Dr. Inond¨¦ shook his head slowly, a small pink tip of tongue darting out to wet his lips. What was sensual and dangerous on his snake only made him look nervous.
"Amelie?" he said. "Why do you want to know about her?"
"When you're paying the money, you can ask the questions," I said.
He coughed out a single laugh, squared his shoulders, and leaned back.
"You think that I'm a fake," he said. The theatrical richness of his voice had faded, but hadn't entirely gone. "A show for the tourists. Well, most things around here are. That's where the money comes from, isn't it? People come here for the music and the mystery and the hope that some pretty coed will take her top off. It's what we have to offer. So sure, I ham it up sometimes. We all do. Amelie, though? She was the real deal."
"She hasn't been doing well these last years," Dr. Inond¨¦ said. "She and her family didn't evacuate for Katrina. They could have, God knows, but the Glapion clan doesn't leave this city."
My cell phone went off, Aubrey's number on the display. I turned off the ringtone, letting him drop to voice mail. I'd call him back when we were done.
"Sorry," I said. "Go on. She didn't leave?"
"She was like the captain of the ship. If her city was sinking, she'd go down with it. She lost her daughter."
"You know Sabine, then? Yes. Sabine's mother, Annette. And there was a boy, Sabine's brother. Jean-Claude was his name, but everyone called him Jaycee. I don't know exactly how they died, but really there were so many dead. People forget that. There were bodies in the streets. Bodies in the houses. September eleventh was a terrible, terrible thing, but we lost more here. They say it's only two thousand dead or missing, but that's crap. They don't know."
The bitterness in his voice stirred something in the snake. Its huge, broad head shifted, its black tongue flickered against the man's cheek like a kiss. Dr. Inond¨¦ smiled, took the snake's head, and kissed it between the eyes.
"I'm fine, Doris," he said to the serpent. "I just get angry. Yes, Amelie lost her daughter and her grandson. And she had a stroke there at the Superdome. The stress was too much for her. If there had been a hospital to take her to, maybe they could have helped, I don't know. After the storm, she was walking with a cane, and her whole left side was just... dead-looking. Like a zombie. She's still a force to be reckoned with, but... it isn't the same."
"You sound like you know her pretty well," I said, leaning forward. The roar of water on the street surged while he shrugged. Doris the snake's head rose and fell.
"Everyone knows her, one way or another. That's who she is. The story is she's a direct maternal line to the divine Marie there. And the temple? Well, that's been part of the family forever. Amelie inherited it from her mother, and Annette was supposed to take it from Amelie. That's the way the Laveaus did it too. Mother to daughter. Only with Annette gone, Amelie had to step back in. I hear she's grooming Sabine, but the girl's sixteen."
"Grooming her for what?"
"To take over," he said. "Run the temple, do the tourist trade. And Amelie holds rites. Invokes the spirits. I've never been, but from what I've heard it's a hell of a show. It's medicine too, you know. I remember it used to be Amelie would have eight or ten people a week show up at the temple instead of going to an urgent care center. Even had one boy who'd been shot, and when the paramedics were taking him to the hospital, he told them to go to the temple instead. That is how important Amelie Glapion was to this community. How do you put a sixteen-year-old girl in a position like that?"
The same way you put a twenty-three-year-old one in charge of a world-spanning empire fighting against riders, I thought. You do it because you have to. Because something went wrong.
"Maybe she thinks Sabine can handle it," I said.
"Well, I hope she's right," Dr. Inond¨¦ said. "We are competing for the same money, and God knows there's not as much as there used to be, but I would hate to think I helped them lose the family business."
Family business. There the phrase was again, tugging at me. The dark secret of my mother's affair, Amelie Glapion's rider cult and temple. The two ideas had wrapped themselves around each other like snakes on a caduceus. Dr. Inond¨¦ didn't notice my frown; he carried right on, waving a despairing hand as he did.
"And the young one? Daria? That poor thing. Sharp as a tack, but odd. You seem like the skeptical type, and I want you to know I respect that. There are any number of frauds in this business. I'm more than half a fraud myself, so I can say that. Daria Glapion gives me the heebie-jeebies."
She had a worm inside her when it happened, so you be gentle with her.
"Me too," I said.
"You've met her, then?"
"Once," I said. "And Amelie once, but we didn't really hit it off."
A flash of lightning turned the windows white, and a breath later, the thunder boomed. Dr. Inond¨¦ folded thick fingers together. With his brows knit, he looked more like a shop teacher than a houngan.
"Is this what you wanted to know?" he asked.
"I can't tell yet," I said. "I've heard stories."
"But you don't believe them," he said, as if offering sympathy. He thought I meant stories about voodoo, the supernatural, riders, and loa. I meant every word Karen had said.
"I believe something's going on," I said. "I just don't know what it is yet."
"But you're going to find out," he said.
"That's my job."
Dr. Inond¨¦ untangled Doris and put her on the table, then rose with a gesture that told me to remain where I was. He stepped past one of the cheap red curtains into an alcove I hadn't noticed. The snake looked at me with shining, empty eyes, then turned and slid down toward the chair where the man had been sitting like a cat curling up in a warm spot.
"For that thousand dollars, you can have this too," he said, passing me a red cloth pouch on a leather thong. It smelled like dust and old chicken, and I had an immediate, intense dislike of it. "It's gris-gris. Salt for the sea, ashes for fire, graveyard dirt for earth, and a baby's first breath for air. It's good medicine."
I didn't want to touch it, but I didn't see how to refuse. I took the thong in my fingers and lowered the thing into my backpack. When it was safely away, I took out my wallet and counted out ten hundreds onto the table. Dr. Inond¨¦ looked at the bills and then up at me.
"I don't want to know what's going on with this, do I?" he said.
"Probably not," I said.
He nodded, gathered up the money, and shoved it into his pocket.
"If I have more questions later?" I said.
"This sad fake is always at your service, Miss Jayn¨¦," he said in the theatrical voice. I smiled. He smiled back. As I opened the door to leave, a thought struck me.
"Inond¨¦?" I said. "Doesn't that mean...?"
"Flooded," he said with an apologetic rise of his brows. "You can pretend it didn't happen or you can make it part of the magic of the place. What other option have you got? And Dr. David Mackelwhite doesn't pull them in."
The rain hadn't slackened. Tiny streaks of silver and gray darted out of the sky and crashed onto the pavement like suicides. I walked under the awnings, as far from the street as I could manage, and my jeans were still getting wet. I thought about what I'd learned, if I had learned anything.
I knew that Amelie Glapion was possessed by a rider. That was firsthand knowledge, and I didn't have to trust anybody about anything. So that was the center to work from. Amelie was running a rider cult, and her granddaughter Sabine was attending rituals. I knew her other granddaughter Daria had the ability to see things that were true, but that she didn't necessarily understand herself. Again, that was direct evidence.
At one remove, I knew that the rider had been cast into exile, killed a bunch of people including Karen's old partner, and was now making its way back home. I knew Amelie Glapion had suffered a stroke at the same time New Orleans was wrecked by the hurricane. She had been a woman of serious importance in the community, but she was weaker now, and the community scattered.
I reached an intersection, ducked out from beneath the awning, and ran. The rain was hard, but warmer than I'd expected. My shirt and hair were soaked by even that short time. I double-checked my laptop carrier, but it was closed tight. Still, probably best to keep as dry as I could.
I turned down the street. A neon sign announced LARRY FLYNT'S BARELY LEGAL, white lightbulbs dancing above it. The pictures in the window showed airbrushed girls younger, I assumed, than I was. A woman in a bright yellow raincoat came out, lit a cigarette, and looked at me. She was wearing half a display counter worth of makeup, but underneath it, she looked tired. I smiled, and she nodded back. I had heard somewhere that the sex shows were the first businesses on Bourbon Street to reopen. At the time, it had been said in an approving voice, but I couldn't remember whose. I kept walking.
Nothing I'd heard conflicted with Karen's story. But if I were Legba, would I really choose Amelie Glapion for my victim? Someone that high in the community would be a coup, certainly, but I couldn't see why the rider would try to surround itself with people who were aware of riders and how they worked. If Karen was to be trusted, the local loa didn't think much of old Legba. Diving into an existing rider cult...
Maybe there was a reason. Maybe it made sense, if you looked at it from the right perspective. Eric would have known, could have put all the points in a line and seen what it all meant and what would happen next. But he was gone, and I was here.
And, much as I hated it, I did have someone I could ask. Karen had evaded my questions and played weird power games and all that, it was true. But if I wasn't seduced or cowed, I could insist that we talk about it. I'd present my questions in simple, clear words, and I'd just keep leaning until I had an answer. Then afterward, I could find a way to fact-check it.
I had just about resolved to head back to the safe house when I realized where, only half aware, I'd been heading all this time. I'd been walking and thinking, aiming for the dry spots and holding tight to awnings, and some part of me had known where it was headed. The Voodoo Heart Temple was right in front of me, its windows dark, its grisly sign swinging in the storm wind. I didn't see anyone inside, but I stepped out into the street, rain sluicing down me, and looked up. There, on the third floor, lights were burning. An apartment above the temple.
I needed to go. I needed to walk away right then and go to the hotel and get in my car and leave New Orleans. I tried to turn, but my body didn't move. I felt the cold distance come over me, the sense of being an observer in my own body. Something was wrong, and I knew it.
A voice, nothing more than a change in the tone of the raindrops. Three girls were coming along the street toward me, laughing and prodding each other. The one nearest the wall might have been Chinese or Vietnamese, I couldn't tell at that distance. The tall girl in the middle was black, gangly and awkward; a girl who hadn't quite grown into her body yet. The third-the one walking closest to the storm-was as graceful and beautiful now as she had been when I'd seen her in the flickering hell of Charity. Sabine Glapion.
And there, in the shadows of the doorway just before them, something moved. The raindrops paused, hanging in the air like crystal. The roar of the storm became silence. The two girls at Sabine's side froze in mid-stride, and Sabine alone went on for half a step.
I dropped my pack and my laptop in the street.
"Sabine!" I screamed. "Run!"
The thing that boiled out of the shadows shrieked; a wet, angry sound full of rage and hatred. Sabine turned and sprinted away, the dark thing surging after her, and me after it. The beast knocked the frozen girls aside with long, knifelike claws. Sabine ran into the suspended rain, her passage carving a tunnel through the falling water. I drew the psychic energy of my qi up from my belly through my chest, pressing the living force out my throat as I shouted.
The thing hesitated, its great, inhuman head craning back to look at me. It had been human once, I thought. I could see the places where the rider hadn't transformed the flesh past all recognition. The blunt, black incisors, the dagger-long fangs were set in a jaw that belonged to a human being. The weirdly expressionless eyes had been a human's once. A man's, a woman's, or a baby's; there was no way to tell. I leaped, my right foot sawing through the unnaturally still air. The impact jarred me like I'd hit a concrete wall, but the thing fell back a step.
Before I caught my balance, it attacked. I tried to block, and its claws bit into my arm. A closed fist swung up into my ribs like a car wreck. Something painful snapped. My own hand shot out, the heel of my palm against the thing's face.
It took a step back, hissing. Stilled for a moment, it seemed broad as a truck, thick shoulders of pale skin mottled with deep veins of dark flesh. There were too many joints in its legs. For a moment, the only sound was the slow drip of blood from my arm, then its chest expanded and it let out a sound more like a storm than a shout. I felt the will and power and rage in its voice. It was chaos and war made flesh, and its hatred of me was as deep as a mine shaft. The pain in my ribs was bright and exquisite. I bent my knees, leaned toward it. When it lunged for me again, I moved into the blow, under it, and past the beast, driving an elbow into the place where a kidney might have been in a human. Its shriek had more to do with pain now. It wheeled to face me again.
I surprised myself by grinning. Its eyes flickered past me, down into the quiet of the suspended street. I could hear its breath, the low growl haunting the back of its throat. Sabine was getting away, and I could see the frustration in its face. A sense of profound peace came through my body, lifting and consoling me. My broken chest and mutilated arm hurt, but the pain didn't mean the same thing anymore. Even before I moved, I felt the violence spinning up within me like the singing of a choir. This, I thought, was what it must feel like to die.
I dove to the side, hands grasping the pole that held the sidewalk awning, and wrenched from my gut. The wood splintered in my hand, coming away like plucking a blade of grass. I landed in the street, club in hand, one leg back one forward. I felt angelic. I felt beautiful.
The thing turned, and this time the wood caught its claws. I darted in, hammering its shoulder with my fist, then danced back as it howled. The still rain hung around me like a veil. I battered the thing with a flurry of strikes, knee, chest, shoulder, belly. For a moment, I thought I might actually win.
It swung, and I fell for the feint, bringing my club to stop a blow that wasn't there. Its leg shot out, catching me just above the knee, and I stumbled with the sudden agony.
I saw the killing blow as it came. Knife-sharp claws carving the air, arcing toward my exposed throat. I wasn't going to be able to block it. I had no leverage to twist aside. I hardly had time to gasp.
But the blow didn't land. Something bright appeared at the thing's wrist, and the claws pulled wide, shredding my sleeve as I fell, but not breaking skin. From the black, shining pavement, I looked up.
A man stood in the middle of the sidewalk, a great black coat hanging from his shoulders like the robe of some exotic priest. His black skin shone like he was lit from within, and the close-cut gray of his hair was like a scrim of silver cloud in the night sky. A chain hung from his hand with a vicious hook at one end. The hook that had pulled the creature's attack aside.
"Not tonight, my friend," the man said in a Caribbean accent as I struggled back to my feet. His voice was velvet and stone.
The thing turned to him, then to me, then roared in defiance and frustration. I steeled myself for a fresh attack, but my leg wasn't quite where I thought it was. It didn't matter. The beast raised its arms, vanished, and the raindrops hammered onto the street. After the unreal silence, the storm was deafening.
I didn't realize I was collapsing until I was down, the asphalt rough and comfortable against my cheek. I coughed, almost certain that the warmth in my throat wasn't blood. I rolled to my back, watching the rain fall from the distant clouds down onto my face like a manga clich¨¦.
Sabine Glapion appeared, looming over me. She was soaked, her blouse clinging to her skin, her eyes wide and horror-struck.
You're in danger, I tried to say. Maybe you noticed. Nothing intelligible came out. Then the black man was kneeling beside me. He had a long, careworn face, and a dark scar ran across one cheek.
"Don't move," he said, all concern and soft vowels. "You're hurt. You need a doctor."
"Y'think?" I managed, and he smiled a wide, warm, goofy grin. I lay back, darkness crowding the edges of my vision. The last coherent thought I had before I passed out was, Oh shit. That's Joseph Mfume.