Dominique LaStrade was a vital woman in her seventies.
Smooth-skinned and midnight black, only the tiniest crows feet in the corner of her eyes and slight frown lines in the corner of her mouth revealed her true age. Whispers of the source of her ever-present beauty were varied from a quality diet to dark magic associated with the children who went missing from time to time in Louisiana. Neither perspective bothered her much anymore.
Her hair had greyed and she stubbornly refused to dye it. As if to complement her refusal to age, her hair greyed in a stylish fashion, strategically streaked for maximum effect. In her youth, she was known for her mesmerizing walk, part sashay, part black panther, many a man might mistake her for something other than what she was — a predator of the first order.
Time had taken a step or two but not that most would notice. Full-hipped and still strong as any man, she maintained a food kitchen in the middle of the French Quarter, and still helped to unload the truck every morning as she had for nearly a decade since her retirement. Her kitchen cared for those people who had slipped the bounds of polite society and were unable to find their way back.
People were fanatically loyal to her and worked to stay in her good graces. Those who were able to return to society returned often to help out, with money, time or effort in appreciation for her kindnesses. She needed none of those things, but accepted them anyway, allowing them to contribute to her operation without even realizing their true purpose.
She made cookies for her local church. She taught children to read. She was a woman whom the local society had great respect for and perhaps just the tiniest bit of fear. In less than polite circles she was rumored to be a witch or mombo, capable of communing with the dead. Her father was once one of the most powerful hougan this area ever knew. A binder of spirits, a destroyer of vampires, and a protector of the innocent against those forces which always threaten to unbalance our world.
The senior LaStrade was a formidable man whose reputation ensured his daughter’s prominent rise in local politics because in addition to being a the Hougan of New Orleans, he was also for a time its mayor. Dominique had no love of politics, though she in her youth had a taste for power, became a city councilwoman and stayed one for nearly thirty years. She maintained her facade as a harmless eccentric in her retirement though she kept her hands on the flow of power and so her sobriquet, The Lady of the Web was well earned.
I didn’t know any of this at the time when I first met her. We would be better acquainted later.
At the time, I was too busy fighting for my life.
The spiritual essence of a human being had just been snuffed out by, well, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing yet, some kind of spiritual predator. It was large, larger than I was and its shape mutated in the mist which acted as its prison. After its latest snack, his fiery eyes turned toward me as his next choice of dinner partners. In this form, most of my elemental magic would have almost no effect on it, as an entity of spirit, things that affect the real world weren’t much good.
Unlike me, he didn’t have to consider what to do and his crouch indicated his intent. I brought my cane up into a block while I considered my choices. Escape was not really an option. I was asleep and would be so until I woke naturally. Or died in my sleep, here. I could hope the Seer was still around and would be nice enough to intervene but they didn’t usually, something about their immeasurable value to the Agency.
This thing is fast. I barely saw it move from where it was to it biting down on my staff. The clang of its jaws on my staff rippled through my being and I realized just how much trouble I was in. Adding insult to injury, I could feel the aether in this building changing like it did when I first came in. The barriers were reinforcing themselves. Now I wasn’t sure I could leave even if I wanted to. Could I alter the barrier enough to get out?
That would take time and focus. At this particular moment, all I could focus on was keeping my spirit cane between the slavering jaws of a being who was perfectly capable of touching my astral form and tearing me to bits.
The first thing to remember about magic is it is dependent on intent. Even if you don’t have a spell handy the intent of the spell can be evoked by a reasonably effective magician. I didn’t have my body handy so most of my good magic was not available to me.
I was working on instinct.
Since my cane was a weapon composed of my spiritual energy, it was both a unique item capable of traveling with me and still able to store a reasonable amount of my magical energies. Jaws here was biting down on it and I could feel the force, a rottweiler might be jealous. Small fracture lines were appearing on its surface and this didn’t bode well.
My curse marks were attuned to the spiritual prison when I first arrived. I reach through them and feel the nature of the prison which binds me here. This place is designed to channel rage and reflect it back. With my sight augmented I can now see the lines of magical force used to create this place.
It was a masterwork.
Mirrors everywhere, wrapping and warping the restraints through the building. All of them linked to this being. But something isn’t quite right. The energy is binding and knotting around the creature, bloating its spiritual body, supercharging it. Okay, I can work with this. I charge my right arm and my curse marks burn across my left leg, chest and my right arm begins to glow. The beast roars louder and jumps back, but only for a second.
Long enough. I release the spiritual intent charging there and tear into the caul of the restraint around this tortured soul. I can see him now. Inside of this creature of wrath and pain is the body of a man. I can see him through the brightness of my attack. When the light ends, the creature is back, watching me with guarded eyes, still trying to determine if he can take me. I puff myself up and put my cane out like a sword. I will it to become one. My right hand still sizzles with the remnants of power.
He was not impressed. If I had a sphincter, it would have been tightening up, right about now.
I can see the tears in the field which has caused his cancer of essence and given time it will bleed away returning him to whatever passes for normal but that might be after he chews me into spiritual dog chow. I can’t use the phoenix because it will demand a spiritual sacrifice in payment, and probably just eat this beastie. The Seer brought me here and I am betting this is related to my case, so it would be frowned upon if I wasn’t able to subdue him without killing him.
I hate this job sometimes.
Okay, its go time. He’s done being impressed and he begun circling me again. Maybe I can draw out this dance and he will bleed enough energy to lose interest in me.
He stopped and looked around, sniffing the air. I sense it, too. There is another presence.
A strong but subtle energy, she entered the building from the far end. The most interesting thing about astral forms is how they represent the iconic appearance of how we see ourselves. Self-deprecating, my astral self looks like an unremarkable version of myself, perhaps a bit tidier, and without a nasty craving for a smoke. Some people’s astral forms radiate a version of themselves that is larger than life, bursting with energy, surrounded with the stuff of essence itself. This Mombo was one such being. She appeared as a beautiful young woman few men could resist.
She was not alone.
She was surrounded by her bound loa, her personal guardian spirits beings whose powers augmented her own. Dozens of other free ghosts followed behind her, eager to do her bidding as well. She doesn’t walk preferring to float above the ground, her hair billowed around her. Her ghostly entourage spread out around her changing their form into thread-like ribbons of light. She waves and a ghost thread snaps between the wall and the floor. Then another, and a third. Then one line linked from her web to the beast who has changed his posture from one of fight to one of flight. He tries to run, but with a few snaps of her wrists, she binds him to the spot and he roars impotently.
Unable to move I watched as the excess energy bled away from him through the wounds I caused and he slowly returned to his human form. He would have been a handsome man of an indeterminate age, somewhere between fifty and seventy. But despite his well formed body, his hands, feet, hair and beard were unkempt. His hands had become long and terrible claws, his feet gnarled and twisted. His beard was knotted and filled with viscera, chunks of bloody flesh.
I was intently focused on the body of the man because it dawned on me he appeared to be made of flesh. He was running around in the mall!
He was flesh surrounded with a wall of spiritual essence around him, no wonder he was so powerful. “Your idea was a sound one. It would not have saved you, though.” The astral form of the Mombo floated up to me and stood on the other side of the sleeping man between us.
“I just realized that. I owe you my life, Mombo LeStrade.”
“Your spiritual capabilities are sorely lacking Agency Man, I was told you were one of their better operatives.” Her astral voice carried harsh words, but they were lovely to listen to.
I wanted to make an excuse but nothing came quickly to mind, so I decided to go with a business tact. “It seems like this case is over. I assume this mall holds him prisoner behind the mirrors?”
“Yes, and he never would have been able to escape from there if he was who he is supposed to be.” She bent down and looked closely at the man. I could hear her intoning a ritual chant, a connection to the spirit within the body. “It is as I suspected.”
“Correct me if I am wrong, but I am looking at the Bijou Butcher, Henri Macafee, no?” I had read the briefing on the most famous serial killer the Southern States had ever known. Over sixty men and women met their end at his hands from the 1930s to the 1950s.
“That is correct. You are looking at the body of Henri Macafee. But he is not here. This is the spirit of a man named Carl Winters who was trapped here nearly a decade ago. It was his imprisonment that disrupted this prison and now seemingly has released his body.”
“Okay, so let me see if I’ve got this straight, the body of a serial killer is quietly taking a snooze in the middle of a mall, the spirit of said serial killer is roaming the Earth in the body of some poor slob killing people. What else could go wrong?”
“Return to your body and meet me at my kitchen. Dawn is coming and the living still need to be fed.”
“What about him?”
“My loa will carry him and we will make him presentable. When he awakens he will be filled with questions, assuming he isn’t mad. This prison was not made for him. Its effects may have broken what’s left of his mind.” The matrix of binding dissolved and returned to individual spirits. Two of them merged with the body on the floor and he stood up. Within a few seconds they seemed to have everything in hand and began walking him slowly toward the door. “I trust you understand the nature of our dilemma.”
“Yes, Mombo LeStrade. I won’t be long.” I understood what she meant. I could see the silver cord vanishing into the distance. Henri Macafee would be aware of his body being free and would be coming for it. His shenanigans as the Locked Room Strangler would be child’s play if he should get his body back. He too, was descended from a powerful hougan.
“We could just kill him, you know.” No body to come back to, he would have only a fraction of his powers. Enough to continue what he’d been doing up to now, but no more.
“And what about Mr. Winters? Doesn’t he deserve better than that?”
I looked deeply into her eyes and remembering my briefing asked the question I’d been dreading. “Are you sure you’re being objective, Mombo LeStrade? After all, he was your fiancé once.”
“Non, cher, once he was the man of my dreams, keeping him prisoner has made him the man of my nightmares. No one wants him dead more than I, but with Mr. Winters help we can find him and do the work my father lacked the will or the power to do. If necessary, I will kill him myself.”
Her voice – that beautiful voice, almost a magic unto itself – chilled me to the bone. The mall vanished from around me. She sent me back to my hotel with just a thought. What a frightening woman she was…such incredible power.
I sat up drenched in a heavy and clammy sweat. I’m was going to take a shower before I faced her again.
A Man Who Wasn’t There © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved