FICTION: Better Than Mardi Gras by MJ Williams

‘You ever been to N’Orleans Mardi Gras, Sheriff?’

‘Just tell us what happened, Janey. Cut the chit chat.’

Janey smiled a little, flashing her eyes at Morris. I glanced at my deputy but he just stared straight into the girl’s face, ignoring her flirtation. She was kind of intimidating in her own cutesy, Daisy Dukes and pig-tails way, her attitude towards an arrest for first degree murder the same as if she had been invited to take part in a Miss Congeniality contest.

She leaned back in her chair and her eyes glazed over, shining gleefully while she thought back to the night of the murders, her cheeks flushing with joy as if she were reminiscing about a snowy Christmas. ‘If you had been to Mardis Gras, you’d know that the streets are so busy and noisy anything can happen out there and no-one would know it. I was walking through those crowds thinkin’ I could strip naked right now and nobody would even glance my way. It was perfect. Plus, near enough every other person I passed was done up to look like Deke. Whited out face with skeleton eyes and mouth, black top hat like Slash from Guns n’ Roses. You know that band, Sheriff?’

‘Nope. Go on with your tale,’ I pressed, irritated as November Rain jumped into my head. I had to concentrate. She was slippery as a greased swamp rat, and something in that room was making me feel real uneasy.

‘Only difference was, Deke was the real deal.’

‘You mean a Voodoo priest?’

‘You could say that. We prefer Vodun but it all boils right down to the same thing really. We was there with one purpose. Deke wanted to collect some souls.’

I snorted, couldn’t help it. Collect souls, my fat ass.

Morris leaned forward and placed his palms flat atop the desk. ‘And how would one collect souls?’

‘Well, that’s where I come into it,’ Janey explained, pride puffing out her chest. ‘Before you can get some souls, you gotta get some people.’

‘So you acted like a lure.’

The girl nodded, her plaits bouncing jauntily. ‘The first one I found was covered in beads an’ liquor, almost passed out on the ground, she was. I made a show of pickin’ her up and tryin’ to find her friends, but really I was seein’ if they had all just gone off and deserted her, or if they were just waitin’ nearby. When nobody claimed her, I did. Well, Deke did, really.’

‘Explain to me what you did.’

‘I told her I was takin’ her to my place, for a coffee and a sleep, you know? Sober her up a little? She was so far gone I don’t think she even cared where I was takin’ her. We slipped off the main road and went down the steps to where Deke was waitin’. The steps were so dark she went on and slipped right over, cut the back of her head open before Deke or I even laid a finger on her.’

I glanced at Morris, thinking of the coroner’s report that had identified a blow to the back of the head that didn’t seem to match the weapons used on the rest of the body. I felt pretty darned irritated that the investigation team hadn’t managed a full sweep of the stairs. Lord knew what else they’d missed.

Morris raised his eyebrows, evidently thinking the same thing, and turned back to the girl. ‘Then what did you do?’

Janey folded her arms and pouted her bee-stungs a little, glaring at Morris. ‘Deke had told me I could have some fun with them before he got to work, but when I tried to play he wouldn’t let me. Said the first one had to be totally pure, but that I could play around later. He said I had to go out and get another one, sharp, like.’

‘And you weren’t happy about this.’ Morris stated, and I wondered why he’d bothered to ask. It was obvious she weren’t happy about it. Whatever her idea of ‘playing’ entailed, she was royally pissed off that she hadn’t got to do it. I looked at Morris and wondered if he was getting a cold or something. His voice sounded a little gravelly and he didn’t seem as sharp as he often did at interview.

‘You’re darn right I weren’t happy!’ Janey shouted, thumping her fist on the desk.

‘Hey! Calm down or I’ll have you back in cuffs, missy,’ I warned, shooting Morris a look. ‘So, back to that night. What happened next? Did you see Deke do anything to Marcella Lucas?’

The girl blinked at me. ‘That was her name? Pretty….No, I didn’t see anything of Marcella until I got back with the next one. He was a boy, a real cutey. I thought, if Deke didn’t let me do what I wanted with this one I was just gonna walk right outta there and leave him to it.’

I watched her gaze intently at Morris as she spoke, her eyes narrowed in that way a domestic cat has of making you unsure if they’re playing with you or about to scratch you in the eyes. I realized she rarely even looked my way, even though I was in charge of the interview. I felt a little annoyed. Morris was a good looking boy, anyone without cataracts could work that one out, but I wanted her full attention. I was running this show. ‘So what did you do? And look at me when I’m talking to you.’

Her head swivelled toward me and her lips parted with shock, the corners tilting upwards, flirty. ‘Why, Sheriff, ain’t you the commanding one?’

‘Just answer the question, damn it.’ Sweat was pooling under my armpits, and I couldn’t understand why she was getting to me so much. Just cool it, Bob, I told myself, and took a long slug of my tepid coffee, careful not to dent the plastic cup in my grip and reveal to her how tense I was.

‘Which one? The one about what I saw of Marcella or the one about what I did next?’

‘Both.’ She was toying with me, smiling and licking her lips, and it pissed me off.

‘I found the boy at a hot dog stand and made a big show of buying a hot dog, then eating it real seductive, like. Y’know, like I was blowing the weenie?’

‘I get the idea.’

‘So I ask him if he wants to come and fool around, and of course he does. I told him I was better than Mardi Gras. So I takes him down to the room, tells him to watch his step, after what happened last time.’ She grinned. ‘Oh, my, he was handsome. I was just dyin’ to get him all to myself.’

‘Only it wasn’t just yourself, was it?’ Morris asked, sternly.

‘Nope. No, siree. Deke wanted his part, too. When we got down there, I couldn’t see Marcella’s body. Most of her he’d put away in the barrel, the leftovers. The bits he didn’t need. But he had the brain and some strips of skin and hair on the blanket in front of him, and the boy saw it all there in the candle light. You know the funny thing? He tried to protect me! Isn’t that hilarious?’

‘Tell me another one,’ I said, coldly, starting to feel sick to my stomach.

She pouted, a caricature, and then inspected her fingernails. ‘Anyway, spoil sport, so he throws himself in front of me shouting all kinds of things, like I should run away and he would have my back and all. Deke had given me a little knife to carry while I was out collecting, just in case. I took it out of my belt and got him right in the side.’ She imitated stabbing the boy in the kidney.

I opened a manila envelope and slid out a glossy photograph, pushing it towards her. ‘This the boy?’

She leaned over and licked her lips again. ‘Mmm, yeah that’s him. Yummy.’

I gestured to the picture, bile in my throat. ‘That is seventeen year old Peter Walker, a grade A student who was about to go to Africa to teach English to needy kids.’

‘They would have been lucky kids.’

‘Yeah. Wouldn’t they just.’

‘So I pushed him forward and he almost landed right on that brain, which I thought was funny but Deke didn’t. He had it all set out just as he wanted. He grabbed the boy, Pete, and took him round the throat. I yelled that I wanted some fun first, so Deke tied him to the barrel. He was bleeding pretty bad so he didn’t put up much fight.’ She started to wriggle around in her seat as if she was squirming up against someone. ‘I took off my clothes, and I cut his shirt and pants off at the front. I pressed up against him, and I enjoyed the feel of his blood on my skin, so I cut him a little more, here and there.’

‘A little more?’ I gasped, incredulous, staring at the photograph that showed the boy’s torso hacked and sliced across pretty much every inch.

‘I didn’t kill him or nothin’. Like I said, I just wanted to play.’ She looked down at the photograph with desire in her eyes, as if it were the boy’s best prom photo. ‘Then he went and crapped in his pants! Isn’t that just the worst thing ever? I would never, ever, ever do that in a million years!’

‘What if Deke asked you to?’ Morris asked, out of the blue. What was it with his weird damn questions today?

The girl’s smile froze on her lips, and she stared at Morris uncertainly. ‘He wouldn’t.’

‘But what if he did?’

‘He wouldn’t!’ The girl cried, rising up a little in her seat, and I realized that she had clenched her butt cheeks tight. ‘Stop it!’

‘Alright, alright!’ I called as the girl almost got into hysterics. ‘Morris, quit it. Janey, we’re gonna take a five minute break, okay? We’ll be back shortly.’ I read the time into the tape recorder and snapped down the stop button.

Outside the room I headed straight for the box of cookies in the kitchen, in desperate need of some sugar. I felt completely drained. Maybe I was coming down with something, too. Morris stood still beside me, not even going for a fresh coffee. I grabbed the glass Perspex jug from its stand and filled a cup, the sour smell of the crushed beans reviving me a little.

‘Morris, why’d you have to say that? We know the girl is completely under that guy’s spell. She believes in all that hoodoo, voodoo shit and you know you’re gonna get her all riled up if you push her. I thought we said we’d go easy on this one. Let her do the talkin’.’

‘I know. I just thought I’d get a reaction out of her.’

‘Well, don’t. Let’s try and keep her calm. Hey, are you feeling alright? You sound like you’re coming on with a bad throat or something?’

‘I’m fine.’ Morris plucked a cookie from the box and broke it into two, poking one of the pieces into his mouth and leaving the other one on the table.

‘In that case, let’s go back in. And try and keep it together this time. I’ll do the talking.’

The girl was slumped on the table, her head resting on folded arms, her cheeks wet with tears. I snapped the tape recorder back on and introduced us again, then sat down and slipped my new coffee cup inside the old. ‘Okay, Janey. You were telling us what happened to Peter.’

She sniffed and sat up slowly, looking nervously at Morris. ‘Yeah. Deke grabbed him and cut off some of his hair. He put it in a jar. Then he drilled a hole in his head.’

‘Using this drill?’ I asked, sliding another photo from the envelope. The drill bit was crusted brown with blood, a tag on the handle marked it with a ‘D’.

‘Yeah. I think that’s it.’

‘Why did he do that?’

She glanced at me, uncertainty clouding her eyes for the first time. ‘It’s something to do with the soul. I’m not sure. He won’t teach me yet.’ She looked at Morris then, and her expression was hurt. He must have really gotten to her with that crapping her pants comment.

‘So you don’t partake in the…rituals?’

‘Not really. He helped me make an amulet once. I used my Daddy’s blood and hair to keep him away from me.’

I didn’t want to take that any further, but Morris whispered, ‘And did it work?’

She smiled, sure of herself once more. ‘He died. It worked.’

I cleared my throat. ‘You helped Deke find one more victim that night, didn’t you? Will you tell me about that one?’

‘Last one was a girl I knew from school. She trusted me. I took her down the steps to Deke. That’s that.’

I raised my brows in surprise. ‘That’s that? You didn’t want to play with her?’

She shrugged, twirling a pig tail between her fingers. ‘I was tired. I’m tired now,’ she turned to Morris. ‘I want to go home.’

‘That’s not going to happen, Janey. You’ve admitted to being an accomplice in three murders on the night of January thirtieth’. I looked at her, stern. ‘You are to remain in custody until you are tried by a court of law.’

Morris mumbled something beside me, something I couldn’t quite make out.

‘What did you say?’ I looked at him, but his head was bent low to his chest. ‘Morris?’ I shook his shoulder, worried he’d gone and fainted on me, but his body was solid under my hand.

Janey giggled. ‘This is what he said, silly.’

Before I could stop her, she reached to the tape player, snapped the rewind button, then pressed play. I heard my own voice say ‘…court of law’, then a low sound emanated from the tape player, a voice cold and gravelly, speaking a mixture of French and some kind of African, using a clucking tongue. I was certain the voice did not belong to Morris, and a cold shiver shot like an iced ferret down my spine.

I spun from my chair and staggered backwards, staring at Morris as he rose slowly to stand. When he turned to me, his face was moulding, changing, his sharp nose spreading across his face, his cheeks filling out, his eyes darkening, black circles forming around them as the rest of his skin paled.

Janey squealed and clapped her hands in delight. ‘Do it, Dekey, do it!’

‘Oh my God, it’s been you all along,’ I breathed, and the figure before me nodded, a smile twisting the painted skeletal teeth along his lips.

He moved forward and something jingled around his neck, a pendant of teeth and feathers dripped with dried wax. He brought his fingers to the necklace and raised it slowly, then held out his other hand towards me and parted his lips. He blew.

The feathers ruffled as his breath passed through them, the teeth clacking together. I felt his breath wrap around me, binding my arms to my sides, pulling the strength from my legs and my neck. I dropped to the floor, unable to move, my eyes open and glassy.

From my place on the floor I watched him hold out his arm to Janey and she leaped from her seat and placed her small, fine boned hand into his. His enveloped hers like a catcher’s mitt.

It was a long time before anyone found me. Deke and Janey were long gone, and of course I was unable to explain what had happened.

I think about those two often, as I lie here with nothing else to think about.

The nurses are usually kind. They turn me gently to tend to my bed sores. They wash my cock with suitable grace, averting their gaze as much as possible. I have a tube that feeds me directly into my stomach. They can’t brush my teeth as my mouth is clenched tight shut. I can taste them rotting away.

I once read somewhere that if you don’t believe in voodoo, then the power is broken. That it can’t hurt you. But how can I not believe after what I’ve seen?

So I lie here. And I wait.

I sometimes think I can hear him, coming for me.

#

MJ Williams lives, works and writes in the small historical city of Lancaster. MJ has placed in a number of writing competitions and was published in The Stringybark Prize history anthology, Marngrook; placed second in the Momaya Annual Review Heat prize and had a short story published in the Writer’s for Animals anthology published by Bridge House.

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