Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
  The Gate Between Worlds - Kenneth Mark Hoover
 
 

I was tagging alligator paws in the botanica when Mama Luiz poked her grizzled head through the doorway.  She had a headless chicken in one hand, a bottle of Jamaican rum in the other, and a deep frown on her face.

     “Lilith,” she slurred, “there’s a bad storm brewin’.”

     I knew this ancient Haitian woman put more faith in a pool of fresh chicken blood than all the Doppler radars in New Orleans.  However, she wasn’t concerned with meteorology.  Not with her face crumpled like a brown pumpkin and the morning sky a deep flawless blue.

     “What’s the matter, Mama-La?” I asked.

     “A Mr. Gene Bluming called while you were practicing your martial arts.”  I followed her into the kitchen.  She threw the chicken onto a platter.  “I told him we do what we can.  Can’t promise much, though.  Not wit’ this type o’ problem.”  She chewed her bottom lip with worry.  “Oh, well.”

     She tipped the rum bottle into her mouth and rubbed garlic, butter and cayenne pepper into the chicken.

     “Bluming.”  I helped her put the chicken in an iron skillet.  “I’ve heard that name before.”

     “Sure you have, child.  He owns dat place which makes the honey biscuits I like.  The Pik-a-Chik.  He’s waiting at his main restaurant on Canal Street.  You go see what he wants.  Mebbe we can get some money in dis house.  Lord knows we need it.”

     I washed my hands and went out to my moped.  Mama Luiz banged open a bamboo shutter and called from the window, “Pick up a dozen of dem honey biscuits, hokay?  They taste good wit’ my chicken and dirty rice.”

     I straddled my orange Vespa and strapped on my helmet.  “Put the rum away, Mama-La.  You’ve had enough for today.”

     “It’s my arthritis,” she complained.  “You threw away my opium and my hookah.”  She clutched a shawl around her shoulders.  “Old Mama Luiz, she have more misery than ever.  Get my biscuits, girl, and find out what Mr. Bluming wants from an old vaudau like mysel’.”

     She banged the shutter closed.  Shaking my head, I started my moped and drove away.

 

*   *   *

 

     Gene Bluming opened the Pik-a-Chik Café ten years ago.  It became a local sensation.  Everyone agreed it was the best Creole fried chicken joint in New Orleans, and that’s saying something.  Before long he opened ten more stores throughout the Deep South.

     I opened the side door to the family-owned restaurant, wondering what kind of trouble a fried food king could get into.  Especially one who needed the help of Mama Luiz.

     A short hallway led me to the main dining room.  A spicy aroma drifted from the kitchen.  A tall black woman stood behind the counter, doing last minute paperwork before they opened.

     “Hello,” I said.  “ My name is Lilith Boddicea.  I’m here on behalf of Mama Luiz.”

     The waitress behind the counter gawked at me.  I get that a lot.  There aren’t many sixteen-year old Buddhist nuns with shaved heads running around New Orleans.

     I was in a colorful robe and skirt with a brown stole.  She wore a spotless black and white uniform with a checkered apron.  Her name tag read “Flonnula”.  Her hair was pinned back and her skin was the color of chicory coffee with a large measure of cream mixed in.

     “Oh, yes, I remember.”  She smiled as if she realized staring might be considered rude.  “I’m Flonnula Pagget.  We were expecting you.”  She showed me through a steamy kitchen where chefs prepped for the lunch rush, and into a cramped office stacked with metal filing cabinets and ironwork bookshelves.  A fancy saltwater aquarium took up one corner, but there were no fish inside.

     Crouched behind a cluttered desk, with photographs of his wife and family, sat a handsome, middle-aged man with clear grey eyes.

     Flonnula tapped on the open door.  “Mr. Bluming, your appointment is here.”

     “Thank you, Flonnula.  You can go now.”  Gene Bluming had been making out an hourly work schedule.  He put it aside and rose to greet me.  A thickset man, his unruly shock of hair curled around his white collar like corn silk. 

     “Thank you for coming on short notice.”   He closed the door of his office for privacy.  “I was expecting Mama Luiz.  For what she charges as a private consultant I prefer to deal exclusively with her.”

     I get that a lot, too.  “I assure you, sir, as her private secretary I have Mama Luiz’s complete confidence.”

     “Yes, I understand.”  He coughed delicately.  “However, my problem is of a most unusual nature.  Even my employees don’t know I’m meeting Mama Luiz today.  It’s not something you would ordinarily want to get around.”  He motioned towards the phone.  “Do you mind?”

     “Not at all.”

     He looked for the number in his Rolodex.  “That’s strange,” he muttered.  “I had it here yesterday.”

     I gave him the phone number and he thanked me.  I waited while he dialed the botanica on Dauphine.  After a few curt words, Bluming handed me the receiver.

     “Yes, ma’am?”

     Mama Luiz’s aged voice filled my ear: “Lilith, you watch yoursel’.”  Her voice sounded hollow, like she was speaking through a long tube.  “I been examining the entrails of dat hen I killed.  The loas, the bad spirit demons, they thick in the air this morning.”  She paused.  “Don’t forget my biscuits.”

      “No, ma’am.”  I tried to emphasize my next words.  “But I need more time before I do that.  A little help on your end would be nice.”

     Mama Luiz understood my meaning, if not my intent.  “Hokay, let me talk to Mr. Bluming again.”

     Gene Bluming took the phone.  I made a motion I needed to find the bathroom.  He pointed the way and promptly forgot about me.

     A short ell-shaped hallway led to the back of the restaurant.  A swing door opened onto a packed storeroom, and beyond that was another door.  I pushed it open and peeked into an employee break room.

     Flonnula was listening on an extension, her back to me.

     That explained how she knew I was coming this morning, even though Bluming was explicit none of his employees knew.  It also explained the hollowness of the phone when I was talking to Mama Luiz.

     I let the door swing softly shut, went into the bathroom to wash my face, and returned to Bluming’s office.

     He was putting the phone back in its cradle.  “Well,” he said, “you were right.  It seems I’m to tell you my problem first.”

     I nodded.  “That’s how we work, sir.  She doesn’t get around much because of her age.”

     He rose from his desk with a resigned air.  “Very well.  I don’t have any choice, really.  Follow me and you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

     Before leaving his office I paused to admire the saltwater aquarium.

     “My wife’s hobby,” Bluming said in passing. 

     “It’s pretty.”

     “There used to be a globefish inside, but it died last week, poor thing.”

     We went through the break room, now empty.  Bluming unlocked a reinforced door which led to a fenced-in alley with a yellow trash bin and two metal ones painted olive green.

     He tapped the yellow bin with significance.  “Do you know what’s inside?”

     I took a wild guess.  “Garbage?”

     He smiled briefly.  “This yellow bin holds stale grease and leftover refrigerated chicken from last night.”

     “Yes, sir, I can see that.  And smell it.”

     “It’s worth hundreds of dollars, young lady.”

     He didn’t appear to be insane.  “Pardon me?”

     “I sell the used grease from my deep fat fryers to a canned dog food manufacturer in Houston.  Every week he collects from my restaurant chain.  Lately, however, there’s been a hitch.”

     He motioned me to follow him.  On the other side of the bin, laying on the ground, was a circle of red candles with two crossed chicken feathers in the center of some sprinkled flour.  On top of the feathers was a dead toad with its belly slit open.

     Bluming motioned to the grisly tableau.  “Someone keeps performing a cult ritual behind my restaurants.  The man who buys my grease employs Haitian drivers.  When they see this they refuse to take the containers.  I’m losing good money every week and I want it to stop.”

     I glanced around.  The narrow alley was enclosed by an eight-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.  The iron gate was old and rusted, but the Chubb lock was new and the fittings were solid.

     There was an ancient pecan tree on the other side of the fence.  Someone could climb and swing down into Bluming’s alley, but it would be a long drop.  I wouldn’t want to try it.  Anyone else who didn’t use the outside gate would have to enter the alley from within the restaurant.  I wondered if that someone was prone to listen in on private telephone conversations.

     I fingered a broken seal on the grease bin.  “Shouldn’t this be locked, or something?”

     Bluming came forward with a frown wrinkling his brow.  “Yes, as a matter of fact it should.”

     I lifted the top and peeked inside, holding my nose.  I slammed the lid down, my heart hammering.

     Bluming blinked in surprise at my reaction.  “What’s the matter?”  He cautiously opened the bin.  “Oh, my God!”  He dropped the lid, his face paling.

     I took my cell phone from my robe and dialed 911.  When the dispatcher asked what I had found, I told her.

     On top of the sludge of smelly grease was a human head.

 

*   *   *

 

     Lt. Daubigny asked pointedly, “Mama Luiz, why do you always show up when there are dead bodies around?”

     She held an umbrella to keep the hot sun off her head while she paid her taxi.  “Lilith phoned me after she called you, Lieutenant.  Mr. Bluming is my client.  Dat’s the truth of it.”

     “The hell you say.  And you can drop the phony accent, Domatile.  I happen to know you have a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Tulane.”

     Mama Luiz grinned.  “Can I help it if swamp witch pays better, Lieutenant?”

     Thomas Daubigny was a detective who worked homicide.  He had solid shoulders and a broken nose from his days in Golden Gloves.  He was the kind of man who could make me question my vow of        non-violence.

     Mama Luiz once gave me her homespun views regarding Daubigny, and people in general.  “Some women need to be slapped,” she had said.  “Most men deserve to be hung.  That Lieutenant Daubigny, he often in need of both remedies.”

     After the crime scene was secured the body was dredged from the thick, greasy slime.  Mama Luiz made a small noise of recognition when she saw the dead man’s facial features.  They were locked in a rictus of death.  Well, I didn’t suppose being drowned in grease was a pleasant way to die.

     Daubigny turned to Gene Bluming who was speaking on a cell phone with his wife.  “Yes, darling, the police are here now.  So is Mama Luiz, though I doubt there’s anything she can do now.  Well, I had to hire her, I didn’t know what else to do.  Right.  No need for you to come down, I’ll handle it.  ‘Bye.”

     “What is this gunk used for, Mr. Bluming?”  Daubigny, tactful as always.

     “I sell it to a dog food plant in Houston.”  Bluming gave the address and contacts.

     Daubigny scribbled in his notebook.  He looked up, impassive.  “That dead body might give the recipe a noticeable twang.  Who hauls the grease away?”

     “I contract with Sunrise Trucking Company.”

     The cop’s eyes narrowed.  “In Slidell?  I thought they went out of business after Katrina.”

     “No, sir.  They’re still working.”

     Daubigny made a note of that, too, before turning on me.  “What were you doing here, kid?”

     Mama Luiz answered for me.  “Mr. Bluming called me this morning, Lieutenant.  Someone’s been leaving warning signs to scare the Haitian drivers who pick up his chicken grease.”

     Daubigny rolled his brown eyes behind his gold spectacles.  “Oh, yes, the dead frog.  More than likely the case-breaking clue we’ve all been hoping for.”  He sighed tiredly.  “All right, I suppose it won’t hurt you to have a look, Domatile.  This is more your line of expertise, anyway.”

     “I’ve always said you had good sense to seek help from someone whose knowledge lay outside ordinary bounds, Lieutenant.”

     “Cut the crap.”

     Mama Luiz inspected the crude altar.  With permission she picked up a candle and peered at the strange markings stamped into the red wax.  It looked like some kind of alien writing surrounding a demon carved in bas-relief.

     Her face was set in stone.  “This can be interpreted many different ways, but it’s probably meant to be literal.  ‘Touch the bin and you end up like de frog.’  No surprise the Haitian drivers balk when they see this.” 

     “All right, Domatile.  Thank you for your help.”  Daubigny towered over her small, frail body.  “Now, need I remind you this is an active police investigation?  I don’t want you meddling, as you are always want to do.”

     “May I ask one question, Lieutenant?  Who was that man you dragged from the garbage grease?”

     “He’s Jim Bunge, a known transient who never had the good sense to leave New Orleans after the hurricane.”  His brown eyes cut towards the yellow bin.  “This time it looks like he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

     Mama Luiz’s face was shadowed under the umbrella.  She wrinkled her nose.  “There’s a bad air about this place, Lieutenant.”

     “Yeah, well, it is stale chicken grease, after all.”  He swung his attention back to her.  “Go home, Domatile.  That’s not a request.”

     Mama Luiz cackled and lapsed back into dialect.  “Perfectly understood, Lieutenant.  I always say we should follow de law.”  She took my arm.  “Come, Lilith.  We have lunch to prepare.”

     We made our way through the crowd of onlookers and TV crews gathering on the broken sidewalk.  It wasn’t everyday a dead body was found in stale chicken grease.

     When we were a fair distance away, Mama Luiz’s eyes blazed with worry.  I had never seen her so agitated.  “We must hurry, child.  That altar, it’s one of the loa temples I seen as a little girl in Port-au-Prince.  The flour is a verve, a ceremonial drawing of Kalfu.”

     “Who?”

     “A bad loa who controls the evil forces of the spirit world.  He sits at the crossroads between worlds.  He is a dark counterpart to Legba.  Kalfu’s symbol always means death and misfortune.  His color is red, like dem candles.  Someone was trying to open a gate to contact him.  It appears dey were successful.  When Kalfu appears, he must take a life.”

     “What are we going to do?”

     “I’m going to the Sunshine Trucking Company and speak with dose Haitian men.  I expect they will talk to me.  I want you to return home and find my grimoire.  You know the one I mean.  Bring it to me in Slidell so I can do some reading on de way back about this here problem.”  She pushed me.  “Go on, girl.”

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     I started my Vespa and rode off while she hailed another cab.  Since Katrina the roads have never been what they used to be in New Orleans.  Not that they were all that great to begin with.  Street crews were working on Canal and had much of it blocked so I turned on North Rampart to wind my way back to the Vieux Carre.  As I drove through the Quarter a black Mercedes swung behind me.  I swerved to let it pass when all of a sudden it grew large and fast in my rearview mirror.

     I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  I hit the gas and my little moped jumped.  The big car stayed with me, eating up the distance and filling my mirror.  I took a corner fast, blowing through the stop sign on Dauphine with the rear wheel going out from under me.  I got my moped straightened out and went straight as an arrow.

     I glanced in my mirror.  The Mercedes was still with me.  My little four-stroke engine was no match for German engineering.  I didn’t know who was behind me but I didn’t want to lead them back to the botanica.  Foolish, perhaps, to think he didn’t know about my home, but on the one percent chance he didn’t I wanted to lead him as far away as possible.  Anyway, there was nothing at home that could help me right now, and I felt I would be able to lose him easily enough in the narrow streets of the French Quarter if I was given half a chance.

     But the car hung in there amid loud honking from other drivers who found themselves cut off as we blew through two more intersections.  We were on Chartres when I heard the big engine race.  The Mercedes was moving in for the kill.  I couldn’t get off the road and onto the sidewalk.  The street was lined with cars. 

     I was in a killing-bottle and the driver knew it.

     Finally, I saw an opening ahead.  I gave a shout of relief.  If I popped through I could reach the sidewalk and lose the driver for good.  I shot for it like a rabbit.  The engine in the Mercedes screamed with power as its front fender tapped my back wheel, hard.  The big car rushed past me with a blast of air.  I had my skid corrected when a boy stepped into the street ahead of me.  I twisted the handlebars violently to avoid him.  I caught a glimpse of his open mouth and wide eyes as he leaped back out of the way.  The front wheel of my Vespa slammed into the curb.  I went flying over the handlebars and went straight through a plate glass window of an Italian restaurant and came down in the salad trays.

 

*   *   *

 

     “Lilith.  Can you hear me, child?”

     I opened my eyes.  I was in a white bed with white sheets and a white cast on my left arm.  “Where am I?”

     “What happened, honey?” Mama Luiz asked.

     “Someone tried to run me down.”  I told her everything I remembered.  Then: “My moped.”

     “We’ll buy you another one, child.  How are you feeling?”

     “Woozy.”

     “You’ve been here for a whole day.  But the doctor, he says you can leave tomorrow morning.”

     “Mama-La, I forgot, there’s something else I have to tell you.”

     “No, child, you rest.”

     “Flonnula Pagget was listening on the extension.  She’s spying on Mr. Bluming.  She’s mixed up in this ... whatever it is.  Kalfu.  She has to be.”

     She touched my face.  “Yes, I’ve already talked to her.  We’ll go see her tomorrow.  But not for the reasons you think.  Now you sleep.  I be here when you wake up, hokay?”

     “All right.”

     “Lilith.”

     “Yes?”

     “I haven’t taken a drink of rum today.”

     I reached for her gnarled hand.  “I love you too, Mama-La.”

 

*   *   *

 

     “Legba stands at the crossroads between life and death,” Mama Luiz said.  Her face was illuminated by a green-shaded lamp in Flonnula’s two-room apartment.  The Venetian blinds were drawn, blocking out the morning sun.  The air inside the room was still.

     “He is a messenger, and Kalfu is his dark counterpart.  They are not one without the other.  Legba controls the spirits of the day, Kalfu controls the spirits of the night.  It is significant someone was building these altars at night and using red candles, with the visage of Kalfu cut into de wax.”

     Mama Luiz sprinkled oil and incense on parchment paper taken from her white leather tote.  She gummed a lock of Flonnula’s hair onto the paper and folded it into thirds.  After whispering a prayer she laid it in a glass ashtray.

     Flonnula watched with fascination.

     “They are both tricksters,” Mama Luiz said.  “Even I, at the height of my powers, do not take the decision to open doors between the material and spiritual worlds lightly.  Yet, someone has done exactly this.  Kalfu is now among us, walking within our world and spreading death.  I must stop him, though it cost me my life.”

     She lighted the parchment with a kitchen match.  It curled into a black ball with a crackling orange flame tinged with green.

     Mama Luiz picked up the smoking fragments and crushed them between her brown hands.  “This small sacrifice should momentarily appease the spirit world,” she told Flonnula as she wiped her hands on a towel.  “It is a simple protection, a   gris-gris to safeguard your soul for the moment.  But men are much more dangerous than spirits.  They cannot be turned by simple magic.  Their lust for blood is not so easily quenched.”

     “Tell me about it,” I muttered.

     Mama Luiz gave a sage nod.  “Lilith survived the attempt on her life with a broken bone and abrasions.  Her martial arts training came into play, giving her de quickness to duck into a ball when she hit the window.”

     Mama Luiz’s words had a noticeable effect on Flonnula.  “I doubt you will be so lucky, my dear, when Kalfu targets you for death.”

     Flonnula’s waxen face was full of fear.  Mama Luiz had brought me to speed upon my release from the hospital.  Someone had left another altar and dead frog on Flonnula’s doorstep the day I had my accident.  Knowing Mr. Bluming had hired her, she called Mama Luiz who told her to stay home and don’t leave under any circumstance. 

     “You life, your very soul, depends on doing exactly what I say.”

     Flonnula agreed she would await our arrival.  I was released and we took a taxi to her apartment complex north of I-10.

     Now, desperate and frightened, she looked to Mama Luiz for answers.  “What can I do?  When I came back from work I saw that altar and it scared me.  Does it mean I’m going to be killed like that drifter?  I’ve talked to the police.  They don’t seem too concerned.”

     “You talked to Lieutenant Daubigny?”

     “He interviewed everyone after you left.  He told us we were to contact him if anything unusual happened.  Then I decided I should call you.  But you haven’t done anything to reassure me.  All you’ve done is scare me half out of my wits with your talk of demons and crossroads!”

     Mama Luiz gripped the other woman’s hand.  “You must tell me de truth.  Time, he is our enemy.  Dawn creeps over the French Quarter in a red glow.  Tonight, Kalfu walks again.  If I’m not mistaken, you will not live past this day.  Do you trust me?”

     “Y-yes.  I think so.”

     “Daubigny, he thinks this case begins and ends with the dead man found in the grease bin.  He is wrong.  This mystery can only be solved by one who knows of the gate between both worlds.  Only by confronting he who channeled Kalfu can the gate be closed.  There is no other way.”

     “I’ll do whatever you say, Mama Luiz.” 

     “The enemy we face is a terrible one.  Nothing is more desolate than the landscape of a human soul drenched with hate.  It is there de bitter winds and ghosts of our past, they live, and it is upon this which Kalfu feeds.  You promise me truth, now is the time.  What winds haunt you, Flonnula Pagget?”

     The other woman dabbed her eyes with a fresh Kleenex.  “Love,” she whispered, her full lips barely moving.  “I’m in love with someone.”

     Mama Luiz slapped a hand against her knee like a thunderclap.  “Mon Dieu!  I’m an old woman indeed not to have seen it.”  Her dark eyes narrowed to fierce slits.  “You know, don’t you, dat Mr. Bluming is a married man?”

     Flonnula ripped a fresh Kleenex from the box.  Her tears were coming freely.  “Gene throws a party for his employees when he opens a new store.  I met his wife, Almira, at the last one.”  She gave Mama Luiz a desperate look.  “Have you ever wanted a man you knew you could never have?  A man you didn’t know you were falling in love with, but he kept slipping into your thoughts until you felt you were standing still while the world whirled around you in a blur?  Do you know that feeling, Mama Luiz?”

     “Yes, child, I do.”

     The pain in Mama Luiz’s voice brought me up short.  I mean, I had never considered any other reason why she drank rum or used opium, other than to alleviate her osteoarthritis.

     I had assumed, naturally, I was the only family she had.  She never spoke of anyone else.  It was a shock, though not unpleasant, to learn there was someone else in her dim past.

     Flonnula dabbed her nose.  “I loved Gene.  I still do.  That’s why I listened on his phone that morning.  At least it was something I could share with him.  But I couldn’t help myself.  I’m sorry.  I know it was wrong and I won’t do it, ever again.”

     She glanced at me.  “I don’t see how this relates to you, Lilith.  Or the murder of that poor man.”

     Mama Luiz smacked her lips several times, a sign she was deep in thought.  “Mebbe it connects in a way that makes the most sense of all.”

     “How do you mean?” I asked.

     “I was at the Sunrise Trucking Company when I heard you were hurt, Lilith.  The Haitian truck drivers were eager to talk to an old mambo from de islands.  I calmed their fears, told them the truth of what I knew.  As I rushed to the emergency room I realized I should have looked closer to the heart of the problem.  Then would I know the ugly truth and how to confront it.  That’s also when I realized someone else was the key to the whole problem.  When I learned of the altar on her doorstep then I knew.  Flonnula’s death is the final end for the attack on you and the reason behind Bunge’s murder.”

     She stood up.  “Flonnula, I urge you to contact the police once more and tell them everything you know.”

     The other woman swallowed nervously.  “Is that necessary?”

     Mama Luiz snapped, “Our enemy has killed once.  The landscape of this soul is barren and empty.  A power like that cannot be easily conquered.”

     “I’m not arguing the poing.  I don’t want Gene to be implicated when everything comes out.  How I feel about him is my personal business.”  She began to cry again.

     Mama Luiz patted her arm.  “You are next to die, child, and it will happen tonight.  If you don’t take my advice, I can’t help you.”

     Flonnula’s eyes were red-rimmed.  “All right, Mama Luiz.  I’ll do as you ask.”  She kissed the old woman’s arthritic hand and pressed it against her face.  “Thank you, for caring about me.”

     Mama Luiz stroked the woman’s hair and motioned to me.  “Come, Lilith.  We have another call to make.”

     I followed her out of the apartment block and down a broken sidewalk lined with banana trees.

     Mama Luiz flagged a taxi.  She gave the driver an address in the Garden District, one I recognized as Gene Bluming’s.

     “Mon Dieu, I’m tired,” she said, resting her head back, eyes closed.  “It been a long two days.  The air, it bad with loas.  But maybe we can do what is needed in time.”

     “Mama-La?”

     “Yes, child?”

     “Who did you love when you were young?”

     The cab turned onto St. Charles Avenue.  The houses were stately and grand, but many of the ancient trees bearded with Spanish moss showed white scars from Katrina.

     “Mama?”

     Her answer came slow, as if she were struggling with the awful weight of her memory.

     “He owned a sugarcane plantation in Haiti,” she said low.  “We were lovers.  I wanted to give my soul to him, but I was already deep in de island magic, and it wasn’t fated.”

     “What happened?”

     She looked out the window.  The morning sunlight highlighted the crags of her face.  “He died in a most terrible and tragic way.”

     We passed a clanging streetcar, full of laughing children and tourists.

     I thought that was all I would get out of her when she said, “Ever since I was three years old I have know of the vaudau.  My first ritual service was of the night of a full moon, at the time of my first bleeding.  I danced the Blood Dance and drank a mixture of ewe’s blood, gunpowder and grave dirt.  I became mambo to my people.  I know the importance of shadow-taking.  I can use an effigy to trap a man’s life force.  And I have seen the zombie lurch across a stubbled cane field.”

     The taxi dropped us in front of an antebellum house.  Mama Luiz clutched her leather tote as we walked through an open gate onto a white marble porch.  She removed a black candle from her tote and lighted it.  Each time the flame whipped out as if there were some etheric pressure emanating from the house.

     “This be the place where the evil resides,” she said.

     I rang the doorbell.  Hurried footsteps approached from within.  The door opened, revealing a woman in traditional servant uniform.  She eyed us with suspicion.  “Yes, how may I help you?”

     “We come to speak with the missus of de house.  My name is Domatile Luiz.  I come on a matter of utmost urgency.”

     That sounded melodramatic to me, seeing as how this servant probably knew nothing about Kalfu, but it worked because we were admitted to the parlor and told to wait.  Mama Luiz bent to examine the expensive Persian rug under her feet.

     “Hm.  Good weave,” she observed.

     “Wouldn’t you expect Mr. Bluming and his family to live well?  He makes a lot of money frying chicken and selling biscuits.”

    “Mebbe,” she whispered.  “And mebbe I want them to live.”

     The maid returned.  “Mrs. Bluming is in her workshop.  If you’ll come this way, please.”

     We were brought to an annex filled with shelves of bright coral, sponges, bubbling filtration systems, and dozens of tanks of sparkling seawater.  There were sea horses, scorpion fish, and bright blue damsels.  The centerpiece was a one hundred gallon aquarium full of triggerfish.  Directly above that was a smaller tank filled with globefish.

     Almira Bluming put down a trowel used to sculpt gravel.  She had moderate good looks and an air of superiority that often comes with great wealth.  She wiped her hands on her smock and greeted us with a welcoming smile.

     “Mama Luiz,” she said, “I’ve heard of you.  I visited your botanica once, many months ago.  This is indeed a pleasure, meeting one of New Orleans’ living treasures.”

     Mama Luiz ignored the offered hand, and, quick as a cobra, slapped Almira before I could move a muscle.

     Almira pressed a hand to her reddening cheek, her mouth open with shock.

     “You stupid cow,” Mama Luiz hissed.  “Did you think you could get away with it?”

     Almira swallowed hard, her eyes wide.  “You’re a crazy woman!  You get out of my house right now, both of you, before I call the police.”

     “They’re already on their way, my dear,” Mama Luiz said.  “When they read the toxicology report on Jim Bunge, learn Flonnula secretly loved Mr. Bluming, and find your car wit’ de damaged fender, even Daubigny will put two and three together.”

     Almira looked at me wildly.  “She’s insane.  She should be locked in a rubber room!”

      “You ran Lilith over.  You killed that drifter, Jim Bunge, the one who made the altars to open the spiritual doors to Kalfu.  Altars, I may add, built with props bought from my own botanica.  I can recognize the markings on my own candles!”

     Mama Luiz trembled with rage.  “But you did something even worse.  You subverted my religion by committing murder, and for dat I will never forgive you.”

     Mama Luiz took a threatening step forward.  “Where is de poison, Mrs. Bluming?”

      Backing away she licked her lips.  “What poison?” 

     “The tetrodotoxin used to kill Jim Bunge.  The poison you were planning to kill Flonnula with because you were jealous of her love for your husband.”

     Almira’s face went white.  She stumbled against a wooden stool as the strength was cut from her legs.  “My God,” she rasped, “you know, don’t you?”

     “When I saw the dead man’s face, I knew.  I once’t saw a face like dat many years ago, on a man dear to me.  Tetrodotoxin is a globefish poison used for zombification.  An evil anesthetic, but it can’t be used unless the right doors between worlds are opened.  You opened those doors and then you had to test it on someone, to find the right dosage.  Jim Bunge was a drifter.  He could move like a ghost from city to city building the altars for you, trying to find the right place to call Kalfu.  It so happened it was also scaring the Haitian drivers, an unexpected consequence which brought me into de problem.  Only at the place where the secret love hid, there would Kalfu come.  But when Bunge’s usefulness ran out you removed him as a witness.”

     “Then why run me over?” I asked Mama Luiz.  “I didn’t know Jim Bunge.  And why build the altars at the other stores if she already knew about Flonnula?”

     Mama Luiz frowned.  “Murder always begets murder.  Gene Bluming had called home that morning and told Almira what was happening; a reasonable thing for a husband to do.  She knew I would recognize my own candles, even if I wouldn’t know who bought them, or when.  As for the other Pik-a-Chik stores, the altars were put there as an alibi.”

      “Yes,” Almira confessed, “I found your number on Gene’s desk the day before.  I was afraid of you.  I hoped if I hurt Lilith you would be so full of sorrow you wouldn’t think clearly.”  Her eyes sought mine.  “I’m glad you weren’t killed, Lilith.  It was terrible, following you in that car.”

      “Thanks for the sentiment.”

      Mama Luiz interjected, “What she says is true, child.  Her one goal was Flonnula.  Remember the party?  I have no doubt Flonnula was unable to hide her strong feelings for Gene.  A woman, especially a wife, can sense these things, like a spider senses the trembling of the web.”

     “I’ve never lost a fight in my entire life,” Almira said with stubbornness.  She pushed back a wisp of hair with the back of her hand.  “I wasn’t about to let a younger woman steal my husband from me.”

      “Flonnula loved your husband, yes, but she was determined to walk away from it.  Like another girl I once had the pleasure of knowing.”  Her face hardened.  “Where is dat tetrodotoxin?  Lilith has a broken arm, but she can turn you inside out with her wing chun skills.  Buddhist nun she may be, but she’s not fanatical about it.”

     “Count on that,” I told Mrs. Bluming.

     With trembling hands Almira unlocked a mahogany cabinet with brass fittings.  She presented a glass phial of grainy powder.  Mama Luiz unstoppered the phial and took a careful sniff.  “Yes, dat’s the drug.  The one I remember.  Bad stuff.  Worse memories.”

     “And Kalfu?” I asked.  “What do we do about him?”

      Mama Luiz shrugged as she pocketed the powder.  “We have unmasked his counterpart during the day.  Without de altar, and the bitterness of the soul upon which to feed, he can no longer return.  Flonnula is safe.”

      Almira turned away as if she didn’t want to face us.  She crossed her arms under her breasts, her fists clenched.  “I was going to use it on her tonight.  I was going to make another altar outside her apartment and draw her out.  Then we would see how Gene liked her.  She, stumbling around like a mind-blown zombie the rest of her life.”  Her voice hardened with resolve.  “I would have, too, if you hadn’t interfered, you old swamp cat.”

     Almira spun around and tore a pair of scissors from a shelf.  She rushed at Mama Luiz.  I stepped into her path and brought my right forearm around her neck.  Using my hip as a fulcrum, my palm under her jaw so I could thumb the bundle of nerves below her ear, I brought her down on the floor as hard as I could.  I kept the side of my foot against her neck, cocked with enough pressure to let her know I could break it anytime I wished.

     Almira looked up at me, her eyes flooding with tears of frustration.  She nodded, beaten.  Mama Luiz calmly removed the scissors from her limp hand and returned them to the shelf.

     I helped Almira to her feet.  Her shoulders sagged as she rubbed her sore jaw.  “I had to try,” she mumbled, her dark hair tousled around her white face.  “You can’t blame me for that.”

     Before Mama Luiz could respond the maid rushed into the workshop.  “Ma’am,” she stammered, “the police are here.  They say they have a warrant for your arrest!”

     Loud footsteps pounded down the hallway.

     Mama Luiz grinned at me, gap-toothed.  “Well, Lilith, it seems even Lieutenant Daubigny can put two and three together.”  Her face fell with all seriousness.  “But, I never did get my biscuits.”

 
 

About the Author

 
Kenneth Mark Hoover
 

Kenneth Mark Hoover has appeared in various print and online magazines such as Fantastic Stories, Strange Horizons, Challenging Destiny, Drops of Crimson and many others.

In 2005 his first novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press. The novel sold out its first print run and received several good reviews. He is currently working on short stories and meets another writer twice a week at a coffee shop where they write together, vent, and talk about publishing. He lives in Dallas, TX.

   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.