As I trudged along, I mentally cursed Adam. Talk about pulling the short straw. He and Giguhl got to have all the fun while I was stuck on grave-robbing duty.
I tripped on a grave marker. The movement jostled Stryx’s cage, which sent the owl into another tizzy of rage. I held the cage as far from my torso as possible to avoid the swiping talons and beak.
“What’s the deal with this place?” I called over the owl’s racket. His annoying ass combined with the buzzing in my head did nothing to improve my mood.
Just like at the cemetery Adam and I chased Stryx into the other night, a low-level vibration hummed here. I popped my jaw to release the pressure building up in my head. I considered asking Zen if she felt it, too, but she didn’t show any signs of being affected by the pressure. She just marched ahead like a woman on a mission.
“Not all of New Orleans’s residents can afford fancy mausoleums like those found in the St. Louis or Lafayette cemeteries,” she said, following some invisible path through the place. “So the poor get buried in potter’s fields like this.”
I listened and followed her toward a row of graves near the back. Drooping oaks weighed down by Spanish moss slumped over the pitiful mementos left by mourners. Everything from matted teddy bears to Mardi Gras beads and plastic flowers to whiskey bottles decorated the pitiful mounds.
“Families get one plot,” she continued. “They have to pile the coffins on top of each other. And when the water table rises, bones pop up from the soil.” She kicked at something on the ground. I blinked at the femur that rolled from the overgrown brush.
She finally stopped at an unmarked mound under a lowhanging oak branch. She pointed to a spot under the tree. As I set the cage down in the shadows, I surveyed the grave.
Unlike most of the other plots we’d passed, this one wasn’t covered in weeds or mementos. For some reason the sight of bare soil seemed even more depressing. Maybe it was because the freshly turned earth indicated a recent death— or maybe it was the lack of anything signifying that someone cared enough about the grave’s resident to leave flowers or even a plank of wood indicating his or her identity.
Zen set down her leather satchel and withdrew a small shovel with a retractable handle.
“What the hell are you going to do with that?” I demanded.
She smiled. “I’m not doing anything.” I caught the spade easily and then almost immediately dropped it.
“Like hell. I’m not a grave robber.”
She sighed. “We’re not robbing anything. I told you, we just need to have access to the body to make a complete connection with the spirit.”
I frowned. “Can’t they just speak through you or something?”
She frowned. “I’m not a TV psychic, Sabina.”
I gritted my teeth and tried to remember she didn’t have to help me. At least Stryx had shut the hell up. The only sounds coming from the cage now were an occasional hoot or the scratch of claw against the newspaper we’d laid in the bottom.
“Well, what are you waiting for? The grave isn’t going to dig itself.” She withdrew a thin cigar from her coat pocket and clamped it between her dazzling white teeth. Once she’d lit the thing, she looked up and raised her eyebrows. Zenobia’s face glowed red from the tip of the cigarillo, and for a second I wondered if the voodoo priestess had some demon blood in her.
“If it makes you feel any better, the graves are only about four feet deep. Any more than that and the soil gets too soggy.”
Yeah, that made me feel tons better. Instead of arguing more, I speared the ground with the shovel, taking out my indignation on the soil.
As I worked, Zen was generous with the advice but stingy with the offers of help. It occurred to me that if she was as good at magic as everyone seemed to think, she’d have been able to remove the dirt without a shovel, but then I guess that would have deprived her of the pleasure of bossing me around.
Zen hadn’t been kidding about the families stacking bodies on top of each other. On my way down, I encountered two jawbones, a handful of phalanges, and a partial spinal column. The other problem was the lower I went, the wetter the dirt became. By the time my shovel hit something solid, I was smeared with mud and gods knew what else.
I used my hands to find the edges of the coffin and clear off the top to open it. She peered into the pit where I crouched. “Be careful when you open the lid. We need to preserve the body as best we can.”
I wiped my brow with a dirty hand, no doubt leaving a muddy streak on my forehead. “That’s what I don’t get. Won’t the embalming process make reanimation a problem?”
She smiled in an overly patient way that set my teeth on edge. “We’re just providing a temporary vessel for a spirit. The plumbing doesn’t need to work.”
“If you say so.” I brushed dirt from the coffin, clearing space around the edges. Finally, I worked my fingers along the lip and lifted. A sickly sweet vapor rose from the box. I covered my nose with my hand and peered in.
Now, I’m no expert on decomposition, so I had no idea how long the guy had been in there. But judging from the smell, he’d passed his expiration date by a long shot. Of course, since we’re talking about a corpse here, freshness is a relative term, I guess.
The powder blue suit and ruffled shirt implied a discoera burial, but for all I knew the choice could have been motivated by lack of money or taste. As for the state of the corpse, well, it wasn’t pretty. If the mortuary had bothered to apply funeral putty to this dude it was long gone. Instead, greenish veins webbed across bloated gray skin. which created a gruesome marbling effect.
“How long has he been dead?” I asked.
She shrugged. “According to the obit I found online, Kevin Johnson was buried four days ago. That’s perfect for our uses since nanm resides in the soil near the body for nine days before it ascends.” At my look she explained, “Nanm is his animating spirit.”
I nodded that I understood. “Well, he smells pretty rank for only four days in the ground.”
“Sabina,” she intoned. “A little respect please.”
Gritting my teeth, I hefted his stiff bulk over my shoulder. Something squished ominously. “I swear to the gods, if his dead guy juices get on my jacket you’re buying me a new one.”
She rolled her eyes and held her hands out. “Hand him up to me so you can climb out.”
I shook my head. “That’s okay, I got it.”