In the years before I left home, I went to the emergency room exactly once. Christmas Day, when I was twelve, I had a stomach flu so bad I was getting dehydrated. My father put me in the car, gave me a towel to puke into, and drove me to the ER where they drugged my guts into submission and kept me alive with an IV drip. By the time I got home, my brothers had opened all my presents for me.
Since inheriting Uncle Eric's money, I'd spent a lot more time in the hospital recovering from wounds of my own and caring for the people who'd been hurt working with me. Swimming back to consciousness, I recognized the dim fluorescent twilight, the smell of antiseptic, the squeak of nurses' shoes against linoleum. I tried to remember what had happened. A car wreck? No. Someone had stabbed me. Or something.
I tried to sit up and my left side from collarbone to hip lit on fire. I fell back to the bed, gasping. The ceiling above me was all-white acoustical tile. I came a little more awake. My right arm was bandaged. My left knee was swollen to about twice its normal size. I probed my ribs gently through the thin blue hospital gown. My right side felt merely sore and angry. I only tried touching the left side once.
Joseph Mfume. I'd been fighting with something-a rider in its full, unhidden form-and I'd been saved by the serial killer and rapist who'd started the whole messy thing. I remembered Sabine Glapion standing in the unfalling rain of the crossroads between the real world and Next Door. Well, she'd still been alive last time I saw her, so that had to be a good thing. I craned my neck, but there were no clocks. I needed to find out how long I'd been there. I needed to find out where exactly I was, for that matter.
I needed to find Aubrey and Ex and Chogyi Jake. The best I could manage was a nurse call button. After what felt like an hour, I hit it again. A couple hours after that, a nurse came, explained to me that I had hairline fractures in two of my ribs, soft tissue damage to the connective tissue in my knee, and they'd stapled my arm closed where it had been cut. When I asked him who'd brought me in, he didn't know. When I asked for my stuff, he said he'd try to find it. He pronounced my name "Jane" and I didn't correct him.
A couple junior cups of fruit juice later, I was feeling almost human. The so-called hairline fractures hurt like hell anytime I moved or laughed or breathed in too deep, but I took comfort in the intellectual knowledge that they only felt shattered. I forced myself to sit up, then slowly, carefully, figured out how I could walk without mind-altering pain. By the time a different nurse appeared with my things, I could see the first, faint light of dawn in the windows.
My clothes were gone, cut off me by the paramedics. My laptop case was rain-soaked, but the interior looked dry enough that it might have escaped harm. The leather backpack I used as a purse was probably trashed. The scraps of paper inside were all waterlogged, and Dr. Inond¨¦'s unpleasant little gris-gris had leaked something gray and filmy over the interior pouch. I checked my cell phone's side pocket with a sense of dread. What I took for dead was actually just turned off, and when I powered it back up, it seemed fine. I had five messages waiting for me. I sat on the threadbare chair by the window, the hospital gown wrapped tightly around me in an attempt to preserve what was left of my modesty, and called voice mail.
"Jayn¨¦," Aubrey said at about the time I'd been talking with Dr. Inond¨¦. "You hopped out of the house for a few minutes over an hour ago. What's going on? Call me as soon as you get this."
Then, more faintly, Ex said, She's not answering? and before Aubrey could reply, the message ended.
Oops, I thought, my belly tightening with guilt. In addition to getting my ass handed to me, I had probably just put my friends through a night of pure hell.
The next message was a few minutes later.
"Jayn¨¦," Aubrey said. "I've just called every Starbucks I can find in the phone book, and you don't seem to be at any of them. We're sending out a search team in the van. Call as soon as you get this message."
Two hours after that:
"Still nothing," Ex said to someone besides me, and hung up.
Fifty minutes after that, Aubrey again:
"Fuck. Jayn¨¦, if you get this, call in. We're covering as much territory as we can, but no one's found a trace of you. You need to call home. You need to come back."
Then an hour and a half after that, Ex's number again, but only the sound of two or three long, slow breaths together, and then nothing.
I pushed my hair back. The rain and the humidity were making it curl more than I was used to. My knee throbbed. My stitches itched. I'd screwed up.
I called Aubrey's cell number. He picked up on the first ring.
"Hey," I said. "Really, really sorry. Totally, deeply, profoundly sorry. Didn't mean to scare you. Didn't mean to scare anyone."
"I don't give a shit," Aubrey said, his tone speaking volumes of relief. "If you're okay, I'll kick the crap out of you later. We were all afraid you were in trouble."
I looked up through my eyelashes. The man in the room across the hallway was writhing in half-sedated pain, a wide, bloodless wound gaping in his belly. From farther away, someone screamed.
"Yeah, well," I said.
"You are okay?"
"I'm fine," I said. "But if you could bring a fresh change of clothes to Tulane University Hospital, I'd really appreciate it."
"Are you... Jayn¨¦? What happened?"
I replayed the night in my mind. Dr. Inond¨¦ and Doris the snake, the girl with the cigarette at the Barely Legal club, Sabine Glapion, the thing in the suspended rain. Mfume's concerned voice and goofy grin. The rider with its pale flesh and knifelike claws.
"I don't know," I said. "I don't know what that was."
I waited for what seemed like days, but wasn't more than an hour and a half. Aubrey and Chogyi Jake showed up with a fresh white button-down shirt, blue jeans, underwear, shoes, socks, and probably my least comfortable bra. In the thousand times I'd almost thrown it out, I had never thought putting on that particular example of underwire madness would feel good. Today, it did.
The nursing staff was very reluctant to let me go without talking to the doctor or possibly the police, but since it wasn't actually legal to restrain me, I was out of there fifteen minutes after Aubrey and Chogyi Jake showed up.
The morning was bright, clear, and warmer than I'd expected. Last night's storm was just puddles on the asphalt, thick humid air, and a few high clouds now. I could tell I was walking slowly because Aubrey kept getting a little way ahead and then dropping back. Chogyi Jake kept by my side, but I had the sense it was only that he was better at restraining himself.
When we got to the minivan, I crawled up into the passenger's seat and pulled the seat belt across, gritting my teeth the whole time. When Aubrey turned on the engine, the air conditioner blasted us. I leaned back in my seat.
"So," I said. "How bad did I fuck things up?"
Neither man spoke.
"Great," I said, closing my eyes.
"Perhaps," Chogyi Jake said, "you could tell us what happened?"
So I did. They both listened as I went through the whole thing. My decision to investigate on my own, my interview with Dr. Inond¨¦, walking to the Voodoo Heart Temple, the foiled attack on Sabine, and being saved by Mfume. It only took fifteen minutes to do a rough recap; we hadn't even reached the lake when I was done.
Even with the hundred questions that I had- was the thing I'd fought in the street another aspect of Legba or a different rider altogether, what was Mfume doing there, why had he taken me to the hospital-I'd overlooked at least one.
"I wonder why you could fight at all," Chogyi Jake said. I turned to look at him over my shoulder. His expression was sour and puckered.
"What?" I said.
"When the rider attacked Sabine," he said, "time stopped. Just as it did when you were attacked at the hotel. The rain stopped falling. Sabine's companions couldn't move."
"Right," I said.
"You could," Chogyi Jake said. "Why?"
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe it's got something to do with the wards that Eric put on me."
"Yes," Chogyi Jake said, as if he'd tasted something unexpectedly bitter. "The longer we go on, the more convenient those become."
"Mfume could move too," Aubrey said. "And Sabine."
"I figured Sabine could move because she was the one under attack," I said. "Just like with me back at the hotel. And Karen was able to interfere with that one, so there is a way for normal people to break into that spell. Maybe Mfume knows how to do it too. I just don't understand why he would. But I figure we'll ask Karen."
"I'm not sure how well that will go," Aubrey said.
I shifted to look at him. A dull ache bloomed in my knee. He was looking ahead at the road, and very much not at me.
"She's a little pissed off?"
"THEY'RE FUCKING gone," Karen said.
The safe house looked different in the light of middle morning. The tiny cracks in the wall where the structure had settled over the course of years looked like crow's-feet at the corner of an old woman's eye. The picture window seemed to include the wide swath of unmowed, semi-tended lawn. The Virgin Mary gravestone had turned its back on me.
"Jayn¨¦!" Karen barked.
I looked back at her. The mixture of guilt and resentment and wordless outrage in my heart was old, familiar territory for me. She stood in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, her arms folded. She didn't seem shorter than me now. Her anger filled the space.
"The Voodoo Heart Temple is empty," she said. "Locked up, closed, and everyone inside gone to ground. Can you explain to me exactly what the fuck you were thinking?"
Aubrey, just behind me, took a step forward like he was going to protect me. Chogyi Jake was sitting on the counter by the kitchen sink, and I was pretty sure he would have jumped in if I'd given him an opening. Of my three guys, only Ex seemed as pissed off as Karen.
"I didn't go there to get involved," I said. "I was just walking, and I guess it was on my mind. I wound up there, and when I did-"
"You thought, I know what would be fun. I'll tell the enemy we're here," Karen said. "And now, I'm back at square motherfucking one. That's great."
The words stung. I felt my jaw sliding forward, my lips pressing tight. I felt the crushing weight of having been a disappointment.
"Hey," I said. "There was a lot of weird going around last night. What about Mfume? Why would he take me to the hospital after I got hurt? And the rider that was after Sabine? It didn't look or act anything like the thing that jumped me when I got to town. That one was a snake, and this one-"
Karen growled and ran her hands through her hair. Her eyes seemed to spark with anger. Ex, leaning against the wall behind her, might have smiled, or it might only have been my paranoid imagination.
"I don't know. I don't have answers for any of that, and I can't get them, because I don't know where the bad guys are," Karen said. "I didn't bring you here for your cool Nancy Drew imitation. I wanted help getting Sabine to safety and then killing Legba. That was it. I had an advantage as long as I knew where they were, and you have pissed that away."
How many times had my parents given me a lecture like this? How could I have failed my test? Where had I been, and who had I been with? Why had I lied about whatever tiny thing it was? It all came back to the same thing, however they phrased it: how could I have been so stupid?
I could see my old room, my books, the cross over the bed, my CDs with all the Christian bands on top, and all the secular ones tucked at the bottom of the pile. I could smell the fake floral stink of my mother's favorite laundry detergent. The knot of guilt and shame and anger and outrage in my stomach brought all the details back with it.
I was twenty-three and on my own. I'd thought I'd grown up. I'd thought I was through with this. Stupid me.
"I saved Sabine Glapion's life last night," I said, my voice shaking. "That thing was going to kill her."
"You didn't save her," Karen said, "because it is still going to kill her. Only now, we don't have any way to stop it."
"How would things have been better had Sabine died in the street last night?" Chogyi Jake asked softly. Karen turned to him like a fighting dog that just noticed a new opponent, like my father shifting attention to my little brother.
"Don't, Chogyi," I said. "I'm okay. I understand you're upset, Karen, and I'm sorry that I tipped your hand. But I found Amelie Glapion once, and I can do it again."
"Your lawyer can, you mean," Karen said. "All you've done so far is fail and have someone save your ass at the last second. I'm not sure that's the kind of help I need."
The lump in my throat was an enemy. I couldn't speak around the humiliation. Karen gathered herself, shook her head, and forced out a slow, hissing sigh.
"Look," she said, "this isn't your fault, okay? It's mine. This is a big deal. It's hard, and I didn't understand how inexperienced you are. I was thinking about Eric and all of the things that he could do, all of the tricks that he knew, and I put you in his place. That was unfair of me, all right? I expected too much."
"I think we can regroup," I said. "There are still a lot of things that I can-"
"No," Karen said. "Jayn¨¦, just... just no."
"I can fix this," I said.
But the silence in the room told me I was wrong. I couldn't. Aubrey's arms were crossed, his face set in stone. I could see the pain in the way he held himself. Ex's raised eyebrows told me that he agreed with Karen. Only Chogyi Jake was unreadable.
"I appreciate everything you've tried to do," Karen said. The softness in her voice was worse than the anger had been. "But I think I'd better run this operation solo from here on in."
I looked for words, didn't find any, nodded, and walked out. My knee didn't bend the way I was used to, and the staples in my arm itched. A gentle breeze stirred the branches. I felt like the trees were talking about me. I stood by the small statue of the Virgin, looking away from the house with her. The door opened and closed behind me. Aubrey's footsteps came close.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine," I said, and he put a hand on my shoulder. I leaned into him, then flinched as my ribs reminded me that I'd been injured. He had been too. Probably worse than I had.
Somewhere there had to have been a place where I could have done it right. A decision that would have kept Aubrey out of Charity Hospital when Amelie Glapion's cult opened the way for Marinette, a question I could have asked Karen that would have put everything in context. I felt like my head was filled with cotton ticking; my throat was thick and heavy with the aftermath of shame.
Karen was right. I was flailing in the dark, and if I did anything right, it was only happy coincidence. I had let them all down, not just Karen. I'd put Aubrey in harm's way. Chogyi Jake had put his faith in me, and when I'd gone out to investigate for myself, I'd blown it. Ex... well, he'd been spending his nights with Karen, so maybe he at least was having some fun.
"I think they're on the same side now," he said.
I pulled myself back to the present. "What?"
"I was thinking about it back there. Mfume and Karen must be on the same side, since they're both trying to protect Sabine. I just wonder why he would be."
"Well, maybe they can hook up and work it out," I said. And then a moment later, "It doesn't matter."
Aubrey stepped in behind me, his arm draped gently around my collar to keep from pissing off my ribs. When I leaned back into him this time it hurt less. The door opened behind us, then closed again, but no one came to disturb us.
"Whatever you want to have happen," he said. "You know I'm going to back your play, right?"
"It's what I love about you," I said. I felt him react to the word love. A bird called, shrill and trilling, from the trees behind the house. Near our little prison. Its voice was high, complex, and beautiful as jazz. Months of nosebleed-busy work, days of trauma and danger and injury and failure, and years of the day-to-day struggle of just being me all folded together. I let a couple of exhausted tears escape the corners of my eyes.
"I just want to go home," I said.