Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Working in the mail room wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible. That was the gist of it.
Generally, Kerby (her supervisor) assigned Jill to Receiving, because the two interns, Toby and Byron, talked anime all day and mixed up the sorting. That's why it was Jill who pulled the black cardboard box out of the Incoming bin.
Touching it made her nervous; the cardboard felt too smooth, like it was coated in soft wax, and there was a faint incense-y odor seeping out that was kind of like burned gingerbread and kind of like perfume and stung all the way from nostrils to esophagus.
LaTeesha, who worked phones in Customer Service, was walking past with a big mug of coffee when Jill pulled the box out of the Incoming bin. "Who's that for?" she demanded, wrinkling her nose, and ambled over for a closer look.
Jill frowned down at the box, absent-mindedly tucking a loose piece of her blonde hair behind her ear. "It's addressed to Larry, in Marketing."
"Oh, well, then." LaTeesha huffed. "I'm sure it's something that'll saaave the company."
"There's only a label stuck to the top with his name and the building address." Jill set the box down one corner at a time, like a hard landing might make it explode. "There's no logo anywhere. That's weird."
"Huh." LaTeesha sipped her coffee, glowering over the rim of her mug at the box. The mug was hard to ignore; it was massive, and "World's Greatest Mom" was printed on the side in tall black letters, with a big Valentine heart next to it. The hand holding the mug was equally impressive; each finger ended in a salon-crafted fingernail with a little rhinestone heart at the tip.
Jill rubbed her hands on her jeans. "Even the box is creepy. The cardboard feels slimy, sort of. Do you think it's some kind of drug?"
"A drug." LaTeesha snorted. "Larry?"
Kerby, hunched over his desk in the far corner, coughed to cover a laugh. He scribbled some numbers on an expenses tally sheet, then scratched the stubble on his chin with the eraser end of his pencil.
LaTeesha shook her head, her straightened, meticulously roller-curled hair moving side to side in a single chunk. "No. Be better for Larry if it was drugs, actually." She held her mug to the side and leaned in to take a sniff. "Thought so. Ol' Larry wants to try voodoo. Smell that incense? There'll be a doll or a gris-gris bag in there, maybe a little altar."
Jill made a face. "Is that what that smell is?"
"Yeah. Voodoo takes a special kind of incense with spices mixed in. Peppercorn and ginger and some other stuff."
Toby and Byron abandoned their in-depth analysis of One Piece, turning on LaTeesha with rabid glee. "Are you serious?" Byron asked, pulling his baseball cap off, shaking it, then yanking it down on his shaggy dark hair the wrong way around. He scooted forward in his roll chair, pushed off his desk with one foot and glided across the floor until he bumped to a stop against the mail counter. "Lemme touch it."
"Leave it alone," LaTeesha ordered. "This isn't a game. My great-grandmother was a Voodoo priestess before she turned Baptist. Voodoo is not something you want to mess with."
Jill chewed her lip. It was an old habit and the reason she wore lip balm instead of lipstick. Well, that, and she worked around people she didn't want to impress. "I think it's a bad idea to give this box to Larry."
"Oh, it's a bad idea, all right," LaTeesha agreed. "In fact, if it were me, I'd put a pair of gloves on before I touched that box again."
"You really think there's a voodoo doll in there?" Toby asked. He was sitting backward on his swivel chair, his arms draped over the top, his sunshine-and-wheat curls tumbling down over his eyes and ears like a melting afro. Toby was the sort of guy who got to wear jeans everywhere because explaining "appropriate attire" to him would be too much trouble.
LaTeesha scowled at him. "You mean those things where you poke a pin in and somebody breaks their leg? No. Those aren't real. Voodoo does have dolls, but they're supposed to protect people. Not that they can. If a doll could do that, we'd have dolls for everything. House dolls, car dolls. Airplane dolls. Hospital dolls. All the kids would have Voodoo Barbies. Anyway, the kind you're talking about are just in the movies. My grandmother never stuck pins in dolls. If she didn't like what you were doing, she just yelled at you until you stopped."
"What's a gree-gree bag?"
LaTeesha stared at Toby like she was wondering who dug him out of the garbage. "Did you hear a single thing just I told you? Voodoo is dangerous! You need to start spending time somewhere other than in your own head."
"Yeah, idiot. Voodoo is dangerous," Byron said, and threw a pencil at Toby, nailing him on the ear.
"Don't throw office supplies," Kerby said, monotone, his eyes on his paperwork. He scooted his chair in and leaned a little further over his desk.
Toby grinned at Byron. "In the kingdom of Marketing, a man with no management skills received a five-leaf voodoo grimoire."
"His magic is giving up instantaneously!" Byron cried, and they both burst out laughing.
LaTeesha's eyebrow went up.
"You know, like in Black Clover," Toby explained. "Asta doesn't have magic, but he gets a cursed grimoire with a five-leaf clover on it, and there's a demon inside that -"
"Stop," LaTeesha said.
"Voodoo isn't about cursing people," LaTeesha said, exasperated. "It's a religion. A mix of things. There's some Catholicism in there, some African witch doctor stuff, some other stuff thrown in, too. People hold ceremonies to ask spirits - the loa - for help. And they let the loa possess them."
"Actual possession? Like, a demon goes inside your body and talks through you and makes you do things?" Byron asked, leaning toward the box with his hand stretched out.
"Byron, don't you touch that box." LaTeesha glared at him until he put his hand down. "This isn't The Exorcist. Nobody's head is spinning around." She frowned thoughtfully. "Grandma Mimi would've said there was no difference, though. Doesn't really matter. Loa or demons, they're both dangerous. She didn't ever take us to a ceremony; she just told us about it."
"What did she say?" Toby asked, eyes alight.
"So there are places you can see a real ceremony?" Byron asked, at the same time.
"Do you two want to die stupid? This isn't one of your shows. Loa are not your friends. Sure, sometimes they'll help you, but sooner or later they'll always try to hurt you. And they all want blood. When Grandma Mimi was a priestess, she used to kill an animal for the loa every time she held a ceremony. A chicken, usually, but not always."
Jill grimaced. "I'll leave the box on the counter. If Larry doesn't ask about it by the end of next week, I'm throwing it out."
"Uh-uh. Burn it," LaTeesha said. "You don't want anybody else getting into it. Like the anime twins, here."
Toby and Byron slumped.
"Don't burn the mail," Kerby said indifferently, pulling a new piece of paperwork out of his inbox.
"Don't blame me for what happens, then," LaTeesha told him.
Unfortunately, Larry did remember the box; he asked about it first thing the following morning, calling the mail room extension and describing the box exactly: size and shape of an extra-large shoe box, black cardboard, no brand or decoration of any kind.
Orders were orders. But Jill followed LaTeesha's advice and put gloves on before she picked the voodoo box up, and she set it inside a bigger box before she put it on the mail cart. It seemed best to add a layer of insulation between the voodoo box and the rest of the mail.
The mail room was in the basement, but Larry's office was on the fifth floor. So Jill pushed the mail cart past Toby and Byron (who were back on the topic of demon grimoires) and over to the staff elevator, a battered, dull, steel box that groaned and shuddered as it rose.
She expected it to rise all the way to Five without interruption, but it stopped at the lobby level, the doors opening with a soft squeal. A very ordinary man stepped through, turned and faced the front. He had a brown jumpsuit on with some kind of delivery company logo over the left breast, although she couldn't quite make it out - the lines twisted and blurred when she tried to focus on them. That was weird. His shoes were weird, too: brown loafers, obviously high-end and more expensive than somebody on a delivery man's salary should be able to afford. He had a friendly smile, though, and his grey eyes were warm and twinkly. He was late forties, probably; grey at the temples, but dark everywhere else, with a few creases around the corners of his eyes, just enough to suggest dignity.
He was holding a dark green, nylon bag, the kind that special deliveries sometimes came in.
"Nice morning," he said, shifting the bag from his right hand to his left. "Pretty. Not too hot."
"Mm," she answered. The shoes bothered her. They made the rest of his outfit look like a costume.
"I'm looking for Lawrence Brantwood's office," the man said. "Do you know where it is?"
"Larry? Oh, sure. I'm headed there right now. You can follow me."
"Or I could just give the package to you, and have you deliver it."
Jill took a step back. "He'll need to sign for it, though. Right?"
"Well, see..." the man inched closer to her. "The thing you're bringing him goes with the thing I'm bringing him. So you might as well take them both."
"How do you know what I'm bringing him?"
The man gave her a crocodile smile and tapped the side of his nose.
Peppercorns and ginger, Jill thought.
He reached over and pushed the button for the Lobby. The elevator should have gone up to floor 5 first. Instead, it immediately changed direction. When the doors opened a few seconds later, she could see the lobby's marble floor and fake palm trees.
The man dumped the green bag on top of the black cardboard box and stepped out of the elevator, giving her a little goodbye salute.
"Receipt's inside," he said, tilting his head toward the bag. "Have a good one."
The elevator doors closed. Jill looked down at the bag as the elevator rose past the third floor, then the fourth - slow as an ice age - and juddered to a stop at the fifth. When the doors wheezed open, she pushed the cart out of the elevator and into the hallway, eyes still on the green bag.
She made her way down the hall toward Marketing and Larry's desk, which was all the way at the back of a honeycomb cubicles. But the dread sitting heavy on her shoulders wouldn't let her finish the journey; she halted the cart halfway to Marketing and pushed it over to the wall. Then she took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and picked up the bag.
It was so light, it seemed empty at first. But when she unzipped it, a little box was lodged in one corner. It looked like a ring box, but it was made out of the same wax-coated black cardboard as the voodoo box. It felt sinister.
Jill shook the ring box and heard something rattle softly. She took a deep breath and opened the box.
Inside was a human tooth.
Jill yelped and dropped the box. The tooth fell out, bounced once and landed on its side next to a scatter of cracker crumbs.
Jill gazed at it for a long moment, opened and closed one gloved hand, then headed toward the nearest restroom and pulled a handful of paper towels from the dispenser. She walked back to the tooth, knelt and wrapped the wad of towels around it before picking it up and dropping it into its box. She put it back in the green bag and set the green bag on top of the voodoo box, and then, after a moment's thought, jammed the paper towels in, too. She might need them again, and anyway, it felt wrong to dump them in the restroom trash where the cleaning crew might touch them.
Jill slumped against the wall - a good three feet away from the cart - and wondered what to do. Larry was obviously planning something awful. Whose tooth was in that bag? Who had that guy in the elevator been? Some kind of contract killer, or something? Was there actually a business that delivered teeth to people? Had the guy pulled somebody's tooth out himself? Had he killed the person first?
Chances were, if Jill did what LaTeesha suggested and burned Larry's voodoo paraphernalia, he would just order another box and tooth. She'd get in trouble and nothing would change. Somebody would get another tooth ripped out. And there were practical issues, as well; she wasn't sure she could burn the tooth. You probably needed a really hot furnace, like they had in crematoriums. Was it a crime to burn a stolen tooth? The answer was almost certainly yes.
Larry entered the hallway, looking persecuted. It was his default look. "Oh, hey. Is that my package?" he asked, rising on his toes a little and leaning forward.
Better or worse, the matter was decided. Jill pushed the cart toward him, wincing when one of the wheels started to squeak, and brought the cart to a halt near enough that he could pick up his mail himself.
"Wow. There are a lot of paper towels in here," Larry said. He was looking dumpy, as usual; pasty and plump in odd places, his shirt buttons a little strained around the belly, his face overly round. His thinning hair was short on the sides and long in front, and his small eyes were the faded blue of bleached jeans.
"I picked up some trash on the way," Jill told him. Not exactly a lie.
"Well, that was thoughtful. Thanks, Jill."
Larry peered at the box, then at her. "Did you open it?"
"The box? No. The green bag just came for you; a guy in a brown uniform brought it. He dropped it on top of the box and said they go together."
"Okay. That's good. Yes, the box and the bag go together. They're for a project I'm working on." He hesitated, glancing sideeye at her. "You're sure you didn't look inside?"
"Larry, I don't know what's in the box. Why are you being so weird?"
"Am I being weird? Sorry. Sorry. I've got a lot going on. I'm really stressed out. I'll take the package, thanks. Thanks, Jill." He scooped up the box and scurried away.
Jill pushed the cart around the fifth floor, dropping envelopes and packages on the appropriate desks, functioning on autopilot. Larry claimed credit for other people's work. He came in at least two hours late every day and blamed it on his kids. He didn't get mad, he gossiped. He made promises and forgot about them immediately afterward. He was constitutionally unable to impose discipline. Meetings - when he didn't reschedule them - were two hours of interdepartmental bickering and grandstanding. And he always left final decisions to somebody else, so he wouldn't be blamed if something went wrong. In short, Larry had been a terrible supervisor in nearly all respects, save the actual performance of an evil mystic ritual, and now he was ready to take the next step.
If there was anyone on the planet who should never, ever attempt a mystic ritual, it was Larry.
When her cart was empty, Jill rolled it to the elevator, put it back in the mail room and walked down the hall to the Customer Service department.
LaTeesha listened to the story in iron silence, and when it was over, said, "that figures."
"Should I call somebody?" Jill asked. "Like, I don't know, a priest, maybe?"
"Larry will probably just mess things up like he usually does, and nothing will happen."
"Do we really want to assume things will be okay, though? I mean, I'm sure it wasn't a gag. The delivery guy was scary." Jill hugged herself. "This feels like a movie. It doesn't feel real."
"Plenty of stuff doesn't feel real and is." LaTeesha stood up, gripping her World's Greatest Mom mug. "Come on. Let's go upstairs and knock on his door."
"And do what? Ask him if he's sacrificing chickens?"
"He won't be. Chickens make a lot of noise when you kill 'em, and you get blood all over. It smells."
"Okay, how do you know that?"
LaTeesha grunted a laugh. "My grandparents on my father's side lived way out in the sticks. In the South, you live way out in the sticks, you've probably got a big vegetable garden and some chickens." She waved Jill toward the elevator. "Larry isn't going to do a ritual during the day when everybody's around. It isn't just the chicken - there's singing and dancing too."
Jill tried to picture Larry performing a voodoo dance and failed utterly. For one thing, he always wore button-up shirts and slacks.
"If he was going to perform a ritual, it would have to be after everybody else went home," LaTeesha continued. "He had everything delivered to this address. That means he's going after somebody who works here. So I'm thinking he'll do the ritual tonight, in his office - unless we talk him out of it first. Which we are going to do right now."
Jill let her head drop back, sighing. There were water stains on the ceiling. "This is crazy."
LaTeesha shrugged. "So's Larry."
They got into the elevator and rode it up to the fifth floor, Jill fidgeting silently and LaTeesha grumbling about cheap office coffee, then stepped into the hall, walked past the crumbs on the floor and kept going until they got to Marketing. They wound their way through the cubicle labyrinth until the reached the single enclosed office, presumably where Larry was plotting nefarious things involving human teeth.
LaTeesha didn't bother to knock. She shoved the door open and sauntered in, Jill trailing after her like a bit of seaweed caught on a rudder.
"Hey, Larry," LaTeesha drawled, taking a seat in one of the metal chairs in front of his desk. It was so low, she could easily have rested her chin on the desktop, but she settled in, sipped her coffee, grimaced and crossed one leg over the other, looking bored.
Larry was standing near his desk, holding a phone to his ear with a pained expression. The person on the other end of the phone was loudly unhappy, so rather than interrupt, he grimaced and mouthed something conciliatory.
Jill nodded politely. LaTeesha's gaze roved until it landed on a coffee maker on a little table in the corner.
"I heard you got a weird package in the mail, Larry," she said, the moment he hung up.
Larry shot a betrayed glance at Jill. "I'm not sure you should be telling people what staff receive in the mail. It's not really their business."
"I'm not asking 'cause it's my business, Larry," LaTeesha said, with a pleasant smile.
"Right. Well. It's just a project I'm working on. No big deal. I mean, I kind of told Jill it was a big deal earlier, but it's really only a big deal to me."
"And?" LaTeesha prompted.
Larry sat down behind his desk. He looked at the screen on his PC. Rolled the mouse back and forth a few times. Fiddled with a pen. "I want you guys to know that you can trust me with stuff. I mean that. I do. So, I hope you won't be offended, but I'm not going to share details about the project. Not yet, anyway. I need you to just trust me."
"Isn't sharing details the reason we have a Marketing department in the first place?" LaTeesha said.
"Yes... But only certain details. Some things are only discussed at the Admin level."
LaTeesha stood and strolled past Larry's desk to the corner table. In addition to the coffee maker, there was a stack of Styrofoam cups on a tray; she pulled a cup from the stack, tipped the contents of her mug into it and set the cup on the table, then helped herself to the coffee in the pot.
She sipped, smiled, and sat back down on the short chair. "This is good coffee, Larry."
"I'm going to need you to take that foam cup with you when you leave," Larry said.
"A'right," LaTeesha agreed, taking another sip.
"It was a really strange box," Jill said, trying not to laugh. "It worried me, to be honest."
"Really? What about it worried you?"
Jill discarded the first three answers that leapt to mind. "Well... it wasn't labeled and it smelled weird, for one thing."
"It does kind of smell weird, doesn't it?" Larry said apologetically.
LaTeesha stood again and walked over to top off her mug. There was a jar of powdered creamer on the tray, next to the Styrofoam cups; she opened it, sniffed the contents, then dumped some into her mug, stirring with her finger. "You shouldn't be messing with voodoo."
"Yeah, we know you've got a voodoo box you bought off the Internet." LaTeesha sucked the coffee slurry off her finger and brushed her hand dry on her pants.
"There isn't anything illegal about it. I ordered the supplies on a legitimate site. I mean, you guys know me. I wouldn't do anything to hurt anybody. That's not me. I want people to be happy. I want to make people happy, that's just my nature. I'm a pleaser." Larry held his hand up like he was waiting for someone to call on him. "I didn't order anything hard-core. It's... kind of a kit. Like voodoo for beginners. But it's a one-time thing. And this isn't the kind of voodoo where you stick needles into dolls."
LaTeesha rolled her eyes.
"Exactly." Larry smiled at her, his shoulders relaxing. "I don't believe it will work, to be honest. I mean, who believes in this stuff for real? It's just..." his shoulders sagged. "There's a situation going on and it's super important, you guys. I'm getting desperate. I'm willing to try anything at this point."
"And you thought voodoo was a good option?" Jill said, staring at him.
"I met somebody at a conference recently who recommended it."
LaTeesha made a noise like an offended elephant. "What kind of conferences are you going to?"
"I know. I know. The thing is..." he sighed. Looked at the rug. Looked at the ceiling. Sighed again. Opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. Did a kind of combination cringe and shrug. And finally went with, "My hands are tied, you guys. I'm out of options."
"Larry -" Jill started, and realized she didn't have a follow up. The whole thing was just so dumb.
"I'm sorry, Jill. That's all I can tell you. I can't share any of the details until some things get finalized. I'll give you more information as soon as I can, I promise. When we're ready to move forward, I'll set up a special multi-departmental meeting so we're all on the same page."
LaTeesha looked at him with something that wasn't respect. "What page would that be?"
"I promise, it's all under control." He pressed his palms together prayer-style and shook his joined hands at them. "We'll have a meeting. Soon. A couple of weeks at the latest. And I'll tell you guys everything that's going on."
Jill and LaTeesha studied him for a few moments, waiting, but Larry was doing that scrunchy-face thing that meant he could not be induced, by any means, to commit to anything, including meaningful conversation. So LaTeesha rose, retrieved the foam cup half-full of cheap downstairs coffee, waited for Jill to open the door and sailed through the doorway without another word.
"Thanks for coming by, guys," Larry called. "I mean that. You are welcome to come talk to me whenever you have concerns."
Jill followed LaTeesha out, closing the door gently to soften the click of the latch. "Well, that was painful."
"Excruciating," LaTeesha agreed.
"Guess we're going to have to stay late and catch him at it."
Jill slumped. "LaTeesha, I can't. You can't keep involving me in this. I'm not a superhero. I work in the mail room."
"The loa don't care where you work." LaTeesha headed for the elevator.
"I mean, Larry's worthless," Jill continued, trying to keep her voice low. It was hard because LaTeesha wasn't slowing down. "But he's the Marketing Director. I can't keep hassling him if I want to keep my job."
"Larry hasn't got the spine to get somebody fired."
That was true, actually. The Marketing staff pretty much did whatever they wanted all day. Still. "LaTeesha, I'm not like you. I don't like confrontation."
"Who says I do?"
That was a question best left unanswered. "You know what I mean. I don't like to rock the boat."
LaTeesha reached the elevator and pushed the button, and when the doors opened, strode in, assuming (correctly) that Jill would follow. The doors closed, and LaTeesha turned to her as the elevator groaned slowly down to the bottom floor. "Jill. Larry is the problem today, right now. You can help solve that problem. Or you can ignore it. Which one of those are you okay with?"
The elevator reached the bottom floor. The doors slid open. LaTeesha stepped out and turned to face her. "My break is over. I've got to go back to my desk. You staying after with me tonight, or not?"
Jill heard herself say, "Yes. I am. Staying, I mean. I am."
She wasn't sure what had just happened. She didn't remember a moment in which she decided to stay after hours to catch the Marketing Director performing a voodoo ritual. Possibly, Jill had originally said no, but LaTeesha's personality had been catalyst enough to alter reality itself. In any case, the decision was made. Jill would be staying after.
"Okay," LaTeesha said. "I'll order sandwiches from the deli before they close."
For the next three hours, Jill worried about what she would say to anyone who asked why she wasn't going home at six. She shouldn't have bothered; nobody noticed. Toby and Byron left ten minutes early, discussing possible plot developments in the next season of My Hero Academia, and also the best burger places ten miles or less from work. Kerby left twenty minutes later, looking bloodshot and hungover. The Customer Service people (other than LaTeesha) filed out, complaining about traffic. The Marketing people walked out right behind them, joking about some retail chain's awkward ad campaign.
Larry wasn't with them.
LaTeesha strolled into the mail room, carrying a white paper to-go bag with the deli's logo. She set it on the counter and pulled out a couple of turkey sandwiches, two little bags of potato chips and another bag with chocolate chip cookies. Then she fished a couple of Cokes out of her purse, which was the size of a dirigible. "Got these from the machine. It costs less than buying a drink at the deli. They make good sandwiches there, though."
Jill unwrapped her sandwich and took a bite. It was excellent. "How long do you think we should wait?" she asked, talking with her mouth full.
"Don't know. Couple hours, maybe," LaTeesha said, biting into her own sandwich.
"How will we know he's started?"
LaTeesha took a cookie out of the bag, bit into it, chewed thoughtfully, and said, "the world will feel wrong. You'll know. You'll feel 'em watching."
"Demons?" Jill shook her head. "I can't believe that word just came out of my mouth."
"Forget what the anime twins said. They've got cartoon girlfriends."LaTeesha finished her cookie and took a few swallows from her can of Coke. "If we talk to any of the loa-"
"If we talk to them?"
"You never know. But if we do, they'll have voodoo names. Papa Legba, maybe, he's one of the big shots. So we'll call them loa. What it comes down to is, don't make deals with invisible things that like chicken blood. That's a rule of thumb. Finish your sandwich, I gotta make some phone calls."
Once Jill finished her dinner, and LaTeesha verified that someone other than her oldest son, Tyler, was babysitting her younger children ("he'll play video games in his room all night and the little ones won't get supper") the two of them chitchatted until they ran out of things to talk about, and then they went back to LaTeesha's desk so Jill could try Tetris on LaTeesha's work computer.
The cleaning crew came in with vacuums and spray bottles, eyed Jill and LaTeesha with suspicion, then pretended the two women didn't exist. LaTeesha got a couple more Cokes from the vending machine. Jill failed miserably at Tetris. All but a few of the lights switched off for the night, leaving only the emergency lights to battle the descending gloom, and LaTeesha turned her desk light on because playing video games in the dark ruined your eyes, not that Tyler ever listened to anything she told him.
Around 10:45, the emergency lights flickered, and the abrasive smell of pepper and ginger hit the air, growing stronger minute by minute, until it was so potent Jill's eyes watered. She pinched her nose, coughing, and looked at LaTeesha, who nodded, lips pressed.
"So now we go to his office?" Jill whispered. LaTeesha was right; it did feel like something hungry and malevolent was watching them. Her stomach roiled. Maybe she should have skipped dinner.
"Don't you puke," LaTeesha ordered. "You can do that later. Swallow it down. Come on, let's get this over with."
The lights flickered again as they walked down the hall. Jill pushed the elevator call button, but when the doors slid open, it was pitch dark inside.
"We should take the stairs," LaTeesha said.
They made their way to the end of the hall and the door to the emergency stairs, relieved when they opened the door and found that the stairs were still lit, albeit poorly; the bulbs were flickering here, too, and they were dimmer than they ought to be. The shadowed places seemed to shift and stretch, and out of the corner of her eye, Jill thought she saw the flight above them move. The incense smell wasn't as strong, though, which was a relief; she took deep breaths, coughed hard, and wished she had some Kleenex so she could blow the stench out of her nose.
They climbed all five flights (slowly; LaTeesha didn't rush stairs) and pushed through the door onto the fifth floor. Here, the smell of voodoo incense was like a brick to the face. The emergency lights were on everywhere but the Marketing department; it was shrouded in charcoal shadows like a gateway to Hell.
LaTeesha, who was leaning over with her hands braced on her knees, recovering from the long climb, made a face. "At a conference." She straightened up, glaring at the opening to Marketing's warren of cubicles. "Some people shouldn't be allowed to talk to other people."
Jill's skin was crawling. There was a noise, barely there, like a mosquito buzzing, or maybe radio static, that was trying to get her attention. "What's that sound?"
"I don't hear anything. Probably the loa are talking, though. Try not to listen."
"It's like it's inside my head."
"Don't let it inside your head."
"I'm not letting it inside, it's getting in on its own!"
"It doesn't own you. It doesn't have a right to you. You don't have to listen to it."
Jill turned that into a mental chant and looped the track. It doesn't own me. It doesn't have a right to me. I don't have to listen to it.
LaTeesha led the way through the cubicle maze until they were close to Larry's office; then they crept forward together and peered past the corner of the last cubicle.
Larry's door was wide open, and there was a slow ebb of shimmering air creeping through, spreading over the carpeting. Or maybe it wasn't air. Jill got the feeling it would be better if she didn't look too closely.
Larry was inside the office, singing something. Kind of. It sounded like he was inventing a tune as he went. The words were in a foreign language, not French, but something close to it, and Larry hadn't bothered to memorize them; he had a piece of 8x11 copier paper in his hand and was squinting at it as he sang. He stopped for a moment on one of the words, tried out three different pronunciations, then picked one at random.
"That is not Creole," LaTeesha muttered, affronted. "I don't know what he thinks he's doing, but that is not what Creole sounds like."
Larry had placed a square-sided brass dish near the front of his desk, with an incense stick smoldering on it, filling the room with a pungent fug of burnt gingerbread and opiate perfume. There were dozens of lit candles on every flat surface, gobbets of wax already piling on the rug; Larry had, for unfathomable reasons, chosen vanilla-scented candles, which added an additional smothery layer to the already eyewatering odor of the incense. The green bag was lying on the floor off to one side. The black cardboard box was sitting open on the desk, right next to a bucket of KFC.
There was a tarp on the floor, with a dark, ragged pile of something in the middle that looked very much like a dismembered animal. Jill's dinner wanted to come back up; she swallowed it down, then took a closer look at the pile. Wait. That wasn't the right color for blood.
It was barbecue sauce. That explained the KFC bucket. Her shoulders sagged in relief.
Larry finished singing and put the paper down, then reached across the desk for something on the other side of the KFC bucket. It was the black ring box; he opened it, making a face, and used two fingers to lift the tooth out. Then he reached into the voodoo box and pulled out a little bag made of animal hide. There were feathers and beads hanging from the bag, and a small, knobby bone pinning the top closed; Larry pulled the bone free and dropped the tooth into the bag. Then he tried to work the bone back through the two holes at the top of the bag, dropped the bone, swore, picked it up and dropped it again.
"I think we've seen enough," LaTeesha said, stepping right into the swirls of agitated shimmer, so that they pooled around her ankles like an incoming wave. "Larry? What do you think you're doing with that barbecue chicken? You trying to summon Paula Deen? She isn't coming. She doesn't want your Colonel Sanders chicken. You better put those candles out."
Larry jumped, swore and stumbled backward, his elbow catching the KFC bucket and knocking it onto the floor.
"And that's another thing. Why'd you have to go and buy vanilla candles?" LaTeesha strode toward the chalk circle, her hands on her hips, her eyes flashing. "It smells like the Hallmark Channel in here."
"Stop! What-" Larry scooted around the outer edge of the tarp and planted himself in front of her. "Why are you still here? Is that Jill? Why are you guys still here?"
"I don't think that's the right question, Larry." LaTeesha put her fists on her hips. "What are you doing with that gris-gris bag? Besides embarrassing it, I mean."
"This is really awkward," Larry said, clutching the bag to his chest. "You guys aren't supposed to be in the building after hours. Insurance doesn't cover staff being here after hours. I need you to go home."
"I don't think we will," LaTeesha said.
"Nope," Jill said, although her knees were weak and she was clinging to the door frame with both hands.
"No, really," Larry said. "I mean it. I'm serious about this. Go home, right now. I won't say anything about this to Security or the director. But you need to leave the building."
"You gonna make me take that bag away from you?" LaTeesha asked.
Giddy with nerves, Jill said, "I'll hold him down," and then realized she meant it, even though she'd have to release her grip on the door frame to do so.
"Hear that, Larry? Jill's going to hold you down while I take your bag. Might as well just give it to me, it'll be easier for you."
Larry took a step back. "That could be construed as sexual harassment."
LaTeesha stared at him for a slow count of three. "Did he just say "sexual harassment?" she demanded, turning to Jill. "Did you hear him say "sexual harassment?"
Jill giggled. Giddily. "I heard him. That's what he said."
"Larry, I think you're confused," LaTeesha said. "It's only sexual harassment if somebody wants to have sex with you. Nobody here thinks you're sexy, Larry. Now, why don't you give me the bag?"
Larry took another step back, directly onto the pile of barbecue chicken. He should have slipped and landed on his back. The chicken should have slid out from under his foot and kept going, leaving streaks of barbecue sauce on the tarp, until it hit the rug and bounced, shedding a spatter of greasy, red-brown bits.
Instead, Larry froze, one foot raised, the other hovering millimeters above a cockeyed chicken wing. His hands were up, anticipating the fall that didn't happen, and his eyes were so wide it looked like he didn't have eyelashes. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he began to panic; he tried to say something, but the best he could do was a moan and a lip-twitch.
"Dang it," LaTeesha said softly. "Jill? Stay where you are. Don't come into the room."
"What's going on?" The warning was unnecessary; Jill couldn't have stepped into that office if she'd wanted to. She reached to brush her hair out of her eyes and realized her hands were shaking. "LaTeesha? There's somebody here. I can't see them, but it feels like they're standing right next to me."
"I know what to do. You just stay where you are."
"Why is Larry floating?"
LaTeesha hesitated. "The loa are trying to claim him."
"Are you saying he's possessed?"
Larry went so pale his lips looked blue.
"Not yet. But only because God is kind to the stupid."
"So he could be possessed?"
"What else is a spirit going to do?" LaTeesha eyed the pile of chicken. "Eat KFC, I guess."
LaTeesha cocked her head and studied Larry's hovering form with narrowed eyes. "So here's what we're going to do, Larry," she said. "I don't want to touch you, cause that might be construed as sexual harassment. So I'm going to use your desk chair to push you off the tarp. That should put you far enough away from your... offering... to allow you to move again. Fold this tarp up once you're off it." She rolled her eyes. "And then we can all do our best to forget this ever happened."
Jill shivered and looked over her shoulder, certain something was standing right behind her, its breath brushing the back of her neck. There was nothing there. Nothing she could see, anyway.
"Jill," LaTeesha said.
"Soon as Larry breaks the circle, you come in and start blowing candles out. Fast as you can."
Jill looked over her shoulder again, certain the whispering in her head was getting louder. "Got it."
LaTeesha slid behind the desk, picked the rolling chair up and edged toward Larry. She held the chair out in front of her and extended her arms slowly, until the rollers touched his back; then she shoved, and Larry tipped forward, landing on his face, his head and shoulders outside the circle.
Swearing, Larry scrabbled with both hands, dragging himself off the tarp and onto the rug, where he lay on his back, panting and staring at the ceiling.
Jill made herself cross the threshold and enter the room, although doing so felt like volunteering to drown; the air inside was thick and oily, and so clouded with incense and vanilla that it killed her sense of smell completely. It felt like breathing gasoline fumes. She wondered what it was doing to her lungs.
It doesn't own me. It doesn't have a right to me. I don't have to listen to it.
"Larry, get off your butt!" LaTeesha snapped.
Larry startled and banged the back of his head.
"You fold up this tarp. I'm not going to do it for you."
Scowling, Larry rolled over and pushed himself up, then bent over to grab one side of the tarp. His fingers halted several inches above the plastic, and he swallowed, throwing a pleading glance at LaTeesha.
"You can clean up your own mess," she said, glowering at him.
That's when all the candles in the room snuffed out.
Jill panted in the dark, one hand clutching her chest.
Ah, something whispered. Quelqu'un est après cogner à la porte.
The voice was soft and deep, felt in the bones more than heard. Jill shuddered and backed up a step; something brushed her cheek and growled a chuckle.
Bon soir, mes amis. I got to say, I am accustomed to better surroundings. But dat all right, we can get comfortable right here.
"That you, Papa Legba?" LaTeesha asked, with only a slight tremble in her voice.
Been a way long time, Miranda-girl. You lovely as ever.
"Thank you, Papa Legba. But Miranda was my grandmother. I'm not a priestess. I didn't call for you."
C'est bon. We can discuss matters without a priestess, non? The voice sounded amused. Somebody got a favor dey wanna ask me for?
"Absolutely not," Jill said.
"Yes!" Larry said, at the same time.
"Larry, don't you say a word," LaTeesha ordered.
"Spirit?" Larry said, voice cracking on the second syllable. He swallowed and tried again. "I want the Accounting Director, Wesley Aberdeen, to increase the Marketing budget by $200,000 a year."
"That's why you're doing this?" Jill blurted, then cringed when ghostly fingers tugged on her ear.
Papa Legba laughed. And how I gonna tell who is Wesley Aberdeen?
"There's a tooth in here." Larry held the bag up in one direction, then another, and then turned around to hold it up in that direction, as well. "Sorry," he said. "I'm not sure where you are."
"Larry, only you can get tooth-scammed." LaTeesha said, disgusted.
"It was a legitimate site!" Larry protested.
"That can't be Wes's tooth in that little bag. He's been at work like usual. Hasn't been sick a day in the last two months."
Larry shook his head like he was trying to jar something loose. "No, no, of course it's not Wes' tooth. They offered to get me his tooth. I said no. They took a tooth from one of his dead relatives instead. They said it would be enough to tell the spirit who to, um, influence."
"So it's just some random dead person's tooth."
"I'm sure they cleaned it thoroughly."
LaTeesha turned her shoulder to him. "We beg your pardon, Papa Legba. This was a mistake. The man didn't know what he was doing."
Seem to me he know jus' fine.
"We don't need any favors. Thank you kindly," LaTeesha said.
He wan' ask me for a favor, Miranda's granddaughter, dere no thing what you can do to stop it. You got to follow the rules, cher.
Larry hunched his shoulders. "I don't want to hurt Wes," he told LaTeesha, without looking at her. "He's a good guy. I like him a lot. It's just on this one thing, he's digging his heels in and I can't push through the purchase of a new custom logo without a budget increase. It's not like this company can't afford it. Wes is one of the old guard, you know? He doesn't like change."
LaTeesha snorted. "I think he doesn't like giving you two hundred thousand dollars, KFC."
"Um, should I try to find a light switch?" Jill cut in, as something cold brushed her cheek, then laid its chilly, invisible fingers against her collarbone. Shaking, she tried to brush them off, then pressed her own hands over the spot. The feeling of cold faded slowly.
The overhead lights came on.
"Thank you, Papa Legba," LaTeesha said, then turned on Larry. "Are you using your head even a little bit? Just how do you think Papa Legba is going to force Wes to give you that money? Because there are lots of ways to force somebody to do something, Larry, but you wouldn't want any of them to happen to you."
Larry scratched the back of his neck. "I was kind of assuming whoever showed up would make that decision."
LaTeesha's hands balled into fists. She relaxed them slowly. "There is something seriously wrong with you."
The sound of drums rose slowly in the room, wicked and sonorous.
I told you, Miranda's granddaughter. Don't interfere. He want a bargain, he get a bargain. Dat been how it was since the beginning. A man pick his own road. Maybe he like it, maybe no. But he do what is in his mind for to do.
"Right," Larry said. "I've decided to do this. And I will."
"You got some dead person's tooth in a little bag," LaTeesha said. "That's how good your judgment is. Papa Legba. We prevail upon your good and kindly nature. Wesley Aberdeen is not an enemy."
Like da man say. He don wan to hurt nobody.
Jill blinked hard to clear her vision; it felt like somebody was stroking her hair, and the smell in the room was so strong it was making her dizzy. "LaTeesha, it feels like somebody is running their hands over me."
"Papa Legba," LaTeesha said, in an or-else voice.
My friends just like your friend, cher.
"You don't own me, and I don't have to listen to you," Jill said, lips and voice trembling.
The stroking hands paused, but she could still feel pressure on her upper arms and back, and the tug of fingers in her hair.
"You heard her," LaTeesha said, and the sensations vanished altogether.
You interfere with mine, I interfere with yours, Miranda's granddaughter.
Jill hugged herself tightly, tucking her chin against her chest.
LaTeesha hesitated. "Last chance to be smart, Larry. Then Jill and I walk out, and you're on your own. Whatever happens, happens."
"It'll work," Larry said. "It'll solve everything. You'll see. It's what this company needs."
An' we got to do what da company needs, non? 'Course we do. We only got one little thing to discuss further. My services require compensation.
The drums got louder, and the thick air got hot and smoky. Papa Legba laughed, the music of it melding with the drums, and other laughter joined in, high and low, shrill and gravelly, sweet and wicked and dark.
A deal been struck, Miranda's granddaughter. You go on your way. But you come around here a while. Don' be a stranger.
Jill felt a hard tug on her arm. "Time to go," LaTeesha said grimly. "We're done here."
Larry had already forgotten them. "Do you want me to pick this chicken up first?" he asked Papa Legba, as Jill and LaTeesha walked out of his office. "It'd probably make sense to do that first. Yeah, let me do that, hold on. And I can dance and sing some more, if you want..."
LaTeesha reached around Jill and pulled the office door shut.
They navigated Marketing's cubicle warren and discovered, when they were back in the main hallway, that the incense smell had all but disappeared. Jill flopped against the wall and slid down until she landed on her butt, legs outstretched, and put her hands over her eyes, wanting to cry, wanting to run, wanting to stay right where she was until her legs worked properly again. She took a deep breath, then grimaced and tipped her chin so she could sniff her shirt.
Ugh. She reeked like Larry's office.
"I'm probably going to have to throw my clothes away," LaTeesha said, miffed. "I'd do it now if I could drive naked legally. My car's going to stink so bad. My kids will ask me what I'm smoking." She exhaled noisily. "If I ever smoke something, it'll be because of my kids."
"So..." Jill started, not sure whether she actually wanted to ask the question. She decided it was best to be prepared. "What's going on in there right now?"
"Papa Legba will offer a trade. He'll promise to make Wes do something, in exchange for a favor of equal worth. Possession, probably. He'll take over Larry's body sometimes." She shook her head. "Never thought I'd feel bad for a loa. Papa Legba will be a better supervisor, though. The Marketing people are going to be a lot happier."
"He's going to walk around in Larry's body? Are you serious?"
"What do you think?"
Jill rubbed her eyes. "How much danger are we in?"
"Don't know. Maybe a lot. Remember the rule of thumb."
"No deals with invisible things that like chicken blood."
"What's going to happen to Wes?"
LaTeesha looked at her. "You still want to be involved?"
Jill thought about it. What if she said she was done with the whole thing? LaTeesha wouldn't hold it against her. But Jill would know. Even if she wasn't involved anymore, Jill would know what was really going on. Every time she saw Larry, she'd wonder whether it was actually Larry. During every inter-departmental meeting. Any time he passed her in the hall. Whenever she delivered the mail to his desk.
She could look for a new job, that was an option. But Papa Legba would still be walking around in Larry's body. And Papa Legba's "friends" had liked her. What if some of the loa came for her, and she didn't work with LaTeesha anymore?
LaTeesha was still standing there, looking at her like a wrathful angel about to deliver justice. And suddenly, the whole thing became very simple.
Larry is the problem today, right now. You can help solve that problem. Or you can ignore it. Which one of those are you okay with?
Jill didn't want to be LaTeesha. But she didn't want to be someone who was okay with ignoring Papa Legba, either.
"Yeah. I still want to be involved. I want to help Wes. And it sounds like something out of a comic book, but I want to stop Larry, too. Before, you know, he does something evil."
"Good," LaTeesha said. "We should come in early tomorrow. There's probably going to be a trap in Wes' office. We'll want to find whatever the loa did and undo it before Wes gets to work."
"I don't know what it looks like when a loa does something," Jill pointed out.
"You'll learn," LaTeesha said.