TWENTY-FIVE

How does anyone put a world back together? How does anyone begin again? When everything changes-changes for the better, changes for the worse, a little of both-it isn't just the world that's called into question. It's you too. Who you are, and what that means.

The eight of us sat at the same table Karen had brought us to the first day in New Orleans. The same waiters brought us three huge platters of bright red crawfish. The breeze that stirred the palm fronds was warm, the light pressing down through the hazy late spring sky was probably going to sunburn my nose. If I hadn't been quite so thoroughly bruised and abraded, I'd have been wearing shorts and a halter top. I wore slacks that went down to my ankles and a billowy cotton blouse with long sleeves and a high collar. Getting out of the hotel shower that morning, I'd looked like something from the unpleasant part of a David Lynch film.

Sabine, on the other hand, was wearing shorts and a halter top. She looked beautiful and serene and in command of the table in a way utterly unlike a sixteen-year-old orphan girl who'd lost her grandmother two days before. Daria, sitting to her left, fidgeted and frowned in what I thought of as school-uniform chic. The adults-Chogyi Jake, Aubrey, Ex, Dr. Inond¨¦, and my lawyer-seemed like the disciples here; the city revolved around Sabine Glapion now.

"Well," my lawyer said, scooping the papers out of the way as the third platter of crustacean floated down before her, "I think that puts it all in order. Actually filing will take some time, of course."

"You're sure no one's going to object?" Dr. Inond¨¦ said. It turned out he'd grown up in a part of Brooklyn my lawyer knew.

"Emancipation proceedings at Sabine's age aren't at all unusual," my lawyer said. "And with no surviving adult relatives, I can't see anyone raising an objection."

"But it does look awfully strange," Dr. Inond¨¦ said, wringing his hands, "an old man like me being a business partner with, well..."

"A little girl?" Sabine said with a grin. She scooped up one of the crawfish, snapped off the head, and sucked at it while Daria made a theatrical gagging sound.

"I'm just saying it looks odd from the outside," Dr. Inond¨¦ said.

"However it looks, it will be legal and binding," my lawyer said, "and Jayn¨¦ here has put aside a little something to cover expenses if anything does come up. You have my number. Only call, and I'll see it's taken care of."

Dr. Inond¨¦ nodded, but his brow didn't lose its furrows.

"Something's bothering you about it?" Aubrey asked.

"He doesn't want to fold both businesses together," Sabine said. "Thinks that the Voodoo Heart Temple and the Authentic New Orleans Voodoo Museum ought to stay separate, like two different... franchises."

Her use of the last word was careful and not, I thought, entirely correct. For a moment, the persona slipped, and Sabine wasn't the voodoo queen of New Orleans, but a kid thrown into an adult world and doing her best. It was temporary. The lost little girl would appear less and less over time, and before long she'd be gone forever, and some new, still-forming Sabine Glapion would take her place, same as with anyone. Dr. Inond¨¦ waved his hands. I picked up a crawfish. Its shell was still hot from the boiler.

"I just think they pull in different types," he said. "My museum's a roadside attraction. Very touristy. The Temple is more local. Part of the community."

"But if you combine those and cut overhead," Ex said with a shrug.

"It will be better as one thing," Daria said solemnly. "Believe me, I know."

Dr. Inond¨¦ blinked, and Sabine slapped her sister smartly on the shoulder.

"Don't go lying to him, or he's not going to believe you when it's important," Sabine said, and Daria grinned impishly.

"There may be a middle path," Chogyi Jake said, his voice abstracted and thoughtful. The conversation moved on to business planning and maximizing profit, building reputation and reaching out to the tourist trade, what to put on the Web site and whether to advertise outside of the city itself. I let the talk wash over me, a rush of sound and meaning like a wave tugging at the sand.

I was exhausted. My ribs hurt badly. The ACE bandage that I'd wrapped myself with helped some, but it was going to be several deeply uncomfortable weeks before I was whole again.

When our lunch was over, we all walked out to the street together, Sabine and Dr. Inond¨¦ still wrangling about the structure of their new joint business. In truth, it was only the fine points. He would manage and oversee the day-to-day business and draw a salary. Sabine would shoulder the more abstract burden of being the living crossroads, the queen of New Orleans, the avatar of Legba. That and she was going back to finish high school. The combination made my head swim a little.

On the street, a thin white kid was leaning against the wall playing guitar, the case open on the sidewalk with a few crumpled dollars and coins there to confirm its function. Aubrey dropped in a five. We said our good-byes, and as we turned and walked away, Daria ran back, hugging me fiercely around the waist. I held her for a long moment, then let her go pelting after her sister through the narrow, sweating street. My lawyer fell into step beside me.

"That went much better than I'd expected," she said. "I won't lie to you, dear. When you said you were getting involved with the Glapions, I was concerned. They aren't the sort of people you want to be on the wrong side of."

"It took a while, but I figured that part out," I said.

"Your uncle would have been proud," she said. "And about the other matter?"

"I'd like to go too," Ex said, breaking in.

"I said it was just going to be me," I said. "I promised."

Ex's expression hardened, but he didn't push back. Part of him was probably relieved.

I DROVE out alone. The lake was familiar by now, the water greenish-brown in the midafternoon sun. Traffic along I-10 was lighter than I expected, and I got off the highway a couple exits earlier than usual rather than get to Pearl River sooner than I'd meant to. I drove, aiming myself down residential streets, letting the time pass.

The storm damage here wasn't so bad. The bathtub ring wasn't there on the buildings. A few places near the water showed some damage, the searchers' X. And some had new windows. I stopped at a Subway and got a six-inch sub and some salt and vinegar chips that I ate sitting on the curb, watching the traffic and the street life. This wasn't the Vieux Carr¨¦. The sense of history and place was less oppressive here. It was only a city, alive and functioning. A little damaged, but growing back. Becoming itself.

How do you put a city back together? One house at a time. One restaurant, one coffee stand. One hospital and one pothole and one cheesy tourist trap voodoo museum at a time. And you try to get ready for the next storm.

The safe house looked the same, but it felt different. It was like the space itself had been altered by what had happened there. I pulled up the drive. The Virgin Mary in front was covered in flowers and burned-out candles studded the lawn before her outstretched arms. Someone had left the Holy Mother a fifth of bourbon as an offering. I wasn't sure what I thought about that, but at least she didn't look like a tombstone anymore. I went to the door of the house I'd bought and knocked tentatively.

Mfume answered it.

He looked rough. Three days' worth of stubble salted his chin and cheeks. He wore a white T-shirt that left visible all the pale pink divots in his arm where the shotgun pellets had been dug out. He smiled when he saw me, the wide, goofy grin I'd first seen in his police record. I smiled back, and he stepped inside, ushering me through. He was still limping pretty bad.

The sunlight in the front room was softened and indirect; shadowy without any actual shadows. It smelled like the chicken noodle soup I'd had when I was sick as a kid. Comfort food.

"She's resting in the back bedroom," he said.

"How's that going?" I asked.

He shook his head and lowered himself to sit on the arm of the couch.

"She sleeps some, and then she doesn't," he said. "I believe she is still discovering how much has been taken from her. That will go on for some time."

"I'm sorry to hear it," I said.

"It could have been much worse," he said. "It nearly was."

"Yeah, well."

"How are you?"

"I feel like a pit bull's chew toy," I said. "But it'll heal. I'll be fine."

"And the others?"

"Ex is a little screwed up, I think," I said. "I haven't really talked to him yet, but... he was sleeping with a possessed woman and didn't notice."

"It isn't obvious," Mfume said. "The rider didn't present itself. How could he be expected to know?"

"He's pretty deeply into the whole self-blame thing anyway," I said. "I'm not sure that being justified in the mistake will really slow him down much."

"That's too bad," Mfume said.

"Yeah. And Aubrey's still processing. But I think he and Marinette sort of made peace with each other during that last fight. He slept through the night last night. No particular nightmares."

I didn't add that I knew that because I'd been sleeping next to him. There hadn't been any sex. Just sleeping. But still.

"And Chogyi?"

"Chogyi Jake's Chogyi Jake," I said. "I have no idea what happens in his head unless he lets me in on it."

Mfume nodded, started to cross his arms, then winced and put them back down at his sides.

"So," I said, "I've been thinking about it. I don't need this house. I've got a lot of houses and apartments and everything. I'd like you to stay here. Or, you know, if you want to. As long as you and Karen need a place, you can have this one. I'll pop for the utilities and everything. Cable."

"I appreciate what you're trying to do," he said, "but-"

"Here's the thing," I said, not letting him get out a whole objection. "You're dead. I mean, Joseph Mfume's dead, and if he's not, then he's an escaped serial killer. I've got it figured that you're uncomfortable accepting help and all. You spent a bunch of time killing anyone who reached out, and that's got to put a spin on things. Just classical conditioning, like you said. But it's not about you anymore, is it? It's about her now."

Mfume's eyebrows rose and he took a deep breath.

"You were a loner when Carrefour was driving, because that's Carrefour's shtick," I said. "You were solo after that because... well, you were doing the fugitive hunter thing. Not really conducive to an active social life. But that's done too. You have to take care of Karen, and I can help with that."

"And why would you?" he asked.

"Because I can. It costs me essentially nothing and it makes me feel better. So, you know. Go me."

The moment was fragile, but it was precious. He nodded.

"Let me think about it," he said.

"Think as long as you want, so long as afterward, you say yes."

He laughed. It was a warm sound, rueful and joyful and cathartic.

"All right," he said. "I don't have the strength to fight with two of you."

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," he replied with a smile that appreciated the irony.

The voice from the kitchen was weak.

"You're Jayn¨¦," Karen said.

She walked in wearing a robe. Her eyes were swollen from weeping. Three black scabs on her neck showed where Marinette's fingers had raked Carrefour's flesh. Two riders had fought, and Karen's body had been the battlefield.

The woman I'd known was gone. The self-assured, hyper-competent, kicking ass and taking names occult mistress of darkness had always been a load of crap, whether it was her pretending it or me trying to live up to her.

"Hey," I said.

"I remember you," Karen said. "It hated you a lot. And it was... scared of you too."

"I don't know why," I said. "I'm just me."

"Jayn¨¦ asked us to take care of her house while she is away," Mfume said.

"Like caretakers?" Karen asked.

"Like that, yeah," I said, picking up my cue. "If it's not too much trouble."

"Sure," she said, holding the robe closed at her neck. "I can handle that."

We talked for another few minutes until Karen started wearing out and headed back for another nap. We said our good-byes. Karen hugged me and said how glad she was to meet me.

So here's the thing. Any sufficiently massive change is complicated. It's not just good or just bad. Sabine Glapion lost her grandmother and got possessed by a rider, but she also became the undisputed voodoo queen of New Orleans with money and property and a congregation of cultists bent on protecting and supporting her. Karen Black escaped years of demonic possession and walked back into a world where she had no job, no family, no friends. New Orleans was broken under the storm, but it refused to die, and the city that it became-that it was still becoming-wasn't the one it had been. It was better and worse, lessened and increased, richer and the place where something precious had been lost forever.

Less than a year before, I had known who I was: a failed college student on the outs with her family and estranged from her church and the God she didn't believe in. I had no particular prospects, I had no plans or goals or ambitions more sophisticated than not being homeless. And then I'd been given the world on a plate. Money, power, a secret war against evil that I could champion. But every sufficiently massive change is complicated. Because I'd gotten everything, and I had lost my sense of myself.

The good news was that, just like Sabine and Karen and the city of New Orleans, I could fix that.

When I got back to my room, I showered, changed the dressings on my various cuts and scrapes, and went to Aubrey's room. He was in slacks and a gray T-shirt with a golden fleur-de-lis on it. His smile was warm, but exhausted.

"How'd it go?" he asked.

"Talked them into it," I said, sitting on the bed beside him. He smelled like soap and sandalwood. I leaned against his shoulder. "Karen was easier to convince than Mfume."

"She'll be okay, you think?"

"I think," I said. "Given time. What about you?"

He turned to look at me, his eyebrows raised a millimeter.

"Marinette," I said. "You and her all copacetic now?"

He laughed, then winced. His ribs were a little tender too.

"Better," he said. "Not... good, but better."

"So you're not too spun by it showing back up and taking over?"

Aubrey took a long breath, his brow furrowing itself. Slowly, he shook his head.

"No. It was... different. When it wanted the same thing I did, it was more like it was on my side. And I cannot tell you how good it felt to kick the shit out of Carrefour."

"Even though it wasn't you in the body?"

"It was, though. It was both of us. Me and Marinette both. When it left... Well, I didn't want it to come back, but I could understand why someone would."

I was quiet for a moment.

"But it is gone, right?"

"Oh yes," Aubrey said, taking my hand. "It's not subtle. If it were still in me, you'd know."

"Good," I said, and kissed him.

I wanted to push him back on the bed, curl up beside him. Sleep or make out or a little of both. But I had a larger plan to put in motion, and I had one other thing to do before I could.

Ex's hotel room was on the second floor with a balcony that looked out over the street. He'd left the door to the hallway open, and a breeze stirred the curtains. A Bible lay open on the bed. He was sitting at the small, black writing desk, looking into the air with an expression that seemed numb. He had one of his black button-down shirts on, his hair loose and hanging to his shoulders.

"Hey," I said.

He looked up at me, pleasure and dread and the expectation of punishment flickering across him in less than a heartbeat.

"Hey," he said. I sat on the edge of the bed.

"So," I said. "We probably need to talk."

"If you want," he said.

"That stuff you threw at me in Atlanta? The sexuality and failure of leadership thing? You were out of line," I said. "I was down, and I was hurt, and you kind of kicked the shit out of me."

"Yes, I was," he said. "I'm not proud of that."

"Good. Don't be. But here's the thing. I was out of line too."

The confusion in his expression was interesting. He didn't see it. I wondered if he ever really saw anyone's sins besides his own.

"That whole firing you thing was shitty of me," I said. "I was kicking back, and I went too far. I don't get to pull rank on you. Or on Aubrey or Chogyi Jake. I need you guys to be my friends, not my employees. And that means I don't get to go straight to the nuclear option when you piss me off."

"You weren't out of line," Ex said. "I deserved it."

"Doesn't matter. There will be a time when you need to kick my ass and tell me I'm full of shit. And I need to be able to hear that. If we set precedent where I get rid of anyone who confronts me about something, I'm screwed."

"I suppose it's all about setting the right boundaries," he said. There was something wistful in his voice. I hadn't meant to tackle that too, but the issue was right there, and I went for it.

"I'm going to be straight here, okay?"

"You were being crooked before?" he said.

"I may be sleeping with Aubrey," I said. "I'm kind of into him. And if that's a problem for you-"

"It isn't," Ex said.

"You're sure?" I asked.

He was lying, or if he wasn't, he was fooling himself. Ex shook his head, then plucked a black band from his pocket and tied his hair back in a severe ponytail.

"I know what Chogyi Jake told you," he said. "The first thing he did this morning was come to me and confess."

"Yeah, that sounds like him," I said.

Ex held up his hand.

"I wish he hadn't done what he did. I think he's wrong about the motives behind my... poor behavior. I don't need you to feel anything in particular about me," he said. "I'm a grown-up. I'll handle it. I only need you to treat me with respect."

"I can do that," I said, then a moment later, tapping on the doorframe, I added, "if you can do the same. The part where you dis me in public for not being able to control my sexuality?"

"I project a little sometimes," Ex said, blushing. "Karen... Carrefour messed with my head. I was talking about myself more than you. I just didn't see it at the time. I'm not as good a person as I would like to be. But I'm trying, and I'll get better."

"Pax, then?"

"Pax," Ex said.

A little knot of anxiety I hadn't known was there loosened in my chest. The gang was back together, and all was right with the world.

"Come on down to the coffee shop?" I said. "Planning session."

Aubrey and Chogyi Jake sat at the small table near the street talking passionately about which Stephen Chow movie was better. Bright, complex Dixieland jazz played on the speakers, just the way it had, it seemed, for years. I sat down, and Ex sat across from me. Chogyi Jake's smile passed between us before returning, satisfied, to Aubrey.

"All right," I said. "Carrefour is thwarted. Sabine is... well, still possessed, but at least by a demon she knows. Karen Black is being nursed back to health. I declare our work here done."

"About time," Aubrey said with a lopsided grin. "What's next?"

"Portland, Oregon," I said.

Chogyi Jake's eyes narrowed. I could almost hear him thinking.

"Did Eric have property in Oregon?"

"Condo in Eugene," I said. "Nothing in Portland."

"So what's there?" Aubrey said.

"Mfume's history," Ex said, darkly.

"Pink Martini concerts," I said. "Powell's bookstore. It has also been alleged that there are some excellent microbreweries. And most important? Eric didn't have property there. We've been busting hump for months because I was thinking there was somebody I was supposed to be, and you guys were all too polite and supportive to rein me in. Well. I'm reined in now. I've always wanted to go to Portland. I've never been. And I say we're taking some time off."

"Oh thank God," Aubrey said, sagging back in his chair. Ex chuckled, and Chogyi Jake smiled his constant, authentic, gentle smile.

You really need to find out who you are, Daria Glapion had said to me once, not very long before. Sitting there with my friends around me, I thought I was making some progress. I wasn't the girl who'd smart-mouthed her father into apoplexy before Sunday services, I wasn't the sad-sack college dropout whose friends had left her behind, I wasn't the demon huntress I'd tried to be with Karen Black. And if I also wasn't sure yet who precisely I was becoming, at least I understood now that the only wrong answer was to hold too tightly to what I thought I was supposed to be. It was a start.

Only it turned out that wasn't what she'd meant at all.