The last time I'd been in swinging distance of a rider, it tried to throw me off a skyscraper. The adrenaline hit my bloodstream as the first word left the thing's mouth. My body leaped even before I knew I was going to do it, streaming through the unnaturally still air toward the thing in the woman's flesh. I think I screamed. The paralyzed lips opened in what might have been a sneer, and the bright metal of the tripod cane knocked me against the wall like I was a softball.
My head rang. Blood tickled the nape of my neck. The woman was chanting something now, her head bobbing from side to side in a way that was both avian and serpentine. Something brown and gray dangled at the end of her thin hand. The air around me began to writhe. I'd felt this once before; the barriers between Next Door and our world growing thin. The things that lived on the wrong side were coming up toward me to feed. I gathered my will the way Ex and Chogyi had taught me, drawing myself up from the base of my spine, through my heart and throat and out, projecting my qi in a shout.
The woman staggered, her chant losing its rhythm. The things pressing against reality fell back a little. I moved forward, wary of the reach of her cane. Around us, the world was still as statues. The woman bared her teeth. A vein bulged in her neck, straining with effort. The floor seemed to vibrate against my shoes. The woman raised her fists. Her left hand-the one not holding the cane-was limp, barely able to close.
"I will kill you," she spat. "No sun gonna set on me."
"Bite me," I said.
She screamed, and a play of light came from her mouth, her nose, her eyes. It shimmered like sunlight reflected off the surface of a pool; fire and water made one. Mirrors and crystal chandeliers caught the light, shattered it and made it sharp. Something washed over me, and I staggered. My head was full of cotton, and the blood on the back of my neck burned my skin. Something deep in my belly flipped like a fish on the bottom of a boat. I fell to my knees and retched.
"I am not broken," the thing said. "God himself cut His knuckles against me, but I am not broken. You nothing but a mongrel bitch, coming around here."
I launched myself at her again, my shoulder low. She hadn't expected it, and the cane whistled by my ear, cracking the marble floor where it struck. My shoulder took her in the knees and we tumbled together. She smelled like overheated motor oil, like fish and paprika, like rage. I had my hands around her snakeskin dry throat. She clawed at me, and I felt blood on my arm now too.
Her eyes fluttered and began to close. I was killing her. She was dying. I eased my grip a little, giving her a sip of air. Instead of breathing in, her body shifted under its skin. Bones cracked like a splitting rock as her jaw unhinged, her lower teeth and tongue hanging down almost to her collarbone, and a huge serpent slid out of her skin.
I jumped back, tripping over the bent cane. The snake was easily twelve feet long, thick as a weight-lifter's leg, and its scales glowed from within. The woman's skin lay abandoned on the floor behind it, black and ashen within the mocking brightness of its dress. The serpent turned black eyes toward me then flicked its head a degree to my left, its attention drawn by Chogyi Jake still motionless at the edge of the frozen fountain.
"Legba," I said, not sure what I meant by it.
The snake turned back to me, powerful curves forming in its flesh as it gathered itself to strike. The fish in my belly flopped again, banging against my spine. I shook my head once. No.
We were as still as the world around us, statues in a field of statues. I felt my body steeling itself for violence, and the small place in my head where consciousness retreated at times like this noted that either I was about to die or the thing across the lobby was. Even money.
The shriek didn't come from either of us. Grating, wordless, wet, the sound smelled like raw meat and pain. The shining serpent hissed, turned back upon itself, and sped into the fallen skin. The old woman was just beginning to stand when something flashed through the door. I had the impression of knives and pale skin and something soft and organic colored a red so deep it verged on purple.
The black woman turned, and her jaw still had the great snake's needle teeth, her eyes still flat black. The blur spun past her, and I saw the impact on her body without ever seeing the blow. I rolled forward, scissoring my legs against hers, and the black woman stumbled.
I didn't see her elbow twisting around until it hit my temple and the world went distant and dim. The snake-toothed mouth came down lightning fast, flashing toward my bared throat, but something pushed it aside. An impact like two trucks crashing head-on. The black woman went sprawling, then raised her twisted hands, shouted once, and was gone.
Sound returned, trombone and clarinet blaring with something like joy. In the fountain, water crashed and splattered. I heard Chogyi Jake say something like... I would need to understand... um. An unfamiliar arm was around my shoulders, strong and gentle. The scent of musk and hyacinth washed over me. My hair tugged a little at the back as I sat up, the blood adhering to the marble floor.
She was beautiful. The brightness in her blue eyes, the careless grace of her hair, the amusement that waited in the wings behind her smile. She wore a low-cut white lace blouse and black leather pants. No one looks good in leather pants, but she did.
"You must be Jayn¨¦," she said. "I'm Karen Black."
THE PRODUCTION number that followed would have been comic if I hadn't ached from head to foot. The marble floor was broken where the rider had struck it, and Karen, thinking on her feet, had pointed to it as the thing that had tripped me. The concierge fluttered around me, hotel functionaries bringing wet cloth and hot tea, offering to call a doctor and fearing I'd call a lawyer.
Chogyi Jake knew better, having seen the flicker of lost time, but no one else questioned our version of events. By the time Aubrey and Ex came down, deep in conversation, the little gash on my head had stopped bleeding and the hotel management had dropped down from hyperventilating to concerned. Everyone got introduced around, but I had the strong impression that Karen was waiting to talk until we were someplace less public.
My first impulse was to go back to one of our rooms, but with all five of us, it seemed like a tight squeeze. Instead, Karen led us out of the hotel and into the French Quarter. I could tell the others-Ex especially-were bursting with questions. Anytime we got close to the subject of riders or magic, she steered us away.
We walked down Chartres toward Jackson Square, which was, Karen said, the center of the tourist trade. The streets were narrower than I'd imagined, and the balconies over the sidewalks made the buildings seem to lean across toward one another, as if they were greeting each other without including us. In the middle of a block, Karen steered us into a dark corridor with ancient wooden stairs clinging to one wall. We turned into the shadows under the stairway, walked down another shadowy corridor with ivy growing up the stucco on the right, and came out into a wide brick courtyard. Tables and chairs of wrought-iron filigree were scattered under wide, shady trees, and a white man in a soft linen shirt and pressed khakis appeared seemingly from the foliage itself to guide us to a table.
"I hope you don't mind," Karen said as we took our metal seats. "I've used this place before. They're very good about leaving you alone when you want to talk. And the crawfish here are excellent."
"Good to know," Ex said through clenched teeth. "Now would someone tell me what the hell happened back there? Jayn¨¦ tripped?"
"No, I didn't," I said.
"It found her," Karen said. "The rider I've been tracking down. It tried a preemptive strike."
"Okay, hold on," Aubrey said. "What exactly is this thing?"
"Have you ever heard of loa?" she asked.
"Afro-Caribbean gods," Chogyi Jake said. "Voodoo spirits."
"And a kind of rider," Karen said. "The sphere of influence between Haiti, Cuba, and the southern coast of the United States is practically alive with them. I've tracked eight hundred cases of people being ridden by loa since I started paying attention."
"Eight hundred?" Ex said.
"They aren't all confirmed, but yes. That's the ballpark. By which I mean eight hundred in the past ten years."
Karen raised her hand, waving linen-shirt guy over. While the idea of that many riders sank in, she ordered three plates of crawfish and drinks for all of us. The man nodded and vanished. Around us, ferns and tree limbs bobbed gently in a soft breeze.
"Usually, they stick together," she said. "There's something about them that other riders don't seem to like. The one I found in Portland had come from Port-au-Prince. If it hadn't gotten so far out of its home territory, I might not have put it together."
"What was it doing in Portland?" Aubrey asked at the same time I said, "How did it find us?"
Karen smiled and leaned forward. The neck of her blouse gaped a little, showing the curve of her breasts. Ex cleared his throat and looked away but she didn't take notice.
"Just because the loa tend to stick together doesn't make them a great big happy family," she said. "There are struggles within the population. They form alliances with each other, they disrupt each other, they fight for power. For horses."
"Horses meaning host bodies," Aubrey said.
"Meaning victims," Karen said. "The one I found had lost some kind of internal power struggle. It had been cast out."
"Voodoo politics," I said. "Sounds like high school. The unpopular demon has to go sit at a different lunch table."
"More like gangs fighting over turf," Karen said. "They might shoot each other to control some particular street corner, but if an outsider comes into the city, they'll all band together against it. Even with the internal struggles, there's a protection that comes from being part of the community. Exile strips them of it."
"So the loser rode Joseph Mfume out to Portland," Ex said.
"Where it tried to establish territory of its own," Karen said with a nod.
"What can you tell us about how this particular rider behaves?" Aubrey asked, shifting forward in his seat.
Before Karen could answer, the waiter returned, a second man trailing behind him. They carried three wagon-wheel large platters that, when they put them on the table, almost didn't leave room for the drinks. At least a hundred tiny red bodies were curled in each one along with small bowls of red sauce and melted butter. Karen scooped one up, pulled off the tail and sucked at the remaining body chitin. A slow smile spread across her lips as she dropped the empty crustacean back on the plate and started stripping the shell from the tail meat.
"You just don't get these in Boston," she said. "Lobster, yes. Clams. Crab. But there's nothing like Louisiana crawfish."
I picked one up. Its dead eyes reminded me of the shining snake's.
"Pinch the tail off and suck the head," Karen said with a smile.
Well, if she could do it...
The hard red shell pressed against my lips, and something hot and salty slid into my mouth. I was prepared to gag, but it tasted good. I considered the small red crustacean skull with pleased surprise.
"You were asking about the rider," Karen said to Aubrey, making the statement an apology. "It's a subtle form. It doesn't kill the horse or displace its soul, just lives in the back of his head and changes him. In this case, it changes him into a serial killer."
"To what end?" Chogyi Jake asked, picking up a crawfish of his own.
"Don't eat that one," Karen said. "If the tails aren't curled, it means they were already dead when they went in the boiler. To what end... I think it's a way to enforce isolation. Mfume started with his fianc¨¦e, for example. It eliminates the people who are nearest to it. Kills the people the horse loves."
"In order to protect itself from being discovered," Aubrey said.
"Or to break the spirit of the person being ridden," Ex said. "If it doesn't displace the original personality, then Mfume was there. He was watching himself rape and slaughter his lover, and didn't know it wasn't him doing it."
"Exactly," Karen said. "He felt the excitement. The pleasure. He had all the release that a normal human killer has. By the time he understood what was really happening, it was too late. He was crazy."
"Wait a minute," I said. "He figured it out? He knew?"
"He did," Karen said. "It's how I knew that it wasn't over. Even after we caught him, we'd only caught the body. The horse. When it left his body, Mfume told me everything. He begged me to find it for him."
"To kill it," I said.
"To bring it back to him," Karen said. "By the time it was over, he was in love with it."
"Okay, huge ick factor," I said.
"I've been tracking this thing for the last decade, one city to another," Karen said. "Six months ago, it finally came back home to the land of voodoo. Something happened within the loa that either lifted its exile or made it impossible to enforce."
"Something about the hurricane," I said, thinking of Eric's ruined house and the devastation that surrounded it. The strange X mark on the door. The ring like a dirty bathtub that marked the buildings we'd seen driving in. High water.
"Possibly," Karen said, soberly.
"How did it find Jayn¨¦," Ex asked. "She's very difficult to locate magically. This thing must have an angle."
"At a guess?" Karen said. "The same way I found it. The little sister. You have to understand that the loa have been building voodoo cults in New Orleans for centuries. Things have happened here. Powerful, unnatural things. It's changed the nature of space. The world's thin here.
"There's a girl. Daria Glapion. She has the Sight. Call it limited precognitive ability. Sometimes people know things that there's no particular reason they should know. She told me that her sister was going to be the rider's next victim. Eaten by a snake was what she called it, but I knew what that meant. Maybe better than she did."
"And she spilled the beans about us," Ex said.
"Again, possibly without knowing what she meant," Karen said. "The rider is in her grandmother. Amelie Glapion, self-styled voodoo queen of New Orleans. Glapion has been heading one of the local voodoo cults for years. Her family has a history with the loa. When the rider came back, it took her. It was something I suspected, but it's hard to prove. Until I managed to meet the little girl, I wasn't sure."
Karen looked angry. More than angry. Her eyes had a focused, controlled hatred. I remembered how the snake had fled when Karen came to my rescue. Seeing her now, I thought the thing hadn't run fast enough, and if it wasn't still fleeing, it was only from ignorance. That thought sparked another in a little cascade of mental dominoes.
"Hey," I said. "How did you know where to find us?"
"I called her," Aubrey said, sounding something between defensive and surprised. "That was the plan wasn't it? We settled in, then we called Karen."
Her contact number had been on the report, it was true. And I'd had the lawyers cc all the guys. I'd assumed that I would be the one to make contact, since I was the one with Eric's cell phone. It wasn't anything I'd explicitly said. It wasn't even something I'd really thought about, and yet something about it unnerved me. Something about Aubrey choosing this moment to take initiative with one of our plans. With seeing those pictures of Karen and being moved to call her.
Karen's perfect blue eyes flickered between me and Aubrey, reading the subtext like it was written in foot-tall flaming letters.
"I should have confirmed with you," Karen said to me. "It was thoughtless of me."
"No," I said, waving it away with a laugh. "No, Aubrey's right. That was absolutely the plan. I just didn't know we'd done it." I picked up another crawfish and snapped its head free. "It's cool."
"Good that he did," Ex said, maybe a little more sharply than was strictly needed. "If Karen hadn't arrived in time to intervene, things could have gotten ugly."
I felt the urge to defend myself, but I wasn't quite sure what from. I wanted to say that I'd been holding my own against the rider. That it was just fine with me that someone else had called Karen and told her where we were. Without telling me. I didn't have a problem with any of it. Chogyi Jake coughed once, then folded his hands on the table. His sweet, enigmatic smile could have meant anything.
"There's more than enough room for ugly still to come," Karen said. "Glapion knows we're here. We don't have a lot of time if we're going to do what we need to do."
We turned toward her like sunflowers on a bright day. Even me.
"The victim is going to be Glapion's other granddaughter. Not Daria, but Sabine," Karen said. "We can take it as given that Sabine isn't going to accept the idea that her loving grandmother is about to become a soulless killer."
"How do we address that?" Ex asked, and I was a little disturbed by the we until Karen smiled. I was being paranoid and territorial and weird. I was tired. None of this was her fault.
"Normally, I'm a strong advocate of people's freedoms and right to self-determination," Karen said. "This is an exception."
"We kidnap Sabine," Chogyi Jake said.
"We do," Karen said. "And when she's safe, we get the grandmother, extract the rider, and kill it."