Rose took us around the corner to a half-empty parking lot near a venue called One-Eyed Jacks. which she assured us was the best place to see live music. She said she saw Queens of the Stone Age play there to only 900 people. I decided I hated Rose after that.
She drove an old crew cab truck that was cherry red and rusted in parts. It groaned and creaked as she eased it out of the Quarter and around numerous detours from endless construction work, but assured us that the old beast would probably outlive her. It was funny hearing her speak. At times Rose looked and acted like she was our age, but at others she came across as a toughened old lady. Maybe that’s what Maximus had meant by her becoming harder. Maybe whatever life threw at her, whether it was Maximus or owning a bar, or seeing the supernatural, just made her wiser. I didn’t think it was possible to be both soft and experienced—your battles caused the scar tissue. I knew I definitely had mine.
“Where does Mambo Maryse live?” Perry asked as Rose pulled the noisy car onto the I-10. We were sitting in the crew cab together and I was having a flashback to the days when we were first getting to know each other and we had to share the back of her cousin’s truck with a crab trap. Had never been so thankful for a crab trap in my life.
“She had a nice place on the outskirts of town, used to do readings there back in the day. But after Katrina, her place was damaged. She moved further West, a house on the bayou.”
“By herself?” Maximus asked. “Isn’t she ancient? When I last saw her she looked like she was going to keel over.”
Rose shot him a dry look. “She’s stronger than she looks. She has her apprentice taking care of her now. She lives in a cabin further out in the swamp water, the kind you have to take an air boat to get to. Anyway, she’s living with Maryse now, well most of the time.”
“So how did you get to know this Mambo?” I asked, watching as the industrial buildings melted away into endless stretches of swamp water, duck blinds, and billboards.
Rose eyed me in the rear view mirror, her eyes mirroring the grey water around us. “My family was very much into the occult. Well, my ma was. Dad was a cattle farmer and just turned a blind eye. She never practiced Voodoo but it fascinated her. She got to know Mambo Maryse in the eighties, stayed friends with her until she died. Then I stayed friends with her. My ma was an immigrant so she didn’t have any family on this side. I looked to Maryse as a viper-tongued maw-maw, a grandmother, especially after my dad died too.”
“Sounds like my kind of woman,” I told her. “But you said she’s sick now?”
“They say old age, and I reckon that makes sense, but…”
“You don’t believe it,” Perry filled in.
Rose brushed her hair back but it wouldn’t respond, her frizziness mocking her. “It just doesn’t feel right. I’ve tried talking to Maryse about the illness, about what’s ailing her, but even last week she said it was just her time. She said…the stress was too much.”
“Mambos have stress?” I asked.
“Ones that are being shunned by the community? Yeah, they have stress, sugar.”
Maximus looked at her askance. “Shunned?”
Rose exhaled slowly. “The last two years or so, the other Mambos have been accusing her of being a Bokor, like the person who’s raising the dead and creating the zombies. I don’t really know why. Maryse hasn’t done anything then and she certainly isn’t doing anything now.”
Huh. Well that was at least a little suspicious. The Voodoo community shuns this Mambo a few years ago for going to the “dark side,” now she’s ill and zombies are tearing up the ghetto.
I glanced at Perry, wondering if she was thinking the same thing. Her brow was furrowed, the wheels spinning; it was safe to say we were on the same page.
We lapsed into silence after that, Rose glancing at us on occasion, as if she could see the suspicion on our faces. After a while, the tension was too much for the giant jackass ginger and he started asking Rose about the people who used to work at the bar, harmless small talk, although I could sense rehashing the past was a bit leaden for both of them.
Fortunately, the Mambo’s house wasn’t too far outside the city limits. It was amazing how quickly the landscape changed, how the dark, murky waters, flocks of birds, and weeping trees took over civilization in an instant. Rose turned the truck onto a dirt road and we bounced down it, my eyes torn between the beauty of the dark swamp around us and the beauty of Perry’s bouncing breasts.
The further we went, the more it looked like we’d never see a human soul again, until finally, rising up like a beacon, was a small, one-level house, bright white with green trim and a screened-in porch. The swamp water lapped a few feet away, and I noticed a low makeshift wall of sandbags sat between it and the house. There was also a small dock with a metal air boat on one side and a rowboat with peeling paint on the other. The inlet was flanked by drooping trees rising right out of the water, white egrets flapping noisily to and fro. Crickets and unknown insects chirped loudly, despite it being afternoon.
We parked the car beside two others, a small rusted Toyota and a brand new Range Rover.
“Does she have company over?” I asked.
She shook her head as she jumped out of the truck. “As I said, she’s shunned. Ambrosia keeps her Rover here since you can’t drive to her cabin anyway.”
She tried to a hide a smile. “Ambrosia Paris. It’s the name of her apprentice.”
That figured. I got out and was immediately met with the musty stench of the water, which was enjoyable in a weird way. I was also met with the sudden whine and pinch of mosquitoes.
I slapped my arm in several places, swearing. Mosquitoes were my nemesis these days. Back when I was on my medication, they never even bothered me, yet lately it was like my pure blood had been attracting them like crazy and now I was in Malaria City.
Rose leaned into the truck and pulled something out of the glove compartment. She tossed it at me and I caught it. Good ol’ fashioned Off!
“I don’t even get bitten anymore,” she said, “but you three won’t be so lucky. Spray yourself up.”
I clouded myself in a toxic mist and did the same to Perry before reluctantly giving the spray to Maximus. I guess it was more like I threw the spray at him, aiming it at his head. Big dumb oaf had quicker reflexes than I gave him credit for.
We waited for him to finish, then walked up to the house, following a stone path lined with translucent, reddish flowers that were shaped like bells. Butt ugly landscaping, if you asked me.
“Carnivorous plants,” Rose said, nodding at them with a grin. I was starting to get a distinct Little Shop of Horrors vibe from the place and the feeling doubled once we climbed up the steps and opened the rickety screen door to the porch.
The porch was lined with plant after plant after plant, some hanging from the roof, others seeming to grow straight up from the ground, breaking through the slats on the porch floor. There was also a mess of dried herbs, a bunch of jars filled with thick goo and what looked like embalmed reptiles, and a small fridge that hummed in the corner. I didn’t want to know what was in there.
Rose rapped on the glass door while my eyes were still searching the porch for more weirdness. I found it when I recognized a few beehives stacked in beneath a large Venus fly trap.
“Those don’t have bees, do they?” I asked. “Because I’m allergic. Seriously allergic.” And though I’d packed the Epi-Pen in my luggage, I hadn’t been smart enough to bring it with me. Then again, I didn’t know we’d been venturing out into an honest to God Voodoo hut on a bayou.
Rose shook her head. “They’ve been empty for a long time. Maryse used to use the beeswax for a lot of things.”
I swallowed hard, trying to slow my heart. That whole thing put me on edge and I had to remind myself that Maryse probably wasn’t much different from our old Medicine Man friend, Bird.
The door opened and I was expecting to see some horrible haggard old witch. Instead it was a smiling young woman. I was actually a bit taken aback. This woman was smoking hot.
“Hello, Rose,” she said in a very light Creole accent. She smiled brighter at the rest of us. “You must be the ghost hunters. I’m Ambrosia. Won’t you come in?”
Hell yes, we’d come in if she was showing us the way. She was a very light-skinned African American with pale green eyes, tall in stature. Her hair was shiny and wavy, rich like dark chocolate, going all the way to her ass. And what an ass. It was one of those shelf ones you were tempted to place something on, just to see if it would stay. I could bounce fucking nickels off that thing, if not smack it a few times with my dick.
I felt coldness from beside me and looked down at Perry, who was looking straight at Ambrosia with a worried look in her eyes, her lips pressed into a thin line. Ah shit, I’d been ogling the woman, hadn’t I? Jenn had never cared who I ogled, but Perry wasn’t built like that. I had to keep my old habits in check when I was around her and remember that she was a lot more insecure than she looked.
I put my arm around her and gave her a squeeze while I introduced us to Ambrosia.
“I’m Dex, this is my girlfriend Perry.” I looked over at Maximus. “That’s Maximus Douchekabob. It’s a foreign-sounding last name, but he’s actually from here.”
Maximus glared at me before offering Ambrosia his hand and a shy smile. Well, wouldn’t you believe it, Maximus was smitten with her as well. I guess he wasn’t the racist redneck I’d pegged him out to be.
We followed Ambrosia inside and I did my best to keep my eyes off her jean-clad ass. I kept them on Perry’s breasts instead and it worked out even better.
Maryse’s place was fairly large for being one-level, though it suffered from the same amount of controlled chaos and clutter as the porch did. Thankfully there was nothing of the heebie jeebie variety inside, just stacks and stacks of books and magazines, floral upholstery, watercolor landscapes, doilies, lace, dolls, and dust.
“Why don’t you take a seat,” Ambrosia gestured to the couch, the gold bracelets around her slender wrists jangling. “I’ll go see if Maryse would like to see you.”
She disappeared down a dark hall, and Rose, Perry, and I took a seat on the flowery couch while Maximus tried to fit his frame into a wicker rocking chair. We waited for a few tense minutes, all of us taking in the sights of the house, except for Rose of course, who was texting someone on her phone.
When I got bored trying to figure out what kind of reading material a Voodoo priestess tried to keep herself busy with (books on chicken sacrifice, and romance novels, probably), my mind drifted over to Maximus. He was sitting there in the rocker, awkwardly I might add, and avoiding my eyes. Which was just as well, I’d been avoiding his eyes too. But the words from the morning kept filtering into my head like tiny drops of acid, making me pay attention to them. Even though I couldn’t figure out the why aspect of what Maximus had told me, other than he was an obsessed psycho, it was the way he said it that was getting to me. He had been sincere, and when he said he was worried about us, he meant it. And that was the scariest thing of all.