Yes…another Chambers story. Believe me, there are few people I know who write creepier than he does, both well-thought out and intense. This week’s excerpt appeared in our anthology After Punk: Steampowered Tales of the Afterlife. With Halloween coming, I hope you enjoy…
A Feast for Dead Horses
Morris Garvey clutched a crude sackcloth doll with a ropy tangle of black hair knotted around its neck and swayed as the steam trolley rocked toward Muhheakantuck Bay. He gripped the overhead strap and willed the machine to travel faster.
“Damn this slow-moving contraption,” he said.
Detective Daniel Matheson squinted at his friend. “Trolley’s the swiftest way across town this time of day. If’n you wanted real speed, we ought to have saddled up a couple horses.”
“Is that how they do it in Texas? Should we gallop along the sidewalks, tramp through Plunkett Square Market, and lasso beggars from our path?”
“If that’s what it took, you bet.”
“Better New Alexandria should adopt my velocity regulator and double our trolley cars’ speed. Some days it seems I’ve solved half the problems in this city, but the city council won’t let me solve the other half.”
“Think of the pedestrians trying to steer clear of your sped-up trolleys.”
“The city could stand to lose some of its slower-moving populace.”
“I’m joking, Dan.” Garvey raised the odd doll. “If I’m right about this doll, its death I aim to thwart, which requires we reach the port before Anna Rigel does or at least before the Port-Au-Prince docks from Haiti.”
“What’s Ms. Rigel’s beef with Haitians anyway?”
“With Haitians? Nothing at all. With one particular Haitian? Enough that she—as Queen of Witches—cursed him to death should he ever set foot in New Alexandria again. His last visit here had the three of us embroiled in an unfortunate matter of betrayal, involving a novitiate in Anna’s coven. Not all his fault, but you know Madame Queen’s temper. That he dares defy her means the rats have already nested beneath the cradle. This doll proves it. If I can explain that to Anna, she might stay her curse long enough for us to make sense of those twelve corpses your men found in Pluto’s Kitchen.”
“I’d be much obliged for that. Don’t see what that raggedy doll we found there has to do with this muckety-muck from Haiti, though. I appreciate your aid, Morris, but I swear you take your damn sweet ornery time revealing your intentions.”
“If I’m correct you’ll know as much as I do soon enough. Are you familiar with the Afro-Carib religion of voodoo?”
“Voodoo, eh?” Matheson’s squint deepened and his thick mustache wrinkled.
The trolley jolted and then trundled down Macedonia Hill toward the Muhheakantuck River, glittering in the late-day sun. Graceful sailing ships and powerful steamers traversed its waters. Between the river’s bank and the trolley sprawled all lower west New Alexandria, its avenues bustling with raucous crowds, horse-drawn carriages, barking street vendors, and steam-driven trucks. Shadows licked its grimy buildings, a few of which rose higher than the others, fingers of a grasping hand from which the city spilled like a clutch of gravel and ants. White steam plumes and black smoke columns fed a haze that rendered the setting sun a blob of fire on the horizon, consuming the silhouetted hills and buildings of New Carthage across the water. Here and there, gaslights winked on, faint in the twilight, artificial fireflies at the command of the city’s lamplighters.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve come by my knowledge firsthand, but I understand voodoo’s all about worshipping the Legba, bunch’a frightening gods who grant powers from the next world. Love spells, plaguing your enemies, making zombies, and hooey like that. That toy you’re hugging is a voodoo doll?”
“A fetish doll, yes. I believe it’s the key to your twelve dead men and women.”
The trolley bell clanged as the vehicle rolled into the port station.
“No time to explain now. We’re here!”
Garvey leapt from the trolley before it stopped and raced for one of the piers. Detective Matheson followed close behind him, tamping his bowler hat down on his graying head of hair.
“Your hubris is unimaginable, Ricard LeFarge. You surpass even your own past pinnacle of narcissism. I’ve no idea how you defeated my curse upon you, nor do I care to allow you time to explain. I promised you death when you next set foot in New Alexandria. Now you shall learn I’m a woman who keeps her word.”
From within the folds of her sea-green cloak, raven-haired Anna Rigel revealed a sheaf of holly twigs bound with braids of dried nightshade leaves. She shook the bouquet, sweeping air at the tall, lanky man she faced. His rich black skin peeked out from gaps in his leather vest, loose-fitting linen shirt and pants, and the black fur cloak draped from his shoulders. He wore sandals and carried a gnarled length of polished sandalwood as a walking stick. His burgundy panama hat, adorned with a clutch of colorful feathers, shaded his eyes, permitting only hints of white to define his irises.
Around the pair, the crew and passengers disembarking the Port-Au-Prince froze in place, fascinated by the confrontation, frightened to come too close, but trapped by Anna who blocked the only exit from the pier.
“Aw, goan now, Madame Queen. Cast your hinky woo-woo magic. You t’ink it can harm de likes of me? I go where I want when I want. Today, dis city is de where, and de when is now. You dare speak to me of death? I come on by de hand of Lord Cemeterie. You jes’ forget dat dusty old promise I never took serious in de first place.”
“I never forsake my promises, Ricard. More than anyone can say for you.”
Anna traced intricate shapes in front of her with the holly branches. She curled her other hand, held it to her lips, and blew through it. Fire flashed out, licked the air, then extinguished, leaving a smoke cloud that gathered to the dried green leaves. Ghostly light crackled about it. Burning holly scent spread on the breeze.
Straightening to his full, intimidating height, LeFarge nudged his hat back and gazed into the cloud, seeking the nature of what magic Anna Rigel meant to unleash at him in such a public place. The Queen of Witches could take things only so far before compelling the city’s world-renown constabulary to intercede. Even for one as influential, popular, and feared as Anna Rigel, murder—whether accomplished by means magic or mundane—hardly ever passed overlooked in New Alexandria.
A wisp of smoke tickled Ricard’s face. He inhaled, sampling its aromas. His dark eyes widened, and he planted his feet, walking stick braced between them.
“You are serious, mon cher! How ‘bout dat? Here I expected your intelligence to defeat your pride. Sad, sad, sad, but you goan an’ do what you feel you must. I wait right here.”
“No, Ricard, you’ll die right there.”
Waving the smoking holly, Anna initiated a chant. The rhythm quickened, became more strident. Haitian visitors to New Alexandria gaped and murmured. “De Minister of Hoodoo was on our ship?” they said. “Who knew?” “Not I!” “What he want in dis city?” “She goan kill de Minister?” “We must help him!” “Hush, you! De Minister don’t need no help from de likes of us.” “Dat woman goan be sorry she crossed Ricard LeFarge!” As Anna’s spell intensified, the tenor of the crowd shifted from fear to anticipation.
Ricard’s unworried expression only fueled her anger.
The holly smoke thickened and condensed, forming a shape, indistinct yet threatening—and then at the precise moment she stood poised to unleash the gathered energy, a voice shouted for her to stop—the voice of the only man she found more stubborn and frustrating than Ricard LeFarge. The smoke sputtered as she hesitated.
“I swear by Hecate, Morris, you better have the most perfect excuse in all the history of excuses for interrupting me, or I’ll send you right out of this world with LeFarge.”
“I do, Anna. See what I’ve brought here,” Garvey said.
Anna glanced over her shoulder at Garvey and Matheson, both men winded from running. “What is that? A doll? You interrupted me… to show me a rag doll?”
“Not at all, Anna. I interrupted you to stop you destroying the one man who might spare New Alexandria the plague of death this doll represents.”
James Chambers is an award-winning author of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. He wrote the Bram Stoker Award®-winning graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe. Publisher’s Weekly described The Engines of Sacrifice, his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas published by Dark Regions Press as “…chillingly evocative…” in a starred review. His story, “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills,” was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.
He has authored the short story collection Resurrection House and several novellas, including The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood, in the Corpse Fauna novella series. He also wrote the illustrated story collection, The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales, created in collaboration with artist Jason Whitley.
His short stories have been published in the anthologies The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible, Bad-Ass Faeries, Bad-Ass Faeries 2: Just Plain Bad, Bad-Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory, Bad Cop No Donut, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, Breach the Hull, By Other Means, Chiral Mad 2, Chiral Mad 4, Dance Like A Monkey, Dark Hallows II: Tales from the Witching Hour, Deep Cuts, The Domino Lady: Sex as a Weapon, Dragon’s Lure, Fantastic Futures 13, Gaslight and Grimm, The Green Hornet Chronicles, Hardboiled Cthulhu, Hear Them Roar, In An Iron Cage, Kolchak the Night Stalker: Passages of the Macabre, Man and Machine, Mermaids 13, No Longer Dreams, Qualia Nous, Shadows Over Main Street (1 and 2), The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, The Society for the Preservation of CJ Henderson, So It Begins, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, To Hell in a Fast Car, Truth or Dare, TV Gods, Walrus Tales, Weird Trails, and With Great Power; the chapbook Mooncat Jack; and the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, and Allen K’s Inhuman.
He has also written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow House, The Midnight Hour with Jason Whitley, and the award-winning original graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe.
He is a member and trustee of the Horror Writers Association, and recipient of the 2012 Richard Laymon Award and the 2016 Silver Hammer Award.
He lives in New York.
Visit his website: www.jameschambersonline.com.