"We need to know where the girl's going to be," Ex said. "When, where. What kind of protection. Does Grandma Glapion have guards on the girl."
"And a van," Aubrey said. "Something like Chogyi Jake's old clunker. No windows. That'll be important, right?"
Karen held up her hand, palm out. The smile at the corner of her mouth deepened slightly.
"We can't just go snatch the girl off the street tonight," she said.
"The more time we take-" Ex began.
"The more prepared we are when it happens," Karen said. "Let's say we do the thing right now. Go get the girl, throw her in the back of a rental. Great. Now we've got an angry teenage girl in the car. What exactly do you plan to do with her? And keep in mind, we're actually committing a felony when we do that. The police aren't going to take 'we're protecting her from her demon-ridden family' as a serious defense."
"And," Chogyi Jake said slowly, thinking through the words as he said them, "it isn't as though the rider is without resources. It found Jayn¨¦ even before she knew where she was going to be."
"The Sight isn't encyclopedic," Karen said. "Daria doesn't see everything, and what she does see, she often won't understand. But yes, we can assume that Glapion will foresee at least some of our plans."
Aubrey leaned forward, brow furrowed. Ex frowned and crossed his arms.
"We need a safe house," I said. "Someplace we can keep her. And we'll want to put wards on it. Like what Eric had on the house in Denver. Something to make us hard to find. Chogyi Jake? You were the one who kept those going. Do you think you could do it again?"
There was a moment's pause. Overhead, a bird rattled and took wing. Chogyi Jake nodded.
"It would take time," he said. "And there is a wooden chest in the London townhouse that would be... very useful."
"Okay. So magical stuff from London and a place to use it. Check. Karen? Did you have a place in mind for the safe house?"
"I don't," she said. "I was torn between having something here in or very close to New Orleans and taking Sabine entirely out of the picture."
"Okay," I said, "tell me about that. What are the issues?"
The sly smile bloomed into laughter.
"You are Eric's family, aren't you?" she said. "All right. On the one hand, this is Glapion's territory. She knows the city, and the rider has power here. On the other hand, if we send Sabine out of the city, someone has to go to guard her. Also... well, I didn't work many kidnapping cases, but the common wisdom at Quantico was that most of the abductees that escape do it when they're in transit. There are a lot of variables in moving people around, especially when they don't want to be moved."
"Yeah, I can see that. Okay, so that's job one."
"And transportation," Ex said. "Aubrey's right. We need something to move the girl in once we have her. Unless we're taking the kid on the bus."
"Do we have a good way to put wards on a van?" I asked.
"I'll look into it," Chogyi Jake said.
"All right," I said. "How about this. Chogyi gets in touch with the property manager in London and gets whatever we need shipped out here. Karen? You've been local. Can you and Ex arrange the transportation?"
"Sure," Karen said. I had the feeling that her amusement was tempered with respect, and the idea warmed me a little. The truth was I was showing off, taking charge like I was the Godfather. It wasn't how I usually operated.
"If I'm buying something off the lot, I'll need the Darth Vader card," Ex said, meaning my American Express Black.
"Too showy," I said. "We don't really want to be memorable. You guys scout it out. If it's cheap enough to do out of petty cash, just grab it. If we need something new, I'll have the lawyers make the purchase through a shell corporation."
"Right," Ex said. "I'll need a way to go shopping in the first place. Should we take the rental?"
"I'll drive," Karen said. "I know a chop shop that sells a lot of gray-market cars."
I nodded, gratified that Karen was going along with my plan.
"Aubrey and I can hit the real estate sites, do some driving, see what we can find for a safe house."
I pulled my cell phone out of my pack and checked the time. Three thirty, local. In Athens, it was pushing midnight. I felt fine at the moment, but experience suggested that I had maybe four more hours before jet lag kicked in. After that, I'd have about three working neurons, max.
"We don't have a lot of time," I said. "How about we do what we can between now and seven o'clock. Then meet back at the hotel, compare notes?"
Aubrey raised his hand like a kid in a classroom.
"You were attacked by a very powerful rider a little over an hour ago," he said. "Are you sure we should scatter out in all directions?"
I hesitated. The rational, thoughtful part of my mind saw the point, and I had to admit it was a good one. But it also took apart everything I'd just proposed. I was not going to be humiliated in front of Karen.
"I think we can handle ourselves," I said.
"I agree," Karen said. "If a captain's highest aim was to preserve his ship, he'd keep it in port forever."
Ex looked across the table at Karen like he'd just seen her for the first time. I felt an uneasy warmth in my chest that might have been pride or fear or something made from both.
"Okay," I said. "Let's get to it, shall we?"
Back at the hotel, I called the lawyer while Aubrey got online and poked through real estate websites advertising rentals and houses for sale. The best balance of seclusion and proximity we found was a place in Pearl River, about forty-five minutes away. I printed up directions and tossed Aubrey the keys to the minivan. Twenty minutes later, we were on I-10, passing the Irish Bayou Lagoon and heading out over the wide, empty water of Lake Pontchartrain.
I leaned against the window, the vibration of the engine and the road feeling a lot like being in an airplane. I could feel the first soft breezes of jet lag wafting through my mind. My body felt heavy and slightly ill. Outside, a real wind was kicking up tiny whitecap waves.
This was the same water that had swamped the Lakeview house. It looked calm now, silty and greenish in the cool of the coming evening. Hundreds of pilings and wide sections of concrete showed where the damaged southbound bridge was being rebuilt. I wondered if this might be part of the mystery of violence; the way something could look so calm and peaceful, right up until it didn't.
In my hazy state of mind, the thought seemed bigger than this particular water, this particular bridge. I felt like it applied everywhere. A little old lady with a tripod cane who puked out a needle-toothed demon. A favorite uncle who, on his death, turned out to be more than I'd ever known. A simple, physical attraction to a good-looking man with what my mother would have called a kind mouth that turned into a night of sex, a mass of guilt, and a set of divorce papers that I still hadn't told Aubrey about.
I must have sighed, because Aubrey looked over at me, concerned.
"Hey," he said. "You doing all right over there?"
"I was just thinking about what Karen said," I lied. "The whole thing with the rider taking over people's minds. About how Mfume loved it by the end. I just don't get that."
"There's a fair amount of precedent," Aubrey said. "Not in vertebrates, particularly. But wasps, caterpillars..."
"Ooh," I said, curling up in the seat. "I love it when you talk geeky."
I didn't usually flirt with Aubrey. I didn't usually flirt with anyone. It was the exhaustion, I told myself. And the adrenaline crash from the rider's ambush. It wasn't because I thought Karen Black was smarter and sexier and more competent than I was. Flirting with Aubrey because I didn't measure up to her would have been juvenile and stupid, and I would never do anything like that.
Still, Aubrey laughed a little, smiled a little, ran his hand through his hair like he was suddenly self-conscious about how he looked.
"There was an example they talked about a lot when I was in grad school," he said. "Glyptapanteles. It's a family of wasps that parasitize moths. Well, caterpillars."
"A wasp as a parasite for a caterpillar?" I said. "How do you fit a wasp inside a caterpillar?"
The far shore of the lake was just coming into view. We had almost passed over the water.
"You don't," he said. "The wasps lay eggs in the caterpillar. When the eggs hatch, the larvae live off the host's body. They eat it, but they don't kill it. Eventually, they pop out and pupate."
"Pupate," I said. "Meaning turn into grown-up wasps, right?"
"Yeah," he said. "While they're doing that, they're vulnerable. There are a lot of predators who could just come along and eat them, so there's a lot of evolutionary pressure to keep that from happening. Some wasps, the pupae are cryptic and well hidden. Some of them the larvae get in a really hard-to-reach place before they pupate. Glyptapanteles stay right by the caterpillar they came out of. And the whole time that they're turning into wasps, the caterpillar guards them. Anything comes along and tries to eat the pupae, it knocks them away."
"So do they leave a larva behind or something?"
"No," he said. "They all leave. It's not like they're still in there driving the caterpillar's body."
"Then why does it do that?" I asked.
"It's been changed," Aubrey said with a shrug. "We don't know how yet. When you get down to that level of behavior modification, you might just as well say that the caterpillar loves the wasps. It's not like there's a better way to put it."
We passed back onto dry land. The lake faded away behind us in the trees. The sun was off to our left, growing red and heavy in the last few degrees until sunset. Aubrey was a silhouette, the shadows of the roadside trees stuttering like an old movie with its sprockets slipping. I had the uncomfortable sense that I'd done something wrong. I'd sort of been coming on to Aubrey-something I'd tried not to do in these last few months-and the end result was a view of love and parasites that actually left me feeling a little queasy. Normally, Aubrey's biology talks were pretty interesting. That one had felt pointed.
Love is when something's gotten into you, changed who you are, and made you into something not quite whole and entirely self-destructive. My mind kept turning the idea one way and another, like a jigsaw puzzle piece that wouldn't quite fit.
Jet lag, I told myself. Exhaustion and paranoia.
The sun was still up, though only barely, when we turned off the highway and into Pearl River. The streets were almost rural. The trees that lined the roads were thick, and had the haphazard feel of landscape more than landscaping. We twisted down a couple roads, Aubrey squinting against the reddening sunlight while I tried to pick house numbers off the roadside mailboxes.
The place from the Realtor's site was on three acres, and set well back from the road, almost into the woods. We pulled up the long drive. A wide grassy area too feral to be called a lawn. Towering trees, six or seven stories high with wide branches greening with the promise of spring but still bare of leaves. A three-bedroom home, two and a half baths, two-car garage, den, dining room, large shed in the rear yard staring out into the growing twilight, dark windows like unfriendly eyes. A small stone statue of the Virgin Mary lurked near the front door, ivy growing up the side. In context, it looked like a gravestone.
Aubrey stopped the minivan and killed the engine. The quiet wasn't perfect, but it was deeper than I'd expected in a place that was still officially a city. We got out of the minivan. A firefly ignited, floated up in the gloom, and vanished.
"No neighbors to speak of," Aubrey said. "At least not in line of sight."
"Yeah," I said. "Let's go look at that shed in the back."
The shed was bigger than my old dorm room. It was painted red as a rough echo of the barn it almost resembled. There were no windows, but a small, dark vent near the top was choked by a bird's nest. I walked up to it and put my hand on it. Metal siding, but with something more solid under it.
"Would make a decent little prison," Aubrey said.
"I'm always impressed by how much fighting evil feels like committing crime," I said. "But you're right. It's... well, if it's not perfect, it's as close as we're going to get on short notice."
"You can afford the place?" he asked. I didn't answer. He knew as well as I did that I could afford the whole subdivision.
On the way back across the river, I called my lawyer on the cell phone and left her a message with the address of the new house, the listed Realtor, and the instruction that I wanted to take possession as soon as possible. If I stumbled a little over the word possession, it was only my unsettled state of mind.
As we sped through the rising darkness, I wondered if this was how Eric would have done things. Everyone I met seemed surprised that he had the money and influence that he did. Apparently, he'd played that close to the vest. The same way he'd played everything. Until he died and left me the keys to the kingdom, I hadn't known that riders existed, much less that he was in the business of opposing them. I still didn't know how he'd amassed the wealth I was spending. All I could say for certain was that it hadn't come from my grandfather, or my own father wouldn't have struggled so hard to keep me, my mother, and my two brothers in good clothes on Sunday.
Would he have come when Karen called? Would he have agreed to her plan, or would he have had a better one? What would he have seen that I was missing? The jet lag paranoia was thick as paste. I told myself that long plane flights always did this to me, and that a night's rest would fix ninety percent of it. Or if not that, at least half.
New Orleans appeared across the water, a glow of light in the dark air. A city half ruined, but still bright.
We got back to the hotel a little bit late. Chogyi Jake, Ex, and Karen Black were already in the restaurant. The afternoon's bright Dixieland had given way to a live jazz band softly playing songs I felt like I knew. The air was thick with humidity, but instead of feeling damp, it seemed lush. Like the whole city had just stepped out of the tub, and hadn't quite gotten its robe on. The table was long enough for six, but set for five. Karen had taken the seat at the head, Ex to her left, Chogyi Jake to her right. Two highball glasses were sweating on the linen in front of Ex and Karen. Chogyi Jake was drinking water. Some things never change.
As Aubrey and I took our seats, Karen waved a greeting, but didn't pause in the story she was telling.
"So there I was, dressed like the world's cheapest hooker, trying to explain to the Secret Service that I hadn't even known the vice president was staying there, and that they probably wanted to move him before the rest of the team showed up and arrested half the hotel staff."
Ex chuckled and shook his head. Chogyi Jake smiled his beatific smile and turned to us.
"How was the house hunting?" he asked.
"Decent," Aubrey answered.
"I think we've got a place," I said. "It may be a day or two before we can get keys, though. Money lubricates, but bureaucracy resists."
"It will be at least two days before the package arrives from London," Chogyi Jake said. "But the property manager was quite helpful."
"How long will it take you to get the place ready once all the props are here?" I asked.
"Two or three days," Chogyi Jake said. "Two for certain if Aubrey or Ex can be spared. More likely three if it's only me."
The waiter ghosted up to us, took our drink orders, handed us two leather-bound menus, and vanished again. When Karen went back to the business at hand, she talked directly to me.
"There's reconnaissance work to be done, but I don't know that having four people would actually be an improvement on three. Or two, for that matter. The more people we have, the better the chances of being made."
Ex sipped his drink. I didn't remember ever seeing him with anything stronger than a beer before.
"How about you and me and Aubrey do what we can to track the girl," I said. "Ex? You up for helping Chogyi Jake with the safe house?"
"Sure," Ex said without rancor. I'd expected him to object. I was jumping at shadows.
"What's the deal with the car?" Aubrey asked.
"Ninety-four Ford cargo van," Ex said. "We're leasing it under a false name, for cash. It'll be here in the morning."
"The gray market's treating us gently," Karen said. "I'll make sure the police aren't looking for it for any other reasons before we take it on the road, but I think we're good."
Aubrey looked suitably impressed. Our drinks arrived.
"We need to switch hotels," I said. "I don't want to try sleeping and worrying that the evil snake woman's going to make another try for me."
"Already done," Karen said. "Ex had the same idea. We even moved your things. We'll go to your new digs after dinner."
I felt a moment's disquiet about other people touching my stuff, but I let it pass.
"So there's just one more thing we need to talk about," I said to Karen. "The price."
Ex, Aubrey, and Chogyi Jake were quiet. Karen's smile deepened slightly, and she looked down at the table. When she looked up at me through her soft, blond hair, her eyes were steeled. It struck me again that she was beautiful. The band shifted into something that I was pretty sure was John Coltrane.
"You're right. I shouldn't have gotten carried away before I knew I could afford all this," she said. "What will it take?"
"Nothing that'll break the bank," I said. "I want you to tell me everything you know about my uncle."