Episode Six – Parking Goes to the Movies
Chapter 6 – If There Are Ghosts, Where Better Than in a Cemetery in New Orleans?
Shirley and I slept in. Great food at Arnaud’s, “hurricanes” (and single malt for me) at Pat O’Briens, and great jazz at Preservation Hall – plus the excitement of one of my clients trying to kill our prime suspect in the murder of Laura Jefferson – had rather filled the day yesterday.
I knew the answer to the riddle wasn’t here in New Orleans but back in Los Angeles, but that cute quivering lower lip on Shirley’s face told me that we were staying in the “Big Easy” for one more day.
“Besides, Paul,” she purred, “they are shooting a night scene for ‘Voodoo Princess’ tonight in the famous St. Louis Cemetery No.1 just up Basin Street. You wouldn’t want to miss that. They say the cemetery is haunted by a famous voodoo queen.”
“OK, Miss Guide Book, you are on. One more day. But we are flying home then. It will make up for the time we spent here.”
Shirley threw herself into my arms. Life is really good.
We walked over to the Court of the Two Sisters on Royal Street for brunch. Shirley was wearing a cool off-the-shoulder dress, cinched at the waist, with bare legs and sandals. I went for linen slacks, a cotton open-neck shirt and loafers. No socks. We were so cool we were hot.
Live jazz was playing softly in the background as we sat at the wrought-iron tables, surrounded by babbling fountains and bougainvillea. I was glad we had stayed. A day off, particularly with Shirley, was what I needed. This case was complex. And I needed to allow my subconscious to work on it.
After brunch, we strolled by the shops on Royal Street. Shirley wanted to check out lace and antique jewelry. Remembering the last 12 hours with her, I just smiled and walked along. Shirley had me hooked.
Jackson Square is home to St. Louis Cathedral and the general’s statue. His horse is rearing up on two legs. The legend is that if the horse has four legs on the ground, the rider died in peace. If one leg is up, he was wounded in battle, and two legs up, he died in battle. I know a little about Andrew Jackson, and I know he died in his sleep when he was nearly 80. The legend is hokum.
Meanwhile, the film crew had packed up their gear and moved to the cemetery. We decided to go back to the hotel for a nap in preparation for a late night watching the filming.
We arrived at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 at 9 p.m. Filming wasn’t to start for a couple of hours, but we didn’t want to miss anything. Klieg lights had turned night into day. The normally spooky cemetery was lit up like Times Square.
Folks in New Orleans had problems burying their dead. The water table is so high that normal below-ground burials often resulted in the coffins “popping up” out of the ground. Not the best way to give your loved ones a final sendoff.
They call these types of cemeteries “Cities of the Dead.” The tombs are above-ground vaults lining the narrow streets, making the place look like a small city. Even with the artificial light from the movie set, there was an eerie feeling about the place. The shadows were in sharp relief, and the farther away you got from the set, the weirder it became.
Shirley wanted to stroll around and check out the tombs. It seems that there were pirates and politicians from the city’s founding buried there. Not that there is any difference between the two. Jean Laffite is the most famous of the New Orleans pirates. It’s said that he was instrumental in helping Gen. Jackson defend the city in the War of 1812. Many of his crew are buried here.
It was a warm, damp New Orleans summer evening. But even with the heat, the moss drooping from the huge oaks, the shadows cast by the film crew’s lights, and the knowledge of what lay a few inches away in the marble vaults sent a slight chill down my spine.
“The ‘Voodoo Queen’ is buried here.” Shirley was in full tour-guide mode. “There, check out her crypt. Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess, died in 1881, but her power still remains. Look at all the ‘x’s’ on the crypt. Believers think that if they put three ‘x’s’ on her grave, she will grant them a wish.”
Brother, this was getting very strange. Shirley suddenly stopped. “Listen, Paul. Can you hear it?”
The racket from the movie set had gone quiet. I listened carefully. Nothing. I looked at Shirley with a smirk on my face. Then, ever so slightly, I heard a sound. It was coming from behind a row of crypts. It was a soft, clicking sound. Almost like dripping water but more mechanical.
Click … Click … Click.
Shirley’s eyes were open wide. She grabbed my hand. I reached for my gun, but it was back in our hotel room.
Click … Click … Click.
My curiosity wanted to know what it was. Shirley was cutting off the blood to my fingers.
Click … Click … Click.
There’s no such thing as ghosts, right? But if it were a possibility, then a cemetery in New Orleans late at night was the place to see them.
Shirley was backing away, heading toward the film set. I was being dragged with her. Oh, well, if I must. I followed her. We got back to the set, and she said she felt better surrounded by people. I did, too.
Dickey Jefferson was in full director mode, blocking out the scene for the actors. He actually did seem to know what he was doing. A bell rang. An assistant director yelled for the actors to take their spots. From just off the set, a tall, slim, absolutely beautiful black woman strolled to the area in front of the cameras. She was stunning.
“That’s Leticia Jones,” Shirley said. “She plays the voodoo princess. She was in the trailer getting ‘direction’ from Dickey when we arrived yesterday.”
I could see why Jefferson wanted to spend time alone with the woman. She was dressed simply in a long blouse and skirt that lightly touched the ground. She had a necklace made of a leather thong with two small gold skulls and a silver snake. Her hair was teased so that at least six inches circled her face.
“Don’t get too excited, boyo, that’s a wig,” Shirley said.
Wig or not, I was excited.
The AD yelled again for quiet. Jefferson said “Lights,” and the lighting went down to about 10% of what it had been. Shadows deepened. If this place wasn’t creepy when we arrived, it sure was now.
“Camera” – and then the cameraman said “Speed.”
Leticia the “Voodoo Princess” slowly walked over to the nearest tomb. It was 10 feet tall, marble, and in shadow. She picked up a lantern that was on the ground and held it near the door.
“Come to me,” she said.
The door of the crypt slowly opened. (Our friendly prop guy told me later that they would add the creaky sound in the studio.) In a flash, a hand shot out and grabbed Leticia’s neck.
Jefferson looked around, and a man with headphones was slicing his thumb across his neck. “What!”
“Sorry, Dickey, but the mikes are picking up a background sound. It’s a clicking sound.
Shirley grabbed my hand again.
Jefferson yelled, “Quiet on the set.”
Silence covered the cemetery. The lights were still at 10%. It was dark, gloomy and very quiet. No one moved. Then we heard it. Click … Click … Click.
“What the hell is that?” Jefferson yelled. “I thought we had security on this place. It’s costing us a bundle. I want that sound stopped.”
Two rather timid-looking security officers walked slowly toward the sound.
“They don’t want us to make this movie,” Leticia said quietly in Jefferson’s ear, but loud enough for us to overhear. “I told you not to mess with voodoo.”
“You didn’t seem to mind when I agreed to double your fee,” he snarled.
“Money is no good when you are permanently inside one of these tombs.” Her “islands” accent cut to the bone.
She walked off the set.
We heard a yell coming from the next street. Everyone ran between the crypts toward the sound. One of the security guards was waving his flashlight.
There was a small tape recorder sitting on the ground. Click … Click … Click.
Yeah, voodoo … right.
I looked at the tomb nearby. A bundle of clothes in the shadows was leaning up against its marble door. As I walked over, the “bundle of clothes” coalesced into a figure. The figure of a man. The man had a dagger sticking out of his neck.
Looking at him, I realized we weren’t going back to LA in the morning. The dead man in St. Louis Cemetery was one of my clients.
To be continued.