The Dread Baron Rides Again!
One year ago this week, Beating Windward Press unleashed my first published novel, Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, upon an unsuspecting world. In the year that’s passed (too quickly, I might add) I’ve been tickled pink by the big love the Dread Baron’s earned from readers far and wide, and I’ve been hard at work on a sequel, tentatively titled Crossfire. In honor of Doc’s first birthday, I’d like to offer my loyal readers a taste of what’s to come, with an excerpt from the aforementioned Crossfire.
For newcomers: Doc Voodoo is a pulp hero of my own devising, my take on the shadowy crime fighters of 1930s pulp magazines like The Shadow, The Spider, or The Avenger. By day, he’s Dr. Dub Corveaux–a black physician and man of letters in Prohibition-era Harlem; by night, Dr. Dub Corveaux gets horsed (that is, possessed) by vodou lwa (the lwa being the gods of vodou) and stalks Harlem as a shadowy, supernaturally-powered avenger, serving up two-fisted justice with a heaping helping of hot lead on the side. If you haven’t read his first adventure already, my only question is: what the heck are you waiting for? Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights is available as a trade paperback or an e-book from online booksellers everywhere.
In the meantime, whether you’re one of the Dread Baron’s many fans or just making his acquaintance, I offer a little preview of Doc Voodoo: Crossfire below. Herein, Mambo Rae Rae, a vodou priestess in Harlem in hock to the mob prepares to summon a very nasty lwa for a very nefarious purpose:
Mambo Rae Rae had to do everything right, or the only person hexed might be her.
Following some initial study—she needed to brush up on circles of protection and the like—a trip to Bellevue was in order. There, she called in a favor from a regular petitioner—a laundress with access to a number of corridors and stairwells. The young lady guided Mambo Rae Rae through the Bellevue labyrinth and into an unused basement chamber beneath the lunatics’ wing. There, Rae Rae took a measure of soil from the earthen floor, knowing that the grief and madness poisoning it would have powerful namh.
If this operation worked, the Reverend Barnabus Farnes wouldn’t know what hit him. Yes indeed, Rae Rae would remind that stiff-backed, self righteous old bag of bones that all the unseen powers—from the god he served to the lwa she held commerce with—were more than abstract ideas in dusty old books, more than Sunday sermons and rules inscribed on stone tablets or reproduced in cross-stitch for parlor walls. Those powers were alive, and they were about to lay their dread gazes upon the Reverend Farnes in a most direct and unpleasant fashion.
She just had to make it through the summoning without ending up dead or stark raving mad. If she could manage that, the rest of the operation should be duck soup.
Around nine o’clock on a Thursday evening, Rae Rae borrowed a broken-in Holmes sedan from a hotel maître d’ who often paid her for love charms and Tarot readings, then lit out for Queens. Though clouds cloaked the stars and there was no moon to speak of, no rain was forecast for the evening. She’d work her maji under the open sky, in the most remote location that she could think of which also met the ritual requirements.
Her destination was a wasteland of soot and ash known colloquially as Mount Corona—officially, the Corona Ash Dump, in Flushing. The only mountains in Mount Corona were mountains of ashes hauled from furnaces and butt-cans all over the city, deposited out on Flushing’s edge like the ghosts of hills flattened by the city of skyscrapers and high-rises she left behind. Rae Rae needed a crossroads and she needed privacy. On a moonless midnight, she guessed the ash fields would offer both.
She arrived at the intersection of Corona Avenue and an unmarked country road with only an hour to spare. She parked her borrowed car off the road, its headlamps pointed into the intersection. With no moon or stars, no street lights or civilization near, her only light were those two glaring orbs at the nose of the car and a small lantern that she’d packed in an old, beaten picnic basket with her other ritual implements.
Rae Rae worked by the garish light of the car’s headlamps—a light that spread in a shallow arc across the intersection, throwing every stone and ripple into sharp relief and making of her own shadow a slanting, elongated giant. In the intersection, she drew a large circle, and around the circumference of that circle she drew protective veves and inscribed words of power. That would hold the lwa she’d come to call. She added a smaller circle with more warding words just outside of it: her personal refuge. That done, she fetched a corked bottle of good, imported rum infused with gunpowder and placed it in the very center of the circle. If all went according to plan, the lwa she intended to summon would manifest inside that circle, and the words of power and veves she had inscribed around it would keep it well bound.
At least, she hoped they would.
Kalfou was not to be trifled with.
Mambo Rae Rae had only seen Kalfou summoned twice in the whole of her forty-odd years of life. Both manifestations were memorable in the worst ways, and still sometimes terrified her when she dredged up their memories and dwelt on them too long. One of the possessed voudisants had squatted by a bed of smoldering coals, scooped up an enormous handful, then opened his mouth and shoveled them down his gullet. She remembered the smell of burning flesh as he held the coals… the choked, inhuman laughter he’d offered as he chewed and swallowed them. The laughter had been Kalfou’s. The screams that followed when Kalfou dismounted and departed were the horse’s.
The other manifestation had been a young woman—a beautiful girl whom everyone agreed was the prettiest maiden in the village. When Kalfou mounted her, she’d astonished the onlookers with an absolutely gut churning sexual display, dancing and exposing herself so lewdly that even Rae Rae—no Puritan, surely—had been shocked. When her dance was done, the girl had shattered a number of rum bottles left on the Petro altar and eaten the broken glass as though it were rock candy. She wasn’t so pretty after that.
That was Kalfou. The Lurker at the Threshold. The Haunter of the Crossroads. Chaos Incarnate. He was Papa Legba’s vile twin, eager to throw the doors between the two worlds wide at the slightest provocation and set terrible powers loose in the mortal world.
And here she was, trying to call him up and ask him for a favor.
Rae Rae took an awful risk, calling Kalfou alone like this, trying to bind him, denying him a horse to ride. He could take that as a sign of her mistrust, her fear, or her ignorance and burst his bonds just to prove he could. She might end the night burrowing into one of those ash mounds nearby under his control, then suffocating once he’d departed.
Just remember, she thought, you didn’t have a choice.
She only half-believed that.
Time to get started.
Rae Rae emptied the rest of her implements from the picnic basket: a knife; a kwa-kwa rattle, to provide some rhythm for her Petro song; a small, red velvet bag filled with six silver dollars and some of the lunatic earth from the Bellevue cellars; and finally, an old flour sack, tied shut, moving the slightest as she lifted it out of the basket. There was a black tomcat in the flour sack, caught that very afternoon after she’d enticed it with a dish of laudanum-laced milk.
The mambo took the flour sack and her ritual knife out to the center of the big circle. There, she laid the bag down beside the bottle of gunpowder-laced rum, gently probed the cat’s shrouded shape with her fingers, and plunged her knife into the kitty’s throat. It squawled a little when pierced, then mewled sedately as its lifeblood flowed out of it. Rae Rae left the dying feline in the blood-stained sack and moved hastily into her own protected circle at the edge of the larger one.
She turned her back to the big circle and knelt in her own. Wiser boukour than she recommended keeping one’s back to Kalfou in such situations, lest you engender his fury—or worse, invite him to mount you. The car was still parked on the opposite side of the big circle, headlamps pouring their harsh light over the crossroads and throwing her shadow out before her, a long, lean, darksome marionette that scarcely seemed human, even as it matched her movements. She considered doubling back to the car to turn off the lamps, but the offering was already bleeding inside the summoning circle. She had to get started.
The mambo stitched a rhythm with her kwa-kwa rattle, and began her song. She was astonished by how quiet and deserted the world around her felt, out here in the middle of nowhere, on a night blacker than a coal vein and twice as cold. Tendrils of ash skirled off their scudding mounds as winds whispered through the wasted grounds, making shadows of their own as they danced between she and the car lamps at her back.
She closed her eyes. Beat time with the rattle. Sang. So alone, in the center of those roads to nowhere, she started to hear sounds in the world around her that could not be real. Small scuttlings magnified. Sarabandes made of phantom breezes. A chanting voice in the rattle that shook in her hands, stitching its terrible, unyielding tripartite beat.
The blood was spilt to draw him. If she wanted to petition Kalfou, she would now have to offer him payment.
Still keeping time with her rattle, still singing her song, Rae Rae lifted the little red velvet bag, heavy with silver coins and poisoned earth. She sang the last verse—the verse about a suitable offering and gratitude eternal—then pitched the bag backward over her shoulder. It landed seconds later with a musical tinkling, somewhere behind her.
Then, Mambo Rae Rae waited. Her song was over. To finally open the door and bring Kalfou through, only one action remained.
She bent forward, kissed the paving three times while saying Kalfou’s name in between, then finally made fists and rapped them in rapid succession on the same patch of asphalt.
She kept her eyes shut. She listened. She hoped.
If he manifested, there would be some indication: words on the wind… a new tremulousness to the air … the sudden arrival of a flock of crows or a bevy of dump rats acting as Kalfou’s envoys. Anything was possible. She need only listen for it.
Because she would not open her eyes. She could not. If she opened them and saw something—a new shadow cast alongside her own by those glaring headlights—dear God, Mambo Rae Rae might go mad!
She waited. The temptation to open her eyes—to crack them just the slightest, like a child playing possum for a parent trying to drag them out of bed—was almost unbearable. But she fought the urge. If she opened her eyes, even the slightest, and saw something moving in the light of the headlamps, she might be further tempted. She might want to open her eyes all the way… to look over her shoulder.
But she knew that someone—something—might be standing in that circle if she turned and looked over her shoulder. And she would not want to meet that someone’s gaze. Not now. Not ever.
A new breeze mowed through the ash that surrounded her. Somewhere she heard the flap of small, leathery wings. Insects seemed to be swarming over her bent knees, but she knew that was just aching muscles and an active imagination.
Did she do something incorrectly? Were the circles of protection a misguided addition? Had her song not been loud enough, or long enough? Perhaps the cat wasn’t a suitable offering? Kalfou, being famously hostile and recalcitrant, might not appear for anything so base as a stray tom. If it had been her tomcat and not a stray—an animal she owned and felt some affection for—that might have made a difference…
She counted to twenty, slowly. Still, she heard nothing. Felt nothing. There was only the susurrating nocturne of the night breezes through the ash lands; the great, high lonesome of Queens at midnight. Mambo Rae Rae sighed. She would have to approach this differently… get the help she needed in some other way.
She opened her eyes.
There was a long dark shadow in the light of the headlamps that as not her own.
A cold hand fell on her neck and caressed her, so cold it burned like red-hot iron.
Mambo Rae Rae shot to her feet. Reflex almost forced her to bolt from the circle—to run, as far and as fast as her feet could carry her—but she resisted the urge. She kept her back to the great summoning circle, her eyes on the broad pool of light stretching out before her… and that separate, alien shadow that swayed behind her own.
He was here now. Kalfou. She knew it. It had been his cold-hot hand on the back of her neck.
A series of terrible sounds rose behind her: canvas, tearing slowly under strong, sure hands; small, wet twigs cracking and breaking; a viscous sucking mingled with the gnashing of teeth on cold flesh.
Kalfou was eating the tomcat.
I should never have done this, she thought. Never, never, never, never.
Something flew into her peripheral vision on a low, flat arc, hit the verge of the highway, and tumbled off into the patchy, dead grass beside it.
The tomcat’s remains: broken, bloodied, mangled by strong hands and teeth.
Then, Kalfou spoke…