DISCLAIMERS: There is no copyright infringement intended in any way, shape or form to any of the locations or people in this story. The characters in this story are from my own rather warped imagination and are mine, mine, mine! Not that anyone would ever possibly want to but just to cover all bases, this story cannot be used or sold for profit in any way.
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT THIS STORY: This past February, I was so very blessed to have been able to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Quite some time before Katrina, at the suggestion of a friend, I had started to write a Halloween story based in New Orleans. After Katrina, for the longest time I thought I shouldn’t continue, that it would be wrong to do so. However, a friend of mine who loves New Orleans asked me to finish the story - to try and show people who had not visited that it’s a place not to be missed. So please take the story as it was intended and forgive my sojourns into being a tour guide here. I encourage anyone who hasn’t been to New Orleans to visit in the future and enjoy a city like no other you’ve ever been to.
p.s.: I have taken a few liberties with directions and tales. Those who are familiar with the names and places, please don’t take me to task.
SPECIAL NOTE: Thank you to T. for the idea! Much thanks to the little demons… I mean, A., D. and S. too.
Please, if you like this story or any of my stories - let me know. It really does help to know that people read and enjoy the stories. Please feed the bards! Thank you! Idryth@aol.com
Delicious. A word which could be used to describe so very many of the Big Easy's best attributes, and a word that was currently floating around my brain as my senses tried not to overload from the myriad of distractions that assaulted them.
Of course, sitting on a creaky wooden floored balcony in a very comfortable chair, which was strategically placed for the best view of Bourbon Street, it wouldn't take much to overload anyone's senses.
From the raucous calls of people on neighboring balconies offering a vast assortment of "good" beads, although most tourists thought any beads were good, to anyone who might be interested in performing one or two acts that the New Orleans Police Department would have frowned upon; to the aroma from the Pan bakery next door whose unbelievable pastries had graced my breakfast tray for the last three days; to the jazz, rock and just about any other type of music that floated through the air from various sources; to the mouth watering Jambalaya and Gumbo in the Bistro across the street; to even more sights that could be seen without moving a step.
It was almost a dream and an odd one at that. The truth of it was that I was in the city on a whim, one of those fanciful things that takes you places you never dreamed of going before. It would take my boss breaking his leg in two places and not just offering me but pressing upon me his non refundable room and tour reservations before I acted on the idea of a visit to New Orleans and Mardi Gras.
Apparently, canceling a trip to New Orleans a week before Mardi Gras isn't something you can do and expect to get a dime back. Of course, Mr. Moneybags Ken hadn't purchased any insurance either. So, rather than nobody benefit, he had made us draw tickets to take advantage of the tour and some angel of mercy blessed me that day, because my number came up.
So, as if possessed by a ghost of a manic travel agent, with all of my co-workers watching and helping in their own inimitable way, in five minutes I'd found extremely expensive airline seats and booked myself for a trip I had more than second thoughts about as I was sitting at the airport waiting for the flight.
Perhaps not terribly surprisingly, once I had spent time in New Orleans, it had not taken long to wonder why I hadn't visited a long time ago.
In fact, those same co-workers would be vastly amused to discover that after less than three hours in the city I had come to the conclusion that I really had to take pictures of my vacation this time. Though they had long since given up the idea of me taking pictures of my vacations, they still frequently shared their family vacation pictures with me.
Then again, the true lack of vacation pictures might have to do with the fact they assumed my trips to the "coast" truly meant coast when it really meant the Coast Building and Hardware store. Who was I to disavow them of the notion that many of my vacations were spent lounging on a beach with some fabulous umbrella drink in my hand and not with a hammer and power tools instead?
The part that had somewhat astounded me was that my usual excuse, "I don't have a camera", might work with my compatriots back home but, for the first time, wouldn't work with me. Therefore, I had purchased an obscenely expensive digital camera from one of the millions, perhaps a slight exaggeration but not by much, of camera stores. Along with the requisite rechargeable batteries, case and larger than a cruise ship digital card to go in the camera.
Yes, oh so sadly, I had fallen prey to the "You must have ..." well, everything, I suppose and had come away the consummate tourist loaded with every gadget one could possibly imagine.
It wasn't actually until I had found a drug store that had a self service booth, which allowed me to print pictures from the camera that I found out my camera skills weren't totally lacking. In fact, some of the pictures had turned out very well and I was quite pleased, but I had decided that I'd print any others I wanted back home.
There seemed little use in printing them right away when I had to lug them back. And the computer would allow me to crop and all that lovely stuff that I'd learned about, and mostly forgotten, in a class I'd taken with my last disastrous attempt at a relationship.
Ah yes, what a mess that and she had been, it had taken me a while to come to terms with how little I really did know about the person I thought I'd known so well, and considered it one in a long line of learned lessons given by people much better at the bad stuff people do to each other than me. Sadly, my love life was quite a farce.
I had visited Stratford Upon Avon once and had watched a performance of one of Shakespeare's works. After watching the play and then reading about him, it had hit me like a ton of proverbial bricks that the bard would have had a ball writing about my love life. I would have been perfect fodder for his wicked pen and I was unbelievably happy that I wasn't born in a time when I could have been personally acquainted with the man.
In fact, I was half convinced that some of his jibes were written by peeking at my future life and laughing hilariously as he wrote. Regardless, after the last experience in love, I was quite content with myself and my life and had no intentions of looking for anyone ever again. Ever.
As evidenced by my visit to the British Isles, obviously, I did actually go away sometimes, but most of my vacations anymore were spent at Grandma's House. That I was a perfectionist probably had a little to do with that, but the house I'd spent so much time in when I was growing up was important to me. Grandma's trust in giving me the house when she died, knowing I would take care of it, was a blessing in so many different ways and it had become my treasure and love.
A smile took over my face at the thought of my Grandma. Mom and Dad were great but they were always so busy bringing up the rest of the brood and working to provide for us that they rarely had time to take us fishing at the local lake or bake cookies or any of those neat things that Grandma did with abandon.
Abandon. Now there was a word to describe how Grandma went through life. She did everything with passion and drive, from walking down the street to knitting a sweater. No boring colors or patterns, assuming you could figure out what it was supposed to be, for her. Nor was it was ever the same way back from a trip, never perfectly round cookies or drip less painting.
Never anything normal for Grandma, she was a rare woman of her time or any time for that matter. A woman who knew who she was, who she wasn't and made no apologies for either. I had loved her with everything I was, never letting myself think of a time when she wouldn't be there.
And when she was gone, I had simply been lost beyond anything I'd ever experienced before. As if my compass had gone completely crazy and I tossed and turned my way through life for some time until I finally found myself on a somewhat even keel.
It didn't take a genius to realize that she would have been right at home in New Orleans, a city that also lived with that same abandon. There was so much and even more if I cared to take just enough steps to take me to the next street, which I had many times. This was New Orleans, a city I had come to love in such a short time and a city that had so many sides that it was hard to classify. One thing was certain; it was a city like New York or Paris - a city that had a feel like nowhere else in the world.
From the second I arrived, everything took me in and grabbed me faster than Super Glue. The festooned balconies, shimmering in gold, purple and green, many with lush overhanging plants of various originations and beautifully scrolled metal. The (mainly) tourists walking around with multi colored beads around their necks, some burdened with so many that you couldn't see all of their face.
The friendliness of the natives, who were more than happy to include you in any conversation going on and then be sure to give you their entire life history for as much time as you give them, and top it off with a dessert of so many details about things to do and see that you couldn't possibly remember everything.
Of course, the wealth of history was astonishing. The heart rending slave blocks, Napoleon's death mask and many other remnants of the city's history in the Cabildo. Jackson Square with its fabulous setting before the Saint Louis Cathedral and framed by the famed Pontalba buildings designed by another woman ahead of her time, the Baroness Pontalba.
City Park's beautiful trees, draped with moss that somehow gave them the perfect look; the famed French Quarter with its gas lamps and, oddly, Spanish styled buildings; Canal Street, the street cars, the cemeteries and so very much more.
Of course, I had taken the obligatory city tours, and also seen the Garden District with its magnificent mansions, shotgun houses and sad, tawdry and sometimes downright amusing tales. I had tried that oh so acquired taste of Chicory Coffee and followed that with a delicious, and powdered sugar spilling everywhere with each bite, beignet. I had even taken a river boat, complete with working paddle wheel and jazz band, up the Mississippi.
I had been in the city almost a week and had been quite busy. Leaving the chain hotel I had started out in and Ken, my boss, had paid for, to go to one of the smaller local hotels soon after realizing that if I wanted to be really "in" New Orleans that I needed to be somewhere that I could see the locals and speak to the locals at will. Immersing myself in the city had quickly become a goal, one that I'd managed quite well so far.
Since I'd been at the Maison D'Ambrose, along with several dashes down the rickety stairs to catch a walking parade down the narrow streets of the Quarter, I'd spent most of my time on the balcony, talking to locals or wandering the French Quarter and surrounds.
Amazingly, the idea that I could live in a city that so quickly got into my blood had run through my head, but the common sense inherent in me squashed that down with the reminders of the rain and humidity that were a regular part of life in this part of the world.
Tonight was the last tour I was taking, and I'd planned it before the huge Mardi Gras weekend so that I would have plenty of time to watch every parade I wanted and maybe even be one of those wacky people walking around with ten million beads around their necks.
Coincidentally, it was a full moon, so the "Ghostly Gallivanting" would almost certainly have that extra special theme somewhere in it. Vampires and who knows what would abound, I was sure. Right up Ken's, and his wife's, alley and not mine, but I'd promised him I would take those pictures they were sure they'd never get and by god, I was going to do that. It was the least I could do after such a fantastic trip.
Since Ken was supposed to take his wife on the trip, there were two tickets for all the tours. In a gesture of good will, I had always left one at the front desk giving them the instructions to give it away should anyone inquire about the tour and want to go. A couple had been used by people at the larger hotel, but none at Maison D'Ambrose so far.
As I thought about the tour, a snicker slipped out before I could stop it. I wondered if the vampires and ghosts would know I'd shared and be kind to me, and therefore if I could wear less garlic for the rest of the tour. Wouldn't it be a shock to everyone at work if I went back wearing a necklace of garlic amidst the many other necklaces I brought back and that's how I explained it.
It wouldn't be my fault, after all, Ken's wife, Mindy, had truly insisted I take tonight's tour, sort of wacky but sweet woman that she was. Being somewhat amused by the idea, I had deliberately not read much about what we were supposed to do tonight and I had to admit that I was looking forward to my last scheduled tour. Even more so, looking forward to the unfettered time I had after that.
A glance at the clock showed thirty minutes before I had to scamper down and join the group, just enough time for another beignet and coffee, albeit not Chicory.
As I tried to brush the inevitable grains of powdered sugar from my latest beignet off my comfortable rugby shirt, my peripheral vision caught a flash of something that at first appeared to be a large amount of bare skin.
It's not often that I can be derailed from a beignet but I almost needed treatment for whiplash when I directed my full attention towards the flash and saw a very well muscled and apparently naked man walking down a city street. It was a bit of a shock that even a beignet can be usurped but I suppose naked people walking down the street can do that to a person sometimes.
Quickly moving to the wooden railing to watch the man I immediately recognized from all I had heard about him, I had to shake my head. Of course, it was the infamous Naked Cowboy. And I chuckled to myself at the veritable hullabaloo he was causing with the women, and chuckled a bit harder at the consternation of the men who mostly looked in completely different directions. Then again, a quick look around showed me that there were men who also had no problems enjoying the view.
Wearing only a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a guitar he cut quite a swath holding up traffic at the junction of Bourbon Street and Rue Toulouse. One elderly woman hid her eyes and yet another woman in the fifties range, I guessed, boldly walked up to him and put an arm around his waist.
When he turned to get in position for a picture, that was when I saw that the guitar had been hiding what must have been keeping him legal. He wore a tight pair of red, white and blue underwear and I couldn't keep in my laughter when I noticed the hand of the woman who was getting a picture with him firmly cupping one of his patriotic cheeks.
I wondered briefly if our current administration would appreciate the current patriotic duty being performed and the idea of the Cowboy showing up to receive some type of compensation. "Right, Car. From your mouth to God's ears," I said to myself and then returned my attention back to people watching.
It was an odd sensation that caught up with me next. It was as if my eyes were almost drawn to a certain spot and yet I couldn't see any reason why that would be. Using a trick I'd learned a long time ago about sweeping an area my eyes from right to left as well as the more normal left to right, I tried to figure out what had grabbed my attention but all I could see were various people milling about.
I sat down to finish my coffee and I took one more look over in the general vicinity as I brought the cup to my lips. Ah, the wonders of having two hands - because if I had not had both of them on the cup I likely would have spilled a considerable amount of liquid on myself. Because there, walking out of the crowds from around the corner was a woman who drew your eyes like bees to honey.
She strode down Bourbon Street with the air of someone who knew exactly what they were doing and you better not get in her way whilst she was doing it. Long blonde hair streaming behind her, she was quite a sight indeed and a very pleasant one at that. From what I could see, she was gorgeous and only got better as she got closer. Willing her to glance up, just for one meeting of the eyes, I leaned forward putting my cup down again on the ancient table and held my breath.
Knowing she would look up, I just waited for the moment our eyes would meet and I prepared the most winning smile my arsenal possessed, such as it was.
Any second now she would look up and I would find out if her look was as imposing as her walk.
My mouth formed a, what I was sure was fabulous, smile all by itself as I leaned even further over trying to follow her as she got close to being under the balcony. Of course, as the laughter of the Bard echoed down the ages, it was only when I toppled out of the badly unbalanced chair and fell to the balcony floor that she looked up.
At least I assumed she did because all I knew was that her head had started to tilt up when I fell, and I didn't have the guts to look after all the noise I made sliding to the floor. Not even when a rich female voice with a hint of Mint Juleps in it called up, "Everyone all right?"
Embarrassed beyond belief I simply stuck an arm between the wrought iron stakes, waved and said, "Fine, thanks. No problems!"
I could have sworn I heard a chuckle as I was picking myself up off the floor and I decided right then to simply fall back to my room in a very definite retreat, rather than follow her progress on the other side.
About ten minutes later my recent experience was shifted out of my mind by the sight of our tour guide, who called himself Uncle Ernie. Uncle Ernie was dressed, no less, like a visitor to the Black Lagoon, complete with moss covered hat, long beard and fatigue type overalls.
"Gather 'round, folks!" he proclaimed as I looked over at Brian, our concierge, to be sure this was the right guy. Brian's response was a broad grin and nod. Brian mouthed what I think was have a great time and disappeared from view, smart guy that he was.
Meanwhile, I stood open mouthed watching this crazy man count up his clutch of tourists and stroke his perhaps fake beard. I was still wondering what sort of nut I had signed up with when he appeared before me, jovially greeting me and asking for my ticket.
Rather gingerly, I proffered the ticket and smiled what he seemed to accept as a pleasant smile since he started to move on to the next person. It wasn't until he took a few steps away that I saw her, the blonde from the street.
I suddenly found out that the saying that a person's throat ran dry actually was true. There she was and I would have promised my first born, not that there was likely to ever be one, to make sure that she didn't know who I was. But there was that distant laughter again, because she looked up and I was very well aware that the smirk on her face was directed at me.
Ah, the joy of being an amoeba. Protoplasm with no smirks or blushes or ridiculously foolish slips off chairs. Goo. That's basically what I would have loved to have been at that moment. That is until I saw the sparkle in her eyes as the blonde assisted an older woman to a chair. Perhaps goo was a bit extreme after all.
Unfortunately, my attention was quickly garnered by Ernie who was yelling for everyone to follow him outside to start the tour. Rather than blush brightly enough to light up Bourbon Street, I chose the escape route and almost ran to the door, only pausing to open it for an elderly woman who winked at me and jauntily sashayed her way outside.
Smiling brightly, Uncle Ernie waved his hands high in the air and indicated we should all get closer and listen up. Dutifully, I did just that and little did any of us know how quickly we would fall right into his hands. Because, if there was one thing Uncle Ernie was, it was interesting.
Always smiling as if he truly enjoyed his job, he introduced himself again, apologized for his appearance and explained how he was asked to take tonight's tour at the last moment and had come straight from a swamp tour.
Feeling a little less intimidated by his appearance, I continued to listen as he explained the rules of the tour. Even telling me the same thing that I'd already heard on each tour, about how we were to stay with the tour, and on and on was interesting because the man made it seem that way. The thought occurred to me that if I could bottle his enthusiasm, I'd be the richest person in the world.
Ernie also made sure that the elder tourists knew they could ask for a break and admonished us not so elder tourists to keep our eyes open for anything that might go bump in the night in any regard, not just ghostly.
Then with a booming, "We're off to explore the secret and ghastly deeds of the Old French Quarter on our Ghostly Gallivant!" we headed off towards our first stop, the Graveyard Voodoo Shop.
It was a beautiful night, the full moon in a perfect position to help light the way and the frequently present humidity was wonderfully absent. A hint of a breeze kept the air moving, and for so early in the year it was very pleasant.
The smells that had assailed me from the balcony and my walks around the city seemed almost stronger in the Quarter. Fresh baked bread, spices, flowers and everything else combined to be the special flavor of the French Quarter, and I spared a moment to be glad I had joined the tour because I had not been out at night that often.
Everything seemed more ethereal at night, if it wasn't for the people around me, I could have been walking on a street from a hundred years ago. The flickering gas lamps, a couple of them bent at strange angles only added to make the impossible more possible and I realized just how lost one could be in this city.
Ernie was a busy guy during this short walk, circling around the group, ushering us forward all the time and giving us history on the Crescent City as we walked. Telling us about the Pelican State, and how New Orleans was formed from a giant swamp. About how those French guys were sure busy at times because they named Louisiana for King Louis XIV and then helped to make the fabulous city we were walking in, then there were the French Canadians who claimed it and so on.
I had heard some of it before, of course, but it was just more interesting with Ernie. How could one not take a moss covered, hairy man in dirty looking coveralls and full of love for his city seriously? I certainly couldn't, and by the rapt attention of everyone I looked at, it was a similar sensation. I had studiously avoided looking at the blonde until now, but even she looked totally immersed in the world Ernie was forming for us.
"He's quite good, isn't he?"
I almost jumped three steps forward as a voice whispered in my ear. Looking sideways and somehow managing not to trip, I turned to see the woman I had held the door open for in the hotel.
Mentally pushing my heart back into my chest, I replied, "Yes, he's seems really great."
"I try to catch him as often as I can, you know."
Even though it appeared as if the woman was keeping up with me just fine, I slowed down a little and shortened the length of my stride to make it easier, just in case, then I realized what she had said. "Oh, you live here then?"
"Oh yes, for a very long time. But I bet you knew that."
The woman impishly winked at me again and I couldn't help but smile back. "Wow, I'm doubly impressed then. If a local comes to see him, he must be just as good as he seems." My social gene poked me in the butt and I held my hand out politely and said, "I'm Carlee, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you, Carlee. Rose is mine, and I'd be pleased if you'd use it," Rose replied with an interesting lilt to her soft voice.
I blinked slightly at the strength of the older woman's grip and shook her hand tightly. She seemed to appreciate my return shake and smiled a tiny smile that I wasn't about to understand. I had long since discovered that some of the older generation definitely had their own drums they listened to.
Rose spoke up again, "It's a little nippy out tonight."
"Do you have a jacket I can help you with?" I asked, somewhat concerned because many older folks felt the cool more than others.
"You're very kind, Miss Carlee. But, cold hands, warm heart, you know."
"That's what they say," I returned. "But, warms hands, warm heart always sounded better to me."
The pleasant tinkle of well tuned chimes, that's what Rose's laugh sounded like. Delightful, really, and but before I could comment I realized we had arrived at the Voodoo shop.
"This place is a tourist trap," whispered Rose.
I companionably nodded in agreement as I listened to Ernie tell us about Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen, who apparently was more likely a type of hair dresser than anything. At least that's what Ernie was telling us, once more, who was I to argue? Then again, since her ghost was said to walk in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and it was a full moon night, I wasn't going to agree with him out loud either. I can be crazy, but not insane, I had planned to visit the cemetery again before I left.
"What brings you to our city, Carlee?" she asked quietly as Ernie explained about how you could buy just about anything you wanted relating to voodoo and several other things there. And, of course, that he was giving us a few minutes to look around but be back outside in five minutes.
I assumed that he didn't expect us to buy anything in five minutes since one look inside showed me a very bored shop keeper reading a newspaper. I couldn't imagine that the young woman, with just about every piercing I could think of visible, would be able to tear herself away from her paper and ring purchases up in less than five minutes. So, I looked down at my new buddy and replied, "An accident, actually. My boss broke his leg and had no cancellation insurance, so here I am."
"Goodness, he let you come instead?" Rose asked, seemingly amazed.
"Yes, he's a good guy and I guess he figured I needed a vacation rather than lose the money." As I said that I realized that I hadn't been doing what I said I would do and pulled out the camera from my pocket and took a quick picture of the Voodoo shop.
Feeling the need to fill the space and keep my attention away from looking for blondie, who had entered the shop, I asked, "Have you done this tour before, Rose?"
"Once or twice," she replied with a hint of a smile again. "I enjoy getting out on nights like these."
Her statement made me remember her statement about it being nippy and I gallantly offered her the use of my jacket.
"Yes, I knew you would be kind. You have that feel about you. Thank you, but no, I truly am comfortable," she answered.
"All right, just making sure you're set. If you get chilly let me know and I'll be happy to loan you this."
"Thank you." Rose sidled a little closer. "Have you heard of the Flaming Tomb?"
Immediately I shook my head in the negative. "What is that?"
"Ah, well," Rose leaned in a little as if trying to be confidential, as hard as that was in a group of tourists in a very busy area outside a voodoo shop. "Josie Arlington, although I knew her as Josie Deubler, she was the local..." Rose paused and looked around to be sure nobody was listening. "The local madam," she whispered. "Cream of the crop she had and folks paid a pretty penny to experience it."
"I just bet they did," I agreed, wondering where this was going.
"Oh yes, a pretty penny indeed. Well, she got mad at those men who used her services and couldn't be bothered to greet her in the street and decided to build a big old tomb in Metairie Cemetery."
Luckily, Ernie was quite busy answering some questions about which chicken bone was better than another in voodoo rites, so I was able to give Rose my full attention.
"Gorgeous thing it was. Red marble, pillars and even a statue made of bronze! Quite a sight, but it sure cost her a good chunk of those pretty pennies." The imp came out in Rose's smile again and she continued, "Oh, but what a scandal she created. The women folk not wanting her to be buried in a respectable place like that and whispering behind her back all the time. Didn't matter to Josie, though, she was going to be buried there by hook or crook."
"Did she get her wish?" I queried.
"Oh yes, she did but even before she died, nosey parkers visited her tomb and saw it afire. Phantoms cavorted around the pillars and sent them off running. Quite a spectacle, couldn't keep people out of the cemetery because they too wanted to see it. Josie was in hog heaven, that she was. Not a thing they could do to her, and not a thing they could say about her tomb to her face."
Rose chuckled. "She sure knew the tongues were wagging, though, and it just made her laugh and laugh. Time turned, though, and Josie was buried in that tomb and people visited it often to try and see the flames again, but it wasn't until the statue in the front started walking that they really began to wonder what was going on. Bob Todkins said he saw it himself! Walking off with flowers tucked under its arm. Odd thing was that the next day they found a trail of flowers leading from the Flaming Tomb to the gate to the cemetery. So, be sure to look for flowers if you visit there."
I looked over to see Rose wink again and I grinned. "Flaming Tomb and flowers, hm. I'll be sure to visit if I'm in the area."
"You do that, young lady, you do that. And be sure to say hello to Josie for me."
"I sure will," I replied, then sensed something and looked up to see if Ernie was finished, only to find blondie looking over at me, that smirk still on her face. Ah, blushing, what a way to keep warm. She seemed to notice the darkening of my skin and her smirk morphed into a full blown smile right before my eyes. Wow would not have been descriptive enough, frankly. Pretty as she was without it, the smile made everything perfect and I felt my facial muscles tensing to form a smile as well.
"All right then!" boomed Ernie. "Let's move along and in just a minute I'll tell you about our next stop."
Damn that Ernie.
Blondie, as my mind had named her, immediately turned away and began to follow the older woman she seemed to be with. I realized at that point that Rose was talking again and I interrupted her quietly, "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"Finding something else interesting are we, dear?"
Mortified, my eyes almost bugged out of my head as Rose's words hit home. "Um," I blurted. "Just an interesting group."
"Yes, dear, of course it is. They usually are."
Using Rose's comment as a spring board to get me as far as I could from that sea, I asked, "So, how many tours do you think you've taken?"
"Too many to count," Rose answered with a touch of something in her voice that even though Ernie was in the middle of telling us something, it made me look down at her.
"I thought you liked them?" I asked.
"Oh yes, that I do. I just wish I could get out more, but I'm very limited."
"I'm so sorry, this is my last tour but if I'd known you before I would've been happy to give you the extra ticket I had for Ken's wife. I just always donated them at the front desk."
Rose began to answer but a pleasant voice I had heard once before quietly interrupted.
"That was your ticket I used?" queried the blonde.
She had pale eyes whose color I couldn't discern and an effortless way of making me appear quite dense. But, the saddest thing was realizing that my deer in the headlights look would definitely be perfected by the time I got home and I didn’t seem to be able to do a thing about it.
Rose's poke in the ribs seemed to save me and I found my voice again. "If it was at Maison D’Ambrose, yes. I left that extra one and hoped it would be used."
A perfect smile appeared again with her words of gratitude and I started to descend into denseness but luckily Rose accidentally, or I assume so, stepped on my foot and I rallied. "I... I'm glad you were able to use it."
"Yes, my aunts had already booked the tour and when I tried to come along it was sold out, but I guess your concierge knows my concierge and I found out that there was a ticket available."
Nodding, as if that eighteen wheeler was bearing down on me and I had no where to go but under its wheels, I knew I had the silliest grin on my face but Rose had momentarily disappeared and nobody else was going to save me. I had never experienced this peculiar behavior from myself before and I was not at all sure what to do about it.
Of course, blondie took the opportunity and ran with it. Chuckling quite attractively she asked, "Are you all right?"
I found a voice somewhere and replied affirmatively but obviously not much had changed because blondie out right laughed and said, "Uh huh, sure. Well, the name's Neali and thank you for the ticket, it's much appreciated."
Rose once more saved the day, "Her name's Carlee. Sweetie isn't she?"
"I'm sure she is," answered Neali with a wide smile at me, then her attention returned to Rose. "And may I ask your name?"
"Rose is the name, pleasure indeed." The older woman shook Neali's proffered hand.
"Pleasure is mine, Rose," that voice wrapped around those words like a silk scarf and I had to mentally slap myself to get back on track.
"Gather round!" yelled Ernie.
I wasn't quite sure whether I should damn Ernie or praise his name at that moment but either way Neali excused herself immediately and headed back to her aunts. There was a backward glance and I could have sworn a wink, but I wasn't about to believe it at that moment, not with the drooling imbecile the woman seemed to bring out in me.
"Think back," Ernie asked us. "Think to almost a hundred years ago, a frenzy gripped this city and it all started right here at Maggio's Grocer Shop. A warm night in May it was, May Twenty Third in fact. Be glad tonight isn't that night and be safe here as you hear the story."
Ernie looked us all over to be sure we were paying attention, which we were, of course. "Go back in time when Joseph Maggio and his wife were seemingly safe in bed, all the doors locked and they hadn't a care in the world besides selling their vegetables the next morning. And then they were attacked in the darkness of the night, butchered to death right here!"
His voice had deepened as he told us the story and now it dropped to a loud whisper, "Death by axe, they said it was. A mystery that was repeated the next month, and again and again! Horrid attacks, most successful but, thankfully, some were not."
Ernie's long arm swept up to point at the upper floor. "It's here that it's said the Axeman claimed his first victims and here each year, on the anniversary of the attack, where you can hear screams in the night. Echoes of the first bloody massacre of the worst demon who ever existed, it's when he comes back to torment the souls that were lost."
Our guide smiled, which seemed rather odd given the story he was telling, as he turned back to look at us. "And wouldn't you know that The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz was composed for that devil and every night it was played the city was said to be safe from him."
A piece of moss fell from Ernie's hat and I just managed to keep my laughter inside as he continued, "Which was a very good thing, because he was never found. And to this day, on May Twenty Third, you can hear his song being played in just about every part of the city."
Okay, so perhaps Ernie was interesting with history and details, but I had to admit that I was losing faith in his ability to keep up a real scary tour. Then again, with many of the tour members being elderly and one or two of them were looking up at the old shop with a bit of fear, perhaps that wasn't a bad thing.
"All righty then," Ernie cheerfully continued, "we're going to move right along and visit Saint Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. When we get there, I'll tell you a few things you wouldn't normally hear about that area and we'll take a bit of a break too. They have some nice benches we can use for a bit."
And so, with nary a backward glance, we moved on and listened to Ernie tell us about Casket Girls, believe it or not. Neali was, unfortunately, not paying the slightest bit of attention to anything around me - therefore, I made sure that Rose was keeping up and listened to the story. Not without one or two surreptitious glances over to Neali, of course.
It seemed as if the Ursuline sisters, the very same women who had formed the convent I had visited whilst walking around one day, had brought women to New Orleans to be suitable wives. Who knew the sisters had a side calling, I wonder if the Pope knew about that! Anyway, the hats they wore gave the Casket Girls their name. The things you learn on a tour.
Unfortunately, one of the women Neali was with asked a question and therefore she still wasn’t paying any attention to me, so I began to muse about my trip to the Ursuline Convent. I had found it accidentally and decided to visit on a whim. The fabulous mural in the adjacent St. Mary's church was beyond striking and looking at all of the artifacts housed there took a considerable portion of my afternoon, as did examining the gardens and life size statues of various important people to the Convent.
But most importantly, on top of an unexpectedly pleasant afternoon in the convent, I walked out of the grounds only to find myself a witness to the end of a rare jazz funeral. I watched in rapt attention as people danced, sang and clapped their way along the road and it was an amazing thing to see people glorifying lives in that manner, so joyous in death being a triumph of redemption.
On top of so many wondrous things I had experienced and seen in New Orleans, that was one that I truly felt blessed to have witnessed. Watching spirits rejoice had lifted a weight from my shoulders that I didn’t even realize had been there, and I had picked up as many souvenirs as I could at the French Market afterwards to try and thank everyone back at work. So many, in fact, that I had to hail a taxi for the trip back, especially since a new suitcase had also become necessary.
The smile stayed on my face as I looked at Rose to answer her question. “Yes, very much so. I was thinking back to my visit to the Ursuline Convent and the Jazz funeral afterwards.”
Rose’s eye lit up and she clasped her hands together in front of her chest. “It has been so very long since I’ve seen one of those! We used to have them all the time, they would start out so sad and then that music would just lift us up and carry us right on up to heaven with the person we were saying goodbye too.”
“When’s the last one you saw, Rose?” I asked as most of the group turned a corner disappearing onto a street which I remembered led up to the Cathedral. With great pleasure I watched Neali stride up to that same corner, her step strong, sure and oh so very interesting.
“Ah, that would be a very long time…”
I listened as Rose told me about the last Jazz funeral she had attended and then found myself well and truly caught, since Neali turned her head right before she should have turned the corner to follow the rest of the group and she saw me quite boldly checking her out.
Neali stopped and was leaning against a lamppost laughing when Rose’s voice faded in my hearing and a clear voice trickled down the back of my neck like ice cold water.
“Kir i e e’le i son.”
“Lord have mercy,” Rose whispered.
"Wh... what is that?" I breathed, then looked over to see Neali holding onto the corner all traces of mirth gone.
"Something must be wrong," Rose muttered.
"Kris te e’le i son," the song sliced through suddenly much cooler night.
"You should get inside somewhere safe." Rose's voice had suddenly taken on a much harder tone.
"What? Is this a joke?" I couldn't believe that this nice old lady was part of something like that, but I saw no other explanation.
"Pere Dagobert is never this early, it must be a warning. You must go now!"
"Pere who?" I asked and instinctively moved closer to Neali, who took steps in our direction as well. "Look, let's catch up to the rest of the tour, maybe it's some stupid thing they put on for us tourists."
Still, I moved to stand closer to Neali and welcomed the warmth of her hand in mine when she reached out at the same time that I did.
"Is this a really weird part of the tour?" Neali wanted to know, the south very obviously present in her voice this time.
"Kir i e e’le i son." This time the tone of the voice was so terribly heartsick that I felt tears prick my eyes and I brought Neali's hand close against my body.
"What in the hell is going on? If this is part of the tour, I want a refund right now!" I was proud of my voice for not shaking as I spoke, this was getting just a bit too weird for me.
With a voice of someone considerably younger and stronger, Rose insisted, "You must go now!"
"What are you talking about, Rose?" I demanded, not at all amused by whatever was going on.
"Look, let's just catch up with the rest of the tour," Neali added.
Rose made as if to push us towards the corner and both Neali and I turned on numb legs and took a few steps to where the rest of the tour had disappeared.
I turned my head to make sure Rose was following and stopped so suddenly that Neali was almost pulled off her feet.
"Wh..." Neali began to say, but cut herself off as she looked up and also noticed that Rose was gone. "What in damnation is going on?"
Having no answer, I just yelled out, "Rose?"
My rapid breaths mingled in clouds with Neali's and I felt comforted for a moment before I heard the creak of a gate swinging open just ahead. The gate stood next to a set of stairs that led up to a door, which had the number '716' cut into the wall next to it.
"Rose?" I whispered and tried to bend my body around to see into
the archway without moving my body. The sound of footsteps from the general direction
of the gate made me lean farther, but I still couldn't see anything.
"Want to stay here and I'll just look to be sure she's okay?" I asked Neali.
"Hell no," came the prompt reply. "I've watched way too many scary movies. Splitting up is the worst thing to do."
It made me smile a little bit and I noticed a warming of Neali's eyes as well. "All right. Let's go. How bad could this joke be?"
"Yeeees," Neali answered. "But, I tell you what, I'm gonna go to Fist City with these tour people if they're playing jokes. My aunts are gonna be scared spit less and I have to get back to them."
Unexpectedly, Neali took the lead and since we still joined at the hands I went too. We moved up to the black iron gates but couldn't see anything beyond the short brick alley way that led to a courtyard.
By the flickering shadows, I gathered that the courtyard appeared to be lit by some type of open flame. As beautiful as it looked I just couldn't force myself take another step.
"Rose?" I whispered. "Please come out, we need to get going."
The strong scent of incense slammed against my senses and I turned my head away only to see Neali doing the same.
"Whoo, they sure do things to extreme here," Neali growled in a rather distractingly pleasant fashion.
I turned back to the gates only to see what appeared to be a shadow slip from one part of the courtyard to another and it energized me. "Dammit, Rose, this isn't funny anymore."
Reluctantly letting go of Neali's hand, I took emboldened steps into the brick archway and spoke up again, "Rose, I'm sure you're amused but we're not. So, we're going to leave if you don't come out now."
I almost spit my heart out of my ears when I felt a hand slide down my forearm and come to rest in my own hand. It was a very long moment before I realized that Neali had decided we weren't going to be separated and had once more linked us.
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare ya," she apologized.
I ignored her snort after I replied, "You didn't, no worries."
"Maybe we should go," I theorized. "Be my luck that someone will think we're stealing stuff and they'll lock me up."
"Hm, Prisoner of Cell Block H?" teased Neali.
A little surprised that Neali would know of that show, I welcomed the teasing in such an odd place and responded with what I thought was a snappy comeback. "Yeah, that's where they'd put me. I'd be in Bea's cell, I'm sure."
Somewhat shocking me, Neali countered with, "Oh no, with Judy, I'm sure."
I looked over at Neali with the reference to one of the out lesbians on the show that my grand mother had introduced me to and raised an eyebrow, wondering how Neali had come to see it.
"Well?" The hint of a smile twitching the muscles at the corners of Neali's mouth was too adorable of words, but I was saved from saying something unbelievably stupid by what sounded very much like a groan from the courtyard.
A feeling washed over me that seemed to steal my voice and turn my veins to corridors of ice. Nevertheless, we both took steps forward, concerned that Rose might be hurt, and found ourselves on the edge of the small courtyard.
What appeared to be large cut stones lined the floor and neat red bricks formed the walls that surrounded the plants and fountain that held court in the center of the space. Several doorways stood dark and menacing on the various sides and I could see the hint of a staircase on the far wall.
Smoke from an unknown source swirled in some places around the courtyard and hung in thick clouds in others. The incense was even stronger now and obviously was contributing to the smoke.
"Rose?" I whispered, turning to make sure we hadn't missed anything in the short alley we had just come through and noticed what appeared to be a scimitar fastened to the arch above our heads.
"What?" Neali asked when I remained focused on the sword. Then she turned and obviously understood why I was paying such rapt attention to the curved length of metal.
From the bottom of the curve in the sword there were drops of a dark liquid dripping to the ground.
"This is very not funny," Neali commented, her voice slicing into the quiet.
My gaze followed one drop as it traveled earthward and I found myself shaking like a proverbial leaf as an icy dagger seemed to slice through my very soul when I realized there was nothing on the ground. No splatter, no damp pool, nothing, only the fading sound of a drop hitting the ground.
Out of the darkened stairway, a muted scream made us both whirl around so fast that we almost knocked each other to the ground.
And then we almost fell to the floor willingly at the sight of a ball of light moving slowly down the far staircase. My eyes quickly searched for and found Neali's, and she didn't seem to be in any better condition than I was, even in the irregular light I could see that all the color had drained from her face.
I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as I watched the oddly luminous ball slowly move down the staircase and Neali's hand almost crushed my own. It wasn't bright enough to see everything, but I could see what appeared to be carved banisters and scroll work in the wood of the stairway and not much else.
"Let's get out of here." My voice seemed to echo back and forth between the brick walls.
We turned in unison to leave only to see that the iron gate had somehow closed behind us and a huge padlock now hung very obviously holding the gate closed.
"Oh crap," Neali echoed my own sentiments exactly.
Deciding that I had most definitely had enough of this little farce, I moved quickly to the gate, sensing Neali right behind me, feeling the sting of the cold iron against my hands as I grasped the bars and rattled the gate. Why, I have no idea, the padlock looked more than adequate to stand against a horde of raving barbarians, never mind Neali and I.
Sure enough, beyond a bit of noise I did no good whatsoever and worse, I had given up the warmth of Neali's hand for something far less palatable.
At Neali's choked, "Carlee..." I pivoted to see what had caused the hand which had been warm against my back clutch the material under it.
The plain brick courtyard had now been festooned with rich material that brought an oddly oppressive warmth to it. The plants were now fewer, and pillows and benches were spotted throughout. And just as strangely, an octagonal glass lamp was dangling from a light chain in the middle of the entrance to the courtyard.
As I tried to take in the change of the courtyard a low mournful wail came from somewhere above and caused both of us to take huge breaths of air to fill the lungs that we had obviously been neglecting.
"Oh God, we so need to get out of here," I said rather unnecessarily.
To make up for my obvious statement, I grabbed at Neali's hand and pulled her along with me as slowly moved back towards the open space. "Let's find a way out of here."
"With you all the way," Neali replied as she stuck to me like glue.
We inched our way along the passageway, keeping the wall to our backs until we found ourselves back at the entrance. The lamp above our heads swung slightly and it was then I noticed a reflection in one of the surfaces.
Turning my head sharply to look in the direction of where the image was coming from I spotted a large man fighting with a young woman behind the wooden railing on the second floor. His hand whipped across her face and she fell out of view with a loud thump.
"Hey!" I yelled. Mortified that I'd spoken so loudly, I was even more scared to realize that the man's head was turning towards me.
Dressed in material that appeared to be the finest silk, the man had a look that I had probably seen in a history book some time in my past.
His eyes seemed to bore into mine and when he smiled, it was if I was looking into the depths of hell. When he started to move towards the stairs, I had never been so scared.
"Look," Neali urged. I looked in the direction she was pointing and saw formless dark blobs moving erratically all around the second floor. Darting amidst the dark blobs were balls of light and as we watched, some of the balls of light were extinguished as the dark blobs flowed over them.
Another scream made us both jump, and spurred us to action. I reached for one of the pieces of material, somewhat surprised that it felt as real and heavy as it looked and pushed it aside, looking for a door.
The dark red material rippled along its length, helping me spot the outline of what I was looking for. Tugging Neali with me, I ran to the other side and pulled the material aside. Reaching for the door, I said a prayer of thanks as it flung open and we started to step through the doorway.
We turned again at a scream that seemed to be quite close, only to turn back and stop dead at the mass of bodies which now stood before us.
Figures... men I was sure, dressed in black and hefting wicked knives that gleamed in the candlelight took up a fair chunk of the room we had entered. Their faces were covered in scarves but I could almost feel that they were to be quite pleased we had walked amongst them.
Keeping Neali behind me, I kept my eyes on the figures and started to back out of the room. All the while trying to ignore the fact that what I had thought were solid figures actually seemed to be composed of a swirling fog like substance.
They started to advance upon us and I stopped when Neali's voice trembled in my ear, "There are more behind us."
Not at all sure what was going to happen, I tried to stay as calm as possible and said quietly, "Hang on tight."
I felt Neali's grip tighten on the back of my jeans and prepared myself for the run of my life. I could only pray that the diaphanous figures in front of us wouldn't take a straight on assault and I shoved off the floor as if I was running for a medal in the Olympics.
As I reached the first figure, it reached out to me and touched my shoulder. Pain like I had never felt before in my life lanced through my body and I doubled up instantly.
I could vaguely hear someone screaming, I didn't think it was me, but I wouldn't have sworn to anything at that point. I tried to move but every muscle in my body was caught in a frenzy of spasms and I couldn't force them to work for me if my life depended on it, which I realized it might.
And in one instant, one single instant, everything changed.
As if someone had exploded a bomb in the room, there was an explosion of light and a voice I found somehow familiar boomed, "Enough!"
Having control over your eyelids is sometimes I good thing, I realized. Because I opened up my eyes to see shards of light spearing through the figures that had been before us.
I felt warm hands touch me but couldn't tear my eyes away from the awful and wonderful thing that was happening in front of me. The figures were being torn apart by the light, but the one that had touched me was fighting the hardest against whatever was trying to disperse them.
Squinting at the brilliance that was now filling the room, I almost felt sorry for the figure that had touched me when it reached out again. Before I had to close my eyes completely against the radiance, I saw the soundless scream it formed before it blew apart and I covered my face with my arm to protect myself.
What felt like hours later Neali asked, "Are you all right?"
Not at all sure how to answer that question, I opened my eyes slowly and witnessed a glow sweep the room as if searching to be sure there was nothing left and then dissipate.
That's when I realized I was lying on the floor and Neali was kneeling beside me. I looked up at her anxious face and nodded, wincing as the movement hurt my shoulder.
"You're not," she argued. "Can you stand so we can get out of here?"
Her hands were still on my body and I welcomed them as she helped me stand. Feeling more than a bit wobbly I took a few breaths and looked around. Everything seemed so normal it almost hurt more than my shoulder.
Gone were the figures, the tapestry like drapes, the candles, the lamp above the entryway and there wasn't a sign of the lights either. The courtyard was back to plants and a fountain, as if everything I'd just gone through was a nightmare.
Yet, when I glanced at Neali, I knew that if it had been a nightmare, it had been a waking one. Covering the hand on my wrist, I asked her softly, "Are you okay?"
"I will be once we get out of this damned place. I think I need a very, very stiff drink," she replied.
"I'll buy," I offered. "In fact, let's have them bring beds to the bar so we can just sleep there."
That got me a slight snort of laughter. "You're on. Can we get out of here now?"
"There you are!" Rose's voice carried in from the courtyard.
Neali and I gingerly made our way the few feet to the doorway and looked out to see Rose standing at the alley to the gate.
"What in the hell was that?" I demanded, sure after all that this had been some type of stupid ruse.
Looking slightly abashed, Rose tried to act as if nothing had happened and I wouldn't have it. "Rose, what just happened to us?"
Suddenly serious, Rose beckoned us closer to us and came up with an answer that didn't answer anything. "The wrong time, the wrong place. The right people."
"What?" Neali spoke up. "What on earth do you mean?"
Any further conversation was stopped when we heard many footsteps coming down the street and Ernie's head appeared around the corner.
His hat had lost more of the moss and he appeared quite upset with us. "You must come out of there immediately. It's private property. Come, come!"
The thought ran through my head that this had to be a parody of a very bad Halloween story when another voice interrupted the quiet.
"It's about time I caught you! Why did you leave without me?" an older woman demanded of Ernie. "I bought this ticket months ago, you better give me a partial refund!"
"Ma'am, I'm not sure what you mean."
The older woman speared the white paper in her hand at him. "See this? Ghostly Gallivanting, October 31st! I was right on time and you were already gone! I missed the tour, I may sue for breach of well... something! I'm sure my health's been affected by all of this stress!"
Two women, I assumed Neali's aunts, stepped around the latest spectacle and approached us asking their niece if she was all right and giving me sideways glances.
At her assurances, they seemed to relax a bit and we all watched Ernie fend off the woman with considerable aplomb. "Ma'am, I collected the tickets myself and everyone was accounted for. Perhaps there was some mistake."
Feeling iron tight muscles slowly release as each minute brought a distance of both space and time from the experience we had just had, I let the argument flow over my head and simply kept my gaze on Neali.
To that concerned gaze, Neali appeared exhausted beyond belief. She still had a grip on me and I wasn't totally sure if we weren't supporting each other.
That's when I noticed Rose at my shoulder, she smiled warmly at us and spoke up quietly as the arguing continued. "You are a special woman, which much love inside, and even more protecting you. Care for that love and it will pay you back in so many good ways."
And then she turned her attention to Neali and her aunts. "And you two have done an amazing job with your niece. She's a woman of substance and depth beyond measure. It will be a stunning match."
Neali made to ask what that meant when Rose held up a finger to her lips. "Don't question, dear. Just take the experience with you and learn from it. You were saved by something stronger than the evil in this house. Never doubt that love is always stronger."
"Wha..." I paused in my question, remembering a moment in that room when I thought I had recognized a voice. "Grandma?" I breathed the word so quietly that I wasn't sure I had actually said it.
"She will always love you, always," Rose replied. Then she looked over at Neali. "And she approves greatly."
"Ah ah, I have already over stayed my welcome." Then that wink returned and aimed itself at me. “And Josie’s waiting for me.”
Neali's aunts looked nearly as confused as I felt but we all turned back to the argument when we heard the sound of something hitting the ground and the woman’s voice rose so loud that it was almost rattling some of the windows.
She had thrown all of the tickets that Ernie had shown her on the floor and was once more waving her ticket at him still insisting on a refund.
Having many questions to ask, I turned my head to talk to Rose only to find her missing once more. I spun around, only feeling a slight discomfort in my shoulder this time and thoroughly searched the area with my eyes.
Knowing somehow that I wouldn’t see Rose again, I smiled slightly realizing that the strange story of the Flaming Tomb must have had more meaning to her than I could’ve possibly realized.
"Not again," murmured Neali, also noticing the absence of a certain elderly woman and voicing a truth we already knew about the disappearing Rose.
I looked at Neali and felt something inside twist that I had never felt before. Felt a sudden need to spend every moment with this woman that I had been told was a stunning match. Somehow I didn’t doubt that as truth.
"Want to skip the rest of the tour and go for that drink instead?" I waited with baited breath for the answer, thankfully it was an extremely short wait.
"Absofrigginlutely. In fact, my treat."
And as Neali ushered her aunts forward, telling them that they really should go on with the tour, but that she needed a break for a bit, I hung back a little bit and glanced behind me repeatedly.
There was no sign of anything we had witnessed, nothing. Even the scimitar above the arch was gone. Rose being gone just about put an exclamation mark on the whole thing.
Then Neali was back with me and speaking quietly, "It's as if it didn't happen, isn't it? Did we just have some weird hallucination?"
I might have agreed with her if I hadn’t taken a moment earlier to check my shoulder. Pulling my shirt aside I showed Neali the five marks that marred the smooth skin of my shoulder. Marks that were spaced as fingers would be.
Glad beyond measure that we were amongst the living and safe, I looked over at the beautiful woman at my side and asked, "What do you think?"
"What I think is that we both need a drink, a good meal and very long lives. And I think that needs to start now. What do you think?"
"I think you're brilliant, Neali whatever your last name is but I’m soon to find out. And I think I'll never go on another ghostly tour again."
"With you, Carlee whoever and I don’t care what your last name is. With you all the way.
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