know yet what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
The chime on the door sounded before Amy could ask him what he did. An older man, wearing a yellow vest over his jacket, rubbed his hands together to warm them. The plastic nametag hanging from his neck pegged him as the tour guide.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Wind has picked up out there, and I had to run back home and get a heavier coat. I’m Garlen, your tour guide.”
Taj noticed the dirty look Amy flashed Brian at Garlen’s mention of a heavier coat. Her reaction lasting only a moment, she was smiling when she shook Garlen’s hand.
“I’m Amy,” she said. “Brian is the one who looks like an aspiring college professor. Taj is the gentleman in the black coat.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Garlen said. “Hope that windbreaker keeps you warm enough, young lady.”
“Brian said the weather in New Orleans would be mild this time of year.”
“It is,” Brian said. “At least when compared to Ann Arbor.”
Amy gave Brian another dirty look.
“The humidity in New Orleans makes every little chill seem much colder than it really is,” Garlen said. “At least we’ll be out of the wind when we reach St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.”
Garlen, like Amy and Brian, apparently had no idea who Taj was. As he followed them down the Basin Street sidewalk, it was all right with him. Though Taj knew most of the graves in New Orleans were above ground, he wasn’t prepared for the eerie feeling of déjà vu warming his neck upon seeing the brick and stone monoliths. Garlen was correct. The wall around the cemetery blocked the wind when they entered the gate.
“This is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans,” Garlen said. “The spiritual home of many famous citizens. Mark Twain called our cemeteries “Cities of the dead.”
“This place is amazing,” Brian said. “The tombs are so large and ornate and the paths between them so narrow, they seem to close in around you. What do you think, Amy?”
“My skin is crawling,” she said.
“You can’t be serious. This place is awesome. What’s the matter?”
“Spirits of the dead; I can feel their cold breath on my neck,” she said.
“You’re shivering,” Brian said.
“Brian, I don’t like it here. I want to go.”
“You're irrational,” he said. “It’s broad daylight. There are no ghosts.”
“You stay. I’ll walk back to the car and wait for you there,” she said.
Casting a distressed look at Garlen, Brian shrugged his shoulders and followed her out the gate.
“So sorry,” he said.
As cold rain began to fall, Garlen turned to Taj. “Under the circumstances, I’m calling off the tour. They’ll give you a rain check at the shop.”
“Wait,” Taj said. “I have questions I need someone to answer for me.”
“Next time,” Garlen said. “It doesn’t just rain in New Orleans, it pours.”
Rain began dimpling the dark leather of Taj’s coat, as he watched the tour guide disappear through the front gate. An unexpected voice startled him back to reality.
“Get in here before the sky opens up.”
An older black man was holding open the door of an outbuilding Taj hadn’t noticed when they entered the cemetery. As the rain began falling harder, he followed the man into the little building.
There were no windows, the air stale, the little room lighted only by a blazing potbelly stove and a few candles. There were a couple of ramshackle chairs and an old cot draped with pillow and bedclothes. The floor was dirt. Through the crack in the door, Taj could hear the drumming of rain growing heavier by the minute.
“Who are you?” Taj asked.
The man chuckled. “The keeper of cemeteries and lost souls.”
“You’re the caretaker?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m Taj. What’s your name?”
“People call me lots of things. You can call me Sam. You told that man you got questions.”
“And I was hoping for some answers,” Taj said. “Guess I’ll have to find them someplace else.”
Sam chuckled. “You weren’t going to get the answers you need from him. Hell, the girl with the prissy boyfriend knows more about spirits than he do.”
“How do you know that?” Taj asked.
“Old Sam here knows lots of things.”
“But she’s white.”
“Not much difference between white and black in Nawlins.”
“That girl’s from Michigan and not New Orleans.”
Sam fluffed the pillow on the cot. “Some people don’t have the foggiest idea where they’re really from,” he said.
Taj let the comment pass. During his tenure in the NBA, he’d developed an eye for his opponents' height, weight, and age. Sam was about five-eight and probably somewhere north of fifty years old. Despite the gloomy day, he had a pair of dark sunglasses perched atop his head. The stub of his lit cigar came out of his mouth only when he talked. Moving the pillow aside, he plopped down on the cot, propping his feet up on a packing crate. Taj grinned when he noticed the holes in his dirty white socks.
“Gonna be raining awhile,” Sam said. “Take a load off and grab a chair. Like I say, that white man don’t know a damn thing about voodoo, anyway.”
“Think I’ll stand,” Taj said, glancing at the rickety chair he doubted would support his weight.
“Want something to drink?” Sam asked.
“Sure. My body is wet, but my mouth is kind of dry.”
Sam retrieved a gallon jug of red wine from behind his cot. After unscrewing the metal cap, he slung the bottle over his shoulder and slugged the cheap wine straight from the container.
“Nothing much better than a pull of MD 20-20,”
Taj took the bottle, laughing before he took a swig. As wine dribbled down Taj’s chin, it was Sam’s turn to laugh.
“Haven’t had any Mad Dog since I was a freshman in college,” Taj said.
“Good for what ails you,” Sam said. “Have another taste.”
Taj waved off the offer as he handed the jug of wine back to Sam.
“One pull was all I needed.”
“Suit yourself,” Sam said.
The rain had begun falling in sheets, humid air flooding through the partly open door.
“How’d you know my question was about voodoo?” Taj asked.
“Hell, boy, your silk shirt is open to the waist. Even in the dark, and half covered by that big old gold chain around your neck, I can see the veve tattooed on your chest.”
Sam chuckled again when Taj said, “You know what it means?”
“Only the houngan or mambo that put it there knows the answer to that. And maybe the loa they’re attempting to influence.”
“That’s what I heard,” Taj said. “How do you know so much about voodoo?”
“Who says I do?” Sam said.
“Do you?”
“Ain’t no one from Nawlins that don’t know something about voodoo.”
Taj reached into his coat for the voodoo doll. “What can you tell me about this?” he asked.
Sam, unmindful of the blood, took the doll. “Somebody got it in for you.”
“Because?”
“Cause this is your doll.”
“How do you know that?”
Sam removed a hair from the doll and handed it to Taj. “Looks like it came from your beard.”
“That’s crazy talk. It probably stuck to the doll when I was handling it,” Taj said.
“What about this?”
Rain continued falling outside the little room as Sam dropped something into Taj’s palm.
“A fingernail. What makes you think it’s mine?” Taj asked.
“Is it?”
A sliver of purplish skin hung from the fingernail. Taj glanced at the ring finger on his left hand at the blackened nail he’d damaged in a recent basketball game.
“If it is mine, how would anyone have gotten it?”
“Voodoo practitioners have long arms. Might surprise you who could have got it for them. For a price.”
Taj recalled the woman he’d met in a bar after the game that night. An overly friendly young woman with a southern accent.
“I’m having trouble believing all of this,” he said.
“You believed it enough to come looking for answers,” Sam said.
“You think someone’s trying to kill me?”
“Getting hexed with a voodoo doll don’t always mean a person’s trying to kill you.”
“Then what does it mean?”
“Somebody is trying to control your actions.”
“A voodoo witch doctor?”
“Practitioners make their living casting spells. More than likely, someone hired them to do it.”
“And why on earth would they do that?”
Sam shook his head. “You wronged anyone lately? Screwed someone else’s wife, or took something that didn’t belong to you? Hell, man! It could be almost anything.”
“I’m not a perfect person, though I can’t think of anyone I’ve wronged lately,” Taj said.
“Then search your soul. You did something to somebody, and they’re pissed off about it. That, I can promise you,” Sam said. “Or . . .”
“Or what?”
“Somebody might be trying to send you a message,” Sam said.
The heavy door banged against the wall as a gust of wind blew it open. Sucking the air out of the room, it extinguished all the candles as it slammed shut again. Sam padded across the dirt floor, relighting the candles with what looked like a flame coming directly from his fingers. Taj waited until he’d returned to his perch on the cot.
“I need help,” Taj said. “I’ll pay you well if you can help me.”
“I don’t need your money, and I’ve already told you a bunch. What you need is the right person to help you,” Sam said. “A smart houngan or mambo.”
“Can you refer me to one?”
“There’s a powerful mambo I’ve dealt with,” Sam said. “I’m betting she can help you.”
“Please tell me who she is.”

“Her name is Mama Mulate.”
###






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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Blink of an Eye - an Excerpt

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