Chapter 11: Master of Manipulation
My kidnapping, in Mama’s mind, was a declaration of war.
Mama was in hysterics when we got back to the shop. Every House was there; the place was packed to the roof. The Coterie ordered everyone to pack what was needed and get ready to travel to the “safe house” at the first moment of sunrise.
“That bloodsucking son of a bitch!” she exclaimed in her study. In a large box, she was packing everything—charms, books, time logs, documents. Mama’s shop housed every important asset to the Coterie, so they made sure that they left nothing behind for Abraham to use against us again.
I sat in the chair across from the desk and watched her run around like a beheaded chicken, eyes as angry as a cruel sea. Mambo Nene, Mother Babette and Ava Claudette were helping her pack everything in the study, too. Footsteps were trudging around in the house, things banging against each other like we were being evicted and had only hours to get the hell out.
“We should have killed Abraham when we had the chance,” Ava said, a sheathed knife in her hand. “We had the perfect opportunity when we cursed him into the ground—”
“The last thing we needed was a war with the Terah clan,” Nene replied.
“Well, now we got one. But now it’s Abraham leading those vermin.” Mama sat at her desk, rubbing her temples. “The moment Abraham took my baby girl was the moment he wanted a war with us. He’s been planning this shit for decades. Decades."
I felt like the spark that ignited this. If I hadn’t ventured off into his territory, we wouldn’t be scrambling to leave the shop with a vampire threat looming over our heads. I looked down at my hands, still covered in dirt and cuts; I was still in the attire I wore to the Jubilee.
“Lisa.” Mama got up from her chair and sat on the arm of mine. “Look at me.”
I couldn’t. I felt too guilty. I had put everyone’s lives in danger; we weren’t even being given time to mourn Tia’s House’s deaths. How could I build up the courage to look Mama in the eye?
“This isn’t your fault,” she said.
“It is, Mama. I shouldn’t have gone off alone like that. I put Imani in danger, and now I...I...”
I felt the warm tears pooling in my eyes. Ava and Nene decided to leave me and Mama alone the moment I started crying. Mama gently took my head and held it by her chest. I took my glasses off so I could deepen my forehead into her a little more, sobbing like a baby.
“I shouldn’t have come here in the first place,” I mumbled ruefully.
“Hey, don’t go on speaking like that. It’s my fault, Alisande,” Mama confessed into my hair. “I should have been honest with you from the beginning.”
Mama parted from me, got up and went to her desk. She dragged the chair from behind and brought it towards me. When she sat down, she wondered on for a moment before speaking again.
“Voodoo Houses and Vampire clans have never gotten along too well in New Orleans,” she began. “Ever since Marie Laveau began claiming more territory for herself and our faction, Vampires haven’t taken too kind to our presence. Her death made the discord worse. Terah’s clan was the reason for her death; some bloodsucker killed her and threw her body on the doorstep of a House as a message. Shortly after that, the Coterie was formed, and from that day, both groups bickered on against each other. It wasn’t until the 1980′s that we finally found a compromise. We signed some agreements, keeping everybody in their places so no more problems rose up. But Abraham didn’t like that. He thought it made the bloodsuckers look weak, like they were bowing down to the Coterie and any other Voodoo practitioners in the parish.
Your faithful, loyal and merciless leader latches his mouth onto the breast of mortals like a pathetic calf!
“So, Abraham and a couple others who believed in his ‘vision’ went on terrorizing the Coterie in unimaginable ways. He believed that if he hurt us, vampires would gain the upper hand. He went against the treaty and hurt us real bad. He took someone away from me. Someone close.” I saw Mama push down the hurt that wanted to escape from her. She pushed it down hard until it was gone from her face. “Terah didn’t like what Abraham did to us. Terah was a diplomatic bloodsucker—very politically charged. And he knew that Abraham had to pay for what he did. Terah, my Mama and the rest of the Coterie agreed that he had to be punished in order to retain the peace we had for nearly a century. So, we cursed him. We cursed him, buried him deep in the ground with the hopes that he wouldn’t see the world ever again. But somehow, the curse wore off. Twenty years buried deep and he managed to find his way out. And now, we’re here.”
When Mama finished, I sat and repeated her words in my mind a good three times. I tried to understand them; it was what I wanted, her transparency. However, I was a fool to think I could handle it.
“Is that why I can’t turn?” Somehow, my neck throbbed again when I talked about turning into a vampire. “You, I mean. You made sure that I wouldn’t be able to?”
“Some called it paranoia, but I called it precaution,” Mama explained. “While you were growing inside me, I had Miss Aza make me a potion that would meld into your genes when I drank it—an ‘anti-venom,’ to put it simply. So, if the time came that you were an unfortunate victim of a bloodsucker’s bite, you wouldn’t become one of them. The anti-venom would reject the bloodsucker’s vile liquid and push it out of your body before it could affect you.”
For someone against black magic as much as she preached, Mama used it to her advantage whenever it was needed. Mama and Miss Aza didn’t really get along too well, but if the topic was me or vampires or protecting the Coterie, they became tighter than two peas in a pod. Therefore, Mama was willing to put Miss Aza’s practice of Hoodoo aside if it meant protecting me.
After her telling me that an anti-venom was coursing through my blood, I asked myself if I should feel grateful or upset—grateful that this conjured-drink saved my mortality, or upset that Mama wasn’t going to tell me about this anytime soon; the events of that night compelled her to be honest. Had I not seen what I had seen that night, I would be kept in the dark for the rest of my life.
“Why didn’t you kill Abraham when you had the chance?” I asked her. “Like Ava said you should have?”
“Believe me, I wanted to. I was the one who proposed that we burn him on a cross and damn his ashes. But my Mama and Terah were highly against it. They thought that torturing him would be a more effective method than killing him. Terah said that when he thought that Abraham was ready, he would lift the curse, hoping that he learned his lesson. Terah was a fool; Abraham’s rage only grew instead of dissipating. All Abraham did while he crawled aimlessly, dozens of feet in the ground, was plot his revenge. Hepzibah thinks that his rage outweighed the power of the curse and broke it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the reason, since nothing else can explain how the curse wore off. We put a lot of time and effort into perfecting it, and it wore off after twenty years? Impossible.”
“What about everyone else that helped him?”
“Terah was ‘kind’ enough to kill one of them—Yusur, the bloodsucker who had an agenda against me as much as Abraham did. As for the rest? Terah let them go—the Elders and a few apprentices that helped Abraham. Terah was a diplomat, but he was weak for letting them off.”
Elders. My heart sunk in my chest when I heard the word.
“Was Hezekiah one of them?” I asked. Mama saw my piqued interest that I tried to hide, but didn’t comment on it.
“Yes, he was. It’s no surprise. Hezekiah was among the worst of them—ruthless. Vindictive. A master at manipulation. A good liar, he was. Strong, too. Terah valued him dearly, but Abraham?” Mama chucked dryly. “Hezekiah was his boy. Abraham knew that Hezekiah would betray Terah if he asked him to, and he did. And when Hezekiah grabbed Abraham’s hand, the Elders followed. Hezekiah was ‘that vampire.’ The one that the others looked up to.”
When Mama talked about Hezekiah helping Abraham wreak havoc, I hated myself for defending his character in my head. Yes, he did come back for me when he wasn’t supposed to, but he’s still a monster.
Was, I remember. He was in the Jubilee. He’s gone.
“Lisa,” Mama said softly. “You don’t have to worry about Hezekiah hurting you ever again. I made sure that there were no survivors. If one good thing came out of this night, it’s that you got all the Elders in one place. We got some breathing room with Abraham’s Elders gone.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, playing nervously with the fabric of my dress. “I mean, the Elders are strong, right? They could have gotten out somehow.”
“I had the novitiates line the entire perimeter with holy water,” she answered. “There was no way they could have gotten out without burning from escaping.”
At that moment, Mama expected me to be relieved. The deaths of those bloodsuckers—more specifically, Hezekiah Mercier—was a good thing, but an ounce of sadness plagued me. I felt his locket against my skin; I had intentions on returning it to him, but he was just ashes, then. I hated myself for being so sad over the death of a dead man walking, anyway—a man who kidnapped me, humiliated me and left me for dead. But I couldn’t get over the fact that he came back for me. I couldn’t get over the fact of never knowing why, either.
“You should be happy,” Mama said to me after I didn’t react the way she wanted me to. “Hezekiah is gone, Lisa. We have a little more time to figure out what we’re going to do with Abraham, now that the Elders are dead. Aren’t you happy?”
“I know. I am happy,” I lied. “I just...this is going to sound crazy, but I don’t think Hezekiah was as bad as you make him out to be. I still think he was terrible in the sense of everything he’s done, but—”
The look on Mama’s face made me shut up real quick. Every passing second, her fury rose to the top of her head until she exploded.
“You think Hezekiah Mercier was a good man? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“Watch yourself, Lisa.” Mama got up and started packing again, more harshly than before. “What you’re saying right now is exactly what Hezekiah wanted you to think. Vampires are a selfish, disgusting lot. There ain’t nothing noble or good about them, Alisande. Nothing! You’ve seen what Abraham is capable of. What makes you think Hezekiah wasn’t capable of the same thing? Is that the type of monster you’re trying to defend?
Mama was right. Actually, she was more than right—she was spot on. It was my fault, not being able to understand where she was coming from and why. The Elders were dead, and I should have been ecstatic and thankful for my life. Yet as Mama packed her things and sorted them in that box, I kept thinking about Hezekiah and about everyone in the Jubilee. Mama set fire to them without a second thought. Some of them were innocent, I believed—innocent in the sense that they didn’t terrorize people for their blood.
“Help me pack these books,” Mama ordered. By then, I knew the conversation was over. Mama wanted to establish some sort of normality by asking me to help, but the tension was evident.
The fear was evident, too.
The moment the sun peaked over the horizon, the Coterie deemed it safe to leave the shop and begin our journey to the safe house. All of us hauled the boxes and bags into various different SUV’s and locked up shop. I rode in my own car behind Mama’s; I insisted on driving. I didn’t want to feel less ordinary than I already felt by not being able to drive my car anymore.
Three of the Coterie’s novitiates rode with me. That’s where I met them officially for the first time besides the time where Imani and I stumbled into the shop the night before—Kizzy, Esther and Johanna. Kizzy was the only one who was around my age. Esther and Johanna, however, were much older than me. I remembered Esther the most. She was Mambo Nene’s novitiate, and the novitiate who heard the screaming the night before—the screaming that sounded like Mama’s. Kizzy belonged to Missus Taima’s House, whereas Johanna belonged to Qadira’s. They were a nice lot, but only because they didn’t want to make anything awkward. They talked about TV shows and music, forgetting the fact that we were on the cusp of a vampire war and refusing to mourn a House’s death.
The safe house was wedged deep in the wetlands of the New Orleans parish. Through the thick bayou vegetation, a large colonial stood hidden from the rest of the world. Trees seemed to be as high as buildings; they covered the sky, leaving us trapped between the damp swampland and the spots of light that managed to break through the leaves. In order to reach the front porch of the house, we had to navigate through docks that made sure we didn’t get our feet wet (or chomped off by gators).
The Coterie instructed everyone to get started on blessing the house. Groups began breaking off, rummaging through the boxes for incantations and potions, herbs and tomes. I asked a group if I could help them. I didn’t know how to bless a house, let alone anything on voodoo besides what Mama did for her profession. But I felt like helping the Houses was the least I could do. The members were hesitant; Mama was behind me.
“You ain’t got no business helping out,” she said.
“Why? I can’t just sit around—”
“They can manage well on their own, Lisa.”
There was no use arguing with her. I felt hopeless; pathetic, being the only person who was unable to do anything helpful. Everyone was bringing in boxes of things to fill in the space in the house, and I couldn’t even assist with that.
“If you let me shadow you, I could be of use,” I told Mama. “I want to help. Maybe if you took me as an apprentice; I have an interest in this. I want to be involved.”
Mama rolled her eyes and asked me to follow her. We climbed the sensitive staircase to the second floor, which was only a big room with large windows, a table with nine seats surrounding it. There were ten chairs lining the entire room and candles already being lit behind each one; I saw Missus Taima praying with a gris-gris wrapped around her fingers. The portrait of Marie Laveau from my mama’s study was being hung at the front of the room over some sort of shrine. I didn’t understand Mama’s intent on bringing me up here and showing me the room where the Coterie convene. As far as I was concerned, it was her way of avoiding my plea to help in any way I could.
“This ain’t some sort of game that you can insert yourself into, Lisa. Look around.” Mama gestured to the entirety of the room. “I already told you that this is a religion; a way of life. Everyone in here has been part of voodoo before this ‘vampire threat’ was as serious as it is now. You can’t just read some books and suddenly name yourself a voodoo priestess.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just want to help.”
“I know,” she insisted. “But I already got a novitiate. Right now, you can just help by unpacking what’s downstairs after you bring your stuff up to your room.”
I stood there and stared at Mama, waiting for her to crack and at least let me stay for the meeting I knew they were going to have. But her eyes were austere like her posture. I sighed and agreed to her terms.
Mama showed me the way to my new room. It was an attic room, but I didn’t mind the ladder I’d have to climb. At least it was far away from everyone.
I hauled my stuff through the trap door, Mama close behind. It was a comfortable sized room, with windows that were almost covered by the trees outside yet gave me a small view of the bayou below.
“My room is right underneath yours,” Mama told me. “If you need anything—”
“Alright.” I nodded her concern off. She thought I was temperamental because of what I went through the night before with Abraham, Hezekiah and the Jubilee. And that could be a contributing factor. But what overpowered those reasons was Mama and her passionate need to protect me by locking me away. See, Mama knew that I always wanted to invest time into learning about Voodoo, but she forbade it. And especially then, she didn’t want me involved; she already had a ‘novitiate.’ Forget the fact that I was twenty-four years old and capable of making decisions on my own. Voodoo was a decision that was off-limits.
“I’ll have someone bring you something to eat,” she said to me before leaving. The trapdoor stayed cracked a moment longer. “When you’re done, you can come downstairs and help unpack.”
“Thanks,” I replied. Mama lingered a little more before finally exiting the room. I sat at the foot of the bed and rubbed my eyes over and over like I would wake up from that dream. But when I was hit with the truth that it was indeed a reality I was living through, I started unpacking my bag. It was like déjà vu—a couple of days before, I was unpacking my bags at the shop. Who knew what hideaway we’d be running off to, next?
Thirty minutes rolled by before knocking on the wood startled me. I realized it was the door someone was knocking on.
“Come in,” I yelled to them. The first thing I saw was a hand holding a steaming bowl of cheesy grits. Then the head and the body popped through.
“Why couldn’t Alize give you a regular ole room?” Miss Aza complained. I laughed a little at her as she came in. After she closed the door with her foot, she dusted off her dress with one hand and approached me with food in the other.
“It ain’t nothing too fancy,” Miss Aza apologized. “But we don’t got too much in terms of food at the moment; Debbie and Charlotte left on a food run with some House members a short while ago.”
“No, it’s perfect.” I took the bowl from her hand and blew some of the steam away. “Thank you.”
I began to eat courteously at a desk in the corner. Miss Aza sat down on my bed and watched me, and as I stirred the melted cheese around in the grits, Miss Aza began small talk.
“How are you holding up, baby?” she asked me.
I turned to look at her and wondered if it was any use lying; the Coterie were above the average women you chatted up.
“Tired,” I laughed. “But I guess I’m happy to be alive. A little confused, too.” I twirled my spoon around the bowl. “Honestly, I’m having a hard time understanding what I’m feeling.”
“That isn’t a bad thing, Lisa. You went through a lot in a span of hours. You saw things that few have seen and discovered things that few have discovered. Don’t be ashamed of what you feel.”
Miss Aza had a point. Then again, I was sure that the Coterie were blessed with some divine knowledge of the world and how it works.
“So, what happens now?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she answered, weaving her locs into a braid down her shoulder. “Tia’s House’s funeral is the first thing on the list. Come to think of it, though, I doubt Madam Dumont would want to waste any time mourning while Abraham is still out there.”
“Mama said that we’ve bought ourselves some time by killing the Elders.”
Miss Aza huffed at my words. “Right. If anything, killing the Elders has poured out half the sand from our precious hourglass. Abraham’s temper outweighs any minions he can employ, and killing his most prized ones will only fuel him than make him simmer out.”
I stopped stirring my grits and continued to look at Miss Aza, processing her words. Too often, Abraham’s power seemed to be underestimated—first Terah, now my Mama. And with Mama having burned off Abraham’s Elders, who’s to say that she won’t suffer the same fate as Terah? Abraham mentioned to me that coming after Mama directly would be too bloody, but I started to believe that he would quickly change his mind after what she did at the Jubilee.
Miss Aza saw the fear and worry in my eyes and tried to retract her statement, but the damage to my tranquility had already been done.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you like that.”
“It’s fine.” I smiled uncomfortably. “Maybe Mama’s right. The Elder’s being gone should buy us a little bit of time, right? At least a little?”
Miss Aza nodded to give me the benefit of the doubt. She prompted me to finish my food and rest before she got up to leave. I wanted to ask her so many questions—the questions Mama refused to answer for me. I let her leave, though. The risk of her telling Mama of my curiosity outweighed satiating the curiosity itself.
I wondered, however, if Miss Aza would tattle on me, considering her heavy opposition to Mama’s methods in the first place.
Day three at the safe house and I felt like I was losing my mind.
Besides access to the bathroom and the kitchen, I was locked in my room like a prisoner. I sat on my bed, writing nonsense for my novel or watching antenna TV. Mama assured me that it wouldn’t be long until we would be able to go back to the shop, but I was having a hard time putting faith in her words.
The novitiates didn’t see me as someone to make into a potential friend. They saw me as someone who was the daughter of their beloved leader, hence the ‘boundaries’ that needed to be established. Therefore, striking up conversation wasn’t easy; I think they all thought that I would ask them questions that the Coterie didn’t want me to know the answers to.
So on the night of the third day, I took a late shower to soothe me into achieving sleep. Everyone else in the house was deep in slumber, and I liked it. The quiet was nice.
When I hopped out, I dressed myself in some fitting shorts and a loose tank top. In the silence of the house, the insects and animals were having the time of their lives out in the bayou; I envied them. Dancing through damp vegetation sounded better than being locked in a room that didn’t belong to you.
I sat down at the desk and opened my laptop. So far, the novel that Mama didn’t want me to write was coming along in some way. When I read through the first chapter, though, I realized that everything I wrote was reminiscent of what I went through with Mr. Mercier—the kidnapping, the mutual hate, him wrestling me to the ground because I tried to kill him. I didn’t hate the outcome, though. It was interesting fiction, and I needed some way to keep that bastard’s memory alive, right?
I got more paragraphs working, but midway through, I saw something glistening on the desk—Hezekiah’s locket. The one I was never able to return to him. I hadn’t looked into it and I didn’t know why; I was a curious little thing and expected myself to have opened it the moment I had the time. But it remained closed; I wondered what was inside?
He was dead anyway, so what did I have to lose?
I slowly reached for the locket and handled it carefully, like it would shatter if I wasn’t gentle. Cautiously, my fingers flipped open the cover plate. There were two photos inside, old in both date and wear. The first photo was of a group of men dressed in cheap work clothes, shovels, and pickaxes in their arms. All of them were black; they must have been contractors or miners. I immediately knew who Hezekiah was out of the group—third man to the left. He looked exactly the same from the time I met him compared to himself in the photo. Jesus, how old was he?
The second photo was a close-up of a woman, portrait style. She was beautiful—calm face and gentle eyes, hair tied up with ribbons and bows. I’ll admit, my heart ached a little when I came to the consensus that the woman was probably Hezekiah’s wife during his ‘prime.’ What did she think of Hezekiah’s vampirism? Was she even alive to see it through?
I closed the locket and put it in the desk drawer. Hezekiah’s life wasn’t mine, therefore thinking so heavily about people who are dead and gone was a waste of time. Erasing his influence from my brain, I continued working on my novel (irony: erasing Hezekiah’s influence from my brain only to use it again in my writing). My fingers swept away on the keyboard until I heard knocking.
“Coming,” I said. I got up and started for the door. I thought it was Mama waiting for me, but to my surprise, it wasn’t her.
Contrarily, it was no one.
The hallway was empty. I even looked around twice, but no one was there. I retreated back into my room and locked the door this time. Once peaceful, the quite was now eerie. Suddenly, I recollected the stories I heard about these beings called “Skinwalkers.” I had a Native friend who (apprehensively) told me about them in middle school. In Navajo legend, they are medicine men or witches who have attained the highest form of priesthood, thus inflicting pain on others with their power by choice. ‘Knocking’ is one method they use to declare their presence. I thought my friend’s explanation was nonsensical, but the more I thought about it in my room years later, the more it made sense—Rashida. The Jubilee. What if Rashida, the witch that I knew she was, was alive and coming to seek revenge for her near death as a Skinwalker? I didn’t even know if Rashida was Native, but my gut was telling me that it was her.
The knocking came back followed by my name. For a moment, I almost opened the door and ran to my mama’s room, but I recognized that voice.
“Lisa,” the voice said again. My mind was playing tricks on me in many ways. Either it was Rashida—the Skincrawler—altering her voice to someone I recognized, or it was Hezekiah. But that was impossible because he was dead.
That son of a bitch was supposed to be dead.
Slowly, I turned around to the open window and delved deeper into disbelief when those amber eyes looked straight at me from the tree outside, like an owl waiting on a branch. The eyes came closer until they were in the light, the shadows playing against the curves and features of Hezekiah’s body. I cursed under my breath; I shouldn’t have left that fucking window open.
"You,” I breathed out. I ran to my bed where a cross was hanging above the bedframe and grabbed it off the wall.
This can’t be happening.
Hezekiah held his hands up at me, eyes wide but not afraid. His shirt was ripped and tattered with the buttons having torn off, leaving most of his sculpted chest and stomach exposed. Soot and ashes dotted his dark copper skin but he wasn’t scarred or burned.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Lisa,” Hezekiah said to me.
“And I’m supposed to believe that?!” I shouted at him, keeping the cross between us. “I swear, if you come into this goddamn house—”
“I can’t come into the house.”
My guard was let down for a second. “What?”
“I can’t come in the house unless you invite me inside.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said to him. It wasn’t that it didn’t make sense, it was just that I didn’t think that rule was real—vampires needing an invitation in order to enter a house. That must have been why Tekoah had to lure me out of the shop instead of just taking me from my room.
“So, you want me to invite you inside? Why?”
“I need to talk to you, and I have something important of yours. Please.”
I glared at him and waited for a sign of dishonesty, but his face was sincere. His hands were still at his sides, his eyes pleading for me to give him a chance.
“I don’t believe you. Abraham put you up to this, didn’t he? Trying to succeed where you failed the first time?”
Hezekiah laughed and rolled his eyes. He moved down the branch to come closer to my window, his hands still near above his head. I knew that he was unable to step into my room, but still, seeing him so close kept me on edge.
“Abraham would kill me if he knew I came onto Coterie territory by myself,” he said, his voice low and cautious, “not to mention the Coterie killing me themselves for being on their turf.” Hezekiah sighed irately. “Look, I’m already on Abraham’s damn list for coming back for you instead of leaving you at the Jubilee; I’m taking a lot of risks being here.”
There were two little people on each shoulder of mine: a demon on one shoulder, an angel on the other. The demon urged me to let Hezekiah in my room despite the hell I’d have to pay if the Coterie knew that I even spoke with him. The angel? The angel told me to leave him out in the dark and alert Mama immediately. After everything Mama told me Hezekiah was involved in, I would be a fool to let him inside—a fool that’s alive because of him coming back for me. I’d probably be in Abraham’s possession, had Hezekiah left me there indefinitely.
I thought about it—long enough for Hezekiah to have to sit down on the branch, swing his feet and stare up at the stars breaking through the heavy tree leaves to pass the time. I tightened my hand around the cross for strength before giving in.
“Fine. You can come on in, but if you try anything—”
“I won’t,” he promised. I swear, when Hezekiah came jumping through my window as stealthily as a panther, I felt a pang of regret in my chest. Hezekiah was intimidating. Not only because he was a blood-sucking monster, but because of everything else—his towering height, his muscular body, his burning gaze and his confident stride. I held the cross to my chest and felt my heart beating through my ears. I frowned at him, but everything else was as weak and pathetic as a mouse.
He won’t try anything, I calmed myself in vain. He won’t hurt me.