In River Road, Wyatt attends an eclectic wake, even by New Orleans' standards, at the behest of a new client. The secretive little man gives Wyatt a single clue and a bag of cash. The man is murdered as Wyatt watches. Before the night ends, he must go on the run to save his own life and to comply with his client's last wish.
River Road takes the reader to places a tourist in New Orleans will likely never see. The story is based on historical accounts of an actual murder that remains unsolved. Much of the book is a fictional recounting of what actually happened in New Orleans shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Though I don't profess to have all the answers to the many questions about that particular time in the history of New Orleans, I did draw a conclusion about who actually killed the president. In a later chapter in the book, one of the characters on her deathbed explains who killed JFK and why they did it.
I hope this short excerpt compels you to read River Road. If you do, I hope you love it and all the books in my French Quarter Mystery Series. Some of the mental images in the book may haunt you for awhile. The monkey lab actually existed and the thought of the empty cages remains indelibly fixed in my own memory. The story isn't all dour. There's also lots of mystery, adventure, and fun. Just don't forget to wear your gris gris.
It was one of those days, rain falling in a gentle mist as I glanced down Canal Street. When thunder shook the windowpanes, I stopped gawking and hurried up the sidewalk.
Late afternoon streets were empty as I reached the Saenger Theater. The old auditorium had occupied the corner of Canal and N. Rampart for as long as I could remember. My parents liked their liquor. They could buy cocktails at the balcony bar and get drunk as they watched the latest Hollywood flick. They loved the Saenger.
Flooded and damaged during Katrina, the theater had recently undergone renovation. With work finally completed, the facility is a destination for music and touring acts. The marvelous new sign over the front entrance greeted me, flashing crimson neon as I entered the lobby.
I wasn’t the only one that had braved summer rain, dozens of other people filing into the main amphitheater with me. Music from an old pipe organ flooded the auditorium as I entered the ongoing festivities. The occasion was a wake, the atmosphere anything but somber. As I gazed at the crowd, I spotted someone I knew.
Rafael Romanov smiled and worked his way toward me. The tall man with thinning hair seemed as dark and mysterious as his hooked nose and Eastern European face. He’d grown a tiny goatee on his pointed chin since the last time I’d seen him.
“Wyatt,” he said, grasping my hand. “You’re looking dapper.”
“Don’t hold a candle to you, Rafael,” I said.
He brushed an imaginary flake off his cashmere sports coat. His expensive jacket complimented the military crease of his dark pants and the gleam of his spit-polished shoes. His light blue silk shirt splayed open enough to draw attention to a hairy chest and the heavy gold chain around his neck.
“I didn’t know you knew Jeribeth,” he said.
Jeribeth Briggs was a recently deceased New Orleans socialite. Unlike most wakes, Jeribeth wasn’t in a coffin. Her corpse, dressed to the nines in a red designer dress and audacious hat, sat on a wrought-iron bench. Her signature feather boa draped her shoulders. As in life, she had a cigarette with a long filter in one hand, a glass of Jack Daniels in the other. Garlands of flowers and lush potted shrubs surrounded her almost as if she were enjoying cocktails in her garden.
“Didn’t know her,” I said.
“I have reasons for being here.”
“A new client. He requested I meet him at the wake.”
“Strange place to meet a client,” he said.
“His call, not mine. Did you know her?”
“You mean Jeribeth? Saw her many times at Madeline’s when I was a child. Like you, someone is paying me to be here.”
“My usual gig. Comforting family and friends of the bereaved. From the quantity of alcohol everyone is consuming, I’d say my services will go unneeded.”
Rafael was a defrocked priest; defrocked because his mother Madeline is a witch. As the saying goes, once a priest always a priest. Since leaving the church, he’d served as a rent a priest aboard a cruise ship sailing out of New Orleans. Like most of the other guests crowding the auditorium, he had a drink in hand and a smile on his face.
The Saenger Theater auditorium is large, its walls decorated to mimic an Italian villa. Priceless chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The crowd included actors, politicians, musicians, and many of the city's richest people. Human chatter didn't begin to overwhelm the background music. The acoustics were so acute you could hear every musical instrument while eavesdropping on your neighbor's conversation.
“Now this is the way to have a wake,” Rafael said.
“Wildest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s the Big Easy, Cowboy, not the real world.”
His smile disappeared when I said, “Not sad like Kimmi’s wake.”
My ex-wife Kimmi had married Rafael. When she died, we’d met at her wake and had maintained a friendship ever since.
“Mind if I change the subject?” he said, sipping his whiskey. “See the attractive woman by the punch bowl?”
“Gorgeous. How do I know her?”
“Lucy Diamond. A reporter for Fox. National, not local.”
“Bet she gets lots of jokes about her name.”
“From her frown, I don’t think I’d ask,” he said. “Want to meet her?”
“You know her?”
“We met on one of my cruises, and we've kept in touch.”
Rafael waved, catching the reporter’s gaze. Smiling, she made her way through the noisy throng.
“Rafael,” she said, on her tiptoes to plant a sensuous kiss on his lips.
“Lucy, this is my friend Wyatt Thomas.”
She nodded, acknowledging my presence with only a frown.
“Got to rush, Rafe. Can we do lunch while I’m in town?”
“Love it, beautiful lady,” he said.
“I’ll call you,” she said, kissing him before disappearing back into the crowd.
“Rafe?” I said.
Rafael grinned. “What can I say? She has a thing for tall, dark, and mysterious men.”
“I’m jealous. What’s she doing in New Orleans?”
“Working on a sensational story; something to do with Jeribeth and Dr. Mary Taggert.”
“The old lady had a few skeletons in her closet. She was best friends with Dr. Taggert.”
“How do I know that name?”
“A prominent surgeon murdered fifty years ago. The case was never solved.”
“I wasn’t alive, but remember hearing about it. Doing cancer research, wasn’t she?”
“Along with Dr. Louis Hollingsworth, the founder of the Hollingsworth Clinic. Someone wrote a book saying the C.I.A. had a hand in the murder,” he said.
“What interest did they have in her?”
“Not sure, my friend. Something to do with the Kennedy assassination.”
I must have rolled my eyes because Raphael held up a palm, smiled and shook his head.
“It's hard to separate fact from fiction because there are so many conspiracy theories floating around out there,” I said.
“Don’t know about that. What I do know is Madeline used to hold séances at our house when I was young. Jeribeth and Doctor Mary often attended.”
“What’s your mother told you about it?”
“Madeline never discusses her clients, even with me. If you want to know something about Dr. Mary, Lucy is the person to ask.”
As with Rafael, the Catholic Church had also expelled Madeline. Her heresy was being a witch. She has a shop in the Quarter called Madeline’s Magic Potions. By all accounts, she is a witch. When Rafael grabbed another drink from a passing waiter, I glanced at the punchbowl.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Has Ms. Diamond told you anything?” I asked.
“Not much, even though we had drinks last night at the Carousel Bar.”
“I wish. Lucy’s there every night, usually drinking alone.”
“Not even with her crew?”
“Hardly. They’re staying at the Sheraton.”
“Lucy’s a bitch!”
“I see,” I said.
“Razor tongued, and she uses her words like blunt instruments. Her producers have an impossible task enticing celebs and politicians. She has rough edges, but her viewers love it when she unloads on her guests.”
“So she’s . . .”
“Bitch personified,” he said, finishing my question.
Jazz music had grown louder. I glanced at the punchbowl again, realizing I was the only one without a drink.
“Excuse me a moment?” I said. “I need to visit the punchbowl.”
“I’ll be here when you return.”
“I think you’re right about having no consoling to do.”
He nodded, hoisting his whiskey glass in a salute. “I ain’t complaining, boss.”
The crowd had grown. As I inched toward the punch bowl, a young woman in front of me caught a heel and almost fell. When I grabbed her shoulders, she nodded before moving away into the throng.
From the spread on the table, some lucky caterer had earned a fat payday for this gig. They weren’t the only ones. Local florists had also made out like bandits. I noticed as I sidestepped a potted peace lily.
Smelling the gumbo, I remembered I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Piles of shrimp and crawfish rested on sheets of yesterday’s Picayune. In deference to my white jacket, I decided to pass on the food.
No one had touched the grape punch. Likely because it wasn’t yet spiked with alcohol. Since I have a low tolerance for anything alcoholic, I took a sip first to make sure. When I turned, I bumped the person standing behind me. Grape punch splattered the woman’s silk blouse, the growing stain spreading across her chest like a bloody wound. It was the Fox reporter Lucy Diamond.
“You idiot!” she said.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Back off, you moron. Do you have any idea how much this blouse cost me?”
“Is there anything I can do?” I said as she pushed away through the crowd.
“Yeah, drop dead!” she said, showing me her middle finger.
People were staring at me as if I were a serial killer. I slunk away in shame to a corner of the amphitheater vacant of guests. When I backed against a potted tree, someone tapped my shoulder.
“Don’t turn around,” a man’s voice said. “I told you to come alone.”
“I did. I bumped into a friend.”
“Nothing we can do about it now.”
“You’re the person that asked me to meet them here?”
“Yes,” he said. “I got a job for you.”
“What exactly are you hiring me to do?”
“You’ve heard of Mary Taggert?” When I nodded, he said, “My mother. Everybody in New Orleans knows someone murdered her. I want you to find the killer, and then make sure everyone in town knows his name.”
“The case is fifty years old. It’s not just cold; it’s frozen solid.”
He placed an envelope in my hand. “You’re my last hope. There’s information in the envelope and a large retainer. Can I trust you?”
“Hope so. Not much I can do about it now.”
The man turned me until I faced the potted palms, my mind blocking sounds of the noisy wake.
“At least tell me something to get me started,” I said.
“Check the envelope and you’ll know everything I know. Now, give me five minutes before turning around.”
“Wait . . .”
“Don’t turn. Trust me; it’s for your own good.”
I wheeled around the moment I heard his feet begin to shuffle. He was too busy elbowing his way through the crowd to notice. I followed the balding little man in white socks and an old checkered sports coat. It was dark outside as he hurried through the doorway. He broke into a run when he reached the sidewalk. It didn't take me long to realize why.
A black sedan waited on the street outside the Saenger. It pulled away from the curb when he exited the front doors. Seeing the vehicle, he dodged traffic and sprinted across Canal Street. The sedan did a sliding u-turn, barely avoiding a streetcar returning from the cemeteries. When it screeched to a halt two Hispanic looking men exited, chasing my client up the sidewalk.
Both men wore black sports coats and khaki pants. One of them tackled my new customer, sending him sliding across the concrete. The second pursuer tapped the back of his neck with a club. I raced across the street, dodging traffic as they dragged him into the awaiting car.
“Hey, stop right there!” I yelled as they shoved him into the backseat.
One of the men had a pistol, people on the sidewalk ducking as he pulled the trigger. Two muffled pops were the only thing I heard, and it was the last thing I remembered for a while.
I awoke in a strange bed, two people dressed in medical scrubs staring down at me. If that wasn’t enough to send my alarms blaring, a mule inside my head was trying to kick its way out. It was then I noticed the numbness in my left arm. The IV hanging above me was dripping fluid into my veins.
“How you doing?” the young man asked.
“Where am I?”
“Hospital. Gunshot wound to your left shoulder. Luckily, the bullet didn’t strike bone. How’s your head?”
“About to explode.”
“You banged it on the sidewalk when you fell. Mild concussion. You’ll feel better in a few days. I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow.”
Though the doctor’s blond hair was thin, he didn't look old enough to shave. He had yet to smile. The nurse watched, flashing a silver-toothed grin as he disappeared into the darkened hallway.
“I’m Claytee,” she said. “He’s such a baby. It makes me feel like spanking him sometimes.” When I glanced at the bandage on my shoulder, she said, “Don’t worry. It’s the Big Easy, and you’re not his first gunshot victim. You making it okay, hon?”
I massaged my temple with my free hand. “I can’t feel my arm and there’s an angry mule inside my head.”
She grinned, her silver tooth catching the dim light cast by the medical instruments. “Time for a dose of cloud nine. You’ll feel better in a minute.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Don’t matter none. You alive, nothing broken or missing. Lots of my patients can’t say that.”
After injecting me, she turned off the lights and left me alone in the hospital room.
The only words I’d understood were “gunshot victim.”
I needed to use the facilities and wheeled the IV cart with me. Before the bathroom door shut, a ruckus in the hall disturbed me. The commotion continued as I exited the bathroom. Cracking the door, I peeked down the darkened hallway.
Something I’d heard piqued my curiosity. Familiar voices resonated down the hall. The same two men who were responsible for the bullet hole in my shoulder. They were asking the night nurse directions to my room. Shutting the door, I hurried to the bed.
I plumped pillows under the covers to resemble a sleeping man. The needle didn’t even hurt when I jerked it out of my arm, sticking it into the mattress. My clothes were hanging in a bathroom recess. Scooping them up, I rushed into the hallway, and then to a tiny break area across from my room.
The smell of burned coffee hit me as I hid in the supply closet. Men entered my room, two muffled pops shaking my already fragile consciousness. I backed against the wall behind a rubber apron, my heart racing as I held my breath.
Shuffling feet entered the break room. Someone opened the door to the supply closet, peering in. It was then the alarm on my abandoned instruments began to blare. The door shut as night nurses and emergency doctors descended on my room. I pulled on my clothes, glanced down the empty hallway and hurried to the elevator.
Nurse Claytee’s cloud nine had rendered me numb. I noticed as I floated down the hall, my sense of well-being worrying me. Though feeling no pain, I realized the seriousness of two men trying to kill me. Emerging from the hospital, I almost expected to take a bullet in the back. It didn’t seem to matter.
Outside, the sky was dark. I recognized the well-lighted area as the New Orleans hospital district. A cabbie waiting in front opened the back door when he saw me looking.
“Where to, bub?” he asked
“Bertram’s bar on Chartres,” I said, ducking as I saw the two men exit the hospital.
They didn’t see me.
The French Quarter wasn’t far. As I exited the cab, music from a brass band wafted up from the direction of Bourbon Street. It was summer in the Quarter and business slow at Bertram’s. The Cajun bartender wasn’t happy, and his dark eyes showed it. He didn’t bother removing his trapper’s hat as he mopped his brow with a red-checkered handkerchief.
During the day, large windows flooded the open room with ambient light. It leaped off polished wood floors and an ornate bar that had to be two-hundred years old. Tonight, only flashing neon reflected through the windows. Panties, bras, and other undergarments hung from the ceiling over the bar. They were a testament to the consumption of gallons of alcohol resulting in lost inhibitions. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, they say. Unlike Vegas, visitors celebrate what happens to them in the Big Easy.
Bertram had no permanent help, preferring to do everything himself. It didn’t seem to matter because the bar rarely closed. Sometimes, there were so many customers that beer flowed like water. I realized he must have been making a fortune. You’d never know it from looking at him. He still drove the same old truck, and he’d never spent a dime remodeling the bar.
“Tourists like it like this,” he always said.
Yes, they did and so did I.
“Where the hell you been?” he asked when I came through the door. “The N.O.P.D. was here earlier and tore up your room looking for something.”
“Did they have a search warrant?”
“Didn’t ask,” he said.
Sensing something was amiss he locked the front door and flipped his closed sign.
“You let them in my room without a search warrant?” I asked.
“Hell, Cowboy, since when does the N.O.P.D. need a search warrant?”
I didn’t bother answering his question. “What were they looking for?”
“Don’t know, but your room’s a mess. What the hell’s going on?”
“Too much to explain and not enough time. No sense in calling the police now.”
“What happened to your arm and why are you slurring your words?”
“Someone’s trying to kill me. Can you take care of my cat for a few days?”
“You ain’t told me what happened to you, yet.”
Before I could answer, someone began banging on the door. Bertram nodded for me to get out of sight. A door behind the liquor cabinet led to the suite of rooms where he lived. I called to him before I slipped through it.
“Bertram, alert Tony. Tell him I’ll meet him at Culotta’s tomorrow, about noon. Ask him to dig up anything he can on the Mary Taggert murder. And Bertram, tell him to come alone.”
He nodded as he hurried across the empty bar to check on the disturbance at the front door. Slipping into his apartment, I looked to see if it was my two new companions. It was.
A back door to Bertram’s apartment led to the tiny garage where he kept his old beater. Another door exited into an alleyway. I stepped into the darkness, disturbing a stray cat pawing through the trash. If I weren’t already paranoid, I was now. Someone was trying to kill me, and the New Orleans cops were somehow involved. I needed answers and headed to the only place I knew where I might get some.
I had no idea what time it was as I hurried to the Carousel Bar, hoping it was still open. Lucy Diamond, according to Rafael Romanov, might be there. I wanted to see her.
The rain had ended, moving east to Mississippi. Water, glistening from reflected streetlight, flooded the streets. A few late-night party people were still prowling the Quarter. I hurried past them as I entered the majestic Monteleone. I didn’t have time to admire the chandeliers, ducking into the Carousel Bar instead.
The intimate setting featured a circular bar that rotated like a circus carousel. It had a top, shaped like a crown, and decorated with carved Mardi Gras faces. A single person, the reporter Lucy Diamond, sat alone at the bar. Her eyes widened when I joined her.
“You! Are you stalking me?”
“I assure you I’m not, but I do need to talk to you.”
“You ruined my new silk blouse, you asshole.”
“We met before that. I’m Rafael Romanov’s friend. Remember?”
As she glared at me, it was my first real look at her. She was a knockout with striking green eyes and ash blond hair. Her pouty lips required no lipstick, nor did her Nordic complexion need any makeup. She sounded tipsy, and the punch stain formed a rose bloom on her silk blouse.
“Fred, would you please call security and have this man removed?”
During my drinking years, I’d spent many hours rotating at the Carousel. I didn’t recognize Fred, the bartender, but put up a hand as he reached for the phone.
“Please, wait. What I have to say to Ms. Diamond is important.”
“He’s a stalker. I’ve dealt with your kind before.”
“I’m not a stalker. Won’t you at least give me a minute to explain why I’m here?”
Lucy nodded to Fred, giving him permission to replace the phone. With arms clasped to her chest, she gave me a quick look.
“Okay, buster, this better be good.”
“Doctor Mary Taggert,” I said.
“What about her?”
“I’m a private investigator. A new client who said he was Mary Taggert’s son hired me earlier tonight.”
“Impossible. Mary Taggert had no son. She was a confirmed lesbian.”
“Sure about that?”
Lucy Diamond didn’t answer, sipping her martini instead. “Your jacket.” she finally said. “What happened to you?”
My bandage had failed, blood oozing from the bullet hole in my linen sports coat.
“My client. Someone kidnapped him in front of the Saenger. They shot me when I tried to stop them.”
“You kidding me?”
“I met him for the first time at the wake. He hired me to find his mother's murderer, and make sure everyone knew their name.”
By now, I had Lucy Diamond’s complete attention.
“What’s all this got to do with kidnapping and getting shot at?” she asked.
“He gave me a package. Told me not to turn around until he was gone. I ignored his instructions, tailing him out to Canal.”
“Men in a black sedan were waiting outside for him. He tried to run away. They chased him down and threw him into the backseat of the car. They shot me. When I fell, I hit my head on the sidewalk, unconscious until I came to in a hospital.”
“You expect me to believe that crazy story?”
“I didn’t make up this bullet hole in my shoulder.”
“Then why aren’t you still in the hospital?”
“Because the two goons that shot me returned to finish the job. I managed to escape and came to the Carousel because Rafael told me I could find you here.”
“Why didn’t you call the police?”
“Because they’re somehow in on it. They trashed my apartment looking for something.”
“This tale is growing a little too tall,” she said, glancing at a bottle of gin on a rack above the bar.
Fred was polishing a glass as he listened to our conversation.
“Want me to make that call?” he asked.
“Wait,” I said. “I have something important to show you.”
“This,” I said, dropping an object into her hand.
“A Mardi Gras doubloon?”
“1948 Krewe of Rex. a rarity, I’d guess
“Oh my!” she said. “This is so heavy it must be . . .”
She fingered the Carnival coin, holding it up to the light for a better view.
“There’s a strange symbol on the back. What does it mean?”
“No idea,” I said. “It was the only thing my client gave me, except for twenty thousand dollars.”
“You have to be making this up,” she said. “What the hell am I supposed to make of an old Mardi Gras doubloon?”
“My client seemed to think it was all I needed to solve the case.”
“What did you say his name was?”
“He didn’t tell me.”
When I grabbed my head, the bartender reacted by handing me two aspirins and a glass of water.
“You don’t look too good,” he said. “Want me to call an ambulance?”
“A sinking spell. I’m okay now.”
“Finish your story,” Lucy said.
“That’s about it. Two goons in black sports coats are trying to kill me. I can’t go to the police, and my head’s about to split.”
“Charge my room, Fred,” Lucy said. “Buy this pest anything he wants. I’m out of here.”
“Thanks for the aspirins, Fred,” I said, following her out the door.
I caught up with her at the elevator.
“Your story reeks, but Fred seemed a little too interested. Everything I have on the Taggert murder is in my room. We can have a little privacy there. I’m too drunk to worry about whether you’re going to rape and kill me.”
Her remark made me grin. “I’ve never raped or killed anyone. My shoulder is killing me. Right now, I'd have trouble arm wrestling a bunny rabbit.”
She stopped in her tracks and stared at me.
“That’s the first thing you’ve said all night I believe.”
“That’s the first thing you’ve said all night I believe.”
Born near Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption, and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma where he continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans and the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Please check it out on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.