It was a nice walk from the corner store to the cemetery she had marked on her map, it was so alien to see grass that was still green this time of year, and the sun beat down through the thick humid air. She reminded herself to not get used to the length of the days down in the lower forty-eight, it would just make her miss the sun that much more when she got home. Walking through what felt like were ancient relics dedicated to days of luxury, she noticed many of the tombs she was passing by were in various states of decay. The lavish stonework had gone through years of disrepair, been devastated by vandals in some places, but there was still a certain beauty to it. Moss grew heavy on the older monuments to the dead as if the tragically forgotten were being reclaimed by the earth. She found the tomb when she stumbled upon it, quite literally, as her foot caught on a rough edge that stuck out just-so underneath the bedraggled grass that lined the trodden pathway.
The tomb adjacent to the one she had been searching for had enough of an overhang to cast some shade—she settled herself down on the grass and leaned back lazily, sweat beaded down the side of her face. Anna had just realized how much she had been moving around when she finally let out the breath she had unwittingly been holding. The vèvè graffiti had been covered up since the picture she had, had been taken. The blotchy, mismatched paint stared back at her tauntingly—why had it been covered up when the rest of the cemetery was in such disarray. She pondered the thought for a while, even though she already had her suspicions—she had no authority to jump to conclusions, but she had a gut feeling that there was someone higher up involved with keeping it all under the radar.
The shadows grew longer and longer as the day drew to a close, the rhythmic chirp of the crickets as they began to sing caught her ears, but she still felt the sun left her too exposed to be comfortable and leaving an offering out in the open. Her paranoia often worked in her favor, so she couldn’t help but listen to the agonizing anxious conspiracies that often traipsed lackadaisically through her mind. The sun seemed to be taking its sweet time and in her restlessness, she got her notebook out to study and scribbled down the address she had been given at the voodoo shop. Another thirty minutes would go by before she finally opened the bags she had been hauling around.
She set the candles down, on the left and right sides of where the covered vèvè was blaring through the shadows cast by the fading sunlight. She set the sweet snacks and the cigars next to one another and then produced a shot glass from the tchotchkes section of the corner market she had found on her way here. She poured an ample shot of rum into the glass and taking a swig winced at the roughness of the liquor that hit her tongue. Lighting the candles began what some may call a ritual, others may call witchcraft—Anna knew it best as an offering, in honor of the spirits of the region. Her experience had proven, that when in Rome wasn’t just a silly thing that people said when they were feeling uncomfortable with customs that seemed alien to them. Anna slipped the metal pendants over her neck and verbally petitioned Papa Legba and Baron Samedi to be with her in her investigation. It was just something you paid attention to—customs were to be respected and followed if at all possible.
After two hours of sitting there in silence as the sky darkened until it was eventually pitch black, and with just the flickering of the dim golden glow of the candles against the paled, peeling paint of the stones they sat against, she felt her eyes grow heavy as she sat there, in near meditation, then shook her head and mentally made a note to get a grip. The heaviness in the surrounding air still hadn’t given her a break since she’d left the airport and she doubted she would find a reprieve from it before she left. She decided that she had sat there long enough gathering everything but the offering she had left and set a course to walk back to the hostel—it still wasn’t all that late, and the Blues being carried by the wind through the streets on the way back, gave her a bit of bliss after a trying evening. In unfamiliar territory, she was just thankful that the GPS on her phone was working, or else she might be utterly lost.
She noted the course that she would have to take from where she was and slipped her phone into her bag—she couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes on her though and stopped in her tracks as she began to pass what looked to be an abandoned shop. Her eyes were fixed on the door to the shop, it was white, the glass panes cracked from the corners, paint peeling on the bottom where the sun was brightest and hottest during the day. What really made her stop though, was the slight creak that rose above the fading melancholy of the band playing at the old club around the corner. The ruddy glow of an aging light fixture cast a haunting shadow—did that door just—she instantly dismissed any notion that it had but watched as it creaked open into the darkness beyond.
She walked slowly towards the door and stopped short of the cracked and weathered façade when she felt the force of someone pushing her hard against the door. Her head cracked against the threshold, the sound drowned into blackness and conscious thought evaporated from her completely.
Her eyes opened to look upon a freshly painted black vèvè that stung the wall of the tomb and it was barely illuminated in the night that surrounded her, but it wasn’t night. She realized that when she looked to either side of her, the shadow was as thick as tar. Looking back at the tomb where the symbol was it had begun to bleed down the wall in an inky red. Over her shoulder, she could feel someone press their face gently upon her as if viewing the blood as it gushed down the face of the wall. Beyond the adulteration of her peripheral and through her own copper hair, she saw the outline of what looked to be a skull, but was it wearing a top hat?
The Cheshire grin that spread across its toothy smile was unsettling, but she couldn’t help but bring herself to look at it directly. Her eyes barely caught the hand reaching for her neck before it grasped her unrelentingly, the ashen skin was streaked with blood as it protruded through a large crack that had appeared in the center of the symbol. There were drums in the distance, a beat that she had not ever heard before, she gasped for air, closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them back to find she was staring up at the surface of the water. She screamed inaudibly and water began to fill her lungs.
Her screams were interrupted by an abrupt jerk of her head; her head throbbed. The last thing she remembered was a misty old storefront and an intense curiosity. Her confusion was unaltered by the strangeness of her current surroundings. Her eyes were crusted over, no doubt from the sensation of choking… was that a dream? By the looks of it, she was in a root cellar somewhere; the only problem was, the infamous swamplands of the south didn’t create a hospitable foundation for root cellars to even exist. She twisted her body, finally noticing that her hands and feet had been bound. Awkwardly, she squirmed into a sitting position and backed up against the wall; she could tell now that she wasn’t actually underground at all, but the room had been insulated with a thick layer of muddy clay.
The darkened corners of this room seemed to house a dark and looming presence, a guttural and graveled groan that arose after a moment of her blurred gaze. It took longer than she would later like to admit, but Anna finally recognized the figure of a man in the corner, hunched and aggressive. “What have I gotten myself into?” Anna’s chest felt like it was going to explode—this adrenaline rush was working her up into fight-or-flight mode, but neither option would really get her anywhere in her current situation. She closed her eyes gently and took in a shallow unsteady breath.
This wasn’t the first time she had been in a tough situation but given the circumstances, she felt that she would much rather be back in front of the polar bear she had the bad luck of running into while traveling in the North Slope as a teen. Luckily for her, not so much for the unfortunate polar bear, she had her rifle with her that day and she lived to tell the tale. Looking back, she still wasn’t sure how she had steadied herself, but her mother’s brothers had developed a fondness for their little kassak niece from which they had formed an unlikely bond. She had known how to track and make herself scarce in the wild from the time she was a child—a forte she had never managed to possess while in the city or around too many people.
Anna’s eyes opened when she heard chains drag against the concrete floor, the automaton in the corner had grown more agitated; in a grasp for hope, she hugged her legs close to her chest and awkwardly fished through the ankle of her boot for the knife she always kept handy. When she finally fumbled it out of her boot, it loudly clacked upon the floor. The creature keeping her company responded in kind, his chains clanked as a hand reached out from the shadows. The blood-streaked arm reaching for her from her nightmare flashed through her mind, she shuddered and grasped the knife and clipped the zip tie on her ankles, then made quick work of her wrists as well. Before her corner companion could utter another, “eergh!” she was up on her feet, her knife tucked back into her boot.
Her investigative and curious nature urged her to look more closely into the figure in the corner—the light was too dim for her to see much of anything, but her internal voice was telling her this was just a man. He lunged at her when she inched too close trying to analyze something which she had never truly believed could exist and he briefly came into the light—this man looked as if he had been drained of all of his color, his lips were cracked, his eyes bloodshot and glazed over.
“Holy fuck, Stanley?” slipped out of her mouth before she even realized she had said it and she stumbled backward. This last sound must have roused the suspicions of whoever was guarding the room because she heard steps echo from the hall just outside the door. In a moment of hesitation, her feet slipped out from underneath her as she scrambled on the concrete to get behind something, anything, that she could hide behind to stall for time. She narrowly ducked behind a bookshelf stacked with dusty boxes when the door opened. Another man walked in, he was large in stature and all of his exposed skin painted in symbols she wasn’t familiar with. Anna’s breathing was unsteady as she watched the man through a space between the boxes, he was obviously looking for her and she wasn’t exactly ready to be found.
It wasn’t long before the man found her in her hiding place, Anna was no secret agent skilled in elusive behavior. A brave yet ultimately futile attempt at fighting back left her kicking her feet as he dragged her out of the room and into the hallway. There the strange drumbeats she just barely recognized, could be heard coming from the direction in which they were headed. She was pulled violently through another door which led outside, the drumming grew louder and the lights got brighter. She was tossed into a corner of what looked to be a small, closed-off courtyard and her head hit the ground hard. Dazed and likely concussed she tried to regain her senses once again and even with her blurred vision she saw the bonfire in the courtyard. If she had been uncertain that she was in danger before, it couldn’t be clearer now—this is what she had been searching for all along.
There were several men and women gathered loosely around the fire, one of the women danced around in a trance, a man followed suit chewing on coals, while a couple of others dragged a struggling pig into the mix. Anna wasn’t versed in French Creole, otherwise, she might have been able to understand words other than the brief recognition of them calling out the names of the loa she was familiar with. She knew she heard, “Baron Samedi!” as well as, “Papa Legba!” being shouted within their chants and hollers, but it wasn’t until a man came into the circle with a machete and slit the screaming pig’s throat that she instantly became nauseous. The pendants that rested against her chest began to burn slightly and one of the men dragged her closer to the bonfire.
Her vision had cleared somewhat and she could see a man standing over her, colorful clothes, beaded jewelry, and white paint adorned this man—he looked like a witch doctor straight out of an anthropology textbook, she knew he was the bokor she had come to New Orleans to find. He knows… I need to find out what he knows. Tears involuntarily began to streak down her face, she would never be able to find out how to help her father if she didn’t find out the source of this man’s power. The bokor crouched down, a handful of white powder presented in his palm and just as he was about to blow it in her face, she kicked her feet out at the man who was holding her on the ground. She caught him off guard and he stumbled directly into the powder that burst forth from the bokor’s palm, in a last-ditch effort she rolled off to the side. The man writhed and screamed, the white powder coated his face and the ceremony came to an abrupt end.
Sirens blared just as the participants were about ready to converge upon her and police officers burst through the doors, breaking up a party that would have ended in her own demise. An intense hour of speaking with the police made her aware that an anonymous caller had alerted them to her location and that she had been kidnapped. Despite not understanding who might have called it in, she was just thankful that the night was over and that these people were going to go away for a long time. She was allowed to recover her bag, which they had taken from her, her laptop and phone were still in her bag as if it had been utterly undisturbed. It was clear these people had no idea who she really was, perhaps they really just didn’t want anyone on their trail and the act of someone and looking for one of their zombified victims was enough to catch their attention. She could have just been another statistic, a tourist who slipped through the cracks in a city with a hidden reputation of violence.
Anna told them about Stanley being locked up in the building and once all of the participants had been cuffed and stuffed into the back of police cruisers, she was told she was free to go. The police officer she had been speaking with turned and walked away and Anna was left to her own devices. She spotted a large book that had been sitting in proximity to where the pig had been slain, but in the commotion had been knocked into the blood that had been spilled on the ground. Certain that no one was paying attention, she grabbed the book and haphazardly stuffed it into her bag. It was the only thing she knew she could get from the scene without an extensive search of the premises which she knew was not an option.
Light broke over the horizon and Anna finally felt her body start to give in to exhaustion, she had managed to call a taxi and asked to be taken to a place where she could get food and coffee at such an early hour. She was dropped off after a short ride at Café Du Monde, apparently famous for their beignets and chicory coffee. She had spent the past several hours feeling as if she were going to die at any moment and to her, this was a relatively sane response. She heard the relay of orders being shouted to and from the kitchen, the scant crowd of early birds waited for their piping hot beignets and scalding coffee while a lovely, slender black woman tended dutifully and happily to her customers.
The waitress approached her with a coy smile, “what can I get you, hun?” and Anna knew that the woman had pegged her as a tourist.
“I was told this place was great for coffee and beignets,” she must have looked as exhausted and disheveled as she felt because the waitress nodded and took down her order.
“I’ll have it right up for ya!” there was an enthusiasm in this woman’s voice and step that Anna knew she couldn’t hope to match even on her best day, let alone today.
She pulled her laptop out of her bag and was pleasantly surprised to find that her phone still had a decent charge on it when she turned on her hotspot access. She began documenting what she had encountered on her investigation, even though she felt as if she was no closer to the answers that she needed than she was before. She would have to wait to take a look at the book when she was back home, a cursory glance at it in the taxi proved that it was far too much to absorb in a short car ride and much too disturbing to look through in public. She was midway through a new entry into the dossier when a message popped up on her screen.
BanJack: You’re lucky I knew where you were going.
Anna wasn’t sure whether or not she should be happy that her anonymous friend had been keeping tabs on her; there was part of her that was disconcerted at the idea of him knowing where she was.
Nevermore: I’m guessing you hacked the GPS on my phone?
BanJack: You promised to keep me in the loop, remember?
Nevermore: Fair enough, I’m catching a flight home later today, I’ll send you some of what I found when I get back.
BanJack: Just don’t disappear on me again.
Nevermore: Pinky promise.
Anna’s waitress set her coffee and beignets in front of her on the table just as Anna finished changing her flight plans to an earlier flight. She had never ached to be at home curled up in her bed, next to her goblin of a cat more in her life.