Chapter 3: Buccaneers
Richard's house, New Orleans. February 26, 2006. Saturday evening.
Dean scanned the living room and frowned. "They didn't put up much of a struggle. Not a surprise for Neal and Richard, but Travis is a trained agent. I would have expected more from him."
Sam picked up a metal floor lamp that was lying on the floor and set it upright. "But there's enough stuff out of place to indicate there was at least some resistance."
"I guess, and, on the bright side, there are no bloodstains."
Sam took a slow breath. "And the guys aren't lying on the floor, incapacitated or worse. So maybe a fifolet wasn't involved."
"Not necessarily. Each of the two previous vics complained of seeing the fifolet for a few days before they died. Personally, I was banking on being terrorized for a while before it ganked me."
"They could have fled the house in a panic while being pursued," Sam suggested. "The front door wasn't locked."
"Yeah, maybe." But Dean's gut was telling him it was something else. He retrieved the GPS gismo Travis had lent him. "Travis said this was easy to operate. All I need to do is turn it on. He'd preset it to Neal's watch. I hope he's right."
"And that Neal's still wearing his watch," Sam added.
"Like you said," Dean agreed. Sam approached as he flicked it on. A couple of seconds later, a flashing point appeared on the grid. "You see a map around here?" Dean asked. "Richard picked up a USGS map of New Orleans this morning. It was in a cardboard tube."
Sam found it lying in the hallway after a brief search. He unrolled the map and spread it out on the dining room table.
Son of a bitch, the coordinates pointed to Lake Salvador. Had the fifolet dragged them back to its home base? And how could one fifolet manage three grown men?
Neal woke with a groan, his head pounding. The last time he'd felt this bad was when the Mafia had poured grappa down his throat in Italy. At least there he'd had a few minutes of euphoria before the hangover settled in.
He was lying on a wood plank floor. Someone had wrapped him in a cocoon of galvanized chain. He could barely budge an inch. Travis and Richard were in similar shape. They were in darkness but the light in an adjoining room provided a little illumination. The ramshackle place appeared to be a fishing shack. It appeared to have been abandoned for some time. The only furniture to be seen consisted of a few rusted metal chairs.
"You okay?" Travis whispered.
"Just some scrapes," he whispered back. "Our abductors are in the other room. They're vampires."
"I know." The large fangs of Neal's assailant were about all he remembered from the attack. He glanced down at the chains encircling his body and didn't see any blood. "Any bites?"
"None that I can see," Travis said. "We woke up a few minutes before you. There are at least four in the other room. They're playing poker."
"Why didn't they kill us?" Richard asked, a quaver in his voice. "Are they saving us for a feast?"
"Not likely," Neal scoffed, putting on a brave face for Richard's sake. He wished he actually believed that. Sam had told him vampires often kept their victims alive till they were hungry. "We're so trussed up, they couldn't feed on us even if they wanted to."
"Someone has to know how good Neal is at escaping," Travis said. "You're bound much more thoroughly than we are. My hunch is Crowley's involved."
"I bet you're right," Neal agreed. "We know he works with vampires. But it's been a long time since we saw him, and that was in New York. Why wait till now to attack us?" The last reported sighting of Crowley had been several months ago when the demon along with Diana and Jones had been taken prisoner by a leech monster. Astrena was long gone so he couldn't be acting under her orders now.
"Hear that?" Richard's tense whisper jolted him back to the present reality.
Neal held his breath, listening intently. "I don't hear anything," he reported after a moment.
"Me neither," Travis said. "What was it?"
"A low voice, speaking in French. I can't catch the words."
A moment later the adjoining room was filled with blue light. Screams and an unearthly howl pierced the shack. Neal heard the sounds of glass breaking and water splashes. Did the vampires escape through the window? Or maybe they'd been hurled. Travis was trying to inch his way toward Richard. Neal started doing the same.
Suddenly it grew deathly still. Neal grimaced. Poor choice of adjectives. There were no moans or groans, but the blue light was still there. His nose itched from the dust on the floor. He had a desperate urge to sneeze, and held his breath to stifle it. No need to aggravate a fifolet.
Sweat dripped down Neal's face onto his nose, making the urge to sneeze even stronger.
Without warning a ball of glowing blue gas appeared. It quickly swelled to fill the room. Neal could barely see the other men.
Richard began pleading for their lives in French. He claimed they were friends of Lafitte. Good luck, but somehow I don't think a fifolet is open to discourse. They had their gris-gris bags on. Would that help?
"Take the doubloon!" Richard pleaded. "It's in my pants pocket." He stopped talking as if he was listening. "But I can't get to it . . . You have to give me more time!"
An instant later, the fifolet vanished without a trace.
"What happened?" Travis demanded.
"Did you see him?" Richard asked, swallowing hard.
"Who?" Neal demanded. "The fifolet? All we saw was blue gas. Why were you speaking French to it?"
"I was trying to reason with him, and he wasn't a fifolet, or maybe he was." Richard's voice was quaking badly.
"Whoever he was, he's gone now, sweetheart," Travis said in a calm, reassuring tone Neal had never heard him employ. "Take a deep breath then tell us what you saw."
Richard swallowed, his face even in the dim light white as a sheet. "In the center of the blue gas was a pirate. He said he knew me. If I returned the doubloon, he'd leave us alone. When I told him to take it from my pocket, he said that for the curse to end, I'd have to hand it over at the spot where it had been taken. He gave us till sunrise to return it. He said he'd be waiting for us in the lake. If we don't, we'll be killed."
Time for a miracle. Neal could see their cell phones. There were on the window ledge, but, trussed up as they were, he doubted any of them could reach them. Dean was the only hope they had. But would the fifolet attack him like it had the vampires? And why had it killed the vampires, if they were indeed killed? Perhaps they'd simply fled and were waiting for the fifolet before returning to finish the job.
Dean pulled to a stop at the water's edge. They'd approached the lake from the north, taking a dirt road for the final hundred yards.
"This is as far as we can go in the Impala," Sam said. "You know, we really should think about getting a four-wheel drive."
"Quiet! She'll hear you." Dean lowered his voice and murmured to the dashboard, ignoring Sam's exaggerated eye-rolling. "Don't pay Sam any mind, Baby. He doesn't appreciate you have more sense than both of us."
"I need to warn Chloe about the other woman in your life," Sam muttered, reaching for his wading boots.
"She already knows, doofus." Dean peered at Travis's GPS locator. "Their location is due east from here."
"Just what I figured. Straight into the swamp." Sam stared into the murky expanse in front of them. The water didn't look too deep. They'd passed a boat rental place a ways back. Maybe they could "borrow" a canoe. Dean had already gotten out of the car. It looked like he was checking for tire tracks.
"See something?" Sam asked when Dean crouched down on the road.
"Yeah, the road's pretty dry, but it looks like a large van or SUV was here recently." Dean scooped up a handful of dirt from along the track and let it sift through his fingers. "The marks are fresh." He stood up and frowned as he surveyed the road ahead. It continued straight into the swamp where it was underwater for extensive stretches.
"There's a shack in the distance," Sam pointed out. "That could be their location. Our only way to get there is to hoof it." It was beyond creepy. An owl flew overhead, startling him. Even the frog calls sounded ominous. Fifolets weren't the only threat in the swamp.
They got out their rifles from the trunk, strapped the machete sheaths to their belts, stuffed darts of dead man's blood in their pockets, and then headed down the road. With no moon to provide light, they had to rely on their flashlights. The air was so saturated with moisture that the few stars visible in the sky were faded shells.
A cloud of blood-sucking mosquitoes hovered around them constantly. Roaches as big as a horse scurried up tree branches.
Dean stopped in his tracks. "You see those eyes?" He swallowed. "They're glowing red. What the hell kind of demon do they belong to?"
The eyes were barely above the surface of the water. "Alligators, I bet. Their eyes are reflecting the light from our flashlights."
Dean's groan rumbled deep in his throat. "Awesome. How much worse can a fifolet be?"
"And don't forget the snakes," Sam reminded him. "This must be ideal habitat for water moccasins."
"Dude, you trying to give me a heart attack?" Dean picked up a stick and poked the water in front of him. "Aren't the gators bad enough?"
"Hey, I used to josh you about snakes, but no more."
Dean chuckled. "Oh, yeah. Neal told me about that snake who crawled up your leg in the New Jersey swamp."
"Did you have to remind me?" Their bickering helped relieve the tension.
When they found what must have been a twelve-foot-long gator sprawled in front of the road, Dean just laughed it off. "Okay, Mr. Wild America, what now?"
"Don't make it mad."
Dean snorted. "Well, that's helpful. You want me to sing it a lullaby?"
"That probably won't help, but you remember that scene in Live and Let Die where James Bond leapfrogs over gators? Haven't you always wanted to reenact it?"
Dean broke into a grin. "Bet I can leap further than you."
From then on, it was a mad dash. They scrambled and jumped over gators, snakes, turtles, and whatever else was in their way.
As they neared the shack, they slowed their pace. A pickup truck with an extended cab and raised chassis was parked next to the ramshackle structure. Sam stopped to lift the cover over the truck bed, but there was nothing to see. No bloodstains was a positive in his book.
Dean grabbed his arm. "Fifolet off to your right," he hissed, ducking low.
Sam stared at the sphere of blue gas. It was toward the center of the lake and several hundred yards away. Dean had already taken his machete out of its sheath and was approaching the door. Slowly he nudged it open.
"Are you a sight for sore eyes!" Neal's ecstatic greeting was music to their ears. It meant whoever had abducted them was no longer around.
Neal's relieved exclamation was echoed by Travis and Richard. Uncoiling them from their chain cocoons was no simple matter, making Neal wonder how long it had taken the vampires to truss them up so thoroughly.
None of them suffered from anything worse than bruises and scrapes. Why they'd been abducted in the first place was just one of the puzzles confronting them. Why had the fifolet taken after the vampires instead of them? Not that Neal wasn't grateful, but it didn't make sense.
But before they could work on that mystery, they had a promise to keep.
Neal hotwired the truck to take them back through the swamp. The Winchesters had spotted a boat rental place on their way to the swamp. It was closed, but this was a voodoo emergency. Neal picked the lock on the gate where a fleet of pirogues was theirs for the taking. A few were large enough for three. Travis requisitioned one for himself, Dean, and Richard. Neal and Sam took a standard-sized boat. They planned it such that each boat would contain one curse-free person who could handle the oars if the others were overpowered by pirate ghosts.
The blue glow of the fifolet was still in the swamp. Sam said it hadn't moved since they'd first spotted it. Neal sat in the front of the pirogue as they rowed deeper into the swamp. Insects buzzed around his head. They were trying to row silently, but the lake was filled with vegetation. Every time they dipped their oars into the water, if they didn't spook a frog or snake, it was something else. They weren't using flashlights, so the alligator eyes didn't glow, but Neal suspected that every log they passed was a gator.
Neal paused in mid-stroke as he spotted an animal moving just below the surface of the water. He swallowed hard. Surely not.
"Anything wrong?" Sam demanded.
Neal hesitated. Sam would probably think he was hallucinating, but then again Sam was used to strange sightings. "Is there such a thing as a swamp squid? I think there's one beside us."
"Not to my knowledge. Are you looking at the animal on the right?"
"That's a young nutria. The adults look like large muskrats. The critter's trailing its hind legs. They do look a little like tentacles. Dean swore he saw a swamp rabbit swimming in the water when we approached the shack."
Sam was being kind. Neal took a deep breath to relax. That would-be squid had seemed almost as terrifying as the fifolet. He resumed paddling. "Lately I've had octopus on my brain," he admitted.
"Everyone has something which sets them off. For Dean, it's snakes. I can't see a clown without freaking out."
"I've been thinking of lovable octopuses to desensitize myself."
Sam shrugged. "I've never bothered to try to like clowns. What's to like?"
Neal wasn't willing to admit defeat yet. He'd just started to work on it. After all, he'd faced down vampires, witches, not to mention human killers. What was so tough about an octopus? Even if they did have tentacles and could camouflage themselves so you didn't know they were there.
No tentacles on the fifolet. The ball of fluorescent blue gas stayed in the same location till they rowed next to it. Richard's pirogue was in front. Neal could see him lean toward the fifolet. Travis was keeping a firm hand on Richard's belt, ready to yank him back in.
Richard held out the doubloon on the palm of his hand. His entire arm was engulfed by blue gas then without warning the fifolet vanished.
"What did you see?" Dean asked.
Richard took a breath. "It was the same pirate. He snatched it out of my hand. I tried to thank him for saving us from the vampires, and he grumbled we could thank him by leaving him in peace."
"I'm sure no one needs the reminder, but that means no searching for buried treasure," Travis said.
Good thing Mozzie wasn't with them to argue the point. Neal was happy to let any pirate chest stay buried. The way things had been going, if he found it, there'd be an octopus resting on the lid.
Crowley found Rana in her office at the bordello. At two o'clock in the morning, there were only a few lingering customers in the lounge. Everyone else was shagging upstairs.
She looked up from her computer when he dropped onto the velvet settee with a heavy sigh. Sometimes being a demon didn't count for much.
"Your plan didn't go as you wished?" she asked.
"The rats had already fled when Jeremy and I arrived. Somehow they escaped and took the truck with them. We found one fang cowering in the swamp, babbling something about a ball of blue light and a pirate sucking the life force out of his companions."
Rana's eyes widened in her expressive brown face. "Why didn't you tell me a fifolet was involved?"
"How the bloody hell could I do that since I don't know what one is."
When she told him about ghosts who protected pirate loot, Crowley simply rolled his eyes. So typical. Cheekbones must have enlisted his mates to search for buried treasure. Twits.
But, looking on the bright side, this could be a positive sign. Crowley had been convinced they'd come to New Orleans to look for him, but it now looked increasingly likely that they weren't even aware of his presence. "Answer me this. Why would the freakin' fifolet go after my fangs but leave the real looters alone?"
"I don't know," she said. "Perhaps they carried charms or had some other connection to the pirate. The ghost might have been a member of Lafitte's crew. They were a scourge on vampires ever since one of Lafitte's children was killed by a vampire in the early 1800s."
Crowley grunted. It was small comfort to learn this botched attempt wasn't because of any mistake he'd made. Still, what would he have accomplished by interrogating the would-be looters? He already knew the Men of Letters were entrenched in Baltimore. Their alliance with the feds would have continued no matter what torture he'd put the Moose and Squirrel through. He'd nicknamed them after Bullwinkle and Rocky, but perhaps the Chipmunks were more appropriate.
Rana was eyeing him speculatively. "What is it you desire most?" she said seductively.
"To rule over Hell once more." Never one to miss out on ingratiating himself for a return favor, he added in what he liked to think was a passionate rumble, "with you as my queen."
She stood up and walked toward him. Sitting on his lap, she whispered in his ear, "The throne is already taken."
"A fact I'm well aware of. You don't happen to know of any way to get rid of its current occupant?" Abaddon usurped the throne from him, and up to now the demons she commanded had made it impossible for him to reclaim his domain.
"You want to eliminate the Men of Letters. You want your throne back. Why not accomplish both at once?"
Crowley leaned back to study her. What was she concocting in her beautiful head? "Explain."
"Abaddon desires more than anything else to destroy the Men of Letters. She thought she'd succeeded in 1958. If word were to reach her that the Baltimore office was still active, she'd likely return to Earth to destroy it personally."
"Leaving the throne empty, so my forces could claim it for me?"
Rana exchanged smiles with him. "Precisely."
"How would she find out?"
"Her demons are scattered throughout the States. Some even frequent my establishment. One of my girls could let a word or two slip out."
"I'd need time to prepare my loyal followers," he warned even as he lusted to start immediately.
"I'm yours to command."
Dean and Sam left the next day, hot on the trail of a rugaru which had been spotted in Shreveport. Before they left, everyone trooped to Gabrielle's for a post-fifolet checkup. Neal wasn't the only one who grew tense waiting for Gabrielle to pass her black light over his palm. Richard clasped Travis's hand nervously all the way to the Quarter. But she declared them curse-free in short order.
As to why the fifolet had attacked the vampires, Gabrielle had a ready explanation. Lafitte had taken a mistress in New Orleans, a woman named Catherine Villard. To describe her, Gabrielle used the old term mulatto, meaning a free woman of mixed African and European blood. Lafitte had sired several children by Catherine in addition to those he later had with his wife. One of Catherine's sons had been killed by a vampire, and Lafitte had taken revenge by decapitating several personally. Gabrielle was herself one of Catherine's descendants. That made her and Richard very distant cousins.
By the time Mozzie showed up on Monday afternoon, the terror of that night had faded. When Mozzie asked what he'd missed, Neal didn't know where to start. Pirate treasure, the fifolet, voodoo curses, vampires—anyone but Mozzie would think he was making it all up. And that gave him the idea for how to handle it at work.
On Wednesday, when Neal and Travis returned to the office, their strategy was ready. The festivities began with another king cake, thermoses of coffee and chicory, and beads for everyone. One special person got an extra present.
Diana broke into a grin when she peered into the gift bag and pulled out the violet plush animal. "An octopus writer's hat! Thank you!"
"You're welcome," Neal said, smiling at her enthusiasm.
She proceeded to slap the critter on her head. "I hope Mozzie got a writer's hat too?"
"Of course. His is pistachio-green. The tentacles look like long dreadlocks. You'll make quite a pair." He turned to Peter. "How was your weekend?"
"Exhausting, in a word," Peter said, licking the sugar off his fingers. "The kid cried the entire first day, but by the second we'd achieved an uneasy détente." He raised a brow. "No monsters at your end, I take it?"
"Sorry, Peter," Neal said, giving him a sympathetic wince, "but this was New Orleans."
His face immediately grew tense as Neal knew it would. "Lay it on me."
"Let's see, there were the vampires in the swamp. They were quickly followed by the ghost of a dead pirate."
"And don't forget the cursed doubloon and voodoo spell," Travis prompted.
"I couldn't leave them out," Neal agreed with a smile.
Diana and Jones were already laughing, and Peter broke into a chuckle as well.
"They're pulling your leg," Jones declared. "Were those all parade revelers?"
"And floats," Neal said. "I haven't even gotten to the zombies yet."
"My favorite was the Krewe of Voodoo parade," Travis said. "No, on second thought, it would have to be Mozzie's fractal pancakes." He turned to Peter. "Mozzie reminded me that Fat Tuesday was also the birthday of Pierre Fatou, a French mathematician and one of the pioneers in fractals. Mozzie's pancakes were a sight to behold."
As Travis droned on about Fatou sets and polynomials, Neal could stand back and enjoy mission accomplished. He and Travis had agreed to be truthful but they realized no one would believe them.
That evening, Neal gave Henry a call from his loft. "Dean told me about the Men of Letters," Neal said. "Have you been able to find out anything else about them?"
"It's a secret society, acting like hunters but with a scholarly bent. The organization supposedly still exists in England, but the American chapters all disappeared in the 1950s."
"So Seth could have been a member."
"Yeah, but it's ancient history now," Henry said. "Bobby cautioned me against trying to approach the British Men of Letters, assuming I could track them down. They have the reputation of being ruthless and more than a little paranoid."
"Scholars aren't known for their fighting skills," Neal said. "Perhaps that's why they were wiped out in the States."
"Quite possibly. Like artists, they have no business tackling demons."
Neal didn't comment on Henry's none-too-subtle jab, although, honestly, nobody should have to face demons.
"The group provides a plausible reason why Seth Winslow disappeared," Henry continued. "If he believed his friend Chester was killed by vampires and the vampires were out to get him as well, he could have assumed a new identity to protect his family."
"I'd recommend not telling Mozzie about the Men of Letters. Between the Culper Ring and the Illuminati, he already has enough on his plate."
Henry chuckled. "Too late, he'd already heard about them from Bobby. Would you believe he called me to find out if Win-Win has any information on the Tudor Crown?"
Neal groaned. "I'm not surprised. He believes the Culper Ring had acquired it from the Illuminati and hid it somewhere in the Northeast."
"Sounds like a harmless theory. Kinda like his Hitler clones. No point in bursting his bubble."
Neal nodded absently. Their talk of secrets was making him want to scratch his latest itch.
"You said you heard about the Men of Letters from Dean," Henry said. "Did you run into him in New Orleans?"
Neal took a breath. That twin telepathy he and Henry had going was as strong as ever. "We chanced upon him in the French Quarter."
"He was there on a job, right?"
"Yep, and our club has two more members." Neal and Henry had formed Conspirators Anonymous to help avoid hidden agendas. So far, the main benefit was that they didn't hide secrets from each other. Hiding things from Peter was another matter.
"Hmm. You were in New Orleans with Richard and Travis. Using my razor-sharp deduction skills, I surmise something happened that you're not telling Peter about."
"You just scored a bulls-eye. The three of us discussed it, and we agreed that since it ended well with no repercussions, there was no reason to make friends and co-workers stress about it."
"But I'm not in that category," Henry pointed out.
"No, you're not and I'm glad." Henry's reaction to the tale of voodoo, ancient curses, and pirate ghosts was about what he'd expected. Henry had already heard enough about Neal's previous adventures with the Winchesters to not doubt his words.
"You know how Peter worries about me being a vampire magnet," Neal said. "If he hears about this, he'll never let me go anywhere."
"Yeah, our policy of openness needs to have a few exceptions included, like for supernatural phenomena."
"Agreed, especially when the news would cause undue stress. I've told Sara though. She's a member of our club."
"And I'll alert Eric. He's also a charter member." Henry paused for a moment. "I don't think we're in violation of the club's tenets. You told me. We're informing others. This is more like the confidential cases you and I work on for our jobs."
"Exactly," Neal said, delighted at Henry's take. "We're simply adhering to best business practices."
Notes: Oh, Crowley, you're letting your paranoia get out of hand. It's truly a bad idea to lure Abaddon back from Hell. The results will be the subject of the next Crossed Lines story, Cheekbones Caffrey, which I'll post this coming October.
Fun facts: Alligator eyes really do appear to glow demonic red in the night. Their eyes have a special adaption to allow them to see better in low light which causes the effect. A swamp filled with them can be a scary sight indeed. There's a pin of the gators Dean and Sam saw on the Pinterest board. I also have a pin of Mozzie's fractal pancakes. Neal might have been right about an octopus being on top of a treasure chest. Supposedly they're attracted to bright shiny objects. Marine archaeologists claim octopuses help point the way to lost artifacts.
Thanks to Penna Nomen for beta help and thanks to you for reading! Next week I'll begin posting an Arkham Files story called Queen's Gambit. Diana let Mozzie write most of it and he included two of his favorite topics—time travel and the Tudor Crown.
Penna recently moved. She discusses the experience in her latest blog post, "Disorientation: writing a story is like moving into a new house."
Blog: Penna Nomen & Silbrith Conversation
Chapter Visuals and Music: The Voodoo Remoulade board on the Caffrey Conversation Pinterest website