A Woman of the Swamp - 3
3. Flight of the Necromancer
It wasn’t Marie’s first time fleeing from the authorities. Even if she hadn’t been guilty of breaking and entering, she still would have run. Getting caught out, late at night, alone, by a police force that wanted nothing more than to see her in chains was not her idea of a good time. So, when the white light turned on her, sending the message that she was the perpetrator they were looking for, she ran. There was no time to think, she put one foot in front of the other and went the opposite direction of the flashing lights. With each subsequent step, she was surprised there wasn’t a bullet in her back.
Unfortunately, her path of escape led down Bourbon Street, one of the most populated areas in the city. Even at the late hour, groups of drunk tourists packed the streets, pretending they were at their own personal Mardi Gras. Pushing her way through the throng of booze-soaked bodies, Marie felt thankful. For the first time, she had a use the stumbling idiots. Ordinarily, she couldn’t stand tourists, shattering glass all over the French Quarter and generally acting like they owned the place. When she needed to hide, a bunch of rowdy twenty-somethings were exactly the cover she wanted.
“Hey, cool outfit, bro,” slurred a man in an open Hawaiian shirt with a yard-long drink in both hands. “Can you tell my fortune or something?”
Marie smiled at him, mustering politeness, and said: “You will find ever-lasting wealth, because you deserve it.” And likely die of a heart attack. She desperately wanted to add the last bit but pissing off her cover wasn’t a great way to escape. Besides, fortune telling was a bunch of bullshit anyway, she was saving him twenty bucks that he could spend on a graphic t-shirt instead.
“Wow.” The man’s eyes glazed over, perhaps imagining the wealth, perhaps fighting off a strong wave of nausea. Whatever came in a yard long glass was poison to the human body in the extreme and almost always ended in a gutter.
He didn’t have long to ponder as an amplified voice crackled from the end of the street. “Attention, there is an armed suspect fleeing down Bourbon. Please disperse.” There was a brief whoop as the cop bumped his siren, but the crowd hardly noticed.
Armed? Marie looked down at the staff in her hand and decided the descriptor was technically accurate, but the police had no way of knowing. Lucky for her, cars couldn’t drive down Bourbon at night, meaning the cops would have to pursue on foot. She kept waiting for the spike of adrenaline in her veins, but instead felt pulsing waves of calm. Heat radiated from where her palm gripped the staff. At first, she hadn’t even realized the force with which she held it. The smart thing to do was put it away and try to blend, but wielding it in front of her felt like a guiding light. Despite the sweat, stench, and chaos, Marie knew exactly where she was going.
A young woman to her left got up on a man’s shoulders. With a lopsided grin that only a drunk could truly master, she shouted: ‘Fuck the police!’ and took her top off. There was a chorus of woos and the clack of beads being thrown from a balcony. Marie rolled her eyes. Any port in a storm. Nothing was better for drawing the attention of a testosterone-fueled crowd than female nudity. She chanced a glance back toward the officers. One was out of the car and making his way down the street, but the thick crowd wasn’t helping. He wouldn’t be able to catch her, but she had no doubt other units would be closing off her exits. If the late-night cop shows Ray loved so dearly were any barometer, the police would be forming a perimeter on all the surrounding streets. Marie could hide in a crowd from a distance, but under close inspection, she’d stick out like a cadaver in daylight.
Think, where is safe? Where can’t they find you? There were plenty of underground bars and residential buildings she could likely get into. None of the options on Bourbon felt right. A force was pulling her forward, towards something else. Marie looked up and a flash of divine providence presented itself. Ahead, Bourbon Street crossed St. Anne. If she turned right, she would be two blocks away from Louis Armstrong Park, and Congo Square. The area wouldn’t provide much in the way of cover, but a tingling in the back of Marie’s brain told her there was no other option.
Over a hundred years earlier, her namesake had used the community Congo Square offered to practice voodoo among the bustling population of jazz musicians, artisans, and others simply looking for an escape. Marie had never been one for fiction or poetry, but the square just felt right. She moved through the crowd, trying to be quick, but unnoticed as she approached the corner. Stepping off the main thoroughfare plunged her into darkness. Up above, stained white windows were shuttered with only darkness behind them. The streetlights cast pale yellow halos on the sidewalk, and she darted between them, trying to stay hidden.
Why didn’t I just duck into a bar? There were plenty and no one would have ratted her out. The smart play would have been to find a place to lay low in the crowd, but something had pulled her away. As if in answer, the freshly renovated staff in her right hand jerked down the street, pulling her along for the ride. That’s new. Marie pulled back, resisting the power, but felt a cold dread at the idea. Following the staff was right, she knew it, but didn’t like the fact that she knew it.
Some distance behind her, the police officer rounded the corner and shone a light in her direction. Marie ducked into an alcove, pressing as thin as she could against the brick siding of an old building. By some stroke of luck, the light passed over her hiding spot and arched to the other side of the street.
The cop pulled a radio off his vest. “No movement down here. Keep looking.” He turned away, heading back through the throng on Bourbon.
Marie held the staff out in front of her, feeling an affection for its persistent tug. “I think you and I are going to do wonderful things together.” The night air was no longer oppressive, and instead felt like exactly where Marie needed to be. She continued toward Congo Square, keeping to the shadows, but feeling less hunted with every footstep.
The French Quarter ended abruptly with its older buildings giving way to a wide paved street. On the other side was a green fence, keeping people from coming in at all hours of the night. The square was in the middle of what had become Louis Armstrong Park. A gate bearing the famous musician’s name usually stood closed in the evening, for some reason, it had been left open. Marie never put much stock in coincidence, preferring to believe that the divine didn’t take an interest in the lives of those below, but all the same, she was suspicious.
Flashing blue lights followed shortly by a siren lit up the edge of the French quarter as a cruiser rounded the corner a block away. Once again, there was no time to argue with providence. Marie hurried across the street and slipped through the open gate. Inside, trees swayed over green water in the evening breeze. Statues stood as foreboding shadows in the gloom, keeping watch throughout the park. There was more cover if Marie ran along the water, but her staff jumped to the left.
“You want to go to the square, huh?” Marie looked into the eyes of the skull as they blazed momentarily with purple flame. It felt strange to be conversing with something that had been an inanimate object an hour earlier. Whatever the staff had been, it wasn’t that anymore. The eyes of the skull were filled with life, and Marie could feel a kinship with them. Intrinsically, she trusted those eyes.
“Alright, let’s go then.” Marie walked to the left of the entrance, finding her way to the cobblestones that made up the square. Immediately as she crossed the threshold, she heard music, big brass bands playing that old familiar sound. The instruments were deafening for the half second before her foot touched the stone, and then dissipated. Marie stood, swaying with an odd sense of déjà vu. The entire square was charged, filled with electricity like the moment before a cataclysmic lightning strike.
She felt bodies moving past her in space but saw nothing. In that moment, she knew that her ancestors were both alive and very much dead, occupying the same space she was standing in. “What the hell is going on?” Marie couldn’t decide whether she felt sick or exhilarated. Her stomach flipped and the world wavered before her eyes, struggling to find a happy medium between the past and present. She nearly fell but caught herself as a bright light shone directly into her eyes.
“Put your hands where I can see them and drop the staff!”
Reality snapped back into place and Marie was standing in the middle of the empty square with a gun pointed at her. Oh providence, you bitch.
“Right now!” There was an audible click as the officer thumbed the safety off.
Marie knew she had to do what he said. Any tiny excuse and he would squeeze the trigger faster than it took her to realize her mistake. Still, her hands were raising, but it wasn’t a gesture of surrender. “You should turn around.” The voice was hers, but the words weren’t. Did I just say that. Oh god, we’re going to die. We’re?
“That a threat?” With a free hand, the officer reached for his radio. “Suspect is hostile, be advised.” He grinned at her. “See? Now I have permission.”
Shit, shit, shit. Get down on the ground, do something. But Marie wasn’t at the wheel anymore. She could feel the breeze on her skin and the muscles of her body moving, but on someone else’s accord. The skull topping the staff glowed purple. “Good for you,” she whispered.
The officer licked his lips. “What the hell?” Marie watched his finger itch for the trigger, but it was unable to fire.
The world turned pale shades of blue and Marie saw them. Hundreds of the dead, watching the confrontation play out from a plane just beyond hers. A young woman held the officer’s finger and inched it away from the trigger while a crooked man grabbed his arm and bent it upward. Marie tried to speak to them but found nothing but dry air escaping in a low rasp.
The officer watched in horror as his arm tilted backward, bringing the barrel of the gun to his own chin. “No, no, no,” he whimpered. “What is this?”
“Self-defense,” replied Marie, once more in a voice she didn’t recognize. No! Stop this, this isn’t how we do things.
A deafening concussion split the square and the officer’s head snapped upward.