We left New Orleans that night, packing everything into the rental minivan and driving to the airport even before I'd bothered to make a reservation. Chogyi Jake checked our database and found a four-bedroom house I owned in Savannah. I called the lawyer, arranged for someone to drop keys off at the house, got four first-class tickets online, and walked up to the Delta counter to let them divest us of our luggage.
Going through the ritual humiliation of security, I felt like a piece of candy someone had put in a tin can and shaken. I was all chips and rattle. We got to the gate just in time for boarding. The flight crew were all professionally thoughtful, getting us bedded down in our flying Barcaloungers before letting the hoi polloi in coach shuffle past.
Once we were in the air, Aubrey curled up against the window and slept. When Ex headed up to the bathroom, Chogyi Jake leaned forward.
"You seem tired," he said. "You should sleep."
"I should," I said. "I will. It's just... I really screwed that one up, didn't I?"
"I don't know," he said, but he wasn't smiling. It was odd to see him looking somber, and it did exactly nothing to improve my mood. "If you consider that we came here less than a week ago, and in that time you've been assaulted by riders three times, Aubrey has been possessed and exorcised, we've bought a house and a car and fitted both with wards, added to which-"
"Hey, could we talk about this a little later?" I said. "I'm just... I'm not up to it right now."
Now he smiled. I could see my own exhaustion mirrored in him. Added to which Aubrey and I had fallen back into bed together, I thought. And my childhood had been reframed by my mother's sexual indiscretions. And, added to that, I'd screwed everything up. I didn't know how much of that he saw in my eyes, but some, I thought. Enough.
"Later, then," he said, and sat back. I didn't know how he managed to so clearly retreat into himself without actually moving more than an inch. I sat back in my soft plastic chair and waited for the unpredictable gods of the airline industry to get me the hell out of Louisiana.
This wasn't the first time I'd failed. In fact, it seemed just then like everything I touched was a failure. I'd have expected to be more used to it. And I knew what Chogyi Jake was going to tell me: we had all gone into the job exhausted; we'd been running since we touched ground; it was a complex situation, we didn't know all the facts, and our ally was perhaps not the least fucked-up person I'd ever known.
I could give myself all the excuses. The truth was, I was disappointed because I'd wanted Karen to like me. Or if not that, respect me. I'd wanted her to see that I was capable of handling myself, of taking over the job Eric had left me, of being the person I was pretending to be. If she had looked at me-preferably over the steaming corpse of the rider-and said that I reminded her of herself when she'd just been starting out, I would have done just about anything for her.
I actually managed to doze for a few minutes before the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced our descent into Atlanta. An hour layover in an airport, then the flight to Savannah, then... what? I couldn't bear to think about it.
The Atlanta airport was alive with a wide, varied stream of people. Harried business types in gray suits and power ties, college-age men and women traveling in sweats and sneakers, a tour group at least two dozen strong speaking something that sounded like German but might have been anything. It took me a few minutes to realize we were traveling on a Friday. After the first few months of bopping around the world, setting my own schedule, I'd started to lose track of things like days of the week. We navigated through the concourse to a Houlihan's bar, the four of us crowding around a small table made of something equal parts wood and plastic. A television overhead blared about a particularly god-awful earthquake someplace in China, bright images of dust and violence fighting with the bar's dark, fake comfort. When the drinks came, my beer was warm and tasted weirdly like cut grass. I put it down after two sips.
"Okay," Ex said sharply. "Postmortem."
"Ex," Aubrey said, shaking his head, "I think maybe we'd better-"
"Postmortem," Ex said again. "We just had something go off the rails, right? So before we start forgetting things or romanticizing or justifying ourselves or whatever, why don't we get this out of the way."
Ex's pale eyes were hard. From his breath, I had the suspicion that he'd started on the drinks while we were still in the air. A man at the next table started talking into his cell phone loud enough to compete with the dying Chinese above us. It hadn't occurred to me until just then that by getting us fired, I'd also screwed up Ex's love life. He must have spent the whole flight to Atlanta stewing. I didn't want to talk about it, but I owed it to Ex to at least let him vent a little.
I reached for my lousy beer, thought better, and grabbed Aubrey's rum-and-coke instead. Chogyi Jake put his hands flat on the small table.
"Ex. I think this would be a mistake," Chogyi Jake said, his voice low and penetrating.
"No," I said. "It's okay. He's right. We screwed up, and we ought to face that straight on."
"It seems to me that we had a real failure of leadership," Ex said, "and that seems to underlie a lot of the trouble we've been having up to now too."
A failure of leadership. The phrase was like a gutpunch.
"We've been having trouble?" I said, trying to make it a joke.
"We have," Ex said. "For instance, let's look at the division of labor. Jake and I are setting up a secret hideout to hold off the bad guys, and you're... what? Clubbing? Maybe it's just me, but that doesn't seem like a very good use of time."
"Hey!" Aubrey said, frowning.
"That wasn't my idea," I said. My voice was higher and tighter than I'd expected it to be. "Karen suggested it."
"And there's another example," Ex said. "Karen. Was she the boss back there? Or were you? Or was Aubrey?"
"I think we should-" Chogyi Jake said, but Ex barreled over him.
"Everything fell apart because no one was in charge. Myself, I thought that since Karen was the one that called us in, she would at least be consulted before we went in and screwed everything up."
"What is your problem, Ex?" Aubrey said. "You're talking like everything that's gone wrong here is Jayn¨¦'s fault."
"Well, there's a hypothesis," Ex said, his lip rising in a sneer. "Why don't we explore that."
Something in my brain hit overload, and the pain and shame and sorrow all shifted into rage. Ex was attacking me, kicking me when I was down. I was betrayed.
"Why don't we not," I said. "This was a bad idea. The postmortem can wait."
"And now, just like that," Ex said and snapped his fingers, "you're the boss again."
At the bar behind Chogyi Jake, an older man turned to look at us. The volume of our conversation was starting to rival the television. My hands were on my knees, fingers digging into my legs.
"Why are you doing this?" I said, keeping my voice down.
"I understand that you wanted to be like Karen," Ex said. "Karen's a very accomplished, experienced, wise woman. She's in control of her own sexuality in a way that nobody who's barely out of high school could be."
"My sexuality? How the fuck did my sexuality get into this?" I said, my voice buzzing with anger. "Jesus! Who's feeding you these lines? Is this Karen, because I'm pretty sure she already chewed me out."
"Just let me finish," Ex said. "I think you owe me that much. Karen is powerful, and she's sure of herself. It's perfectly understandable that someone who wasn't would overcompensate."
My rage topped out. It felt like calm. The exhaustion of travel, the humiliation of failure, the hurt of Ex's ambush-all of it fell away like shrugging off a jacket. The sound of the bar and television faded. I think I laughed.
"Walk away from this table," I said.
"No. You owe me at least-"
"Ex, you're fired. Now walk away," I said. All of us were silent for a heartbeat. "That powerful enough for you?"
Ex went pale, then flushed red, then pushed back from the table and stalked out into the terminal, his black shirt and pale ponytail vanishing into the river of humanity. None of us spoke. I finished Aubrey's rum-and-coke, walked to the nearest restroom, and sat in the stall with my head in my hands until it was time to board the plane.
Ex didn't make the flight.
I WOKE up in an unfamiliar room. The bed smelled like dust. The ceiling was canted oddly, like the dormer of an old house. Cream-colored paint took on the orange of the soft, translucent curtains. I didn't know who or where I was, and I had the sense that I didn't want to. I lay on my pillow, savoring the moment of sleep-induced amnesia. Something on my arm itched-a wide, ugly cut. And then like a lead weight pressed on my sternum, it all came back.
We'd reached the Savannah house after midnight. An envelope with the keys had been waiting for us under the front mat. We hadn't spoken on the flight. We barely talked on the way in. I'd walked through the house once to quell my only semirational fear that something or someone might be hiding in it, then found a bedroom, stripped down to T-shirt and underwear, curled up, and collapsed. My clothes were still in the pile by the door, and I pulled on my jeans before venturing out.
The bathroom was just down the hall, and someone had laid out my travel pack and robe. I showered, brushed my hair, brushed my teeth. All the little rituals that reminded me I was human. Wrapped in the soft terry cloth of my bathrobe, I made my way down a flight of white-painted stairs and into the scent of bacon and coffee and the sound of ecstatic voices raised in song and filtered through a cheap radio.
The kitchen was all done in yellow tile and oiled hardwood. A slight haze of smoke hung in the air, a remnant of the pan-fried bacon still draining grease onto folded paper towels. The radio on the sideboard shone silver and sang gospel. My stomach woke with a physical lurch.
"Hello?" I said. "Anyone here?"
"Jayn¨¦!" Aubrey's voice called from the back hall. Two sets of footsteps came toward me; Aubrey and Chogyi Jake. Reflexively, I wondered where Ex was, then remembered. I plucked a strip of bacon off the pile just as they came in.
"She wakes," Aubrey said, moving in for a brief hug that was only made awkward by the bacon in my fingers and the brief but intense pain of my broken ribs. Chogyi Jake opened the refrigerator and took out a couple of eggs. In the moment before the door closed, I caught a glimpse of orange juice and bread.
"Someone's been shopping," I said. "What time is it?"
Aubrey shut off the radio and sat up on the counter.
"Seven thirty," he said.
"Wow," I said. "I didn't sleep much."
Chogyi Jake and Aubrey exchanged a look.
"What?" I said.
"It's Sunday," Chogyi Jake said. "You've been asleep for over thirty hours."
"Oh," I said, then, "Wow. I slept a lot. What did I miss?"
"Very little," Chogyi Jake said. "We did a rough inventory of the house. I bought some groceries. There's cable television and broadband access."
"We watched a couple movies last night," Aubrey said. "We needed to wind down a little."
"Good," I said. Chogyi Jake cracked the eggs onto a skillet where they sizzled and popped. "And you're both all right?"
"A few nightmares," Aubrey said. "More Marinette fallout. Nothing I can't handle."
"Fine," Chogyi Jake said. "Thank you for asking."
"No word from Ex, then?" I said, already knowing the answer. Aubrey shook his head, then looked down. I could see the banked anger in the way he held his shoulders and the set of his jaw. Chogyi Jake flipped the eggs.
"I'm going to go put the tools up," Aubrey said.
"Tools?" I said.
"There's a sealed closet we're trying to take a look at," he said. "May be nothing. Or it may be where Eric stored something. More data for the wiki."
"No rest for the wiki-ed," I agreed. "Or, y'know, maybe a little."
Aubrey moved toward me, hesitated, then kissed the crown of my head, and walked back along the hallway. I watched him go with a sense of regret I couldn't quite explain.
"How's he doing really?" I asked softly enough that my voice didn't carry over the eggs.
"He's wounded. We all are," Chogyi Jake said. "He tries to protect you from the worst of it. The rider shook his confidence in himself."
"My fault again," I said.
"If you say so."
"Ex would say it for me," I said.
"He might have," Chogyi Jake said, then killed the fire and lifted the eggs onto a plate for me. "I am going to betray a confidence. I don't like to, but it's the choice I've made."
"Um. All right," I said, reaching for a fork.
"Ex has certain feelings for you that he has tried to deny," he said.
My fork stopped on its way toward the eggs. I stared at Chogyi Jake.
"Certain feelings?" I said.
"He's a complicated man," Chogyi Jake said. "His previous experiences with women have been scarring."
"Wait a minute. Ex has a thing for me?"
"He does. And when he attacked you at the airport, it wasn't what it seemed."
"So what was it?"
"He needed your permission to leave," Chogyi Jake said. He paused for a moment, and I had the impression that he was gathering himself for some particularly unpleasant chore. "He and I spoke about Karen when we first went to New Orleans. We both knew the pressure that she would put on you, just by being who she is. He played on that. He needed you to push him away because it was the only way he could leave."
You don't have to apologize to anyone, Ex said from my memory. Meaning you're good enough, Jayn¨¦. You're fine just the way you are. Of course he'd been saying I love you. I closed my eyes.
"Well fuck," I said.
"When Aubrey was taken by Marinette..."
"I asked Ex to save the guy he most wanted to see out of the picture," I said. "He sucked it up, did the right thing, and then I fell into bed with Aubrey."
"You did," Chogyi Jake said. "What Ex said wasn't a reflection of your capabilities, or even of his real opinion of you."
"But he and Karen were lovers... they probably still are..."
"He took up with Karen after he'd just found you and Aubrey in bed together," Chogyi Jake said. "Karen was there, she was... available. I don't believe he loves her, and I don't believe she loves anyone."
"You really don't like her much, do you?" I said, putting down my fork and rubbing my eyes with the palms of my hand.
"No," he said, thoughtfully. "I really don't."
"Does Aubrey know?"
"That I don't like Karen?"
"Ah. No, I didn't see a reason to tell him. Ex would be humiliated and hurt if he knew I'd told you. But it didn't seem to serve you or Ex to keep the secret."
"And so you broke your promise not to tell," I said.
"I made that choice, yes."
From the back of the house, I heard something banging. A hammer against wood. In the distance, a car alarm blared and went silent.
"Thanks," I said. "Thanks for that. Aubrey and Ex. Hell. Just tell me that you don't have a thing for me too."
Chogyi's silence dropped a charge of adrenaline into my blood. He looked away, his customary smile replaced by a grimace of embarrassment.
"Chogyi?" I said.
"I have..." he began, faltered, then tried again. "I am not perfectly comfortable with this. It isn't you personally, but... I don't find Caucasian women attractive."
For the space of three heartbeats, we were silent.
"I don't think of myself as a racist," he said defensively, "it's just that with white women, that little frisson is never there."
My laughter brought Aubrey back into the kitchen. His confusion, looking back and forth between me and Chogyi Jake, also struck me as comic, and set me off again. Chogyi Jake was blushing, but maintained a dignified countenance until I could get myself under control.
It felt good to laugh. It felt good to relax and to have slept and to be with friends instead of pushing and pushing and pushing to run some race I didn't even know how long it was. It felt safe.
I didn't realize until that moment how long it had been since I'd felt safe.
"Is everything okay?" Aubrey asked as my hilarity faded into mere giggles.
"Just fine," I said. "Perfect."
That night, we ordered pizza and found a movie rental joint with a good selection of old science fiction. The microwave in the kitchen didn't work, so we got a new one and some popcorn. Chogyi Jake was right. We were all wounded, and we were tired-worn so thin, I felt like you could see through us. I dedicated the evening to just hanging out, being relaxed, recovering. Chogyi Jake and Aubrey sat on a living room couch of old lady floral-and-lace. I lounged on the floor, my back against Aubrey's shins. I had never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so we'd gotten that and Young Frankenstein as a Teri Garr double feature. A light rain was falling against the windows, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle were singing "Puttin' on the Ritz," and my mind had a pleasant, unfocused hum.
It would have been perfect, except that I kept feeling that we were missing someone. Part of my mind expected Ex to come in or call out from the other room. The guilt at having lost my temper with him was growing, and I caught myself wondering where he was and whether he'd come back if I asked him. I wondered if I wanted him to.
He was probably fine. I figured that he'd gone back to New Orleans and Karen Black. I didn't know if it was more comforting or sad to imagine the two of them together. On the one hand, I believed Chogyi Jake when he said they didn't really love each other. But even without that romantic spark, there was something to be said for companionship. Just being with your friends. I didn't want to think of Ex without that. Nor, despite the sore spot that her dressing-down had left, did I wish a life of solitude on Karen.
It was hard just then-with my popcorn and my movies and Aubrey and Chogyi Jake-to imagine that I'd ever wanted to be like her. Yes, she was competent and powerful and certain, but she'd lost so much along the way. Her career. Her parents, killed in that fire. Her partner, murdered by the rider. All her friends from the FBI thinking she was nuts. When I thought about it, she was one of the most isolated people I'd ever known.
The most isolated.
I sat up sharply, a dozen small things that had haunted the back of my mind falling into place. Amelie Glapion's voice asking me what I was doing in her city. Marie Laveau passing the mantle of voodoo queen down to her daughter. Marinette's buzzsaw-in-meat voice saying, You have no place here. Aubrey calling my own mother's scandal family business. Mfume and the rider that attacked Sabine. Parasitic wasps. Different riders with the same powers, the same ecological niches.
"Jayn¨¦?" Aubrey said.
"The movie," I said. "Turn it off."