The food arrived, a bouillabaisse that smelled rich and oceanic with two side orders of raw oysters for the table. The band took a break between sets, and a recording took their place, muted trumpet and stand-up bass hovering together just under the level of conversation. Karen ate a couple oysters, her eyes focused on nothing in particular, and then, her thoughts gathered, nodded to herself.
"I met Eric in the summer of 2000," she said. "I was still officially working for the bureau, but I'd taken a leave of absence. I was... I wasn't well. I don't know how much you know about my history? Do you know about Davis?"
I shook my head.
"Okay," Karen said. "I have to go back a little farther. After we caught Mfume, I wasn't the only one looking for the rider. My partner on the case, Michael Davis, also heard everything Mfume said. We were working on the issue together. The year before I met Eric-July 12, 1999, the rider that had been in Mfume killed my partner. It made it look like an accident, but I knew.
"I went to New York. That was where the rider was. I started looking around. Eric's name kept coming up. Everyone knew him, or knew about him. He was some sort of fixer. The guy you went to when you didn't have anywhere else to go. I made him for a bagman. The public face of something bigger. I was wrong about that. Anyway.
"I found him in a bar on the Upper West Side. He had an apartment, and he was doing business out of it. I tried to lean on him. I don't know exactly what I said. I think I gave him some crap about not having a business license or something," Karen said, and she smiled. "He didn't buy it. I'd meant to go in and roust him, break some heads, find out who his boss was, and if there was any connection to the rider. Instead, we wound up drinking whiskey and... and I told him everything. He had a way of listening that made you say things you didn't mean to."
"And he helped you?" I asked.
"He did," Karen said, but her expression was bleak. "We didn't catch the rider, but we cast it out of the body it had taken over. Broke its power a little. Weakened it. Afterward, I was sick for almost a month. It hadn't been... it wasn't easy. He let me stay at his apartment. He made me bathe once or twice a week. He kept me eating food."
"He guided you back," Chogyi Jake said. Karen considered for a moment, then nodded.
"He was with me through my breakdown," she said.
"Were you lovers?" I asked.
"Only a couple times toward the end," Karen said. Her voice had taken on a low, throaty amusement. "I wouldn't have been much fun in the sack right at the beginning. But no, we weren't serious about each other. We were just a man and a woman in close proximity for a few weeks. And neither of us had anyone. That's all."
"What was his price?"
"Twenty thousand dollars, and five favors to be named later," she said. "He called in three of the favors. Before I left the bureau, he had me expunge some information from a guy's police record. Then after I left, he needed someone to be a lookout on a job he was doing in Seattle, so I went out and helped with that. The last time I heard from him, he needed me to keep a baby at my apartment for a couple weeks in March of '03."
"A baby?" Aubrey asked.
"Yeah. Little boy," Karen said. "Looked Indian. Subcontinent Indian, I mean. I called him Raja, but I don't know what his real name was. Eric dropped him off, then came and got him again. I didn't ask what it was about."
"March of 2003," Ex said. "I remember that. He said he had to go take care of his mother for a few weeks. In Kentucky."
"Well, he spent at least some of that time with an eight-month-old in Boston," Karen said.
"And Grandma Heller died when I was twelve," I said.
"That was the thing with Eric," Karen said. "I knew a lot of things about him, but I was never sure any of them were true. Maybe he'd been in the military, maybe that was just a story. Maybe he'd gone to Juilliard. Maybe not. He had this way of suggesting things without ever exactly saying them. And then sometimes he was just joking. Or he was protecting me from something."
The muted trumpet rose like a child wailing for her mother and went silent. Karen's structural half-smile softened.
"I'm not helping, am I?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "It seems like everyone knew a different version of him. I just wish..."
That he'd told me what he was, and what I was going to become. That he'd taught me. That he'd trusted me.
The Eric Heller I'd known had been the benign uncle, hated by my uber-Christian parents. When I'd gone on the queen mother of all teenage rebellious benders at sixteen and woken up with an honest-to-God lost weekend and a tattoo on the small of my back, Eric had been the guy to cover for me. When my father had informed the family that Eric was an abomination before God, I'd thought it meant he was gay.
And Eric had also been the architect of a secret war against riders. And having an affair with Aubrey's wife, Kim, which was another thing I'd carefully not mentioned. And secreting anonymous babies with former FBI agents.
I ate an oyster, the stony shell feeling unnaturally solid and real.
"I'll tell you what," Karen said. "I'll tell you anything I remember. Any question you want answered about him, I'll do my best. And you can have those last two favors I owed him. And if I happen to win the lottery, I'll pay you back for the house and car."
"Deal," I said, managing a smile.
As we ate, the conversation warmed. Karen was a good storyteller, and Ex, Chogyi Jake, and Aubrey all chimed in. It gave me room to step back and let the fatigue seep in. I wasn't sure what I'd expected, asking Karen to give me information about Eric. Some handle on him, some indication of whether he would have done what I was doing now. Something. The truth was, I didn't need to charge prices for what I did, and at twenty thousand a throw, Eric didn't either. With the money he'd left me, twenty thousand was pocket change.
But still, he'd taken it from Karen. He'd slept with her, taken her money, nursed her back to health, involved her in his work without explaining anything. I didn't know what to make of any of it, and as the food hit my stomach, my few remaining neurotransmitters seemed to break down. The after-dinner coffee came at nine o'clock. Or five in the morning, Athens time. Fatigue was shaking in my veins.
I paid off the bill just as the band came back for a second set. Five black men in good suits and thin black ties. I wondered if it was a uniform designed to make me think of the Blues Brothers, or maybe it was the other way around. The sax player caught me staring at them and smiled.
"Why don't you guys get the car," Karen said. "Jayn¨¦ and I can walk it."
I was too tired to object, even though the idea of walking as far as the sidewalk seemed optimistic. Karen tucked my arm in hers and led me out into the thick night air. It was easy to forget how short she was, but as we reached Bourbon Street, she shifted, putting her arm around my waist and looping mine over her shoulder. I was easily four inches taller, and she fit beside me the way I had once fit beside my boyfriend.
The old Sting tune kept floating through my head as we turned north. "Moon Over Bourbon Street." And here I was, walking through the narrow street. Cars moved past us slowly, careful of pedestrians like us. A wide brick courtyard on our left reverberated with a song that was thick and passionate and powerful the way only live music could be. The air was thick with humidity and the smells of gasoline and hot grease and, incongruously, fresh bread. Karen leaned her head against my shoulder, and the intimacy of her body next to mine was unfamiliar and inappropriate, and it was also as comforting as hugging my best friend. Part of me was freaked out by her, and part was grateful she was there. Her perfume was hyacinth and musk. I was surprised she wore anything so feminine.
A girl with caf¨¦-au-lait skin no older than sixteen skipped up beside us, holding something out in her hand. A silver fleur-de-lis pin.
"Three dollars," she said.
I looked at the pin, then at the girl. Without breaking stride, I pulled my wallet out of my backpack, plucked a five out, and gave it to the girl.
"Keep the change," I said. She grinned and skipped away. I smiled and dropped the pin into my pack along with the wallet. Karen watched it all as if it were happening at a distance.
"How're you doing, kiddo?" she said.
"Everyone keeps asking me that," I said. "I'm fine. I mean, not great, but fine."
"Hope it's okay I sent the boys on ahead," she said.
"Sure," I said, then sighed. "It's kind of nice, actually."
"I wanted a minute with just the two of us. I put you on the spot back there."
"I thought I was doing that to you," I said.
A man with a new-looking goatee and a T-shirt that read I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street lurched in front of us smiling, looked at Karen looking back at him, and scuttled away.
"The things we did today?" she said. "The safe house, the van, the wards. All of it. It would have taken me weeks."
"Nah," I said. "You could have-"
"I couldn't," she said. "You could. I knew Eric maybe as well as anyone, and I barely knew him at all. I can't imagine how hard it would be stepping into his shoes."
I swallowed. If I hadn't been so desperately tired, I probably wouldn't have teared up.
"You're doing great," she said.
The sense of sloppy gratitude was only matched by the embarrassment that I was quite so easy to read. I wiped my cheek with the back of one hand.
"Thank you," I said. "Really. Thanks."
It seemed like we'd hardly started walking when she angled me up and to the left, and the new hotel opened before us. I stopped at the counter and got my key card. The boys weren't anywhere to be seen. Karen took my hand. At that moment, I felt like I'd known her my whole life. The smile at the corner of her mouth snuck up to her eyes.
"Call me when you wake up?" she said.
"I promise," I said. "But it may be early evening. I'm destroyed."
"Whenever," she said, then swooped in and gave me a quick hug. I watched her walk back out onto the street, and I watched the men she passed watch her too. My body felt like overcooked chicken ready to slough off the bone. I made my way to the elevator, up to my floor, to the room number, and into the great, king-size bed, still thinking about Karen without thinking anything in particular.
If there were any justice in the world, I would have gone off like a light and awoken twenty hours later feeling rested and human again. Instead, I lay on the bed and vibrated. The clock at the bedside told me it wasn't ten o'clock yet. My body said I'd been up all night, and I was officially too tired to sleep.
True to their word, Ex and Karen had brought my stuff to the new hotel. I popped open the laptop, checked mail, checked a couple of blogs I followed, and turned to Google.
I got no hits at all for Amelie, Daria, or Sabine Glapion. Not even a MySpace page. I wondered if being a voodoo queen meant being technologically pure or something. I tried loa and got a little over eighteen million hits, including things like the Logistics Officer Association, letters of agency, and the Mauna Loa Observatory. I found a Wikipedia article on voodoo gods, and then another three or four references that explicitly disagreed with it without ever agreeing with one another. Damballah was the voodoo spirit of the snake. Or Baron Samedi was. Or Carrefour. Or Legba.
It was what I had said during the fight in the lobby, the name I had called the old woman and the shining snake. There was a pretty detailed article about Papa Legba on a site Chogyi Jake had shown me, but when I tried to read it, I found myself losing the sense of it. I bookmarked it and promised myself I'd look again when I was functional. I shut down the laptop and stumbled into the shower.
I ran the water cool, and it woke me a little bit. I still felt the exhaustion, but I didn't have the same sense of being caught half in dream, unable to wake up or go down to sleep. I washed my hair twice, just because it felt good to do it. The hotel had a white terrycloth robe with its logo embroidered on the right breast, and I had just wrapped myself in it and stepped out of the bathroom when a knock came at the door. My heart ramped up a little.
"Who's there?" I said.
"It's me," Ex said. His voice sounded odd.
I hesitated, then went to look through the peephole. It was Ex, and he was alone. I gathered my qi, the mystic energy that let me do the little bit of magic I could. I pulled the energy up my spine and into my eyes, using it to see through enemy spells, but Ex was still just Ex. I opened the door.
The stink of alcohol was the last thing I'd expected, but he smelled like the mop at a liquor store. His eyes were red, and he was unsteady on his feet.
"Ex?" I said.
He nodded a half a beat late. He was drunk off his ass. I had never seen Ex drink to excess. I'd never seen him do anything to excess. He pointed at me, his expression almost comically somber.
"You," he said, then paused. "You have nothing to apologize for. Not to me. Not to Aubrey. Not to anyone."
"Are you drunk?"
"No," he said. And then, "Yes, but that's not the point. It's that you are just fine. You don't owe anyone anything. Eric was great, but you don't owe him anything. Or Aubrey."
"What room are you in?" I asked, reaching back for my key card on the dresser. He was on the same floor, but not the same hallway. Key card in the pocket of my robe, feet bare, I took Ex by the elbow and steered him back to his room. An older couple in evening wear passed by us, and I saw myself for a second as they would see us. A young woman with her hair still wet. A slightly older man with his hair coming out of his ponytail. Both of us had to have circles under our eyes dark enough to approach raccoon masks. The woman of the couple smiled at us indulgently.
Scenes like this weren't uncommon in New Orleans, I guessed.
I opened Ex's room with his key card, then stepped him through the threshold, turned him around, and pressed the card into his hand. He looked at it like it was a note from God, written on his flesh. His balance corrected two or three times while I watched.
"Get some sleep," I said.
"You don't owe an apology to anybody," Ex repeated.
"Thank you," I said.
He nodded solemnly, then leaned forward unsteadily and kissed my forehead. Even drunk, he was weirdly paternalistic. Maybe especially drunk. Still, there was something endearing in it. I closed the door.
My experience with alcohol was seriously limited. Apart from my brief sixteen-year-old rebellious phase and two semesters at ASU, all I had were old sermons about poisoning my body and blunting my God-given judgment. Still, as I padded back to my room, I would have put a hefty bet that Ex wasn't going to remember our little conversation in the morning.
In bed for the second time, snuggled deep under the sheets, it struck me that Karen's walk with me and Ex's drunken visit were probably related. The pair had spent the day together, and whatever had prompted Ex to decide I needed reassuring he'd probably shared with Karen. And she had taken the hint. The idea was a little embarrassing, but it was also sweet.
I wondered, sleep soaking my brain, my eyelids heavy as weights, if in the rush and confusion of my new, chaotic life I had maybe found people who really did care. Chogyi Jake and Aubrey and Ex. Maybe Karen Black.
That someone as confident and powerful as Karen might give a rip about my feelings was the most flattering thought I'd had in weeks, and as I lost consciousness, I let myself be comforted by it. It wasn't so bad feeling vulnerable when people had my back. I didn't analyze what Ex had said with any particular care.
If I'd understood what he'd actually been trying to say, it would have saved us both a lot of pain.