She raised an eyebrow, the only clue I’d nicked her pride. But she backed away, allowing me room to shove the body onto the lip of the grave. Easy work given my head and shoulder loomed above the ground.
Once I climbed out and brushed the worst of the funk off my jeans, she pointed. “Set him by the bird.”
I complied, laying him out on his back under a branch draped with lacy Spanish moss. Zen grabbed her bag and came to join us. From it, she withdrew a glass vial and pulled the cork lid. She poured brittle herbs from the tube into a clay pot of sorts. It kind of looked like one of those incense burners hippies buy at head shops.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“This,” Zen explained in a business-like tone, “is an incense made from sage, juniper, and rosemary.” She bent down to light the incense with a thin shaft of wood she’d lit with a match. From the scent, I guessed cedar, but I wasn’t sure. A few seconds later a thin tendril of smoke wafted up from the cone of herbs.
She moved to the body. This time she removed a larger jar— the kind southern women use to preserve rhubarb in— and the lid opened with a pop . The liquid inside was clear, but the astringent scent rose like vapor, making my eyes water.
“This is witch hazel. Helps focus the spell so the spirit we want shows up instead of someone else.”
I nodded like an idiot even though she wasn’t looking at me. She was too busy sprinkling the liquid all around the body. I had a fleeting moment of pity for the dead man. I’d imagine few people anticipate that their bodies will end up half naked under a tree while a voodoo lady sprinkles them with astringent toner. Despite my dislike of humans in general, the whole thing felt disrespectful. And I began to wonder if there might be a better way to find the answers I was seeking.
“And this …..” She pulled another cigar from her pocket— this one was thicker than the last. Like a huge brown phallus. “….. is a Macanudo.” She raised another lit cedar scrap to the stogie. She sucked at it so hard her cheeks went concave and a cloud of tobacco-scented smoke swirled around us.
I waved a hand in front of my face to clear the smoke. Just when I was trying to figure out how the cigar fit into this whole thing, she knelt next to the body.
“Hey, help me pry open his lips,” she said over her shoulder. “Just be gentle, we need the jaw intact.”
“What are you going to do?” I said, eyeing the cigar with suspicion.
She sighed and glared back at me over her shoulder. “The smoke is a conduit for the spirit. We have to make sure it enters his body and reaches his center.”
“Wait, you’re not seriously about to put your mouth on the cold, dead lips of that man, are you?”
“It’s either his lips or his anus.”
“Lips it is, then.”
“We’re going to have to snip the threads the mortician used to sew the jaw shut. There’s a pair of scissors in my bag.” She nodded to the head. “And make it quick.”
I dug through the bag until I found a small pair of nail scissors. What I didn’t find in the bag was a pair of rubber gloves. Awesome.
I crouched next to Zen, who held out her hand for the scissors. Of course. That meant I had the fun job of spreading the corpse’s lips. They perched on his face like two frozen grubworms. Working quickly, I spread them so Zen could do the snipping thing. A couple of seconds later, the jaw went slack. I thought the outside of the corpse smelled horrible, but that was nothing compared to the noxious odor of grave breath that escaped his mouth. I reared back and covered my mouth and nose with my hand, cursing my vampirically heightened sense of smell.
“Good,” Zen said, dropping the scissors. “As I blow the smoke in there, I need you to call on helpful spirits to guide the nanm back into his body.”
I looked at her for a moment. All this spiritual stuff was over my head. “How do I do that, exactly?”
Her sigh seemed to say Do I have to do everything around here? She picked up a gourd covered in colorful strands of beads. “Simple. Take the bottle of rum from my bag. Sprinkle it in a circle around the body. As you do so, say the following three times: ‘Generous Spirits of the Loa, I summon and evoke thee to aid us in our quest for information.’ When that’s done, prick your finger and let the blood drop to the dirt.”
I grabbed the bottle of rum, resisting the urge to take a couple of shots from it. Didn’t want to piss off the Loa. I did as Zen instructed, repeating the incantation as I formed a wide circle around the body. Just in case, I added Hekate and Lilith’s names to the chant. I didn’t want the goddess and the Great Mother to think I’d switched teams or anything.
As I did so, Zenobia leaned over the man’s face and blew a steady stream of smoke between his gaping lips. While she did this, she shook the gourd rattle over his chest. Meanwhile, I focused all my energy on calling the spirits like she’d said. After a few moments, a tingle started in my midsection and a warm breeze swooped through the graveyard. Taking the blade I’d grabbed from her bag, I pricked the tip of my finger and milked two drops from the wound.
The second the blood hit the ground, Kevin’s body jerked once. Twice. At the same moment, Stryx screeched like a banshee.
My eyes widened and I took a step closer, careful to stay outside the rum-soaked circle. Sure enough, the guy’s eyelids spasmed like he was trying to open them but couldn’t. Zen placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “May your spirit be at ease, Mr. Johnson. We seek information. Will you aid us?”
The moan that escaped the man’s lips then sent goose bumps rippling across my arms. Stryx’s sudden frantic wing flaps told me I wasn’t the only one spooked.
Zen looked up with a worried expression. Then she spoke to Kevin Johnson’s spirit again. “Mr. Johnson? We seek to communicate with the owl called Stryx. Will you aid us?”
The corpse’s eyelids popped open then. Two flesh-colored domes popped off the pupils and slid to the ground. My gorge rose at the sight of his sunken eyes with their cloudy white irises. Zen scooted back on her butt. “That’s not supposed to happen.”
I stilled. “What do you mean? I thought we were trying to wake him.”
She shook her head. “His mouth should be the only thing moving.”
Stryx’s screeches started up again. And this time, the zombie spoke, as well.
Need fly! Kevin growled from where he lay. Escape mixed-blood. Find master.
I paused as his words sunk in. “Hey, it’s working. Kevin, can you ask Stryx where they’re keeping Maisie, please?”