Anna Byrne: Chapter 04 – Finding the Bokor

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I twitched awake, I felt the unsettling warmth of sweaty palms, and my heart pounded in my chest as I gasped for air. It was the week following the winter Solstice and it was colder than it had been all year; the skies above my 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 I could see my breath rise as a fog above my face, even in the darkness of my cabin.

“The water again?” I groaned silently, then rolled over onto my side and squinted into the backlit screen of my laptop as it booted up. I blinked my eyes a couple of times to help them adjust to the screen, then clicked the only icon on my desktop. I waited as my secure connection bounced between Bruges, San Francisco, and finally Vancouver; Tor, the anonymous browser I used to access the dark web, opened to its usual homepage. I vaguely remembered where I had left off in the Oasis when I signed off at two in the morning, but when my eyes flicked over to the clock in the corner I saw that had only been three hours earlier. My dreams had turned into nightly hauntings, which always ended with me choking for air as I drifted beneath the murky surface of a strange body of water. I shook it off, even thinking about it gave me the chills.

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It had been over eight years since the first time I logged into The Oasis, that was the summer before my nineteenth birthday, which now felt like such a long time ago. I entered in a string of seemingly random numbers into the address bar, this sequence had taken me nearly two weeks of typing it in to commit it to memory, despite entering it several times a day. Even with my high status as a long-term member of this particular darknet paranormal community, I still had no idea who ran the whole thing, let alone where it came from, all I knew was that it was legitimate.

I had only received an invitation after trolling the dregs of the paranormal communities for some time—right after I had sought out and documented proof of the Alaska Bushmen, the creatures that had been gnawing at my subconscious since I first heard of them as a child. It had taken me almost six years to find the damn things. A chat request from my anonymous buddy popped up in a panel on the side of my screen, I smiled softly. Even though I had never met him, he was probably the closest thing to a friend I had anymore–ever since my father lost his ability to speak, I had developed a tendency to keep to myself.

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 I was left to her own devices. There had been a little-known trend in New Orleans, for a small percentage of fringe 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.

I 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 my father experienced a stroke, the second I was already in the midst of an investigation. I was stuck in the Trinity Alps of Northern California in search of the Giant Salamander and only heard about it once I returned to civilization. Now I would finally get my opportunity to investigate this voodoo cult while the news was still fresh; if I could track down people with information before the trail went cold, I might actually have a chance to access this cult where the bokor was said to be resurrecting the dead.

The first flight that I 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. I sighed, finished booking my flight, then a lump of blankets moved at my feet. Within a few moments, my ragged, angry-looking cat emerged from beneath the blankets that I was still stubbornly buried under.

“Hey Shazu,” a yawn escaped my 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. My bear of a cat was used to me coming and going at the drop of a hat, but to prove his contempt for my schedule he would surely leave a dead shrew in my slipper for when I came home. I unlocked my phone and sent a quick message to my neighbor, headed to New Orleans on an emergency, I’ll be gone for a couple of days, the standing arrangement between us would ensure that Shazu would be taken care of while I was away. The next few hours passed in the blink of an eye, but I had managed to make breakfast for myself and the cat, then scheduled delivery of heating fuel so that I didn’t come back to a frozen cabin and a catsicle. Through the icy blackness of the early morning outside, I saw the headlights break through my frosted-over windows, the cab I had called twenty minutes prior had just arrived to take me to the airport. “I’ll see you in about a week ‘Zu,” I fluffed my cat’s head before I slipped a cowl over my head and pulled my heavy Carhartt jacket on. Thankfully I always had a bug-out bag ready for days like today, when I would need to leave without much preparation. I grabbed my bug-out bag and the messenger bag that held my 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 my flight. Fairbanks International Airport was always half empty, even this soon after the holidays. I found myself 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 me uneasy when the destination was on the other side of large bodies of water but for reasons, I couldn’t quite articulate, the prospect of this flight was causing my anxiety to flare up. The bartender set a rum and diet cola in front of me, “thanks Gus,” I mumbled over her paperwork. My focus was on the picture of a vèvè that had been spray-painted in black on a dilapidated, moss-covered tomb in the Lafayette Cemetery; I knew it was connected to the activities of the bokor I was seeking.

I took a sip of the cocktail that sat perspiring on the napkin in front of me, I’m sure my expression twisted, I wasn’t quite expecting it to slap me so hard in the face. “Still pouring them weak Gus?” I’m sure my voice was dripping in sarcasm, but the truth was I didn’t mind–Gus knew me well enough to know I appreciated a heavy pour.

I traced the vèvè with my 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 my notice until I heard them announce the flight to New Orleans was boarding. With the two flights and my layover, I would have plenty of time to review my file and bring myself back up to speed on everything I 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 me to the place where I would need to start looking.

The ride from the airport reminded me why she still lived in Alaska, buildings were crammed against other buildings and the small streets gave no room to breathe. I could never handle living in a cramped city. The cab pulled up in front of the hostel, it was a lemon-yellow small two-story victorian house with white pillars, decorative black wrought iron guardrails, and a row of colorful flags that fluttered lightly in the heavy air.

It wasn’t until I had checked in, that I felt like I could relax again. I was assigned a bunk, but I wasn’t tired, instead, I pulled out my laptop and logged into Tor so I could surf the Oasis for the new information to which my friend had tipped me off. The French Quarter was known to be the voodoo center of New Orleans, but that’s not where people had been going missing—what I 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, I 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. I didn’t fail to notice the vèvè of Baron Samedi that had been carved into the threshold of the front door. My eyes darkened because I knew it was no longer a question of what happened to Stanley, he had been taken, but where and by whom? I knew what my next step had to be; I was close enough to the French Quarter where I could search the local voodoo market for leads on where to look next. It was going to be tedious work, but I knew I would come up with something before I had to turn in for the night. I 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 I lived for.

A short muggy cab ride to the French Quarter gave me access to almost a dozen different voodoo shops on foot. I 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 me to breathe. I wandered with purpose from store to store, trying to conversationally ask questions about the local voodoo scene until I got to the last shop on my list. I 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 my imagination, or maybe it was the lack of tourists in this particular shop. Either way, I realized I was probably exactly where I needed to be.

Upon walking inside, I was in a completely different world, the old ornate shelves were worn and the paint was distressed. Each of the shelves were 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 I 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 my eye and in my research I had heard of its usefulness in protection and cleansing rituals, so I took one from the shelf without a second thought. Moments later my eyes fell upon a jar of red brick dust­—for use in thresholds, so none that intend to cause harm may cross—I 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, I perused a display of jewelry, where I saw the familiar loa vèvès carved into metal pendants. Among the ones I was most familiar with, I 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 my hands. I considered putting them back but thoughtfully considered that a ritual offering to both of them might afford me some protection in my search. All I would need now would be a couple of fine cigars, rum, and freshly baked bread to set out for the two loa I would be petitioning for help. Once I was done looking through each section of the small shop, I approached the counter, set down my selected items, and pulled out the picture of Stanley that I had brought with me. I had the foresight to bring it with me, I might as well see if it got me any reactions, but this cashier looked unamused from the moment I had walked in.

“I was hoping to ask you if you had seen my cousin in here,” I offered before I slid his picture across the counter, while the cashier rang up my 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.” I was an honest person–I swear–but I considered these kinds of white lies fairly valuable in gaining information—Stanley, as far as I 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 me as much, these days I didn’t have to dive too deep in order to find the information I needed. Because that’s what friends are for…

“No,” the cashier was curt, but upon seeing the look of distress on my 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, my face brightened.

“O-oh, he did?” I watched as the cashier bagged up my 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,” my 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 me as if I had just asked him to cut out his own tongue, his jaw tightened—I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I thought my questions were quite reasonable considering the persona I 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 me.

“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.” My brow furrowed softly, I slowly grabbed the picture and note from the counter and nodded my head.

“Thank you—,” I looked down at the note, it was an address, but the whole situation felt wrong, I took my bag, then stuffed the address in my jeans pocket, “I really appreciate the help.” It wasn’t until I had stepped out of the shop that I realized that it felt like there was something heavy sitting on my chest while I had been in the store. The sensation passed and I breathed in the dense but cooling evening air. It was getting fairly late, but one more stop at the closest corner market had me laden with some snacks, a bottle of rum, some nice cigars, and two white pillar candles which I would take with me 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 I hoped it would, the address I had gotten from the creepy cashier and this offering might give me a better direction to continue in.

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