Chapter 19: Friends On The Other Side
The vampire hunters called themselves the Silver Syndicate.
Founded in New Orleans right after the civil war ended—1865 or 1866, Jonathan wasn’t too sure on the exact date. At first, their sole purpose was to hunt down any abominations against God—witches, werewolves, vampires, what have you. Then the vampire epidemic began to worsen (coincidentally, after Marie Laveau’s death in 1881). People went missing, ravaged bodies were found by riverbanks and in alleyways and people reported mysterious “human bite marks” on their necks. That’s when the Silver Syndicate became dedicated to the eradication of those infected with vampirism. And quickly, their membership began to grow.
“We’re a fraction of a small collective,” Jonathan explained to Miss Aza. “There are about two hundred of us spread across New Orleans currently, thousands more across the country.”
“So, your goal is to kill off every single bloodsucker down here?” Kizzy asked, condescendingly if I didn’t know any better.
Jonathan shook his head. “Not necessarily. We slay Leeches when we can, but we know that the key to ending the problem starts at the source. Vampires need leaders—strong ones. Without somebody to follow, they’re weak. Vulnerable. Target the leaders, and the entire clan falls. We have a collective in Salem, Massachusetts, one out west in Utah and another one in Michigan along with dozens more. But our largest collective is down here in New Orleans. Terah’s Clan—Abraham’s clan, has been a problem for almost three hundred years. And ever since Terah’s death, the clan has become bolder. Deadlier. Abraham has been actively recruiting.”
“So, that’s why you were by the Bayou of the Shunned,” I asked them. “You were tracking down the Elders?”
“Not quite,” Midas answered. “We were down there to get some potions from the witch that lives there.”
Midas’ alibi further cemented the fact that Aubade did belong to them; they were the vampire hunters Sajida told us about—the ones that traded their precious dagger for homemade invisibility potions.
Aza stepped forward. Her demeanor intimidated even Serj—the biggest man I had ever seen.
“So, your goal is to try and kill Abraham?”
“Yes,” Jonathan said. “But killing the Elders is just as important.”
“And we can’t do that if you want to keep Hezekiah alive,” Azari butted in. “He’s got a large bounty on his head; he and Abraham’s crimes are among the worst in the Vampiric Catalog.”
“The Vampiric Catalog?” Esther questioned. The Silver Syndicate looked surprised that we were unfamiliar with the term.
“It’s kind of like an almanac,” Azari said. “It’s continuously updated as history drags on. We use it to track down a clan’s favorite hunting grounds, their most gruesome kills, their hideouts, a clan’s most dangerous family members, so on and so forth. Hezekiah’s name is among the most mentioned.” Azari spat on her boot. “That bastard.”
Serj growled lowly. We all looked to him; he agreed with Azari. Completely.
“Well, Miss Aza is right,” Rocio spoke up. The look on her face was quite odd; she looked surprised that she was defending Aza’s idea to keep Hezekiah alive. “I mean, if we do keep him alive, we could get some information out of him about Abraham, his plans, even information on other clans in the area.”
“You think Hezekiah Mercier, the Hezekiah Mercier, would rat out his clan?” Midas comments, almost spitting on Rocio’s idea.
“I think so,” Kizzy added. “Vampires hate captivity.”
"Captivity?" Heather stressed, and that’s when it all began—the arguing. Bickering. Questioning of intelligence and authority. The vampire hunters claimed that the plan was stupid while the novitiates argued that any other option would get us killed. Aza and I were the only ones not participating in the yelling. I didn’t know what to say in participation; hours before, I convened with a witch in order to acquire something to kill Hezekiah, but now that the Silver Syndicate is arguing in favor of the action, I’m speechless. I had the option of killing him in the forest with Aubade as Eric—the then dead Leech—left him debilitated. But I didn’t. I saved his life instead. I wondered if sparing Hezekiah’s life and using him for information would be the logical thing to do, but my emotions countered against this logic. My emotions wanted him to suffer for what he did—his crimes. But in that moment, I came to the consensus that I acted upon my emotions too heavily. I had to think and act rationally.
And the rational option was to keep Hezekiah Mercier alive.
Aza, fed up with everyone’s childish bickering, silenced everyone with a hiss escaping between her teeth. I didn’t move a muscle nor uttered a word as she neared me.
“I want you to accompany me,” she told me.
“I need to call upon a spirit in order to revive this sacred blade, and I want you to be my supplicant.”
Kizzy, Rocio and Esther stared wide-mouthed. Miss Aza—one of the most influential figures in the Coterie and arguably in all Louisiana’s voodoo Houses—wanted me to accompany her during the summoning of a Loa—a voodoo spirit. And I didn’t know why. I was so used to Mama rejecting my propositions to be her ‘supplicant’ in her practice of voodoo that Miss Aza’s decision to involve me was surprising. I stared at her and waited for the punchline, but it never came. Aza was serious.
“Her?” Rocio drawled out disgustingly. “Priestess, she isn’t even a novitiate let alone part of a House.”
“I agree,” Kizzy added. I felt betrayed; Kizzy was almost always on my side. “Do you know how upset Madam Dumont would be if she were to find out that Lisa was a supplicant in the ceremony?”
“Lisa is an adult capable of making her own decisions,” Miss Aza argued. “She was the one that wanted to seek out a means of revenge upon Hezekiah and she’s the one that traded something of hers for Aubade. It only seems right that she pose as my supplicant; Erzulie will be more convinced by our testament if Lisa attends.”
I knew bits and pieces about Erzulie at the time—goddess of love, Loa (spirit) of sexuality, passion, pleasure, and prosperity. Aza revered her deeply; her House paid heavy reverence to Erzulie the most.
“So, this little ‘ceremony,’” Jonathan said, “This is going to revive Aubade?”
“If Erzulie finds us worthy.”
“That’s a big ‘if,’” Azari commented patronizingly. Miss Aza caught onto her tone quickly.
“Then go on and find another Mambo willing enough to bless a vampire-slaying dagger,” she retorted. “If you want this to work, you do this my way. And that includes keeping Hezekiah alive until we get what we need out of him. Your lack of faith in the Loa will only hurt our chances, so I suggest you show a little respect to both me and the gods.”
For once, the Silver Syndicate brought down their guard, knowing that Miss Aza was their best hope at getting close to Hezekiah. So, once Miss Aza knew that she had put them in their place, she asked me, officially, if I would be her supplicant in the ceremony to summon the goddess Erzulie.
I said yes.
We waited until Tuesday. Tuesday was one of the two sacred alter sessions for Erzulie.
Aza took me, Kizzy and Esther into the city while the rest of the Coterie were holding an “emergency meeting” about the growing vampire threat and what to do about the vampire hunters that were under their roof. Evander was well enough to travel, meaning that Mama was close to kicking the Silver Syndicate out; they gave the Coterie too much hope in dealing with the bloodsuckers. This made Jonathan impatient; he wasn’t leaving without Miss Aza fulfilling her promise.
“Patience,” Aza told Jonathan in her room as Mama argued with the rest of the Coterie outside. “I’m not going to rush our reverence to Erzulie because of your impatience.”
At noon on Tuesday, we walked into a bakery nestled deep in the 9th ward, empty and quiet except for a few stragglers. The owner knew Miss Aza; she was the only Priestess with her House in the 9th ward. Everyone else had their Houses near or in the 5th ward where all the tourists were at.
When we sat down at the bar top, none of us said a word. We were nervous; summoning a goddess behind the Coterie’s back was a count of insubordination, especially for the reason we were doing it for. But Miss Aza was never keen on obeying the Coterie, being she was constantly marginalized by them as a ‘misfit’ of some kind.
“Relax,” she eased us; Esther was near having a panic attack. “I can smell the jitters on y’all from all the way over here.”
“Is the ‘summoning room’ somewhere in here?” I asked her, my legs shaking the stool to death. “Is it hidden in the kitchen or something?”
Miss Aza then busted out laughing while we all looked on, confused. I didn’t realize how dumb my question was until the owner came up to Aza and greeted her warmly. Rocio and Esther glared at me as I held my head down in embarrassment.
“What you coming in here for all stranger like, Aza?” he asked, smiling.
“Shoot, you know I be busy, Henry. Ain’t nothing personal. But you know I be needing some of those cakes you got fresh every day. Best in the whole goddamn city.”
Henry laughed, “Go to bed, girl!”
When their laughter subsided, Henry looked at us and smiled again. He was an older man—tall, skinny and with wise eyes. I could tell he never went a day without smiling.
“And what y’all called?” he asked us. We each took turns introducing ourselves. When I told Henry my name, he hummed lowly.
“Alize’s daughter?” he asked.
Aza nodded. “Mhm. Coming down to visit for the summer.”
“Ah, alright. You look just like your mama; got her frown, too.”
Esther and Rocio actually laughed at that one. I grinned uncomfortably.
Aza then went ahead and ordered one of almost everything Henry had—cakes, croissants, sweet breads, beignets (Esther was real let down when Aza wouldn’t let her have any) plantains, you name it. After waiting silently for half an hour, Henry came out with boxes of sweets. Aza tilted her head towards the boxes until the four of us took them out of Henry’s arms.
“Much oblige, papere." Aza slipped him a generous tip that she wouldn’t let him refuse. “Really. I appreciate it.”
“Ain’t nothing for you, Aza. These should last you a week!”
“With my friends? Ain’t no way,” she joked.
Before she left, Henry asked if Aza would be opening shop again soon.
“Pookie went to see you for some potions the other day but found your place locked up?”
“I’ve been away taking care of some business,” she answered. “But go ’head and tell Pookie to come by tomorrow morning. I’ll be there.”
Kizzy and I looked at each other. We weren’t yet granted the clearance to come back to the city yet; being in Henry’s shop was risky enough. But Aza had plans to come back home by tomorrow’s time. Either she was lying to Henry or was willing to face the Coterie’s wrath. Her nonchalance fascinated me; her tribe did little to warrant any guilt from disobeying them, even after what happened to Tia Valeria.
We walked out of the shop into the relentless heat. Aza instructed us to be very careful loading the sweets into the car. At the time, I still didn’t understand why we had acquired near a hundred dollars worth of treats. Then it hit me; how could I have forgotten? Erzulie loved pastries and sweets. In fact, it was something required to have if you were to summon her. Aza worshiped Erzulie heavily; only the best for her most revered Voodoo goddess.
When we arrived at Miss Aza’s House, it was hard for us not to stare in confusion and even a little disgust. Her House was small, sitting on the corner of a quiet street. Her sign was modest; barely visible if you didn’t look hard enough.
“No wonder Priestess Hepzibah never had me visit here,” Rocio whispered when we got out the car.
“Hepzibah never had you visit because she’s still bitter that this House was given to me over her,” Aza told Rocio. Rocio quickly shut up as I stifled a laugh.
Aza pulled out a large gold key from her pocket and unlocked the door. Inside, the House was dark and cool—a nice break from the heat. She locked the door behind her when we were all inside and instructed us to take the sweets up the stairs.
“My House didn’t clean up too well before we were forced to leave,” she said, basically spitting out the word ‘forced.’ “But make yourselves at home. I’ll make sure to put them all to work when we come on back.”
Unlike Mama’s shop, Aza’s wasn’t decorated with enticing trinkets and displays. It looked like a normal house on the inside; Aza loved dark-colored décor.
“Go on, now,” she said to us as we studied her house with wandering eyes. “We ain’t got all day.”
Slowly, we walked through a hallway that led to the staircase. Esther’s breathing was heavy behind me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“I hear something,” she said to me. “I don’t know what it is, though.”
“When does a clairvoyant ever know what they’re listening to?” Kizzy asked patronizingly. Esther huffed and continued walking, but I still saw that something was troubling her mind. Rocio suggested that smelling pastries but not being able to eat them could take a “toll” on a girl like Esther.
“Shut up,” I hissed at her. “Do you ever take anything seriously?”
“I can ask you the same question, Lisa. Do you even know what a supplicant is? The chant required to summon Erzulie? What her favorite offerings are?”
I knew the answer to both; I studied the goddess’ book. I crammed as much information I could about Erzulie. I knew everything about Her, both Dantor and Freda, Her two spheres. But Rocio, Esther and Kizzy? They were novitiates—hounsi who have participated in countless ceremonies and have made an impression to the gods. All I had was my relation to the head Priestess.
I didn’t answer Rocio’s questions; Esther could hear what I was thinking; I could see it on her face. She felt bad for me, but I didn’t want to indulge in her pity. I wanted to make things right. I wanted revenge. So, I pushed all self-doubt aside and prepared myself to follow any and all orders Aza had for me. I was going to accept the honor of being a supplicant.
Even if I didn’t really deserve it.
When we were upstairs, we stood by and waited for Miss Aza. All the doors were locked, the curtains on the windows pulled. The house was very ominous, and the fact that Esther claimed she was hearing things made me shiver. Finally, Aza came up the staircase with a basket of items covered with a blanket. She stared at us, arms filled with boxed of treats.
“Y’all brought the right clothing?” she asked. We all nodded. I went over the outfit I chose; Erzulie loves the colors pink, blue, and lavender. I chose to wear blue. I wasn’t sure what everyone else wore.
“Now, I understand that relations are tense between you,” Aza explained. “Between everyone in the Coterie. But in this house, we put all negative energy aside and focus solely on giving ourselves undividedly to Erzulie. You three know how to give yourself to the gods when called upon.”
Esther, Rocio and Kizzy nodded surely. I stood, not able to answer but adamant on participating. Miss Aza knew this; she knew revenge was ripe in my heart. But I also knew that the gods came first, with wishes and requests second.
With one last look, Aza gestured for us to follow her to the last door down the hall. With the same key she used to unlock the front door, she unlocked this one and walked inside. And when we followed, I almost lost my breath.
“Everyone get changed,” Aza said, setting down the basket and pulling out Aubade to place on the large, decorated altar. “I need a moment to meditate before we begin.”