by Celeste Castro
Peachy is on a mission: steal a priceless family heirloom. All is going according to plan until she finds herself teetering on the edge of death. She wakes up in a bizarre world and under the care of a strange woman who can communicate without spoken words. Little does Peachy know that by taking the amulet, she’s enacted a powerful chain of events and roused a deranged being who will stop at nothing to find her and retrieve the amulet.
Noomi is Fae—a Seer and Shifter—who shares a unique bond with her sister, a two-hundred-pound mountain cat. Their days revolve around creating art, making maps, and enjoying pipeweed. Until the day that Peachy enters their world and plunges it into chaos.
The Taking is a tale of a powerful amulet—a gateway from one world to another. With Noomi’s help, Peachy must combat the forces working against them…forces that will stop at nothing to kill them both.
|Publication Date||December 12, 2019|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
“Is everyone here?” Lisette asked. “I am eager to begin.” Someone lit another candle giving her better light to count the heads in attendance. They hadn’t much time before their slave masters noticed that the majority of their fifteen slaves were unaccounted for. “Where are the others?”
The creak of the door hinges answered her question. Adèle and Lisette’s twin, Beatriz, along with two other slave members of their household, Marie and Pauline, descended the steps into the underground passageway, their rendezvous spot. Here they planned the details of their participation in the revolt that was to take place later that evening. Marie handed Lisette a tightly folded piece of paper.
“Wonderful work, Marie.” Lisette unfolded the note and moved closer to someone with a candle to read it.
“What does it say?” several people asked. “Tell us. We are eager.”
Lisette, along with her sisters, were among the few slaves who could read. “We are to meet Charles Deslandes at the Andrey Plantation at dusk. We are to wait in the field by the armory until his signal. We are to use whatever measures possible, be it gun, blade, or club to kill.” Lisette felt a collective hush befall the darkened corridor.
“Yes, child.” Lisette handed the correspondence to her sister and came closer to the young slave woman. “Speak freely, Marie.”
“I do not mean to question, for your heroic deeds in Saint-Domingue are known as is the success of your alignment with Toussaint L’Ouverture.”
“You are in a safe place, child. Tell us what is on your mind.”
“We are scared.” Similar sentiments trickled amongst the people.
“As am I. As are my sisters. But we have a message to send, no matter the cost. Some of us will die—maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow. And those who do not die will carry with them the treasure of knowing that they fought when it mattered, that they stood up and did not back down.” Lisette stepped through her comrades, placing her hand upon the shoulders of her people as she walked, offering a tender rub of their hands when she took them in her own, or a nod of her head, acknowledging the fear in their eyes. “Please, someone remind us what today is about?”
“We are not happy,” a brave soul murmured.
“Say it with your heart! What is today about?”
“We are not happy!”
“This life is not of our choosing,” said another.
“Pauline, what have you to say?”
“Why are we fit enough to raise their children, but only permitted to travel underground to tend to them?”
“Marie? Claire, and all of you, tell me. Shout it from your lungs.”
“Why are we treated as less because of the color of our skin? It is not fair that we are not their equal!”
“What do we want?”
“We want freedom.”
“We want equality! We want freedom! We want equality!”
Their chants grew louder and their collective energy echoed within the small area, but Lisette was not concerned by the volume of their chorus. They were fifteen feet under rock and soil. No one would hear them, but soon enough, their white masters would hear. Everyone would hear what they wanted. They would feel it in their bones and in their hearts.
“Then who is here to fight for it?”
The small crowd chanted their assurances.
“Then we must fight to the death to send that message. Who here is prepared to die?”
No one said a word.
“No one here is ready to trade their life for freedom?”
“I am,” said a brave voice.
“What about you, Marie?”
Others proclaimed their willingness to lay down their lives and fight. Their voices became lost in a chorus of more chanting. “Who else?” Lisette asked, but she didn’t need any more assurances. They were ready. She felt their desire to trade their lives for their freedom in her veins.
“Freedom or death! We are ready! Yes, we are ready, but let us further prepare. We have a gift for you. Gris-gris for protection in times of war.” Beatriz and Adèle circulated around the room with the gris-gris, small cloth bags filled with bone, feather, and bread. “These are sacred, blessed by our queen mama in Saint-Domingue, to ensure our success this night.”
The members of the group helped each other pin the gris-gris to the inside of their clothing and they did so without question. In addition to their tales of heroic deeds, fighting alongside L’Ouverture in their quest to abolish slavery for a sovereign Haiti, the sisters were well known for their practice of the voodoo religion. “I am proud to call you all my sisters this day and hereafter. Now, let us meet Deslandes and his men. Let us carry to him the feeling we harbor inside ourselves at this very moment.” She kissed the cheek of each of her comrades as they climbed the steps out of the underground corridor to the stable where they would wait for her command.
Lisette turned to Beatriz and Adèle for her last set of orders. “Do you have everything you need to secure the big house?”
The sisters shared a look between them. “Yes,” they said in unison. “We are ready.”
Lisette knew from the look on her twin’s face that they were hiding something. She reached for her twin’s hand and held it tightly in her own. “What are you thinking?” She hushed her question.
“Do not question my tactics,” Beatriz whispered as she yanked her hand from Lisette’s grasp.
“You have your role in this quest, and we have ours,” Adèle added. “Off. Be with your people. They are waiting for your command.”
Lisette looked to the top of the stairs to where one of her devoted followers stood waiting for her.
“Trust that when you return, we will have the big house under our control in a most advantageous way.”
“We should avoid drawing unnecessary attention to our existence. Sisters, we’ve talked about this.”
“Every action that we will take tonight is necessary.” Beatriz pushed her way past Lisette. “Come now! We want freedom! We want equality! Go and lead your people. With caution all of my sisters!”
“With caution,” Lisette echoed through gritted teeth.
“I am listening.” Peachy put her phone in her back pocket as to appear totally invested in the conversation that was about to take place. “Tell me what to do,” Peachy asked of Lisette, her mentor and role model, who took her in as a down-and-out twelve-year-old going on thirty-five, a troublemaker living on couches and boasting an impressive rap sheet, including two minor charges of possession and a grand theft auto.
“It will be dangerous,” Lisette warned. “But you are ready, child, and no longer stupid.” Though on the cusp of her twenty-fifth birthday, Peachy tolerated Lisette calling her a child, but not being called stupid.
Danger wasn’t a foreign concept to her. She still ran jobs for money—favors and blackmail—but she operated in a more sophisticated way. “Are we talking like a five out of ten on the danger scale, or like a nine?”
“Do not test me.”
“That was a legit question.”
“Failure would mean your death and mine.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“There is an amulet that we must have.”
“How much is it worth?”
“It is priceless.”
“Are we stealing the crown fuckin’ jewels?”
“Do not make me doubt my decision to include you,” Lisette said in her signature stern voice that made Peachy sit straighter or stand taller. “It has been in my family for generations. My mother’s ancestors brought it with them from Saint-Domingue and handed it down from woman to woman to use in her own unique way.”
“An energy lives within this amulet.”
“That does what exactly?”
“Anything you want it to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“I will explain it to you in due time, child. What’s important right now is that the amulet is deep inside the walls of the Spanish Rose. My sister Adèle has had it in her possession for far too long. She has misused it, and she no longer deserves it.”
“Who does deserve it?”
“And what’s in it for me?”
“I choose to hand it to you.”
“What? No, I can’t—”
“You are and will always be the closest to family I will ever have.”
“I am honored, Lisette, really, but I didn’t say that because I wanted it.”
“It will be yours and you will honor and protect it. I will tell you everything once we have it in our possession.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You will not say anything right now. Ninety percent of voodoo is listening. Wherever you are, listen more than talk. For when you rattle your mouth, you do not learn. This job has many moving parts, one of which is my sister Adèle.”
Peachy had only met Adèle a couple of times, and both times left her feeling like she was in a room with something otherworldly. Her hair would stand on end, and she would get physically ill. Worse, Adèle had an awful scent to her, how a person would smell if they rose from the dead—like dirt and lilies and the encounter always left Peachy with a feeling of dread.
Adèle’s reputation preceded her. She built her vast fortune trading in the black market. She could get anyone anything at any time for the right price. Adèle was the person you called when you wanted someone to disappear; she was the person you called when you were in the market for a baby. Adèle stopped at nothing because she couldn’t be stopped. She owned the town—the police, politicians, and judges—because she knew their secrets and blackmailed them to get what she wanted.
Adèle and Lisette could not be more different. Granted, Peachy and Lisette weren’t always on the up-and-up, but they never hurt innocent people, never killed anyone, or stole children. People knew Lisette for her healing abilities. She practiced patience and kindness and people respected her. Aside from Adèle, Peachy hadn’t met any of Lisette’s other relatives. As far as Peachy knew, it was just the two of them.
“If Adèle finds out we’re behind this, even I will not be able to protect you,” Lisette warned.
“Don’t you think it will be obvious that we are involved when she realizes the all-powerful amulet is missing? I mean, besides you, who else knows about it?”
“I have a plan for that too,” Lisette said. “This…” she handed Peachy a replica amulet, “…has been enchanted.”
“A swipe and swap.” Peachy had done it a hundred times.
“Not just any swipe and swap, Peachy. Remember that our lives are in danger and hinge on our success. The replica will buy us some time until she realizes that it is a fake and puts two and two together.”
“Then what happens?”
“We will go into hiding and your training will begin.”
“Are you having second thoughts?”
“I don’t even have first thoughts. You won’t tell me anything.”
“It must be this way. Do you trust me?”
“Then know that once the amulet is in our possession, you will have all the answers your big heart desires. Are you okay with that?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You always have a choice.”
As much as the voice in Peachy’s head yelled at her, told her to push back, demand answers, and decline the job, she went along willingly. “I’m okay with it.”
“Good. Do you have any other questions about the plan?”
“No. Wait. Yes. Won’t Adèle be wearing the amulet?”
“The amulet is not meant to be worn for extended periods of time. It is a means to an end. It is worn when needed. My sister has grown careless with it; she has forgotten its powers and I have insured that carelessness.”
“Greed. I have paid off her dry cleaner to ensure that a few drops of my Mix of Mayhem will come into contact with a certain fur coat that she favors this time of the year.”
“Ouch.” Peachy knew about Lisette’s Mix of Mayhem, a simple mixture that caused painful blisters when it got on the skin.
“Putting anything remotely close to her neckline will be absurd,” Lisette said with a hint of pride to her voice. “Again, child, once you’re within Adèle’s quarters, take caution, and do not touch anything if you can avoid it. All inside is vile, tainted and tied to truly hopeless souls. Don’t let their pain and sorrow attach to you. People act out of desperation when they hurt for money. You know this as well as I.”
“Then let us do good with that money. Let me also rob her blind.”
“That is out of the question.”
“Because it was built from suffering. My sister knows not of the riches of love and how several hundred doors can open, compared to the divisiveness of the door handles she chooses to turn. Remember that always.”
“But we can do good with it, help a lot of people, even ourselves.” Peachy looked around their tiny dwelling, a couple of rooms and a kitchenette tucked behind Lisette’s House of Voodoo tourist trap in the heart of the French Quarter.
“We will not talk about this again.”
Peachy sighed and left it at that. She always left it at that and never took it too far, preferring to wait for Lisette to share when she decided the time was right. But after this job, with the priceless amulet in hand, Peachy would shift the narrative.
“Once inside the big house, your last set of challenges includes accessing Adèle’s workroom and then hacking her safe.”
“Can I involve my own person?”
“Can they be trusted?”
“With my life.”
“Then I trust this person too.”
“Good, because she’s the best when it comes to hacking safes.”
“The biggest challenge, Peachy, won’t be the safe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Taking the amulet into your possession is the most challenging part of this entire job. The bearer needs practice and training to wield it safely. Do not let it rest against your heart, and do not touch it without gloves.”
“Why? What does that mean?”
“The amulet’s power will manifest from the heart of the bearer its deepest desires and fears. You cannot control what it chooses to represent. It could take what is in your heart and morph you into someone we would not recognize. Are you prepared for this?”
“You guess?” Lisette looked at her wide-eyed.
“I wish I had more answers to my questions, but yes. I’m prepared.”
“This is how it must be.”
“Then I know what I need to do. I’ll be ready.”
“Good. Take my hand. Let us say a prayer and light a candle, ensuring us a successful outcome.”
Lisette swore that Adèle would be gone by seven. It was fifteen past and still no sign of her. Peachy took a last draw from her hand-rolled smoke then sent it sailing. It floated in the air and sizzled out in a puddle of water left over from a recent rain that hurricane season had brought to New Orleans. Peachy pulled her leather gloves from her back pocket, slid her hands into them, and enjoyed the feel of the leather. Her fingers sat snug within the second skin.
She risked a glance around the corner to ensure that her lookout girl, Minette, was in position. She looked sexy as hell suited and booted in black leather, straddling her motorcycle, awaiting her role: ensure Peachy at least three hours of uninterrupted thieving by tailing Adèle and guaranteeing her an unfortunate collision. Peachy stole another look to the house, an architectural treasure, a living, breathing thing, complete with feelings, secrets, and needs.
The Spanish Rose. A pristine, white, three-story, twenty-thousand-square-foot landmark, one of the finest examples of antebellum architecture in all the city. Forty Ionic and Corinthian fluted cypress columns and expansive verandas circled the exterior, and leaded floor-to-ceiling windows acted as the Rose’s ever watchful eyes. Fleur-de-lis motif iron fencing and stone pillars sat along its perimeter, ensuring no one entered or exited without its permission. That is except for Peachy.
The Spanish Rose was also the kind of place that tour groups would occasionally visit, to marvel at its sheer beauty and learn of its sordid, morbid, and well-deserved place in history.
Peachy knew the nearly forgotten story of the most successful slave revolt in American history. In 1811 some five hundred slaves revolted against their owners, killing many of them with clubs, axes, and pitchforks after their ammunition ran out, burning plantations along the way, shattering the white-perpetuated myth of the happy slave. The story didn’t have a happy ending for the slaves involved. Hundreds died for their cause, their mutilated and defiled heads were mounted on stakes and placed along the river. Tour groups stopped at the Spanish Rose because therein existed another side to the story. A sect of slaves, sisters from Saint-Domingue, who were successful in a revolt of their own kind, set into motion a series of events that led to the eventual overtaking of their white masters.
The sisters murdered the family’s children on that fateful night, sending the owners into a grief so deep that they agreed to do anything the sisters asked—if they would bring back their dead children. When the sisters supposedly made true on their promise, the family spiraled further into insanity and murdered each other, but not before signing over their entire estate to the sisters.
Peachy’s only issue with the story is that the tour guide attributed the success of the sisters to the rumors that they were powerful witches, rather than intelligent women with a mastery of a unique form of voodoo. The tour guide would even go as far as to pass around a laminated sheet with side-by-side images, a faded silhouette photo of the sisters from the revolt and recent photos of their descendants, claiming that the descendants were in fact the actual sisters from way back when, immortals, that walked and talked among the living. One was Adèle Blanque, the great Voodooieanne who lived in the Spanish Rose.
The only identifying resemblance that Peachy could discern was their tignons, a decorative head covering, a popular fashion accessory that the sisters wore then and now. In addition, the sisters had the same names as their great-great-great grandmothers. None of it meant a thing. As far as Peachy was concerned, the rest was utter bullshit because Peachy lived with one of the supposed immortals from Saint-Domingue—Lisette Blanque—another powerful, far from immortal Voodooieanne, whose seventy-third birthday they celebrated together the week before.
A flicker of light drew Peachy’s attention to the old carriage house. Adèle was moments away from making her exit.
Showtime! Peachy texted to Minette.
She got into position and heard the unmistakable sound of someone’s voice projected through a bullhorn. A tour bus!
What the hell! she texted. You said you talked to Jean? No tours tonight!
Do something! They’re blocking the exit!
The carriage house’s door opened in tandem with the electronic gate around the perimeter, and unless the tour bus moved now, Peachy wasn’t going to get in without being seen.
Distract her! Peachy urged Minette.
Peachy zipped her black Windbreaker, and she smoothed her hair inside her hood. She sprinted toward the Mercedes and began pounding on Adèle’s window, asking for her autograph, flashing her phone’s camera. Minette, along with other members of the tour group, joined her as well in overtaking the car. It was an all-out circus! The distraction caused Adèle to lay on her horn, squeal her tires and hop the curb in the opposite direction. In her agitation, she failed to close the perimeter gate. Peachy strolled through and sprinted toward the carriage house door, her lungs burning as she ran. She slid underneath the rolling metal door as if she were sliding into home plate, just as it closed. She popped up, pressed herself against a wall, and looked out the window. The tour bus still blocked the driveway with frenzied tourists snapping photos of Adèle’s taillights. Peachy spotted Minette jumping on her bike and everything was back on track. Peachy took a calming breath and pulled out her phone to check the time.
She had a text from Minette. U In? Good luck. I <3 U!
In! U were brilliant! B together soon.☺
Peachy’s training over the past month culminated in this very moment. She closed her eyes, saying a Voodoo prayer that she wouldn’t forget a single detail of the series of dangerous challenges she was about to perform. Peachy had been in the Spanish Rose once with Lisette. One could say that the inside was immaculate, flawless, impeccable. A mere look at an item of furniture or a glance at a gilded mirror would leave a smudge. Peachy wondered how many cleaning staff Adèle employed. The inside of the carriage house, on the other hand, still showed signs of its past: the decaying structure of a horse stable with brittle leather tack, rusty tins, wooden crates, and the smell of oil and dust.
Peachy shone her flashlight as often as she could risk. She spotted an oddly placed tool chest not quite flush against the wall. Before rolling it out of her way, she rummaged inside for things she might need, like a flathead screwdriver and a hammer. With the tool chest out of her way, she spotted the wall with the door to the underground corridor. A thick slab of metal was screwed diagonally across the small wooden door. Using her newly found tools, she hammered away until she worked loose the rusty metal screws. She jimmied the old iron key that Lisette had given her into the lock before she got it to work. She twisted the small doorknob and bit her lip when the door wailed on its hinges. She covered her nose and mouth, smelling the musty bloom and pungent dank and damp dirt.
She shone her flashlight through the doorway toward rotting wooden planks. She tested one and found it secure enough to hold her hundred-and-twenty-five pounds. She shone her flashlight about the narrow corridor. The void swallowed the beam of light whole.
“I ask that you permit me to travel in peace.” The void absorbed her words. “I mean no harm, and it is with respect that I enter this place and with permission from Lisette Blanque.” Peachy pulled her Zippo from her pocket, and from the other, dried leaves of sage. She lit the end, blowing sweet white smoke into the air. She pushed onward, her outstretched arms clearing cobwebs as she descended.
At the end of the tunnel, Peachy spotted the next set of steps—solid concrete this time. Surefooted, she reached a door. She used the key again, putting her shoulder into it as it creaked and groaned, disrupting years of neglect before letting her inside. Her flashlight illuminated the long-forgotten underground world of the slave quarters of the Spanish Rose for the first time in over a half a century.
Peachy brushed herself free of cobwebs and made for the upper levels and to Adèle’s quarters, navigating through a maze of hallways and rooms with vases of white lilies. Up two flights of polished marble stairs, her steps grew heavy with dread, which caused a dull ache in her chest and behind her eyes.
She winced as she turned the door handle into Adèle’s quarters. She spotted the white bookcase with gold trim that Lisette said disguised the entrance to the secret room. She found the hidden mechanism and popped open the false bookcase. Behind the false door was a metal door with a more sophisticated lock. It proved no match for Peachy and her tried-and-true lock pick set, a gift from Lisette on her sixteenth birthday. She put her flashlight in her mouth, illuminating her workspace. She worked the lock’s pins until they shifted into place, and she opened the door to Adèle’s private and sacred workroom.
Cluttered shelves held strange objects like baskets full of dried plants, herbs, sticks, bone, balls of wax, and burlap cuttings. Organic material like chicken feet and goat hooves floated in jars. A scavenger’s nest that felt odd that it existed within the expansive pristine mansion with its marble floors, wrought-iron windows, and lilies in every room.
Peachy eyed the safe. She and Minette had studied it well. A $90,000 custom Knox luxury safe by Boca do Lobo, a six-by-three gleaming rectangle that looked more like a bar of gold than an actual safe. Adèle’s first mistake: opting for the digital override. Peachy’s girl Minette was a black hat hacker, a genius literally responsible for developing infectious malware capable of crippling financial systems. Peachy wouldn’t need to cut cords or splice wires. She ran her gloved fingers on the safe’s burnished finish and found the safe’s brain. She inserted the USB drive that Minette had given her. Three shrill beeps and the flash of three bright green lights, three muted clicks, and one rewarding pop indicated that she could turn the handle and open the door.
“Damn,” she whispered, eyeing stacks of money in various currencies, gold bars, passports, weapons, jewelry, diamonds, strange notes written in a language Peachy didn’t recognize, and more jars of biological matter. Peachy gasped when she saw the severed hand of a child floating in one of the jars. She closed her eyes and said a prayer for the desperate souls that had traded or had been forced to deal with the likes of Adèle.
Lisette had said that the amulet would pull Peachy toward it. At the time Peachy failed to understand what she was talking about but felt the energy that Lisette warned her of. The amulet wanted her to find it. It told her which objects to inch out of the way, helped her steady her hand and avoid disturbing as little as possible. A small gold velvet box seemed to radiate energy. She reached for it, and a tiny jolt of electricity coursed through her veins and swirled in her mind, telling her to pick it up. She held it in her hand, then opened the lid. The amulet! Such a serious term for a thin and pale silver necklace, its delicate links woven together. The amulet itself was oval-shaped and no bigger than a quarter, multifaceted, with a blue, almost black jewel at the center. She cast the beam of her flashlight directly upon it to an unfolding world where she didn’t see images or hear words, but rather she felt the images and the words were sensations in her mind, as if a cloud settled on her and she swam through it. Emotions like anger, desire, love, and betrayal were imprinted upon the surface of the jewel and it pulsated in her hand.
Peachy twisted around, expecting to see someone standing there, but she was alone. “Long have I waited—”
She shut the box. The snapping sound startled her. She caught her breath and looked behind her, feeling again as though someone was watching.
She summoned the courage to open the box again. With utmost care, she lifted the amulet from its velvet bed. She said the words Lisette told her to say and placed the enchanted replica inside. She placed the real amulet into the inner pocket of her Windbreaker, a pocket within a pocket that even the greatest Voodoo trickery couldn’t find. She closed the safe door and pulled the USB drive from the device. Green lights blinked three times, signaling an online connection, and a thump told her that it had locked. She closed the door to the workroom, reset the bookshelf latch, and headed out of the room and down the hall.
She knew the imposter would not fool Adèle. The real thing felt alive with thought and breath. It emanated energy from within her pocket, warmed her chest, and she felt like she could fly if she wanted.