“What can I do for you?” asked Allison Blake, the only female private detective in Miami.
“I’d like you to help me locate my fiancé, Dr. Tom Harlow. He’s a professor of Anthropology at the university.”
“When did you last see him?”
“Two months ago, when he boarded a plane from Miami to Haiti.”
“Why did he go there?”
“To find a zombie.”
“Did I hear you correctly?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “Look, I don’t believe they exist, but he says I’m wrong. In fact, he’s hell-bent on capturing one and bringing it back here to conduct experiments. He has this wild notion that it will somehow put him on a fast path to winning a Nobel Prize. Before leaving, he promised he’d send me emails every day. I got tons from him. Then, all of a sudden his emails stopped.”
“When was that?” Blake asked.
“A week ago. After not hearing from him for two days, I called his hotel in Haiti. They said he was still registered. Housekeeping said he had not slept in his bed for a few days, and nobody had seen him entering or leaving his room. I’m awfully worried. I have a feeling that something terrible has happened to him.”
“Did you notify the police in Haiti?”
“Yes. They said they’d check things out. But they haven’t contacted me since then.”
“Maybe he realized he was on a wild goose chase, changed his plans, and decided to take a few side trips before coming back,” said Blake.
“He would’ve told me. Look, I love him. We’re supposed to get married in six months. Yesterday, I found out I’m pregnant. It makes me all the more anxious to find out where he is.”
“I have contacts in the Caribbean that can get on this right away, if you’d like me to proceed. However, this could turn out to be quite expensive.”
We discussed fees. I agreed to pay her a thousand dollar retainer to take my case. I signed some papers, gave her a photo of Tom, and discussed his habits. She said she’d do all she could to locate him as quickly as possible. I felt encouraged when she mentioned she was a retired US Army Warrant Officer and had worked for twenty years as an investigator for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.
Three days later, she called. “I just received a fax from my Caribbean contact. He went to Port Au Prince in Haiti and interviewed people who were acquainted with Tom. All confirmed his absence, though he’s still registered as a guest at the hotel. Turns out that closets in his room are full of his clothes, and his suitcases are still there. He also interviewed a middle-aged chambermaid named Mahimba, who cleaned Tom’s room. Supposedly, Tom and her became quite friendly.”
“Tom mentioned her a few times in his emails,” I said. “He told me she mothered him and called him her ‘white son’. She chided him about his lean frame and worried that he wasn’t eating properly. She used to cook things and bring them to him.”
“My contact confirmed she has a friendly nature,” Blake said, “but she’s quite uneducated and dense. He said she wept and mentioned how much she missed Tom. But other than that, all she talked about were zombies and how they kidnap people who venture out at night. Unfortunately, my contact kept running into dead ends and highly superstitious people.
He also checked with the US Embassy, several Haitian government agencies, and the police. None of them know anything about Tom’s whereabouts or have any leads. I’m afraid we’ve reached a dead end. Sorry, but there’s nothing further I can do for you, considering Tom is outside the United States. It’s always far more difficult trying to conduct investigations in foreign countries. I wish you the best of luck and hope he turns up soon.”
I cried the whole night. By morning, I felt so desperate I decided to go to Haiti to look for Tom. Placing my palms on my stomach, I promised the new life growing inside of me I’d find its daddy.
I put a CLOSED FOR VACATION sign in the window of my used book shop, then flew to Haiti.
The moment I stepped off the plane, I went to work. I showed Tom’s photo to taxi drivers, shop keepers, and street vendors. Everyone shrugged. Some made disgusting, sleazy propositions.
I went to Tom’s hotel, registered, and asked the concierge to send Mahimba to my room.
“How may I help you,” asked rotund, matronly Mahimba.
“I’m Lisa Walsh. Dr. Harlow’s fiancée. I’m sure he mentioned me. I came here to find him.”
“I’m so pleased to meet you. He mentioned your name many times. He’s crazy in love with you.” Tears streamed down her cheeks when she added, “I miss my white son very much. But it’s too late to save him. Please… go home. He’s gone forever. You can look from now until doomsday, but you’ll never find him.”
“How can you say such a thing, if you feel so strongly about him?”
“It’s not me who says it. My sister speaks to voodoo gods. They told her Dr. Harlow is lost forever. Zombies stole him. Once zombies catch somebody, they never let them go.”
“Okay, let’s say there are such things, and they kidnapped Tom. Where would they have grabbed him? Is there a certain place in the city where zombies prowl and kidnap people?”
“There’s not just one place. Zombies are everywhere in Haiti.”
“Once they got him, where would they take him?” I asked.
“Someplace deep in the jungle where nobody would ever find him.”
“And what would they do to him?”
“They’d make him a zombie.”
“I’m sorry, Mahimba. This all sounds to me like a poorly written script for a grade B movie. I want you to know that I intend to find him, no matter where he is. It won’t be long and we’ll both see him again.”
“I wish with all my heart that what you say is true. Listen to me, Lisa, for the sake of your unborn child forget this foolish idea, and go back to America.”
“How could you possibly know I’m pregnant?”
“I see it in your eyes.”
“Oh? What else can you see?”
“A girl child.”
“All the more reason for finding Tom. I want my daughter to have a father.”
“It’s too late,” she said, sobbing.
When she opened the door to leave, I called out in my sternest voice, “You’re wrong! It’s never too late! Zombies or no, I’m going to get him back!”
I flopped on a chair and recalled what Allison Blake’s Caribbean operative had said about Mahimba: “She was friendly, but quite uneducated and dense. All she’d talk about were zombies and how they kidnap people who venture out at night.” How right that operative was! There was no sense talking to her again.
Suddenly, Tom’s fondness for foreign beers came to mind. No doubt he would’ve gone to the hotel’s bar to discover what beers they might have that he’d never tasted.
I went into the hotel bar, ordered a Coke, introduced myself to the bartender, and showed him Tom’s picture.
“Oh yes. Dr. Harlow used to come here every night to drink our wonderful local beers. He was a very interesting man.”
“I came to Haiti because I think something bad might’ve happened to him,” I said.
“It’s the talk of the hotel. I’m very sorry to hear he’s missing. A detective was here a few days ago to speak to me. I told him everything I knew, which wasn’t much.”
“Did you by any chance tell him the real reason Tom came to Haiti?”
“Dr. Harlow never told me why he came here. I assumed that since he was an Anthropologist, he came to study the culture.”
Nudged by intuition, I said, “I think you know more than you’re telling me.” Handing him a twenty-dollar bill, I asked if it would help him remember more clearly.
He pocketed the money, and leaned closer. “He might have gone to Zambulu to talk to a mambo. He mentioned the possibility of doing that the night he drank several pints of our strongest beers.”
“What’s a mambo?”
“A voodoo priest. I’ve heard of one who lives in Zambulu. They say he is a very scary and dangerous man. Some say he turns people into zombies.”
“Where’s Zambulu?” I asked.
“At the edge of the jungle, about fifty miles from here. I hope you aren’t thinking of going there. It’s a highly dangerous place. Even police stay away.”
“What keeps them from going there? Gangsters?”
“No. Even gangsters stay away from Zambulu. Many zombies live there.”
“If it’s so damn dangerous, why don’t they send the army to clean the place out?”
“The soldiers would mutiny if they were ordered to such a fearsome place.”
A customer called for a refill. Figuring the bartender would be of no further use, I went back to my room. On the way, I got so furious over the whole situation, I decided to declare war against everybody who’d try to stop me from finding Tom. Zombies and voodoo priests included.
After a fitful night’s sleep, I flagged a taxi parked by the hotel’s entrance. “Take me to Zambulu.”
“Pardon me, Miss. Are you sure you want to go there?”
“Yeah. Is there a problem?”
“There’s a very big problem. Nobody goes there. It’s the land of the undead.”
“What do you mean? A friend of mine has a plantation there,” I said—which was a blatant lie.
“I’m sorry to tell you, Miss, but Zambulu no longer has plantations. They were all overrun by zombies long ago. The only things left are a cemetery, the jungle, voodoo practitioners, and ferocious zombies. Nobody in their right mind would live there.”
“But I’m supposed to meet someone there.”
“I’ll take you to Zambulu if you wish, but don’t ask me to wait there for you until you’re ready to return to the hotel. If my wife knew I was there even for a minute, she’d have a heart attack.”
“Then don’t wait for me. I’ll get a cab in Zambulu to bring me back to the city.”
“There are no cabs in Zambulu. Nothing’s there, except what I already told you.”
“Forget it. I’ll get somebody else to take me!”
“I assure you, nobody will take you. Well now that I think of it, I have six hungry mouths to feed, and it’s been a very slow day. I’ll take you there and back, but you must pay me one-hundred American dollars.”
What a crook. That had to be at least ten times the going rate for cabs. I went to the three other cabbies in line and asked them to take me. All vehemently refused.
Back at the first cab, I told him I’d pay the hundred dollars. Before I got into the cab, I asked the doorman if the cabbie was a regular—somebody he knew or recognized. He said yes. Nevertheless, I had the doorman write down my name, room number, what I was wearing, the driver’s name, and the cab’s license plate numbers. I said I was going for a drive out of the city, and if I didn’t return within five hours, he was to call the police and report me as a victim of foul play. I said it loud enough for the cabbie to hear. Further, I read the serial numbers on the two American fifty-dollar bills I was about to give the driver, and told the doorman to add that information to his list. I gave the doorman fifteen US dollars for his trouble.
Calling the cabdriver a freakin’ crook under my breath, I paid him the two fifties, and entered his cab.
Dark, menacing clouds formed as we left the main highway for an unpaved, bumpy road that led to the jungle. The air grew more humid, fetid, oppressive. It filled the cab through the four open windows. So did the sound of jungle drums.
“Do you hear that,” I asked, feeling unnerved.
“Yes. It’s a call to believers for a voodoo ceremony. The drums sound very close. It will be dark in another hour. For the sake of your mother, let’s turn back. I don’t want this on my conscience.”
I thought about my declaration of war against anybody who failed to help me in my quest. “Look, you asked for a hundred dollars, which is ridiculously expensive, and I paid it to you. Keep going, or I’ll complain to authorities when we get back to the city.”
He mumbled something in a foreign language, and retaliated by hitting potholes he could have easily avoided. I cursed him under my breath for adding to my discomfort.
“This is Zambulu,” the driver said, as he stopped in front of a fenced off area. In the center was a high, rusted ornate gate behind which were dozens of old, decrepit mausoleums. Some were partially hidden by thick jungle growth.
“I’m going to step out for a moment,” I said.
“Please don’t, Miss.”
“Nothing’s going to happen. I’m just going inside the gate. I’ll be back in a minute.”
The drums continued to pound when I opened the rusty, squeaky gate and hollered, “Anybody here? Has anybody seen a white man named Tom Harlow?”
Suddenly the drums stopped.
Out of the jungle came a man wearing a hideous-looking mask that covered his entire face. It was the weirdest, most frightful thing I’d ever seen. My hair stood on end as he rushed toward me waving a thick stick that looked like a walking cane.
The cab driver honked his horn in alarm. But I stood my ground. I was facing an enemy who didn’t know I’d declared war. For the first time in my life I wished I had a gun with plenty of ammunition.
The masked man stopped a few feet away from me, and pointed his stick in the opposite direction, as if he wanted me to leave. When I didn’t move, he yelled something I couldn’t understand. Then he shouted, “Go… now!”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m looking for Dr. Tom Harlow, my fiancé. He’s a white man. Have you seen him?”
He repeated, “Go… now!”
“Why don’t you take off that stupid Halloween mask and show your face like a man!” I shouted, trying to suppress anxiety.
Suddenly, he tapped my left cheek lightly with his stick. I couldn’t understand why I felt as if I’d been hit by a truck. When I hit the ground, adrenaline threw me back onto my feet and into the cab. The driver hit the accelerator with such force, my back slammed hard against the seat. The spinning tires threw piles of dirt and dust in the bad guy’s direction.
The driver was so petrified, he kept screaming something unintelligible at the top of his lungs. That’s when I felt something wet streaming down my left cheek. Checking my face in a mirror, I saw a deep, long cut on my cheek from which poured red, yellow, and green fluids. The flow had a putrid odor that made me vomit. I must’ve passed out from shock.
Next thing I knew, the driver was wrapping his shirt around my face.
“Don’t worry, Miss, I’ll get you to a hospital. You shouldn’t have gone there. I should never have taken you. My wife will kill me when she finds out. I’m so sorry. You’ll be okay, Miss.”
He drove like a mad man, and helped me into a hospital emergency room. I don’t know how long it took to get there, because I kept fading in and out of consciousness.
Sometimes I saw a man peering at me who could’ve been a doctor. Then darkness. Other times, I saw a man who had a Roman collar worn by Catholic priests. Then more darkness.
Sometimes I heard people speak in English. Other times in French. And then a priest spoke slowly in Latin, as he splashed my cheek with something cool and wet.
I awoke when the priest said forcefully, “I exorcise you, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!” Then darkness again.
When I finally came around, I found my bed surrounded by a doctor, policeman, nurse with pad and pen, and a priest.
“I’m Dr. LeBlanc. How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” I said. “How long have I been here?”
“When can I leave?”
“Why is the priest here? And the policeman? Why is that nurse taking notes?”
“She’s recording everything we say in short hand. A crime has been committed. The policeman is here because you were assaulted by someone in Zambulu. Were you aware it’s a very dangerous place, where nobody in their right mind goes?”
“I heard about it, but didn’t believe it. Look, I’ve been very upset lately. I came here to find my fiancé. He came here to—”
“We know why he came here, and that he’s missing,” said the policeman, who identified himself as Inspector Dumont. “I strongly suggest you let us handle this matter, and that you return to America. There’s very little you can do.”
“Are you Catholic,” asked the priest.
“No. I’m an atheist, but I have great respect for the charitable work of the Catholic Church. Why are you here, Father?”
“I was asked to come to bless you.”
“But I heard you use the word exorcise.”
“I blessed you first with holy water, then I conducted a minor exorcism to counter the effects of your spiritual wound.”
“Please give me a mirror. I want to see my face.”
While the nurse looked for a mirror, I ran my fingers down the side of my cheek. Instead of a swollen mass loaded with stitches, I felt only soft, smooth skin.
The mirror confirmed that the cut had disappeared.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” I said. “The cut was so big and so deep, I thought my entire cheek would be scarred forever. But now my wound is completely gone. How can that be?”
“It disappeared when I exorcised you,” said the priest. “I’ve seen such wounds before. They are the work of familiar spirits who act on the commands of witch doctors through the medium of a magic wand. We say special prayers to dismiss the spirits and the wounds they cause. The person who did this was a very powerful practitioner of black magic. This was his way of giving you a mild warning to stay away. Observe the warning. Do not attempt to oppose evil forces about which you know nothing. I hope you don’t intend to go to Zambulu again. If you do, you might be wounded in ways that are for more difficult or even impossible to cure. Take Inspector Dumont’s advice and go back to America.”
“There’s something else you should know, the doctor said. “You are no longer pregnant.”
I remember screaming to the high heavens while the doctor injected something into my arm.
When I was released from the hospital, the priest offered to drive me to my hotel.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“I’m too exhausted to look for Tom,” I said. “I’m going back home as soon as I can get a flight. I feel so defeated. When I came here, I declared war against anyone who’d prevent me from finding Tom and taking him back to Miami. I was an army of one facing what I now know are a bunch of psychos who seem to have powers that are beyond my comprehension.”
“You’re very brave for trying. But you went into battle without any weapons, and you didn’t know your enemy. Think about those things if you ever decide to do battle again.”
I pondered his words during the flight home. He was right. I went into battle without knowing the slightest thing about my enemy, and I had no weapons.
Months passed without my hearing anything from anyone in Haiti.
Mahimba’s words kept coming to mind: “He’s gone forever. You can look from now until doomsday, but you’ll never find him.”
Perhaps she was right, I thought after an entire year had passed.
I went to see Allison Blake the private investigator. I told her everything that happened in Haiti. She was extremely sympathetic, and offered to help any way she could.
I went to Haiti again, but this time somebody came with me. I stayed at a hotel far from the one where Mahimba worked to make sure nobody’d recognize me.
I rented an SUV. The next day, my new friend and I drove to Zambulu. An hour before sundown, I repeated exactly what I’d done a year ago when I first encountered the witch doctor. And as expected, he repeated his aggressive behavior. The only difference was: when he came toward me with his wand, my friend, a retired Army sniper, jumped out the SUV and fired so many bullets the witch doctor’s torso was cut in half. To sweeten my revenge, I removed his grotesque mask and dug my high heels into both of his eyes. One for my lost baby girl, and the other for the loss of Tom.
My sniper friend proceeded to shoot to pieces everyone he could find at Zambulu. I threw three hand grenades. There were no survivors.
The priest was right about knowing my enemy and going into battle with weapons.
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