Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Cities of the Dead-a New Orleans short story


I’ve long been a fan of short stories and penned my first attempt at the genre when I was only ten. I continued writing short fiction during high school and college, though none of the stories managed to survive the years. I can’t remember when I wrote my first short story featuring French Quarter sleuth Wyatt Thomas, but it was long before the publication of Big Easy in 2006. Once I started, I found it all but impossible to stop.
When I decided to write Big Easy, my first novel-length French Quarter Mystery, I did so by combining parts of three New Orleans’ short stories: Cities of the DeadVoodoo Nights, and Pontchartrain. If you haven’t read Big Easy and are considering doing so, then you should probably start it first before reading Cities of the Dead.
If you’ve already read Big Easy, then you might get a kick out of Cities of the Dead as it’s different in many ways than the side-story in the novel.

Cities of the Dead

Darkness draped Rue St. Ann as throngs of French Quarter tourists crowded the entrance to a Creole townhouse. Heat radiating from the stoop bothered Lieutenant Tony Nicosia. He mopped his brow as he watched paramedics remove two stretchers from the premises. The old man occupying one of the stretchers didn't notice the heat.
*  *  *
It started with Buddy DeJan's wake. Buddy was nearing seventy when a heart attack claimed him in his sleep. His wife Foxy called a wake for him at their house, near the spot where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf—the literal end of the road. I attended the wake with Buddy's cousin, Bertram Picou. As lights disappeared in our rear-view mirror, sub-tropical vegetation and endless splay channels gradually replaced them. Soon, there was no sense of civilization at all as scrub oak and cypress knobs replaced jazz and musty mortar.
Distraught over his cousin's death, Bertram tippled Cuervo and sniveled all the way from the City. Having my own memories of Buddy and little patience for Bertram's stories I'd heard all before, I stared out the window, trying to block out his mindless chatter. When we reached the wake, his bottle was already empty.
Foxy and Buddy lived in a fishing camp beside a murky channel that snaked into the Gulf. Wooden stilts raised their house above a soggy yard marked by muskrat hides, catfish bones, and flat-bottomed fishing skiffs. By midnight, the occasion had turned festive, with Bertram leading the charge. A black dress swathed Foxy DeJan’s large frame. She had long since discarded her shawl of mourning. Like many of the mourners crowding the room, she clasped a half-empty glass of bourbon in her hand.
Black crepe-paper draped the front door, and clocks were stopped to coincide with the time of Buddy's passing. All mirrors faced the wall. Lying in his mahogany coffin, Buddy seemed more resplendent than in life. I slipped out of the house, seeking solitude in the darkness below. My trance shattered abruptly when someone tapped my shoulder.
“I didn't mean to startle you,” the young woman said.”
“Guess I was thinking about Buddy.”
“I see that. I'm Celeste Duples. Mr. DeJan and my Father were distant cousins.”
“Wyatt Thomas,” I said. “I didn't know Buddy had any relatives named Duples. You from around here?”
“I grew up in Philadelphia with my mother. Now I live in Starkville. Daddy sells real estate. I teach at the college there. And you?”
“I have a place in the Quarter and do odd jobs for people.”
“Such as?”
“Look up this. Research that. Most anything to earn a buck.”
I stepped into the beam of the floodlight suspended from the roof. Celeste's green eyes sparkled in the light. She was tall, fully five-eight, and had jet black hair and an olive complexion that left little doubt of her French Acadian ancestry.
“This wake seems so strange to me.”
“Ritual,” I said. “A mixture of Catholic, Protestant, and Judaism, with a smidgen of black magic from Africa and voodoo from Haiti.”
Dueling strains of mandolin and accordion, saturating the damp air with a Cajun melody and silencing the chorus of frogs, floated down the stairs. A shooting star streaked across the sky, disappearing over the horizon.
“Buddy's wake will be a party before morning.”
“I won't last that long,” Celeste said.
“I wish I could leave, but I rode down with one of Buddy's closest cousins. He won't stop grieving till he OD's on Cuervo.”
My description of Bertram's alcoholic inclinations amused Celeste. Leaning closer, she said, “We'll take you back.”
I needed very little persuasion. After paying my last respects, I joined Celeste and her father in the driveway. He had the same strange last name as his daughter, and she called him Maurice.
Celeste's maroon convertible left no chance for conversation. The breeze it produced was welcome after the smoky wake. I'd recently moved into an apartment over Bertram's bar. When Celeste and her father dropped me off, I didn't expect to see them again. I was wrong.
Lady, Bertram's collie licked my hand, relieving any guilt about missing Buddy's funeral. Next morning I opened the bar for him, even managing to turn a small profit. Bertram showed up at noon. Hung-over and head pounding, he went straight to his apartment in back. I kept working until five when Maurice Duples strutted through the front door.
Back-dropped by bright sunlight, he seemed different from the man whose shoulder I had pressed all the way back to the City. Although still wearing the same tweed sports coat, he had changed pants, shirt, and shoes. Now he sported combed gray hair and a fresh shave and greeted me by squeezing my hand in a vice-like grip.
“I was hoping I'd find you here,” he said.
“Bertram's under the weather. I help out when I can.”
“Celeste said you were a good man.”
Celeste's praise secretly pleased me. “You aren't here to commend me on my benevolence. What can I do for you?”
Surprised by my directness, Duples gazed around Bertram's bar. “Celeste says you know a lot about New Orleans burial rituals.”
“No more than anyone else in the City.”
“Am I correct in thinking you make a point in knowing things others don't?”
“Several people at Buddy's wake told me so. I’d like to visit a grave and thought you might be of assistance. I have no earthly idea where to find it.”
“Then you're in trouble,” I said. “The city has dozens of cemeteries.”
“Precisely why I need your help. I'll pay your fee.”
He sat on a stool and sprawled his elbows on the zinc countertop. Exhaling, he rested his head in his hands.
He smiled when I said, “You look like you could use a drink.”
Maurice Duples was tall and slender. Thirty-five or forty years older than his daughter Celeste. I guessed his age at sixty-five or seventy.
“Red wine,” he said.
When I set the glass in front of him, he seemed almost asleep, his left hand dangling off the counter. Lady's warm tongue revived him, and he patted her head before sipping his wine.
“Interesting place,” he said, noting the severed ties, bras, panties and other intimate undergarments draped from the ceiling and mirror behind the bar.
“New Orleans is an easy place to lose your inhibitions.”
Duples smiled for the first time since I'd met him. “Celeste was conceived here. During a particularly eventful Mardi Gras.”
“She said you live in Mississippi.”
“Born in New Orleans. My mother worked for a man named Duplessis. We lived with his family until she died. An aunt from Starkville took me in. I never knew my father or mother's burial place. I'm desperate to find her grave. Will you help me?”
I topped up his glass and said, “Anything else you remember about New Orleans?”
“Is that a yes?”
“Look, Mr. Duples, you don't need me. If you know your mother's name and her approximate date of death, you can go over to the Notarial Archives in the basement of the District Court and find where she's buried.”
“Tried that already. The two investigators I hired found nothing. If you can't help me, I don't know where I'll turn.”
“Why don't you tell me everything you remember and I'll do my best to help you.”
The look of desperation melted from Duples' face. When he latched on to my hand with both of his, I had the sudden sensation I was saving a drowning man.
“Thank you, Mr. Thomas, thank you.”
I poured myself a glass of lemonade from the stash under the counter and said, “Let's go to a booth and talk.”
Duples and Lady followed me to the back of Bertram's bar. Most of Bertram's regulars never appeared before nine or ten at night. The place was empty.
“Now tell me what you remember.”
“Nothing much,” he said. “I was eleven when they buried her. Guess I’ve blocked most of the details from my memory.”
“Rest your head and relax. Close your eyes and focus on the muscles in your face. Imagine you have a warm towel resting there.”
Maurice Duples followed my suggestions, soon sinking into a low-grade trance. I continued speaking in modulated tones until his breathing and heart rate reduced to barely a whisper.
“You're a child again, at your mother's funeral. Tell me what you see.”
Duples began reciting in the high-pitched voice of an eleven-year-old.
“Rows of rectangular structures topped with crosses and Greek statues. Beautiful flowers with colors and smells you can almost feel, amid wide streets separating the structures. I see an impatient horse, snorting and kicking up grass with his hoof. He's pulling a black carriage. It's almost like a city. Everyone is crying, and dressed in black.”
“Is there a special statue you see, or maybe a nearby name you can read? Anything specific you remember?”
“Yes,” Duples said. “Hundreds of x marks on one of the structures.”
Bingo. Having all I needed, I woke Duples from his trance.
“Amazing,” he said. “I feel wonderful. Better than I have in years. And I remember things now.”
“You never really forgot. You just had them blocked.”
By now, Bertram was awake and cleaning up the bar with a wet rag. A few afternoon patrons straggled in, along with a curious sightseer or two. A street band, hoping to evoke donations from the throng of tourists filing into the French Quarter, fired up a hot jazz number outside. Maurice Duples was smiling.
“I haven't visited the cemetery since Mother's funeral. Now, I remember it vividly. It was almost like a little town, with rows of houses and narrow streets.”
“That's why they're called Cities of the Dead. Since much of New Orleans is below sea level, the water table is close to the surface. Before the City set up a drainage system, the only recourse was to bury their dead in a puddle of water, or else above ground.”
“You said you knew where to find my mother's grave.”
“I know exactly where it is, in the St. Louis Cemetery # 1, over on Basin Street.”
“Pardon my skepticism, Mr. Thomas. How can you be so sure?”
“Number One is the oldest cemetery in the City. Many famous people are buried there—Etienne Bore, father of the sugar industry, and Homer Plessy, to name a couple. You may remember the pivotal cemetery scene from Easy Rider. It was filmed in the St. Louis # 1.”
Duples didn't seem to know about Easy Rider or the two names I'd mentioned.
Homer Plessy?”
“Plessy v. Ferguson. An 1892 Supreme Court decision establishing separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws for blacks and whites in the South.”
“Sorry,” Duples said. “I'm in real estate, not a first-year law student.”
Biting my tongue, I refrained from asking if he could read. Instead, I continued my explanation.
“Many of the rich and notables had expensive and ornate tombs built for their families. It's not uncommon to see forty-foot tall Greek statuary or tons of carved and polished stone. I was hoping you would remember a landmark tomb.”
“But I didn't.”
“Yes, you did. You remembered seeing the most famous tomb in New Orleans—the crypt of Marie Laveau, queen of voodoo.”
Light from the jukebox reflected off Duples’ deep green eyes.
“Take me there.”
“We'll go tomorrow.”
Duples folded his arms and shook his head. “I won't wait another day. Let’s go now.”
“Impossible. It's near the Iberville Project and crime is rampant there. Even tomorrow we'll need to go with a group.”
“Not on your life, Mr. Thomas. I have a thousand dollars. It's yours if you take me now. If you don't, I'll find someone else who will.”
Before I could answer, the educated voice of Celeste sounded from behind us.
“Such wild expressions on your faces, you both look ready to fight.”
After leaving Duples' irresistible money with Bertram for safe-keeping, I accompanied Maurice and Celeste up Basin Street, past the Project to the St. Louis Cemetery # 1. Although closed to the public for the night, I knew the location of the caretaker's entrance. Duples had armed me with two vital bits of information: the probable location of his mother's grave and the name of a shadowy figure from his past. Arthur Duplessis was still alive, living on St. Ann's. Duples could look him up after we visited the grave.
Last glimmers of the sun had disappeared over the trees as we opened a wrought-iron gate and entered the City of the Dead. Dormant pigeons roosting in eaves around the tombs barely budged as we passed. Bats strafed our heads with wildly beating wings. Up the street, a tomcat's screech momentarily silenced the cooing of pigeons.
Apparently unaware of our possible danger, Celeste sported a blissful smile on her pretty face. “If Marie Laveau's grave is unmarked, then how did you know Daddy saw it?”
“Because it's covered with freshly-chalked x’s. The superstitious believe if you make a wish, along with marking an x on the grave, your wish will come true.”
Celeste squeezed my hand. “What do you believe?”
“That we should find your grandmother's grave and get the hell out of here.”
“Is it that dangerous?”
Her question went unanswered. By now it was dark, with only dim fluorescent street light and the powerful beam from my flashlight illuminating our path. We barely noticed two men as they appeared from the shadows in front of us.
“Well, what do we have here? Grave robbers or midnight mourners?” one of the men asked.
 Several missing teeth made his accent even more incomprehensible. It didn't stop his companion from laughing at the joke. His laughter died away when we tried to walk around them. They were big, mean and ugly. Even worse, both men had switchblades.
“Where you think you're going?” the leader said, digging his knuckle into my breastbone.
To my surprise, Celeste knocked the man's hand away with the palm of her hand.
“Leave us alone. This is a public place.”
Celeste's anger brought an even greater outburst of laughter from the two men.
“Looky here Biggs. We got ourselves a sassy one.”
“Jackson, we surely do.”
“You heard the lady,” I said. “I'm an off-duty cop. Make trouble with us at your own risk.”
I forced as much authority into my voice as I could and it had some effect. Biggs and Jackson both took half-steps backward. The NOPD is notorious. That's spelled b–a–d, with a capital B. The force had even turned back a group of Hell's Angels at the City limits, preventing them from attending and disrupting Mardi Gras. I was counting on my bluff to get us safely out of the cemetery. Something else saved us instead.
Two pistol shots fired directly behind my head almost caused me to lose my lemonade. Diving for the turf, I wrestled Celeste down with me.
“Run or I'll blow your heads off, you lice-infested ghouls.”
 It was Maurice Duples, screaming like a banshee and firing an old German Luger into the air. Biggs and Jackson didn't wait around. They took Celeste's smile with them and she trembled as I helped her up. Sirens wailed in the distance. They weren't coming our way.
“Are they gone?” she asked.
“Yes. Now let's get out of here.”
“Not until I see my mother's grave.”
Celeste and I stared at her father's eyes, now wildly green amid dim light from the street.
Celeste continued to shake. When I put my arm around her, my own racing heart did little to abate her chill.
“This is frightening your daughter. I'll bring you back tomorrow. And what are you doing with that gun?”
“It saved our lives. Go on, if you're so frightened. And take Celeste with you. I'll find the grave by myself.”
When I nudged Celeste toward the street, she shook her head. “We can't leave him here by himself.”
“He has the gun,” I reminded her.
Celeste ignored my comment.
Maurice Duples struck out alone, trudging blindly along the path lined with broken shells. Celeste and I followed after him. We weren't far from Marie Laveau's grave when Duple's demented yell pealed through the cemetery.
“Here it is!”
We found him squatting by a large tomb bedecked with faded marble, and statues of Greek gods. Celeste knelt beside him, her hands on his shoulders.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“The name,” he said. “It's not our name. Someone removed my mother's remains from her grave. Why would anyone do that to her?”
Duples was possibly correct. During the plague years of the 1800s, with cemetery space at a premium, residents often sold or bartered tomb rights to the more prosperous. This practice continued until recent times, bones being moved hither and yon, often to who-knows-where. Strangely, the names of Arthur and Megan Duplessis were engraved in stone on the tomb, their deaths as yet unrecorded. The couple Maurice and his mother had lived with had apparently taken her grave.
Probably a mistake,” I said. “We'll check the Notarial Archives tomorrow.”
After helping Maurice and Celeste to their feet, I pointed the flashlight back from where we had come. It reflected off of Marie Laveau's grave. Celeste stopped beside it. Maurice and I watched as she took a fragment of chalk from the sidewalk, closed her eyes and made a large x on the side of the tomb.
I tossed and turned after finally making it to bed, somehow sensing the night had yet to end. It hadn't. At midnight I received a frantic call from Celeste.
“Daddy's gone crazy. He went storming out of here with his pistol to find Arthur Duplessis.”
“Meet me at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann,” I said, pulling on my pants. “Just down the street from your hotel. I'll be there in ten minutes.”
We found the door to the Duplessis townhouse on St. Ann open and entered without knocking. Duples stood braced against the wall, pointing his pistol at an old man in a rattan wheelchair. A ratty Afghan draped the man's legs and he showed no fear. His face was contorted in a crooked grin every bit as deranged as Duples'.
Duples waved his gun at us in a menacing fashion. Remembering the incident at the cemetery, I pinned Celeste against the wall with the back of my arm. Duplessis spoke, returning Maurice's attention to the center of the room.
“You wanna kill me? Go ahead. I'm ninety next month,” he said, giving his useless legs a hard slap with the flat of his hand. “I already done more living than any three men.”
“I'll kill you, all right, but not before you tell me why you moved my mother's remains.”
 “You crazy? Who are you, anyway?”
 “Maurice Duples. My mother's name was Emeline, but you already know that.”
Arthur Duplessis's rheumy old eyes glimmered with sudden recognition in the light of the suppressed overhead bulb.
“You about a dumb one, you. You mama was a whore over in Storyville until they bulldozed the place to the ground.”
“You're a liar.”
“Don't call your own father a liar.”
Duples opened his mouth. Nothing came out. Outside the door, a horse-drawn carriage clomped by on the street. It was followed by a dog howling over near the Iberville Project.
“Don't look so surprised,” Duplessis said. “You think your name was Duples all these years? What kind of dumb name is that? You mama was my whore and you're my bastard boy.”
Duplessis howled with laughter and it drew into a hacking cough. When the coughing abated, he started to speak but never got the words out. A terrific blast rocked the room, knocking the old man out of his wheelchair and blowing him against the wall.
Celeste and I turned to Maurice Duples but he looked every bit as stunned as we were. Both barrels of a twelve-gauge shotgun had blasted Duplessis. A gray-haired old woman, dressed in tattered silk, stood tall and without emotion. She was still clutching the smoking gun.
“He's the bastard, not you. I should have killed him twenty years ago. He kept your mama and others like her. He never gave a whit for my feelings or theirs.”
Megan Duplessis let the shotgun slide to the floor and crossed the room to where stunned Maurice stood, still braced against the wall. When she touched his cheek, he dropped the pistol to the floor.
“I want you to know, your mama's still in that tomb. The old man just had her bones pushed to the back of the vault. I raised you as my son until the old man sent you away to Mississippi.”
She went to her fallen husband, kneeling and giving his lifeless cheek a final kiss before clutching her heart, gasping once and sinking to the floor beside him.
Lieutenant Tony Nicosia gave me a go-to-hell look when he and the NOPD finally arrived. Between stilted explanations, deftly omitting why we were there in the first place, I spirited Maurice Duples' pistol off the floor and into my jacket. Arthur and Megan ranked high in the City's elite. Because of this, the police would conveniently overlook the fact that the old man had died from a shotgun blast. His death, subsequently resulting in Megan's untimely heart attack, would go down as accidental.
Other than some puritanical need to punish Maurice for his temporary insanity, I saw no reason to involve him further in his father’s death. New Orleans has few Puritans. I wasn't one of them. While escorting Maurice and his daughter to the hospital to attend Megan Duplessis, Celeste informed me the real reason I covered up for her father.
“The x I made on Marie Laveau's tomb. I wished my father would find out about his family so his bad memories would go away. And I wished for a happy ending.”
Watching Maurice hold Megan Duplessis’ hand in the back of the ambulance, I realized Celeste had gotten her wish.


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.