It was a nice walk from the corner store to the cemetery I had marked on my 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. I reminded myself to not get used to the length of the days down in the lower forty-eight, it would just make me miss the sun that much more when I got home. Walking through what felt like ancient relics dedicated to days of luxury, I noticed many of the tombs I was passing by were in various states of decay. The lavish stonework had gone through years of disrepair and had 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. I found the tomb when I stumbled upon it, quite literally, my foot had 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 I had been searching for had enough of an overhang to cast some shade—I settled myself down on the grass and leaned back lazily, sweat beaded down the side of my face. I had just realized how much I had been moving around when I finally let out the breath I had unwittingly been holding. The vèvè graffiti had been covered up since the picture I had, had been taken. The blotchy, mismatched paint stared back at me tauntingly—why had it been covered up when the rest of the cemetery was in such disarray. I pondered the thought for a while, even though I already had my suspicions—I had no authority to jump to conclusions, but I 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 my ears, but I still felt the sun left me too exposed to be comfortable with leaving an offering out in the open. My paranoia often worked in my favor, so I couldn’t help but listen to the agonizing anxious conspiracies that often traipsed lackadaisically through my mind. The sun seemed to be taking its sweet time and in my restlessness, I got my notebook out to study and scribbled down the address I had been given at the voodoo shop. Another thirty minutes would go by before I finally opened the bags I had been hauling around.
I set the candles down, on the left and right sides of where the covered vèvè was blaring through the shadows that had been cast by the fading sunlight. I 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 I had found on my way here. I poured an ample shot of rum into the glass, took a swig and winced at the roughness of the liquor that hit my tongue. I lit the candles and began what some may call a ritual, others may call witchcraft—I knew it best as an offering, in honor of the spirits of the region. My 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. I slipped the metal pendants over my neck and verbally petitioned Papa Legba and Baron Samedi to be with me in my 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 I noticed the sky darkened until it was eventually pitch black. With just the flickering of the dim golden glow of the candles against the paled, peeling paint of the stones they sat against, I felt my eyes grow heavy as I sat there, in near meditation. I shook my head and mentally made a note to get a grip. The heaviness in the surrounding air still hadn’t given me a break since I had left the airport and I doubted I would find a reprieve from it before I left. I decided that I had sat there long enough and gathered everything but the offering I had left then 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 me a bit of bliss after a trying evening. In unfamiliar territory, I was just thankful that the GPS on my phone was working, or else I might be utterly lost.
I noted the course that I would have to take from where I was and slipped my phone into my bag—I couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes on me though and I stopped in my tracks just as I began to pass what looked to be an abandoned shop. My 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 me 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—I instantly dismissed any notion that it had but watched as it creaked open into the darkness beyond.
I walked slowly towards the door and stopped short of the cracked and weathered façade when I felt the force of someone pushing me hard against the door. My head cracked against the threshold, the sound drowned into blackness and conscious thought evaporated from me completely.
My 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 me, but it wasn’t night. I realized that when I looked to either side of me, the shadow was as thick as tar. I looked back at the tomb where the symbol was; it had begun to bleed down the wall in an inky red. Over my shoulder, I could feel someone press their chin gently upon the top of my head as if viewing the blood as it gushed down the face of the wall. Beyond the adulteration of my peripheral and through my own copper hair, I 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, even so I couldn’t help but bring myself to look at it directly. My eyes barely caught the hand reaching for my neck before it grasped me 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 I had not ever heard before, I gasped for air, closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them to find I was back staring up at the surface of the water. I screamed inaudibly and water began to fill my lungs.
My screams were interrupted by an abrupt jerk of my head; my head throbbed. The last thing I remembered was a misty old storefront and an intense curiosity. My confusion was unaltered by the strangeness of my current surroundings. My eyes were crusted over, no doubt from the sensation of choking… was that a dream? By the looks of it, I 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. I twisted my body and finally noticed that my hands and feet had been bound. Awkwardly, I squirmed into a sitting position and backed up against the wall; I could tell now that I 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 my blurred gaze. It took longer than I would later like to admit, but I finally recognized the figure of a man in the corner, hunched and aggressive. “What have I gotten myself into?” My chest felt like it was going to explode—this adrenaline rush was working me up into fight-or-flight mode, but neither option would really get me anywhere in my current situation. I closed my eyes gently and took in a shallow unsteady breath.
This wasn’t the first time I had been in a tough situation but given the circumstances, I felt that I would much rather be back in front of the polar bear I had the bad luck of running into while traveling in the North Slope as a teen. Luckily for me, not so much for the unfortunate polar bear, I had my rifle with me that day and I survived to tell the tale. Looking back, I still wasn’t sure how I had steadied myself, but my mother’s brothers had developed a fondness for me, their little kassak niece from which we had formed an unlikely bond. I had known how to track and make myself scarce in the wild from the time I was a child—a forte I had never managed to possess while in the city or around too many people.
My face felt hot when I heard chains drag against the concrete floor, the automaton in the corner had grown more agitated; in a grasp for hope, I hugged my legs close to my chest and awkwardly fished through the ankle of my boot for the knife I always kept handy. When I finally fumbled it out of my boot, it loudly clacked upon the floor. The creature that kept me company responded in kind, his chains clanked as a hand reached out from the shadows. The blood-streaked arm reaching for me from my nightmare flashed through my mind, I shuddered and grasped the knife and clipped the zip tie on my ankles, then made quick work of my wrists as well. Before my corner companion could utter another, “eergh!” I was up on my feet with my knife tucked back into my boot.
My investigative and curious nature urged me to look more closely into the figure in the corner—the light was too dim for me to see much of anything, but my internal voice was telling me this was just a man. He lunged at me when I inched too close trying to analyze something which I 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 my mouth before I even realized I had said it and I stumbled backward. This last sound must have roused the suspicions of whoever was guarding the room because I heard steps echo from the hall just outside the door. In a moment of hesitation, my feet slipped out from underneath me as I scrambled on the concrete to get behind something, anything, that I could hide behind to stall for time. I 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 I wasn’t familiar with. My breathing was unsteady as I watched the man through a space between the boxes, he was obviously looking for me and I wasn’t exactly ready to be found.
It wasn’t long before the man found me in my hiding place, I wasn’t exactly a secret agent, skilled in elusive behavior. I feel like I bravely attempted to fight back left me kicking my feet in futility as he ultimately dragged me out of the room and into the hallway. There the strange drumbeats I just barely recognized, could be heard coming from the direction in which we were headed. I was pulled violently through another door which led outside, the drums grew louder and the lights got brighter. I was tossed into a corner of what looked to be a small, closed-off courtyard and my head hit the ground hard. Dazed and likely concussed I tried to regain my senses once again and even with my blurred vision I saw the bonfire in the courtyard. If I had been uncertain of whether or not I was in danger before, it couldn’t be clearer now—this is what I 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. I wasn’t versed in French Creole, otherwise, I might have been able to understand words other than the brief recognition of them calling out the names of the loa I was familiar with. I knew I 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 I became nauseous. The pendants that rested against my chest began to burn slightly and another man dragged me closer to the bonfire.
My vision had cleared somewhat and I could see a man standing over me, colorful clothes, beaded jewelry, and white paint adorned this man—he looked like a witch doctor straight out of an anthropology textbook. I knew, without having to be told, that he was the bokor I had come to New Orleans to find. He knows… I need to find out what he knows. Tears involuntarily began to streak down my face, I would never be able to find out how to help my father if I 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 my face, I kicked my feet out at the man who was holding me on the ground. Apparently, I caught him off guard because he stumbled directly into the powder that burst forth from the bokor’s palm, in a last-ditch effort I 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 ready to converge upon me and police officers burst through the doors, breaking up a party that would have likely ended in my own demise. An intense hour of speaking with the police made me aware that an anonymous caller had alerted them to my location and that I had been kidnapped. Despite not understanding who might have called it in, I was just thankful that the night was over and that these people were going to go away for a long time. I was allowed to recover my bag, which had been taken from me, my laptop and phone were still in my bag as if it had been utterly undisturbed. It was clear these people had no idea who I really was, perhaps they really just didn’t want anyone on their trail, and the act of someone coming to look for one of their zombified victims was enough to catch their attention. I could have just been another statistic, a tourist who slipped through the cracks in a city with a hidden reputation of violence.
I 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, I was told I was free to go. The police officer I had been speaking with turned and walked away and I was left to my own devices. I 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, I grabbed the book and haphazardly stuffed it into my bag. It was the only thing I knew I could get from the scene without an extensive search of the premises which I knew was not an option now.
Light broke over the horizon and I finally felt my body start to give in to exhaustion, I had managed to call a taxi and asked to be taken to a place where I could get food and coffee at such an early hour. I was dropped off after a short ride at Café Du Monde, apparently famous for their beignets and chicory coffee. I had spent the past several hours feeling as if I were going to die at any moment and to me, this was a relatively sane response. I 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 me with a coy smile, “what can I get you, hun?” and I knew that the woman had me pegged as a tourist. Who could blame her, after all, I was wearing heavy jeans in New Orleans.
“I was told this place was great for coffee and beignets,” I responded with a weak smile; I must have looked as exhausted and disheveled as I felt because the waitress simply nodded and took down my order.
“I’ll have it right up for ya!” there was an enthusiasm in this woman’s voice and step that I knew I couldn’t hope to match even on my best day, let alone today.
I pulled my laptop out of my bag and was pleasantly surprised to find that my phone still had a decent charge on it when I turned on my hotspot access. I began the long task of documenting what I had encountered during my investigation? Kidnapping? I honestly didn’t know what to call it at this point. I felt as if I was no closer to the answers that I needed than I was before. I would have to wait to take a look at the book when I was back home, a cursory glance at it when I had been 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. I was midway through a new entry into the dossier when a message popped up on my screen.
BanJack: You’re lucky I knew where you were going.
I wasn’t sure whether or not I should be happy that my anonymous friend had been keeping tabs on me; there was part of me that was disconcerted at the idea of him knowing where I 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.
My waitress set my coffee and before she set the beignets in front of me, asked if I wanted extra powdered sugar on them. I thanked her and politely declined, then changed my booking to an earlier flight as she walked away from the table. I had never ached to be at home, curled up in my bed next to my goblin of a cat, more in my life.