You can do this, Chloe.
I stood in the shade to catch my breath. I’d walked to Carrefore from my grand-mère’s house and I could feel the sweat trickling between my shoulder blades. It was mid-December and the temperature was unseasonably warm. Or maybe I’m not used to balmy Louisiana weather anymore.
Your house, I silently reminded myself.
Camille Valois, my grandmother, left it to me in her will. The place felt empty, hollow since Mamie was gone. Every time I turned a corner, I expected to see her standing there, and then I’d brace for a fresh wave of grief.
Shake it off.
I’d come to Carrefore to get a job. It was the first item on my to do list, and the most important one. I was rapidly running out of money since I’d moved back to Bayou Noir a couple of weeks ago. It was a small town without many employment opportunities, so I had to take what I could get, and waiting tables would pay the bills.
Bayou Noir had never quite fit. It was two sizes too large. Or small. Something about this place wasn’t quite right, and I’d never felt at home here. But I’d made a vow and meant to keep it, no matter what.
Well, here goes nothing.
I squared my shoulders and marched up the driveway. Carrefore used to be a plantation back in the day. Now it was a bar and grille. Although, the architecture hadn’t changed much since it had been built. The red brick building still had a wide front porch lined with white Roman-style columns.
The name, Carrefore, literally meant crossroads, and there was something a bit, well, spooky about the place. Ancient, gnarled live oaks filled the front yard, their twisted boughs weighed down by Spanish moss. The low-hanging tendrils always reminded me of skeletal fingers.
Actually, something about Louisiana reminded me of decay, death. The moss slowly choked the life out of the trees. The harsh climate battered the buildings, stripping away the paint, exposing the bones of houses. Folks couldn’t even be buried below the ground here. Instead, their bodies were tucked away in vaults.
And yet the town teamed with life, too.
There were an assortment of insects and reptiles singing, humming along to a tune only they could hear. Like everything about this place, it was a contradiction.
It was a little after nine in the morning, and the parking lot was almost full, including a row of motorcycles. Bayou Noir was home to the Demons Motorcycle Club, Cajun chapter. They were kind of a big deal around here and Carrefore was their official clubhouse.
When I walked in the door, a petite blond woman greeted me. Ringlets framed her heart-shaped face, showcasing her sky-blue eyes, and her easy smile was infectious, because I automatically returned it.
“Welcome to Carrefore, I’m Eva LaChance, pleased to meet you.” She held out a perfectly manicured hand. Her clothing was neatly pressed and even her shoes shone up at me.
I felt shabby in comparison. This morning I’d pulled my long brown hair back into a pony tail to keep it out of my face. I wore a pair of dark blue bootcut jeans, a graphic t-shirt, and a pair of black and white sneakers. I hadn’t bothered putting on any makeup, other than some powder. And I couldn’t even remember the last time I had a manicure. Since I’d just moved back, my clothing was a bit rumpled from being in boxes and I hadn’t unpacked the iron yet.
“Likewise.” I’d been gone so long, I’d lost my southern accent. That’s not true, actually. It’s more like I’d dragged it into a closet and locked the door. In school, the kids had poked fun at me, until I’d adopted the same plain speech.
“Can I talk to Miss Nettie?” I’d hoped to get an interview with the proprietor, Antoinette Bignon.
“Is something wrong?” Eva asked.
“No, she’s an old friend of the family.” It was an understatement.
“Oh.” Her sculpted brows pulled together. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“I used to live here.” I shoved the flash of irritation away. Small town folks can be nosy, and I needed to accept it. I’d gotten used to being anonymous in Philadelphia.
I could practically hear the gears whirring as Eva formulated a brand-new batch of questions, so I headed her off before the onslaught began.
“Miss Nettie? It’s me, Chloe Valois,” I called, in the direction of the kitchen, which was right beside the bar. “Can I speak with you really quick?”
A second or two later, the door swung open and Nettie stood there with a hand on her hip. She had long, flowing curly dark hair streaked with silver, deep brown eyes, and her skin was the color of hazelnuts.
Except for the silvery-gray streaks in her hair, you’d never know she was an older woman. Her face was still smooth and nearly unlined, and I honestly couldn’t determine her age. She could be anywhere from 45 to 60. Yet, somehow her eyes were ancient.
And I swear to God she hadn’t aged in the decade or so since I’ve been gone.
She squinted at me. “Chloe? You came back home?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The term of respect automatically tumbled from my lips. Apparently, my southern manners remained intact. Mamie would be proud. At the thought of her reaction, tears burned my eyes.
“You know her?” Eva asked, with just a hint of skepticism.
“Yes, she left before you and Ava moved to town. It’s okay, we’ll catch up. Can you give the girls a hand with the breakfast rush, since Maya blew off her shift this mornin’?”
“Yes, Miss Nettie.” With one last curious look at me, Eva headed over to the dining room.
“Well, come here, chère. Let me take a look at you.” She made a circle with her pointer finger, to indicate I should turn around.
I did a quick spin.
“I still can’t believe it.” Nettie clucked her tongue. “You went and grew up on me.”
She opened her arms wide and I rushed into them. She smelled like cinnamon and butter. Mmm. Nettie had been making beignets this morning. The scent was so familiar, comforting, homey.
Once again, tears came to my eyes and I willed them away. I’d been doing that a lot lately, crying several times a day over the silliest things. I’d found a half-finished needlepoint project, a pillow cover Mamie had started and bawled my eyes out. When I pulled her purple and white afghan over my shoulders when I got cold last night, I’d sobbed too. It smelled like her.
I’d seen Nettie briefly at the funeral last month. Nettie and Mamie used to do needlepoint together, rocking on the front porch, swapping gossip and sipping sweet tea. It was strange seeing Nettie without Mamie beside her.
Mamie had kept things simple for her service. She’d wanted a small, informal gathering in the mausoleum. Since Louisiana wasn’t above sea level, no one was buried in the ground. Instead, I’d placed her ashes in the family’s vault, right beside my mother’s urn.
Somehow, leaving them in the vault, surrounded by death felt wrong. They should be released, put back into the earth, but I hadn’t decided where to spread their ashes.
I’d only managed to get a couple days off work and school, so Nettie and I hadn’t seen one another since the service. I still can’t believe Mamie didn’t see me graduate from college two weeks ago. It wasn’t fair. She’d scrimped and saved to help me pay for school, and she hadn’t gotten the chance to enjoy my accomplishment.
“Come on, chère. Sit a spell. Want some coffee? I’m about to fix me a cup, too.”
Southern folks believe in being sociable. So, it was important to shoot the breeze before we got down to business. When I moved up north to Pennsylvania, it had been a culture shock. I’d thought everyone was rude, but now I was used to it.
“Yes, please.” I crossed to the bar and hopped up on a stool.
While she fixed the coffee, I surveyed Carrefore, looking for any changes. I didn’t see any, it’s like the town had stood still in my absence.
The interior of the building was still breathtaking—high, vaulted white ceilings, polished wood floors, hand carved wooden tables and booths filled the room. Little wrought iron lanterns illuminated the support beams. They had to be lit by hand every night with a long pole, the kind they used to use on the streetlamps outside.
On the main wall were two veve, voodoo religious symbols. Nettie was a voodoo priestess and the Cajun Demons MC had two patron loas, or deities—Papa Legba, guardian of the crossroads, and Kalfou, his twin brother. Like Cain and Abel, they were light and darkness. Legba helped folks find their way, while Kalfou led them to their doom.
Next to the veve for each loa, were two murals. The paintings still made me shiver. Somehow their eyes fixed on you, no matter where you sat in Carrefore.
Kalfou was pictured in a graveyard, which is a crossroads, a place between the land of the living and the dead. He balanced a hand on a long cane and wore a top hat. Kalfou might be depicted as a handsome African American man but he had sinister intentions.
Papa Legba was also in the cemetery, beneath a full moon, with a snake wrapped around his neck like a scarf. He wore a tuxedo and his face had been painted to look like a skeleton. Papa Legba held a lit cigar in one hand.
I suppose those two symbolized the light and dark found in the club.
The bikers viewed each other as brothers, family, and they’d do anything to protect their own. And I mean anything. While I didn’t know what criminal activities they were involved in specifically, the Demons were a 1% biker club, which meant they were outlaws.
I planned on steering clear of one particular member if I could help it.
There were a couple of ominous sayings on the wall. We are legion was scrawled in black paint. I’d asked Nettie what it meant once. She said it referred to a bible verse, about a man possessed by several demons. When Jesus asked the man his name, he’d replied “Legion.”
Another quote caused a chill to ripple down my spine as well. “It does my heart good to see you in a box of wood.” Bikers weren’t exactly the forgiving sort.
Here’s hoping I never piss them off.
Just then, Nettie reappeared with a tray of coffee and fresh beignets. After she handed me a cup, I doctored mine up with a couple packets of sugar and half and half. I took a sip and smiled. She’d brewed the java with chicory, which gave the coffee a nutty flavor.
I took a bite of beignet, fresh from the cottonseed oil it had been fried in and my eyes shut in ecstasy. Yeah, it’s good to be home.
“I’d heard you were back in town.” She arched a brow.
“And you didn’t come to visit?”
I winced. “Sorry. I was just settling in.” There’d been a lot to do—unpacking, slowly sorting through Mamie’s things, and little annoyances like putting the utilities in my name, getting my accounts transferred to a local bank. “Speaking of getting settled. I need to ask you for a favor.”
“I know.” Nettie waved a dismissive hand.
She smiled mischievously. “The tarot cards told me you’d be stoppin’ by.”
A little word about the supernatural. Bayou Noir is only located about twenty minutes from New Orleans. This part of the country is steeped in legend. I’ve heard all kinds of folk tales, about everything from vampires to rougarou, better known as werewolves.
Nettie, herself, claimed to have studied voodoo with the famous priestess, Marie Laveau. She believed in all sorts of things—witches, demons, ghosts. You name it.
“And did they tell you why I came?”
“For a job.”
How does she do that? Even I have to admit, Nettie is extremely intuitive. Sometimes, she just knew things she shouldn’t. I chalked it up to her powers of observation though.
She cackled. “My cards were right, oui?”
Nettie and I are both Creole. Our families are descended from the French settlers who arrived in Louisiana in the late 1700s. Her white male French ancestors had forced themselves on female slaves. In fact, Nettie’s family had been enslaved by Carrefore’s previous owners. It’s only fitting Nettie’s granddad bought the place and it had been in her family ever since.
She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest.
“So, do you have any openings?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t you wanna get a job usin’ your degree?”
“Yes, ma’am, but there aren’t many options in this town and a girl needs to eat.” Besides, a B.A. in English wasn’t very useful on its own. Before Mamie died, I’d wanted to go to law school, but my plans were on hold for the foreseeable future.
“Hmm,” she said, peering at me. “I’ve got a waitress position. It’s only part-time though.”
“Sounds great.” Just as long as I had some money rolling in. I’d fill in for other staff members, do whatever I had to do to make this work. “When can I start?”
“Tonight, at six. You’ll help cover the dinner rush.” She reached behind the bar and handed me a turquoise apron. “Wear a white t-shirt and jeans.” She didn’t have uniforms, per se, but the waitresses and bartenders all wore the same kind of clothing.
Nettie wagged a finger. “And don’t be late now.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I was relieved. Item number one could be crossed off my lengthy to-do list.
“Camille was proud of you, you know. You’re the first person in your family to earn a degree.”
“She was?” Once again, the waterworks threatened to flow.
“Of course, chère.” She squeezed my hand.
“Thanks for saying so.” I ducked my head. Although, in retrospect, maybe I should’ve studied something more practical like accounting.
“How is Henri?” I asked, searching for polite small talk.
“He’s in jail.”
My mouth fell open. “For what?”
“Sorry, I can’t give you any details.” She lifted a shoulder. “It’s club business.”
The last time I’d seen Henri, he’d been the MC President. Nettie was his wife or old lady as the bikers put it, and while she wasn’t a member of the club, the bikers respected her, treated her like an honorary mother. And in the south, mothers were treasured.
“I’m so sorry.” This time, I grasped her hand.
“Thank you, Chloe.” She didn’t let go, and neither did I. “We’ve had some terrible losses, haven’t we?”
I swallowed a hard, thick lump in my throat. “Yes, sometimes it feels unbearable.”
Nettie sighed. “But we must push through. Camille never gave up and neither should you.”
I had so many questions. I wanted to ask if she knew anything about Mamie’s death, but I already knew Nettie wouldn’t answer me. She’d want to keep me out of trouble.
I’d come home to find out who killed Mamie. And I wouldn’t let it go until the bastard was behind bars. Her case had gone cold and the police had no leads, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me.
“When will Henri get out?”
Her shoulders drooped. “Five more years.”
Woah. “And how long has he been, um, away?”
“Nearly a decade.” I couldn’t imagine being cut off from my husband for ten years.
Nettie gave me a crooked grin. “Non, your soul mate is worth the wait. When I married Henri, I swore I’d be here for him in good times and bad. I’ll have my man back soon enough.”
It was sort of romantic in a really strange way. Their love could withstand the separation. There weren’t any love stories in my family. Both my grandmother and mom had never managed to keep a man in their lives for very long. Neither had I. Henri and Nettie gave me hope. Maybe one day I’d meet a man who was worth the wait, too.
“Why didn’t Mamie tell me?”
“When you left, she didn’t want you to worry about us.”
“She was afraid I’d come back home.”
Nettie nodded. “Yes, you were homesick in the beginnin’, if I recall. And since you had a scholarship, she didn’t want you to waste the opportunity.”
Even though I’d wanted to go away to boarding school, I’d spent the first couple of months crying myself to sleep at night, but I’d eventually made friends and moved on.
“Camille would’ve loved seeing you here again.”
The first year, I came back for Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with summer vacation, but I’d quickly adjusted to my new life. Soon, I spent holidays with my friends' families and got the chance to travel around the country.
No, you abandoned her.
Ever since I’d gotten that fateful call from the sheriff, the guilt had been eating me alive. Except for the occasional visit and phone call, I hadn’t given Mamie the love and attention she’d deserved. Mamie was more of a mother than a grandmother to me since she’d raised me. And now I’d never get the chance to make it up to her.
“I should’ve come back sooner.” My voice was hoarse.
Mamie hadn’t gone peacefully, in her sleep either. Bayou Noir sat on the edge of the national forest and her body had been found by hunters in the woods. Someone had slit her throat.
I still couldn’t believe it.
She would’ve been afraid, in pain, and I couldn’t bear the thought of her dying alone, in agony. Mamie had been a good friend and neighbor. Who in the world would hurt her? I didn’t know, but I was bound and determined to find out.
“Don’t what?” I was thrown back to the present by Nettie’s warning tone.
She frowned. “I can read your face like my cards.”
I didn’t reply.
“You want to track down her murderer, don’t you?”
“Wouldn’t you?” I asked defensively.
“We aren’t talkin’ about me, chère. Camille would want me to keep you safe.”
“What’s wrong with finding out what really happened to her?”
I didn’t bother denying it any longer. Nettie wouldn’t buy any of my crap. She’d always been able to see right through me. Like the time I was eight years old, and I stole a candy bar from the drug store. Somehow, Nettie had just known, and she’d told Mamie what I’d done.
By the time Mamie had finished tanning my hide, I hadn’t been able to sit for a week.
“Nothin’, if you wanna get yourself killed.” Nettie pursed her lips. “Some things are best left alone.”
“Maybe.” I didn’t agree at all, but she’d decided to hire me. Upsetting her wasn’t an option.
“Ow, my head.” A dark-haired woman drifted into the room. Swaying on her feet, she held onto the walls and furniture as she made her way to the bar. She looked strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place her.
“It’s about time you woke up, Maya.” Nettie lifted her chin.
“Sorry.” She hopped up onto the stool next to mine. “Rough night.”
“Chloe, you remember Maya, don’t you?”
“Maya St. James?” As in, Saint’s baby sister? Yeah, I remembered her. We used to play together.
“Chloe?” Maya turned to me and I got a real good look at her.
She wore the remains of her makeup from the night before, smudged crimson lipstick and raccoon eyes. Her jeans were skintight, showcasing every curve of her body. Her tank top highlighted large breasts. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been in braces and braids.
“Yeah, it’s me. Nice to see you again.” I patted her shoulder awkwardly and noticed a thorny rose tattoo on her bicep.
She eyed me until I removed my fingers. “Can I have a cup of coffee and a couple of aspirin, Nettie?”
“Sure, even if you don’t deserve it. You shouldn’t stay up all night drinkin’ and…” Nettie trailed off.
“Bonin’ strangers?” Maya offered.
As if on cue, a sheepish-looking redheaded man walked down the stairs and made a beeline for the front door. He offered Maya a wave.
Maya nodded in acknowledgment and he loped out the door as fast as his big feet would take him.
Wow. Did she have a one-night stand with him? My love life was, well, non-existent. I couldn’t help but be jealous. These past few years I’d been totally absorbed in my studies. But I was done with education for now. I felt like I’d just gotten released from prison. Although, even if I had been dating, I wouldn’t allow myself to have a one-night stand.
Men had brought the women of my family nothing but trouble.
Nettie poured a cup of coffee and slapped a bottle of aspirin on the bar. Maya popped a couple of pills and washed it down with java. Then she lit a cigarette with a black pack of matches she fished out of her pocket. They had an unusual logo on them, a red lipstick stain, along with the name Bijoux Rouge.
Never heard of it. Was Bijoux Rouge some kind of nightclub?
“What’s his name?” Nettie asked, gesturing to the door.
Maya shrugged. “Steve? Shawn?”
“You don’t know?”
“Nope, and I don’t care either.”
Nettie sniffed. “I’m not a prude, Maya, but my momma always said, don’t do in the dark, what you wouldn’t want brought into the light.”
“Hey, I’ve tried to date bikers instead, but Saint scared them off.” Maya grabbed the other beignet on my plate without asking and bit into it.
Rude. “Enjoying that?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Her expression was downright unholy as she licked powdered sugar from her fingertips.
“Maybe you could persuade him?” Nettie offered. “I’m sure Saint would see reason.” Since she’d married Henri, Nettie thought the bikers were a cut or two above other men.
Maya snorted. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
I doubted Saint wanted his baby sister cozying up to his biker brothers. I’m surprised the redhead even had the nerve to approach her. Saint was formidable.
“What about you?” Maya asked me. “Seein’ anybody?”
“Um, no. I just got back into town.”
She looked me up and down. “Saint’s gonna love this.”
Love what, exactly? I was dying to know, but too chicken to ask.
Nettie cleared her throat. “Chloe’s gonna be workin’ with you tonight.”
Maya’s lip curled into a sneer. What the hell happened to her? She’d been such a shy, quiet girl. We’d gotten along really well. And now she was a surly, and, er…whatever the female equivalent of a womanizer is.
Manizer? No, that didn’t sound right.
“Then I’ll see you later.” Maya grabbed her coffee and headed for the stairs.
“Don’t sleep all day. I need your help with inventory!” Nettie called.
“Gotcha. I’ll be back down in twenty.”
“That girl’s gonna be the death of me.” Nettie rolled her eyes. “I swear, if she wasn’t family, I’d fire her, and she’d be out on her derrière.”
“She lives here?”
“Yes, the club keeps rooms for friends and family, in case they need a place to stay.”
Lord knows, Carrefore had plenty of space. There had to be at least a dozen bedrooms, but I hadn’t known the club used them.
“So, what happened to Maya? She’s different.”
“Ain’t my story to tell.” She reached out and stroked my cheek. “I’m glad you’re here though. One thing’s for sure, you’re back where you belong.”
Guilt hit me like a lightning strike.
I should’ve gone to school at Tulane. I would’ve only been a half an hour away. I could’ve commuted and lived with Mamie. Who knows? Maybe I could’ve prevented this tragedy.
“Non, don’t do that. You can’t blame yourself,” Miss Nettie said softly. “Fate is a powerful thing.”
“I believe we make our own fate.” All my life, I set goals for myself, knocked them down, and moved onto the next thing. I was the mistress of my own destiny. No one could tell me any different. “And I can’t help but feel guilty.”
“She wouldn’t want you to.”
“Maybe I can forgive myself. One day.”
I hoped Nettie was right, but I seriously doubted it.
“Well, I’ll get out of your hair for now, and I promise to be on time tonight.” I finished the rest of my coffee and slid off the stool, heading to the door.
“Watch out for the Kraken.”
I paused. “Kraken?”
Was this another crazy local legend? I refused to ask about it and give in to the madness.
“Sure, I’ll keep one eye out.”
Shaking my head, I headed out the door. I was much too old to believe in magic.