I stood on the street, a rented minivan against the ruined curb behind us. Thick, wet American air pressed in on my skin, indefinably different than the damp of Europe. I looked down at the limp MapQuest printout in my hand, then up at the ruin where the house was supposed to be. The walls were covered in dirt and grit, and they slumped ominously to my right. Grass higher than my hips swallowed the concrete rubble that had been a walkway. The windows were gone, the interior walls all stripped down to water-blackened studs.
I walked up two steps of warped boards. Flecks of green paint still clung to them. A huge X had been spray-painted on the door, something that looked like a date above it, letters and numbers to the left and right, and a three beneath it. I could watch Chogyi Jake make his way around the side of the house and toward the back, his shadow visible through the holes in the walls. There wasn't enough tissue left on the house's bones to stop the light.
"Are we sure this is the right address?" Aubrey asked.
I put the key the lawyer had express-mailed me into the lock. It felt like I was dragging it through gravel, but the mechanism turned. I pushed the door open to the smell of rotting wood and mold.
"Yeah," I said. "This is the place."
Ex said something obscene in a reverent voice. The rest of the neighborhood, spreading out around us for blocks, was the same. Ruined streets as much pothole as pavement, shells of houses with only a handful restored or in the process of being restored. Tall grass. I was standing in front of an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar wound, and that was just my house. Every ruined house or bare foundation for blocks around was the same thing.
Hurricane Katrina had rolled into New Orleans three years before. I'd been in the long breathless pause between high school and college at the time, waiting tables at Cracker Barrel and screwing up the courage to tell my father that I was going to a secular university whether he liked it or not. I'd seen the pictures on the news, same as everyone else. I'd given some money to someone as part of a relief effort, or I thought I had. I couldn't remember now if I'd really done it or only meant to.
It felt like everything important in my life had happened since then: my whole abortive college career, losing my virginity to an unethical teaching assistant, the explosion of my social circle, losing my first real lover, dropping out, Eric's death, my inheritance, then fighting spiritual parasites and evil wizards. And in all that time, no one had fixed this house. Or knocked it down.
Three years was a long, long time for a twenty-three-year-old woman. It apparently wasn't much for a three-hundred-year-old city.
"Should we go in?" Aubrey asked. "Do you think it would be safe?"
"I wouldn't want to bet on it," Ex said.
"Why didn't the lawyers tell us the place was trashed?" Aubrey said.
"Who would have told them?" I asked. "If Eric didn't come check on it, they might not know."
Chogyi Jake finished his circuit of the house. Yellow-green grass burrs clung to his linen shirt.
"Okay," I said. "New plan. Everyone back in the car."
It took under ten minutes sitting in the backseat with Aubrey beside me on the laptop with the cell connection to find a hilariously pricey hotel, make reservations, and plug the address into the rental's GPS system. Chogyi Jake drove, and Ex rode shotgun. The jet lag was beginning to lift, my brain starting to unfog by slow degrees. The signs of damage that hadn't registered during the ride out from the airport now became clear. The yellow-white-gray high-water mark on the buildings, the broken windows made more evident by the few houses where new glass had been installed, the ruined asphalt, the strange and ubiquitous X mark on the houses we passed.
We were moving from water to water. My ruined house was a few blocks south of Lake Pontchartrain, the hotel I'd picked a few north of the Mississippi. But as we headed south on I-10, the signs faded. The water mark fell and went away. The city looked hale and healthy, as if we hadn't just seen a whole neighborhood that had gone necrotic.
"Were you ever here before?" Aubrey asked.
"Are you kidding?" I said. "They have Mardi Gras here. Women get drunk and expose themselves. I'd have been disowned if I'd brought the idea up."
"I don't think the exposing yourself part's required," Ex said from the front. "I've been through a few times, and no one seemed offended when I didn't insist on seeing their breasts."
"Doesn't matter if it's true," I said. "It's all about appearances. Dad thought this place was Gomorrah to San Francisco's Sodom. He'd burst a blood vessel if he knew I was here."
"What does he think of Las Vegas?" Aubrey asked.
"Gibbering hysteria," I said. "Apoplexy. Doesn't have much to say in favor of New York either."
"Forgive the change of subject, but should you consider telling the lawyers that we've changed venues and why?" Chogyi Jake said as he pulled the rental over one lane and got off the highway at Orleans heading toward Vieux Carr¨¦.
"Fair point," I said. "I'm on it."
If anyone had asked me, back when I was a college dropout with no friends and a family that wasn't speaking to me, whether it would be harder to deal with an arcane world of possession by bodiless parasites or having a lot of money, I would have guessed wrong. Riders and magic were weird and unnatural, but at least they were expected to be. Money was just as strange, but everyone assumed that if I had that much, I must have some idea how it worked. I felt like half of my day was taken up with doing things that real rich people manage by instinct. Like letting my lawyer back in Denver know where to send things.
The man who answered the phone went from chilly to obsequious as soon as I said my name. Two blocks later, I had my lawyer on the phone, saying she'd get an assessor out to the ruined property as soon as possible. She spoke with careful enunciation so sharp I imagined all the words being relieved that they'd gotten out alive. She was the same lawyer who'd first told me my uncle was dead and that I'd inherited everything. We'd never had a personal conversation, but I secretly liked her.
The hotel was smaller than I'd expected and grander too. A fountain burbled in a low foyer. Dixieland jazz jumped and spun through the air like a company of musical acrobats, each instrument doing something apparently different but all perfectly coordinated. Crystal chandeliers hung from high ceilings. But the bones of the place showed that it had been built before the age of steel infrastructure.
The desk clerk-a black man with perfect skin and a Jamaican accent that could melt butter- handed me my key card. He even got my name right, zha-nay. I usually get Jane or Janie. I felt myself blushing a little bit, and wondered how long it had been since I'd been seriously flirted with. The four of us agreed to meet back in the lobby once we were unpacked and settled. I headed to my room.
It wasn't a large room, but it was beautiful. Silk wallpaper, crisp sheets, and wireless Internet. There can be no better. I tipped the guy who'd hauled my bags for me, then popped open my laptop and checked mail for the first time since we'd gotten on the plane in Greece.
The background check of Karen Black was in my inbox, cc'd to all the guys. I settled in to find out what I'd gotten us all into.
Karen Alicia Black was born a little over fifteen years before I was. Her father was a cop, her mother was a mother. No living family now, though. When I was getting out of Mrs. Detwyler's second-grade class at Blackburn Elementary, she was graduating from Oberlin with a double major in criminology and mathematics. She moved to Los Angeles and worked as a cop for two years, then joined the FBI. A note in brackets pointed out that this was an unusually short period of time-the FBI preferred three years of professional experience. I had the impression that whoever was writing the report had developed a little crush on her.
Her record at the FBI was impressive-kidnapping, arson, serial murder-until 1998. The year I'd spent watching Titanic fourteen times with Nellie Thompson, a man named Joseph Mfume moved to Eugene, Oregon, from Haiti. In the newspaper clippings that were inserted in the text file, he looked about twenty-five, handsome in a goofy way. During the six months after his arrival, he raped and killed seven women in particularly grotesque ways. Karen Black had been part of the team that brought him down.
After that, her career started going off the rails. Two years later, she quit the FBI under a cloud. There were suggestions that she'd been asked to resign, but nothing that proved it.
Since then, she'd worked on and off for a private investigator and started her own security consultancy based in Boston. Her addresses were listed with pictures of the offices, and the same contact number that was in my cell phone. Her credit rating was decent, the frequent flyer programs loved her, she'd had a couple of bouts of the flu over the years and treatment for chlamydia eight months ago. She owned a condo in Boston, she had no family, no husband, no kids. She'd been in New Orleans on and off almost since the hurricane.
The last two pages of the report were pictures.
The cool gaze that looked out from my computer screen could have belonged to an actress or a supermodel. Pale blue eyes, straight blond hair, a sly smile at the corner of her mouth that seemed to be part of the permanent architecture of her face. In the first image, she wore a black turtleneck and a leather overcoat that reached her ankles, a gray eastern-seaboard streetscape behind her. The next one was a more candid shot of the same woman outside a nightclub. She was in a low-cut emerald silk blouse and tight leather pants, and she had the figure to make the outfit work. Even without the cut of her clothes, I saw what the report's author was responding to.
She radiated confidence and certainty. It was in her eyes and the way she held her shoulders. She had tracked criminals and stopped killers, and her success had left its mark on her.
And she had called me for help. I had the uncomfortable feeling I was about to disappoint her.
I closed the laptop and the French doors that opened onto the balcony. The lace curtains shifted in an air-conditioned breeze so slight I couldn't feel it. Behind them, palm trees stood guard before a sky of perfect, almost Caribbean blue. The next thing to do was make the call, tell Karen we'd arrived, where we were staying, arrange to meet. It was what I'd said I would do. And yet, here I was, sitting cross-legged on my rented bed, looking at my cell phone and not reaching for it.
It couldn't hurt to put it off, just for a little bit. The guys were probably settled into their own rooms by now, and talking to them would help take away my feeling of being desperately underprepared.
I took a quick shower, changed into my Pink Martini T-shirt and blue jeans that didn't have the stink of travel on them, shoved my laptop into my backpack, and headed down to the lobby. There was a restaurant where we could grab some coffee and talk. Or, failing that, we were in New Orleans. Rumor had it that the food didn't suck.
Only Chogyi Jake was sitting by the fountain when I got there. He'd changed into a linen suit the color of sand half a shade lighter than his skin. He hadn't shaved his scalp recently, and the stubble was like a shadow. He was looking out the window with his customary air of calm near-amusement. He grinned when he saw me.
"How's your room?" I asked, sitting beside him. The cascade of water gave us a white-noise barrier that meant even though I had to talk a little louder than usual, we still couldn't be easily overheard.
"It's fine. Very comfortable," he said. "What's the matter?"
"I... I mean, what makes you think something's..."
He tilted his head forward a degree, encouraging me to go on. I sighed.
"Yes, okay. You're very clever," I said, a little more peevishly than I'd meant to. "I'm just feeling out of my depth again. Some more. Maybe coming here wasn't such a great idea."
"Even if this woman needs our help?"
"She doesn't, though. She needs Eric's help. He was better than I am."
"Ah," Chogyi Jake said, nodding. It wouldn't have killed him to disagree.
I knotted my fingers together and looked out through the wide glass window at the narrow street of the French Quarter. Two men in desert-camouflage fatigues walked together, one leaning close to say something in the other man's ear. An older black woman with a wide straw hat and a shining aluminum tripod cane made her careful way across traffic. A girl no more than sixteen with caf¨¦-au-lait skin and hair in glistening black cornrows sped by on a racing bike, a parrot perched uneasily on her shoulder.
"You read the report on Black?" I asked, and Chogyi Jake nodded silently, not getting in the way of my words. "She's the real thing. Seriously, even without riders and magic and all the rest, she's a professional. Been doing all this for years. She's trained and experienced. And I'm still faking it. She double majored. I didn't even pick a degree program."
"And yet you were able to take on the Invisible College," Chogyi Jake said as if we were discussing someone else. "Eric wasn't able to accomplish that."
"I know, but it's just that... I'm tired. I don't even know why I feel so wrung out."
"We have been traveling constantly for months, working eight- and ten-hour days at a task so overwhelmingly large that even that effort hasn't brought us anywhere near completion," he said.
"Well. Okay, when you put it like that."
"Consider that there may be something more going on within you," Chogyi Jake said.
"Like what?" I asked.
"I don't know. You have chosen the pace we've worked at. You've chosen to come here. And you've said that we'll take a rest when this is resolved, but that isn't the first time you've made that decision."
"What do you mean?"
The front doors swung open, a brief gust of city air cutting through the climate-controlled cool of the lobby. Chogyi Jake counted off fingers as he spoke.
"After Denver, you planned to wait for Ex and Aubrey to close up shop. Aubrey had a career at the university he needed time to step away from. Ex had his own affairs. Instead you went ahead and let them catch up later. In Santa Fe, you talked about taking a week off, but changed your mind when we found the copy of the Antikythera mechanism."
"It could have been dangerous," I said. "I didn't know that-"
He lifted a third finger, cutting me off.
"We arrived in London with the intention to take stock, and then rest for a few days, but those days never came. Instead, it was Athens, and now here. You're exhausted because you're exhausting yourself."
"You're right," I said. "I shouldn't be doing that. It's just..."
"I didn't say that you shouldn't. I only pointed out that you are. In order to make that kind of judgment..."
I sat forward, looking at my hands while his sentence hung in the silence. I knew what he meant. He couldn't judge what was driving me until he knew what it was. And even I didn't know that. Now that he pointed it out, I could see the pattern, one decision after the next, always pushing a little harder, a little faster. Covering ground.
It was that there was so much to look at. To catalog and discover. But that wasn't it either. Even as I tried out possible answers, I knew I was dancing around something. At the heart of it, the issue was more difficult and more painful.
My hands ached. Without realizing it, I had bunched them into fists so tight my knuckles were white. Chogyi Jake still hadn't broken the silence.
Silence which shouldn't have been there. The fountain, the wild brass band, the street noise. All of it was gone. My head jerked up. The lobby was perfectly still. Chogyi Jake's mouth was half open, caught in the middle of his thought. His eyes were empty as a stuffed bear's. The water from the fountain hung in the air like a thousand glass beads. Outside the window, a pigeon was suspended behind the glass in mid-flap.
A tiny sound-no more than the click of dry lips parting-rang out like a shot. I whirled.
The black woman I'd seen walking across the street stood at the foot of the stairs, leaning against her cane, regarding me sourly. She wore an old dress of brightly colored cotton, flowers blooming on her in red and green and orange. She'd taken off her hat, and gray hair framed her face like a storm cloud. Her lips had the lopsided softness of a stroke victim, but her eyes were bright with rage. When she spoke, her voice had the depth of a church bell and the threat of a power saw. It wasn't the voice of a human being. It was one of them. A rider.
"What the hell you think you doing in my city?"