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Evil always lingers in a land where men have enslaved other men. Such evil is discovered by Kodi Carver, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Cleveland, Ohio who spends his summers in the Old French Quarter of New Orleans. There, with the help of Raney Douglas, his alligator-wrestling, bayou cousin, he assists his magical Aunt Simone with Voodoo ceremonies for tourists in the courtyard of his aunt's haunted house. By day, Kodi and Raney roam the steamy streets of the Quarter, where other kids sell Voodoo charms and vampire teeth, or dance and sweat for money. By night, Kodi and Raney become Voodoo-boys in loincloths and bones.
The audience thinks it's all showtime, though much of the magic is on the real. Kodi himself is his aunt's apprentice, though he often doesn't do his homework or carefully study his Voodu lessons, which sometimes gets him in trouble. He once called up a zombie with very nasty results!
On the earthly level, Kodi's father believes that his son is safer in New Orleans than the violent neighborhoods of Cleveland. Ironically, Kodi is almost gunned-down on his aunt's doorstep by an eight-year-old banger named Newton, who was sent out to kill to prove himself worthy of membership in a gang called The Skeleton Crew. Kodi and Raney capture the little hitman and eventually discover that the real power behind the Skeleton Crew is the hateful ghost of a slave-trader whose bones lie in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
In order to save the gang members from self-destruction, death -- or worse -- and free them from their long-dead master, Kodi and his own gang of Voodoo Dawgz, including a young street dancer, a girl who sells ice-cream, and a pale, mysterious Vampire-boy, must fight the ghost on his own turf... the storm-lashed midnight graveyard.
© 2010 Jess Mowry
The little kid sneezed when he pulled the trigger. That was his only big mistake because everything else was a perfect setup for putting Kodi underground. He couldn't have missed from ten feet away and was packing a piece of serious steel, an ancient Army .45 that looked as big as a cannon clutched in his small sweaty hands. The gun’s muzzle-blast could have wakened the dead, spitting yellow-orange flame in the shadowy alley.
But, Kodi had noticed four other boys who were hanging out across the street, their backs to a wall in the blazing sun. That wasn’t normal in New Orleans, and Kodi’s brain had buzzed a warning that something was wrong with the picture. The oldest boy looked about fourteen while the youngest was maybe twelve. There hadn’t been much to catch Kodi’s eye; they looked like most of the many street kids who cruised the French Quarter day and night, selling beads and Voodoo charms or dancing for the tourists. All wore only jeans and sneaks, their shirtless bodies gleaming with sweat like polished African idols. But, Ursulines Avenue wasn’t a place where blunts, beads or bodies were sold; not many tourists traveled the street, and kids with nothing else to do mostly hung out in front of bars or little corner markets. The dudes weren’t packing Voodoo dolls or toting any dancing shoes, but all were wearing black bandannas. Kodi’s mind was lazy from lunch but came alert as he entered the alley.
Then the little kid sneezed.
Kodi dodged as the shot roared out, slamming into his cousin Raney who walked a pace behind him, but the bullet ripped through Kodi’s arm instead of drilling his heart.
The other kids dashed away up the street, awkward in their saggy jeans and leaving the little hit-man alone. The courtyard gate was locked behind him -- iron bars with spikes on top -- and the alley was only four feet wide, so Kodi and Raney were blocking escape. The .45's kick had surprised the kid, especially since he'd held the gun in that showtime sideways gangstuh grip. He also looked a little confused when Kodi didn't bite the dust. Then he stared at Raney, who definitely wasn’t the kind of dude you got to target twice.
Raney didn't know much about gang-banger games, but he must have known he couldn't run or the kid would have a second shot. To Kodi that was obvious. He charged the wide-eyed little kid before he could pull the trigger again. Raney followed close behind, roaring like an alligator.
This overloaded the little kid’s brain... people usually ran away from small black boys with big black guns. He dropped the piece and spun around, trying to make a bust for the gate. That wouldn't have done him any good; even if he'd cleared the spikes he would have been trapped in the courtyard. Kodi caught the little dude’s jeans and yanked him back to earth.
The kid was shirtless, chocolate-brown, and maybe eight-years-old. His jeans were already falling off, which made it pretty hard to fight. He was slick as slime with smelly sweat, punching, kicking, trying to bite, but Raney got him around the neck and slammed him against the rough brick wall.
Like Kodi, Raney was only fourteen but made of solid muscle. His chest jutted out like a pair of bricks, his biceps bulged like river rocks, and his stomach was armored by ripples of stone. He wasn't any taller than Kodi, but fighting him would have been a mistake for anything but a bulldozer. Even the little kid wasn't that stupid and went as limp as laundry. He suddenly burst into buckets of tears as Kodi snatched the smoking gun and jammed it to his forehead.
"The hell is this shit?" Kodi yelled.
"Yeah!" bawled Raney, clutching the kid by his slender throat so it looked as if he was wringing the neck of a squirming chocolate chicken. The boy’s old Nikes kicked the air a foot above the cobblestones while his jeans slipped down to his knees. He wasn’t wearing shorts, but there wasn’t much to see. His bushy hair was partly tamed by a black bandanna handkerchief, the same as the other kids had worn.
Raney glanced at Kodi, ignoring the little kid’s struggles as if he’d caught something small and nasty that maybe he’d kill or throw out the window. "You all right, cousin?"
Kodi checked his arm: it was leaking blood but didn't hurt much and seemed to be working okay. Kodi was a chubby boy with bobby breasts and lots of rolls and a belly that hung way over his jeans and wobbled whenever he moved. The bullet had missed his biceps muscle, cutting clean through fat. "I guess so," he puffed, shaking sweat from his eyes.
The little kid could barely breathe. His black-coffee eyes rolled back in his head as Raney’s fingers throttled his throat. He managed to make a death-rattle sound.
"Easy, Raney," Kodi panted. "We don't wanna give him a dirt-nap." He shifted the gun between the kid's eyes. "Not yet, anyway."
"Please!" rasped the kid, fighting for air. "Don't hurt me, man!"
"Hurt you!" roared Raney. "You try an' cap my cousin's ass, you dirty little weasel!"
"I had to!" gurgled the kid.
"The hell you sayin’?" demanded Kodi, jamming the gun muzzle tighter. "You think I put a spell on you? If I did then killin' me wouldn't stop it."
"Hold up, man," said Raney. "We can't stay here an' figure this out. Somebody musta heard the shot an' maybe called the cops."
Kodi nodded, trying to think. On a sultry day in early June this part of the Quarter was silent as death. There was only the humming of air-conditioners in upper floor windows along the street. His arm was starting to throb with pain, and blood was still leaking out.
Raney, like Kodi, wore jeans and sneaks, and nothing else but sweat. His face, like his body, seemed chiseled from stone with a solid square jaw and high cheekbones, yet he seldom wore a stony expression. He scanned the shadowy alley, which led to the little courtyard. The liquid music of trickling water echoed between the ancient brick walls. Then he faced the sunlit street. "Y'all think his friends be comin' back?"
"Probably not," said Kodi. "If they'd been packin', we’d both be ghosts."
Raney snorted. "I hate this city-ass shit, man! Guns an’ gangs an’ thugger crap!” He considered the sweaty, near-naked kid, then turned again to Kodi. “So, what we gonna do with him? I feed him to my 'gator, you want?"
"No!" cried the kid.
"Shut up!" bellowed Kodi, surprised by a sudden flame of rage despite that fact this kid had shot him. He was starting to feel sort of dizzy and weak. He glanced down at the cobblestones but there wasn’t a lot of blood. Maybe it was the smothering heat, especially here in the narrow alley which felt like an oven tomb. He wiped more sweat from his eyes.
"Aunt Simone won't be back till dark. I guess we better take him inside." He met the kid's eyes along the gun barrel. "You mess with me an' it’s coffin-city! You hear me, you little... nigger?"
"Yeah," sobbed the kid, trying to nod, which wasn't the easiest thing to do with Raney wringing his neck.
Kodi passed the gun to Raney, then dug a big brass key from his pocket and unlocked the tall iron gate, pushing it open on hinges that creaked like horror movie sound-effects. Like Raney, Kodi was panther-black with a bushy mop of sooty curls and eyes like shiny obsidian. His face was round and chipmunk-cheeked with a wide and snubby bridgeless nose. His jeans rode way below his hips, and he yanked them up an inch or two then stepped aside for Raney.
Raney gave the kid a shove, and Kodi added a kick to his butt. The kid fell flat on his face and sneezed. Kodi grabbed the back of his jeans and jerked him to his feet. "Get movin'!"
Like many French Quarter houses, the one belonging to Kodi's aunt was a narrow two stories tall. It showed its shuttered behind to the street, while its real front faced the quiet courtyard, a forest of ferns and steamy foliage. A mossy old fountain was brimming with lilies, and water poured out of a bronze lion's mouth. There was a wooden table and chairs, and fire pit circled by blackened bricks where Voodoo rites were held.
The gate clanked shut behind Raney's back with a death-row kind of sound. Kodi pushed the little kid, who stumbled across the paving stones with his jeans cuffs dragging over his sneaks. Kodi yanked open a rusty screen door and kicked the kid into a dark little foyer below a narrow staircase. The ancient house smelled musty and damp, of rotten old wood and crumbling brick. The little kid was sobbing again. His jeans had puddled around his ankles, the black bandanna slipped over one eye, and his tattered shoes were both untied. His tight little chest was well-defined, though like most young kids his tummy stuck out and his posture was sloppily sway-backed, but he hadn't missed a lot of meals and his belly jutted so comically round it looked like he'd swallowed a basketball. He started to pull up his jeans, but Kodi grabbed his hair. "Leave 'em down so you can't try an' kick us."
"How I get up them stairs?" the kid sniffled.
Kodi gave him another shove. "Crawl, shithead! Like a coffin worm! You just might need the practice!"
Kodi's room was a spook-house. The walls were paneled in worm-eaten oak that was black as death after two-hundred years, and wooden lathing showed on the ceiling where plaster had fallen long ago. Two tall windows faced the street and opened onto a gallery that overhung the sidewalk. Heavy curtains of dusty green velvet made the gloomy room look cool, but that was just an illusion. There was a rusty air-conditioner, but using it was a luxury reserved for Kodi didn't know what. His aunt often said that the house owned her instead of the other way around. Naturally, it was haunted, but most houses were in the Quarter.
The room was almost filled by a bed, a massive old mahogany thing. Its headboard was carved with an eerie scene of ghoulish grave-robbers at work in the night. You couldn’t quite see their faces and were somehow glad you couldn’t. The bed’s tall posts were topped with skulls that grinned a toothy welcome. Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen, had supposedly had it built. An ancient clothes-press stood in a corner, looming like a monster’s coffin, and there was an ebony chest of drawers with a murky mirror above it. Faces and things would appear in the glass... Kodi preferred the faces to things, even if they were only bone. Cobwebs clung in shadowy corners and draped the blades of a ceiling fan with spectral threads of spider silk. The fan was turning slowly now, stirring the heat like a witch’s brew, and all three boys were dripping sweat.
Kodi shoved the kid into the room. Then, using the strap from his travel tote, he tied the boy’s hands behind his back and then to a skeletal bedpost. Raney had raided his aunt’s sewing box to make a bandage for Kodi's arm, after dousing the wound with alcohol from the bathroom medicine cabinet. The bleeding had just about stopped; and Raney went out to the kitchen fridge to snag a forty-ounce.
"Here, cousin," he offered, returning. "Good ol’ snake-bite remedy."
"Thanks," said Kodi and took a long swig.
Raney plopped down in an antique chair like a muscular African boy-god, and mopped his face with the back of a hand. "Had me enough action for one day, cousin! So, what we do for a love scene?"
Kodi went to one of the windows, staying warily off to one side, and parted the drapes to scan the street. A few people passed on the opposite sidewalk, mostly tourists packing cameras and searching for the "real" New Orleans of vampires, Voodoo and various ghosts, but there was no glimpse of the thugger kids. A middle-aged white couple stood in their place, probably reading the sign at the alley which advertised the Voodoo rites, offered tours of the haunted house, and boasted of Kodi's creepy old bed.
"Ain't sure," said Kodi, closing the curtains. "Nobody tried to kill me before. ’Least nobody alive." He fingered the gun, which felt hot in his hand but also somehow comforting. He checked the clip, finding five bullets left. "Well?" he demanded, facing the kid. "Why you try an' cap me, fool?"
For a moment the little boy tried to come bad, which wasn't an easy part to play: for one thing he was way too cute with a button-nosed face and his big bush of hair, while the black bandanna still over one eye made him look cartoonish. He'd been watching the older boys swigging malt and had wistfully licked his lips several times while trickles of sweat ran down his cheeks and spattered his basketball belly. "Ain't tellin' you nothin', nigger!" he spat.
Raney sighed and rolled his eyes. "If I gotta get outta this chair..." he warned.
Kodi took a direct approach, jamming the gun to the kid's sweaty chest about where he figured a heart would be, an inch from the bud of a nipple. "Don't dance with me, boy! My name ain't Barney!"
"Okay!" cried the kid, almost sobbing again. "It was nothin' personal, man!"
"What?" yelled Kodi. He jabbed the gun muzzle tighter. "The hell you tellin' me, nigger?"
Raney raised an eyebrow. The kid began to cry again and blubbered out, "I wanted to join the Skeleton Crew, an’ they tole me I had to cap somebody."
For a moment Kodi almost felt sick, like a bony claw had clutched his guts. Maybe it was only the heat, so deadly and different from Cleveland, Ohio. Or maybe the pulsing pain in his arm. But no, he thought, it was something else... it was knowing he'd been a random mark for this baby-banger's initiation!
Kodi almost pulled the trigger! Something seemed to laugh in his mind... fourteen years of hopes and dreams, of staying in school, of getting good grades, and trying like hell to be a good person; and this snotnose -- nigger -- had tried to kill him just because he'd turned a corner!
"It coulda been him," the kid went on, jerking his jaw at Raney. "They tole me to cap the first mark I seen. 'Less they was ol' or white."
"What the hell difference that make?" growled Raney.
"Ol' people don't count, an' cappin' a whiteboy is trouble."
Raney shook his head. "I hate this thugger shit, man!"
"You said that already," said Kodi.
"Can I have a drink?" asked the kid. He looked down at the gun to his heart. "I sorry, okay?" he added, then sneezed.
"Bless... Shit!" muttered Kodi. "'You're 'sorry'!" He lowered the gun, not trusting himself, and took his finger off the trigger. "I feel like throwin' up."
"You an' me both," agreed Raney. "But I don't wanna waste a good lunch ‘cause of him."
Kodi snagged the forty-ounce and tilted it up to the little kid’s lips. The boy gulped fast and sloppily, dripping amber foam on his chest, which ran down his tummy to spatter the floor.
"Thanks," he finally panted, with a fourth of the bottle inside his belly and more than a little all over it. But then a new look crossed his face, of sudden and total terror. "Oh, shit!" he cried, and more tears fell. "Now they gonna kill me!"
"What you takin' about?" asked Raney.
The kid began to cry again. "I ain’t worthy!” He stared around in wide-eyed horror, as if a ghost had materialized and rattled its moldering bones. "An' I lost his gun!"
Kodi glanced down at the old .45. "Your ‘mentor’s’ piece?" he asked. "That big bad boy who bailed his butt when you screwed up tryin' to drop me?"
Raney made a disgusted sound. "Kids really that stupid 'round here?"
"They do it in Cleveland, too," said Kodi. "Why dad send me down here every summer." He almost laughed. "He thinks I’m safer here!"
"I can't go home!" cried the kid. "Them dudes be waitin' for me!"
"The hell!" roared Raney. "You think we was just gonna let you go home like you flipped us off or somethin’?"
"But I can't go home!" howled the kid.
Kodi studied the blubbering boy: his tears looked totally on the real, but little... niggers... lied so much they half believed they were telling the truth. He felt the gun’s heat in his hand again, which seemed strange after only one shot. He tossed the gun to Raney and then untied the kid.
"What you doin'?" asked the boy.
"Gettin' you outta my sight. shithead. Just lookin' at you make me 'shamed to be black. My grandfather was a Panther. You probably never heard of them. At least he was fightin' for somethin' good. But now what we got? Rag-ass gang-bangin' babies like you who kill your own brothers for nothin’!"
"Hold on!" said Raney. "You can't turn him loose!"
"Looks like I'm doin' it, don't it?"
"No!" cried the kid. "You can't!"
Kodi scowled. "Pull up your Pampers an' get the hell out!”
"No, man! I can't! Them niggers be waitin'!"
Kodi suddenly grabbed the kid and shoved him to one of the windows. Then he parted the dusty drapes.
"No!" the kid pleaded, squirming to get away from the glass.
"Go out on the gallery!" Kodi ordered. "Put on a thug-o-rama show!"
The kid fell to his knees at Kodi's feet. "Please!" he sobbed. "Don't make me go out there!"
Kodi raised the luggage strap like a whip above the kid's naked back. "Go on, nigger! Show everybody how bad you are!”
Raney cocked his head. “We could do with a little less ‘nigger,’ cousin. My daddy’d wash out my mouth if I said it.”
“That’s what he is!” bawled Kodi. "A stupid little nigger!"
"No! Please!" cried the kid.
Kodi snorted. "I thought you lost 'his’ gun? So, what you worried about?"
"He gots another one, man!"
"So, why didn't he finish what you tried to start?"
"He don't gots no bullets for it."
"Mmm," said Raney thoughtfully. "I think he be on the real about them other punks wantin' to cap him." He flipped the pistol in his palm as if it was only a cheap plastic toy. "What if we give this back to you?"
The kid kept on crying. "Then I gotta cap somebody else."
"So what's the problem... boy?” asked Kodi. "Don't wanna play with your puppies no more? Or, you just now startin' to figure out what bein' a thugger really means? You already got enough enemies, fool, you don't gotta go out an’ make ‘em!” He snatched the gun from Raney and jammed it against the kid’s forehead. "This ain't no gangsta movie, boy! I pull this trigger, it's over for real! The lights go out, an’ it’s dark forever, an’ there’s nothin' but worms in your future!" That suddenly seemed like a cool idea!
The kid shied away from the gun, but then his eyes widened in sudden new fear as he stared over Kodi's shoulder. "What's that?" he cried.
"What?" asked Kodi.
The little kid pointed a trembling finger. "In the mirror! I thought I seen a face!"
Raney smiled. "Y’all owe us five dollars, darlin’."
"He won’t hurt you," said Kodi, glancing at the mirror. "Not like your little gang-baby boys."
"You mean you got ghosts in this house?" asked the kid.
"This is 'Nawlins, darlin'," said Raney. "Y’all don't got a ghost, your neighbors would talk."
The little boy got up hesitantly and hoisted his jeans a bit. When Kodi did nothing, he sat on the bed but kept his eyes away from the mirror. "What I do now?" he whimpered.
Kodi lay the gun on the dresser. "What about your folks?"
The kid wiped his eyes with the back of a hand. "I only got mom an’ she on crack. I was gonna get put in a home, but then I hook with the Skeleton Crew. They been watchin’ my back. That what the game all about."
"You play, you pay," said Kodi. "That's what the game's all about."
The kid sneezed again and looked ready to cry.
"Bless... Shit!" Kodi yanked off the kid's bandanna. "Wipe your snotty-ass nose, fool. Are you on crack too?"
"Nah. Gots me a summer cold, is all. My mom always say they the worst."
Kodi glanced at Raney and shrugged. "Any ideas?"
"Y'all could give him back the gun."
"Funny, man, but no cigar."
"I wouldn't kill you if you did," said the boy. "Swear to god, man! Y'all was right, this ain't cool shit."
"I don't wanna find out if you lyin'," said Kodi.
"Only one way to find out," said Raney.
"Why I don't wanna." Kodi studied the kid again. "You figure those punks would hurt your mom if they can’t get you?”
"I dunno,” the kid sniffled. “Guess they could."
"Well,” said Raney. "Your 'homies' don't know what happen to you. Your baby bow-wows bailed they butts an' left you on your lonesome, darlin'. ...Y’all really that stupid?"
The kid puffed his tight little chest. "Had me a B average ‘fore school let out."
"I mean to believe in that gang-bangin' bull."
"I just said I don't believe it no more."
“Trouble is, darlin’, I don't believe you."
Kodi said, "Maybe they think we called the cops an' you’re in jail right now."
"They find out about that," said the kid. "They said they could get me anywheres. Even outside a grave!"
"Beyond the grave,” corrected Kodi. “But they’re still only kids. An' I hate to say it, but you’re probably smarter than they are. ...Which sure as hell ain't sayin' much!" He paused to think again. "For all they know we capped your ass an' dumped your corpse in the river. ...Where you live?"
"In the Projects. By Cemetery Number One. Same as them."
"Like fish in a little ol’ pond," sighed Raney. "Y’all can only feed on each other. Ain't bad enough y’all poor an' stupid, but you gotta go killin' each other, too."
The gate buzzer sounded.
"Oh shit!" cried the kid. "They come for me, man!"
Kodi grabbed the gun off the dresser.
“Damn!” muttered Raney, now on his feet. "Wish I had my rifle!”
"Chill out," said Kodi, though scared himself. He waved the gun toward the coffin-like press. "Get in there... what's your name?"
"Newton," said the kid.
"Get the hell in there an' keep your ass quiet!"
"What should I do?" asked Raney.
"Lock it when he gets inside. I'ma go see who it is."
Raney locked the clothes-press door after Newton had hidden himself. He slipped the key in his pocket, then looked ready to wrestle something. "I got your back, cousin.”
"With what?” said Kodi. “Those muscles of yours ain’t bullet-proof."
"Just be careful, man. I don't wanna see your face in that mirror."
“I don’t wanna see yours out of it, either.” Kodi left the room and descended the stairs, the gun held tight in both hands. He wondered if the ghost was watching and what it might think if it was... like, why black kids were killing each other instead of picking cotton? He eased the screen door quietly open and crept along the wall to the gate, pushing through the tangled foliage draped in ivy and twisted vines. Rats scuttled squeaking out of his way. He stopped at the corner to plan his next move... should he risk a peep? That could get him a faceful of lead. He sucked a deep breath and called, "Who's there?"
"Hello?" said a man's voice, sounding white. "Are you giving tours of the house today?"
Kodi blew out a sigh of relief. He was sweating so much that his jeans were soaked as if he'd been caught in a thunderstorm. He tugged them up to a more decent level, slipped the gun in a deep back pocket, then cautiously eased around the corner. There was the middle-aged couple he'd seen out on the street a few minutes before. He definitely didn't feel up for a tour, but life went on and his aunt needed money like everyone else in the world. He made himself smile, a Voodoo boy, a magic descendant of African chiefs. He usually wore a loincloth and a necklace of bones while giving these tours, but it was too late to put them on. Fortunately the bleeding had stopped so the bandage looked like a decoration bound around his chubby arm.
"Sho'," he said, unlocking the gate. "Right dis way, folks. Ah hopes y'all ain't scared of ghosts."
"Aren't you frightened?" asked the woman. "All alone in a haunted house?"
Kodi paused at the door to his room. Although two-stories, the house was small and taller than it was wide, so the tours only took about twenty minutes unless there were lots of questions to answer. The furniture was tattered and old, giving the place a haunted look, enhanced by the shadows and cobwebby corners -- his aunt encouraged "spider art" -- and also the musty graveyard smell. His aunt had a TV and some modern things, like a microwave and a Mac computer, but they were usually kept out of sight so the house was like a living museum... or living in one, anyhow.
In the parlor stood an idol of Esu, a little black eight-year-old boy with horns. He was carved life-size from ebony wood and looked almost real in the shadows, his tummy bulging so comically round that he posed leaning backward to balance himself. A candle eternally burned at his feet among a pile of offerings -- toys and things a young boy would like -- also cigars and a bottle of rum. A believer had left him an I-pod, and he wore the headphones over his ears atop his bush of genuine hair... a lot of which was Kodi's. His eyes were glass -- Kodi assumed -- as black as night and filled with joy, which often made visitors smile. Kodi used to play Esu’s role in the evening Voodoo ceremonies, until he'd gotten too old for the part, attaching goat horns to his head with glue... which hurt like hell to remove. His aunt had been using a neighbor's young son, but he'd gone to live with his father this summer, so Esu wasn't performing.
There was also an altar to Baron Samedi -- or Semetery -- the Keeper of Graveyards and Guardian of the Dead. He was sometimes portrayed as a rough wooden cross, draped in a long black funeral coat with a top-hat perched on the vertical beam, but Aunt Simone had her own eerie version, a skeleton dressed in similar garments who ruled the room from a twilight corner.
Offerings were encouraged, and the woman added fifty cents to the pile of coins at the skeleton's feet, plus another quarter for Esu. Kodi always suggested dollars, but his mind was somewhere else right now; between the spill of his belly in front and the weight of the gun behind in his pocket, his jeans kept slipping off his butt, and he didn’t know how to get rid of the gun without maybe freaking his guests.
On a wall hung relics from slavery days; a leather bullwhip -- which might or might not have been authentic -- a branding iron for runaways, and various cumbersome shackles and chains, which were chillingly on the real. With one hand holding onto his jeans Kodi explained the purpose of each; there were leg-irons, manacles, ponderous collars, all so huge and medieval-looking they might have been made of papier-mâché if they hadn't been so obviously heavy. There was also a six-foot “trader's chain,” like a cartoon leash for a bad-tempered bulldog, with an iron collar and huge padlock. Kodi clamped it around his neck and invited the man to hold the chain while giving him a few commands. The man declined with nervous politeness... white people generally did.
Kodi’s room and Marie Laveau’s bed were the last things to see on the tour, and Kodi hoped Newton wouldn't sneeze. "Ghosts are people too," he said, which got the usual tourist chuckle.
"Have you seen it?" asked the man, who had introduced himself and his wife as Mr. and Mrs. Trout.
"Ah feels it, suh, in mah bones," said Kodi.
"Do you know who it was?" asked Mrs. Trout. "Is it a he or a she?"
"He a he, ma'am,” said Kodi. “But we’s never been rightly introduced. Mah aunt could tell y’all more if you like. You oughta come back fo' the ceremony. Ah can gives you a half-off rate since you’s already taken the tour."
"Does your aunt cast Voodoo spells?" asked Mrs. Trout.
"Yes, ma'am, But only good ones."
Mr. Trout laughed. "Is she out casting any right now?"
Kodi smiled. "She help at the Vieux Carre Children's Center. Dey’s real busy with school bein' out an' so many kids with nothin' to do.”
"What if I wanted to get rid of somebody?” asked Mr. Trout. “That's hypothetical, of course."
"She could spell him a job in another town, suh. You don't gotta hurt folks to better yourself." Kodi cautiously opened the door. He still wore the collar around his neck and deliberately rattled the heavy chain, which should have sounded a warning to Raney. He wasn't sure where his cousin had gone -- for a dude as solid as Raney was built, he was pretty good at vanishing -- but he'd also disposed of the forty-ounce bottle and even straightened the velvet bedspread where Newton had sat in his sweaty old jeans. The key was out of the clothes-press door, which meant that Newton was still inside. It had to be pretty hot in there, though Kodi wondered why he cared.
"Oh, my!" cried Mrs. Trout. "Look at that bed!" She hurried over to study the carvings.
"It would sure take me out of the 'mood'," laughed the man, while giving Kodi a wink.
Mrs. Trout snapped several pictures, her camera flash bright in the shadows. "Does anyone sleep in it now?" she asked.
“Ah does, ma'am," said Kodi. "But, ahs descended from African chiefs, so's ahs safe from evil spells." He told the usual tale of the bed, then spoke for a time of Marie Laveau, who might have been the most powerful woman in the history of New Orleans. “She surely be de most famous,” he added.
"I heard she's buried in Saint Louis Cemetery Number One," said Mr. Trout.
"Her grave be there, suh," said Kodi. "But nobody know where the bones went to! Dey took 'em away a long time ago 'cause somebody woulda stole 'em.”
Mrs. Trout shuddered. "Why would anyone want her bones?"
"'Cause dey be powerful gris-gris, ma'am. Dat’s magic stuff, like accessories. Y'all could cast some mighty big spells with magical bones like hers! ...Dey’s a tour every day from da Voodoo Museum over on Rue Dumaine. Say you was here an' dey gives you a discount. ...Now, Miz Laveau, she get lots of letters. An' special-delivery packages, too. Delivered right to her tomb."
"But, you said she isn't in there."
"Her bones be gone, ma’am, but her spirit come back every night."
"To read her mail?" asked Mr. Trout, smiling.
"Sho'," said Kodi. "Why not?"
"Could we go there alone?" asked Mrs. Trout. “And save the price of a tour?”
"Ah wouldn't advise it, ma'am." Kodi glanced at the clothes-press. "Dere be Projects right across da street."
The man and woman exchanged knowing glances. They might have been white from a small Kansas town, but they knew what "Projects" were all about.
Kodi added, "An' dey lock da graveyard gates at three. Ahs heard lots of stories 'bout careless folks gettin’ locked in overnight. One guy was only twenty years ol', but his hair had turned white in the mornin’!"
The woman shivered, but seemed to be enjoying the tale. "Can you do magic and Voodoo? You seem to know so much about it."
Kodi shrugged. "Ah can do me a few simple spells. But mah aunt always sayin’ ah don’t pay attention, an’ sometimes ah don't practice enough.”
“Not doing your Voodoo homework?" asked Mr. Trout with a smile.
“Ah ‘spose y’all could say dat, suh. But, Voodoo a lot more den magic. It be a good an' ancient religion with roots goin' way back to Africa. Some folks say it was da first religion, an’ da word itself mean spirit. But, most people don't know nothin' about it, 'cept what dey seen in horror movies.”
“It does seem like black magic," said Mrs. Trout.
Kodi patted his night-colored chest. "It our magic, ma’am, if you knows what ah’s sayin’. But, black ain't da color of evil... evil come in every color. An' Voodoo ain’t evil, just misunderstood. No offense, ma'am, but it funny how white folks like elves, wizards an' leprechauns, an' Harry Potter an' Lord Of Da Rings, but y'all think Voodoo is evil an' bad. But, Voodoo gots laws like everythin' else. 'Cept dey be laws you best not break. An' one of 'em's usin' magic fo' evil. Y’all might say, if you play, you pay. But da price be your soul enslaved forever."
"Could you hurt someone by sticking pins in a doll?"
"Maybe, ma'am. But dat be a bad thing to do. Like breakin' a magic law, what ah sayin’. Besides bein' mostly Hollywood shi... stuff. If ah really had me a enemy, ah try an' make 'em mah friend."
"Throw a love-spell on them?" chuckled the man.
"You can't make nobody love you, suh. You can only show 'em why dey should love an' let 'em decide fo' themselves."
Mr. Trout took his wife's hand. "I think I'd agree with that."
"Could you call up your ghost?" asked Mrs. Trout. “I’ve always wanted to see one.”
“She loves vampires, too,” added Mr. Trout. “She’s read every one of Ann Rice’s books.”
"Maybe, ma'am,” said Kodi. “But ah wouldn't know what to do with him, an' ghosts get awful mad when dat happen. Why, there was a guy last summer... da cops found him dead in a house up da block! He was layin' in one of dem pentacle drawin's he’d made with chalk on da floor. ...Dey like a protective circle fo' you."
"But, what happened to him?" asked Mrs. Trout. "If he was safe inside his circle?"
"He died of starvation, ma'am! He'd called up somethin' nasty, but he didn't know how to put it down! An' he couldn't leave his ring of protection or den it woulda got him! Dat’s one of da rules of magic, ma’am... never call up what you can’t put down.” Kodi flexed his chubby fingers. "But ah gives it a try if you like? No extra charge."
The woman shivered again. "No, thank you! I’d much prefer a friendly ghost."
Mr. Trout laughed. "She collects Casper memorabilia, too.” He regarded the grisly old bed. "I don't care for the theme of those carvings... skeletons, coffins, and grave-robbing ghouls... but it's a beautiful piece of work. We sell antiques on-line."
"Mah aunt was offered fifty-grand."
Mr. Trout whistled. "Can its history be verified?"
"Dey's lots of stories 'bout Miz Laveau, but ain't too much in da way of facts."
The man laughed again. "We hear that all the time in our business... 'George Washington slept in this bed,' and other various tales."
"Well, suh, I kinda think, if she did have it built, den she only use it fo' unwelcome guests."
Mr. Trout stepped to the coffin-like press. "This is also a fine old..." Then he tensed. "What's that? I heard a sound in there."
"Prob'ly jus' a rat, suh. Dey’s rats all over da Quarter.”
Mrs. Trout smiled a bit nervously. "Not your ghost?"
"Well," said Kodi, improvising. "He usually don't come out in da day. ...'Course, we been talkin' 'bout spirits an' such, so maybe dat got him interested."
The man put his arm around his wife; for a moment they looked like teens on a date. "We'll be back for the ceremony."
"Starts right after sunset, suh. Y'all come early an' get da best seats."
The man gave Kodi twenty dollars as his wife arranged her hair at the mirror. "Keep the change, son. And thank you for the tour. We'll be sure to tell our friends back home."
"May I take your picture?" asked Mrs. Trout.
"Sho', ma'am," said Kodi. "But, you might wanna wait till tonight fo’ dat. Ah sorta dress up in bones an' such. Fo' da atmosphere, what ah sayin'."
"That would be fine," said Mrs. Trout.
Kodi escorted his guests to the gate, made sure it was locked behind them, and then ran puffing back to his room with the heavy chain clanking over his shoulders.
Raney was stepping in through a window, shiny with sweat from the heat outside. "We oughta get us another forty," he said while closing the drapes.
"I made us a ten dollar tip," said Kodi. "You could go to the market..."
A small fist pounded the clothes-press door. "Get me the hell outta here!" Newton howled.
Raney tossed the key to Kodi. "So, what we gonna do about him?"
Kodi shrugged. "I don't know, man. I really think he's scared to leave, an' those other punks would try an' kill him. It's some kinda stupid gang respect."
Raney snorted. “Ain’t nothin’ ‘bout gangs I respect!” Then he considered. "But, don't forget, if he kills one of us then he cool with his little thugger friends. An' he don't gotta use a gun, I guess. They's plenty of knives in the kitchen."
"Lemme out!" wailed Newton again. "There’s somethin' nasty in here!”
Kodi unlocked the clothes-press door and Newton leaped into his arms. "I'm scared!" he cried, clutching Kodi.
Kodi peered into the shadows, seeing nothing except the clothes he'd brought... T-shirts, jeans, and a Cleveland Browns hoodie. "Ain't nothin' in there. Check it out, man."
"Somethin' tickled me in the dark!"
"Probably just the hoodie sleeve."
"No! It was cold! A-an' it whispered! ...Nasty!"
Raney laughed. "Y’all owe us another five dollars, darlin'."
Kodi checked the press again, moving his shirts around on a shelf.
“Hey!” Newton yelped. “There’s a skeleyton!”
“It’s only a skull,” said Kodi. He patted its smooth ivory dome. “My aunt said it came with the house. Might even belong to our ghost.” Then he laughed. “It’s part of my Voodoo homework.”
“It whispered to me!” cried Newton, backing away from the press.
“Well, it’s never said nothin’ to me,” said Kodi. “An’ I been tryin’ to get it to talk ever since I was your age.”
Raney smiled. "Too bad it don't talk when tourists here. Aunt Simone be rich in no time."
Newton warily eyed the skull after reaching the other side of the bed. "Maybe it heard what you said to them people? ‘Bout callin’ up ghosts, what I sayin’.”
Kodi closed the door. "No tellin' what it hear or see. Or what it thinks if it does. I used to worry a little... like, when I was takin’ a shower an' the ghost could see me naked. But then I decided the hell with it. After all, it's dead. Like, what I care what a dead thing thinks?"
Newton hastily pulled up his jeans. "Don't want no ghost to see me naked!"
Raney laughed. "It a little late to worry 'bout that."
"I’m thirsty," said Newton. "Gots any more brew?"
Raney turned to Kodi. "So, what are we gonna do with him? I still don't trust him, cousin."
"I said I was sorry," said Newton.
Kodi glanced at his bandaged arm. "That don’t that make me feel any better."
"How is it?" asked Raney.
"Hurts a little, but you cleaned it good, an' I never got no infection before. I could tell Aunt Simone I cut it on somethin'... like, choppin' wood for the ceremony."
"She know you was lyin'. She always does.”
“Well, maybe she won't even axe. Another forty would help." Kodi gave Raney the twenty dollars.
"I get us a couple," said Raney.
"I’m hungry," said Newton.
"I thought your 'homies' was feedin' you?" Raney poked Newton's basketball belly. “Look like they done a real good job."
"There wasn't no time for lunch today."
"Guess shootin' somebody was more important."
"There’s some crawfish pie in the fridge," said Kodi.
Raney frowned. "Y'all watch your back with him, cousin. They’s a lot of sharp things in this house."
"I got it covered." Kodi took off the massive chain and clamped the huge collar around Newton's neck. Then he locked the end to a skeletal bedpost.
"Don't leave me in here alone!" cried Newton. He tugged at the big rusty chain like a puppy while staring wide-eyed at the press.
"Chill out, man,” said Kodi. ”I'ma put some pie in the microwave."
"Take me with you! Please, man! Don't leave me in here with that nasty ol’ ghost!"
"I’ll be back in a minute."
"No! Please, man! It scared me!"
Raney laughed. "Wouldn't be much of a ghost if it didn't"
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.