My new book is titled Garden of Forbidden Secrets. It's Book 7 of my French Quarter Mystery Series and is set in New Orleans. I always enjoy writing about New Orleans and this book is no exception. I’m also a huge basketball fan and enjoyed creating Taj Davis, my 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 Desires I would love to hear your reactions and thoughts. The book isn’t yet available for pre-order on Amazon until December 1. Right now it's available in Nook, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords. Thanks for your support and I hope you love the book when it comes out on March 1, 2019.
Garden of Forbidden Secrets
A novel by
Though only thirty-three years old, Taj Davis was ancient 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 every year of his young 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 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 bellman, dressed in a red velvet coat, sat the suitcase on the bed and smiled as he palmed the twenty Taj had handed him.
“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.
“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. Most places in the French Quarter don’t even get started good until at least midnight.”
“I mean here in the hotel. This unexpected 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 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 everyone else in town. You might too after tonight.”
“You know something I need to know?”
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 has that been?” Taj asked.
“Almost thirty years.”
“You been here thirty years?” Taj said. “Bet you got lots of stories to tell.”
“On anything you want to know about this town.”
“Then why am I staying in this room 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 panorama 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?”
“Because 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 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 antique key to the room. “I’ll go put in your dinner order.”
The little bellman smiled and hurried away down the dimly-lit hallway after Taj had given him another twenty. It was the weekend, the Pelicans on a road trip out west. Taj had until Monday to report to the training facilities. He’d visited New Orleans many times during his tenure in the NBA, though he’d never ventured far from where the Pelicans played basketball at 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 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 the cell phone entertained Taj until a white-smocked waiter knocked on the door. The small table on wheels he pushed into the room 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.
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, and he released his grip on the bottle. His eyes popped open when it shattered on the tile floor. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but the water had grown 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 suddenly grew 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 caused him to wheel around like a frightened cat.
Not a person easily startled, Taj recoiled against the wall. 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 instead a cloud of white light with flashes of reds, yellows, and blues. 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, and 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, bare of clothes and bleeding foot.
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 that 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?”
“No earthly 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 couldn’t tell you. 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.”
Though Taj Davis wasn’t oblivious to pain, he’d grown used to it during his seventeen 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 the sandal he wore seemed mild to him.
Tommy had retrieved Taj’s bags for him from room 1313. After changing into a Cavaliers warm-up uniform, 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?”
“There’s ghost everywhere in the Big Easy but 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 and the hotel’s paying me overtime to stick around and get you settled. 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 wasn’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 special 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 serious pronouncement brought a grin to Taj’s face.
“No wheelchair or crutches for me,” he said. “Not this year, anyway. I’ll be fine.”
Taj wasn’t so sure after following Tommy to the elevator. This time, the little bellman opened the door of his new hotel room with an electronic card instead of an antique key. When they entered, there was no smell of must or age. Everything was perfect, except for the view that didn’t hold a candle to the one he’d had the previous night.
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 and handed it to him.
“Lucky for you I’m not a thief,” the little man said. “Must be a couple thousand dollars in cash in there.”
“I’m not much for credit cards,” Taj said, handing him a twenty before tossing the wallet on the bed.
“With the money you fellas earn in the NBA, it must be nice.”
“I 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 in my whole life.”
“Just dumb luck on my part,” Taj said. “Not everybody is six-nine.”
“It ain’t luck,” Tommy said. “Few big men can ball like you, You had to work at it to get as good as you are.”
Taj grabbed the wallet off the bed and handed Tommy another bill from it.
“You just earned yourself an extra twenty,” he said.
“Hey, thanks,” Tommy said. “If everything’s okay, then 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 about his old lady. He stopped the little bellman with a question before he could get out the door.
“A question before you leave,” he said.
“Ask me,” Tommy said.
“I don’t have to report to the team until Monday. Where can I go to 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 might be one of them.”
“Ain’t happening,” Taj said. “I need answers. Forgetting about what happened last night isn’t an option.”
“Your balls,” Tommy said with a grin. “Lots of voodoo shops, mostly tourist traps, in the Quarter. There’s one a few blocks from here on Dumaine. Someone there might be able to 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.
“They’s 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.”
“All right,” Taj said. “I know you’re anxious to get out of here. What’s the name of the place on Dumaine?”
“Dr. Voodoo’s Spells and Hexes,” Tommy said as he hurried out the door, not waiting for Taj’s next question.
In deference to his sore foot, 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. When a cold breeze whistled down the street, he pulled the black leather trench coat tighter around his neck as two lightly-dressed tourists brushed past him on the sidewalk.
A bell on the door, pealing the theme song of some horror movie Taj barely remembered, sounded when he entered. Welcome warmth and the odor of pungent incense accosted his nostrils as the door shut behind him. 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 may have come 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 the Third,” 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 for one thing. Most of my dolls are made in 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.
“I’m big and black but 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.”
“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?”
“My guess is you got that wound by design.”
“An accident,” Taj said. “Stepped on broken glass.”
“Somebody hexed you is what I think,” Lafourche said.
Taj glanced at Lafourche, 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. I don’t just believe it, I know it’s a fact.”
It was Taj’s turn to smile. “Even if what you say is true, who would have a reason to put a hex on me?” he asked. “I’ve only been in town since last night.”
“I heard,” Lafourche said. “The whole town’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. . .”
“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 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 in the place is no more than a tourist souvenir, I’ve learned a thing or two about voodoo along the way,” Lafourche said.
“So you’re telling me that 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 constructed it. A ceremony was performed, you can bet on it.”
“How can you possibly know that?” 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 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, the religion began changing. Vodoun, Catholicism, and pagan Carib beliefs got all mixed up at the sugar plantations and morphed into what we now know as 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. “One of the most powerful voodoo practitioners ever was a Jew.”
“You don’t practice, do you?” 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 was saying, the two sticks represent the cross. Bleached cloth is wrapped around the sticks to form the doll.”
“That it?” Taj asked when Lafourche grew silent.
“The cloth is the property of the victim of the doll. The person that 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 construct 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’s the object of 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 crescendoed and transitioned back into drumming. Lafourche glanced around the little shop as if expecting to see someone listening to their conversation.
“Let me just say that 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 gave you sixty bucks 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 can’t help you.”
“At least point me toward someone that can.”
“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?”
Realizing that Tammany Louis Lafourche the Third was unable or unwilling to answer any further questions, Taj let him sign him up for a tour of the St. Louis #1 Cemetery. 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 him.
“Yes,” Taj said. “It’s also why I’m here.”
The couple looked no older than mid-twenties, the woman’s midwestern accent tipping him off that they weren’t locals. She’d apparently expected warmer weather because of the abbreviated denim shorts she wore and the lightweight maize and blue parka zipped open enough that he could see her University of Michigan tee shirt. The stunningly gorgeous young woman had long red hair, creamy-white skin, expressive brown eyes, and stood five-foot-seven or eight.
Her slender and shorter husband/boyfriend wearing an identical parka had his head in a guidebook. When he glanced up and saw Taj, he pushed his John Lennon glasses to his forehead. Apparently, neither of the two were into sports because they didn’t seem to recognize 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.
Taj had stuffed the voodoo doll into a baggie that Tommy had given him and stashed it in his trenchcoat.
“Something like that,” he said.
Amy with the wavy auburn hair was smiling but Brian had a look of abject 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 trenchcoat.
“I’m a history buff,” Taj said. “A friend told me these cemetery tours aren’t to be missed.”
Brian’s concerned expression quickly became a smile. “Us too,” he said. “I major in American history and hope to be a professor someday. It’s my passion.”
“What about you, Amy?” Taj asked.
“Don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life yet,” 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. “The wind’s a little stiff 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 lasted only a moment and she was smiling when she turned and shook Garlen’s hand.
“I’m Amy,” she said. “Brian is the one that 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 New Orleans would be warm 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 #1.”
Garlen, like Amy and Brian, apparently had no idea who Taj was. That was all right with him as he listened to the trio’s banter as he followed them down the Basin Street sidewalk.
Though Taj knew that most of the graves in New Orleans were above ground, he wasn’t prepared for the eerie feeling of deja vu that warmed 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 spirit home of many famous citizens. Mark Twain called our cemeteries “Cities of the dead.”
“This place is amazing,” Brian said, glancing around. “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, putting his arms around her.
“Brian, I don’t like it here. I want to go.”
“But you’re being 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.
Brian shrugged his shoulders and shook his head as he cast a distressed look at Garlen.
“So sorry,” he said as he followed her out the gate.
Garlen turned to Taj as a cold rain began to fall. “Under the circumstances, I’m calling off the tour. They’ll give you a raincheck back at the shop.”
“Wait,” Taj said as Garlen walked away. “I have questions I need to be answered.”
“Next time,” Garlen said. “It doesn’t just rain in New Orleans, it pours.”
A gentle rain began dimpling the dark leather of his coat as he watched the tour guide disappear through the fence. 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 seen when they entered the cemetery. He followed him into the little building as rain began falling harder.
There were no windows, the air stale, the little room dim, 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 heavy rain.
“Who are you?” Taj asked.
The man chuckled. “The keeper of cemeteries and lost souls. At least that’s the way I feel sometimes.”
“Are you 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 that man. 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.”
“Hell, boy, there ain’t no black or white in Nawlins.”
“That girl’s from Michigan; not New Orleans.”
“Some people don’t have the foggiest idea where they’re really from,” Sam said, fluffing the pillow on the cot.
Taj let the comment pass. During his tenure in the NBA, he had developed an eye for his opponents' height, weight, and age. Sam, he guessed 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,” he said. “Grab a chair and take a load off. 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, screwed open the metal cap, slung the bottle over his shoulder and drank straight from the container.
“Nothing I like much better than MD 20-20,”
Taj took the bottle, laughing before he took a swig. It was Sam’s turn to laugh when at the face Taj made as a few drops of wine dribbled down his chin.
“Haven’t had any Mad Dog since I was a freshman in college,” Taj said, his smile returning.
“Good for what ails you,” Sam said. “Have another taste.”
Taj was smiling and shaking his head as he handed the jug of wine back to Sam.
“Thanks, anyway,” he said. “One pull was all I needed.”
“Suit yourself,” Sam said.
By now, the rain was falling in bucketloads outside the little room, humid air flooding through the partly open door.
“How’d you know my question was about voodoo?” Taj asked.
“Hell, boy, that silk shirt of yours is open to the waist and even in the dark and half covered by that big old gold chain, I can see the veve tattooed on your chest.”
Sam chuckled again when Taj asked, “You know what it means?”
“Why hell no. Only the houngan or mambo that put it there knows the answer to that.”
“That’s what I heard,” Taj said. “How do you know so much about voodoo?”
“Who say I do?” Sam said.
“Ain’t no one in 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, I’d say.”
“Cause this is your doll.”
“What do you mean by 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.
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, that is.”
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 necessarily mean someone’s trying to kill you.”
“Then what does it mean?”
“Someone’s controlling your actions.”
“A voodoo witch doctor?”
“Practitioners make their living casting spells. Someone probably hired them to do it.”
“For what reason?”
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. . .”
“Someone might be trying to send you a message.”
Before Taj could reply, 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 when 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,” he said.
“What you need is the right person to help you,” Sam said. “A knowledgeable houngan or a mambo.”
“Can you refer me to one?”
“There’s a very powerful mambo I’ve had dealings with from time to time,” Sam said. “I’m betting she can help you.”
“Her name is Mama Mulate.”