I checked Ex, Aubrey, and Chogyi Jake out of the hotel as soon as we could get there. Karen and I took their stuff and piled it in the back of the rental, then drove like hell to the safe house. No cultist-driven deathmobiles pursued us. Mystical beasts failed to rise from the lake to swallow us. The only change was a strong wind that kicked up, stippling the water with small, angry waves and pushing the minivan to the left. I didn't even start to calm down until we reached the safe house.
I'd sat there, on the street corner, with Daria Glapion. The girl with the Sight had held my hand, told my fortune, and Legba hadn't come out to kill me. I felt like a bullet had buzzed past my ear, and it left me a little nauseated. Karen, on the other hand, was equal parts glee and banked violence. She paced through the living room like a tiger in a cage, her blue eyes bright. Chogyi Jake, Ex, Aubrey, and I all sat on the couch or the floor. Behind her, the picture window blazed with the red and gray of sunset. The wind complained and threatened, and the trees bent and shifted like they were nervous.
"Okay," she said. "This is perfect. We know where the girl's hiding. Daria didn't identify Jayn¨¦, so we still have the element of surprise. We have the safe house ready. We can have Sabine in hand by the end of the week. Aubrey? Chogyi Jake? I'm going to need you two watching the temple and the streets around it. We need to know Sabine's routine. Where she goes, who she talks to. Everything. If she's holed up in the apartment over the shop, we'll need to know that. Amelie might be going in and out too. She has responsibilities to her congregation."
She was rubbing her hands together in delight. I'd always thought that was a figure of speech. Ex looked serious, but an echo of Karen's smile haunted the corners of his mouth, her pleasure reflecting off him like sunlight off the moon in a reminder of their relationship. It bothered me that it bothered me.
"We should still try to draw the girl out," Ex said. "Legba is going to have wards on the apartment just the way we do. Only since it's a rider, they're likely to be... unpleasant."
"Good point," Karen said. "We need a way to get her out of the building. Something that she can't ignore. Fire, maybe."
Chogyi Jake squinted and frowned. A particularly loud gust of wind rattled the back door. I didn't know I intended to speak until I did it.
"I think we should warn her."
"Who?" she said.
"Sabine. If she's in danger, she should know. If she understands what's going on, she can help us. Work with us."
"Why would she do that?" Ex said. "Some stranger off the street comes in and tells her not to trust her own grandmother?"
I hesitated, trying to focus my thoughts.
"Sabine must have seen the changes in her. I mean that's the point, isn't it? Legba was exiled, and now, after the hurricane, it's back. Amelie must have changed. The way she acts. The things she can do. Legba can't have been in her for more than two and a half years, I mean at the outside. And probably not as long as that, or Sabine would be dead by now, right?"
"I don't think we can assume that Sabine will have noticed a difference," Karen said.
"And Daria," I said, momentum carrying me over Karen's objection. "I mean she's got this weird precognitive thing going on. She can't be on Legba's side either. Doesn't it make sense to try to get both of them, Sabine and Daria, on our side?"
"That isn't how this works," Karen said. "We don't tip our hand. We don't warn them. Once Sabine is locked up safe, we can-"
"And what about Daria?" I said. "If Legba kills off the people closest to the horse, you know, isolates it? Then why wouldn't Daria be in just as much trouble as Sabine?"
"Jayn¨¦," Ex said. Two familiar syllables, but they hit like a slap. "Karen has been tracking this rider for years. She's the expert. If she says this is how the thing behaves, we can safely assume that it's how the thing behaves."
"I was just asking," I said.
"You're right to ask," Karen said. "It's just that we can't reinvent the wheel here. We don't have time."
"I don't know," Aubrey began.
"Trust me," Karen said. "I know what I'm doing. If we can get Sabine away and safe, Legba will go crazy looking for her. It will overextend. That's when we can take it."
Karen laid out the plan, rough though it was. Aubrey and Chogyi Jake would watch the Voodoo Heart Temple, take notes, and build a profile of Sabine's actions. Ex and Karen and I would finish the work on the cargo van. We had magical wards on it, but we still needed to black out the windows and install handcuffs in the back to keep Sabine under control until we could get her to the prison shed out back. All through the conversation, Karen found opportunity and reason to touch Ex-leaning over a diagram of traffic in the French Quarter, her hand on his shoulder; sitting beside him on the couch, their thighs pressed together.
I got up and quietly walked out the back door. Night had fallen, but the wind hadn't died down. It drove last autumn's leaves across the grass and pushed my hair into my mouth. It played the trees like some huge, organic reed instrument; a saxophone playing free jazz until my ears wanted to bleed. I walked around the shed, pretending to look for places that Sabine might escape.
I wanted Aubrey to come out, to find me. To tell me I wasn't being stupid, that there was something worth thinking about in my questions. I told myself that my hurt feelings were just jet lag paranoia.
A year before, I hadn't even known that riders existed. Karen was seasoned and experienced; an expert. The expert. If she didn't think my objections were worth considering, maybe I was being stupid, and was just too stupid to know it.
I'd gotten just about to the point of leaving Ex, Aubrey, and Chogyi Jake to work with Karen while I went off to some kind of home for the mentally deficient when I heard the footsteps on the path. For a half second, I thought it was Aubrey. Another footfall, like a word in a familiar voice, told me otherwise.
"You walked out," Chogyi Jake said over the sound of the wind. "You're angry."
"Yeah, well..." I said.
Chogyi Jake nodded, squinting up into the darkness. Clouds scudded across the sky, glowing a dull orange from the city lights. He didn't speak, and I didn't either. His presence by my side felt like an affront at first. Who was he to come out and disturb my solitude? I didn't come breathe down his neck while he was meditating. Was it so much to ask for a little time for myself? And then, slowly, painfully, chagrin. He was just standing there. It wasn't like he was the one telling me I didn't know what I was doing. And then gratitude. I took a deep breath, letting it seep slowly out my nose. It was a relaxation technique Chogyi Jake had taught me. I should probably have been doing it more often.
I was about to suggest we head back in and get this abduction on the road when he spoke.
"I don't like her," he said.
"Karen," he said. "I don't like her."
"Ex does," I said.
"Ex has had different experiences than I have," Chogyi Jake said. "I think there's weather coming. We should check the forecast."
"Why don't you like Karen?"
Chogyi Jake crossed his arms. He was wearing sand-colored slacks and a buff shirt lighter than his skin. The stubble on his scalp was in real danger of becoming hair, and I noticed a sprinkling of white at his temples that surprised me. I'd never thought about his age.
"When I was first learning to embrace and accept my own anxiety and suffering," he said, speaking very slowly, as if thinking each word twice before he said it, "I didn't do a very good job."
"The drugs," I said. This was only the second time he'd ever mentioned his career as heroin user, but the first time had made an impression on me. He nodded. A gust of wind brought the smell of the lake and diesel smoke.
"Something happens when you're a junkie," he said. "You never really come back from it. You... try to pass for a normal person. If you're good, you can fool people. Some people. But not another junkie."
"You aren't a junkie," I said, meaning it as comfort or reassurance. As a way to say he was my friend and I didn't care what he'd done.
Chogyi Jake grinned like I'd given him a puppy.
"Yes, I am," he said. "That's the point. And so is Karen. I don't think it was drugs in her case, but there was something. All the things she does to try to seem normal? All the games she plays? I've seen them before. I've done them."
"She is always slightly more approachable and friendly than anyone else in the room. She acts like you're intimates when you're in private, and disrespects you in public," Chogyi Jake said. "She found the man in the group most open to being seduced, and she seduced him. She's trying too hard."
"I don't see it," I said. "I don't see her acting all that different from me."
Chogyi Jake lifted a single finger. In the dim light, he looked like a woodcut of a Zen teacher.
"Like you turned to eleven," he said. "She's trying to pass for you, but it doesn't come quite naturally. I watch her, and I see the version of herself she wants me to see, but I also see that she wants me to see it. So I don't trust her."
"I think..." I said, then trailed off. I think you're being paranoid. I think you're wrong. I think you're mistaking my desperate little sister crush on her for something weirder.
I think maybe I don't like her either.
"Seduce is a strong word for it," I said after a while.
"She started quoting Thomas Aquinas at him as soon as she knew he was a priest," Chogyi Jake said.
He nodded. "I don't believe any woman with necklines that low quotes Aquinas without a motive."
Aubrey's head appeared at the kitchen window, looking out into the darkness. I took a step toward him, then paused. Chogyi Jake stood beside me, still peering up into the sky, as if the coming weather might have written a message there.
"What do we do?" I asked. The wind rippled across the grass, the small waves like lake water seen from above. Chogyi Jake scratched his arm.
"That Karen is... damaged isn't an argument that she is wrong," he said at last. "I don't have reason to doubt that the rider she is hunting is evil and merits destruction. There is no doubt that Joseph Mfume was a murderer and a sadist. And two loa have tried to kill you since we came to New Orleans. All of those suggest that Karen is telling the truth."
"Fair point," I said.
"If you restrict who you work with to the mentally well, you may find yourself short of allies. There are strong arguments against me. Or Ex. Aubrey. But don't put your trust in her."
"So I shouldn't be seduced by her," I said.
I ran through the last few days in my mind. The way Karen put her arm around me whenever we were alone. The irresponsible near-manic glee in the way she'd led us into danger at Charity Hospital. Her dismissal of my concerns tonight. I'd accepted all of it.
"You're saying I've been relying on the authority because she's the authority. FBI badass, years of experience, actually has a clue what she's doing, yadda yadda yadda," I said.
"And you think that's a mistake."
The wind paused as if it was catching its breath. In the moment's calm, I heard Ex laughing inside the house. A cricket chirped tentatively from the shed.
"This plan," I said. "It doesn't make sense to me."
"All right," Chogyi Jake said.
"I don't think Karen's going to answer my questions. She hasn't yet."
Chogyi Jake smiled and nodded like I'd said something nice about his shirt. He was giving me the space to think my own way through this.
"So I have to figure it out for myself, right?"
He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. I walked back into the house. Karen, Ex, and Aubrey were in the living room, talking intensely about how much free will a normal person had compared to someone with a rider. Or an animal with a parasite. I found my leather backpack, but my laptop case was beside the futon mattress I'd claimed as my own. I couldn't get it and get out without passing through the living room, so instead of slipping away quietly, I brazened it out.
"What are you doing?" Karen asked as I headed for the door.
"I need to check e-mail," I said. "The dead zone here is going to make me really nuts. You guys hang. I'm just going to hit a Starbucks or something. Back before you know it."
Aubrey half-rose, then hesitated. I could see that he wanted to come with me, but I walked to the door without him. I'd learned the lesson of Charity Hospital. I might be going into danger, and I wasn't going to have Aubrey be the shield for my risks, even if the risks were small. I was surprised when Ex objected.
"We should go with you," he said. "We can't be sure that Daria didn't recognize you. Legba could be setting a trap."
"I'll be fine," I said, then headed out the door before anyone could follow me. Heading down the driveway in the minivan, I saw Aubrey and Ex looking out the picture window after me, and Chogyi Jake sitting in lotus position in the backyard, his eyes closed. I got to the main road, navigated my way south again, and turned up the radio. The DJ was talking about a night of wind and rain, but there was no particular fear in her voice. Mere storms weren't going to faze a city that had survived a hurricane. The drowned have nothing to fear. I got onto the I-10, driving alone across the water.
The hum of tires against the temporary metal grating that the southbound bridge had instead of pavement was calming. The lake I passed over was almost invisible in the night. I turned off the air conditioner and rolled down the windows, inviting the thick, humid air of the real world into my hermetic little box on wheels. It smelled like rain. A police car sped past me, and the DJ played an old Pearl Jam song I hadn't heard in years and I sang along at the top of my lungs. Twin rows of brake lights strung themselves out before me in the darkness. New Orleans rose up glowing beyond them.
All through my childhood, there had been rules that bordered on commandments. In my father's house, we were supplicants and sinners whose only hope of redemption was in the obedience we offered to the Lord, and the rules and strictures and demands of God were spoken in the voice of Andrew Heller. I'd spent my childhood loving God because He demanded it and fearing Him because He was frightening, until one day the two finally came together in my mind and broke; God could not love me and still permit hell to exist. There was either eternal punishment or a loving and compassionate Creator, but I didn't see how there could be both, and that one thin crack of doubt-barely visible in the eggshell perfection of my faith-broke everything. The rules of my father's house stopped being the rules of the universe; the eye of God wasn't always watching me. I could sneak out.
I still remembered those first, tiny, unremarkable acts of rebellion: sneaking out of my bedroom window and sitting on the back lawn at midnight, wearing only my second-best socks to church on Sunday, silently reciting the lyrics to "Walk Like an Egyptian" instead of the Lord's Prayer at night. No punishment had come, and there had been a delicious, dangerous feeling. The hint that maybe I was actually free after all.
Now, driving away from Karen and Ex and Aubrey and even Chogyi Jake, I had a similar lifting and opening feeling in my heart. Of course I was afraid, and of course I was guilty. That was very nearly the point.
I drove to the French Quarter, put the minivan in valet parking in the hotel at which I no longer had a room, and pulled out my laptop. Two Google searches and thirty seconds on MapQuest got me what I wanted. My cell phone said it was 9:24. I rechecked the web page, got the number, and dialed, crossing my fingers. A man answered.
"Hello, this is Dr. Inond¨¦."
"Hi," I said. "My name's Jayn¨¦? I saw on your Web site that you do private consultations?"
There was a quiet hiss. I imagined him rolling his eyes at another idiot tourist. I really didn't care what he thought.
"I do," he said, "but I am just closing the museum for the night. If you can come in the morning-"
"I'll pay you a thousand dollars for half an hour of your time if I can talk to you right now."
There was a heartbeat's span of silence, then the man laughed.
"I am at your service, Miss Jayn¨¦," he said.
"I'll be right there," I said.
The Authentic New Orleans Voodoo Museum-as opposed to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum or the Voodoo Museum of New Orleans-was in a space no larger than a T-shirt store a block and a half off Jackson Square. The stores around it were closed, and the sign in the window also announced that the museum's hours had passed and to come back in the morning. A low red light still burned inside, and when I knocked, the door opened.
Dr. Inond¨¦ was, to my surprise, a white man in his early fifties wearing a Hawaiian shirt, loose linen slacks, and a ten-foot-long red-on-tan serpent as thick as my arm looped around his right thigh, up his side, and across his shoulders.
I stepped in, the acrid smell of burning twigs greeting me. The place had all the charm of a roadside attraction. Cheap red curtains draped around awkward oil paintings of famous practitioners of voodoo. One labeled "Marie Laveau" stared out from the far wall. I tried to see Amelie Glapion in the proud, dark face, but it looked more like Frida Kahlo.
"Miss Jayn¨¦," he said with a theatrical flourish of his wrist, sitting at a low black table. "What can the world of the voudoun do for you tonight?"
As if he'd rehearsed it, a low roll of thunder murmured in the background and a pelting, angry rain began. I sat in the offered chair.
"Okay, look," I said. "I pretty much assume you're a fake, and I don't really care. The French Quarter's a small place, and I have to figure you know the competition, right?"
Dr. Inond¨¦ smiled and spread his hands, ceding me the point. His snake lifted its head, shifted its weight on his shoulders, and lay back down.
"Okay," I said. "For a thousand dollars. What do you know about Amelie Glapion?"