In the beginning, it is said, there was only the Great Serpent, whose seven thousand coils lay beneath the earth, holding it in place that it might not fall into the abysmal sea. In time, the Serpent began to move, unleashing its undulating flesh, which rose slowly into a great spiral that enveloped the Universe. In the heavens, it released stars and all the celestial bodies; on earth, it brought forth Creation, winding its way through the molten slopes to carve rivers, which like veins became the channels through which flowed the essence of all life. In the searing heat it forged metals, and rising again into the sky it cast lightning bolts to the earth that gave birth to sacred stones. Then it lay along the path of the sun and partook of its nature.
– Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow
They’re always asking him for how-to articles these days. How to survive the zombie apocalypse. How to live afterward. But the thing he can’t tell people is they won’t survive it. They can’t come out the same person they were before and for most people it’s easier to just surrender and die.
If they’re not most people then they’ll find pretty quick how relative terms like ”apocalypse” are. They think it means mass execution. Genocide, or an attempt thereof. The large scale deaths involving hordes of people. But he knows apocalypses have nothing to do with volume. They happen all the time to people on the street who leave the house in the morning as normal and come home dead inside. Apocalypse is a personal thing that no one can really define for anyone else.
Another interesting misnomer is the term “zombie.”
Leslie Petersen, for example, sat on a rocker in the crook of her kitchen. Behind her was a pretty, sun-filled window that took up the whole corner of the house and a shelf stuffed with the plants she’d collected over sixty years of life. Her husband, Lester, hid in the basement and had been doing so for two days now. It had a lot to do with the way Leslie twitched, muttered, occasionally screamed out to the ghosts of people from her past, now as long dead as herself.
Mostly, though, Leslie’s husband hid from what lay in front of her. There was a pleasant social idea that after death people stopped hurting. Pleasant and a complete lie, Papa Murphy knew. When you bring a soul back to a diseased body death doesn’t magically hold the sickness in stasis. In life Leslie had suffered from a most insidious illness, Alzheimer’s. A creature of habit and unable to function without his wife of fifty years, he hired a hack who promised the process would heal her savaged brain.
Now Leslie sat in her rocking chair, the only safe place in the world, blood painted up to her elbows. Her gore-covered hands fluttered, broken birds in her lap against the cadaverous background of her empty abdomen.
The glistening jewels of her internal organs sat in a careless pile in front of her. Lester didn’t know about the uncle who had raped her as a child. Or about the baby which had been stillborn in the cold, isolated halls of a home for troubled girls. But Grandma Leslie remembered. Her dead, damaged brain took her down paths that humans couldn’t follow. She had carved herself clean trying to get rid of ghostly bodies and phantom touches.
Murphy crouched down into the range of her vision, the pile of organs – slowly desiccating now that they were cut off from the magic embedded in her veins – between himself and the animated corpse. “Hey, Mama Leslie. Bad times, eh?”
Leslie didn’t look at him, but she answered. “Bad times. Bad girl getting a baby in her belly.”
“It’s not your fault, Mama Leslie.”
Tears sparkled in her eyes. “Not my fault.”
Leslie and Murphy had a lot in common. The Baron touched them. Both communicated on a different level than normal people.
“No, darling, it’s not your fault.”
After sixty years she finally could believe someone. The magic in his blood touched her own and made her listen. She still cried, but now it was a thing of relief, joy. She leaned across to Murphy, grabbing his dark face in her wet hands. “Not my fault,” she whispered. “It’s not my fault.”
Murphy kissed her forehead, opening his mouth slightly at the last moment. When their skin touched he released the psychopomp he’d been holding inside himself. For a moment the world went dark with the soft sound of wings.
Murphy’s eyes flew open. It wasn’t Leslie’s voice. Gravelly with a hint of amusement, even if it still held the edge of a grandmotherly voice.
“Murphy, my son-”
Leslie went empty. Still startled, Murphy let her slip back into her chair. Something had tried to come through in the moment between the psychopomp taking the soul and the magic bleeding out of the body. Whoever it was, Murphy scowled because he knew, would have to wait. Because he was a nice guy he took the time to put her back together, stitching her stomach with black thread and hiding it the best he could with her nightdress. It stuck to her skin in places, but in death she looked almost dignified.
The state of her soul was his job, not the condition of her body, or her husband. The latter was a task for a shrink, though even the most modern experts in grieving were at a loss on zombies. The church said they were evil, but they said the same of drinking, sex, homosexuality and seafood too, so Murphy wasn’t putting much stock in their usefulness. They’d yet to turn a single zombie back into an empty body.
Of course, Murphy thought, distracting himself, it’s easy to make judgments on the actions of people from a crystal, cold palace a world away. Harder was doing the right thing when ass deep in corpses and entrails.
But Murphy always thought about the aggravating attitudes and people who led to such situations after he’d laid their victims back. Pointless and antagonizing, but that’s where the aftereffects of magic took him. Magic that connected with something beyond, when it wasn’t supposed to.
The check Lester Petersen cut him afterward took Murphy to the front door, before he paused and made the mistake of looking back at the man. Lester stood looking down at his wife. A denser person would think it just reflection, but Murphy saw the way his fingers dug into his arms and how he shook though he tried not to. Murphy cursed and turned back.
“Come on, man. You can’t stay here.”
Murphy gave him no choice. He slung a long, black-clad arm around him and gave Lester a little squeeze with his fingers to ensure he had his attention. “No. I have a friend who can take care of this. You’re an old man, you get to take a rain check now and again.”
Sometimes – usually – Murphy felt vindication in letting the living clean up their own messes. But Lester hadn’t known. He’d just made a stupid choice. Murphy gently directed Lester out of the house, and a block down to a little coffee shop-deli thing on the corner. There were two tiny booths inside, so he parked Lester in one.
While he stood in line waiting for coffee he called his cousin Em. “Well if it isn’t my favorite cousin. Whacha need, M?”
He gave her the address. “It got real messy. Do you think-”
“We can clean up? Yeah. Is this one on your bill again, or did you get them to pay?”
Murphy gritted his teeth. “Does it matter?”
Em had a touch of laughter to her voice. “Not really, just curious. Gimme an hour.”
“Okay, we’re at the coffee place down the street.”
“Did it go okay? I mean, not that I doubt you, but you sound a little funny.”
“Long story, Em.”
“So dinner then, too?”
Murphy bit his tongue to keep from cursing again. “Yeah, fine.”
“Later, Em. My client just started crying.”
It was a lie, but not much of one. The barista smiled and handed Murphy a pair of tall plain blacks. He flashed his teeth and nodded a “thanks” back as he took them. At the table Lester studied his hands again. When Murphy gave him the coffee he clung to it like the paper cup was a precious object.
They said nothing, made no noise at all, save for the occasional sip. After all, Murphy wasn’t there to counsel the man, just distract him until his home was back to normal.
“She-” Lester said at last. “I-” then he gave up again.
“It’s okay.” Murphy tried to fill in the blanks Lester couldn’t. “You didn’t know.”
“No.” He watched his coffee with sad eyes.
And the system enabled you to make a stupid choice, Murphy thought. Damned stupid raisers. Murphy released his cup to keep from crushing it. A tenth of the population woke up one day with the power to bring back the dead. Not true resurrection, but close enough. Just yank the soul back from Guinee, planted it back in a body and then snatched up their profit.
Murphy’s sympathy and good will only went so far. The man in front of him made the purposeful choice to be ignorant in an attempt to emotionally profit. Not surprising that it went bad, but more than irritating that he turned to Murphy for solace in his stupidity.
“Listen, man.” Murphy made sure Lester was looking at him. “You made a stupid choice, and your imbecile bokor helped you along the way. Now you know to let the dead lie, yes?”
“I dreamed about her, lying in her coffin, crying and calling to me during the funeral. No one else could hear her. No one else would help her as she lay there, terrified and alone.”
A chill went through Murphy, much like the one he’d felt when someone else had stolen Mama Leslie’s voice to try to speak to him. Everyone had the ability to speak with the spirits beyond. What everyone didn’t have was the knowledge. How and what it did to a person who courted with the dead. Murphy’s fist clenched and unclenched as he listened.
“After, I’d hear her. A little cry when I was trying to do dishes. Her voice would call my name as I was trying to sleep. She wasn’t going anywhere,” his voice trembled. “She was just laying there in the ground with nothing else to pass onto.”
Someone had pulled a big number on the Petersens. Someone had spent time coaxing him into spending the money to bring his wife back.
“Who did you call to raise her?”
Lester’s expression changed to fear. Yes, someone did far more to him than just raise his dead wife. When Lester’s face seized up into a snarl Murphy dropped his gaze and put his hands out, palms up, on the table.
“Do you have kids?”
Lester snapped back into the sorrowful man he’d been for the last two hours. “Three. Thomas, Julie and Timothy.”
As Lester prattled on about Timothy the attorney and Julie the doctor and Thomas the engineer Murphy texted Em under the table, offering her an extra fifty to search the house for black magic and any sign of the person who had raised Leslie for him. It was too dangerous to push Lester any further.
Em never answered, but another cup of coffee later she came into the shop, eyes roving for the only other black person in the room. She was the picture of cheerful, round face with a beaming smile and large, pale eyes set inside. She wore plain jeans, a few white spots from bleach along one leg and a red T-shirt with her company name and logo across the chest. Her shoulder-length braids were pulled further back with a black ponytail band and six gold earrings, studs or hoops, dangled from each ear. She had the decency to remove her lip ring during business hours and the rest of her piercings and tattoos were impossible to see while in uniform.
“Mr. Petersen,” she strode over to them purposefully, which took all of two steps, and offered her hand. Somewhat confused, Lester took it. “I’m Emzulie Byrne. I work in conjunction with Mr. Murphy on site clean-up. I just want you to know that you don’t have to worry about anything. We’ve taken care of it.”
Em took his hand in hers, gave it a squeeze and then a pat. “Mr. Healdy at the funeral home has already collected your wife and taken her to be returned. My crew is finishing clean-up right now, and you’re more than welcome to come home.”
It had to be that she was a woman, Murphy thought, why people always reacted to Em in a completely different way than with him. Lester Petersen softened and relaxed at the calm tang to her voice, nodding when she made eye contact and looking relieved, even grateful. Em helped Lester stand, taking his arm in hers and patting him again. Then she led him back down the street to his entirely too large two-story home, where her work van and Murphy’s mud-speckled SUV sat outside.
Em’s coworkers waved cheerily to Murphy from inside the van. Murphy himself paused at the Petersen door when he saw red power peeking out from either side of the welcome mat (which amusingly had been flipped over, as if welcoming the house’s occupants into the world rather than welcoming people to the home.) For the first time Murphy smiled, approving of both measures. There was a good reason he depended on Em.
The charming harlot herself had taken Mr. Petersen into his living room, sat him down with a phone while she made him some tea, and insisted he call his children. Em was good at all the intricate details of people that Murphy missed. She went through life less angry at them, maybe. Calling his kids immediately reaffirmed Lester’s connection with the world, and of course, Timothy or Thomas or whoever, offered to come to their father’s side once Lester, still holding back most of his emotion, told them what happened.
Em bustled about as if she belonged there, until Lester’s son asked to talk to her too, to thank her profusely for fixing the terrible situation Lester had been in and taking care of his father.
Em smiled, obnoxious brat as always, as she got all the thanks, and earned a chunk of the pay, for the work Murphy had done. When Lester was settled in, with family on the way who could do a far better job of coddling than even the nicest strangers, Murphy and Em left, stopping at the curb to exchange pleasantries. And a small navy blue leather bag Em had found in the boxwood and roses near the Petersen’s door. Em refused to touch it with her bare skin, instead using a cartoonish yellow rubber glove to stick it in a plastic grocery bag after she’d showed it to Murphy.
“Someone put a whammy on him, all right.”
“Any sign of who raised the wife?”
Em shook her head. “It’s not like they leave cards. Maybe someone who came in to the area for a few weeks then left. She looked like she’d been up and moving for about a month, that makes things harder. So, dinner tonight?”
“No excuses. And bring Chessie.”
She gave Murphy a glare. “I’ll see you at six.”
Then Em put the van between them, climbing in and pulling off a moment later. Murphy scowled at his reflection in the windshield. Six-foot-five, well-muscled but not bulky with a gaunt, pessimistic face, he could see why people related better to cheerful, perky Em. It bugged him, as he got behind his own steering wheel, until he reminded himself he wasn’t there to relate to anyone, just to get a job done.
And the jobs seemed to be unending lately.
Zombies, Murphy thought as he navigated the upper middle-class streets and headed back downtown toward home base, had become a trend. He couldn’t turn on the computer or the television without seeing some new video of a dumb ass chanting “Baron Samedi, heed my call” and waving chicken blood, cold and sterile bought from a deli, over a corpse. And ‘lo and behold the dead would rise, the audience would clap and a month later the wizard raising the body would be gone with the money, leaving someone like Murphy, or the local cops, who had even less of a clue, to clean that shit up. Sometimes literally.
Murphy’s eyes narrowed when a silver sedan cut him off with little room to spare. All the people around him, they knew that the zombies existed, but they rolled out that old, cliched Rainbow and the Serpent bullshit. Baron La Croix wouldn’t have raised an undead, shambling zombie for all the rum and black chickens in the world. It didn’t work that way.
Trouble was, Murphy wasn’t exactly sure how it worked yet. There was still time, he supposed, but every day that went by was another person dying, another desperate family member, or worse, reaching beyond the grave and grabbing what they could find and keep. He wasn’t sure how Em kept so jovial. Maybe he needed a little of whatever she was on.
That thought helped nothing, and instead threatened to take Murphy down entirely darker roads.
McDonalds it was, he thought, stomach growing from the magical imbalance he’d created when he failed to eat after re-laying Mrs. Petersen. Coffee fueled the body, but not the spirit. Murphy picked up a double burger meal and a chocolate shake for the extra sugar and made his way through the drivers trying to kill him on the streets back to his office.
A block away there was a brand new, state-of-the-art (read: overpriced and glitzy) shopping center. Primarily built of glass, steel, neon lights and backroom deals it was chock-full of bars, restaurants and other businesses that could jack up prices to earn enough overhead. Murphy’s office was little more than a double walk-in closet squeezed between a blues bar and doughnut shop. The former never opened before four, the latter never stayed open past two, which was a suitable neighborly relationship in Murphy’s opinion.
Plus they were both good at what they did.
Murphy’s office was divided into two sides. The front was high on what Em called entertainment value. Mismatched wood shelves lined the walls, carefully filled with neatly-labeled glass jars, from traditional Mason jars to fluted colored glass numbers, pouches and baskets of small Ziploc bags. One wall held candles in nearly every color and shape, and plastic bins of leather bits, spools of thread and feathers in various colors. Under a heavy, old glass case there were handmade drums, rattlesnake rattles and a small selection of ritual weapons. On top of the case were the day’s newspaper and an ancient cash register, by modern standards. Racks of pre-made grisgris, poppets, twiggy “voodoo” dolls, incense powders and dried animal parts from bobcat and raccoon tails to rabbit pelts and dried alligator feet sat behind the glass case to keep the curious from pawing over and damaging the merchandise.
Murphy flipped the sign on the door to open, and then moved past the shelf of modern occult texts to the back room. Larger than the front, but not by much, this was his proper office. A utilitarian space of a large desk, a chair behind and two in front, more shelves – these containing opaque boxes left unlabeled – and a pair of guardian filing cabinets. On the far shelf was a small television which Murphy flipped on before sitting behind the desk and digging into his fries.
Petersen was his only appointment on the calendar for the day, but that meant nothing. Life had an unbalanced way of dealing with Murphy and he’d long since given up trying to adjust to it. Despite the voodoo look, his shop was one of two genuine occult suppliers in the city. The demand wasn’t huge, but with only two stores it made for nice enough books between Murphy’s other jobs.
The word “bokor” appeared like a smear on the front door and on Murphy’s business cards. At first people thought, when was the last time they met a business card-carrying bokor? Then they thought back to all the loaded, pop cultural definitions of the work and filtered through them in their head trying to match up the idea with the person they saw in front of them. Most people settled on “witch doctor”, so much so that Murphy saw something click behind their eyes in the way they saw him. Some were fascinated. Some a little scared. A few were angry. He’d even been protested once after the magic started rising and the local media did a story about the shop. But a lot, many more people than the religious fundamentalist and the daffy tourists combined, came to him with real problems. Like Lester Petersen and the little blue bag Em had found in his bushes.
Murphy tossed his fast food trash and dug out the baggie with the pouch. He was reluctant to label it a grisgris because he would have to admit someone who really knew what they were doing had targeted Lester Petersen. It could be a bag hiding someone’s pot stash, ditched when a cop car drove by, for all Murphy knew.
First he used a pair of tweezers to pull it out. It appeared to be made of dark blue suede, like most of the pouches he sold himself. Closing his eyes he let his wide hand hover over it, feeling for intent.
Then he swore again, for him nearly as common an event as breathing. Taking out a pair of sewing scissors he cut open the pouch and spread its contents over the desk top. The bag’s innards confirmed what he’d felt. Magic started with focused intent. The actual practice thereof got a little wobbly because it was completely possible to use white magic for dark intent. And it was sometimes possible to use black magic for pure intent.
Lester’s grisgris traditionally fell into the white category. It was a message pouch, commonly hung around a doll’s neck or nailed to a tree in a cemetery. Inside was a letter for Leslie Petersen in a broken, scrawling script that didn’t match Lester Petersen’s. Someone had set up a basic communication attempt.
No one had hexed or cursed Lester into calling someone to raise his wife. They’d just dialed the phone, magically speaking, and let him hear what was already there. Which also meant Leslie’s spirit hadn’t been taken to Guinee like it was supposed to. It had sat and festered with her dead body, crying out until someone had given her a voice.
Which meant though Lester and Leslie Petersen didn’t know it yet, their case wasn’t really closed. It also meant Murphy would have something to talk to Em about tonight at dinner.