I grew up in the '90s. All I knew about explosions came from the action films that my older brother Jay used to watch when my parents left him in charge. They were great big Jerry Bruckheimer things that billowed smoke and fire like a grand, implacable tide shot from three different angles. This explosion wasn't like that at all. It was sudden, sharp, louder than anything I'd ever heard, and over before I understood that something was happening.
I didn't black out or lose consciousness, but time seemed to skip. I found myself running forward, toward the empty doorway and the haze of smoke and the leaping light of flames without knowing what exactly I thought I was doing. I stumbled on something and fell forward. The floor was hot under my palms. The air smelled like acid. Someone behind me was screaming. With a sense of profound detachment, I noticed that my arm was bleeding where Carrefour had cut me. I forced myself to stop, to look at where I was and what I was doing despite my body's impulse to blindly react.
Amelie Glapion had been thrown backward into the room, which was a very good thing, because the street-facing storefront of the building appeared to be on fire. Six or eight of the cultists were skittering around the back. One woman had collapsed and was being carried; one of the drummers had her heels and Chogyi Jake-still naked and marked with voodoo symbols-her shoulders. Aubrey stood open-mouthed in the center of the room, balanced between the impulse to act and raw shock. I knew how he felt. The cornmeal veve were being scattered by running feet, blurring like chalk marks in a rainstorm.
"Jayn¨¦!" Aubrey shouted.
"I'm fine," I yelled back. "Find the girls! Get out!"
"Go!" I shouted.
Something in the street cracked, and I saw a brief yellow-white light in the darkness at the far side of the deeper orange fire. Muzzle flash, I thought. She's shooting at us.
"Stay down!" I shouted. I could feel the vibration in my throat, but my voice seemed to come from half a block away. "Everyone take cover!"
I couldn't tell if they heard me. Amelie Glapion moved, her arm rising up slowly, like a strand of seaweed waving in a light current. I started toward her, and a strong hand grabbed my arm, turning me. Mfume's eyes were wide, his skin ashen. He had the crumpled map of the city in his other hand.
"Don't," he said. "It's too dangerous." His voice was only the bass notes. Like a stadium concert pressed into a fraction of a second, the blast had blown out my hearing.
"It's okay," I shouted. "I'll risk it."
A different thought struck me.
"You have to go," I shouted. "You have to get out of here. Now!"
"We can all go," he said. "I have to-"
"No! You have to get out. The cops are going to come. They're going to be here. If they find out you're alive, you're heading back to prison."
Mfume rocked back like I'd slapped him. He'd forgotten that he was an escaped serial killer. He looked around the carnage and panic, and his expression was anguished.
"I'll take care of it," I said. "Just go!"
"I will stay close," Mfume said. "I will find you."
"It's a date. Now run!"
He stepped back, hesitated, and then turned, running toward the back of the place. I wondered what escape routes he could find. I didn't think there was an alleyway behind the building, but there might have been a connecting passage or a way up to the roof.
I couldn't worry about it. Another volley of gunfire came from the street, then the screeching of tires probably about a hundred times louder than my abused eardrums could register. I crept forward. The fire in the front room was getting bigger. I couldn't see the darkness of the street on the other side, so I assumed that if Karen was still out there she couldn't see me. The doorway was bright, the flames dancing wildly. The heat came off it like an assault. I scuttled forward, grabbed Amelie's blouse at the shoulder, and hauled her back. Above us, the ceiling was almost lost in a roiling white smoke. A voice I didn't recognize shouted somewhere to my left. I heard glass breaking from up the stairs and hoped it had been intentional.
"It's going to be okay," I said, then looked down at the woman I was carrying and knew that it wasn't.
Flying glass had stripped the skin from her cheeks, revealing deep red tissue and white cheekbone. Her throat was bloody. Her hands hung in the air, laboring under their own weight. Her legs where they had lain nearest the fire were blistered. A sweet smell like cooking pork cut through the smoke, and I tried not to retch.
"I'll get you out," I said. "I'll get you out of here."
"There is no need," Legba said. Unlike every other sound, its voice was perfectly clear. "The woman is gone."
"But-" I began, then didn't know where to go. But she can't die. But she was just here a minute ago. But I still need her. I didn't know if I was weeping from the smoke or something else.
"Carrefour is a clever, deceitful beast," Legba said. "I had believed that we were safe. That there would be time. More time."
The woman's dead body, still animated by the power of its rider, shifted and rose unsteadily until it sat before me. The roar of the fire in the next room was like a waterfall. The dead lips smiled at me, exposing a hundred needle-sharp teeth.
"I have fallen," it said. "There is no longer any hope for this one. It is in my child's hands now, but she is weak. Young."
"Yeah," I said. "I absolutely get that."
"The pact you took with me is broken with my death," it said, "and I cannot bring myself to beg."
"Hey, don't. I mean, you don't need to beg or anything. I said I'd stand up, and I'll do it."
The eyes were black, the woman's flesh losing its own form, shaped more and more by the thing still alive within her. Alive, but fading. I glanced around, and we were the only two left. The others had gotten out. The three empty cots against the wall were barely above the lowering smoke. The heat of the fire was like a hand pressing against my cheek. The undead voodoo queen of New Orleans considered me.
"We have not been allies," it said.
"I'm not saying I'd marry you," I said. "It's just... I'll look out for the kids. I'll do what I can."
It looked out toward the street. I coughed. I was getting a little light-headed.
"First the flood and now the fire," Legba said, as if laughing at some private joke. "Go, then. Leave me. Save my city."
I should have run. I should have been running the whole time.
"I will," I said.
Legba took my hand, and I could feel its strength failing. Without knowing I intended to, I leaned forward, cupping the dead woman's skull in my palm, pressing her forehead to mine. Something seemed to pass between us-not magic, not spirit, but understanding. And grief.
"Go," the rider said. "I will clear your way."
And the world stopped.
Silence rushed in where the roar of flames had been. The roiling smoke stilled. Amelie Glapion's body nodded toward the front room, and I rose. The air seemed to tingle, but the heat wasn't unbearable. I walked toward the front room and its ongoing conflagration. Bright flames hung in the air, still as stone but glowing. I brushed one with my hand like I was petting a cat, and it felt like velvet.
The street came more clearly into view with each step. The blackened shell of a car lay on its side in the middle of the pavement. Men and women were crowded on the sidewalk across the street, and down far enough that the heat of the flames was bearable. Two policemen stood like temple guards, keeping the crowd back.
I wondered how long it had taken-five minutes? ten?-to go from the sense of power and freedom and safety of Legba's ward-breaking dance to this. I caught a glimpse of Aubrey near one clump of people, his arm raised to shield his eyes. He didn't react as I came near, not even to breathe.
I turned back toward the fire.
"Okay," I said, my voice no louder than a conversation between friends. "Thanks. I'm clear now."
A breath later, the world turned back on. The roar of the fire, the distant sirens, the assaulting smell of burning wood and spent explosives. I felt a tug at the back of my mind, like a kid yanking on her mother's sleeve, and I knew that Legba- the Legba that had lived in Amelie Glapion-was gone. Aubrey shifted to the side, squinting into the fire.
"Hey," I said.
He yelped, whirled, and then scooped me up in a bear hug that made me yelp right back.
"Ribs! Watch the ribs!"
"Right," he said. "Sorry. But you're out. You got out. Daria, she collapsed. I mean, I think she's okay now, but I had to carry her out. I saw you going after Amelie, and then I didn't see you go past, so I thought you were still... I thought..."
"Guess that was kind of dangerous," I said. I felt disconnected. Like the world was still at one remove, and I was still moving through the crossroads. "I didn't really think about it."
"What about Amelie?"
"She didn't make it," I said. "She's gone."
Aubrey didn't answer. At the far end of the street, a fire truck arrived, its lights flashing and its siren clearing the path of onlookers. Another police cruiser was behind it, then two, then five and an ambulance. The city of New Orleans had arrived at the crisis. They were on it. I crossed my arms and watched, unable to offer anything but moral support. Slowly, like I was waking from a dream, human concerns started to occur to me.
"Chogyi Jake," I said. "He was..."
"He's down there with the others."
I looked where he pointed. Down the block, a small cluster of people had set up a kind of ad-hoc relief station. Two people lay on the sidewalk, three others standing or squatting beside them. Chogyi Jake was sitting on the curb, someone's jacket wrapping his hips. Daria Glapion stood beside him looking back at us. Even from half a block down, the fire reflected in her eyes.
"Come on," I said.
The police, reinforced by the newly arrived squad cars, pushed the crowd further back and the firefighters rushed in. Chogyi Jake looked up at me and smiled wearily.
"Not the evening we had in mind," he said.
"No joke," I said and sat down beside the girl.
Daria didn't turn toward me. Her eyes were fixed on the pyre, tears flowing down her stark, impassive cheeks. I sat with her in silence for a minute. The firefighters pulled a long hose that looked like canvas up to the fire. With shouts and hand signals, the water started, spraying out into the flames. The smoke thickened.
"I'm sorry," I said.
The little girl nodded.
"I would have saved her if I could," I said. "But your grandmother was already gone when I got to her."
"I know," Daria said.
The matter-of-fact tone of voice together with the pain in her eyes, the bravery of her composure, was heartbreaking. I wanted to put my arm around the girl, to scoop her up and hold her and let her cry, but her dignity seemed to forbid it. Here was a child not even in high school. She had seen her city assaulted, had lost her mother, her brother, now her grandmother, and all she had left in the world was a sister who...
"Where's Sabine?" I said, my voice sharper than I intended. "Who's got Sabine?"
"I couldn't find her," Aubrey said, shaking his head. "She was already gone."
Chogyi Jake and Daria turned to me in silence.
"Well, fuck," I said.
"SHE MAY be with Mfume. Or Inond¨¦, wherever he is," Aubrey said. "We don't know for certain that Karen got her."
I'd rented us a room in the same hotel we'd stayed at when we had first come to New Orleans. Chogyi Jake was in the bathroom, showering off the last of the voodoo markings from his skin. Daria was sitting on the crisp, white linen sheets looking out the open French doors to the patio and the darkened courtyard beyond it. Aubrey couldn't stop moving, pacing, rapping his knuckles on the walls and tables as he passed them, and I was sitting in a deep, cream-colored oversized chair. My hair smelled like smoke.
"I don't think we can assume she got away," I said. "If she's not with us, we have to act like Karen got her. Hoping for the best isn't really an option here."
"Call him again," Aubrey said. "Maybe he'll be there."
I didn't fight him on it, but I didn't expect anything to come of it. I dug through my pack, pulled out the cell phone, and pulled Ex's entry out of the contacts list. As I listened to the phone ring, the shower water stopped. By the time Ex's recorded voice said he was away from his phone and to leave a message, Chogyi Jake stepped out of the bathroom wearing a fresh pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt.
"Any word?" he asked, and I shook my head.
"Okay," Aubrey said. "Let's take stock here. We don't know where Sabine is-"
"So we have to assume Karen's taken her," I said.
"Right," Aubrey said. "So Karen's taken her. Mfume and Inond¨¦ are MIA. Ex isn't answering his phone."
"Does she know we broke the wards?" I asked. Chogyi Jake's brow furrowed for a moment.
"I don't know," he said. "If she didn't specifically check, she might not. And unless she's been listening to the message we left for Ex, she may not know we've come back at all."
"Oh, I never told him we were coming back," I said. "I never told him Karen was possessed. I just said he should call us."
"In that case," Chogyi Jake said, sitting on the bed beside Daria, "I can't see how she'd know we're here."
"Okay, so we've got something in the plus column," I said. "What else?"
"We probably know where she is," Aubrey said. "And if we can find Mfume, we can be sure."
"If her intention is to pull the rider out of Sabine, that will take Ex some time," Chogyi Jake said. "Two hours. Perhaps three."
"Giving us maybe an hour to figure out whatever we're doing, and then do it," I said. "I don't think we're in the plus column anymore, guys."
The sense of despair was seeping in at the sides like ink soaking a sheet of paper. The last time I'd faced Carrefour, it had almost killed me and I still hadn't recovered. Aubrey had been on the edge of freaking at least twice already, not to mention his wounds from exorcising Marinette. Chogyi Jake had been the focus of a ceremony already. We were tired, and we were hurt, and we were going to go to the safe house and confront Karen Black and the thing inside her. I didn't like our chances.
Daria shifted. She looked empty. Shell-shocked.
"Hey," I said gently. She turned to me. "How're you holding up, kiddo?"
"You can't take it on," she said. "You should call for help."
"I would," I said with a sense of growing loneliness. "I don't have anyone to call."
Daria's expression became quizzical.
"I do. I've got lots of people," she said and started ticking off fingers with each name. "Aunt Corrie and Uncle Bo. Aunt Sherrie. BP and Omar."
"Wait, who?" I said.
"Legba's community," Chogyi Jake said, his voice chagrined. "The ones that aren't being treated for smoke inhalation."
"They're going to know what happened by now," Daria said. "Somebody would have called somebody as soon as they got out from the fire. They're probably just trying to figure out what's going on."
"How many people were in your grandma's... group?" I asked.
"A hundred," Daria said without pausing. "It's always a hundred. Ten tens give it power and strength. Grandma said we needed that."
"And you can get ahold of them?"
Daria held out her hand. She couldn't have been more than twelve, and I had the feeling she was more in control of the situation than I was. I gave her the phone. Her small fingers traced a number. I heard the distant ringing as she held the phone to her ear. Then a click, and a woman's voice.
"Auntie Sherrie? I'm with someone you need to talk to. She's going to help Sabine, so be gentle with her, okay?"
Without waiting for a reply, Daria held out the telephone. Her expression was eerily mature and more than a little pitying.
"You really need to find out who you are," she said.
I put the phone to my ear.
"Hi," I said.
"Who is this?" a woman's voice asked. I could hear the fear and the anger, but something else too. Something protective and fierce.
"My name's Jayn¨¦," I said. "I'm a friend. Kind of. We don't have time to get into that part. What's important is Carrefour killed Amelie Glapion and abducted Sabine."
The woman on the other end said something obscene.
"I know where they are," I said. "Get as many people as you can and meet me at Jackson Square in half an hour."
"I'll be there," the woman said, equal parts promise and threat. She dropped the connection. I put the phone back in my pack with a sense of unreality.
"Well?" Aubrey asked.
"Daria's right. Put it in the plus column," I said. "We've got a cult."