Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tantalizing Thursdays: UNHALLOWED REDEMPTION


Today, I give you the first chapter of Midnight, New Orleans Style 3 - UNHALLOWED REDEMPTION. This is a 5-book series I wrote as Tara Rose with four other exclusive Siren authors.

Chapter One

Faina Andropov raised her glass. “To Lisette Trudeau.” She took a sip of her Hurricane, closing her eyes briefly as the tang of fruit juice and exceptional rum slid down her throat. “It’s been ten years since she departed this plane, and I still miss her.”

“Hear! Hear!” Glasses clinked as each of her three friends, Heidi Purdue, Shayla Marino, and Erin Holmes, drank to Lisette. The fourth friend, Dani O’Brien, had gone to her room for a moment but would be back any moment now. They kept having to wrestle her chair from partiers.

Heidi chuckled. “That’s exactly how Lisette would have phrased it…departed this plane.”

Faina nodded and took another sip. She was drunk, but so what? They were in New Orleans, the eve before Halloween, and she hadn’t seen any of these women in a year. Not since their last trip to honor their former college friend’s death. This was an annual excursion, and she planned her entire year’s vacation days at Stankowski, Balenchuk, and Diago Law Firm around this event. She’d been even more excited about this trip because it was her first time in New Orleans.

The courtyard was crowded, but they weren’t packed so tightly that Faina missed two sweaty men dressed as firemen eyeing them from one corner. Then again, dressed was a relative term since they only had on pants and suspenders. She pointed them out to Erin. “Why do I suddenly have an urge to burn down my house?”

Erin’s tinkling laugh matched her pixie-blonde hair and dancing hazel eyes. It amazed Faina how much she still looked like she had in college. Erin dug in her bag. “I think I have matches in here somewhere.”

When the firemen caught her and Erin glancing toward them, they jabbed each other and pointed like middle school kids at a high school football game, ogling cheerleaders. Faina shook her head and pushed Erin’s drink toward her. “Never mind. Not sure they could get any pressure in their hoses right now.”

Erin laughed again, and Faina glanced around their table, so happy to see her friends again. She loved this courtyard, despite it being hot and full of partiers tonight. The French Market Inn on Decatur Street featured brick walls and wrought iron furniture, giving it an ambiance that made it easy to imagine what this city had looked like when it was first settled. Then again, it was said that the past and its dead intruded on the present every day in New Orleans, a fact that gave Faina both an excited and unsettled vibe.

Despite her strict Ukrainian Catholic upbringing, Faina had always been drawn to the occult, and had spent hours reading books on demon and angel lore. In secret, of course. She’d learned at age twelve to keep her fascination to herself after her parents tried to get one of the priests at St. Nicholas to exorcise a demon they’d sworn had possessed her. Thankfully, she’d been able to convince the priest he was dealing with the fanciful imagination of a curious pre-teen girl and not a spirit-ridden person. But the experience had forced her to withdraw even more into her own world as she entered her teen years.

She was startled out of her reverie when Heidi gathered up their glasses and headed for the hotel. “Where is she going?”

Erin leaned forward. “To get us another round, of course.”

“Just what we need.” They all laughed, and Faina couldn’t help but let her memories wander back to the suite of dorm rooms the five had shared with Lisette at Ole Miss. Lisette had been the only one from New Orleans, and she’d kept them all entertained with stories about the city’s history and her own heritage. She had been into vodun, voodoo, and Santeria, and looked like the very personification of a she-devil at times with her curly black hair and dark eyes.

She’d also been the heaviest partier of the bunch, and the night she died they’d gone out for a girls’ night at a local bar. Lisette had taken to wearing her gris-gris all the time, but that night they’d talked her into leaving it at the dorm because it was so valuable to her and they weren’t going to the best of neighborhoods. Lisette hadn’t wanted to leave it, and she’d been edgy that entire evening.

When Dani joined the group again, the four took turns trying to save Heidi’s chair for her. “This is worse than high school.” Faina wrenched it away from a woman dressed like a leopard. “Seniors would routinely take over a specific table in the cafeteria, just to harass the freshmen.”

“Tell me about it,” said Dani. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t bullied as a kid.”

Faina rubbed Dani’s forearm. “But look how far you’ve come. You’re a rocket scientist. If you started talking astrophysics right now, ninety percent of the people in this courtyard wouldn’t know what the hell you were saying.”

“Sure. And with my head in the stars all the time, I scare all the men away.”

“Only the stupid ones.” Faina raised her glass even though it was nearly empty. “To intelligent men. We know you’re out there…somewhere…”

Glasses clinked as Heidi returned to the table holding a newspaper. Her face was flushed and her expression was full of excitement. Heidi kicked her chair out from under a guy dressed as a piece of bacon.

“Sorry,” said Shayla. “I tried to save your seat, but he kept claiming his fat was burning.”

“Never mind,” said Heidi. “Look at this article.” She slapped the newspaper down on the table.

Shayla pointed toward the picture accompanying the article. “Marie Laveau! That was the priestess Lisette kept going on and on about. She worshipped her.” Shayla and Lisette had been roommates in their suite, and consequently she’d been the one closest to Lisette.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Heidi. “It’s eleven now. At midnight it’ll officially be Halloween.”

Faina frowned as she picked up the article and read it. The title alone was enough to sober her up in a hurry. Voodoo Priestess’s Tomb Gets Makeover in Pink. “No,” she said. “Bad idea.”

“Why?” asked Erin. “It’s exciting. It’s mysterious. And it’s Halloween.”

“She’s the most famous voodoo priestess in New Orleans. She takes the shape of a crow and flies over the cemetery where she’s buried. People leave Xs on her tomb to ask her to grant their wishes. And now someone has painted her tomb pink. You think that’s not going to piss her off? I mean, look at this ghastly color.”

The others laughed, but Faina wasn’t kidding. She scanned the rest of the story even though her vision was a bit fuzzy because of the five Hurricanes. From what she could make out, last winter someone had snuck into a cemetery at night and painted Marie Laveau’s tomb pink to obliterate the Xs pilgrims had made in the marble. The story’s author warned that Marie Laveau’s spirit was upset about the pink paint because it was latex and didn’t allow the marble to breathe.

Faina thought that was a silly assumption. She’d assume that if Marie’s spirit were upset about the paint, it wasn’t over the color or the composition. It was the fact that someone had dared to desecrate her tomb.

“I say we go for it,” said Heidi. “The bartender told me people paint Xs because they think Marie will grant them their wish. But he said all you have to do is place your hand over the tomb to make a wish. Then you knock three times or turn around three times. When she grants the wish or returns to you in a dream, then you go back and make an offering. Flowers, food, or rum. Rum’s her favorite.”

“Any particular brand?” asked Faina.

Shayla’s eyes gleamed as she agreed with Heidi. When the others read the article, Faina knew from the looks on their faces that the group was going to take the Canal Street streetcar to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Would it even be worth it to beg them to reconsider? She’d had enough encounters with spirits in her lifetime to know that there were some things you simply didn’t mess with.

A half hour later, they were seated on a streetcar painted the same color as McDonalds’s logo. Thinking about Big Macs made her hungry. A big bottle of Jamaican rum in a brown paper bag rested on Heidi’s lap. She looked like one of the bums that rode the train in downtown Chicago.

The streetcar wasn’t much different than the courtyard. It was filled with a rowdy, raunchy crowd as it made its way along in the dark. Heidi chugged some of the voodoo priestess’s rum, and then handed the brown bag to Faina.

Faina figured they’d come this far so they might as well tempt every possible fate by drinking the stuff before they got there. She took a sip and grimaced. “Holy shit. That is rough. I was drunk before, but that stuff just pushed me over the edge.”

“Do you think Lisette would have enjoyed this?” asked Erin.

Faina smiled and nodded. She didn’t want to bring down the party by bringing up Lisette’s death and the gris-gris, but it was difficult not to think of it as they rambled toward their intended destination.

They’d all speculated for ten years how differently things might have turned out if they’d let Lisette take her gris-gris with her that night. She’d been murdered sometime after they’d all become separated. Her throat had been slit, and a symbol none of them could identify had been smeared on her forehead with ashes. The police hinted that the killing had been ritualistic, but had refused to give them more details. Her killer was never found, and none of the remaining five had yet lived down the guilt.

“I haven’t drunk this much in years,” said Faina, shaking her head to try and clear some of the fog.

“I haven’t drunk this much since Raoul rudely dumped me a month ago.”

She stared at Heidi, at first thinking she might have misunderstood. It was difficult to hear in here with all the noise. But the look on her face told Faina she hadn’t been mistaken. “What? That upizdysh!” Her native Ukrainian came out easily at moments like this.

Heidi laughed. “I don’t know what that means, but I hope it’s bad.”

“It means motherfucker. That asshole. I was always reluctant to say this out of respect for you, but I never liked him. Just the way you described him. He seemed so fake. So…plastic.”

Heidi took the bottle back, took a long sip, and didn’t even flinch. “Stupid bastard. All he ever cared about was his image. I guess I didn’t fit into that image.”

“Then you need to forget about that bastard tonight and have a good time. We’ll find this tomb and make our wishes. Without carving a stupid X on it.”

“I want to ask Lisette’s forgiveness.” Heidi’s speech was slurred, but that didn’t distract from the emotion in her voice. “I’m going to wish that Lisette has passed into the highest realm of all, or even possibly reincarnated by now into a happy, fulfilling life. She deserves it.”

Faina raised her brows, surprised by Heidi’s choice of words. “You believe in reincarnation?”

“I do now. Boy, do I now! Reincarnation is a fact, Jack!”

Faina didn’t have time to ask Heidi to elaborate as Dani’s voice rang out. “We missed our stop!”

“It’s okay,” said Erin. “We’ll get off at the next one and walk back. Come on.”

The five made their way to the front and Faina was surprised to see that the crowd had thinned considerably, although they were far from the end of the line. Apparently there was a party somewhere, and most of the riders had gone to it.

“The voodoo priestess is going to be pissed if we’re late,” said Shayla.

Faina eyed the brown paper bag in Heidi’s hands. “She’ll be more pissed if we drink all her rum.”

“One block back the way we came, and one block up.”

Faina hadn’t heard which of her friends asked for directions to the cemetery, so she was glad to hear Dani repeat them.

“Lots of jazz musicians interred there,” said the driver. He gave Heidi a direct stare and Faina shivered. “Dominique You is there. Right-hand man to Jean Lafitte.”

Once they were off the streetcar, Faina’s uneasiness only grew. The rum was starting to wear off, and for that she was grateful, because she had a superstitious fear of tripping in cemeteries. They chattered and laughed as they made their way up Robertson Street. She was about to ask one of them were they were but spotted a sign telling her they were in the area known as Tremé.

The difference of this area as opposed to the French Quarter was palpable. The air here was thick, and Faina shivered at the aura. Then again, she was probably just really drunk and reacting to the full moon. Everything around them was lit by a soft silver light. Normally she loved that look, but tonight it made her uneasy. Very uneasy.

Calm down. You’re fine.

“How are we going to find the way inside?” asked Faina.

They all looked at each other and shrugged. Not only had this been a bad idea, but they had no plan at all.

Dani pointed toward a high cement wall. “Let’s see if we can get over that and look for a gate or something.”

“You’d think there would be more people here on the night before Halloween,” said Shayla. “I don’t hear any voices.”

Were they even supposed to be in here? Once they’d found the entrance and were inside the cemetery, Faina couldn’t help but think how dead quiet it was. No pun intended.

Heidi pointed toward an hourglass with wings that adorned the center of an iron gate. “Does that hourglass mean that time flies?”

“Maybe that time is a deceptive figment of the imagination,” said Shayla.

“I’ve got to pee,” said Heidi. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“Is she out of her mind?” asked Dani.

“She might be,” said Faina, “but now that she’s said it, so do I. Be right back.”

Faina took off in the opposite direction as Heidi. She hadn’t gone to the bathroom with a group of girls since their college days, and she wasn’t drunk enough now to do it again. She hated to pee at all inside this place. It seemed wrong, but she had drunk way too much rum and there was no way she was going to avoid this.

She found a group of bushes away from the tombstones, and once that was taken care of, she set off in the direction she believed she’d come. But it didn’t take long for her to realize she’d turned herself completely around. Where was she? Where were the others?

She called their names, but the only answer she received was the sound of insects singing and the flat echo of her voice falling against marble and tree bark. “Himno,” she whispered. “No fucking way I just got myself lost in a cemetery on Halloween in New Orleans!” Her voice raised in pitch to a yell by the end of the sentence. She glanced around, clamping a hand over her mouth.

She had her cell phone. She could call them, but they’d just laugh, thinking she was really drunk. They were probably not more than a few yards away, and then she’d feel like an idiot. They couldn’t possibly have strayed that far.

Okay. Just think. Retrace your steps. She set off in a different direction, and when faint voices reached her ears, she relaxed, smiling at how carried away she’d become in such a short time. When the voices included male ones, she froze, straining to hear.

Had someone found the others? Were they in danger? “Oh God…”

She ran toward the sounds, slowing down when she realized she wasn’t listening to her friends and a few would-be attackers or the police. She heard chants in a language she couldn’t identify, and as she drew closer she could smell the torches. What the hell had she stumbled upon?

Faina hid behind a magnolia tree and watched the crowd. Her pulse raced, and beads of sweat gathered at her hairline and under her arms. At least fifty people, most dressed in masks and elaborate costumes, stood in a circle lit by torches—actual torches, as if they were in a movie about some ancient civilization. It seemed to be a ritual of some kind, but damned if she knew what it was, or what they were shouting and singing. Whatever this was, she had no business being this close to it.

As she turned to leave, the dark figures of two men came into view, and Faina would have screamed if one of them hadn’t placed an arm around her chest and a hand over her mouth. Her knees buckled, but he held her up. She’d never been so scared in her life. Why the hell had they come here tonight?

Her fate was about to end up the same as Lisette’s. These men would kill her, after they had some fun, of course.

She couldn’t make out the features of the second one as he advanced toward her, but she kicked at him, hoping to connect her new boots with his balls. She was surprised to see him jump back and hold up his hands. “Hold on there, little lady. We’re not trying to hurt you.”

What? Bullshit.

She tried to free herself from the other man’s grasp, but his damn arm was made of steel. Maybe she could bite him? Warm breath tickled her right ear, and she moaned in fear. “Relax. Alexei speaks the truth. We’re not going to hurt you. But we need to get you out of here. This is no place for a human woman.”

A human woman? What did that make them, then? What the fuck had been in that rum? She knew it was bad news to drink the voodoo priestess’s rum. She’d fucking known it, and she’d drank it anyway.

“If I take my hand off your mouth, do you promise not to scream? We can’t protect you if they see you.”

Was he talking about the chanters? What the hell was going on here?

“We don’t have much time,” said Alexei. “Answer Konstantin’s question. Will you keep quiet if he takes his hand away?”

The noise in the clearing grew louder, more frantic. She wasn’t sure whose fate she’d rather place her hands in, but there were only two of them, as opposed to an unknown number in that wild crowd, so she nodded.

Konstantin’s hand moved away, and then his arm released her. She stared to run but tripped, and one of the men swore in Russian. But she didn’t have time to process that complete surprise, because he scooped her up in his arms as if she weighed no more than one of the magnolia flowers scattered on the ground, and began to run with her.

You can purchase UNHALLOWED REDEMPTION and the entire Midnight, New Orleans Style series from Siren-BookStrand by clicking HERE.

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