The window in the attic shattered, the sound competing with the noisy truck as we roared off, and I wondered if it was the heat that caused it or if someone had broken the window, trying to escape. And if it were the latter, should I have felt relieved or not?
Maximus drove like a madman out of the neighborhood, all of us silent and breathing hard, pulses racing.
Perry turned around in her seat to look at me. “What happened upstairs, Dex? Where did he come from?”
“Aside from a fresh grave? I don’t know.” I explained to them what I saw in the attic, the circle of candles, the live snake pinned to the ground, the hanging chicken feet, then Tuffy G rising from the corner of the room, glassy-eyed and enraged. I left out the part about my mother. They would have thought I was nuts.
“I captured it all, I think. Until he started running at me and then I just ran like hell.”
“Leading him to me. My god, I thought I was done for,” she said with a shiver. “He was dead but he wasn’t dead. I saw him on the machine for just a second before I dropped it. He was orange-red, just like the rest of us.” She was still visibly upset but she was handling herself a lot better than I was. My gut was twisted up over the image of him manhandling her, over what depraved thing could have happened if Maximus and I hadn’t acted fast, while my brain was warped over what I’d witnessed in the attic, the candles, the animals, my mother, the pull of the house, the salt.
“This couldn’t have been an accident,” I said suddenly. “Someone knew we were going there.”
“No shit,” Maximus said dryly.
“Well if that’s what you’re thinking, then why aren’t we talking about it, huh?”
“I still think it’s Ambrosia,” Perry said stiffly.
Maximus’s eyes flew to the mirror to meet mine. I knew we were thinking the same thing, that Perry didn’t like Ambrosia, so of course she’d think that of her. But call it a gut feeling, I knew Ambrosia meant no harm.
“Ambrosia’s not capable of that,” Maximus told her. “She doesn’t have the power, she’s not even been initiated into the Societe La Belle Venus yet. She has years and years to go.”
“Who told you that?” she asked.
Perry crossed her arms in a huff. “You’re both thinking with your dicks.”
I nearly laughed. When didn’t I think with my dick? But there were better times to make jokes and this wasn’t one of them, not when a zombie nearly tried to munch on my girlfriend.
I exhaled and sat back, trying to calm myself and go over what had just happened, when I noticed we were passing the bed and breakfast.
I tapped Maximus on the shoulder. “Where are we going?”
He eyed me sternly in the mirror. “We’re going to get Rose. And then we’re going to see Maryse. I want some damn answers.”
Rose was visibly worried when we pulled her from her bar duties, enough that she didn’t mind leaving Nameless to one of her newer employees while she got in the truck with us and headed out to the bayou.
We told her everything from start to finish, but she was particularly interested in what I saw upstairs.
“What color were the candles?” she asked.
“Black. Some were red. But most were black.”
“Did they have names carved on them?”
I leaned my elbows onto my knees and eyed her as she drove, Maximus now riding shotgun. “Why yes, while this fucking snake was dying a painful death in the middle of the room, the chicken feet were swaying in the imaginary breeze, and I saw a dead man rise from behind a full-length mirror that reflected nothing back, I decided I had enough time to pick up one of the candles and get a better look at it. I wanted to know if it was scented or not.” She stared at me blankly. “No, I never saw if there were names carved on them.”
“Did they look oily?”
I frowned, remembering that they had. “More so than normal. I thought maybe it was the wax.”
“Maybe, maybe not. It could be sacred oils. Maryse will tell us.”
Maryse might be behind all this, I wanted to say. I bit my lip and sat back. Perry wrapped her arm around mine.
Soon we were coasting down the bumpy dirt road lit only by Rose’s headlights. The dark trees and swamp water flew past us, and I could only imagine what we’d see if we swung the lights that way. Probably a sea of glowing eyes, watching our every move, waiting for the next bite.
Rose parked the truck beside Maryse’s house and tossed us the mosquito spray again. “Cover your mouths and noses and spray it in here. You’ll get eaten alive the minute you step out of the car.” While we coated ourselves with it, coughing at the toxicity, she pulled two flashlights out of the center console, keeping one for herself and giving me the other. “Don’t want you taking a wrong turn and stepping into the swamp.”
“Is there anything in this city that won’t try and take a bite out of you?” Perry mumbled as we got out of the truck. The whine of the insects was everywhere, buzzing dangerously close to my ears. Despite how badly I stank to them, I still felt a few of them stinging at my neck and arms.
We huddled after Rose, sticking tightly to the path, and walked up to the screened porch. Before we entered, she aimed her flashlight at the water. I was right. There were eyes in the water looking at us. There was also Ambrosia’s air boat. Perry made a grumbling sound at the sight and I patted her shoulder, hoping that would make her feel better somehow and fully knowing that it wouldn’t.
For her sake, I decided I’d try and look at Ambrosia through her eyes and try not to discount her as easily as I wanted to. It was hard trying to think like Perry and see her in a not-so-flattering light but I did it.
We walked inside the house; Rose didn’t even bother to knock.
“Hello?” she said as we stood in the foyer and I slowly shut the front door behind us. I heard things skittering about on the porch and didn’t want them running inside with us, whatever they were. I wondered if there was a rodent problem in these parts and if Voodoo priestesses ever used them for whatever rituals they did.
A cat meowed from the corner of the darkened living room, scaring the shit out of me again.
“It’s just Mojo,” Rose explained in a hush. She aimed her flashlight over to where the cat was and we all sucked in our breath in unison.
Maryse was sitting in an armchair, upright, eyes glinting as she stared at us. A black cat was in her arms. I was starting to think this was a bad idea, no matter how badly we wanted answers. Then I remembered Tuffy G going after Perry and I swallowed down my fear and stood my ground.
“Maryse,” Rose said breathlessly, “you scared us.”
Suddenly the lamp beside Maryse switched on and the room was illuminated. It looked the same as before, except for Maryse’s more or less lifeless body and the squinty-eyed cat on her lap. Both of them took their time to glare at every single one of us.
Maryse sucked at her dentures. “I scared you? How do you think I feel with four nitwits walking into my house at midnight? A little warning would have been nice.”
“We’re sorry, Mambo,” Rose said, remembering the formality. “We’ve come here to talk to you about something very important. I know you don’t want to see us again but this is a matter of life or death.”
She kept watching us, me especially, and then sighed. “I guess I was a little rude last time, wasn’t I? But you know how I get when I’m woken up from my nap. Now what is so urgent that this couldn’t wait until morning? You’re lucky I was just in a trance and not sleeping.”
“Sorry,” Rose apologized again, and it struck me how much she acted like a young girl when she was around the Mambo. The hardened, tough-as-nails Rose was gone. It was almost refreshing, except Rose’s strength in the situation probably would have put me more at ease.
“Where is Ambrosia?” Rose asked.
Maryse narrowed her eyes. “Why?”
“Is she here?”
“Yes. She’s in her room sleeping.”
“I didn’t know she lived here all the time now.”
Maryse waved at her dismissively. “Good care is hard to come by. I teach Ambrosia and she takes care of me. I haven’t left the house in two years, you know?”
“Excuse me,” Perry said politely. “I’ve had to pee since New Orleans. Could I use your bathroom?”
Maryse eyed her with disdain but nodded down the hall. “Second door, child.”
Perry flashed her an apologetic smile and walked down the hall.
“Is there somewhere we could talk?” Rose asked.
“Is here not good enough?”
Rose shook her head but didn’t elaborate.
Maryse sighed and got out of her seat, the cat leaping to the ground. You could almost hear her bones creaking. Her long, scraggly grey hair hung around her skinny face. In the lamplight you could see just how sick and old she was. Her face was drawn and ashen, her mouth lined with a million wrinkles. Only her eyes remained sharp, even though they’d clouded over slightly, like an old dog’s who still knew a few tricks.
“Very well. Follow me.” She gingerly made her way to the hallway, back hunched over, and turned on the flickering overhead lights just as Perry was coming out the bathroom, looking flushed and up to no good. Maryse squinted at her again and we went down the hall, Perry tagging behind me.
“What is it?” I whispered at her. “Pee smell funny?”
She looked disappointed. “I wanted to see if Ambrosia really was in her room.” She nodded at the closed door beside Maryse’s bedroom. “She is. Sleeping.”
I felt strangely smug that Perry was wrong, because if Ambrosia was here the whole time, she probably hadn’t set up the Voodoo lab in the attic, which meant that was one suspect we could cross off the list.
Maryse opened a narrow door at the very end of the hall, one I had assumed was a linen closet, but it looked cavernous until she pulled on a hanging lightbulb and began to descend down a set of stairs.
“Aren’t we going underwater?” I whispered to Maximus, who was in front of me, but the stairs were only four feet deep and we found ourselves in a cellar of sorts.
A cellar of horrors.
The ground was sawdust, perhaps rock underneath, and the air was filled with a mix of competing smells—sweet and cloying, damp and musky, rich and smoky. The walls were painted red and filled with every imaginable Voodoo horror you could imagine. There were shrines in all corners of the room, statues covered in beads and jewelry, mounds of candles in every color, poppet dolls made of yarn and tribal-patterned cloths, tied together with string. There were skulls—humans and animals—hanging on the red-painted walls, along with various tribal masks. Mason jars filled with herbs, spices, and who knows what were lined up on shelves. If the veranda was the overstock room, this was where all the magic happened. Pun intended.
We were all silent, looking around us in awe, even Rose, who looked more respectful than anything else. I began to wonder how much Voodoo had rubbed off on her from being around the Mambo for so many years.