Originally published in Vigilantes of Love
Twilight Tales Books, April 2003
This story started out as a vignette. I was proofing the final layout of Vigilantes of Love, when I got the idea for a quick, short piece that would serve as the title story for the already-titled collection. The book cover featured images from New Orleans, but no story was set there…that night, I sat down and wrote a 1,000 word short piece set in New Orleans that I thought could either begin or end the collection.
I sent the story to Twilight Tales editor Tina L. Jens, who liked the piece, but insisted that if we were to include it, that it be expanded to a full story with a more developed plot. I went back to the drawing board immediately, and the night before the book was to go to press, turned in a revised version of “Vigilantes” that was almost 3 times the length of the original (and a better story, to boot). Tina accepted it, we put it in as the book’s closing tale…and the collection went on to make the preliminary ballot for the HWA Stoker awards for 2003. Since then, I’ve had several people tell me Ribaud needs to have his own novel — which would mean expanding this story to about 30 times its size…I’m not quite ready to go there… yet.
etective Ribaud hated the mornings after.
After the full moon.
Once the inspiration of lovers, the full moon now filled hearts with fear. The curse of the moon had crept through the low buzz of the swampy bayou for decades. Its expanding, deadly army inspired – enforced – faithfulness with their unflinching retribution.
“Was it…?” the woman asked. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen; her arms crossed protectively over the heavy swell of her chest. She still wore a thin nightgown, stuck to her wide thighs with the early sweat of a Louisana dawn. Curls of her salt and pepper hair crushed unevenly around her broad face. Madelaine Mendel was not a beautiful woman, which would not help her in her new status. That of the recently widowed.
Ribaud stroked a black goatee and peered in at Mrs. Mendel’s bed. The bedspread and top sheet were piled at its foot, exposing a long dark smear of crimson that glistened wetly on one side of the white bottom sheet. The other side of the bed was unmarked.
“Was it…?” the woman asked him for the second time.
“I’m afraid so,” he nodded grimly. “You say you heard and felt nothing?”
“No,” she squawked, shaking her head in emphasis. Mrs. Mendel put a tissue to her nose and blew loudly before continuing. Her voice was shrill. “We went to bed around eleven, like usual, and when I woke up…”
She broke into a fresh flurry of sobs.
Ribaud patted her shoulder with a calloused palm. “It’s hard, I know,” he said. This was the fourth house he’d visited since starting his shift, and the morning was young. He had yet to find a corpse; there’d be none and no one to arrest for murder. But he’d seen plenty of blood. That was the way they worked. They didn’t just take vengeance, they took bodies.
“But, if it was them…” she snuffled, casting a bleary but desperate eye at the detective. “…that means my Harry was…”
“That’s just a superstition, ma’am,” he said. “We don’t know why they take who they do.” His voice sounded hollow. According to the superstition that he and most of New Orleans firmly believed, there was only one reason why the army of the moon came and killed.
Legend said they killed to protect the sanctity of love.
Legend said they came from a misused charm of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau in the 1800s.
Legend said they only took those who’d defiled that most sacred of bonds.
Supposedly, the curse originated with a spurned wife who sought revenge on her betrothed for his lustful indiscretions. She begged Laveau for an untraceable way to punish him for his betrayal. She also insisted that his heart be crushed, and that his lifeless body be made to wander the bayou forever, punishing others who had stooped to similar crimes against the heart.
For years the people of the swamps had whispered of the killers that walked by the light of the full moon, only taking the hearts and bodies of the impure of heart. Now the army had moved into the city to take those who sullied the vows of love where they lay in their beds, sleeping the sleep of the adulterous under the baleful eye of the full moon. No corpses or body parts were ever left behind, only the stain of blood from where their hearts were ripped out. And those who were taken joined the legions who lurched out of and back into the swamps on the night of the full moon each month.
Every month their numbers grew.
Every month the cries from those who woke on bloodied beds grew louder.
The curse had become a plague.
Next month, the rotting corpse of Harry Mendel would shamble at midnight through the Quarter, or the Garden District, looking for someone with a black stain marring the heart. And he would kill and keep that heart when he found it.
“It was probably a one-time thing,” he said to the sobbing woman, still trying to comfort her. She would never know for sure, and it would eat at her heart forever.
He’d woken up alone to a red smear on his bedsheets a year ago. He’d known that his beautiful Emily was a tease and a flirt, but he’d always believed it went no farther than that.
The blood on his bed said otherwise.
Ribaud stepped out of Mrs. Mendel’s tiny frame house and took a breath of thick air. The sound of sirens called from all around. If one stood and listened, the cries of lovers lost echoed the alarms.
It was time to pay a visit to Eleanor. This couldn’t go on much longer, or there’d be no one left.
Eleanor Trevail ran Eleanor’s Arcana, a Voodoo shop just off Bourbon Street. It was a favorite destination for tourists who found its bags of white and orange powders (Love Potion #6, Intellect Enhancing Tea, Spirit Deflector Talc) amusing and kitschy. They also found Eleanor’s storefront sign, promising advice on shamanism, alchemy and spirituality, among other disciplines, a great backdrop for their cameras.
But New Orleans natives knew that Eleanor’s store offered much more than a photo opportunity and a bag of oddly labeled tea to take home to the family as a souvenir. Eleanor was the real deal in modern Voodoo queens. She had studied all of the arcane notes and journals and spells of Laveau. She had travelled among the practitioners in the Louisiana bayou, dancing naked with snakes and fire at midnight. Once, without warning, she had disappeared and stayed gone for weeks without explanation. When she returned, people said her black skin seemed to gleam with an even deeper ebon energy than before. Of that trip she would only say that she had been to Africa.
Ribaud moved quickly down Bourbon towards the Arcana. He had worked the Bourbon beat half his life, helping cordon off the street and herd the alcohol-hazed revelers close to the streetside bars, away from the dark and dangerous sidestreets. Evil lurked in the Quarter at night, and not just the spiritual variety. Where there were tourists, there were thieves, and the best way to avoid filing paperwork on a parade of slit-throat bodies was to stop those bodies from ever venturing near where their throats might get slit.
Angel, Eleanor’s most promising acolyte, smiled at him as he shoved aside the beads that bordered the store’s entrance, and stepped inside. A low haze of flutes and airy piano filled the store.
The young clerk moved to meet him. “Haven’t seen you out this way in a few,” she said, brushing a wild strand of red hair from her eye.
“Been too busy cleaning up the stiffs.” He raised an eyebrow and nodded at the back room where the bags of magical talismans and potions were ground up and packaged.
Angel shrugged. “Haven’t seen her today. She left early last night to meet someone for dinner at Arnaud’s. She’s probably at home with a sore head.”
Ribaud laughed, trying to imagine the cool stare of the stoic Voodoo priestess with a drunken hangover.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “Well, if you see her…”
“I’ll tell her you were sniffing around.”
Ribaud fingered a love charm hanging on a rack filled with little sachets. Rose petals and exotic herb leaves rustled in the white silken bag. A sign at the top of the display said, “Make Sure Your Lover Stays True. Love Potion #8.”
“Surprised you still have any of these left,” he said.
She crinkled her nose.
“People figure they don’t need them now. If your girlfriend or boyfriend cheats on you, someone will come along and rip out their heart. What better guarantee of fidelity is there than that?”
“The logic makes sense,” he agreed, “but it doesn’t seem to be working.” He waved behind him as he left the store.
Bourbon was quiet as Ribaud sauntered down its rough cobblestones, the smell of last night’s stale beer still thick in the air. On his left, an old man hosed down the tile in front of a narrow streetside bar. A scum of foam washed into the gutter and down a sewer hole.
Ribaud looked up and saw the sign for the Lust Is Life Condom Company, just a few calculated steps from the Temptations strip club. He was surprised either one of them had managed to keep their doors open over the past few months. But while Bourbon’s lascivious devil-may-care party attitude had dampened, so far the curse hadn’t put it out. Every night the jazz and blues spilled out of the clubs and into the street along with a host of tourists and locals, all looking for a good time. Not even the threat of death could slow the search for the pleasures of the flesh.
He walked back to his squad and decided to take a ride over to Eleanor’s house. Bourbon wasn’t dead yet, but at the rate things were going, it wouldn’t be long. And her Voodoo might be the city’s only hope.
The road to Eleanor’s wound beneath a canopy of cypress branches and grey moss, through a maze of sloughs and swamps and overgrown ponds. While her business was, necessarily, in the city, her real work was done here. To commune with the spirits of nature, one had to actually spend some time there.
Ribaud had first met Eleanor after Emily was taken. He’d been depressed and nearly suicidal at the time, and took a leave of absence from the force. He’d spent hours hanging over the second story balconies on Bourbon, drinking himself into oblivion. He watched the rowdy women from New York and Los Angeles and Chicago holding up their tank tops to earn strands of beads in response to calls of “show us your tits.” Most would wake with headaches the next day and little idea of what they’d done the night before. And most would be gone long before the night of the full moon. They escaped the retribution his Emily had not.
One afternoon while wandering the still-quiet street, he’d poked a bleary head into Eleanor’s Arcana and idly ran his hands across the bags of powders and talismans of bone and feather.
“Do you have one to bring back the dead?” he’d asked, a challenge in his voice, but desperation in his eye.
A woman with skin the color of deepest chocolate flashed a smile that held no humor. “We do not speak of such things,” she said.
“My wife was killed by a curse,” he said, “and I want her back. Isn’t that the point of Voodoo?”
“Tell me more about your wife,” the woman said.
He’d told her about the way Emily had looked up at him through lashes black as pitch. He’d told her about the way she had pursed her lips in a moue that could make men laugh, melt and cry all at once. He’d told her about the night they pledged their love in the reeds at Standing Point, their voices barely audible above the hum of the locusts and cries of the nightbirds.
“If she loved you so much, she would still be yours,” Eleanor suggested.
“Everybody can make a mistake,” he answered. “She was a creature of the senses, always at war with her desires. But in her heart, she always was mine.”
Eleanor said nothing.
“If you are a Voodoo queen, why don’t you stop this curse?” he’d asked. “It’s killing more and more innocent people every month.”
“They’re not innocent,” she whispered.
“They don’t deserve to die,” he said.
He’d left Eleanor’s shop angry that day, but he’d soon returned. An idea had hatched in his mind, and he couldn’t let it go. He began to drink less, and lobby Eleanor more. He got up in the mornings looking forward to the day’s debate at her shop. They’d talk for hours about Voodoo, morality, the curse, and its punishments.
Eventually, she agreed to seek a way to stop the curse, though grudgingly, as it was not a spell of her own spinning. She said she might be able to find a way to halt its spread, but warned that she could never bring back his Emily.
Last week, she’d thought she was close. He’d stopped by the Arcana after work and she had run out to him from the back room, holding a yellowed scroll in one hand and what looked like a rotted turnip in the other.
“This could be the key!” This time, her smile was not cool. “I’ve been looking into some of the things I brought back from Africa, and I think that if I can get one last ingredient, I might be onto something.”
Ribaud pulled his squad down the rutted path that led to Eleanor’s house. It hid beneath the emerald shadows of a forest of heavy branches. Eleanor lived where life was always ripe. Nature overran every attempt by man to tame it here, and that was exactly where she had wanted to live. At a nadir of natural energy.
He knocked on the old wood door, and at his touch, it fell open, letting a thin slice of sun slip inside.
“Eleanor?” he called.
There was no answer.
He stepped inside. The hum of the swamp faded away.
“Eleanor?” he called again, and stepped into the living room. Voodoo masks and shelves filled with all nature of colored vials adorned the walls. The room was painted a deep red, and above a small brick fireplace was an array of statuary, naked brown voodoo women carved in mahogany, and demon serpents wrought in stone. An obsidian knife lay on the wooden floor, blade pointing into the dark hole of the fireplace.
The kitchen counters were empty of food or spell, and Ribaud stepped through the dining room and into the dark shadows of the hall. Even in the full light of day, the sun never found a hold inside Eleanor’s house.
Hers was a citadel of night. A church of the moon.
Grit cracked under his shoes as he stepped into the arch of her bedroom. A yellowed shade covered most of the one window in the room, but there was enough light to see the dark stain across the unmade bed.
“She’s gone,” a tired voice said from his left. It came from a shadowed form sitting in a small wooden chair just beyond the window.
“Who’re you?” Ribaud asked, startled.
“It doesn’t matter,” the low voice sighed. “I loved her. And now they’ve taken her.”
Ribaud looked from the shadow in the chair to the stain on the bed. In all his visits with her, Eleanor had never mentioned a man in her life. Let alone men.
“She came home late last night,” the man said. “And this morning she was gone. Was she with you?”
The chair creaked as the man slowly levered himself upright. He was a big man, a man of iron power, but Ribaud wasn’t afraid. He could see the light in those dark eyes was gone.
“No,” Ribaud said. “Not with me. I came to see if she had gotten closer to curing this curse.” He paused, but the man didn’t react. “It took my wife, too,” he added.
The man laughed then, a low, tortured gasp.
“There is no cure for love,” the man said, and sank back in his chair. He turned his head to stare out the thin slit of glass not covered by the shade.
“And there is no cure for lust, either.”
Ribaud stepped back out of the room and into the hall. The house still sheltered the fetid smell of them. The hall and bedroom were ripe with the stink of rotting detritus, the scum that slimed the banks of a swamp.
It stank of the shallow water stirred by the bubbles of decay at high noon in summer. The smell was anchored in the footsteps leading to and away from the bed. Already drying to a mottled grey, the swamp mud from the feet of Eleanor’s killer led through the living room and out the front door. A black-green smear coated the doorknob and the wood surrounding it.
A tear bled to his chin as Ribaud retraced his steps and left the house of Eleanor Trevail, the most powerful Voodoo priestess in all of New Orleans.
There would be no stopping Marie Laveau’s misbegotten curse.
There would be no stopping the growing army of the moon.
There would be no stopping the fickle human heart.
They had come and gone again, and there would be no cure.
Ribaud would continue to clean up the blood in their wake, until there were no hearts left to break. In twenty-nine more days, they would be back.
The Vigilantes of Love.