Who the hell knows why they were in the cemetery at midnight? Or why they were dressed in formal wear and Mardis Gras masks. Who knows why young people do anything?
For the sake of argument, let's say they were getting married. If that's your thing, Mandeville Cemetery is the place: forested backdrop, well-kept lawn, festive dead people. They could've set up in one of the fenced-off family plots with a grave under each foot and a headstone podium for their officiant.
"Whatshisface, do you take this gothy chick to be your wife, to have and to hold until you find yourself a tastier piece of strumpet and leave her with a baby hanging from each teet?"
"I do," the young man in the tuxedo and phantom of the opera mask would have grinned.
"Gothy chick, do you take Whatshisface to have and to hold until you get sick of his poor personal hygiene and explosive, violent temper, file a restraining order, and only ever speak of him again at Al-Anon meetings?"
"I do," the young woman in the tafetta dress and devil mask would have squeed.
"By the power vested in me by some moonbats on the internet, I now pronounce you holy fucking shit!" The skull-faced officant would've stammered as skeletal hands groped for the bride and groom.
They'd have clawed their way out of their graves, burst forth from their white plaster tombs, and crawled toward them from every side. The almost-weds and their would-be priest must have huddled together in the moonlight as the ghosts grasped their ankles and dragged them down, through the soil, into the underworld.
Or so they thought. A few hours later, the groundskeeper found them curled up in the fetal position, sleeping on undisturbed graves. He had to shake them like a paint mixer to wake them up, but only a minister from one of the nearby churches to convince them they weren't dead and in hell.
Who knows why young people do anything?
That's how the police report describes it, anyway. More or less. Bridgit lets me review a copy when I meet her at Mandeville the day after. She's dressed to the nines, even for her: black bodice with billowy skirt, covered in lace, with a black veil draping her floral hat.
I don't think she's here for a funeral, but she and her friend are standing next to an open grave. Then again, maybe her kind are always on their way to a funeral.
Bridgit's friend cuts a less somber, but no less dramatic figure. He's a black male with a slim build, but very fit. Age is hard to pin down. He's wearing a purple suit that shimmers a bit in the morning sun. His face is dusted with white powder and shaded by a fedora, a proper one like jazz musicians used to wear. Big, round sunglasses turn his eyes into black pits.
They're watching something on a shiny phone. "Begorrah, Marion! Have you seen this?" Bridgit asks without looking up. "It's the best one, yet. If he wants to sweep this under the rug, your pal Henre's gonna need a bigger broom."
"Another lake monster?" I ask, not surprised enough to raise an eyebrow.
"Or something," her friend replies. Even without seeing his eyes, I can tell he's looking me up and down. I nod as a fellow wearer of awesome hats and he returns the gesture. "Looks like a gator fucked an English wolfhound. Rampaged its way through the convention center near Laketown. Cops cornered it in the casino. Shot the shit outta it, but you can still tell... it ain't nothing natural."
"There's about ten thousand videos of the whole thing." Bridgit's positively giddy. "No way they're calling this one a bear with skin fungus or a decomposed otter, believe you me!" She hands me the police file and lets me peruse while they watch a few more of Henre's epic PR fails. Right now, the compound must be a three ring circus with a four alarm fire.
When they're finally done rubbernecking, Bridgit introduces me. "Marion, this is Baron Cimitiere. Baron, this is the Mare of the Forgotten God."
"Please," I cast her a reproachful look, "call me Marion."
"A pleasure." He holds out his hand like he wants me to courtesy. I give him a solid handshake instead. "I've heard some tall tales, but you're just as I imagined." His voice has a bass rumble that starts deep in his chest, like six feet deep, and takes its time climbing out. I wonder if that's what rose from the open grave.
"You have a dark imagination." I turn my attention back to the file. "I've seen this before. Each of these apparitions foretells a grave robbery, conveniently the very next night. The dead just want it to stop. Catch the robbers, solve both problems."
"You know your shit," Cimitiere congratulates me.
"I've been teaching her," Bridgit asides.
"I'm sure you have people for this kind of thing. Thugs and what not, crooked cops. You know when and where the grave robbers will strike next. Why drop this in my lap?"
Henre's gonna need a bigger broom
"Cuz you're the baddest of the bad!" the Baron gushes. "You saved Agwe's life, sorta, and sent Marinette packing. I mean, she'll be back and way more pissed, but you bloodied her damn nose and that's more than most."
I feel guilty taking credit for Agwe's survival, but I'd rather be known as the woman who saved his life than the idiot who got him stabbed. "True, but what did I actually save? If I'd done nothing, would another Agwe have taken his place? How does that even work with you people?!"
"Just accept the compliment, lord almighty!" Bridgit admonishes me. I may be embarrassing her in front of company. After a silent second, she adds, "Would you feel any better about dying if a new Marion moved into your apartment and started wearing your clothes?"
"No," I admit. "Actually, that seems a little worse."
"Alright, then. Stop pissin' into the wind."
Cimitiere steps forward and conjures a fat stack of bills from his jacket. "Death is death, even for the dead. And so we thank you for your service."
I take the money. "Just to be clear, this is for the grave robber job I'm gonna do, not for saving Agwe's sorta life?"
He smiles, tips his hat, and walks past me, deeper into the cemetery.
"I always feel so fancy when I get to meet your friends, Bridgit." I take a closer look at the grave. It's far from new; the headstone's well-weathered and there's just a wooden coffin inside the concrete vault. The robbers weren't gentle with it, just punched a hole right through the top.
I'm just starting to wonder if there's more to this case than ghosts when Bridgit changes the subject. "I hear your... friend," she pantomimes claws and fangs, "was at church this morning. Safely discharged from the hospital, certified sane."
"You hear a lot before noon on a Sunday."
"Have you thought any more about my offer?" she asks without skipping a beat.
"About putting her in the convent?"
"I just think she'd be better off under divine supervision. Think about it! She'd have me and her Catholic god: two for the price of none! Maybe three; I could see if Danbala wants to babysit--"
"She'd never agree to it," I insist with a condescending pat on Bridgit's back. "And I don't think any number of gods can solve this problem for her."
The goddess is aghast. "Why would you even joke about that?!"
"Because you have to repent before you can be forgiven! Jesus, Marion!"
Daisy's staring me down on her front porch like an angry rhino. An angry rhino in a sundress. It seems I've interrupted some kind of family get-together, possibly a hootenanny. I count three generations of Florencios watching us through the living room window, beer cans and salty snacks hovering just outside their gaping mouths.
Honestly, it looks like a nice party; I wish I was on better terms with Daisy and her kin. Peppy, Spanish-language pop music wafts to us from their backyard patio. I remember it as a hidden gallery of South American art.
Daisy's mother runs a thriving business importing sculptures and antiques from the old country. In this case, every country from Belize to Venezuela. That might sound like a front for drug trafficking, but Mrs. Florencio's clean. I checked her out myself, back in the day. Turns out her daughter's the only career criminal in the family.
"You're not sorry?" I ask Daisy, trying to keep my voice down. "You don't regret... any of it? Not just Eunice, but any of them?"
"No, Marion, I don't!" She froths, spaghetti straps bouncing on her shoulders. "I did what needed to be done, what you never had the sack to do!"
"Wait, that's even better," I realize triumphantly. Also prematurely. "The curse is about regret. If you didn't do anything wrong, there's no reason for you to be punished!"
"Oh, I deserve to be punished." She turns us so her back is to the window and I'm left with aunt Caroline's big, dumb eyes in mine. A glob of guac falls into her lap. "I've sinned, Marion. A lot. More than you know. I deserve God's judgement."
"Goddamnit, Daisy! Why you always gotta ice skate uphill?!" Then, in a whisper, "You're not still hungry for a bullet, are you?"
"No," she shakes her head as if admitting something shameful. "I guess you only have that kinda courage in the moment."
"Or maybe your brain was deprived of oxygen in the moment."
"Whatever. You ruined it either way, didn't you? It obviously wasn't God's plan. Guess He wouldn't have gone to the trouble of getting me cursed, otherwise."
An angry rhino in a sundress
"Fuck's sake, Daisy! Keep talking like that and I'll shoot you myself."
"I wish you would! We both know you deserve this curse more than I do."
"You gotta get this fatalistic bullshit outta your head. None of this is inevitable. Just look at Eunice! She had it under control for years."
"Eunice who held me hostage and woulda murdered us both if I hadn't put an ice pick through her brain?"
"Yeah, her. Before Marinette started fucking with her, she was doing fine. Marinette's the Haitian witch who interrupted your little pow wow at the convent, by the way. She'd been putting the fix on Eunice for weeks, manipulating her dreams and wearing her down. I'm not gonna let that..."
I trail off when I see Daisy's father come storming through the house like a one-man running of the bulls. I wouldn't say I'm afraid of Mr. Florencio -- it's hard to be afraid of a balding, bespectacled man with a soup strainer mustache who hardly comes up to your armpit when he's wearing a hat -- but suddenly the front porch of his middle-class rambler is the last place in the world I wanna be.
"I knew this smelled like you, Marion Barbarouss!" He pops out the door like a figurine in a cuckoo clock, puts his arm around his girl and pulls her to him.
"Thanks. I've been talking to Chanel about bottling it."
"I don't wanna hear another word from you, Marion! They took your badge away, huh? Is that why you told the nurses that Daisy tried to..." he almost can't say it, "kill herself?! Because you can't throw her in jail anymore?"
There's nothing in this for me. I give Daisy a look that I hope says, Are you gonna put up with this?
She just smiles and leans into her father. "I like being daddy's little girl when I'm at home."
"Get off my property," the little man commands with the religious force that only an American can muster, "or I'm calling the real cops."
I'm already walking down the steps. "Think about what I said, Daisy! If you've lived without regret, what is there to punish?"
I can hear her reply before she even says it.
"We all deserve to be punished, Marion!"
The last time I saw Daisy all dolled up like that was the sunny Sunday before I got these scars. At the time, the only place I could reliably find my snitch was at church. I'd wait for her in the playground across the street. She wasn't afraid to be seen with me, not even back then. She's not afraid of much, but that day... there was an edge to her outrage.
"They're not just eating the dead, Marion. They're not! I've seen them take people, living people, snatch them right off the street. We've been following them." She reached out and spun the merry-go-round I was using as a bench.
"Who?" I asked at about the 180 degree mark.
"Mostly me and One-Punch--"
I stuck out a boot and stopped myself just short of the full 360. "No, which people? Who have they kidnapped?"
"How they hell should I know? They were just some people! I'm not the cop, here. And they didn't just kidnap them, Marion. You know it. They butchered and ate them!"
"Okay, Daisy. Okay. I believe you." I patted the spot next to me and waited for her to sit. "I'll look into it. If they've lied to me about this, there will be consequences. I promise you."
She exhaled so slowly, she must've been holding three breaths. "That's all I ask, Marion. That's all I'd ask of God Himself."
So, here I am, enforcing consequences. At the moment, that means hiding in the branches of a tree inside Lafayette cemetery well after midnight, eating an apple and waiting for someone to rob a grave.
How does that even work with you people?!
I never liked the term "graverobber." I mean, you can't rob a house. Robbery involves violence or the threat of violence. It's more like grave burglary. Especially in New Orleans, where the graves are more like rental property. Can't put the dead in such loose and shifting soil. Elsewise, they tend to bob to the surface every now and again.
Instead, we entomb our dead above the ground in crowded rows of low mausoleums. Most have two chambers, one above and one below. After a year and a day, when the heat and humidity are done desiccating the corpse, we reopen the upper chamber and sweep the remaining bone and ash into the lower chamber, where they mingle with the prior occupants.
Unexpected side benefit: the resulting pile of human refuse is pretty useless for necromancy.
Which is why I'm so surprised to find my grave burglars huddled around a tomb that's been sealed for nearly twelve months. Whatever's in there can't be any good for cannibalism. I'm starting to think this case isn't really one of mine when a familiar actor enters the stage and removes all doubt.
"Apologies for my lateness, gents, but as famous a face as mine must take certain precautions when traveling abroad," Francois tells them ironically. It sets off a steam whistle in my brain. I told Laffite what would happen if I ever saw that spree killer's face again.
Quiet as a cat, I drop down from my branch and crouch on the roof of a mausoleum. I'm about five crypts away from where the three "gents" are busting open someone's semi-final resting place. None of them are looking up, not even Francois, who appears to be taking a supervisory role.
I run across the tombs on the balls of my feet, muffling my footfalls, and I'm almost on top of them by the time Francois' eyes grow three sizes larger. "It's HER!" he squeals and takes off like a deer through the grass, not waiting for the others.
A sidelong blast of Hotfoot powder from my right barrel ensures I won't be seeing them again for a while. I keep my eyes glued on the Frenchman and move my finger to the second trigger. He's slowing down to take the corner when I jag diagonally across the neighboring row of crypts and leap on him.
You deserve this curse
It's a crazy gambit. I should probably crash like the Hindenburg, but I nail him with Unlucky Shot right before my knees connect with his spine. His face skids to a gravelly stop and I roll, unharmed, back to my feet. If I'd been thinking, I'd've been ready with an action star quip.
Instead, I kick him in the mouth. He tries to say something smart, but his jaw's come a bit loose and all I hear is an anguished groan. I flip him over with my boot, kneel down, and shove his jaw back into its dusty sockets.
"Mon Dieu, woman! You are the Devil!"
"Really? People like you don't double-cross the Devil." I help him up. He looks like he lost a bar fight with a belt sander. "When's the last time you ate you some human, Francois?" I ask, trying to catch him off guard.
"Not for months, I swear!" Looks like it worked. "Not me, personally, I mean. I've been trying to avoid getting, you know..." he gestured around his whole face, "damaged."
"Just this once, I think I believe you." I give his ear a matronly twist and start leading him back to the mustang. "Too bad the truth's not what I wanted to hear."
Laffite wasn't even trying to hide it when I caught up with him on that long-ago Sunday afternoon. He was sitting at one end of his ornamental dining table, eating a slab of long pig with a knife and fork. Now, it's not like I can I.D. human flesh by smell or anything, but Survivors don't need to eat anything else. It was obvious and he knew it.
"I'd offer to set a place for you, but..." he greeted me before masticating another mouthful. He gestured for me to sit and I did. We were still pretending to respect each other, back then. "What prompts this awkwardly timed visit, Marion? I don't recall calling for you."
"When we started this arrangement, you told me that your people only eat the dead. Now, I'm hearing stories about Survivors snatching people off the street. These witnesses have no reason to lie to me, Laffite. Have things changed? Or was it all bullshit from the beginning?"
"Does the answer matter to you?" He locked eyes with me while he sawed off another chunk of meat. "I'll pay you the same. Do I need to run all of my business decisions past you, now? Because, really, I expect that would prove inconvenient for us both."
"I don't give a damn about your convenience. I asked you if you lied to me. We both know you coerced me into this, but I do give a shit what happens to your people. I do, Laffite. I don't wanna think of you as monsters."
He takes his time chewing. "We're not, Marion, and something has changed. We've discovered something. Not to be glib about it, but it turns out we are who we eat." When I didn't laugh, he continued, "We absorb their... karma, I suppose. Their personality and luck and... other baggage. Our own minds begin to fragment. It feels like going mad, or so I'm told.
People like you don't double-cross the Devil
"It's best to consume the flesh of one's direct descendents, as it turns out, but obviously they're few and far between. And it's not like they die on a convenient schedule. We've had emergencies, major wounds that needed major healing. Before we knew any better, those cases ended in madness or worse. We just don't know enough about the sorcery that animates us." He dabbed his mouth with a napkin and stood up. "Let me show you something."
We went down to his creeper basement. I thought maybe he was planning to kill me, it would explain why he'd confessed to murder, but there was no freshly-dug grave or plastic tarp down there. Instead, the rough-hewn floor was covered in arcane symbols. A cheap bookshelf against the far wall held dozens of jars full of ash, each labeled like a headstone.
"We've been experimenting, based on what we remember, but somehow the craft eludes us. If there's a way to correct our condition, bring us fully to life, we're not going to discover it this way. But..."
I take the bait. "But?"
"The necromancer worshipped something old and forgotten, a god of forbidden knowledge whose name is forbidden knowledge. No one living can know the Name without instantly being possessed by this forgotten god.
"But I have a recording of the Name, on a broken record. I acquired it from a man who collects satantic artifacts. Marion, did you know that Satanists used to record hidden messages on commercial records? You'd play them backwards and they'd tell you to smoke opium, or so I gather."
"I have never heard that before," I mocked him. "Like an unholy See N Say."
"I don't know what that is, but witches were much less clever in my day. They just soured your milk or blighted your crops. And we burned them. In any case, our collector was clever enough to not listen to his records, so he had no idea what he had."
"And how did you know?"
"I'd traced the record from its origin, right here in Crescent City. In October of 1926, thirty people vanished from a building in Treme. They left not a trace, save one: their tongues. They cut them out with kitchen knives and straight razors, left them in sinks and on the floor, where ever they landed. One was found on the sidewalk, apparently gouged out on the jagged edge of a second story window.
"Among the missing were two employees of Okeh records, who had been traveling the south in a mobile studio, gathering black music. They were in the building that day to record an unnamed jazz musician. He sang the Name into their microphone, then the technicians heard it and repeated it to others, who repeated it to others."
"What stopped it?"
"Thirty severed tongues stopped it, Marion!" His laugh was hoarse, but hearty. "The question is, did the possessed people think of it themselves or did the jazz musician convince them to do it?"
"And where did they all go?" I added.
"Regardless, they're long dead by now. The one thing I do know, Marion, is that the record in my possession is authentic. Listening to it will summon the Forgotten God--"
"And you need a living volunteer."
We are who we eat
"Before you hop on that cross, Marion, we should talk particulars. Back in the old days, and I mean Egypt, necromancers who summoned this thing would take severe precautions. They'd only use slaves they'd taught to write, so they could cut out their tongues before exposing them to the Name. They'd answer questions by scrawling heiroglyphs in their own blood. Afterward, the bodies would be dismembered and buried in multiple locations, miles apart."
"Okay, never mind, then." I turned as if to leave. "But seriously, stop it with the cannibalism."
"Obviously, we would take different precautions with you. First, we could drug you out of your mind, so you couldn't remember any of it, including the Name. We believe that's how the necromancer handled it. Of course, we'd still need to secure your mouth in some way, for the safety of myself and anyone else who interacts with you during the session."
"Like with a ball gag?"
"I was thinking we'd wire your jaw shut, but I'm open to suggestions. Still, there's always a chance something could go wrong, in which case I'd have people standing by to... eliminate the both of us before it has a chance to spread."
"But then you'd be able to make yourselves human again?"
"I don't know for sure. Unless you have a necromancer in your back pocket, this is the only way to find out."
What was I gonna do? Tell them to get better at cannibalism? Of course I volunteered. A few days later, they tied me to a chair in the creeper basement and pumped me so full of barbituates I thought I'd never come down.
When I did finally wake up, I had these scars on my lips and a week of painful withdrawl to endure. Oh, and a bunch of that mumbo jumbo my grandma used to tell me while we baked cookies started to make a strange kinda sense.
Unfortunately, it was all for nothing. Laffite said they didn't get the answers they wanted. He promised the cannibalism was over. I suspected they'd run out of compatible victims. At the time, I didn't have enough leverage to keep pushing.
In any case, we had an arrangement. And he broke it.
This time, I throw Francois through Laffite's double doors.
Sadly, Laffite's not in there to see it. "Marion, you know you're welcome at any hour." He enters from an adjoining room, still securing his bathrobe. Francois' just rolling to a stop after bouncing off the desk. "What if those doors had been locked?"
"Well, I guess Francois woulda looked like an idiot." Moonlight streams in through Laffite's window. I gesture behind his desk with my freshly reloaded shotgun. "Have a seat." He does. Francois tries to do the same, but I kick the chair out from under him.
"Where'd you find him?" Laffite asks, playing innocent.
"You lied to me. I told you what would happen if I ever saw that face again."
I drop my shotgun down to Francois' level and blow his head off. Clean off. Buckshot tears through his brain pan, reducing it to a cloud of reddish dust that swirls in the moonlight. His headless body gives me the finger.
"Stop lying to me, Laffite! It severely limits my options."
Stop it with the cannibalism
He leans back in his chair, feigning confidence. "You turned him over to my justice. Francois convinced me that he saw the error of his ways and I saw no reason to incarcerate a reformed man. If you have any evidence that he's committed another murder--"
"You can't just apologize your way outta prison, Laffite! He has to serve his time. I turned him over to you, because no other jailer is equipped to handle him. You were supposed to carry out a sentence, not overturn his conviction."
"Which makes you the judge and jury, then?" He reaches into a desk drawer and I swing my sawed-off up to his face. Slowly, he pulls out a dustpan and tosses it at Francois. "What about your pet serial killer? That little snitch of yours. She's picked off a few of my people and don't tell me you can't murder the dead! If you're casting down judgement, shouldn't she be in prison?"
"It's not the same thing--"
"Why?! Why not, Marion? Because you don't think she deserves it? Why the hell is that up to you?!"
"It is different, because of what you and your people did to her."
"And around and around we go," he chuckles.
"Yeah, the cycle of violence is self-perpetuating. I've gotten an earful about it, the last few days. So now we're gonna end it."
"By decapitating the condemned?"
"By putting him back in his jar."
That one gives the pirate some pause. I guess he really thought I wouldn't figure it out. "You know I can't do that, Marion. I don't know how."
"Then why do you have your flying monkeys stealing old bones instead of fresh meat, Laffite?!"
I kick his desk backwards and pin him against the window, still in his chair. The house creaks in protest. "Ain't no use for old bones but necromancy, you lying son of a shithouse rat. You're raising them for blackmail, aren't you? Just like that mutherfuck necromancer you despise!" He doesn't deny it. "Goddamnit! You've been lying to me for months! Probably since the day we met. Do you torture them, too?"
Francois tries to drag me off my feet. I don't know if he can hear us without his ears, I kinda assumed not, but he seems to sense that things are going south. With my free boot, I kick him off me, then brace the desk against Laffite's attempt to get loose.
"I'm done humoring you. Both of you. We're gonna go down to your fucking torture basement and put Francois back in his goddamned jaw right fucking now!"
His headless body gives me the finger
"Or what, Marion?" Laffite bristles. "War? You forget, I've fought wars. And won. You don't even have a badge, anymore. How do you imagine this is going to end?"
"Well, I imagine you're gonna see the error of your ways and start playing ball. Francois' deeply-felt remorse magically brings his victims back to life and we all sit around in feety pajamas while the forgotten god reads us beadtime stories, but fat fucking chance any of that's gonna happen. So, you're gonna do this thing for me, I'm gonna take Francois home in a jar, and then we're gonna re-evaluate this whole arrangement of ours."
"Marion, I can't do it--" I just about shoot him. "Right now. There are preparations, consecrations. Come back in 12 hours and we'll put Francois to rest. You have my word."
"Laffite, your word's not worth two shits and a handshake, but I will be back in 12 hours and we are gonna do this thing. You have my word on that." I finally let him push the desk out and breath a little, though he doesn't need to breathe.
"Lie to me again and we're gonna find out what kinda war hero you really are."
And that's not even the first ultimatum I've delivered today. After crashing Daisy's family get-together, I stopped by Henre's compound to watch the fireworks. I was sorely disappointed to find him in the rec room having arts and crafts time. The art and the craft were both taxidermy.
"Pretty good for one morning's work, is it not?" Henre was referring to the decapitated wolfhound lying on the pool table. A bearded, flannel-clad Cajun was putting the final spit and polish on a pair of reptilian, glass eyes. They were for the alligator head that he'd just finished stitching to the wolfhound's shoulders.
"It's not supposed to pass a close inspection." Henre can always see the skepticism on my face. It probably helps that I don't try to hide it. "It'll be exposed as a hoax after we swap it in for the real carcass. Problem solved."
"Depends how you've defined your problem." I pulled Henre into the hallway so we could have a private consultation. "How long are you gonna let this go on?"
"Well," he crossed his arms over a lavender dress shirt and paisley tie. "We have a twenty-year plan, but I rather had my eye on 'Forever.'"
"That pet pagan deity of yours is sick, Henre. You know it. Even if you cover this one up, it doesn't change the fact that you're putting people in danger. It's a miracle that thing didn't kill anybody!"
"Fifty years isn't a lucky streak, Marion. It's a well-oiled machine. It's responsible resource management."
"Please, Henre. You're not the Department of the Interior. You're a cult. At best, you're a secret society. That thing in the lake isn't a resource, it's a dangerous animal. And let's not forget what nearly happened with Kevin. Sooner or later, one of your little acolytes is gonna take a dip in the lake and not come back."
"I appreciate your counsel, Marion, but this is my cross and I will bear it as I please."
"Not anymore, Henre. Now it's a public health issue. That makes it my issue. And I'm telling you... either drag that thing outta the lake or put it out of its misery."
"They'll be making snow angels in hell before I put Her down, Marion!" He moved into my space and we had ourselves a little face-off. "Besides, it's not even possible. Before the Pabodie went down, we tried everything: cutting, boiling, poison, acid."
"Did you try fire?"
"She's underwater, Marion."
"She doesn't have a head! Or sometimes She has a thousand of them. Either way, no, but this is not a productive avenue of discussion."
I'm gonna take Francois home in a jar
The taxidermist poked his head out for a moment, then pointedly closed the rec room door. Henre and I broke our stalemate to move a little further down the hall.
"Then turn it over to science!" I urged him in the loudest and angriest of whispers. "Move it to a secure facility. At least these fun rampages will stop and maybe they'll find a way to bottle your miracle after all."
"Do you really think mankind is ready for immortality on tap?! We're overpopulated as it is! Who's gonna volunteer to stop having children, huh? Nobody! Nobody, Marion! And it ain't a cheap process, after all the rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery. Put this in a bottle and only the rich are gonna be able to afford it. Are you ready for a world where the wealthy, and only the wealthy, are allowed to live forever?"
I raised my eyebrows toward the high, filigreed ceiling of his palatial estate.
"This ain't nearly the same thing," he refuted.
"Put that high horse of yours to pasture, Henre. You say the only thing that matters to you is protecting your people. That's bullshit! Your tentacle monster's only good for expanding your empire. You just want it as the bribe to beat all bribes, a great big carrot that you can use to bring anybody to your side. This ain't about humanity or a cross to bear. It's about power. Your power. And nothing else."
He swatted me away and just stared, cold as ice.
"Shit, Henre. I'm surprised you haven't offered to baptize me just to end this conversation."
"Is that it?" He relaxed suddenly and I realized I'd played the wrong card. "What if I did offer to induct you--"
"Too late and no thanks," I stopped him dead. "I'd rather not have a prehistoric polyp renovating my brain."
"What if I offered to put you up somewhere comfortable? Nice house on a private beach, maybe? On a private island?"
I couldn't help it. I actually thought about that one for a second. "Not gonna lie, Henre, that's more my kinda bribery, but this ain't about me. It's about a half million people who have no idea what danger they're in. Or can you turn Pontchartrain into a private beach? Maybe we should divert the Mississippi through Pensacola."
He turned his back on me. "This isn't your decision."
"I agree. You've got twenty-four hours to either drag that thing outta the lake or turn it over to the research institution of your choice." I walked out with even, measured steps, gave him plenty of time to reconsider.
"Or what, Marion?"
"Call my bluff, Henre, and find out."
It's nearly two in the morning when I get home and things are hinky. The three-story stack of apartments is always asleep at this hour, but there's a light on in my super's unit. I've never known him to stay up past, or get outta bed before, ten o'clock. He watches me park behind the building, but snaps the blinds closed when I wave.
The gate creaks customarily as I let myself in. The entryway is a glorifed stairwell; the super keeps an old chair and a empty vase down here, to try and make it look like a lobby. I put one foot on the steps and hear someone padding around two stories up. My floor. I crack my curse gun open and load a couple rounds of the Unlucky Shot.
I take the stairs two at a time. No chance of sneaking up any would-be ambush. One of the reasons I like this place is you can't get up to turn on a light without everyone in the building hearing it. Figure I might as well deprive them of a few seconds preparation time.
The cramped hallway outside my unit appears empty, but something lingers. Maybe the ghost of a hoagie with too many onions. My door's still locked; no sign of forced entry. That really only leaves one possibility.
Jingle, click, squeak.
I push the door all the way open and wedge my foot against it, just in case. A figure steps out from the bathroom. Male and tall, but not as tall as I am, a duty belt around his waist. I'll pretend not to notice that last thing for a second.
I dust the patrolman with black powder. Rather than step back behind cover, he fires blindly at the doorway. I barely have to dodge. His buddy behind the door, the one who was gonna grab me, screams like a choir boy. I remove my foot, confident he's not going anywhere.
I duck under another wild shot, close the distance, and take the first moron's gun. Just pluck it right outta his hand. I step behind him in case his friend gets trigger happy. "Did you just shoot me with--"
"Dirt. Yes," I roll my eyes, "I shot you with dirt."
"It's probably magic dirt," his partner says as he aims his weapon at me and kicks the door closed.
"As a matter of fact, it is magic dirt." Looks like they've been here a while; the whole place is turned inside-out. All my gris-gris shit's been laid on on the bed: crushed cayenne pepper, sulfur, stack of tiny bibles, jars of dirt with labels like "accidental," "while pleading," and "murdered." If they think it's evidence of a crime, I wonder which.
Not worth two shits and a handshake
"You idiots got a warrant?"
"Damn straight we got a warrant!" Cursed Guy growls, still rubbing the goofer dust out of his eyes. "And we found twenty grams of heroin, so you're under fucking arrest."
"Bullshit!" I declare, but Door Guy waves an evidence bag like it's a checkered flag. "Those drugs might be leaving in an evidence bag, but we all know they entered in your goddamned dirty pockets. This is too soon for Laffite; you must be Henre's."
They pass a look between them. Rookies. They're always surprised when somebody sees through their shit. "What's the play here, boys? You aiming to book me or shoot me?"
"Oh, you're going to prison, Marion the Barbarian." Door Guy takes a step forward. I wave his partner's gun at him to let him know I'm paying attention. "There's a betting pool on how long you last before getting shivved and in which organ. I've got a hundred on 'two days' and 'the kidneys.'"
"With my luck?! If I get shivved anywhere, it's gonna be the face." I wave one of them over. Either one. "Let me see that warrant?"
Cursed Guy digs it out of a pocket and I look it over. "Judge Varignon?! Everybody knows he's on the take! Christ on a cracker, you guys. I'm worth a little more effort than this. Why don't you try again later, without embarrassing yourselves?"
Cursed Guy wraps his arm around mine and turns, pulling my line of fire away from his partner. I don't pull the trigger. He wrestles the gun away from me and steps back. I put my hands up, letting the sawed-off swing on its shoulder strap.
"Ha! Not so magic after all," Cursed Guy gloats.
"Yeah. I guess it's your lucky day," I agree, confused.
His partner holsters his weapon and closes in with handcuffs. While he's slapping them on, his tells me confidentially, "My money's on you getting shivved in the face."
They mumble their way through Miranda while they manhandle me down the stairs. Their squad is concealed in an alley down the street. "I've never seen either of you before," I realize. "You that green or did Henre get you transferred special?"
"Actually, you have seen this face before," Door Guy gestures to his mug. "I was there the day you came, um... back to work."
No wonder I don't remember him. That was the single worst day of my life. Worse than the night I left Prosper. Worse than my last few hours as a cop.
Not so magic, after all
I'd been AWOL for a solid week, recovering from the drugs, and the rumors were flying like hungry bats: Marion's an addict. Marion joined a cult. Marion's on the take. Marion practices witchcraft. Marion's a baby-eating socialist.
Chief Webb called me right into his office. The way he lashed me with threats and innuendo, I knew he had nothing. Nothing that would stick. "It's bad enough you spend all your time with these woo woo motherfuckers, now you gotta look like 'em, too?!"
Webb's a burly man, light skinned with dark tempered. His eyes are always bulging and wet; that day, they just about jumped outta his skull and ricocheted around the room. "What kinda credibility are you gonna have with the upstanding people of this goddamned city, huh?! I can't put you in front a' tourists lookin' like this! I should sell you to the fucking circus!"
God, I'd hate to be his kids.
In the end, all he dared do was send me to the headshrinker. "Go ahead, Marion! Say one fucking thing about it. Gimme one good, smartass quote I can pass along to your union rep when I have you shitcanned!"
So I let him blow himself out. Don't get me wrong, I thought about kicking him in the shriveled grapes about twice a second, but I was willing to wait.
When the windbag was finally empty, I marched back through his gaggle of rubbernecking Eichmanns and got to work. Not a one of them spoke to me. Most avoided eye contact entirely. Even Prosper. That's what really broke my heart.
The only one still in my corner was Guts. Good ol' Guts. He never let me down, not really. Still hasn't.
Heckle and Jeckle have me in their squad. It's not a long drive from my place to the precinct. We get within a coupla blocks before an unmarked cuts us off at an intersection, lights flashing. Guts and a uni I don't recognize get out, hands on their firearms, and approach on either side.
Guts taps on their window and they roll it down. "Officers Ray and Hayes, you're under arrest."
"For what?!" they bitch in unison.
"You stole a felony's worth of heroin from evidence, dipshits. Play your cards right, and I'll only have your guns and badges. Give me any shit and I'll have your asses, too. Officer Chambers will read you your rights."
For a hot second, I think I'll have to wipe the shit-eating grin off my face, cuz Officer Ray looks like he's gonna hit the gas, but instead he puts it in park and they both get outta the car.
I'd hate to be his kids
While Chambers moves them to the unmarked, Guts gets in the driver's seat and hands me his handcuff key. I show him that I've already picked the locks. "I was just about to make them crash this bitch and go on a headline-generating flight from prosecution," I brag.
"Glad I could save you the trouble," he says, shifting into reverse. "Anywhere I can drop you off?"
I tell him to take the 90 outta town. "You did cut it kinda close, though. I shudder to think what woulda happened if Henre wasn't too cheap to bribe competent people."
"Henre doesn't own nearly as much of this town as he thinks. What did you do to piss him off? I thought you were besties."
"Yeah, well... as his trusted friend, I gave him twenty-four hours to remove his monster from the lake or I'd kill it."
"Always so dramatic."
"You know, only another kettle can call a kettle black."
An hour later, we're driving down a lonely road south of Paradis. I'm afraid I've taken advantage of Guts' generosity, but I didn't want to risk going back for my car.
"You know, if those two chuckleheads spread it around that I came to your rescue," he's telling me, "it's gonna blow this whole 'the cops hate Marion' cover of yours."
"I dunno. They did just try to arrest me on bogus drug charges."
"And I will turn this into a shot across Henre's bow, but still. It doesn't sound like you've worked your way into their confidence."
"We'll see," I say. "I wouldn't have made ultimatums if I couldn't back them up. By sundown tomorrow, either they'll have done what I told them to do -- validating my authority -- or I'll have forced them out. Either way, I'm the new sheriff."
"Or one of them will have you killed. Got a contingency plan for what the hell is that?!" Looks like there's a body in the road up ahead. Guts applies the brake and we grind to a halt a few yards away. It casts a long, still shadow.
Nobody could've known where we're headed. Henre and his deep pockets could've tracked the squad's GPS, I guess, and Laffite might know some kinda divination, maybe? Shit. Or either one of them coulda paid to have a hex put on me and this is just bad, dumb, predestined luck.
"Hey, Guts? They threw my sawed-off in the trunk."
He pops it open and unlocks the doors, then draws his weapon and gets out. I follow suit and fetch my goodies: shotgun, one round of hotfoot powder, and one Unlucky Shot. At least the rest of my supplies are here, too. I'll be busy later.
If I get shivved...
"Marion--" I hear Guts yell before something, most likely Guts, crashes into the windshield. The whole car bounces, clattering my jars of grave dirt.
I dash around the side of the car... and run straight into the only nightmare fuel I'll need for the rest of my long and storied life. Its teeth are like stalactites; they jut out from the monster's mouth at strange angles. I don't think its jaw can even close all the way.
It's dressed in rags, but I catch glimpses of scales and shell. Its left arm is a single rope of knotted muscle, like a tentacle. It screams at me with a voice that's one part whale and three parts jaguar.
Some tiny, primitive part of my brain goes for the Hotfoot trigger, but that tentacle's already wrapped three times around my barrel. It yanks the gun up and away, but I hold tight and go with it. At the top of this rollercoaster, I spot Guts rolling feebly off the hood of the car. He's still alive.
And then I'm airborne, unable to maintain my hold on the stock. I bounce off the top of the car and tumble into the grass on the side of the road. I look up and see clawed feet, more like paws, crush the roof and blow out the windows. Maybe it chased us all the way from Nola.
Looks like Guts has caught his breath. He's got his gun, too. Pop, pop, pop! He plugs the creature three times in the chest. Blood sprays against the open trunk, but the thing doesn't fall. Instead, it passes my sawed-off to its human right hand, hops down off the car, and shoots Guts with goofer dust.
It looks confused. Probably expected buckshot. I see my opportunity coming and lurch out of the grass. I sprint up to the monster just as it turns the gun to get a look down the barrel. The tentacle whips around my throat, but I already have my hands around the gun stock.
I squeeze to make it pull the trigger and a plume of red powder explodes in its face. The tentacle constricting around my head probably saves me from catching some blowback, which is sweet, but it's also perilously close to crushing my skull. Then the gris-gris kicks in and it lets me go. It takes off down the road in great, leaping strides. Seconds later, the night swallows it whole.
... it's gonna be in the face
Guts and I catch our breath against the front tire. "That was one of Henre's mutants, huh?" he asks between gasps.
"Nope, but Laffite wants us to think it was. See that?" I say, pointing to the blood on the trunk. "It's not foaming up. Immortal blood foams, like scrubbing bubbles."
"Yeah, right. Obviously."
"I guess Laffite doesn't know that, either, but he knows about the mutations. He must've made that thing by mixing some poor soul's remains with a bunch of sea creatures."
"He's playing you against each other."
"Or maybe he's just covering his ass in case his assassin fails." I help him shrug off his dirt-covered jacket and we toss it into the grass. "Sorry about getting you cursed, Guts. Just avoid doing anything or making any decisions for about ten minutes."
"Sounds like you're leaving me here."
"Well, you got a long walk ahead of you still, and I don't want your bad luck anywhere near my safehouse. No offense."
"Whatever. Do I need to buy some healing crystals or get a shiatsu massage or something?"
"Shit, I can get you cheaper placebos than that. Just go home and give yourself a salt water sponge bath, if you're still feeling unclean." I sling my shotgun over my shoulder and get up to go.
"When will I know how it turns out?" he asks while I gather my supplies from the trunk.
"Just watch the new, Guts. Ain't none of us gonna go quiet."
My grandma's swamp shack is every inch of both those words. Looks like Baba Yaga's house got blackout drunk and wandered into a peat bog, but I'm not here for the decor.
Daylight's still a few hours off when I drag my heels through the sagging door and disgorge my crap. Four steel drums are lined up against the back wall, bright red "EXPLOSIVE" signs stamped on each, and there's a pick-up truck outside for transporting them.
I left a reloader on the card table, last time I was here, so I can rearm. Plenty of goofer dust for a pocketful of Unlucky Shot, maybe a few rounds of Uncrossing Powder.
But my first priority is a pair of brass knuckles, matte black and just my size. I've got it stored in a lock box with an engraving tool and a magnifying glass. No idea how long this is gonna take. Better get started.
As grandma used to say, I can sleep when they're dead.
Many thanks to these generous patrons!
- Mark Dipasquale
- Grant Howitt
- Herman Duyker
- Jesse Quisenberry