Something happened when I was ten or eleven years old that, maybe because it didn't have to do with leaving home or supernatural beasties or who that cute guy in French was, I hadn't thought of in years. The Conroys were a family that went to our church. The father was a big, bluff man with thinning blond hair and a bright red face, his wife was short and about as wide as she was tall, and their three boys were named-I'm not making this up-Huey, Dewey, and Louis. Pronounced Lewis. We weren't close to them. We didn't go to the same schools, our dads didn't work together, our mothers didn't hang out. They were just some other people who went to the same place we did on Sunday, listened to the same sermons, milled around at the same picnics and ice cream socials and so on.
And then their house burned down, and they came to live with us for a month.
My clearest memories of that time involved waiting in the hallway for one of the boys to finish with the bathroom and the smell of the cabbage and sausage casserole that Mrs. Conroy made as a thankyou dinner. When my brothers and I talked about it, it was always in the context of, "Holy shit, do you remember when those people invaded our house?" After they left, we didn't stay in touch. The only thing we'd ever had in common was our church.
Until that night in the dark, bleak hours of the morning, a cold fog rising from the ground in Jackson Square like a thousand cheap Halloween ghosts, I hadn't thought about how amazing that really was. The Conroys had been nothing to us, and we'd let them come into our home, sleep in our living room, borrow our robes and slippers, and watch our TV with us just because we were all part of the same group and they were in trouble.
The thirty men and women standing in Jackson Square, waiting for me and Daria would have stood out in my church like blood on a wedding dress. Never mind that there were no blacks at my church; there also weren't men with decorative scars on their necks or women who looked like they could chew through two-by-fours on the strength of rage alone. But something was the same, a sense of belonging together, of unspoken loyalty, of real community that filled me with a nostalgic longing.
There was also the impression that they'd happily beat an outsider to death with a pipe and sink the body in a swamp. There was less nostalgia with that one.
The whole time she'd been with us, Daria had been quiet. As soon as we saw the cult waiting for us, Daria ran to a thick-shouldered woman, wrapped her thin arms around the woman's belly, and started crying. Her sobs were low and violent, and I felt inexplicably responsible for them.
"Hey," I said. "I'm Jayn¨¦."
"You're the one came and screwed up the ceremony at Charity," one man said. He looked familiar. Now that I was close, and they were all around me, there were several who looked like I'd seen them before dancing in the belly of the dead hospital. There were more, though, that were new to me. I didn't see anyone who'd been in the fire, who'd witnessed the pact I'd taken with Legba. That was kind of too bad.
"Yeah, sorry about that," I said. "I didn't really understand the situation. I screwed up a lot of things."
"It's not her fault," Daria said. "Carrefour lied to her. Soon as she saw what was happening, she came to Gramma for help."
"Seems like that didn't work out too well either," the thick-shouldered woman said.
"Treat her with respect," a man's voice came ringing from the gloom. "Amelie accepted her."
Dr. Inond¨¦ loomed up out of the fog. He wasn't a particularly imposing sight. The damp had soaked his shirt and hair, sticking both to him in unflattering ways. He nodded to me and Aubrey and Chogyi Jake, then went and knelt beside Daria and murmured something that the girl nodded back to. When he stood, he looked tired but determined.
"Look," he said. "I was there. Carita Lohman was too, you can call her. Or Tommy Condon¨¦. Or Harold Jackson's son. We were all there. If it wasn't for this girl and her friends, Carrefour would have been able to do a lot worse than it did."
"Did bad enough, seems like," a thin, angry-looking man said.
"Okay, look," I said. "I know where Carrefour took Sabine. I can take you there, but... I need a promise."
"Who the hell are you to make demands of us?" the thick-shouldered woman said.
"Sherrie!" Daria snapped, standing back a step from the woman and wagging a finger at her like a mother scolding a child. "I told you to be gentle with her. So be gentle."
It was a ridiculous sight. Daria was small and slight and young; a girl play-acting at being adult. Sherrie looked like she'd be at home in a street fight. But when Daria spoke, Sherrie looked abashed.
"I'm not trying to hold things up," I said. "It's just that we aren't all going into this with the same exact agenda, and I don't want things to get weird. The exorcist that Carrefour's using doesn't know he's working for a rider. He thinks he's saving Sabine. So when we get in there, don't hurt him. He's not the bad guy."
There was a silent motion in the group. I couldn't tell if it was a good thing or a bad one. I felt like I was standing on the high-dive board, looking down at an empty pool. But I had to keep going.
"And," I said, "the horse? The one Carrefour's riding? Her name's Karen. She didn't pick any of this either."
The voice of the crowd was easier to interpret this time, low and unhappy. Angry. I felt Aubrey and Chogyi Jake step in toward me, closing ranks. Dr. Inond¨¦ looked embarrassed on my behalf.
"You want to go into a fight but just don't hurt anybody," Sherrie said.
"I just want to try and do the right thing," I said. "We have to do what we have to do, but if there's a chance... if there's a way to keep Karen alive, we should. This isn't her fault."
"And if we don't promise, you're going to let Legba be cast down and Sabine die," Sherrie said.
"No. If you won't, then we'll try to stop Carrefour without you," I said. "It's just not as likely that it'll go well."
"Then I guess we promise," Sherrie said, raising an eyebrow.
A police car driving past the square slowed but didn't turn on its flashing lights. It wasn't every night someone set off a car bomb in the French Quarter. Thirty angry-looking people standing around Jackson Square at two in the morning was only going make the authorities jumpier. I didn't think taking everyone back to my hotel was going to work either.
"Okay, look," I said. "I've got a car over at my hotel like five minutes from here. The place Carrefour took Sabine is out in Pearl River, but it's a little hard to find. Can you guys grab your cars and follow me out?"
"We'll be there," Sherrie said.
"I'm coming too," Daria said.
I said, "No, you aren't," at the same moment Sherrie said, "Like hell you are."
"She's my sister," Daria said to both of us. "You can't keep me from coming."
"Sweetheart," Sherrie said. "Your grandma would come back from the dead to kick my ass if I took her baby granddaughter into a fight. And if you believe I can't keep you from coming, you don't know me as well as you think."
"I'll take care of her," Dr. Inond¨¦ said. "We'll stay at the shop. Doris likes her."
"Doris doesn't like anything," Daria said, outraged. "She's a snake."
I nodded to Sherrie, then Aubrey, Chogyi Jake, and I all started back toward the hotel. I noticed I was breathing hard; adrenaline burning off through my lungs.
"How long have we got?" I asked.
"If the rider in Sabine is as intractable as Marinette," Chogyi Jake said. "An hour. Maybe less."
"If we're too late, I think those people may kill us," Aubrey said.
"I had that feeling too," I said.
The drive out to the safe house had never seemed longer. Fog pressed in at the car windows, the murmur of the tires against the pavement hissing like a constant, breathless voice just too low to comprehend, and behind us, a string of headlights. The rider cult, following close. With each mile we covered, my stomach knotted more tightly until I was skating along the edge of nausea.
I was pretty sure that somewhere along the line I'd intended to be careful, to plan, to think things through rather than rushing headlong into unknown danger. And here we were, Aubrey leaning over the steering wheel as he broke the speed limits, Chogyi Jake in the backseat in deep meditation that I recognized as a preparation for battle, and me sitting powerless in the passenger's seat squinting ahead at the darkness or backward into the light. I didn't know what we would find at the safe house. The new Legba might already be eaten, Sabine and Ex already dead. Or Carrefour might be waiting for us. Karen could be in the trees with a sniper rifle, prepared to pick us off as we drove up the street.
She might not even be there.
"Jayn¨¦?" Aubrey said. "You okay?
"You keep saying shit shit shit shit under your breath," he said. "I didn't figure it was a good sign."
"Copro-vocal meditation," Chogyi Jake said from the backseat, his voice calm and amused. "I'm doing the same thing, only on the inside."
I laughed a little, and in the mirrors, I saw Chogyi Jake, his eyes closed, smile too. I loved him just then. Not like a man, but just as himself. And Aubrey too. And even Ex, asshole that he sometimes was. It was the moment of clarity that put all the rest of it in perspective.
"I shouldn't have let him split up the family," I said. "I should never have put up with that."
Aubrey glanced a question at me, then looked back at the road.
"Ex," I said. "Fucking Ex. Well, and Carrefour. I should never have let them split us up. I mean this thing that we're doing? This is not the sign that I did things right."
"But we have to do it," Aubrey said.
"Yeah," I said. "Because of Ex."
"Would you turn away otherwise?" Chogyi Jake asked. He sounded deep and calm as a temple bell. "If Ex had been with us in Savannah, and you had the same epiphany, would you have turned away?"
"Yes," I said. "Oh hell yes. You wouldn't have gotten me back here for anything."
"Interesting," Chogyi Jake said.
"It's not that I don't like Sabine," I said. "She's nice. She's out of her league, and I totally respect that. But there are a lot of nice people in trouble out there, you know? I'm not even keeping this one from being possessed."
"And Legba?" Chogyi Jake said.
His tone of voice carried volumes. Legba, the shining serpent that made its way through the blood of Marie Laveau down through the generations. The rider that would keep Sabine and Daria from only being orphaned black girls in a dangerous, broken city. The demon that would not leave New Orleans even in the face of the city's inundation. Legba the mutualist, the builder of community.
And so, by implication, Carrefour who had raped and slaughtered Mfume's fianc¨¦e and Karen Black's partner and parents. Carrefour who had lied to me, seduced me as much as it had Ex. Carrefour who had bombed Amelie Glapion and whoever else had happened to be in the street at the time. Carrefour, the serial killer. The exile.
Did I really think there was no difference between the two? Or was it just that the difference wouldn't have been big enough to justify the risk of coming back?
I wondered what Eric would have done. I didn't know anything about his relationship with Karen Black except what she'd told me. There might not have been the consultations she'd told me about. The favors owed and paid. All I knew for certain was that he'd had her number in his cell phone, and that when she called, she'd assumed he would know what she was talking about.
"I think I preferred the muttering obscenities," Aubrey said.
"Sorry," I said. "I was just thinking."
"Yeah, I got that from the way I could hear the gears grinding in your head."
"Maybe I would have come back. For Sabine," I said, and we ran out of lake. We'd reached Pearl River.
The road to the safe house was empty, and we took it very slowly, turning our headlights off. The cars behind us-eight of them-followed our lead. We glided through the night in the glow of running lights, slow as a funeral. If we actually drove up to the house, they'd hear us for sure. I didn't know if it made more sense to try sneaking up on Karen and Ex or going for the full frontal assault. Except I really did want Ex to live through it, and Karen too if I could manage it. All-out assaults tended, I guessed, to have more of a body count. I weighed my options and a shadow detached itself from the trees and loped toward the car.
Aubrey yelped, but before he could gun the engine or turn the car to attack, Joseph Mfume's long face was framed in the window, his finger turning a fast circle that meant we should roll down the window. When Aubrey did it, the thick, unconditioned air smelled like swamp and sweat.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Waiting for you," Mfume said and looked back at the other cars. "And them as well, I take it."
"I got some reinforcements," I said. "She's really here then?"
"Yes," Mfume said. "I followed it from the house. Amelie? She's..."
"Gone," I said. "And Legba with her."
Behind us a car door opened and closed, and then another. The cult preparing for battle. Mfume's goofy smile looked strained and nervous.
"They have been in the shed for some time," he said. "We have to hurry."
"I know," I said, then to Aubrey, "just park it here. We'll walk in."
"You have a plan?" Mfume said.
"That would be generous," I said as I got out.
"I've got a bunch of general intentions and thirty or so people with cheap handguns and machetes."
"More effective than intention alone, I suppose," Mfume said.
The others were spilling out into the midnightblack street. The dome lights flickered on and off like a huge, understated Christmas tree. One car alarm chirped, and angry voices followed it. I felt some sympathy for whoever had made the mistake. We were all improvising here.
They gathered close, but I could see their eyes turning toward the gently curving drive that would lead to the safe house. I could feel them drawn toward it like moths toward flame; their queen was in danger, and they strained at the leash of my own tentative authority. I couldn't hold them back any longer.
"Okay," I said, my voice a stage whisper. "They're going to be in the shed out back..."
"We gonna need three groups," Aunt Sherrie said. "Omar, you take your crew and head around the left side through the trees, and don't go fast. You go too fast, you make noise like that goddamn car alarm."
"Sorry about that," a voice said from the gloom.
"Don't be sorry, just get your boys together," Sherrie said. "Elijah? You take Nick and Majora and any two others you like and secure the house. Anybody in there, you just keep right on going all the way around until you hook up with Omar, but if it's empty, you get in and hold it. Deny this bitch her fallback position, you understand?"
"Yes, Aunt Sherrie," a man with a voice like a landslide said.
"All right, then. The rest of y'all come with me. That means you too, Miss Thing," Sherrie said, looking at me. "We're the ones going to bell the cat, and I am not doing that job by myself. Omar, I'm going to give you five minutes to get in position. If we have to fall back, Carrefour's going to get drawn out, and you be ready to come in behind it. Now all you remember we're trying not to kill the preacher or the horse. Preacher, you just hold him down or shoot him in the knee. Whatever. The horse... well, do what you can."
"Um," I said, blinking.
"Two tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq," Sherrie said. "I do not fuck around."
I had the almost genetic impulse to say sir, yes sir, but I sat on it. Mfume stepped forward.
"I will take the rider," he said. "Don't kill her unless I have fallen."
Sherrie cocked her head, then shrugged.
"You heard the man. Be careful with Carrefour until it kills this one. Then do what you have to do. Now let's go."
Half the cultists seemed to dissolve into the gray, moonlit mist, the others waiting to follow Sherrie's lead. She smiled at me with wide, white, tombstone teeth.
"This is your party," she said. "You go on ahead, we'll follow you."
Meaning, I understood, that if anyone was going to get shot from a distance, it was going to be me. I took a deep breath, then let it out slowly and nodded. Chogyi Jake and Aubrey came to my side, and then Mfume joined them. Five minutes, she'd said. They lasted forever and no time at all. Sherrie looked from her wristwatch to the drive, pointed at me, pointed at it. My throat was thick with fear and my blood felt like it was vibrating in its vessels.
I walked down the side of the path, the knee-high grass muffling my footsteps more than the gravel would have. The safe house slowly came into view, its windows glowing in the fog. No one confronted us but the Virgin Mary, looking more like a tombstone than ever. The shed was still hidden by the angle of our approach.
Aubrey trotted up to walk at my side, Chogyi Jake and Mfume followed close. Aubrey took my hand.
"I've got to stop getting us into situations like this," I said softly. "I'm seriously going to get someone killed."
"Yeah," he agreed. "You really are."