A Woman of the Swamp - 2
2. Little Shop of Voodoo
Time passed slow in the fetid heat. There were no sirens, and no alarms. Marie reached back through the shattered window, threading delicately through the shards of glass, and found the lock on the other side. She took one last look at the street to check for passersby and saw none. Now or never. Marie had never been a criminal, and in that moment, she still didn’t think of herself as one. Stealing out of necessity was entirely different than greed, or, at least, that’s what would help her get to sleep that night. Glass cracked and shattered on the concrete as she shut the door. Marie winced, cursing herself for not being more careful. There was a reason she tried to get a dead man to do her dirty work.
The small entrance to the museum was filled wall-to-wall with souvenir curios for tourists who wanted to pretend they had a fleeting interest in the dark arts. Small wooden coffins with the word ‘voodoo’ printed on them in white were stacked from floor to ceiling in one corner. Marie scoffed. Inside, she was sure to find some sweat-shop-sewn voodoo dolls that didn’t contain even a tenth of the intention they needed to be effective. Tourists were so easy to scam, it was a wonder the whole city hadn’t converted to the cause.
Behind the counter, there was a cramped hallway that led to the tiny, two-room exhibit serving as the Official Voodoo Museum. Many tourists were disappointed to find their ten-dollar journey ending in a two-room tour, but Marie knew better. Behind all the tropes and tchotchkes, there were some real items of power. If the unimpressed visitors took even a second to observe the feeling of those eight walls, they would have to feel something. But, most people just came for the skulls and spooky stories.
The museum was dark, lit only by the green glow of an emergency exit sign. Marie thought about trying to conjure a witch light but settled on her cell phone instead. No point in taking the risk of accidentally burning the whole place down to save her precious battery. Sometimes, the new ways are best. Her mentor had taught her that long ago. Sure, there were herbal remedies from the ancient practices to cure a hangover, but Aspirin worked just as well and didn’t require mortar and pestle. The world was a constant fight to conserve energy, and Marie needed all the power she could muster.
In the pallid glow of her cellphone, she advanced into the back room, eyeing the pictures on the wall with suspicion. Portraits of famous voodoo practitioners stared down at her in shame. She ignored all but the watchful gaze of Marie Laveau, her namesake. Laveau would have understood that sometimes to do the right thing, one had to step out of line. Marie winked at the picture, feeling kinship to the long-dead woman.
A shrine covered the wall to her right, bedecked in small figurines and candles with pictures of holy people wrapped around them. Dollar bills had been tacked to the table, no doubt by people hoping that such a small gesture might change their ill fortunes. On the back wall was a taxidermied alligator head on a human skeleton’s frame, meant to represent a Rougarou. Why they had picked a reptile head to represent a werewolf was beyond her, but it did look intimidating in the dim light.
Marie poked and prodded looking for anything that might be a genuine article of power. The shrine felt like an obvious choice but would also carry clear consequences. She didn’t want to disturb a holy site. That was only going to worsen her situation. Taking a second pass at the room, she caught sight of a skeleton in a top hat and flinched. It represented Baron Samedi, a practitioner’s worst nightmare.
The Baron was said to be a trickster, saved from eternal death to torment the living with crooked deals, nightmares, and all manner of monstrosities. She shone the light on the skeleton and realized they hadn’t even got it right. Tourists loved to see bones, that was the end of the matter. A creeping sensation ran up her back, leaving gooseflesh on each vertebra as it made its way to the base of her skull.
Suddenly and irrationally afraid, Marie spun around, convinced that someone was behind her. The Rougarou stared back, still as dead as the day they pulled the poor creature from the bayou. Hadn’t it been in the corner a second ago? She couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like the thing had moved. Its stuffed feet were nailed to the display platform and wires held its arms up in a threatening posture. No, the Rougarou wasn’t going anywhere. “Stupid trinket.” Marie flipped it off and felt a little better.
“Jumping at shadows?” asked a cool voice from behind her.
This time, the chill enveloped her entire body, passing slowly from head to foot. Marie turned, knowing exactly who was behind her and wishing it were anyone else. She closed her eyes involuntarily and found when she tried to look again, they wouldn’t open. A childlike notion that the monster couldn’t see her if she couldn’t see it took hold, strong and resolute. There was safety in the darkness behind her lids.
“Oh, come now, you’re supposed to be a necromancer. You can’t possibly be scared of these old bones.” The voice was smooth like silk, and oddly calming.
Marie opened her eyes. Standing before her in a black suit with a deep red tie was a lanky man in a top hat. The polished white bones were gone in favor of smooth skin over a slender frame. He twirled a pencil-thin mustache below shining black eyes. “Now, that’s better, isn’t it, child? Nothing to fear on a beautiful Saturday evening like this. We’re just a couple of friends having a chat in a shop you are in the process of burgling. These are culturally sensitive items, you know?” He clucked his tongue, but there was no real air of chastisement behind it. “For someone named after the great Laveau, you sure don’t respect your history.”
“History has its uses.” A mixture of fear and anger roiled within her. Threading the two while arguing with a veritable god was not a position Marie wanted to be in. “Samedi, I presume?”
“So, you have heard of me. Let me guess, I wasn’t painted in a friendly light, was I?”
Marie shook her head, wanting to quip at him, but couldn’t find her voice.
“No, they wouldn’t. I’m supposed to be the villain, and it’s much easier to make me out that way when you all see me as evil.”
“But you are evil.” Marie had read enough about Baron Samedi to know that whatever he was selling, she shouldn’t be buying. The spirit, man, or whatever he was, had a habit of showing up when people were in dire straits, offering them a way out, and punishing them severely for taking it. Her mentor had always said: Nothing good ever comes from making deals with the devil and sit up straight or the magic gets all crooked. Well, here she was with perfect posture, but still listening to the demon talk.
“Evil is a subjective term. It means whatever the beholder wants it to mean. Let me ask you a question. Is a man that’s going to give you the ingredients you need to save your husband’s life evil?”
Marie tried to hide her shock. How does he know about that? No one knew Ray was sick apart from his doctors, and they had worked hard to keep it that way.
“Yes, I know your struggle. So, what do you say we cut a deal?”
“Never cut a deal with The Devil, you don’t have to be a necromancer to know that.”
Samedi put a hand on his heart like he had been shot. The clack of his bejeweled fingers on the polished suit buttons completed the image. “You wound me, child.”
“I’m not your child.” It was a stupid retort, but Marie felt off balance in the conversation. She needed to shift the verbal battle back in her favor, but every fiber of her body was telling her to run out the door and never look back.
“Please, we’re all children of death, you’ll forgive my colloquialism. I am not The Devil, nor do I work with him. I am a one hundred percent, bonified product of the spirit world. No devil down there other than those who became one up here.” Samedi circled the room, running a hand along the various tacked up pictures and herbs along the wall. “When did it all become about The Devil? In the old days, no one talked like that. I came to them with a deal, they understood it would be to the letter and didn’t complain.”
“You through monologuing? Someone is going to notice that broken window any minute and then we’re both up a creek.”
Samedi smiled, the corners of his mouth reaching unnaturally high up the sides of his face. “I’m counting on it. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks before the local authorities come down here put us both ‘up a creek’ as you say. None of these objects are going to get you the power you need.” He plucked a sprig hanging from the ceiling and crumbled it into dust, emphasizing the point. “What you need can only come from beyond, and there aren’t many couriers going to get there on your short timeframe.”
In her head, Marie told the man to screw himself and booked it out of the shop with whatever items she could get her hands on at a dead run. She sprinted all the way back to the car, drove like a bat out of hell and went home. In the months after, she did her best to save Ray, and when he died, she mourned. It would never be enough. Even before she had started making progress with the ancient traditions, she had known it in her bones. When the world said it was someone’s time to go, they went; that’s how death worked. Who was she to stand in the way of age-old tradition and millions of years?
Instead of all that, she looked The Baron in his glittering, dark eyes and asked: “What do you want?” So much for a strong will.
He clapped his hands together, sending a cloud of dust through the air and rubbed them with vigor. “Now we’re cooking with gas. Doesn’t even ask what I’m offering but wants to know the price. I like that. Well, call me old fashioned, but I want to show you what you’re buying first.” Unbuttoning a breast pocket, Samedi pulled a polished skull from the folds of his jacket. “Now, this will do a damned site better than what you’ve got on top of your little staff right now.”
Only half conscious of the motion, Marie pulled the staff out of her robes. In comparison, the skull topping it looked dingy, passé, and wholly inadequate. She wrapped her fingers around the wood, flexing her grip.
“I see you understand what I’m talking about. That old thing simply won’t do. Might raise a few of the dead for a minute or two, but prolong life? No, that won’t do at all.” Baron Samedi reached out his free hand and held it face up. “May I?”
Marie thought of all the hours she had spent searching for the perfect staff. Parting with it, even for a moment was sacrilege, but she didn’t have time to debate. Something told her that if the cops arrived, all they would find was her in an empty room, by herself, and soon to be incarcerated. She handed the staff over.
The Baron took the object in his delicate fingers, turning it over. “Nice rune work and a sturdy base. Not bad for your first time.” With a flourish, he swung the staff against the wall, shattering the skull on top of it.
“Hey, what the—”
In a smooth motion, he jammed the new skull in its place. Purple flame crackled to life in its eye sockets and traveled down the length of the wood, illuminating the runes. “I said we were cooking with gas, didn’t I?” He started to hand the staff over to Marie and retracted it at the last second. “Right, now you’ve seen what I can do, but we still haven’t discussed terms.”
In the distance, a siren wailed. “I’d rather that not be my ride.” Marie felt a hunger looking at the staff. She could feel its power radiating through the cramped room.
“Right, I’ll be quick. You familiar with the Old Ursuline Convent?”
Marie spat on the floor.
“Ah, good. Well, I’ve got a bit of a gathering planned, and one of my guests of honor is stuck there as it were.”
“You’re not telling me there’s actually vampires up there?” The Ursuline Convent was an old religious building where nuns educated young girls and proselytized loudly. If rumors were true, it had also been used to house a batch of blood suckers fresh off a ship from the old world, and they still lived in the attic.
The Baron laughed. “Would vampires be so far-fetched? After all, you brought a man back to life today, briefly as it were, but strange as all hell.” His face creased with that eerie, broad smile. “But no, not vampires, a powerful magic user that has been stuck there a long time. Release them, and consider your debt paid.”
The sirens grew louder. Likely only a few blocks away.
“Clock’s ticking, my dear.”
“Fine, deal.” Marie stuck out her hand and Samedi clasped it with surprising firmness. A jolt of unearthly electricity ran up her arm, bringing a brief wave of nausea with it.
Samedi’s eyes glowed in the darkness and he let out a prolonged sigh. “Oh, I do love a good deal.” He released her hand and passed Marie the staff. “Careful with that, you’ll shoot your eye out.”
“Forgive my sense of humor, it keeps us lively where I come from. Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small paper list. “That staff alone won’t keep your husband alive. You’ll need to follow these instructions daily for a month. I trust I don’t have to tell you what happens if you miss a day.” He handed Marie the paper.
She looked down at it. There was a list of herbs she had in stores and a few incantations, but nothing that far out of the ordinary. “Seriously? This is it?”
Baron Samedi was gone. In his place, stood the skeletal effigy with a fading top hat. Marie held the staff out in her hand, wondering if she had imagined it all, but a soft purple glow in the skull’s eye sockets told her otherwise. Energy coursed up the length of the wood, vibrating her fingertips. Cooking with gas. It certainly felt like she was sitting on the edge of a powder keg.
The sirens grew closer and Marie remembered her immediate predicament. She hurried out of the room and back through the front door. The warm city air greeted her, smelling like a mix of piss and damp pavement. She started to laugh, and then a white spotlight clicked on, illuminating the front of the museum.