The screen was empty gray. Night had turned the windows of the house into dark mirrors. Some brave, early spring cricket sang defiance at the world, as likely to attract a predator as a mate. Aubrey and Chogyi Jake sat on the couch together, the bowl of popcorn forgotten between them.
"Okay," I said, pacing the floor, my mind bouncing around like a monkey behind my eyes. "So here's the thing. I think we've been wrong the whole time."
"About what, exactly," Chogyi Jake asked. From anyone else, it would have felt like an attack. In his voice, it was just an opportunity to be a little more exact. I took a deep breath and tried to put the whirling cloud in my mind into a straight line.
"It doesn't all fit together, does it?" I said. "We're looking for this rider that got voted off the island, but we're seeing this old lady who's been leading a voodoo cult in the same place for years."
"But we know she's a rider," Aubrey said. "She tried to kill you."
"Legba tried to kill me," I half-agreed. "But Legba doesn't make sense as the exiled rider. Amelie Glapion's been doing the whole voodoo queen thing for years, and her family's been at it for generations, right? I mean Amelie was grooming her daughter to take over, and now Sabine."
"I thought that was what makes her a good target for Legba," Aubrey said. "That she's..."
"What? Powerful? Prepared? Surrounded by people who know how to deal with riders?" I said. "That's my point. If I'm the exiled rider, she's the last person I'd want to possess."
"Maybe her cult wasn't really dealing with riders. Maybe they were just a religious thing. Fakes," Aubrey said. I could hear in his voice that he was struggling to follow me.
"They knew enough to open the way for Marinette. Dr. Inond¨¦ said they were the real deal," I said. "I think Legba's been in Amelie Glapion the whole time, and probably her mother before her. Legba isn't the exile. Legba's been in New Orleans the whole time, going from mother to daughter down through the generations, just like with Marie Laveau. Like a family business."
"Then what's Karen been chasing?" Aubrey said.
"You remember what Karen said about riders being mistaken for each other?" I said, finding the words as I went. "About there being another rider that can do that stop-time thing that Legba did?"
"The one that had the same ecological niche," Aubrey said, nodding. "Like the wolves and hunting cats."
"Carrefour," Chogyi Jake said. "Its name was Carrefour."
"And the Freddy Krueger on steroids thing that went after Sabine didn't look anything like the snake monster that came out of Amelie," I said.
"Different riders," Aubrey said. "You think there's two different riders."
"So Carrefour-not Legba-gets kicked out of Haiti," I said, waving my hands to illustrate each point, "and it rides Mfume up to Oregon. Only Mfume gets caught. He's stuck in prison, so it... I don't know. Shifts. It moves into someone powerful enough to be useful. And then it starts isolating the new horse, right? It kills her partner. It kills her parents."
"Her parents?" Aubrey said. "You mean you think Karen..."
Chogyi Jake made a small, satisfied sound in the back of his throat and smiled thinly. There was no particular pleasure in the expression.
"The hurricane injured Legba badly," Chogyi Jake said. "Amelie Glapion suffered a stroke. The intended heir died, leaving Sabine to be promoted whether she was prepared for it or not."
"Vulnerable," I said. "It left them vulnerable. Carrefour found out, and it figured this was its chance to come back."
"The wolves start dying out, and the hunting cats come in," Aubrey said, starting to follow my logic.
"And so Karen comes to New Orleans," I said. "Maybe it takes her a while. Maybe she doesn't know it's happened or exactly who Legba's riding. There's a bunch of people who say they're voodoo queens or houngans or whatever. Maybe Carrefour needs to figure out who the right target is."
"Or who would get the new daughter organism," Aubrey said. "With Amelie's daughter dead in the storm, Karen-Carrefour-would have to find out who was going to be the next host."
"Exactly," I said. "But it turns out even the riders who used to be part of Carrefour's team-the Petro loa like Marinette-have closed ranks against it."
"Marinette," Aubrey said, then paused. He seemed lost in himself, but only for a moment. "She hated Karen. She hated Karen more than she hated Legba."
"And right after the exorcism, I asked Karen about trying to recruit the local riders. She shot me down because she knew everyone was against us," I said, still pacing. "Carrefour didn't have any local allies. And Carrefour had kept Karen isolated, so there wasn't anyone she could bring in."
"Except the hired guns. Meaning Eric. Meaning us," Aubrey said.
She'd kept me off balance. She'd taken me out to the club instead of leaving me to my research. She'd dismissed me every time I'd questioned her. She'd seduced Ex. And when I started doing things on my own and asking too many questions, she'd told me to leave.
I'd been a chump.
"It answers everything," Aubrey said.
"Well. Not everything," Chogyi Jake said, "but it-"
I held up my hands, palms out. My fingers were trembling. My blood felt slightly electric.
"Okay, hold on. Before we get too freaked out, let's just... look at it. I mean, maybe I'm wrong," I said. "When I went missing, who was with Karen?"
Chogyi Jake and Aubrey glanced at each other. I couldn't stop talking.
"I'd just said how we ought to warn Sabine, Karen said no we shouldn't, and then I went AWOL, right?" I said. "If Carrefour is riding Karen, it might think I was running off to spill the beans. It freaks out and decides to go after Sabine right then. But that can't be true if one of you guys was with Karen the whole time. If she has an alibi for the time when I was getting my ass kicked, then I'm wrong.
"So was she with someone when it happened?"
The silence wasn't any longer than two or three breaths together. It seemed like hours. Aubrey cleared his throat.
"No, she wasn't," he said. "I think we have a problem."
THE FIRST flight back to New Orleans left at five in the morning, but had a huge layover and didn't get us on the ground until early evening. A later flight would actually get us there earlier. Waiting in the terminal with the Monday morning business commuters, I kept reminding myself that by not going immediately and as fast as I could, I'd actually get there sooner. Intellectually, it made perfect sense, but my guts wanted the rush of speed, the appearance of heroic action. Something.
Because I had missed the cues, because I had been pushing myself too hard and letting myself get distracted, Ex was sleeping with a serial killer that slaughtered its lovers. I wanted to take it all back, to fix it, and I wanted to do it now, dammit.
"Joseph Mfume was part of a jailbreak from the Oregon State Penitentiary two years ago," the lawyer said from my cell phone. "The reports were that they recovered a body from a river that was identified as him, but apparently that wasn't quite true."
"Right. And the others?"
"Only preliminaries," she said. "Kent and Catherine Black died in a fire eight months after Mfume was incarcerated. The insurance paid off, so the adjusters didn't think it was particularly suspicious. But..."
"But Karen worked arson cases," I said, remembering the detail from the original background report.
"Exactly," the lawyer said. "Michael Davis died in a rock-climbing accident."
"Were there any witnesses?"
"None so far, but I only got your message this morning. There's still a great deal of work we can do."
My lawyer sighed. It was a tight, percussive sound.
"We're looking, but the records in New Orleans weren't anything to be proud of even before Katrina. We have the addresses I've already given you. None of the business records have other addresses. I've put alerts on all their accounts, so if there are any transfers of funds big enough to require reporting, I can find that for you."
"But she's got to be in New Orleans," I said, trying not to whine.
"And if you want to live in an under-the-table economy, there's probably no better place," she said. "There are any number of people there who are living entirely off the books. There always have been. It's New Orleans."
"Okay," I said. "All right, can you just... let me know if you find anything?"
"Absolutely. And I have some inquiries that I'm waiting to hear back on. If I get anything substantive, I'll be with you immediately."
"Be careful, dear."
I hung up. Chogyi Jake closed his cell phone as Aubrey returned with two paper cups of coffee and one of green tea. A four-pack of identically tied businessmen looked over at us with an air of disapproval. It was petty of me, but I hoped they were on our flight. And in coach.
"Still nothing?" I said.
"He isn't answering," Chogyi Jake said. "Either he doesn't have the phone with him, or he's chosen to ignore us, or..."
"Or Karen has done something to keep him out of contact," Aubrey said. "Anyone care to bet? What about the lawyers?"
I lifted my cell phone.
"No joy," I said.
"Shit," Aubrey said conversationally.
"They may still be using the safe house," Chogyi Jake said. "The wards are still in place. It would give Karen the protection she wanted."
"That would be nice," I said. "In that sort of what-are-we-going-to-do-now way."
"It's one rider," Aubrey said. "We can take it."
"It's not just a rider," I said. "It's a rider and Karen Black. She may be demon-ridden, but she's still smart and trained and better at this than any of us. And part of what she's trained at is shooting people. This wasp picked itself a really good caterpillar."
"Caterpillar?" Chogyi Jake asked.
While Aubrey explained about the parasitic wasps and the caterpillars who love them, I pulled up my laptop and checked e-mail. I was hoping for something from Ex, but instead I got a raft of spam. And one other message.
It was from my little brother, Curt, replying to the note I'd almost forgotten sending. I opened it.
Hey, good to hear from you. What are you up to these days, anyway? Parental Force is acting like they never had a daughter. Creeptastic. I'm good, except school bites. I got busted cutting class. It was like they'd caught me with a crack pipe up my nose.
There's a new pastor. Mom thinks he's great, Dad's not so sure. I figure he'll be busted for kiddie porn in three... two... one... As long as he keeps his queer-ass hands off me, I don't care.
Anyway. It's good to know there's life out there. With you and Jay gone, I've got to Praise the Lord for all of us. Ugh! Whatchaupto anyway?
I read the e-mail twice with a growing sense of vertigo. There wasn't anything new in it, except that somewhere between the time that I'd left home and now, my baby brother had turned into a teenager. The little kid with the black hair and dark eyes, the serious expression, would never have written that e-mail. When I'd left, he was the only one of the three of us who would pray without being told, the only one who didn't push back at getting up early for church, the only one who'd seemed like maybe all that God and angels stuff really meant something to him. And now he was joking about pornography and cocaine.
Now he was sounding like me, and I was surprised how much it bothered me.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard, waiting for some idea what I could say that wouldn't seem moralistic or simplistic or like the sort of thing a grownup would say to a kid. I was lost. Hey, little brother. Got more money than God, busy fighting demons and unhealthy love triangles. And no one says "queer-ass" anymore. Hey! OMFG! Mom screwed around!
What had I expected? That everything back at home would stay just the way it had been when I left, a picture of the paternalistic, creepy American family trapped in amber? That my little brother would always be little? I'd made my break, gone to a secular university on my own money, and failed. I wondered whether Curt thought that was cool of me. I wondered whether I did.
Maybe I should have... not stayed there, no. But kept in touch. Something.
"Jayn¨¦?" Aubrey said. "Are you all right?"
"My brother," I said, and shook my head. "It's just some family business."
I looked at the screen again. Somewhere down the concourse, a baby started crying and then stopped. I typed without thinking, my hands moving of their own accord.
Hey, little brother. I'm okay. Made some friends I actually like this time. Got some kind of big stuff going on, but it'll be cool.
Take care of yourself, okay? I love you.
My fingers stopped. There had to be more to say, something wise or solemn or even just useful, but I couldn't think of anything. It struck me that just the way the Curt I'd known when I left home would never have written the e-mail he'd sent, the Jayn¨¦ I'd been would never have told him she loved him. So maybe we were both different people now. Maybe that was the point.
I hit send and closed the laptop.
"Are they boarding yet?" I said.
"Another twenty minutes," Chogyi Jake said.
I muttered something obscene and scooped up my coffee cup. I wondered how much money it would have taken to charter a jet of my own, and whether it would have taken more time or less. I closed my eyes.
Of course, I was doing it again. We were rushing off into the teeth of God-knew-what without a plan, without preparation, without actually knowing what we were up against. It was the same mistake I'd made the last time I'd flown into New Orleans. It struck me for the first time that I wasn't just risking myself and Aubrey and Chogyi Jake. I was also putting Curt's big sister on the line, and oddly that had some weight to it. I made myself relax, and once relaxed, think.
The sounds of the concourse seemed to fade, my breath slowing in the centering meditation Chogyi Jake had taught me lo these many months ago. My muscles released a little. My mind didn't stop jumping around, but it slowed. Like mud settling to the bottom of a pool, my thinking started to clear.
I really couldn't see taking on Karen directly. I was still feeling the pain from the last fight. Aubrey wasn't healed from his exorcism, for that matter. If we were going to take on Carrefour and Karen both and have a hope of getting Ex out alive, we had to have more than the address of the safe house and some good intentions. There had to be a plan.
I had to know Carrefour's weaknesses. I needed someone who'd taken the rider on and beaten it.
Put that way, it was obvious.
"I hate this job," I said out loud.
"Sorry?" Aubrey said. I opened my eyes.
"This job," I said. "It looks like crime. It smells like crime. It makes me associate with criminals."
"What did we do?" Aubrey said.
"Apart from help hide a great big pile of bodies like the day after I met you?" I said with a grin.
"Yeah, besides that." Aubrey smiled back.
"Well, not much," I said. "But you're not who I was thinking about."
"I was thinking the same thing," Chogyi Jake said. "The enemy of my enemy."
"Exactly," I said.
"Am I being dim here?" Aubrey said. "What are we talking about?"
"We need your friendly neighborhood serial killer," I said. "We need Mfume."