We landed in New Orleans a little over five hours later. The flight had been wildly uncomfortable, the cramped seats made infinitely worse by the almost random stabbing pain in my cracked ribs. I hadn't rested at all, but I felt more annoyed than exhausted. The rental joint was out of our usual minivans, so we wound up in a luxury sedan that got maybe six miles to the gallon, but had every conceivable bell and whistle, including self-heating seats and programmable memory that shifted all the mirrors to the right height for any given driver. Anyone who saw us and didn't at least consider carjacking just wasn't paying attention.
The air smelled of the Gulf, the lakes, the river. The sun, already low in the west, was wide and red and angry, and the highway hummed beneath our tires.
"Okay," Aubrey said as he drove. "What's the plan? I mean, it's not like we can just put up signs and find Mfume. The lawyers don't know where he is. We don't know where he is. The police think he's dead."
"Just head for the French Quarter. I'll navigate you in when we get close."
"You have something?"
"It's a desperation move, but yeah," I said. "Something."
The Authentic New Orleans Voodoo Museum looked cheaper and smaller in the gray shadows of twilight. The doors were open, and a low chanting spilled from tinny speakers out into the street. The air was thick with incense. I could see Aubrey's uncertainty, and looking at the tawdry signs and tourist-trap flyers, I felt a little unsure myself. But the worst I could do was fail. I led the way in.
"Miss Jayn¨¦! How can the world of voudoun be of service to you this night?"
"Dr. Inond¨¦," I said. "Hey, Doris."
The snake shifted to look at me with its other eye, black tongue flicking the air. We four human beings and the giant snake effectively filled the room. The place seemed smaller than the first time I'd been there, the red curtains more dusty and threadbare, the portrait of Marie Laveau even less flattering. I sat down, rooted through my backpack, and pulled out the ugly little charm he'd given me. Even with a little rain damage, it still felt like holding a spider on my bare palm.
"So," I said. "You aren't actually as much of a fake as we said. Are you?"
Dr. Inond¨¦ looked at Aubrey and Chogyi Jake as if sizing up my bodyguards, then shrugged.
"I know a few things," he said. "Not much. Some. You need some juju done?"
"I do," I said. "I need to find someone named Joseph Mfume."
Dr. Inond¨¦ sat with a grunt. His eyes seemed to lose their warmth for a moment.
"You have anything this Mfume fellow owned? Shirt. Book. Anything?"
"No," I said. "But I think he's been hanging around with Amelie Glapion."
"So you want to find this Mfume fella, or do you want Amelie Glapion?" he said.
"Either one would do," I said. "I don't want any trouble. I just need to talk to them."
Dr. Inond¨¦ shook his head, smiling apologetically.
"You seem like a nice person, but there isn't enough money in the world to make me cross Amelie. If she doesn't want to be found, there's no finding her. You know what happened to her after the last time you came in here? Something tried to kill her granddaughter."
"Yeah," I said. "I was there. I was one of the people who helped save Sabine."
"Were you now?" He didn't sound convinced.
"Jayn¨¦ could have been killed," Aubrey said with an anger I hadn't expected. "The least you can do is try to help."
"It turns out Amelie and I have an enemy in common," I said. "The thing that's after Sabine is also threatening a friend of mine."
The wind shifted the door. Somewhere nearby, a band burst into full-throated jazz. Someone yelled in what might have been celebration or distress.
"Come back in an hour," Dr. Inond¨¦ said. "We'll talk."
I nodded my thanks, and together the three of us walked back into the deepening darkness. Aubrey made an impatient sound. Behind us, the museum door shut, and I heard the deadbolt slide closed.
"Do you trust him?" Chogyi Jake said. He managed to make the question sound like idle curiosity.
"Not particularly," I said.
"So what do you think he's doing in there?" Aubrey asked.
"I think he's asking permission," I said. "We may not need magic after all."
Jackson Square at twilight was still populated. Tarot card readers, T-shirts, face-painters; they were all there, sitting at folding card tables, sitting on cheap plastic chairs, but it had the feel of day's end. The sky above us was sliding from blue to gray to black. A slow, heavy breeze was wafting in from the south. The men and women at the stalls seemed tired. Not listless, but worn down. They'd spent another day feeding off the story and mystique of New Orleans, or else propping them up. Maybe the two were the same.
Restaurants were coming sluggishly to life, the early dinner crowd rolling in without filling the tables. It wasn't Mardis Gras, there wasn't a festival going on. It was just a Monday night in the jazz capital of the world, the home of American voodoo, the Crescent City, the Big Easy. The fallen city doing its best again, because that's all there was to do. I looked through the clean glass at the starched linen tablecloths, the classic black lacquered wood. The smell of pepper and seafood wafted out across the sidewalk as we passed the corner of Decatur and St. Ann, but it didn't make me hungry. My belly was knotted tight, my gaze flickering between the faces, hoping and dreading to see someone familiar.
"I don't think we should go back," Aubrey said. "I think we're making a mistake."
I paused, looking at him closely for the first time since we'd come back to the Quarter. His shoulders were pulled forward, his head hung low, almost like he was cradling something to his chest. Chogyi Jake tilted his head, inviting Aubrey to go on. A kid on a bicycle swerved around us and pedaled out into the gloomy narrow streets.
"Let's..." Aubrey said, gesturing to the south. We started walking again, Chogyi and I flanking Aubrey, who seemed to be struggling to find the right words. We got halfway down the square before I broke the silence for him.
"Mfume could have killed me," I said. "Sabine could have. Seriously, when that thing in the rain was done with me, any third-grader with a nail file could seriously have kicked my ass. They took me to the hospital."
"Is that the issue?" Chogyi Jake asked. "Safety?"
"Yes," Aubrey said, and then, "No. Not exactly. I mean... Okay, I understand that they didn't take advantage of it when Jayn¨¦ was vulnerable. And maybe they can team up with us. Maybe all of us want something that we can work with, the way we did with Midian in Denver. But..."
Frustration buzzed in his voice. And fear. He was looking for the words that would say what he needed, but he was my scientist. His vocabulary was all about predation and genetic frequencies, host behavior and parasite load. Even after feeling Marinette take his body from him, he couldn't say what he felt.
I could. I took his hand.
"But these things are demons," I said.
"Yes," he said, the word rushing out of him. "Yes, they're evil. These things are evil and they're smart and they're dangerous. Even if we have a common enemy, how can we leave ourselves open to things that can do what they do? What do we do if something happens?"
We reached the steps at the southern end of the square and started up them. High overhead, an airplane's contrail caught the last rays of sunlight, glowing gold and fading quickly to the gray of spent cigarette smoke.
"You mean now that Ex is gone," Chogyi Jake said, clarifying the thought. "Now that being possessed isn't something we can easily undo."
"What are we here for?" Aubrey said. "Are we trying to stop Carrefour? Or Legba? Or both? Ex is a grown-up. And after all the crap he pulled on Jayn¨¦, I don't really see that he'd welcome our help anyway."
Aubrey stared out at the dark water, frowning, not meeting my eyes or Chogyi Jake's. I didn't know what to say. Without betraying Chogyi Jake's confidence, I couldn't explain that Ex was in trouble partly because he had a thing for me and I hadn't picked up on the signs. I couldn't say that I was pissed off at Karen for fooling me and at myself for letting her without approaching industrial-grade pettiness.
And it didn't matter, because Aubrey knew why we'd come: Ex was in trouble, and we could help. I didn't really understand what he was saying.
Chogyi Jake did.
"Was it that bad?" he asked.
Aubrey snapped his head back like the gentle words had been a slap. His grip on my hand went so hard it almost hurt. I didn't let go.
"I can't explain it," Aubrey said softly. "I don't know how to say..."
"I'll presume," Chogyi Jake said, stepping in. "You knew intellectually how it all worked. In your time studying with Eric, you'd seen riders and what they can do. But, irrationally, you thought you were different. You wouldn't have said it, not even to yourself, but you suspected that the people who were ridden-who were taken by riders-had some defect, some weakness in them that let it happen. Not that they deserved it, not in a moral way, but that somehow they were at a greater risk. You knew more, you controlled yourself more effectively, you were safe, if only by comparison. And then it happened, and you found out you were wrong. Now all those protective lies are gone. The dangers you used to ignore, you can't ignore any longer. You're left naked all the time. Vulnerable all the time. Constantly in danger."
Aubrey was weeping a little, but otherwise his face was stone.
"It happened to you too?" Aubrey said.
"No," Chogyi Jake said. "Not possession. Or not by riders. Something else. But I lost that sense that the rules didn't apply to me. I still miss it sometimes."
"I don't think I can do this," Aubrey said so softly I almost didn't hear it, even standing right beside him. "I don't think I can face them anymore. I thought... I thought I could."
It was an apology, and it was meant for me.
I didn't know what to say. I'd known that Aubrey was in trouble since the second I'd seen him turn toward me, there in the ruins of Charity. He'd told me that he was messed up by it; he'd said the words and I'd agreed. It wasn't the same as seeing him fold. When I'd fallen into Uncle Eric's strange, occult world, Aubrey had been the one I called for help. He needed help now, and I didn't know what to say.
So I faked it.
"Tough shit," I said. "I know you think you're weak, but I don't. I think you're strong. You're scared? Yeah, welcome to the club. I've been doing everything at three times the sane pace for months because I'm scared. I hid your divorce papers since Denver because I was scared."
"You hid his divorce papers?" Chogyi Jake said, but I barreled on.
"Ex freaking out and ditching us wasn't exactly a statement of his confidence and heroism. He's scared. Chogyi just told you he's been scared so long he's gotten used to it. I'll bet you everything I've got that Eric spent half his life working through adrenaline rushes. We're all freaked out. We're all scared. You don't get to bail on me just because of that."
Aubrey took a step back, trying to pull his hand out of mine, but I held tighter. I was screwing it up. I was saying the wrong things. All I could hope for was to make his shame at being frightened worse than the fear itself.
"If you walk away on this one, I swear to God, you'll walk away on the next one too," I said. "And the one after that. And then you're done, right? Then Marinette wins."
"Jesus Christ, Jayn¨¦," Aubrey said. His voice was shaking. "You don't know how hard this is."
"I don't care how hard it is. You can do it," I said.
Aubrey opened his mouth, but no words came out. Instead, he took a long, shuddering breath. In the dim light, his eyes glimmered with tears, but he set his shoulders. Chogyi smiled, watching us both. I didn't know if he was judging Aubrey or me or both. Or neither.
"Damn," Aubrey said. "Just... damn. Don't treat me with kid gloves or anything."
I moved close and put my arms around him. It was easy to forget how big he was-wide through the shoulders and ribs, solid, reassuringly male. I hoped I hadn't just screwed him up worse.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I should have been gentle. That was shitty of me, wasn't it?"
He took a breath before speaking. I figured that meant yes, but he'd let me slide.
"Eric told me that if I kept at it, there'd be something like this," he said. "A crisis point. There's nothing you said that he wouldn't have."
"The divorce papers thing?"
Aubrey laughed. It sounded pained.
"Okay, maybe not that part," he said. "But he'd have kicked my ass. You even sounded like him there at the end. I just... I didn't mean to..."
I put my head against his shoulders, and he wrapped his arms around me, squeezing until my cracked ribs screamed with pain. I gritted my teeth and took it. I had it coming. People walked past us. The river murmured to itself, water hushing against the pilings. The soft sound of a city-traffic and birdsong, barking dogs and pounding radios, sirens and voices and the bells of the cathedral-washed past us.
"Um," Chogyi Jake said. "Jayn¨¦?"
I looked up.
Bracketing us on the promenade, a dozen people stood, staring at us. Most of them were black, but a couple were white or Asian. Their expressions were the blank of soldiers ready for a fight. I pushed Aubrey back and stepped toward them. In the glow of the street lamps, the faces looked cold. I knew them. That man had been one of the drummers at Charity Hospital. The woman across from him had danced naked, calling the riders down into her body. And staring at us with deep, dark eyes, Sabine Glapion stood near the back of the crowd.
Struggling up the steps behind them, Dr. Inond¨¦ held Amelie Glapion's elbow. The old woman's head shifted from side to side like a serpent testing the air. And behind them, the deep black skin and graying hair of Joseph Mfume. The handful of tourists peering out over the darkening water took a look at the scene and scattered. My heart was thumping behind my ribs like it was trying to get out. All of the smartass shit I'd just said to Aubrey about fear drained out of my mind like it had never been there. I just wanted to get the hell out.
Amelie Glapion reached the back of the crowd, her cult parting before her. Dr. Inond¨¦ met my eyes and nodded with something like apology. I wondered what our chances would be if we all leaped into the river. It didn't look like it was going that fast, but I remembered something about still-looking waters sucking people down.
"Okay," I said softly enough that only Aubrey and Chogyi Jake could hear me, "this might have been an oops."
Amelie came forward, leaning on her cane. Her drooping face was ashen and sour. The air around her seemed to crackle with power that her body alone couldn't begin to justify. Her eyes shifted from me to Aubrey, from Aubrey to Chogyi Jake, from Chogyi Jake back to me with the intensity of a predator sizing up prey.
I felt the subtle shift in my body that I'd come to associate with the onset of violence. When Amelie spoke, her voice was Legba's; deeper than a human throat could fashion, rich with threat and power.
"What the hell you think you doing in my city?"
I wanted to swing forward, to fight my way free, pulling Aubrey and Chogyi Jake along with me. My body almost vibrated with the need to strike, to scream. I forced myself to speak like I was using someone else's mouth to do it.
"Carrefour tricked me," I said. "I've come to you. I need help."
These were demons. They were predators: tigers, wolves, sharks. I looked into Amelie Glapion's eyes, and something else looked back at me. Something inhuman. Someone made a sound that was neither word nor whimper. I risked a glance. Daria Glapion, her face frozen with anxiety, held her sister's hand.
"Well now," Amelie said, "that's more like it."
The woman turned away, and the moment broke. The air itself seemed to slump back. Aubrey touched my shoulder, and I startled. Around us, the cultists were starting to move. At the head of the stone steps that led down to Jackson Square, Amelie Glapion stopped and turned, looking over her shoulder at us.
"You waiting for something?" she asked. "Come on."