In the Time of the Voodoo
by John Lantigua
Art by Laurie Harden
Willie Cuesta walked into Clarke’s Pub on South Beach at noon. He was there to meet Alice Arden, immigration attorney extraordinaire, for their monthly high-cholesterol lunch. Clarke’s made the best burger in South Florida, and maybe the best anywhere. The patty, constructed of Angus beef, was two inches thick, oozing with juice, replete with blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and sinfully good bacon. Alice skipped the bacon; Willie didn’t.
Willie claimed their normal table in the far corner and stared at Sports Center screening silently on the TV above the bar. Two minutes later, Alice walked in, her mid-length blond hair swinging, wearing a blue business suit over a hibiscus-red blouse, and showing just enough gorgeously tanned thigh to make every guy in the place pause in mid bite of his burger. Alice was an excellent attorney, one of the best, something Willie had to remind himself of almost every time he looked at her.
They had been meeting for this monthly lunch for several years. Alice regularly threw Willie work, so they saw each other often. The lunches were meant to be purely social occasions during which they would catch up on personal and family matters. Willie had always wished that they could get even more personal, but it wasn’t to be. Alice adhered to strict rules about not mixing work with that sort of play.
Unlike most of their lunch meetings, this day she strode in with a superserious expression on her lovely face. She fell into the chair across from him, chucked her handbag onto the floor, and propped her silken arms on the table.
“We have to talk.”
“About what, amiga?”
“I just got a call from Clotilde St. Jean. She’s scared out of her wits.”
Willie frowned. He knew Clotilde quite well. She was born in Haiti, but later had become a U.S. citizen and Alice had helped her bring her children to live with her in America. In fact, it was Willie who had traveled to Haiti, collected the two children, and taken them to the U.S. consulate so that their blood could be drawn for DNA testing. That blood had matched their mother’s and they had eventually been allowed to come, but it hadn’t been easy.
Just then the waitress brought both their drinks. Neither of them were daytime drinkers, so that meant unsweetened iced tea for Alice and lemonade for Willie. They had been going there so long the servers knew what to bring them without asking. They sipped their respective refreshments.
“So what’s the problem with Clotilde?” Willie asked.
Alice leaned farther forward and dropped her voice.
“When Clotilde was just a child—about five years old, I believe—her father was murdered.”
Willie’s eyebrows elevated. “Murdered? She never told me.”
“It’s not something she likes talking about, but his death was a homicide. His throat was slashed one night on a dark street in the city of St. Marc where they lived, and he was abandoned there to bleed to death. He was found the next day at dawn.”
Willie winced. “Did they ever get who did it?”
Alice rolled her baby-blue eyes. “There was never any doubt who did it. It was the Tonton Macoute.”
Willie whistled. “Really.”
During his time in the Intelligence Unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department Willie had heard of the Macoutes. In Haiti, they had been plainclothes, government-sponsored assassins who operated out of the presidential palace and who for decades created a reign of terror throughout the country—robbing, raping, and murdering. Their main job was to terrorize the people and make sure they didn’t cause any trouble for the big shots. The government armed them—with guns, knives, and machetes—but they looked nothing like police or soldiers. Instead, they wore sporty civilian clothes, often topped off with rakish Panama hats and menacing black sunglasses. The casual-killer look.
But they also brought another dimension to their badness. Many of them had been recruited from ranks of voodoo practitioners, which made them extra frightening. They were hobgoblins. One moment they might be sacrificing a chicken to the voodoo deities, and the next they were slicing the throat of a human being in the middle of the night. Sometimes those victims were political opponents of the government, but other times people were killed randomly and left hanging from trees, or in the middle of the street, for no other cause than to create terror. Such killings were a warning: “If you are even thinking of questioning the powers that be, you will end up just like this.”
Willie sipped his lemonade. “Her father was murdered by a Macoute, but if it happened when Clotilde was a child that has to be thirty years ago or more.”
“Correct. But here’s the thing, boyo. Clotilde and other family members knew which of the Macoutes had murdered her dad. The killer’s name was Marcel Metellius. He had been a kind of bogus voodoo priest and was a well-known ghoul in the neighborhood where they lived. Two days ago she walked out of the shop she owns right here Miami, in Little Haiti, and she saw him. What’s even worse is that he saw her.” Alice punctuated the statement with a flick of her fine eyebrows.
Willie considered her words. He knew that after the old Haitian regime was overthrown in the 1980s, it was rumored that some Macoutes, trying to escape retribution from the relatives of their victims, made for Miami. If that was true, Willie had never run into any of them. They apparently lived quietly off the proceeds they had looted from Haiti and as long they kept their noses clean in Miami, neither Willie nor other cops had grounds to move against them.
But later the laws changed. These days anyone arriving in the U.S. had to check a box on the immigration form and swear that they have never been accused of a human-rights violation. If you lied in answer to that question, you committed a crime. All former Macoutes were considered major human-rights violators and were no longer allowed in. And if he got caught and deported back to Haiti this Metellius could easily end up dead. Many people back there hated the Macoutes.
Willie leaned forward. “So is he one of the Macoutes who came all those years ago legally, or did he somehow sneak in later?”
Alice shook her head. “Nobody by his name was allowed in legally. I already checked that with a friend of mine at Immigration. He must have come in later and almost certainly he did so by using a made-up name. In fact, Clotilde thinks she knows exactly when he came and how. You can ask her.”
“And you say he recognized her too? How can that be if she was just a little girl when he killed her father?”
“It isn’t that he recognized her, but she said her eyes went so big when she saw him that he noticed. Maybe he realizes that she knows who he is.”
“So she’s afraid he’s going to come after her to keep her quiet.”
Alice shook her head. “Not just that. Do you know what the name Tonton Macoute comes from in Haitian folklore?”
Willie shook his head. “I have no idea.”
“The Macoute is an evil spirit who walks around with a big sack and steals children. Do you understand? Clotilde is afraid he’s going to hurt not only her but her kids.”
Just then the burgers arrived. They dug in, but given what they’d just been talking about neither of them had his or her usual appetite for the Angus. About halfway through, Alice shoved her plate aside.
“I’m worried about this, Willie. We worked too hard to help Clotilde and bring those kids here to have anything happen to them.”
“I’m with you,” Willie said.
“You’re the only person who can help me on this. You’re already acquainted with them and you know Little Haiti from your days on the force.”
Willie was nodding but not saying anything now. He sensed that Alice was setting him up for something.
“You’re my boy on this. You’re my hero.”
Willie winced. “This means Clotilde doesn’t have money so I’m not going to get paid, right?”
It had happened before on other cases and he had never refused her. Alice knew that he didn’t like thugs any more than she did. She fixed on him with those soulful eyes of hers and uttered the words she had uttered in the past at such moments.
“We’ll get paid in heaven, Willie.”
Willie just hoped he didn’t arrive in heaven sooner than scheduled.
He left South Beach, drove across Biscayne Bay to the mainland, and turned onto Biscayne Boulevard. About three miles north of downtown he headed west and within a few blocks was in the heart of Little Haiti. Willie had begun his police career as a patrolman on the Miami PD and had spent quite a few nights in the neighborhood. Back in those days the duty had mostly involved investigating break-ins, other minor economic crimes, and domestic disputes. Little Haiti produced little serious violence. The people who had emigrated from Haiti, the poorest place in all the Americas, had already experienced enough trouble back home and they weren’t looking for more.
Then came the era when the older, established street gangs, headquartered in the neighborhoods to the north, began descending on Little Haiti to deal drugs, commit armed robberies, and rough up anybody who crossed their paths. In time, the Haitian kids formed their own gangs to protect themselves. You got shootouts and killings and suddenly what had been a fairly peaceful haven became perilous. By that time, Willie had been promoted to detective, assigned to the intelligence unit, and spent time investigating the gangs. Police cracked down and in time that wave of violence calmed. Little Haiti these days was more like it had been—poor but relatively peaceful.
Willie drove down the main drag of the neighborhood, Second Avenue Northeast. No one would ever mistake it for Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but attempts had been made over the years to spruce it up. The stunted storefronts had all been painted in pastel colors and new signs were painted to introduce each business. Little Haiti featured an unusual number of churches, music stores, and hole-in-the-wall operations where you could wire money home. They reflected the linchpins of Haitian culture—God, rhythmic Caribbean music, and family. Bakeries, restaurants, and groceries featuring Haitian food products were also well represented, all stuffed into a stretch of city only a few blocks long. Near the end of that strip, on the east side of the street, stood Clotilde’s Religious Articles and Caribbean Gifts. A sign in the window said “Closed,” although it was early afternoon. That was bad for business, Willie told himself.
He drove two more blocks, turned left, and located the bright pink stucco house Alice had described to him. It was Clotilde’s cousin’s place, where she and her children were holed up because she was afraid to go home.
Willie pulled into the driveway. Clotilde emerged and met him on the screened front porch. As always, she was dressed simply but beautifully—in a tight blue knee-length skirt, a white blouse embroidered with large red roses, and a matching red silk scarf tied into a turban around her head. The red turban was a signature with Clotilde, a way to pick her out of a crowd. She gestured Willie into a chair.
“We’ll talk out here, Willie. I kept the kids home from school. I told them we’re staying here for a few days with their cousins because work is being done on our house. I don’t want them to know what is really going on. I don’t want them as worried as I am.”
She met Willie’s gaze. Clotilde was a woman who had been through a lot in life and didn’t scare easily, but this moment was clearly an exception. For the first time ever he saw real fear in her beautiful ebony eyes.
“So tell me about this man,” Willie said.
She looked into the distance and slowly shook her head as if struggling to find the words.
“He was a Macoute, but even more of a monster than most Macoutes. He not only murdered my father, but he killed many people over the years. The Macoutes, they all wanted you to be afraid of them. Some of them used that fear to get money from people, or to get women to sleep with them. But there were some who took a personal pleasure in killing. They wanted people to think of them as demons and Marcel Metellius was one of those. He walked around always with big dark glasses so you couldn’t tell who he was looking at. But then he would stare at a person and his lips would twist into an evil smile and that person would think: “I am the next one he will kill.”
A shiver ran through her and she fell silent. Willie gave her a moment to tame those scary memories.
“I’m told you saw him here a couple of days ago.”
She nodded. “It was about six-thirty in the evening and I left my shop to buy a soda at the corner. A man was coming out of that same store. I was maybe twenty feet away from him when I saw his face. He must be close to sixty years old now and his hair is gray. His face was always thin and it’s even thinner now, with sunken cheeks. But beneath those years it looked just like him. I stopped and stared as if I had seen a ghost.”
She was fixed on Willie but was staring not at him but through him.
“And then what happened?”
“He looked up at me and frowned. I’m not sure what he thought in those seconds. Maybe he just saw a woman staring at him for no real reason. But maybe he realized that I recognized him.”
“So what did he do?”
“He didn’t do anything at first. It was me who turned around and headed back to my store, as if I had forgotten something. I locked the door, put the Closed sign in the window. Then I sneaked out the back way and started to walk home. But when I reached the corner just down from my shop he was standing there, a few feet away, staring at me. He smiled at me just as Metellius used to do to frighten people—a twisted, evil smile. It was only for a moment, but in that moment I knew for sure it was him.”
Willie nodded in commiseration, picturing the frightening face-to-face meeting after so many years. Incidents like that happened in Miami, a city that was a refuge for so many people from Latin America and the Caribbean, including people who, back in their home countries, had been hunter and prey.
“He didn’t follow you home, did he?”
“No, I made sure he didn’t do that. I hurried home, told the kids to pack, and we came here.”
“And have you seen him since?”
She shook her head. “No, I haven’t seen him exactly, but I believe he’s been watching me. Strange things have happened.”
“What kind of things?”
She gazed in the direction of her shop. “Yesterday, I opened up as usual. This is Easter week and it’s always busy for me. I can’t afford to abandon my business, but I kept an eye out for Metellius all day. I didn’t see him, but when I was walking back here just after dark, I thought I heard someone walking behind me. I turned, but no one was there. I kept going, but a minute later I heard something again. When I turned, I saw someone step into the shadows. I called out, but the person didn’t respond. Instead, I heard a noise—the noise a rattle makes.”
“A rattle? Like a kid’s rattle?”
“Yes, that is the sound. But in Haiti a rattle is also used in rituals by voodoo priests. The tradition is that the rattle is filled with bones taken from the spines of snakes.”
Willie’s eyebrows elevated. “Snake bones. Spooky stuff. Whoever it was in the shadows was trying to scare you.”
Clotilde nodded. “I’m not a believer in voodoo, but that sound did scare me. I still wasn’t sure who it was. I figured maybe it was some kid having fun. I yelled into the dark and told him to just go home. Whoever it was didn’t follow me any farther, or at least I didn’t see anyone. I made it home and locked the door. But this morning when I got to my shop I found this lying in front of my door.”
She reached into her handbag, pulled out a red bandana, and unwrapped it, revealing a small, carved, black figurine that fit in her hand—a smiling skeleton wearing a black top hat and a long frock coat.
“This is the spirit of the dead in Haitian voodoo,” she said. “His name is Baron Samedi and his image is used by people to work black magic.”
Willie gave it the once-over. “Nasty looking.”
Clotilde nodded. “Nasty looking like the one who left it. I picked it up, stepped back out into the street, and almost two blocks away, on the corner, I saw a man staring at me. It was Metellius and I could tell he was smiling at me again, laughing at me. Then he turned, walked around that corner, and disappeared.” She was looking at Willie now. “He’s trying to scare me, trying to make me leave here because he knows I’ve recognized him. In Haiti, that’s what he would do—terrorize a woman to get what he wants—and that is what he’s trying to do here.”
Willie remembered during his days in Miami PD sometimes going into Haitian homes and seeing small altars to the voodoo saints. Often it was only a clear glass of water and a lighted candle, which was a way to protect the household from evil spirits. Other times the altars were more elaborate, with many carved figurines and skulls, plus flowers, food, and bottles of liquor that constituted offerings to the saints. Willie understood the power that the voodoo cult had among some Haitians and how someone like Clotilde, who wasn’t a believer, could still get plenty scared when she was targeted by it.
“If he’s here, he must have come in illegally,” Willie said. “Macoutes are now persona non grata here. I assume he came in using a false name and Alice tells me you may know when that was.”
Clotilde nodded nervously. “After the earthquake in Haiti a couple of years back, people who were badly hurt were brought to Miami for medical care.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“A rumor ran here that some people who weren’t hurt at all had their heads and bodies wrapped in bloody bandages, so that nobody knew who they were, and they were smuggled onto the medical planes. They were brought to hospitals here and then just disappeared.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that they vanished. Everybody said the men who did that were old Macoutes.”
Willie had never heard that one before. But he could see how such a story could gain traction among the Haitians. The image of notorious killers disguised as mummies made for an irresistible horror story. Truth was, people were smuggled from Haiti by sea with some regularity. Many were caught and sent back but others made it to shore and melted into the population. An old Macoute might arrive that way too.
“So why don’t you report all of this to the police?” Willie asked.
Clotilde just shook her head.
“The police around here have heard too many stories like this. People accuse others of plans to hurt them. They find chickens with their throats cut on their property and they report their enemies are using voodoo or Santeria against them. If I tell the police I have seen a Macoute they will think I’m seeing ghosts. They’ll do nothing.”
Willie knew she was probably right.
“So what is it you want me to do? I don’t know where he lives, what identity he’s using, and I’ve never seen him.”
“Oh, you’ll know him when you find him, Willie. You’ll sense the pure evil in him.”
Willie wasn’t sure that his “pure evil” detection apparatus was as fine-tuned as Clotilde thought it was. How did someone go about searching for a goblin?
Just then the front door opened and her two children emerged, stationing themselves to either side of her. The girl, Georgette, was about twelve; the boy, Terrence, had to be ten. They both had a lot of Clotilde in them and were beautiful kids.
“I told you to stay in the house,” Clotilde scolded. “Say hello to Mr. Cuesta and go back. Don’t make me angry.” They did as told.
“They’re growing up to be healthy, gorgeous children,” Willie said.
She nodded. “And I want them to stay healthy and gorgeous. Please, help us, Willie.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he said, although at the moment he had no idea what that would be. . . .
# # #
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In the Time of the Voodoo by John Lantigua. Copyright © 2017 with permission of the author.
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