“Leanna” Released on Kindle
Pleased to say my New Orleans ghost story is ready for a generation of e-readers. Here’s the new cover, and an excerpt from the novel. It will be available on the Amazon site for a free download May 31 to June 2. Pass it on … particularly to those who love New Orleans and paranormal thrillers.
Here’s an excerpt:
Hailey Martin sat at her computer and flexed her fingers before spreading them over the keys. It was only a habit, though one that signified that she was, indeed, ready for work. But, as in all the days before, her mind seemed drained of all thoughts, all words.
She looked at the screen and thought of the plot that had begun to form. Starting was always the hardest part— placing those first words on the empty screen held a kind of terror, a terror that the next four hundred pages would be less than perfect, less than her reputation deserved.
Since the publication of her first best seller, she had moved beyond the realm of demanding editors. She could write exactly what she pleased. Usually the freedom exhilarated her but now the responsibility in it froze her thoughts as never before.
Last night’s dream had been vivid and troubling but dreams had never affected her before. It must be the date, she admitted reluctantly. Did she really think that five years could dull the memory?
She and Bill had been so hopeful when, after three miscarriages, after three shattered dreams, her pregnancy had finally lasted beyond the first tenuous weeks. At night, she would lie in bed, her hand over her womb willing the life inside her to thrive and grow and be born whole and strong, as if the habit itself could assure it.
At the beginning of the third month, her doctor suggested a few tests be run. After all, he told her, there had been no diagnosis of what had caused her difficulties. Bill, more painfully aware than she of what these difficulties might mean, urged the test then stayed with her throughout it, and in the hours after the amniocentesis when she refused to move until she was certain that no harm had come to the child within her. Bill had been her strength, her rock through the tragedies of the past three losses—no wonder that, when the genetic tests were complete, the doctor had called him first.
Hailey was adamant. She would not end this child’s life. Then the bleeding started as it had three times before and the choice became heroic means or none.
At four months, you no longer abort a tiny mass of unformed cells, you deliver a baby. She had argued that to Bill, only to be countered with the brutal truth. “Can you really watch our child die? Day by day, you’ll watch him die, Hailey. I’ve seen it. I know. Let it end, Hailey. Let it end now as God intends it to end, for all our sakes, the baby’s most of all.”
Bill was right, she admitted, and so sensitive to her pain. At the end, when the doctor mercifully sedated her, the last thing she felt was Bill’s hand gripping hers.
She stayed sedated for days afterward, first at the hospital then at home. Bill would leave in the morning and return at night and she would still be in bed, lying with her knees pulled tight against her chest, her eyes dry but red-rimmed. She hid the worst of her days from him. When he asked, she would say she had been writing, but she never showed him the chapters as she had before.
The doctor prescribed pills for the depression, mental exercises to improve her outlook—as if the mourning were somehow wrong, or unnatural. The pills gave her a curious undirected energy, better suited to housecleaning than the introspective work of a writer. And though they helped her to sleep, she had terrible dreams. Tiny hands moved across her body, tiny hands with claws ripping at her skin.
She stopped taking the pills, and stopped seeing the therapist who did not approve of what he called Hailey’s “setback.”
But, even without them, she did no creative work.
Finally, desperate, Bill brought home a stack of books on Tay-Sachs.
Before, she had only heard of the symptoms. Now she could read about them—painful accounts of living with a child doomed to death from the moment of conception. She cursed herself for being so despondent over a decision that was the only decision she could make. Then she sat at her word processor and channeled all her pain into her work—a story of a child like hers, born but soon dead.
Watching Aaron Die became her first best seller, followed by a second equally successful novel ten months later. The day she and Bill went on national TV to tell their story, she thought she had put the past behind her.
It returned viciously to haunt her.
She wrote under her maiden name but the talk show host had used her husband’s last name. Anyone with access to a Milwaukee phone book could find their number and did. There were calls from mothers, often in the middle of the night, their voices so apologetic for disturbing her. She would lie and say it was no trouble, listening to them weep as they offered sympathy or told their own sad story. And there were others as well, vicious whispers suggesting that her son’s disease had been deserved, God’s punishment for what they were.
A huge red swastika appeared like an angry scar on the riverside door of their boathouse. They had no idea it existed until a neighbor from across the river hunted down their house one morning to tell Hailey.
Though she hated recorded messages, she bought an answering machine that same morning and spent the rest of the day painting over the damage while the river, gravid in the spring rain, flowed behind her. When she was finished and there was nothing more she could do, she sat at the window overlooking the river and thought of the man—to Hailey such hate could have only come from a man—who had painted the obscenity.
That evening, Bill found her still sitting in that same chair, guarding her work, her house, her life. He brought her a glass of wine, made dinner and forced her to talk to him. Later, in bed, he fingered her white-blond hair and repeated something he’d said in the interview. “My wandering Jew,” he called her. “Maybe that’s what attracted me to you in the first place.”
“Do you think so?” She stared at him, demanding a reply, and for the first time since the ordeal had begun, he could not meet her gaze.
No, he’d been attracted because she was fair-haired and blue-eyed, because he believed she was as far removed from the flawed genetics of his Hasidic ancestors as any woman could be. His parents had been raised strictly and had rebelled against their past together. Reformed and liberal, they accepted Hailey just as avidly as their son. They did not even suggest that she convert to Judaism, though she had gone through the motions of doing so, as she had gone to Catholic church when she was young, believing more in form than substance.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly, then added, “I love you.”
They spoke of other children. Alone, her child might carry the Tay-Sachs gene but would certainly show no symptoms. Like her. Like Bill. Only the product of their coupling was doomed. They discussed adoption. Insemination. But they both wanted children of their own, if not together then apart. After the divorce, she sold the house—their house—in the spring following the third anniversary of their child’s death.
Hailey bought a house in the Wisconsin woods with its back to a tiny spring-fed lake and a national forest Summer passed easily, then a quick fall gave way to an early snowy winter. With it came thoughts of what she had done. The whiteness of the landscape mirrored the whiteness of the doctor’s office, the snow on the ground when they’d left the hospital that last time, the white walls of her bedroom where she’d spent so many days in the blank cloud of her despair.
The depression closed around her again, like a dark, terrible wave, sucking her into its undertow, draining all sparks of life.
Each day she stayed in bed until well into the morning, rising only to eat before napping again. Her answering machine collected calls from Bill, from her mother, and from her therapist, while she slept, oblivious to her work or her life.
Finally, in the middle of the dead season, she began to dream of sun and warmth and life, dreams that stayed with her through her days, dreams that called to her, demanding a response. In mid-November, she closed the house. Taking only her computer and one small suitcase full of lightweight clothes, she drove south, stopping only to sleep until she reached New Orleans.
She stayed in the French Quarter Holiday Inn for the first few days, judging the atmosphere of the town as she might the tone of a social gathering or a relationship, deciding finally that the Quarter filled the need in her for light, energy, laughter. Decision made, she contacted a rental agent and began her search for a place she could call her own.
Most of the better apartments were too large and expensive for a writer making mortgage payments on a house in the Wisconsin woods. Others were so run-down or in neighborhoods so seedy that she would not feel relaxed enough to work in them.
She was about to consider a permanent move when, seemingly by fate, she found exactly what she was seeking around the corner from her hotel. After looking at six places with a rental agent, she parked her car in the hotel lot and decided to look for someplace different for dinner. Sonya’s Kitchen, at the next corner, was usually packed with customers. That day, only a few people waited for tables. She joined them, and while she stood there, she read a For Rent ad posted beside the cash register and asked about it.
The stairway to the second-floor apartment was on the side street behind the restaurant kitchen. It had a private balcony with a lacy iron rail above the main restaurant entrance. The room faced southwest, and in the afternoon, it was drenched with sun. Though it had no kitchen, it did include a built-in buffet with a counter, a pair of hotplates and a large sink in the bathroom where she could wash her few dishes. Best of all, it came with a parking space in the rear.
She walked through the room thinking of life within its walls. She stood on the balcony, noting happily that it was wide enough accommodate a desk and computer. And its atmosphere, one of faded secrets not her own, seemed ideal for creativity. The room had been separated from the main second-floor house and, with its tiny rosebud wallpaper, had probably belonged last to a little girl. Now it was furnished with dilapidated near-antiques that the building’s owner suggested could be placed in storage if Hailey wished.
Hailey did not wish. The huge room suited her in a way she could not quite understand. She moved in that same day and went shopping. By nightfall the bed was covered in a bright African cloth, her worktable with a second that clashed perfectly with the first. Later in the week, she found a fake oriental rug to cover the worn spots in center of the room’s spotted wine-colored carpet, then placed the room’s only good piece of furniture—a red mohair divan with a carved wood frame—near the French doors that led onto the balcony. Beside it she hung a brass incense holder.
When everything around her was perfect, she thought, then she could begin her work.
Her wardrobe changed from dowdy Northern tweeds to brightly colored caftans. She wore a gris-gris bag around her neck that had been prepared by a Yoruba priestess to bring her creativity and luck. Her middle-aged Corolla, though hardly a car in demand, had a fetish on its dashboard to scare away thieves. She shopped in the same markets every day, ate breakfast out in the same two restaurants. Clerks and waitresses called her by name. Alone, though for the first time in months far from lonely, she belonged here.
On unseasonably warm days such as this one, she kept the balcony doors open and the room filled with the damp river air, air so thick she seemed to inhale the life of the city itself. In the distance she could hear the crowd on Rue Dumaine, the beating of the drums of a street band, the clanking of pans in the kitchen of the restaurant below her—familiar, happy sounds.
Now, in spite of a new location, a different kind of life, the words still would not flow from her mind to her fingers to the keyboard and her machine. The mystery she had so carefully plotted on the hours of her drive seemed overdone and her approach trivial. Knowing it was useless to force the beginning of a book, Hailey turned off her computer, pocketed a small notebook and went for a walk.
The day stayed bright as she wove her way through the streets, past the cathedral and to the Café du Monde, where she sat sipping coffee and watching the thin winter trickle of tourists flow by. A mother with a toddler in a stroller sat at the next table, sharing a plate of beignets, the child laughing as the powdered sugar fell down the front of his jumper.
Hailey’s expression caught the mother’s attention. “How old is he?” Hailey asked.
“Nearly three. It’s a good time to travel with him. We’re from Chicago. And you?”
Three. “Wisconsin,” Hailey replied.
“I never would have guessed if it weren’t for your accent. Milwaukee?”
Had her own child been born, he would likely be dead by now. “Yes, but I lived in Eagle until recently. I moved here four weeks ago.”
“Here? You’re so lucky. It was snowing when we left Chicago. Isn’t this spring weather wonderful?”
Dead . . . and her grief only sharper from the loss.
Hailey nodded. Though her expression had not changed from that of casual interest, she did not want to risk speech.
The woman was holding out her camera. “Would you take a picture of us before we go?” she asked.
Hailey did, then ordered a second cup of coffee. The setting of her novel was wrong, she decided. She had always written about the Midwest but now she lived here and should write about here. She jotted down notes through two more cups of coffee and would have ordered another but the sun abruptly disappeared behind a line of dark storm clouds.
On her walk back, the temperature fell and the wind rose with the first drops of rain. By the time Hailey got home, the balcony doors she had left cracked open had blown inward and the room reeked of the ozone smell that always reminded her of bloated worms on the sidewalk after a spring downpour.
Papers were scattered across the floor, and the rug and wall next to the door were as soaked as she was. The computer keyboard was damp and the monitor screen danced when she turned it on.
“Very stupid, Hailey,” she said out loud as she turned on the electric space heater. She would get no work done today.
It took four bath towels to sop up the water on the floor, and as she wiped down the wall, bits of the wallpaper flaked off, sticking to the towel. She looked at the mess, then at the rest of the walls around her. The yellowing rosebud paper was ugly, utterly at odds with the brightness of the room. Now an entire section of it had begun to peel.
Well, if she couldn’t write, there was always other work to do.
Hailey took the soaked towels downstairs and put them in the washer behind the restaurant kitchen, then went through the narrow courtyard passage to the restaurant’s front door. “Is Frank here today?” she asked Norman, the only waiter on duty during the slow afternoon hours.
Norman stared at Hailey, his expression too haughty to be considered insolent She found herself wanting to apologize but wasn’t certain what terrible deed she had done. “I’ll get him,” he finally said.
Soon after, Frank Berlin maneuvered his heavy body through the closely spaced tables in the front dining room. The house and restaurant had been inherited, but he’d built the business on his own. His skill as a self-trained chef was undeniable and in the last few years Sonya’s Kitchen, named after his grandmother, had become one of the Quarter’s best restaurants.
“Do you want some coffee?” he asked.
“No. I want to ask you if I can strip the wallpaper in my room.”
“You hate it, too, huh? Sure, go ahead. I warn you, though, you start and you finish. The stuff may look like it’s falling off the wall but some of it is probably married to the plaster by now. I stripped this room,” he waved at the walls around them, pale mauve made all the brighter by its contrast to the dark original woodwork. “A week for this, two more for the back room. I own a steamer. I think you’ll need it.”
“And the paint?”
“Keep the receipt I’ll pay for it.”
“I didn’t mean that, I only wanted to know what colors I could use.”
“Lord, you tightass Yankees. Make it any color you want but lay down an anti-mildew primer first or the walls will be gray in six months. And you should get something for all the work. Five lunches a week for a month, OK?”
“A month?” It seemed too much.
“You don’t know the job you’re facing. Come on. I might as well get you that steamer now.”
Hailey started cautiously on the soaked wall behind the balcony doors. If the work really did prove to be too time-consuming, this section could be painted white to match the built-in cupboards. The sheets pulled off easily, though the wall behind them was gray with mildew. The first sheet on the opposite wall came off just as easily, especially since Hailey used the steamer before she began. The next two had been overlapping and they fell off together almost as soon as the steamer mist touched them. Hailey caught them as they fell and laid them with the other scraps on the balcony. When she turned back, she saw the graffiti that had been hidden beneath them, large and bold and colorful.
A snake with a coiled body and raised head covered nearly all the space from ceiling to floor. Its eyes were wise, its forked tongue long, flanked on either side by lethal-looking fangs. Resting with their backs against its coils were a pair of chubby naked boys, their penises raised parallel with the snake’s head. Facing away from each other, their features seemed deliberately the same, their expressions malicious. Beneath the drawing someone had scrawled the words Protect the innocent!
Protect them from what? Hailey wondered. From this wallpaper pattern, most likely. She laughed nervously to herself, and went on.
Now the work went much slower, the steamer and scraper together hardly enough to strip the walls. It almost seemed that she had been intended to find the drawing and that once the purpose had been completed, the force that had compelled her to begin had vanished.
A thought befitting a suspense writer, Hailey decided and laughed again more calmly. Nonetheless, the wallpaper that remained looked no different from the earlier sheets, and those had fallen off. She wondered what would have happened if she had started in the opposite corner of the room.
Hailey ran out of energy by early evening. By then the computer’s blower had dried out the machine and she could have worked if she’d had something to write. She tried reading instead but the drawing, huge and insistent on the one stripped wall, was more compelling than anything else. There was an urgency to it, a determination to the strokes of the brush. The final exclamation point had been made with such force that the period on the bottom had leaked in a thin line beneath it like a black tear flowing down the wall.
At ten Sonya’s Kitchen closed. Hailey waited until she heard Frank’s heavy footsteps in the hall then opened her door just as he was unlocking his apartment. “Frank,” she called. “Can you come in here for a minute?”
“I warned you about the job. How bad is it?” he asked, a teasing I-told-you-so grin on his pudgy face as he pushed past her.
And stopped, staring at the wall. “Holy God!” he whispered, one of his hands moving out in a gesture before Hailey could move beside him.
Hailey’s curiosity deepened into something far more serious. “The drawing was under the paper. Do you know what it means?” she asked.
Berlin didn’t respond for a moment, waiting to speak until he managed to pull his attention from the wall to Hailey. “The room was protected. The snake is a symbol of good luck. The twins are a symbol of luck as well.”
Berlin nodded. “She drew it. It could only have been her but I don’t know how. That paper’s been on these walls for over twenty years. Morgan only rented the room eight years ago.”
“The wallpaper over it came off easily. The paper could have been stripped then repasted.”
“And no one would know, that would be like her.” Berlin sounded no more relieved, as if the woman, whoever she was, had somehow bested him.
“Who was Morgan?” Hailey asked.
“Her lover. He killed himself.”
“Yeah.” Berlin pointed at the ceiling. Hailey followed the direction and noted that a section of plaster around the ceiling fan had been replaced. “There used to be a heavy glass chandelier there. Years ago it started working its way loose and my aunt had an extra hooks mounted in the main beam to support it. Morgan looped the rope through the hook and hung himself.”
“Do you know why?” Berlin only looked at her, his eyes dull with shock. “It’s my room. If something tragic happened here, I think I have a right to know.” Hailey gripped the gris-gris bag around her neck, implying that she believed that spirits existed and that if he didn’t tell her, she could find someone who would.
Berlin laughed. Though Hailey knew he was trying to break the tension, he didn’t succeed. They were both too nervous. “Lord, Yankee, there’s not a house in the Quarter that doesn’t have at least one great tragedy. You’ve got a right to know all of it but I don’t want to talk about it in here. Come down the hall to my place and I’ll tell you what I know.”
Berlin paused at his door. “Go inside and put on some music,” he told her. “I’ll be right back.”
Though they had shared the second-floor space for two weeks, this was the first time Hailey had been inside Frank Berlin’s apartment. She had formed ideas of how the chef lived but none of them came close to matching this.
Unlike the tum-of-the-century decor of his restaurant, the interior here was modem. The apartment walls were white, the old woodwork painted to resemble marble with random streaks of rose and aqua that matched the countertop of the open kitchen on the far end of the room. One wall held a collection of Ivory Coast masks and fetishes, another a series of vivid color photographs of Indian street scenes, including portraits of street vendors, beggars and a pair of bald young monks.
His taste, she decided, was exquisite, though hardly her own.
Hailey scanned the selection of classical and new age CDs neatly stacked in the oak entertainment center. As she did, she noticed a photograph of Berlin, his thick legs in a pair of yellow Bermuda shorts, one pale arm draped across the well-tanned shoulders of Norman, the snooty head waiter. Well, now she understood Norman’s dislike of her, she thought, as she chose a piece by Sibelius, something light to contrast with the story Berlin would most likely tell. As the music started, she scanned the room. That single photo was the only personal memento in the space.
Berlin returned with a pitcher of mint ice tea and a pair of frosted pilsner glasses. On her first sip, Hailey discovered it was heavily laced with rum. She detected a scent on Berlin’s clothes as well—spicy sweet and familiar. Marijuana. Apparently Norman wasn’t her landlord’s only vice.
In the last few minutes, he had exposed so much of himself to her. Was his memory of his neighbor so terrible that he had to take one more risk? She took a few deep swallows from her drink, wishing she could find her calm as easily.
Berlin lowered himself into one of his sling-back chairs and, playing with the glass in his hand, began.
“Joe Morgan was our tenant for nine months before he died. My aunt had partitioned the upstairs flat and rented the room to him just before she had her stroke. After I moved in to take care of Aunt Sonya, I was the one who collected his rent. Otherwise, I can’t say that I knew him. He used to stop downstairs for a drink every now and then, but otherwise he kept to himself until the last few months before he died.”
“Then he changed?”
“For the better. In the beginning, he was quite a drunk. I’d hear him yelling to himself through the wall separating his room from my bedroom. He beat on the walls until I threatened to evict him. Once he broke a pane of glass in the French doors with his fist because the lock had jammed. He cut his hand that time and there was blood all over the carpet. He was bleeding so bad I had to mop up the mess. There’s probably still a few spots but you can’t see them since the carpet’s so dark itself.
Blood on her carpet. Was that what she’d smelled when the rain soaked her room? Old blood, she reminded herself. Eight years old and harmless. Hailey poured another glass of tea. “Did Morgan stop drinking?” she asked.
“Not completely. Funny, I’d always took him for an alcoholic but he cut back on his own. He started looking better too, and finally I discovered that he was seeing a woman. In the beginning, they were real discreet. He’d bring her in late at night and I’d sometimes hear them in bed. He dried out a little too late, though. A month before he died, he told me he lost his job. I thought. That’s it. He’ll hit the bottle again and you’ll have to evict him, but he didn’t.
“It was the woman, I think. Leanna de Noux . . .” His voice trailed off, as he remembered. “Dark thick hair, blue eyes and light skin. Georgia Peach, my aunt used to call that complexion and with her hair it was . . . well, striking. He’d bring her into the restaurant sometimes. One of my waiters became infatuated with her, and when she realized it, she’d flirt with him. She was no lady, so she made her advances obvious. The poor kid would hang around after he got off just to watch her and Morgan sitting at the bar drinking together, hoping that she’d say a few words to him. If he started to lose interest, she’d whisper something to him then go back to Morgan and tell him what she’d said and they’d laugh like the kid’s lust was some kind of joke. She was that kind of woman.”
“You said Morgan cut back.”
“He did. I don’t know if she drank more or less around him but she drank a lot I don’t know what he thought of her drinking but he tolerated it. They’d sit together or with the crowd they sometimes brought in. Then the two of them would disappear upstairs.”
Hailey detected less disapproval than envy in his tone and wondered at it. Snooty Norman with his cheekbones and deep-set black eyes had to be more than enough for a middle-aged chef. “How did the woman die?” she asked.
“Morgan killed her two weeks to the day before he killed himself.”
Berlin shook his head. “I never understood it or maybe I did and didn’t want to admit it. He was crazy about her and that kind of love makes people dangerous. Maybe that was enough.” He paused to pull a cigarette out of the antique case he always carried. As he lit it, his hands shook, making the lighter’s flame dance. He took a deep drag then went on. “She died in his room. She’d been stabbed fourteen times, the police said. I didn’t hear any commotion but my aunt must have because I found her unconscious in the hall outside of Morgan’s door. She died three days later without ever waking up.
“I think I called out for help then pushed open Morgan’s door. He was out cold and the woman was lying beside him covered with blood. I couldn’t bring myself to go in, so I went back to my flat and called the police.”
“Did they charge Morgan with murder?”
“No. but I think they would have eventually, even though when they came, Morgan was unconscious, drunk or drugged, more out of it than I’d ever seen him. And they didn’t find the murder weapon either. They said she’d been dead less than an hour when they got there.
“That was the end of Morgan. I never saw him sober after that night. Sometimes, I’d lie in bed listening to him chanting her name. Leanna . . . Leanna . . . Leanna. When he killed himself, I thought his death was a blessing.”
“Did he leave a note?” Hailey asked.
“Yeah but not exactly a suicide announcement. I love her. I will always love her. I’m sorry, I think it said.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Neither did the murder.” Berlin paused and watched the smoke rise as he exhaled. “She told him she was leaving him,” Berlin said, nodding as if this must have been the truth. “Killing her would make sense then, wouldn’t it? Then he killed himself out of guilt. That makes sense too.”
Frank Berlin was right In a sad, tragic way, it did make sense. “Did your aunt ever say anything at all?” she asked. “Even if she just sounded delirious?”
“No.” He lowered his head and it seemed to Hailey that he wanted to bury his face in his hands and sob after so many years. “The poor old girl was lying with her cane out in front of her when I found her. The shock was just too much.”
“With her cane out like she had been lunging at someone or maybe trying to protect herself?”
“If there had been a killer, why didn’t he kill my aunt too? Morgan must have done it The knife he’d used was even at his feet when he died, retrieved from wherever he’d hidden it, I suppose.”
“And what about the message on the wall?” Hailey’s voice had grown louder. She wanted the message to have come from Morgan and Leanna, wanted there to be some hint that another person might have killed Leanna.
“There were a few renters before you. Maybe this is somebody’s idea of a sick joke?” He sounded hopeful and she tried to accept the words the same way.
“Frank, was she . . . was Leanna killed in my bed?” she asked.
“Yeah. But the police took the mattress.”
Hailey frowned. She didn’t understand.
“When they shook Morgan awake and he saw what he’d done to her, he wet it. They wanted to test the urine, I suppose. I don’t know what they turned up, if anything.”
“So she died in my bed but not on my mattress? Does that mean I can rest easy?”
Berlin giggled. Hailey had never heard a man so large giggle before and the sound was infectious, the laughter breaking the horror of his story. “I would have bought a new one anyway,” he said. She laughed with him and felt better afterward.
“You want some more tea?” he asked.
Hailey accepted, thinking that even with the rum she would not rest easy tonight.