The Secret Vault

Welcome to the Secret Vault! Because you have so kindly considered my work, I'd like to say Thank You Kindly by giving you a sneak peek of the fiction currently in production. Today's offering: Here are the first chapters of The Evocation.

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Its small red eyes sparkled in the moonlight, its face pulled into a menacing scowl. Even the patina of its intricately sculpted face couldn't make up for the shock of its wide grin and glistening rows of seemingly razor-sharp teeth. Lily perched on the rickety wooden chair in the entryway of their new house and narrowed her eyes at the demon's tiny leering face hanging in the air in front of her.

"He's supposed to be good luck, you know," her father winked, snatching the golden trinket dangling from Lily's finger. Lily rolled her eyes as the charm disappeared into one of her father's many pockets.

"All that thing is good for is being buried in dirt sown with salt." She pulled her knees up under her chin defiantly. "It's just creepy."

"Hey now, your mom wouldn't have given me a cursed object."

"Definitely not on purpose."

"In fact, this little charm has been with me through good times and bad."

Lily watched her father smooth down the lapels of his Victorian jacket over the silk gold and jewel-toned embroidered vest, his gold pocket watch hanging smartly from the waistcoat pocket. He adjusted his cravat in the entryway mirror as he had done hundreds of times before. It was comforting to see this routine—it made the strange new house feel just a little bit like home.

"Besides, aren't you the queen of creepy?" his reflection replied in the mirror with a hint of a smile. He pulled at the crisply starched cuffs of his white silk shirt, brown eyes twinkling.

She shrugged and grinned. He was right. The move to the house in the Marginy area of New Orleans allowed her to indulge in her obsession with the supernatural. After only a few weeks, Lily's collection of oddities had grown. Yesterday's hunt through the hoodoo shops scored her a vibrant, bizarre painting of a skull with three crosses, a sparkly crystal to hang in her window, and a wizened, blue shrunken head whom she had aptly named "Jacques.”

"I'm not quite the Queen of Creepy yet. Still working my up the royal ranks. Right now, I'd say I'm at Court Jester."

"That's my girl," he turned to her and drew her in close. Lily happily returned the hug, taking a moment to breathe in the comforting scent of dad's performance ensemble. As always, it held the familiar hints of the magician's trade: the faint burned sulfur smell of the flash paper came from a hidden pocket inside the left lapel. Another pocket emanated the barely recognizable smell of the red rose that would magically appear for a female tourist on his ghost tour that evening.

Dad preferred the term "illusionaire" over the more common "magician," and he was a stickler about style. He could do tricks like the cups and balls, the linking rings, and rope knots in his sleep; and of course, he always had cards up his sleeve, literally. But what stood Erich Blackwood apart from other illusionares were his stories. He could seamlessly blend tricks with local myths and legends, making the stories come to life before his viewers' eyes. This is why the first thing unpacked after any move was the small bust of his hero, Vincent Price. In this house, stoic Vincent's place of honor was in the window over the front door.

"Mom would've loved it here, huh?" Lily sighed, stepping back from his embrace.

"Yes, of that there is no doubt. In fact, I'm convinced that’s where you got your infatuation with the macabre from. And just about everything else, it would seem. You remind me of her every day."

Lily could only recall her mother in fleeting glimpses—a momentary grin of pearly teeth, bright green eyes reading Lily a bedtime story.

Her father's pain over her mother's death hadn't dissipated with time, even though it had been more than a decade. But Erich Blackwood, an expert in illusion, appeared to all a content widower raising his teenage daughter. Only Lily knew that, when he wasn't performing for a crowd, he preferred to keep to himself.

"So you got any tricks up your sleeve for the tour tonight?"

"But of course! Here, check this out." He stepped back to give himself ample room for his performance. "Just added this part this morning." With a flourish, he swept his arm toward the wall behind them. "And just across the street is what is claimed to be the most haunted house in New Orleans. This was once the abode of the infamous Madame LaLaurie, socialite, slave owner, and serial killer."

"She wasn't the one who tortured her slaves by starving them, tying them up and whipping them to death, was she?" Lily bit the tips of her nails with exaggerated trepidation.

"The very same, Miss! Townsfolk could never confirm or deny the rumors of their treatment until the day a lavish party went awry. It was April 10, 1834 when the fire broke out at the LaLaurie Mansion." Suddenly, a flame burst upward from his hand. He quickly pressed it downward with his right hand, making it shrink and disappear.

“Do you know what the fire marshal and police found when the brigade arrived?" he asked, his hands still pressed together.

"They found this." He quickly pulled his right hand up to reveal a pair of antique handcuffs in the left hand. He tossed them up and caught them by their links, dangling them before his crowd. "A seventy-year old woman handcuffed to the stove. She confessed that the fire had started in the kitchen because she was trying to commit suicide. It turns out that she would rather have burned herself alive than go up to the room above the slave's quarters for punishment. Well," he clapped his hands together, the cuffs having mysteriously vanished. "The police demanded to see this room above the Slaves Quarters, of course. They could finally find out if the claims made about Delphine LaLaurie and her sadistic treatment of slaves were true. When they asked Mrs. LaLaurie to open the door to this room, she denied having the key. 'Oh that room? Why, we never go in there, it's been locked for years, ever since one of the slave girls lost the key,' she said. The police didn't like that answer. While the fire marshal formally interviewed her downstairs, the police officers slipped upstairs and broke down the door to that uppermost room. What they found was sheer horror. Seven slaves were trapped in that room. Women were chained to their beds, slits in their stomachs, their intestines pulled out and wrapped around their waists. Men hung by their necks from the rafters, skin flayed by a whip and their eyes gouged out."

Lily made a face. "Maybe you'll want to back that part off a bit if there are kids on the tour."

"Good point." He resumed his dramatic pose to continue. "When the police released their findings in the newspaper and word spread, an angry mob formed and headed for the mansion—and for LaLaurie herself. But they were too late. Having gotten wind of the mob, she and her husband had hightailed it to a boat and escaped to France. They never returned. But, it is said that the mansion is forever cursed, haunted by tortured spirits . Some souls search eternally for a final resting place, cut cannot rest without their missing eyes or skin. Others simply wait for LaLaurie to come back so they can do to her what she truly deserves. It's why we stand on this side of the street, in fact. Strange things have happened to those who stand too close to the windows of the LaLaurie Mansion. Take, for instance, this key."

Erich held an antique skeleton key in the palm of hand. "Even the smallest of antiquities can be haunted by tortured spirits. This key is said to be the lost key to the room above the Slaves Quarters. Watch."

Slowly, the key began to turn over in Erich’s hand.

"You see? They are still trying to unlock that door and escape," he said in a loud whisper. The key fell on its opposite side, and he closed his fingers over it.
Lily exhaled loudly, not realizing she had been holding her breath. "Wow. That was perfect, dad. That was like, wow."

He grinned. "Good. If it passes your scary story bar, I know it'll slay tonight. I had it made from an impression of the original."

"The original key? How'd you swing that?"

"Nope. Did my research at all of the local places of interest, because I want this tour to be more authentic than any of the others in town. The original key is at the police station, they let me make a wax impression."

"So they've had it for two hundred years?"

"No. Remember, they never got it from LaLaurie. They told me it was recovered at some serial killer's shack out in the bayou years later."

"Ugh, double gross and weird. Why was it there?"

"He was a Voodoo witch doctor, sacrificed more than chickens if you get my drift. Papa something. I'll work him and the Axe Man of New Orleans into the tour too at some point. Anyway, shall we?" He gave his jacket a pat down to ensure everything was hidden and in its proper place.

"You know, I just have to say it again. For someone who doesn't believe in ghosts, it sure is ironic that you're hosting a nightly ghost tour." Lily shoved her arm into the sleeve of her light jacket.

"Yes honey, but it's for entertainment. Just like I perform 'magic', and we all know magic isn't real either," Erich replied, using finger quotes to emphasize the word "magic". He looked to the bust of the great Vincent and, with a flourish of his arm, recited the revered words of those about to embark on a performance: "Creepy bird above my door..."

"Won't stop saying ‘nevermore'," Lily finished.

He nodded. "And so I am ready." Opening the door, he bowed deeply.

Lily cocked her head thoughtfully and pondered the bust of Vincent for a moment before stepping through the door. "We really need to find you a raven, Dad."

"I know, right?"