It wasn’t a long drive back to New Orleans, but I slept most of the way, slumped against my knight in dusty denim.
On arrival, Dax guided me through the Bienville’s courtyard and upstairs to his room, where I did not hesitate to enter. Any other time, a man’s hotel room is strictly off limits, but this was no ordinary time.
Dax offered to go out and bring back something to eat, while I scoured my aching body in the shower. The steamy water splashed away all remnants of marsh mud, but it couldn’t wash away the memories of the last four nights as easily. I still trembled at the thought of Tex rising up from that coffin.
Maybe Madame really did have supernatural powers. I knew she was a witch, in every sense of the word. But could an evil spirit actually animate a corpse?
The idea seemed too far out. Beyond fantasy. There had to be another explanation.
When Dax returned with Styrofoam cartons of ham, eggs, grits, and hot biscuits, I had my wet hair wrapped in a towel and the hotel’s luxurious, thick white terry bathrobe belted around my waist. My stomach growled noisily. He watched with amusement as I sat on the bed to devour the breakfast, gulping down the coffee. Nothing ever tasted better.
I was licking my fingers when he spoke. “You look like you’re recovering nicely. You were so pale before, except for the mosquito bites. Now you have some color in your cheeks and the swelling appears to be going down.” He handed me a tube of ointment to dab on the welts.
“You mean I’m a recognizable human being again?” I started to rub the ointment on my skin.
“A beautiful human being at that. The first time I saw you in the Taxi, your hair was rain soaked and plastered to your head. Even then you were gorgeous. I had to look away to keep from staring.”
“Don’t you dare!” I was suddenly incensed.
His eyes blinked in surprise. “Don’t dare what?”
“Don’t tell me I’m beautiful when I’m just out of the shower, gulping down food like a ravenous hound, looking like I’ve got measles, and with my hair wrapped in a towel.”
I wanted to cry. How dare he tell me I looked beautiful at a time like this? Honesty I could handle, but not flattery.
His expression turned from surprise to amusement. “Okay then, Miss Homely America. Want to tell me what happened?”
“You aren’t going to believe me.”
“What makes you think that?” He sat back in the only chair and prepared to listen.
“Because it’s absolutely too weird.”
“Kaytie, you’re a trained observer. A reporter. You write for a skeptical magazine. Why wouldn’t I believe you?”
“Because I hardly believe it myself. It’s entirely too far out.”
“Try me,” he said.
I gave a little sigh of resignation. I had to tell somebody. Whether he believed me or not, I needed a sounding board.
“Okay, here goes.”
I explained it all in terms of what I assumed sounded reasonable, and the more I talked the more unreasonable it sounded. I left out the part about Tex becoming a zombie. That part still stretched all reason.
Dax listened without interruption, sipping his coffee. Like a good journalist, he waited to hear the whole story before asking questions.
“So, Madame is a direct descendant of the slave woman Magnolia, and she needs you with her to open the book of Zulu spells.”
I glanced at his dark eyes. No incredulity. So far so good.
“He asked the obvious question. “Why couldn’t they just burn the book of spells?”
I explained, “Because of Magnolia’s superstitious fear of a curse. They buried it with the family fortune and added another curse for protection. If a direct descendant of both Magnolia and Elizabeth—or their reincarnated spirits—are not present, the one who opens the book will suffer a whole series of … well, really bad stuff.”
Between bites on a biscuit, Dax said, “Okay. She’s convinced you’re Elizabeth’s reincarnated spirit and the curses won’t happen if you are with her when the chest is opened. That’s not so farfetched. Voodoo practitioners believe strongly in the power of curses. But I do find it more than a curious coincidence that you have the same name as the woman in the will.”
He was right, of course. How many people have I ever met with my exact same name? Kaytie, alone is common enough, but combine it with Flame and it’s as unique as a dancing Bigfoot in ballet slippers.
“Okay, I’ll grant you that one,” I said.
“The coincidence of Madame Chevalier and the dead gypsy woman of the same description is not such a puzzle either,” Dax said. “I think I may have the explanation.”
I waited, thinking if anyone would have an explanation, Dax would.
“I’ve discovered there are two women known as Madame Chevalier, although few people in New Orleans are aware of it. They’re sisters. Their names are Emerald and Sapphire, identical twins and heiresses to the Lafitte property.”
“Twins!” I might have guessed it. Same physical description. Same names.
“The twins actually inherited the haunted hotel years ago, when they were very young. Someone hired a manager to run the place for them.”
That explained the mystery of the two Madames—one dead and the other out chasing me around.
Dax continued. “Later, when they were adults, Sapphire died of a sudden illness. I found a copy of her death certificate.”
“Wait a minute!” I said. “What good does it do to know there were twins if one of them had already died before they found the body in my room?”
He surprised me with his next bit of information. “Kaytie, I’m convinced that Sapphire faked her own death some years ago and remained alive until that shooting.”
“Faked her death? But why?”