Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction

Phantom Pain

[Originally published in Talebones and received an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Tenth Annual Collection.]





Nobody sells his soul all at once. No, the Devil buys on the layaway plan: he trades you a few sins for this piece, a cheap vice for that one, damns you by scraps and slivers. By the time he holds the pink slip and consigns your sorry ass to Eternal Flame, you don't even know what happened, or how. Listen close, friend, and don't be smug. It's a short step from Paradise to the Pit… but it's one hell of a long drop. You won't be safe until you're in your grave.


In this part of Louisiana, you won't be safe even then.


I came down from Chicago twelve years ago - football scholarship to LSU. Friend, I was one scary middle linebacker. Made second-team all-American as a sophomore, had the NFL scouts drooling all over themselves. Figured I'd go hardship after my junior year, pick up a cool million in signing bonuses, maybe more. Then that lard-ass hillbilly tackle blind-sides me in the Georgia game, and my knee is gone. My season is gone. My career is gone. Was I bitter? Damn straight! I would've killed that redneck bastard if I'd had the chance.


Maybe that's when I sold the first piece.


Still, I was smart - smarter than most white folks down here want a black man to be - and I got my degree. Managed to land a job in New Orleans with the NOPD. That was where I met Celie. God, she was one fine Creole woman - skin as smooth and sweet as milk chocolate, eyes as wet and wide as Lake Pontchartrain. Pretty soon we were Mr. and Mrs. Lucius Freeman. Those were good times. New Orleans doesn't just sing, friend: it jitters and jives and wails like a wild animal that can't be caged. I loved it… and I loved being a cop.


I started out walking a beat in Algiers, just across the river from the French Quarter, the Vieux Carré. Not quite as savage as the South Side of Chicago, but still plenty of action. I kicked a lot of ass, took down a lot of street scum. It felt like playing ball again. I played hard and clean, never touched a payoff… but if the rules got in the way of a good bust, I bent them.


Maybe that's when I sold the second piece. Maybe that's when I started selling a little piece every day.


I made detective right before the Voodoo gangs started gobbling up Algiers. Their members were mostly refugees from Haiti and Jamaica, with a sprinkling of local talent from the Bayou. They spread a crazy fever through the streets, more like cults than gangs: Secte Rouge, Cochon Gris, Vinbrindingue, Bissage. They chewed up the other gangs like a pack of rabid jackals. They even stirred things up in the Quarter… and the Mayor won't stand for anybody screwing with the tourists.


Teddy LeDoux and I took most of the heat because Algiers was our turf. We managed to push the psycho bastards back over the river, but we couldn't take the West Bank away from them. The Voodoo gangs packed a higher caliber of fear than I've ever seen - you could feel it crackle in the air all over Algiers, juicing your nerves. I pumped my snitches so hard it hurt, but most were too scared to say a word. The ones who did turned up dead… dead in ways you never want to see, friend. I could tell it was getting to Teddy, but I didn't give a damn. Teddy was a good partner - a good cop - but he bought into this Voodoo shit. A lot of the boys at the Precinct House bought into it, especially the ones who grew up around the Bayou. Me, I didn't believe in black magic… just black hearts.


Celie believed, though. She'd been raised with it, and it spooked her something awful. She begged me to get out of gang work. I didn't listen. Anger boiled inside me - for the gangs, for what they were doing to my turf. I would have done anything to get them.


I never considered they might get me first.


The front end of another sweaty, miserable July: city a steam bath from dawn to dusk, like breathing soup; air rancid with the stink of garbage stewing in a thousand spices. Me driving home tired and frustrated after another long day of chasing shadows. Celie and I had a little place out near Brechtel Park, on Tullis. I knew something was wrong as soon as I hit the driveway. Nothing obvious… but good vice cops develop an instinct for trouble, or they become dead vice cops. I pulled my piece and snuck in through the back. TV blaring, way too loud. Scattering of Sports Illustrated's dumped off the coffee table. Dented brass lamp sprawled on the living-room carpet like a stiffened corpse. The siren in my head screaming now, but my heart thumping louder, pounding out one frantic thought.


Celie. Got to find Celie.


I found her in the bedroom. My Celie. My sweet Creole princess. What they did to her… oh, Jesus, what they did! A street cop sees so much human ugliness that the outer layer of his skin hardens into this armor-plated shell that shields him from the madness he has to wade through every day. My shell was as thick as they come. In that one god-forsaken instant, it shattered like spun glass. The righteous part of Lucius Freeman - the part that laughed at Teddy's lame jokes, that slid a few bucks to homeless bums instead of busting them, that made sweet love to his sweet woman after a fourteen-hour shift when he was almost too tired to move - that part just spilled out of the wreckage and turned to dust.


I can’t forget the smell - like gutting time at a Cajun bouchérie - the snatches of Voodoo gibberish smeared across the walls in blood. Mondongue Know You. Mondongue's Wedding Bed. The rest is lost in fog, except for glimpses that sometimes leap out of the darkness and rip another chunk out of my soul before I can kick them back into the shadows. The shrinks call it selective amnesia. I call it survival. If a memory will kill you, you have to kill it first.


I must have called in from the car; at least, that’s what the Precinct log shows. While the cops and the coroner headed for my house, I headed for the lockup. I knew the guard on duty, Jeffries. I also knew he had a punk named Ti' Joe in one of the cages, a street soldier for the Cochon Gris. I'd busted the little scumbag myself. Ti' Joe had a private cell, because the Voodoo punks scared the shit out of the regular low-lifes. When Jeffries put me in Ti' Joe's cage, the skinny little prick just grinned. The stink of him… denim marinated in sweat, like the fur of some sickly animal, wrapped in the ghostly scent of ganja. I told Jeffries to take a smoke break - a long one - then waited until he disappeared.


My voice… not like me talking, more like somebody had hijacked my brain. Red fog everywhere, so hard to see. Words burning in my throat like hot vomit. "No bullshit. No games. I want Vixama and the rest of your Gris pals. One chance, boy… tell me where to find them, or they'll have to hose you off the walls."


Ti' Joe grinned wider, eyes dancing with fever. "You crazy, mon? Ti' Joe tell you any'ting, him be crazy dead. If him betray Mondongue, so him pay. You one bad mon, eh, Mistah Yankee Niggah Cop? You no'ting. Mondongue know you. Mondongue be hungry loa. Some day, you be real pig… you be Ti' Joe's suppah."


The fog inside my head turned to steam. I'm a man who knows violence, friend - I grew up with it, learned to use it on the football field, fought against it on the streets of Algiers. But I have never known the kind of raw, brutal fury I unleashed on that little psychopath. By the time they pulled me off him, he was mewling in the corner like a battered puppy. I'd broken three of his ribs, shattered his right arm in two places, turned that mocking grin into bloody mush. On the streets they say the Voodoo punks are immune to fear, but I saw terror in Ti' Joe's eyes. He was scared, all right - scared out of his mind.

But he didn't tell me where to find the scum that butchered Celie, because something scared him more.


The rest of the night was pure madness. People yelling at me. The Captain sputtering between pity and red-faced anger at what I'd done. Before I knew it, he had my gun and shield. Suspended without pay pending review. Not a real cop… not anymore. Somehow I wound up in Interrogation Five with Teddy LeDoux, crying like a baby. I couldn't go home - couldn't sleep in that house ever again - so Teddy took me in at his place. That night, I huddled on Teddy's lumpy couch and suffered through nightmares that refused to end… nightmares that would never end. The Cochon Gris had stolen everything: my wife and my job, the two things I loved in this world. Whatever the cost, I would make them pay.


Still, as I floated in and out of tortured dreams, I remembered the look in Ti' Joe's eyes. What could terrify him more than a 250-pound homicidal cop?



*     *     *



Despair is like frostbite - at first it just makes everything numb, saves up all the pain like a debt you can't possibly afford to pay. Just after sunrise, my bill came due. Celie's image burned in me, a white-hot ball of anguish. Teddy gave me a spare key to his place and fumbled through a few awkward words of sympathy before he made his escape. I sat there with my head in my hands, afraid to move… afraid that I would blow away like smoke. I sat there for a long time. After a while, the grief ignited something else. Rage. I let it spread, melting the fatigue, the helplessness. Celie was gone. Someone had to pay. Hatred clawed through the misery, gave me strength and purpose.


I knew how to use my hatred, friend.


Teddy LeDoux's place faced out on an alley near Bourbon Street; Teddy liked to pretend every weekend was Mardi Gras. I walked to the seedy parking lot around the corner, already planning the moves in my head. The Captain had my department-issue piece. No sweat. I dug around in the trunk of the Buick and pulled out the Beretta hidden in the spare tire. I'd taken it off the body of a dead pusher - good weapon, untraceable. I stuck it in my pocket and steered into the crush of traffic crawling across the bridge into Algiers.


First stop was a pawn shop on Evelina. The owner, Jean Ducheval, wasn't exactly a snitch, but he was one of my best sources of information on the Voodoo gangs. Papa Jean was a houngan: a Voodoo priest. Bone thin, with a hide as stringy as old leather. He was the blackest black man I’ve ever seen, maybe because I always saw him in baggy white pants, a baggy white pullover, and a battered white fedora. He looked like an Oreo cookie turned inside out. Papa Jean was one of the good guys in Algiers: always helping the ones who needed help the most, trying to keep the kids out of trouble.


As soon as he saw me, his face wrinkled with sorrow.


"Lucius. Ah Bo Bo! It is a dreadful thing they have done, those bloody ones. I ask mighty Damballah to protect Celie's sweet spirit from the darkness. I ask Queen Erzulie to come to you in dreams, to soften your grief. I wish I could do more."


"You can, Papa. Tell me where to find them."


Papa Jean's ancient face darkened. "You are not ready, Lucius. They are very wicked, but very strong. Only Damballah, the supreme Mystère, can touch them. If you give me time, I can intercede for you."


"I want their livers on a stick! Can you give me that?"


"That is not my way. My gods are the Rada gods: their magic is pure, but it takes time to work. Secte Rouge, Cochon Gris, all the blood sects serve the Petro loa. Petro magic is quick, powerful… but the price is terrible. The ones you seek are the worst of all. They worship the false loa, Mondongue. His name is taken from an ancient tribe of cannibals. His followers pervert the sacred rites of Voodoo to justify their evil. True believers hate them, condemn them! But we do not underestimate them, Lucius."


"They better not underestimate me, either. Now tell me where they are… or I swear to God I'll tear this whole stinking neighborhood apart."


Papa Jean studied me in silence. He saw the truth: I was not a cop anymore, and I would do anything to get the scum that butchered Celie. Anything. I saw resignation in his eyes, and deep sadness. I didn't give a damn.


"Ah Bo Bo. A man must follow his own path. I do not know where to find them, but I know one who does. Mama Lucille. She is a powerful mambo, calls the loa for the Cochon Gris… and anyone else who will pay her price." Papa Jean pulled a pen and crumpled pad from his pocket, scrawled an address across the top sheet. He tore it loose and offered it to me. His hand was dead steady; mine shook like a strung-out junkie's. Papa Jean grabbed me before I could jerk the paper free.


"Remember, Lucius, she is bocor: she serves Baron Cimiterre, the Lord of the Dead. Whatever she offers, refuse it."


Papa Jean's address led me to the other side of the Intracoastal - the swampy, desolate outskirts of an immigrant slum called Archahaie. At the end of a dead-end gravel road off of Bourresouse, I found a ramshackle hut that matched Papa Jean's description. An old Haitian pauper's graveyard crept around both sides of the shack. The midday sun beat down so fierce that it boiled clouds of vapor out of the steamy marsh beyond the graveyard… but that place still made me shiver, friend. I knocked hard, almost took the rickety door off its hinges. A short, plump mulatto woman with coarse gray hair and a dirty, sweat-stained black dress opened it. Nothing special - except for the eyes. They had that crazy, invincible glow you see on a junkie's face when he's dropped some PCP.


After one of those juice-heads puts you through a wall, you learn to recognize the look… and to fear it.


Mama Lucille croaked something in a thick Creole accent and led me inside. She didn't even have a fan to blow the soupy air around. The stink of the place nearly made me gag - rotting chicken guts, fermented blood, other smells I couldn't name and didn't want to. Sunlight fought its way through grimy windows, staining the room the color of jaundice. Weird symbols littered the walls, along with newspaper photos of ritual gang murders clipped from the Times-Picayune: Mama Lucille’s shrine to mayhem, New Orleans style. Voodoo ouangas and ceremonial charms hung from hooks in the ceiling. Some looked like they were made from human bones.


I stood there, drowning in my own sweat, wondering what the Devil would look like in a dirty black dress. The witch stared at me, fever-eyes burning in the shadows. My hand tightened around the Beretta.


"What you want from Mama Lucille, Yankee boy?"


"I want to know where the Cochon Gris hang out these days. I have some urgent business with them."


The mambo grinned at me, teeth gleaming yellow. "Don' lie to Mama, boy. Tell her what you really want."


The woman was playing games. I was on fire, inside and out; somebody was going to burn with me. "Okay, lady, no bullshit. What I want is to tear their fucking hearts out. I'll pay well for the privilege… after all, better them than you, right?"


I swear to God, friend, I saw sparks fly in that old woman's eyes. "Your hate ripe like the melon. But if you would eat their hearts, Yankee boy, so you must pay. Today you pay Baron Cimiterre. I name my price later, and you pay that, too. If you refuse, the loa come for you. His price much higher. Understand?"


I didn't understand. I didn't understand at all. I nodded sluggishly, feeling tired and very, very hollow. Mama Lucille's voice began to swoop and flutter like an angry bat, clawing at my ears.


"Carrefour tingindingue, mi haut, mi bas-é. Sortie Nan Cimiterre, toute corps moin senti malingué."


Something moved in the shadows behind her. Don’t ask me what, friend, because I don't know. I don't want to know. It was huge and shapeless and impossibly black - a hole torn out of the daylight straight into the bottom of a Bayou swamp. When I turned my head, I caught a glimpse of misshapen arms and legs. When I stared right at it, I felt like I was going blind. It was there… and it wasn't.


Mama Lucille leered at me, teeth and eyes oozing out of the darkness like pus. "Mus' shake hand to seal the bargain, boy. Shake hand with Baron Cimiterre." My brain was spinning, bouncing around in my skull. I didn't care about the Cochon Gris anymore. I just wanted out of there, just wanted to put some miles between me and Mama Lucille's Voodoo Kitchen. I started backing toward the door.


Something grabbed my right hand. Crushed it. Pressure raced up my arm to my shoulder, dragged me toward the nothingness. Raw agony spat fire into my veins. I tried to brace myself, tried to wrestle free. How do you pull away from something that isn't there? Blackness swallowed me. I couldn't see, couldn't hear except for the mambo's croaking chant. The howl from my shoulder became a shriek. I felt, I heard the brittle crack of bone, the sharp twang of snapping sinews, the meaty rip of muscle tearing like soggy paper. What strength I had left settled in my lungs; I screamed. And screamed. And screamed.


The last thing I remember is the darkness, an oily sea of midnight. And a heartbeat - a monstrous heartbeat - like a thousand men pounding on the Petro drums….



*     *     *



I woke up two days later in a hospital bed. My right arm boiled, floated in a sea of lava. I reached over to rub it with my left hand. Nothing to rub. I stared at the bandages wrapped around my shoulder, at the empty space beneath the sheet. Memories of the mambo's shack swirled over me like the muddy waters of the Mississippi. That bitch… that evil bitch had stolen my arm! But the worst, the weirdest part was that I could still feel it. I could feel it flex, feel it scream with pain. I thought I was crazy.


A doctor named Timmons popped in to check on me and fill in the blanks. Someone had seen me staggering along Bourresouse and called the cops. The doc said it was a miracle I hadn't bled to death, said it looked like the wound had been cauterized with a blowtorch. When I told him about the agony I felt in an arm that wasn't there, he nodded.


"Many amputees experience strong sensations in the limbs they've lost. They can describe exact physical orientations, can feel heat, cold, movement. We don't know exactly what causes it. The brain's neural circuitry may have the body's physical pattern hard-wired into it - the parietal cortex, the limbic system, the cortical networks still generate inputs for the missing limbs. Usually this phantom pain is moderate; some patients aren't so lucky. We can try methadone to make it bearable… but to be honest, there's not much we can do."


The doc told me to hang in there and hurried on to his next patient. A few minutes later, a sour-faced nurse wandered in with the methadone. The doc was right: it didn't help. The nurse guided me to the bathroom, then tucked me in and turned out the lights. The muffled glow of street lamps streamed through the curtains, filled the room with ugly shadows. I glanced down at the place where I could feel my phantom arm resting on the bed, burning with invisible fire. Except now, in the darkness, I saw… something. A vague outline, a darker patch of dark. An arm, friend, but it wasn't mine. It wasn't even human. It bent, and I felt the talons slithering across my chest.


I jammed my eyes shut and howled.


As soon as the nurse flipped on the lights, I started babbling about Voodoo curses and demon arms. She tried to calm me down. When I stopped shaking and opened my eyes, the arm was gone. I felt like a gutless, whimpering coward. The nurse tried to sound reassuring.


"You’ve lost a limb, Mr. Freeman. That’s a hard thing to cope with. It's natural for the mind to rebel against it, to try to find ways to give you that arm back."


Her voice was sympathetic, but she couldn't hide the irritation on her face. When she killed the lights the second time, I pinched my eyes shut, tried to swallow the panic.


No matter how hot the fire burned, I would not look at that arm again.


*     *     *



I checked out at the end of the week despite Doc Timmons' protests and caught a cab out to Archahaie. The cabby - a Haitian - looked like his eyes were going to bug out of his head when I told him where to turn. The Buick was still sitting where I'd left it. I kicked in the door of the shack and went inside, fear dripping off my forehead. I had this nightmare vision of my own bloody arm lunging out of the darkness to strangle me, but the place was deserted. My eye caught a glint of metal in the shadows. The Beretta sat on top of the stained wooden table. Beneath it lay a sheet of yellow paper.


I picked up the Beretta, balanced it in my left hand. Awkward. It would have to do. Mama Lucille's scrawl was hard to read, the letters flaky and copper brown. Chicken blood, maybe. Or maybe mine. The first line gave an address in Algiers, on Delacroix. The rest was Creole garbage I didn't understand. The address looked promising, though, right in the middle of Cochon Gris turf. Maybe the witch was setting me up… but I didn't have much left to lose. I shoved the gun in my pocket and headed for the Buick. The keys were in the ignition.


Mama had thought of everything.


It took me a while to get to Delacroix, driving with my left hand. I found the address, a run-down funeral parlor and crematorium called BaMoun's. I figured it was the mambo's idea of a joke, but I parked across from the place and waited. About an hour later, a hearse pulled along the side of the building. Two punks wearing Gris colors slipped out and swung open the rear door of the hearse. They pulled out a battered casket, carried it through a side entrance into the building. A casket that size could probably hold a hundred kilos of junk, maybe more, worth a king's ransom on the streets. The crematorium would give the Gris an easy way to dispose of enemies - the parts they didn't eat.


I could have called it in. Maybe I should have… but I didn't. Teddy was the only guy in Vice I trusted. Besides, getting busted wasn't good enough for these bastards. Not even close. I tightened my grip on the Beretta and slipped across the street, followed the casket delivery boys through the side entrance.

I could hear voices coming from a room at the end of the hallway. I pulled the Beretta out of my pocket and snuck through the door. The casket lay in the center of the floor. The two punks from the hearse were unloading plastic bags full of white powder. A couple of other punks sat behind what looked like an embalming table, counting out stacks of hundred dollar bills from a leather suitcase. One of them was Vixama, the little general of the Cochon Gris. I thanked the Lord above. If I could waste Vixama - the mastermind behind most of the horror in Algiers - that would be revenge enough.


All four of the punks seemed to notice me at once. They froze. A greasy smile spread across Vixama's face. "Hey, mon, our bad-ass Yankee niggah cop come to play wit' us. Only he ain't no cop no more. He ain't no bad-ass. He jus' a crippled niggah."


"This crippled nigger's gun is pointed at your head, you little prick. Any of these boys so much as sneezes, your brains are wallpaper."


Vixama scowled and spat. "You ain't got the power, niggah! Mondongue know you. First he take your woman, now he take you. We not even gonna eat you, mon. You gonna be my big, dumb zombie mule."


I heard the click of automatic weapons behind me: two, maybe three. I'd been so damn eager to nail Vixama, I hadn't covered my ass. Despair made the Beretta weigh fifty pounds. Vixama walked around the table, eyes locked on the gun. He could see it shaking.


"You too ugly to make good sacrifice, niggah. Your woman, she squeal so loud when I stick her. She make fine pig for Mondongue, sweetest meat in Algiers."


Rage is like dynamite, friend: handle it right, it moves mountains. Handle it wrong, and it blows you to Hell. By the time that grinning piece of shit realized he'd lit the wrong fuse, it was too late for all of us. For one god-forsaken instant, the walls in the darkest corner of my mind crumbled. I remembered. I remembered what I'd seen the night they slaughtered Celie. Fury boiled away my fear, my sanity. The burning in the phantom arm became molten torment. The lights in the room exploded in a shower of sparks and broken glass. In the glimmer from the hallway, I could still see Vixama. And he could see me. His cruel eyes bulged with a terror he was used to seeing in the eyes of others.


The demon arm struck out like a tentacle of flame, and the world disappeared.


I came to with the help of Baron Cimiterre's smelling salts: the slaughterhouse stench of blood and bile and exposed viscera. I pushed myself up, looked around, and thanked God for the darkness. It looked like somebody had painted that whole room with the Cochon Gris and used Vixama's gizzard for a brush. I picked up the Beretta, the barrel slippery with blood, and stuffed it in my pocket. The last thing I noticed was the embalming table, the leather suitcase filled with more cash than I would earn in a lifetime. I'd never taken a cent of dirty money… but this was different. The punks in that room didn't need it; the city didn't deserve it. It belonged to me, the spoils of war. I took it.


I stumbled into a bathroom, scrubbed the blood off my face, trying not to gag. I found a wad of clothes they'd probably stripped off some stiff before they cooked him. Baggy, wrinkled, but a hell of a lot better than my own gory rags. I slipped out the side exit, tossed the suitcase in the trunk of the Buick, and got out of there as fast as I could. I couldn't go home, couldn't go to Teddy's - I didn't want to go anyplace the cops or the Gris might find me. I drove around until I found a crumbling flophouse between a strip joint and a Cajun diner on Ascon. Dirty, smelly, nondescript. Perfect. I paid for the room with a twenty, pretended not to notice while the clerk stared at my vacant sleeve. Stare all you want, geek. Millionaires don’t need two arms. I lugged the suitcase up the stairs and slid it under the bed.


The sheets were filthy. The ceiling fan barely turned. I didn't give a damn. I propped my head on a pillow that smelled like somebody’s old socks and planned my getaway. Not likely the NOPD would connect me with the carnage at BaMoun's. No physical evidence. Whose prints could they lift… Baron Cimiterre’s? Even if somebody had seen me, the people in that neighborhood didn’t talk to cops. But the rest of the Cochon Gris… that was a different story. I figured I'd stop by the house in the morning and pick up my passport, then take a drive out to Moisant and catch a flight to Mexico City. Or maybe Jamaica. Someplace a long, long way from Algiers. A man could live well off the interest from what was in that suitcase if he wasn't stupid. I wasn't stupid, friend.


But I wasn't as smart as I thought.


I left the lamp beside the bed turned on, for security. I was just drifting off to sleep when the door of the room exploded off its hinges and slammed against the opposite wall. I jerked the Beretta out from under the pillow and pointed it at the doorway, figuring the Gris had found me. No such luck. Mama Lucille stood there, wearing the same dirty black dress, leering at me like a sooty skull.


"I give you what you want, boy. Now you pay. The suitcase… it be Mama’s now."


What can I say? She delivered what she promised, and I'd agreed to pay her price. But the grin on her demented face drove me wild. It wasn't fair. I'd lost my wife, my job, my goddamn arm. It wasn't fair! I could feel the heat rising in the phantom arm - I couldn't control it. I didn't try. The arm of the loa coiled around her like a python. She laughed while it crushed the life out of her, cackled while it plucked off her arms and legs like the wings off a mutant moth. That crazy bitch laughed herself to death.


That, friend, is when I sold the last little piece of my poisoned soul.


There was no blood… no human blood. Something black and tarry spattered across the walls, the floor, the ceiling, like engine sludge. Like the dregs of original sin. I heard it, then: a monstrous heartbeat, the angry thunder of the Petro drums. I could not move. My whole body went cold and limp… except for my right shoulder. Invisible nerves jittered and writhed inside the stump like high-voltage wires. The smell of mildew vanished beneath the suffocating stench of corruption. The phantom arm lashed out, smashed the lamp into a thousand pieces. The room sank into darkness.


My eyes began to make out shapes in the neon glow from the strip joint next door. I didn't want to look, friend. I didn't want to see. Something slithered through the doorway where the mambo had been: a featureless blob, black on black. I stared into a hole chewed through the skin of the world I knew into a shadow world where demons prowl the savage jungles hunting for wayward souls, where dark magic falls from the sky like poisoned rain. I saw the faces of the Voodoo gods, as cracked and ancient as the face of Africa. I saw every nightmare that had ever devoured my sleep - my private horde of horrors snarling and slobbering at the gates of their unnatural habitat. Waiting. For me.


I lay there, trembling in the borrowed clothes of a dead man, staring into the tunnel that joins the evil we live in and the evil that lives in us.


For an instant, the soft contours of the loa hardened into obsidian. I could see taloned feet, tree-trunk legs, a body covered with hair that wriggled like carrion worms. Two curved horns coiled along the sides of its massive head. There was no mouth, no nose. Only eyes - two bubbling volcanoes. When the eyes of the loa flared, my phantom arm burst into answering flame. The demon - the mambo's servant, and her master - had only one arm. It had come to reclaim the other… and more. Much more. The stolen arm of the loa wrapped me in a tentacle of fire, lifted me above the bed, hurled me across the room. The face of its rightful owner split open, stretching wide in all directions. As I tumbled into its stinking maw, into the burning throat of Hell, I saw her.


Celie. My sweet Creole princess, chocolate skin wrapped in a gown of milky white, somber face staring down at me from the top of an ebony cliff. Teardrops fell from her wide brown eyes. When they struck my skin, they burned like acid. That agony… worse than all the rest put together. I understood. Dear God, I understood at last. I had not lost Celie - not really - until that moment.


As I fell, I knew that I had lost her forever.



*     *     *



My days now pass in a fog of anguish and regret and ugly memories. Mama Lucille - whatever she is - played me from the start. She probably even arranged what happened to Celie. When I ripped her apart, I just made her stronger. She has a contract with the Secte Rouge to take out the Gris; to take out all the competition, eventually. I'm her secret weapon: her one-armed Trojan Horse. The Voodoo gangs have some nasty magic of their own, but they never think to use it on a crippled ex-cop who can't do shit. Before they know different, they wind up looking like a spilled vat of bloody gumbo - Mama's special recipe.


The aftermath always makes me shiver, friend, but I'm no innocent. A shameful part of me welcomes the demon, seeks revenge at any cost. Every night the loa sleeping inside my skin awakens and drags me to another massacre. Every night the loa's fire burns away a little more of me. If I can't put that fire out soon, Lucius Freeman will be gone. What's left will drip down through that black tunnel into the world he sees in nightmares… into a place he doesn't ever want to be.


Nobody sells his soul all at once. No, the Devil buys on the layaway plan. He trades you a few sins for this piece, a cheap vice for that one, damns you by scraps and slivers. Listen close, friend. Learn from my mistakes. Maybe there's still time for you to buy it back the same way: with one tiny act of penance at a time. If you run across Papa Jean, tell him to say a prayer for me. Tell him I’ll pay whatever price mighty Damballah asks.


After all, I still have one arm left.