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Prologue

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ew Orleans was coming alive. The bells of Saint Louis Cathedral chimed seven o’clock. At Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, the gates closed to visitors four hours ago, but the old sexton voiced no objection to the woman creeping past the grave of Homer Plessy.  He’d seen her before.

            She slipped between the white parapet tombs and oven vaults of the burial ground, pausing for a moment by a stepped chamber engraved with the name Philippe Bertrand.

            A red-and-white scarf shrouded her face.  She paused, allowing the coral pink shades of twilight to silhouette her slender frame before she passed between the graveyard’s whitewashed gateposts. She was leaving this cemetery for the last time, she hoped. The sexton smiled as he closed the squeaky black iron gate behind her.

            Once on Basin Street, the woman set down the lidded basket she was carrying and adjusted the bodice of her long white dress. Her mission now was to find and help a certain young man who made his living as a tour guide. At this hour, she was sure she knew where he’d be.

Over on Bourbon Street, Carl and his wife were relishing the street performers and sipping slushy hurricane drinks from plastic go-cups.

            “Betcha a dollar I can tell you where you got them shoes.”

            Carl ignored the hustler. He’d already fallen for that line once. He was far more interested in the scantily clad young woman who was trying to entice him into a strip club.

            Carl’s wife tugged at his arm, causing him to spill a few drops of his red frozen drink on a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I” and “Duluth,” a red Valentine heart placed between the two words. The heart matched Carl’s red Bermuda shorts.

            “Come on, Carl, we’re going to be late for the haunted tour.”

            Music blared from one of the nearby clubs, trumpet, sax, bass, and drums playing somebody’s request for “When the Saints.” The band charged extra for that song. Carl’s wife began to sing along, “I want to be in that number…”

The couple veered right off Bourbon Street. Ten minutes later, they were standing on Governor Nicholls Street, formerly known as Hospital Street. With them were four other tourists, each wearing little white tags to identify them as paid members of the haunted tour group. At their rear stood the woman who had walked out of Saint Louis Cemetery, her face still hidden by her scarf. She’d found the tour guide and studied him as she leaned against the gray shuttered window of a faded pink house. Carl and his wife stood in front of her.

            The young tour guide kept a black umbrella in his left hand and clutched a small blue object in his right. He used the umbrella to point to the rectangular gray stucco house on the corner across the street. Tall arched windows surrounded its first and third floors. Rectangular windows with black shutters looked out from behind the wrought iron gallery on the second floor.

            The tour guide fidgeted with the license dangling from his belt and did his best to conceal the blue object in his right hand. Carl’s wife took a disposable flash camera out of her purse and, without looking, stepped back. Her beehive hairdo bumped the shrouded face of the woman from the cemetery.

            “Sorry.”

            The mysterious woman didn’t look up or respond.

            The tour guide stepped off the curb, into the street.

            “We’ve arrived at 1140 Royal Street, what many believe to be the most haunted house in New Orleans. In 1833, this house belonged to Madame Delphine Lalaurie and her husband. The ineptitude of these two villains might have been comedic but for its tragic toll in human life.”

            The guide paused to prevent his story from being obscured by the clopping hooves of a passing mule-drawn carriage.

            “In truth,” he continued once the carriage had passed, “the suffering they caused behind those walls was so horrible, so horrific, that it pierced the fabric of immortality and still haunts this house today.”

            The slurping of a take-away hurricane through a plastic straw prompted the tour guide to pause once again. Carl’s wife poked him with her elbow, causing him to spill the remainder of the bright red mixture of juice, rum, and grenadine onto the sidewalk.

            The mysterious woman could no longer hear Carl’s slurping, the tour guide’s voice, or the passing traffic. Her attention was focused on the thick red liquid from Carl’s cup as it poured out onto the street.

 
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