Kiera Chan stood on the porch of her father’s white cedar house on Seabrook Island, South Carolina, listening to the deep vibrating calls of the bullfrogs in the black, dank, steamy forest, as he sat in his favourite rocking chair and muttered about a skin stealer, whatever that might be.
The old man had refused to leave the tumbledown ruin where Kiera spent much of her childhood keeping clear of him when she wasn’t at church. Now she was a 29-year-old businesswoman and Melrose Chan was rich, emaciated and dying, as if slowly seeping away from the physical world to some other place but surely not a better one. His glasses had slipped off and lay across the half-open mouth before she replaced them. His skin used to be a rich warm mahogany, but the glow was long gone.
Candles in the points of the pentagram around his chair guttered and hissed as they did their work. Kiera sensed the Ashanti spirits were close as she fingered the small silver crucifix, but even the spirits were frightened of Melrose. It was hard to believe that this Obeah Man once terrorised his children. He was rich enough to afford a private sea view mansion on the island, but would make associates come visit his damp shack to pay their dues whilst he tossed the bones and sacrificed chickens to decide their fate. Kiera inspected the stinking gris-gris bag around his neck – a small pouch containing a mannikin, a severed finger and various animal skulls, as he opened his sick eyes.
“Feed it with hooch and pray to the mojo. There’s a jar in the house, Kiki.”
She went to fetch the hooch. It was a starry night, wisps of mist coiling around the old house as if come to take him home. As she gazed at the veiled stars, Kiera wondered where her life had all gone so wrong. Hers had been inexorably modelled on his – a game of Monopoly, greedy for properties and businesses, building an empire based on lies and extortion despite her Christian beliefs. The truth was, she detested her father.
When she returned, he looked at her with eyes the colour of piss after a heavy night. He seemed like a corpse already, but Melrose Chan sure knew how to hang on to life. She sensed an unusual fear in him as she took the bag from around his neck and added a few drops of liquor.
“Why d’you wear this thing? You don’t believe in that nonsense, do you?”
His look became cunning. “The truth is what you believe. You know that.”
“You’re in no place to play a waiting game, Papa. Tell me why you wear it.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. “It’s for your mother Mama Rose, child. You look so much like her, with those amber eyes and that long hair as shiny as molasses. Your mouth was made for laughing, Kiki, not for praying.”
Kiera almost laughed. “She’s been missing for twenty years or so. She ain’t coming back, Papa.”
He paused. “I don’t want her coming back. That’s why I wear it.”
Kiera could remember the police visiting the house, the flashing lights outside the shuttered windows painting the walls and ceiling of her room a vivid blue. She and Davey had got out of bed to watch her father talking with them. Shaking hands as he passed them money because that was how he greased the wheels of success. Heard the cars drive away into the darkness, but they came back many times. It was days before Melrose said anything. She runned off, was his only explanation.
Now she sensed a terrible truth buried deep and it was too late to stop. “Did you kill her? Tell me the truth and I’ll pray with you.”
He opened and closed his fingers. “Give me that damned bag.”
She held it at arm’s length, seeing panic. “The truth first.”
He slumped back. “The truth? I should have killed Rose, it would’ve been kinder.”
“Tell me, Papa, please. Was it to do with Davey?”
Melrose would never speak about the son who went missing. “It was an accident. A foolish accident when your mama was on the hooch and let him go wandering. She said a woman took him and I couldn’t get any more sense than that, other than she had strange eyes, sort of hazy grey. Like mist over the swamp, Rose kept saying. She never stopped looking for your little brother, and then the time came when she didn’t come back. We searched for days and I kept looking, but you wanted the truth, Kiera. I prayed to God I would never find her.”
Kiera put her hand on his. The skin felt clammy, like a toad before he snatched it away. “My magic was supposed to bring us another son, but the boo-hag came instead and it took Mama Rose.”
Kiera was taken with a sudden, powerful fury. “Lies, lies, lies. You beat her to death and you buried her in the swamp. You need to confess before it’s too late.”
He reached out for the bag. “The bones said…” a coughing fit cut him off.
“What did the damned bones say?”
His voice was a hoarse whisper. “They say that she’s coming for us. She wants her family back.”
Kiera hurled the gris-gris bag into the darkness and he cried out suddenly and piercingly. He was babbling incoherently when she put him to bed.
Sleep would not come as she lay awake sweating, listening to rain pattering on leaves and the hoarse breathing from his room. It was all too easy to believe in a skin-stealing boo-hag in such a place. Finally, Kiera got up and pulled on her tee-shirt and jeans, and her long boots. She went outside to listen to the song of the forest as bats flittered and flicked. She regretted losing her temper with the old man, despite everything he’d done. She was certain that he’d killed their mother – just one more beating, a little too hard. A little too brutal, and the swamp was the perfect place for a weighted body to bubble into the stinking black waters.
She fetched his .45 Springfield automatic, pushing it down the back of her jeans before wandering a little way off, until a flickering light deep in the woods caught her attention. At first, Kiera wondered if a house was burning but as she walked closer, the fire was smaller than she had at first thought. Sparks flew into the sky, painting the mossy branches amber. She took a rough track between the trees, with nowhere to go and no one to see, needing a stranger to talk to. A long-abandoned jeep was parked at the end, rusting and mud-spattered, and there was a camouflaged tent near the fire. A dark-skinned woman sat on a convenient log, toasting something. Marshmallow, maybe. Her hair was long and thick like Kiera’s and swayed as the soft wind fluttered the leaves, and she wore dark glasses. She glanced up and beckoned as if she’d been waiting, and Kiera was the star guest.
Kiera walked between the trees, keeping a hand on the weapon out of habit. Close up, the woman looked to be in her late twenties, slim and athletic, rising to her feet in a single, easy movement. She wore an old-fashioned army jacket over a long, dark red dress and high-heeled boots. Odd clothes for camping. The woman’s face was fine boned, with petite features and a generous mouth. Part oriental, much like herself; familiar too. She smiled a wide, pretty smile.
“Hey babe, I’ve been expecting you a long time.” The accent was local, the voice husky.
The woman waved the stick in the air. There was a smoking blob on the end. “Sit down and have some marshies with me, babe.”
Kiera sat, feeling oddly displaced. “I shouldn’t be here. I need to get back to my father. He thinks he’s dying and he might just be right this time.”
The woman blew on the marshmallow and tried it. She seemed amused. “Does he, now. Here, have some.”
Kiera took a bite. The taste was oddly bitter, not what she’d been expecting. Saliva rushed into her mouth but she wanted more. She took another bite and wiped her lips.
“Who are you?”
The woman smiled a lazy smile. She seemed nice. “Does it matter?”
Kiera put her hand behind her, felt the reassuring weight of the gun. “It does to me.”
The woman shrugged. “I think my name is Allatu, but in Mesopotamia they called me Ereshkigal, and in Canaan I was worshipped as Arsay. I’ve lived in many places throughout human history, Kiera, but Mama Rose is my favourite, and I’ve been riding her so many years.”
Kiera remained silent. The woman was watching her intently, searching for something. Her sunglasses reflected the firelight, flickering red. “He loves you, Kiki, despite what he did.”
The heat of the fire was making Kiera light-headed. “Who?”
“I mean Papa Chan.”
What were the chances? Close to zilch. It was hard to think straight. “You know my father. You called me Kiki. Why are you here?”
The woman chuckled. “It’s time for me to sleep again, but there’s wrongs I need to right for her first – an eye for an eye, as was written in the Babylonian code of Hammurabi. Mama Rose found Davey, you know. You shot him with your papa’s gun, and so she came looking for me.”
“It was an accident, I was just a child. You have to believe me.”
“That’s a lie and you know it. You were jealous because your father loved him.”
Kiera tried to get up as the toxic memories flooded back, but she had no strength. Instead, she slid down until she was sitting on the cold ground. The woman knelt and took the automatic. She skilfully ejected the magazine and threw both towards the tent. The numbness was spreading up Kiera’s body. Her tongue seemed too big for her mouth. The woman was standing between her and the fire as she took off her army jacket and dropped it into the flames. The heat became more intense. Kiera felt sweat saturating her. The woman spun around, making the red dress float outwards, showing off her legs.
“This one’s too old now,” she said conversationally, running her hands down Mama Rose’s body as if it were an expensive dress. “They age on the inside, so I can’t use their eyes when I go riding. I have to take my own and sometimes, people notice.”
She removed her dark glasses as she was speaking, and her eyes were a hazy grey, like a rain-filled sky.
“Tell me your name right now,” Kiera said.
The woman sounded reproachful. “I’m your Mama Rose.”
Keira could no longer blink. The woman was clearly insane. if Rose were still alive she’d be far older.
“I won’t be needing these,” the woman said as she unzipped the red dress. She peeled if off slowly until she was standing naked in front of the flames wearing her black, high-heeled, mud-spattered boots. She dropped the dress into the fire and it exploded with a tower of sparks. The boots came off and followed, one at a time, leaving the woman naked. Kiera absorbed the fact as she watched Rose turn until she was facing the fire, slim and beautiful. Her boots were smouldering, giving off thick, acrid white smoke.
Kiera focused all her willpower and managed to topple over onto her side. She began to crawl around the log towards the gun. She glanced back once, but Mama Rose was no longer interested in what Kiera was doing. She was on her hands and knees, arching her spine impossibly high. Something truly dreadful was happening that defied explanation, stripping off her skin like a bloodied, flesh-coloured body stocking. The sinewy, anatomical face turned its enormous eyes towards Kiera and grinned a lipless grin.
Kiera lunged for the gun, slamming the magazine home as she rolled over. The automatic seemed immensely heavy as she aimed and squeezed the trigger. She managed to get to her feet and half-staggered, half ran into the forest. She could hear the crimson thing following, jumping fallen trees, calling her name and laughing. Kiera ran faster, but she could hear the harsh, panting breath getting closer. She tripped and fell, rolling over, trying to get back to her feet and saw Mama Rose outlined against a gap in the trees. They weren’t heading back to the house anymore. Kiera didn’t know where they were, all she had to do was keep moving. She aimed and fired, and saw Mama Rose go down, but not for long. Kiera tried to run but there was something wrong with her ankle. She hopped and skipped, falling again, her chest aching with the effort as she felt strong fingers catching her hair, pulling her backwards. She fell heavily and looked up into the huge, lidless grey eyes, and screamed.
Melrose Chan was awake when Kiera came back. She sat beside his bed and took his hand as he wept silently for all the missing years when he could have loved her more. He sat up with an effort. “Where have you been, Kiki?”
“Looking for Davey, as always.”
Finally, he saw the truth. “Your eyes are grey. Where’s my daughter, skin stealer?”
“I’m here, Papa. I’m Kiera Chan,” she said.
He tried to sit up. “No – no, you’re lying. I need to change my will. I need my attorney.”
So typical, thinking about the money. She was going to suffocate him when she paused. There was something she had to remember. Something impossible, miraculous even, and yet she had no recollection other than seeing the beautiful, young, hungry woman stripping by the fire, and a name. It was way beyond weird, but not for the swamplands where weird happened every day. She took out the heavy automatic and checked the magazine. Two rounds fired. But when? Kiera left him and made herself a Chan Mimosa – orange juice, vodka, ice, and mint, Mama Rose’s favourite drink, before she sat on Melrose’s rocking chair and listened to the endless, hopeful singing of the bullfrogs. Soon, everything he owned would finally be hers.
In the morning, Kiera put on her sunglasses and drove back to Charleston Airport through heavy traffic. She was thinking about a dream about a fire in the woods and a woman in a red dress. Funny, that.