The Island of Lost Cause Minstrels

Fran Driscoll

The Island of Lost Cause Minstrels

By Fran Driscoll

 

“Thanks for getting us thrown out of New Orleans,” Joy’s eyes flamed at her brother Ed as he drove through the now-quiet streets of the French Quarter. “You really did give us a vacation to remember.”

“And by the way, genius. Nobody plays taps at dawn,” Alyssia mumbled from under her oversized body pillow. “Who brings a trumpet to Mardi Gras?”

“Lots of people, oh tattooed one. And you’re the one that murdered the lizard.” Ed kept his tone even, not wanting to get chewed out by all three women again.

“The girls were screaming and I had to get some sleep. My head is still pounding. This adventure is officially a nightmare.” Alyssia twisted in the passenger seat, trying to curl into a ball.

Erin pulled on the back of Ed’s headrest. “Where are we headed now? It’s still days ‘til our flight home, and I’m not driving back to Wisconsin in this cramped rental.”

“We’re going to have our Mardi Gras celebration in the place it all began, Mobile. I even got us this great little bungalow for one third of the cost of that fancy hotel.”

“How’d you do that?” Erin’s voice was softer.

“Airbnb. I booked it while I was waiting for you in the car. There are plenty of events, and we still have three full days until Fat Tuesday. You can wear your ball gowns at the Joe Cain parade tomorrow, Merry Widows, and I promise you will have all the beads you can carry.”

Joy bit back a sob. “Because we’re sure not going to the ball at the hotel tonight, are we?”

“I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry. I will never, ever bring my trumpet on another vacation, I promise. And I won’t lay a finger on any irritating little punk, no matter how much of a blowhard he is.” Ed tried to lighten the mood. “Do you know there’s a place down the highway that has drive thru daquiris?”

All three girls groaned.

“I’m never drinking again,” Erin said. “And if I don’t get some sleep, I’m going to puke.”

“Sleep, ladies. We have a couple hours until we hit Mobile. I’ll stop and get an energy drink when I gas up. I’m good now.”

“Drive on, Jeeves,” Alyssia commanded, and Ed pulled into the left lane behind a dually pick-up truck. He figured if anybody would get pulled over, it would be the bigger vehicle. Plus, he’d noticed that the driver had a bottle of beer in his hand when he passed, so he figured it was unlikely he’d be the one that police noticed. Traffic moved quickly, and Ed tried not to listen to the deep steady breathing of his passengers. He couldn’t wait to get to Mobile. Ed was dog-tired and his eyes felt like they were filled with sand. Thank goodness he’d been able to filch an energy shot from his sister’s purse, or he’d be parked at a rest stop snoozing now. When he felt himself flagging, he talked to his trumpet.

Traffic moved smoothly, and the economy car didn’t use much gas, so Ed made it through Mississippi in less than an hour. The GPS on his phone had him pulling up to the address an hour later. He rolled down a long driveway to a small blue building in the back and parked next to a huge live oak tree. Ed rolled down the windows, turned off the car and leaned back, not sure how to rouse the sleeping girls. The next thing he knew, he was being viciously shaken awake by his sister.

“Get up. This lady wants to see you,” Joy hissed.

Ed blinked his eyes and exited the car quickly.

“Good afternoon, y’all. Welcome to Beacon Bungalow. I hope you had a good trip over.” The elderly woman’s accent was very different than the nasal twang of the staff at the hotel in New Orleans. The sound of it was musical, and her smile was genuine. As he shook her hand, Ed looked at her perfectly made up face, the white hair in a tidy bun atop her head, and decided he liked her.

“I’m Ed. You must be Mrs. Kirk?”

“Call me Miss Angie. I’m so glad you chose Mobile.”

Joy kicked the back of Ed’s leg, and he tried not to flinch.

“I’m sorry I didn’t notice y’all parked out here. I was tidying up a bit inside. There’s sweet tea and lemonade in the frig, and a bowl of fruit on the table. Come in out of this heat.”

Sweat trickled down Ed’s back, and he looked at Joy, Erin and Alyssia. Their faces were red and sweaty. They didn’t look happy. How long had they been sleeping in the driveway? Maybe hours, if it was afternoon.

“When you leave on Wednesday, just drop your keys in this little mailbox on my back porch. Nobody will bother it. The neighborhood is very safe, and we watch out for each other.”

“I love your hedges,” Joy said, touching a cluster of little white flowers and breathing in deeply. “It smells so fresh here. I can’t believe you have all these flowers in March.”

Ed enjoyed the surprise on the tiny lady’s face. He flashed back to the poor guy who was hosing vomit off Conti Street early this morning as Ed dragged his suitcase to the parking garage. Mobile smelled different for sure.

“We had snow last week in Wisconsin,” Erin volunteered.

“It snowed twice this year, honey. We couldn’t believe it. Of course, the kids loved having the days off school, even if they have to make them up.”

Alyssia laughed out loud. “I think I need to move here. Can you imagine? Two snows all winter and a garden of flowers in March. Look at those roses. Absolutely gorgeous.”

“Thank you. Let me show you around the bungalow. The beds are up in the loft. I hope y’all don’t mind the bunk bed.”

“I got the top bunk,” Ed called out before the girls could start protesting. “Erin and Joy should probably share the queen bed because I hear that Alyssia kicks people.”

“That’s true. She will bruise you in a heartbeat,” Joy agreed.

Ed had worried about the bed situation when he booked the bungalow, but he saw that he had overreacted. The girls were up for an adventure, and hopefully this meant he was forgiven. He decided to try and make up for the ball he had cost his sister. “Miss Angie, are there any Mardi Gras balls open to the public tonight? We would love to see one.”

“I don’t suppose you’re military.” Her eyes lit briefly on Alyssia’s extremely short hair.

“No,” Ed answered, “But I can play taps.”

Joy kicked the back of his leg again as Angie opened the door.

“I’ll call around and see what I can find. Come inside where it’s cooler. I know it’s probably a little warm in here for y’all, but the thermostat is here if you need to adjust it. The beds and half bath are up in the loft. The full restroom is through the door on your right, and there are plenty of towels under the sink. I’ll pop by around 6:00 if I can find a ball for y’all to go to. Usually you have to be invited by a Crewe member, but I have some friends that can maybe help us out.”

“Thank you so much,” Joy said. “It would really mean a lot to us.”

“Enjoy your stay, and I hope to see you in a few hours.” She slid two keys on the kitchen table, and gave a little wave as she walked through the door.

“Isn’t this the cutest little place?” Erin gushed. “I love the Battenberg lace curtains and tablecloth. This fruit looks wonderful.” She bit into a pear and the juice ran down her chin.

“I’m hitting the showers,” Alyssia announced.

“I’m hitting the hay,” Ed said, tossing the car keys next to the house keys on the table. “I’ll get my suitcase later.” He trudged up the circular staircase to the loft, flung off his sweaty shirt, and flipped himself onto the top bunk. His eyes were only heavy for a moment, and then he was asleep.

When Ed awoke, the sun was low in the sky. He smelled something wonderful coming from below, and almost landed on a suitcase as he lowered himself from the top bunk. The girls had been busy. Two more suitcases were open on the queen bed, sodden towels hung from two bedposts, and the lower bunk was adorned with Alyssia’s huge body pillow. He quickly jogged down the stairs to see what was making his stomach growl.

“Miss Angie brought over a casserole. It’s supposed to be for breakfast tomorrow, but I can’t wait.” Joy beamed.

“She also brought these,” Erin fanned out four tickets in her hand. “We are going to an invitation-only theme ball at an antebellum mansion. The place is gorgeous. Wanna see a picture? I looked it up on my phone.”

“No, thanks. I was hoping not to have to wear that stupid tux. I hate bow ties.” Secretly Ed was thrilled. He knew the girls were heartbroken when the hotel had ‘invited’ them to leave. The only reason they splurged on the place was so his sister and her best friends could go to their first, real Mardi Gras Ball. And he had almost ruined it for them. Angie Kirk just earned her five-star rating no matter what happened.

Erin was flipping the tickets over in her hands. “It’s something to do with Joe Cain, also known as ‘Chief Slacabamorinico’.”

Alyssa brightened. “Tomorrow is Joe Cain Day. I looked it up, and he was like the anti-society dude—a true rebel. But the ball tonight isn’t just any Mardi Gras ball. It’s a themed ball for the Crewe of Lost Cause Minstrels. It’s pretty interesting if you want to read it.” She held out her phone.

“Maybe later, but food is calling,” Ed said. “I’m taking that thing out of the oven.”

Joy tossed him an oven mitt. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

He stuck out his tongue at her, hit the “off” button on the oven display, and retrieved the casserole dish. He reached for the giant spoon and stack of paper plates on the table, and happily dished a generous portion up for each as Erin poured four tall glasses of lemonade.

“To the ball,” Joy said, and they all clinked glasses. Then the happy group quickly polished off their meal and ran in separate directions to get prepared for the evening.

Ed hoped he wasn’t going to shock Angie with his stark white skin, but he sprinted to the car in his shorts. He retrieved his suitcase and two garment bags and was back in the house before anybody knew it. He left the trumpet it the trunk. It had caused enough trouble for one trip.

“Thanks, Casper,” Joy said as he handed her the blue garment bag.

“You can pay me back later, Sis.”

“Oh, payback is coming,” Joy assured him.

“I’ll be showered and ready in ten minutes, ladies. Watch & learn.”

Erin turned from the mirror, mascara in hand. “I can beat that.”

Alyssia piped in, “So hurry up and get us to the ball, Jeeves.”

Ed bowed low. “Your wish is my command, Princess Crewcut.”

Alyssia threw a sparkly silver sandal at him, which Ed easily avoided.

Ed was soon putting on his driving cap and grabbing a key from the table. “Race you to the car.”

The girls rolled their eyes and followed him out the door. It took several minutes to fit the dresses into the back seat. Joy and Erin were jammed in like two sardines wrapped in acres of tulle and chiffon. Alyssia’s dress was straight up and down like her, but it was covered in enough sequins to be visible from outer space. One of the black feathers in her hair broke as she sat in the passenger seat, and Ed was happy he had the air conditioning blasting full force. Three uncomfortable women in a tiny car did not make for a pleasant drive.

Less than ten minutes later, they were pulling up to a columned, brown brick building draped in pink flowers. Ed had to park back in the shadows so Erin could put on her hoop petticoat. The thing only fit in the trunk because the hoops collapsed, but once it was on, there was no sitting down as far as Ed could tell. It wasn’t quite time for the ball to begin, so they wandered around in the gardens that surrounded the house, oohing at the lush, fragrant beauty that surrounded them.

“Nobody is going to believe this,” Joy said, plucking a pink blossom from the vine that climbed up the house and breathing in its scent. Erin steadily snapped scenic pictures with her phone, while Alyssia took care of the selfies.

A mournful waltz floated from the French Doors and the girls started toward the sound. A man in a Confederate soldier uniform stepped from the shadow of an L-shaped live oak tree and cleared his throat.

“Looks like y’all ladies could use an escort.” He bowed low. “Rutledge Parham at your service.”

Erin giggled. “You look really good for your age Rutledge.” The others just stared.

“Why thank you, Ma’am. And you are a fine figure of a woman if I dare say so,” Rutledge replied. He tipped his gray cap and bowed smartly.
“Ladies.”

Erin flushed and dropped into a curtsy. It was all she could do not to fall over, and then she was stuck to the ground. The bottom of her hoop had suctioned itself to the walkway, and Erin pulled up with all her might. She was stuck.

Rutledge grasped her hand to steady her then used the tip of his boot to move the dress until the seal broke, and Erin could stand up. She righted herself quickly and plastered a smile over the dismay that clouded her face.

“Thank you, sir.” She gave him a slight bow.

Erin looked right at home next to the soldier, and Ed looked at the girls with new eyes. He was grudgingly wearing tails because it was the only tux he could find in his price range—free. Ed’s roommate had been in his friend’s wedding just weeks before and happened to be almost the same size. It hadn’t occurred to Ed that the girls in their ornate gowns would attract so much male attention.

But Ed bristled as he noted the look of open admiration in the soldier’s gray eyes. His red hair rolled in smart waves against his head, and there was something about him that commanded attention though he was not especially tall or well built.

Rutledge nodded toward the back of the garden. “Here come the three Johns. Be careful of that lot.”

“I beg your pardon.” Alyssia seemed wary of the stranger as well.

Erin snorted. “He means John Bohanan, John Maguire, and John Payne. Three of Joe Cain’s minstrels.”

“What?” Ed was mystified.

“You should’ve read my phone when you had a chance. These guys had a parade right down the street in Mobile in front of occupying Union soldiers. They decided to have their own Mardi Gras parade for fun, just because they could, even though it wasn’t Fat Tuesday.”

“Y’all should really come inside. Don’t want to miss all the fun,” the tallest John said in a brogue so thick he could barely be understood. He bowed in Alyssia’s direction. “May I have the first dance, Miss?”

“That lass is reserved for Old Slac,” a voice came from behind them. “She is much more suitable partner for me, since she’s a head taller than y’all. Take the redhead.” The lanky man was leaning against the live oak tree with a long piece of grass between his teeth. His uniform was nearly threadbare with oversized epaulettes and gleaming brass buttons. It was also two inches too short.

Erin whipped her head around, insulted that she had just been given away like so much chattel. “I’ll choose my own partners, thank you, and I prefer this one.” She moved closer to Rutledge.

“Oh ho! She is definitely worth the pursuit, fellas,” a strapping officer joined them, the sword at his side gleaming in the twilight, and his voice was smooth as Irish butter. He bowed in Erin’s direction. “Barney O’Rourke at your service, Miss.”

“My sister is dancing the first dance with me.” Ed was not amused. ‘Sister’ was the code they’d worked out to ward off unwanted males.

Barney bowed and took Erin’s gloved hand in his. “Will you do me the honor, Miss…”

“I’m Erin Cooney, and Ed’s sister is Joy Lovett.” She nodded toward the pale girl, stunning in pink silk and rhinestones. Joy’s petticoat was tulle, and she easily dropped into a curtsy.

“Well said. Cooney means ‘handsome,’ and you are one handsome woman.” Barney stepped toward her and Erin bit down on her bottom lip. Her layers of green chiffon made her eyes blaze like emeralds. “Joy, don’t be offended. You look like royalty.”

“The lass is truly a prize for a pirate, and here he comes.” Barney’s voice echoed through the garden.

A man with long black curls and shiny black boots strode into the clearing. His eyes and his beard were inky and shown with an unearthly light.
"Thomas Burke at your service, Ma’am, and if you don’t mind me saying, Joy is a fitting name for a beauty such as you.” His brogue was less pronounced than the others, but his voice was deep and rich. He held out his arm. “Shall we?”

Joy took Burke’s arm and stepped smartly into the mansion, followed by the entire group. Ed was hot on the heels of Alyssia, who seemed as star struck as the others. Alyssia, the toughest girl he ever knew, a girl who would just as soon smack a guy as dance with him was hanging on the arm of a stranger in a confederate uniform. Something about these men made a chill snake up his spine. Was it jealousy or something more?

“Look at that chandelier,” Erin breathed. “And the polish on that parquet floor. It seems too pretty to walk on.” They were the only guests in a library that smelled of cherry pipe tobacco.

Barney looked down at the floor and then moved deftly between Erin and Rutledge. “It doesn’t hold a candle to you, Miss Erin. May I have this dance?”

“Shouldn’t we join the other guests?” Erin said as she floated into his arms.

Ed gaped as the man with long blonde locks whisked Erin onto the dance floor. Joe Cain had Alyssia in his arms, and Joy was beaming up at Thomas Burke. The minstrels moved across the floor as if they had danced with the three girls many times. They twirled and weaved and switched partners effortlessly.

After several songs, Ed finally put his foot down. In a too-loud voice he announced, “I really think we should join the actual ball, don’t you girls?”

The girls seemed to remember that they had gone to great lengths to attend a real Mardi Gras ball, and they were about to miss it.

Erin spoke up first. “Yes, let’s all go to the ballroom. I’m dying to see it.”

The Confederates exchanged a glance and then nodded.

Rutledge kissed Erin’s wrist. “I will see you shortly, my dear beauty.” He walked through the French doors as if he had urgent business outside, followed by the others. Joe Cain blew a kiss to the ladies as he strode from the room.

“Remember what I asked, Alyssia. I’ll need your answer by midnight.”

“I guess they’re part of the show? Maybe we were holding them up,” Joy said, her face collapsing into a worried frown.

Ed tried to keep the cynicism from his voice. “As if you could hold that crew up. They knew exactly what they were doing.”

Alyssia stared at him. “Are you jealous, Ed?”

“It was kind of embarrassing watching you girls drool over all those fake soldiers. You may need to put your lipstick back on.”

Joy slapped her brother’s arm. “You are escorting three beautiful women to the ball. I suggest you do your job.”

Ed held out his arms and the ladies made a chain. “Follow the music.”

They passed through a room lined with tables of hors d’ouvres and several kinds of punch.

“Look at that spread. I’ll be back here in a few minutes,” Alyssia assured the group as they turned the corner and beheld the ballroom. Alyssia stopped and took in the beauty of it all. “Or not.”

A dozen thin stained-glass windows lined the walls with vibrant colors. The giant flying saucer of a chandelier with literally thousands of round lights in the center of the football-field sized room was flanked with six smaller chandeliers that were more traditional teardrop cut glass. The half-filled dance floor was a mix of elegant gowns from the 1800s to the present. There seemed to be a hundred gray Confederate uniforms amidst the black and white tuxes.

“Let’s get out there and dance!” Alyssia was tugging on Ed’s arm.

He nodded and let her pull him into the crush of dancers, happy that he had shown the girls a “once in a lifetime party” after all. And this was just the beginning.

The hours passed with uncanny speed as the old time band played a reel, then a waltz, and then a contemporary slow dance. Modern air conditioning met old-fashioned mint juleps as the ladies’ dresses swished and voices murmured.

“Dance with me, sir?” A tiny, dimpled girl with Shirley Temple curls and an ornate antebellum hoop dress of royal blue silk held out her slender arms to Ed, and a spell seemed to suck him into the tableau. Punch flowed, and the tasteless, potent moonshine it contained snuck up on the happy revelers. Light-headed, woozy and soaked in sweat, Ed, Joy, Erin and Alyssia danced until their feet wouldn’t hold them any more. They met at 3 a.m. in the garden and decided to make their way back to the bungalow while they could still walk. They were not chancing a repeat performance from the night before.

Rutledge came up behind the group. “I apologize that I did not get to dance with you as often as I would have liked. I trust you have enjoyed yourself, Erin?” He held out his hand.

Erin took the card and tried to read it in the dim torchlight, but she was unsuccessful. “What is this?”

“A free pass for a haunted tour of Mobile—tomorrow night only. It’s a walking tour, and we’re meeting in Bienville Square. The fellas and I will lead, in full uniform of course. We’d love to have you join us.”

“Count me in! I’d love to see all the haunted places with you,” Alyssia barked. “This has been the funnest night ever, and you guys can really dance.”

“Of course, Ma’am. Our pleasure. I promise you will never forget tomorrow night. You will never want to leave.” Rutledge’s hair hung in sweaty strings.

“Maybe not,” Erin said.

“But of course you will,” Thomas Burke said. “And my life will be dull as the grave.”

“Oh, we’ll come back and visit next year,” Joy said. “It’s already in the budget for next Spring Break. I mean all work and no play makes me a very dull girl.”

“And she really is dull,” Alyssia added, flashing a flirtatious grin at Joe Cain. She was all about the lanky dark-haired charmer and had commented more than once that he was better than the other men she’d danced with.

A sadness came into Barney’s eyes as he took Erin’s gloved hand into his own. “I wish I could keep you, my cat-eyed beauty.”

Erin felt a little dizzy and tried to think of something clever to say. “Maybe one day you can take me away from my hectic life and sail us beyond the sunset.”

His eyes seemed to lose some of their light as he turned on his heel and walked away with his companions, leaving Erin looking at the card and wondering at the man’s strange comment.

The four stumbled back to the car in their bare feet carrying their shoes. It really had been a dance to remember, and the exhilaration from their neck up helped quench the pain in their feet and legs. It was part prom, part antebellum pageant—with several groups singing Civil War songs a capella and colorful beads and moon pies everywhere they turned. As the night wore on, the ballroom filled with ladies in antebellum silks and men in Confederate gray. It was a theme ball, and by midnight comparatively few people were in contemporary tuxedos and gowns.

“Joy, Alyssia, help me get out of this hoop thing. It’s a torturous device, and I’m ready to sit down.”

“I don’t know how you used the bathroom,” Alyssia said as she fumbled with the layers of material searching for the clasp.

“Don’t ask.”

Ed was in the car fiddling with the CD player. “Hey, we should stop and get some food for tomorrow’s breakfast. We ate that casserole, and I’m gonna be hungry.”

“Pizza with everything!” Alyssia yelled and the others agreed. “Those cheese straws were interesting, but they just didn’t do it for me.”

Ed pulled up the app on his phone and started punching keys. “I’m getting two. I know I’m gonna eat some tonight.”

“Then get one plain cheese pizza. I hate pepperoni and olives,” Erin said, shoving her hoop contraption into the trunk. “I ate so much King Cake I think my pancreas is shutting down.”

“Sugar overload, for sure. I need real food. Just pick off what you don’t like, Erin,” Ed said. I already put in the order. It’ll be ready by the time navigation gets us there.”

“This night was the best! Thanks for getting us thrown out of New Orleans, Ed. You are officially forgiven,” Joy said.

“Hey, speak for yourself,” Alyssia said.

“Am I buying you pizza?” Ed quipped.

“Okay, you’re forgiven. I hope you got some cheesy bread too.”

“Maybe. If you’re lucky.”

Joy pulled on the back of Ed’s seat. “Are we really going on that haunted tour tomorrow night?”

“I am.” Erin said.

“Me too.” Alyssia said. “I haven’t decided who is my favorite, but there is a guy or two I’m hoping to see again.”

Erin held out her phone. “The Joe Cain parade tomorrow is at Noon. Who’s setting the alarm?”

“Already set,” Ed said. “We need to be up by 11:00 at the latest. Or one of us should shower tonight, Alyssia, since you take such long showers.”

“Me, too.” Joy said. “I can’t go to bed all sweaty.”

“I want to get married in a white version of your dress, Joy,” Erin said.

“Where did that come from?” Joy looked down at her rented gown.

“It’s so pretty, and the guys couldn’t take their eyes off you. I want that some day.”

“Erin, you’re kidding, right? Three of those minstrels circled you like sharks, and I don’t think you went one dance without some guy asking you.” Ed wished he could take the words back. He could feel the girls’ stares boring into him.

“True enough,” Alyssia agreed. “But I like Southern guys. They can boogie, and they are not shy about it. I danced my feet off tonight.”

“We all did, even Ed. Did you get that girl’s number?” Joy asked.

“I don’t know which girl you mean,” Ed said, trying to sound wounded.

Snorts of laughter filled the car, and Ed did his best to get to the pizza place quickly. He didn’t like this turn in the conversation, and he was ready to get some food and some sleep, and both of them very soon.

“It’s hard for an alarm to go off when the phone battery is dead.” The cynicism in Alyssia’s voice let Ed know that he was back in the dog house.

He groaned. “What time is it?”

“Oh, take a guess.”

Ed looked at the bright sunlight pouring in through the lace curtains, and then at the girl in the bunk below him. “Noon?”

“Keep trying.” Alyssia’s hair was going several different directions, but her mouth was frozen in a tremendous frown.

“One o’clock?”

“You’re getting closer. How about three-thirty? We missed the parade.”

“Then quit kicking my mattress and let me sleep. My head is pounding.”

“Moonshine, you’re no friend of mine.” Alyssia’s singing was loud and off-key. Several groans filled the room as she continued. “Moonshine, you have robbed me blind.”

“Please stop!” Erin was covering her head with two pillows.

“Okay, I’m going to take my singing to the shower, then.” Alyssia stalked down the staircase.

“That girl takes so many showers, I’m surprised that little bit of hair she has doesn’t fall out.” Erin was tired, and her grumpiness was evident.

“Erin, I know you don’t mean that. We shouldn’t have eaten so much,” Ed admitted.

“Or talked so much.” Joy agreed.

“The sunrise was gorgeous.” Erin tried to keep her voice light. “I’m glad we got to bring Alyssia on one last adventure.”

“She hasn’t been sick at all,” Ed admitted. “Maybe the chemo did work and the doctors just have it wrong.”

“Or maybe she’s like Aunt Lucille. One last burst of energy before the end.” A tear slid down Joy’s cheek.

“Hey, since we missed the parade, let’s go try to find some real Southern cuisine before we go on that ghost tour. I heard they have huge shrimp here and fresh oysters.”

Ed snorted and reached for his dead phone.

“I got this,” Joy said. “And I’m driving this time, too. We’re not missing the tour, and this site says that sunset is at 6:50 pm. So we’ll be at Beinville Square at 6:45 sharp.”

“Can Alyssia eat seafood?”

Ed’s shout made his head pound. “Hey, Alyssia! Can you eat seafood?”

“Love it,” came the muffled answer.

“Good. I have a treat for us in the frig. Hair of the dog, you know.”

“What are you talking about, Ed?” Joy sat up.

“Asti. Good, sweet, bubbly Asti. My version of a champagne brunch. And cinnamon rolls. I hid them in the bottom drawer, but I’m gonna nuke those rolls right now. It’ll take us an hour to get outta here anyway.”

“At least,” Erin agreed. “And I’m starved.”

“I shoulda got three pizzas.”

They pulled up to Bienville Square at 5:44, and Joy expertly parked the car between two SUVs. The group strode toward the fountain, or rather they waddled. The buffet they found not only had plenty of seafood, but also Southern comfort food that helped ease their unhappy stomachs.

“I never thought I’d like grits, but those little fried squares were great,” Alyssia said. “And the desserts! It’s a wonder these people aren’t big as a house.”

“I’m going to dream about that caramel pie tonight. And the cheesecake. And that sweet whipped cream. Ooh, I ate too much,” Joy complained.

“It’s a good thing we’re leaving in two days. We may not fit in the car.”

“I’ll have to get an extra seat on the plane if I keep eating like this,” Alyssia said. Her friends looked at her too-skinny frame with sad eyes.

“You made it!” Barney O’Rourke stood behind the fountain in full uniform, looking even more polished than the night before. The swagger in his step was obvious.

“As if we’d miss a free ghost tour,” Alyssia said. “This has been the best weekend ever!”

“Full disclosure. There will only be four of us to guide you. The three Johns had a wee bit of trouble after you left last evening.”

“Trouble?” Ed’s ears perked up.

“Let’s just say, it was a wee altercation. I hope the judge will be in a festive mood when they see him tomorrow morning. It’s almost Mardi Gras, after all.”

“Lundi Gras is tomorrow, right?” Erin was looking at her phone.

“Aye, but the courts should be open. The devils rarely take a day off,” Thomas Burke practically spat the words.

Joe Cain arrived wearing an Indian headdress and carrying an ornate walking cane. It almost looked like a skinny totem pole. “Are we doing this tonight, Alyssia?”

She nodded.

Cain stretched out his arms and began to back away from the group. “Ladies and gentlemen, please accompany me to the home of the Black Widow, Lady Jeanette LeMure Richards Moreaux. It was in this very place that her spoiled daughter, Cosette, was caught kissing an unfortunate sailor by none other than Baron Richards. Filled with fury, he dispatched the lad with his sword, and then turned on his daughter’s most prized possession, the blonde luxuriant hair that had been loosed in their ardor. The girl fell on the dead lad’s body, and as she did so, her father’s razor sharp sword caught her neck just below the carotid artery. One tiny nick, and soon his only child was bleeding to death in his arms. Baron Richards was beside himself, and he wrapped his own shirt around her neck. He carried his daughter home, begging her forgiveness along the way.” Joe took up his stick and led the way across the almost-deserted street. “Please follow me.”

It was less than a block to the mansion, but the shadows were long and the air seemed to chill as they walked through the iron gate. “But the Baron’s tears reached dead ears. It only took a moment for the truth to register on his faithful wife. She took in the bloodstains, and heard her child take one last breath before her deathly pale face announced the loss of her beloved only child. Baron Richards was on his knees next to his child, stroking her bloody hair and begging for his daughter’s forgiveness. Then the Baroness reached for her pistol.”

Thomas Burke took a large key from his pocket and handed it to Joe Cain who opened the front door. A lone candle stood on a table in the entryway, and the group silently walked into the home. Joe Cain picked up the candle and motioned for the group to follow him up the staircase. “Baron Richards died a slow, painful death from the shot to the stomach, but the court forgave his distraught wife.”

Thomas Burke was behind them, and his voice rang out from the shadows. “Until her second husband met a similar fate.”

“The marriage had seemed happy enough until the doctor was summoned three years to the day that Baron Richards had met his end,” Burke spoke softly now, and the group drew nearer to hear his words.

Joe Cain’s voice sounded unearthly in the almost darkness, and the house was stuffy and dank. “It was whispered that her much younger husband, Jacques Moreaux, had never divorced his first wife, and the unfortunate Baroness was expecting a child. But who would have anything to say against a widow giving birth? Especially after her pistol discharged as a servant was cleaning it.”

“The jury didn’t believe the servant’s account, and both he and Mrs. Moreaux were hung. Of course it was months before they could hang Mrs. Moreaux, and the infant she gave birth to was quickly whisked away to live with relatives in New Orleans.”

“But the baroness does not leave this house where her daughter and two husbands took their last breath.”

The group jumped as a door slammed below them and the candle was snuffed out. Somebody was coming up the stairs, and the silence was thick with terror.

A bright light shown in Ed’s eyes. “What are you doing in here?” a gruff voice demanded. “More importantly, how did you get past the security system?”

Ed swallowed and tried to keep his voice steady. “We’re here on the ghost tour. Joe Cain has the key.”

“Very funny.” The officer flipped on a light switch and Ed looked at his sister in confusion.

“There were Confederate soldiers here with us. They let us in, right Alyssia?” Joy said.

Erin’s voice dripped with fear as she looked around the room. “Where is Alyssia?”

“Maybe the Confederate soldiers spirited her away.” The officer was pulling out a radio. “I need back up at the Richards mansion again. Three of them this time. Make it quick.”

“Officer, there were four of us. And two guys dressed as Confederate soldiers, Joe Cain and Thomas Burke. We’re not kidding.” Joy’s voice rose an octive.

“Every Mardi Gras it’s the same thing. Joe Cain brings people into this house. Except for the tiny fact that he’s long dead, it’s quite a tale.”

“Did anyone have her best friend disappear?”

“No, that’s a new one. Come on, kids. Your ride will be waiting outside.” “And what about Alyssia? She has cancer. We can't just leave her.”

“I assure you, I’ll do a thorough search of this house. When I find the missing soldiers and your friend, you’ll be the first to know.”