Anxious for the scene to come to an end, I saw the revelers form a crescent around the snake handler, apparently unafraid of the fangs so close to their bare chests. A woman sprinkled something from a calabash, or Louisiana gourd, over their bodies while the man passed the snake over their heads.
Many held out gourds to receive an amber liquid poured by woman. I guessed the liquid could be tafia or sugarcane rum. I’d never tried it and hoped they did not intend to force it down my unwilling throat. After all, I had been brought here for some reason.
They emptied their vessels quickly. Next, they began to dance. The drumbeat quickened. Their gyrations grew wilder. I watched those closest me and saw the whites of their eyes rolling in a wild frenzy.
With one dexterous motion, the snake handler hurled the writhing serpent into the blazing fire. Flames leaped up hungrily to receive the offering with a sudden sizzle. I smelled the nauseating stench of its burning flesh and heard the long, deep, exultant howl erupted from the nefarious group. The rhythm of the tam-tam increased.
Next, I saw a magnificent and savagely beautiful African woman move lithely into the firelight. I assumed she must be the voodoo queen, or priestess, or whatever they called their leaders. Certainly not the Holy Mother. Unholy mother?
She tore off the white kerchief from her head, freeing, a long mane of thick black braids, and began a very serpentine, undulating motion from hips to ankles, twisting and gliding seductively.
If I have ever been aware of the tangible presence of evil, it was that night. Something inside me recoiled. I felt repulsed. Contaminated. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Lucifer himself standing in the midst of the leaping flames.
Then I saw a familiar figure step out of the dark—Madame Chevalier! What was she doing here? Were these dancers her followers? She was dressed in a flowing white gown that might have been two bed sheets tied together over her expansive shoulders. She strode regally into the circle and raised her beefy arms.
All chanting ceased. The drums stopped. A hush fell.
“Loa Marie! Loa Marie!” Madame Chevalier chanted. Who was Loa Marie? Was she calling on the long-revered and long-dead voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. I knew from my New Orleans history book that voodoo involves ancestor worship. And Loa is their word for spirit.
Madame motioned with her hand toward what appeared to be a crude wooden coffin.
An open coffin. I had no time to react to that discovery before three men carried something toward it—oh no! A body. A body that looked very much like….
No, no, no, no!
My knees weakened and an involuntary groan escaped my lips. Horrified, I slapped my hands over my mouth. Even though the drums had ceased and the revelers were silent, no one appeared to notice the sound.
Madame lifted a lantern. Yes, it was definitely the pale, lifeless body of my Texas Taxi driver, which they placed inside the wooden box.
I watched them close the lid and nail it shut.
I didn’t want to believe what I was seeing.
The fall from that third-story alcove had killed him, and it was all my fault. I should never have insisted he climb out the window. I stuffed my fist into my mouth to keep from sobbing aloud.
What were they going to do with me now??
Drums started to beat once more, as did the chanting—slowly at first, then faster and faster. Bodies whirled and leaped in wild contortions. Dark skin glistened like copper satin in the fire’s orange glow.
I stifled my sobs and lowered my head. When at last I dared to peek through the crack again, I saw faces in the muddy firelight.
Some were ordinary enough. More than a few had disfigured bodes, distorted limbs, and odd facial defects.
Did the voodoo priestess deliberately choose them because they were misfits, or were these they simply the kind of people that were drawn to such wanton activity?
I glanced around my jail. Was there a way out? Maybe one of the walls had some loose boards I could wiggle through to the outside.
Before I could move, the shack’s only door opened and two men entered. They each grabbed one of my arms, lifted me to my feet, and dragged me out into the night. I didn’t have the strength to fight them.
The men hauled me before an impassive Madame Chevalier.
All I could think about was poor Tex.
She lifted my chin and forced me to look into her glittering eyes.
I must have fainted.
I woke on satiny pillows underneath a canopy of gauze mosquito netting. The perfume of scented candles and incense was overpowering. My head swam.
Madame Chevalier’s bayou cabin? Had everything else been a dream? Was Tex’s death and burial only a macabre nightmare? Please let it be so.
I tried to sit up. The effort made my head spin and stomach lurched. With a groan, I panted a moment until my eyes cleared and the dizziness passed.
“So, you wake up now, ma petite.” I recognized the velvety voice. It was Madame Chevalier. I glanced up to see her large form spread on cushions at her low plank table.
“Madame Chevalier! How nice to see you again. It’s been, what at least a few hours since our last meeting. My, my, you haven’t aged a day,” I kept the sarcasm out of my voice, even though I wanted to scream with frustration.
“Come, sit. I make you some chicory coffee.” She had a pan of water boiling on a small camp stove.
Coffee sounded marvelous.
And it wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
Coffee and a piece of fry bread helped to settle my queasy stomach. I ate and drank without worrying that Madame might drug me again. After all, I was now in her grasp. She could inject me with sedatives or toss me to the alligators if she liked. How could I stop her?
“You think you can escape your destiny.” She sipped from her cup, watching me with dark, mysterious eyes.
“Are we really back to that again,” I said. “I told you I’m not the reincarnation of Elizabeth O’Hara.” If I could only make her see reason. “I admit, it’s strangely coincidental that my name is the same as the predicted person in the will, but that’s all. And speaking of strange coincidences, someone with your name was murdered in my hotel room.”
I watched for a reaction, but she didn’t blink an eye. Madame ignored my remark completely.