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Chantrelle

by Steve Anderson 8 months ago in fiction
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An angel gone too soon.

Chantrelle
Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Like tears from ten thousand angels, slow, heavy raindrops pattered off the top of the horse-drawn hearse as Al Buhrman crossed Rampart Street. Two black horses pulled the glass-sided hearse while the family and mourners followed in the warm summer rain. Despite its warmth, the water soaked through his dark suit coat and his good shirt with a chill that still rattled Al down to his lanky bones.

His fiancé, Chantrelle Dubois, or at least her body, was in a coffin inside the old-fashioned hearse. The whole world was colder now, he was upside down and adrift without her. Any thought of a carefree life in the Quarter without her walking beside him was hollow and empty. The band following the hearse and the family played a somber dirge on their way from the church to the small private cemetery where Chantrelle would be laid to rest.

"She went so fast," her mother repeated, between Al and her husband, Felix Dubois. "She was fine one day and gone the next."

"Parents shouldn't have to bury their children," Chantrelle's father said. Al nodded in agreement over Mother Dubios' head. Al tried to console her with an arm around her shoulders in support, but the gesture felt half-hearted. They were right. She didn't deserve an early grave.

Mother Dubois stumbled as they skirted the neutral ground across Rampart on Ursulines Avenue. Cars along the busy streets stopped to let them cross the wide intersection. She'd have crumpled to the ground without Al's strong arms to hold her up. Her sons, both burly dockworkers like Al, rushed to her side, and Felix murmured words of encouragement to his wife. She pulled herself up and finished the short walk to the Doctor's private family plot, nestled behind the looming three-and-a-half-story Maison de Devecheau.

Al dabbed at his eyes with a kerchief as the hearse entered the Devecheau family cemetery. His skin crawled at the thought of interring his fiancé in the Doctor's family mausoleum. Doctor Devecheau followed Chantrelle's family into the graveled courtyard behind his home. He'd dressed more like a groom on his wedding day than a mourner at a funeral.

A top hat sheltered his balding head from the pitter-patter of raindrops. He was a tall but gaunt figure. Dandy clothes clung to his skinny frame giving him more a more pitiful appearance than usual in the rain. Al had tried in vain to change Chantrelle's parents' minds about the funeral arrangements, but the Doctor had won them over.

"I'm just sick with guilt over her passing," Doctor Devecheau said. "She was so young, so beautiful, in perfect health at her last visit, with her whole life ahead of her. At least let me offer her a quiet resting place. I have no heirs, and the mausoleum will go to waste waiting for my old bones."

The Doctor also offered to pay for the funeral, the hearse, the band, and the reception to follow. All to assuage the guilt he claimed to feel over her death. Chantrelle's entire family would have struggled to put together a modest burial for her. Al wasn't convinced of the Doctor's motives, but it wasn't his place to say how her parents buried their daughter. He wasn't her husband, and now, he never would be. He wiped another tear from his eye as the rain let up to no more than a drizzle.

Smaller above-ground crypts flanked the elaborate marble-clad mausoleum that held generations of Devecheaus. The Doctor's family had been part of New Orleans longer than it had been an American city. A creole family that adapted to the Spanish, French, and American versions of New Orleans, they'd been a bedrock of the community for generations. Many families, like the Dubois, had spent their whole lives under the care of successive Devecheau doctors.

Tall bronze doors to the mausoleum stood open, awaiting her coffin. Al, Chantrelle's brothers, and her father pulled the flower-laden casket from the hearse and solemnly placed it on a stone pedestal on one side of the small crypt. An empty pedestal beside it would one day hold Dr. Devecheau. Even in death, Al would be denied his fiancé's company. He wept again at how unfair life and death turned out to be.

The preacher said some words, the mausoleum doors clanged shut, and the mourners ambled out of the tiny cemetery. The second line struck up an animated version of When the Saints Go Marching In... Chantrelle would have been dancing beside him if she wasn't in Devecheau's crypt. Al tried to let the festive march back to the reception hall lift his mood, but he couldn't quite let go of the melancholy in his soul.

Dr. Devecheau reserved a hall in the Quarter just a short walk from Maison de Devecheau for the reception. There was food for everyone and a bar for those inclined to celebrate Chantrelle's life or mourn her death with a drink. Flowers from the funeral home had been brought in, and Al sat with her parents and brothers at a table with Dr. Devecheau. The high ceilinged room was bright and airy compared to the rainy streets outside, but Al remained lost in memories of his beloved Chantrelle.

"You must be thinking of her," Mother Dubois said, placing her hand over his. "I can see the same broken heart in you that I feel."

"I keep thinking about the honeymoon she'd described," Al said. "She planned it out in even more detail than we had the wedding. She wanted to go to Florida, Key West, and get a room that looked out on the ocean."

"She told us about it, too." Her father said. He dabbed at his eyes with a kerchief that hadn't left his hand all day. "Even had me make a little sign to put over the bed. I was saving it as another gift for your wedding day. Sad she'll never have the chance to see it now."

"I think she told everyone about her honeymoon plans." Mother Dubois said and shook her head. "That girl loved to plan things and see them come true."

"She told me about it, too," Dr. Devecheau said. He leaned forward to speak to Mother Dubois better. Unfortunately, that meant Al could see his gaunt, balding head better, too. "She described the room, the sign she'd asked for, and how she wanted to wake up married and dance barefoot on the beach."

"None of that can happen now," Al said, sharper than he'd intended. His voice quivered again at the reality of losing his soul mate. "All our dreams were focused on the wedding, but now all her dreams are done."

"Oh, I don't know," the Doctor said. He was almost smug about having a different opinion. "Some dreams find a way of coming true no matter what happens. At least in our minds and hearts, she's still with us, and maybe, she'll get that dance after all."

Mother and Father Dubois nodded at that idea. But it didn't sit right with Al. He got up and went to the bar for a drink. Something about the Doctor's haughty attitude bothered him. Everyone else at the family table was glum, but the Doctor seemed far less upset than he'd expect of the man who paid for Chantrelle's funeral and reception. Maybe Al was too deep in his feelings to make sense of anything.

All through the rest of the reception, Al couldn't shake the feeling something was wrong. Friends and distant relatives paid their respects to Felix and Mother Dubois. A few people spared some kind words for Al and her brothers. The whole time, Al kept an eye on good Dr. Devecheau. More than once the Doctor tried to leave early, but Chantrelle's parents wouldn't have it.

The refilled drink in Al's cup might have something to do with it, but he grew more and more suspicious of Devecheau as the night wore on. A few more odd comments the Doctor made during the reception nagged at Al. When Devecheau left the reception around 9 O'clock, Al followed him.

The rain from earlier was gone, but a glow from street lights among low clouds hung over the city. Al let the Doctor stay far enough ahead that he wouldn't be seen following him. Devecheau walked straight to his tall three-story home, which housed his office, and overlooked the family cemetery. Al found a dark corner across the street and waited for any sign of the Doctor leaving the house. He watched well over an hour but never saw anyone come or go.

With the effects of his drinks wearing off, Al decided to give the Mausoleum a closer inspection before calling it a night. Maybe he'd misjudged Devecheau. The low clouds had turned into a creeping mist by the time Al made his way around the block to the back of the Devecheau property. He slipped up to the brick wall and climbed over it before anyone saw him, dropping into the eerily quiet graveyard he'd brought her body to that afternoon.

The mist swirled around his legs as he approached the Mausoleum. Its bronze doors, emblazoned with matching cast-bronze fleur-de-lis, remained shut, and though he pulled at the metal handles, they were locked tight. Al couldn't believe he'd thought even Devecheau could sink low enough to molest Chantrelle's corpse. He turned to leave his beloved to her eternal rest when he heard a scraping sound inside the crypt.

Al froze in place, listening. He turned back to the bronze doors when another muffled noise from inside the Mausoleum pulled his heart into his throat. His heart raced, and his mind filled with wild thoughts. Had they buried her alive? What terrible mistake had put his beautiful fiancé in this marble tomb?

He had to get her out. Al cast about for a tool or something to get the doors open. He couldn't find so much as a shovel, but he had to get her out of there. Another muffled sound came from inside, this one quieter by far. In a blind panic, he heaved at the doors, but they didn't budge. He lurched to the side of the crypt and picked up a planter to smash at the metal doors. A single brass key fell from the planter into the mist at his feet.

Al dropped the planter and flailed at his feet to grasp the key. He raised it with trembling fingers and slid it in the lock. He turned the key and flung the bronze doors open. Al dashed into the darkened crypt, fully expecting to find Chantrelle waiting for him on the other side. She was not. He stood still, staring at the coffin he'd put in the crypt earlier that day.

It was open, and his heart leaped into his throat again, thinking she'd escaped death. He leaned over the open casket, but she wasn't inside either. His mind reeled in disbelief. Al had closed the coffin himself. He knew she'd been inside when they put the casket in the glass hearse. No one could remove her body from there either without being seen. Where was her body?

He searched the tiny room, but there was hardly any light, and the crypt was immaculately clean. There was no other body, no urns of remains, not even stray flowers from the coffin. There had to be some clue. Al bent down and looked around the crypt floor, and that's when he saw it.

A single floor tile was not quite flush with those around it. Al pulled out his pocket knife and dug into the exposed corner. The tile was on a hinge that lifted up with hardly any pressure. A ladder under the tile led down into a dark tunnel, but as Al's eyes adjusted to the gloom, he made out a faint light at the bottom of the ladder.

Al wasted no time. He'd been right all along. Devecheau must have planned this heinous act from the very beginning. Al scrambled down the ladder and found himself in a cramped but dry crawlspace. Light from a bare lightbulb beckoned to him in the distance. He bent down and followed the light until he came to another ladder. This shaft was wider and had some metal rails built into its side.

Another light shone down from above, and Al pulled himself up this much taller ladder. He found a home-made elevator platform at the top. The rope from a block and tackle was tied off to the side to raise and lower the platform. The room was unfamiliar but might well be the raised basement of Devecheau's stately home and office. There was only one way to find out.

Al climbed a rough, old wooden staircase and slowly opened the door at its top. There was a polished wood-paneled hallway on the other side of the door but no sign of Chantrelle or Devecheau. Portraits of Devecheau's family lined the hallway, but on closer inspection, they were all death portraits. Posed as if alive with their eyes closed in an old-fashioned way to remember the dearly departed. Soft music played somewhere in the house, and Al followed the sound to a hauntingly familiar scene.

Devecheau had decorated the room like the honeymoon suite Al and his beloved talked about so many times, complete with a painted plaque above the bed that read, 'Bridal Suite.' White lace and sheer chiffon fabric hung from a four-post bed and trailed from the floor up to the ceiling. The Doctor had arranged the flowers missing from her coffin in the mausoleum at the foot of the bed.

Lit candles, dozens of them, surrounded the marriage bed along a circle painted on the floor. From each pile of candles, lines of the same coarse red-black paint made triangle shapes that disappeared under the bed, like the points of a star. On that bed, in a sheer white gown lay his Chantrelle.

Fresh makeup gave her face a trace of the blush of youth that an early death had denied her. Her tight-spiraled hair spilled out around the smooth complexion of her face and framed the creole beauty he'd fallen in love with. Alive or dead, his former bride-to-be was breathtaking.

Fury gripped Al in a way he'd never known it before. Devecheau had arranged all this while protesting his guilt over Chantrelle's death. He'd planned to take her, to make this mockery of their honeymoon, and likely perform some grotesque parody of lovemaking with her cold, dead body. Al wouldn't allow it to go any further.

A shocked Dr. Devecheau chose that moment to enter the bridal suite. Barely dressed in a t-shirt and boxers, the man was little more than a skeleton. He carried a metal censer suspended from a chain in his hand, from which a haze of strange incense wafted out.

The Doctor's eyes widened at Al's presence in the room. His mouth agape, over being discovered, Devecheau froze. Al waded through the room and lifted the old man by his throat. Both hands closed like a vice around his neck. Devecheau grew paler than usual, knowing his life was over. He dropped the foul-smelling censer, and it rang like a bell as it hit the floor.

"You never loved her like I could," the Doctor croaked. "I did all this to keep her young and beautiful forever!"

"What are you talking about, you madman! No one can bring back the dead."

"But I can! I have before, I have no heirs, but I still have my family. See for yourself, you towering buffoon!" He gestured wildly around him, and Al loosened his grip just enough to peer around the room. "I gave her some hemlock tea to join my family instead of yours."

Devecheau's words took time to reach him over the ghastly sight along the edges of the room, beyond his worst nightmare. Mannequins stood in life-like poses around the room, lit only by the flicker of burning candles. At least half a dozen men and women lined the walls, dressed in the gowns or suits in which they'd been buried--the same outfits as the death portraits in the hallway. Devecheau must have brought them back to the house in his home-made elevator.

They were not mannequins, but his family members, torn from their crypts and propped up to imitate their former lives. Flesh peeled from their skulls, and clumps of hair drooped from their heads. Glass eyes replaced the real ones that had decayed long ago, but they leered at Al just the same from their frozen poses. Devecheau intended to make his beloved into one of these abominations. He'd killed Chantrelle to take her from Al and keep her as a macabre figurine.

Devecheau began to chant in some language Al didn't recognize. The chanting drew his gaze back from the hideous sights around the room. The Doctor repeated the same guttural phrase several times. Al heard a scratching sound, like rats stuck in the walls, but larger and louder than any skittering rodent he'd ever heard.

Al took his gaze off the mumbling Doctor in time to see shadows cast on the wall by the candles around the room. To his dismay, the shadows peeled off the walls and took on ghastly shapes like creatures of nightmare before settling into the mannequins. Then the disgust he'd felt earlier grew into terrifying disbelief as the dead around him began to move. He released the Doctor and stepped back from the shuddering movements of the shadow-fueled puppets that had once been Devecheau's family.

Eyes that stared at nothing suddenly snapped in his direction. Corpses that hadn't moved on their own in his lifetime shuddered in some nauseating parody of life. Skeletal claws curled expectantly as the mannequins stepped away from the wall and lurched towards a thoroughly terrified Al.

He barely noticed the candles at his feet until one rolled away from him into the chiffon fabric draped from the bed. Fire sprang up from the candle, and the mannequins hissed dreadful shrieks at the flames. Meanwhile, the gangly Doctor, recovered from his throttling at Al's hands, dashed low towards the bed and pulled a pistol from the bedside table. The Doctor hesitated to shoot, but the fire wasted no time.

The shadows that had oozed into the mannequins wanted no part of the fire, and each one poured back out of the corpse they'd inhabited like oily black smoke. Writhing masses of shadow splattered against the walls, and the scratching sound grew more animated as they clawed back into the fading shadows. The newly vacated corpses tumbled to the floor, to Al's relief, any semblance they'd had of animation now gone. But none of that mattered. Al had to save Chantrelle from the fire.

"No!" the Doctor shouted. "I will not be denied!"

Smoke filled the room, and Al dodged away from the madman with the gun. The fire spread quickly, lace and chiffon engulfed the bed. Devecheau fired a single shot. He too was fixated with seizing Chantrelle's body from the flames to fire again. Al felt the bullet knock him back, and he fell to the floor. His right shoulder went numb as blood soaked his good shirt.

Pain blossomed as the blood seeped into his suit coat, but he had no time to worry about the mess. Adrenaline and fear drove him to move. Staggering to his feet, he came face to face with the grisly parody of the senior Dr. Devecheau, its glass eyes and wax paper face leered up at him from where it had fallen as the fire spread across the room. He swallowed his revulsion but turned to find Chantrelle's body before the fire engulfed her remains.

The smoke was already thick, and the bed was burning. A familiar hand reached out from the smoke and pushed Al away. Chantrelle stood there wreathed in smoke, a sad smile on her beautiful face. She shook her perfect head but spoke no word. Her message was as clear as if she'd spoken though, it was too late for her, but Al could still escape.

Al stumbled away from the growing inferno, the vision of his beloved, and the revolting mannequins. He found the door he'd come in through. His lungs heaved as more smoke billowed towards him. Heat surged out of the conflagration at him, and fire licked at the walls of Devecheau's bridal suite.

He lunged down the hallway, flung open the heavy front door, and gasped for air once he was outside. All while his arm hung limp at his side. He glanced back inside the house, but flames spread fast through the old wooden interior.

She wasn't in there anyway, only the empty husk that had been her body, and even that wouldn't survive the fire raging in Devecheau's house. There was no way the Doctor could have escaped, and his obsession with Chantrelle had consumed them both.

Sirens already wailed in the distance. He slid more than walked down the front stairs. He collapsed on the sidewalk, shuddering, waiting for an ambulance. At least Al was alive, and Devecheau would never make another mannequin.

***

Al awakened in a hospital bed. His shoulder hurt, but nothing like it had. White painted walls matched the white sheets and white light from the fluorescent lights above him. A woman stood over him, staring at his face as she placed a cork in a small medicine bottle. An unfamiliar, harsh smell faded from his nose as he realized he was still alive. The woman wasn't a nurse either. He licked his lips but had trouble talking.

"Don't struggle to talk just yet," the woman said. She wore a modest light blue dress and a creole shawl over her shoulders. She put the stoppered vial into a small purse carried under her right arm. "Just listen now. You can do all your talking when the doctors and police figure out you're awake. Alright?"

Al nodded, even if he didn't understand. The woman stepped away from the bed and closed the door. Then she stepped back to his bedside. His mind was whirling when he woke up, but he was calmer now.

"Emile Devecheau must have practiced the darkest kind of rites in his house. Either he got sloppy, or you surprised him at the end. Every sensitive in the city felt those shadows fleeing the fire. The stench of what he'd been doing carried clear to my house on Esplanade. All the same, I wouldn't mention anything you think you saw besides a crazy old man with abhorrent inclinations if I were you."

"Madame Legendre?" Al asked. Almost every resident of Treme, Marigny, and the Quarter knew the great-granddaughter of Marie Laveau. She nodded before continuing.

"The spirit of your poor Chantrelle explained what happened with Devecheau and wanted me to assure you her soul is safe from his clutches now. It's too soon to tell whether your brush with the other side will change you or not. However, you may want to put some distance between you and New Orleans. Few places in this world are as chock full of spirits as the Crescent City."

Madame Legendre left him alone to think about what she'd said with her message delivered. Soon enough, a nurse found him awake, and not long after that, doctors and police detectives questioned him about the fire, his gunshot wound, and the Doctor's involvement. Al took Madame's advice and left out any mention of shadows and ghosts. There was plenty for the police to investigate with the tunnel from the crypt, eight burnt bodies, and Devecheau's pistol. Chantrelle's parents would have to understand his move out west, without Al ever mentioning her ghost.

fiction

About the author

Steve Anderson

I was born in North Carolina, and lived all over the United States. From serving in the U.S. Navy to managing a bar, I’ve held a lot of interesting jobs and visited strange lands, from the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean to Djibouti, Africa.

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