The house had been transformed. Where once it had seemed empty and maybe a little sad, our best efforts had made it downright creepy. Chogyi and Ex had gone through the place, carving sigils and symbols around every doorway, every window. Even the electrical outlets bore arcane markings in black ink and knife scratch. We hadn't gotten beds, but futon mattresses lay on the floors of the bedrooms. A black leather couch squatted in the living room. We didn't have a television or DVD player yet, so it was facing a bare wall.
Out back, the shed had been converted into a prison cell. Security bars had been installed on the outside of the door, and an extra layer of two-by-fours encircled the structure, making it impossible to kick out a wall. On the inside, manacles were set in a deep hole of still-curing cement. Egg cartons and old rugs lined the walls and ceiling, swallowing sound.
On the upside, we had a refrigerator.
"Once we have Sabine here, it will be important not to go between the shed and the main house too often," Ex said. His voice was thick and phlegmy. He sat on the couch with his hands between his knees and nodded to the back door. "The pathway itself isn't warded. But, as long as Jayn¨¦ is the one going to her, the risk is minimal."
"Why's that?" Karen said.
"She's very difficult to see," Chogyi Jake said. "Part of Eric's protection of her."
Karen nodded. Perhaps alone among us, the morning found her looking rested and ready for action. God knew I still felt pounded. We'd been out until sometime after four AM. That alone didn't bother me; my circadian rhythms had resigned in disgust days before. But I'd had a little too much to drink, gotten a little dehydrated, and danced to Goth and industrial music more or less nonstop when I wasn't drinking. Three men and two women had hit on me that I noticed. I'd had to give one guy a fake phone number to make him go away. The whole thing left me feeling wrung out.
Everyone looked pretty wasted, except Karen who could apparently live on alcohol and loud music. Ex and Chogyi Jake had spent almost the whole night in occult work, preparing the house and shed. Aubrey had done the lion's share of the carpentry and appliance installation. He sat on the floor now, early afternoon light slanting in the window and catching the beginning of stubble on his cheek. I wondered what he'd look like with a beard. Tired, I thought, but not because of the facial hair.
"The wards on the house aren't elegant," Chogyi Jake was saying. I pulled my attention back to our little security briefing. "But they are effective. If we'd had another week, we could have done them in a less obtrusive way."
"Effective beats pretty every time," Karen said. "You did the right thing."
"What haven't we done?" I asked.
"The cargo van's still just a cargo van," Aubrey said. "And we don't know where the girl is."
"And we don't have a plan for what to do once we have Sabine safe," I said. "The part where we actually kill the rider is going to be important."
Karen smiled at me.
"I've been planning that for years," she said. "I've got it under control."
"More to the point," Chogyi Jake said. "We're exhausted. Ex and Aubrey especially, but all of us."
"All right," Karen said. "It's Friday. Why don't we take the night off. All of us?"
Ex shook his head. No. His skin looked thin as parchment, and the severe ponytail was off center. The stubborn expression was one I recognized. If I'd slept more I'd have been more patient with him.
"Ex," I said. "We aren't any good to anyone if we pass out. You spent all last night getting the house ready. The night before that was casting Marinette out of Aubrey. How long have you been awake?"
"I'm fine," he said, anger buzzing in his voice.
"Jayn¨¦," Chogyi Jake said. He shook his head gently. I was pushing Ex, and he wasn't in a mood to be pushed. Karen came to my rescue.
"Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine," she said. To my surprise, Ex barked out a laugh. Karen grinned and held out her hand. "Come on, Preacher-man. I'll drive you home."
I mouthed thank you to her as Ex grunted and rose to his feet.
"I've got some cleanup still to do," Aubrey said. "Just nails and saws, but..."
"I can come back," Karen said.
"Don't," I said. "We'll take the rental. We're fine."
"You're staying?" Ex said.
"I want to spend a little time in the place," I said. "Get to know it."
It wasn't entirely true, and Ex seemed to know that. There was a flash of something-disapproval, I thought-but it was gone as quickly as it came.
"Come on," Karen said, taking Ex by the arm and leading him to the door. I watched them through the picture window as they got into Karen's car and headed out along the long, winding driveway.
"Okay," Aubrey said. "What exactly is his fucking problem?"
"Guilt," I said. "He has once again failed to protect us. From ourselves, from the world. He feels responsible, and so he self-flagellates. And he lets us know he's doing it because... I don't know. Because it's more fun that way? He's pretty much always been like this, if you'll recall."
Aubrey made a low sound that might have been agreement or disgust or a little of both. Chogyi Jake yawned. He hadn't shaved in a couple of days either. Facial hair wasn't his strong suit, but his scalp had grown a downy black stubble and he ran a palm over it now.
"I want to go over the cargo van," he said. "I don't think it would be wise to do more than that without some rest."
"You need help with that?" I asked, hoping that the answer would be no.
"No," he said, smiled, and walked out the back door. Leaving me and Aubrey alone together, which was what I'd thought I wanted.
"I'm going to have to kill Ex if this goes on much longer," he said. "I just thought you ought to know that."
"He's really getting under your skin, eh?" I said, sitting on the couch. It creaked under me.
"I guess so," he said. "You're probably right, though. He's just being Ex. I'll get some rest. Things will look better."
"If I hadn't been pushing us all so hard these last few months, we wouldn't have been so fried coming in," I said. "I think there's blame to go around."
Aubrey chuckled and sat back, his fingers laced together, his exhausted gaze on me. I felt myself starting to blush.
"So, we should probably talk," he said.
"I was thinking that."
"You want to start, or do you want me to?"
I took a deep breath. Outside, Chogyi Jake started the van's engine, then let it die. Through the picture window, I could see the soft grass, bright green with the first growth of spring. The back of our little Virgin Mary. Pray for us now and at the hour of our really awkward conversation.
"I'll go," I said. "I've been kind of avoiding... well, us. There's a lot tied up in it, you know? You're married, and I didn't find out until after we'd fallen into bed. You're separated and Kim's seen other men, so it's not like you're married married."
"You grew up in a particularly religious home," Aubrey said. "Having taken vows means a lot to you."
"And I hate that it means a lot to me," I said. "All of that. But..."
My heart was ramping up, a slow leak of adrenaline giving my blood a little electric push. It felt like looking over a precipice, even though it was only really confessing.
"There's something I haven't been telling you," I said.
"It's okay," Aubrey said, gently. "I already know. Eric told me about your mother. The affair. Everything. I absolutely understand why the idea of being with a married guy would be a deal breaker."
There have been a few times in my life that a few syllables-just words in sequence-felt like being hit in the head with a brick. When my supposed best friend in college confronted me and blew up my carefully constructed life. When my lawyer had explained that I had inherited the equivalent of a small nation. When I'd crawled out of his bed and discovered that Aubrey was still married.
"Wait," I said. "What?"
"Your mother's affair," Aubrey said. "Eric told me about it. How your folks almost got divorced."
"My mother had an affair?" I said, standing up. "When the fuck was this?"
Aubrey's eyes went wide.
"I don't know," he said. "It sounded like it was just after they were married, but I didn't-"
"My mother? Had an affair?" I said. "You don't understand. My mother doesn't have a sexuality. She's like a Stepford Wife."
Aubrey looked up at me from the floor, his arms crossed.
"So, I guess that wasn't the thing you weren't telling me about," he said.
"No," I said. "I wasn't telling you that I've got your divorce papers. Kim left them in Denver, and I never handed them over to you because I felt... conflicted or something. My mom had an affair? My mom? Who with?"
"Eric didn't know," Aubrey said. "He only knew about it because your dad went to live with him for a few months after it happened. Well, after it came out. Apparently your dad was pretty wrecked by the whole thing. Kim has divorce papers filled out?"
I couldn't imagine my father and Uncle Eric in the same room, much less living together. But the big break between them hadn't happened until I was in high school. Of course they'd had a history before that. They'd grown up together, gone to the same schools, known the same people. They were brothers.
If it was true, if something had happened, maybe my father would have turned to Eric. Maybe they'd had the kind of relationship back then that would allow it, even if it had all gone to hell later. But my mother?
All my life, I had seen her as a pale shadow of a woman. She'd made dinner, cleaned house, taken me and my two brothers to church. She had done as Dad, the full-on patriarch of the house, told her. The few times she had talked about a life before marriage, it had been when Dad wasn't around. Mousy, repressed, controlled, and oh-my-God asexual. I'd always been amazed that my folks had managed to have three kids. And my father-razor-cut hair, starched shirt, reading the Bible and scowling-had seemed like the perfect match for her.
And she had had an illicit affair that almost ended the marriage? The idea of her wrapped in some lover's embrace, risking her reputation-her soul-in order to have sex, was insane. She would never have done it. It wasn't possible.
Or maybe it was. A lifetime of interactions between my parents suddenly shifted focus. My father's gruffness and need for control suddenly looked like a constant need for reassurance. My mother's submission became a kind of years-long apology. Everything about my childhood-love, family, sex-came into focus.
"Jayn¨¦?" Aubrey said again. I was only vaguely aware he'd been repeating my name for a couple minutes.
"Sorry," I said. "What?"
"Where are the papers?"
"Oh. In my pack."
Aubrey levered himself up with a grunt and passed into the kitchen, returning a minute later with the papers in hand. I watched him as he flipped through them, nodding to himself now and then, sometimes smiling wryly.
"And you've had these since Denver?" he said.
"And you just didn't mention it because...?"
"I was afraid you might still be in love with her and not sign them," I said. Apparently being in shock had a clarifying effect. I had barely admitted that fear to myself, and I sure as hell hadn't intended to bring it up here, with him.
Aubrey stood framed in the kitchen doorway, the light from behind him making him seem larger. Like a still frame from a movie, projected on a huge screen. Then he shrugged and took a pen from his pocket.
"Okay," he said as he signed them, "I can see that."
"Kim still loves you," I said.
"I know. And she's great, but..."
He folded the papers and tucked them into his shirt pocket. The urge to explain why she left him- that she'd been sleeping with Eric and her conscience couldn't take it anymore-rose in me, but I couldn't tell if it was because I wanted him to know everything or if it would only have been to cement his decision.
"My turn?" he said.
"Um. All right."
He squatted down in front of the couch and took my hand. His eyes were bloodshot and there were circles under them like bruises. The wounds on his collarbone and chest peeked out over his shirt, the scabs a black crust, the flesh around them puffy and red. He took my hand.
"What we did yesterday? I have to thank you for that. I needed... I needed something. Not sex, exactly. Or not just sex. But being with you matters to me."
My heart jumped up to my throat somewhere and got stuck. I fought to speak.
"Thank you," I said. It seemed profoundly inadequate.
"I'm a little messed up right now," he said, his face going a little colder, more focused within himself. "What happened with... Marinette..."
He'd been violated. His body hadn't been his own to control. I knew enough girls who'd had occasion to say the same things that I heard what he couldn't bring himself to speak.
"I understand," I said.
"If what we did was a onetime thing, I can accept that," he said. "If it's more than that, I'd love it. I love you, Jayn¨¦. You're funny and sexy and smart. And vulnerable in ways you seem totally unaware of. And you make me laugh."
My chest felt hollow and full at the same time. I love you. The most common, used, trite words in the world, but my eyes were tearing up just the same. Aubrey wiped his thumb across them, and the world became a little less wavy.
"But seriously, I'm kind of messed up right now," he said. "And it may take me a while to get my head back on straight."
"Oh, I will so totally wait," I said.
"You don't have to," he said. "But it would be great if you did."
I leaned forward, slipped down to the floor, and wrapped my arms around him. We were both crying again. It felt wonderful and heartbreaking and a lot like relief. My uncle Eric broke it up.
"Hey. You've got a call."
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, kissed Aubrey quickly on the cheek, and went to the kitchen. My pack was open where he'd left it. The cell phone was in the side pocket. The caller ID said it was my lawyer.
"Jayn¨¦, dear, we've had something of a lead. Amelie Glapion? The grandmother?"
"Yes?" I said, looking for a seat. There was no table in the kitchen. We'd have to take care of that.
"A title search shows she owns several properties around New Orleans. Rentals, it appears. Her financial position is tenuous these days. Not enough diversity in the portfolio. She married her fortunes too much to the city, and between the hurricane and the housing market... well, I'm sure you understand."
"Then you have a good address for her?"
"Sadly, I have a half dozen," my lawyer said. "Who precisely lives where is somewhat obscure. If one were the suspicious type, one might call it a shell game. I can have each one checked, but since you specifically asked that no contact be made..."
"No, don't. Just send me the addresses and I can take it from there."
"I thought you might say that. Did you know, by any chance, that Glapion was Marie Laveau's married name?"
"Marie Laveau, like the Marie Laveau? Voodoo queen of New Orleans?"
"The very one. Amelie Glapion appears to be in direct apostolic line," she said. "She's the silent partner of something called the Voodoo Heart Temple. Despite the name, it's a retail shop. I thought you might want it looked into?"
"Yes," I said. "That would be great."
"I'll proceed on that as well, then," she said. "And, dear? There is reason to suspect that Amelie may have powerful friends. Be careful."
My lawyer had never said anything like that in the time I'd known her. Her tone of voice was flat and considered. It carried more weight than shouting would have.
"I will," I said.
"Excellent. I'll be in touch."
I leaned against the kitchen wall, looking at the cell phone. Something was shifting uneasily in the back of my mind. Aubrey appeared in the doorway.
"Are you all right?"
"Just fine," I said.
"Not a hundred percent, no," I said. "Middle eighties, maybe."
"I kind of dropped a bomb," he said. "I really thought you knew about your mother. The way Eric talked about it, I assumed it was common knowledge. I mean, not common. Family business."
"Family business," I said. The phrase tugged at me. Glapion was related to Marie Laveau, the most famous voodoo priestess of all time. Sabine was Amelie's granddaughter. The thought fluttered in the back of my mind, soft and elusive as a moth. If I hadn't been tired and jet-lagged, if I hadn't had three kinds of emotional whiplash in the last half hour, if I'd gone to bed instead of dancing and drinking, maybe it would have come clear.
As it was, I didn't figure it out until it was way too late.