A shiver crept up my spine as we walked into the haunted graveyard. Although it was broad daylight, there was something existentially eerie about walking amongst the dead remains in concrete tombs.
We had come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but after enjoying the festive Krewe of Zulu parade earlier that morning, I’d gotten sucked into the tour after visiting Voodoo Authentica on Dumaine Street.
“Come on,” my friend, Diana, insisted. “It’ll be fun!”
I fought the temptation to roll my eyes. My idea of fun was sipping Hand Grenades from a ridiculous tall green glass with an odd-looking smiley face painted on its grenade bottom while walking down Bourbon Street and taking in all the sights and sounds.
Instead, I was at the entrance of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on Basin Street, about to embark on a tour of the oldest extant cemetery in New Orleans, established in 1789.
Not that I minded a little off-the-beaten-path excursion, but there was an ominous aura about the graveyard that gave me chills. And the strange pendant necklace that Diana had insisted I buy made things seem even spookier.
The guide was a man of indiscriminate age who dressed in Voodoo fashion. His tall black hat seemed out of place for the middle of the day but was appropriate when one considered the creepiness of traipsing through the resting place of the dead.
Our guide’s name was Baron La Croix, though he was quick to point out he was not the famous male deity that people worship in the Vodou religion. As if he needed to clarify that he wasn’t a god but merely a tour guide, likely surviving on minimum wage and whatever tips he could score. It probably wasn’t even his real name. But it certainly added to the disturbing vibe of the tour.
He wore black and white makeup on his face, which masked his expressions. I found it unnerving to look at him, so I hung back in the middle of the pack of tourists. That hardly seemed to matter. Every time we stopped so he could give us some history about the particular tomb we were standing near, he appeared to zero in on my face. It was futile to resist eye contact; I felt compelled to stare.
Concentrating on the history being shared was difficult when I felt like Baron was penetrating my soul.
“Di, let’s just hang back and skip out. Please!”
“Giselle, don’t be a party pooper! There will be plenty of time to party after our tour.”
“I don’t know, Diana, this guy is giving me the creeps. I just wanna drink too much, show my tits, and collect pretty party beads.
Diana tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? It’s the middle of the damned day. Surely, you can wait until evening for more decadent activities.”
Inhaling sharply, I said, “Fine. I can wait. But after this, I get to choose the next daylight experience. Like maybe the outdoor market.”
Baron chided. “You need to keep quiet while I conduct the tour.”
“Oh, gosh! We’re so sorry,” Diana said apologetically.
But Baron wasn’t looking at her; he was studying my face as if trying to commit every detail to memory.
He stared a minute too long, eventually looking away to continue the tour.
“Bernard de Marigny is another notable figure. He was a rowdy, ambitious nobleman who enjoyed causing trouble and gambling. His father sent him to England to cure him of his wicked ways, but instead, he brought back the dice game, Craps, which was a great hit among the locals,” Baron explained.
“This is also the final resting place of Marie Laveau, the infamous Voodoo Queen. She was known all over the city for being the go-to woman to solve a variety of issues and concerns. All sorts of locals went to her for resolution, from cheating lovers to thieves. There are countless songs and legends about her power, which was considered quite intimidating.”
“She’s not the only one who’s intimidating,” I whispered to Diana, earning me an elbow to the gut.
“Having practiced the occult and fortune telling, Marie’s experience with all things otherworldly was feared and revered by all. After her death in 1881, the citizens of New Orleans were convinced of her immortality as they spotted her around the town. Of course, it was merely her daughter, Marie II, who pretended to be her mother for the better part of her life.”
Baron droned on a bit longer as I tuned him out until he caught my attention with the fact that Nicholas Cage commissioned a nine-foot-tall tomb in the shape of a pyramid for when his time on earth expires.
When the tour was over, Diana handed Baron a twenty-dollar tip, making sure he knew it was from both of us.
“You didn’t have to cover me, Di.”
“It was the least I could do. I appreciate you humoring me with this little side tour.”
“Well, at least let me buy you lunch before we head back to the hotel.”
“Not necessary, but I won’t turn that offer down. Where do you feel like eating?”
We ended up at the Ruby Slipper Café, did some shopping (mostly of the window variety), and headed back to our room at Hotel St. Pierre French Quarter on Burgundy Street. It was too chilly to swim, but I ordered drinks for us, and we sat poolside, planning our evening’s adventures.
“You know Mardi Gras is already happening, Diana. We don’t have to wait until evening to enjoy the debauchery.”
Diana bit her bottom lip and looked away. “I’m just not comfortable popping my top in broad daylight.”
“If this is about your breasts being uneven, just knock it off. Steven was a jerk and didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.”
“It’s not that!”
I shot her my best annoyed teacher/mom look.
“Okay, fine! It’s not only that! I just, I don’t know. What if we run into someone we know? I’ll be so embarrassed.
“That’s what the masks are for, silly. We put them on, and no one will know whose tatas they are looking at, okay?”
“Come on, Diana. I suffered through that creepy, spooky graveyard tour. We did all kinds of other things this afternoon, avoiding Bourbon Street. It’s time to let our hair down and be a little wild. Wasn’t that the whole point of this trip?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Okay, Giselle, you win. Let’s put our slutty outfits on and go get our freak on.”
An hour later, we were dressed in matching long-sleeved shirts with plunging V-necks and a shimmery paisley print (without bras, of course). The perfect choice for popping that top! Since it was cooler than we’d expected outside, we opted for tight jeans instead of the initially planned denim miniskirts. Our asses still looked sexy, and we wouldn’t freeze out there. My plan for dressing identically was two-fold. First, I figured we’d garner more attention if people thought they saw double. And, of course, it was a safety deal. If we got separated, I figured it would be easier to ask people if they had seen anyone dressed exactly the same way.
The masks I’d brought with us were the finishing touch. It was eerie how much we looked alike with them on. They were green satin, covered in gold bric-a-brac and purple rhinestones, with black, purple, and green feathers attached to the side with a faux emerald. Pleased with what the mirror showed us, we set out for Bourbon Street.
It was a fabulous scene of cacophony and craziness, precisely what I’d been waiting for all day. People were milling about everywhere, drinking, singing, and, yes, ladies were popping their tops, yelling, “Throw me something, Mister.”
Beads of all colors were tossed from balconies where horny, rowdy men enjoyed the view, opting to look, not touch, from a safe distance.
After a few drinks, Diana finally loosened up and flashed her gorgeous girls to the onlookers at Rue Bourbon. We laughed and partied, collecting our tokens of misbehavior, and enjoying the freedom to let it all hang out.
A few hours into the wanton wickedness, I felt as though I was being watched. But when I looked around, no one was there. I chalked it up to too much alcohol and decided it was time for a bottle of water to ward off the paranoia of dehydration.
“Come on, Di, I’m gonna grab us a couple of waters.”
But when I looked around, Diana wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
Then I took a deep breath and started asking the other Mardi Gras revelers if they’d seen anyone who looked like me.
I got some rude suggestions and a few crude comments, but no one recalled seeing Diana.
I grabbed my cell phone out of my purse and dialed her number quickly.
It went straight to voicemail, so I left a message that made it clear I was worried and to call me back ASAP. I was trying desperately not to freak out, but I felt sick to my stomach.
I decided I really needed hydration and ducked into a bar. The bartender couldn’t have been kinder, providing me with a glass of iced water for no charge.
But as I was leaning against a post, I felt that eerie sense of being watched again. I looked across the crowded bar and saw Baron La Croix standing there, still in full makeup from the earlier graveyard tour.
As much as I loathed the idea of having anything to do with him, it occurred to me that he might have seen Diana and be of some help. So, I wiggled my way through the swarms of people and approached him cautiously, trying to appear friendly.
“Hi, Baron. I don’t know if you remember me from earlier, but…”
“The rude girl who wouldn’t stop chatting and wished to ditch the tour,” he said without letting me finish.
I felt myself blush under the mask. Technically, he wasn’t wrong. But I needed to put that all behind me at the moment.
“I’m trying to find the girl I came with.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know, my friend. The girl I was with. She handed you a twenty-dollar tip. Surely you recall that.”
“My dear, I recall you handing me a tip. However, you were not accompanied by anyone. Which is why the chatting was quite annoying.”
“Talking to yourself is one thing, but you were doing so quite loudly, and it was distracting for others who were truly interested in what I had to say. I kept wondering why you didn’t just leave since you mentioned several times that you didn’t want to be there.”
I shook my head as if trying to clear myself of the foggy stupor I was experiencing.
“No, you’re wrong. I was with my friend. She and I came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras together. We’d planned this trip for nearly a year to reward ourselves for working so hard. I wouldn’t have come without her.”
“Come with me,” Baron said. “I think I can help you clear this up.”
I fought the urge to run when he grabbed my arm. But I seemed powerless to do anything but allow him to escort me from the bar. He held on tightly as if expecting me to bolt. It was both disconcerting and oddly comforting at the same time.
But panic arose as bile in my throat when he pulled me into a dark alley. I think I tried to scream, but no sound came out. His arm was around my neck before I blacked out.
I woke up in my room at Hotel St. Pierre and felt like everything was spinning. I saw Baron sitting in a chair by the door. Was he holding me captive here? Had he attacked me? Why did I ache everywhere?
I let sleep take me again, too afraid to confront the nightmare laid out in front of me.
When my eyes opened again, sunlight peered in the window, casting shadows in my room. Baron was no longer there, but a note was propped on the chair where he’d been sitting.
I had a tour to conduct, ma chère. I will return with soup. Drink some water, and shower if you feel up to it, but don’t leave the room.
I made my way to the shower, unnerved by the bruise on my cheek but too tired to try to remember how it had gotten there. Turning on the faucet, I let the hot water rain down on me and cleanse away the makeup and the sticky alcohol residue from my night on Bourbon Street.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Baron was sitting in the chair again. Maybe I had imagined that he’d left? But no, there was soup on the nightstand.
“I don’t remember what happened. But I guess I should thank you for taking care of me,” I said, still unsure if Baron was the good guy or the bad guy.
“It was the least I could do. You seemed very distraught. I took the liberty of asking at the concierge desk if you were traveling with anyone. They indicated that the reservation had originally been for two people, but that last month, you called to change it to just yourself. I don’t know who Diana is, but she didn’t come to New Orleans with you.”
I sat on the bed, feelings of sadness overwhelming me. The fear came rushing back and, with it, agonizing grief. It felt as though my heart would come bounding out of my chest.
“No, please!” I screamed as Baron tried to console me.
“I got someone to cover the rest of my tours for the day. I can stay if you’d like. Maybe you can tell me about Diana.”
“Why did I go on the tour yesterday?” I asked, feeling as though I was wading through cobwebs in my brain.
“You stopped by the Voodoo shop and picked up an amulet,” he explained. “Then you started having a conversation with yourself aloud.”
“Where’s my phone?”
He picked it up from the dresser and handed it to me. There was a message from Diana’s mother.
Giselle, it’s Lorna. Sweetie, you are obviously drunk, but you have to stop calling. Diana is gone, honey. No amount of wishing can bring her back. I’m glad you went to Mardi Gras after all. She wouldn’t have wanted you to miss it. Try to have a good time, but be careful. Come and see me when you’re back from your trip. I have some things of Diana’s that she would have wanted you to have.
“She’s gone?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.
Baron sighed, his pity hanging heavy in the air.
I saw something shiny in his hand. “What’s that?”
“It’s the amulet you bought at the shop. I found it on the ground outside the bar last night when I went to settle my tab after getting you in bed.”
“Getting me in bed?”
“Not like that, ma chère. You were too ill to take advantage of, not that I would have anyway.”
“Thank you, Baron, for making sure I got back here in one piece.”
“It wasn’t easy; you fell several times until I finally put you over my shoulder. I apologize that you must have gotten that bruise during one of your tumbles. I should have carried you sooner.”
“It felt so real.”
“Diana was with me; I talked to her, I argued with her, I…”
“Ah, that you did, ma chère, only she wasn’t real. But that explains why I kept thinking you were talking to yourself.”
I sat there feeling empty.
“She’s gone. She didn’t come with me. She was supposed to come with me. Oh, God, she was my best friend.”
“What happened?” Baron asked gently.
“We were supposed to meet to see a movie, but she never showed. I was so mad that she stood me up. But she was kind of flaky, and it wasn’t the first time. So, I didn’t think anything was wrong. I just thought she’d been her ditzy self. But after the movie, I got a call from her mother. Diana had been in a car accident. She was killed instantly. I felt so guilty that I had been mad at her.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“No, but I felt like a shitty friend.”
“You’re not. You came here to enjoy Mardi Gras in her memory. That couldn’t have been easy.”
“It was supposed to be both of us on this trip. I miss her so much; I never got to say goodbye.”
Baron inhaled sharply, then gazed into my eyes.
“Hold out your hand. I’m going to give you something.”
He laid the amulet on the palm of my hand.
“When you wrap your fingers around it, she’ll be with you. But its power will only last a few hours. Make them count, ma chère.”
I frowned, “But how?”
I looked up, and Baron was gone. Had I imagined him too?
I took a deep breath, shut my eyes, and slowly closed my fingers around the amulet. When I opened my eyes again, Diana was sitting in the chair where Baron had been.
“There you are!” Diana said excitedly. “I thought you’d sleep the whole day away!”
Only a few hours…make them count, ma chère.
“Nothing. I’m going to get dressed, and we can spend the afternoon doing whatever you wish.”
“Thanks, but we checked off my to-do list yesterday. Today is all about you, Giselle.”
“Let’s just walk around the city and play it by ear, shall we?” I suggested.
I just wanted time with my best friend, making memories together one last time.