A Countesses Conundrum: Chapter 3, Scene 2
Ignatius left the Feathered Cock frowning and irritable. Mousier Broussard’s assistance was simply to point Ignatius in the direction of a Vodou practitioner, who lived even further in the recesses of Allison Hill. Unfortunately, it meant crossing the hill in the opposite direction, cutting over both Derry and Market streets.
Ignatius knew the area by reputation and vaguely recalled a map once showing all of the streets of Harrisburg. Where he intended on going would not be suitable for the hansom cab. The quarters would be tight, and the chance of robbery high. He closed the iron gate behind him and waved to the bouncers on the stoop. Ignatius stepped into the waiting cab. Angela sat waiting impatiently.
“Well, what happened?” she asked.
“Mousier Broussard provide very little useful assistance. He did know of a Vodou woman, Madame LeRoux, here in Allison Hill. We will have to leave the cab behind and make the rest of the trip on foot.”
“Can we not take the carriage part of the way?”
“Hmm, yes I suppose. Once we cross Market Street, we will get out and proceed on foot. Driver, onwards!” called Ignatius. He tossed a pair of streets out to the driver, where he and Angela would get out.
Angela turned down the collar of her coat and patted Ignatius’s arm.
“It will be fine. Tell me about the Vodou woman.”
“Jean Jacques told me that she is from Haiti and that she is feared by most of the people who know of her. He could not tell me if she could be behind the Fredrich’s transformation.”
“Well, we shall have to talk to her and find out.”
“Yes. There is another concern. Jean Jacques said that the book tells of a Zombu infecting a person from a bite. Meaning whatever it is, disease, trance, mutation, it is spreadable. I am concerned about the gardener too.”
“Isn’t he dead?”
“Yes, but with this unknown quantity of Vodou I cannot be sure that he will stay that way.”
“It sounds like we have a whole list of questions to ask Madame LeRoux.”
The carriage made a pair of left turns at intersections and headed back the way it had originally come. Ignatius opened his carpetbag on the seat next to him. From inside of it he took out a small, folded cloth map of the city and shook it out. With Angela shining the light of one of the torches overhead, Ignatius plotted their course of travel after the cab dropped them off. They would only have to walk four blocks in the smallest of hours, which meant that there was a lower chance of running into anyone interested in causing them harm.
Ignatius took out a hand-sized disc of brass that was perhaps half an inch thick. That he slid into his pocket and reached into the bag again taking out another disc. He took a small brass key and put it into a hole in the edge of the second disc. He wound the key around several times and slipped that into a different pocket. The caterwaul of humanity rose in pitch as they crossed both Derry and Market streets. They continued for another three blocks until the cabbie stopped in the middle of an intersection.
“This is it, sir.” he called back to Ignatius.
Angela climbed out and unbuttoned her coat, sweeping it back behind her holsters. Ignatius went forward to the driver’s box and gave him a handful of bills.
“Thank you for your service, you need not wait for us anywhere. We shall make our own arrangements for the return trip.”
“Right you are, sir. Be careful out there, this isn’t a fit place for a man and a lady.”
Ignatius smiled wolf-like, “That is all right. We are a different sort.” He saluted the cabbie with his cane and moved to the side of the street where Angela joined him. Ignatius offered her his elbow and they set off down the street at a casual but brisk walk.
“Did you release it?” Angela asked.
“My little clockwork? Yes, he is on his way. Should he run into anything concerning he will let us know.”
The street they were on was dark. No lights glowed at the top of the lampposts. The pitter-patter of rain drops on nearby roofs help to hush the noise from brothels, flophouses and ramshackle dwellings. The time and weather kept most people indoors for which Ignatius was very grateful. It lowered the chance of encountering someone accidentally.
The houses were wood structures. Constructed from rough planks and cast off scraps of other building materials, the buildings lean precipitously. Ignatius detested the conditions in which the working class lived. No one deserved to live this way. Leaking roofs, lack of heat or proper sanitation. It bred disease, fear and crime, every step Ignatius took reminded him most poignantly of the results of such conditions.
Flashes of a night a few years ago slid past his eyes, flickering images of disheveled workers high on opium and liquor closing in on him. Rage flared up inside of him, making his abdomen grow hot. A tug on his sleeve brought him back to the present. Angela wore a concerned look on her face.
“Are you all right, you started walking much faster,” she said.
“Sorry,” Ignatius said, slowing himself down and allowing her to catch up. “Just reflecting on the ghosts of the past. It is nothing.”
“Your past isn’t ‘nothing’. It is certainly something. Do you want to talk about it?”
“I am not sure how talking about it is going to resolve anything,” replied Ignatius, his voice was terse. Angela decided at that moment to let the matter drop. They were both on edge already.
“Hey, you young people, what are you doin’?” a woman called out softly.
Angela spun with a gun drawn and Ignatius half drew his cane sword. Both relaxed slightly when they took in the caller. It was black woman, standing on a door stoop with the remainder of a cigarette between her fingers.
“Youse gon’ be in a heap o’ trouble, you keep goin’ tha’ way.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ignatius, standing up straight and sliding his sword cane closed.
“There’s a gang of boys up the road a piece. They’s lookin’ for a bit o’ money and don’ mind rough housin’ for it.”
“We are trying to get to Madame LeRoux’s, is there another way?” Angela said.
“Mmhmm. You can go round back my place and cut over a street. That ought to keep yeh out dey way.”
“My thanks, Ma’am,” said Ignatius.
“Mmm, don’ you worry none ’bout it, baby.” The woman tossed the dog-eared remainder of her cigarette away and shuffled back inside.
Ignatius and Angela turned sharply to their right and crossed the small yard, squishing through a quarter inch of mud and water. From inside the house they heard the woman humming of an unfamiliar hymn.
They emerged on the next street and continued on their way. After another block, they reached the intersection where Madame LeRoux’s shop sat waiting expectantly. The entrance was a heavy rug or curtain reaching from the top of the entrance, all the way down to the ground. A thick red candle under glass guttered in the rain filled air.
Exchanging nervous glances, Ignatius led the way into the shop by pushing the curtain aside. Unfamiliar smells assaulted his nose. They were far away scents of an island unknown to him. Thick, heavy smells of burning tallow candles, spices steeping in oil solutions and the vague hint of mortal corruption hung in the air. Ignatius squinted to see in the darkness that surrounded him. There was a scratch and a flame sprang to life. It dropped from chest height toward the floor until it touched a wick. The candle grew in brightness slowly, first giving black outlines to the ephemera collected around the room.
At first, Ignatius thought he was looking at some form of mannequin or oversized doll dressed in rags and bones until it moved. Skeletal was the first word that leapt to mind as Ignatius stared. Her ebony colored skin glistened in the candlelight, stretched taut over thick bones so that her face took on a round shape, but like a river rock coated with water. Not a single hair or a stitch of clothing graced her body. Instead, many strings of shells, bone and glass dangled from neck, wrist and waist.
Ignatius felt his mouth go dry as the woman rose up like a Stygian Witch emerging from The River. Her pouty lips parted slightly in amusement and piercing black eyes locked with Ignatius’s green.
“What do you want in this temple?” she said in a heavily French accented purr. She sounded curious more than any other emotion.
“I have come here to find answers,” said Ignatius.
“Are you sure of what you seek?”
“I seek Madame LeRoux and her knowledge of Vodou. Are you she?”
“Oui, I can see what you want Ignatius St. Eligius. What everyone wants.”
“What do you think that is?”
“Power, love, strength,” her eyes flicked over Angela’s body, “certain other things. Ah, but tonight something special. Sit, I will answer your questions, Mousier.”
Ignatius lowered himself gingerly down to the dirt floor where there was a rug waiting to receive him. Unfortunately, it left him at eye level with Madame LeRoux’s waist and hips. The few bangles did nothing to conceal the curvature of her womanhood. Ignatius gulped and averted his eyes, earning a rich laugh from Madame LeRoux.
“You sit too, Woman of Fate,” she told Angela. Madame LeRoux lounged back into a pile of cushions, a satisfied smile playing across her lips. “I know what it is you want. You want to know of the Zombu.”
Ignatius nodded slowly. Madame LeRoux flashed a brilliant smile at him.
“I can see it. Everything comes with zee price. Will you pay mine, I wonder.”
“It depends on the price. I cannot think you are the only vodouist in Harrisburg,” said Ignatius.
“I am the only priestess in this city. Though I am not the one you seek. There is another Mousier interfering in the ways of Vodou that oughtn’t.”
“What is your price then, Priestess?”
“I require two things: The freedom to visit your land by the river without interference by you or anyone else. Second I want something of ‘ers,” Madame LeRoux said, pointing a long finger at Angela. Pieces of glass and bone tinkled with the movements of her arm.
Instinctively, Ignatius put his arm in front of Angela. “Why do you need something of hers?”
“I have my own reasons. Perhaps I share them one day, cagey man.”
“Ignatius, it’s all right. If she will share what she knows, I do not mind,” Angela said, meeting Madame LeRoux’s gaze.
“Are you certain?” he asked.
Angela nodded confidently, “go ahead, Ignatius.”
“Fine, you may use the riverfront portion of my property. What would you have from Ms. Boas?”
The black eyes flicked over Angela, appraising her.
“Hmm, there are many fine things to ask for.” The priestess tapped her lips with a pointed fingernail, slightly parting them and inserting the tip of her finger. “I want the first promise Mousier made to you,” she said.
“Who, Ignatius? How can I give you his first promise? I don’t even remember what that might have been.”
“Oui, you do. You know very well what it was. Picture it in your mind cherie.”
Madame LeRoux struck a second match and ignited a small fire in a copper bowl. Whatever she lit gave off an acrid smoke that made Ignatius’s eyes water and caused him to contemplate vomiting. Several dried leaves and a handful of spices were thrown into the flame, making it dance about.
“Breathe this in Mademoiselle, then blow it at me,” instructed Madame LeRoux.
Angela did as instructed, leaning toward the billowing smoke and inhaling it. Angela held it for a moment before exhaling a long stream of the smoke. Madame LeRoux leaned forward and breathed in deeply, drawing the cloud down deep into her body. For a long moment, the vodouist sat holding the smoke, humming to herself.
Opening her mouth in a yawning fashion, LeRoux expelled the smoke, which seemed to treble in volume. With their vision obscured by all of the smoke drifting about Madame LeRoux’s voice seemed disembodied.
“Someone has crossed Debard, the soul collector. The Barons are furious that the captain been led astray. Some man, mad and reckless has called upon a wild spirit to do this thing. It puts all of us in peril. This man, he be clubfooted an’ twisty. Twisted and dark. Far darker than you, Mr. St. Eligius.”
“What has he done?” asked Ignatius.
“He used a wild spirit to distract Debard from his duties. Mousier Fredrich is hanging between this world and Heaven. He is a thing, not like a man, with a vile touch. Others will follow, if the Zombu strikes them.”
“How might I stop this clubfooted man and the wild spirit?”
“This will do the trick,” said Madame Leroux holding up a matte black bottle. “Of course there is the matter of price.”
“Of course,” said Ignatius.
“Hush, let her finish,” said Angela, elbowing Ignatius in the ribs.
“Tell us your price then, LeRoux.”
“I require a case of the finest rum, a thousand dollars and the mingled blood of the two of you. The Woman of Fate and The Man of Justice.”
Ignatius made a slight strangling noise, “You cannot be serious! You ask too much.”
“Do you want to stop the bad man? Then you need to stop the wild spirit. When the wild one is gone, Debard will be able to do his job an’ you can lay the European to his final rest.”
Madame LeRoux pursed her lips at Angela and held a vial out to Ignatius, “I’ll take the blood as a down payment.”
She produced a long silver needle and rolled it between her fingers.
“What is this for?” asked Ignatius. “And why do you call Angela ‘The Woman of Fate’ and me ‘The Man of Justice’?”
“Blood is for a time not too far from now. Ye will be back, in desperate need of what it becomes. The titles are jus’ how I see you moving through the spiritual plane. You two are moving toward something ‘orrific. That much I see. Lay yourselves back, now. It will only take but a minute,” said Madame LeRoux, rising out of her cushions and crossing the small distance between them.
She pushed Angela back into a soft pile of pillows, pulling off Angela’s coat and unbuttoning her shirt in order to expose her arm. Moving deftly, LeRoux slid the needle into a vein and took her thumb away from the other end. A slow trickle of blood seeped out of the end into the waiting vial. A few seconds went by, and then the vodouist withdrew the needle and pressed a piece of cloth against the puncture.
“Hold this there. The blood will stop in a minute. Now, Mr. St. Eligius, it be your turn.”
Ignatius rolled up the sleeve of his shirt having already removed his jacket and vest. Madame LeRoux repeated the process on Ignatius and soon the vial was full. She sealed it with a black cork and handed the black bottle over to Angela.
“Make him that’s causin’ the trouble to drink it. Once done, your man will be free of the bad juju. Then, you can lay him to rest.”
Ignatius and Angela rose out of the cushions and readjusted their clothing. They gave each other a glance and shuddered at the same time. When they turned back to Madame LeRoux, they found she was gone.