Amie could barely see her customer as the woman lurched toward the counter, arms loaded with a voodoo love spell kit, fat pink altar candles, a well-endowed Love Doll, a twelve-pack of Fire of Love incense, and “breath mints,” the woman huffed. She dumped everything on the mosaic countertop and reached for the Altoids display, a nervous smile tickling her lips. “Not that I expect all of this to work right away.”
Amie couldn’t help laughing as she caught a supersize bottle of Heat Up the Bedroom linen mist before it rolled under an arrangement of Good Fortune charms. “You never know.”
Her customer couldn’t have been more than forty, with gorgeous green eyes, a warm, well-rounded face, and a lonely heart. Amie could see it as clearly as the glow-in-the-dark Find Your Lover charm at the top of the heap.
Well, Amie had just the thing.
She closed her eyes, blocking out the pink and green painted walls and loaded display tables.
Wind chimes at the back of the shop swung in circles. Their limbs, carved from bayou swamp trees, clacked together.
She let her magic well up inside her, vibrant and sweet. “Now.” She reached across the counter and found the woman’s hands. She braced herself as the power flowed through her. “You’ll find what you need.”
She squeezed once and let go. Once was all it took.
That’s when the growling started.
It began as a low rumbling at the back of the shop and continued until a thin line of smoke seeped from behind the Voodoo Wash Yourself Clean soap display.
“It’s a faulty heater,” Amie said, well aware that it was July. “Ignore it.”
“Sure,” the woman said, watching Amie pack her things in two overflowing bags. “Some of this is bound to work, right?”
“Voodoo can be very powerful,” Amie said, “if you believe.”
Amie smiled to herself as the door swung shut against the sweltering New Orleans heat.
Flower petals and grave dust sprinkled down from the spell bundle she’d hung from the vintage tin ceiling. Made from an old family recipe and wrapped in her lucky green scarf, it warded off evil spirits and helped cut down on shoplifting.
Amie scooted around the counter, her bracelets jangling as she smoothed back her thick black hair.
“Okay, you big, bad beast, you can come out now.”
A red leathery creature the size of a swamp cat burst out from behind a display of bath fizzies. He resembled a small flying dinosaur. “By thunder and lightning and Papa Limba,” he said with a thick Congo accent, blowing out a breath as a pink and white begonia threatened to land on the tip of his beak. “You are giving your magic away to people off the street?”
Isoke was small for a Kongamato. His wingspan was only about three feet. He had leathery skin, gorgeous blue eyelashes, and all the tact of a battering ram.
“You need to stay on your perch.” At least while customers were in the store. “What if that poor woman had gone back for another Mango Mamma bath melt?”
“Go dunk your head in the Jiundu swamp. I am not here to be a ceiling decoration.” He sniffed at his usual place, where he hung upside down near a display of rainbow-colored wind socks.
His eyes glowed yellow. “I am here to protect you,” he said, flaunting two rows of razor-sharp teeth. “Maybe next time I will bite the woman. That will keep her from robbing you.”
“My magic is freely given,” Amie insisted, straightening the bath fizzie display. She might not mind grave dust on her floor-that had a purpose. But the rest of her shop was immaculate.
The dragon watched her with a guarded expression. “Amiele Fanchon D’Honore Baptiste, you waste your magic. It’s bad juju. First, your mother and now you.”
Amie’s back stiffened at the insinuation. Her mother had lived fast, died young-and left Amie very much alone. Well, with one rather obnoxious exception.
“Your mother wasted her love magic on a legion of men. You give yours away to strangers. In three hundred and eighty-six years, I have never seen anything like it.”
“You’re being unfair.” She refused to look at him. Instead, she busied herself rearranging a sagging display of gris-gris bags near the front of the shop. The bright red and yellow bundles contrasted against the hot pink walls and silver posters of Erzulie, the spirit of love, and Papa Ghede, lord of the erotic. “Mom gave her love magic away to men who didn’t appreciate it,” she said, with more than a twinge of regret. There had been many, many men.
“And she received none of it back,” he replied, his voice low in his throat. “I watched her waste away. I’m not going to watch you too.”
Amie fingered a Fall in Love bag before stuffing it back down with the rest. “Ah, but there is a difference. I am getting bits of magic back. You don’t think I’m going to feel that woman’s happiness? She might not know what I did, but every time someone is grateful, it filters home.”
“Crumbs,” Isoke declared. “You need a man, someone who will take your love magic and give his to you tenfold.”
Amie’s stomach dropped as she tidied an already perfect row of voodoo history books. “I’ve tried that.”
She’d dated. None of the men fit the bill. New Orleans was a wild city, and she wasn’t going to lash herself to some beer-guzzling party boy just to save a little magic.
“When? When did you last see a man?” the Kongamato prodded.
Amie opened her mouth to answer.
“A man you trusted with your love magic?”
Her smart answer died on her lips.
“Nine years.” Her stomach twisted at the realization. Nine years since her last boyfriend. And, no, he hadn’t returned her love magic. If her mother was any indication, men never did.
Isoke cocked his head. She felt his hot breath against her leg, even through her gauzy yellow skirt.
“Look, I’m fine the way I am. I don’t want to worry about when some guy is going to call or how to act on a date or whether he’s going to turn into a cretin if I sleep with him.”
“Eeking out a life is not fine.” Isoke huffed like a blast furnace.
“Stop it,” Amie admonished, “you’re going to singe the floor again.” She couldn’t keep throwing rugs everywhere. Her landlord was suspicious enough when he found the hot tub in her back storage room full of muddy water, sticks, and Spanish moss. You could take the Kongamato out of the swamp, but you couldn’t take the swamp out of the Kongamato.
Just then, a group of giggling teenagers burst through the door. Isoke froze midsnarl while Amie went to help them. After they’d left, loaded down with passion fruit incense, Amie returned to her display. Isoke resumed his grumbling, his tail dragging along the floor.
“Stop it. You’re messing up the grave dirt.”
“Even your dirt is organized?”
“Yes.” It had to lay where it fell. “What kind of Kongamato are you?”
“One who is about to lose his tail.”
“For three hundred and eighty-six years, I serve. I help the women of your family fulfill their destinies as women of voodoo. But with you? I get stressed. You do everything wrong. And when I stress, I molt.”
She planted a hand on her hip. “So your tail is going to fall off if I don’t go out with some rum-swilling boozehound?”
“Yes. I mean, no.” His wide nostrils quivered. “You do not go out with a boozehound…you go out with a man!”
Amie rubbed her fingers along the bridge of her nose to tamp down the dull ache forming there.
Did she really have to discuss her dating life with her dead mother’s mythical monster?
No. She didn’t owe the Kongamato anything. Not after he blew flames out the upstairs window last week. Sure, he’d managed to lure a half dozen firemen into Amie’s bedroom, but she’d had a devil of a time explaining how seven 911 callers had been mistaken about the fire.
Too bad for Amie, Kongamatos were as stubborn as they were loyal. “I worry about you,” Isoke said, following her. “This is not natural. The women in your line-they are passionate.”
“I am passionate,” she said, fighting the urge to stuff him in a doggie carrier and mail him back to Zambia. “Look at this store. This is my passion.” Couldn’t he see what she’d done here?
She was damned proud of it.
Every detail was perfect. Everything was in its place.
His yellow eyes drilled into her. “The women in your line are women of action.”
What did he want from her? “You know what? The women in my line are gone. Mom is gone. You have me now. This is how I am and I like it.”
He studied her for a moment. “No. You are unhappy.”
“I am happy!” she shouted.
“That’s better,” he said, utterly delighted as Amie clapped a hand over her mouth. She never yelled.
Amie waited to make sure nothing bad was going to come out before she spoke. There was nothing wrong with being in control. “Okay, it’s not that I wouldn’t like a man in my life.” Who wouldn’t, right? “I’m just not going to settle for anything less than perfect.”
“And no more firemen.”
He rolled his eyes. Drama queen.
Amie selected a Love and Happiness candle from the shelf next to the organic bath oils and lit it. “See? Look. I’m starting already.”
Isoke landed on the multicolored countertop next to the candle, clipping a wing on the cash register. “Eyak. This store was not made for Kongamato.”
Amie managed a weak smile. “I didn’t know I’d inherit you so soon.”
“I could not save your mother, which means I will try doubly hard with you.” He folded his wings like a bat. “Please, for the sake of my tail, you must consider it.”
Amie ruffled the three stiff feathers on the top of his head. “For you, Isoke. I will try.”
Nine years. The shop had been busy all afternoon and still she couldn’t get it out of her mind.
She hadn’t had a date in nine years. Amie closed her cash register and said good-bye to the young couple who had just purchased a fertility doll and an extra large bottle of sandalwood massage oil.
She had to think of something else. Her eyes settled on the poster of Papa Ghede, laughing and cavorting with hislatest lover. Yeah, that didn’t help.
Okay, so it had been a long time-too long-but Amie had been busy. She’d graduated college, opened her own shop, fixed up the apartment upstairs. The second floor had needed a lot of work. Her landlord had used it as storage. It still had the French-style mirrors on the ceiling from its glory days as a bordello. Okay, so Amie had left the mirrors. But she had done a lot to the place.
It’s not like many people held down jobs and decorated their apartments and dated, right?
Oh hell. Maybe she did have a problem.
She glanced at the Kongamato settling in on his perch. He hung from the ceiling, folding his wings around him like a giant bat.
She hoped Isoke wasn’t the type to gloat when he got his way.
True, she would never be able to bring herself to go out with any of the men she saw up and down Bourbon Street at all hours of the day and night. And she definitely didn’t want a man like the kind her mother had dated. They might appear nice at first, but all of them were drunks, gamblers, or cheaters in the end.
Luckily for Amie, she knew another way.
She fingered her blue and silver beaded necklace, a Do Good charm she’d fashioned years ago. My power is both a gift and an obligation. Let good works flow through me. She’d been using her spells to help her customers find love. So why hadn’t she used it on herself? Because men were brash and unpredictable.
But what if she could eliminate the risk?
She’d tried that once, with her last boyfriend. He’d been nice and safe, soft and accommodating, with an average build and eyes that focused on ESPN more than her. She’d composed entire grocery lists while they made love and more than once had been tempted to stop midcaress so she could make a quick note about the need for more bananas or bread. He’d never surprised her, never challenged her, and when he left, she hadn’t cared.
While she was quite pleased that she hadn’t been hurt like her mother, Amie also knew she’d wasted her time.
But if she could control things, perhaps she could welcome some passion into her life-without the pain. She could actually let herself feel, dream, give her love with absolutely no fear that he’d break her heart.
She could summon Mr. Right!
He’d know how to act, know how to dress, and know how to please her. He wouldn’t complicate her life.
At last she’d have someone to spend her evenings with, to walk the French Quarter with, someone who might want to try out the mirrors over the bed. The mere thought of it sent heat pooling to her belly. Yes, the Kongamato had a point. Perhaps it was time to voodoo herself a valentine.
Amie locked the shop early that night, feeling nervous, as if she were heading out on a date. Ideally, the spell should be performed at sunset. Of course Amie knew better than anyone that love spells took time, and they only worked if a girl was ready to accept love into her life.
Was she ready?
Amie already loved her shop, and her life. But, yes, there had to be something more.
She turned off the metal, industrial-style VOODOO WORKS sign outside and punched in the alarm code. With the waning sun and soft security lights to guide her way, she gathered a single sheet of blank white paper and two quartz crystals from the SALE table. Then she ducked under the counter to find her odds-and-ends box.
She’d put together a selection of colorful jewelry-making kits a while back and had stashed the extra weaving thread…”Here,” she said as her fingers located the red and black strands.
Amie swallowed her excitement as Isoke, bathed in shadows, stirred on his perch.
She hoped she could finish before he woke up to go hunting. If she was smart, she’d wait until after her Kongamato was gone for the evening. But Amie didn’t know how long her courage would last.
Isoke sank back into his slumber, a bit of drool sizzling down onto the floor. She was never going to get her security deposit back at this rate. She slid a copper incense burner under him and fought the urge to straighten the three rumpled feathers that stuck out from the top of his head.
She eased into the back room of the shop, closing the EMPLOYEES ONLY door behind her.
The cloying incense was stronger back here, mixed with the heady scent of beeswax altar candles. Isoke’s hot tub hummed in the center. On two sides of the room, wooden shelves held boxes of merchandise while drying herbs hung along the third wall. In the very back, under a small stained-glass window, stood a humble wooden altar that had been her great-grandmother’s. Amie touched the battered surface reverently as she laid out her spell ingredients and closed her eyes.
The air was thick and warm. She inhaled deeply, letting peace wash over her. To anyone else, this might have looked like a highly organized, if unusual, storage room, but to her, it was a special place. Here, she was surrounded by the things she loved.
The crickets had begun to chirp outside. Paired with the earthy bubbling of Isoke’s hot tub swamp, Amie almost felt like she was back in her grandmother’s old stilted house on the bayou.
Amie focused on the affection she felt for her mother, her grandmother, and all her ancestors. These women had passed along their power, their strength, their passion-their love.
Amie lit the fat red altar candles.
She relaxed, letting her mind take her where she needed to be. She saw her perfect man-cultured and refined. He was lean yet strong. He was passionate, determined. He wouldn’t drink to excess, like her mother’s men had. He wouldn’t lie, cheat, steal. He wouldn’t leave. No, he would wrap his strong arms around her and keep her safe. She could almost see him in her mind. Almost. It was as though he was barely out of reach.
Amie cracked open one eye. The spell would work better if she were naked. Amie wasn’t particularly fond of stripping in her storage room. But if she was serious about finding the right kind of love-and she was…
She adjusted the altar candles, tested the weight of her crystals, her stomach twisting with indecision. She was stalling and she knew it.
Slowly, her fingers trailed down her sides and found the edge of her cami top. Her breath hitched as she drew it over her head. The bra soon followed, along with her flowing yellow skirt and her hot pink panties.
Amie ignored the cool breeze along her back as she ripped the paper, shredding it into two rough hearts. She placed them together and, her voice hoarse, chanted, “I call on Erzulie, loa of the heart; Papa Ghede, loa of passion; my ancestors, women whose blood boiled strong with the love of their men.”
She now saw her ideal man clearly in her mind’s eye. He had a small scar above one arched brow,dark brown hair clipped short and tight, and the most arresting blue eyes. Sharp recognition wound through Amie.
He seemed to be looking right at her.
She drew the crystal against her bare chest, the roughened stone teasing her smooth skin, sending shivers down the length of her body. Her nipples tightened. She could feel the vibrations in the gemstone as she lowered it over the paper hearts.
“Send to me…” She paused. The man I just saw. In her haste, she hadn’t quite decided how to word her request.
She knew the more specific the better, but really, it wasn’t about six-pack abs or a body that sent her pulse skittering.
She wanted someone she could love.
How hard was that?
Amie swallowed. “Send to me,” she said, her voice husky, “the perfect man for me.” She didn’t care if he had that square jaw or that rugged look about him. She needed someone kind, loving, hers.
A man she could give her love magic to without being afraid.
Her stomach tingled at the thought.
Slowly, she wove the black and red threads into a homemade ring. All the while, she filled her mind with thoughts of love in its purest form-passion, giving, acceptance.
“The perfect man for me,” she repeated, tying off the ring and slipping it onto her right ring finger. She was careful to blow out the candle in a single breath before gathering up the hearts.
The room was nearly dark, which meant the sun had almost slipped under the horizon. Good. Because Amie was naked and she still had to bury the torn hearts.
She hesitated at the back door. This was the French Quarter, but still, what would the neighbors think?
Do it fast.
Amie double-checked the key in the pocket of her skirt before throwing the whole thing over her shoulder. She slipped out into the back alley, squinching her nose at the smell of old beer and garbage.
Never mind. The spell was complete. The burial only sealed it.
Luckily she kept a flowerpot filled with consecrated earth for that very purpose. Now if she could only keep Mrs. Fontane down the way from filling it with geraniums. Amie reached past the roots of the plant and buried the torn hearts deep.
“Earth to earth. Dust to dust.”
Now all she had to do was wait.