Do you believe in werewolves? In south Louisiana, Cajuns do and call them rougarou. In Primal Creatures, a movie producer hires French Quarter sleuth Wyatt Thomas to investigate a gruesome death at an island resort south of New Orleans. There's a fishing village on the island populated mostly by the descendants of slaves that had escaped into the swamp. An old voodoo woman from the village tells Wyatt, "There are creatures on this island that only walk at night." To make matters worse, a hurricane is approaching the island, southern Louisiana and New Orleans.
Wyatt's friend and associate ex-N.O.P.D. homicide detective Tony Nicosia is helping him with the case and Tony tracks a discredited researcher to his rundown Garden District mansion in New Orleans. The city is buttoned up and evacuated in preparation for the approaching hurricane. Dr. Kelton Frenette and his wife Latrice can't leave because they've had something frozen in their basement freezer for forty years. Don't believe in werewolves? Read this excerpt from French Quarter Mystery No. 3 and you might just change your mind. Hope you love it.
P.S. If you need to go down to your basement after reading this at least wait until daylight and even then you might want to take someone with you.
P.S. If you need to go down to your basement after reading this at least wait until daylight and even then you might want to take someone with you.
Primal Creatures Excerpt
Tony awoke the next morning feeling better than he had in weeks. The rain had momentarily abated to just a sprinkle falling from a dark and cloudy sky. Just a brief respite, he knew. His neighbor was boarding his windows as he went out to the car. The man shouted across the driveway.
“You hear about the hurricane?”
“I heard. I got something to do first. I’ll be back to board up the windows a little later.”
“Need some help, just let me know.”
“Thanks, Joe,” he said as he cranked the engine on his Sebring.
Though still early, traffic was heavy, people scurrying around, preparing for the approaching hurricane. The storm was in the back of Tony’s mind as he splashed through puddles of water on his way down St. Charles Avenue.
Kelton Frenette still lived in the Garden District. Tony had his address and was on his way there. He hadn’t called first because sometimes the best tactic was to just show up at someone’s doorstep. Give them no time to concoct a story, if that’s what they were inclined to do.
Steady rain poured down his windshield as Tony parked on the street in front of Frenette’s home. He knew a person’s house spoke volumes about the people living in them. As he gazed at the old two-story mansion, he’d already formed an opinion of the man before ever seeing him.
The Garden District is known for its eclectic architecture. Frenette’s house might have been Greek Revival, Victorian, or plantation style. Tony didn’t care. What he saw was a house desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint, trees that had gone untrimmed for years if not decades, broken boards on the porch, and cracked panes of glass in the windows.
The iron gate was unlatched, swung open toward the front door of the house as if there was no one inside that cared if anyone came or went. Pulling his collar up around his neck, he closed and latched the gate behind him.
The doorbell didn’t work. After knocking several times, he began wondering if the house was deserted. Before he turned to leave, someone opened the door a crack.
The large, black woman peeking through the door sounded pleasant enough.
“Is Dr. Frenette in?”
“He’s in, but he doesn’t see anybody these days. What is it you needed?”
“Dr. Frenette did some research years ago. I’d like to talk to him about it.”
“As I said, he doesn’t get around much anymore.”
A booming voice sounded behind the woman. “Who is it, Latrice?”
“Some person that wants to talk to you about your research.”
“Well let him in.”
The woman named Latrice opened the door for Tony, and he entered the spacious alcove lined with large pots where ornamental plants probably once grew. Sitting in an antique, wooden wheelchair was the man with the booming voice.
“I’m Kelton Frenette,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“I’m Tony Nicosia. You did research on a rabies-like virus. I’d like to talk to you about it.”
“Are you a reporter?”
“No sir, I’m not. Just a guy with some questions I hope you have answers for.”
“Then come with me,” he said as he wheeled into a cavernous room that was clearly the main living area.
Like the paint on the outside of the house, the off-pink walls had the look and feel of faded antiquity. The couch, settee, and chairs were antiques. Probably valuable. Everything was spotless, no dust anywhere in the room. Only the shiny patina of age and continuous use tarnished the furniture.
“Take a seat, please,” Latrice said. “Can I get you something to drink? Tea or lemonade?”
“Forget the tea and lemonade, Latrice. Bring Mr. Nicosia a brandy, and one for me too, please.”
Latrice didn’t argue, soon returning with three snifters filled with expensive brandy.
“I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” she said.
“Is Latrice your help?” Tony asked when she was gone.
“Latrice is my wife,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it. A more tolerant age is what Latrice and I needed.”
“You haven’t been out much lately. Things are better now. Whatever, I can see you made a wise choice.”
Frenette smiled for the first time. Like his voice, he was a portly man, probably pushing three hundred pounds. His khaki pants and canvas shirt were pressed and clean but as timeworn as the paint on the wall.
“There was a time when mixed marriages were frowned upon by people in the Garden District,” he said.
“Then you should have moved to the Quarter. They always been a little more tolerant across Canal Street.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Frenette said in an affected southern accent.
“This is wonderful brandy,” Tony said.
“Pierre Ferrand, 1972. I only serve it to my favorite guests. Since you are the only guest we’ve had in a while, you got lucky. If you like brandy, that is.”
“Love it, though it sounds like I probably can’t afford the finest stuff.”
“None of us can, Mr. Nicosia, but then again none of us can afford not to.”
“I like your philosophy.”
“Now tell me what you need to know about my research.”
Frenette nodded when Tony asked, “You know what a rougarou is?”
You think they exist?”
Frenette nodded again. “If you’re a journalist, it’s too late to discredit me. That was done years ago.”
“Tell me about it, please,” Tony said.
“When I published my findings in a small medical journal, my colleagues called me mad. My research funds dried up, and I was widely shunned.”
“I’m not a journalist, Dr. Frenette, I’m a detective investigating two recent deaths that are baffling, to say the least.”
“And you think a rougarou is responsible?”
Tony dropped the claw into Frenette’s hand. “You seen anything like this before?”
“Where did you get it?”
“From the horribly mutilated body of a person possibly killed by one of those creatures we aren’t supposed to know exists.”
Frenette fingered the claw, then tilted his oversized head, rubbing his chin with thick fingers.
“Interesting,” he said. “Latrice, we need more brandy.”
Latrice must have been within hearing distance because she quickly appeared with the bottle.
“Thanks, ma’am,” Tony said as she replenished his snifter.
“We’re going into the basement,” he said.
“You sure, Honey?” Latrice said.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
Latrice pushed him to a hallway near the center of the large house. With some difficulty, she lifted the heavy, metal bar across the door. Using a ring of keys hanging on the wall, she unlocked three padlocks.
Opening the door of an oversized dumbwaiter, she wheeled Frenette in and pushed a button. An old electric motor made grating sounds as the cab of the dumbwaiter began descending into the basement.
Latrice pointed Tony to a door leading to the cellar, removing the metal bar and unlocking three more padlocks as she had on the dumbwaiter door. When he entered, she switched on a bare, overhead bulb that dimly illuminated the musty stairs.
The stairway was steep, Tony thankful for his recently repaired knees. Another dim light greeted him when he reached the concrete floor of the basement. Dr. Frenette waited in a large room that felt twenty degrees colder than at the top of the stairs.
“I haven’t been here in ten years,” he said. “I know this place looks like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. I assure you, my endeavors weren’t so manic.”
The room was filled with beakers, test tubes, and medical paraphernalia, everything coated with dust. There was also a dissection table that reminded Tony of the autopsy room he’d recently visited. The large, open cellar reeked of must, and maybe something else. The subtle, but distinctive odor of death, like he’d smelled in the autopsy office, permeated everything.
“You haven’t come here in ten years?” Tony asked.
“There’s something here that haunts me to my very core. Are you a religious man, Mr. Nicosia?”
“I go to church on Easter and Christmas. My priest doesn’t remember my name because I haven’t taken confession in years.”
Frenette grinned for the first time since they’d been in the basement. Tony still had the empty snifter in his hand. Frenette motioned him over and refilled it.
“Sometimes brandy is more comforting than a priest,” he said. “Since there’s no priest to comfort us, let's have another drink.”
“Amen to that. What’s going on down here?”
“I want to show you something. Do you have a strong stomach, Mr. Nicosia?”
Frenette grinned when Tony said, “I’ve lost my cookies a time or two. What you got, Doc?”
Dr. Frenette pointed to a large, horizontal freezer against the wall. Like the dumbwaiter and the cellar door, it was secured by several locks.
“It’s in there,” he said. “You might want to take a deep breath before you open it.”
Frenette tossed Tony a set of keys, and he quickly slipped the padlocks. The lid had long since frozen to the top of the freezer, and he had to give it an extra hard pull. When he did, it popped open with a whoosh, stale, refrigerated air blasting his face. After glancing a moment at the contents of the refrigerator, he took a step backward.
“Jesus! What the hell is it?”
“Your rougarou, Mr. Nicosia.”
Tony stared at the frozen body of something that wasn’t quite a man. Dark eyes glinting red in the overhead lighting stared back at him. Tufts of thick, brown hair splotched the creature’s face and neck. Long fangs protruded from the half-opened mouth. Black claws, like the one he had in his pocket, extended from his hairy fingers. White frost encased the frozen body.
“Is it. . . ?”
“Dead? It’s been frozen for more than forty years, though I fear it’s still very much alive.”
“It’s enormous. How did you get it in there?”
“I had help.”
“Where did it come from?”
“Close the lid, lock it tight, and then I’ll tell you the story. After we go back upstairs.”
Tony closed and relocked the freezer, then wheeled Dr. Frenette to the dumbwaiter. After situating him inside it and pushing the button, he switched off the lights and hurried up the steep stairway toward the dim light shining at the top. Latrice was waiting for them.
She quickly padlocked the doors and returned the metal bars to their catches before giving her husband a hug that dragged on for several anxious moments.
“It’s okay, Baby. It’s still frozen.”
The rain, buffeted by the wind that hadn’t been present when Tony arrived, had intensified as they returned to the pink living room. Latrice quickly handed him and Dr. Frenette a new snifter of brandy, and then covered her husband’s legs with a tattered blanket. After placing the fancy bottle of brandy on the coffee table in front of Tony, she joined him on the couch.
“Hon, I was so worried.”
“It’s okay. The freezer’s working, and there’s nothing to worry about.”
Frenette smiled when Tony said, “I didn’t toss my cookies, but I almost did. That creature in the freezer. Was it really a rougarou?”
“You already know the answer to your question.”
“You haven’t told me where it came from.”
“The creature is a person and has a name—Calvin Couvillion. His relatives brought him here. Like I said, more than forty years ago.”
“And you’ve had it frozen in your basement since then? Maybe you’d better explain,” Tony said.
“It’s not like you think,” Latrice said.
Frenette waved his hand and shook his head, shushing her.
“Covillion came from the Atchafalaya Swamp, over near Thibodaux. His family brought him here.”
“A live rougarou?”
“Let me finish the story, and then you’ll see. Most of Couvillion’s family was at a fais-doux-doux.”
“I know,” Tony said when he hesitated. “A Cajun celebration.”
“The family had already become concerned about Couvillion’s erratic behavior. When a storm came up during the party, he began to transform.”
“The storm caused him to transform?”
Frenette nodded. “Perhaps hurried along by a rapid change in barometric pressure. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
“And everyone at the party saw him?”
“They believe in such things out there on the bayou. He might have killed someone but was struck by lightning, the impact rendering him immobile, at least temporarily. They packed him in dry ice and brought him to me.”
“I was doing research on lycanthropy and rumors had started to spread.”
“The study of human transformation into a wolf-like creature,” he explained, seeing the puzzled look on Tony’s face.
“What about his family? They just left him here with you and never said nothing about it, even after all these years?”
“They were afraid. They helped me put him into the freezer, and then left me with their problem.”
“He was struck by lightning and didn’t die?” Tony said.
“You apparently know little about rougarous, loup-garous, werewolves, or whatever you want to call them.”
“The virus that causes lycanthropy is similar to the rabies virus. Rabies can take months or even years to develop. Before a cure was discovered, people contracting it often became hyper-sexual and then eventually quite mad.”
“But we aren’t talking about rabies here,” Tony said.
“No, but the two diseases are similar in many ways.”
“Rabies is the only virus contracted by a bite, the person bitten guaranteed to contract the virus and die unless they undergo a painful treatment.”
“If you shoot a mad dog, it dies. If the disease you’re talking about is like rabies, how could someone that has it survive a lightning strike?”
“Because, Mr. Nicosia, the disease makes them immortal.”
“I don’t believe that. Nothing’s immortal.”
“Oh, but you’re wrong. Cancer cells are immortal. That’s why we have no cure. Succeed in knocking out one cell with radiation or chemotherapy, and it usually only results in the propagation of many more.”
“We’re not talking about cancer here,” Tony said.
“The rabies-like virus that causes lycanthropy mutates the cells in a person’s body. Like cancer, the mutated individual becomes, quite literally, immortal. I’m sorry if the concept is difficult to reconcile, but it is what it is.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Doc. I don’t want you to cut me off this great brandy, but I don’t quite buy your story. Like I said, nothing is immortal.”
“Au contraire, Mr. Nicosia. The creature you saw frozen in the basement is very much alive. Of that, I can assure you.”
“Then why didn’t you report it to the authorities years ago?”
“Because I was already a discredited researcher when the family brought me Calvin Couvillion. I thought I could show everyone I wasn’t crazy by curing the man.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“A little problem,” Frenette said.
“Then didn’t it occur to you to get it the hell out of here?”
“More than once,” Latrice said. “We even thought about burning the house down.”
“Just call the authorities. Let them deal with it. You should have done it forty years ago.”
Latrice’s hands went to her face to hide her tears. “You just don’t know how it was back then. People protesting at our front door, calling Kelton Dr. Frankenstein.”
Tony grabbed the bottle of brandy, topped up her snifter and then gave her shoulder a reassuring pat.
“Ma’am, I’m not here to point fingers or cause distress. I’m just looking for answers. Maybe I can help get rid of that creature in your basement if that’s what it actually is.”
Tony’s words and the brandy calmed her. Cupping the snifter in her palms, she held it to her nose as if the pungent aroma might somehow drive away her unpleasant memories. Tony topped up his own glass and that of Dr. Frenette’s.
“Our paranoia kept us from revealing the creature to the authorities. Not to mention we feared letting loose such a beast on an unsuspecting city,” Frenette said.
“I was afraid they’d put Kelton in prison,” Latrice said.
“No one’s going to jail. If you have a serum that cures the disease, why don't you just use it?"
“The little problem I mentioned. You can’t inject serum into a frozen body, and we can’t unthaw him because he would kill us.”
“Jesus! I can’t believe you’ve lived forty years with that thing in your basement. I take it you stayed here during Katrina.”
When Latrice began to cry again, Frenette wheeled over to her, and they hugged again.
“We were afraid to stay and even more afraid to leave,” Latrice said when her tears abated.
“It was terrible with the wind and rain. Not knowing if the house would survive, much less ourselves,” Frenette said.
“Yeah, well it’s not getting much better out there right now. Didn’t you lose power? How did you keep that thing in the freezer from thawing out?”
“We had a large generator installed years ago. We’ve never had to use it,” Frenette said.
“I think I’d have carried it out to the swamp and dumped it in the bayou,” Tony said.
“Believe me, we thought about it. In the end, it just wasn’t possible. If there were just a way to disable it until the serum had a chance to take effect,” he said.
Frenette and Latrice both looked at Tony when he said, “Maybe there is.”
“You know something you’re not telling us?” he asked.
It was Tony’s turn to hold up a palm. “Like I said, I’m investigating two deaths down in St. Bernard Parish, near the Gulf. Both may have been killed by a rougarou. Hell, I don’t even think we’re talking about a single rougarou. There may be several.”
“An outbreak. What I’ve feared all these years,” Frenette said. “I have a possible cure, but no way to administer it, except in the early stages of the disease. What were you talking about when you said maybe there is?”
“My partner’s working the case on Goose Island. There’s a fishing village with a voodoo woman that lives there. Her son coats his buckshot with something she gives him. He claims it’ll knock down a rougarou.”
“For how long?” Frenette asked.
“At least until the person doing the shooting can escape.”
“Well for God’s sake, tell me what it is!”
“Wolfsbane,” Tony said, waiting for Frenette to scoff at his suggestion.
He didn’t. Turning to Latrice, he said, “Baby, can you get me the Martinsdale?”
“Sure, Hon,” she said.
Latrice apparently knew what he wanted because she went to the bookcase lining the wall and pulled a large book from the many volumes. Frenette began leafing through it immediately. Apparently locating what he was looking for, he stared at the page.
“Find something?” Tony asked.
“Aconite,” he finally said.
“Aconite, the active ingredient found in the Aconitum species.”
“You mean Wolfsbane?”
“That’s one of the flowers. The substance has been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. In small doses, it can be helpful. Its highly toxic in large doses and can paralyze, stop a person’s heart, and even kill.”
“But will it stop a rougarou?”
“You’re the one that said it does.”
“Yeah, but I’m not speaking from experience here.”
“The Ainu, Japanese indigenous people, used it on their arrows when they hunted bear. It’s extremely powerful. It just might work.”
“Fine,” Tony said. “Now what?”
“We have to thaw him out.”
“You’re shitting me! You have aconite?”
“Yes, more than enough to do what we need.”
“You sure about that? What if it don’t work?”
“Then at least we won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Tony glanced at his watch. “Sounds like you’re gonna need help moving him. I’m ready if you are.”
“You’re a brave man, Mr. Nicosia,” Frenette said.
“Hell, I don’t hold a candle to you and Latrice. Let’s do it before I change my mind.”
Dr. Frenette smiled for the first time since leaving the basement.
“Baby, you better open us another bottle of Pierre Ferrand, and then join us in the laboratory.”
Tony and Frenette were at the basement door when a clap of thunder shook the roof. When it did, all the lights went out.
“Oh hell, there goes the power,” Frenette said.
“What happened to the generator?” Tony asked.
“It hasn’t been tested since the time it was installed. Who knows? We’ll have to make do without it.”
Flickering light soon lit the hallway as Latrice joined them, the bottle of brandy in one hand, a hurricane lamp in the other. Frenette took both.
“Go get more candles, Baby. We’re going to need them.”
Tony and Frenette were soon back in the dank laboratory lighted only by glimmering candlelight. Latrice quickly joined them. After steeling themselves with more brandy, Frenette pointed to an operating table, its legs lowered so he could reach it without standing.
“You ready?” Tony asked.
When Frenette nodded, Latrice unlocked the freezer and opened it, her face revealing more than words could express.
“What is it, Baby?” Frenette asked.
“Oh my God, Hon! It’s fully transformed. No longer even partially human.”
Her words caused Tony to become more nervous than he already was.
“Help me up,” Frenette said. “I need to see.”
Latrice and Tony helped him out of the wheelchair, supporting him as he gazed into the freezer.
“My God! Even encased in melting ice, he’s somehow managed to transform entirely from human to wolf. It must be the storm.”
“How is that possible? The electricity hasn’t even been off for ten minutes yet.” Tony said.
“Then we must hurry. We don’t have much time left.”
Tony nodded when Latrice said, “Can you help me get him out of there?”
As Frenette watched, Latrice and Tony lifted the large body out of the freezer.
“This thing must weigh three hundred pounds,” Tony said, struggling with the weight. “You okay, Latrice?”
“I got him. Just hurry.”
Frenette had rigged up a mechanical drip and filled it with aconite. The creature’s body was totally naked, its wolf/human genitals only partially hidden by thick tufts of hair. Latrice covered most of the body with a blanket to accelerate the thawing.
“Now we wait,” Frenette said. “Soon as I can penetrate his skin with the needle, I’ll start the drip. I don’t need you two for that. Go upstairs and lock the door. I’ll call when I’m done.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Latrice said.
“In for a penny, in for a pound. I’m staying,” Tony said.”
Twenty minutes passed. Though he’d tried several times, Dr. Frenette was unsuccessful in inserting the needle into the rougarou’s vein. After an hour, the creature’s eyes moved in their sockets. For a moment, Tony was sure they were looking straight at him.
“It’s now or never,” Frenette said. “The beast is almost cognizant.”
Latrice clutched Tony’s arm as Dr. Frenette began working the needle. The creature was fully thawed and beginning to move. Tony reached for his service revolver before remembering he didn’t have it anymore.
“Bingo!” Frenette finally said. “Thank God this instrument has a battery pack or it wouldn’t do us any good without electricity.”
“Yeah, when was the last time you checked the batteries?”
Frenette didn’t answer. Latrice just closed her eyes, crossed her fingers and began praying out loud. Reaching for the I.V.’s control panel, Frenette flipped the switch. The display turned green and the screen began recording drips of aconite into the creature’s arm.
“Shit, that’s a relief. Now what?” Tony asked.
“It’ll work, or else in an hour or so we’ll all be in hell,” Frenette 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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.