Sunday, March 25, 2018
Rusty's Reading : Spotlight: River Road by Eric Wilder: Spotlight: River Road by Eric Wilder Genre: Cajun Mystery Thriller Synopsis: River Road is Book 5 in Eric Wilder’s popular F...
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Today is the first day of spring - the vernal equinox. Seasonal changes were sacred to the ancients and celebrated as holy days. In my book Blink of an Eye P.I. Buck McDivit walks back 1000 years in time to Spiro, the once great center of the Mississippian people to attend the Summer Solstice with more than 20,000 Native Americans. If you love history, adventure and mystery, then take a magic carpet ride back a thousand years and prepare to see the New World as it was long before the white man ever arrived.
Buck fumbled in the dark with the keys when he reached the front gate of Thorn’s property. She was asleep in the passenger seat and hadn’t moved since they’d left the Roadhouse. Pard and Maggie were raising a ruckus in the backyard as he unlocked the front door and turned on the porch light.Thorn was dead weight. He had to wrestle her onto the bed. Maggie and Pard watched, wagging their tails, as he pulled off her boots. Knowing how bad it felt to wake up with a hangover, he thought about removing her jeans and blouse. Instead, he covered her with a quilt, deciding he didn’t know her well enough. Turning out the lights, he went into the kitchen.
Maggie and Pard demanded attention. After popping the top on a cold beer he found in the refrigerator, he obliged them. They gobbled up a couple of dog treats, then returned to Maggie’s extra large doggie bed by the stove.
Turning off the lights, he went into Thorn’s cozy den. Pulling off his boots, he plopped on the old couch that sat in front of her pot-bellied stove.
“Good for you, Pard,” he said, glancing at the doggie bed. “At least one of us has a girlfriend to keep them warm tonight.”
A storm came up, with thunder rattling windows as rain drummed a cadence on Thorn’s tin roof. Lost in a dream world, Buck didn’t awaken. At least until a bright light shining in his eyes caused him to open them. When he did, he sat straight up on the couch, not believing what he saw.
Before him stood a beautiful woman, an aura of blue light radiating from her naked body. He first thought it was Thorn. Instead, it was someone he’d never expected to see again. His heart began racing inside his bare chest.
“Is it you, Esme, or am I dreaming?”
“Come to me and see,” she said.”
When he pressed against her and began smothering her with kisses, he knew she was real.
Esme was tall and graceful, her long hair and demanding eyes as dark as the storm raging outside the house. As he pressed against her soft breasts, a familiar rush coursed through his body. Just to make sure it was she, he turned her around. As he remembered, a rattlesnake tattoo highlighted the supple curve of her shoulder.
“It’s been two long years. Not a day has passed that I didn’t think about you,” he said. “Why did you go away?”
“I know it hurt you, Buck McDivit. I could not help it because I am from a different place and time.”
“What place, and what time?” he said.
“You will see. I will take you there. First, you must become as naked as I am.”
Buck’s jeans dropped to the floor. “I’m ready,” he said. “Where are we going?”
“To a place you’ve never imagined,” she said.
Esme held his hand as they passed through the locked door as if it weren’t there. The storm had grown stronger as rain poured down in sheets. Thunder rocked their steps, lightning sizzling across an angry sky.
Sharp stones from the gravel driveway didn’t hurt his feet. Though rain gushed off his head and shoulders, he was oblivious to it. Esme led him down the hill, their feet sinking into the mire as they reached a pond overflowing from the deluge. Lightning laced the darkness above them. He hesitated when she stepped into the roiling water.
“Come with me,” she said.
He continued to waver. “It’s dangerous.”
Pulling him toward her, she said, “Trust me.”
Neck deep in churning water, they embraced as lightning kissed the pond. It set off a kaleidoscope of radiating colors that made his head spin. When he opened his eyes, darkness was gone. So was the storm. Dancing rays of sunshine radiated through the cloudy sky. Birds soared overhead, and only friendly drops of rain rippled the water’s surface.
“We’ve crossed over,” she said.
“That was the wildest ride I’ve ever taken. What just happened?”
“You did this once before. You just don’t remember.”
“Did what?” he asked.
“Walked across time,” she said. “Brace yourself for culture shock because you are now in my world.”
They were in the river. Esme took his hand and led him out of the water to a teepee near its bank. The same teepee Esme lived in when he’d met her near the pagan village of Lykaia. When they pushed through the flap, he saw Beauty, Esme’s giant wolf dog. They moved toward one another, meeting in the middle, and were soon rolling on a deerskin rug.
“Where the hell have you been?” Buck said, giving her big neck a warm hug.
“She’s missed you, and so have I,” Esme said.
“You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed both of you.”
“Yes I can,” she said. “Let’s get you dressed. I have much to show you.”
Soon, Buck looked like a Mississippian warrior, Esme like a medicine woman. Beauty hadn’t left Buck’s side until Esme told her to stay and guard the teepee.
“She doesn’t like crowds,” she said.
Buck gave the large beast another hug and then followed Esme out the door. He could hardly believe the sights that began unfolding around them.
Dozens of canoes occupied the riverbank and more floated in the river. When they crested the natural levee, his jaw dropped. Wooden houses with thatched roofs stretched for as far as he could see. Indian women, naked from the waist up, were working small truck gardens. Men, returning from a hunt, carried a deer and a large turtle.
“They are preparing for the festival,” Esme said.
Buck was curious. “Festival?” he said.
They were both resplendent in colorful paint and feathers. Esme seemed to know everyone and exchanged smiles and greetings as they passed. They soon reached a palisade. Behind the timbered walls, stately mounds, topped by wooden houses, jutted toward the sky. Activity outside the entrance to the palisade was heavy.
“It’s festival day,” she said. “Some of the people have traveled a thousand miles to be here.”
“Tell me about this festival.”
“Tomorrow is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. For my people, it is one of our holiest days. Today is the eve of the summer solstice. Our chief will speak, and there will be a game of chunkey. Following the game, the bonfire is lit, and everyone feasts, chants, and dances until dawn.”
Buck had met Esme for the first time during a solstice celebration. He remembered because he’d been the only male present. He and several hundred naked pagan females had danced the night away in a solstice ceremony. When he’d met Esme, she’d been the spiritual leader of the pagan enclave known as Lykaia.
“Are we going to dance like we did when we first met?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I am the medicine woman. I must feast with our chief, the elders, and the emissaries from many other tribes. I have other plans for you.”
“Mississippians from all over, Aztecs and Mayans from Mexico, and Anasazi from Four Corners.”
“You must be kidding.”
“I assure you I’m not.”
They all wore their festival best. Pearls, shells, and colorful beads adorned the braids in many of the women’s long hair. Most of the men had painted faces and shaved heads with only a top knot. Colors of their costumes moved like a kaleidoscope in slow motion.
The palisade was on a hill. From their vantage, they could see the bend in the large river. Hundreds of canoes lined the bank, more still arriving. Everyone, it seemed, was smiling.
“How can so many tribes coexist?”
“Spiro, as you know it, is the religious hub of our universe. There can be no war, strife, or disagreement in this holy place, especially on the eve of the summer solstice. Well, except for chunkey,” she said.
The scene reminded him of the open marketplace in Santa Fe. This was similar but ten times larger. A myriad of color, noise and excitement, and jewelry wasn’t the only thing for sale.
The aroma of fresh corn, squash, grapes, and a dozen other vegetables floated in a warm breeze. A big black dog that no one seemed to own sniffed his leg before disappearing into the crowd.
“This place is shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “Reminds me of the crowds at the state fair, or an OU football game.”
“There are many thousands here today,” she said.
“Thorn would be in heaven,” he said.
“She descended from Mississippians.”
“I can’t imagine anyone loving their cultural history more than her.”
“She is a good person. Maybe too good for the likes of you.”
“What about for you?”
Esme’s smile disappeared. “We were never meant to be.”
“Star-crossed lovers?” he said, squeezing her hand.
“We must live in the moment. I have you now, at least for a short time, and there are many things I need to tell you.”
They strolled through the open-air market, marveling at the crafts. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, only a flock of gulls circling to land on a pond created by a bend in the river.
“It’s time to enter the palisade,” she said.
“I understand every word these people are saying. They can’t be speaking English.”
“You left your clothes and many other things in Oklahoma. While you are here, you are one of us.”
The high-timbered palisade surrounding the enclave was more spectacular than Thorn had described. A moat filled with water surrounded the tall timbers. Guards armed with spears left little doubt that no one entered except by invitation. He and Esme were on the list. They followed a circular maze until it opened into the ancient gated city of Spiro. The panorama blew him away.
“I visited the Archaeological Park yesterday. I had no idea it looked as spectacular as this.”
“The new world’s version of Camelot,” she said. “The game is starting. Would you like to see?”
In the distance, hundreds of spectators occupied a large arena where two teams were beginning to compete.
“It’s a half-mile away. It’ll be lunch before we get there,” he said.
“We don’t have to walk,” she said, snapping her fingers.
Four men appeared with a hand carriage, waiting until Esme and Buck had climbed aboard. Hoisting it to their shoulders, they began trekking toward the chunkey game. Rampant noise grew louder as they approached the arena, covered seating awaiting them. Play stopped as the players, and the crowd acknowledged Esme’s appearance.
“They treat you like a goddess,” Buck said.
She wasn’t smiling when she said, “To my people, I am a goddess.”
Forty people occupied covered seating opposite them. A man in bright paint sat in a cane throne decorated by wreaths of flowers and feathers. The throne rose high above everyone else in the box.
“He must be a bigwig,” he said.
“Walking Wolf is chief of the Mississippians. He’s without a doubt the most powerful person in North America.”
Walking Wolf’s throne was quite a distance away for a good look. Still, the regal old man seemed strangely familiar to Buck.
Buck had attended many sporting events, both amateur and professional. He’d never seen one quite as loud and raucous as the chunkey match.
Eight contestants and a referee, surrounded by several thousand adoring fans, occupied the football-sized field. Dressed in breechcloths, the competitors had faces painted white with black eyes like raccoons. Both teams wore pillbox hats woven of straw. One of the men stood at least six-six, and towered over the others.
“That’s Talako,” Esme said. “He’s the captain of our team. We have never lost a game.”
“Impressive,” he said. “Who are they playing?”
“A team from a large Mississippian settlement called Cahokia. They have also never lost.”
“One of their dudes is almost as big as Talako,” Buck said. “How is the game played?”
“With short spears and a stone roller chiseled from quartz. Talako and the big man from the other team are the spears. They do all the throwing and most of the scoring. Each team has a disc roller and two team members called fronts that run interference. Only the disk rollers can touch the disk, and only the spears can throw them. The fronts use their spears for tripping, and preventing the disk from going through the goal posts. That’s five points. You’ll get the gist once they start playing.”
One of the Cahokians had a six-inch stone disk with a hole in the middle. Taking a stance like a pro bowler, he rolled it toward the opposite goal. The referee waited until the disk had traveled about twenty feet and then waved his hand. Talako and the big man from the Cahokia team launched their spears. When the disk came to a halt, a ref ran onto the field, picked up the closest spear to the disk and held up a finger.
“One point,” Esme said. “The first team to reach twelve points wins.”
“What’s the significance of the hole in the disk?” Buck asked.
“If a spear penetrates the hole, then the game is over. The team that makes the toss is the winner.”
“Seems unlikely for that to happen.”
“Almost never,” she said.
When the ref waved his hand again, eight men ran toward the disk. The melee that followed resembled hand-to-hand combat. Both teams pushed and shoved, the fronts doing their best to break their opponent’s legs. A Cahokian retrieved the disk and launched it toward the goal. The scrum continued, both teams fighting for position and scoring a few points. The crowd had grown inflamed.
“There’s massive betting going on in the stands,” she said. “Much property will change hands because of this match.”
“Most everyone’s rooting for our team,” Buck said.
“Not all. There’s a large contingent of Cahokians here to watch the game.”
Talako’s spear landed within inches of the disk, the crowd standing and yelling. When the ref waved his hand, the two Cahokian fronts took Talako’s legs out from under him. When they did, the big spear kicked him in the side.
“Damn! That looked like a foul to me. Those boys are serious. They don’t have a penalty box in this game?”
“Chunkey emulates combat. Bones are often broken. The crowd expects the team to play through their pain.”
“Brutal. Sort of like pro football. How long till the ref calls a break?”
Esme shook her head. “They’ll battle until they drop, or the game is over. There are no quarters.”
“And the reward?” he asked.
“Life, the losers killed and their scalps displayed on the winner’s belts.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” he said.
“If the visiting team wins, our chief will pardon them because this is a religious holiday. If our team loses, they will lose their heads.”
“Doesn’t look like they’re in any danger of that. They’re ahead by six points.”
“I pray not,” Esme said. “Talako is Walking Wolf’s only grandson, and the greatest warrior our tribe has.”
“Your chief wouldn’t allow his own flesh and blood to have his head chopped off.”
“Not only allow it, he would proclaim it so. He would have no choice,” she said.
“You seem distressed. You okay?”
“These games always frighten me.”
“You want to leave?”
“I can’t,” she said.
“Something you aren’t telling me?”
“Walking Wolf and I are time walkers, inherited only when both parents are also walkers. The only other walker in the tribe is Talako.”
Buck stared at her anxious expression, trying to decipher what she had just told him.
“So you and Talako are . . . ?”
“Betrothed,” she said. “We must marry and have a child.”
She squeezed his hand, her eyes begging for understanding.
“I had hoped we were going to do more than just hold hands tonight.”
“I am so sorry. That is not possible,” she said.
“Do you love him?”
“As much as I love you.”
“Then I guess it’s okay,” he said.
When they returned their attention to the game, they saw that the Spiro team had drawn within a point of winning. The Cahokian roller gave the disk a great heave, the crowd waiting until the referee waved his hand. As he did, Talako and the big Cahokian launched their spears. The disk hit a bump and fell on its side as Talako’s spear sailed over it.
When the Cahokian’s spear began its descent, every spectator in the arena sensed what was about to happen. As the missile landed in the hole in the disk, the crowd grew deathly silent. The chief came down from his cane throne, motioning Talako to approach him. Esme’s face turned bright red as she squeezed Buck’s hand.
“I can’t believe this,” he said.
“If he can break Talako’s spear, then it is a sign that the Great Spirit wishes him to die. Walking Wolf will have to take his head.”
Buck stood. “I’ll stop it,” he said.
Esme pulled him back into his seat. “No. If the spear breaks, then it is ordained.”
Talako’s head hung low as he knelt in front of his grandfather and handed him his spear. Removing a serrated stone dagger from his ceremonial belt, Walking Wolfe drove it into the earth. Then he raised the spear over his head and did a slow turn so that everyone in the stands could see.
Esme let go of Buck’s hand, her tears flowing and the veins in her neck bulging. She clinched her hands, almost as if she also had hold of the spear.
Though smaller than his grandson, Walking Wolf looked anything except weak. Buck could see he was preparing to break the spear and had little doubt that he could complete the task. As the rapt crowd watched in silence, his muscles strained, his face turning red. Buck and everyone else expected the spear to snap at any second.
Despite his efforts, the spear never even bowed. Finally, the anger imprinted on his face disappeared, replaced with a smile. He turned again to the crowd.
“This spear is unbreakable. Would anyone care to try?” He walked around the arena, offering it to anybody that might accept it. No one did, not even the contingency from Cahokia. “Then the Great Spirit has spoken,” he said. “I deem this contest a draw.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd as Chief Walking Wolf returned the spear to Talako. Buck glanced at Esme, her hands still clinched and tears streaming down her face. He took her hands and uncoiled her fingers. Two deep red welts occupied her palms. He began massaging them.
“You saved him, didn’t you?” he said.
Her breathing labored, she answered. “It took every ounce of power I have. I couldn’t let him die.”
People began filing out of the arena as Esme regained her composure.
“What now?” he asked.
Monday, February 05, 2018
Anne and I were in the oil business. A drilling contractor named John was dating Sheryl, a young woman that worked for Anne and me. He had a little ranch on the west side of Oklahoma City, several horses, and a barn. Blessed by many barn cats, he gave two kitties named Buster and Squeaky, to Sheryl. Sheryl kept Buster and gave Squeaky to Anne and me.
Squeaky became our first female cat, and neither of us realized how fast these beautiful animals mature. Because of our oversight, Squeaky became pregnant and had a litter of beautiful kittens. We found good homes for all the kittens except for one, a calico we kept and named Chani after a character in the Dune series that Anne loved. Squeaky and Chani soon became inseparable. When Squeaky had her second litter, Chani wasn’t far away, and often as not in the litter basket with the kittens.
When the oil business busted, Anne and I lost our home and moved to a rented house, Chani, Squeaky and Tut moving with us. During the difficult years that ensued, we moved five times. Some of the cats didn’t live that long, but Chani made all five moves.
Calicos are three-colored cats, and they are always females. Chani was a gorgeous, three-colored cat with a distinctive voice. She always let you know when she was around. She loved affection and would live on your lap if you’d let her. She also liked to drink water from the tap.
Chani died at the age of nineteen, still the queen bee of our cat family until the time of her death. I buried her in the flower bed where she liked to lie in the spring and summer. Now Anne is dead, a victim of cancer, and spirits abound around the Wilder household. I’m fairly sure Chani still holds sway over her departed brothers and sisters. I’m also certain that Squeaky is around and she and Chani, as they were in life, are again inseparable.
Sunday, February 04, 2018
I bought my first motorcycle, an act I now realize symbolized newfound freedom, from Dave B. after divorcing my first wife. Dave now lives near Baton Rouge and was my best friend when we both worked as geologists at an Oklahoma City oil company. The rock and roll world of the last oil boom was hell on marriages, including Dave’s and mine. Both freshly divorced, we became running buddies. A recent email from my old pal reminded me of one of our adventures.
We both had company cars and what seemed like endless expense accounts. The loose money was great for attracting attention. Between us, Dave and I knew practically every female that worked in downtown Oklahoma City. One night, six oil and gas secretaries persuaded us to spend some of our money and take them to see an Elvis impersonator. We were easily convinced.
Three of the young women were crazy about the recently departed Elvis. The band, backup singers, and Elvis impersonator sounded exactly like Elvis. Well, if you'd had a few drinks and were sexually excited because of being the center of attention of six adoring ladies.
The concert was entertaining, further enhanced when one young lady, in particular, began hitting on me, another on Dave. When we returned to my apartment, Dave and five of the women departed while Cyndi (not her real name) came inside with me for a nightcap. Hell, it was two in the morning! We both had our intentions, and for the moment, I assumed that they were the same.
We were sitting on the floor in front of a fire that I had hastily built in the fireplace, and we were groping around on the rug like a couple of boa constrictors in heat when the phone rang. I have waited to say that Cyndi was the girlfriend of a close friend of mine, Mike (not his real name). Mike was married, Cyndi only his girlfriend, and it is safe to say that he did not intend to marry her. Cyndi and I were both single.
"Have you seen Cyndi?" he asked, she's not at her apartment.
"Maybe," I said, our legs encircled and my hand under her blouse, still clamped on her right breast.
I began to smell a setup when he asked, "Is she at your place?" Cyndi, I suddenly sensed, had used me to make Mike jealous. Still very much engulfed in the throes of extreme passion, I said, "She was here, but she just left. I think she’s on her way back to her apartment. You need to go home," I told her after hanging up the phone and zipping up my pants."
"Are you sure about this?" she asked, standing and adjusting her own clothing.
"There's nothing I would like better than spending the night with you, but I think we would both regret it tomorrow."
Cyndi must have agreed because she was gone in less than five minutes, leaving me to contemplate my unexpected predicament. After all these years Mike is still my friend, as is Cyndi, although their relationship ended years ago. I never made it with Cyndi, though sometime later I had a little fling with Sandy, one of the other girls that Dave and I took to the concert. How did Dave do that night? I never asked, and he never volunteered the story.
All of my books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on iBook, and please check out my Website.
All of my books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on iBook, and please check out my Website.
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Here is Chapter 1 of the new French Quarter Mystery (#7) I'm working on for publication in June, 2018. Hope you love it.
A novel by
Although only thirty-four years of age, Taj Davis was old by NBA standards. His surgically repaired left knee still ached whenever he ran or jumped. Arthritis had begun affecting his fingers although no one had yet noticed the knots deforming the digits of his shooting hand. As he followed a bellman down the hallway of a New Orleans hotel, he felt ancient.
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 team that had acquired him in an unexpected mid-season trade.
The bellman stopped in front of a door and opened it with a key, the odor of must and age accosting Taj’s senses as he followed the little man into the room. The person in the red velvet coat sat the suitcase on the bed, smiling when Taj handed him a twenty.
“Aren’t you Taj Davis?”
“Right on, brother. What’s your name?”
“Tommy. You’re 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, especially the Pelicans. They gonna be champs one of these days.”
“Hope it’s sooner rather than later,” Taj said. “At least now that I’m in town. I’ve dreamed of a championship ring, and I’m running out of time to find a winning team.”
“I hear that,” Tommy said. “Hope you’re good enough to replace Zee Ped. He been filling up the baskets lately.”
“Why in the world did the Pels trade their best player?” Taj asked.
“Beats the hell out of me,” Tommy said. “Nobody around here knew a thing about the trade until a few hours ago.”
“Neither did I. An assistant called this morning and told me to meet him in the locker room. He had a plane ticket and itinerary ready for me when I got there. I had no chance to say goodbye to anyone, and barely enough time to pack my apartment.”
“You mean today was the first you heard?”
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.
“I had no clue,” he said. “I know it’s late. Any chance of scoring something to eat around here?”
“You kidding? This the Big Easy. Lots of places serve food, no matter what hour.”
“I mean here in the hotel. This unexpected move has dogged me 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 up.”
“Ribeye, rare, and a bottle of your driest cabernet.”
“The chef makes the best gumbo in town,” Tommy said.
“Just the steak. I’m not much on seafood.”
“Better learn to like it,” Tommy said. “You might 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 here before?”
“First time. The Cavs use one of the newer hotels on Canal when they come to town. How old is this place?”
“Just short of a hundred and forty 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 hanging around every corner,” Tommy said.
“You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?”
“Me and everybody else in town. You might too after tonight.”
“You have information I need to hear?”
Tommy massaged his chin again. “I think I already said too much. I better go get your order in.”
“Not so fast,” Taj said. “You have something to tell me, so. . .”
“This hotel ain’t just haunted, it has more ghosts than St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 over on Basin Street.”
“And. . . ?”
“This room, 1413.”
“It’s really room 1313. This is the thirteenth, not the fourteenth floor. The hotel stopped using it before I came to work here.”
“How long ago was that?” Taj asked.
“Almost thirty years.”
“Wow,” Taj said. “Bet you got lots of stories concerning this hotel.”
“Or most anything else you want to know.”
“Then why am I staying here if the hotel doesn’t use it anymore?”
“We’re busy this time of year, people coming to town to see the Christmas lights and all. Guess management put you here because they couldn’t turn down a call from the Pels, and this was the only room that wasn’t booked.”
“It may be haunted, but it has to be the most beautiful suite in town,” Taj said, staring at the panoramic view through the corner window. “I can’t imagine a better view in New Orleans. Why on earth would the hotel let a few spirits of the night stop them from using it?”
“Someone was murdered here,” Tommy said.
“Whoa, man,” Taj said. “Somebody was murdered in this room? You’re making this up, right?”
Tommy wasn’t smiling as he shook his head. “A cleaning lady found a headless body in the bathtub. The murdered woman had a missing head.”
“A crime of passion?”
“Don’t know,” Tommy said. “The police didn’t solve the murder.”
“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 key to the room. “I’ll go put in your dinner order.”
The little bellman smiled and hurried away down the antique hallway after Taj had given him another twenty.
It was the weekend, the Pelicans on a road trip out west, and Taj didn’t have to report to the training facilities until Monday. He’d visited New Orleans many times during his tenure in the NBA, though he’d never ventured far away from where the Pelicans played basketball at the Smoothie King Center or his hotel room. Tomorrow, he intended to change all that.
He glanced out the window again before shutting the curtains. Mid-December, the weather had turned cold. Though not as frigid as Cleveland temperatures, 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 his cell phone entertained Taj until a white smocked waiter knocked on the door. He was pushing a small table on wheels complete with tablecloth, fine china, and silverware. After opening the bottle of wine with a ceremonial flair, he accepted his tip with a nod and departed after saying almost nothing.
“Nice,” Taj said, sipping the cabernet.
Taj had forgotten Tommy’s story of murder as he twisted the tap on the antique porcelain tub, and then tested the water with his palm. 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 so much as tasting it.
As haze 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 test the temperature, he slid over the side, sinking into the water to the top of his shaved 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, falling asleep.
Sometime later, Taj’s hand relaxed. He released his grip on the bottle, his eyes popping open when it shattered on the tile floor. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but the water was tepid. Worse, the lights had gone out, the only illumination coming from a crack in the curtains. When he got out of the tub, he stepped on broken glass, cutting his foot.
Finding a towel, he wrapped it around his bleeding foot and hobbled to the window. Unable to find a light switch in the darkness, 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 the windowpane and Taj recoiled when he touched the gooey substance. The inhuman sound of something coming up behind him sent a shiver up his spine.
Though Taj wasn’t a person easily startled, the disturbing sound of heavy feet shuffling across the floor, along with the rattle of chains made him do a double take as he wheeled around. What he saw caused him to draw a gasping breath into his lungs.
Neither man nor beast, it was a cloud of white light with flashes of reds, yellows, and blues instead. Something alive, though anything but human, reeked of death as it floated toward him, the droning noise emitting from the specter sounding like the muted whine of a revving chainsaw.
Fists clenched in a fighter’s stance, Taj took a swing at the advancing demon. When his hand passed through it, he realized he needed to run instead of fight. Sidestepping the entity, he stumbled to the door. When he reached it, he found it locked. He couldn’t open it as he glanced over his shoulder at the terrifying apparition cloaked in a pulsating cloud of noxious gases moving ever closer to him.
With renewed effort, Taj slammed his fists against the door, trying to break the doorjamb and get away from the supernatural being behind him. He fell on his face into the hallway when it opened of its own accord. Even with the bloody towel wrapped around his cut foot, he sprinted into the arms of an inebriated couple returning from a French Quarter bistro.
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. They shouted for help as they hurried away. A dozen doors opened, staring out at the man with wild eyes and bare of clothes.
Hearing the commotion, Tommy came running. When he saw Taj standing naked in the hallway, he grabbed a terrycloth 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? 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, man! What did you do to your foot?”
“Stepped on broken glass,” Taj said.
“You’re bleeding on the carpet. We need something to staunch it until I can get you downstairs to a doctor.”
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 Pelicans 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. By now, there was blood all over 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’s in your hand?”
Taj didn’t realize he was holding anything until he looked and saw it.
Recoiling, he let the object drop to his feet. “What in the hell is that thing?” he asked.
Before answering, Tommy stared with his mouth open as he nudged the gruesome item with the toe of his shoe.
“Good God almighty!” he said. “Looks like a voodoo doll that somebody just dunked in a bucket of blood. Where’d you get it?”
“I have no idea,” Taj said. “I know nothing about voodoo.”
“Then what about your tattoo?” Tommy asked.
The white terrycloth 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 have no idea. You think you know what it is?”
“Voodoo symbol,” Tommy said. “Around here they call them veves.”
“Voodoo symbol? You’re shittin’ me,” Taj said.
“I’m not,” Tommy said.
Then what the hell does it mean?” Taj asked.
Tommy wrapped the bloody doll in a towel and picked it up. “Only one that knows that is the witch doctor that marked you with it.”
Tommy wrapped the bloody doll in a towel and picked it up. “Only one that knows that is the witch doctor that marked you with it.”
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