The Girl Who Never Forgot: A gripping crime thriller
A girl from the swamps. A family gripped by darkness. A serial killer at the Mardi gras.⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Advanced Reader: “This book has a totally explosive ending that blew me away. It was such an amazing twist. I absolutely love this series and I hope other readers will give it a try!”
*Get your LAUNCH GIFT at end of this book!*
Asha has been invited to cater the luxurious Mardi Gras balls where New Orleans' blue-blooded aristocracy celebrates in style. But then, three powerful men of the city die mysteriously in the same way, at the same time, just as she is about to serve her desserts.
Asha doesn't realize a killer is lurking in the shadows of the ballroom, waiting to frame her for their dark deed.
Will Asha find the killer and exonerate her name in time?
This is a story of black magic and voodoo, of innocents and evil, and of haunted houses where the hunter becomes the hunted after midnight strikes.
If you enjoy gripping thrillers with flawed but gutsy heroines, vigilante action and suspenseful twists that get your pulse pounding, you'll love this crime series by award-winning Canadian novelist, Tikiri Herath.
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“The scenery in this book is just amazing, and so real, so vivid that you actually see it. I enjoyed the action, the unlikely allies and the suspense. I also liked the unique take that combined magic, action, history and humor. It made me read late into night!” ~ Advanced Reader.
The Girl Who Never Forgot is the sixth and final novel in the addictive Red Heeled Rebels international mystery & crime series.
Release date: September 30, 2020
Publisher: Nefertiti Press
Print pages: 372
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The Girl Who Never Forgot: A gripping crime thriller
Haunted houses, howling werewolves, and cursed pirates.
These are things you’d find in Hollywood movies. Not in real life. I didn’t realize it then, but I was about to face all three.
The werewolves came first.
It was mid-afternoon. The sun was high, and the air was warm. Puffy cotton clouds drifted lazily across the blue Southern sky. I thought it would be safe to walk down the back streets of New Orleans that day. We were in the middle of the Mardi Gras season, after all.
Katy and I had been strolling down a gravel path that wound its way along the mighty Mississippi, chatting excitedly about our new job in town.
This was a chance of a lifetime. We still couldn’t believe we’d snagged this contract.
When Chef Pierre had called me, saying we’d been invited to cater the exclusive functions held by this town’s blue-blooded aristocracy, I’d jumped with joy. The New Orleans upper crust paid well. Very well, Chef Pierre had said.
My business partner had only one goal in his mind these days, and that was to make all of America know his name, just like he’d done in Europe.
Chef Pierre was the most well-regarded celebrity chef in the world, adored by royalty in Europe and requested by high society everywhere.
In reality, he was merely a figurehead now, letting his name carry its weight. It was my team, the Red Heeled Rebels catering crew based in New York, that did all the work on this side of the Atlantic. I had my own reasons for wanting to make as much money as I could, as quickly and as legally as possible. So, this arrangement suited me just fine.
We were ten minutes from our destination when the spine-chilling howl rang through the air.
We stopped in our tracks. I glanced at Katy in shock.
We’d been so busy chatting about the carnival kings and queens and the ostrich-feathered dancers we were about to meet, we had paid little attention to where we were going.
“What the—” Katy started.
“Shh…” I said, hearing voices nearby.
They were coming from the alleyway behind the brick building we’d just passed.
Nudging Katy, I retraced my steps back to the wall and leaned in.
“Hey girl!” a smarmy voice called out from behind the wall. “Nice butt!”
Raucous male laughter followed.
“Come to papa. It’ll be so good, you’ll never wanna leave.”
“Sheesh,” said Katy next to me, her face scrunched in disgust. “Creeps.”
A shrill wolf-whistle made us both jump.
“What’s going on?” whispered Katy.
I inched toward the edge of the wall and peeked around the corner with Katy right behind me, breathing down my neck.
A strange sight greeted our eyes.
Three men were loitering next to a peeling brick wall, making rude gestures at a girl in a polka-dotted yellow dress across the street. With her brunette pigtails and her freckled face, she looked barely sixteen years old.
This could have been a scene from any city, except these men were in full-body costumes, complete with wolf masks and plastic fangs. I recognized that creature from the stories I’d read on my phone while we waited for our flight to New Orleans at JFK.
It was the rougarou.
Half-man, half-wolf, this was the mythical beast who lurked in the misty swamps of Louisiana.
We were in the middle of the Mardi Gras season, after all. This was when everyone dressed up and partied till early morning light. Still, it was unsettling to see these wolf-costumed men catcall a lone girl like this.
I scanned the area. Other than the men and the girl, there was no one else around.
“Look,” said Katy, pointing at the stately building rising at the end of the alleyway.
I suddenly realized this path curved around the back of the city’s oldest theater, the Théâtre de la Ville.
This was where the private Mardi Gras functions would take place that week.
The theater was a century-old building that had been renovated with modern amenities and given a brand-new wing. While it looked like a swanky conference center from the front, I could see the remnants of the old theater in the back.
Behind this historic building, garbage was strewn on the ground and a slight smell of sewage permeated the air. None of the restoration dollars had reached this side of the theater, it seemed.
The girl in the yellow polka-dotted dress was slinking along the wall, trying to create as much distance as she could between herself and the men. She’d balled herself into the smallest size possible, as if that would stop them.
But that only provoked the catcallers.
The leader of the pack pushed away from the wall. He crossed the road, rubbing his mask with his furry clawed hand. “Hey!” he called out, “you going the wrong way, girl.”
His friends sauntered after him, strutting like they owned the place.
“Oh, no,” said Katy, clutching my arm tightly.
I swallowed hard.
This isn’t going to end well.
I felt numb, that sick to your stomach numb, like you know a car crash is about to happen but you have no power to stop it.
We have to do something.
The first man stopped and threw his head back, letting out a wolf howl. The eerie sound bounced off the derelict walls and echoed through the empty street. The girl recoiled like they’d stung her. The men laughed at her reaction, braying like donkeys.
They hadn’t noticed Katy and me watching from behind.
Katy and I had just left our boutique hotel a few blocks away from the theater where Chef Pierre’s assistant had booked us in. We’d told the concierge we didn’t need a ride. We’ll walk, I’d said. It was a beautiful day and we were looking forward to experiencing this magical, flamboyant city.
My attention turned to the back alley. The men were stalking the girl, getting closer but keeping their distance, just to ratchet up her nerves. They seemed to enjoy taunting her.
“Scumbags,” hissed Katy.
She was right. And we couldn’t stand here and do nothing.
I pulled her by the arm and stepped into the alleyway.
I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of catcalls, harassment, and worse. Much, much worse. I’d never be able to look at myself in the mirror if I ignored what was happening right in front of my eyes.
“Yo,” hollered one man, “don’tcha wanna talk to us?”
I hastened, with Katy in lockstep.
I was glad my best friend was with me. She frequently got mistaken for a runway model, but you’d be a fool to mess with her. With her fighting Irish genes and flaming red hair that flared out like a lion’s mane when she got mad, Katy wasn't a woman you targeted.
That went for me too.
Everyone treated me like a hollow porcelain doll, cute but fragile. Being a petite Asian woman and barely five feet with my red heels on, I seemed like the last person to battle grown men in werewolf costumes.
But I had my own secret weapon.
I took a deep breath in to summon Kali, the queen of all warrior women, from inside of me. She was a gift that came with my half-Indian genes. Kali’s fighting spirit lived inside me and never failed me.
As Katy and I marched up to the men, one of them jumped and slapped the girl on her back. She let out a terrified yelp. The men chuckled. One howled.
I gritted my teeth.
We were right behind them now.
The lead wolf made another pass at the girl. She scampered to the side but tripped and stumbled to the ground, falling on her knees.
“Oi!” I shouted.
The next words came out of my mouth before my brain kicked in.
“You sick creeps! Leave that girl alone!”
The men whirled around in surprise.
They loomed in front of us, furious at this interruption. One bared his fangs. Another clenched his clawed hands.
The girl lay frozen on the pavement, her deep blue eyes filled with terror.
It was like time had stopped.
None of the men were under six feet tall. They could have easily torn us apart in minutes. That is, if we’d let them.
Still, I wished I’d had my sidearm on me, the 9mm Glock I practiced with every Sunday afternoon at the gun range in the Bronx.
Tetyana had insisted I bring it with me. She’d even offered to get a Louisiana state “license” made to go with it. But I’d resisted. By now, we’d created enough havoc in a dozen cities around the world to get locked up for good. I didn’t want to add another location to that list.
Besides, I had come to New Orleans to bake cakes. Not get into street fights.
Through their furry masks, I could see the men’s eyes dart back and forth, searching behind us. I guessed they had a hard time believing two young women would single-handedly accost them.
But Kali was alive in me and now had control over my tongue. I didn’t need my Glock.
I stepped forward, my heart racing but a steel thread growing strong around my spine, propelling me forward.
“Leave her alone,” I snarled.
I wasn’t sure they heard me, so I tried again.
“And you lot can get out of here.”
The men stared, bug-eyed.
Katy turned to the girl, still crouching on the ground. Now we were closer, she looked even more vulnerable. She was trembling like a frightened doe, too scared to move.
“Hey, honey,” said Katy, bending down and offering her a hand. “Go home, sweetie. They won’t bother you again. We’ll take care of them.”
A surprised snort came from one werewolf.
The leader of the pack tore off his mask. He leaned forward, his eyes flashing with fury.
“Who the hell are you?” he barked.
“It doesn’t matter who we are,” I replied, trying not to grit my teeth. “What matters is you need to stop bullying girls on the streets. Do you realize how you made her feel?”
The man stared at me for a few seconds before he threw his head back with a guffaw. It was an ugly belly laugh from a man who thought he held all the cards. His friends joined in, though their nervous chortles told me they weren’t as sure of themselves as their top dog was.
That was exactly where I needed them. My legs were shaking and my heart was thumping, but I knew what I had to do.
The girl was now on her feet and backing away from us, inch by inch. The rear entrance to the theater was about fifty feet away. I hoped she’d find refuge there quickly, before this escalated any further. I also hoped she’d call for help.
The man in the middle wiped his eyes as if this was too much. He turned to his pals, shaking his head. “Can you believe this? I’m so shook.”
“Harassing people isn't cool,” I said. “I suggest you all leave now.”
“Who you think you talking to?”
“A bunch of thugs who think it’s okay to pick on girls.”
That smug smile disappeared. His face turned dark, and he took a menacing step closer, his hands balled into fists.
Part of me screamed to turn and run. But I held my ground. Kali was good like that. She always knew the right thing to do.
“Why you sticking your nose in this?” he yelled. “This not your goddamn business. If we wanna talk to her, we talk to her. If we wanna play with her, we play.”
“Play with her?” I said, any remaining fear vaporizing in an instant. Kali was boiling like hot lava inside of me now. I wanted to jump on him and tear off his eyeballs.
Katy and I stood shoulder to shoulder, glowering at the pack.
They had no idea who they were messing with. We’d killed before. More than once. We weren’t scared of a little bit of blood.
“Don’t you have any shame?” I asked. “Didn’t you see how scared she was? Didn’t that bother you even a—”
“What’s it to you?” the lead dog snapped, spit flying from his mouth. “Like I said, nobody’s business what me—”
“I’m sure the police will be thrilled to know your business,” said Katy in a cool voice, cutting him off.
All three stiffened at the word “police.”
“What you saying?” one of them asked, his eyes scrunched tightly.
“I live-streamed you lot playing with that girl,” Katy replied, a smug expression on her face. “The cops are on their way now, as we speak.”
The three men looked at her bug-eyed for a moment before swiveling their heads and anxiously scanning the street.
“I’m sure they can’t wait to see you under that fancy getup,” I said.
“Two minutes away now,” said Katy, glancing at her phone as if she had a direct line to the New Orleans Police Department.
The sound of a car revving came from a side street.
“There they come,” said Katy, her smile widening.
I hoped to goodness Katy’s trick would work. Either way, I was prepared for battle. The martial arts training David gave us every night for the past two years would come in handy now. I squared my shoulders, loosened my arms and shuffled my feet like a boxer preparing for an incoming attack.
I was ready.
But this was New Orleans. We didn’t have to wait long to hear sirens in the distance.
“Awesome,” said Katy. “They’re faster than I thought.”
It could have been an ambulance, a fire truck, or maybe a squad car. It didn’t matter.
From behind us, another car revved its engine. And that was enough.
The men stumbled over each other as they tried to get away. Without a glance back, they tore down the street, almost tripping over their oversized werewolf feet.
I turned around to see who was coming, still on guard. After a lifetime of being chased by brutal thugs who only cared to exploit other humans for profit, I’d learned to always watch my back.
We all had.
But it was an innocuous vintage blue Chevy that passed by. In the driver’s seat was a plump black woman in her sixties. She was wearing a bright green African headdress, just like the ones my teachers used to wear at the school I went to in Tanzania a long time ago.
We watched silently as she cruised past us and drove into the back parking lot of the theater where the girl in the yellow polka-dotted dress had disappeared to.
“Phew,” said Katy as she slipped her phone into her pocket. “Our first day in town too.”
I wondered where that girl was now. I hoped she was okay. That was the last we’d see of her, I thought.
I didn’t know how wrong I was.
The rear door to the theater banged open.
A young man in a white kitchen jacket stomped out.
Katy and I jumped to the side to avoid bumping into him. Muttering to himself, he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and marched off to the corner of the building to stand right under the no-smoking sign. He didn’t even notice us.
Ignoring him, Katy and I pulled open the door and stepped inside.
I was still jittery after our encounter with the werewolf men, but I had to focus. I had a job to do and a promise to keep.
My task was to bring Chef Pierre’s celebrity brand to this part of the country and make a good impression. “Faites une très bonne impression!” Chef Pierre had called out as I left his office to catch my flight.
I couldn’t mess this up.
“Wow,” said Katy, whirling around.
We had entered an enormous hall with high ceilings. With the stone pillars, arches, and alcoves, it was like the inside of an old and magnificent church, but without the pews and the pulpit. The entire hall had been converted into a modern industrial kitchen.
I gaped at the sight.
This was a chef’s dream. Miles of stainless-steel counters crisscrossed the ancient space. There were at least three cooking stations with half a dozen electric stoves, a row of commercial fridges, and a stainless-steel walk-in cooler.
It was odd to see all the shiny equipment inside this historic piece of architecture.
At the other end of this hall was a massive double door. Even from where we were standing, I noticed the intricate patterns carved into the wood. That entrance probably led to the main banquet hall. I’ll be going through that door to serve my cakes to VIP guests, I thought, feeling a jolt of excitement.
I glanced around to see if I could spot the pastry chef’s post. The head chef’s station was in the middle of the kitchen and was bigger than the rest. Anne, Chef Pierre’s assistant, always negotiated a kitchenette for me everywhere I went. I was sure I’d be placed next to the head cook here.
Chef Pierre’s name was getting bigger in America, which meant I carried his glitter on me.
“That’s so beautiful,” said Katy, pointing at a wood-fire stove set inside a tiled alcove recess. Near the stove was a bay of windows made of a stained-glass mosaic. The warm afternoon sun streamed through it, creating instant art on the ancient hardwood floor.
“Why can’t we have this back home?” whispered Katy.
“We’ll have to find a hundred-year-old theater for sale first,” I whispered back, “or a church.”
The kitchen wasn’t that busy yet.
A woman in a white apron sat in an alcove, her back to us. She was reading what looked like a leather-bound bible. Her lips moved as she read, her focus fully on the book.
A handful of sous chefs, wearing the same white kitchen jackets as the man who’d bumped into us, were wandering around, clowning, joking, and slowly getting ready to start their shift.
Someone had their phone tuned to a local radio station that was playing easy jazz. I smelled the faint scent of spicy gumbo stew, remnants from the previous night’s supper, still hanging in the air.
I took in a deep breath and smiled to myself. This was an atmosphere you wanted to bathe in and wrap yourself with. This was why I had wanted to come to New Orleans.
The kitchen was waking up languidly, just like the music from the phone. No one had noticed us gawking near the rear entrance, yet.
“Look,” said Katy, nudging me. “Didn’t we see her before?”
The woman in the colorful African headdress who’d driven by in the Chevy was at the sink. She was washing her hands, humming a gospel song to herself.
Is that the head chef? Should I go say hello?
If she was the chef, she was an unconventional one. A headdress in lieu of a chef’s hat. Her arms were bare, exposing a striking tattoo of a snake that curled around her biceps. It was an unusual design for a woman her age, I thought. But she had this grounded look to her like nothing could faze her.
I was just about to walk over and introduce myself when the door in the far end of the hall banged open. Everyone looked up as a reedy, thin woman in her mid-forties strode in. She wore a red chef coat and a white chef hat. She slammed the door behind her, a scowl on her face.
No one spoke. It was like a burst of frigid Arctic air had just blown into the room.
The frosty woman scanned the room.
Someone quickly turned off the music. The woman reading in the alcove snapped her book shut and sprang up. The sous chefs hurried to their stations and began pulling out cutting boards and knives. One bustled over to the walk-in cooler and another opened a fridge to take out a plastic-wrapped bowl.
The woman in the red jacket spotted us in the back.
I watched warily as she marched toward us. Something about her expression made my back go up and my hands curl. Her scowl deepened as she got closer.
She stopped when she was five feet from us.
“You the baker they sent from New York?” she snapped.
Everyone in the kitchen turned, noticing us for the first time. Some pointed, some whispered.
From the way the woman in the red coat held herself, I gathered this was the head chef. The gold badge on her lapel read Chef Dixie.
“Asha Kade,” I said, stepping forward and offering my hand to her. “Chef Pierre sends his regards.”
She didn’t take my hand or even bother to acknowledge Katy beside me. Instead, she gave me a look-over like I was a rotting piece of meat.
I stood my ground and gave her a good look-over back.
Even with Chef Pierre’s name behind me, every head cook I’d met resented my intrusion in their territory. I wondered what made me think this time would be different.
Chef Dixie pointed her chin at the corner where the old wood-fire stove was. That was when I noticed the mini kitchenette next to it. It was the smallest cooking station in the room and was placed close to the back entrance.
“That’s your spot, Ms. Pastry Chef,” she said, spitting the words out. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine.”
With that, she spun on her heels and stomped over to her station.
“What an arrogant biatch,” Katy hissed under her breath.
“Be nice,” I said, lowering my voice, “we’re guests here.”
“What about her being nice to us?” Katy whispered as we shuffled over to our corner, “and what about all that Southern hospitality they talked about on the tourist sites, huh?”
“Maybe she’s not from here.”
It was hard to believe Chef Dixie belonged in this easy kitchen, one that smelled of heavenly gumbo and had sweet jazz playing in the background. That was, until she arrived on the scene.
“Maybe she’s from New York,” I said, taking a deep breath to calm down and remind myself why I was here.
My promise to Chef Pierre had been that by the time I was done, all of New Orleans would be clamoring to have us back to cater their parties. What Chef Pierre didn’t know was I’d also made another pledge a long time ago.
That pledge was the only reason we were in America.
It was time for me and everyone on my team to pay it back, to help those in the same situation we’d been in only a few years ago. It was why we, the Red Heeled Rebels, did what we did.
I wasn’t going to back down now.
The rear door opened and a lanky man in a waiter’s bow tie stepped in. He had a friendly smile on his face.
“Yo, my people!” he called out as he walked over to the staff lockers in the back. “Howz everybody doing today?”
A chorus of muted hellos came from across the kitchen hall. Chef Dixie didn’t even look up.
“Hey, Sammy boy,” said the woman who’d been reading the book earlier. “Did you have a good day now?” Not realizing we could see her, she rolled her eyes discreetly and gave a look Dixie’s way. Sammy nodded, knowingly.
He spotted us right away and walked over to shake our hands.
“You with that fancy Chef Pierre, right?” he said, looking happy to see us. “Welcome to the Big Easy.”
I took his hand, relieved to meet someone decent enough to greet us.
With a salute, he walked away, whistling to himself, as if determined to bring cheer to the kitchen—the cheer Dixie had sucked right out of the air a few minutes ago.
Katy and I were checking our ingredient list when two tall glasses of iced tea appeared on our counter.
“Want some tea, ladies?”
It was the woman who’d been reading the bible in the alcove.
“That’s super nice of you,” I said, taking a glass with a smile. Maybe things won’t be so bad after all. “Thank you so much.”
“You looked like you could do with some,” she said with a wry smile.
She was right.
It was our first day in the city and we’d already fought off a werewolf gang, not to speak of the frosty welcome we’d got from the head chef. We still had five more days to go.
“I’m Asha and this is Katy.”
“Grace,” she replied, with a nod. “They told us you were coming. From a hotshot company, right? Paris or somewhere nice?”
“New York. We have a bakery up there.”
“Ah, I’ve always wanted to see the Big Apple.” She sighed and leaned against the counter. “Must be real nice up there. Never left this hellhole.”
“Don’t say that,” said Katy, picking up her glass and flashing her a smile. “You’ve got the Mardi Gras here. You’ve got amazing food, awesome music and even parades. You’ve got the biggest free party on earth. How cool is that?”
“Yeah, we pass a good time here…,” said Grace, looking down at her hands, “but that don’t give you a good job or feed the kids, you know.”
The back door opened. I turned to see two women in skimpy purple cabaret bikinis and ostrich feather headdresses step inside. They waved a bright hello to the room.
“Hey y’all, sorry to bother—”
“I told you to use the side door!” shouted Dixie. “How many times do I have to tell you people?”
“It was locked,” replied the woman, traipsing in, ignoring Dixie’s face. “Security couldn’t find the keys.”
Dixie slammed a pot on the stove. “You call them security?” she said angrily to her pot. “Idiots who can’t find their way to their mama’s house if their lives depended on it. Bunch of…”
Everyone was keeping their eyes averted and maintaining their distance. I was glad I wasn’t the only one in Dixie’s bad books and half wondered if the head chef was a prime candidate for a heart attack.
Four more women dressed in the same purple bikinis trooped into the kitchen, their dancing shoes clicking on the hardwood floor as they maneuvered their way through the hall. I noticed they chose the farthest route from Dixie.
“Wow, they look so amazing,” whispered Katy, as she watched the dancers strut by us. “This is something we don’t see where we come from.”
The last dancer stopped to give the woman with the snake tattoo a quick peck on the cheek, before running to catch up with her teammates.
“They didn’t come alone,” I said, turning my attention to the back door again.
Someone was struggling to push a grand tuba through the narrow doorway. It took a while for the man and his instrument to get through. He flashed a grin once inside and followed the dancers to the other end, impervious to Dixie’s deathly glares.
Katy and I stared with our mouths open as three more men hauling trumpets, a trombone, and a drum strolled by.
I thought I heard Dixie swear.
I smiled and turned to Grace.
“I think I’m going to really, really like it here.”
Grace smiled back. “Welcome to New Orleans,” she whispered, “don’t mind Dixie. Never seen that woman in a good mood.”
As if on cue, Dixie’s voice rang through the hall.
“Did I tell you to get the punch out?”
I craned my neck to see who she was berating now.
I did a double take.
It was the girl in the yellow polka-dotted dress, standing in front of the head chef like a withering leaf. She looked almost as frightened as she’d been in the alleyway with the werewolf men.
I hadn’t even noticed her in the kitchen.
“She works here?” said Katy, staring at her.
“We serve punch cold, you dumb girl,” said Dixie, snatching the jug from the girl’s hands.
She marched to the nearest fridge, opened it, and plonked the jar inside. She walked back to her station, grumbling loudly so everyone could hear. “That’s what happens when you get stupid swamp people to work for you. They don’t know a damn thing.”
“That’s so mean,” whispered Katy.
“You don’t know the half of it,” replied Grace.
“What y’all staring at?” Dixie glared at us.
“No reason to shout at her,” said a deep guttural voice from behind us.
I whirled around.
It was the woman in the bright headdress who’d spoken up. She was sitting at the counter near the back entrance with a bowl of red potatoes. She held a peeler in one hand and a potato in the other and was staring at Dixie as if challenging her.
“That girl does everything nobody wants to do,” the woman continued, her eyes steady on Dixie. “You pay her next to nothing. Least you can do is treat her like a human being.”
In response, Dixie turned her back to her.
With a sigh, the older woman went back to her potato peeling.
I glanced over at the young girl. She was sweeping the floor now but noticed me look. Our eyes locked for a brief second. I thought I saw sadness in hers, perhaps even desperation. She looked away quickly and went back to sweeping, head down.
That dress didn’t hide much. The girl’s collarbones stuck out like she hadn’t eaten for days. The scars on her wrist weren’t easy to ignore. I could only imagine how she’d got those cutting marks.
Something was wrong with that girl. Very wrong.
“She looks anorexic,” Katy whispered, as she saw me looking, “poor girl.”
“Next time Dixie yells at her,” I said, “I’m not staying quiet.”
“You’re making an enemy.”
“I think we’ve passed that stage.”
Feeling eyes on me, I turned to see the old woman in the headdress watching me carefully. Her eyes were wary, cynical.
But her gaze only lasted a second.
She returned to her task, her hands moving so fast, that snake on her arm twitching and writhing, like it was ready to slither out.
“Don’t walk in there without these.”
Grace pushed two glittering masquerade masks toward Katy and me. I brushed off the green sequins that fell onto my countertop. This was where I kneaded my dough.
All afternoon, Katy and I had been baking Louisiana king cakes. They were now plated on silver trays and stacked on the trolley Grace had decorated with tinsel in the official Mardi Gras colors.
On the top tray was the largest cake I made that day. On it, I’d patterned Chef Pierre’s insignia with icing sugar. Each king cake resembled an oversized cinnamon doughnut dusted in purple, green, and yellow sugar. I’d made sure to follow the traditional recipe to a T, including sticking a plastic baby inside the biggest cake.
I looked at my creations feeling proud, certain the carnival guests were going to love them. All I needed was one well-connected, upper-crust homemaker to gush to her friends and neighbors, and I’d be invited back. Getting invited back meant more contracts, more contracts meant more money, and more money meant we could do so much more.
“We’re not invited to the ball,” said Katy, a wistful look on her face as she reached over and picked up a mask, scattering more sequins everywhere. “We’re just pastry chefs.”
“Listen up, girls,” said Grace, who seemed to have appointed herself as our guide. “Everyone who walks through that door after the festivities start, has got to mask up. It’s the law.”
“The law?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Tradition.” She shrugged. “Means the same thing here.”
I reached over, took the second mask and put it on.
Katy and I were wearing our usual uniform that day.
When we started working with Chef Pierre, he’d suggested a look that blended formal European style with modern American chic. It had taken us a while to decide and in the end, Katy and I had settled on an A-line black dress that came above the knees.
That dress with our signature red aprons and hair tied into ponytails was what Katy and I wore to work every day. When we visited clients to discuss orders, we put our red heels on. But when we were in the kitchen, we wore our comfy red canvasses.
Our uniform wasn’t typical and our name was even more unusual. But it made us stand out and gave everyone something to talk about. Whether we catered for a high-society tea party, a birthday gala, or a formal evening function, I wanted us to be recognized as the quirky celebrity bakers who made the best cakes in the world.
Grace leaned over the counter and adjusted Katy’s mask.
“You gals aren’t from here, anyone can tell.”
“Are we that obvious?” asked Katy.
“That looks great on you,” I said, seeing how well the shimmering mask matched Katy’s green eyes and red hair.
“Now remember, girls,” said Grace, “there’s a different crew every night and they have different rituals. You gotta follow all their rules, okay?”
I turned to Grace, my brow knotted. “First time I heard of event crews having rituals.”
Grace lifted a finger to make her point. “That’s krewe with a ‘k’ at the beginning and an ‘e’ at the end. Some krewes are older than the Civil War. We’re talking tradition that goes back for generations.”
“What does that have to do with the banquets?” I asked. I glanced at the clock on the wall. Sammy was supposed to call us to serve the cakes any minute now, and I didn’t want to be late for my first serve.
“It’s the krewes that pay for the street parades.”
“I thought it was the city that threw the parades,” said Katy.
Grace let out a sigh, as if disappointed in how little we knew.
“If we didn’t have the krewes, we wouldn’t have the Mardi Gras.”
“The krewes used to only be for rich white men for a long time. But these days, there are black krewes, gay krewes, one for women and anything you can think of. But you don’t get to be a member just anyhow. You gotta apply. Most times, they say no. We take this seriously here, you understand?”
Katy and I nodded.
“After the street parades are done, each krewe holds a private ball to celebrate the season. It’s by invite only. Even Mayor Lafayette can’t come to the party sometimes. That man got elected twice now, so he’s not nothing.” Grace gave a shrug. “But if you’re not on the list, you’re not on the list, you see?”
“They sound like super secret societies,” Katy said, her eyes shining.
“Sort of. We’re talking families with connections that go way back.”
“So, is there going to be a real king and queen tonight, then?”
“Real as day to us,” replied Grace in a crisp tone. “There’ll also be debutantes and their escorts. Some will be sitting at the head table with the king and queen.”
“A pretend royal ball with debutantes?” said Katy, clapping her hands. “Sounds magical.”
Grace frowned. “This isn't a game, girls.”
I looked at the clock again and then at the door to the dining hall. Sammy was late.
“Sammy and his team are gonna serve the main courses,” continued Grace. “When it’s time for dessert, remember the king and queen have special plates and cups. You don’t wanna mix things up now.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, relieved I’d got some instructions correct. “I made the king’s cake bigger than the others.”
“Good,” said Grace. “If you wanna make a good impression, you gotta learn the rules, or they’ll never invite you back.”
I shuddered at the thought. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“Where’s Sammy?” I asked, glancing nervously at the connecting door. “He was supposed to call us five minutes ago.”
“He’ll call you when they’re ready. Just remember to walk slowly when you get inside. This is a royal event, not a downtown diner. You gotta be deliberate with everything. Got that?”
“Got it,” I said.
“You didn’t forget the baby, did you?”
“I stuck it in already.”
Anne had got a local baking supplies store to deliver a handful of tiny plastic dolls with my ingredients, and I’d inserted one of these one-inch toys into the largest cake just before I iced it. That much I’d known. As tradition goes, or Anne had told me, whoever finds the baby in their slice of cake is next in line to organize the Mardi Gras banquet the following year. It’s considered a good luck charm.
“For dessert tonight,” Grace was saying, “they’ll have milk punch to go with your cake. Sammy’s people are serving it right now.”
I looked over her shoulder at the girl in the yellow dress. She was filling a row of brandy glasses with the milky drink.
“Is that the punch?” I asked, pointing.
“People usually ask for seconds. We prepare them just in case.”
As I watched, the girl spilled some of the punch on the floor.
Dixie, who’d been hovering nearby, spotted it too. To my horror, she stepped up to the girl and slapped her on the head.
“Oh, my god,” said Katy, putting a hand to her mouth.
Dixie threw a towel on the spilled liquid and glared at the girl. “Clean it, clumsy girl.”
“Oi!” I called out. “Stop that!”
Without a word, Rosalie put the jug carefully on the counter and bent down to wipe the floor.
I threw my mask down and walked over to the young girl.
“Did you have to do that?” I snapped at Dixie as I passed her.
“My kitchen, my rules,” she snapped right back.
I kneeled in front of the girl. Big tear drops were falling to the floor.
“Hey,” I said, gently taking the towel from her trembling hands. “Let me do it, hun.”
“Dixie,” came a voice from the back of the kitchen. “You do that one more time and you’re in big trouble.”
I looked up.
It was the potato-peeling woman in the corner. Her face contorted like she was struggling to contain her rage, but she remained in her chair.
“You’re not going to get away with this.”
Dixie was no more than ten feet away from me, her eyes on her cutting board, pretending to ignore everybody staring at her in shock. But I noticed a flicker of fear pass across her face.
I turned to look at the eccentric old woman. She’d gone back to peeling her potatoes.
I wondered who she was, she who made even Dixie scared.
The girl gave me a shy look.
“Rosalie,” she replied softly.
I lowered my voice. “If Dixie touches you again, I’m gonna shove this dirty towel down her throat.”
She gave me a startled look, saw my grin, and returned a ghost of a smile.
Katy came over and helped Rosalie up. “Here you go, sweetie,” she said, giving her a tissue. We waited as Rosalie wiped her freckled cheeks. Watching her up close, I realized she was older than she looked at first.
With an angry snort, Dixie threw her knife on the counter with a clatter and stomped over to the walk-in cooler.
“Let’s go out and get some fresh air,” said Katy, nudging the girl. “I think we both deserve a break, don’t you?”
Rosalie looked at her like she didn’t know how to answer that. Katy gave her another friendly nudge. “Follow me.” I watched as Katy and Rosalie walked out the back door.
Grace came over, shaking her head. She picked up the punch jug and took over Rosalie’s task. The rich smell of bourbon drifted to me as she poured the liquid into the glasses.
“That woman’s always in such a foul mood,” she whispered, “I’m sure the devil himself is scared of getting a ribbing from her.”
“You can say that again,” I said, wringing the punch-soaked towel in the sink. “She’s a nasty one.”
“Not the first time this happened, either. Last year, that woman was picking on me.”
“She hit you?” I looked at Grace aghast.
“No, but she used to scream at me almost every day.”
“Little things and big things. She gets so worked up, sometimes I don’t think even she knows what she wants.”
“But she hit that girl.”
“Oh, Rosalie’s a tough cookie. Clumsy, always dropping things, spilling things, but she’s not a little girl, no longer. Almost eighteen.”
“She looks fourteen.”
“Had a hard past.”
“What about her parents? Her family?”
“Lives in a trailer park near the swamps. Never went to school, that girl. Could barely read and write. I teach her during my breaks, though. She reads the bible with me. She’s learning fast.”
“Poor girl. Good you’re helping her.”
Grace moved closer and lowered her voice.
“The story goes, her mama died when she was only a baby. Then, one day she ran away from home. Nobody knows who she belongs to. Feral child, really. They found her half fainted from hunger in the cemetery near the swamps.”
“It ends well, though. A couple took her in. When the swamp people make you family, they treat you good.”
“The swamp people?”
“Creole folk who hunt gators for a living. They keep to themselves. They don’t like outsiders and we don’t talk to them either. That’s why Dixie thinks it’s okay to pick on Rosalie.”
I hadn’t figured out all the disparate groups in this town yet. What I knew for sure was Rosalie had fair skin, just like Dixie, while everyone else in the kitchen seemed to have an African-American heritage.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is or who you are,” I said, “you don’t hit people. That’s just plain wrong. It’s criminal.”
“Yeah, but no one’s gonna complain about Dixie, I can tell you that. You get on her bad side, you’ll be lining up for social services.”
“Fine,” I said, turning to Grace. “I’ll do it then. I’m not going to let that go.”
She looked at me wide-eyed. “Listen to me,” she said, reaching out and gripping my arm. “You do that and there’ll be no more work for you in this town.”
I stared at her.
“They’ll treat you worse than they do now. You know why Dixie stuck you in that corner? She doesn’t trust out-of-towners. Nobody here does.”
“Even Sammy?” I asked, feeling a jolt of disappointment go through me. “Even you?”
Grace turned away.
Before I could say anything, a voice called out from the other end of the hall.
“Dessert time, ladies!”
I whirled around to see Sammy waving at me from the doorway to the ballroom.
It was time to meet that evening’s royal couple and serve them a slice of my king cake with the baby inside.
Despite the day’s events, I was looking forward to this. I washed my hands and ran to the back door. Katy and Rosalie were squatting on the steps outside, silently taking in the cool evening air.
“Katy!” I called out. “They’re calling us in.”
Rosalie gave a start. A curious look crossed her face, something in between fear and shock.
I leaned through the doorway.
“Hey, Rosalie. You should take the rest of the night off. If Dixie gives you heck for that, I’ll talk to her, okay?”
She stared at me, like she’d gone mute all of a sudden.
With a quick squeeze of Rosalie’s shoulder, Katy jumped up and skipped up the steps.
“Yay!” she said, as she brushed past me and danced her way inside. “This is so exciting. Royals, here we come!”
Rosalie didn’t move and still had that perplexing expression on her face.
I waved goodbye and closed the door gently. I can talk to her afterward, I thought.
Katy and I put our masquerade masks on and pushed our trolley in between the maze of counters. We moved toward the door on the other end, where Sammy was patiently waiting for us.
“Ready for your first night, ladies?”
“Yesss!” said Katy, beaming at Sammy, glee in her voice.
I couldn’t help but feel excited too. My heart rate was up, nerves mixed in with the thrill.
“It’s the Mystic krewe of Jacques de Molay tonight. They’re huge,” said Sammy, through his half-face mask. “You girls will do just great.”
He gestured for us to enter.
Katy and I pushed the cart through the open doors.
My heart beat a tick faster.
Grace had shared a lot of stories with us. But nothing had prepared me for the scene in the grand theater ballroom that night.
To be continued….
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