“Please take a seat,” Maryse said, and sat down in a high-backed leather chair, motioning to the three wicker chairs that sat across from a round, fortune-teller style table.
“I’ll stand,” Maximus volunteered, as if that made him a better man or something.
Maryse gave him a look, one I couldn’t read. She wasn’t impressed either way, and I wondered if she was going to start pointing at him in horror again and calling him mortal.
“Now, tell me Rose, what is it that is life and death and so magnificently important.” She crossed her bony white hands in front of her. Curiously, she had gold and silver rings on all of her hands with all sorts of gemstones. The weight of some of them looked like they’d break her fingers in two.
“Well,” Rose began, and then looked at Maximus. He launched into what happened at the bar last night, then into his side of things at the house, and paused when it came time to tell her what I saw. Then we finished it up with the zombie of Tuffy G coming after Perry, me beating him with a floor lamp, and him running straight out the window and falling to his death number two.
“Oh,” I added, “then I guess I knocked over the candles in the attic, because the attic went up in flames, and we all ran out of the house and pretty much came straight here. And to answer your question before you ask it, no I didn’t see any names on the candles.”
“What did the candles smell like?” she asked.
Was she kidding me?
“Like Eau du Zombie. I don’t know.”
She pursed her wrinkled lips until they almost disappeared into her skin. I tried not to grimace. She got up and shuffled over to a shelf of oils and pulled one off of it. She popped the top and came over to me, holding it under my nose.
“Does this smell familiar?” she asked impatiently.
I breathed in. It did. That cloyingly sweet smell, like baby powder.
“Yeah, I guess it smelled like that. A bit more coppery though.”
“The blood from the poor snake,” Maryse said, sitting back down. “That was the copper smell. What was rubbed on all the candles was Follow Me Boy oil. Calamus root.”
“Follow Me Boy oil?” Perry asked incredulously.
“I was expecting something more sinister than that,” I added.
Maryse wasn’t amused. “It is called that because sex workers in the city would apply it in order to get ahead of the competition, so to speak. Every brothel had this for their ladies. It’s supposed to work on sexual attraction, but the key component is dominance and control. Most likely, those candles were probably meant for the deceased man.”
“Could the candles have been for any of us?” Perry asked.
She considered that. “It’s possible. But considering zombies have to be controlled by someone, I would think they were there to ensure he followed through. That said, it is interesting that they were black candles. We call them black devils. Usually, if you anoint a black devil with a commanding type of oil, you’re asking for revenge or retribution against someone. Or you’re just being a jerk.”
So either the zombie went after Perry on purpose because her name was on the candle, or the zombie’s name was on the candle, the person controlling him going after their own sort of revenge. It didn’t really matter since we would never find out, although Ambrosia and Tuffy did have history together. Perhaps she was after revenge.
The thought was ludicrous, the idea terribly elaborate. Still, because I knew Perry was thinking it, I decided to voice it out loud.
“Maryse, do you think it’s possible that Ambrosia could be involved in any of this?”
Perry smiled while Maximus let out an audible gasp. Maryse didn’t look too surprised, however.
“I can see how you’d think that, since she and I are closest to you. But in order to do what you say happened, what you’re suggesting, you have to be very powerful. Ambrosia hasn’t finished her training, she has years left before she’s considered a Mambo. To be frank with you, I don’t think she has it in her to do it, energy wise nor personality wise. She’s a sweet, kind girl.”
That was true all right. Very sweet, kind, beautiful. A flash of her smile, the feel of her skin.
Perry spoke up, snapping me out of it. “But what if she was working with someone else? Helping another Mambo behind your back?”
Maryse narrowed her eyes at the thought. “I hate to think that but I suppose it’s possible. I’ll keep an eye on her over the next while, how about that? Last thing I want is to be blindsided by my own pupil.”
“And what about you?” I asked.
“What about me?”
“Obviously you have the power to do all this, to raise the dead. You know we’re here and what we’re up to.”
“I suppose you would think the world revolves around you, wouldn’t you?” she asked.
“These zombie rituals are nothing new in New Orleans, and even now, this has been apparently happening for some time before you got here. To think that they are now focused on you is absurd. And no, I am not the one behind it. Contrary to what everyone thinks of me, I am not a Bokor, I do not and have never used my skills for evil. I am a dying woman, as you can see, and I barely have any energy to keep on living. Doing any of those hoodoos would kill me instantly. The most I can do for myself right now is that.”
She nodded to a side table where a yarn poppet had a nail sticking out of it. An honest to God Voodoo doll.
“Who is that?” Maximus asked suspiciously.
“I don’t know who it is,” she said, folding her frail arms against herself. It was colder down in the cellar. “But it is a Nkondi. Traditionally, it is used to hunt down evil sorcerers or threats to the Voodoo community. Here I have used it to drive my illness back to the spellcaster, whoever he or she might be.”
“You believe your illness is a…a curse?” Perry asked.
Maryse nodded then focused her eyes on her. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I would love to talk to the two gentleman alone here.”
Maximus and I exchanged a worried look. What the hell did the Mambo want with us?
I guess Perry and Rose were thinking the same thing, because they were staring at her in confusion.
Maryse gestured to Rose. “Please, Rose, take your friend here and go upstairs and wait for us. Shut the door behind you and try not to wake Ambrosia.”
Rose and Perry slowly got out their chairs, Perry’s eyes wild with fear for me. I gave her a tight-lipped smile and a nod.
They reluctantly left the room. I could feel them glancing over their shoulder as they ascended the stairs until the cellar door closed behind them.
“So,” Maryse said, turning a wicked smile toward me. “Dex Foray. I suppose you’d like to find out who your friend here really is.”
Maximus stiffened, his eyes downcast. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. A thousand suspicions from thousands of moments clouded my head.
She continued, calmly staring at me, knowing she held all the cards. “And why of course you’re the exception.”
I chewed on my lips, wondering if I should take the bait or if this was going to end up being a colossal waste of my time. There was nothing that Maryse could know about me, certainly nothing about the two of us. “An exception to what?”
She sat back in her chair and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette and matches from underneath the table. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked, even though I knew she’d do it regardless. I shrugged. She lit the match on the table and took a long hard drag. Suddenly I wanted one too, more than anything. I was sick of seeing it around me lately, tired of trying to be so good. She must have noticed my pitiful eyes because she handed me the cigarette and pulled out another one for herself. “You’ll probably need that anyway.”
I inhaled and was met with the comfortable arms of an old friend. My eyes closed, rolling back, and I let out a delicious exhale. It was so wrong to fall back into it after quitting, after trying to be a better man, but Dex 1.0 was somewhere still inside me.
Maryse cleared her throat and I opened my eyes, my nerves and endorphins buzzing pleasantly. I had forgotten what was really going on. The smoke we blew out curled around our heads in silky patterns. Maximus was silent, still tense, still waiting for whatever Maryse was going to say.
“An exception to what?” I asked her again, not wanting to get too sidetracked.
She exhaled slowly. “I’m a somewhat ordinary human being. My story isn’t so different from anyone else’s. I was never born with the ability to see ghosts like you, Dex. It isn’t in my blood. What is in my blood is this connection to the occult, to things that lie beyond what we can see. I’ve always been open to it, always been curious, always wanted answers. My mother was a Mambo herself and she taught me well, taught me skills that I would have never picked up on my own. I don’t possess any real supernatural talent, although I can predict the future on occasion. Not because I can see it, but because I can feel others telling me. I am nobody special unfortunately, just an old woman with a lot of practice and a lot of knowledge in how to harness the magic, the energy, that’s around us. That is who I am.
“Over the years, my work has brought me into many people’s lives. I’ve met dead loved ones at séances, have done readings for rock stars that made deals with the devil. I cleanse houses of evil entities and I practice healing Reiki on poppets. I’ve made loves spells for couples who ended up being married until death did them apart. I’ve brought luck to people who have paid me for it. I’ve gone to Senegal to learn how to make a proper gris-gris, or mojo hand.
“Along the way I’ve been introduced to the lives of people who are much more…gifted…than I am. My eyes have been opened to worlds within our own, worlds I never knew existed, beings who were beyond my scope of the St. Michael the Archangel or Yon Sue. Beings like your friend beside you, Maximus Jacobs.”
I swallowed, my throat feeling thick, and eyed the familiar ginger next to me. He stared at the table, expression frozen.
She had called him a being.
Maryse went on matter-of-factly. “Maximus is not his real name, he chose that himself. His name is Jacob and he is a descendant of all the Jacobs. Now, what is a Jacob? Well, I didn’t quite know either. The closest thing I knew to them would be the spirit guides and guardians from Haitian Voodoo. But I suppose every culture has their own version of the truth.”
She looked up at Maximus. “Are you sure you don’t want to explain this all yourself?”
He met her eyes, his voice hard. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because it’s time, don’t you think? The three of you are here and there are no coincidences. If you want to warn Dex here about what could happen, you will have to come clean as well. You can tell half the truth, even if you fear he wouldn’t believe you. Even if you fear that you’ve been lying to him this whole time.”
My mouth was so dry, but I was able to say, “Warn me about what?”
He glanced at me, shaking his head. “I already tried.”