Wednesday, April 20th, 1927
Rain. Rain was the only thing Garrett Granth could think of and the only thing that had been in the sky since New Years. Rain smeared his windshield, rain stood in puddles, rain ran in gouts across the road, rain pushed creeks out of their beds and across the cotton fields, rain blasted loud against the body of the 1926 Chrysler Imperial in drops small and large as the car dropped from the Memphis bluffs.
The Imperial was the best car he’d been able to steal in sodden Memphis, and so far the oil-cloth top had kept out the rain - rain that blurred the sky into grey fog, rain that blotted out the creosote trellis that held up the Illinois Central train rattling towards Jackson, Mississippi, the train that was carrying his fortune away.
The sandbagged levee cast a shadow over the Mississippi delta, men patrolled the tops, and flat muddy fields stretched out ahead. The sun was setting behind the wall of earth, and from Highway 61 it looked like a tarnished gold coin sliding into a fat leather wallet.
Garrett did something he didn’t do often. He was often thinking, and when he did he had a tendency to pull at his goatee, or put it in his mouth, both things that he was doing now. But one thing he rarely thought of - one set of thoughts that rarely crossed his busy mind - What the hell was he doing?
Two days ago he’d been in Sioux City Iowa, haggling with angry teamsters in the rain. A few golden eagles had answered all their questions, and convinced them to move three tons of gypsum from the sagging axles of the mule cart. Steam had mixed with diesel smoke from the wet, idling automobiles, parked amidst clanging steel. As the greasy men worked the small steel crane, rainwater had drizzled down the chains in arcing rivulets that splashed onto the box, a giant casket. For all the trouble, the train car didn’t flinch or sink when the heavy box was set amongst the rest. There with the cargo, it seemed at home for the first time since the Museum.
A day later, reading telegraphs in a Memphis cafe, sipping coffee, playing mathematical games with long lists of cotton prices, all diversions from his business - the offers for his curious cargo.
His best offer had come from a telegraph, in Louisiana French, from Marquise Hecaud. Creole French was different than what he’d learned in the war, and while a white-capped waiter took his empty cup away, he tried to imagine Frenchmen in the trenches at Aisne speaking with the muddy twang of a New Orleans barkeep.
He twisted the cheap telegraph paper into a short rope and lit it with a match, then shoved the flaming assembly into his long-stemmed briar pipe. The first puff surrounded his head with fine Virginia Burley, cut with a hank of sweet local perique. Hecaud had beat out the Meridian bankers, and had almost matched the mighty Senator Percy in Greenville.
Percy. Garrett would never have done business with a Senator, a principle he considered worth the thousand dollars. Another puff sent sweet ferment-scented smoke through his goatee, and he watched rain mar the view of the Cotton Exchange across the street. Downhill, the river was wider than anyone alive had seen, and the front page of his Commercial Appeal showed families on rooftops in Cairo, and a smaller byline: “Theft of Genuine Fake No Hoax!”
He’d enjoyed that one - despite the fact that they’d gotten the details wrong. He smoked and composed his response, finishing just as he saw a black Chrysler Imperial, his attention on the short, vivacious young woman who exited. She wore silk hose, a short dress skirt, and black leather gunboots. Her black gloved hands easily held a massive Turkish umbrella against the wind. Garrett watched her put the key into her coat pocket and jumped up to follow her to the telegraph office.
That night the grey sky turned black and Garrett wished he knew the girl’s name, it would make the apologetic letter from Greenville seem all the more outrageous. He slowed down at an intersection, but there was no one on the road, only mud lines from wagon wheels across the highway, melting in the endless rain.
All he had to go on was a map and a telegraph, with no idea how long it might take to get to Greenville. The river threatened the levees and the delta was a swamp, but the telegraph told him: Tomorrow. Midnight. And who: A witch who called herself “Nimaud.”
“A witch at midnight. I knew this cargo would attract weirdos.” For reassurance, he patted his black leather medical bag in the passenger seat. He had to admit he liked the setup, this “Winterville Witch” with her midnight meeting.
“Romantic notions keep getting you in trouble.” He thought, remembering the girl from Memphis. He’d escorted her to the Cotton Exchange, inquired delicately about her business. “Notions and sundries for the Exchange Club,” she’d said. The sharp angles of her jaw cast her niceties as serious business.
“Notions and sundries!” He said it aloud with a short barking laugh. He licked his lips, trying to taste the leather of her glove where he’d kissed it while pickpocketing her car keys, but all he could taste was Perique.
“Notions and sundries…” His mind drifted. She wasn’t delivering groceries or sewing supplies, and her outfit seemed more fit for a cotton trader than for his wife, girlfriend, or mistress.
He slammed the flat of his hand on the steering wheel, pulled to the side of the road. Fast car, fancy clothes, casual association with wealth and privilege? He slung his raincoat over his shoulders and pulled the Stetson down over his face as rain hit him.
He opened the trunk. A woman’s light blue valise was inside, tied down with linen straps. With greedy hands he pulled it open.
“Real moonshine!” He jumped up and down, laughing in the rain. Today, Garrett Granth felt like the luckiest man on Earth. And tomorrow, he’d have his bag of jewels.
Thursday, April 21st, 1927
By noon, the city square was dark with clouds and a haze of wind-driven rain. Garrett made his way along an impromptu boardwalk, a foot above the quagmire that had been a sidewalk. He was holding onto his hat, his coat whipped in the wind as he passed boarded-up windows. Across the street men hurried, heads down, the balconies offering no protection from the sideways rain.
The splintered sideboard read “Levi Susser, Attorney at…” Illinois Central was supposed to send Susser a telegraph when the ten foot treasure arrived in Jackson.
The door wasn’t locked. Inside, water dripped between boards and powdery caulk ran down in streaks. Everything smelled of mold and mildew, there were faint bootprints in the waterlogged carpet. Garrett took the stairs two at a time, his long legs making quick work of the climb. Outside, the rain sounded like a barrel of sand turning endlessly.
At the third floor window, he finally saw out over the levee. He stopped. A team of a hundred or more black men were throwing sandbags onto huge stacks. A few yards away, cars full of sand were parked end to end on the concrete wharf, while a white man on a horse held a shotgun and shouted.
Here, he was even with the top of the levee, and beyond it was the Mississippi River. At the sight, sweat sprouted all over. He couldn't see Arkansas. Rain dashed across white-topped waves crashing again and again into the levee. Eddies appeared out of nowhere and vanished. Currents like pythons curled and undulated in the thick, muddy water, then disappeared.
He saw a tree sucked under like a cigarette. In a few seconds it erupted from the chop a hundred yards downstream. It rose up, the branches exploding in a spray of water, roots sloughing thick clay mud, and then it crashed back into the river with an audible crack. He watched for a moment longer as a passing barn roof disintegrated, spinning as it shrank.
“I'd be leaving town if I were you.” A deep, gravel-touched voice said from behind him. Garrett slid his hand down the front of his coat towards the Colt 1911 holstered under his left arm.
He turned, slowly. A black man, slightly taller than Garrett’s six feet, eyed him with a single eye, an eyepatch over whatever was left of the his right eye. Grey dusted the tips of his curly, close-cropped hair, hair that matched his huge mustache, chocolate hair lighter than his skin. He wore a nice suit, fine boots, and a bolo tie. He was leaning casually against the doorframe, arms crossed.
“I plan on it.” Garrett slowly slid his hands to a normal position. “You wouldn’t happen to be Levi Susser?”
“Reverend Billy Seymour.” The man unfolded his arms. He did not offer a handshake, but he did come closer, a manila folder in one of his large hands.
“Mister Susser sends his regards, Doctor Granth. He's probably in Rolling Fork by now. He's headed for Jackson. Levee broke a few hours ago, they’re running trains out every half hour.”
Both men watched the river for a quiet moment, then Seymour handed Garrett the envelope.
Garrett tore it open and read the telegraph. The cargo was safe in Jackson, headed for New Orleans tomorrow.
Seymour turned from the river and regarded him with a look Garrett did not like. “I know why you're here. You picked a real bad time to have any dealings with Nimaud.”
Garrett twisted the telegram into a long knot and pulled out his tobacco tin. “Been reading my mail, reverend? I don't know if it's a sin from the book. Jesus didn't exactly get a lot in the post, I imagine, but I’m sure that’s not kosher. Anyway, what's it to you? Got a light?”
Seymour shook his head “My body is a temple.”
“And this is incense.” Garrett tapped the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.
“Again - what’s it to you? You think you get your ten percent on hoodoo, Rev? I thought that was just for the good flock.” He stepped past Seymour into Susser's office and grabbed a heavy blue-crystal lighter from the table.
Seymour bowed his head like it hurt his neck, and flourished a broad hand towards the stairs. “Mister Granth, I’ve done what Levi Susser asked. I am a travelling man, and this is no more my home than it is yours. I read your telegraphs, I admit, and I know that you mean to hand over a valuable biblical artifact to the servants of Satan.”
Garrett eyed him for a long moment and let the urge to draw his pistol fade. “Servant of Satan, my ass. Come with me at midnight and see for yourself - she’s a fraud like all the rest.” He took in a deep, crackling inhale before releasing a long thin cloud.
“What are you doing before your meeting?” Seymour asked.
“Well if you’re a doctor like Susser claimed, they could use your help in the labor camps. Malaria, diphtheria, and more… it’s awful. Can’t pay you much, nothing like witches or senators.”
Garrett nodded. “I’d rather be hung from a low pole than treat syphilitic aristocrats. And since I’m getting paid plenty by the servants of satan…” He gave a sarcastic pause the reverend did not pursue.
“Well then, I suppose some good works couldn’t hurt.” He took the flask from his coat pocket and threw back a slug of warm moonshine. “Lead on, good reverend. I need to atone for quite a bit of sin.”
Thursday, April 21st, 1927
The medicine bag was nearly empty when the sun set. On the north side of town, between the houses and the levee, a huge tent had been erected. The door, a square of light, cast long shadows from a line of men and women, black and white, standing in the rain.
“I need some pep.” Garrett washed down a white tablet with moonshine as the shadow of the levee stretched out. It was curiously empty -the men had left it now that the levee had broken - now they scurried to reinforce the protective levee that circled the town.
Garrett Granth was curious - black and white did much together in Greenville, but they did much more apart, and the festive air around the tent held a seductive allure. Voices could be heard in the clamor as he approached the swaying crowd. It felt like a carnival.
A carnival. He grinned, danced in the rain, arms spread with the joy of music, moonshine and 70 milligrams of cocaine. “A carnival.” He chucked the medicine bag into the seat of the car and closed the door.
He could use a bit of relaxation, a bit of revelry. Like everyone else, he was soaked to the bone, his hat drooped, and his suit sagged. He headed for the tent.
At the flap, two black men in suits stood glum on each side. A man in a wheelchair argued with his hunchbacked wife, a one-legged laborer waited as his crutch sank into the mud.
Inside, the ground had been covered with wood chips and sawdust that soaked up the rainwater and dulled the sharp sweaty scent of huddled humanity. The people inside had sweated all day, but now the sweat on their brows came from the intense arc lights pointing into the crowd, all focused on a singular point that Doctor Garrett Granth despised - a pulpit.
“It is as it was in the days of Noah! Who here has not seen the fury of our Lord?!” Reverend Seymour shouted from the stage. Ushers pushed Garrett to a seat in the back, near a man wheezing with pneumonia. Garrett looked over his shoulder, the other side of the tent was all black, his side, all white. The man kept coughing, the rains kept coming. Seymour droned on.
“Who here has not seen the fury of God’s creation? Who here has not seen the righteous suffer because of the workings of man, while the wicked prosper?”
Garrett sighed and started to edge his way past a man recumbent in a wheelchair. He looked at Garrett with tired, baggy eyes that returned to the thunderous, repetitive intonation. Seymour had no microphone, needed no amplification, he could be heard above the cheers of the people and the roar of nature on his canvas roof. Garrett, though, was headed for the door.
“It will not always be this way, brothers and sisters, for it was not always so! Before the war to end all wars, before the war between the north and the south, before the coming of the white man, before the birth and crucifixion of our lord and savior, before the coming of the red man, yay, before the coming of the flood of Noah, there was a race here in this land who worked the work of God! You have seen the works of these giants in the Winterville Mound, brothers and sisters. You have heard the lie - the lie that the giant of Cardiff was a fake, brothers and sisters, but this is a lie from the man of science, the non-believer! Just as they say that man is an ape, they deny the truth of God!”
“They heal with drugs and they heal with lies, my brethren! They give that which taketh away! But even in this the end of days, I heal with the power of the Lord our God, Jesus Christ! Who here has an ailment that the doctors of the world cannot heal?”
Garrett turned, felt his feet sink into the sawdust. Women fanned themselves, the pitch of the clamor rose and fell in time to William Seymour, his deep cadence punctuated with blows to the pulpit. Each snapped syllable echoed with stomped feet, in tune with the low, distant pulse of the river.
Garrett could feel the river, he felt as trapped in the tent as he knew the Mississippi must feel between the levees. He wanted to break free.
Suited ushers pushed an unbalanced man to the center. He wobbled, jostled by the caterwauling crowd, and just before he pitched headlong into the soggy sawdust the ushers gripped his elbows and hauled him to the stage.
“What ails you, brother?” Seymour shouted to the crowd. The man shook violently, whispered something into Seymour’s ear, shielding his mouth from the crowd with a trembling hand.
“The French pox!” Seymour shouted. Horrified, the man recoiled. “The French Pox, a disease spread by sin, a curse from God for those who raped the red man! The lies of science cannot heal it, the quacks with their medical degrees do nothing!”
Garrett scowled. Syphilis. Doctors had been curing it for 15 years with Ehrlich’s Salvarsan. Garrett had given a dose to a man in the work camps hours ago.
The syphilitic man held his hands up in abject humiliation as the crowd howled for forgiveness, they bowed and scraped and down in front an aged black woman with a sweat-soaked handkerchief began to scream gibberish.
“Be healed! Be healed by the power of Jesus!” Seymour shouted, and for a brief moment everyone held their breath, even Garrett and the woman. The only noise was the constant drumbeat of the rain.
Seymour opened his palm wide and thrust it to the man’s chest, shoved him back. His legs shook a few times and he fell, caught by the ushers. The woman shrieked, threw her head back and forth, then got down on her hands and knees to roll in the muddy sawdust.
“Who here needs the power? What ails you, Daughter of God!?” He asked a tottering old woman. Before she could answer, the Reverend shouted his reply.
“Cancer! The wolf of satan! BE HEALED!” He pushed her back, and the ushers gently lowered her. Seymour was a whirlwind, at the feet of the man on crutches.
“Throw away your crutches, brother! Walk in the name of the Lord!” He knocked the crutches away, the man hobbled back, tested his legs uneasily, and began to dance.
The ushers wheeled the wheelchair-bound man towards the stage. Even though he’d been wheezing just to raise his hands, now there was a brightness in his eyes Garrett had not seen earlier.
Smells of sweat and stress fell into the sawdust that muffled the chants and music. Ushers surrounded the wheelchair, lifted it onto the stage.
They rolled it forward, as the wrinkled old man clapped. Shouting unearthly voices grew into cacophony.
The wordless cadence was his pulse. Garrett’s brain throbbed, his ears burned. Each drop of sweat was frozen in time, motes of sawdust hung perfectly, white lights cut across the crowd, their faces a sequence of brilliant instants punctuated by the shadows of the heads in front of him.
Hand in the air, Seymour made one last skyward plea, all Garrett could hear was Jesus Christ! At that moment the stage light hit the outstretched palm, a five-fingered shadow across the gathering, stretched to the edges of the tent. Garrett looked away as the brilliant blue-white aura blasted his cocaine-dilated pupils.
As he fell to his knees, his vision spun, he saw the old man dancing, the illuminated Reverend panting, holding his chest. Then, the tent spun round once more, and all Garrett could feel was cold wet sawdust, and all he could see was black.
Thursday, April 21st, 1927
Cold wet consciousness returned with the purring engine of the Chrysler Imperial. Garrett felt the sway of the road as the tires bounced in the muddy ruts that passed for a road in this season of endless rain.
“What the hell?” He asked as his head hit the window.
“Not yet. I’m driving you towards a break in the levee, just so you can see a witch. Clearly I have lost my damn mind.” Reverend William Seymour said.
“Towards a break in the levee?”
“Foolish of me. Just like it was foolish of you to sell the stolen Cardiff Giant to a self-proclaimed voodoo priestess.”
“I thought they were all self-proclaimed. Or is there a voodoo pope now?”
“If there was a voodoo pope, she’d be there with Hecaud.” Seymour said.
“Just my luck.” Garrett said. “I hate popes.”
“You’re caught up in the eternal battle between good and evil, Doctor. Meeting with witches on ancient burial grounds at midnight, dealing in antiquities holding holy secrets. For you, luck is no longer random happenstance, it is something you must pray for.”
“You know what prayer does for a man whose skin is being melted by mustard gas, Rev? Same as it’s gonna do for anyone out here when the water comes.”
“Well, then. Maybe now's a good time to make sure you're right with the Lord?”
“I'd rather have my gun and my medical bag, if it's alright with you and Jesus.”
“Once I’ve returned this car to her rightful owner.” Seymour said. A light slashed across the dark delta, a pair of headlights flickering in the rain. The car stopped, and Seymour got out. Before Garrett could react, his door was thrown open, and four hands were on his arm, pulling him out of the car.
He hit the mud, and a boot hit his ribs.
“Can I just shoot him?” It was a woman’s voice. “Please tell me I can just shoot him, Miss Fertitta?”
“Don’t shoot him!” Garrett shouted as Miss Fertitta shoved the toe of her boot between his ribs.
He tried to look up, but a boot heel hit his face, then another - and the boots began to work down his body, methodically.
“You stole... my car! And my moonshine! So I’m going to….kick you around a bit! ...and so is Miss….” Miss Fertitta said, pausing every few words to snap the hard toe of her boot into his torso.
The unnamed woman kicked Garrett in the armpit with a smile. “Just call me Miss Smith, Vicki.”
“Miss Smith. Oh, and if you get up or try to get away, I will kill you.” She held out a Smith and Wesson Model 10. Water dripped from the long barrel.
She kept it on him as Victoria kept kicking.
After a few dreadful minutes that seemed far longer than his trip to Greenville, they tired, and sat back on the hood of the car, breathing hard as Garrett wheezed in the mud.
“Alright, Doctor. The first half of your payment is to be delivered to you here, at Winterville Mound.” Miss Fertitta said, drinking her moonshine from Garrett’s flask.
“I like these acolytes, Rev.” Garrett groaned. He shook as he got to his feet. “I didn’t peg you for a bootlegger.” The Reverend stood to the side, under an umbrella.
“I’m Victoria Fertitta. Remember the name. Reverend Seymour knows who not to mess with, Doctor Granth - a skill you seem to lack. I’m going to leave you here for the flood water. I imagine that, if you survive, you’ll want to sell the Giant to my friends in Meridian.”
“If he survives.” Miss Smith said.
“I’m taking my car back, Doctor.” Victoria said. She fixed him with a serious look, then produced a single silver dollar from her interior coat pocket and pressed it into the palm of his hand.
“A tip. William, give him his gun and his bag. Maybe he'll shoot the crazy old hag instead of making the world more of a mess.”
Seymour handed Garrett his Colt 1911, the single clip, and his bag, then got into the waiting car.
“Doctor? Just how far do you think you can go on moonshine, cocaine, and pistols?” Victoria asked, getting into her car with Miss Smith.
Garrett said nothing as the cars pulled away. The criss-crossing headlights dimmed, becoming nothing more than dull lights in the night. Briefly, he wondered where he was supposed to meet Nimaud, when a flash of lightning illuminated a towering earthen mound against the rain-soaked night. At the top, he could see a ragged figure.
“Pretty far.” He said to himself as he sat down in the mud, which hurt every bit as much as getting up. Even opening the medicine bag hurt. The bruises seeped warm across his chest and sides. He slung mud from his sleeve and rolled it up, dashed bootleg whiskey from a mason jar onto a patch of clean skin before drinking a mouthful. It was hot and acrid, unlike the cool smooth moonshine he'd found in Victoria Fertitta's trunk. He pulled a vial of morphine from his bag and slid the fat, 12-gauge hypodermic needle into the narrow bottle before slowly pulling back the silver plunger. He held it to the sky to try and get a view of the dose, but just saw wet moonlight.
“Close enough,” He said, and slid the needle into his arm. He pushed down on the plunger, felt the cool liquid flow into his blood. The numbness branched out, dulled everything.
He put returned the paraphernalia neatly into the buttoned-up slots of the bag and zipped it. Everything inside was damp. He shouldered the bag, chambered a round in his .45 and started up the steep incline in the dark. At the top, he could barely make out the ragged figure, now flanked by two others.
Just as he reached the summit, the woman raised her hands to the black sky. The clouds parted, revealing a faint glimmer of hazy moonlight. All he could feel was the beautiful warm swimming flesh of the morphine, and he saw the three wreathed in a silvery shimmering aura.
The two men were hulking figures, and as Garrett came closer they faced him in unison. They were nearly identical, with thick ropes of shoulder muscles. They were dressed in wet, drab suits that were too small, frayed at the cuffs and collars, with small tears down the arms and at the shoulders. He took a quick startled step when he saw the faces - each was painted in a red and green checkerboard pattern that had run in the rain, but at the lips and eyes there was no paint, only blood, blood and black stitches holding the skin shut.
“What the…” He wondered how they had seen him, but his attention was drawn, inexorably, towards the woman he assumed was Nimaud. She was small, hunchbacked, her brown skin was mottled and knotted. Garrett smelled a whiff of gangrene, but her big brown eyes were bright under the gnarled strands of silver hair. Her smile showed few teeth, those still in her skull were capped with gold, strange runes carved upon them. Her clothes were rags, strewn with leather straps dangling oddities on display - a dead blackbird, a monkey skull, a vial containing an eyeball in formaldehyde.
“So… the money.” Garrett said. The woman eyed him with a cocked head, raised a gnarled finger. The nail was so long that it had begun to curl in upon itself. Each nail was painted like a snake, and as Garrett watched they seemed to curl and writhe in a nest.
“I only pay if there’s a deal. And you seem to be the kind of man that goes back on a deal.” Nimaud said.
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” Garrett said. He was short of breath after the climb, and the night air bit his lungs. He kept casting nervous eyes towards the men, who stood silently on each side.
“I’ve got something to make sure.” Nimaud said. She draped a small water moccasin across her hand. It sniffed the air with it’s tongue, and Garrett could smell it from where he stood - a musky, dirty funk.
“Look, I just want my money, so let’s can the freak show and show me the jewels.” Garrett said. Every time he took his eyes off the snake, the blind men were closer to him - and when he took his eyes off of them, Nimaud moved in a step.
Garrett took a few steps back, eyes on the ruined faces, the skin pulling tight as the mouths seemed to work up and down. Nimaud threw her hand back and Garrett went for his gun, numb fingers fumbling as he drew. Nimaud cracked the snake like a whip, an inch from his face. The force split it, blood splattered across his face and neck.
“Put down the gun!” Nimaud howled with eyes suddenly yellow. The men closed in, strange bulges beneath their wet suits. Garrett flipped off the safety. He did not put down the gun.
“The blood’s no good. You don’t believe. You don’t obey. Somebody protects you but good, Doctor man.” Nimaud hissed like a snake, and Garrett could smell the rot on her breath from ten feet away.
“Yeah, John Moses Browning.” Garrett said, turning the gun on the nearest man.
Lightning cracked the sky, wreathing the trio in a weird electric blue aura. The clouds snapped shut, and for a moment, he was blind. Nimaud shouted something horrible in a language Garrett had never heard in Europe or America.
Garrett threw himself forward, towards the Witch, aiming up. Thunder echoed across the delta. The three flinched, waited a long second.
Garrett pulled the trigger in a blinding flash of light. The yellow afterimage portrayed one of the men stumbling back, another charging forward. He fired again, from memory, and saw nothing but a cone of white light. He spun, faced the stomp of feet, and fired twice.
A hand on his shoulder - strong and heavy, but all he could feel was the cold of it. He was blind and deaf, the morphine had sapped his senses as surely as the adrenaline and rain. He aimed back, over his shoulder, too near his own ear, and fired twice before stumbling forward, hearing nothing but the ringing in his ears.
He fell. One bullet left. He tried to listen, to see something. Rain ran down his face, all he could see was sky, clouds against the dim moon as the ill blue light fell on the ancient burial ground. Off to the side, a green light appeared, and he scrambled towards it, gun up, hands shaking, feet slipping in the mud.
Nimaud was at the center, a sickly phosphorescent light oozed from her tiny lantern.
“Easy now! Easy! You’ve proved your point.” She said. The two men had vanished. Garrett got to his feet as the Witch dug her twisted fingers into a moldy leather bag.
“Where’d they go?” Garrett asked. He wiped the mud and grass from his face, his hands, his mud-caked pistol.
“Those two? Probably halfway back to Greenville by the time you finished making a fool of yourself.” Nimaud said. The light grew, a cold green nimbus that chilled the skin.
“You’ve got a hell of a way to make a deal. I came here to get paid, not get into a shootout. How far can they get like that? What did you do to them?” Garrett asked.
Nimaud held the grubby bag forward in her clenched, gnarled fist. The cracked fingernails did not break even as they dug into the leather. “That’s for me to know, and you to wonder. Here’s your money. Take it, and you make a deal not just with old Nimaud of the Mound, you make a deal with my coven. With the Witch of the Yazoo, and worst of all with the Nag of Chede Loraj herself, the one they call Hecaud.”
“Well that’s just swell. I’m sure you’re all real scary. Now where’s my money?” Garrett asked, raising the wet pistol.
“Just walk away now, with your money, and you’ll never see a witch again.” Nimaud said.
“Witch? All I’ve seen is a crazy stinking old woman with a couple of hired thugs and a few tricks up her sleeve. I think the guy with the gun trumps all that.” He was shouting against the wind. Nimaud didn’t seem to need to shout, her voice was loud and resonate in the storm.
She threw the bag at his feet with a sneer. “You get one question.”
“That’s how it works, Nimaud won’t play the middleman, so I charge you for the question. So it ain’t stealing. If you steal from a witch, then you die.”
“We all die.” Garrett said. Nimaud grinned like a skull.
“Now that is the truth. What do you wanna know? The dead and not-so-dead men from France? Your soul? Or lack of one?”
“The flood. How much time do I have? Where do I go?” Garrett asked, shoving the bag of jewels into his pocket.
“So pedestrian. So practical.” Nimaud grinned ear to ear with what few teeth she had. Her eyes went white as they rolled back into her skull. Her voice became even more otherworldly, as though her throat were underwater.
“The water reaches Greenville at three in the morning. Yet you will return to Percy’s kingdom, your only help the dead. There, you meet a girl named Jenny and escape. The poet is betrayed, and becomes a monster.”
“Well, thanks for the life advice.” Garrett said, taking a step forward. The clouds split and the moon sent a few wavering glimmers of light across the fields.
“Here’s mine. You have a short, impactful meeting with a bullet from a man named Browning. It’s an event that you spend the rest of your life pondering.” He tensed, squeezed the trigger lightly.
The gun gave a dumb click. Nimaud laughed, and ran down the hill with a surprising speed as Garrett screamed, incoherent. He slid out the clip, checked it. There was one round left with mud on the shell.
“Well shit.” He said. He sat down in the mud, his morphine-addled body too tired to chase her, despite her age.
The rain picked up. A cold wind came out of the north, curling up the mound. A blinding darkness settled over the Delta, and in the quiet after his ears stopped ringing, he could hear a distant roar, an oncoming storm.
Headlights on the horizon. Wearily, he stood, doctor’s bag in one hand, and staggered down the hill to the roadside. He stumbled through the ditch and stuck out his thumb, panting, as the bruises cooled to a deeper blue. The ground was shaking, and he did not know if it was his legs or the Earth itself.
Friday, April 22nd, 1927
The car was a Model T Ford, converted into a van. On the side, against the ubiquitous black paint, an elaborate logo for “Queen Bess, Astonishing Daredevil.”
It stopped, mud oozed up around fat tires. Water from the ruts in the road surged out over Garrett’s saturated feet.
“Doctor Garrett Granth?” The woman in the driver’s seat asked. She was young, black, with short, thick hair. Garrett nodded.
“I’m Bessie Coleman. Reverend Seymour said you’d be out here. If you want a ride back to Greenville, hop in. Flood’s coming.”
Garrett wiped back his short, wet hair, slicked it over his head, shivering as
the wind blasted him. In the distance, the roar grew louder.
“Get in! That’s no storm!” The woman shouted, extending a hand. Garrett grabbed it and was pulled into the van.
“Can you outrun it?” Garrett asked.
“I aim to find out.” She said. The wheels spun, then caught mud.
Garrett felt the roar as much as he heard it, and stuck his head out the window into the frigid air, into the stink of old mud and death. Rain stung his face, and soon the crashing drowned out the beat of rain ringing on sheet metal.
He was hearing trees snap, feeling roots tear. A black line rose across the horizon behind them, ten feet high, a roiling horrific tangle of roots and trees, barns and houses.
“Faster!” Garrett shouted.
“If I go any faster I’ll lose control and we’ll die. Just leave the driving to me, Doc. I didn’t travel around the world barnstorming just to get run over by a slow wave.” The woman said, strangely calm.
As she spoke the wave toppled over, spilled out, spread. In the scant moonlight, Garrett saw trees vanish into the rising ichorous pool that surged towards them and engulfed Winterville Mound.
They shot past a house that seemed inside-out, the walls held a strange scaffolding, on which all the furniture rested outside at roof level. The doors and windows were open, and he saw the people climbing the ladders in a ghostly instant. They accelerated. Doomed cattle stampeded uselessly in their pens.
Everything was obscured. The sky offered no light, the clouds closed out the moon. Behind them, dark water churned into black soil, the trees on the horizon waved and twisted, and the small ones vanished down into the chaotic boiling mud.
The Model T sped up, her headlights the only illumination. Garrett’s heart pounded, pushed morphine through him harder and harder, and despite the adrenaline, he wanted to sleep.
“We’re about an hour from Greenville in this weather. At the rate we’re moving we’ll get there just before the crest.” She said as the roar diminished.
“Miss Coleman, who the hell are you?” He asked.
“Queen Bess, like it says on the side of the van. Daredevil Queen of the Air. Barnstormer. Bessie Coleman.”
“Please tell me your plane’s in Greenville.” Garrett said.
“My plane’s in Yazoo City. But…”
Garrett groaned and shook his head.
“Bootleggers have one in a warehouse by the river.”
“I have not had good luck stealing from bootleggers.” Garrett said.
“Unless you’ve got a better idea.”
Garrett rubbed his face. It still hurt.
“Alright. ‘Master Thief’ doesn’t happen to be written on the other side of the van, does it?”
Bessie Coleman shook her head and Garrett Granth got an instant of sleep.
Upon awakening, he saw Reverend Seymour’s tent, splayed on the ground, torn apart in the wind. Behind it was a short levee, eight to ten feet high, and even at this hour, men stacked sandbags under harsh floodlights.
He remembered two things: The gun, still on the dash. And a newspaper headline he’d seen a year ago: Bessie Coleman, daredevil barnstormer, killed in crash.
“Your only help the dead.” He thought. But whoever this woman was, she was clearly quite alive. He put it out of his mind as Bessie slammed on the brakes. A trio of wind-battered women crossed the streets, baskets on their heads.
“Where are they going?” Garrett asked. Other similarly bedraggled souls were out as they drove through the ramshackle neighborhood. A car sped by, honking, swerving around the pedestrians. Above them, on the low hills, he could see the stately opera house, the white lights bright upon it, he could see the splendor of the Cowen Hotel, the yellow rooms lit against the brick background - Greenville in a last moment of decadence. His brief daydream of easy booze at the Elysium Club followed by a baudy trist on the fourth floor of the Cowen, this was how he’d planned on spending his time in Greenville. But the dream was snatched away as Bessie drove them south, closer to the ruined shacks, closer to that huge smokestack looming under sodium lamps.
“The levee’s the only high ground, Doc. These people have survived floods before. Twenty-two, o-eight. Lot of small ones, too. This is different, though.” She swerved, as a truck blasted by, men and sandbags loose in the bed.
A low wail began, sirens in the dark.
Bessie hit the brakes by a high fence. “Protection levee’s gone.” She said, and drew a heavy British Webley Revolver from her door.
“I have one bullet.” Garrett said. He showed her the Colt.
“One. And I think it’s wet.”
Wind buffeted them as they left the Ford. In front of the bootlegger’s warehouse, in a shaft of electric light, men with rifles stood in the back of a truck. They shouted, brandished the weapons as a squad of black men shoveled sand in wet arcs. The warehouse was protected by a tall fence, topped by barbed wire in huge spirals. Bessie pointed to an alleyway, a fetid crack between two wood-scrap hovels.
Garrett remembered trenches, spotlights, concertina wire. The men with guns shouted, argued, but Garrett could not tell why, or with who.
He and Bessie stopped, by a gate secured with chain and padlock. Garrett took a knee, to life Bessie up. They frozen when they saw Nimaud, shuffling from the black space between the shacks. Nimaud, of toothless maw and gnarled skin, warts in contrast as lightning burst across the sky.
She held a snake.
“Where do you get all the snakes?” Garrett asked, on one knee.
“I’ll be taking your ride.” She said. Garrett stood just as Nimaud threw the snake at his feet. It was a rattler, three feet long and as fat as his arm.
“Some bokun keeps you safe, eh-yeah?” Nimaud asked, then pointed her finger at the snake. Sleek and tense, it curled to strike.
“Slow in the cold.” Garrett said as he drew the Colt 1911 and fired the last shot in a mind-focusing burst of adrenaline and hate. The snake’s head exploded, splattered wet back against the roof. Headless, the snake struck. Cool blood smeared on Garrett as the ragged neck hit his ankle again and again, until the body fell limp.
Gunfire at the warehouse - rifles, Springfield 30 aught six, a sound Garrett remembered better than the voice of any lover. Screams followed, but he dared not face away from the Winterville Witch.
Rain beat down on Garrett Granth and his empty gun. The snake twitched at his feet, still oozing blood. Nimaud grinned at him. Bessie held her gun in a trembling aim, eyes wide.
“I am Nimaud of the Mound, Mambo Asogwe of this deadly plain, bokun to those who seek vengeance. I serve the Loa with both hands, and you will tell me who protects you, heathen.”
Garrett staggered to his feet and, as his answer, clenched his fists. He strode towards Nimaud, confident, ready for the first time in his life to punch an old woman. She shrank back, hands up in a weak defense. “Wait, wait, heathen! Wait now!”
He stopped, put his clenched fist by his side. “What? My only ticket out of this swamp is about to get herself shot, woman! Speak!”
“You tried to kill me.” She said. Garrett nodded.
“Because you understand. Ours is a world of blood and brimstone. Them, the ones with the guns, the fast cars, the moonshine and pet preachers? Theirs is a world of laws and iron bars. A prison for us all, whether we know it or not. They are as trapped here as we are, and if they leave, they will keep you from your deal, and both our lives will be over.”
Thick, wet piles of mud, debris, and sewage started up the hill, towards the warehouse and the ominous smokestack of the oil mill. Garrett watched it rise, and right ahead of it was a large, sullen figure, like the men in the suits from the mound, but his eyes were open, and instead of a suit, he was wearing a coverall. He had a shovel, and sand covered his shirt.
“These are no rumrunners, no bootleggers, you unbeliever. You should run from them like you run from the truth.” Nimaud said.
“Well then who the hell are they?” Garrett asked.
“They are witch hunters. The Order of the Temple. The Order of the Golden Dawn. The eye in the pyramid. Who knows? One name is as good as another at the end of a gun.”
“This is bullshit.” Garrett said. Nimaud smiled, a frightening sight. “Come, there is a gate, no point in jumping that fence and breaking your neck. My man here has a key.” They came to the gate, and the man unlocked it.
“No matter what, you have to get out. You can’t let them leave, Doctor. If the Order gets the Giant, Hecaud will kill us all.” Nimaud said, putting a gnarled hand on the man’s shoulder. He winced, closed his eyes.
Tires screeched, a familiar engine roared. The Chrysler Imperial. It smashed through the gate, flung the heavy chain aside. From the passenger window, the low automatic roar of a Thompson. Bullets whined, concrete bounced. The white foremen raised their Springfield rifles and there was a long moment of sparks, metal, and gunfire. The bullet-riddled truck lurched forward, the Chrysler swerved an instant too late, crashed in a shower of broken glass.
The rifles fired and the Thompson answered, making the rifleman dance with the manic beat for a brutal second before he fell to the bloody ground. The car door opened in a curl of smoke. Garrett recognized the woman getting out - it was the kick-happy Miss Smith.
Victoria Fertitta opened the other door, a single line of blood from her sodden hair to her lapel.
Nimaud had been at work the entire time, shoving a reed into the mouth of the man, choking him to keep him from screaming as he writhed and kicked in her grip.
“Run.” She croaked. The man jerked and spasmed, spat up something green, and as the witch started to laugh Garrett took her advice. He ran.
Bessie was one step ahead of him, their shoe soles slapped wet concrete and they hit the door. Even indoors, rain dripped from the ceiling, ran down chains, the floor was slick, wet.
In a glimpse before he locked the side door, Garrett saw the two women advancing towards the warehouse methodically. They reminded him of the lethal sturmtruppen from the end of the war. Smith stood back, covering Victoria as she raised the rattling warehouse door.
Just then, Bessie gave the propeller a turn, pushing forward with her entire body. It sputtered and chugged, and she gave it another push.
Victoria Fertitta stood in their way, gun at the ready.
“Doctor, I don’t want to shoot you. You’re too interesting to leave dead in Greenville.” she said.
“Well, you get what you want.” Garrett said.
“Not always.” She replied.
Just then, Nimaud’s victim came running and screaming, frothing green at the mouth, straight for Victoria. He held a shovel like a spear and as their aim changed he threw the shovel with a howl, striking her in the solar plexus.
She went down. Smith fired three times, each a solid shot to the chest.
Still he charged, screaming, now frothing red and green, and her next two shots hit nothing.
Garrett and Bessie jumped into the cockpit, and the plane shifted, started drifting forward.
Victoria fired four shots before she stood, took a knee, and carefully fired one last round. The huge man fell, twitching on the floor, a bright red pool of blood under his shattered skull.
“Shoot for the head next time! I want my dollar back, Doctor. It's protected you from their magic, but it's going to do jack all against a forty-five.” She said.
“Magic’s not real! This is crazy!” He shouted.
“They've got machine guns in that car, you idiot! Machine guns!” Bessie replied over the roar of the engine. Misses Fertitta and Smith were running now, already at the Chrysler.
“I hate this town.” Garrett said as the Jenny lurched forward, faster every second. When they left the warehouse, rain pelted them as it was driven sideways over the top of the brick mill.
“Can you fly in this weather?” Garrett shouted. Water rushed across the wharf, inches of brown muddy river over the loading dock.
“About like I can get shot or drown.” Bessie shouted. Garrett stood, tried to aim at the car as it came into view.
The Jenny accelerated, towards the chaotic river, wings tilting in the wind. The wrecked Chrysler was ahead, motionless near the truck. Lightning split the sky with thunder in the same instant, blindingly illuminating a nearby smokestack.
Garrett fired Bessie’s Webley at the Chrysler as they rolled past, six shots in a deadly rhythm, though each hit concrete.
“That’s it”. He thought. Soon, the twin Thompson submachine guns would shred the plane in a storm of bullets that would casually dispatch Garrett Granth and Bessie Coleman.
“Probably with pithy quips and witty advice.” He thought. He wondered what gems they’d exchange - “A plane to catch?” “Forty-five reasons to die in Greenville? Not cleared for takeoff?”
His rumination was cut short as the women stepped out of the car doors in unison. Their guns were raised, not at the plane but at - Garrett saw now - Nimaud of the Mound, her withered hands high in the air, raising a bent wand.
It snapped in time with the thunder as she brought it down on her knee, even as the cones of fire bucked up and down out of the machine guns, an answering roar. Nimaud twisted in her own ragged dance just as a brick fell from the sky, exploded in front of the car.
Garrett didn’t close his eyes, but he grit his teeth as they raised the Thompsons again. Then, a brick hit the Chrysler. Then another, a growing cascade of bricks disintegrating as they bounced.
The smokestack collapsed, tumbled out in a sprawling red spray of wet bricks. It crushed the Chrysler as the women ran from the exploding cloud of soot and mortar.
The Jenny rocketed forward in a jarring pace, buffeted by wind, wheels squealing until they left the wet concrete. Leaky walls of sandbags and bricks were ahead, muddy water spilling over in thick gouts.
Bessie punched it. The Jenny rose, nose higher and higher, and in a flash they were out over the dark water, the river churning with trees and farms.
They soared up, into darkness, and banked hard in a long arc. Below, the lights of Greenville flickered and went out in blocks, until all Garrett could see was rain, and in the distance, a slim line of sunrise. They headed east. To Yazoo City.