"They act like it will all come back," Karen said as we walked across Jackson Square. "It won't. Nothing comes back, it just moves on. The natural state of the world is recovering from the last disaster."
She looked over at me, surprised by my laughter.
"Sorry," I said. "It's just that I have about five different things going on right now, and that describes all of them."
It was the awkward hour of the morning, too late for breakfast, too early for lunch. Jackson Square was full anyway. Fortune tellers sat at folding card tables all around the square, each offering up some small divinatory specialty. Crystal tarot. Energy reading. Palm reading. Aubrey and Ex planned to go to the safe house with Chogyi Jake and perform the rites that would make our cargo van difficult for the loa to find. Karen and I had taken the job of checking the six addresses of Amelie Glapion; playing the shell game.
Only first, we were on our way to the Caf¨¦ du Monde for beignets and coffee. Gawking tourist girl, me.
The air was heavy with moisture, the wide sweep of the Mississippi just up a flight of stairs, echoing the cathedral directly across the square. On one side, the eternal hope and faith of religion, and across from it, the uncaring, amoral water that had drowned the city. Only not this part. Not here. So maybe the cathedral meant something more after all.
"It's a mess," Karen said. "There are still people paying property tax on houses that haven't existed since the hurricane. They can't get the assessors out fast enough. Gentilly. St. Bernard Parish. There are parts of this city that are dead. And it's better now. Oh God, it's better than it was right after the storm."
"You sound like you love the city," I said, then pointed at the tightly packed chairs under the awning. "Is that the place?"
"The very one," she said with a confirming nod. "I wasn't here before. I mean, I passed through once or twice when I was working with the bureau. But not since. Not until the rider decided to come back here. And no, I don't love New Orleans. I respect it. I respect anything that can take a bad hit and not go down."
Like my parent's marriage, I thought. Like Karen herself. Or even the serial-killing rider we were hunting, for that matter.
I had meant to spend the evening after we got back from the safe house reading up about Legba and Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Heart Temple, and demonically possessed serial killers in general. Instead, I'd sent e-mail to my brother Curt. I didn't say much, just hi, and I was doing fine and traveling a little. How were things at the homestead? In all the time I'd been hopping across the globe, I hadn't talked to my family. I hadn't even told them what Eric had left me. Writing to Curt was a step so small as to almost not exist, and still it was a big deal for me.
Somewhere along the line, I felt like I'd taken a big hit too, and that I was still standing back up. I promised myself again that tonight I'd do my homework. No more putting it off. Time to be professional. Maybe even after we were done with coffee.
We got a table, and an older Asian waitress took our order. Five minutes later, I was eating deep-fried dough in a thick coat of powdered sugar and drinking chicory coffee.
"I was thinking," I said. "The whole thing with Marinette?"
"How is Aubrey doing?" Karen asked.
"He's fine. Well... no, he's really not," I said. "But he's going to be. You know?"
Aubrey. Another one for the list of hard knocks.
"I understand," she said, sipping her own coffee. She took it with cream. I drank it black. "I'm sorry that happened. It's... scarring. If there's anything I can do to help. Even if he just needs someone to talk to."
"I'll let him know," I said. "Thanks."
"I feel responsible," she said. "I was the one who led you in there. Even when you expressed concerns, I just pushed on ahead. I'm not used to working with people. Not anymore. I think I forgot what it's like, risking someone besides myself."
"We're grown-ups," I said. "We could have said no."
Karen smirked into her coffee cup. Her eyes stayed sad.
"Fair enough," she said.
"What I wanted to talk about, though," I said. "That thing where the locals are still looking to kick Legba's ass for whatever got it exiled in the first place?"
Karen sat forward, her brow furrowed, and nodded to me to go on.
"I don't know if you knew this," I said. "Eric... sometimes he worked with riders. Pitted the little ones against the big ones."
"No," she said.
"It was hard for me to get my head around too," I said. "But there is a certain 'the enemy of my enemy' thing going on. And if we could find a way to use them. Something that would weaken Glapion, or even just distract her-"
"I said no. That's the end of it. There aren't any of them that will side with us. If Marinette proved anything, it was that."
I sipped my coffee, frowning. That actually hadn't been the message I'd taken from Aubrey's possession, but Karen seemed sure of herself, and she'd been doing this longer than I had. We sat quietly eating our heart attack of a breakfast. My fingers played idly in the fallen powdered sugar, drawing a snake in the shape of a question mark and dotting it with a drop of coffee.
"I'm sorry," Karen said after two or three minutes. "I didn't mean to snap."
"Didn't notice that you had," I lied.
"You're kind," she said. It wasn't the first time someone had called me that, and I still didn't know what they were talking about. "I don't trust riders. Not any of them. I know Eric used to play with fire. I was more conservative."
Who wants to live forever, right? Karen said in my memory. If that was more safety-conscious and conservative, then Uncle Eric must have juggled running chainsaws. But maybe he had taken terrible risks on a regular basis. Maybe that was why he was dead now, and Karen was still alive. If my mother had indulged in a marriage-threatening affair, then literally anything was possible.
"He will heal, you know," Karen said. It took me a second to figure out she meant Aubrey. "It will take time, and he won't be the same. It's even possible that he'll be better than he was before. Right now, he's... damaged. Badly. But he's not out of the game."
"Like the city," I said.
"I talked with Ex yesterday after we left the safe house," she said.
"Did he tell you that it was all his fault that Aubrey and I got hurt?"
"Yes," she said, laughing. "Among other things."
"Ex is a good guy," I said. "But he can be kind of a dick sometimes."
"He's a good man," Karen said. "Confused, maybe. But at heart, I think he's a very good person."
"You're probably right," I said. "It's just that we work together, you know? He's been around since the beginning. He looks at me, and I think he sees the girl I was when he met me. That wasn't a good night."
Karen washed down the last bite of beignet with the last swallow of coffee. She'd timed it better than I had. I still had half a lump of sugared dough and nothing to drink with it.
"Back to work?" I asked.
"Let's," she said. We walked back across the square, Karen taking my arm like we were old friends. Or possibly lesbian lovers, but I was going for the old friends vibe. Even the few minutes we'd been gone had changed the face of the square. More musicians were gathered. A face-painting table had set up, a thick-faced woman with stars and rainbows running down her cheeks acting as her own advertisement. Tourists wandered through the square, gawking and dancing a little and having their fortunes told. I'd spent my whole life hearing about New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Now that I was here, walking through it all, it seemed both more real and oddly smaller than I'd imagined. I wondered if it had always been this way, or if the glory days had passed. Or if maybe they were still coming.
"Hey, pretty lady!" a man called out from one of the fortune teller's tables. "Come! Come, sit! I answer all your questions. Tell your future."
"Qu¨¦ ser¨¢, ser¨¢," I said gravely and kept walking.
Back at the hotel, Aubrey, Ex, and Chogyi Jake were waiting for the valet to bring out the cargo van. I waved, walking forward with Karen. Aubrey looked a little better. There was more pink in his skin and less in his sclera. Chogyi Jake bowed toward me, smiling. Only Ex seemed awkward and diffident. I thought it was about me until Karen detached from my arm, went to him, and kissed him hello. It involved some unsubtle groping and went on long enough that I got my jaw closed again. I saw one of the bellhops watching us with bare envy on his face.
My mind felt like its clutch had slipped out of fourth gear, and I replayed everything Karen had said about talking with Ex. I couldn't quite believe what was suddenly perfectly obvious. A stray breeze would have knocked me over.
"Well now," Karen said, pulling back an inch from Ex's lips. "Don't tell me you're ashamed of me?"
"Of course not," Ex said, putting his arm around her waist. Karen smiled and leaned into him. Ex looked at me as if challenging me to say something disapproving. Aubrey blinked. Chogyi Jake kept his constant smile, but it didn't reach his eyes.
So, okay. Ex and Karen had done more than talk. All right. It wasn't quite as weird as my mother having a fling, but it was right up there. Not that Ex wasn't a grown man. And Karen was wildly attractive. I just hadn't thought...
It wasn't my business, I thought, angrily. Ex wasn't my lover, and he could do whatever he wanted with whoever he wanted to. There was absolutely no reason that I should feel betrayed. Or jealous. Or replaced.
The tableau held for two seconds, then three. I turned, waved down a parking valet, and gave her the ticket for the rental minivan. My momentary absence was all it took for the conversation to start again.
"We're going to start with the one farthest out," Karen said, "then work our way back in toward downtown."
"Check in before and after," Ex said sternly. "If something does happen, we need to know where to find you."
Karen smiled. A taxi pulled up and let out an older man in a Tulane University sweater.
"If something happens that Jayn¨¦ and I can't handle," Karen said, "you three need to run like hell."
Ex's expression went stony, and then to my continuing surprise, he laughed. I looked at Aubrey, who shifted his shoulders in a near-subliminal shrug. Chogyi Jake didn't meet my eyes. The cargo van-white, anonymous, and belching smoke- arrived. The three men piled in, and we watched them drive away.
"You don't mind, do you?" Karen asked.
"Mind what?" I said, a little too sharply.
"That I fell into bed with your priest."
"No," I said, forcing myself to mean it. "No, of course not."
Karen sighed. It sounded like relief.
"Good. I told him you wouldn't care," she said, and the minivan hove into sight.
For months it had been me and Aubrey and Chogyi Jake and Ex; just the four of us. Karen, as cool as she was, belonged outside the circle. Only now maybe she didn't. If Ex had a lover, and a lover who was really better equipped to fight riders than any of us, it was going to change things. I just didn't know how. It wasn't Ex I was jealous of, it was all of us. The little family that I'd made was changing, and nobody had asked me if I was okay with that. Maybe it was just because I had so little that protecting what was left seemed so important.
I let Karen drive, and half an hour later, we were in a decent-looking middle-class neighborhood, parked in the mouth of an alley, and peering down the street with binoculars. I had pretty much talked myself back to sane. As we drove through, I'd thought the houses looked pretty normal, apart from a bathtub ring four feet above the ground and the ubiquitous, eerie X mark that I'd seen out in Lakeview on the doors. Now that we had stopped, I began to notice other details. The yards with thick weeds and vines. Broken windows. The smell of mold and earth, like we were in the ruins of a place half reclaimed by nature.
But there were also kids navigating their bikes around the potholes, jumping off the crumbling curbs. Dogs barked behind fences. Someone was practicing piano, the slow, awkward march of scales fighting against a distant radio on a hip-hop station. More houses showed signs of life than of death. The house we were spying on-a red and brown two-story with bars on the windows-had a planter by the front door that was already thick with violets. And, as with all the others, the X. I remembered vaguely having seen pictures of it on the news right after the hurricane, but I'd never really known what it was. So I asked.
"It's the searcher's mark," Karen said. "After the hurricane, they would come through and check houses. When they were done, they'd put that on the front. It tells you who looked there, what date, and how many bodies they found. It's one of the new symbols. You can find it on T-shirts."
"Grim," I said.
"There are always two sides. At least two," Karen said. "The searcher's X is the symbol of the death. The fleur-de-lis is the symbol of the rebirth."
"Oh yes," Karen said.
"It's everywhere now. It never was before."
"I thought you weren't around before," I said.
"I wasn't. But I have been since. Okay. We have something."
I put the binoculars back to my eyes. A black man in his middle thirties was walking up to the door. He had a white plastic grocery bag in one hand, and it tugged at his wrist as he unlocked the door. I watched as he went inside. None of the Glapions came out.
"They could still be in there," I said.
"Or they might not," Karen said. "Let's mark this one off and hit the others. If we don't have any luck, we can make another pass tomorrow."
We didn't have any luck at the next five houses either. Two, in the Ninth Ward, were ruins; the third showed signs of occupancy, but no one went in or out in the hour and a half we watched; the fourth was overrun by at least half a dozen children, all of them white; and the fifth-a duplex in an upscale neighborhood by the river-had mail waiting in the boxes for Adele Grant and Foster Middleton. Amelie, Sabine, and Daria Glapion were nowhere to be found.
"We can try again tomorrow," I said, trying to hide my disappointment.
"This was a good day's work. We've narrowed the field," Karen said. "We can scratch off the two in the lower Ninth. And I think the duplex isn't likely. It's a white neighborhood. They'd stand out. The same with the kids."
"So the one with the guy, or the empty one," I said.
"I like the empty one. But if the boys are done with the van, we could also split the work. One car watches one house."
I nodded. It made sense. Still, I felt restless. Karen slalomed through traffic, the rental blowing conditioned air against me in a losing battle against the day's heat, and my hand tapping my knee in a slow double beat.
I was used to the idea of riders being a secret, part of a hidden world that I'd stumbled into. Driving through New Orleans, I started to wonder if that was true. I saw a Voodoo BBQ and Grill. A local football team, the VooDoo. A Voodoo dry cleaner's. Did they know?, I wondered. Was it all supposed to be a joke and kitsch? Local color? Or did the people who named their businesses know that there were predators on the streets?
Generations had lived and died here, but the riders, the loa, had been there the whole time. Individuals or lineages. I had the sense that they were a part of the city, woven in with it, and that their presence had changed the nature of the city itself. New Orleans was only partly human. It was also something else; a great, broken, sprawling artifact. A church. A gate.
My thumb made its double tap against my knee, paused, tapped again. I realized I'd been playing along with my heartbeat, and I knew what I'd been trying to tell myself.
"You know," I said. "There's someplace else we could try."
THE VOODOO Heart Temple was at the edge of the French Quarter. If we hadn't known to look for it, it would have been easy to miss. The street was filled with the small, desperate shops that live off the scraps of real attractions. The three-story buildings shadowed the street without cooling it. Together with the awnings over the sidewalk, the faded sign would have been easy to miss. It was in the shape of a real heart-fist-shaped and muscular with yellow deposits of fat-pierced by two long spikes. The windows were dim, but not dark. The door stood open.
"Well, there's certainly enough room for an apartment above it," Karen said, idling on the street. "At a guess, there's probably an entrance in the alley behind it too."
"All right," I said. "How about if you take the car around to see what the back looks like. I'll hang here and window shop until you get back. If anyone comes in or out, I can play all clueless white tourist."
"Don't go in," she said.
I gave her my best Hello. Not stupid. look and slid out of the car. Karen and the minivan rolled on, turned a corner, and were gone. I walked slowly, peering in windows and trying not to look obvious. The shops were small, dim, and tacky. A lingerie shop with yellowed lace teddies in the front. A souvenir store with a display of dusty Mardi Gras beads and T-shirts. I noticed two shirts with the fleur-de-lis and one with the searcher's X. Maybe a third of the storefronts were empty, small signs or just business cards on the doors announcing what property management company to contact if you were looking for a lease.
"Tell your fortune?"
I'd noticed the black girl sitting on the sidewalk. Her skin was the color of dark chocolate, her hair in beautiful braids, her clothes grubby and worn. She couldn't have been more than ten or eleven. When she smiled, she looked like raw mischief.
"Five dollars for a question," she said. "Fifteen for a whole reading."
I glanced up. Given where the girl was sitting, I could easily be at her side with a good view of the Voodoo Heart Temple. It would save me pretending to look through windows of closed stores, or loitering obtrusively. Besides which, the idea of a kid making up fortunes like it was a lemonade stand tickled me. I sat beside her, fished through my backpack, and came up with a ten.
"What'll this get me?" I asked.
The girl narrowed her eyes, considering the bill like a doctor with an interesting patient at a clinic.
"Short reading," she said.
She plucked the ten from my hand, pushed it deep in her pocket, and visibly composed herself. Her expression was so serious, and so clearly an imitation of the buskers and tarot readers of Jackson Square, that I couldn't keep from smiling. The girl opened her eyes, took my right hand, and considered it. Her grip was soft as moleskin.
"You a very powerful person," she said. "But you don't know it. You think you do, but you don't. You worried about your heart-will you find a man, and all like that-but you don't need to worry. He'll be along when the time's right."
"Good to know," I said. She looked up at me, annoyed at the interruption. Something shifted behind the window of the Voodoo Heart Temple. Someone passing by the curtains, I thought.
"You don't trust yourself," the girl said, "but you ought to. You know more than you think. You have hard times ahead, but if you pay attention and find your real power, you'll make it through better than when you started."
The door of the temple shifted. I looked down at my palm, but trained my attention on my peripheral vision. I didn't want to stare, but also I had to know when to glance up.
"And this is important, so you listen," the girl said.
"Okay," I said.
"It wasn't your mama's fault. She loves you, and she loves your daddy. She had a worm inside her when it happened, so you be gentle with her."
Adrenaline flooded me, cold and fast and electric. The girl was looking up at me through her eyelashes.
"What?" I said, at the same moment that the teenager who'd emerged from the temple called out.
"Daria! You get back here right now!"
The girl and I looked across the street. Sabine Glapion stood on the far sidewalk, her hands on her hips, her face bent with impatience.
"I've got to go," the girl said, dropping my hand. "You remember what I said, now."
"I will," I managed as she skipped across to her sister.