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Black Bayou

 

 

 

 

Black Bayou

Written by Sara Clancy

Edited by Emma Salam and Lance Piao

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 by ScareStreet.com

All rights reserved.

 

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Cheers,

Sara Clancy

 

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

The colors ran. They bled and swirled until the familiar hallway was as intangible as smoke. She tried to reach out but her hand wouldn’t move. Her limbs were heavy. Hollow. The world swam within her skull like a thick swamp.

“It’s okay,” her father’s voice whispered from a distant place. “You won’t feel a thing.”

His constant soothing pulled her from her haze. Vaguely, she became aware of the ache in her neck, the way her head swayed with each of his steps. Light struck her eyes, blinding and brilliant, and whited out her vision. Piece by piece, the world returned. Pink tiles. The fluffy towels her dad had ruined with bleach. The window stickers her sister put everywhere.

Gentle hands curled behind her head and lifted her forehead to a soft kiss. Her mother’s voice sounded weird. Broken and weak. It hovered around her as she was slowly lowered down. Steaming water claimed her feet and swallowed her legs. She caught a glimpse of fogged shower glass. The water devoured her to her chest, leaving her hand cold as it hung limply over the rim of the bathtub.

Another kiss to her forehead. A hand rested on her crown. It pushed. Water sloshed down her throat, burning as it hit her lungs. She convulsed and gasped but all that came was more water. It rendered the world into a rippling imitation and scorched her eyes. Her lungs ached, her body thrashed, her fingers clenched against the tub.

With a sharp snap, her muscles were under her control once more. She burst through the surface in a lurch and clawed at the side of the tub. Scrambling, falling, she managed to heave her weighted body over the rim. Each cough spewed water onto the tiles. It ran in streaming pools across the cool floor, making her hands slip as she wrenched herself free. Her waterlogged pajamas felt like lead. Each inch pulled free from the bath came with a torrent of water that made the next inch harder. Her palms slipped and she cracked her head against the tiles. With her torso free, the rest of her body slithered out easily. Pressing her head to the floor, she struggled to breathe. Her body expelled the water in thick heaves until her stomach acid burned her throat. The night air cooled her soaked pajamas and made her shiver. Her eyes began to focus.

Her lips could barely form the name, “Jas?”

A halo of honey-blonde hair, ragged and drenched, spread out over the floor. She could almost reach it with her fingertips. The layers of Jasmine’s ever-present Snow White dress sat limply above her small form. Water beaded over her skin and blazed like fire in the overhead light. Jasmine didn’t move. With trembling hands, she dragged herself closer.

“Jas?”

Blood dripped from her torn nails as she reached out and shook her little sister. Jasmine’s head lulled and flopped to the side. Her lips were blue. Her skin drawn. She wasn’t breathing. Hidden under her fractured sobs, she could hear hissed words.

“You said she’d sleep through it. We took too long with Jasmine. Get her back in the tub. They’re coming. Hurry!”

Tears blurred her vision as she squeezed Jasmine’s hand. Warmth still lingered in her tiny fingers, but she didn’t squeeze back. Strong hands latched onto her and dragged her away from Jasmine’s body.

“Dad?” She barely whispered it, but he reacted like she had struck him. He choked back tears as he tried to pull her up.

“No. Jas. Help Jas.”

“Stop struggling,” his voice broke. “You weren’t supposed to wake up, baby girl. Why did you wake up?”

Unable to get a strong hold on her, he dragged her across the floor towards the tub. Fear sliced through her and she shoved at him. He couldn’t brace himself on the slick tiles. She clawed at his face and screamed as loud as her paralyzed throat would allow. Their feet slipped. They landed in a painful heap, her father’s weight bearing down on her.

Over his shoulder, she saw her mother rush in, face twisted in pure horror. In the second between her mother’s arrival and action, hope blossomed in her chest. Then her mother moved. She dropped down next to her father, gripped her wrists, and forced them onto the tiles.

“Shhh, baby. It’s okay. It’s okay. Mommy’s here.”

A thousand memories sprung forth upon hearing those words. They were the same words spoken when she had scraped her knees, fallen out of a tree, and even when she had her heart broken for the first time. Now, they were uttered as her father wrapped his hands around her neck.

She thrashed against her parents, but it did little good. Strong fingers crushed her throat, constricting her breath until her face swelled with blood and her lungs screamed for air. Her feet kicked uselessly over the floor. She didn’t have the strength to lift her arms. The world shook and bled, reduced to splotches of darkness with no meaning. Her mother’s fingers loosened on her arms but she still felt weighed down. Tender fingers stroked her hair. The ones around her neck trembled with force.

There was a sudden crash. A powerful, deafening crack. A dozen voices screaming at once. Her mother hissed words she couldn’t understand. Her father yelled back. She couldn’t breathe. Colors started to dull as her father’s face loomed into her vision. His hands left her neck, but she could barely breathe. There was more shouting. Her mother slammed the door shut.

“I’m so sorry,” the small blade of a pair of nail scissors pressed against her throat. Dug in until blood oozed out to meet it. His tears scorched her skin as he pressed a trembling kiss to her forehead. “We can’t leave you behind. Don’t be afraid. It’s better this way.”

The door burst open. She saw guns, heard that ear-splitting sound, and her mother’s scream. Over her father’s shoulder, she watched her mother slide down the wall, leaving a trail of smeared blood.

“Daddy loves you.”

Agony streaked across her neck as he drew the blade, pushing down as hard as he could. It sliced through skin and flesh and released a wave of blood that gushed onto the floor. It cut deep, and suddenly her desperate need was met with a rush of air. It filled her lungs so fiercely that her back arched. Two more shots and her father fell by her side, his blood seeping out of a hole in his chest, mingling with her own. Police swarmed the room; phantoms dressed in black. Each inhale whistled through her severed throat. Only a little passed through, but it was enough to last her to the next intake. Police pressed the bleach-stained towel to her throat.

She watched as her father saw her take another breath. Watched the terror swarm in his eyes until death dulled them. It felt like she was floating. The pain was easing. She blinked and saw it; a shadow that clung to her father’s back. It inched up over his shoulder, watching her. The police pulled at her as they struggled to stem the tide that flowed from her neck. The shadow grew. It clawed over her father like a solid, bottomless mass. She couldn’t move. Fingers like talons, as thin as bones, reached for her. They felt like ice as they covered her face and swallowed the world.

 

***

 

Light poured from the screen of her mobile, illuminating the room far more than the little flecks of sunlight that made it through the heavy yellow curtains. The layers of blankets were too thin to be comforting, but she curled up under them anyway. Each stitch across her neck burned as the preacher’s sober words echoed around the room and drowned out the hum of the machines. Distantly, she could hear the constant bustle of life that existed just beyond her hospital room.

Over the last few days, breathing had become easier but crying felt like the flesh was tearing again. Right now though, each intake was sheer agony. Jasmine’s coffin looked far too large on the tiny screen. Too real. Slowly it lowered into the sodden earth. Flowers were piled high atop the polished wood, their petals glistening in the misting rain.

It was gut-wrenching that the rain had set in today and refused to leave. Jasmine had hated the rain. It should have been sunny for her. She should have at least gotten that. The focus of the camera shifted. There was a glimpse of rows of empty seats before it focused again so she could watch her parents’ coffins sink.

Her screen held still until the polished wood vanished and the words ended. When the phone moved again, she could see the hundreds of people that had been pushed back to the other side of the cemetery gates. Even the rain and unseasonable cold hadn’t been enough to deter the protesters and camera crews. It was a relief when the familiar face of detective Rhodes filled the screen. She tasted salt on her lips as she mouthed, ‘thank you’.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t be here, Marigold,” he said. “But the locals are already restless.”

Rhodes had been with the case since the first night and never expected her to speak or nod. Fresh tears shook free from her lashes as she blinked slowly, a silent signal that she understood. People who hadn’t even known her family had petitioned for Jasmine to be buried separately from her parents. Others had protested her parents being buried in the church’s graveyard. Apparently, they didn’t want serial killers rotting next to their loved ones. Rhodes had helped to make sure her family stayed together but it had been at a cost. People saw this act of defiance as proof that she had known, approved, or even participated in her parents’ murders. He had routed the resulting hate-mail and death threats to the precinct instead of her room. A sob shook her, releasing a spike of pain that left her breathless.

“Hey, easy, just breathe,” Rhodes said softly.

She closed her eyes again.

“Look, I’ve got a few things to take care of.” He couldn’t meet her eyes. “My condolences.”

He ended the call and the room darkened. Somewhere down the maze of halls, she could hear an infant screaming, inconsolable and shrill. She coiled into a tighter ball and clutched a meagre hospital pillow to her chest. It didn’t help stifle the sobs that ripped her throat raw and tore at the stitches.

The baby’s shriek grew louder and drilled into her head like an iron spike. Rain pelted against the window, the shifting water projecting shadows onto the curtains. Counting each breath, she watched them. Stared at them until all other thoughts drifted away. The shadows danced. Merged and separated. Twisting down like expanding fingers.

Her brow furrowed as they drew together. Slowly they combined, darkened, creating the looming silhouette of a man. She blinked and it was as if someone were standing on the other side of the curtain. Its head turned towards her. The material rose and molded as if it were now a shroud. She shifted onto her elbow and glanced down, expecting to see feet, but nothing was there. It glided forward and separated from the material, passed through it, reaching for her.

She threw herself back against the bed’s railing, hand groping for the call button as the shadow drew closer. Light blinded her as the overheads flicked on. The shadow vanished in its wake. Her head snapped to the door, fast enough to pull stitches. Pain seared through her skin and she whimpered as she clutched her throat.

“Were you sleeping?” Doctor Monroe asked from just inside the doorway. “You have a guest, I thought you might want to see him.”

Richard slipped in behind the doctor. It was the first time she had seen him since this nightmare had begun, and the sight of him eased an ache in the center of her chest. He winced, one hand absently rubbing at his throat.

“Oh shit, Maggie,” he muttered before he turned to Monroe. “Can she talk?”

“She can, but it’s best if she doesn’t.”

“How is she even alive?”

Monroe turned her attention to Richard, barely sparing Marigold a glance for permission.

“The police were able to bring her in quickly. And the residue drugs in her system slowed her heartbeat. Ironically, she would have died if he hadn’t cut her throat. He had crushed her trachea. She would have asphyxiated.”

When Richard shifted his eyes to Marigold, she reached out a hand, coaxing him to come closer. She needed to touch him. Feel skin. Her entire body screamed for any kind of human contact. Longed for someone, anyone, to hug her. No one would even answer her texts.

He begrudgingly moved closer and perched on the very corner of her bed. Monroe lingered. An air of hostility radiated from the doctor each time she was forced into Marigold’s presence. Until they completed the investigation, there was no way to know how many patients her parents had killed, or under whose watch, but Monroe was worried. Marigold could practically feel the doctor’s anguish, her sense of absolute betrayal. Sometimes, when their eyes met, Marigold wondered if the doctor would lash out in her pain. Perhaps do to her what her parents had done to others. It played in the corners of her mind that the doctor might be contemplating treating her the same way her parents had treated their patients. Perhaps it would be poetic justice. It wouldn’t take much, just a little prick into the I.V., but for now, Monroe favored avoidance to vengeance. She left without a word.

Alone together, it was harder to ignore the uneasy silence that descended upon them. Richard kept glancing at the uniformed officer that wandered around the nurse’s station just beyond the door.

“This is so crazy, Maggie.” Richard raked his hands through his golden hair before he turned to her. “How are you holding up?”

They had given her a whiteboard, but it was so much quicker to text. His phone pinged and he pulled it from his coat pocket.

‘Throat hurts. Drugs give me nightmares.’

“I think there’s a lot to give you nightmares.”

He glanced back at his phone as it chimed again.

‘You weren’t at the funeral.’

“I couldn’t go. Maggie, why did you have them buried together? It’s sick. They killed Jasmine. They killed a lot of people.”

‘Still can’t think about that.’

“What? Are you high? You can’t think about that? Everyone else is stuck thinking about that. Reporters found out we were dating and now they won’t leave me alone. Everyone keeps thinking I know things. You have no idea what this has been like for me.”

‘For you?’

“Oh, don’t do that,” he snarled. “What you’re going through is different. I never asked to be a part of this.”

Her fingers fluttered, but it didn’t give her the release screaming would have. ‘And I did?’

Richard looked around to make sure no one was in earshot. Still, he lowered his voice to a harsh whisper.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

She had thought that her glare would be enough for him to understand, but all he did was stare back.

‘I didn’t know.’

He snorted when he read it. “How is that possible? I was talking to some of the nurses. The count is up to twenty-three. And they’re still looking. How did you not notice them killing twenty-three people?”

‘Did you ask the nurses that?’ Anger simmered under her skin as he read the text and shook his head.

“That’s not fair.”

She balled her hands into fists. Not fair? she thought angrily.

Everyone kept telling her that she must have known. How could she have known? The people they worked with every day hadn’t. The people who had been in the same building when they had given them overdoses hadn’t.

‘They were on shift.’

“Yeah, but you were their daughter. You lived with them. You must have known something was off.”

A thousand times she had been told that and each time a lifetime of memories rushed to her head. There had been days when they had been sad, scared, or disinterested. But there was no warning sign that screamed they were angels of death. They had had their conflicts, like any family, but they had been happy.

Fresh tears welled in her eyes as she typed, ‘I didn’t know.’

“Sure.”

‘You believe me, right?’

Richard only stared straight ahead. She sat up, slapped his shoulder and pointed at his phone. He rolled the device in his hand but wouldn’t look at her.

“Right?”

The word was like acid as it clawed out of her throat. She was screaming but all that came out was a broken, husky, croak. A fractured whisper.

“Yeah,” he nodded numbly.

She gripped his arm and tugged. But he wouldn’t turn, wouldn’t look at her.

“Look, Maggie. This is a lot to deal with. I’m being hunted by the press. My friends look at me weird. People avoid me in the street.”

He couldn’t make eye contact, and instead focused his gaze on her forehead.

“And we were never that serious.”

She scrambled for her phone, her fingers shifting wildly.

‘We’re getting married after college. Kids.’

He read the message and erupted in a short burst of bitter laughter.

“You can’t still think you’re having kids, Maggie. Be serious.” Finally, he met her eyes and his smile faded. “Both your parents are serial killers. You want murder babies?”

‘I’m not a killer.’

“It doesn’t matter. It’s in your genes.”

The last tendrils of warmth inside her died, leaving only ice and an empty ache.

‘Are you breaking up with me?’

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I didn’t sign up for this.” It made her stomach churn as he pressed a small kiss to her forehead. “I’m sorry.”

She didn’t bother to open her eyes. Tears seeped free as she curled back onto the bed. Rain tapped the window, the air chilled, and the room fell silent.

Chapter 2

 

It was just a whisper but it was enough to stir her from sleep. Absently she rubbed her neck, her healing stitches scratching against her palm. The hospital never really stilled, but the small hours of the morning lulled it into a restless peace. The light from the hallway cut a deep gouge into the dark shadows of the room. Sleep rolled over her and she didn’t want to shake it off, but she heard her name again and cracked her eyes open.

The room was still, and looked wider now that a lot of the machines were no longer needed. The shadows on the far side of the door shifted. She peered into the darkness, unable to understand what she was seeing. At one moment, it looked as if a man were standing there, concealed in the shadows. But each time she blinked, it was gone and all she could see was the wall. Her breath caught in her throat as the mass shifted and stepped towards her. It was huge. Large enough to block out the light of the doorway like an eclipse.

Every step it took made her bed tremble. The wheels creaked sharply; the sound was lost under her panicked breathing. It loomed over her, growing darker, wider. It smothered out every last ounce of light. Rancid air washed over her face like a putrid arctic wind. She could feel its breath against the shell of her ear as it whispered her name.

Something crashed through the shadow and shattered it. A sudden burst of light blinded her as she was hit in the chest. Air rushed from her lungs as she slammed back onto the bed. Pain sliced along her arm. She kicked and screamed as she struggled to push the weight off. Her eyes adjusted and she could see the man on top of her, his face twisted with rage, her own blood glistening off the blade in his hand.

She kneed him in the crotch. With a gasp, he buckled forward and slammed his fist into her face. Pain exploded within her skull and she slumped, head swirling, vision blurring. People swarmed the room and the man was dragged off of her. His screams invaded her pained daze and rolled onto her side. It took two orderlies and the police officer combined to drag the man through the door. The whole time, he thrashed like a wounded animal, snarling, saliva foaming from his lips as he stared only at her.

 

***

 

“That is one hell of a shiner,” Detective Rhodes said as he pulled up a seat.

Marigold forced a small smile and placed the ice pack back over her eye. It still throbbed, but not as much as the stitches that now held the skin of her forearm together.

“How did you get that?”

She was confused until she noticed that his attention was focused on the slip of collar bone that poked out from under her sweater.

“Had a nightmare. They gave me nail clippers,” she croaked. “Who was he?”

Rhodes puffed out his cheeks as he leaned forward. “We’ve been looking back through your parents’ work histories. We found a couple of victims in Ohio. He was the husband of one of them.”

She shook her head as best she could.

“We never lived in Ohio.”

“This was before you were born.”

Her skin was suddenly too tight. “How long had they been doing this?”

“We’re trying to figure that out. But Maggie, they were nurses for a long time, there are going to be more. You need to be prepared for that.”

“How?”

Cracking his knuckles, he edged closer, and changed the subject. “You’re getting discharged tomorrow. Have you thought of where you’re going?”

“Home,” Her gaze lowered. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“No one told you?”

A chill crept across her skin at his expression. “What happened?”

“Two days ago firefighters responded to a reported fire at your home. There were too many people in the street. They couldn’t get close.” He hesitated for an agonizing moment before he finished, “There’s nothing left.”

Her insides plummeted, leaving her hollow and cold. “There has to be something.”

“Sorry.”

“What about Braveheart?” she said as her voice cracked around each word.

“Braveheart?”

“He’s a Carebear. I got it for Jas because she was afraid of the boogieman.” She viciously wiped her cheeks. “He was her favorite. I wanted to keep Braveheart.”

“Maggie, there’s nothing but ash.”

“There’s a Christmas angel. It’s gold and has glass as a halo. Dad always lifted us up to put it on the tree.”

“Maggie.”

“I don’t have any photos. I don’t have anything. I don’t have anything!”

Rhodes stood up and grabbed her by the shoulders, squeezing until the sparks of pain pulled her out of her spiraling thoughts. She tilted her face up to look at him, her skin straining against the stitches.

“I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Slowly, Rhodes sat back down like any sudden movement would break her. “There’s your aunt Delilah.”

“I don’t have any aunts. I don’t have any relatives.”

“Actually, you do. On your father’s side.”

Flipping through his phone, he pulled up a picture of a well-dressed woman. It was strange to see the same features that had been so endearing on her father look so intimidating.

“You even have an ancestral home,” he smiled. “She still lives in the same house they grew up in. Right in the heart of New Orleans. French Quarter, not too bad.”

“Dad said he grew up in Alabama,” she mumbled as she looked down at the picture again. What else did he lie about? she thought.

Rhode delicately removed the phone from her hand. “She’s offered to take you in. I think it’s a good idea. Things here are just going to get worse until wounds start healing, and no one can heal while you’re here. Don’t worry, I’ll inform the local cops of the situation, they’ll keep an eye on you. But where everyone else is concerned,” his sympathetic smile didn’t make the words any easier to hear, “it’ll be good for you to get off the radar.”

“For me to disappear, you mean?”

“Yeah,” he nodded as he closed his phone. “Yeah, you need to.”

She nodded as her fingers trailed along the line of stitches that crossed her neck. “Okay.”

 

***

 

Mountains crumbled into fields. The fields sunk into swamps. The disintegrating world was framed by the bus window and Marigold leaned against the glass, watching the twisting highway pass by. The air conditioner did its best, but it couldn’t keep the growing heat at bay. Back home, summer had only been hinting its arrival; here its presence was undeniable. They passed muddy-flats with houses on gigantic stilts and rows of identical homes painted in conflicting colors. But she never saw anyone. It was as if the world had been abandoned and she, alone, had been left behind for the elements to claim.

As a parting gift, Rhodes had given her a map of the city. Bright red ink circled her new home, while yellow highlighter marked the closest police stations, ‘just in case,’ as he had said. It was spread over her knees and she mindlessly traced the path she would need to take to get from the terminal to her aunt’s house. All communication between them had been through Rhodes, and while she yearned to at least talk to the woman she would be living with, she didn’t feel it was her place to push it. If distance was what Delilah needed to cope with this madness, then Marigold had no choice but to give it to her.

She looked up to see buildings close in on all sides. The warehouse district was never the prettiest place in any city and this was no exception. It had been a childish notion, but she had hoped for something akin to love at first sight. Like she would see New Orleans and be hit with the absolute, undeniable knowledge that she could be happy here. But all that met her expectations were towering structures of brick, steel and shadows. A change would be good, she reminded herself again. You’ll get used to it. You’ll be fine. Just breathe. She folded the map and slipped it carefully into the backpack that held every possession she had in the world, with room to spare.

Steam rose from the concrete as the bus pulled into the open terminal. A new excitement simmered over the crowd, and the other passengers began to gather their belongings. She pressed harder against the window and tried to keep her attention away from the numerous families that slipped past her to the door. Ever since she had left the hospital, there seemed to be a swarm of three-year-olds. She knew they weren’t Jasmine. Some of them weren’t even slightly alike. But the second they squealed, reason was pushed aside and Marigold had to fight the instinct to reach out and pick them up. Most of the time she won, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from being drawn to them like the ocean to the moon. Of course, this didn’t go over too well with their parents.

She locked her eyes on her scarf and fussed with it as the bus emptied. It took a bit of adjusting to ensure the knot covered her permanent scar, as it kept slipping. They had removed her stitches before she had left the hospital, but her skin was still swollen and raw, and it now looked more like a contagious rash. Her ivory complexion only made it worse.

Eventually, she was alone, but she made no effort to get off the bus. Instead, she twisted her hands around the straps of her bag until the coarse material grinded against her skin like rope. The idea flittered across her mind that if she just sat there long enough, they would take her back. Back to mountains and melting snow. Back to laughter and smiles and blissful ignorance. They would take her home. The contents of her bag dug into her arms as she clutched it tightly to her chest. There’s no going back. She drew a breath until her lungs were so full they ached. Before, she had never appreciated it. Now, the sensation calmed her. The only home you have is waiting for you in the French Quarter. It’s time to go home.

Her first step into the Louisiana heat was like hitting a solid wall. Humidity made the air as thick as a swamp, and she instantly began to sweat under her sweater. She stripped it off as quickly as she could and shoved it inside her bag. Since they had only thought to bring a set of winter clothes to the hospital, every other scrap of clothes she owned had been destroyed in the fire. She had planned to hold off on buying any new clothes until she met her aunt. Shopping would give them a chance to bond and at least have one thing to talk about. But, as the heat seeped from the stone slabs and became trapped in her hiking boots, she knew she wouldn’t last that long.

Pulling her backpack onto her shoulders, she tried to get a sense of where she was and which way she needed to go. Straight down Julia Street to the streetcar stop on the corner, she recalled. It took her three minutes to realize she had been going the wrong way and a few more to backtrack. When she arrived at the right corner, there was no bench or awning, just a strip of grass that divided the street, a no man’s land with a single pole that people milled around. She edged closer just in time to see a public streetcar rumbling down a sunken track. Bright red with a yellow trim, it looked like an apparition from the past, forged from sun and heat.

It was surreal to get onto the wooden structure with its little silver bell. She took a seat to find even the wood was warm. The glass window was pushed up slightly, allowing a breeze to slip through, and she leaned into it as she counted off the streets. At Canal Street, she slipped off, the memorized instructions repeating in her head like a mantra. It only took a few moments for the next tram to arrive. Canal down to Poydras, the last stop, any further and they’d end up in the Mississippi River. By now, she was on the outskirts of the French Quarter and the buildings had more beauty and style, like an echo of the past had bled into each structure.

Sweat pooled at the nape of her neck and she longed to take off her heavy wool scarf. The new stitches on her forearm sweltered and itched under layers of bandages; it was impossible to keep her nails away from them. The tram rocked harder as it neared its final stop. This time it wasn’t a stick in a patch of grass, but instead looked like a real train station. Already desperate for fresh air, she shuffled to the wide opening of the door. The combined body heat of the crowd was unbearable, but they pressed in all the same. Metal squealed against metal as the streetcar made its final jerks. She was trying to shift away from the others and create just enough space for air to pass between them when someone whispered her name. She snapped towards the voice but couldn’t catch sight of who had spoken. In the crush of bodies, she caught a flash of red, a slip of blue, a tuff of strawberry blonde. Jasmine?

Pain sliced across her back. Her knees buckled, her hand slipped, and she tumbled from the streetcar to smack against the concrete with a bone-rattling thud. The impact stole the air from her lungs and she struggled to get it back. Every inch of her body throbbed with the blow, making it impossible to tell if she was actually injured. The unforgiving slab singed her fingers as she clawed at it and tried to push herself up.

Hands grabbed her, hurled her up. Choking on a scream she whirled around, expecting to see her parents and a flash of metal. She would have ended up back on the ground if it hadn’t been for the crowd’s gentle hold. They carried her weight until she was steady enough to stand on her own. Someone dusted off her backpack. Another retrieved her broken sunglasses. Caught between gratitude, embarrassment, and fear, she numbly mumbled thanks and apologies. The whole time her eyes searched the crowd. A sharp ache still pulsated from her back and convinced her that she hadn’t just slipped. Someone had pushed her. But, as she looked over the sea of faces and couldn’t find anything beyond concern or polite disinterest, doubt began to gnaw at her conviction. Her brain shoved it all aside when she saw her connecting streetcar letting on the last of its passengers.

“I’m okay,” she assured as she extracted herself from the crowd. “Thank you. I just slipped. I need to go.”

Marigold forced herself to run the short distance to the second streetcar and leap on board just in time. It hadn’t occurred to her how beat up she looked until, after one glance, an elderly man insisted she take his seat. With a grateful smile, she gingerly inched down to sit on the very edge. She couldn’t bring herself to lean back. It didn’t matter that she had landed face first. It was her back that was killing her.

Faint aromas of spices, sugar, and the tiniest hint of salt drifted into the air. It prickled at her attention until she craned her neck to get a better look at the world around her. The wide Mississippi River stretched out alongside the path of the streetcar, a mat of sapphire blue and warm rich brown. Amongst the shipping boats, she spotted a lone paddle steamer, something out of a Huckleberry Finn novel, chugging lazily upstream. Life seemed to bubble up from the river, and soon the streetcar was surrounded with activity.

On the other side, Jackson Square came into view, the large cathedral in the middle a giant of pristine white. Dozens of artists and fortune tellers had set up small stalls along the worn iron gates that lined the square. A spotted horse pulled an open carriage down the bustling streets as jazz music and laughter wafted up with the summer heat. Energy infused the air and entered her with every breath.

It pulled her in and suddenly she had a thousand sights and smells to distract her from the ache in her chest and the sting in her muscles. The swirling masses of the French Quarter engulfed her, vibrant and beautiful, and just how she had imagined it. She was almost reluctant to look for clothes instead of exploring but she couldn’t hold out any longer. Not able to afford anything other than clothes that screamed ‘tourist’, she headed into the nearest gift shop. Once the air conditioning touched her, she was fighting not to linger.

With the store worker’s permission, she headed into the changing room with a pair of flip flops, denim shorts, and a t-shirt with a New Orleans Saints logo. The Saints weren’t her team, but it seemed like a nice gesture to her new self. Her back felt like it was on fire as she pulled off her long-sleeved shirt. Something wet brushed against her fingers and she froze. Blood? She clutched her shirt to her chest as she tried to catch sight of her back in the mirror. Three deep scratches crossed her skin from her right shoulder to her left hip. They were fresh but had already stopped bleeding. Snatching up her backpack, she looked for what could have caused the scratches, but there wasn’t anything on it.

Dismissing the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, she pulled on her new shirt and headed out towards the selection of baseball caps. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as the air behind her stirred. She whipped around, arms raised to fend off a blow, but no one was near her. A few people were in the racks and the shopkeeper was on the other side of the register, but that was it. Each of them was watching her, some outright and some more discretely, but they were all looking. It took her a moment to realize what they were actually looking at; she wasn’t wearing her scarf.

Her scar itched as she grabbed the nearest light linen scarf and looped it around her neck. It wasn’t enough. She just wanted to sink into the floorboards and disappear. Instead, she pulled a baseball cap over her tangled hair and slipped on the largest pair of sunglasses she could find, hoping they were big enough to cover the slowly healing black eye. She could feel their eyes on her as she paid and hurried out the door. She ducked into the swirling crowd until the sensation died off.

St. Ann Street took her along Jackson square. After so many days of isolation, the noise was intoxicating and eased the tension out of her shoulders. Brick houses rose up on either side of the street, their balconies decorated with iron fences and hanging plants heavy with flowers. She slowed to glance down Bourbon Street as she crossed it. There were too many people to be able to cross it in a straight line; the crowd pulled her across restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and stores that advertised peep shows before she managed to get to the other side.

She had to back track and push against the flow to get to the right street. Scrambling into the alleyway, she got her first look at her new home. The smile slipped from her face as she inched closer. Brightly colored buildings cowered next to a goliath of off white. Paint peeling and plaster chipped, the narrow structure reared up three stories, with twin windows that indicated an additional attic. Its shutters were a faded black and dangled limply from the shrouded windows. Only the front door had survived the torments of time and shone like polished onyx. The mammoth structure cast an almost physical shadow that seemed to drench the entire alley. It devoured light and sound. Its windows stood deep and empty, like eye sockets within a brittle skull.

With every step closer, the sounds of the tourist hub faded. Marigold glanced over her shoulder to the mouth of the alley and watched people flow by like a stream. As she stepped up to the door, she was hit with the sudden urge to run back to Bourbon Street. A deep ache crossed her chest. For a moment, she stood staring at the heavily polished door. Her hands clutched at her bag straps, refusing to touch it. It glistened like a lacquered coffin. Huffing out her breath, she forced aside the foolish thought and knocked before she lost her nerve.

Each rap echoed through the bowels of the house and rebounded back to her. No one came. Nothing stirred. Her stomach churned as she knocked again. Like hushed whispers, the sounds of Bourbon Street mixed with an arguing couple and the cries of a baby. Her brow furrowed. She knew that cry. The door flung open and she jumped back with a start.

Chapter 3

 

Delilah was a lot taller than what her photo had suggested, with sharp cheekbones and a strong jaw, just like Marigold’s fathers. She had his eyes too, the exact same shade of chocolate brown, and Marigold could barely stand to look into them.

“Yes?”

“Aunt Delilah?” she asked, not knowing what to do with her hands. Were they supposed to hug? Shake? Wave? Shoving them into her pockets, she smiled. “I’m Maggie.”

“So, you’re Phillip’s child.”

Her wide mouth pulled into a tight line as she studied the girl. “I was told your name was Marigold.” Each word slipped out with the southern drawl that Marigold hadn’t managed to inherit from her father.

“Maggie’s a nickname.”

“And the other one. The one that died?”

Her shoulders stiffened. “Jasmine.”

One eyebrow cocked. “Typical. Phillip would ramble on about leaving the family legacy behind, but kept the most asinine of our traditions. We are a garden of loveliness, are we not?”

Not knowing what else to do, she shrugged. Delilah sneered and spun on her heel, disappearing into the shadows of the house. Cautiously, Marigold followed.

“Straighten your spine and thrust your chest out. You are a Madame La Roux. We do not bow, we do not cringe, and we do not break.”

The house offered no refuge from the heat. Standing in the doorway, she could look straight down a hallway to the back door. A winding staircase rose up on the far side of the foyer and might have been impressive if it hadn’t been left to rot. Delilah turned to the left and entered a narrow, but elegantly decorated, sitting room. Each item was an antique, the colors of the fabric lost to time. One wall had a massive fireplace framed with black marble, the opposite had two huge windows. A crystal chandelier dangled from the high ceiling and was old enough to house real candles.

Sinking into a sofa as if it were a throne, Delilah gestured to an empty love seat. Marigold picked at her nails as subtly as possible while perching on the very edge of the seat. The silence in the house was intense enough to make her ears ring. Every last trace of sound that existed outside the house was smothered by its towering walls. Shadows made it impossible to tell the real color of the cracking wallpaper, but the floors were made of a brilliant red wood. Marigold didn’t want to look at it.

“A lady takes her hat off when inside.”

Marigold swiftly pulled the cap off and ran her hand through her hair, attempting to smooth it into something presentable.

“You don’t look much like a La Roux.”

“No, um, I take after my mom.”

She delicately waved her hand in Marigold’s direction. “So that red hair is natural?”

“Just as much as the freckles,” she replied

“Pity.”

Delilah didn’t return Marigold’s weak smile, leaving it to awkwardly wither from her face. Searching for anything that might start a proper conversation, Marigold looked over the dozens of portraits that hung on the walls.

“Wow. Are they all family?”

“How much did Phillip tell you about your kin?”

She failed to think of a delicate way to answer, “Nothing.”

Delilah shook her head, her face tightly concealing any pain and only allowing disdain to show.

“The blood in our veins has helped shape the world. We can trace our lineage back to seven different nobilities and three crowns.” She lifted her chin and cast her eyes over the portraits. “Yet my brother was always so fascinated with plebeians. No offence to your mother, of course. I’m sure she was a singular woman.”

Marigold felt like she should say something. But what could she say? Everything she knew about her mother had been drawn into question.

“When will your other possessions arrive?”

“This is it.”

Delilah tilted her head with a look of disinterest. “I have given you the attic room. Would you care to see it now?”

“Sure.”

She stood up, smoothed a hand over her dress, and gracefully headed towards the stairs. “I am Aunt Delilah or Madame, address me only as such.”

Marigold hesitated, then scurried to keep up. “Yes, Aunt Delilah.”

The carpet of the stairs had worn through in places, and parts of the banister were missing. It groaned with each step. Another elaborate chandelier hung from the towering ceiling, its crystals tinkering with their every move. Portraits ran the length of the stairs, each figure distant and poised, but there were no family photographs. Nothing personal. They followed the landing and began to ascend the next flight.

“I use the entirety of the second floor as my private quarters and I value my privacy.”

“Okay.”

Delilah cast a sharp look over her shoulder.

“Okay, Aunt Delilah,” she corrected quickly.

Her aunt didn’t really smile as much as she expressed a slightly less disapproval.

“The kitchen is on the first floor. You will have your own wash room, but keep in mind our hot water is limited and I enjoy my baths. Are you a gardener?”

She didn’t wait for Marigold’s response and continued to say, “The courtyard has a few flower beds you can tinker with.”

“Aunt Delilah? What’s on the first floor?”

“The library, a few spare rooms, the sitting room, and a sun room.”

“And the third?”

“Some more rooms, the dining room, and a hall,” she said. “I have breakfast in the sun room at eight, and when I am home, I have supper in the dining room at nine. You are free to join me, but I will not wait on you.”

The door to the attic was disguised as a section of the wall and didn’t have a handle. Delilah gave it a firm push and it swung open revealing a dark, narrow staircase. Her shoulders brushed the walls as she followed Delilah up. There were no windows or overhead lights, leaving the top of the staircase completely lost to shadows. It was a lot further than she had first thought, and she blindly felt her way along. There were no handrails, only cracking walls that bristled with heat. Somewhere in front of her, Delilah opened a second door and Marigold winced at the sudden light.

Large twin windows allowed light to spill into the spacious room. The walls were exposed brick and the red floorboards had been left raw and bare. Heat pooled under the roof and transformed the room into a sauna. A massive four post bed, the top of the mattress as tall as her hip, filled the space between the windows. An old wooden cupboard was pushed into a corner, and peeking out from behind an almost sheer dividing curtain was a claw foot tub.

Her heart immediately threw itself against her ribs. Her skin turned cold. Even as she turned her back to the tub, she could still feel the porcelain against her fingertips. Each stitch on her neck felt like a point of fire. The sweat that clung to her throat suddenly felt thicker, warmer. She wiped her hand over her skin and looked at her trembling palm, relieved to find only sweat, not blood. Still, she swallowed to assure herself that her neck was still intact.

“It’s very nice.” The words felt thick as they worked their way up her throat. “Thank you, Aunt Delilah.”

“I have business to attend to.”

Marigold whirled to the voice and found that Delilah was already descending the stairs.

“Settle in and I shall see you shortly,” she added.

The door creaked as it slowly swung closed and sealed Marigold within.

Chapter 4

 

A breeze slipped off the moonlit Mississippi and attempted to dull the blistering humidity, but it still felt like the air itself was going to combust. Louis loved the sensation, and not just because it gave him an excuse to leave his jacket behind. He kept his top hat and walking cane. Tourists loved it when their guides had a slight classic vampire feel to them, and a happy tourist was a tipping tourist.

Twirling his cane, he led his group through the contained insanity that was Bourbon Street after sundown. The blazing store fronts chased off every trace of night and the scent of jambalaya hovered in the air until his stomach growled. It took away from the ambiance that the paranormal tour agency was attempting to create. However, it made it a lot easier to keep the group together, and gave him one last breath of sanity to sustain him for their last stop.

The lights of Bourbon Street never penetrated the alley. It was as if the La Roux house smothered all but the faintest traces and left the street in a hushed, predatory stillness. Chills trickled down his spine as he retrieved a pouch from his pocket. He crouched, opened the bag, and laid out the contents, all while never taking his eyes off of the house. A restaurant at the corner of the alley had a ‘welcome’ sign that flashed blue and green, and the light played off of the coins and cellophane wrappers as he straightened.

“Is that candy?” a woman from Phoenix asked.

“Just something for Papa Legba,” Louis said.

The woman looked to her husband who whispered with a sly smile, “It’s the voodoo version of the devil.”

Louis had the strongest urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. He twirled his cane to resist.

“No,” he sighed. “In so many ways, no.”

“But you can make deals with him, right? Like sell your soul for money and power?”

He was rubbing his temple before he could stop himself and quickly dropped his hand.

“He’s not huge on souls,” he said as he brought out his most charming smile. Then he added, “But if you’re interested, we do have a voodoo tour going out tomorrow. We’ll teach you all about Papa Legba.”

The rest of the group had gathered around, so Louis reluctantly took a step deeper into the alley. He took his usual spot underneath the last functioning street lamp, a place that ensured he never gave the building his back, and swung his arms wide.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” He didn’t wait to see if he had their attention. “This is our last stop on tonight’s tour, and you may notice I’m talking quite a bit faster than usual. One reason for that is that I can smell freshly made pralines and I want some. Yes, I know we just stopped for lemon ice but I don’t care. More importantly, however, is that I don’t want to be anywhere near that!”

He thrust his cane out to indicate the bone white building lurking in the darkness. Since he had already told them what was coming, the crowd’s hum was quick and easy to talk over.

“I give you, the La Roux home. Basically, it is the Chernobyl of the spiritual world.”

A bubbly blonde from Brazil who insisted on treating the tour like a school excursion shot up her hand. “Will we be getting any closer?”

“I won’t,” he said flatly. “Evil is like radiation. It sticks to a place. Too much of it in one area and people get sick. People die. No living thing should go anywhere near that house.”

Every hair on his body rose at once and he tried to ignore it, falling into the usual routine of his speech. It had been years since he had first learned the words and he no longer needed to pay attention as he spoke. It was better that way. He didn’t want to think about what lurked here, what this place had seen, and it allowed him to keep a better eye on the property. Nervous energy strummed through him as the last words trickled out and he began to slip around the crowd, subtly trying to lure them back onto Bourbon Street. He wasn’t quick enough to get them out before the questions started.

“Does anyone live there now?”

“There is one last Madame La Roux living in the residence,” Louis told the banker from Texas. “She’s not home.”

“How do you know?”

“Madame La Roux is a traditional lady. Like segregation traditional. We’ve had conversations in the past and now she tends to depart before the tour arrives.”

“Does she do tours?”

It was strange to see the man’s face. It had been hidden behind his camera all night.

“I don’t believe so,” Louis replied.

“So we can sneak a peek through the window?”

He couldn’t catch sight of who had spoken before another chirped, “No one’s home.”

As if to defy the words, every window in the house sparked to life in a single instant. Louis flinched back but couldn’t escape the glow that washed over them. The group chuckled, the jokers among them taking advantage of the material, and Louis locked his knees to keep from bolting. The La Roux house had twenty-three rooms, three levels, and a renovated slave quarters. How could they have all come on at once?

The light clawed over his skin like a living thing. This was not good. He took a few steps back and attempted to regain everyone’s attention. Chills ran down his spine like fingernails, and he was suddenly aware that he was being watched. Slowly, he closed a hand around the leather satchel that hung from his neck. The solid weight of the gris-gris calmed him enough to lift his eyes. A figure loomed in one of the attic windows. Light surrounded it but never touched its inky black form. It looked less like a shadow and more like the light had been gouged open. If it had eyes, he couldn’t see them, but he knew that it was watching him. Staring.

His head screamed for him to get everyone out of here, but his body wouldn’t budge. He watched as the thing in the attic turned its head with purpose, tilting it down and to the side. Louis followed its gaze and saw a shadow shifting across the windows of the bottom floor. Soft and dull. A person. They crossed the array of windows lining the bottom floor, one after another, drawing nearer and nearer to the stairs. A cold lump settled in the pit of his stomach. They didn’t know what was waiting upstairs. His eyes snapped back up to the attic window. Every light in the house died as one.

Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he barreled towards the house. Over his shoulders, he yelled out commands for the group to get back to the street, and to wait for him there. Each step towards the house made his heart pound harder, but he couldn’t turn back. Trembling, he threw himself the last few feet and pounded his fist against the door.

It didn’t open. He couldn’t see where the figure was. Where the human was. Members of his group called out to him but he ignored them. He beat the door with both hands, hard enough that each blow sent a spike of pain along his forearms. The door rattled under his assault. The second it opened, he shuffled back until his heels toyed with the gutter.

A woman peeked out through the small gap that the chain lock allowed. It wasn’t Madame La Roux, but a much younger woman. Even swallowed by shadows, her hair was the color of fire and she would have been deathly pale if it wasn’t for the reddish freckles that covered her like constellations. The combination made the bruise around her eye, and the bright blue irises themselves, look darker by comparison. There was a spark of fear in those eyes and it propelled him back into action.

“Are you home alone?”

“I’m not telling you that.”

That was a yes and it made his stomach drop. “Don’t go into the attic.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s waiting for you. Don’t go up there.”

“What’s waiting for me?”

“Just don’t go up there,” he insisted. Each time he didn’t pay attention, his feet would inch further away. He could feel the creature from the attic watching him, its attention like a boulder crushing his chest. “Get out of the house. It’s up there. It will hurt you.”

“Who are you?” she snapped.

It was getting impossible to stay put. Every primal instinct screamed at him to run. It shattered his thoughts and tugged at his limbs. With the last of his restraint, he ripped the gris-gris from around his neck and tossed it to her. She caught it on reflex but instantly looked like she wanted to drop it.

“You need to get out of that house.”

“You need to leave,” she replied as her fingers gripped the door. “I’m calling the police.”

She began to close the door when he suddenly lurched forward, slammed his fist against the wood, and managed to keep it open a fraction. Just enough so he could see her eyes and the fear that swam through them. It took everything he had to keep his voice level, calm.

“There is nothing in this house but darkness and death.”

Her eyes didn’t harden, but steel weaved its way through the fear. “Don’t come back here again.”

She gave the door a sudden, hard shove, and it slammed shut. He could hear the locks flicking over and lifted his hand to knock again, but decided against it. That solid weight he had felt on him since he approached the house now felt like a hand slipping around his heart. He ran.

 

***

 

Marigold pressed her back against the door and tried to dislodge her heart from her throat. Aunt Delilah had been gone all day, but she hadn’t really felt the emptiness of the house until now. The man had almost knocked the door off its hinges. She had been sure he was going to get in, and all she could think about was the man that had attacked her at the hospital. Her fingers wrapped protectively around her forearm as the battered flesh pulsed. She managed to peel her hand away long enough to snatch her painkillers out of her pocket and swallowed them dry. The house was in complete darkness and she was rendered blind. Pressed against the solid wood, she waited for her eyes to adjust, but it didn’t happen. The house remained completely hidden. She couldn’t even begin to discern silhouettes. There was only nothingness.

Her free hand fished her phone out of her pocket and she clicked it open. The screen lit up as bright as the sun before it switched itself off. She hit it repeatedly, but it wouldn’t turn back on. Engulfed once again, the darkness felt oppressively heavy. Every second bore down on her until her knees felt weak. She needed a light. At least this explained the line of candles that were stacked in the kitchen cupboard.

Hands outstretched, she shuffled down the hallway, always a step away from hitting into something, but it never happened. There was only empty space. Just when she was certain that the whole world had fallen away, her fingers brushed a door frame. She gripped it tightly and felt the little satchel that the man had thrown to her dig into her palm. After a moment of trying to orientate herself, she staggered across the kitchen and felt around for the cabinet she remembered from earlier. The matches were tucked into the corner of the bottom shelf and, after a few flicks, a small flame came to life.

The soft glow created a small visible ring around her but didn’t touch the endless darkness beyond. She couldn’t find a candle holder so held the long, slender candle with one hand and protected the flame with the other. As she turned away from the counter, her foot hit a slick patch. She grimaced and lowered the candle to see what she had just stepped in. A patch of water caught the light. The puddle was small and as she crouched, trying to figure out where the leak was coming from, she noticed that it was part of a trail.

The little splotches crossed the floor and slipped into the shadows. By the light of the tiny flame, she followed the path they created. Bit by bit, the puddles gathered definition until they were perfect footsteps. They were small, childlike. Confused, Marigold crouched down and pressed a fingertip into the puddle. The flame flickered, something shifted out of the corner of her eyes. She scrambled back, candle high, eyes locked on the darkened space below the table.

Jasmine stared back at her with wide eyes. Water covered her blue skin and dripped from her long hair to form a puddle on the floor. Marigold didn’t dare blink, scared that her sister would disappear, terrified that she wouldn’t.

Her voice cracked as she whispered, “Jasmine.”

Jasmine’s eyes grew impossibly large. “Shh, the boogieman will hear you.”

“The boogieman?”

Water drizzled from her sleeve as she unfurled one trembling arm to point a tiny finger over Marigold’s shoulder. Hot breath washed over Marigold’s neck, putrid and thick, toying with the loose tendrils of her hair. The flickering candlelight shone in Jasmine’s eyes.

“Jas,” Marigold whispered. “What’s behind me?”

When her sister didn’t say a word, she skirted her eyes to the side, unable to see anything beyond the tiny rim of candlelight. Slowly she turned her head. A short burst of breath pushed past her face and blew the candle out. Marigold screamed and scrambled over the floor. She clambered into chairs and made them scatter. They slammed against the floor, each slap like thunder claps in the absolute darkness.

They tangled in her legs as she pushed up onto her feet and ran. She slammed into walls, tripped over stairs, but didn’t stop running until she was on the third floor. Gripping the rail until her knuckles hurt, she crumbled onto her knees. Each breath ripped open her throat like barbwire. Hand pressed against her chest like she could keep her heart from breaking her ribs, she tried to still her mind. The pills. It had to be the pills. No matter what the doctors prescribed, the visions only got worse.

It can’t be real. Just go to bed.

Marigold dragged herself off the floor. Each step was exhausting and when she smacked into a wall, she didn’t care. Not even when she tasted blood and realized that somewhere along the line she had opened her lip. She would deal with it in the morning. She felt along the wall until she found the groves of the hidden door and pushed it open. With one hand braced against the wall, she forced her legs to work. Each step groaned. She could barely keep her eyes open.

From somewhere behind her, she heard the door scrape over the floor as it slowly swung shut. She stopped, eyes searching the darkness even as she knew she wouldn’t see anything. But she felt it. Something was in there with her. Slowly she took another step up the stairs. The floor creaked with her weight. The sound was met with an answer somewhere far below. She held her breath and froze, straining to hear even the slightest sound. A soft creak broke the silence. One step. Then another. Silence.

Suddenly, the stairs were screaming as something barreled up towards her. She spun on her heel and ran as fast as she could. The sound got closer. Closer. She slammed into the door at the top of the stairs and hurled herself through, throwing it shut with both hands. There wasn’t a lock. There was nothing she could push in front of it. The darkness was her only ally and she prayed it would hold her for just a few seconds more.

There was only one place to hide and she ran for it. Her outstretched fingers found the battered surface of the cupboard. The only possible weapon it offered was a wire coat hanger, and she clutched it tightly as she curled into the cupboard and pulled the door shut. For a moment, the only sound in the world was her own labored breathing. The rush of blood as her heart pounded. She clamped her mouth shut when another sound intruded on existence. The untreated floor rasped as the door to the room inched open.

All she could see was a memory of the man in the hospital. It was burned into her mind’s eye. Every line of his face, the fever of his eyes, the calluses of his hands. Her face throbbed with the memory of his fist driving into skin and bone. She bit her lips until she could taste blood. Held the wire tightly enough to hurt. Silence settled back down onto her and she strained to listen to the slightest sound. She didn’t hear anyone come into the room. She didn’t hear anyone go down the stairs.

A scream ached to be released when she first heard the scraping. The cupboard door was just a thin slap of wood. One that held no lock. On the other side, someone began to trail the thin tip of something sharp in idol patterns. Up and down. Round and round. The door rattled softly at the pressure the razor tip created. Trapped inside, huddled in the darkness, she clutched at her pathetic weapon and waited for the door to open.

Chapter 5

 

There was no way to tell exactly when the scratching had stopped, but even after it had fallen silent, she hadn’t dared to open the door. Without the constant threat, her adrenaline had crashed and pulled her into a restless sleep. She woke up as slips of sunlight slithered through the cupboard doors. Her back felt like acid had been thrown onto the cuts. The muscles of her legs had been replaced with stone. The air in the cramped space was humid enough to make her head spin, and she was in desperate need of a shower. Eventually, she couldn’t put it off any longer and, taking courage from the sunlight, cracked open the door.

Nothing charged at her. Nothing reached in. She held the hanger high like it could actually work as a weapon and pushed the door open with more force. It swung open to reveal an empty room. Already the sun had poured heat into the space, but it was better than the cupboard. Her muscles protested each step she took to the small sink hidden behind the dividing curtain. She sighed at the luxurious feel of cold water sloshing over her hands and guzzled down as much as her stomach could take. Stripping off her shirt was a special kind of agony, and she cringed when she realized that the ripe-smelling shirt was the only thing she had to wear. She realized she should have bought two.

She peeked out around the curtain to ensure the room was empty before she peeled off her shorts. She stared at the tub. It sat there as wide and open as a gaping mouth, ready to swallow her whole. Unseen hands wrapped around her lungs and squeezed. Her throat crumbled. Edging closer, like it was a wild animal ready to strike, she snatched up a face cloth and retreated back to the sink. A sponge bath would have to do. The untreated wood floor soaked up as much of the run off as it could, but she could feel a puddle forming around her feet. She couldn’t look at it. Each drop that hit her back felt like it sliced into her skin, but she forced herself to finish the job. With the temperature already climbing, she decided to go without a bandage over her stitches. Her clothes felt waterlogged as she put them back on with a twist of disgust. The shirt had just settled into place when the bedroom door slammed open.

Delilah stormed in, fury in her eyes and her fist clenched tight. Before Marigold could say anything, Delilah hurled the little satchel at her.

“What is the meaning of this?”

Too dignified to yell the words, they came out in a strained hiss.

Marigold glanced at the satchel but didn’t understand enough to answer.

“You dare to bring voodoo into my house?”

“Voodoo?”

Delilah pointed to the offending satchel like its very presence revolted her to her core.

“I do not have such things in my home.”

“It’s just a pouch.” Slumped against the floor, the tiny leather satchel didn’t seem worth all the fuss.

Delilah’s eyes flared as she charged a few steps towards Marigold, one slender hand wrapped tightly in the neck line of her dress.

“Do not contradict me,” she spat. “You will get rid of it this instant and you will never bring such barbaric filth into my home again. Am I understood?”

My home. The words rattled in Marigold’s head and settled as a heavy weight against her heart. My home, not our home. Logically, she knew that it was silly to let it bother her. But being rational didn’t make it hurt any less.

“Yes, Aunt Delilah. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know?”

“A man showed up last night and–”

“You are inviting strangers into my home?”

“No, no,” she rushed to say. “He just started banging on the door and scared the hell out of me. I didn’t let him in.”

“And he gave you that?”

“Yes.”

“And you took it?”

“I was busy slamming the door shut.”

“Stupid child,” Delilah huffed. “New Orleans isn’t like the backwater squalor your father raised you in. Voodoo has a hold on the heathens here. It has power.”

“You don’t actually believe there’s anything to this, do you?” Marigold asked.

Marigold’s startled laugh turned bitter in her mouth as Delilah glared. For a moment, she thought that the older woman might actually run at her. But the instant passed, and Delilah kept eyeing the satchel like it was a snake.

“Voodoo witches hold tightly to their grudges. They say their chants and a La Roux dies. Wait till they come for you, then you’ll believe.” Her eyes drifted back to the bag. “But then it looks like they may have come already.”

“It’s just a bag, Aunt Delilah.”

“It’s a curse,” she hissed. “A witch sent something dark your way. Get rid of it, now!”

“Okay, okay, I will.”

“Today.”

“Of course.” Marigold took a step forward as Delilah turned to go. “Aunt Delilah, would you like to go shopping with me? I could use some extra clothes and thought it would be nice for you to show me the town.”

All the anger that had strapped itself to Delilah fell away like it had never been there. “I wish you had asked me last night. I’ve already made plans for my day and can’t break them. You understand.”

“Oh, yeah, I mean, yes, Aunt Delilah. Maybe tomorrow?”

“Perhaps.” She was already on the staircase. “But don’t wait for me. By the smell of it, you are in dire need.”

 

***

 

She couldn’t bend without snaps of pain slicing along her back. Her body screamed for her pain killers, but each time she tried to take one, images of Jasmine, scared and pale, flashed across her mind. It was easier to handle the pain than see that again. Finding a few cheap tops took surprisingly little time and she was left with endless hours stretched out before her. With nowhere to go but back to that house, she found herself wandering the streets, hoping that the energy would once again drown out the sounds of her own thoughts.

By noon, the heat was intolerable, so she lingered in the stores that had air-conditioning. But there was only so long that she could stare at the same Mardi Gras mask before the owners grew concerned she was going to steal it. She bought a daiquiri in hopes that the cup of ice would offer some relief, and spent most of the time lamenting that she couldn’t have alcohol in it. Not with the chance that there were painkillers still in her system.

The ice quickly melted into watery slush. She wiped the cup across her forehead, sighing into the lingering chill that remained against the plastic. As she crossed the street, her eyes were drawn to a dangling, brightly colored sign. ‘Ava Key’s Voodoo Shop’. It was awkward to juggle her bag and her drink at the same time, but she managed to find the little pouch in one of the pockets. With it tight in hand, she chewed her lip and edged towards the door. Through the large storefront windows she could see rows of towering shelves. Every inch of space was occupied by perfectly ordered items, candles, beads and roots. The few scattered people browsed the aisles but appeared more interested in chatting than in the exotic items. She squeezed the bag and reached for the door just as it opened.

“You!” she shouted as she shoved her hands into his chest.

The satchel’s cord wrapped around her finger, but the cup crumpled between them, its bright red contents erupting like a volcano. The man from her doorstep last night staggered back with the blow and she charged in after him. She shoved him again and he tripped into the counter. He ducked out of the way when she came at him again, hands up to fend her off.

“You jackass! You and your friends need to stay away from me!”

The second the words came out, she was certain they were true. It hadn’t just been in her head. Someone had done that to her, and her hands shook with rage.

His brow began to unfurrow as he backed up for each step she took forward. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Liar! You were, what, the distraction? Does it make you feel good to scare women?”

“What are you talking about? I never intended to scare you!”

“What did you think would happen? I spent the entire night trapped in the cupboard because of you and your sick little friends.”

“I would never associate with someone who would do that,” he replied.

“So it’s only a coincidence that they rocked up just after you left?” She laughed bitterly as she swung her hands out wide, making the little satchel swing and regain her attention. She ripped it off and threw it at his daiquiri soaked shirt. “A little hint. When you’re going to scare someone with a curse, make sure they know a thing or two about voodoo.”

The last words left her along with her bravado. Deflated and exhausted, she was able to feel the constant hum of fear that now lurked in the depths of her cells. She turned to leave and he reached for her. Her glare stopped him in his tracks.

“Miss, there has been a grave misunderstanding between us, and I believe I have handled your scorns against my character rather well.”

Despite her best efforts, his southern genteel accent was a balm against her frayed nerves. “But before we get into that, I think we should discuss your lip.”

“What?”

“You didn’t have that cut last night.”

Her anger spiked again. “I ran into a wall.”

“This the same wall that gave you that black eye?”

“Go rot,” she pushed out through clenched teeth as she turned back to the door.

He came up behind her again and she whirled around to avoid his touch. Her damaged back hit the door and she couldn’t keep in her gasp of pain. As the man edged closer, she noticed the small audience they had created.

“Are you alright, miss?”

“Now you care?”

“I don’t know what you think I did.” He was nothing but calm and polite and it got under her skin. She had the strongest urge to shove him again.

“You distracted me so your sick little friends could break into my home.”

“If you recall, cher, I warned you that there was something in the house with you.”

“Something?”

“Well, it sure wasn’t human,” he replied, calmly.

For a moment, all she could do was stare at him. Her sudden burst of laughter caught them both off guard.

“And here I thought you were just cruel. Turns out you’re insane.”

“I know what I saw.” Certainty laced his words. “So do you.”

“Are you seriously messing with my head? Trying to make sure I believe in this stupid curse?”

“What curse?”

She pointed to the bag that had been discarded on the floor. He diverted his eyes to it and his brow furrowed.

“The gris-gris?”

“Whatever you call it.”

He scrubbed a hand over the black stubble of his shaved head and glanced at her over his thick rimmed glasses.

“Whoever told you that doesn’t know voodoo as well as they think they do. That gris-gris is for protection against evil.”

“And you just happened to have one on you?”

“Any time I go near the La Roux house,” he said as he pointed to one of the racks filled with different colored bags. “We sell them here. Open one up, cher. You’ll find all the same ingredients.”

Shifting her weight, she could feel the eyes on her. “My name isn’t Cher.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You keep calling me Cher. I’m Maggie.”

A soft chuckle tinkled through the crowd, making her feel all the more awkward. The man smiled, a flash of white teeth that he quickly tried to suppress.

“It’s a term of endearment, and a habit.” As if to draw her attention he said with more volume, “My name is Louis Dupont.”

“Hi, Louis.”

“Louis,” he said, his accent meeting with a French tilt.

She tried to match it. He shook his head almost indulgently and corrected her again.

“That’s what I said.”

“It’s really not.”

Most of the crowd nodded in agreement just as the door behind her opened. She scurried out of the way before it could hit her back and found herself eye to eye with one of the most imposing women she had ever seen. Her nose was slender, lips full, and skin like black velvet. Marigold felt her insides shift as the woman’s intense gaze locked onto her. The bottomless depths flicked up to something over Marigold’s shoulder before narrowing.

“Get out.”

“Ma,” Louis smiled. “This is–”

“I know who she is.” Her eyes were still fixed above Marigold’s shoulder. Then she added, “And I know what you are.”

Marigold’s stomach plummeted as memories of last night filled her head. She glanced over her shoulder, floored with relief when she saw nothing but empty space and rafters. The woman pressed into her personal space.

“You shouldn’t be here, La Roux.”

“How do you know my name?”

Something akin to sympathy softened the woman’s gaze as she met Marigold’s eyes. Her voice reduced to a whisper.

“Oh, child. You should never have come here.”

“Excuse me?”

“New Orleans ain’t like other places. The ghosts here are restless, and they ain’t done with your family yet.”

Marigold smiled softly. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“They don’t care.” Her eyes turned to iron as she looked back past her shoulder. “You need to get out and take that abomination with you.”

The hair on the back of her neck prickled and she fought not to look behind her again. It was just a trick. She just needed some sleep.

“There’s nothing there.”

The woman’s eyes widened. “You have no knowledge about your family, do you, child?”

Marigold shrugged. “They’ve been in New Orleans for a while.”

“Your family is cursed.”

“Cursed?”

“It’s following you. And it will keep getting closer until it can touch you.”

“This is insane. You’re insane,” Marigold said as she pushed past the woman and wrenched the door open. “My family is screwed up? What about yours? Do you both just get off on scaring people?”

Louis stepped forward but stilled when his mother rose a hand. Without a word exchanged between them, he zipped up the pocket of Marigold’s backpack, the one that she couldn’t even remember dropping, and handed it to his mother. She held it out but didn’t release her grip when Marigold grabbed it.

“I offer you this warning out of kindness. Beware the dead, but fear what was never alive, because both are coming for you.”

A thousand creative swear words filled Marigold’s head, but all that worked its way out of her clenched throat was a pathetic, “You’re a horrible person.”

With a violent tug, she yanked the bag out of the woman’s hand and escaped back into the heat.

Chapter 6

 

Marigold ran until her lungs ached and her legs throbbed. But no matter how far she ran, her thoughts wouldn’t grow silent. Tears blurred her vision as she pushed her way through yet another crowd. She could barely see them through the haze of her memories. They layered on top of each other until it all blurred together, twisted and distorted into a feral mess. Finally, she couldn’t keep her pace any longer and crumbled against the nearest wall. Sobs racked her as she slid onto the hot pavement. Every inch of her twitched in pain as she hugged her bag to her chest and struggled not to cry.

Just breathe, she told herself as she balled her hands into the soft material of her bag. You’re okay. Just breathe.

Slowly, she became aware of the world around her and of the people casting glances in her direction. Her legs shook as she climbed back onto her feet, one hand braced against a wall for balance. A tall grey stone wall that ran the length of the street, broken only by a massive metal fence. A few people were gathered near the gate, maps held high over their heads as they called out about the tours they offered. She edged close and glanced up at the copper plaque. St. Louis Cemetery. With renewed energy, she approached one of the tour guides and hurried through a greeting.

“This is one of the older cemeteries, right?”

“Opened in the 18th century,” he confirmed.

“And families have group mausoleums?”

“Yeah. Some even have a few generations in the same box.”

“This is a weird question, and you probably don’t know, but is there a La Roux mausoleum in this cemetery?”

The man gave her an indulgent smile. “You’re looking for our paranormal tour. Don’t be so embarrassed, the La Roux’s are a big draw. Everyone likes the macabre, and they sure deliver. Want me to sign you up?”

The idea of having a crowd staring at her dead relatives made a foul taste twist around the back of her throat. And to have to stand there and listen to more people spitting vile words at her family would be too much.

“I wasn’t looking for a tour,” she said. “Not today. Would you be able to tell me where it is?”

He looked hesitant but pulled out a small paper map. “It’s right off the path. Don’t wander too far and keep with bigger groups.”

She forced a smile. “Or the ghosts will get me?”

“More like muggers.” He looked at each of her injuries in turn as he handed over the map. It took everything she had not to reach up to re-adjust her scarf. “If this wasn’t on the main path, I wouldn’t be giving it to you. The place is a maze. Don’t wander off.”

“I’ll be quick.”

He handed her the map and she ventured through the gates, keeping close to a group of four in front of her. The first mausoleums were as tall as any other, and as soon as she stepped past them, she was surrounded on all sides by the weathered white structures. A long, thin stretch of black concrete served as a pathway and lifeline. As she trailed along with the flow, she looked down the little avenues created by the layout of tombs. No one went far from the path, leaving most of the little city to the dead. Every now and then, she would pass an avenue made of grass. It was always lush green in the middle, but the grass withered and died before it touched the slabs.

Following the map brought her to a few taller structures. Some looked more like a set of drawers than standalone buildings, and others had crumbled enough to expose the earth red bricks. All too soon, she was standing before her family’s tomb. It was tall, rivalling most of the other structures, but didn’t have the little fence some of them did. Twin Greek pillars bracketed the door of rotten wood. Dirt and age tarnished the white stone, and most of the designs had eroded flat. The roof was a blanket of vibrant green moss. It crept unhindered down the sides and slipped through the voids of missing stone. Unlike the other tombs, there had been no attempt to maintain it, and in some places, whole chunks of stone had been scratched off or removed. At one point, giant letters had spelled out her family name across the top of the doorway, but now, it was all but lost to time.

Her heart hammered with every step. She hadn’t been allowed to see her parents’ graves, Jasmine’s grave, and a part of her brain had taken this absence as hope. They weren’t here, but it hit her all the same. They were gone. Really gone. This wasn’t a nightmare or a trick, it wasn’t something she would ever wake up from or be able to take back. She was alone. Her hands shook as she pressed them to the stone that held her relatives as dust. A part of her had expected it to be cold, but the stone was sun warm and strong.

As she ghosted her fingers over the gouged out chunks, she could feel some of the words they had tried to remove. Following them with her fingertip, she managed to decipher ‘murderer’, ‘demon’, and ‘rot in hell’. It shocked her when she felt the first of her tears fall. Wasn’t there a limit to the amount of tears someone could shed? How many could she possibly have left? She pressed herself against the stone, but it offered no comfort. Only certainty.

Anger rolled up from the pit of her stomach; a small wave, at first, that soon flooded her veins and filled every inch of her being. She smacked the stone with a sudden scream, kicked and clawed until her skin began to tear. It didn’t soothe the ache inside her, only opened it more until she thought it would drown her. The skin of her neck burned, her vision blurred, and she threw herself against the wall. All her efforts had no effect upon the mausoleum. It remained uncaring and silent, taunting her until she could barely breathe through her tear-mangled screams.

“How could you?” she bellowed to the ghosts in her head. “She was just a little girl! She trusted you!” Her knees gave out as she leaned against another building, panting and staring up at the unfathomable stone. “I loved you.”

She raked her hands over her cheeks, brushing off the tears that remained. Drawing herself to full height, she could almost see her parents before her.

“I didn’t get to say everything that I wanted to. I didn’t get to say anything. And you should have to hear it. You should have to live with the knowledge of what you did. You took something from me. I don’t know what to call it. Safety? Security? Trust in other human beings? It’s bits of it all and so much more. It’s something I never even knew I had until you stole it.

“I feel its loss, like this gaping wound inside of me that’s never going to heal. There will always be this agonizing pain inside of me, and it’s there because of you. How am I ever supposed to trust someone again? Trust myself? People think that you just took my future, but you didn’t. You took my past, too. Everything I ever believed was a lie.”

She shook her head and wiped away the fresh tears. “I wish they were right. That you were ghosts. So you’d have to live with what you did.”

Anger still pumped through her. She trembled with the weight of it, unable to move or speak, not sure if she wanted to do either. Sunlight pushed through her hair and turned it into strands of fire. As it blocked out the rest of the world, she couldn’t decide if it was shielding her or trapping her to burn in her own hatred. Sucking a breath in through her clenched teeth, she lifted her eyes. Ice encased her within a second. The world broke away in jagged pieces. All but the door. The decrepit wood loomed in front of her, streaked with fresh scratches that formed warped letters. Like a child’s handwriting.

Jasmine’s handwriting.

‘The boogieman is coming’.

Unable to fathom how the words had appeared, she twisted to look down the alleyway. She couldn’t see anyone. The words were still there when she turned back, and she reached out to touch them. Just as her fingers made contact, she sensed something behind her. She felt air bush against her ankle, her knee, her thigh. It rose up along her whole body in heavy grunted breaths, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t turn. Her skin crawled as it breathed over her backside and along her spine.

A voice like screeching glass whispered into her ear. “I smell you. I taste you. You’re mine.”

She screamed and whirled around, but something struck the back of her skull. Forced forward, her forehead cracked against the door hard enough to splinter the wood. Dazed, she crumbled onto her knees and looked over her shoulder. No one was there. Heart throbbing in time with her head, she searched every shadow. Nothing. The wood crumbled under her hand as she clawed at the door. Braced against it, she scrambled up onto her feet. Her eyes skirted to the walkway.

Just when she was about to bolt, a sudden breath burst across her face. She screamed and leaped back. But she didn’t hit the door. Her feet tripped and she fell back against the cool stone of the tomb floor. Dust puffed up all around her, forming a cloud that played with the minimal sunlight. The door gently began to close. She scrambled onto her knees and lunged towards the fading light. Within an instant, the door slammed shut and she was swallowed by the darkness.

Chapter 7

 

The stone floor ground against Marigold’s knees as she clawed at the door. The aged wood flaked into splinters under her fingers, but she couldn’t force it open. Dust clogged her throat with every scream until she choked on it. Sound didn’t penetrate the thick stone walls. Could anyone hear her? Did anyone see her come here?

A hand latched onto her ankle and violently yanked. Her leg almost popped from her hip as she was dragged further into the abyss of the room. The door left her fingers. She flung her hands wildly, searching for something to hold onto and finding only chipped stone and dust.

It felt like an eternity and a second all at once, but finally, the unseen hand released her. Instantly, she pushed herself up. In her haste, she pushed too hard, her hip clicked, and she fell back down. She looked around, but all that existed was darkness, the stench of earth and rot, and the sound of her own erratic breathing. The pit of her stomach turned to ice the second she felt rings of solid metal enclose each of her wrists. Before she could flinch away, they squeezed tight enough that she could feel the encrusted rust. With unrelenting strength, they snapped her arms out until her chest slammed down against the stones. Every ounce of slack fled from her new restraints. She couldn’t so much as bend her wrists. She couldn’t see anyone. Couldn’t move. Her screams bounced off the walls until they sounded like mocking laughter.

Dust ripped her throat raw and crippled her screams into pathetic whimpers. That’s when she heard it. That same sickly sniffing from before that made her skin crawl and bile rise. Strapped to the ground, she laid bare for whoever was behind her to once again peruse her body. The wet, hot push of his breath oozed over her bare legs. She kicked and thrashed but found nothing but empty air. The bars around her wrists shredded her tender skin as she tried to break away. She couldn’t move. The putrid breath climbed up her legs. Hot, sticking, gusts of putrid air. It slithered along her spine, her hair, along the curve of her neck. Its voice was carved from a grotesque growl, barely an inch from her ear.

“You’re mine.”

Her screams hurt her own ears as she lashed out. Adrenaline flooded her until she couldn’t feel the metal slicing into her wrists. Her struggles worsened the damage, carving off the skin until they finally granted release. Heart hammering in her throat, she twisted around and scrambled back. It was too dark to know if she was moving towards or away from the man, but the only thing she hit was a thick, twisted candelabra. It toppled onto her with a solid crack. Pain sliced through her back as she latched onto the shaft of the candelabra and wretched herself to her feet.

Squeezing the shaft until her knuckles popped, she blindly looked around the room and backed towards the door. But all she found was stone. Refusing to release her only weapon, she reached back with one hand and swung her fingers back and forth. Only cool stone met her fingertips. She couldn’t find the wood of the door.

Where is it? Where is it? she thought while her battered fingers searched over the stones as she ran along the wall. It has to be here! She passed eight corners in the four-corner room and still hadn’t felt a single change in the surface. Where is it?!

Her fingers ached as she tightened her grip on the candelabra. Holding it like a baseball bat she swung it into the nearest stone. Each strike resulted in a resounding crack and a sharp shockwave along her arms. Hunks of rock chipped off and tumbled over her feet like hail. She could feel him watching. Edging closer. His breath brushed against the nape of her neck as she swung her weapon with every ounce of strength she possessed. A chunk of stone cracked off and a thin stream of sunlight sliced through the darkness.

Desperation shook her hands as she chipped away at the stone, nurturing the light to grow. Voices flowed in with the sunlight. She clawed at the gap, nails splintering, and screamed as loud as she could. The light burned the world from her eyes. The stones became warm under her hands. Fresh air washed over her, hot and humid, and she clawed towards it. Shadows shifted across the light. She flinched back before she realized they were trying to help her. Hands gripped her arms in the same moment a grip as cold as death enclosed her ankle. She screamed and thrashed, almost dislodging the hands on her arms but barely affecting the grip on her ankle. The stones became loose around her. They struck her back, her legs, building to a crushing weight. She pulled forward, blinded by tears and burning light, and kicked at the unseen specter. The hands pulled until her shoulders strained and finally the one on her ankle slipped. She slithered through the thin, ragged gap and spilled onto the ground.

Humid, blistering air poured down her throat, and she choked on it. Screams broke over her fitful hacks. She whirled around and stared back into the abyss she had just emerged from. A part of her longed to finally see the man that had been tormenting her, to have someone else see him. But that would make it real. She wasn’t ready to make it real. The humidity couldn’t conquer the chills that ran down her spine as she saw it. A twisted, rotten, corpse slumped out of the ragged hole. Its skin was slick and slopped from its bones. Its jaw slumped at a broken angle and patches of its skull peeked out from the discolored flesh. Marigold could only stare at the empty sockets that were once its eyes. It stared back.

 

***

 

The hospital room was covered in a harsh, off-white glare by the overhead lights. Louis rushed through the hallways. His shoes squeaked against the tile floor as he weaved his way through the building, eyeing each room number in turn. His lungs were aching by the time he found the right room and flung himself inside. Both Marigold and the police officer talking to her fell silent and snapped their heads around to see him. Fear flashed through Marigold’s eyes, pure and gleaming before confusion diluted it.

“Louis?”

Both Louis and the officer lost the battle against their instinctual impulse and corrected her in unison.

“I’m saying it the way you do.” Her quick snap of frustration dwindled away and she just looked exhausted. “What are you even doing here?”

He pointed to the officer. “Joe’s my second cousin. He called me.”

She looked between them. “I still don’t understand.”

“Ms. La Roux,” Joe said softly. “May I show him your back?”

Her fingers clutched the neckline of her paper gown. Despite the attention from the hospital staff, dirt seemed encrusted into her very skin. Her nails were splintered in a way that was painful to even look at, and there didn’t seem to be a patch of skin on her hands that wasn’t covered in molten bruises.

“Why?”

Joe leaned slightly closer to Marigold and lowered his voice. “Please, I’ll explain in a moment.”

She studied both of them in turn but reluctantly nodded. Turning cost her, and the movement was punctuated by gasps and pained winces. Louis edged closer, slow enough so as not to startle her, but fast enough to help her tip the edges of the gown off of her shoulders. The thin material gaped wider and Louis’s insides hollowed out within an instant.

“How did you get those, cher?”

“Why is everyone so concerned with them?” Her defensive tone held no real heat as she struggled back onto the gown. “I was just locked in a tomb with a psychopath and found a dead body in the walls. These are just a few scratches.”

Louis’s stomach churned but he forced the words out. “Those aren’t scratches. They’re claw marks.”

Her glare couldn’t quite hold onto any amount of rage. She crossed her arms over her stomach, but instead of adding defiance to her posture, it just left her looking small and vulnerable.

“Could someone please start explaining?”

Joe patted Louis’s shoulder as he passed. “I’ll be outside. Let me know when you’re done.”

Marigold watched Joe leave. Every inch of her screamed that she was a second away from following him. “What is going on?”

Louis could feel her eyes watching his every move as he collected a chair from the corner and pulled it closer. He was buying time. This was new territory for him and he wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Generally, people already knew what was happening to them by the time they sought him out. He had never had to actually break the news. Turning the back of the chair towards her, he straddled it, folded his arms over the rim of the back, thought better of it, and gripped the sides instead. He didn’t want to look aggressive or lax, but wasn’t quite sure how she would read his body language. Her gaze was a lead weight against his skin and it only left him more at a loss.

She broke the silence in barely more than a whisper. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

They spoke so softly that they could hear the constant hum of the overhead lights.

“I know. Everyone knows. You weren’t even in the state when he was killed.”

“He?”

“They’re still working on an I.D.” Licking his lips he settled on a course and hoped it was the best one. “Joe told me what you told him.”

Even as it grew shrill, her voice didn’t break the hush that had separated them from the rest of the world. “Is that even legal? I’m sorry, but I really can’t take this right now.”

“I’m only here to help, cher.”

“That’s why the police are here.” She wrung her hands, her grip tightening until, despite the layers of damage that covered them, her knuckles turned white. “If I’m being stalked, I’m sure they’ll find the person responsible.”

“I think we both know that it’s not a person following you.”

“What?”

He saw how dread lurked in the depths of her emerald eyes, but he forced himself to continue. “That’s why Joe called me. My family has experience with this kind of thing, and I want to help you.”

“What kind of thing?”

“Hauntings.”

For a moment, she did nothing but stare at him. “You think I’m haunted?”

“Those claw marks on you back, the creature I saw in your attic, the encounter you have just experienced.”

Her voice climbed with every word. “That doesn’t mean that a ghost is following me.”

“Okay, cher. But may I ask, what do you think is happening to you?”

She opened her mouth but remained silent. Her eyes were wide and a tremble took hold of her slight frame. Watching her slowly deteriorate in the face of this revelation was like a blade straight to his chest. But he held her gaze, attempting to stay with her as much as he was able during the fallout. She took a studded breath, finally gathering a response, but before she could voice it, Delilah barreled into the room like a controlled storm. He leaped up just as the older woman pushed past him and slapped Marigold across her face. An angry red welt blossomed across her cheek.

“You ungrateful little wrench,” Delilah hissed as her niece cringed away. “How dare you desecrate my family’s resting place?”

Delilah pulled back to strike again, but Louis managed to grab her wrist in time to stop the blow. Joe ran into the room just as Delilah wrenched herself free from Louis’s grip.

“Do not touch me,” she hissed at Louis. Over her shoulder she commanded, “Officer, I want him arrested.”

“Just step away from your niece, ma’am.”

“Excuse me?” Delilah turned her rage onto Joe. “This man has assaulted me and you are simply going to ignore that?”

Taking advantage of the moment, Louis fished a slip of paper from his pocket and passed it to Marigold.

“My number and address. If you need any help, call me.”

Delilah was suddenly beside Marigold, her eyes locked onto Louis like her disgust alone could kill him. She dragged Marigold onto her feet and shuffled her towards the door.

“I am quite capable of taking care of her. Stay away from us or I’ll call a police officer you’re not related to.”

Marigold glanced back at him. Despair weighed on her, exhaustion and anxiety warring for supremacy of her body. It was doubtful she was even aware of what was happening. Louis started forward, but Joe stopped him with one large hand against his chest.

“We can’t just let her go back there,” Louis protested.

Joe sighed. “We can’t force her not to.”

Chapter 8

 

Talking with the police had taken longer than Marigold had thought. The last traces of sunlight had fled the sky by the time Delilah had bundled her out of the hospital. The night didn’t dampen the heat of the day and sweat soon glistened against the curve of her spine. Crowds swelled out from the bars and spilt onto the streets, forcing their cab driver to slow down to the point where it would have been quicker to walk.

Delilah hadn’t said a word. Not since she had refused a police officer’s offer to drive them home. Trapped in silence, Marigold could do little but repeat the strange events in her head. Rhodes’ warning was probably the only reason the police had believed her. She had barely been able to believe herself when she had heard it out loud. Had she been followed, or did someone simply take advantage of the opportunity? But the crowd had stood vigil and no one other than her had left the tomb. There was no other exit. No window to shimmy through or trap door to hide in.

Where had he gone? The thought rolled over and over in her mind. She just had to figure it out. Find the answer. Then she wouldn’t feel it; that twinge deep inside of her that screamed Louis was right. But every theory she came up with couldn’t even hold up against her own scrutiny.

Maybe I’m insane. Maybe that was what all this was about. Someone wanted her to go insane as revenge for what her parents had done. It was a staggering amount of effort to go to. She couldn’t even think up all the tricks that they would need to keep her from seeing them. The thought turned her skin to ice even as her insides boiled. If she was right, whoever was doing this was a lot smarter than she was. And had a lot more help. Marigold reached into her pocket and ran her fingers over the crumpled slip of paper Louis had given her.

He’s not doing this. She didn’t know why she desperately needed to believe that. It would make sense if he was a part of it, and finally being able to put a face and name to her tormentor would be a relief. But for whatever their misunderstandings, Louis had been kind to her, just like Rhodes, and she needed to believe there were still people like that.

Maybe there’s still enough painkillers to mess with my head?

The cab pulled up to the desolate curb outside of her house. Suddenly, the question Marigold had been running from hit her full force. She clenched her teeth in an attempt to keep it inside. Her jaw ached from the force. She couldn’t ask while there were strangers around to overhear. Time stretched out as she watched Delilah pay the man and head to the front door. The second the cab pulled away, the question burst free from Marigold’s chest in a gasp.

“Who was that man?”

Delilah unlocked the front door. “What man are you referring to?”

Dumbstruck, Marigold couldn’t bring herself to move until Delilah had disappeared into the house. She broke into a run and caught up with her aunt in the sitting room.

“Are you kidding me?”

“I don’t appreciate your tone.” Delilah’s voice didn’t carry a hint of anything beyond annoyance.

“I found a corpse today. Of a man who was most likely murdered.”

“Yes,” Delilah said as she left for the kitchen. “While destroying my family’s resting place.”

Our family’s resting place!” Marigold hadn’t meant to put any anger behind the words, but they came out sharp with it.

“Perhaps we should talk about your desecration first?”

“I’d rather focus on the dead guy.”

Delilah ignored her outburst and calmly poured herself a glass of wine. Unable to take the dismissal, Marigold ripped the glass out of her aunt’s hand and slammed it down onto the counter.

“Who was he?”

Delilah cocked an eyebrow and fixed Marigold with a condescending stare. “How am I supposed to know that?”

“So out of all the tombs in that cemetery they just so happened to pick the La Roux one?” Marigold said.

“Yes.”

Barely able to contain herself, she flung her arms out, almost toppling the glass of wine. “It’s just a weird coincidence?”

“Our family has a certain reputation that undesirable people would seek to take advantage of.”

Delilah seemed intent to leave it at that and attempted to reach for her wine. Marigold put her body between them. She attempted to match Delilah’s blatant animosity but knew she fell far short.

“What reputation?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does. If I’m related to more killers, I have a right to know.”

She lifted her chin. “What have you been told?”

“Not nearly enough.”

“Have you been talking with that Dupont filth?” Delilah crowded Marigold against the counter, her eyes narrow with rage. “He gave you that gris-gris, didn’t he?”

“Why would any of that matter? There was a dead man walled up in our tomb.”

“Stupid child. That entire mongrel family have hated our line for generations and you brought them back into my home. By all probability, they are behind this madness.”

“That is a lot of rage.” Marigold’s fear kept her from crumbling under the full force of her aunt’s attention. “Why would they hate us so much?”

“It’s all in the past.”

Delilah reached around her, grabbed the glass of wine, and began to leave the kitchen.

“It’s not the past for me. Someone is trying to hurt me. If people are still that angry about our history, then I need to know.”

“It is not worth dredging it back up to the surface.”

“Not worth it? They attacked me and locked me in a tomb!”

“The police will sort out the matter.”

Delilah hovered in the doorway when Marigold called out her name. There was barely any hint of emotion on her face, and she idly took a sip of the white wine as she waited.

“What if,” Marigold stammered. “What if it is a ghost?”

Delilah threw her head back and cackled at the ceiling. It filled the room and left space for Marigold’s pride to remain.

“I’m just saying.” Her eyes drifted to the floor. “If they did exist–”

Delilah’s parting words made her look up. “If the dead could come back, you’d have a lot more to worry about.”

The house smothered all sight and sound of Delilah as she stepped through the doorway. Within an instant, it was as if Marigold was completely alone. A part of her wanted to follow the older woman and demand some answers, but there was a stronger part that wanted to remain hidden in ignorance. Fatigue pressed down on her and despite the thick tendrils of dread that squirmed in the pit of her stomach, she could barely keep her eyes open.

Reluctantly, she began the long journey to her room. The only sound the house offered was the echo of her own footsteps. A heavy fog settled over her brain and severed all attempts at thought. She turned on every light before venturing deeper into the house. Still, shadows, as dark as a murder of crows, lurked in every corner. Each staircase felt like it would go on forever. Her legs were stone and she had to grip the handrail to keep going. Sparks of pain sliced up her fingers to remind her just how damaged her hands were.

Her pace slowed to little more than a shuffle as she approached the final flight of stairs. The never-shifting shadows of the thin tunnel looked darker now than they had before. Last night played within her mind, attempting to convince her that the darkness was anything but empty. But she needed to sleep. And while that room offered little comfort, it was the only space she knew. Cautiously, she crept up the stairs, one hand on the wall, her heart beating faster with every step. Surrounded by the darkness, she held her breath, alert for even the tiniest shift in the air.

The void played tricks on her mind. She heard whispers in her footsteps, and each time she touched the wall, she was sure she felt someone hidden in the darkness. Unable to hold her breath any longer, it slithered from her in a broken gasp that she was certain was not her own. At first, she didn’t believe it when her outstretched hand pressed against the door. Quickly, she hurried into the room and hurled the door closed behind her.

Sweeping her hands over the space around the door, she found the light switch. The overhead lights flicked on and instantly drew her attention. She remembered them being brighter. Now they released only a dim, sickly yellow glow that barely countered the darkness.

Still, they were better on than off. She opened each of the curtains to allow the lights of the city in, but didn’t dare open a window to release some of the pent-up heat. Then she checked under the bed and in the closet. It was a normal practice, one that stirred up memories she was in no condition to deal with. As with a lot of children, Jasmine had gone through her ‘monsters in the closet’ phase. She would refuse to sleep until Marigold checked every possible hiding place. But there had still been some nights when Jasmine would sneak into Marigold’s bed with stories of how the monsters were after her. Marigold had given her a Braveheart Care Bear and promised her that it was only a bad dream. And in time the dreams had stopped.

Did they stop? she wondered as she stood by the bed. Or had she just stopped telling me about them?

Unable to deal with that thought, she flung the top sheet into the air and crawled onto the mattress. The sheet fell delicately over her as she curled into a ball. Her eyelids slid closed, she melted against the mattress, and the last of her resistance left her on a long sigh.

Drifting somewhere between awake and asleep, she caught the faintest rippling of water. It began as what felt like a dream, but as it pulled at her consciousness, she reasoned that it was rain. Perhaps it would finally break the unbearable heat and allow her to sleep. Then she heard the giggling. Her eyes snapped open but she couldn’t see anything past the floral sheet that covered her.

The sounds were coming from her bathroom. Softly at first, but growing and constant. Marigold curled her trembling fingers around a hunk of the sheet but couldn’t bring herself to pull it aside. Water sloshed like someone leaped out of the bathtub and raced across the floor towards her.

She choked down a scream but was unable to stop from flinching. Someone was standing beside the bed. She could feel them watching her. Hear each drop of water as it collided with the floorboards a few inches from her head. Droplets fell upon the thin sheet and soaked into the fabric. Neither of them moved. Only the unrelenting dripping broke the silence. She held her breath and tried to resist from shaking as the water continued to gather in the sheet over her head.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

From just beyond the boundary of the sheet she heard the voice. The unmistakable voice of the man from the darkness of the tomb.

Daddy loves you.”

The sheet coiled around her like an anaconda as she flung herself off the bed. It tightened around each limb and dragged her to the floor. Fire streaked across her chest, her arms, her legs, and became an inferno on her back. She tore at the sheet, ripping it to shreds as spots of blood bloomed over the floral pattern. When it was nothing more than tattered shreds, Marigold flung it to the side and found herself in an empty room. But she no longer believed it meant that she was alone.

Blood plastered her shirt to her back and she pressed one hand protectively against the slashes across her stomach. She could feel her skin being pulled open slightly with every breath. Getting up was an agony that made her legs shake. Her gaze flicked around the room while her back was towards the door. Her eyes were drawn to the dividing curtain, to the water that poured out from under it. It didn’t flow. It lurched forward like an injured creature, scraping its way across the floor in a procession of sharp jerks and mangled twitches.

Mommy’s here.

Marigold tore out of the room and barreled down the thin staircase. On the second flight, her blood-slicked hands slipped over the handrail and sent her tumbling the rest of the way to the landing. She ended up on her stomach, with her head spinning and her body screaming in protest. She tried to get up but only succeeded in curling her fingers against the wood. Liquid pooled under her. For one dizzying moment, she thought it was her own blood. But when she opened her eyes she saw water trickle down the stairs. Within seconds, it had become a torrent that pushed her across the floor.

A deep primal instinct took hold and forced herself to her feet.

Don’t stop. The water tried to trip her every step.

Run. The word screamed within her skull.

Run. Her muscles cramped and her legs buckled.

Run. It roared in her ears as she flung the door open and hurled herself into the night.

Chapter 9

 

Blood smeared the door each time Marigold smacked her hand against it. She couldn’t recall a single second of her sprint through New Orleans, although she was sure she had gone down streets that shouldn’t be travelled at night. Each pounded step had urged her to run faster, harder, and now the pain she felt in her legs and lungs let her know just how far she had gone. She slumped against the door, barely able to lift her hand to knock again.

The door opened. Louis was quick to catch her as the last of her strength dissolved. A few of his words were audible over her hysterical weeping, but not enough to understand what he was asking. He scooped her up, his touch as gentle as his voice, and carried her into his apartment. The tender embrace evoked her hunger for contact, ravenous after its starvation. If she had possessed the strength, she would have clung to him like a child. As it was, she pressed her face against his shoulder and only looked up when he began to lower her down onto his white sofa. Tightening her grip she shook her head hard enough to make her hair fan out.

It took some effort but she managed to croak out, “I’ll stain it.”

Louis’s stunned chuckle did more to soothe her than his touch had. She looked up to see his smile and for a few moments, her insides didn’t feel like they were twisted up in barb-wire. His attention turned from her and he called out across the room. Shock rocked her when she looked around his shoulder and saw a woman. For a moment, she mirrored back Marigold’s surprise, but at Louis’s probing she ducked out of sight for a moment and returned with a blanket. Her eyes never left Marigold as she spread it over the sofa. Still with his indulgent smile, Louis tried to lower her again. Her arms clenched until they shook. In her weakened state, he still could have easily pried her off, but instead, he settled down on the sofa and let her remain close. He repeated words numerous times but she didn’t want to listen. She just wanted to sit there and let the storm within her die.

Louis called back over his shoulder to someone she couldn’t see, “Can you call an ambulance?”

“No!”

Louis flinched at her sudden outburst but was quick to recover. He spoke of her blood, her wounds, how he wanted to make sure she was okay. But all that filled her head was what the visit would entail. Strangers enticing little snaps of pain when they pushed too hard. Stripping her down and photographing her as they struggled to make her relax. Recounting the event to police that would listen but couldn’t possibly believe. And then the questions of whether or not she had lost her mind.

“Please. I don’t want to go. Don’t make me go.”

“It’s alright, cher, we can stay right here. But the trade-off is that you let me have a look and make sure you’re okay.”

She sniffed and pushed her face against his shoulder. It was hard to nod in that position but he seemed to understand. Thrown head first into an adrenaline crash, Marigold was struck with both exhaustion and pain in equal measures. She was vaguely aware of Louis tending to her wounds, of him helping her shrug into a shirt that was soft and smelt like vanilla and frangipanis. Seconds from tumbling into sleep she remembered the woman in the kitchenette. Her head lulled as she turned to catch sight of her again. If he and the woman were related, it wasn’t by blood. Her skin held a slight tan. Not unpleasant but unremarkable. His reminded her of the rich earth that had surrounded her home, that had nurtured the flowers she had planted each spring. She didn’t share many of his features either, like the width of his nose or the slope of his chin. The distance between them didn’t hide that her eyes were the same shade of brown she would see repeated within any crowd. Louis’s weren’t so mediocre. They shone a unique shade that swam somewhere between hazel and green but never truly belonged to either. She didn’t know how long she had watched the woman, but her mind was wandering and her eyelids drooped.

The boogieman is coming.”

Marigold struggled to open her eyes but could barely crack them open.

“Jasmine?”

“Come again, cher?”

The boogieman is coming.”

A sudden, high-pitched scream sliced into her skull. She clamped her hands over her ears but it did nothing to dull the noise. It bellowed from within, a hellish shrill cry of an infant. All the while, Jasmine’s shrieked warning mingled in the noise. She burrowed into the sofa, seeking some kind of refuge from the onslaught and finding none.

 

***

 

Louis munched on the still warm bacon and idly wondered if Marigold was a vegetarian. It wasn’t common for a southern girl to deny meat, but while her blood might be southern, she sure wasn’t raised as one. The oven timer chimed, reminding him that she could at least have the biscuits. If she didn’t mind the buttermilk and bacon fat. A sweet, delicate aroma wafted out of the oven as he retrieved the pan. It mixed with the lingering scent of cooking bacon and he heard Marigold begin to stir.

A tangled mess of disheveled crimson hair poked up from the other side of the sofa as he placed the oven pan on the kitchen island. Steam rose from the golden pastry to join the growing morning humidity. He might not understand exactly what had happened to her last night, but he knew not to push. So instead of asking one of the thousands of questions that he had bundled inside, he rested his forearms on the countertop and waited.

For a rather long time, nothing happened. Then she suddenly snapped onto her feet and looked around like a startled cat. Her attention finally focused on him but she didn’t seem to be calm. So he smiled, waved, and offered up the plate of bacon.

“Hungry?”

“Louis?”

“You’re getting closer. Not quite there, but there’s only so much you can do with that accident.”

He had hoped that her gaunt features were her natural state, instead of a side effect of supernatural suppression. That hope dwindled as her eyes focused on the bacon with a ravenous need. He dished out a generous serving of everything he had prepared and set the plate before one of the stools.

“I would have taken the couch but I didn’t want to disturb you. It seemed like you really needed the sleep.”

“You made breakfast.”

The words hovered somewhere between a question and a statement so he just held his smile and backed up slightly to rest against the kitchen counter. It left enough room for her to approach the food without feeling like she was nearing him. Timidly, she rounded the sofa and took her seat. She mumbled a ‘thank you’ before attacking the food.

“When was the last time you ate?”

Marigold only shrugged. He passed her the biscuits.

“Are those buns or scones?” she asked as she tore off an experimental bite.

Apparently, his response was no longer needed. She tore off large mouthfuls and barely chewed them before swallowing. He sipped his coffee. For a while, they remained in a pleasant silence, broken only by Marigold’s excited eating and quick gulps of water. Bit by bit, he edged around the kitchen island and even managed to settle into the open seat without enticing any panic. But she did notice. Her bright eyes slid to keep constant track of his every movement.

Outside, life began to emerge and the sounds entered the room like a song. He listened to it as he finished his coffee and idly munched on a biscuit. More than an hour crept by in this limbo before Marigold turned to him.

“You really have no questions for me?”

“Oh, I have plenty. But I’m going to follow your lead, cher. We’ll get to everything eventually.”

She nodded, cupped her glass of water with both hands, and looked completely lost as to where to start. He took it as progress when, as she took in her surroundings again, she didn’t resemble a terrified animal.

“There was a woman here last night.”

“Ginny.”

He was pretty sure that she was attempting a casual shrug but it looked awkward and forced.

“Where’s Ginny?”

“Home, I suppose. Last night was our first date.”

“How did it go?”

It was clear that she regretted the question the second it was out but she seemed resigned to follow it through.

“It was fine. She’s very nice. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing each other again.”

“Not because of me,” Marigold flinched. “I could talk to her. Let her know that you don’t normally get midnight visits from crazy ladies.”

“Well, that would be mighty kind of you, but a complete lie. This is actually the norm.”

“Huh?”

He tilted his mug in a silent offer to get her a coffee. There was a trace of frustration in her responding nod and he took the hint that he should elaborate.

“My family line is full of voodoo queens and powerful conjure doctors. When people in these parts have your kind of problem, they come to us. Generally, people reach their breaking points at night. Probably because the already thin wall between our world and the next weaken around three A.M.”

“My kind of problem?”

From his experience, people tended to handle this conversation a lot better when they had coffee. It was probably something to do with the normality of the act. To keep his midnight guests as comfortable as possible, he had collected a variety of sweeteners and flavored creamers that he now had neatly spread out over the countertop. She didn’t eye any of them as he handed her a half-filled mug. Despite the warmth of the day, she eagerly wrapped her fingers around mug like she was desperate for the heat.

“I think we’re past the point of denial,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me what you saw, not until you’re ready. But you do need to start admitting to yourself what is happening to you.”

“So you really think it’s supernatural?”

“So do you.”

As she settled once again into silence he felt brave enough to probe just a little.

“Cher, you ran past two police stations to get here.”

Licking her lips, she put the mug on the countertop. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“Yes.”

For a moment, she just stared at him. “I was expecting more of an explanation. You know, something like how ghosts are actually disembodied energy or something fancy-sounding.”

He smiled and pushed his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. “If you want to get into the academia, we can discuss the numerous kinds of beings that fall under the ‘ghost’ umbrella. It’s actually rather fascinating if you’re interested.”

“I’m really not.”

“We can get into it later,” he said.

She took another sip and clutched the cup to her chest. It must have hurt, but she didn’t remove the hot porcelain that made her delicate skin flush an angry red.

“If the dead could come back, I’d have a lot more to worry about.”

“Excuse me?”

“Aunt Delilah told me that.” Her words were hollow and her fingers tightened on the mug. “My parents . . . did things. Horrible things.”

“I know.”

She spun around to face him. “You do? How?”

“I have access to the internet.”

“Right.”

“And my family is kind of obsessed with yours.”

The mug clattered onto the countertop. “Why is that, exactly?”

Louis played with his glasses even though they were sitting perfectly in place.

“Voodoo places a focus on our ancestors. It keeps us connected to them, and I love it for that, but it does make it harder to shake off old grudges. Although to be fair, Delilah is pretty focused on the past as well.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Your family used to own numerous members of my family,” he said bluntly.

“Oh,” Marigold swallowed thickly before venturing, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s still a sore spot for a lot of my relatives, as you might have picked up on while meeting my mother.”

That provoked a small smile from her and what might have been a roll of her eyes if they weren’t so battered. It was enough for him to feel a slither of hope that she might still have some fight left in her.

“Do you know if anyone died in that house?”

“Of course, cher. In a town as old as New Orleans, it’s hard to find a house that someone hasn’t died in.”

“So, it might be a slave. The ghost. The one that’s haunting me.” She stammered over her words like she couldn’t get her mouth to work quickly enough for her thoughts. “I don’t know much about ghosts, but in campfire stories, they seem to get confused easily. Maybe they think I hurt them.” A bitter, breathy laugh escaped her as she lowered her eyes. “Not that people need to be confused to take their anger out on an easy target.”

“It’s possible.”

“So can I do a cleansing or something? Or do I have to find out who they are first?”

“A cleansing is always a good idea,” he said. “But it might not be the place itself that’s haunted.”

“What do you mean?”

“Last night, you weren’t on the property, but it looked like you were experiencing something. If the house itself were haunted, the ghosts wouldn’t be able to come here.”

Her eyes widened and he could see fear flood into her eyes. “You think I’m haunted?”

“By something very strong. Not much gets through my Ma’s boundaries.” His hand twitched with the desire to reach out and touch her shoulder, to let her know she wasn’t alone, but since he didn’t know how she would react to the contact, he kept his hands on the counter. “I know it might seem helpless now, but remember that we’ve just started to fight back.”

“Fight back,” she said it like a foreign concept. “I haven’t actually seen it.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

Since she had eaten a decent amount, he stood up and retrieved a notepad and pen from where he had left them on the counter. “We just need to get a game plan together. If you’re ready, I’d like you to tell me what has been happening to you.”

Chapter 10

 

It took a bit of encouragement, a dozen more biscuits, and a lot of patience, but he was finally able to get Marigold comfortable enough to talk. The stories started slowly at first. She was quick to force a laugh and correct herself, insisting that she was just being paranoid. He didn’t correct her and simply added the incident to the list. The reward for his silence was more stories. As the hours passed, her voice grew stronger and she shed her need to constantly dismiss the occurrences. By the time she was done, he had filled a few pages and a solid lump had formed in the pit of his stomach.

“Could,” she hesitated before she forced the question out, “Could it be my parents?”

“I don’t think so.”

She visibly sighed with relief. “Good. I barely know how I feel about them right now. I don’t think I could take them haunting me as well.” Her brow furrowed. “Wait. Why don’t you think it’s them?”

“The first shadow figure you saw.” During his writing, his glasses had slipped down his nose, and he used the end of the pen to push them back up. “It actually ties into a theory that some of my relatives have had for a while.”

“What theory? About my family?”

The great thing about the darker tones of his skin was that it hid his nervous blushes rather well.

“Apologies, cher, but there are a few theories about your family.”

“Your family really is obsessed,” she said into her mug.

“Oh, it’s not just us; the La Roux family is a major draw for most people within the paranormal society. And murder buffs.”

“What the heck is with my family?” Coffee barely managed to stay in the mug as she flung her arms wide.

“Heck?”

“I stand by my word choice. Shut up.”

He held up his hands as if to fend her off. “I’m not making fun of you. It’s a fine word choice. You might make a decent southern belle yet.”

“Shut up.”

“No, no, cher. It’s ‘bless your heart’.” His smile grew as she playfully glared at him. “A true southern belle lets her tone express her mood.”

He discovered that she was rather talented at faking smiles. “Bless your heart.”

“That was actually impressive. I got chills.”

The constant fog of paranoia that hung around her finally began to lift. He didn’t want to see it come back down, but couldn’t really risk stalling this conversation any longer. The specter’s increasing violence didn’t allow them much time.

“Has Delilah told you much about your family’s history?”

Her shoulders hunched instantly. “No.”

“Okay, La Roux 101 it is. Would you like the relaxed version or the version I have to say to tourists five nights a week?”

While she didn’t fully relax, she did offer him a slight smile. “Let’s give you a challenge. See how you go off the cuff.”

Louis hopped off his seat. He had a dozen boxes piled against one wall, stacked like if they were neat, they wouldn’t be ugly. It took him two boxes to find the book he was looking for. Resting the highly polished cover on his forearm, he flipped through it until he found the page he was looking for. He presented it to Marigold and leaned against the back of the couch.

“I’ve seen him.” Her eyebrows rose when she saw his expression. “Not like ghostly seen. He’s in one of the creepy portraits Delilah has hanging in the sitting room.”

“That’s Philip La Roux. He was a slave breaker and actually managed to make a decent career of it. Have you heard of slave breakers?”

Resting the book on her lap, she shook her head.

“It’s pretty much what the name suggests. They specialized in breaking a slave’s will to do things like escape or talk back. As he would often boast, he could break them so thoroughly that their children came out of the womb ready to work, although he used far more colorful language. Philip cultivated quite a reputation for himself, in part because of his results, and partly because his methods were deemed ‘excessively’ brutal.”

“What exactly is ‘excessive brutality’?” she asked weakly.

“I asked that same question when I was first told of Philip La Roux.”

“And?”

“I still have nightmares.” He rubbed a hand over the back of his head. “He was a strong advocate that there shouldn’t be any limitations on what an owner was allowed to do to his property. At his core, he was a sadist.”

Marigold’s eyes drifted down to the picture. In her silence, he was unable to read what she was thinking and how she might handle what he revealed next. To buy some time, he searched through the boxes. Marigold drifted closer, sat on the very edge of the coffee table, and peeked into the box.

“Is all that stuff about my family?”

“This box is and so are those two. The others are different people of interest.” He glanced up when she hooked one finger around the rim of the box and tilted it for a better look. “We pride ourselves on the accuracy of our tours.”

All too soon, he found the photograph he was looking for. It had faded with age and deep cracks interrupted the image, but the La Roux family was still clear. Philip stood between his adult children. Age hadn’t weakened his imposing stance or the air of cruelty that clung to him like a natural appendage. His children stood next to him, grown and just as stern. He hated that damn photograph. Even though he knew each one of them was long dead, he still felt like they were looking at him. Marigold gently took the photograph and listened with a calm but heightened interest.

“That was taken in 1830, about three years before Philip was murdered.”

“Murdered?”

He cringed. “Very few of your relatives had gentle deaths.”

“I should have seen that one coming.” She tapped her finger against the picture. “He looks familiar, too.”

“That’s Beauford La Roux, Philip’s son. He inherited the family business when Philip died but didn’t hold onto it for long. As the story goes, about five years after he gained control, he was hosting a large dinner party. Two of his guests, attempting to find a place with a bit more privacy, had entered the attic to find a malnourished child chained to the wall.”

“The attic?”

He nodded but didn’t want to meet her gaze. “Naturally, the presence of a dying child dampened the festivities. When confronted, Beauford commanded his slaves to help him kill everyone in attendance, and then kill each other. The neighbors alerted the police and they arrived to find Beauford alive, but his twenty-three guests, eighteen slaves and the boy in the attic all slaughtered. He was put to death.”

Marigold hugged herself with one arm but didn’t look away from the photo.

“This all happened in my house?”

“Yes.” He reached out and tapped the woman that stood next to the men. “That is Philip’s daughter, Fleur. She never got along with her father.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“Actually, she belittled him for being too lenient.”

“Of course,” she mumbled.

“It was never proven, but I believe that she killed Philip after he tried to write her out of his will.”

“She killed her own father?”

“Murdering family might not have been entirely out of character for her. Philip had a habit of using his female slaves for his personal entertainment. He fathered more than one illegitimate child, but none of them survived to adulthood. Not unnatural for the time, but word amongst the slaves was that little Fleur was killing them. Of course, back then, you didn’t think such things about children, especially girls, so she was never officially investigated.”

He sat down on the rug as he continued, “When Beauford took control, he pretty much let Fleur run the business. She made a practice of illegally selling slaves to those whom the government had decided were unfit to own them. When Beauford was executed, she took full control of the business using her husband as a front and implemented the changes she had wanted. Her ‘modern methods’ resulted in the business taking a major financial hit.”

“Is it too much to ask that it was because people started realizing that slavery is bad?” When he didn’t respond, she lowered her eyes back to the photo and sighed, “Thought so.”

“People wanted their slaves nice and docile, but they still needed them to work. After Fleur’s treatment, the slaves were either dead or permanently deformed. To compensate for the loss, she began a breeding program and sold the offspring.”

“So, going by just two generations, there is already a few hundred reasons a ticked off ghost would be coming after me.” She put the photo aside, face down, and refused to look at it again. “Any other heavy-hitters?”

Louis opened the second box and riffled through the papers inside. “Well, it is open to personal tastes exactly who the worst offenders are, but there are a few that haunt me.”

He pulled out a folder and once again handed it to her.

“John La Roux. When I was little, I nailed my window shut because I was so afraid of him.”

“I’ve never heard of him.” The file was spread across her lap, but she was trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

“Most know him as the Vampire of New Orleans. In the early 1930s, he murdered eighteen children. He crossed all races, genders, and wasn’t too particular on ages, as long as they were under thirteen-years-old. He would creep in through kids’ windows during the night and steal them away, sometimes with their parents in the next room. He got the name because he would kill his victims by draining their blood. What stuck with me is that he would return his victims’ bodies, tuck them into bed, and leave them for their parents to find.”

She closed the file with as much force as the layers of paper were capable of. Like she was facing a firing squad, she lifted her chin and asked if there was anyone else he suspected. Again he looked through the files that brimmed the boxes.

“Poppy La Roux. The Baby Farmer.”

“Oh, good. Another alias.” This time, she looked through the sheets with resolved focus, even as her hands trembled.

“She ran an orphanage out of the La Roux family home. In her time, it was a huge scandal to be an unwed mother. That left a lot of young women very vulnerable and Poppy offered a way out. They could leave the child with her and pay a monthly fee for her to raise it with a proper education. Poppy could give their children a chance to actually build a life for themselves.”

Marigold closed her eyes. “She was killing the babies, wasn’t she?”

“And pocketing the money.”

Her brow furrowed as she read a few lines. “It never occurred to her that the mothers might what to see their kids again?”

“Claiming their child would have been social suicide. Poppy would never have sacrificed her position for such a reason and assumed that no one else would.”

He could pinpoint the moment when Marigold read how many children Poppy was suspected of killing. The real number was lost to history, but the estimation was enough to rock her to her core. She closed her eyes like it would help her forget what she had just read.

“Well, that would explain the baby I keep hearing.” Adding the file to the growing pile, she motioned to the boxes. “Three of those are about my family? I’d like to read them.”

“Are you sure, cher?” When she nodded, he got to his feet. “I’ll make some more coffee.”

Chapter 11

 

“Are you ready for lunch?”

Marigold looked up from the thousands of sheets of paper that blanketed the floor around her.

“What?”

“Have you moved since I left?”

“You left?”

He smiled as he rounded the kitchen island. “Yes. I went to my cousin to get you a change of clothes. Remember?”

“Not at all.” She pushed up onto her knees and searched for the sheets she recalled reading. “Have you heard about Violet and Ivy?”

“The Siren Sisters.”

“Must they all have nicknames?” she grumbled and snatched up the papers she wanted. “They would lure men off of Bourbon Street and murder them, did you hear about that? It was in the eighties.”

“Of course, cher. My father still warns me to be careful when I go out.”

“They were my cousins.” The paper crackled as her fingers clenched. “I had cousins. They were insane murderers, but my father should have told me I had cousins. And Gardenia and Edwards, they died only ten years ago. I could have known them.”

“You wanted to know The Devil’s Pair?”

“What is with the nicknames?” The papers scattered in the wake of her flailing arms. “I’ve never had a nickname.”

“My family’s taken to calling you ‘Yankee’, if that helps.”

She slumped amongst the ruined piles. “When did you talk to your family?”

“When I got the clothes,” he said slowly. “Okay, that’s it. Get changed, we’re going out for lunch.”

“I have to learn about my family.”

“First thing to learn, your line seems to have an ingrained habit of obsessing. So before you go crazy, you’re taking a break. It’s a beautiful day outside and I know a place with amazing food. We’re going to catch our breath, remember that life is worth living, and then we can go back to slogging through generations of insanity.”

Having crossed the living room, he presented her with a shopping bag. Bright fabrics pressed against the thin layer of plastic, and she took it with a mix of apprehension and excitement.

“I just asked Cordelia to pick out an outfit. She’s the only relative I have that has similar measurements.”

“Thank you.”

“Get dressed, Yankee. I’m hungry.”

 

***

 

“I probably should have mentioned that Cordelia is a born and raised Southern Belle.”

The heat had swelled into a humid swamp and the restaurant’s sun umbrella offered little relief, although it did protect her bare skin from the unrelenting rays. Louis seemed to relish in the weather and happily sipped at his iced tea. Marigold smoothed down her sundress again, not accustomed to such a short hemline. It had always been too cold back home for dresses of any kind, and she couldn’t help but feel a little exposed.

“It’s okay. Could you thank her for me?”

“Write her a thank you note and she’ll love you forever.”

She smiled and took a sip of her drink. The food was on its way and the air brimmed with a thousand scents. Beyond the little fence that marked the perimeter of the restaurant, the street bustled with life. The constant strum of the city, the warmth of the air, and the promise of a full stomach eased the tension in her shoulders. It startled her to realize this was the first time since she had set foot in New Orleans that she wasn’t terrified.

It turned out that Louis was good company. He knew when to be silent and when to distract her from her mounting thoughts. And his enthusiasm for food was enough to make her laugh. Even as they devoured their vibrant dishes, he was talking about what he should get for dinner. As they finished up their gumbo, she felt comfortable enough to ask the question that had been plaguing her.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Helping people is a lot like forgiving them. You do it because someone needs you to, not because you want to.” His eyes lit up. “Let’s get ice-cream. It’s perfect ice-cream weather.”

Marigold smiled. “I should get back to my research.”

“I’ve got a lot of it memorized. We don’t have to choose between working and having good scenery. We can have both, cher, with ice-cream.”

She was grateful when he offered a hand to help her stand up. There was a trick to walking in the high cork wedge sandals that she hadn’t quite mastered yet. With a hand ever at the ready to catch her, Louis led her from the restaurant and into the bustle of the street. They moved at their own pace so that many of the tourists scooted around them in their haste.

The ice-cream store Louis was determined to visit seemed to be strategically placed in the most beautiful street in New Orleans. The Mississippi drifted lazily on the far side of the street, while their side was fitted with restaurants and fine boutiques. She wondered if it was the vast menu of novelty flavors that drew him to this particular ice-cream parlor. There was no hesitation when he ordered a double scoop of buttermilk lemon pie, and he suggested the lavender honey with such childlike enthusiasm that she had to try it.

With their odd but delicious concoctions in hand, they wandered the streets, looking at everything and nothing. A gentle breeze kept wafting the light fabric of her borrowed skirt against her legs and the ice-cream left a pleasant chill as it slid down her throat. Ahead of them, she spotted the paddle steamer, bright white and perfect, pull up to a dock.

“Do you think they ever let people on that?”

“They do dinner tours,” Louis said with a smile.

“Really? That would be fun.” It was getting harder to ignore that he had very little interest in returning to their work. “Are you trying to distract me? Are you that worried I’ll become obsessed?”

His smile wavered and took on a more sympathetic twist. “Not entirely. Whatever’s chasing you has been going to a great deal of effort to wear you down. It’s what they do. Fear, isolation, and sleep deprivation all work to weaken your resistance.”

“Wait,” she cut in. “What do you mean whatever? I thought we decided it was a ghost.”

A familiar tendril of dread wormed through her stomach as Louis gently cupped her forearm and shuffled them to the side of the walkway and out of the flow of pedestrians.

“Remember, it thrives on fear, so just try to be calm.”

“Louis, I’ve had bad experiences with people keeping things from me.”

Each second he hesitated ground on her nerves until she was barely able to keep from yelling at him.

“Have you ever heard of a Diab?”

“No.”

He nodded and ran a hand over the back of his head. “Okay. So in the voodoo religion, we believe there is a balance to the universe. What you do is what you receive, and that kind of thing. If a person lives an evil life they can be punished after death by being turned into a Diab. They’re twisted creatures that exist only to harm the living. I still think it’s a member of your family, but if it’s a Diab, then we have to go about things differently.”

A cold chill crept along her spine as she asked, “So they’re not ghosts?”

“No.”

“Are . . . are Diabs demons?”

He looked over her shoulder, and the lack of eye contact only made the eventual words harder to take.

“They can be considered very similar.”

A solid weight crushed down on her chest and she staggered back from the blow. Only the railing that divided the Mississippi river from the sidewalk kept her from toppling to the ground. The idea that it had been a ghost had been comforting in an odd way. Like that, if she could just find out what it wanted, it would go towards the light or something and leave her in peace. She had felt like it was possible to take control of her life back. That she might be able to do something other than run and hide and wait for the next attack. But if it was a demon, if all it wanted was to see her tormented and scared. What could she do to appease it?

Chapter 12

 

The tension in Marigold’s frame was back. It grew as they edged towards his mother’s shop, and by the time they reached the same street, Louis was sure a deep breath would snap her. He tried to calm her as they walked, telling her that this was just the first step. They would put a protection spell on her, something strong enough to keep it from getting physical, and it would buy them some time to organize something more permanent.

“It’s okay, Maggie. It will all be okay.”

“What if your mother refuses to do the spell?”

“She won’t.”

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“Then we’ll think of something else.” He ducked a little to catch her eyes. “You’re not alone. I’m right here.”

She glanced over her shoulder and for a moment, he was sure she was going to run. But then she turned back to him and forced a smile that was obviously more for his benefit than something truly felt.

“You’ve done this kind of thing before?”

“Never with a Diab, but I have helped quite a few people with hauntings.”

The air had grown thicker with the promise of an encroaching storm. But despite the climb in temperature, she still hugged herself as if an arctic chill were sweeping across her bones.

“I still don’t understand why you would willingly expose yourself to all of this.”

“Why, cher, it allows me to meet so many new and interesting people.”

He offered her a goofy smile and was rewarded with a slight smile and an exaggerated roll of her eyes. Riding on the momentum of the moment, he finally succeeded in getting her through the door. Goosebumps rose on their skin as the air-conditioning pummeled them. Everyone in the store stopped what they were doing to stare at them. They were lucky that they came at a slow time. Marigold smacked into his chest as she attempted to back out of the room.

“Is Ma in?”

One of the regulars eyed him carefully. “Are you sure this is an action you want to take, boy?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you for your concern.” In an impressive feat, he managed to keep any frustration from seeping into his voice. He placed a hand on Marigold’s shoulder and gently began to push her behind the counter. “I’m sure she’s just in the back. Please excuse us.”

Their exit was followed by a few calls of how Marigold shouldn’t be allowed back there. He pretended that he couldn’t hear them. The back room now served as his mother’s makeshift office and conjure room, since it was too small to hold a mass of any real size. The walls were bare and painted a sky blue that his father insisted was calming. Beside the bookshelf that held most of her ingredients, the altar that was pressed against the far side, and a table that sat next to it, there wasn’t much in the room. To the left was the door to the store room, and it was through there that Ma emerged. Marigold’s shoulders jumped and he gave her a reassuring squeeze.

“Hi–”

“Unless the next words are an apology for bringing that girl back in here, you best shut your mouth now.”

Once again, Marigold tried to exit the situation, and once again her plan was thwarted as she ran into him. This time hard enough to make her wince.

“Ma, before you make any rash decisions, may I show you something?” Gently leaning into Marigold’s personal space he rubbed his thumb across her shoulder in a way that he hoped was soothing. “Maggie, she needs to see your back.”

Slowly Marigold turned, her eyes fixed on him with something that bordered on panic as he gathered up the mass of crimson strands. The sundress came together at the dip of her spine, so when her hair was scooped over her shoulder there was nothing hiding the layers of cuts that created groves along her pale skin. Last night’s attack had left deeper cuts over the ones that had barely begun to heal. They weren’t deep enough to need stitches, but were red and raw and looked more ghastly than any of the other damage that marred her body.

Marigold couldn’t see his mother’s face, but the older woman’s sudden catch of breath was enough to make her flinch. With trembling hands, she shoved her hair back over her shoulder, letting it fall like a curtain over her wounds.

“Have you treated those?”

It was a start. At least she wasn’t a second away from throwing Marigold out onto the street.

“Yes,” he said.

“Good.”

“Maggie, can you please tell my mother what’s been happening to you?”

Marigold’s eyes widened, but her resolve set in and she slowly turned to his mother. She couldn’t meet the older woman’s eyes and ended up recounting each event to the floor. When the stories came to an end, Ma turned her eyes onto Louis.

“You’re thinking the family curse?”

“I don’t think she’s cursed,” he said. “I think it’s a Diab.”

“Well, that makes things a lot trickier.”

“So you’ll help me?”

The words were barely more than a mumble of vowels, but it was enough to instantly grab both of their attention. Ma shifted her gaze to Marigold and examined the marks that crossed her arms.

“The Black Lamp should help.”

“Thank you, Ma.”

The woman’s jaw hardened. “I don’t like this. But neither will it.”

“And don’t we just live for that?” Louis smiled, bright enough that even in her sullen mood, Ma returned it.

Quickly stifling it, she ordered him to gather the necessary items. He hurried to the bookshelf, Marigold following his every step, hovering close to his side like it would keep her from gathering any kind of attention. He tried to silently soothe her, but his attempts never amounted to much. Each item he pulled down only made her more anxious.

“Why do you need a pumpkin?” she whispered.

“It’s what we make the lamp out of. Here, cut it in half.”

Having something to do seemed to settle her a little and allowed him to gather everything else they needed without fear that he was about to elbow her. Stones, cotton wick, dried and ground chilli peppers, and red paint pigment. He loved that his mother kept the supplies well stocked because it saved him a trip to a crossroads for soil. And they didn’t have to waste time crossing some bone fragments. Marigold almost cut herself when Ma suddenly showed up beside her.

“Okay, flower child, are you almost ready?”

She had a lamp oil in one hand and a small statue in the other. Marigold just blinked owlishly and backed away from the halved pumpkin, babbling about how she wasn’t sure if she had done it properly.

“It’s perfect, cher,” Louis said as he came closer, juggling his mountain of items.

“I’ve never done anything like this.”

“None of us are shocked, sugar,” Ma said as she began to arrange the items. “Are you sure about this, Louis?”

“Most definitely.” Seeing Marigold’s confusion, he leaned closer to whisper. “This spell conjures Agwe. If he doesn’t like the reason you called him, he tends to make the ritual have the opposite effect.”

“So I could be in more danger?”

“It’s okay. This isn’t a trivial issue.” And before she could ask, he added, “In some ways, the structure of voodoo has a few things in common with how the Catholic Church is set up. Think of Agwe as a saint.”

The comparison seemed to be a slight comfort and she relaxed as much as he suspected she could. Voodoo wasn’t something everyone took to easily, especially when they had been raised with no exposure to the religion. They watched as his mother arranged the items into a kind of candle.

“This ritual is easy,” he whispered so as not to disrupt his mother. “When the time comes, all you have to do is light the wick.”

“And then what?”

“Then we let it burn until it goes out.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.” He lifted his hand to gesture her forward.

Hesitantly, she took the box of matches his mother offered and inched towards the halved pumpkin. The items within kept the wick upright, the little slip of white poking out from the small lake of oil. It took her two tries, but she finally succeeded in lighting a match. He had a moment to note how closely the color of the flame matched her hair before it was blown out. She lit another match. This time, he heard the huffed breath that killed the flame.

“Light the wick.” There was iron in his mother’s voice as she surveyed the room.

It must have kept itself hidden from even her because her eyes never settled on one spot. Marigold’s hand was shaking too much to make lighting the match an easy task. His mother’s chanted words filled the otherwise silent room as he reached into his pocket and closed his hand around his protective gris-gris. The next match flickered to life.

A feral roar broke through the room like a thunderclap and shattered the overhead lights into a hail of sparks and shards of plastic. Darkness swallowed them as they each ducked for cover. He heard Marigold shriek as he flung himself to the back wall to wrench the door open. A block of light streamed in and washed over Marigold where she sat huddled on the floor, her eyes fixed upon the lamp.

Louis rushed to her side and searched her for any injury while his mother continued the ritual chants, her voice climbing louder.

“Maggie, you have to light the wick.”

She didn’t respond, didn’t move. Only sat and stared, her eyes wide and her lips trembling around words that wouldn’t be released. As gently as he could, he pulled her onto her feet.

“Maggie, it’s trying to scare you because we can hurt it. Come on.”

“Jas?”

He whirled around to see what she was staring at, one hand instinctively reaching for his gris-gris. A plush toy now leaned against the Black Lamp. Fire had ravaged its mattered fur, with whole chunks eaten away to expose the inner stuffing. Water seeped from the Carebear and trickled down the sides of the pumpkin.

Shaking himself from his shock he snapped his eyes over to his mother. It would have to be strong to infiltrate the boundaries and blessing his mother had in place over the store.

How could it materialize objects while being forced out?

His breath quickened at the thought. What the hell are we dealing with?

Gasping her sister’s name once more, Marigold burst forward. He tried to catch her but she slipped from his grip and raced to the toy. The matches. The box lay discarded on the floor a few inches from his foot. He snatched them up, but by the time he turned his attention back, Marigold was focused not on the toy, but on the lamp.

“Maggie.”

She ignored him, her gaze focused solely on the thick layer of oil that welled in the bottom of the pumpkin. Again he called to her, tried to break her concentration, but she still wouldn’t respond. A solid weight formed in the pit of his gut when she whispered, “Jasmine”.

The oil swelled and solidified into a clawed hand as he ran for her. The twisted fingers lashed out and latched onto Marigold’s slender throat. It squeezed until her scream choked off into a broken grunt, and then dragged her forward. Her limbs thrashed as the phantom hand brought her face down into the oil. She couldn’t break away.

Louis grabbed her around the waist and tried to pull her free, but it held her tight, mouth and nose submerged in the few inches of oil. He braced his feet, tightened his grip, and pulled with every ounce of his strength, but he couldn’t pull her free.

Her hands raked at the pumpkin, nails unable to do more than gouge grooves into the sides. Still pulling back as hard as he could, he stomped his heel down on the pumpkin. Once. Twice. His mother’s words turned into a demanding shout. The third strike created a deep crack and the oil began to leak out. Another blow and a large chunk cracked off. Oil sloshed over the floor. He pulled again and the grip suddenly released.

The floor slammed into his back and Marigold’s full weight crashed down onto his chest. Quickly he rolled onto his side but kept one arm wrapped around her waist. Marigold hacked up mouthfuls of the thick liquid as she vainly tried to wipe it from her eyes. He held her close enough to feel each of her sobs rebound within his chest. He brushed back her oil slick hair and turned to his mother. Fear lurked in her eyes. It made his bones turn cold.

Chapter 13

 

The sheeting rain struck the sun-heated roads, creating a thin mist that churned and clogged the empty streets. Driven inside by the rain, the usual crowds kept to the bars and rarely scattered out into the weather to search for another place to buy a drink. Jazz music and laughter rose up over the pummeling rain, but instead of bringing its usual comfort, it sounded taunting to Marigold’s ears. Louis’s mother had promised that she would perform the ritual, with a few added elements to expand the protection to her, but had insisted that Marigold couldn’t be present.

She had barely listened to their hurried explanations and whispered private discussion. All she had wanted in that moment was to find Braveheart. She had held it, felt the soft push of the fabric in her hand. It had been real. For a moment, she had had something of Jasmine’s once again, but somewhere between the attack and coming to her senses in Louis’s arms, she had lost it. Her only connection to her sister and she had lost it. Louis had finally pulled her from the room and into the newly fallen night.

As a good New Orleans boy, Louis was ready for the sudden downpour. He had grabbed an umbrella on the way out, and with swift skill, had managed to open it before she was soaked through. They had walked for a while, the puddles swelling until even her high wedges couldn’t keep her feet dry. She didn’t know where they were going and she didn’t want to ask. There was the possibility that he would tell her that he was walking to her house, back to that place that her family had filled with death and horror.

“Maybe they’ll let me stay at a homeless shelter.”

“I beg your pardon?”

His response startled her. She hadn’t realize she had said it out loud.

“I was wondering if they would let me stay at a homeless shelter,” she said. “Just until I can get a job and find my own place. I just can’t go back to that house.”

“You can stay with me.”

She looked at him and noticed for the first time that he had kept the shelter of the umbrella solely over her. Consequently, he was soaked. His white shirt was almost transparent as it plastered to his chest and rivets of water streamed down his glasses until she could barely see his eyes.

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not asking. I’m offering. Actually, I’m pleading. I don’t think I’d sleep knowing you were alone with it.”

“Thank you.”

She wasn’t going to argue. Relief flooded her so quickly that she felt it slice her in two and tears began to well. Swallowing down the urge to break down, she wiped at her eyes as discreetly as she could. Looking to him again, she forced a weak smile.

“You know that umbrella could have covered both of us.” She was pleased with how light her voice came out.

“Not without getting your shoulder wet,” he noted.

“What an exemplary standard you set for gentlemen everywhere.”

His whole face lightened up with a brilliant smile. Deepening his southern accent until he sounded like a cartoon character, he puffed out his chest.

“Why, cher, you’re in the south now. This is the least a southern gentleman could do for a young lady. What ever have those Yankee boys been teaching you?”

“To hold my own umbrella.”

Shaking his head solemnly he heaved a sigh. “Why, Miss La Roux, you do make me lament so.”

A slight laugh escaped her and it would have been impossible for Louis to look more pleased with himself.

“Where do you think the doll went?”

“Don’t dwell on it, cher. It wasn’t hers.”

It was a slight comfort to feel her own arms wrap tight around her stomach. “It could have been.”

He opened his mouth but thought better of whatever he had planned to say. Instead, he offered a small smile and nodded.

“It’s possible. We’ll look again tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”

She wasn’t sure if he could hear her over the pouring rain, but his smile let her think that he did. The chatter had taken away a bit of the weight that seemed strapped to her back, although the carefree feeling she had reveled in earlier today seemed like a dream. She felt its absence now, an empty place within her where any sense of joy had once been.

She turned abruptly to Louis and asked before thought. “Can we go to a church?”

The sudden request didn’t entice a reaction. “Of course. Would you like to go now?”

Tightening her arms, she shrugged. “You have to be uncomfortable.”

“What denomination do you need?”

She studied his face but couldn’t find a single trace of judgment or apprehension.

“I don’t really know. Catholic, I guess.”

“I know just the place.”

Completely ignoring the growing storm and the chill that had crept into the air, he led her around the abandoned streets. The fog churned higher; it hid the lampposts and turned their light into hovering orbs. Through the rain, she could barely make out more than colors and shapes, but Louis’s strides didn’t falter. He took each street without hesitation and she soon lost track of where they were.

Eventually, they arrived at a church she hadn’t seen before. The pristine white shone like a beacon in the night and the tip of its steeple was lost to the gathering mist. She might not have been raised within the church, but its presence did make her feel a little safer, and she found a renewed enthusiasm to get inside.

Moving with ease, Louis managed to get in front of her while still keeping her protected by the umbrella. She felt a little odd having someone open doors for her, but it appeared to be a habit Louis wasn’t about to break. Trying and failing to control the blush blooming across her cheeks, she didn’t know what to do as she passed him.

The air burst from her lungs as an invisible force hammered into her and hurled her back onto the street. Her bare back scraped against the road as she thumped over it. Struggling to breathe, she forced herself up just in time to see Louis thrown off of his feet. He careened back through the open church door and slid down the aisle. Before he could get up, the wide, heavy door slammed shut with a deafening crack.

“Louis!”

She ran to the door and smacked at the unrelenting wood. “Louis, are you okay?”

The door rattled and she staggered back, eyes locked on the handle.

“I can’t open the door,” Louis called.

She gripped it with both hands and yanked with all of her weight behind it, but it wouldn’t budge. Desperation turned each of her movements into short, erratic spurts that achieved nothing beyond making her more panicked. Her lungs seized when she heard him scream.

“Louis!”

Rain pummeled her like chips of ice. She could barely see as it streamed into her eyes and covered every inch of her body. It was all she could hear as she slammed herself against the door.

“Louis, what’s happening?”

His voice came as a strained whisper, “It’s in here with me.”

There was a sudden crash and a heavy thud. She clawed at the door, tears welling as Louis groaned on the other side. Her mind whirled with the possibilities of what it was doing to him. Because of her. It was hurting Louis because of her. Another thud, a pained gasp, and she couldn’t take it anymore.

“I’m going to lure it away.”

“Maggie,” his voice didn’t sound right, “don’t.”

“It wants me. It will follow me.”

“Maggie,” the door rattled and her name turned into a scream.

She turned on her heel and ran into the streets as fast as she could. The rain and fog separated her from the world as she bolted down the center of the abandoned street. An explosive roar sounded form somewhere behind her. She turned to see the furthest streetlamps die in an eruption of sparks. The next followed suit. Then the next. The destruction followed her as she barreled down the street. She could hear the electricity sizzle in the rain, the glass slash across the brick and stone. It hunted her. She couldn’t put any distance between them.

She flung herself into one alley after another until the buildings closed in on all sides. Her next turn brought her to an offshoot that was too narrow to merit streetlamps. The clouds shifted and cast some dampened moonlight over the world. By it she saw that water turned the street into a sea of black ink. The last shreds of her rational mind screamed at her to run, that the water couldn’t possibly be deep, she couldn’t possibly drown. Her feet refused to move. Water dripped from her hair and slid over her skin like questing fingers. Despite the constant downpour, the lake mirrored the world around it. She saw her own reflections. She saw a figure standing beside her.

She almost tripped as she whirled around, but all that met her was an empty alley. Her eyes darted down. The figure was still there, human in shape but completely void of any color or detail. It was impossible to see its eyes, but she knew it was looking at her. She could feel it.

A solid bang rang out from behind her. The ground shook with it and dread flooded her veins. She couldn’t look away from the figure in the water as the ground shook again.

Footsteps, she realized with a sickening twist of her gut. They were footsteps. Its breath pushed at her damp hair, rank and humid, as it growled. Fists balled, she whirled and swung. She hadn’t been prepared when she actually hit something.

Chapter 14

 

Pain snapped up Louis’s shoulder as he threw himself against the door. It still refused to move. He held his breath and pressed his ear against the wood. It had been a few minutes since he had last heard Marigold, and he still couldn’t catch the faintest hint of her. He didn’t know if she had run or if she was bleeding out on the church steps only a few feet from him.

He slammed his fist against the door with a bellow of frustration and turned to study the church. A few lights emitted a soft glow, enough to allow sight but still permitted shadows to drench each corner. The altar took up the front of the church, the sides lined by rows of red glass jars with candles inside. Stained-glass windows, set high into the walls, colored any of the moonlight that managed to slip through the clouds.

As he jogged down the aisle, he contemplated breaking one of the windows, but even if he could, there was no way he could climb out. There had to be another exit. He skidded to a stop just in front of the altar and frantically looked around. To his right the wall opened up to a hallway and he bolted for it. Just as he rounded the corner, he collided with a man coming the other way. They both fell to the ground with pained groans and Louis was the first one back on his feet. The priest was confused but still accepted Louis’s offer to help him up.

“Are you alright, child?”

“Where is the exit?”

The priest’s brow furrowed. “Right back the way you came?”

“It’s locked. Where’s a back exit?” Before the man could respond he added, “Please, this is important. My friend’s in danger and I need to get out there.”

“This way,” he took Louis quickly through back passageways to a fire exit at the rear of the building. “Should I call the police?”

“I doubt that they can help,” Louis said. The priest’s probing gaze forced him to add. “It’s a spiritual matter. Can you open the door?”

He feared that it wouldn’t move, but the priest opened it with ease.

“Thank you.” Louis slipped out into the rain, but hesitated just long enough say in a rush of words, “May I ask you for a favor? I need your rosary. I will return it later.”

“Child?”

“Even if you don’t believe evil has a real form, my friend does. Please, help us.”

For an excruciatingly long moment, the priest did little else but study him. Nerves boiled inside Louis until he was a second away from giving up on the request completely. Finally, the priest removed the chain of beads from his pocket and Louis snatched it up with far more force than he intended to. The solid orbs dug into his palm as he clenched his fists and ran into the driving rain.

 

***

 

The blow itself might not have been all that strong, but it had been enough to force the stranger down. He must have cracked his head against the concrete because he didn’t stir as the rain trickled over him and added to the swamp he lay in. Marigold, frozen in shock, did little more than nurse her now throbbing hand and stare at him. She had never seen the man before and couldn’t recall hearing him sneak up on her.

From somewhere hidden from sight came a menacing growl, low and demonic. Instantly snapped from her surprise, she turned to the sound. Her hands felt empty. She longed for a weapon. Something, anything, she could use to defend herself. Not that there was anything that could protect her. Rain flowed over her face and further blurred her vision. She couldn’t see it, but she could feel it watching her. Her attention flicked down to the unconscious man at her feet. What would it do to him if she ran? Tonight was the first time she had seen it attack someone beyond herself. This was new territory in an already alien world. What am I supposed to do?

Her jaw dropped when she looked back to the mouth of the alley. The rain shattered as it fell onto open air. The thousands of fractured droplets created a haze around a towering silhouette. Its proportions were wrong, mangled and misshapen, but still undoubtedly strong. It made dread course through her veins like tar.

Water exploded as it charged towards her at a rapid pace. She couldn’t even flinch before it struck her and knocked her off her feet. Pain laced across her back as she fell onto the rain slick ground. The feel of the water against her skin drove her mind back to that night. She flailed wildly, her desperation rendering her movements useless. The footsteps tore over the ground again and passed her in a blur of disrupted rain.

A scream ripped from her throat and she threw herself onto her stomach. Fire seared her thigh. She flung her hair out of her face and pulled up her skirt to see the patch of skin that still felt like a branding iron was pressed against it. A hunk of her flesh was now molten and bloody. The rain thinned the welling blood until she could see the bite mark that ravaged her thigh. Her fingers trembled as she pressed them to the wound. She pushed until spikes of pain sizzled along her nerves. It was real. It had bit her.

The last shreds of the denial she had clung to snapped and she was faced with the cold reality. It pressed down on her with a crippling weight, flattened her against the ground, ribs on the brink of snapping. It growled in her ear. She gagged as its stench filled her nose. Each breath brought a mouthful of water down her throat. She couldn’t think, couldn’t move, her heart thundering as the force on top of her continued to bare down against her spine. Fire flared across her back and sides. This time she felt the fangs break her skin and sink into her flesh. She felt every second of it.

A hand enclosed her wrist and pulled her out of the creature’s grasp. Shaking all over she pushed her hair from her face and sprung her head up. She froze when the person before her wasn’t Louis.

“Delilah?”

“Thank God I found you.” She pulled Marigold into a tight embrace and looked over to the still unconscious man. “Is he alive?”

Marigold clung to her, sobbing wildly, and Delilah had to peel her off in order to get her to speak.

“I think so. We have to get out of here. We have to leave. Now.”

“Calm down.”

“You don’t understand.” Her voice was a hysterical shriek, but the older woman didn’t react.

“Yes I do.” The calm tone made Marigold still. “I know exactly what you’re running from. It has been with our family for a long time.”

“You knew?” Marigold pushed up onto her knees. “You knew and you said nothing?”

“To protect you. I had hoped that it was like hoodoo magic. That if you didn’t believe in it, then it couldn’t hurt you. Ignorance was your only defense.”

“Well, it didn’t work.”

“Perhaps it would have if you hadn’t brought voodoo into the house. I had thought that the Duponts would have been merciful to you, but they are far more determined to see the end of our line than I had anticipated. When I found that gris-gris, I knew they had targeted you, I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. I’m sorry for that.”

“The Duponts didn’t do this.”

“Is that what they told you? You can’t trust them, sweet child. I’m your family. Trust me, not them.”

“You left me to fight this thing alone.” Marigold pushed aside Delilah’s hand as she reached to cup her face.

“Your father died to keep this from you. I was trying to honor his wishes and spare you this horror. I realize now that I can’t.” Marigold didn’t know if she should scream or cry as Delilah continued, “Generations ago, a voodoo queen cursed our family and shackled that demon to our bloodline.”

She shook her head. “Louis said it wasn’t voodoo.”

“And you trust him?” Anger flashed across Delilah’s face before she could school her features into something softer. “Of course you do. I left you so vulnerable to his manipulations. Do you know how they summon their gods in the voodoo religion? They torture an animal. The more pain it feels, the more their gods listen. This creature is like them. It wants fear. It feeds off of pain. You must give that to it, my sweet child, or it will take it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m sure the Duponts told you about the transgressions of our family.”

“That we’re all murderers.”

“We all made a choice,” Delilah corrected. “We decided to survive any way we could. Now it’s your turn to choose.”

There was still enough light to glisten off the blade of the knife Delilah held out between them. Marigold stared at it, listening to the rain ping off the polished steal.

“I don’t understand.”

“You can’t get rid of it, Marigold, but you can pay for momentary peace.” She pressed the hilt of the knife into Marigold’s hand and motioned to the still unconscious man. “I’m glad that your first will be so much easier than mine was.”

Unable to comprehend what Delilah was saying, all Marigold could do was stare. The blade dangled from her limp fingers, the rain making her grip slippery.

“The man in the mausoleum?”

“It was necessary,” Delilah spoke softly. “We only ever do what is necessary.”

“What? You killed a man. How could that possibly be necessary?”

“Do you think that this is the extent of the demon’s cruelty? This will get so much worse for you. It has no other purpose in existence, and no greater joy, then to drive you into madness. It will inflict upon you an array of pain you never knew existed. You can’t run from it. Can’t hide from it. What you have felt for only a few days will be the extent of your life.”

“So you kill people?”

“Death calms it. That’s why I believe it comes from a voodoo spell, because the more horrible the death, the greater its satisfaction, and the longer it stays away. Believe me child, when this demon has become an unrelenting part of your life, you will do anything for a moment of peace.”

The rain mixed with the tears slipping from Marigold’s eyes. For all the revelations, there was only one question that bubbled out of her mouth.

“Is that why my parents did what they did?”

“I’m afraid it is.” Delilah took Marigold’s free hand with both of hers, long nails scraping against her skin. Marigold tried to pull away, but Delilah tightened her grip. “All of those people.”

“You don’t need to offer that many,” Delilah said quickly. “Your father couldn’t bring himself to inflict pain. He thought himself more merciful to kill painlessly with drugs. But a swift death doesn’t satisfy it for as long. So he needed more to buy himself the same amount of time.”

No longer able to move, Marigold didn’t protest as Delilah changed her grip to the hand that still held the knife. The older woman’s fingers tightened on Marigold’s own. The wooden hilt of the kitchen knife nestled against her palm, solid and strong. Marigold wanted to protest but couldn’t find the words. With a sinking sense of horror she watched as Delilah angled the tip of the blade over the unconscious man’s heart. The material of the shirt bunched under the deadly point.

“Just push down,” Delilah whispered. “It’ll be quick. He’s unconscious, he won’t feel a thing.”

Each breath the man took put pressure on the blade and Marigold could feel the resistance.

“I can’t.”

“You have to.”

A fine tremble took hold of Marigold’s body and each breath felt like fire in her lungs.

“I can’t.”

“It’s waiting.”

Delilah hissed out the words a second before phantom fangs slashed deep into Marigold’s stomach. She screamed and tried to rear back, but despite the age difference, Delilah held her tightly in place. Encased in her aunt’s arms, Marigold could only shriek and flinch as the demon ravaged her skin. Blood seeped along her legs and arms as her skin ripped open. A pressure entered her chest. Like a solid stone, it pushed against her heart. Her heartbeats staggered, her lungs crushed, her throat seized tight, and all the while the fangs continued to slash at her skin.

Each nerve ending crackled. Pure, unbridled, agony made her spasm as if electricity was pulsing through her. It robbed her of the ability to scream, leaving her to whimper and choke. Delilah pushed Marigold forward and she staggered onto the man.

“Do it, Marigold. End your pain!”

She felt fangs close around her shoulder and squeeze until the bones began to bend.

“This won’t stop. Not unless you stop it.”

Her head swirled, each thought broken by a new current of pain. She couldn’t think. She just needed to think. For a second. Only one.

“Marigold!”

Her eyes fell to the man, to the blade she had posed at his chest. She made herself look him in the face. He had hair just beginning to turn white at the temples and there were deep lines around his eyes and forehead, but she couldn’t tell if that meant that he spent a lot of time frowning or smiling. The demon tightened its hold on her shoulder and her brain finally spewed up an answer.

This won’t stop. Not unless I stop it.

She braced one hand on the man’s chest and pushed, freeing herself of Delilah’s grip and the beast on her shoulder. The rain flung from the blade as she swung her hand wide. The metal was cool against her throat.

It ends with you.

Her fingers tightened. The muscles of her arms quivered. Falling tears burned her cheeks like acid.

Finish what dad started.

She squeezed her eyes shut. Pain exploded across the back of her skull and she slumped onto the slick concrete. She felt each drop of rain pummel her and then she felt nothing at all.

Chapter 15

 

Louis stumbled into his apartment, a fine layer of sweat mixing with the rainwater that trailed off of him. His chest heaved and he could barely coordinate his steps as he hurried around the small space. He had searched the alleyways for hours but hadn’t been able to find a trace of Marigold. Dread eroded his insides until it felt like it alone existed within his skin. He had checked every open store he could find, scoured Bourbon Street, and returned to the church. The only other place he could think that she would flee to was his apartment. It had been easy to picture her curled up on his couch, frightened but safe, as he had made his way through the streets. Reality had crushed that hope. He stormed through his home, searching for the slightest thing out of place, some trace that she had just been there, but found nothing.

Searching became ransacking as he checked every conceivable hiding spot. She wasn’t here. She had never come back. Unable to stand still, he paced through his apartment as he hit the speed dial on his cellphone. It rang, the droning sound driving him closer to the blind void of panic until his mother finally answered.

“Is Marigold with you?”

“No,” Ma said. “What’s happened?”

“It touched me. Well to be completely candid, it threw me like a gator flipping a frog.”

“What?”

“It separated me from Marigold, and now I can’t find her.”

“Louis, this is far too strong to be a Diab.”

“At this point, I don’t care. I just want to bring Maggie home.” He didn’t bother to close the door behind him as he ran out of his apartment and barreled down the stairs. “Call Joe. I think I know where it took her.”

 

***

 

The world came to her in shades of color and misery. It felt like every square inch of her skull had been replaced with red hot razor blades. Her brain was on fire and pain pulsed out from the base of her skull with every heartbeat. Marigold squinted and tried to bring the world into focus. A few scattered candles supplied just enough light to distinguish shapes from shadows.

Ice crept over her skin. She recognized the space. She was back in her room, the one in the attic. She was in the La Roux house. A groan rattled from her chest and she surged up. Metal clanked against metal, her wrists pulled back, and she slumped against the bed. Her head spun as she turned to the side and trailed her gaze along her arm.

The murky wasteland of her mind cleared with a near-audible crack. She was shackled to the bed. A wide band of near ancient metal enclosed her wrist. From it dangled a chain, as thick as her forearm, and she followed it to where it met the wall behind her bed. Her heart lurched into her throat, a solid lump that choked the air from her lungs. As she attempted to throw herself from the bed, she found an identical chain latched to her other wrist.

The rust-encrusted iron kept her arms spread wide. There wasn’t enough slack for her to lift her torso more than an inch off the bed. Pain polluted her memories, turning them into jagged shards that she couldn’t organize into any kind of sense. A memory hit her – clear but incomplete – of Louis being hurled through the air. She couldn’t piece together what had happened to him after that. The uncertainty of his fate fed her panic until the possibilities consumed her every thought. Was he okay? Was he alive?

She opened her mouth to scream, but the sound died within her when she heard Jasmine whisper meekly into her ear.

The boogieman’s here.”

Flat on her back, she could only catch a slight glimpse of the cupboard door as it inched open. The creak of the hinges cut through the room like a drawn-out moan. Something unseen shuffled and it took her a moment to place the sound, the scraping, rustling, whispering sound. Someone was crawling across the floor. Crawling towards her.

She forced herself up as high as she could, her muscles and tendons straining to the point of tearing, but she couldn’t see it. The sound continued at an uneven pace. Like their limbs were too long, broken or twisted. A new sound joined the struggled lurching. She recognized it instantly from that first night. It was the sound of a very sharp blade toying across wood.

Closer. Closer. Her shoulders almost popped free as she twisted herself up to try and catch sight of what was dragging itself towards her. A shadow stirred. Darker than the others, solid and yet moving like molten lava. It’s back arched into her sight before disappearing once again. The bed was too high. She couldn’t catch sight of it. But she could hear it. It made no attempt to hide the noise it made as it lurched closer.

The mattress swallowed her feet as she braced them and pushed herself further to the edge. A head rose up over the edge of the mattress, a few inches from her face. She scrambled to increase the distance between them, her joints straining under her attempts, but the chains held her in place. The black mass had no eyes, but she felt them watching her. Felt the malicious desires that poured from them like heated tar. It drew itself higher and she saw that it wasn’t merely a shadow, it was a black hole, only visible because it devoured the life around it.

It didn’t reach out, didn’t move, but the sheets around her split open like a blade had just slashed it. She screamed and threw herself back again as the phantom claws drew closer to her stomach. The demon’s inky, unstable form cleaved into two, ripping apart to reveal rows of long spiked columns of glowing white. Her thoughts shattered.

They’re fangs. It has fangs. It wanted her to see them. See their size. And know that all it had done before was merely playful ticks compared to what it could actually do, what it will do. With its wide, ghastly, face-splitting smile still in place, it slithered down out of sight. She could still hear it, under the bed, dragging its sharp talons along the boards. Marigold stared at the ceiling, tears blurring her vision, and tried to prepare for the moment the demon decided to reach through the mattress.

 

***

 

Louis scattered a trail of coins and candy along the curve of the corner, his eyes never leaving the La Roux house. Darkness coiled around the structure like a slumbering beast and devoured any light that fell upon it. The whole street may have been draped in the rolling fog, but that house alone stood in unrelenting darkness. The windows were fathomless pits that didn’t allow a single hint of life to seep out from their depths. His skin prickled and burned. It felt like a thousand snakes were squirming within his stomach, and all he wanted to do was run. To hide from this house and everything it held within.

He pressed a hand over his offerings to Papa Legba and prayed it would be enough to appease the Ioa, to keep him near. And at a time like this, he really needed the benevolent gatekeeper between the living and the dead on his side. Tiny streams of rain ran down his glasses, distorting his vision until the building quaked before him. Taking a deep breath, he tilted his head to the side. Joe stood next to him, eyeing the street with concern, one hand instinctively tightening over the hilt of his firearm. They both had things they put their faith in. Perhaps combined, their devotion would be enough to allow them to survive what was to come. Without a word shared between them, they crossed the street and approached the polished door.

Louis let Joe take the lead but stayed close. The gris-gris dug into his palm as he clutched it tightly, his heartbeat a constant roar within his ears, and watched as Joe lifted his hand. For a moment, he left it hovering in the air, the rain pooling between his fingers. Louis heard the safety of the weapon click off, and with that, Joe brought his fist down in a series of thunderous knocks. Silence met them and sent Louis’s already fragile nerves on edge. He locked his knees and balled his fists in a desperate attempt to keep himself in place.

No lights turned on, nothing stirred. But when the door opened, a blinding light poured from the house and glistened over the wet pavement. Louis shuffled back but couldn’t escape the beam. He squinted painfully into the light and found that every bulb of the mammoth chandelier was on, but when he glanced at the windows, not even a hint of its glow crept out from open curtains. Joe noticed it too but refused to take his eyes off Delilah.

She kept one hand on the door. “Will I need to contact actual police officers, or will you leave on your own?”

“Ma’am,” Joe said calmly, “have you had contact with your niece tonight?”

She narrowed her eyes at the men. “Why are you asking?”

“What have you done to her?” Louis charged forward, held back by the large hand Joe pressed to the center of his chest.

“Excuse me?” she snarled.

“Ms. La Roux,” Joe cut in. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but we have some concerns for Marigold’s safety.”

“Whatever for?”

“She was with Louis earlier this evening-”

Delilah scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Well that explains it.”

“Explains what?” Louis said.

“My niece isn’t missing, officer. She decided to leave New Orleans.”

Louis turned to surge forward again, but Joe kept him in place. “Just like that, in the middle of the night, with no explanation?”

Delilah tilted her head. “Did she owe you one?”

Anger simmered through his blood and chased off the chill of his fear. “So your story is that she just ran off, alone, into the night? That’s insane!”

“Louis,” Joe warned.

“She’s obviously lying.”

Unaffected by Louis’s outburst, she calmly continued, “Today was difficult for her. She wasn’t prepared for more death, and when confronted with it, she chose to leave rather than endure.”

“Without telling me?”

“I believe you have grossly overestimated your importance,” Delilah said. “She left me a note. It was short but clearly expressed her desire for solitude.”

“We’d like to see that note,” Joe said.

“Of course, officer. Excuse me for a moment.”

Louis could barely contain himself as the door clicked shut. He whirled to Joe, his arms spread wide.

“She’s lying.”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?” Louis snapped.

“Louis, you’re not getting the situation. We need Delilah.”

“The situation is that Marigold is most likely in that house getting tortured. And I would bet my life Delilah knows it. We have to search this hellhole.”

“And how many judges do you think will grant a warrant based on speculation and the threat of paranormal activity?” Joe said. “Unless Delilah invites us in, there’s really nothing we can do.”

Chapter 16

 

Struggling had caused the imperfections in the metal to gouge at her skin. Blood trickled down her arms in thin streaks and dripped onto the bed sheets. Still, she tugged and twisted against the shackles, enticing more damage for little progress. The scratching under the bed had stopped, but the silence only worsened her fear. At least she had known where it was. Now, the only sounds that hit her were the clash of the metal and her gasps of pain. A floorboard groaned under a heavy weight. She snapped her head up once again to search the empty room as best as she could. All that met her was silence.

She pulled at her right arm with renewed strength, not stopping as the metal tore into the bruises that already tarnished most of her skin. The fragile bones in her wrist ached, her tendons shook on the verge of snapping, and her thumb bent the wrong way. The pain was worth it when the heel of her palm finally slipped under the band. She screamed as fangs stabbed deep into her thigh. The attack was savage enough to release her blood in an arching spirit.

Her body instantly shifted to protect itself and curled into a tight ball. The shift popped her palm back through the shackle’s band and to where she had started. Her skin was raw and ravaged. Each molecule of air that touched it was excruciating, a scorching pain worse than the bite, and it drove her into broken whimpers. She didn’t notice that her aunt had entered the room until she spoke.

“You really shouldn’t try and escape. It doesn’t take kindly to that.”

Marigold looked up at the woman without moving from her huddled form. With careful consideration, Delilah had found one of the few places that had yet to be stained or torn, and sat down.

Marigold lifted her eyes to her and said through her sobs, “Let me go.”

“I will,” Delilah soothed. “In time.”

Marigold tried to flinch away from Delilah’s touch, but there was nowhere to go.

“Why didn’t you let me die?”

“Well I can’t do that until you have a few children,” Delilah said simply.

For a moment, Marigold didn’t feel any of the pain that riddled her body. She stared at Delilah, watching as the older woman carefully worked some of the wrinkles out of her dress.

“What are you talking about?”

She folded her hands delicately in her lap and met Marigold’s eyes with a charade of compassion.

“Sweet, simple, Marigold. This demon follows our family, and aside from you and I, there isn’t any family left.”

“So you want me to give it more people to torment?”

“Better them than I.”

The air rushed from her lungs. “Are you crazy? You can’t decide who it goes to.”

Anger cracked her well-schooled face for a moment, but she quickly recovered.

“You didn’t even know this creature existed a year ago, but you believe you know it better than I? You can’t control it, I can. I can send it to whoever I wish, so long as they are family by blood.”

She could barely form the words, barely take in a breath. “Did you send it to my father?”

“I had thought he would grant me more time than he did. In all things, he was a weak man.”

“And me?”

“An infinite disappointment. But I am nothing if not industrious.” She shook the nearest chain to test that it still held firm. “You can still hold its interest. It won’t be all that pleasant for you, of course. But you have made your decisions in that regard, haven’t you? Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’ll let you die after you produce a few heirs. Not right away of course. It will be a while before they will be able to breed in their own right, but once they are ready, you will be obsolete and we can end this.”

“You’re insane!” Marigold pulled at her wrists in sharp snaps but couldn’t break free. “You honestly think I will have kids so you can do this to them?”

“Oh, Marigold,” she purred and cupped her cheek, “you don’t have a choice. If you’re a good girl, we can do this scientifically. If you give me any trouble, I will recruit a willing gentleman. Either way, you will give me a child.”

 

***

 

The rain had run its course by the time the first rays of the morning broke across the sky and turned the waterlogged streets into gilded rivers. Louis sat on the gutter across the street, drenched to the core with his feet submerged in the gathering puddles. Joe had left with apologies and promises that he wasn’t going to let this rest, but all Louis remembered was the triumphant look that Delilah had cast him as she had shut the door. The note Delilah had produced had been short; a mere mention of departure and a request not to look for her. It was cold and vacant, nothing like what Marigold would write. Despite his protests, Joe said the insulting impersonation had to be investigated.

Marigold was in there. He knew it. Down to the very core of his being, he knew it. And if he had any courage within him at all, he would have broken into that house and gotten her out. But it wasn’t just any house. It was the La Roux house, a patch of hell on earth, the structural embodiment of every fear he had ever felt in his lifetime.

Louis didn’t have any delusions that he might be ‘touched’. He knew that he had no psychic ability, not like some of his relatives. He didn’t see ghosts unless they willed themselves to be shown. The future wasn’t open to him and the past was a shadow of mystery. But even he could feel the sorrow, madness and fury that swelled within those walls. It poisoned the land, polluted the air, and birthed inside him a fear that he couldn’t begin to contemplate.

Just go in and get her, he commanded himself for the hundredth time. Still, his body refused to obey. And so he remained where he was, sitting across the street, staring at the bricks and mortar that housed hell itself. Go get her.

A police cruiser pulled up to the curb next to him. He didn’t look over as the driver got out and stalked towards him.

“Have you been here all night?” Joe asked.

“She can’t complain about that. The sidewalk is public property.”

“Delilah didn’t put in a complaint.”

Louis groaned. “That’s even worse. It means she doesn’t feel threatened.”

“Louis, this is me being concerned. Go home, get some sleep.”

A bitter laugh escaped him as he shook his head. “She trusted me to keep her safe.”

“Yeah, I thought that would be your answer, so here.” Louis finally looked over as Joe passed him an extremely large cup of coffee and a crumpled paper bag. “It’s terrible, both the food and the coffee, but your options are pretty slim at five in the morning.”

Gratefully, he took the offerings and downed a few mouthfuls. It was as disgusting as promised, but he could feel the hum of caffeine begin to weave through his blood.

“Isn’t there some extenuating circumstances that allow you to legally break down the door?”

“If I hear a scream.”

“It won’t let you hear that,” Louis took another sip and winced. “Look at the place. It’s not even letting light out. Come on Joe, we know Marigold’s in there.”

“No, we don’t. Look, I called Rhodes, a cop from her hometown, and had him fax over a sample of her writing. It’s a match to the note Delilah gave us.”

“So what? She could have forced her to write that. Or just forged the damn thing.”

“Coupled with the train tickets in her name and the surveillance footage, there’s not much we can go on.”

“What surveillance footage?”

Joe arched a brow as he retrieved his phone from his stab vest. It was his signature move to remind Louis that what he was about to divulge was perhaps something he really shouldn’t be, and that it would be best not to get used to such special treatment. Louis nodded impatiently, his eyes on the phone.

“This was taken from a security camera at the station platform last night.”

A short black and white movie began to play on the phone and Louis crowded in to watch it. Figures moved soundlessly over the platform, a kind of tidal force controlled by the arrival and departure of the trains. His back straightened a little when he noticed Marigold enter from the top of the screen. She moved in a rigid stride to stand in the center of the platform. The crowd moved around her but paid her no attention. It didn’t seem like they noticed her, and she paid no attention to them. She simply stood there, no baggage at hand, staring blankly ahead.

“Is she drugged?”

“The theory has been thrown around. Others are leaning more towards shock. And some …” Joe trailed off but what he meant was clear.

“Some are saying she’s just a natural weirdo. Because of her parents?”

“It’s hard to shake the name.”

“You’ve talked to her, Joe. You know she’s not like that. And I’ve never seen her go five minutes without fidgeting.”

“And I’m telling them that but, here, watch.”

Louis turned back to the screen in time to see a train pull into the station. People herded closer to the sliding doors to wait for the previous passengers to disperse. Marigold stood where she was, but finally, she moved. Just her head. She twisted her neck, looked over her shoulder, and lifted her gaze to the camera. Louis leaned back, his hands suddenly clammy. It could be played off as a trick of the light, and odd eccentricity, and he knew it probably would be. But a small voice inside of Louis whispered that it wasn’t. Her eyes. There was no light in them. Structurally, they looked the same as they ever were, but there was no light in them, no life. They looked as flat and emotionless as a doll’s. Like the dead. He had heard of that look, but he wished never to see it.

“Oh, God.”

“She gets on the train, and with such a clear shot of her face, not many are willing to argue that it isn’t her.”

“That’s not Marigold.”

“Louis.”

“I need to call Ma.”

He could feel the color drain from his face and his stomach clenched tight enough to make him ill.

“What are you thinking? That it’s a ghost? A Diab? A lost spirit? Either way, it’s going to be a hard sell down at the station.”

“Joe.” The fine tremors of his fingers sunk into his jaw. He continued when he was sure he could without throwing up. “That thing was never human.”

Chapter 17

 

The bolts that held the shackles to the untreated wood inched out with each of her furious tugs. The process was slow and devastated her wrists. She pulled harder. Marigold could hear the wood crack and splinter, but it was never enough to grant her freedom. Tears and hysteria had given way to a cold determination. Her muscles ached, her wrists bled, and it felt like the bones of her shoulder were grinding against themselves, but still she refused to stop.

The words that Richard had whispered in the hospital room came to her now like a long lost memory newly discovered. Do you want murder babies? Perhaps their hands had been forced, but her ancestors had all fallen to the same fate. They had killed others for their own peace. They had taken lives while justifying themselves at each turn. It’s in your genes. No, it was her heritage, a birthright that her father had tried to spare her. He had failed, in so many ways, but she wasn’t ready to lie down in a grave beside him. Or follow his example. She wasn’t going to be like him.

Do you want murder babies?

It’s in your genes.

Had Delilah had children? Had they already been sacrificed in the name of her freedom? Marigold tore at her limbs as the chains shredded her skin and the wood croaked.

Do you want murder babies?

There was a sudden resounding crack, a hail of splinters, and the chain jerked free. Instantly Marigold lurched up. She gripped the remaining chain with both hands, braced her feet on the wall, and threw herself back. The bolts tore free and she flopped back onto the mattress. The chains rattled from her bloody wrists like metal serpents as she ran across the room to the windows. She was four stories up with a solid road underneath. Would the fall kill her? Her mind still played with the thought that death might be her only way out as she gripped the window frame and wrenched it up. It wouldn’t open. She slammed her hands against the glass and throttled the wood but she couldn’t get it to budge. A shift of movement drew her attention through the glass.

“Louis.”

The name fell from her lips like a prayer. Louis stood only a few feet away, directly on the other side of the street. The policeman, Joe, was with him. And Louis’s mother. She pounded against the glass, but the three refused to look towards the sound. It was impossible to open the window. They were so close.

Look up – look up – look up!

She balled her fists within the length of the chain and swung the bolt ends against the window. The glass shattered and littered the floor in tiny flicks that dug into her feet as she pressed back against the new hole.

“Louis!” She reached through the gap as if they were close enough to touch. They didn’t turn.

“Louis!” He didn’t look up.

“Help me!” she screamed. Her voice crackled as they continued their conversation undisturbed. “Please, help me!”

“They can’t hear you.” Marigold spun to find Delilah in the doorway, hands neatly clasped in front of her. “They can’t see you. It won’t let them.”

Marigold pulled the chains around her hands again, the solid rings now a comfort.

“I’m leaving.”

“No, you’re not,” Delilah said. “It’s stronger here than in other places. It’s stronger now that it has you. It will keep you here.”

“You’re the one keeping me here.”

“I am merely doing what I have to.”

“Is it easier when you tell yourself that?”

She smiled. “Someday you’ll understand. And so will your children.”

Marigold clutched the chains and moved forward. She hadn’t made it more than a few feet before the ends of the chains snapped her to the side. They had begun to drag her before she even hit the ground. The floorboards tore at her back as she struggled against the unrelenting pull. Delilah watched from the doorway, her face a cool mask of indifference. Fear bubbled inside Marigold and burst free into frantic, wordless screams as she heard the tub begin to fill.

“You really should just relax and accept your fate,” Delilah said as she followed Marigold behind the separating wall.

Water already sloshed over the rim in a steady tide. Marigold flinched at each droplet that hit her.

“It would spare you a great deal of pain.”

Delilah crouched down, a small smile in place as she brushed her hand over Marigold’s hair.

“Give us what we want Marigold. Or we’ll just take it.”

“We?” Water falling from the bathtub filled her mouth as she gasped. She choked and spluttered. “I’m your family.”

“You? Oh, child, you’re not a real La Roux. Your father might have been a worthless idiot, but he was still so superior to your mother that one could barely see them as the same species. It was as if he ran off and married a cow. You’re an abomination, not a real La Roux, but close enough to have some measure of usefulness.”

The water flowed over Marigold’s face too swiftly to keep her eyes open. She turned her head and attempted to speak without choking.

“I’m your family.”

Invisible hands yanked the chain and dragged her into the air. She kicked and thrashed, but every attempt to escape only resulted in her sliding deeper into the tub. Then whatever held her suddenly let go. The water swallowed her whole within an instant. The hands that had held her up now pressed her down against the porcelain bottom. Her hands gripped the sides. Her feet kicked across the bottom. Water roared in her ears, her heartbeat pounded against her skull, and the second the hands released her, she rushed to the surface.

She broke through with a rattled gasp, but the hands wouldn’t let her go further than that. Her knuckles turned white with the effort to keep her head above the water.

“I’m the only family you have left,” she gasped.

The woman smiled. The hands upon her tightened their grip. Just before she was dragged back down, she heard Delilah’s response.

“For now.”

 

***

 

“A demon?” Ma repeated, her voice guarded but undeniably concerned. “That would explain things.”

“I’m not as well-versed as either of you,” Joe cut in. “Why is this such a big deal? You thought it was a Diab before.”

“Diabs and demons are very different things,” Ma said.

“Why?”

“Diabs were once human and can often maintain a trace of mercy,” Louis answered. “Demon’s never were. They’re creatures of pure malevolence and are a lot stronger. And a lot harder to deal with.”

Ma crossed her arms over her chest. “They can latch onto a person or place and feed off the negative energy. And unlike Diabs, once a demon has its claws dug into someone, it can and will kill the host if anyone tries to separate them.”

Louis closed his eyes and shook his head as if it could force the images from his skull. “We need to get her out of there.”

“And I agree, but we don’t have any legal reason to search that house.”

“What about the dead body?” Ma asked. “It was found in her family tomb, surely that gives you probable cause.”

“The man’s been dead for thirty-five years and still unidentified. With all the more recent cases to compete with, it’s not making the top of anyone’s priority list.”

Louis clawed at the back of his head with both hands and tried to keep from swearing violently. The possibilities of what they could be doing to her filled him until he thought it would rip him apart. She was right inside. Alone. Being tortured for sick amusement.

“I can’t just stand around anymore. I have to do something.”

“I’ll gather some help.” Ma pulled him into a tight hug and added in a hushed voice, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I understand.” He waited for her to disappear around the corner before he turned to Joe. “How about you go and talk to Delilah again?”

Joe eyed him carefully before he heaved a sigh. “It’s illegal to enter onto someone’s property without permission.”

“I know.”

“And if you did so I’d have to arrest you.”

“Of course.”

“So you wouldn’t be attempting to use me as a distraction so you can slip in the back door?”

Louis paused. “No?”

“Why did that sound like a question?”

Louis shrugged and tried to look as innocent as possible.

Joe glanced around the street, careful not to meet Louis’s eyes. “Of course, if I suspected someone of entering the property illegally, I would have cause to call for back up.”

“You might want to play up that the suspect has known associations with the occult.”

“Good input,” Joe said as he grabbed the radio that was strapped to his shoulder. Before he hit the button he held Louis’s gaze. “If you tell your mother about this, I’ll shoot you myself.”

Chapter 18

 

Marigold burst through the surface and gripped the far side of the tub with both hands, fighting to keep herself upright. She sucked in deep breaths, taking in as much air as she could. But no spectral hands reached for her. Her fingers clutched the rim until her nails splintered. Tremors shook her limbs. Her legs were thick, numb blocks that sat heavily at the bottom of the tub. Water spewed from her mouth in thick gushes as bile burned her throat. Her ribs felt like they would crack as she heaved herself onto the rim. Water rushed from her skin like rain and pooled against the floorboards. She squeezed her eyes shut, took a sobering breath, and threw herself over the edge.

Pain ricocheted along her shoulder as she crashed onto the wood. Her head snapped against the floor and her vision turned white. Unable to contain her tears, she writhed against the floor, shook and sobbed and tried to choke down another breath. She didn’t know why they had stopped, where they had gone, and her ruptured mind cringed away from the thought of what they would do once they returned.

Time had blurred and there was no way for her to grasp the concept again. She forced her eyes open and stared at the shadows that lurked under the bathtub. It surprised her when nothing leaped out. Blood rushed through her ears. Her heartbeat resounded like a drum. Marigold lay in the puddle and felt the humidity roll over her like steam. Breathing was becoming easier, but thinking was still hard. Her mind wandered without prompting, with no direction or focus. It shifted from one memory to another, piling them on top of each other until they were a tangled mess.

A single flame of anger flickered to life within her. Her parents had never prepared her for this. They had been more than willing to slit her throat but couldn’t bring themselves to warn her of what was coming for her. She had been more of a pet to them than child, and now she would be a breeding sow. It would be her turn to keep her child in sweet ignorance. The thought stoked the flame into a raging inferno and she quaked in the face of it. Her hands curled into fists. Her chest heaved. All she could hear was the rush of air as it passed through her lungs.

She rolled onto her stomach. Each of her limbs shook as she pushed up onto all fours, threatening to drop her, but held long enough for her to get to her feet. The metal chains rattled against the ground as she staggered to the dividing curtain and ripped the thin material from the frame. She shredded the cloth and wrapped the shards around her hands as she crossed the floor. The thin cuts that littered her feet stung and her waterlogged skin shifted with each step. Strength seeped back into her legs as she pulled on her flip flops. With new purpose, she approached the shards from the broken window and selected the largest piece. The edges dug into her palm but the cloth prevented it from cutting into her palm. Weapon in hand she ran to the door and didn’t hesitate to enter the darkness beyond.

 

***

 

Louis crouched low as he worked on the door lock. Years of helping people with their paranormal problems had helped him hone a few odd skills, like popping window locks, jimmying filing cabinets, and fixing a car engine in almost complete darkness. Oddly enough, door locks were still a problem for him. The back of the La Roux home was completely shrouded, with no lights or neighboring windows that overlooked it. And given the status of the occupants, Louis didn’t have any fear that someone would call the cops on him.

His pocket knife and paper clip jiggled in the old lock but refused to work it open. Each click of metal made his heart skip. It was a slight noise, but he was sure that it would draw attention. Silence pressed down on him, smothering the sounds of Bourbon Street and the life it brimmed with. Cold sweat broke out across his palms and made his tools flip uselessly between his fingers. He wiped his hands on his shirt and began again.

It was taking too long. Joe couldn’t distract Delilah forever. Terror slithered through his insides like a living beast. His hands trembled, and no matter how slowly he forced himself to breathe, he couldn’t slow the rapid pounding of his heart. He squeezed too hard and the tools skidded out of his hands and clattered against the stone steps. Hissing a curse, he scrambled to find them.

There was a dull thump followed by a soft but grating groan. He froze. Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched as the door creaked open. He swallowed thickly and shifted his gaze. The doorway stood before him as an empty, gaping hole. His muscles twitched and demanded him to run, but the point of no return had been crossed long ago. There was no point in trying to prepare himself, so he merely stood and strode into the house.

He couldn’t keep his breathing even. The rushed sound of his own breath accompanied his footsteps as he edged deeper into the kitchen. The shadows were too deep for him to distinguish more than basic shapes, and he couldn’t hear a thing. Had Joe already lost Delilah’s interest? Without the conversation, he had no way to tell where she was. After the thought had passed through his head, it occurred to him that he couldn’t hear anything. Not a single sound beyond his own breathing.

There was a lingering stench of decay that tarnished the air and turned it sickly sweet. Wanting to keep his hands free, Louis took to breathing out of his mouth and forced himself to continue on. He concentrated on everything around him, determined not to consider that he was too late, that Marigold was the source of the ever growing scent of death.

He pressed his palm against his pocket, felt the protective gris-gris within, and took another step into the room. The stench increased until he gagged on it. A floorboard creaked and he spun to the sound. He felt eyes upon him. It wasn’t just the weight of the gaze that caught him, it was the sheer revulsion he felt them express. His watcher followed his movement with a near unbridled desire to hurt him. The demon threw out the emotions until he felt it like a physical presence. It wanted him to know.

With a resounding smash, the door swung shut. The walls rattled with the impact and he whirled around to face it. In the same moment, pain sliced into his temple, hard enough to force him to double over. A vision flashed into his mind, clear and sharp, as if he were seeing it with his own eyes. But it wasn’t his sight. He could see himself. The viewpoint was from somewhere down the hallway, near the front door, bracketed by the threshold to the kitchen.

The pain faded and his own sight returned. Blinking rapidly he turned back around and edged through the kitchen until he could look down the hallway. It was too dark to see anything. Pain struck again and he winced as he grabbed his temples. Once again he could see himself. Only this time, this vision was closer and upside down as if the creature were watching him while hanging from the kitchen doorframe. He moved and watched himself shift. It watched him as he tried to use the creature’s own sight to locate it. The vision faded and he was left staring at the empty space over the only way out of the kitchen.

The ceiling plaster scattered and chipped as something unseen raced across the surface. Louis followed it, his eyes wide, but when the damage abruptly stopped, there was no way to keep track of it. The next flash came like a lightning strike. A quick burst, over within a second. The viewpoint was from the kitchen counter. He backed up and was blinded by another flash. It took him a moment to blink past the pain and realize what he was seeing. It was an inch behind him. He watched himself look over his own shoulder. The vision ended and he could see nothing but empty space. A hand latched onto his neck and hurled him into the wall.

Chapter 19

 

Marigold flinched at the sudden crash. Her feet fumbled over the last steps and her eyes locked onto the bottomless pit that was the staircase to the lower floor. She couldn’t see anything but no longer trusted her eyes. The sharp slice of the glass against her palms was a comfort. She ran as fast as she could, flip flops gliding over her feet and chains rattling against her thighs.

The first door was locked, and she glanced around. The hallway offered her nothing that she could use to break it open. She pressed her back against the far side of the doorjamb and stomped her foot down on the old copper doorknob. Pain snaked up from the ball of her foot but she ignored it, letting it join the now constant ache within her. She struck out again. And again. The wood splintered, the metal twisted, and the aged-door finally cracked open. She staggered in and found a finely decorated sitting room. Growling with frustration, she moved to the next room and repeated the process. She found Delilah’s bedroom, then a library, and a marble plated bathroom. The next door she busted open released a sharp stench of rot and spice. She pressed the back of her hand against her nose and ventured past the threshold.

A few scattered candles cast a weak light over the innards of the room. There were a couple of tables and a chest of drawers, all brimming with scattered objects. Some she recognized from the back of the voodoo store and some from past biology classes. Roots and plants sat amongst bones and what she hoped were animal organs. There was a foul reek of blood and her stomach churned. The walls were streaked with claw marks and flecks of blood. Over the damage, from floor to ceiling, hung thousands of family portraits. They stood as a silent audience, watching her from all sides. She saw them move, turning to face her, but when she set her eyes on them they had returned to their original poses.

The air was thicker, not dense or humid or any other variation that Marigold had experienced before. But she could feel it press against her, grazing over her skin like a physical force. She could feel it trying to burrow into her pores. Every hair on her body rose. She didn’t want to breathe but forced herself to take in short puffs.

Footsteps thundered down the hall and she turned just in time to see Delilah lunge around the corner of the doorway. Marigold screamed, grabbed the damaged door and swung it closed. Delilah threw her weight against the thin wood to keep it open and slipped her arm through the gap, a kitchen knife in her hand. It was a long, thick blade and she slashed it wildly within the limited space. With a strength that rivalled Marigold’s own, she pushed at the door. Every shove forced Marigold back. The thin plastic of her flip flops twisted around her feet and made it harder to regain the ground she lost. Shoving her shoulder against the door, Marigold risked loosening her hold to rake the hunk of glass across Delilah’s forearm. She pushed hard enough that the jagged edge cut through the layers of cloth that protected Marigold’s hand and dug into her palm. Blood spurted from Delilah. She screamed and ripped her arm back. Marigold used the moment to force the door shut. She reached for the lock.

Her hand found only empty air. She had completely forgotten that she had busted the lock and, in the struggle, the twisted hunks of metal had fallen away to leave a hole in the wood about the size of her palm. The knife threaded through the gap and licked across Marigold’s knuckles. She dropped to her knees but refused to remove her weight from the door. The chest of drawers was a short distance away. It looked heavy and sturdy, perhaps too much for her to pull closer without releasing the door.

Delilah incessantly hit the door and stabbed the knife through the hole. Marigold stretched out, straining until she could hook her foot around the bottom leg of the chest. It groaned as she pulled it closer, inch by painful inch. Delilah screamed in rage as she threw herself with renewed force. The blade dug into the wood. It hacked off pieces, gouging at the hole to make a larger gap. Marigold flung herself across the short distance that remained, grabbed the legs of the chest, and dragged it in front of the now opening door. She scrambled over the floor and threw herself at the drawers. The floorboards peeled and items toppled down onto her as it began to move. Oils sloshed down over her and splashed across the floor. A candle soon followed and the tiny flame struck the puddle before it died. With a crackling hiss, the oil ignited. Marigold crushed her shoulder against the chest of drawers and forced it against the door with a resounding boom. She hurled herself to the side and patted herself down even though she knew the fire hadn’t spread to her. The oil mixed with the water that still clung to her skin and she couldn’t get either off of her.

Delilah howled as she battered the door. The wood splintered and cracked under the assault. It wouldn’t hold. She had to find it, how Delilah had been able to transfer the demon. This was her only chance. If she didn’t get it now, Delilah would destroy it, and her only chance to gain the upper hand would be gone. She tore open the drawers of the cabinet and searched through the paperwork within. Some of the sheets were crisp and new, others tainted with time, but each had a title scribbled in one of the corners. Her skin crawled as Delilah began to slowly trail the knife over the broken wood.

“What do you think you can do in there, child?” she purred over the scraping. “Be a good girl. Let me in.”

Marigold looked up to see Delilah’s eye pressed against the gap. Within her gaze, Marigold saw rage and simmering contempt. But there was something else. The eye flicked down to the papers in Marigold’s hands and that was when she could place it. Fear. There was only the tiniest fleck of fear within Delilah’s eyes, but it was definitely there.

“What are you doing?”

Marigold looked away and took to rifling through the items again. Delilah shrieked and slammed the door with more force than before. Bloody threats poured from her mouth, detailed and gruesome, and Marigold tried not to listen. Where was it? Where was it? Each sheet of paper had spells and incantations. The ink on some had broken with time and no two looked to be written by the same hand. She flicked from one title to another, relying on the hastily-written titles as her guide. Where was it? Where was it?

The door cracked and a huge chunk stripped away. Delilah reached her thin frame through the gap and drove the blade down. The tip slashed open Marigold’s cheek and dug into the drawers. Marigold gave up on the chest and ran to the next table. Her hands were shaking, her lungs were on fire. She wasn’t going to find it in time.

“Maggie!”

She whirled around to the familiar voice and called out to Louis. The gap in the door was empty.

“Louis! She has a knife!”

 

***

 

Louis leaped the few final steps to the landing and glanced around. Hunks of wood littered the hallway and he spotted one door torn in half. But the floor was empty. His ribs ached and he knew a few of his fingers were broken. Still, he gripped the statue he had found as tightly as he could as he edged further onto the floor. Only the faintest of light trickled in through the windows to turn the pitch black landscape into shades of deep grey.

He was completely exposed, so he didn’t try to hide. “Maggie?”

“She’s out there!” The terrified scream croaked out from behind the broken door.

“Okay,” he swallowed thickly and held his weapon at the ready. The crack in his glasses created a blind spot directly in front of him. “Stay there. I’ll come to you.”

“No. You have to get out. Just go, Louis!”

There was a new desperation within her words that broke something within him.

“We are both getting out of here,” he said as he neared the hallway.

The rows of doors offered a dozen places for someone to wait for him to venture too close. Having a living person hunting him was something he wasn’t used to and it cut through the layers of confidence he had garnished over the years. He didn’t know what to do. What he could bring himself to do.

A floorboard groaned. The sound echoed and made it impossible to tell where it had originated from. He froze and held his breath, straining to catch the faintest sound of movement. One of the doors burst open and a flash of a blade caught the faint light. Delilah’s enraged scream streaked past him and he heard the knife clash against the stone of the statue. By the time he looked up she was gone. Four doors were open on the other side of the hallway, each one offering only darkness and silence.

“Louis?”

“I’m okay.” The words didn’t come out as strong as he had intended. “Stay there.”

Footsteps thundered towards him again and he turned to the sound in time to see the blade. It slashed over him and left a burning trail along his arm. He pulled back and swung the statue, but only found empty air. She disappeared again. Adrenaline took the edge of the pain off, but he found it harder to keep his grip on the statue. In the silence, he heard each drop of blood that fell to the floor.

Louis ran the last few steps to the broken door and kept his back to the few that were still closed. He peeked in and his blood became ice. A fire burned near the door. It spread out in tendrils across the floorboards and spewed thick smoke into the air. But despite how it grew, none of its light reached the hallway.

“Maggie.” He didn’t know why he whispered it, but he didn’t try and correct it.

Her face drifted into the gap but his relief was short-lived. She was beaten and bruised and her matted hair hung in clumps around her. Blood speckled her skin and his stomach dropped when he caught sight of the damage to her wrists. Thick shackles still hung from them, the metal coaxing more blood to ooze free.

“Louis,” she breathed his name but didn’t venture closer.

He forced a smile that he hoped showed more confidence than he felt. “You still pronounce that wrong.”

She rewarded him with a weak smile. “You need to get out of here.”

“No.”

“Just go, I don’t want you to die.”

“I’m planning on both of us getting out of this alive,” he said. “Ma is getting help. It’s working. It wouldn’t have let me go otherwise.”

A solid force struck him in the chest and threw him against the door. The aged wood couldn’t stand against the force and splintered into shards. He thumped against the floor until he hit something metal. Squinting through the pain, he glanced up to see a black mass fill the doorway. He surged to his feet and pressed a hand against his pocket to feel the gris-gris within.

“I had never dared hope that this could come to pass.” His eyes shifted to watch Delilah slip around the shadow figure. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted this.”

There was a candle in one of her hands and a knife in the other. A faint glow swept over the room, glistening off of the metal that filled the space. Bone cutters and racks, branding irons and whips. Every item that had once been used to break a slave was positioned with reverence amongst a variety of new items. The distinctive scent of disinfectant hung in the air. Childhood fear exploded within him, adding and thriving until he stood more as a living embodiment of terror than a man.

“You killed the man in the tomb.”

She looked at him as if he was simple. “Yes. And a few others. The demon likes a sacrifice every now and then.”

“But it wasn’t with you,” he whispered on a tremble. “You didn’t have to.”

“No, but you can never be too careful. Besides, what’s the point of having a demon at your command if you let it wither away?”

“Command?”

Her smile grew as she cast an adoring gaze over the shadow figure. “I like to think of him as a pet. Only a few of my relatives were ever strong enough to hold it. Perhaps the others were too meek.”

“Or they weren’t insane,” he gasped. “You can’t tame a demon. It can’t be controlled.”

“And yet I am its Master.”

“No, you’re just holding a lead. And it will break it. What do you think it’s going to do to you then?”

“I’ve treated it well. It won’t hurt me.”

“Delilah–”

“Do not address me as if we are equals.”

The creature swelled, consuming the space, but still, Louis couldn’t stop himself, “You can’t be this stupid.”

Chapter 20

 

Marigold dumped the contents of another drawer onto the ground and shuffled through the papers. A particular page caught her eyes. She reread the title and pulled it from the stack. A quick glance over the slight description, and relief flooded her. Deliver A Demon. This had to be it. The paper was solid against her fingers, but she couldn’t believe it was real. Louis’s scream cut through her stupor and she snapped her head up. Her certainty shattered. What if this wasn’t enough?

Delilah appeared in the gap again, eyes blazing and a demented smile twisting her lips. For a moment, she only stared at Marigold, her smile never wavering. It hit Marigold that she couldn’t hear Louis anymore. Images flashed in her mind and tears stung her eyes. She wanted to call out to him, to assure herself that the scream she heard wasn’t his last breath, but the words wouldn’t come out. The fire still crackled by the door and made shadows dance across Delilah’s demented grin.

“What have you found there, child?”

Marigold leaped up and yanked another drawer free. It brimmed with a thousand loose sheets of paper and she dumped them all onto the flames. Thick black smoke billowed into the air and created a barrier between them. Choking on the smoke, she threw another heap of paper onto the pile. The fire greedily ate them and she kicked at the embers to spread the flames.

Delilah shrieked in the mounting smoke, but it was impossible to see her anymore. When Marigold was sure that the fire wouldn’t burn itself out, she peered through the smoke to read what she needed. The spell mostly entailed a symbol, a sacrifice of blood, and an incantation. It became harder to read anything as the smoke continued to grow. Her eyes watered as the air itself began to burn. Delilah’s scream grew unhinged and was only broken by the sound of crushing wood. Marigold searched the nearest desk for something to write with, barely able to see a few feet in front of her. Finally, she found a stick of chalk and pulled the desk slightly from the wall, just enough for her to be able to duck down behind it.

On her hands and knees, she brought the paper within an inch of her face and began to trace the symbols onto the floorboards. The fire rumbled and Delilah wailed like an injured beast. Marigold froze when she noticed that the sound of splitting wood had fallen silent.

She’s in the room. It was impossible to keep from coughing, but she tried to smother the sound as best she could. The chalk rasped over the wood. Her hand shook as she hurried to complete the symbol.

Blood. I need blood. The thought rattled in her head and she looked around, desperate for something she could cut herself with. It wouldn’t work without blood. I need blood.

The desk above her rattled violently and Marigold pressed against the ground. She held her breath and pressed the shackle chain against the floor as Delilah called for her. The older woman was unaware that Marigold was within arm’s reach. She couldn’t risk making a sound. Couldn’t risk choking on the fumes. The desk rattled again. Items toppled down and smacked against her spine.

Blood. I need blood. With no other thought, she ripped the strips of cloth from her hands, jammed the side of her palm into her mouth, and bit down on the wounds that littered her skin. Pain exploded through her arm as a sharp copper taste gushed over her tongue. She pressed the wound against the places where the sheet indicated. As she smeared the last position, a sharp growl rolled through the room, coming from everywhere at once. Delilah fell silent for a heartbeat before she began her tirade once more.

Marigold could hear the knife slash across the table and wall. “You think you can send it after me? You think this will save you? I am going to butcher you!”

 

***

 

The air hit Louis like a riptide, hard enough that the retreating force dragged him a few feet across the floor. His shoulder was quite possibly dislocated, but he still reached out and latched onto the first thing he found to keep from being pulled any further. The shadow figure loomed over him but no longer moved. Instead, it swirled like ink in water, neither approaching nor retreating. Simply waiting.

Smoke crept across the ceiling, its scent pouring thickly down his throat. He sputtered and gagged as the flames began to creep into view. Slowly the demon turned as if looking over his shoulder.

“Maggie.”

It released a deafening howl. Louis clamped his hands over his ears and felt blood begin to trickle against his palm. The world around him rippled like water as the demon hurled through the doorway.

“Maggie!”

Smoke was thick in his lungs as he lurched to his feet and hobbled to the door. The fire had rolled out from the room across the hall and spewed across the roof. The heat was unbearable and the hair on his arms began to singe. It was painful to open his eyes, impossible to take a full breath. He lumbered forward and crawled over the burning table.

“Maggie!” he heaved, voice cracking.

Glowing yellow flames licked out of the rolling black smoke. Shielding his face with one arm didn’t lessen the searing pain. Delilah lunged from the flames, hair wild and clothing burned. He barely managed to dodge the knife as he latched onto her and they both toppled to the floor. The older woman straddled him, slashing wildly. His strength meant nothing when his shoulder made it difficult to even move. He could barely keep the blade from digging into his flesh.

“Finish it, Maggie!” he bellowed.

Her words, soft and forced, echoed around the room. A flaming table hurled across the room and smashed against the wall above him. Delilah flinched and it was enough for him to throw the woman off. He barely got his feet under himself when Delilah came for him again. Marigold screamed. Her words failed. With Delilah’s wrists tight in his grasp, he risked a glance over his shoulder.

The demon swirled over Marigold’s huddled form. It seemed to crush her without ever touching her. She clawed at her temples and writhed against the floor. What was it showing her? What images was it forcing into her head?

“Maggie, it’s not real. Whatever it shows you isn’t real!” The fire was growing, surrounding them all. He turned his attention back to Delilah. “We’re all going to die here if you don’t stop this.”

“Then let her die,” Delilah cackled.

Marigold’s voice came again and Delilah went wild with fury. She lunged and thrashed, Louis’s shoulder and broken fingers unable to keep up with the relentless movement. Wrenching her arm free, she slashed the knife across his chest. He staggered back as the ceiling released a low groan. The beams bowed as the fire danced across the surface. The groan grew louder, strained and crackling, and Louis threw himself at Delilah. Together they staggered back just as the beams snapped and a chunk of the ceiling collapsed. The smoke curled. The flames hungrily lapped at the new addition and reared up with renewed force. Each breath scorched his throat and boiled his lungs.

“Louis!”

He heard Marigold call for him but wasn’t able to respond. She called for him again, her voice clear in the unbearable heat. Blindly he moved towards her voice. He tried to return her call but each attempt just provoked a coughing fit. Shielding his eyes he plunged further into the room.

A hand latched onto his wrist and he pulled himself back. His eyes widened when he saw Marigold. Within the same moment, her voice called to him from somewhere deeper in the flames. They both heard it. He clasped her hand tightly, but before they could run, she dragged him down onto his knees. The smoke didn’t pool this low to the floor, but the heat still made it excruciating to breathe. She led the way, crawling in the opposite direction from her disembodied voice. It was torture to put any weight on his shoulder or hand, both injuries sustained on the same side, but he forced himself to keep pace with her.

The voice called to him again, begged and pleaded for him to come back. Not to leave. It sounded so much like Marigold that it twisted his gut to ignore its frantic pleas. When they reached the table that blocked the door, the voice changed to his own. It beckoned for Marigold, but she refused to even glance towards it.

They scrambled over the burning wood of the desk, but the fire had weakened it and it broke under their weight. Embers rained down on them. Through the smoke, the scent of burning hair and flesh prickled his nose. He found Marigold within the debris, pushed her out and prayed that her long hair hadn’t caught alight.

The fire had spread across the hallway and ravaged the walls. The house released deep groans, on the verge of collapsing altogether. Flames claimed the family portraits, twisting the paper and boiling the paint. The air grew thinner with each flight they staggered down, but it didn’t make it much easier to breathe. He could barely see and gripped Marigold’s hand to keep track of her. She squeezed his palm with an iron grip.

The house shook as the floor imploded in on itself. Sparks scattered through the newly formed cracks and the fire spread. They jumped the last few steps to the bottom floor and lunged for the front door.

Please open, please open, please open. He repeated the mantra with such desperation that it seeped out of his mouth on a hushed whisper. He could hear Joe calling to them from the outside, but the words were mangled and dulled. Please open. The door rattled with the rhythmic thud of a battering ram but remained solid. Please open. Marigold grabbed the handle and tugged. The door flung open and air rushed into the house like a hurricane wind. It knocked them back. The fire above exploded with a vicious howl. It poured down the staircase, completely consuming the space. The chandelier crackled with intense heat. The flames distorted into a clawed hand that rushed towards them, fingers spread and searching. Officers reached across the threshold, latched onto him and Marigold, then hurled them out of the house and into the blinding light of the day.

Chapter 21

 

Heat hovered in the ambulance, sticky and thick. It filled the air and combined with the drugs that were pumping through her system to turn her bones into tepid silt. The siren blared, the ambulance rocked, and under it all she was vaguely aware of the constant tinkle of the metal chains that still hung from her wrists. The paramedics had put an oxygen mask on her face. Each breath carried the faint scent of plastic. She could feel people touching her. Fingers prodded and needles gouged, but with the chemicals flooding her blood, it pushed the pain just beyond her reach.

Someone called to her. A familiar voice, soft but sure. She turned her head towards the sound, but Louis was too far away for her to see him clearly. She could see his hands though. Somehow, they crossed the unfathomable distance dividing them to enclose her own in gentle reverence. The play of colors and slender fingers fascinated her. Bandages snaked around her knuckles and he was careful to avoid the material as he stroked the back of her hand. He called to her again and she let her eyes roll up to meet his.

“You have a really pretty voice.”

Louis leaned forward and suddenly he was right next to her. A smile unfurled across his lips, stretching the skin with the grace of a dancer. She really wanted to touch it, but he caught her hand before she could.

“You came for me.”

“Anytime, cher.”

This time, when she reached for his lips, he released a soft chuckle. “They have given you a lot of painkillers.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be next, don’t you worry.”

Each word rolled with his southern drawl, shifting through her skull like a rising swell. She blinked and a storm gathered over the placid sea within her. Memories heaved to the surface. More voices spoke to her, their words twisting and melding until they were gibberish. She tried to sit up, but the tubes they had latched to her body snapped taught and held her down. The metal around her wrists became heavy and began to burn. She thrashed, but her limbs wouldn’t obey. The air had become tar. It stuck to her. Smothered her. Held her in place for the shadows that loomed close.

“It’s okay, Maggie,” Louis ran a hand over her forehead. Even through her mask, she could smell the antiseptic on his skin. “We’re going to the hospital. You’re going to be okay.”

She pulled her mask off, but once more Louis moved with an unnatural ease and stopped her.

“We’re safe,” he said.

“Delilah?”

“They pulled her from the house. She’s in a different ambulance.” His fingers stroked over her hair again. “Relax, let them work.”

Her vision blurred and each shake of her head made the world sway. “I was stupid. I was so stupid.” She tried to push him away but didn’t have the strength. “She’s just going to send it back to me. We’re going to pass it back and forth until it kills us both.”

“What is she talking about?” a strange voice asked.

Louis gave a dismissive answer and for a moment, Marigold wondered if he was actually the owner of both voices.

Marigold squeezed his hand and was surprised to actually feel the muscles work. “She wanted me to have children,” she whispered. “She was going to send the demon to them after it used me up.”

“We won’t let her do that.”

“How can you stop it? If Delilah doesn’t send it, it will come on its own. It will find them, just like it found me.”

“We have time now,” Louis said. “Things like this stay because something tethers it to the family. We just need to find that connection and sever it.”

“She’ll send it back,” she said as she clung to Louis’s hand. Why wasn’t he listening? Why didn’t he understand? “It will never leave me alone. I’ve made it angry.”

“Maggie,” he leaned in closer until he was all that she could see. She could almost feel the rays from his golden skin. “All we needed was some breathing room, some time for you to catch your breath. We’ve got that now. You’re going to heal up and then we’re going to get you to a safe place, somewhere it can’t follow.”

“It will always follow. You can’t stop it.”

“Then we’ll stop it from touching you. You’re strong, you can handle it being irritated.”

A short laugh bubbled from her, bringing with it a sense of release and a stab of pain.

“We’re going to take this time and find out what is keeping it connected to you. There has to be a trail, something in your family’s history, a point when all of this started.”

“And we can find that?”

“There has to have been at least one person in your family who was vocal about it. A letter, a rumor, a survivor. Wherever that answer is, we’ll find it, I promise.”

It was becoming hard to follow the conversation. There were too many words. “Survivor?”

His voice grew guarded. She didn’t like the way it hit her ear. “The man in the tomb wasn’t Delilah’s only one, although his death might have been the most merciful.” Louis placed a hand against her forehead as he continued, “Maggie, no serial killer is perfect. She must have made a mistake somewhere, and maybe that will tell us what we need to know. We have leads, we just need to follow them.”

The other voices were growing louder, more instant. They became a grinding noise that dug at the back of her skull. They spoke of needing rest. That they gave all the time they could. She tried but she couldn’t make them fall silent. She heard a beep, a dull clack, and then her veins bulged with a new dose of chemicals that rushed through her. Her muscles melted and she could no longer keep her eyes open.

“Louis?”

“I’m right here, cher.” He cupped her hand with both of his. The only thing that didn’t shift and swirl was his touch.

“What if she dies?”

The raging waters within her skin captured her and dragged her down into silence.

 

***

 

Marigold woke with a jerk. The hospital bed below her was damp with sweat and her skin still carried the warmth of the fire. Rain battered against the thin window plane and the sound of flowing water mixed with her panted breaths. She lay still, bandaged and bruised, as she listened to the air work through her lungs. Reality crowded back into her mind as she calmed. It all pressed down upon her until it hollowed her out. What was she supposed to do now? Where was she supposed to go? She couldn’t even begin to sort out how she felt. Eventually, she closed her eyes and tried to fall back into nothingness.

Softly at first, and then with mounting strength, the cry of an infant echoed down the hallway. Her battered fingers balled into fists as she waited for someone to soothe the child, but no one did. The cry continued, drawing her attention to the silence it hovered in. There were no bustling nurses or machines releasing constant rhythmic noises. Marigold opened her eyes and tentatively sat up. Aside from the bed she was on, the room was completely bare. Her stomach churned in the wake of her growing unease. Still, she pulled her paper gown closer to her and slid her feet from the bed.

She jerked back when her toes slipped into chilled water. The rain continued as she glanced down at the floor. What had looked like dark tiles at first glance was actually a few inches of inky black liquid. The screams continued, twisting into a pained wail that gripped her insides like a vice. It sounded tiny, maybe only a few days old. And terrified. She took a deep breath, clenched her jaw, and got up.

Her intrusion into the water didn’t create a single ripple, not even as she walked to the door. It just swallowed her feet into an icy void. As soon as it was within reach, she latched onto the doorway, just to have something solid and real against her palm. The rain continued. Water ran down the walls in thick rivets, drizzling into the water but still not disturbing the opaque pool that covered the floor. Her heart thundered and she squeezed her eyes shut.

It’s just the painkillers, she told herself. It’s not real. Still, she wasn’t startled when she opened her eyes and the world around her remained the same. From somewhere deep within the bowels of the hospital, the infant continued to wail. The sound coaxed her forward and she began to make her way along the dim hallway. She was alone. The hospital sat in silence beyond the cries and the steady trickle of water. Her footsteps didn’t create a sound even as her toes began to feel numb.

“Hello?”

Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears, smoke worn and cracking.

There was no response. She continued on until she reached a point where the light cut off as swiftly as a razor slash. With one more step and she would leave behind the last traces of light and enter a complete, unrelenting darkness.

“Hello?” she repeated.

There was a final scream and then the infant was silent. Water trickled from the walls and bubbled down into the pool that smothered her feet. Her breathing picked up again, a dry broken sound that rattled out of her abused lungs. Ice filled her bones when her fractured pant was met with a mirrored sound. She bit her lips and held her breath, but the ragged breathing remained. As calmly as she was able, she looked over her shoulder.

Fingers clawed out from the murky depths. The bony digits ripped at the liquid surface, somehow tearing the black substance as if it were mud. Marigold turned to face the being that was dragging itself from the darkness. She wanted to run, but all that lay behind her was the solid darkness that she couldn’t bring herself to touch. Fingers gave way to broken arms that dragged over the surface in search of something to cling to. She shook, trembling hard enough that even the drugs couldn’t conceal the pain that sizzled through her body. Then the head emerged with a ghastly snarl.

Delilah. Her aunt hurled herself from the thick water over the floor and dragged herself towards Marigold, each limb moving as if it weren’t attached. Marigold’s knees went weak when Delilah reared up her head, eyes burning with rage, her mouth sewn shut with a thick cord. The water sloshed around Marigold as she crumbled to the ground. She scrambled back but was still unwilling to enter the shadows. Delilah lurched forward, eyes never wavering from Marigold’s face.

Her bony hand latched onto Marigold’s shin with a crushing strength and yanked herself closer. As Marigold watched, her aunt reached up and curled her thin fingers around the cords that kept her silent. Rancid water and clumps of flesh gushed free as she ripped the cord from her lips. Sour breath burned Marigold’s nose as Delilah released a thick death rattle. Her voice was twisted and raw, a throaty hiss that slipped passed the remains of her lips.

“The last La Roux.”

A scream tore from Marigold’s lips as a hand grabbed her shoulder. She flung herself to the side, kicking with feral determination as she scrambled to the wall. Louis’s voice cut through her shrieks but she didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see what mangled version of him would present itself. Warm hands took hers and the world snapped back into place. The water was gone, the shadows replaced with a blinding light, and her ears rang as they were hit with an onslaught of noise.

Hands pressed firmly over her ears, Marigold chanced a quick glance. Louis crouched next to her as concerned staff closed in around them. People moved through the halls, the sounds of machines and chatter continuing as if it had always been. She lowered her hands from her ears and met Louis’s concerned gaze. Recognition flashed in their depths. He might not have known what she had seen, but he knew why she saw it, what it meant.

“I’m sorry. She passed away about half an hour ago.”

Marigold nodded. Had Delilah come to her as a warning? Or merely to gloat? For all the pain and blood, she hadn’t been able to buy herself a single day of peace. But perhaps she had earned enough strength to face her birthright when it found her once more.

“Do you feel well enough to leave here?” Louis asked. “We need to be quick.”

“It will find me wherever I go,” she said numbly.

“Maggie, I promise you, we’re not giving up. You can’t let this break you.”

Marigold met his eyes again. “I’m not going to break, or cringe, or bow.” She reached out and let him help her to her feet. “After all, I’m the last La Roux.”

 

  • * *

Continue Marigold’s adventure in: Haunted Waterways!

 

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Black Bayou

Marigold La Roux had a perfectly average existence…until the night her parents tried to murder her. Barely escaping with her life should have been the end of Marigold’s living nightmare. Unfortunately, it was just the beginning. Her entire world starts shattering. She moves to New Orleans to stay with her only living relative, her aunt Delilah. She believes the bustle of Bourbon Street will help her get a fresh start, but strange things start happening to Marigold at the La Roux estate. Ghostly voices whisper in her ear, sharp knives scrape against her door, and something in the darkness lashes out, leaving deep claw marks on her back. Hoping to understand her torment, she starts delving into her family’s past and is shocked and appalled by what she discovers. She begins to understand why locals shudder at the mere mention of La Roux house. The attacks against her grow more vicious, ravaging not only her body, but also her mind. Desperate to end her suffering, Marigold teams up with Louis, an occult enthusiast, who hopes his knowledge of the paranormal can help end her family curse once and for all. But, the dark forces of evil are relentless and their twisted hold runs deep in her blood. They will stop at nothing to get what they want: her life.

  • Author: Scare Street
  • Published: 2017-08-11 16:20:17
  • Words: 45211
Black Bayou Black Bayou