Someone walking down the street might not have seen anything. An old woman walking pretty well with her cane. A few people accompanying her. A teenager leading a younger girl by the hand. Three touristy-looking types looking unaccountably nervous. A deeply black man with a long face and goofy smile walking by himself. Another group walking in the same direction. A white man in a Hawaiian shirt strolling behind the rest. Apart from everyone moving in the same direction, there was nothing about it that looked different than any other night in the French Quarter.
It felt like being marched to prison.
The Glapions and half their followers before us, Mfume and the other guards behind. I wondered if this was the kind of negotiation Eric had done, and if it was what had gotten him killed. Ahead of us, two of the cultists stepped close and put supporting arms around Amelie Glapion's waist. Wherever we were going, it had to be close.
We turned down one street, and then another into a side street so narrow, I couldn't imagine two cars actually passing each other. Thin trees pushed up, bare as sticks and struggling toward the sky. The brick buildings were painted over, pale colors turning to shades of gray in the darkness. The wrought-iron rails of narrow balconies looked thin enough to break between two hands, and the air stank of a backed-up sewer. All the doors we passed were closed, all the windows dark. I had the sense of walking into a tendril of dead city, as if the destruction of the Lower Ninth had cut a blood vessel, and even here where the city hadn't suffered the flood, its tissue was dying.
Amelie and her entourage stopped at what had once been a storefront, its windows smeared now with gray paint. I was close enough to see Amelie's eyes close for a moment. When she opened them again, there was a stiff determination in her expression, but no strength. One of the cultists-a woman-fumbled with a key chain, unlocked the door, and stepped aside. Amelie Glapion led the way like the general of a failing army, and the rest of us fell in behind her. Aubrey, beside me, shuddered as we passed the threshold, but that was all.
Inside, we passed through a wide space with dark wooden flooring worn in a pattern that outlined where shelves and pathways had once been, through an ornate archway that numberless coats of paint had muddied, and into something that might once have been an office. A particleboard folding table stood in the center of the room, a tablecloth of yellowed lace stretching across it. Fifteen or twenty lit candles burned at either end, black candles on my right, white on my left; the air was hot from the flame and stank of hot wax and honey. An ancient carved-wood chair sat on the other side of the table like a throne.
Three canvas army cots were against one wall, pillows and sleeping bags on each. The one farthest from me had a stuffed bear, worn from use and affection. As I watched, Daria walked to that last cot, threw herself onto it, and turned to look at us.
It reminded me of the gang warfare scenes from The Godfather and of the safe house I'd bought in Pearl River. Amelie Glapion and her granddaughters had gone to the mattresses, and so had we. Amelie Glapion made her way to the throne, sat carefully in it, and turned her gaze to us like a queen considering the ambassadors of some particularly ill-favored nation. It was theater. It was the appearance of nobility and power, confidence and influence built out of baling wire and bubble gum; the trash and debris of the world transforming itself into something holy. The Church of Something from Nothing, and for a moment, I felt genuinely moved by it.
The rider in her-Legba-spoke again.
"You have come to my city uninvited and unwelcome," it said with the old woman's tongue. "You come with the tools of a thief and an assassin, and you conspire with the outcast. For any of these, I would break your flesh and cast you into darkness. But the hollow one tells me you fought in my child's defense."
Sabine, behind me, spoke. Her voice was strong and musical.
"She did, Maman Legba. Everything he said was truth."
Amelie Glapion cast a sour, inhuman glance over my shoulder at her granddaughter, then shrugged.
"For this I grant you indulgence. Now you say you've come for my help against the outcast," the rider said. When it spoke again, the depth and power were less, the voice more human as if the thin, ill woman were grabbing the microphone from a fallen angel. "Why the hell should I believe that shit?"
I stepped forward. Legba's eyes, snake-black, stared out at me from Amelie's face. I remembered its shining skin, its teeth, the presentiment I'd had that first time we'd met that it would die or I would.
"Karen Black lied to me," I said. "She told me that there was a killer loose and that she needed my help to stop it. I didn't know she was Carrefour's horse. And she is, right?"
The voice came from the shadows to my left. Mfume was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed. His smile was strangely encouraging.
"Okay, then," I said. "She called me here under false pretenses. And then she... sent me away again. But a friend of mine's still with her. He's sleeping with her. He doesn't know what she is either."
"He's an idiot," Amelie said. Or Legba. Or maybe they agreed with each other.
"He is sometimes, yeah," I said. "But he's my friend. And I want him back."
"And you need my help to do that," Amelie said. It was strange hearing the two separate beings in the single voice, but I felt I was getting the feel of it.
"Yours, yes," I said, then nodded toward Mfume. "And his."
"What price are you offering?" Legba asked.
The room was silent. It was what Karen had asked me. It was how, I had to think, Eric had gained his wealth, his power. I didn't know what to say. I hated how much I sucked at this part.
"I'm offering to help you break Carrefour's power," I said. "I'm your enemy's enemy. As long as that's true, we can work together."
"Well ain't that convenient," Amelie said, though I had the sense that Legba within her was considering the offer. "You work with her, you dance to her tune, you screw up my home, and then you come here all ready to get behind me. How do I know you're not still working for her, just getting in here so you can stab me in the back? Hmm?"
It was a fair question, and I didn't have an answer.
"What price are you asking?" I said.
"A pact," Legba said, and I knew from its voice the word meant something deep. I had heard a little about agreements with riders and wizards and other nasties. Binding of intention was the phrase that came to mind. I felt something in my belly squirm and flutter, and then settle.
"I will accept a pact with you," I said and immediately thought, Holy shit, I will?
Amelie Glapion rose and held out her right hand. I stepped forward to meet her. When I put my hand in hers, her fingers closed on mine like a trap. Her will, her qi, the caduceus-like spirits of woman and rider pressed into me, and reflexively, I pressed back, the heat in my belly rising to my shoulder, down to my hand out through my fingers. When Legba spoke, I saw Amelie's teeth had changed to the rider's forest of knives.
"Until Carrefour is destroyed, you will not act against me or mine. You will respect my will and shall act in no way against me," Legba said. "Nor shall we slaughter you, though it be our right to do so."
"I accept this," I said, and Glapion dropped my hand. We both stepped back. I felt like something electric and profound had happened. I was energized and a little nauseated. Amelie Glapion sat in her throne and chuckled. Her eyes were human again, her voice her own.
"Well now," she said. "Ain't you the subtle one?"
"Um," I said. Then, "Thanks?"
"I'm going to rest up now," she said. "I'm a tired old lady, and this shit's too much to keep up all day long. Then we can talk about how to kill that sonofabitch wants to hurt my girls."
Amelie started to rise and faltered. The two drummers hurried to her side, lifting and supporting her. Even by the warm light of the candles, I could see her face had taken on an ashy color and the drooping along her left side had become more pronounced. From one moment to the next, she had gone from being the mask worn by something huge and powerful that lived just outside the world to a fragile old woman, exhausted by walking and needing care. The two things seemed like they should cancel out, that the rider's power and the woman's vulnerability should somehow average to a middle value. They didn't.
There was a rush of sound that I didn't recognize at first as voices. The cultists were speaking for the first time since they'd surrounded us. Men and women, old and young, they were all talking now in low voices. Some were smiling, others shaking their heads.
"Thank you," Sabine said.
"For what?" I said, though You're welcome would probably have been more polite.
"For helping Maman," she said. I followed her gaze. Amelie was reclining awkwardly on one of the cots, helped down by one of her group. "It was hard for her, losing the Temple. I was afraid..."
Sabine shook her head. Sixteen. Curt's age. She looked older, but it was probably only that she carried a heavier weight. I had the urge to put my hand on her shoulder, but I stopped myself. I had just bound myself to a spiritual parasite from Next Door who intended to possess this girl, continuing a line of devoured women that reached back over a century. I made myself complicit to her sacrifice.
Only until Ex is back, I thought. Until Carrefour is destroyed. That was the deal, and after that we would see where we stood. Maybe there would still be a way to get Sabine out safely.
I hoped so.
"Thank you," she said again.
"It's early days," I said. "Thank me when it's over."
She smiled, and a small dashing movement careened into her side. Daria Glapion hung on her sister's arm, grinning.
"I told you she'd come back," Daria said to her sister, and then to me, "I knew you would."
"You did?" I said.
"Not knew knew," Daria said. "Just normal knew. I was right though, wasn't I."
"You were," I said, and the little girl grinned in triumph.
The crowd began to thin, Amelie's congregation going about the business of setting watch, getting food, or whatever the business of the rider required. There were only three cots. They couldn't all be sleeping here. One of the drummers caught my eye and looked away nervously. I wondered what I seemed like to them. Early twenties college dropout with too much money in the company of a couple slightly older men. Put that way, it didn't sound like an uncommon sight.
On the other hand, when Marinette had taken Aubrey, I'd beaten one of their gods in single combat, so maybe that would be a little intimidating.
"Let me get you something," Sabine said. "Do you need something to eat? Drinks?"
"I'd take a Coke," I said. I needed to eat-we hadn't had anything but airplane food since breakfast-but my gut was still unsettled from the pact. Aubrey shook his head, and Chogyi Jake asked for green tea, if there was any to be had. Sabine, her little sister in tow, went off, playing the hostess because her mother was dead, her grandmother was dying, and there was no one else to do it. Chogyi Jake watched her, smiling.
"Well," Aubrey said, his voice an almost-perfect imitation of not-panicked. "The place isn't too bad. As lion's dens go."
"Yeah," I said. "I think it worked, right?"
"I don't know," Aubrey said. "What exactly did we agree to?"
"Not kill each other until Carrefour's cooked," I said. "At least I think that's right."
"More precisely," Chogyi Jake said, "you agreed not to act against Legba or its coterie, and it agreed not to kill you. I believe it could still imprison you or inflict injuries that weren't actually mortal. That doesn't seem to be its immediate intention, though."
"Great," Aubrey said. "And we're covered in all that too, right?"
Chogyi Jake tilted his head.
"I think that depends on whether 'we will not slaughter you' was you-singular or you-plural," he said. "On the up side, if we aren't covered by the protection, we aren't bound by the restrictions either."
"Right. Good to know," Aubrey said, and I laughed. I couldn't help it. The tension and fear and strange energy of the rider made me giddy. Chogyi Jake and Aubrey looked at me, which only made it worse. It wasn't funny, except it was.
"A little slack here," I said, wiping away small tears of hilarity. "It was my first pact with demons, okay?"
One of the cultists cleared her throat in a low, but distinct signal. Quietly, the groups of people started to file out. On her cot, Amelie Glapion lay with her eyes closed, hands folded, her breath regular and deep. At rest, she looked ancient; her eyes sunken, her cheeks collapsed.
I'd never known my mother's mother, but Grandma Heller had died when I was twelve. We had all gone to the funeral, even Curt who'd still been in kindergarten. My memories of the trip were vague, half-recalled and half-imagined, but the image of the old woman in her coffin-hair pulled gently back, lips in a secretive smile-remained. In her death, she'd looked more alive than Amelie Glapion did now.
Sabine returned, an actual glass bottle of soda in one hand and a paper cup steaming and smelling like tea in the other.
"I couldn't find green, but I got some normal kind," she said softly as she handed the cup to Chogyi and the soda to me. "I'm sorry about Maman. She needs a lot of rest these days. She usually only naps like this for a few minutes. She doesn't mean any disrespect."
"No," I said. "No, it's fine. But maybe we should... you know, go someplace?"
Sabine nodded sharply, her gaze jumping to her grandmother and back to us. Her brow furrowed, and a soft, familiar accent came from behind us to rescue her.
"Let me take them," Joseph Mfume said. "There is a conversation that we should have anyway, and now is as good a time as any."
"Thank you," Sabine said. "I should find Daria. She's like to sneak out to the street and start telling people's signs if no one stops her."
"Off you go, then," Mfume said with a mock solemnity. "You need not care for these three. I will see to them."
He led us through a smaller archway to a thin staircase lit by a single bare bulb. Single file, we went up the steep wooden steps, down a short hallway, and out through warped French doors to the balcony overlooking the street. The night air was muggy but cool. The sky glowed with the city's reflected light, but not so much that the stars couldn't fight their way through. Mfume took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.
"Forgive me. It's a terrible habit, but it's my own," he said as he took one out. He lit it with a kitchen match drawn along the iron rail. In the sulfur flare, he looked older than I remembered him. Careworn. He had tattoos on the backs of his hands. I hadn't noticed that before. He breathed out a cloud of gray and smiled at me. "I'm pleased to see you again, and looking so well. I was worried about you."
"Some cracked ribs, a few staples to hold my arm together," I said. "Good as new. These are my friends. Chogyi Jake. Aubrey."
"Thank you," Aubrey said as he shook the killer's hand. "You didn't have to take Jayn¨¦ to the hospital like that. I want to say how much I appreciate that you did."
"It was nothing," Mfume said, gesturing with his cigarette, the smoke leaving a faint contrail in the air. "It was the least I could do."
"She doesn't look good," I said. "Amelie. Or Legba. Whatever. She doesn't look good."
"She isn't," Mfume said. "And it's getting worse. She has less energy. She's confused more often. I'm no doctor, but I think she has had another stroke. At least one. Perhaps several."
"She is bound up with the city, isn't she?" Chogyi Jake said.
"I don't know," Mfume said. "She might be. The first stroke and the hurricane coming at the same moment seems too poetic to be simply chance, but... other people suffered as well. Suffered worse. And she isn't as young as she once was. There may be no reason to assign a spiritual significance to it."
"Did you know her daughter?" I asked. "Sabine's mother. The one that died."
"No," Mfume said. "No, I didn't come here until after all of that."
"You came for Carrefour," Aubrey said.
"In a sense," Mfume said and took a drag from his cigarette. The ember glowed in the darkness like a fire on the horizon. His hooded eyes and long face considered each of us in turn.
"I suppose," he said, "it would be simplest if I began at the start of things."