Spirit Bottle

Several years ago, I came across some artwork that inspired this story – you can find it if you search for “Predator loa.” So yes, the Predator jokes are intentionally on-target, but I like to think that it resulted in a rather unique version of a Vodou curse.
This story takes place after
Blood Hound.

“I’d like a triple burger,” I said. “Only ketchup on the burger, no cheese. Medium fries, and a large mango citrus blast iced tea.”

“Burger with ketchup,” the voice on the other end of the speaker said. “And cheese, right?”

“No, no cheese,” I said. “Only ketchup.”

“Only ketchup, with cheese.”

“Please, no cheese,” I said. “I can’t eat meat and cheese together. A triple burger, with no cheese, and only ketchup. Just meat, ketchup, and a bun.”

“No cheese?”

“No cheese,” I said.

“No cheese?”

“Correct,” I said. “A burger without cheese. Thank you very much.”

I trusted them. I really did. I even thanked them when they handed me my order through the drive-thru window. And I enjoyed the mango citrus blast all the way back to my office, when I unwrapped the meal and found, to my chagrin, that my faith had been misplaced.

“…Cheese,” I said in a defeated sigh. All three patties of the burger were covered in plasticy, orange melted fast-food cheese. Sometimes it was hard being Jewish. Of course, it was also hard being a vampire, but that was different. I couldn’t keep the kosher laws about blood, but I’d be damned if I couldn’t keep the dairy laws, too. I looked up to the blonde at the other desk. “Hey, Sarah,”

“Again?” Sarah Fielding, my secretary, asked. “Lucy, you need to stop going there.”

“They’ll get it right someday,” I sighed. “Want a cheeseburger?”

“I didn’t eat lunch because I knew this was going to happen,” she said. “Lucy, you need to stop torturing yourself.”

“They’ll get it right someday,” I said, and handed her the burger.

“Will they?” she asked. “I mean, you keep trying. You know what the definition of insanity is, right?”

Real sarcastic for someone who’d almost been demon lunch a little while ago.

“Not of sound mind, the state of being mentally deranged,” I said.

“It means trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result,” Sarah said. “Maybe you just have too much faith in humanity, Lucy.”

“It’s just a cheeseburger,” I said. “Not a philosophical debate.”

“Well, you’ve got to look at the big picture,” she said. “You’re so trusting that you can’t even fathom why a bunch of minimum-wage fast-food people won’t bother to get your order right.”

“Maybe they’re overworked,” I said.

“Or maybe they just don’t care,” she said. “It’s not rocket science. Not everybody has great motivations, Lucy.”

“They’ll get it right next time,” I muttered.

She lifted the burger to her mouth, but then my phone rang.

“Oh, poo,” Sarah said, putting her lunch down to answer it.

I ate my fries as I listened to Sarah answer the call. It was amazing how much less stress there was when someone else screened my calls. It barely made any difference in the long run, but it gave me a moment to catch my breath.

“Yes,” she said. “Saint-Victoire? Yes, sir.”

I ate another fry, and took a sip of my incredibly fruity iced tea.

Sarah covered the phone with her hand and whispered to me, “It’s James Saint-Victoire. Do you want to talk to him?”

“Does it sound like a real case?” I whispered back.

James Saint-Victoire. It rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite figure out from where.

“Yes, sir,” Sarah said into the phone. “I’ll transfer you to her office.”

She handed me the phone.

“Hello, Lucy December speaking,” I said.

“Yes, this is James Saint-Victoire,” he said in an accent that sounded mildly West African. And then it fell into place.

James Saint-Victoire was a tech mogul, which was not entirely uncommon in the area. It was almost impossible to live in San Francisco unless you already owned your place, or were stinking rich. He was ridiculously successful, which was par for the course, but he was a ridiculously successful Haitian immigrant, which was special. He played up the ethnic angle, and had even gotten himself a TIME cover for his rags-to-riches story and charity work. And he was calling me for some reason.

“Well, Mr. Saint-Victoire, how can I help you?” I asked.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “I understand that you work with the spirit world. That is the nature of my problem, and I need your help. You don’t have to be coy, I know what you do.”

Well, then. I was never coy about it when people asked for my help, but it was nice to know where I stood.

“All right, please tell me the nature of your problem,” I said.

“There is an evil spirit threatening my family,” he said. “You deal with spirits, don’t you? I need you to get rid of it.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d need to know what kind of spirit was bothering them, but I usually had to play these things by ear. “Well, what can you tell me about it?”

“Come over to my house,” Saint-Victoire said. “And we will tell you everything we know.”

“All right,” I nodded. “I’ll head over right now.”

I wrote down the address as he gave it. It was after dark, but still well within ordinary human waking hours.

“Do you think he knows what you are?” she asked after I hung up.

“I dunno,” I shrugged, and finished my citrus tea.

“It always struck me as kind of weird,” Sarah said. “How few people realize that you’re, like, this ancient and powerful vampire.”

My straw slurped very loudly.

“Dignified, too,” she said. “Anyway, you forgot to quote a price.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll discuss that when I get there,” I tossed the empty cup into the trash. “Honestly, whatever it is, he can probably afford it.”

“Yeah, but rich people can be pretty stingy,” Sarah said.

“Well, it’s not about the money, anyway,” I holstered my gun, and put on my coat. “I have no idea how long I’ll be there. Lock up if it gets too late, okay?”

“All right,” Sarah said, and finally took a bite of her cheeseburger.

I went out into the night. Well, into my car.

The Saint-Victoires lived in a house that, in any place other than San Francisco, would seem somewhat small. But for this city, it was an incredible luxury. Of course, logic dictated that they could move to San Mateo, or Lafayette, or even Walnut Creek, and get a friggin’ estate for less money, but living in the city imparted status. My home was only affordable because I’d owned it longer than most people were alive.

A very young, very beautiful, somewhat plasticy woman answered the door. Don’t get me wrong, she was gorgeous, but her face looked like an airbrushed photo, and parts of her body seemed immune to gravity.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Lucy December. Mr. Saint-Victoire called me in.”

“Oh,” she said, and stepped aside. “Yes. He did. Please come in and make yourself at home. I’ll get him for you.”

I walked in, past Saint-Victoire’s (daughter? Maid? Side-girl?) female in residence, and I had to admit, it was a really nice place. Marble always looked rich. The art stood out, as well. Ordinarily, you’d expect modern, abstract designs to decorate a rich person’s home, but these were paintings, statuettes, pieces of African art. The tech guy’s house had a feeling of antiquity and tradition, though I began to realize that it was probably an intentional part of his image. Something else caught my eye, as well: hash marks in the wall, above my head height. Seven marks, five of which were Xed out. I moved in close, and saw that they had actually been carved into the wall. I reached up to touch one.

“Ah, Miss Lucy!” James SaVictoire entered the living room. “You came earlier than I expected. I suppose traffic was easy?”

There’s something to be said for a genuine, non-faked Caribbean accent. It kind of beat Hollywood pretty soundly. I knew what Saint-Victoire looked like, of course, but he was different in person. Shorter, for one. Sure, he still towered over me, but not as much as everybody else did.

“Hi, Mr. Saint-Victoire,” I greeted him. “I was, uh, just looking at the wall here. Is this a calendar?”

“Has Vanessa given you the tour?” he asked, and put his arm around the woman’s shoulder. I looked a little more closely, and spotted the wedding rings.

“Oh, no, sorry,” I said. “I was just admiring some of the art here.”

“It’s all genuine,” James stepped forward, shook my hand, and began showing things off. “The statue is Working Woman by Obange, representing the struggles of an immigrant people. It contrasts and compliments Rhythm of Life by Miller, which shows how the disparate elements of the world really are one.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. Right. Art.

“Here, follow me,” he began to lead me around the house. It wasn’t a bad tour, though I thought the wall of awards and plaques was a little self-serving. There were pictures of him shaking hands with Obama and Trump, Elon Musk, and at least one Canadian Prime Minister.

“I used to have a photo of Hillary up here, but she lost, didn’t she?” he chuckled. “But the point is, we speak a language that transcends politics. The opportunity and success of the American Dream is almost gone, is it not? But some of us keep it alive – a rare few who can rise above anything.”

“Uh-huh,” I said again, though I was listening, I swear. My attention fell on an older photo, yellowed and faded with age. It looked like part of a small town, with dirt roads and the types of worn, rickety buildings that were usually preserved in a city’s historic Old Town. The children playing in the streets looked like they belonged in a charity commercial, except for the sheer and obvious joy written all over their faces.

“Is this your hometown?” I asked.

“Aux Maniche,” he said, and gave a nostalgic smile. “Not to be confused with the city of Maniche. It reminds me how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve earned.”

“Yeah, you’ve done really well for yourself,” I said. “So, about this problem of yours…”

A little boy who clearly belonged to him and Vanessa – you know, the kind of thing most people would point out before all the art and awards – ran into the room.

“Oh, and this is Kayden,” Saint-Victoire said. “Our greatest pride and joy.”

Kayden ran up to his mom and dad, looked at me, and greeted me with a wholehearted, “You’re fat!”

“It’s nice to meet you, Kayden,” I said, putting on a smile.

“Oh, don’t mind him,” Vanessa pulled her kid away. “Sorry about that.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” I said. I wasn’t fat, but one look at his mother and I could tell where the kid got his body shape ideas from.

James chuckled a little. “Well, now you’ve met our family.”

I looked around a bit, down the hall. “This is all really nice, sir,” I said. “But is there anything else you wanted to show me before we get down to business?”

“Oh, no, no, we’re fine,” he said. “Make yourself at home, and we will tell you about our situation.”

“Sure,” I said. “Um, which way is the bathroom?”

“The guest bathroom is down the hall, third door on the right,” he said.

My spidey-sense started tingling, so I took the fourth door instead. I found an altar in the closet – a purple table covered by figurines, pictures, icons, candles, scraps of colored cloth, and an empty glass bottle adorned with beads, colored string, and a small animal skull affixed to its neck. The icons were of an Africanized Madonna with Child, though he looked a little rougher around the edges than most Maries. Scarred somewhat, and holding her child a tad protectively.

“I see you’ve found our shrine to Mama Erzulie,” James Saint-Victoire said from behind me. “Erzulie D’en Tort, the Blessed Mother and fierce protector of her children. She was the Patron of my hometown.”

“Ah,” I said, and took a stab in the dark. “Santeria?”

“No, no, Haitian Vodou,” James said, and then immediately launched into a speech that I suspected he was tired of giving. “And not ‘Voodoo,’ like in the movies. There are no dolls, no dead chickens, no zombies, no curses, none of that. It’s a beautiful religion with deep cultural underpinnings that is widely misunderstood thanks to missionary culture.”

“Oh, of course, of course,” I said. “Um, sorry if it seemed like I was intruding. I think I took the wrong door.”

“No, not at all,” James said, and smiled at me. “You went one door too far, Miss Lucy.”

“Thanks,” I said, and ducked into the bathroom. Oh hey, gold faucets. Okay, the guy was clearly hiding something. But then, I’d never met a tech bro douchebag who wasn’t shady in some way, and if he really wanted my help, he’d have to start spilling info eventually. Maybe. I should ask about those hash marks. I mean, sure, the voodoo altar was probably important, but it didn’t look like a psychopath had carved it into the wall.

The toilet roll holder was gold-plated, too. Classy.

“Okay,” I said when I came back out. “Your home is really nice, but let’s get down to business. You said that there’s a spir–”

The little kid tugged on my coat. I didn’t really have to look far down, since I was five-foot-nuthin’, and all.

“Mom said to say I’m sorry,” Kayden said.

“Thank you,” I smiled, though the kid was already running off. “Thanks,” I said to Vanessa. She shrugged.

“Yes, yes, I guess we should get down to business,” James approached. “As I said, we’re being harassed by a spirit.”

I walked past him, and went to the marks carved into the wall. “These. What are they, and how are they connected?” I asked. “I really doubt you got bored with a pocketknife.”

“Well, yes,” he said, following me. “Nearly one week ago, the spirit appeared and carved those marks in the wall. Every night since at midnight, it has appeared again, and crossed a mark off.”

I looked at the marks, and ran my hand over them. They were rough-cut into the wall, pulling up splinters. Nothing felt excessively cold, hot, or even supernatural. Whatever had carved them in did not leave any sort of residue. “You’ve got two left,” I said. “Two days.”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“All right,” I frowned. “What kind of spirit is it? What does it look like? What does it do? How do you feel when it shows up? Does it look solid? Transparent? Like a dead relative?”

“It looks solid,” he said. “Tall, somewhat like a human.”

“Okay,” I said. “is there anything else that you might know? Where it comes from? What it is?”

He shook his head. “No, that’s your job,” he said. “Use your ghost-detecting equipment, or whatever it is that you do. Find out what it is, and how to get rid of it.”

I bit my tongue to hold back the sarcasm. “Well, I don’t have ‘ghost-detecting equipment,’ but if nothing else I can hang around here until midnight. Do you mind if I have a look at your altar again?”

“Why?” he asked.

“I want to properly respect your beliefs,” I said, and marched over to the little closet. To be fair, I didn’t want to disrespect his beliefs, even though I was barely familiar with genuine Haitian Vodou. I looked over everything and took a couple of pictures, though I did not touch anything – again, no disrespect. The bottle was the only thing on the altar that showed any age – it was subtle, but the scraps of cloth were slightly faded when compared to the others on the altar, and the twine was frayed. On close inspection, the skull was clearly fake. Cheap plastic, old enough to be yellowed with sun damage.

“Would you like to know anything?” James Saint-Victoire asked over my shoulder.

“Maybe,” I said. What’s with the bottle?”

“It’s a container for a spirit,” he said. “We believe that the loa we honor can come to inhabit this bottle, and grant kindness and benevolence to the owner. It’s sort of like the statues and icons of your saints.”

“I’m Jewish,” I said. “You’re thinking Orthodox.”

“Oh, well then it’s like,” he paused. “Uh, what do you Jews use?”

“We use a commandment about graven images,” I said. “Anyway, you said Erzulie Dantor – is this skull her symbol?”

“Oh, no,” Saint-Victoire said. “It’s not, but it’s part of the design. The cloth is colored appropriately for her, and the string is tied in a pattern pleasing to Mama Erzulie.”

“And what does she do?” I asked.

“She protects people,” he said. “Particularly women and children. Erzulie Dantor rescues the downtrodden – women, the poor, those who are ostracized – and helps them. She’s been my patron since I came to this country with nothing.”

I was trying to think if he had ever said anything about his religion in public. I hadn’t exactly followed him as a celebrity, but I felt that it would be the kind of thing I’d notice. But then, famous people never exactly his their spirituality, even if it wasn’t trendy. He had probably said something, somewhere. Maybe used it in interviews for more spiritualist cred.

“So, you brought this bottle from your homeland?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I did,” he said. “It was a special gift when I left the village, and it’s brought me nothing but good fortune.”

“Oh, yeah, I saw the gold shower head,” I said.

“You should see our garden,” he said. “I told the gardener that I wanted a paradise feel, like we’re stepping into another world, and I think he pulled it off.”

“Well, maybe in the daytime someday,” I said. Let him try to schedule it. “So,I guess we should go wait by the marks on your wall.”

“It’ll be midnight soon,” he agreed. “Then you’ll see.”

“Right, I guess it will be,” I walked back into the living room. “Do you mind if I take a seat?”

“I don’t mind at all,” he said. “Want something to drink?”

“Nah,” I shook my head, and looked around. “But maybe the whole family should be somewhere where we can see them. Just for safety’s sake.”

He frowned. “What have you got to protect us?”

I opened my coat, showing him the holstered handgun.

“You use guns?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s amazing,” I said. “I mean, there’s a lot to be said for silver and garlic and holy items, but you’d be surprised how well a bullet to the face works, too.”

I took a seat on their (expensive) couch, facing the carved markings on the wall, and waited. James Saint-Victoire left the living room and ushered his family back in, giving me a chance to get a good look at them.

Honestly, his wife seemed nice enough, if a little quiet. She didn’t share his accent, which was no surprise – probably that the only thing he brought from home was that bottle. But I had a good chance to get her impression on the situation. I waited as she led Kayden in, and the kid ran excitedly to his dad. When Vanessa Saint-Victoire sat down, I sidled over.

“So, hey, what do you think about all of this?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t believe in any of it,” she said.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Well, what Nessa means to say, is” James interjected.

I held up a hand. “What do you mean, Mrs. Saint-Victoire?”

“Vanessa,” she said. “And I mean, I don’t know what this is, but I know it’s not some sort of weird ghost. It can’t be.”

“So, I guess you don’t share your husband’s religious beliefs” I asked her, and glanced to her husband to keep him from speaking up in her place.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really think about it. I mean, whatever you believe in is nice, right?”

“Then what do you think is popping up in your living room?” I asked.

“It’s just some guy,” she said. “Someone who hates my husband because he’s successful, or maybe it’s just a crazy man, but I told him to call the police.”

“Hey,” I looked to James. “Didja?”

“They gave me your number,” he said.

“Dad, this is boring,” Kayden said. “You guys are talking work again. Bo-ring.”

“Hi, kid,” I smiled. “So, what’s up with, uh… the music and stuff at school? They’re teaching you new math, right?” He didn’t smile back. Well, come on, I had kids of my own. Eight hundred years ago. I couldn’t be that out of touch, could I? No. No, it was the children who were out of touch. Definitely not me. Uh-huh.

“He hasn’t started Common Core yet,” Vanessa smiled. “But we know our Kayden will do great.”

“I have him enrolled in the best school in the county,” James said. “He just started First Grade, and we’re proud of him. He’s a genius, just like his father.”

“Dad, stop,” the kid said, covering his face.

I allowed myself a genuine smile. Kids, right? Please don’t turn into a holy terror, little mister lives-in-a-mansion-going-to-the-best-school. I checked my watch. 11:56.

“Can I get you something to drink while you wait?” Vanessa Saint-Victoire asked. “We have everything.”

“Oh no, I’m fine,” I said. “It’s already almost midnight. So, the cops sent you guys to me? Who did you talk to?”

“We called the police, and Officer V. Reed gave his recommendation after he visited,” he said. “I thought it was unprofessional, but I understand why they wouldn’t want to be officially connected to anything like this. Nobody really believes anymore.”

He glanced to his wife, and I spoke up before either of them could say anything more.

“So, hey,” I said. “Yeah, I know Reed. I work with the department on cases like this all the time, actually – you’re in great hands, sir.”

“Well, I’m just saying,” he said. “That people don’t want to believe, so they deny the truth when they see it right in front of their face. They call miracles hoaxes, aliens weather balloons, and when they see a ghost, they just claim that it’s the wind. People are stubborn and closed-minded.”

“Well, I don’t know about aliens,” I chuckled. “But–

It arrived.

There was a half-second’s warning, an animalistic rattling noise that presaged the spirit’s arrival. It appeared suddenly, materializing out of thin air in the Saint-Victoire’s living room. It was humanoid in shape, though its skin was scaled, pebbly, textured like a lizard’s, mostly green but decorated with stripes of blue war paint. Its arms and legs and waist were wrapped in scraps of leather and torn cloth, the faded colors reflecting what I had seen on a bottle only minutes before. Its face was covered by the skull of an unidentifiable, inhuman creature, the teeth alone taking up half of its face. Its hair hung down in dreadlocks, and a necklace encircled its neck, decorated by a skull and crossbones pendant. Strapped to its wrists were long wooden blades, like claws.

Okay, I couldn’t have been the only person thinking about the Predator.

It was completely solid, lacking even the mild uncanny valley effect of a dully-summoned demon. The masked creature looked at the family, and then at me, and then silently lifted its clawed hand to the wall.

“Hey!” I drew my gun and stood, facing it. “Stop right there. Don’t do what we both know you’re thinking of doing. Face me, and identify yourself.”

The skull mask turned and it looked at me, regarding me for a moment. Then it brought one wooden blade down on the wall, scratching an X over the next-to-last hash mark.

“Right, I don’t have the patience for this,” I said, and fired.

It anticipated my move, twisting to duck out of the way before I finished pulling the trigger. The bullet missed, and the spirit monster slashed at me with its claws. Firstly, that was a really cool move, and it was extremely unfortunate that I was on the receiving end. Secondly, those claws were wooden, and wood hurts vampires a lot. It slashed me somewhat shallowly in the stomach, and kicked me when I doubled over. I heard Vanessa Saint-Victoire scream, but I tumbled as I fell, pivoting through the pain to kick the monster in the back of the knee. The kick landed, and its leg buckled, nearly forcing it to the ground.

It looked at me, the eyes invisible behind that skull mask, but the intention clear. It marked me. I brought my gun back up and aimed at its forehead.

It vanished just as I pulled the trigger, and I put a bullet hole in the Saint-Victoire’s ceiling to match the one in their wall.

“Dammit,” I muttered.

“You let it get away!” James Saint-Victoire shouted.

“Are you okay?” Vanessa asked, running to help me up. “We need to call 911. She’s hurt.”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine, it’s just a flesh wound,” I said, accepting her help. Sure, my shirt was torn and soaked through with blood, but the wound had already mostly healed. Still, wood was wood, and I was lucky it hadn’t attacked me any higher.

“It got away,” James said again. “And now there’s only one marking left. Tomorrow!”

“Yeah, I can see that,” I nodded. I looked around, and noted that Kayden was hiding behind his dad. That was the family safe and accounted for, so that was good.

“We need to call the police again,” Vanessa said. “Or we should move. Take a trip. We can fly away tonight.”

“I don’t think running is going to help,” I said, standing on my own power now. “Something like that will pop up wherever you are. Ma’am – Vanessa, that’s not just a crazy guy, trust me.”

“The government is working on active camouflage, isn’t it?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Never mind.”

“Well?” James asked. “Now what? You didn’t even hurt it.”

“Correction, I kicked it in the knee,” I said. “I got it angry, which means that it hurt. Mr. Saint-Victoire, did you recognize anything about the monster?”

“What?” he asked.

“Anything,” I said, looking him in the eyes. “Anything about its clothing, or jewelry, or the mask, or anything else you can think of. Was it familiar in any way?”

He hesitated for a moment, and then shook his head. “I told you, I don’t know what it is!” he said. “It’s some kind of evil spirit.”

“Well, does it match any evil spirits you’ve heard about?’ I asked. “Can you think of any reason why it might be here, right now, counting down on your wall?”

“No,” he said.

“All right. Fine,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m going home. I’m going to research everything I can about this thing and how to kill it or ward it off, and coming back early tomorrow night to get rid of it for you guys. If anything happens to jog your memory, or you get any sudden revelations, feel free to call me.”

Nobody gave any new info.

“I’ll be back at sundown,” I said, and left.

Once I got home, I researched the best way I could: by calling someone who knew what she was talking about. I needed to call Meg.

“Hey, Lucy,” Meg answered on the second ring. Megaera was one of the Furies, ancient Greek spirits of vengeance and justice. She spent most of her time as an adorable, friendly redhead, which was far cuter than the bloody-eyed, razor-winged devil harpy of doom she was when on the job. “What’s up?”

“How much do you know about Haitian Vodou?” I asked.

“Uh, Lucy, what did you get yourself into?” she asked.

“No, no, it’s for a case,” I said, and leaned back in my chair. I was back at home, not my office. Sarah had likely clocked out hours ago. “There’s this spirit harassing a guy.”

“Well, that’s pretty vague,” Meg said. “It sounds like you’re dealing with some kind of loa.”

“Pretend I don’t know anything,” I said, because it was true.

“Loa are Vodou spirits,” she said. “It’s a pretty generic term. They can be natural, unnatural, deific, diabolic, or even the ghosts of departed people. Some of them are like emotions made flesh, others are more like patron saints. So, did you get a look at the one that’s messing with your client?”

I described it, and the encounter I had with it.

“Okay, you’re clearly fighting the Predator,” Meg said. “First, you’ve got to smear yourself with mud, and then set up a log trap to–”

“Meg,” I said.

“Okay, okay,” she chuckled. “Well, it sounds like some kind of vengeance spirit. What was it wearing, again?”

“Well, it had a big skull mask,” I said. “Not a human skull, though. Some kind of monster.”

“The mask may or may not be important,” she said. “What else?”

“Well, some leather and cloth scraps, really,” I said. “The cloth was colored like James Saint-Victoire’s spirit bottle.”

“Ah, so your client has a spirit bottle,” she said. “Oh hey, you’re working with Saint-Victoire? Don’t be afraid to soak him. He has money.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” I said. “He’s got a little shrine to Erzulie Dantor in his house. He said that she protects children and stuff like that.”

“Yeah,” Meg said. “Children, outcasts, women, gay people – she’s a pretty good protector. But she doesn’t go sending movie monsters after people.”

“Is her symbol a skull?” I asked.

“No,” Meg said. “Not at all.”

“Because there was a tiny skull on her bottle,” I said, and took a sip of the iced tea I had next to my chair. “It was pretty noticeable.”

“No, she really isn’t associated with skull imagery,” Meg said.

“Hm,” I took another sip, and then thought for a moment. “Wait, it matched the skull necklace the monster was wearing. It had a tiny skull and crossbones around its neck.”

“Skull and crossbones?” Meg asked. “That sounds like Bacalou, but this doesn’t make sense.”

“Who’s Bacalou?” I asked.

“Bacalou is an evil loa” Megaera said. “Extremely feared, and represented by a skull and crossbones. People don’t even speak of him.”

I set the tea down. “So, I’m dealing with Bacalou. Great.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “Bacalou wouldn’t give his victims advanced warning, and the loa only attacked you when you went at it first. And if you were dealing with Bacalou, this would be a lot worse, like fighting a Goetic demon. I think this is just one of his servants.”

“Well, what’s a Bacalou symbol doing on Mama Erzulie’s bottle?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” she said. “It’s extremely unusual. If I had to guess, I’d say that they both used the bottle for some reason, or maybe the bottle’s owner had struck a deal with them both – but it doesn’t make sense. There would have to be a very specific reason for it.”

“Yeah, I’m sure there is, and it’ll make perfect sense,” I said. “Can you think of anything else?”

“Well, based on the countdown, and the thing’s general behavior, I’d almost say it sounds like a vengeance loa,” Meg said.

“Well, you know vengeance spirits,” I said. “Any idea who was wronged?”

“No idea,” she said. “We vengeance spirits usually stay out of each others’ way. But you probably want to find out why it’s targeting your client.”

“Well, yeah, I’m going to start on that when we’re done here,” I said. “Okay, so, how do you protect against loa like this? What can we do to hold it off?”

“Well, the best bet if it’s vengeance is to make restitution for whatever the original wrong was,” Meg said. “But it doesn’t sound like there’s time for that. Protection against loa usually takes prayers, rituals, maybe a tiny sacrifice or two, or talking to a vodou priest, or a lot of other things you probably won’t be able to do before midnight tomorrow night. But the good news is, you kicked it, right? And it acted like it hurt?”

“Yeah, it did,” I said. “It also actively avoided getting shot.”

“Well, there you go,” Meg said. “And salt. Don’t forget about salt.”

“Salt?” I asked.

“Yeah, salt,” Meg said. “Loa are extremely susceptible to it. You can even drive one off by serving it salty food.”

“So I have to get it to eat a pretzel,” I said.

“Ha, ha,” Meg said. “Anyway, you get the idea. Salt harms most ghosts, and it really hurts Vodou loa. If all else fails, kick its ass the old-fashioned way.”

“Gotcha,” I said. “Thanks, Meg. Wanna help out with this one?”

“I can’t, babe,” she said. “I’m about to scare the shit out of a Golden Dawn senator from Samos. I’m halfway around the world. Wish you luck, though, okay?”

“Yeah, tell me about it when you get back,” I said to her. “And thanks for everything.”

“Love ya, Lucy babe,” Meg said, and ended the call.

I leaned back, holding my iced tea, and thought about the situation. It didn’t take a huge logical leap to say that James Saint-Victoire was up to no good. But his reputation was immaculate – most rich guys had visible, easy-to-find skeletons in their closet. This guy was all charity and smiles. So whatever he did, he had probably hidden it pretty well.

Well, concealed from normal, mundane, non-supernatural people, that is.

So, the bottle. He called it a gift from his hometown, and said that it brought him good luck. Megaera’s comments had me more curious than before, because apparently those symbols didn’t usually conflict like that. I debated looking up spirit bottle history and design, but second-guessed myself. Chances were, Google would give me a lot of New-Agey hobbyists, and there was no guarantee that the few genuine practitioners would know of or share this kind of information, especially in the short amount of time that I had. Instead, I looked up James Saint-Victoire’s home town.

Aux Maniche wasn’t exactly a major metropolis. Didn’t even earn a wiki page. I only found it mentioned because of some old archived Haitian newspapers. And they were in Creole, so I had to run the text through a translator and hope it was still remotely understandable.

Aux Maniche devastated by earthquake.

Aux Maniche among the towns destroyed by hurricanes.

Haiti being devastated was never special news, but I couldn’t find any mention of Aux Maniche’s misfortune before 1998. Not a single famine, slaughter, storm, or fire. But after that year, it was included in everything, just business as usual for Haiti.

I found a missionary’s website detailing all of the relief efforts they brought into the town. The pictures looked nothing like that old photo Saint-Victoire had shown me. What once had been a small, quaint, intact town was now desolation. The buildings I saw in that photo had been poor, yet pleasant. These were barely shacks, existing somewhere between refugee shelter and shanty town.

And you know what? I was pretty sure that 1998 was when James Saint-Victoire immigrated to the United States, into his life of amazing good fortune and prosperity. And that was when Aux Maniche’s sorrows began.

He stole all of Erzulie Dantor’s protection and good luck, and then left his people to starve. The bastard. For all his talk of the American dream, he earned his fortune on the backs of people he knew, and never looked back. He wanted me to save him? Well, he deserved whatever nightmare Bacalou threw at him.

But he had a wife and kid. And no matter how well-sculpted and fake his wife looked, or how loudly bratty his child was, they didn’t deserve any of this. And there was no guarantee that the loa would leave them alone, not if it was out for vengeance. And just how would murdering him help his hometown, anyway? It couldn’t bring anybody back. It certainly wouldn’t send the bottle back home, for what it was worth. It’d just add another life to his ledger, and it was filled enough.

“Damn it,” I said, as I made the decision to protect an evil man.

Well, tomorrow night. Sunrise was way too close to do anything. So I waited, and strategized.

To her credit, Sarah listened very patiently when I explained the whole thing to her the next evening.

“So, what are you gonna do for this one?” she asked.

“I’m going to calmly convince James Saint-Victoire to do the right thing,” I said, loading my shotgun.

“Well, what if he says no?” she asked.

“I think I can be very convincing,” I said. “But he needs to make restitution, one way or the other.”

“For the curse to end, right?” she asked.

“Probably,” I said. “But more importantly, he needs to be a decent human being, and he’s got enough money to do that.”

“In my experience,” Sarah said. “Most people with enough money to help others refuse to lift a finger.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

“You’ve got too much faith in people,” Sarah said. “So, what’s your backup plan?”

I patted my shotgun. “I’ve loaded this with rock salt,” I said.

“That’s less lethal, isn’t it?”

I nodded. “To humans, sure. But loa are vulnerable to salt, and I think getting shot will be a nice deterrent.”

“Well, I guess you’re set,” she said. “I’ll take your messages for you while you’re out.”

Whatever the Saint-Victoires were expecting, my shotgun clearly was not it. Vanessa answered the door, and stood there in stunned silence. Seriously, I was following proper gun safety. Safety on, Finger away from the trigger, barrel pointed at absolutely nobody. Relax a little, girl.

“Hey, Nessa,” I smiled. “Is your husband home?”

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“It’s loaded with rock salt,” I said. “Theoretically non-lethal to humans.”

“Theoretically,” she said.

“I’m not going to shoot you, Mrs. Saint-Victoire,” I said. “Or your husband. Now, would you please let me in so I can fight the monster that’s been threatening you?”

She gave me a very thin frown, but stepped aside. “All right,” she said. “But if I feel that you’ve put my son in any danger, I’m kicking you out.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and stepped inside. I waved my free hand at James when I saw him.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Protecting you,” I said. “By the way, we have to talk for a second.”

Kayden ran in, and got the expression on his face that only appears on a small boy who sees a gun.

“Wow!” he said.

“Don’t touch, it’s real,” I said.

“I don’t like this,” James Saint-Victoire said. “So, you’re a gun person?”

I shrugged. “Guns are extremely useful tools in the right hands in the right context, and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. I’ve got a lot of practice over many, many years. Don’t worry.”

He shrugged. “I still don’t like it.”

“And I don’t like the skull-faced monstrosity that’s going to appear in your living room any minute now,” I said. “But you and I need to talk.”

“Fine,” James Saint-Victoire rolled his eyes. “Talk about what?”

I set my shotgun down on the coffee table. “Don’t touch this,” I said to the other two, and then turned to James. “Let’s go look at your altar again.”

He gave me a strange look, but took me back down the hall. I waited until we were out of earshot of his wife and son, and I was more clearly unarmed to speak again.

“You’re a real piece of shit,” I said.

“What did you say?” he looked at me, aghast.

I pointed my finger in his face. “That spirit bottle wasn’t a gift from your hometown. You stole it, and stole Erzulie’s blessing for yourself. When you left, Aux Maniche was a stable town, held together by your patron loa. After you took that bottle, it fell into complete ruin. It’s given you nothing but luck and fortune, but it’s cost the lives of everyone you grew up with. And the thing is, I think you know this. I think you’ve always known. You’re as guilty as sin, and reveling in it.”

He took a sudden step toward me, but I held my ground, refusing to flinch.

“Get out,” he growled deep under his voice.

“Sure, and leave you to deal with Skullface all by yourself,” I said. I could feel the invitation that allowed me to stay inside begin to erode away. I had to work fast. “How well do you think that’ll work out?”

“My wife was right. You’re nothing but a charlatan.”

“No,” I shook my head. “When you stole Aux Maniche’s luck, you angered Erzulie Dantor. Your spirit bottle has two aspects, Mr. Saint-Victoire. And she handed you over to Bacalou for judgement.”

“This is nonsense,” he said.

“You know exactly what’s going on,” I said. I could feel pressure mounting, the need to leave a house without an invitation. “And you know that I can help you. But I’ll do it under one condition.”

He hesitated, but said, “Go on.” I felt some of the pressure in the air clear away.

“If I save you,” I said. “You’ve got to do your part. Send that bottle back to Aux Maniche, and send it with a sizable cash donation. Make it all about your charity work if you want, but you’re going to pay them back for what you stole. You’re going to make it right.”

“No,” he said.

“You don’t get a choice!” I said. “You’re out of time! You won’t have the chance to send it back before that thing attacks you again tonight, that much is for sure. But if I kick its ass and send it packing, that still won’t save you. It’ll just buy you enough time to make restitution. If you don’t, then Bacalou will send another. And another. And another. And maybe two or three, or perhaps an even worse curse. I’m buying you a chance to redeem yourself, but you have to take it. And you can be as proud as you want, but you’ve got a family waiting in the living room, and you and I both know that Vodou curses aren’t very particular about collateral damage.”

He clenched his fists, but then released them. “I can’t,” he said. “That bottle is the whole reason I became successful. I’d lose my luck without it.”

“So what?” I asked. “Sure, you’ve been extremely lucky so far, but you’re rich. You and your family can coast on average luck for a while. It’s better than sacrificing them over this stupidity. Let it go, James. Make everything right.”

He turned away from me, toward the altar. James Saint-Victoire stood still, his eyes closed in thought. I watched him begin to tense, his face hardening with stubbornness and resolve. I felt the invitation begin to waver again, already shifting with his hardening mood.

And then Kayden ran down the hall.

“Dad! Dad!” the kid called out. “What’re you guys talking about? It’s booooring!”

He reached his father and hugged him. James’s expression melted int one of sheer, utter agony, and he embraced his son in return.

“All right,” he said to me. “We’ll play it your way.”

I nodded, and began to walk away. “Meet me back in the living room when you’re ready,” I said.

To be fair, nobody is ready for rampaging demon monsters, but I had to give the family points for trying. Vanessa sat with her son on her lap, on one end of their expensive couch. James was on the other. I stood, salt-loaded shotgun in hand.

“I want you guys to get to safety as soon as you can,” I told them. “When the loa appears, I’ll do everything I can to keep its attention. Don’t go so far that it can get you before I can catch up, but stay away. I’m always grateful when an innocent bystander comes in to save the day, but I’m not asking any of you to play the hero, all right?”

“What gives you the right?” James Saint-Victoire asked.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” I said. “And I’m durable. Notice that I got stabbed last night, and I’m skipping around today. Trust me.”

And yet, he still frowned at me. It was almost time, and the man was arguing with me still.

“I’m putting a lot of trust in you,” he said.

“I know,” I nodded. “But you’re out of options.”

“No, we can still run now,” he stood. “If you want to fight the loa alone, we’ll leave before it arrives.”

I stepped in front of him. “I’d rather not risk the loa just popping up wherever you are,” I said. “like in your car. Now sit down, and stop complaining.”

“She has a point,” Vanessa said.

“No,” he said. “Waiting here is foolish. The least we could do is wait by the bottle, and offer it back to the spirit.”

He began to step past me.

“Let’s not split up,” I said. “And it can corner you in that hallway, I don’t really like that.”

“Stop telling me what to do,” he said, pushing past me.

I was about to respond but then I heard a familiar clicking sound. Ten minutes early, too.

“Get down!” I said.

He heard me and ducked just as the vengeance loa appeared in mid-swing, its wooden blade missing his head by mere inches. He stumbled and it loomed over him, pulling back an arm to try to skewer the man.

I shoved my shotgun in its face.

“This is a Mossberg 590A1 tactical shotgun,” I said to the loa. “Used by the United States military for urban warfare, and I’ve loaded it with rock salt. I think you want to stop what you’re doing for a moment.”

It looked at me from behind its skull mask, and I went on.

“James Saint-Victoire is going to return the spirit bottle to Aux Maniche,” I said. “And with it, he will send money as recompense. Aren’t you, Jimmy?”

James nodded, and began to slowly find his feet, standing and moving away from the loa. I continued to look the monster in the eye.

“Obviously, he can’t send it back tonight. But he can mail it first thing tomorrow morning. With restitution paid, the curse should end, and thus you have no business being here. Now leave, or I’ll shoot you in the face.”

It moved faster than I could pull the trigger, twisting out of the way of my shotgun’s barrel to bring those wooden blades around in an attempt to slash me in the gut again. But I hadn’t counted on it holding still enough to get shot, and was already swinging the weapon around, so that the butt of the shotgun connected with the loa’s chin, the impact enhanced by its own momentum.

I swung the gun around, but it raised its blades to keep the barrel off-course, denying me that shot again. I let one hand go from the shotgun, elbowing the loa in the upper ribs, and then whipped it again with the side of the gun’s barrel. It flinched and I tried to seize the opportunity, only for the loa to shoulder-rush me, keeping close enough to by body that I couldn’t shoot it.

One of its claws scraped over my ribs, and I hooked the shotgun behind the loa’s neck, bracing it as I headbutted it in the mask. The impact made me see stars, but it made the loa stagger back even more. I released it, letting it stumble back and bringing my shotgun around again.

The loa kicked, catching me in the side of my hip and knocking me off my balance. I steadied myself just in time to see it bringing up its claws in a vicious backhand. I blocked the slash with my shotgun, holding it up in both hands. The loa hooked my gun in its clawed gauntlet and twisted, wrenching the weapon from my grasp. It flung the weapon back over its shoulder and chopped at me again. I twisted to the side, taking a hit from the razor-sharp wood in my shoulder, and reaching into my coat pocket as I stumbled and took a knee. The loa spun, swinging its wooden blades in a high arc toward my head. My hand met a pocketful of loose salt, and I blindly scooped as much as I could hold.

“Pocket salt!” I shouted, flinging the sand in the loa’s skull face. It flinched back immediately as the powdered salt hit, roaring in pain. Smoke bubbled in light wispy tendrils where it burned the loa’s skin.

I launched into the air, grabbing the loa’s shoulders to steady myself as I drove my knee square into its mask, cracking the bone. The loa fell backwards, landing in the Saint-Victoires’ glass coffee table. The glass shattered, shredding its skin, and the frame of the table trapped it for a moment. I capitalized with an elbow drop. The real thing, not a wrestling fake, meaning that I drove all of my weight via my elbow into the loa’s solar plexus.

I expected it to take the hit with a sickeningly loud crunch and another inhuman roar of pain, which it did. I did not expect it to flex hard enough to tear the table’s metal framework away, nor did I expect it to hurl me off its body like a puppy. I bounced on the floor and hit the far wall, but was already scrambling to my feet as the loa charged again.

It lunged, intending to skewer me on one of those claws. I sidestepped the blade, landing a kick to its elbow, but took a secondary slash from its other arm in my side. The loa was bleeding in a dozen places, its flesh burned from salt and its mask cracked from the raw beatdown, but it still attacked me with the same ferocity as before. I took the hit, feeling the wooden claws tear through my coat like nothing, but landed another elbow to the side of its face. The loa’s head rocked back, its dreadlocks whipping in the air, and it let go of me to stagger back nearly half of the room, almost falling over again. I ignored the pain from my most recent wound and charged at it again, intending to capitalize on my brief advantage and put the injured monster down for good.

The loa sprang back into action as I approached, losing its unsteadiness in an instant to skewer me on one of its wooden claws. This would have killed a human, and if it had hit any higher than my gut, it likely would have ended me, as well. As it was, the shaft of razor-sharp wood shocked my system, dealing an injury that even my curse would have a hard time healing.

The Loa shoved itself forward, ramming me back against the wall and stabbing one more time, with strength it had not shown in the fight. I gasped, out of breath, shock and agony filling my senses and blurring my sight. The loa twisted its wrist, unhooking the blades from its leather gauntlet, and then kicked them, hard. I felt the wooden weapons driven through me, into the wall behind my back.

It had pinned me like a bug into the wall.

The vengeance loa ignored me as it turned to pursue the family again.

I weakly clutched at the wood staking me to the wall, my own blood spilling out in a hot, heavy flow. My heartbeat went into overdrive – is had missed my heart! If those wooden blades had pierced my heart, I would have died. If they had only grazed it, it would have been enough to knock me into a paralyzed, unconscious torpor. But it hadn’t. The wood felt solid, unyielding, much harder then it should have been – but the loa’s blades had shown no sign of strain or damage yet in the fight, had they?

The loa approached James Saint-Victoire, brandishing its remaining claw. I strained weakly against the one pinning me against the wall, but couldn’t make any headway. My hands, slick with my own blood, were too weak to even gain a grip.

“Stop! Please!” James backed away from the Loa, holding his hands up in supplication.

Vanessa Saint-Victoire threw an open salt canister at the loa, screaming for it to get away from her husband.

The pain was too much. I couldn’t function past it. I tasted blood in my mouth as I fruitlessly tried to wriggle free. I could heal if the wood was out. But I couldn’t gain the strength to free myself until then.

The loa batted the canister away with a wooden blade, and flinched as some of the salt sizzled on its flesh. It reared up at Vanessa and she stumbled, screaming as the monster raised its claw at her. James rushed in, trying to tackle the loa away from his wife.

I started to black out. I closed my eyes and drew in my breath, biting my tongue before trying to wrench the wooden blades free again.

The loa easily threw James to the ground, slamming him on his back. It stomped a foot on his chest to pin him, and lifted its remaining claw, tilting its head to peer down at the man again. It prepared to slay its quarry.

I strained with everything I had, crying out in fresh, bubbling agony, but still the wood held me bolted to the wall.

“Leave Daddy alone!”

Kayden, the first-grader, ran up to the loa and tried to hit it. The loa turned its masked head to regard the small child for a second, and then viciously backhanded him.

With its claw hand.

I heard the child scream, a shrieking sound of pure, unbridled agony. I saw his blood on those wooden blades. I heard his parents’ terror. And something inside me snapped.

My curse went into overdrive, the pain suddenly numb, distant. I ripped the wooden blade from the wall and my torso, the spray of my own blood the last thing on my mind. I was vaguely aware that my fangs were out, and that my eyes were as red as my vision. I idly flung the wooden blade away as I crossed the living room in a single stride, leaping into the air as I neared.

The loa turned toward me just as I connected with a flying punch to its face, the impact hard enough to shatter its bone mask. It staggered back, its revealed face both skull-like and reptilian, not unlike the mask it wore. I struck again, hitting it in its exposed jaw.

There was screaming all around me, and in the corner of my eye I saw James rushing toward his wounded son. The loa tried to bring its bladed arm up against me, but I batted it aside and pinned the claw to the ground, stomping into it and breaking the magical wood like it was balsa. It still slashed at me with the broken blades, grazing my cheek. I punched it hard in the chest, snapping one of its ribs.

Its red eyes locked with mine, widened for a brief moment in fear before I renewed my assault on the loa, punching or kicking whatever I could reach. I bruised it, bludgeoned it, and broke its bones. It still tried to fight back, and I broke its wrist, and shattered its kneecap. It began to vomit blood after I landed a harsh blow to its gut, and I struck it again in the chin, sending it toppling backward against the wall.

The loa slid down to the floor, its breathing coming in ragged, wet gasps. Its eyes were half-glazed, and it weakly held its only good hand over its heart. I picked up my shotgun. The loa looked at me, and lifted a feeble hand, as if attempting to surrender.

“You attacked a child,” I said, and fired point-blank into its face.

The rock salt obliterated the loa’s head. As soon as it was dead, before the gore had even finished decorating the floor, its form began to shimmer, to grow indistinct. It was a spirit, and the ethereal materials that made up its body were already breaking down. I watched as it melted, collapsed, and then evaporated until nothing was left except for a stain in the carpet, and a tiny skull-and-crossbones pendant.

“Call 911!” Vanessa’s scream brought me back to reality. Kayden was crying, loudly, which meant that he might still be okay. I turned and saw the damage, and my breath caught for a moment at the sight of all the blood before I remembered myself, and reached into my coat for my phone.

I called Lieutenant Ortiz directly. He would know who to send, and what story to give them. He’d spare this family from more questions and more trouble. The pain came back as the adrenaline drained away, and I spent most of my waiting time wincing and recovering from being stabbed by a monster.

Later, I watched as they loaded the child into an ambulance, and his parents climbed in with him. James paused for a moment, and then walked over to me.

“I don’t know what you are,” he said. “And I don’t want to ask. But you saved my boy.”

“Return the bottle,” I said, looking him in the eyes. “Or this is going to happen all over again.”

He grimaced, but nodded. He then pulled out his checkbook and signed one, tearing it off and handing it to me. “For your services,” he said. “I hope I never have to call you again.”

“For what it’s worth, the feeling’s mutual,” I said, taking the check. I didn’t look at it. Instead, I watched as James Saint-Victoire rejoined his family in the back of the ambulance, and they sped away, the vehicle’s emergency taillights fading as they crested the hill and went out of sight. Tony had sent Officer Reed on the scene, and although I normally would have stopped to talk with him, I couldn’t bear it this time. Not after I had heard that child scream.

He’d be okay. At worse, he’d have some gnarly scars, and I figured that the Saint-Victoires could afford plastic surgery if they wanted.

He would be all right. And James would do the right thing. He had to, now. He just had to.

I began to walk cross the block, back to my car. I finally looked at the check in my hand, or specifically the amount of zeroes in the total.

“Holy hell,” I said. “Wow.”

Well, okay. James Saint-Victoire did not undervalue his son, that was for sure. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

Someone started laughing behind me. I turned around quickly, and came face-to-face with an extremely tall, old black man. He wore clothes that were both fancy and in shambles, with a frayed top hat on his head, and a tattered topcoat that hung open, baring his chest – and a skull-and-crossbones tattoo – to the open air. He held lit a cigar clamped in his teeth.

“You think you saved a man,” he said, only it came out as ‘tink’ because his Caribbean accent was even thicker than James’s. “How funny.”

Yeah, this was it. I was going to die.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Go away, Bacalou,” I said. “It’s over. I killed your monster, and Saint-Victoire is going to make full restitution for his sins.”

The loa chuckled again, and paced around me, taking his cigar between two fingers. “Yes, yes, the restitution, I suppose,” he said. “And what makes you think he will finally do the right thing?”

“I saw it in his eyes,” I said. “He’ll do what he needs to do.”

Bacalou took a drag from his cigar, and then flicked ash in my face. “You have too much faith in humans,” he said. The faint light of his cigar fell cross his face, drawing out his features, making him seem even more skull-like than before. “You can’t even trust them to make a hamburger correctly, and yet you expect this corrupt man to sacrifice his prosperity to help others. I repeat myself, you have too much faith.”

I was doomed. Probably.

“No,” I said. “I have just enough faith.”

“And what if he fails?” Bacalou asked. “Or what if I came and took them tonight? I could do it now. I could make them crash on the rod, or take them in the hospital tonight. And what could you do? Nothing.”

I pointed my shotgun at his face. “I could do a lot of things,” I said.

Bacalou laughed again, hard enough that he had to wipe a tear from his eye. “You threaten me?”

Yeah, he was probably going to eat me.

“I’m not afraid of you,” I said.

I totally was.

“I am nearly a god,” Bacalou said. “And you do not fear me?”

“You just threatened a child,” I said. “So unless you want a face full of rock salt, I suggest that you go away and leave that family alone.”

“Enough, enough,” came another, feminine voice from my left. “I’ve seen enough. Stand down, you two.”

I turned and saw a woman approach. Harsh, fiercely-built, and heavily-scarred, I recognized Erzulie Dantor from the icons on her altar. She did not look anything like the Virgin Mary in person, however.

“Are you about to threaten them, too?” I asked, turning the shotgun on her. Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound. Why just piss off one god when you can have two? “Because one word – one tiny hint of a threat – against that kid, and you both can join your little henchman.”

She held up her hands, and laughed. “Calm yourself, I mean you no harm,” she said. “We merely wanted to test you.”

“To test me?” I asked. I lowered the gun. Bacalou put his cigar back in his mouth, and then moved to join Erzulie.

“Oh yes, and you passed,” Erzulie said. “To stare down the gods themselves – you deserve your reputation, Lucy December.”

“I have a reputation?” I asked.

Her lips turned up in a chuckle. “More than you know,” she said. “Tonight, you saved a family. You saved a man from his own foolish and evil ambition. You saved his wife and child. And because he will repent, you have saved an entire village. All because you love humanity, and you could not bear to see a child suffer.”

“Well, that’s who I am,” I said. “Are you two done yet? I’m tired, I want to go home, and I’m not in the mood to deal with immortal bullshit right now.”

“Oh, you may go home,” Erzulie said. “We have seen all that we need to see.”

“And just what did you need to see?” I asked. I also walked past them, because I meant it when I said that I wanted to go home.

“That you are who they say you are,” Bacalou said. “You will make Hell tremble, Lucy December. I look forward to watching it unfold.”

“Go,” Erzulie Dantor said. “Return home, and never stop fighting. You will need that quality soon.”

I sighed, and turned back toward them. “Stop being so vague,” I said.

But they were already gone.

The smoldering butt of a cigar laid alone on the sidewalk.

I shrugged it off, and got in my car. I was tired. It was time to go home. I had just destroyed a monster, saved a family, and gained the attention of two gods. I could afford to take the rest of the night off.

And maybe I’d pick up a burger on the way back. Without cheese.