I'm about a third finished with Black Magic Woman, the fourth novel in the French Quarter Mystery Series featuring Wyatt Thomas. I've often wondered what it would be like to visit old New Orleans, during the days of French or Spanish rule, slavery, and yellow fever. Wyatt finds out in BMW when he travels back (circa 1840) to enlist the assistance of Marie Laveau, Queen of Voodoo. I hope you like this little teaser.
Black Magic Woman
a novel by
A late December chill had fallen on the French Quarter, vapor blowing from the horse’s nostrils as he pulled a carriage onto the cobblestone path leading to Esplanade Avenue. Zacharie Patenaude was no happier to be out on the blustery night than the horse, or the driver of the carriage. It didn’t matter. He had a package to deliver, and it was necessary to complete his mission before morning light appeared.
Bayou Road was the oldest thoroughfare in New Orleans. The Indian path leading from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain had been there long before the city existed. The reason Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville had chosen the area that would become the city of New Orleans. Gaston, Zacharie’s driver, slowed the carriage when he reached a house that occupied much of a large tract of land.
Though he strived to look regal in his coachman’s uniform, Gaston was too old and squat to pull off the charade. He also walked with a noticeable limp from where a horse had kicked him, shattering his leg. After hitching this horse to the cast iron railing, he helped Zacharie out of the carriage.
Unlike Gaston, Zacharie looked regal with no effort. His polished boots, silk pants, top hat, and greatcoat custom tailored in France marked him as a gentleman, and one of the city’s elite. While not classically handsome, his dark hair and brooding eyes always attracted the attention of the city’s females.
“Will you be long, Sir?” Gaston asked.
“I hope not, but please wait for me if I am.”
Zacharie entered the gate, knowing Gaston would be there when he finished his business, no matter how long it took. The residence he approached was much larger than his own, a replica of a Haitian plantation house, complete with encircling porch and slanting roof to block spring rains and summer’s heat. A woman of color answered the cypress and cut glass door after his first knock.
“Monsieur Patenaude. Dr. John awaits.
The young woman was tall, the regal turban topping her head making her seem even more so. Her indigo dress only heightened the illusion.
Zacharie followed her through the entryway, into a large, living area, burning logs crackling in the stone fireplace. He blinked, his eyes adjusting to the room’s dimness, lighted only by flaming logs, and the smoky radiance of a single coal oil lantern. Children of both sexes were playing jacks on the polished, cypress floor in front of the fireplace. There were at least five women of varying ages sitting on chairs and divans. Some were knitting. One was shelling peas. They all were talking, seemingly unmindful of his presence.
The temperature in the room was warm, but felt comfortable following his unheated carriage ride. Zacharie smiled. The first time he’d met Dr. John, the voodoo man, was at a tavern on Bourbon Street. He supposedly had many wives and more than fifty children. The women and children in the living room did little to contradict what most citizens probably thought was obvious rumor.
The city was home to many free blacks. Not long after slaves started arriving in the colony, French and Spanish landowners began taking black mistresses. Aristocratic families often treated children born from these liaisons as family, and invented terms to describe the amount of white blood they possessed.
The attractive woman leading him to Dr. John’s office was, he decided, a quadroon—a person that was one-quarter black. French law did not allow such racially diverse women to marry white men. The law did not stop many rich white men from having mistresses of mixed blood, housing, supporting, and usually bearing children with them. Zacharie had his own lover he’d met at a quadroon ball. His French wife hated the state of affairs, though soon learned there was little she could do about it.
He wondered if the woman he followed was one of Dr. John’s wives. He had no time to ask her as she led him to a door that was like no other he had ever seen. Voodoo symbols decorated its thick glass, and a blue, ephemeral glow emanated from within. It looked almost alive. Maybe it was, he thought.
“You may go in, Monsieur,” the woman said, smiling and gazing into his eyes as she opened the door to Dr. John’s office for him.
Zacharie entered the room lighted even more dimly than the living room he’d just walked through. The man sitting on the floor smiled at him when he entered.
“You like Elise. I can tell,” the man said.
“She is very beautiful,” Zacharie said. “Your wife?”
“My daughter,” he said.
The man sitting on the hardwood floor was Dr. John, New Orleans’ most powerful hoodoo priest. He claimed to be a Senegalese Prince. The ceremonial scars on his forehead, neck and shoulders, seemed to suggest he was telling the truth. Set free by his master, he had migrated to New Orleans, working on the docks as a longshoreman.
Dr. John’s skills of divination soon became widely noticed. He also had other skills, and the rich and gentrified citizens of New Orleans began paying serious money for his services. The large house he, his wives and children now occupied was testament to his abilities.
The room was like a hoodoo museum, animal and human skulls occupying shelf space on the walls. Bottles of unlabeled herbs and pickled scorpions populated the shelves and tables. A live scorpion was crawling up the wall. Dr. John didn’t seem to notice.
Several black candles burned on the voodoo altar dominating the far wall. A giant boa constrictor lay coiled around his master’s neck. Zacharie took a deep breath to try and slow his racing heart.
“Don’t be afraid. This is my baby.”
“I’ve never seen a snake quite so big,” Zacharie said.
The voodoo man was grinning. “She won’t eat you. You brought something for Dr. John?”
Zacharie handed him a small package wrapped in a cloth of silk. Dr. John smiled as he began unwrapping it.
“Is it what you need?” Zacharie asked.
“I asked for hair and nail clippings,” he said, fingering a clump of dark hair, and another object.
He grinned when Zacharie said, “I brought you the whole finger.”
“You have something else for me?” Dr. John asked, holding out his hand.
Zacharie removed a leather pouch from his greatcoat, handing it to the hoodoo man. When Dr. John loosened the leather strap and dumped the contents on the floor, coins flashed in the light of the ceremonial flame.
“Twenty gold coins,” he said.
Dr. John smiled but didn’t reply. Taking the hair and the severed finger, he attached them to a straw doll with a piece of twine. Adding aromatic wood to the pyre at the altar, he placed the gory objects in a cup carved from obsidian. After pouring a secret concoction over the finger and hair, he voiced a magical incantation and lighted it with sparks surging from the tips of his fingers. An explosive flame, and then a mushroom cloud quickly rose toward the ceiling.
“My job is done,” Dr. John said as the two men watched the fire blaze brightly, and then grow dim.
“How do I know I can trust you?” Zacharie asked.
Dr. John picked up the handful of gold coins from the floor and extended his hand toward him.
“Take your coins if you do not believe. Just realize that you are taking them from Damballa and not Dr. John.”
Zacharie smiled. “Keep them. I trust you.”
Elise appeared at the door, ushering Zacharie back down the hallway, through the living area, and to the door from which he had entered. Gaston was where he had left him. Reentering the carriage, he waited until the coachman had unhitched the horse and turned back towards Esplanade Avenue. As he glanced at the sky, he saw the blush of flames topping the French Quarter.
Feeling a surge of satisfaction, Zacharie smiled. Something was on fire, and burning out of control. He didn’t have to ask to know what it was.