The flaming teddy bear sailed through the air like a cute and fluffy Molotov cocktail.
“Shit!” I swerved, barely avoiding the manicured hedges. The cuddly abomination smacked the battered windshield of my red Mustang.
Just once I would’ve liked to answer the phone in the middle of the night and have it be good news. Instead, I pulled up to a house that was trying out for the lead role in Amityville Horror. But there was no way I was going to make Thelma face this alone.
I ran past the smoldering remnants of the teddy bear and made my way up the stone path to the front door. The wooden porch creaked from the shaking. The white drapes in the windows whipped back and forth, making it impossible to get a peek at what was happening inside. The house didn’t exactly feel evil, but the power in the air made the hair on my arms stand on end. It took me a moment to recognize the rhythm of the vibrations.
Like a giant, malevolent heartbeat. Yeah, I could have lived without making that connection.
“Thelma?” My voice sounded hollow, as if I were listening to it through an oldtime radio.
A muffled cry from inside turned my fear into rage. Suddenly, night wasas bright as day and my hearing became acute. My muscles adjusted as the adrenaline added strength and speed to them. I’d had this gift for as long as I could remember. It might not be normal to be able to lift a Humvee, but it definitely came in handy in situations like this.
The front door fell off its hinges as I slammed it open against the wall. The whole place shook like a bed at a cheap motel. A dinner plate hovered on the edge of the coffee table before it crashed on the floor. Where the hell was Thelma?
A short burst of maniacal laughter came from upstairs. Bingo. I ran toward it, navigating a maze of shattered picture frames and mirrors. They lifted off the ground as one and flew at my head. Is this the best you can do? I thought as I smacked another one aside. Somehow I knew I was going to regret thinking that.
All the while, the monstrous heartbeat sang through my bones.
A red glow oozed out from around the frame of the door across from the stairs. Time to see just what the hell was going on. The thumping stopped and the house quieted as I grabbed the doorknob.
“Crap,” I whispered.
The door was locked. Of course it was. Sorry, Thelma, but desperate times and all that. With little effort, I broke open the door, leaving the hinges dangling from the splintered frame. She was going to be pissed, but hey, it opened.
You know the old cliché about the place being as silent as the grave? Yeah, that was like saying the Colorado River was just a creek for the kids to splash around in. The stillness of the room pressed into my senses, like a giant tick trying to burrow into my head. The silence was hungry.
I quickly took in my surroundings. Books lined the shelves, a couple of reading chairs and antique lamps straight out of Masterpiece Theater. It would’ve been quaint, except Thelma sat cross-legged above the rug. Three feet above the rug.
It was like a meditation video and The Exorcist all rolled into one. She hovered in the air with her back to me. Her shoulder-length black hair stuck up in a frizzy cloud around her head, and her sleeveless tank top was pale against her dark-brown skin.
On the wooden floor, someone had drawn a cross over a square box with a fine dark powder. Various arcane lines and spirals ran through the symbol, surrounded by a human skull, a bottle of dark rum, and a few black and purple ribbons. Damn, what did Thelma get herself into?
“Well, hey, good looking,” I said. “I was just in the neighborhood and decided to check out the party. So, which one are you? Gozer or the Keymaster?”
“Sundancer,” Thelma said in a voice that was hers, yet wasn’t. The wasn’t part was a man’s voice. It had a deep bass that vibrated in my bones. “Sundancer, Sundancer, Sundancer,” the voice repeated.
Sadly, he wasn’t riffing on my Ghostbusters reference, but rather my nickname. Man, I hated that thing.
As she chanted, Thelma began to turn in place above the floor. She spun lazily, and about halfway around, she lurched off balance. One slender leg touched the ground,and she steadied herself.A short, drunken laugh escaped her lips.
I did a reality check, as much as I could while my friend hovered like a demonic yoga expert. One, Thelma was possessed by what seemed to be some kind of Voodoo spirit. Two, the spirit was flat-out drunk.
Thelma faced me and gave a burp that rattled the windows, followed by a giggle in that same weird dual voice.
“Good trick,” I told her as I pushed aside the panic. I needed to stay calm if we were going to get out of this alive. “You do Bar Mitzvahs? How about Vegas?” This was not someone to spook, as the flaming teddy bear could attest to. Without thinking, I glanced up at the charred hole in the ceiling. I could see the moon through the opening. “I know,” I said before I could stop myself, “how about interior decorating? You could do skylights and color swatches.”
The spirit chuckled and lurched again. “You talk so brave, silly man. But I can taste your fear.”
“You’re going to taste something else in a minute,” I said with all the bluster I could manage, “unless you give me back my friend. Now.”
“There is no one else here. Only Oussou. So few call these days.Oussou is here, and Oussou must have rum.”
“You have rum right there,” I said casually, even though the adrenaline coursed through my veins. Nothing would have given me more pleasure than to pulverize thatthing, but instead, I pointed at the bottle of rum at Thelma’s feet.
“That’s not my rum!” The thing roared as half a dozen books lifted off the floor and exploded into flames.
I barely had time to throw myself back into the hallway as six literary missiles streaked through the doorway. Their heat passed within inches of my face as I pressed back against the wall. One of the missiles hit the wall opposite and left scorch marks around the plaster, but the other five sailed down into the living room.
The house shook again as Oussou raged in the library. A dozen books and three porcelain dolls all spun in a manic hurricane around Thelma. She seemed safe enough, but if the house burned down, that was another story. I sprinted back down the stairs and stomped out the flaming books, leaving nothing but novel-shaped ash stains on the carpet.
I was in the middle of stomping out the last two smoldering paperbacks when a fist-sized wooden Buddha hit me in the back of the head. White-hot pain seared my skull as I struggled to stay upright.The ominous lub-dub-lub-dub started up again.
I had to do something. Wrong rum, huh? An idea started percolating that was just crazy enough to work. I staggered forward as blood trickled down the back of my neck.
Something smacked me on the back of my head. I turned just as the mysterious weapon hit me across my right cheek. Thelma’s belongings made their way toward me as something used my skull as a piñata. Soft, eerie music came from the attacker. I dodged again and realized what the damn thing was. The clarinet whipped past my head as I sprinted into the dining room toward the kitchen.
I raised my arms in an attempt to ward off the chaos, as the clarinet continued its merry tune.Various pictures, ornaments, and that damn clarinet jabbed me repeatedly, all to the rhythm of the heartbeat, of course. As I got close to the kitchen, the pace increased until that damn woodwind shot toward me like a bullet, embedding itself into the china cabinet inches from my chest.
Another tune floated through the air as a huge Peruvian pan flute swung for the fences.I ducked under it and rolled toward the open kitchen door. I was on my feet and inches from the doorway when the throw rug yanked my feet backward. You can guess which direction my head kept going. And you know what? The music stayed in tempo.
Stars danced a wonderful little flash mob around my vision as my head bounced off the floor.My brain refused to catch up,at least until the ceiling fan sparked and shuddered. The thing groaned as it wrenched itself out of the socket. Instinct took over, and I rolled out of the way as the fan slammed to the floor where my head had been.
Stumbling to my feet, I lurched into the kitchen, half blinded and cursing the entire way. Give me a demon to fight any day, but how the hell do you fight a house?
The island in the center of the kitchen, with its marble top and drawers full of cutlery, tried to pull itself out of the floor. Yeah, this was the last room I wanted to be in, but necessity tends to drive even the craziest of plans. I hugged the wall as far away from the rampaging furniture as I could get.
I finally managed to rip open the pantry door. Literally. I tossed the wooden door aside. Where the hell was Thelma’s rum?I waded through a sea of macaroni, potatoes, shredded chip bags, and various oils and vinegars that had plunged to their deaths. The stench overwhelmed me.
There was one lone shelf that remained untouched. Bottles of rum sat quiet and serene among the chaos. Five glorious bottles.
As soon as I grabbed them, everything stopped. A dozen knives, the wooden cutting board, a handful of yogurts, two frozen chickens, and the pan flute all hovered in the air. The silence made the blood rushing in my ears sound like Niagara.
The living room was the same. Candlesticks, picture frames, chairs, a tall lamp, and even the wooden Buddha that already clubbed me, all hung in the air. But none of them made a move against me. At least, not while I had the rum in my arms.
Trust me, I wasn’t about to complain as I made my way through a cloud of floating, killer projectiles and back up the stairs. Oussou sat in Thelma’s body, surrounded by a spinning dervish made of the remaining books from Thelma’s shelves.
“Hey, Linda Blair,” I said as I set the bottles of rum in the doorway. “Looking for these?”
Oussougrowled. “Give Oussou his rum,” he hissed with Thelma’s voice.
“You want one? How about this?” I held up one of the rum bottles and threw it at him. The spirit lashed it aside with a cone of power. I ducked as the bottle flew at my head and out the door. It shattered somewhere downstairs.
“So, now we play,” Oussou whispered with a drunken giggle. “You make Oussou angry.”
“Yeah, I do that a lot.” I picked up another bottle and threw it at him. A flick of his wrist sent it crashing into the wall. He began to advance at a languid pace as he laughed through Thelma’s lips.
The hurricane of books was getting too close. After wiping my hands on my jacket, I picked up another bottle of rum and prepared to throw it.
Oussou stopped and his eyes widened. The books fell to the ground.
That’s what I thought. “Ah, you like”—I glanced down—“white rum, huh?” I said with the cockiest smile I could muster. I uncapped it and tilted the open end toward the carpet.
“No!” Oussou cried. “You give Oussou drink, yes?”
“Then you’ll leave?”
“Yes, then Oussou will leave this woman.”
Here’s the tricky part. I had no clue if he would keep his word.
“I need a glass,” I said. I did a quick search, hoping Thelma had seen fit to have a shot glass in her ritual. Oussou didn’t move. Something then cracked me in the back of the head as I searched. Dammit, not again. Stars danced in my vision, but I stayed standing. Oussou giggled as a shot glass rolled against my feet.
I rubbed the back of my head as I bent down and picked up the bloody shot glass. I’m proud to say my hands didn’t shake much as I poured him a shot of rum and set it on the floor. The glass rose on its own and drifted toward the Loa. Oussou caught it and drank deep. Thelma’s eyes closed in bliss.
“More,” he said as he opened his eyes with a grin.
“Oh, hell no. One drink and you’re gone, remember?” I made to tip the bottle again. “Now, get the hell out of my friend, or I dump it all.”
Oussou’s grin never left. He began to dance, and his hands moved over Thelma’s slim curves. He slowly moved her hands from the sides of her breasts and down her stomach until they reached her hips. “You like this body?” Oussou slurred.
“I don’t think you heard me.” My voice dropped in pitch. “Get the hell out of her.”
“Oh, yes, you like this one,” Oussou said with a leer. “Oussou has his own deal. You give him the bottle, or your woman’s neck goes snap like a twig!” He raised Thelma’s hands and gripped her head at an unnatural angle.
“Whoa, hold on!” I exclaimed. Damn, now what? My brain flew across the game board and landed on a plan. A very stupid plan, but there wasn’t much of a choice when the bastard kept changing the rules. I brought the bottle up. “How about we do one better? You take me and let her go. Then we’ll drink all you want.”
Oussou cocked his head. “You a willing horse? Willing for Oussou?”
“That’s what I said.” The rational part of my brain screamed at me to shut the hell up. But if the Loa entered my head, Thelma would have a better chance of getting it out. “What do you say?”
Oussou thought about it for a moment.
Two things happened simultaneously. Thelma’s eyes rolled up in her skull and she dropped like a puppet without any strings. My own vision went black as chaos erupted in my brain.
And trust me, chaos was the only way to describe it. My ears filled with the roar of the cosmos. Scarlet light coated my vision, interlaced with swirls of blackness, like ink in a pool of blood. The darkness howled, and I think I screamed.
The visions came like stormtroopers, stomping their boots across my brain. Memories of my dead wife. Memories of a night when I was ten, dancing in front of a bonfire in the grass. I danced as the night fed on blood and death.
The images shifted and I stood in a shadowy forest, dark and filled with mist. Malignant shapes curled around the trees. Mountain lions, bears, wolves, and small rodents flooded from the trees. Their eyes shone like white stars.
At their lead was a huge gray cat with black-tipped ears. It was as big as a mountain lion and just as wild. The cat growled, and the air shimmered from his anger. The white light from his eyes burst in my head. I fell backward through the red-tinged night. A woman screamed in the distance as I plummeted into nothingness.
Remember it isn’t the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the bottom. I hit that stop like a car playing chicken with a freight train.
The freight train won.