Sunday, January 21, 2018

Courtyard of Forbidden Secrets - French Quarter Mystery # 7, Chapter 1


Here is Chapter 1 of the new French Quarter Mystery (#7) I'm working on for publication later this year. It's about an NBA player that gets traded to the team in New Orleans. He soon learns there's a reason he's now in the Big Easy, and it's not because of basketball. Hope you love it.

Courtyard of Forbidden Secrets
A novel by
Eric Wilder

Chapter 1

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.”
“Go on.”
“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.”


###



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 & Noble, and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.