“It’s Sofronia. She’s in the hospital. Had an attack of some kind. I’ve been to see her but she was out of her head. Doc says she might not make it. Anyway, here’s the other bad news. I doubt if Sofronia was able to contact Madame Chevalier before she had the attack.”
I sat there blinking stupidly. Sofronia ill? Unable to contact Madame with our plan?
Of course, that explained why Morris had tried to grab me at Jackson Square. He hadn’t known we were planning to turn over the chest to the boss lady.
Tex broke the silence. “You mean we don’t know if Madame is expecting us to bring her the danged treasure chest?” His eyes darted toward me. I knew what he was thinking.
“I’d have contacted the woman myself if I’d known before today,” Beth said. “I just found out about Sofronia this afternoon. She’s been hospitalized for the last thirteen days, so it’s not likely she got word to Madame.”
“Call me a biscuit and slap me with molasses! I’ve been driving around this city for two weeks. I could have been grabbed at any time!” Tex pulled a handkerchief from a shirt pocket and wiped his brow. “They could have shot me with that potion and I’d be a zombie again.” There was more white than color showing in his eyes.
“This doesn’t change anything,” Beth said. “Sofronia had a good plan. I say we stick to it.” She turned to me. “We can find the woman in Jackson Square, right?”
I nodded, unwilling to admit my near-disastrous encounter with Morris earlier that day.
Beth continued. “We just tell her that we’ll bring the chest to her— wherever—and let her know the police are waiting for our safe return.”
Dax squeezed my hand under the table.
“I think that’s what we have to do,” Beth said. “She won’t try anything if she gets what she wants. But it’s probably too late to send word to her.”
Before I could ask what she meant, she added, “I don’t like it that Sofronia is…” Beth trailed off.
“Is what?” I sensed there was more to the story.
Beth took a deep breath. “I’ve seen cases where people believe they’ve been hexed by spells. They moan and talk out of their heads. That’s what Sofronia is doing.”
“Are you saying Madame put a spell of some kind on her?” I asked. “But how could she even know that we had any contact with Sofronia? She must have come down with this illness straight after I flew back to Chicago.”
Beth shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s only swamp fever. I just don’t like it. Didn’t Sofronia say the witch would harm the people around you?”
“Yes. She said Madame could harm people close to me. People I care about.”
I glanced around the table. Other than Jean Claude, Detective Broussard, and Cajun Jack’s family, these were the only people I knew in New Orleans besides her. I thought of my mother in Baton Rouge. Ed in Chicago. And of course, I had friends in both Louisiana and Illinois. I wouldn’t want harm to come to any of them.
I’d only met Sofronia once. Now she was lying in a hospital bed, out of her mind with fever. Maybe that witch had nothing to do with it, but how did I know? Sofronia definitely believed that Madame possessed certain powers. But she didn’t fear those powers from the pit of Hell, and neither should I. After all, I’d faced up to Madame’s sorcery once before and had overcome it. She was the one who had wilted. I wasn’t about to bow to fear now.
Steeling myself for their disapproval, I confessed my afternoon visit to Jackson Square and my frightening brush with Morris.
“At least that’s one goon we don’t have to deal with anymore, now that he’s in jail,” I finished lamely.
Their expressions ranged from angst to relief.
The look Dax flashed at me was like the one I got when I was a kid and used one of Dad’s new golf clubs as a bat. Dax’s eyes were threatening, but he didn’t let go of my hand.
Beth nodded. “The moon will be full two days from tonight. We must get the chest to Madame before tomorrow. Sofronia told me that this is the night when the priestess is most vulnerable. Timing is everything to a practitioner of spells. That means you have to recover the chest and reach Madame in the bayou before morning. She doesn’t know you’re coming, but that could work to our advantage. She’ll be alone. She won’t have time to round up any of her thugs. With four of us, and only one of her, we should be safe enough.”
“It has to be tonight?” I’d expected to have at least another day to prepare myself. The sudden time constraint threw me off balance. “I thought any time this week was good.”
“It’s got to be tonight. Madame will be at her bayou shack to call on her spirit guide. You get the chest, and I’ll contact Detective Broussard.”
Would another day really make any difference? Once the Chevalier woman gets her precious book we should be safe to leave Rainy Bay Bayou. Especially if she knows the police are aware and watching her. Still, I was only half convinced. Would Broussard be able to get his officers out to Cajun Jack’s place in time?
Would it matter?
Even if he didn’t arrive, surely there were too many of us for Madame to contend with alone. Once we tell her that Broussard is onto her, she should release us.
However, I was beginning to suspect that Madame has little fear of the law in New Orleans. She was a practiced con artist. No doubt she could con, bribe, or conjure her way out of legal scrapes.
I turned to Tex. “Do you think you can find the way back to her shanty?”
“I know I can. I can find my way back to anywhere if I’ve been there before. My folks always said I have a nose like a bloodhound. I know where the wharf is and how far we have to go to reach those lanterns marking the channels. We’ll get there, all right.”
Less than an hour later, Dax, Tex and I headed out on Highway Ten toward the old plantation manors. It would have been an enjoyable drive any other time. How the shafts of moonlight silvered the old Houmas House and the Belle Helene.
Tex knew exactly where to turn in order to locate the road we’d followed after escaping from the gardener’s cottage.
Traffic thinned when we approached the bridge over Bayou Maringouin, the place we’d first run into Beth.
I glanced nervously over my shoulder. There were headlights behind us.
“Tex, don’t stop yet,” I said. “Slow down and let that car go around.”
Two more cars and a rickety vegetable truck passed before the road behind us became completely dark. Tex pulled over and backed up slowly. He steered the cab off the roadway and under the trees.
The familiar sounds of the bayou filled our ears. Crickets chirruped, frogs sang or belched like tubas, and night birds called. The smell of damp vegetation grew strong. Darkness wrapped us with heavy, humid air, like a blanket of black lamb’s wool.
Equipped with small flashlights, we began our search for the hidden chest. I’d taken extra care to memorize the location, but with only the thin wands of yellow torchlight, the woodsy area looked very different. It had a haunted, surreal quality, with ground mist swirling and mossy drapes floating like ghosts in the branches.
After several minutes of stumbling through the undergrowth, I recognized the tall live oak with the charred streak running down its gnarled trunk.
“Over there.” I pointed to the tree.
The two men moved ahead of me. They shoved aside the palmetto leaves and brush piles to uncover the ancient chest. With a sense of foreboding, I stared at the rotted leather that barely covered the rusted metal box. What kind of evil did it hold?