“Look, I know you’re all hot-to-trot on this crazy idea of yours, but just put a lid on it, okay? We’ve got real work to do without chasing ghosts.”
“But Sarge, people have been disappearing every year! And they’re always…”
He turned on me. “Listen, Minneapolis-fancy-pants POHL-leece man! This is N’Oleans,” he said, deliberately emphasizing his Louisiana accent, “and people disappear here all the fucking time! Especially at Mardi Gras!”
“I know, Sarge, but look…over the last 10 years, almost forty people have vanished without a trace. And they were all similar: young, male, unattached, and nobody came looking for them! The only reason we even know they were missing was that they never checked out of their hotel rooms. Look!” I shoved my research in his face, “I chased down the details on all of them! There’s a serial killer out there who is stalking Mardi Gras. We’ve got to do something about it!”
Sarge’s face set, emphasizing his piggy eyes and his double chins. “Like what, smart boy?” He pushed the papers away. “They probably drunk themselves into a stupor and got rolled, or wound up in some whore’s bedroom. Or slipped and fell into the river.” He looked up at me. “Besides, as you just said, no one was looking for them – so why the fuck should we care?”
I stopped and just stared at him. “You – you don’t care that there’s a serial killer loose on your watch?”
He set his hip and put a beefy fist on it. “Why should I? I have enough trouble coping when people do squawk – and now the Mayor wants to make the police presence ‘less offensive’ during the parade! Why don’t you worry about that for a change, hunh?”
“Enough. I’ve had it with your detective-wannabe shit. If you want to look for a serial killer, go ahead – but on your own time. I’ve got plenty enough real police work to do. And so do you!” he said, poking a finger hard into my chest.
Then he stopped and a nasty grin grew across his face. “Tell you what, though, Charlie boy – you can be in charge of policing the parade. How’s that? Then you can search for your serial killer to your heart’s content.”
He rocked back a bit, and his smile grew. “Yeah. You don’t have anyone at home to object to the overtime – you take it. I’ll ship the paperwork over to your desk. Great idea, kid,” he reached out and patted my shoulder. “See ya!”
And lumbered away, chuckling.
Asshole. He knew my wife had died six months ago, and that my apartment echoed with her absence. And he knew I didn’t have anyone else.
Arcángela – Angie – and I moved to New Orleans two years ago because she’d originally been from here. She had hated the cold Minneapolis winters, where we had met. She’d convinced me I’d progress quickly through the New Orleans Police Department – and warm winters had sounded enticing.
Then she up and died on me in childbirth. She and our daughter, both. I didn’t think that happened anymore, but apparently, it does.
I swallowed, bitter at the memory, and angry that I had let Sarge dump the impossible job of trying to police the parade on me – especially with the Mayor wanting us to do our jobs while being invisible. “Don’t scare the tourists!” he’d said to us, “they pay your salary, you know!”
I had worked my butt off, and everything I could think of to do was ready for the parade. I was exhausted, yet held no hope that we were going to catch the perp who was killing tourists and getting away with it.
And although I was supposed to oversee everything on the day from a command post, I was, instead, going to walk along the side of the street as the parade unfolded, hoping against hope that I could see the killer. A forlorn hope, but the only thing I could think of. Meanwhile, everything was as ready for tomorrow’s parade as I could make it.
It was just after midnight when I finally left the station to walk home, dead tired when I turned a corner and almost tripped over Maman Laveau, who stood about 4’ 9”. The locals all claimed she was a Voodoo loa, but personally, I thought she was just a panhandler with a superior grift.
“Watch wa’ ya goin’, jeune. Might could be you wind up hurtin’ yousel’”
“Sorry, Maman. I’m just tired and on my way home.” I stepped aside to continue my journey.
But she grabbed my hand, forcing my palm up, peering up into my eyes.
It was the first time I had actually focused on her face. I’d seen her before, waddling from foot to foot around the French Quarter, seemingly collecting respect – and probably money – from the locals, especially the Cajuns and Creoles. I thought it was a shake-down, but no one else on the force had any interest in harassing her. “Bad juju” was all they ever said, shaking their heads.
Now, staring at her mahogany-colored, seamed face, I was drawn to her eyes. They were hypnotic and seemed to be bottomless, a kind of smoky blue-grey, like mist rising over a swamp, and bored into me. She pursed her lips. “Hmmp,” she grunted, then turned her gaze down to my palm.
Her skin was rough and calloused, although I had never seen her do a lick of work. With one stubby finger, she traced the lines on my hand, stopped, then tossed it away from her, like it was a snake.
She backed away from me, hands held high, as if she had thrown something disgusting, then turned and quickly waddled away, glancing back once, then disappeared, muttering into the darkness.
I was left, rubbing my jaw, and wondering what the hell had just happened.
The crowd noise was deafening, with cries, shouts, singing, whistles, drums, horns, and a synthesis of every kind of noise humans could make. It was mostly exuberant, but there was a dark undercurrent of desperation – for love, for money, for sex – for every heart’s yearning. I had never experienced Mardi Gras before moving to New Orleans, but it was electrifying, and not always in a good way.
I was walking along the streets, in uniform, eyes on the crowd and away from the gaudy floats and nearly naked revelers of all sexes. Strings of carnival beads whizzed over my head, thrown from the floats into the eager, grasping hands of the crowd. Some partiers had massive strings of beads flapping around their necks, mouths open, either to scream, sing, laugh, or pour alcohol down their gullets.
To say I found it disturbing is an understatement. As a quiet, well-mannered Midwestern boy, I found these heaving crowds, with their raw, sweaty, grasping human emotions, vulgar and quite frightening – but I kept my thoughts to myself. Instead, I focused on scanning the crowds, looking for a face that wasn’t happy, wasn’t showing celebratory emotion, that was, instead, reptilian and conniving. So far, all I had seen were base emotions that could be written off as bacchanalian – self-indulgent rather than spiteful.
Just then, a string of beads floated over the bill of my uniform cap. I had had close calls before, as revelers on the floats had tried to play ring toss, with me as the stick in the middle – unsuccessfully. Some strings had landed and draped themselves over me, but I had brushed all of them off.
This one floated perfectly over my uniform cap and head, then settled on my chest with a palpable thump. And it wasn’t a cheap plastic or aluminium set of beads – it was a heavier metal, dull silver in color. Lead, perhaps?
Annoyed, I screwed my neck around to peer at the float and found the krewe king staring fixedly at me. He – at least, I think it was a he – had a grinning skeleton’s head, and was wearing a top hat, bow tie, and formal cutaway tailcoat, with skeletal hands poking out of the sleeves – which, perversely, looked ragged around the cuffs.
I couldn’t see how this skeleton costume was done, nor how they made the float look so phantasmagoric. It wasn’t just rhinestones and glitter and papier mâché; even Disney would have been stonkered to create something like this. It was brilliant art of its sort. It seemed to focus on dancing spirits that flickered in reds, golds, and oranges – but none of the krewes were merry. They seemed to be writhing in agony, not reveling in excess. The float seemed totally out of place.
I had studied past floats of the most prominent krewes to get a sense of the styles they used, and this float had none of the badges or markings or themes of traditional floats. It was jarring, not at all familiar to me, and out of keeping with the flamboyance of all the other floats.
“Come to me!” I heard a hissing voice say, although how I was able to hear it over the crowd noise should have puzzled me.
I pivoted on my heel and walked towards the float and the krewe king, then paced the float, walking alongside him as it moved.
“So, you’re looking for…a killer?” its voice hissed, followed by hissing laughter. “Well, perhaps you’ve found one! What is your dearest wish, out of anything in the world?”
I shook my head as if to clear it, feeling muzzy. Too many sleepless nights, too much work, I guessed. “To see my dear wife, and our daughter again.”
Again the hissing laughter. “Perfect. Granted!”
Then I collapsed, and my world went dark.
I came out of it slowly, groggy, and found myself lying on something hard and lumpy. The air was close and smelled of ancient decay.
And it was dark. I’ve been deep into forests on overcast nights, and they were dark, but this was darker. There was no glimmer of light of any kind.
I lifted my hand to wipe my face – and banged it into something hard, making a thumping sound. I lifted my head – and banged it, too, on something only a few inches above.
I felt around me, cautiously, and found I was in some kind of small enclosure. I thumped my heel. It made a hollow, wooden sound. With difficulty, I was able to slide my hand into my pocket, and eventually, with much fumbling, pulled out my smartphone. Sliding it up my chest, I thumbed the Home button, then turned on the flashlight.
Suddenly, I could see how very small the space was – barely big enough for my body. It took me a moment, but I finally realized I was in a coffin.
Holy SHIT! How the hell had that happened? How did whoever it was drug me, transport me, and where…
My blood ran cold. I turned my body as best I could and torqued my neck to look down.
There was a partly-decomposed corpse beneath me – and it was wearing the clothes I’d buried Arcángela in…