Gripping the gun in my right hand, I creep slowly along the hallway. Lightning flashes, causing spider-black shadows to leap and crawl across the floorboards and walls. High above the rain-drenched rooftops of New Orleans, thunder roars and bellows like an enormous wounded beast.
As I approach my son’s bedroom, I see that the door is ajar. The sight causes fear to wash through my body like a wave of freezing-cold water.
I know that I closed the door before going to bed.
I want to break into a run now – to charge forward and burst into the room and confront whatever awaits me – but dread of what horror I might find keeps my trembling limbs in check.
Forcing myself forward, I reach the door, stretch out my free hand and begin to push it open.
It’s then that I hear the voice.
Bienvenue, mon ami. I been waiting for you. Long time I been waiting.
The words are spoken almost in a whisper and ooze with a sly malice that causes my skin to prickle as if punctured by a million tiny needles.
Cocking the hammer of the revolver, I push the door open and step inside.
At first there is only darkness, but a moment later lightning suffuses the room with stuttering white light. My son is not in his bed, I see. But there is something. It is squatting on the blankets, its bony knees jutting upwards almost to the level of its shoulders. Around its emaciated body is wrapped some kind of ragged apron. In its hands it is holding what looks to be a large wooden bowl. The thing grins at me with an impossibly wide mouth filled with sharp, predatory teeth.
I likes the soft parts, mon ami. The eyes is good. Et les ti couilles – I likes the taste of their little balls.
The lightning is strobing now, causing the hideous apparition to appear and disappear as though it is blinking in and out of existence. I watch as it points a long, gnarled finger towards the center of the room.
Nice boy, it croons. Tasty boy.
My son is lying on his back, his face pale and motionless in the flickering storm-light. In the place where his eyes should be there are only two terrible gaping holes.
As I aim the gun at the creature I am screaming. Or maybe it is only the sound of the storm. I no longer know. Or care.
The monster does not flinch. Rather, a look of eager anticipation spreads across its hateful face.
Then there is an enormous flash of white light and everything goes black.
When I come to, my wife is standing by the bedroom door, our three-year-old son, Billy, gripped tightly under her left arm. Billy is wiping sleep from his eyes. My wife’s eyes are filled with anger and terror. In her free hand she is holding a baseball bat – the one that she insists on keeping under our bed in case of intruders. As she points it at me, I see that there’s blood on the heavy end of the shaft. My blood.
“A gun, Tom? Given all that’s happened, you buy a fucking gun? I’m taking Billy to my parents. Don’t follow us. Don’t come near us.”
“Linda, I’m okay now. I―”
“No, Tom, you’re not okay! You almost shot him! You almost shot our son! Is that what you want? Do you want him to end up like the others? This has to end, Tom!! It has to fucking END!!!”
But she’s not listening. I watch as she turns and carries Billy from the room.
I sit there on the floor, my bruised and bloody head throbbing with pain.
My wife is right.
This does have to end.
This has to end tonight.
As one of the hospital’s senior anesthetists, I have a space reserved in the staff parking lot. Climbing out of the car into the wind and rain, my eyes are drawn to two empty slots that sit side-by-side not far from my own. Until recently, one belonged to a surgeon called Joseph Mailor, the other to the hospital’s chief surgical nurse, a British woman named Elizabeth Cowan.
Neither Joe nor Liz has any use for parking spaces anymore.
Joe’s body was dredged out of the Mississippi five days ago, the police having mounted a search after finding his car abandoned near the quay. When they pulled his corpse into the boat, they were surprised to find that it was dressed in a pair of three-hundred-dollar silk pajamas.
Joe always did like his little luxuries.
Liz Cowan’s story is worse. Much worse.
Liz climbed out of bed in the middle of the night and cooked her eight-month-old daughter alive in her brand new, super-deluxe, fan-assisted oven. Her husband found the body when he arrived home from his nightshift in a local meatpacking plant. Word is she placed the baby in a big, non-stick baking tray along with some neatly peeled potatoes, some chopped carrots and a couple of skinned white radishes All the trimmings of the traditional British Sunday roast. She even did the washing up before going back to bed.
Unlike Joe, Liz is still alive. If you can call being under heavy sedation in a padded cell life.
I go in through the door of the emergency department. Even at one o’clock on a Wednesday morning the waiting room is full to overflowing. As I walk into the restricted area beyond, the security guard gives me a small nod of recognition. On the surface, he seems friendly and relaxed, but in his eyes I detect a faint specter of unease. I’m not surprised. Bad news is common in hospitals – an everyday part of life – but multiple cases of violent death involving the staff are not.
The first to die was a young nurse called Jack Pierson. Two weeks ago Jack threw himself, naked, from the window of his fifth-floor apartment in the French Quarter. His girlfriend thought he’d gotten out of bed to use the toilet. Three days after that a surgical technician called Bernard Moulin was arrested after drowning his wife in the bathtub of their home in Touro. Next came the news about Liz and her baby. Then it was Joe’s drowning. Yesterday, I got a phone call from Margaret Simmons, wife of my assistant, Johnny Simmons. She told me that during the previous night Johnny had climbed out of bed, gone into the garage next to their home and hung himself with a length of copper wire. Margaret was obviously heavily medicated and explained everything to me with a weird, almost matter-of-fact calm. The wire, she said, had bitten all the way through to Johnny’s spinal column, leaving his partially decapitated body dangling above an enormous pool of dark, half-congealed blood. She also said that, prior to taking his life, he had been having nightmares about a demonic creature with horrible sharp teeth. She finished by advising me to be careful.
The day before he died, he said that you and him were the last ones, Tom. He was laughing when he said it, but he was scared. I could see it in his eyes.
I thought about asking her why Johnny hadn’t spoken to me about his dreams, but I figured I already knew the answer. After all, I hadn’t told anybody about mine either.
The girl is in a private room on the sixth floor. As I wait for the elevator, my mind goes back to the night she was admitted.
Johnny and I were called to Emergency at around one in the morning. On the way there, a nurse filled us in with some of the details.
“They want the patient in surgery straight away. She’s been stabbed. Single chest wound. And there’s a major complication.”
“What kind of complication?”
The ER was in its usual state of perfectly orchestrated pandemonium, all of the activity centering around a slim, brown-skinned girl who looked to be in her late teens. As the nurse had said, she’d been stabbed in the chest. The complication consisted of the fact that the blade was still buried deep in the wound.
“It’s lodged in her heart,” the doctor explained as I got to work preparing the general anesthetic. “If we take it out now, she’ll die. It’s actually keeping her alive.”
As always, Johnny and I were present during the entire operation. To call it a tricky one would be a huge understatement. After taking the blade out, it was a race against time. And for a while it seemed to be a race that we’d lost.
In fact, for a while we did lose it.
It was just after 2:30 a.m. when the girl flatlined. After that, she had no vital signs for almost thirteen minutes. It wasn’t until we shocked her with the defibrillator for the sixth time that her badly damaged heart defied all the odds and started beating again.
No cheer went up in the operating room, no one pumped their fist or made any exclamations thanking God, but the sense of elation was palpable.
We did a good job that night – me, Johnny, Joe Mailor, Bernard Moulin, Liz Cowan and young Jack Pierson.
It’s hard to believe that they’re all dead now.
After the operation the girl spent over a week in intensive care, during which period I was responsible for administering the required drugs. She was unconscious the whole time, so no one had an opportunity to speak to her. Not that people were lining up. When she’d arrived at the hospital, she’d been completely naked, and the police hadn’t found any ID at the scene. Nobody had any idea who she was.
The one person who did visit was a detective called Dan Connell. A couple of days after the operation, I found him standing outside her room, peering in through the small observation window.
We introduced ourselves.
“Nurse told me I’m not supposed to go in,” he said. “Against the rules. I just wanted to check she’s okay.”
“You’re the one who found her, right?”
“That’s right, yeah.”
“Is it true you shot the perpetrator?”
“Right through his ugly fucking melon. Still had the hilt of the knife in his hand. I thought the girl was a goner for sure, but it looks like you guys did a pretty amazing job.”
He nodded through the glass inlay. “She gonna be okay?”
“I think so. Her heart was seriously damaged and her vital signs stopped for a while, but we’re optimistic she’ll pull through.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Who was he?” I asked – “The perp?”
“Went by the name of Papa Loko. Local drug dealer. Pimp. Most probably human trafficking, too. Bastard had been on a killing spree for months. Taking out the competition, building up his little empire. We knew what he was doing, but we didn’t have any evidence.”
“Sounds like a real piece of work.”
“Yeah. But there’s more to it than that, Doc. This fucker was into some shit you wouldn’t believe.”
Connell hesitated then leaned in close. “Black magic, Doc. Psycho thought he was some kind of witch doctor. Since I turned his brains to guacamole, we’ve been going over the scene. You wouldn’t believe the shit we’ve found. Dolls, hair, animal remains, teeth, bones. We even found three human hearts pickled in jars.”
“I shit you not. And all of the hearts had stab wounds. The crazy bastard was into human sacrifice.”
“You think the girl was supposed to be a sacrifice?”
“Doc, when I burst into that room, she was laid out on an altar surrounded by black candles and all kinds of other weird hoodoo shit. She was a sacrifice, all right.”
Connell turned and pointed through the window in the door.
“This little lady was the one that got away.”
It was almost a full week after Connell’s visit that I first got to speak to the girl. I was doing my rounds when she regained consciousness. She was still weak and on high doses of medication, but it was obvious from the start that her wits had come through the operation intact.
The first thing I asked was her name.
She looked at me with large, brown eyes made soft and bright by the drugs.
“My name is Marie. Marie La Croix.”
I come across all kinds of accents in my job, but this one I couldn’t place.
“Where do you come from, Marie?”
Rather than answer my question, she posed one of her own.
“Where is Papa Loko?”
“He’s dead, Marie. The police killed him.”
Her only reaction was a slow nod of her head, as if I had only confirmed something she already knew.
I repeated my earlier question. “Where do you come from, Marie?”
She lowered her eyes.
“I’m a hospital worker, Marie. Not a cop. And certainly not an immigration officer.”
After a long pause, she said, “I come from Haiti.”
“Do you have family here in America?”
“No family, no.”
“How did you come here? How did you come to America?”
She told me her story.
She was from the town of Port-Aux-Prince, she said, and had lost her family in the big earthquake of 2010. For a while after that she lived on the streets, but eventually she was taken in by an orphanage. It was a terrible place where she was overworked and badly mistreated, but at least there was enough food to keep her alive. Then one day two men with “bad faces” arrived and went around examining the children. When they were finished, they gave the owner money and took Marie and two other girls and loaded them into the back of a van. After a long road journey during which the men picked up some more girls, there was a voyage below decks on a boat. After the boat, there was America. America and Papa Loko.
All of this had taken place about five years ago.
“Papa Loko was bad man,” she said. “Papa Loko was boka.”
The word would have been unknown to most. But I’m Louisiana born and bred. Fifth generation.
“He was a sorcerer?”
She nodded. “Yes, sorcier. He call on djab to eat his enemies.”
“Un diable. Bad spirit. He paid in blood.”
She nodded, the fingers of her right hand moving unconsciously to her still heavily bandaged chest.
“You’re safe now, Marie. It’s over.”
I could see she was tiring now – that it was time to let her rest; but there was one more question I wanted to ask before our conversation ended. One that I always asked patients who had died on the operating table.
“We gave you an operation, Marie,” I said, choosing my words carefully – “to save your life. Do you remember anything? Do you remember anything about the operation?”
“I don’t remember nothing.”
Maybe it was the unusual speed with which she answered the question, maybe it was the flicker of fear in her eyes as she spoke, maybe it was just pure intuition on my part, but somehow I knew, beyond any doubt, that she was lying.
The elevator arrives and I ride it up to the sixth floor. Marie’s room is not far. I knock on the door and step inside. Despite the late hour, she is awake, propped up in bed with a magazine in her hands. Soft, yellow light from the bedside lamp makes the sterile room look almost homely.
“I have to speak to you, Marie. We have to talk.”
She puts the magazine aside. When she speaks, her brown eyes are cautious. Wary.
“There is a problem, Tom?”
I pull up a chair and sit down. “There is, Marie. There’s a big problem. People have been dying. Since the night of your operation, people have been dying.”
“The people who were there. The surgeon, the nurses. And some other people who were close to them. You need to tell me what you saw, Marie. You need to tell me what you saw that night.”
“I don’t see nothing. I inconsciente.”
I see the fear in her eyes, and the sight of it sickens me.
“I know you’re not telling the truth, Marie. I know you saw something.”
“I don’t see noth—”
“Stop it! I know you’re lying, Marie! Tell me what you saw!”
The look of shock on her face is horrible to behold. She has endured so much already. Suffered such terrible pain and loss. But she is dealing with a desperate man, a man who, less than two hours ago, was a hair’s breadth away from murdering his infant son.
When she replies, her head is bowed and her voice trembles.
“I go to the carrefour.”
“The crossroads? You went to the crossroads?”
“Tell me about it, Marie.”
She does as I ask. She tells me about the night she died, her brown eyes becoming glazed and distant as she speaks.
The crossroads was dark, she says, surrounded by cornfields stretching away in every direction. In the sky was an enormous full moon ringed in a bright halo of refracted light. This wreath of rainbow is Aida Wédo, she explains, wife of the serpent god Danballah, the first ancestor.
At first there is no one else around; but then a dark figure appears – a tall, slender man walking towards her slowly out of the shadows. Only she knows this is no man. This is Petro Kalfu, the dark, nocturnal guardian of the threshold, the keeper of the gateway between life and death.
He is dressed entirely in black, this tall specter, his ghastly face half hidden by the brim of a top hat. In his bony right hand is a cane. As he moves closer, his heeled boots echo ominously in the moonlit darkness.
He stops and speaks in a voice that is little more than a rough whisper.
“What do you want, girl?”
“I come to join my ancestors. I come to enter the dark waters of kwala manyan until my spirit is reclaimed.”
Kalfu shakes his head. “Your life was promised to a djab. The boka has already passed this way, but the debt remains. The djab will have his payment. He is waiting.”
The mystére points with his cane and for the first time she sees the dark silhouette on the roadside to her left, a crouching figure obscured by the length of its own shadow.
“Please, great loa, spare me this.”
“I have no power in this matter, girl. There is a debt of blood. Your good angel is the price of the boka’s evil.”
Kalfu turns, and, as he walks away, the squat shadow begins to move, loping through the darkness with horrible speed and agility.
Terrified, she flees into the fields that flank the road, breaking through the tall stalks of corn in a blind panic. Close behind her she hears the creature’s ugly, whispering voice.
I grind up your soul, pretty girl.
Ton Bon Ange est à moi. Your Good Angel is mine.
She stumbles on, but the corn is too dense and finally she falls exhausted to her knees.
She is beyond all hope now, resigned to whatever cruel horror awaits her.
Then, looking up, she sees a vision in the sky – a room filled with machines and people wearing masks and strange green clothing.
Only she is not looking up, she is looking down. She is hovering above an operating theatre, and the patient on the table, she realizes, is herself.
“After that I don’t remember nothing,” she says, her eyes glistening with tears. “After that I don’t remember nothing until I wake up and speak with you.”
Rising slowly from my chair, I cross the room and stare out through the window. The storm is moving west now, out towards Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico. In the distance, lightning flickers silently in the vast darkness of the Louisiana night.
“It came back with you, Marie,” I say quietly. “The djab came back with you from the other side. And it’s been taking revenge on the people who helped you – the people who saved your life.”
There is a long pause. Too long. Then comes the voice.
Oui, mon ami. You take what is mine. You take what was promised.
When I turn around, Marie is no longer in her bed. Instead, she is squatting by the room’s only door, her bare knees jutting from her hospital gown, her mouth fixed in a sickening grin that seems to swallow the entire bottom half of her face. Above bared teeth, two bulging eyes glare at me with pure, unrestrained malevolence.
Marie my horsy now.
Clip clop . . . Clip clop . . .
The thing places its hands on the tiled floor and moves towards me, edging forward like a giant hunting spider.
Clip clop . . . Clip clop . . .
Instinctively, I reach behind my back and grip the handle of the revolver I’ve been carrying concealed in my belt.
The monster stops suddenly, licks its lips, then places the index finger of Marie’s right hand between its teeth. A moment later it begins to gnaw on the digit with such force that I can hear the cracking of bone.
Mmmm. Tasty girl. Tasty, tasty girl.
I can suffer no more.
I take the gun from my belt and pull the trigger.
I pull it again.
Then again . . .
As I sit on the bed watching the blood pool around Marie’s dead body, the same question repeats over and over in my head.
Did I come here to kill her?
I honestly do not know the answer.
Finally the police arrive and put me in handcuffs.
“Do you know Dan Connell?” I ask. “I want to speak to Detective Dan Connell.”
“Then you’ll have to get yourself along to a séance.”
“He’s dead? Connell’s dead?”
“Dead as that poor fucking girl, asshole.”
The cops escort me down through the building and out into the car park.
The storm has passed now. High above the city of New Orleans thin clouds drift like gun smoke across an enormous full moon wreathed in a halo of pale, refracted light.
John Vander is a Scot currently living in Northern France, where he spends his days writing and his evenings drinking, reading and making music.