Anna twitched awake, she felt the unsettling warmth of sweaty palms, and her heart pounded in her chest as she gasped for air. It was the week following the winter Solstice and it was colder than it had been all year; the skies above her cabin were entirely void of cloud cover and had the clearest view of the milky way. Clear skies during the darkest parts of winter would always have a chilling effect on the temperature, this time it caused it to plummet to thirty below. Living in Alaska wasn’t always pleasant, especially times like the present, where she could see her breath rise as steam above her face, even in the darkness of her cabin.
“The water again?” she groaned silently, then rolled over onto her side and squinted into the backlit screen of her laptop as it booted up. She blinked her eyes a couple of times to help them adjust to the screen, then clicked the only icon on her desktop. She waited as her secure connection bounced between Bruges, San Francisco, and finally Vancouver; Tor, the anonymous browser she used to access the dark web, opened to its usual homepage. She vaguely remembered where she had left off in the Oasis when she signed off at two in the morning, but when her eyes flicked over to the clock in the corner she saw was only three hours earlier. Her dreams had turned into nightly hauntings, which always ended with her choking for air as she drifted beneath the murky surface of a strange body of water. Anna shook it off, even thinking about it now gave her the chills.
It had been over eight years since the first time she logged into The Oasis, that was the summer before her nineteenth birthday, which now felt like such a long time ago. Anna entered in a string of seemingly random numbers into the address bar, this sequence had taken her nearly two weeks of typing it in to commit it to memory, despite entering it several times a day. Even with her high status as a long-term member of this darknet paranormal community, she still had no idea who ran the whole thing, let alone where it came from, all she knew was that it was legitimate.
Anna had only received an invitation after trolling the dregs of the paranormal communities for some time—right after she had sought out and documented proof of the Alaska Bushmen, the creatures that had been gnawing at her subconscious since she first heard of them as a child. It had taken her almost six years to find the damn things. A chat request from her anonymous buddy popped up in a panel on the side of her screen, she smiled softly. Even though she had never met him, he was probably the closest thing to a friend she had anymore–ever since her father lost his ability to speak, she had developed a tendency to keep to herself.
BanJack: Please tell me you heard.
Nevermore: Heard what?
BanJack: The Bayou is blowing up with news on the undead.
Nevermore: Back up Jack, are you telling me they might have found it?
BanJack: It’s possible, I mean the readings were off the charts. It’s really similar to the kind of power that we saw back…
Nevermore: Back when my dad had his stroke.
BanJack: Yeah, everything since then has only been a blip on the radar. I wasn’t expecting to see you on here for a few more hours though—had that dream again?
Nevermore: You’re psychic, B.
BanJack: So, you’re going, right?
Nevermore: Booking flights now. I’m not going to miss this opportunity again.
BanJack: Let me know what you find out.
Nevermore: You’ll be the first.
BanJack signed out of the chat and Anna was left to her own devices. There had been a little-known trend in New Orleans, for a small percentage of Voodoo practitioners to fall in with a cult. Those unfortunate enough to be lured into the embrace of this cult, led by a bokor of ill repute ended up vanishing off of the face of the earth. This usually only happened to newly initiated followers who had no familial ties, nor anyone likely to miss them; these poor souls would end up on the lengthy list of officially missing, usually only after missing work for several consecutive days.
Anna had been the one to stumble upon this trend several years ago and mocked up a dossier to keep track of the happenings, but it had since only resurfaced twice. The first time was the day before her father experienced a stroke, the second she was already in the midst of an investigation. She was stuck in the Trinity Alps of Northern California in search of the Giant Salamander. Now she would finally get her opportunity to investigate this voodoo cult while the news was still fresh; if she could track down people with information before the trail went cold, she might actually have a chance to access this cult where the bokor was said to be resurrecting the dead.
The first flight that she would be able to make out of Fairbanks was set to leave in about five hours, it had an hour-long layover in Seattle before it would be off to New Orleans–it was a pricey flight, but she would be there before this time tomorrow and every moment counted. She sighed, finished booking her flight, then a lump of blankets moved at her feet. Within a few moments, a ragged, angry-looking cat emerged from beneath the blankets that Anna was still stubbornly buried under.
“Hey Shazu,” a yawn escaped her mouth, “looks like you’re gonna have a babysitter here the next couple of days.” An unexpectedly small and sweet trill escaped the large black and gray mop, which served as a half-hearted feline shrug. Her bear of a cat was used to Anna coming and going at the drop of a hat, but to prove his contempt for her schedule he would surely leave a dead shrew in her slipper for when she came home. She unlocked her phone and sent a quick message to her neighbor, headed to New Orleans on an emergency, I’ll be gone for a couple of days, the standing arrangement between them would ensure that Shazu would be taken care of while she was away. The next few hours passed in the blink of an eye, but she had managed to make breakfast for herself and the cat, then scheduled delivery of heating fuel so that she didn’t come back to a frozen cabin and a catsicle. Through the icy blackness of the early morning outside, she saw the headlights break through her frosted-over windows, the cab she had called twenty minutes prior had just arrived to take her to the airport. “I’ll see you in about a week ‘Zu,” she fluffed her cat’s head before she slipped a cowl over her head and pulled her heavy Carhartt jacket on. Thankfully she always had a bug-out bag ready for days like today, when she would need to leave without much preparation. She grabbed her bug-out bag and the messenger bag that held her laptop and paperwork, then headed out into the blisteringly unsympathetic weather.
What might be a harrowing experience getting through TSA in any other airport in the contiguous United States, was only a brief twenty minutes from check-in to the terminal for her flight. Fairbanks International Airport was always half empty, even this soon after the holidays. She found herself sitting at the bar in the only restaurant in the airport, the thick dossier of her years-long investigation cracked open and resting lightly on the edge of the bartop. Flying usually only made her uneasy when the destination was on the other side of large bodies of water but for reasons, she couldn’t quite put into words, the prospect of this flight was causing her anxiety to flare up. The bartender set a rum and diet cola in front of her, “thanks Gus,” she mumbled over her paperwork. Her focus was on the picture of a vèvè that had been spray-painted in black on a dilapidated, moss-covered tom in the Lafayette Cemetery; she knew it was connected to the activities of the bokor she was seeking.
Anna took a sip of the cocktail that sat perspiring on the napkin in front of her, her expression twisted, she wasn’t quite expecting it to slap her so hard in the face. She traced the vèvè with her finger, it consisted of a decorated cross upon a tomb that was flanked by two coffins, the symbol of Baron Samedi. Another hour passed without her notice until she heard them announce the flight to New Orleans was boarding. With the two flights and her layover, she would have plenty of time to review her file and bring herself back up to speed on everything she had found and worked on in connection with this cult. It was all of the relevant news articles that referenced the cult’s activities and missing person reports which dated back over ten years. It was like a morbid scrapbook that pointed her to the place where she would need to start looking.
The ride from the airport reminded her why she still lived in Alaska, buildings were crammed against other buildings and the small streets gave no room to breathe. She could never handle living in a cramped city. The cab pulled up in front of the hostel, it was a lemon-yellow two-story house with white pillars, decorative black wrought iron guardrails, and a row of colorful flags that fluttered lightly. It wasn’t until she had checked in, that she felt like she could relax again. She was assigned a bunk, but she wasn’t tired, instead, she pulled out her laptop and logged into Tor so she could surf the Oasis for the new information her friend had tipped her off to. The French Quarter was known to be the voodoo center of New Orleans, but that’s not where people had been going missing—what she had found was that the disappearances were actually occurring in the Bywater neighborhood—the Desire area in particular.
Most recently, a young man by the name of Stanley Dean Keeling had gone missing, he worked at a corner store and after two consecutive days of not calling or showing up to his job—something which he apparently had never done before—his boss of three years had gone to check on him at his home. His home was in disarray, beyond just poor housekeeping, his boss told the police it looked like there had been a struggle. A week later and it was a nonissue, the police had insisted that Stanley had probably left town and just like that Stanley was another name on a growing list of missing people who had no one to really miss them.
A brief stop in at Stanley’s home only revealed how quickly the landlord cleared out his abandoned belongings and relisted the home for rent. Anna didn’t fail to notice the vèvè of Baron Samedi that had been carved into the threshold of the front door. Her eyes darkened because she knew it was no longer a question of what happened to Stanley, he had been taken, but where and by whom? She knew what her next step had to be; she was close enough to the French Quarter where she could search the local voodoo market for leads on where to look next. It was going to be tedious work, but she knew she would come up with something before she had to turn in for the night. Anna had no delusions that tracking down a cult that had stayed hidden this long was going to be easy, but the hunt for the truth was what she lived for.
A short muggy cab ride to the French Quarter gave her access to almost a dozen different voodoo shops on foot. She could see now that jeans were the wrong choice to wear in such a humid environment—even with the temperatures in the mid-fifties, it was difficult for her to breathe. Anna wandered with purpose from store to store, trying to conversationally ask questions about the local voodoo scene until she got to the last shop on her list. She eyed the old wooden sign that hung from the awning, then took in the scene in the window. It was dreary on the outside, animal skulls adorned the display and there was nothing about the shop that welcomed a stranger. Inside it had a different atmosphere than any of the other shops, it was darker, less kitschy, and there was something else about it—maybe it was just her imagination, or maybe it was the lack of tourists in this particular shop. Either way, she realized she was probably exactly where she needed to be.
Upon walking inside, she was in a completely different world, the old ornate shelves were worn and the paint was distressed. Each of the shelves was full to the brim with -ritual ingredients, like powdered eggshells, chicken bones, and feet, then there was a full spectrum of hairs from different animals. Each of these oddities had a brief description on the label, but even upon reading some of them she couldn’t quite understand what might be useful about dirt taken from the grave of a mentally ill convicted murderer. A petite bottle of Florida water caught her eye, in her research she had heard of its usefulness in protection and cleansing rituals, so she took one from the shelf without a second thought. Moments later her eyes fell upon a jar of red brick dust—for use in thresholds, so none that intend to cause harm may cross—she plucked the jar from the shelf, noting that this and the Florida water may come in handy somewhere down the line.
Caught up in the ambiance of the store, she perused a display of jewelry, where she saw the familiar loa vèvès carved into metal pendants. Among the ones she was most familiar with, she saw Maman Brigitte, Papa Legba, Erzulie Dantor, and Baron Samedi. A copper one for Papa Legba, as well as a silver one for Baron Samedi, seemed to make their own way into her hands. She considered putting them back but thoughtfully considered that a ritual offering to both of them might afford her some protection in her search. All she would need now would be a couple of fine cigars, rum, and freshly baked bread to set out for the two loa she would be petitioning for help. Once she was done looking through each section of the small shop, she approached the counter, set down her selected items, and pulled out the picture of Stanley that she had brought with her. She had the foresight to bring it with her, she might as well see if it got her any reactions, but this cashier looked unamused from the moment she had walked in.
“I was hoping to ask you if you had seen my cousin in here,” Anna offered before she slid his picture across the counter, while the cashier rang up her purchases. “No one has seen him in the past two weeks—we’re really worried, he usually doesn’t go this long without contacting his mom.” Anna was an honest person, but she considered these kinds of white lies fairly valuable in gaining information—Stanley, as far as she knew, didn’t actually have any living family and even if he did, they obviously weren’t making too much of a fuss about finding him. A brief search on the darknet had told her as much, these days she didn’t have to dive too deep in order to find the information she needed.
“No,” the cashier was curt, but upon seeing the look of distress on Anna’s face, he continued, “he used to come in here a lot, a ways back at least. It’s been a couple of months since I seen him last.” At this, Anna’s face brightened.
“O-oh, he did?” She watched as the cashier bagged up her items. “I’m kind of desperate to find him, the police won’t take this seriously, won’t even officially take him down as a missing person. Told me he had just moved on,” her hand gestured in the air as if Stanley had just wafted away on a light breeze. “Do you know if he ever came in with anyone else? It would be helpful if I could find someone who knew him down here.”
The cashier looked at her as if she had just asked him to cut out his own tongue, his jaw tightened—Anna knew something wasn’t quite right, but she thought her questions were quite reasonable considering the persona she had taken on to find this guy. After a moment of awkward silence, the cashier took a piece of scrap paper and scribbled something down, then slid Stanley’s picture and the note back across the counter without looking back up at her.
“Listen, this is just a rumor, I don’t know if there is any truth to it, but it might be something—you didn’t get this information from me and I’ve never seen you before.” Anna furrowed her brow, slowly grabbed the picture and note from the counter and nodded her head.
“Thank you—,” she looked down at the note, it was an address, but the whole situation felt wrong, she took her bag, then stuffed the address in her jeans pocket, “I really appreciate the help.” It wasn’t until she had stepped out of the shop that she realized that it felt like there was something heavy sitting on her chest while she had been in the store, the sensation passed and she breathed in the dense but cooling evening air. It was getting fairly late, but one more stop at the closest corner market had her laden with some snacks, a bottle of rum, some nice cigars, and two white pillar candles which she would take with her to Lafayette cemetery where the vèvè of Baron Samedi had been marked on an old tomb. It was going to be a long night, but if everything worked out like she hoped it would, the address she had gotten from the creepy cashier and this offering might give her a better direction to continue in.