I hurried out into the dripping night and hailed one of four taxis waiting. The drivers obviously expected an exodus of reporters who hadn’t been able to get lodging at the Lafitte.
I slid into the back seat and gave my friend’s address on Chartres Street. Then I noticed the driver. It was Tex behind the wheel.
“Howdy, Miz O’Hara. Told ya you wouldn’t be gettin’ a room tonight, ma’am.
Thought I’d better come back and make sure you didn’t have to hoof it anywhere. Rain’s stopped at the moment, but it could come a downpour again at the drop of a Stetson.”
“Thanks,” I said, grateful for his concern.
He chattered pleasantly, curious about what I’d seen, while he wound through the French Quarter.
One block off Jackson Square, we pulled up to Ye Olde Alchemy Shoppe, which was actually a modern laboratory behind an old-style facade. My friend, Jean Claude, had taken over the business and upgraded it from perfumes, voodoo powders, and witchcraft potions after the death of an eccentric aunt. Now he provided independent research for a couple of pharmaceutical companies, as well as a service to private investigators and New Orleans detectives who frequented his lab.
Jean Claude shook his head in surprise to see me at the door.
“Kaytie Flame O’Hara! What are you doing in New Orleans? And what brings you here at this time of dark?”
He gave me a bear hug that nearly cracked a rib.
“I’m here covering the ghost story at the Lafitte Hotel,” I said. “And I need your professional services.”
Jean Claude and I had graduated high school together in Baton Rouge. He proposed to me in the seventh grade. but he had also proposed to eighteen other girls before his sophomore year. They all said yes. All but me.
To my knowledge, Jean Claude was still unmarried—no doubt heartbroken by my refusal.
We exchanged a little small talk—how’s your family … your job … your life—and then I showed him my sample of white powder.
He studied the contents. “You think somebody was selling cocaine at the Lafitte?” He raised an eyebrow.
“No, silly boy. I found this stuff on the stairs after the phantom floated down. It may be nothing, but I wanted to check it out.”
Jean Claude sniffed the baggie.
“I don’t have to run any tests to tell you what this is. It’s talcum powder. My mother used to wear the same brand. I’d recognize that scent anywhere.”
“Talcum powder!” I was truly surprised. Could a woman have dabbed it on so liberally that she left a trail of it all the way down the stairs? No. There had to be something more.
“Couldn’t you please check it anyway?” I asked. “Maybe there’s something mixed in with the powder.”
“Anything for you, Miss Flame.” He winked.
Of course, all my classmates knew my full name. Most of them let me forget it. Some, like Jean Claude, still call me Miss Flame.
With a small spatula, he scraped up a sample and walked back to the lab. I remained in the lamp-lit office. Of course, Jean Claude’s laboratory was state of the art, but he still used old-fashioned lanterns for the front office, in keeping with the block’s antique atmosphere.
A few minutes later, he emerged, holding a glass beaker. “Sorry, sweetheart. It’s just talcum powder … and …” He paused.
“Minute particles of a specially developed foil.”
“Foil? What kind of special foil? I collected this stuff on the stairs. It’s not carpet cleaner?”
Jean Claude shrugged his shoulders.
Even in the dim glow of the lantern light, I noticed the reflective quality of the substance on his hands. The soft light bounced off the powder with an eerie glow.
“Would a large volume of this powder reflect an image?” I asked. “Suppose there was a small projector was installed nearby?
He agreed. “You’re talking about a hologram. It’s entirely possible. With beam steering optics and small moving mirrors, you could get an image. You’d need two small laser beams of light intersecting to reflect the image projected on the foil particles. Those would have to be blown into the air from something.”
“Something like a sprinkler valve … lots of them spewing it out!”
Jean Claude’s eyes lit up. “You think that’s where your ghost lady came from?”
“I’m willing to bet on it.” I slapped one hand on the counter.
Clever. For several years, the ghostly apparition had managed to attract lots of business to Legende de Lafitte. Hotel competition was fierce in New Orleans.
Of course, that didn’t explain the sightings of more than a hundred years ago, but who knew if there really were any ghostly appearances way back then? Maybe the whole story had been fabricated in more recent years.
Jean Claude and I exchanged a few more updates. Who married, and who got divorced. One of our classmates had run for state senator and lost. Another was an astronaut in training.
When I said I needed to get back to the hotel, Jean Claude insisted he drive. “You aren’t walking anywhere at this time of night.”
I glanced out the low-set, latticed windows. Enthusiastic revelers still filled the street, walking from bars to clubs to restaurants.
“No, thanks. I have a cab waiting right outside your door.” I smiled, touched by his concern.
Apparently satisfied when he saw the yellow taxi through the latticed pane, Jean Claude grinned. “Okay. But stop by tomorrow and let me take you out for some real N’awlins cuisine. Pat O’Hara’s or The Court of Two Sisters?”
“Why, Jean Claude, you handsome old thing,” I said, in my best imitation of Scarlett’s flirtatious voice., “I’d truly love to, but I’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow.”
He kissed my cheek, and I promised to stay in touch.
Once out the door, I hopped into the backseat of Tex’s taxi.
“Just so you know,” I said, as I returned the sample to my purse, “I did manage to get a room at the Lafitte.”
When he didn’t respond, I glanced up and realized my Texas cabby was not at the wheel. Instead, there sat a swarthy man who could have passed for a buccaneer straight off the meanest pirate ship in the dock. He had multiple earrings and wore a scarf tied over his head. The tattoo of a black skull grinned wickedly from the back of his neck.
I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but imagination said he wore a black patch over one eye and carried a large, curve-bladed rapier.
Then, to my horror, I noticed I was not alone in the back seat. Next to me sat a large woman dressed in a flowing caftan. She had gold bracelets up to her chubby elbows, earrings dangling to her shoulders, and an old-fashioned tignon tied over her braided hair. It was the typical garb of a New Orleans fortuneteller, strangely menacing in the darkened interior.
“You know where to go Mon petit chien,” she said to the driver in a calm voice.