A Taste of... Dark Power
Heavy breaths echoed off the dark red brick of the alleyway as Jefferson Brown ran as fast as his arthritic legs would carry him. His own exhalations were all he could hear, drowning out any other noise, including any footfalls behind him.
Was he still being followed?
He desperately wanted to glance back, but there was no time to look around and double check. If he could calm his breathing, he might be able to hear what was happening behind him, but that remained an impossibility.
He’d been running for too long. His body was reaching a breaking point. If he didn’t gulp air in heaving gasps, he wouldn’t absorb enough oxygen to sustain himself. Hell, even sucking in oxygen like a fish out of water wouldn’t help for much longer. But Jefferson was only a few blocks from home. It wouldn’t be too far now.
Though he wasn’t sure reaching home would change anything.
Dammit, why hadn’t he just left well enough alone? Why did he have to push, have to test the limitations of this world? Jefferson wasn’t a believer. He never had been.
Even as a child, while his classmates would share stories of Santa or the tooth fairy, he shrugged them off as ridiculous. Jefferson was a man grounded in this world, the real world, unable to imagine anything he couldn’t see with his own two eyes.
He had seen it now. In fact, it was right in front of him, smothering him, threatening to swallow him whole. He couldn’t deny it, no matter how desperately he wanted to.
His friends had told him not to mess with a voodoo priestess. And he hadn’t listened. Because what was there to worry about? What could a woman wielding voodoo possibly do if voodoo itself was imaginary nonsense? It was easy to feel invincible to her magic when Jefferson knew the magic wasn’t real to begin with.
What a fool he’d been. This never had to happen. He could be home right now, carefree, his mind far from the realm of paranormal phenomena. If only he could go back in time, make another decision, refuse to ever enter into her world.
A world that consumed him now. She’d infiltrated his mind, blurred even his deepest memories. Every moment was an enigma, including this one.
Why was he running? Why was he so racked with fear?
Jefferson hadn’t a clue who was chasing him, but the feeling that they were there to cause him harm was overwhelming. This fear ran deeper than any he’d ever known.
Danger wasn’t foreign to Jefferson. Before this, he’d considered himself to be abnormally courageous, unable to be shaken. The way every muscle in his body trembled, that was no longer true.
When he arrived at the curve in the L-shaped alleyway, he nearly sank to his knees and sobbed. The streetlights at the end of the road were his saving grace. Jefferson was nearly home, his apartment only one street over. If he could just make it to his door, he would be safe.
The yellow streetlamps brought warmth into his body. Reminiscent of his childhood nightlight, they signaled to him the same thing his nightlight had…safety. In just ten feet, he’d be out of the darkness, onto the public street that led to his home.
The soles of Jefferson’s shoes pounded the pavement more vigorously than a moment ago. With the hope that the streetlamps provided, he’d gotten a second wind. The increased speed caused the heavy glass in his pocket to thump against his chest, likely causing a deep purple welt. But Jefferson couldn’t care less about a bruise. That was the least of his problems. It wouldn’t be long now until—
A voice stopped him dead in his tracks. He knew that voice, though it had been a decade since he’d heard it. Was it really her?
“Mom?” The word was barely audible over the beating of his heart.
It couldn’t be. In the back of his mind, with the tiny piece of his brain that was still holding onto the logical framework of reality, he knew it was impossible for his mother to call out to him.
She was dead.
He’d seen it himself. Curled up in her sterile, white hospital room, she’d taken her last agonizing breath as he held her hand.
This had to be a trick, more mind manipulation from the voodoo priestess. Unless…unless maybe it wasn’t a trick at all. Perhaps the priestess had opened up a portal between the world of the living and the dead.
The idea would’ve sounded ludicrous a week ago, but Jefferson’s entire worldview had shifted in the past few days. If the priestess had been capable of all the evil she’d instilled upon Jefferson, wouldn’t it be possible that her voodoo was capable of bringing dead spirits back to this Earth?
With each passing second, Jefferson became further convinced that he could sense his mother’s soul nearby. Her voice came to him again.
“Mama!” His voice rang out in a way it hadn’t since his childhood.
If he just walked back down the alleyway, he’d see her. He just knew it. His mother would hold him in her arms once more. She would kiss his cheek, and all the agony the priestess had put upon him would melt away, just like when she used to scare away the monsters in his closet.
He waltzed back into the shadows, dancing along the brick wall, as he reminisced on his childhood memories of her. This ordeal with the priestess would all be worth it if he got to see his mother once more. He only had to turn that corner, and she’d be standing there, her hazel eyes staring at him. Jefferson could almost see her figure, almost…
He wasn’t wrong. As he rounded the corner, there was indeed a figure there. But it wasn’t his mother. A menacing shadow loomed ahead.
Jefferson swallowed hard, working up enough saliva to enable him to speak. “Who are you?”
There was no immediate answer. In his scrambled mind, Jefferson couldn’t identify the shadowy individual, but they were definitely familiar.
More shadows appeared on the brick walls, forming a line behind the person in front of him.
“Where’s my mother?” Jefferson’s hands trembled. The cold night air swirled around him, causing him to shake even more.
The figure tossed its head back, an eerie laugh snaking its way into Jefferson’s soul. Other shadow people mimicked the hollow, sinister sound. Inhuman noises filled the alleyway, growing louder as they bounced off the surrounding stone. So loud, in fact, that Jefferson clapped his chilled hands over his ears.
“Stop! Stop it!” Jefferson squeezed his eyes shut, somehow hoping that would help drown out the sound.
The ghoulish laughs only grew louder. It was as if the noise wasn’t emanating from the outside but bouncing around inside his brain. The more he pushed on his ears, the worse it became.
Jefferson opened his eyes, only to find the shadow figures were closer now. He gasped, forcing his lids closed again.
“No, no, don’t do this! Please, just leave me alone! I want my mama! Ma!”
With their footfalls came an icy wind, and despite his closed eyes, Jefferson knew they were approaching swiftly.
“Open your eyes, Jefferson.” The voice of his mother was clear in his ears again, unmuffled by his clenched fists. This time, it was apparent his mother wasn’t really here. But the comfort of her voice commanded him to obey.
When he did, the shadows were a mere foot from his face. Their demon faces were clearer now. Empty black eyes stared down at him, with smiles that spanned from one ear to the other. Razor-sharp teeth gleamed behind each pair of dripping red lips.
When Jefferson tried to speak, fear crept up his spine, his tongue drying out like a flower in the desert sun. Trembling hands moved to his mouth, but it didn’t help words to form.
It wouldn’t have mattered because, before his heart could squeeze out another beat, the demons descended.
What the hell?
Detective Charlotte Cross still couldn’t believe that her sergeant had seriously used such a word in connection to a police case.
Charli cleared her throat. “Excuse me?”
“I asked if either of you believe in voodoo.”
It still didn’t compute.
Charli glanced around her office, wondering if she was being punk’d. “Why?”
Sergeant Ruth Morris handed the official report to Charli and hooked a thumb in the direction of the door. “Get down to Bonaventure Cemetery and find out.”
Two minutes later, she and her partner were in Charli’s car and pulling from the Savannah Police Department parking lot.
“Hope you’re ready for a ghost of a time.” Detective Matthew Church peered at her from the passenger seat. Though he was clearly trying to be funny, a stiff smile was plastered on his face.
Seems like Ruth might have succeeded in scaring her partner. Charli rolled her eyes. “Halloween isn’t for over a month, so it’s a little early for ghosts.”
“Oh, come on.” Matthew tossed the report onto the dash. “You must think this is kind of spooky, right? Guy dies in the middle of a cemetery with a voodoo doll in his lap? It’s giving me the creeps.”
Charli was tempted to yell “Boo” just to enjoy his response, but didn’t want her partner peeing on her little hybrid’s interior. “No, I’m not bothered in the slightest. This is just another case in a sea of cases we’ve had lately.”
Frankly, if she had to pick one that rattled her, it would be the one with the teenage girls turning up dead in horribly gruesome ways. Nothing in the paranormal realm could shake Charli, not when real life was filled with so much horror. What some sociopaths were capable of doing to their fellow humans, that was the real terror. But voodoo magic? Absolutely not.
“Don’t tell me you believe voodoo is real?”
Matthew’s shoulders rose and fell with a quick jerk. “I’m not saying that necessarily. But I can’t say it’s not real. There are things in this world we can’t quickly explain with science and statistics, y’know?”
No, Charli didn’t know.
Facts were the basis of her life while statistics helped guide her belief system. There was nothing she valued more than getting to the truth, and that wasn’t limited to just her criminal cases.
But there was no point in arguing with Matthew about this now. She already knew she and her partner differed heavily on their approach to the world. He didn’t use logic to ground him, choosing to rely on gut instincts and emotions to guide him through a case. His openness to the spiritual world seemed odd for a moment, but upon further reflection, it shouldn’t have surprised her in the least.
Bonaventure Cemetery came into view, its bright green grass swaying softly in the morning breeze. Half of the grass was cut, the other half looking in need of a trim. The groundskeeper must have been in the middle of landscaping when he discovered the body.
A Savannah PD car sat next to the entry gate. “Do you know who’s on scene already?” Charli pulled her car right beside it before parking.
Matthew cupped his brow, an attempt to shield his eyes from the bright morning light. Squinting, he nodded toward an officer in the distance. “Looks like Trigg to me.”
Charli wasn’t tall enough to see over the brick fence and couldn’t confirm Matthew’s observation until they made their way past the entrance and into the wet grass. Indeed, it was Officer Kenny Trigg, and he was scribbling in a notepad. As he wrote, he took small steps around the gravestones, jumping around like he was playing a slow-motion game of hopscotch.
Matthew shot Charli a concerned glance before catching the officer’s attention. “You okay there, bud?”
Officer Trigg morphed into the very definition of relieved. His shoulders relaxed, and the hand that was holding his notebook drifted to his waist.
“You have no idea how glad I am to see you guys.”
“What were you doing there? Walking all zigzagged, I mean.” Charli used a finger to mimic the motion.
“Oh, uh, nothing. It’s stupid. My grandma always told me it’s bad luck to walk over a grave. I’ve been trying to stay between them, but they’re so damn close together and…” Trigg averted his eyes.
“Cemeteries bother you, Officer?” Matthew grinned, wiping his sleeve across his forehead.
“More than you know.” A gust of wind sent a couple of dead leaves skittering across the grass, and Trigg nearly jumped a foot. His face flamed in embarrassment. “I’d love to pass on the updated report and get the hell out of here.”
What was the deal with these guys? Freaked out over voodoo and cemeteries? They had a job to do.
Shaking her head, Charli grabbed her own notepad out of her pocket and set about focusing on the new case. “What’s going on?”
“Got the call over the broadband police channel that somebody had found a dead body in the cemetery. At first I thought, duh, where the hell else should a dead body be? But I guess this one was sitting above the grass, on top of one of the gravesites.”
Yeah…that was a bit weird.
Charli waved a hand for the officer to continue. “Go on.”
“I got here, and the guy is fully dressed, hair fixed, no blood, clutching some crazy looking doll in his hand.” Trigg visibly shuddered. “Doll looks almost exactly like him. The guy could’ve been sleeping if it wasn’t for the pale white skin.”
Matthew stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Do we know who it is?”
“I don’t have a positive ID yet. We’re working on it. Forensics is with him, taking some samples and photos. They’ll collect skin cells from his nails and mouth, but they agree it doesn’t look like there was any kind of struggle. Might be a medical incident, sudden cardiac arrest, or something?” Trigg’s shoulders hitched up to his ears. “I dunno, being here in the daylight is already giving me a heart attack, so I can’t imagine what it feels like at night.”
“And he was definitely in the cemetery last night, not early this morning?” Charli glanced up from her notebook.
“Groundskeeper was here before morning light, so yeah, it had to have happened last night. Come on, I’ll take you to the body.”
Trigg evidently wasn’t bothering to hide how disturbed he was, seeming eager to escape the scene. As he turned around, Charli and Matthew smiled at each other, both finding it amusing that this case could frighten the officer this much. Trigg was a burly guy, standing at six foot two. If he had a beard and a plaid shirt, you could mistake him for a lumberjack. Not exactly the kind of man you’d expect to be frantically pacing in a cemetery.
When they reached the body, though, Charli understood why this case was so disconcerting. She wasn’t as fearful as Trigg, but there was something bizarre about the victim’s appearance.
His face had lost all color, but the corners of his mouth were almost smiling, as if he was enjoying a pleasant dream. His light blue button-down shirt was perfectly pressed and tucked into his khaki pants. The man was on his back in a supine position, hands folded on his stomach.
Charli’s gaze was drawn to the doll. Badly sewn with uneven stitches, the doll shared the victim’s jet-black hair and wore a similar outfit.
“What the hell?” Matthew sucked in a breath as he took it all in. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Our victims are usually doused in blood or crumpled up in a heap. He looks untouched, but there’s no way in hell he got into this position himself. Someone had to have placed him like this.”
He looked like a corpse minus the casket.
“Unless he decided to lie down like this prior to his death.” Charli didn’t think this likely but wanted to list all the possibilities. She peeled her gaze away from the still form to concentrate on the forensic pathologist and her assistant bookending the body. “You got any information for us?”
“Nothing much.” Iris Ford shrugged and sat back on her heels, sweat shining on her dark skin. “Liver temp suggests that death occurred eight to twelve hours ago. We’ll know more once we get him on the table. I’m sure Soames will be giving you a call.”
Charli almost smiled at the mention of Dr. Randal Soames. She liked the concise nature of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s medical examiner very much.
She turned to Trigg. “You said the groundskeeper found him?”
“Cedric De Bassio. You’ll have to go to the front office to find him. He says he won’t be caught dead anywhere near…” Trigg waved a hand at the victim, his eyes drifting down to the deceased man once more. “I can’t blame him.”
The office was an old brick building that sat at the far-right end of the cemetery. It was likely erected at the same time as the cemetery back before 1910. Matthew put a hand on the gold knob attached to the chipping scarlet front door. The chime of a bell echoed once they stepped in.
Cedric’s eyes opened at the sound of the bell. Either we interrupted his prayer, or he was asleep. Charli would have bet on the former.
“I’m sorry, but we’re closed to visitors right now.” Gray curls adorned the older man’s head while crow’s feet garnished the corners of his eyes.
“We’re not visitors. I’m Detective Cross, and this is my partner, Detective Church. We’re here to ask you about what happened this morning.”
Cedric swallowed hard, his ping-pong-ball-sized Adam’s apple moving up and down his scrawny throat. “Did they get that body out of here?”
“Not yet. Our forensics team is still taking a look.” Matthew ran his hand along the smooth top of the cherry front desk.
Cedric gave a quick shake of his head. “He needs to be out, right now. Papa Legba lingers where his victim resides.”
What the hell?
“Papa Legba?” She turned to Matthew, who seemed as confused as she felt.
He only shrugged in response.
“You don’t know Papa Legba?” Cedric made the sign of a cross over his heart as a bead of sweat trickled down his temple. “The spirit in charge of deciding who can contact the spirit world? No priestess can enact her magic without the help of Papa Legba.”
“You’re familiar with voodoo culture?” Charli noted this, though she hardly thought Papa Legba was going to be a suspect in their investigation.
Cedric’s almond-colored eyes grew dark. “Voodoo culture? It’s not a culture, Detective. That implies it isn’t real and only exists in the head of a few believers.” He crossed himself again in what appeared to be an unconscious movement. “But voodoo is very real, I assure you. I’ve seen it done myself. Though I haven’t seen any curses done this openly in Savannah for many decades.”
Charli jotted this down too. She had no idea that voodoo had ever been openly practiced in Savannah. In fact, before this moment, Charli didn’t know there were any places in the USA where voodoo was consistently practiced outside of New Orleans.
“Sir, may I ask how you came across the body?”
“I was tending to the lawn, as I’m ought to do every Monday morning. When I saw him, I thought it was some kinda prank.”
Matthew lifted a finger. “Do you get pranked a lot?”
Cedric scowled, reaching to put a stray pen in the holder on the desk. “Damn kids around here don’t know when to quit. They get me every damn Halloween with some practical joke. Figured they were getting their jollies off early this year. Thought the body was a fake at first, a…” He waved both hands in front of him, outlining the shape of a person.
“A mannequin?” At least that’s what Charli hoped he meant.
“Yes. A mannequin or something. But when I saw it was a real person, I rushed over to help the man. Didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t breathin’. And the second I saw that doll in his hand…” The older man shuddered so hard Charli wouldn’t have been surprised if his clothes flew off his body.
“What did you do next?”
He snorted at her question. “I rushed off to the office to call the police and told ‘em I wasn’t approaching that…that…thing anymore. I don’t need Papa Legba and his minions infiltrating my life. I’ve worked this cemetery for thirty years and managed to never bring home an angry spirit. I wanna keep it that way.”
Cedric was superstitious. That much was clear. “And you didn’t see anyone else in the cemetery when you arrived this morning?”
“Nope. It was a nice, quiet morning until I ran into that body.”
Charli flipped to the next page in her notebook. “You don’t recognize the man? He never visited the cemetery?”
Cedric ran a finger along the top of a dusty picture frame, the photo inside appearing to be a younger version of himself, his arm draped around a smiling woman of about his same age. “No, I know all the regulars. We don’t get too many visitors stopping by more than once, not when half the cemetery died a hundred years ago.” He tapped his temple. “My mind is as sharp as when I was twenty years old. I’m confident I’ve never seen that man in my sixty-one years on this Earth. And I’m tellin’ ya, something ain’t right about him. That man messed with something bigger than himself.”
Although Charli didn’t believe in voodoo or ghosts, the way his hoarse voice croaked out the last sentence sent a chill down her spine. There was no denying the case was unsettling, even for a nonbeliever.
Charli flinched in response to the classic ringtone of her partner’s phone. The older man stared at Matthew, wide-eyed and curious.
Matthew grinned. “Relax, you guys never heard a phone ring?” He stepped away, but Charli could still make out his side of the conversation. “Detective Church speaking…yes, we’re on scene now. We just…wait, what?”
Charli craned her head forward, expecting more information.
“Okay, yes, we’ll go look right now.” Matthew put his phone back in his pocket. “They got a call back at the precinct. Someone is walking around the cemetery. Apparently, the caller thought…” Matthew glanced at Cedric, as if considering whether he should say this within earshot of him.
But if it was happening at the cemetery, the groundskeeper would find out eventually, anyway. And Charli was damn eager to hear what was going on. “The caller thought what?”
“They thought he looked like a zombie.”The room went eerily still as they all processed this information. After a moment of heavy silence, Cedric crossed himself again. “I told you, something ain’t right.”
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