Crescent Moon (Chapter 5)
"Ye think it was a ghost up here?" Charlie's voice wavered, and he inched toward the door.
"What?" I dragged my gaze from the picture. "Oh. Maybe."
What did I know? I'd dreamed the face of a man who'd been dead for a century and a half. I'd found a bad-luck voodoo flower in my bed. I was in Louisiana searching for a werewolf, for crying out loud. I shouldn't be let loose without a keeper.
Charlie tugged on my arm. "Let's get outta here."
His hands were ice-cold. Poor kid. I took pity on him and went.
As we hurried across the grass, I wondered aloud, "The photo was the only thing left in the house. Wouldn't someone have stolen it by now?"
Charlie leaped from the dock to the boat. "I dunno."
Neither did I.
He drove the boat as if we were being chased, then dumped me back where he'd found me.
"We still on for tonight?" I asked.
"Sure. Swamp I got no problem with."
Charlie left with a roar of the motor, sending a huge wave over both the dock and my sneakers.
I returned to the hotel, where I discovered my flower was gone. I'd have figured the maid disposed of the thing, except my room hadn't been cleaned yet
"No, ma'am," the girl insisted when I tracked her down. "I haven't gotten to your floor."
"Did anyone else?"
"No. That's my responsibility."
She could be lying, but why?
As I let myself back into my room, my cell phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID.
I'd been meaning to call him but kept getting distracted.
"What did you find?" he demanded without the courtesy of a hello.
I wasn't sure what to say. I hadn't found anything except a voodoo flower and a picture of a ghost. Neither one had any bearing on what Frank had hired me to do. So instead of answering his question, I asked one of my own.
"Why did you write the name Adam Ruelle next to the guide's information?"
"I didn't tell you?" Frank sighed. "My mind is not what it used to be, I'm afraid. Ruelle land has been the favored territory for the loup-garou."
Considering Ruelle land was basically a swamp, except for the small area where the house had been built, I could see why.
"Could you rent the mansion?" I asked. "I'd like to use it as my base of operations."
"I bet I could," Frank said slowly. "Great idea. You're going to find the loup-garou; I'm sure of it"
"Thanks," I said dryly. "You understand, don't you, Frank, that the possibility of discovering a werewolf is pretty slim?"
Right up there with the possibility of there actually being one, but I wasn't going to tell him that He was paying my salary.
"I understand," Frank said. "But mere's something there. Something new and exciting. Can't you feel it?"
I could, and I was both frightened and fascinated.
"Did you see Ruelle?" he asked.
I wasn't sure.
"According to the locals," I murmured, "he's been missing for years."
"Bullshit! He's there, and he knows something."
I started to get uneasy about Frank. "Have you met this guy?" I asked.
He hesitated. "Not him. His… father."
"Does he have any information?"
"That seems to be going around."
"Find me the werewolf, Diana. I need it."
Frank hung up, and when I redialed his number, I got voice mail. I wondered again about the accident that had made him a recluse. Had he fallen on his head? Why would he need a werewolf?
I shrugged and pocketed my cell phone. Until his checks became as bent as he was, I'd just keep doing what Frank had hired me to do.
With several hours until I met Charlie, I took a stroll down Bourbon. My feet led me to Royal Street, and from there to a tiny shop tucked back from the others.
I stepped inside. The contrast between heated sunshine and cool shadow, frantic noise and a certain peace, made me dizzy. I caught the scent of herbs, spice, heard the trickle of water somewhere in the distance, and music.
Not jazz or even the blues. Something folksy with drums. A tune that was as ancient as time.
"Hello?" I called.
I had a sense someone was watching me, which seemed to happen a lot lately, and was making me increasingly paranoid.
A doorway covered with beads of many colors led into the back. I saw nothing beyond their plastic sheen, which was, I'm sure, the whole idea.
I turned toward the retail section of the store, took three steps, and stopped. Someone wasn't watching me; something was.
A huge, coiled snake occupied a cage in the corner, its eyes black and unblinking. Eyes of the dead. Long, brown, with uneven black circles all over its body, the reptile appeared to be a python. Was that even legal?
I inched away. The cage looked secure enough, but I didn't want to get him excited. There were plenty of other items to view in the snake-free section of the store.
Shelves full of bottles, bowls, which were in turn full of… stuff. With none of it marked, I was clueless.
Several mini cloth sacks stuffed with Lord knows what lay on the countertop. I brushed my fingertip across one of them, and I could have sworn it shimmied on its own.
I lifted my gaze to the woman standing in front of the beaded doorway. How had she come through without making them go clackety-clack?
"I'm sorry?" I said.
She moved behind the counter, picking up one of the bags. "A gris-gris, meaning charm or talisman. For good luck."
Her lack of an accent revealed her to be as much a stranger here as I was.
"Not bad luck?" In my memory banks gris-gris meant "cursed."
"Not in my shop."
My shop. This was Priestess Cassandra?
I'd expected her to be African-American, or perhaps Haitian, since voodoo had taken root and grown there. She'd wear a turban, a flowing dress, bangles on her wrists, huge hoops in her ears.
Instead, Cassandra was a tiny blue-eyed white girl with a single streak of gray marring the right temple of her short, black hair. Hair that appeared to have been hacked off recently, by someone who did not know what they were doing. To my amazement, the style complemented Cassandra's high cheekbones and pointed chin, softening them just enough to nudge her toward stunning.
She was dressed in ratty jeans, a pink T-shirt, and her feet were bare, except for the rings on two of her toes. If not for the premature gray, I would have mistaken her for a coed at Tulane.
"You have a question?" she asked. "Something bugging you?"
Her smile was sweet, as if I were a child, though I had to be older than her by several years. "Everyone is at times."
I snorted, then realized how rude that was. "Sorry."
She spread her hands. "We believe what we believe."
Even if I was in town searching for a werewolf, that didn't mean I bought into voodoo and other mind games. I had my standards.
"I do have questions," I said. "Doesn't everyone?"
"Some have answers." I lifted a brow and she laughed. "But not many. How can I help you… ?"
She tilted her head, waiting for me to introduce myself.
I stilled at the tickle of a memory. I'd heard that before, or something like it, in my dream last night.
Cassandra studied my face. "You didn't know the meaning?"
"I do, but my parents named me after my grandmother. Knowing them, there wasn't any discussion of the moon involved."
"Regardless, names have power and purpose. Cassandra means prophet"
She laughed again, as if I were the funniest person to come into her shop in years. I took in the herbs, the beads, the snake. Maybe I was.
Hissing erupted from beyond the chicken wire. "Relax, Lazarus. She's a friend."
"Lazarus? As in risen from the dead?"
"Names have power," was all she said. "What's your question?"
I frowned at the snake, which was staring at me again. The idea that the reptile might not die or, if dead, would rise, was a very creepy thought indeed. Weren't zombies a part of the whole voodoo thing?
And snake zombies… Well, I didn't even want to go there.
"There's a flower in the swamp," I said. "A fire iris?"
"Yes." Cassandra moved down the row of shelves and began to pull out a little of this and a little of that, sprinkling the unknown items into a gris-gris bag. "Very powerful."
"What does it mean when someone leaves one on your bed?"
She paused, fingers poised over a basket of what appeared to be dried chicken bones. Then, as if she'd had second thoughts, she took a pinch of red dust instead and scattered it on top.
"Not 'welcome to the neighborhood,'" she murmured. "Can you bring me the flower?"
I cleared my throat "It's gone."
"Hmm." She turned to a completely different set of shelves and continued to mix and match. "Another question?"
She hadn't answered the first. Not really.
"Do you know anything about a wolf in the area?"
Her hand froze above a glass jar of what looked like black olives but probably weren't "Who are you?"
"I told you. Di – "
"Not your name. Why are you here? In New Orleans?"
"I'm a cryptozoologist. I was hired to find the wolf in the swamp."
"That's my job. Finding unknown animals"
"A wolf isn't unknown."
"In Louisiana it is."
"What if there isn't a wolf? Or at least not a wolf as you know them?"
She cast me a quick glance, then busied herself tying a string around the top of the gris-gris. "There's a legend about the Honey Island Swamp."
"The swamp monster?"
Her derisive hiss was echoed by the snake in the cage. "Nothing more than an overgrown nutria rat, which scared some half-wits over two decades ago."
Interesting theory – and one that explained the legend nicely. Cassandra was both refreshingly levelheaded and disturbingly strange.
"I meant the legend of the loup-garou," she continued.
Now we were getting somewhere.
"You've heard the tale." She stared at me for a long moment "But you don't believe mere's any such thing, do you?"
I ignored her question to ask one of my own: "Have you seen a wolf?"
Cassandra moved to the front window and peered at the street "There's something out there. Something that comes and goes. Something that kills and is never caught"
"Wolves don't kill people."
She turned, and her now-sober eyes met mine. "Exactly."
"What's the legend?"
In my world, legends often skirted the truth. I needed to listen, to analyze, to pick and choose what was real and what was not
"Over a hundred years ago a man was cursed."
"He was a man. Isn't that enough?"
I smirked. I really shouldn't like her so much. If she wasn't nuts, she was at least a charlatan.
"Every crescent moon he runs as a wolf."
That much I knew; the question was – "Why not the full moon?"
"A loup-garou is special."
"You have an awful lot of questions for someone who doesn't believe."
"He was cursed," she repeated.
"Why?" I sounded like a broken record.
"Because he owned people, and he would not set them free."
Slaves. I should have known.
Voodoo came to this country with those brought here in chains. I had to say, if anyone had bought and sold me, I'd have cursed their ass, too.
"So his slaves voodoo-cursed him to become a wolf under the crescent moon?"
"Not a wolf, a werewolf."
"What's the difference?"
"A wolf is an animal, but a werewolf is monster. An evil thing, ruled by the moon and possessed by bloodlust. They're given life, but they can't live. They can hate, but they can't love. They think like a human and kill like a beast, no longer caring about anything or anyone but themselves."
I guess I didn't want to meet one in a dark alley.
"Why the crescent moon and not the full?" I asked.
"Besides the fact that this is the Crescent City?"
Frank had mentioned that. I'd thought it nothing more than an interesting coincidence. However, when dealing with curses, coincidences weren't always so coincidental.
Not that I believed in curses, but some people did. Obviously Cassandra was one of them.
"The full moon comes but once a month," she continued. "The crescent arrives twice."
"Double your cursing pleasure," I muttered.
Cassandra nodded. "A full moon is technically one night only, but each crescent lasts several days, bestowing multiple madness every lunar cycle."
"Who was this guy? Simon Legree?"
I hated that the first name of my beloved husband and that of the legendary bad guy from Uncle Tom's Cabin were the same, but I hadn't written the book and Harriet Beecher Stowe had died long before I had a chance to complain.
"Nobody knows for certain who the man was," Cassandra said. "In the way of legends, he was probably an amalgamation of every slave owner. Doomed to be damned for eternity by their own greed."
"Do you believe a werewolf is running around the Honey Island Swamp?"
"Maybe there is; maybe there isn't. But a wolf's been seen. People have been killed."
"What do the police think?"
"They're like you. Never believe until they see. No wolves in Louisiana, so the culprit has to be a wild dog, or a coyote."
I remembered something Simon had told me. "Wolves won't tolerate coyotes in their territory. Drives 'em nuts."
"OK." Cassandra appeared puzzled by my seemingly random thought. "But what about werewolves and coyotes?"
That I wasn't sure about.
Another thought occurred to me. "Don't those bitten by a werewolf become werewolves themselves?"
"So the legends say."
"Then if there's a werewolf in New Orleans – and has been for over a hundred years – shouldn't there be more than one?"
Cassandra pressed the gris-gris into my hand. "Who says there aren't?"