Lafayette Cemetery’s black, wrought iron gate stood out like a beacon under the full moon.
“My dad will beat me till I’m blue and purple if we get caught.”
“Stop worrying, will you ? Me and James been here hundreds of times at night.”
“Why didn’t you bring James again and leave me out of it?”
“He’s grounded, and I wanted you to see the ghosts’ graves.”
Charlie drew a deep breath and pushed his toe against the six-foot gate. “I think your Ma was smoking weed when she claimed she saw a spook at the hotel.”
“Was not. What do you know about New Orleans history?”
“Brent, history is my best subject, and I don’t buy all this bull about dead soldiers and surgeons haunting Hotel Provincial.”
“Not just soldiers and doctors. A woman in a long white uniform haunts the halls, stops the guests and asks them if they need help.”
A dog yowled in the distance and the boys jumped. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve read all about it. Others claim the sheets bleed and another crazy old bat says a spirit dragged her from bed and tried to pull her through the wall.”
Brent’s head jerked toward him. “You calling my mom a crazy old bat?”
“Sorry, didn’t mean it that way.” Charlie scanned the cemetery through the bars and shivered. Had something floated across the grounds
Brent followed his gaze. “Damn, what are you staring at?”
“I coulda sworn something moved in there, and I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”
Brent strutted in a circle, elbows flapping. “Here chicken little, here chicken little.”
“Oh, shut up. I ain’t scared of no ghosts but scared shitless when my dad takes his belt off.”
Brent stopped his comic swagger and faced him. “Okay, listen up. I’ll explain it to you once more. If you still don’t believe me, I dare you to scale that fence and look at their graves.”
“Shoot,” Charlie said.
“After the ghost tried to grab the woman at the Provincial, Ma made a list of all the soldiers from New Orleans who died during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.”
“Many are buried here.”
“Damn, you’re stupid. You said many. That doesn’t prove the one who grabbed her is buried here.”
Brent shrugged. “Who cares? We know they haunt the hotel, and some are buried here.” He gave him a lopsided grin. “You chicken or do I go in alone?”
Charlie put his foot on the bottom rung, picked his way up the gate, and hoisted himself over the top. A second after his feet hit the ground he said, “Come on, let’s see their stupid graves and get out of here.”
After traipsing around colossal monuments and a maze of narrow rows, Brent shone the flashlight on an upright tombstone as tall as his thighs. “Hey, look at this young dude. Valmont Doucet, born 3 April 1840, died 24 April 1862.”
“Civil War,” Charlie said reading his headstone.
“Maybe they hang around because they died young and can’t fucking believe they’re dead.”
A twig snapped behind them. “What the hell was that?”
“Relax, Charlie. Probably a critter looking for food.”
“This place gives me the creeps.”
Brent crooned the theme from Jaws and laughed.
“Very funny, asshole. What I don’t understand is why they haunt the hotel.”
“They died there I think. Mom said during the Battle of New Orleans, the Ursuline nuns turned the building into a field hospital.”
“Okay, I see their graves and I believe your mom.” Charlie glanced over his shoulder. “Can we go now?”
“Hang on. A thought just struck me.” Brent’s flashlight beams swept over the front of the headstone.
“What the hell are you looking for?”
James gave the monument a solid kick with his foot. “Nothing, just wondered how solid this is.”
“Are you nuts?” Charlie shrieked. “You want bad karma or a ghost on your ass?”
Brent lifted his leg and delivered a swift kick to the chalky stone, tipping it over. “Who does this guy think he is haunting the nice people of New Orleans?” He bent over the fallen tombstone. “Hey, you hear me down there, douche bag? You’re dead, been dead for a hundred and fifty years or more!”
“Stop it, Brent! You’re desecrating his grave.”
Brent hopped onto the top of the broken stone, danced a jig, and jumped up and down until breathless. Laughter spewed from his throat. “You’re dead, dead, dead, and it’s time you fucking accept it! Get out of the hotel, get out of New Orleans and accept your fate.”
Charlie walked forward and pushed him off the stone. “You’re crazy!” He looked down. “Look what you did, Brent. You destroyed his headstone. I want no part of this.”
“Hey, wait up! Where ya going?”
“Away from you.”
“You’ll never find your way out.” Brent’s voice echoed around him, grew fainter with every step. “I got the flashlight, buddy.”
The wind picked up, rustling the leaves and dead weeds at Charlie’s feet. The clouds ducked behind the moon and pitched the cemetery into tar-pitch black.
From the pits of hell behind him, Brent screamed. “Charlie, help, Charlie!”
No matter how mad he was at Brent, he couldn’t leave him. Maybe he’d tripped on a grave and twisted his ankle. Shit, why hadn’t he listened to his gut and told Brent to go to hell? What was he doing in this cemetery?
“Hang on, Brent, I’m coming!”
Charlie picked his way back through the labyrinth of monuments toward Brent. Up ahead, he saw movement and breathed a sigh of relief. Served the kid right if he fell and broke his damn neck. He’d tried to tell him about bad karma, but his friend apparently didn’t believe him.
Burning bright, the flashlight lay on the ground, and Brent’s still form came into view. “I tried to tell —“
The words froze in his throat. Looming over Brent’s body, the shape of a man came view. The gold buttons of his gray jacket gleamed under a ribbon of moonlight. Saliva filled Charlie’s mouth and a sweat broke out on his forehead. He peered through the inky dark, his eyes fixed on the bayonet in the man’s hand. Cyclonic winds hit from all directions, and the ground swirled at his feet. He tried to move his numb legs, but like the statues, they’d turned to marble.
A deep-barreled roar echoed around him. “You’re dead. . . dead. . . dead.”
Charlie tumbled through a white abyss with Brent ass-over-tea-kettle beside him. The name fell from his lips on a whisper. “Valmont Doucet?”