We held the postmortem in the back of a French Quarter bar. We had the room to ourselves, and for a couple hundreds, I made sure it stayed that way. Having normal people walk in on the conversation seemed graceless. The sound system in our room was turned off, but Louis Armstrong rolled in from the front, his voice like a cheerful landslide. The chairs were all wooden and worn, three different layers of paint showing in carefully calculated decrepitude. A waitress brought us a bowl of salted peanuts and drinks. Light lagers for me and Aubrey, water for Chogyi Jake, Guinness for Ex. Karen got something hard; a bottle of bourbon and a tall glass.
"Okay," Karen said when the waitress had gone, "time to reassess."
She leaned forward in her chair, one hand brushing a stray lock of hair from her eyes. She was in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a tight-fitting leather jacket that she didn't take off when she came inside.
"I don't think Glapion knew we were there before the loa possessed Aubrey," Karen said. "If Daria's Sight had tipped them off, they would have been prepared."
"Prepared?" Aubrey said.
"Possession is bad," Karen said. "Shot in the face is worse. It didn't go the way we planned, but it could have been much worse."
Aubrey bristled, and I changed the subject before things could degenerate.
"Do we know anything we didn't know before?" I asked. "We saw Sabine. That counts for something, right?"
"Yes," Karen said. "We didn't get to follow her, and I don't think there's much chance that they'll go back to Charity now that they know it's compromised. But we have confirmed that Sabine is in the city."
Ex cleared his throat. If Aubrey looked like the victim of violent crime, Ex looked like someone fighting cancer. The exorcism had left him wasted, dark circles under red-rimmed eyes, a sense of weariness that verged on melancholy on him like an illness. He didn't look at us, his eyes focused on the center of the table.
"What about the time frame?" he asked. "We're here to stop a murder, and the killer knows we're coming close."
"What about it?" I said, specifically to Karen. "You're the resident expert on this thing. Did we spook it? Will it move up the schedule, kill the girl sooner?"
"I don't think it can," Karen said. "When I was chasing it, there were... gaps. Normally when you see a serial killer, they start off needing a lot of time between victims, then slowly ramp up. They need more and more, faster and faster. This one didn't do that."
"Because it's stuck on a timetable?" I asked.
Karen took a deep breath and let it out slowly, giving herself time to think.
"More that the thing is in a new host body," she said. "When the murderer's just a human being, the first kill is the hardest. There are inhibitions to overcome. The second time, it's easier, and so on. With the rider, it's in a new person. There are fresh inhibitions that come with the new personality. Whoever it was in before could have killed twenty people, but Amelie Glapion hasn't killed anyone she loves. Not yet."
"Didn't seem to make much difference for me," Aubrey said. There was an edge to his voice.
"It did," Karen said. "I don't care what kind of wards and cantrips Eric put on her, Marinette would have killed Jayn¨¦ if you hadn't been holding it back."
Aubrey blinked, sat back in his chair, and drank his lager. I felt a rush of profound gratitude to Karen for pulling even a little of the poison back out of him. He hadn't been able to overcome the rider, but he hadn't been thoroughly ineffective. Fighting a losing battle isn't the same as being powerless.
He caught my eyes and smiled. I felt a little blush rising in my cheeks and turned away. When I looked back up, he was still smiling a little. Ex coughed.
"Then the question is," Chogyi Jake said, "when did Legba take Amelie Glapion?"
"Yes, how long ago did it take her," Karen said. "And how strong-willed is Glapion. And how much power has it regained. There are a lot of variables, and there isn't a way to get good information."
"What would we do with it anyway?" I said. "It's not like we can get the wards up on the new house any faster than we're doing. The only thing I was thinking... can we skip grabbing Sabine and head straight for Amelie Glapion?"
"No," Karen said. "If we go straight for the rider, it will spook and kill the girl, and it won't matter how much Grandma wants to stop it. I can promise you that."
"That's happened before?" Ex asked.
"Close enough," Karen said.
A fast tapping sound came from the tabletop, almost like a phone set to vibrate. I was a little surprised to see that my fingers were making it. I considered my hand. Yeah, I thought. The smell of this ain't quite right. But Karen's certainty carried me. This was her show, after all. She was the expert. We were just the hired help.
"From here, we have several options to pick the trail back up," Karen said. "None of them are great. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the tools I had when I was with the bureau."
"Tools?" I said, latching onto the word.
"Databases. Surveillance teams. Numbnut beat cops to go canvass neighborhoods," Karen said. "Running solo, or even with a small team, just doesn't have the same range, but we'll do the best we can."
Chogyi Jake, Aubrey, Ex, and I all exchanged glances. Karen frowned.
"Am I missing something?" she asked.
"We may have some other resources," I said.
IT MIGHT have been petty of me, it might have been small, but the surprise and pleasure on Karen's face made me feel like I was worth something.
"Let me read this back, dear. Sabine Glapion," my lawyer said from the other end of the cell connection. She spelled out both names, then went on. "Granddaughter of Amelie, sister of Daria. Approximately sixteen years of age, but not attending school."
"I know she was in New Orleans last night, and I have reason to think she's still here."
"All right. Just whereabouts? You don't want her contacted?"
"Just where she is," I said. "I'll take it from there. But sooner would be good."
There was a small, sharp sound on the other end of the connection. It had a finality to it, like something being closed.
"I'll get back to you as soon as I have something, dear," she said. "If anything else comes up, you'll let me know?"
"Absolutely," I said, then dropped the connection.
"You think that's actually going to work?" Karen said. I could hear in her voice that she wanted to believe, but didn't quite dare to.
"Pretty confident," Aubrey said. Either he was sharing some of my smug, or I just wanted to see it in him. "Jayn¨¦'s lawyer isn't someone I'd cross."
"Well," Karen said. Then, a moment later, "All right, then."
"We still need the wards up on the safe house," Ex said. "And the van. And we need a refrigerator and some food at that place. I don't think we're going to want to order delivery pizza with a girl tied up in the back."
"It will take longer, working alone," Chogyi Jake said. "Two more days, perhaps?"
Ex took a long drink, the last of the black stout sliding past his teeth.
"We don't have time," Ex said. "I can help with it."
"After last night..." I said.
Ex looked up at me, his eyes hard as stone.
"This is what I do," he said. "I can handle it."
"I'll help out too," Aubrey said.
"It's a two-man job," Ex said.
"Then I'll get the fridge."
"Okay, but food first," I said. "We're getting snappish, and that always means low blood sugar. Karen. Is the food any good here?"
"You're in New Orleans," Karen said. "The food isn't bad anywhere."
"We'll get burgers or something on the way," Ex said as he stood. "Aubrey. Jake. Shall we?"
The others rose, and half a beat later, I stood up too. Karen's bright eyes shifted between Ex and Aubrey, then to me. There was a question in her gaze, so the sudden, inexplicable appearance of a stick up Ex's ass might not have been entirely my imagination.
We walked back to the hotel in three groups; Ex and Chogyi Jake at the front, Aubrey by himself close behind them, Karen and I bringing up the rear. My cell phone said it was a little bit after five, but the sun was already hidden. I'd barely started my day, and the darkness was coming on.
I'd had sex with Aubrey. Again. Months of keeping myself at arm's length and agonizing about the divorce papers that were still in my pack had turned irrelevant. The thought alone was surreal, then add in that he was walking two strides ahead of me, his hands in his pockets, and his shoulders tensed up around his ears. Part of me wanted to skip up beside him, pull his arm around my shoulder, and lean my head against him or his against me. The rest of me thought that would be a hilariously bad idea, and kept walking with a scowl through the French Quarter.
It wasn't a big deal, I told myself. It wasn't like sex was entirely new territory for us. I remembered the things Karen had said about the rider overcoming inhibitions. The first time out, it took a lot of work to get past the fear and uncertainty and resistance. The time after that, not so much. He was shocked and vulnerable and hurt, and he'd needed that reassurance.
And still, it wouldn't have killed him to walk beside me.
"And what about you?" Karen asked.
I blinked. For half a second, I thought she was asking how my needs and feelings fit in with Aubrey's renewed sex life. She went on.
"With the boys tied up with the safe house, what were your plans for the evening? Dinner and an early night?"
"Early night isn't really an option," I said. "Right now, I'm barely up to late morning. I was figuring I'd hang at the hotel, do some research."
"More about the loa, and Legba. More about the serial killer thing, and what the rider does. Ever since I took over the gig from Eric, I feel like I'm cramming for the big test."
Karen made a noncommittal grunt. Her expression went blank.
"Why?" I asked.
Karen glanced at me, her eyes almost apologetic.
"I'm feeling a little keyed up," she said. "Whenever I was on a case and we saw some action, we'd have to stop and file reports afterward. I hated that part. It always broke my stride. This part where we have to wait on the safe house and your lawyer feels a lot like that."
"Sorry," I said.
"Oh, no," Karen said, her hand touching my elbow. "That sounded like criticism. I didn't mean it that way. I just need to get my mind off of things for a couple hours. Blow off some steam."
"That would be nice," I said wistfully. Not thinking about Aubrey's hot-and-cold or Glapion's attacks or Ex's moralistic disapproval sounded like a little dark-chocolate slice of heaven.
"We're on then?" Karen asked. The sly smile looked playful now. "Change into something slutty, I'll take you dancing?"
My first response was surprise, my second was resistance, and my third was an almost defiant resolve. All in all, I didn't think about it for a minute.
"Sounds like a plan," I said.
KAREN AND I got to The Dungeon just after nine o'clock; it was still early for the nightlife. The club wasn't entirely open yet, but we could get in the front room, which was good enough for a couple beers and some coin-operated pool tables. Karen was in a small green skirt with seamed stockings, a halter top that made her look considerably more stacked than I'd thought she was, and lipstick the color of fresh blood. I was in my most outr¨¦ outfit: tight black blouse with a neckline down toward my cleavage and matching skirt slit up the side. I'd done my best with the makeup, but I didn't usually wear more than a little light eyeliner and lipstick for special occasions. Beside her, I looked like I was in a school uniform.
All the colors in her outfit were saturated and bright and confident. Her body was closer to magazine-cover perfect than mine had ever been. She looked like a 1950s pinup girl come to life, but what made her beautiful were the scars: the white line at her collarbone, the barely visible pucker on her right arm, the ancient star-shape that made me think of bullet wounds on her ribs just at the hem of her top. Karen's flesh bore witness to a lifetime of risk and violence, and her acceptance of them-her lack of shame or apology-drew my eye more than admiration or envy.
I had one set of finger-marks where a rider had stabbed me with its claws, and that alone was enough to keep me in a one-piece bathing suit.
"So how did you get into the business?" Karen asked me as she racked up a game of eight-ball. "All Eric's doing? You break."
I chose the stick that seemed least warped and took my place at the table. Karen leaned on the side, a bottle of Dos Equis in her hand. I knew the rules, but I'd never played pool before. I wasn't about to admit it.
"More or less," I said. "He left me everything when he died, and I kind of pieced it all together from there. The boys all know more about it than I do, really. Aubrey got into it because he's really a parasitologist, and Eric thought maybe there was something there."
I chalked the end of the stick, lined up the cue ball, and did my best. The report was loud and satisfying, and through blind luck two balls dropped into pockets, one solid and one striped. I figured that meant I could pick which one I wanted.
"Ex and Chogyi Jake had both worked with Eric, one time or another. I got in over my head, and I called Aubrey. Aubrey got the others," I said, lining up what looked like a plausible shot on the nine. "The rest is history."
Karen shook her head.
"I never pictured Eric as the kind of guy with a family," she said.
"Everyone comes from someplace. He and my dad... didn't get along. I was really glad to have Eric as an uncle, though," I said. The nine went in its pocket too. I thought maybe the fifteen next. It would mean bouncing it off one of the sides, but it looked possible. "What about you? What does your family think about the whole combating abstract evil thing?"
"Nothing," Karen said. "I was an only child, and my parents are both dead. There was a fire a couple years ago."
"Jesus. I'm sorry," I said.
Karen smiled gently and shook her head; she didn't say anything. I took my shot as a way to avoid the increasingly awkward silence.
"Nice," Karen said.
"Thanks," I said. "So I don't want to pry or anything..."
"How do you do it?" I asked, leaning on my stick. "I've been running around for the last six or seven months doing nothing but cataloging and studying and practicing little cantrips, and I don't feel like I've got a clue what I'm doing. You know?"
"I do," Karen said. "That never stops. You get better, you know more, but that feeling that you're a fraud? You never get over it. At least I haven't."
A thick-wristed man with fading tattoos came up to the table, nodded politely, and put two quarters down on the rail. I realized how rude it was of me to hold up the game talking, lined up the twelve, and sank it.
"You have friends," she said. "That counts for a lot. I miss having someone I could work with. Davis was a good man."
It took me a second to remember that Michael Davis was the partner that Legba had killed, but Karen hadn't noticed my momentary confusion. She kept talking, her voice taking on a distance.
"I sure as hell never meant to get here. I started out trying to stop bad guys. Drug smugglers, kidnappers, terrorists. And honest to God, I think I did some good. After Mfume, I figured out there was a whole class of bad guys I couldn't even touch. And because I wouldn't let it go, I lost the bureau. Except Davis. And then I lost him too.
"We do what we have to," she went on. "It's not about whether we like it or not. Whether we're particularly suited to it. We are what we are."
"What doesn't kill you, defines you," I said and sank another ball. Pool was easier than it looked if I didn't overthink it. Karen laughed.
"I hadn't heard that version."
"It's from my ex-boyfriend's favorite movie," I said. "But I never bought that whole makes you stronger thing. Doesn't leave room for cripples and maims you horribly."
"Does it define you, Jayn¨¦?" Karen asked.
"Fighting riders. Doing the things we do," Karen said. "I wonder sometimes if this is really all that we are."
"Well," I said, "I'm not doing anything else these days. And before this, I was a college dropout with no family left who'd speak to me. By comparison, this is a pretty good gig."
"It's lonely, though," Karen said. I looked up at her. Her pale blue eyes were locked on the distance. Her hair caught the neon of the signs and the flicker of the television. There were no lines on her face. She looked as young as me. Younger.
I thought of the last six months. Of being with Ex and Chogyi Jake and Aubrey. Of traveling the world with my best and only friends. Of the power I had now to pluck out a credit card and buy a car or a house or an airplane. And I thought about how my life had been before. I took another shot, then stood up with only a vague satisfaction. I'd almost run the table.
"It really is," I said.
The inner doors of the club swung open, and the sound of the televisions was suddenly competing with old-school Nine Inch Nails remixed- brilliantly, hilariously-with Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children." I started laughing. Karen's eyes lit, her mischievous smile returned, and she dropped her cue stick on the table.
"Come on," she said, taking my hand. "At least let's show the bastards we can go down dancing."