Wednesday, September 26, 2018

River Road - an excerpt

New Orleans is perhaps the only place on earth where a deceased person can attend his or her own wake as the guest of honor. In River Road, sleuth Wyatt Thomas attends one such wake at the Saenger Theater on Canal Street. My first memory of the theater was when I was ten. My brother and I were visiting our Aunt Carmol for a week or so. She dropped Jack and me off there to see David Niven in Around the World in 80 Days. The theater, newly renovated after Hurricane Katrina, is a showplace destination and I remember comparing it in my mind to the tiny Wakea Theater in the little town of Vivian, Louisiana where I grew up. To my ten-year-old brain, the Saenger was like a palace.
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 SeriesSome 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.

Chapter 1

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.
“Just gawking?”
“I have reasons for being here.”
“Such as?”
“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.”
“Oh?”
“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.”
“Oh?”
“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.”
“Sweet.”
“I wish. Lucy’s there every night, usually drinking alone.”
“Not even with her crew?”
“Hardly. They’re staying at the Sheraton.”
“Because?”
“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?”
“Yes.”
“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.

Chapter 2

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.”
“And?”
“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.”
“Like what?”
“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 . . .”
“Solid gold.”
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.”

###



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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Primal Creatures - an excerpt


Do you believe in werewolves? In south Louisiana, Cajuns do and call them rougarou. In Primal Creatures, a movie producer hires French Quarter sleuth Wyatt Thomas to investigate a gruesome death at an island resort south of New Orleans. There's a fishing village on the island populated mostly by the descendants of slaves that had escaped into the swamp. An old voodoo woman from the village tells Wyatt, "There are creatures on this island that only walk at night." To make matters worse, a hurricane is approaching the island, southern Louisiana and New Orleans.
Wyatt's friend and associate ex-N.O.P.D. homicide detective Tony Nicosia is helping him with the case and Tony tracks a discredited researcher to his rundown Garden District mansion in New Orleans. The city is buttoned up and evacuated in preparation for the approaching hurricane. Dr. Kelton Frenette and his wife Latrice can't leave because they've had something frozen in their basement freezer for forty years. Don't believe in werewolves? Read this excerpt from French Quarter Mystery No. 3 and you might just change your mind. Hope you love it.
P.S. If you need to go down to your basement after reading this at least wait until daylight and even then you might want to take someone with you.

Primal Creatures Excerpt

Tony awoke the next morning feeling better than he had in weeks. The rain had momentarily abated to just a sprinkle falling from a dark and cloudy sky. Just a brief respite, he knew. His neighbor was boarding his windows as he went out to the car. The man shouted across the driveway.
“You hear about the hurricane?”
“I heard. I got something to do first. I’ll be back to board up the windows a little later.”
“Need some help, just let me know.”
“Thanks, Joe,” he said as he cranked the engine on his Sebring.
Though still early, traffic was heavy, people scurrying around, preparing for the approaching hurricane. The storm was in the back of Tony’s mind as he splashed through puddles of water on his way down St. Charles Avenue.
Kelton Frenette still lived in the Garden District. Tony had his address and was on his way there. He hadn’t called first because sometimes the best tactic was to just show up at someone’s doorstep. Give them no time to concoct a story, if that’s what they were inclined to do.
Steady rain poured down his windshield as Tony parked on the street in front of Frenette’s home. He knew a person’s house spoke volumes about the people living in them. As he gazed at the old two-story mansion, he’d already formed an opinion of the man before ever seeing him.
The Garden District is known for its eclectic architecture. Frenette’s house might have been Greek Revival, Victorian, or plantation style. Tony didn’t care. What he saw was a house desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint, trees that had gone untrimmed for years if not decades, broken boards on the porch, and cracked panes of glass in the windows.
The iron gate was unlatched, swung open toward the front door of the house as if there was no one inside that cared if anyone came or went. Pulling his collar up around his neck, he closed and latched the gate behind him.
The doorbell didn’t work. After knocking several times, he began wondering if the house was deserted. Before he turned to leave, someone opened the door a crack.
“Help you?”
The large, black woman peeking through the door sounded pleasant enough.
“Is Dr. Frenette in?”
“He’s in, but he doesn’t see anybody these days. What is it you needed?”
“Dr. Frenette did some research years ago. I’d like to talk to him about it.”
“As I said, he doesn’t get around much anymore.”
A booming voice sounded behind the woman. “Who is it, Latrice?”
“Some person that wants to talk to you about your research.”
“Well let him in.”
The woman named Latrice opened the door for Tony, and he entered the spacious alcove lined with large pots where ornamental plants probably once grew. Sitting in an antique, wooden wheelchair was the man with the booming voice.
“I’m Kelton Frenette,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“I’m Tony Nicosia. You did research on a rabies-like virus. I’d like to talk to you about it.”
“Are you a reporter?”
“No sir, I’m not. Just a guy with some questions I hope you have answers for.”
“Then come with me,” he said as he wheeled into a cavernous room that was clearly the main living area.
Like the paint on the outside of the house, the off-pink walls had the look and feel of faded antiquity. The couch, settee, and chairs were antiques. Probably valuable. Everything was spotless, no dust anywhere in the room. Only the shiny patina of age and continuous use tarnished the furniture.
“Take a seat, please,” Latrice said. “Can I get you something to drink? Tea or lemonade?”
“Forget the tea and lemonade, Latrice. Bring Mr. Nicosia a brandy, and one for me too, please.”
Latrice didn’t argue, soon returning with three snifters filled with expensive brandy.
“I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” she said.
“Is Latrice your help?” Tony asked when she was gone.
“Latrice is my wife,” he said.
“I apologize.”
“Don’t worry about it. A more tolerant age is what Latrice and I needed.”
“You haven’t been out much lately. Things are better now. Whatever, I can see you made a wise choice.”
Frenette smiled for the first time. Like his voice, he was a portly man, probably pushing three hundred pounds. His khaki pants and canvas shirt were pressed and clean but as timeworn as the paint on the wall.
“There was a time when mixed marriages were frowned upon by people in the Garden District,” he said.
“Then you should have moved to the Quarter. They always been a little more tolerant across Canal Street.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Frenette said in an affected southern accent.
“This is wonderful brandy,” Tony said.
“Pierre Ferrand, 1972. I only serve it to my favorite guests. Since you are the only guest we’ve had in a while, you got lucky. If you like brandy, that is.”
“Love it, though it sounds like I probably can’t afford the finest stuff.”
“None of us can, Mr. Nicosia, but then again none of us can afford not to.”
“I like your philosophy.”
“Now tell me what you need to know about my research.”
Frenette nodded when Tony asked, “You know what a rougarou is?”
“I do.”
You think they exist?”
Frenette nodded again. “If you’re a journalist, it’s too late to discredit me. That was done years ago.”
“Tell me about it, please,” Tony said.
“When I published my findings in a small medical journal, my colleagues called me mad. My research funds dried up, and I was widely shunned.”
“I’m not a journalist, Dr. Frenette, I’m a detective investigating two recent deaths that are baffling, to say the least.”
“And you think a rougarou is responsible?”
Tony dropped the claw into Frenette’s hand. “You seen anything like this before?”
“Where did you get it?”
“From the horribly mutilated body of a person possibly killed by one of those creatures we aren’t supposed to know exists.”
Frenette fingered the claw, then tilted his oversized head, rubbing his chin with thick fingers.
“Interesting,” he said. “Latrice, we need more brandy.”
Latrice must have been within hearing distance because she quickly appeared with the bottle.
“Thanks, ma’am,” Tony said as she replenished his snifter.
“We’re going into the basement,” he said.
“You sure, Honey?” Latrice said.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
Latrice pushed him to a hallway near the center of the large house. With some difficulty, she lifted the heavy, metal bar across the door. Using a ring of keys hanging on the wall, she unlocked three padlocks.
Opening the door of an oversized dumbwaiter, she wheeled Frenette in and pushed a button. An old electric motor made grating sounds as the cab of the dumbwaiter began descending into the basement.
Latrice pointed Tony to a door leading to the cellar, removing the metal bar and unlocking three more padlocks as she had on the dumbwaiter door. When he entered, she switched on a bare, overhead bulb that dimly illuminated the musty stairs.
The stairway was steep, Tony thankful for his recently repaired knees. Another dim light greeted him when he reached the concrete floor of the basement. Dr. Frenette waited in a large room that felt twenty degrees colder than at the top of the stairs.
“I haven’t been here in ten years,” he said. “I know this place looks like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. I assure you, my endeavors weren’t so manic.”
The room was filled with beakers, test tubes, and medical paraphernalia, everything coated with dust. There was also a dissection table that reminded Tony of the autopsy room he’d recently visited. The large, open cellar reeked of must, and maybe something else. The subtle, but distinctive odor of death, like he’d smelled in the autopsy office, permeated everything.
“You haven’t come here in ten years?” Tony asked.
“That’s right.”
“Because?”
“There’s something here that haunts me to my very core. Are you a religious man, Mr. Nicosia?”
“I go to church on Easter and Christmas. My priest doesn’t remember my name because I haven’t taken confession in years.”
Frenette grinned for the first time since they’d been in the basement. Tony still had the empty snifter in his hand. Frenette motioned him over and refilled it.
“Sometimes brandy is more comforting than a priest,” he said. “Since there’s no priest to comfort us, let's have another drink.”
“Amen to that. What’s going on down here?”
“I want to show you something. Do you have a strong stomach, Mr. Nicosia?”
Frenette grinned when Tony said, “I’ve lost my cookies a time or two. What you got, Doc?”
Dr. Frenette pointed to a large, horizontal freezer against the wall. Like the dumbwaiter and the cellar door, it was secured by several locks.
“It’s in there,” he said. “You might want to take a deep breath before you open it.”


Chapter 26

 Frenette tossed Tony a set of keys, and he quickly slipped the padlocks. The lid had long since frozen to the top of the freezer, and he had to give it an extra hard pull. When he did, it popped open with a whoosh, stale, refrigerated air blasting his face. After glancing a moment at the contents of the refrigerator, he took a step backward.
“Jesus! What the hell is it?”
“Your rougarou, Mr. Nicosia.”
Tony stared at the frozen body of something that wasn’t quite a man. Dark eyes glinting red in the overhead lighting stared back at him. Tufts of thick, brown hair splotched the creature’s face and neck. Long fangs protruded from the half-opened mouth. Black claws, like the one he had in his pocket, extended from his hairy fingers. White frost encased the frozen body.
“Is it. . . ?”
“Dead? It’s been frozen for more than forty years, though I fear it’s still very much alive.”
“It’s enormous. How did you get it in there?”
“I had help.”
“Where did it come from?”
“Close the lid, lock it tight, and then I’ll tell you the story. After we go back upstairs.”
Tony closed and relocked the freezer, then wheeled Dr. Frenette to the dumbwaiter. After situating him inside it and pushing the button, he switched off the lights and hurried up the steep stairway toward the dim light shining at the top. Latrice was waiting for them.
She quickly padlocked the doors and returned the metal bars to their catches before giving her husband a hug that dragged on for several anxious moments.
“It’s okay, Baby. It’s still frozen.”
The rain, buffeted by the wind that hadn’t been present when Tony arrived, had intensified as they returned to the pink living room. Latrice quickly handed him and Dr. Frenette a new snifter of brandy, and then covered her husband’s legs with a tattered blanket. After placing the fancy bottle of brandy on the coffee table in front of Tony, she joined him on the couch.
“Hon, I was so worried.”
“It’s okay. The freezer’s working, and there’s nothing to worry about.”
Frenette smiled when Tony said, “I didn’t toss my cookies, but I almost did. That creature in the freezer. Was it really a rougarou?”
“You already know the answer to your question.”
“You haven’t told me where it came from.”
“The creature is a person and has a name—Calvin Couvillion. His relatives brought him here. Like I said, more than forty years ago.”
“And you’ve had it frozen in your basement since then? Maybe you’d better explain,” Tony said.
“It’s not like you think,” Latrice said.
Frenette waved his hand and shook his head, shushing her.
“Covillion came from the Atchafalaya Swamp, over near Thibodaux. His family brought him here.”
“A live rougarou?”
“Let me finish the story, and then you’ll see. Most of Couvillion’s family was at a fais-doux-doux.”
“I know,” Tony said when he hesitated. “A Cajun celebration.”
“The family had already become concerned about Couvillion’s erratic behavior. When a storm came up during the party, he began to transform.”
“The storm caused him to transform?”
Frenette nodded. “Perhaps hurried along by a rapid change in barometric pressure. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
“And everyone at the party saw him?”
“They believe in such things out there on the bayou. He might have killed someone but was struck by lightning, the impact rendering him immobile, at least temporarily. They packed him in dry ice and brought him to me.”
“Why?”
“I was doing research on lycanthropy and rumors had started to spread.”
“Lycanthropy?”
“The study of human transformation into a wolf-like creature,” he explained, seeing the puzzled look on Tony’s face.
“What about his family? They just left him here with you and never said nothing about it, even after all these years?”
“They were afraid. They helped me put him into the freezer, and then left me with their problem.”
“He was struck by lightning and didn’t die?” Tony said.
“You apparently know little about rougarous, loup-garous, werewolves, or whatever you want to call them.”
“Tell me.”
“The virus that causes lycanthropy is similar to the rabies virus. Rabies can take months or even years to develop. Before a cure was discovered, people contracting it often became hyper-sexual and then eventually quite mad.”
“But we aren’t talking about rabies here,” Tony said.
“No, but the two diseases are similar in many ways.”
“How so?”
“Rabies is the only virus contracted by a bite, the person bitten guaranteed to contract the virus and die unless they undergo a painful treatment.”
“If you shoot a mad dog, it dies. If the disease you’re talking about is like rabies, how could someone that has it survive a lightning strike?”
“Because, Mr. Nicosia, the disease makes them immortal.”
“I don’t believe that. Nothing’s immortal.”
“Oh, but you’re wrong. Cancer cells are immortal. That’s why we have no cure. Succeed in knocking out one cell with radiation or chemotherapy, and it usually only results in the propagation of many more.”
“We’re not talking about cancer here,” Tony said.
“The rabies-like virus that causes lycanthropy mutates the cells in a person’s body. Like cancer, the mutated individual becomes, quite literally, immortal. I’m sorry if the concept is difficult to reconcile, but it is what it is.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Doc. I don’t want you to cut me off this great brandy, but I don’t quite buy your story. Like I said, nothing is immortal.”
“Au contraire, Mr. Nicosia. The creature you saw frozen in the basement is very much alive. Of that, I can assure you.”
“Then why didn’t you report it to the authorities years ago?”
“Because I was already a discredited researcher when the family brought me Calvin Couvillion. I thought I could show everyone I wasn’t crazy by curing the man.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“A little problem,” Frenette said.
“Then didn’t it occur to you to get it the hell out of here?”
“More than once,” Latrice said. “We even thought about burning the house down.”
“Just call the authorities. Let them deal with it. You should have done it forty years ago.”
Latrice’s hands went to her face to hide her tears. “You just don’t know how it was back then. People protesting at our front door, calling Kelton Dr. Frankenstein.”
Tony grabbed the bottle of brandy, topped up her snifter and then gave her shoulder a reassuring pat.
“Ma’am, I’m not here to point fingers or cause distress. I’m just looking for answers. Maybe I can help get rid of that creature in your basement if that’s what it actually is.”
Tony’s words and the brandy calmed her. Cupping the snifter in her palms, she held it to her nose as if the pungent aroma might somehow drive away her unpleasant memories. Tony topped up his own glass and that of Dr. Frenette’s.
“Our paranoia kept us from revealing the creature to the authorities. Not to mention we feared letting loose such a beast on an unsuspecting city,” Frenette said.
“I was afraid they’d put Kelton in prison,” Latrice said.
“No one’s going to jail. If you have a serum that cures the disease, why don't you just use it?"
“The little problem I mentioned. You can’t inject serum into a frozen body, and we can’t unthaw him because he would kill us.”
“Jesus! I can’t believe you’ve lived forty years with that thing in your basement. I take it you stayed here during Katrina.”
When Latrice began to cry again, Frenette wheeled over to her, and they hugged again.
“We were afraid to stay and even more afraid to leave,” Latrice said when her tears abated.
“It was terrible with the wind and rain. Not knowing if the house would survive, much less ourselves,” Frenette said.
“Yeah, well it’s not getting much better out there right now. Didn’t you lose power? How did you keep that thing in the freezer from thawing out?”
“We had a large generator installed years ago. We’ve never had to use it,” Frenette said.
“I think I’d have carried it out to the swamp and dumped it in the bayou,” Tony said.
“Believe me, we thought about it. In the end, it just wasn’t possible. If there were just a way to disable it until the serum had a chance to take effect,” he said.
Frenette and Latrice both looked at Tony when he said, “Maybe there is.”
“You know something you’re not telling us?” he asked.
It was Tony’s turn to hold up a palm. “Like I said, I’m investigating two deaths down in St. Bernard Parish, near the Gulf. Both may have been killed by a rougarou. Hell, I don’t even think we’re talking about a single rougarou. There may be several.”
“An outbreak. What I’ve feared all these years,” Frenette said. “I have a possible cure, but no way to administer it, except in the early stages of the disease. What were you talking about when you said maybe there is?”
“My partner’s working the case on Goose Island. There’s a fishing village with a voodoo woman that lives there. Her son coats his buckshot with something she gives him. He claims it’ll knock down a rougarou.”
“For how long?” Frenette asked.
“At least until the person doing the shooting can escape.”
“Well for God’s sake, tell me what it is!”
“Wolfsbane,” Tony said, waiting for Frenette to scoff at his suggestion.
He didn’t. Turning to Latrice, he said, “Baby, can you get me the Martinsdale?”
“Sure, Hon,” she said.
Latrice apparently knew what he wanted because she went to the bookcase lining the wall and pulled a large book from the many volumes. Frenette began leafing through it immediately. Apparently locating what he was looking for, he stared at the page.
“Find something?” Tony asked.
“Aconite,” he finally said.
“Pardon me?”
“Aconite, the active ingredient found in the Aconitum species.”
“You mean Wolfsbane?”
“That’s one of the flowers. The substance has been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. In small doses, it can be helpful. Its highly toxic in large doses and can paralyze, stop a person’s heart, and even kill.”
“But will it stop a rougarou?”
“You’re the one that said it does.”
“Yeah, but I’m not speaking from experience here.”
“The Ainu, Japanese indigenous people, used it on their arrows when they hunted bear. It’s extremely powerful. It just might work.”
“Fine,” Tony said. “Now what?”
“We have to thaw him out.”
“You’re shitting me! You have aconite?”
“Yes, more than enough to do what we need.”
“You sure about that? What if it don’t work?”
“Then at least we won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Tony glanced at his watch. “Sounds like you’re gonna need help moving him. I’m ready if you are.”
“You’re a brave man, Mr. Nicosia,” Frenette said.
“Hell, I don’t hold a candle to you and Latrice. Let’s do it before I change my mind.”
Dr. Frenette smiled for the first time since leaving the basement.
“Baby, you better open us another bottle of Pierre Ferrand, and then join us in the laboratory.”
Tony and Frenette were at the basement door when a clap of thunder shook the roof. When it did, all the lights went out.
“Oh hell, there goes the power,” Frenette said.
“What happened to the generator?” Tony asked.
“It hasn’t been tested since the time it was installed. Who knows? We’ll have to make do without it.”
Flickering light soon lit the hallway as Latrice joined them, the bottle of brandy in one hand, a hurricane lamp in the other. Frenette took both.
“Go get more candles, Baby. We’re going to need them.”
Tony and Frenette were soon back in the dank laboratory lighted only by glimmering candlelight. Latrice quickly joined them. After steeling themselves with more brandy, Frenette pointed to an operating table, its legs lowered so he could reach it without standing.
“You ready?” Tony asked.
When Frenette nodded, Latrice unlocked the freezer and opened it, her face revealing more than words could express.
“What is it, Baby?” Frenette asked.
“Oh my God, Hon! It’s fully transformed. No longer even partially human.”
Her words caused Tony to become more nervous than he already was.
“Help me up,” Frenette said. “I need to see.”
Latrice and Tony helped him out of the wheelchair, supporting him as he gazed into the freezer.
“My God! Even encased in melting ice, he’s somehow managed to transform entirely from human to wolf. It must be the storm.”
“How is that possible? The electricity hasn’t even been off for ten minutes yet.” Tony said.
“Then we must hurry. We don’t have much time left.”
Tony nodded when Latrice said, “Can you help me get him out of there?”
As Frenette watched, Latrice and Tony lifted the large body out of the freezer.
“This thing must weigh three hundred pounds,” Tony said, struggling with the weight. “You okay, Latrice?”
“I got him. Just hurry.”
Frenette had rigged up a mechanical drip and filled it with aconite. The creature’s body was totally naked, its wolf/human genitals only partially hidden by thick tufts of hair. Latrice covered most of the body with a blanket to accelerate the thawing.
“Now we wait,” Frenette said. “Soon as I can penetrate his skin with the needle, I’ll start the drip. I don’t need you two for that. Go upstairs and lock the door. I’ll call when I’m done.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Latrice said.
“In for a penny, in for a pound. I’m staying,” Tony said.”
Twenty minutes passed. Though he’d tried several times, Dr. Frenette was unsuccessful in inserting the needle into the rougarou’s vein. After an hour, the creature’s eyes moved in their sockets. For a moment, Tony was sure they were looking straight at him.
“It’s now or never,” Frenette said. “The beast is almost cognizant.”
Latrice clutched Tony’s arm as Dr. Frenette began working the needle. The creature was fully thawed and beginning to move. Tony reached for his service revolver before remembering he didn’t have it anymore.
“Bingo!” Frenette finally said. “Thank God this instrument has a battery pack or it wouldn’t do us any good without electricity.”
“Yeah, when was the last time you checked the batteries?”
Frenette didn’t answer. Latrice just closed her eyes, crossed her fingers and began praying out loud. Reaching for the I.V.’s control panel, Frenette flipped the switch. The display turned green and the screen began recording drips of aconite into the creature’s arm.
“Shit, that’s a relief. Now what?” Tony asked.
“It’ll work, or else in an hour or so we’ll all be in hell,” Frenette said.


###



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