The inside of my new house in Pearl River was pretty in a Spartan way. Without any furniture, the rooms echoed a little, and the space felt bigger than it probably was. It smelled of fresh paint and bleach. The five of us walked through it in the wandering but focused way people get when they're planning a defensive position. There were big picture windows in the front living room and back in the kitchen that looked out on the green grass and trees on the verge of popping out new leaves. Those would be a problem. On the other hand, both front and side doors were solid-core with double dead bolts and interior latches.
The Realtor was an older woman, her hair dyed a soft auburn and her face caked with too much makeup. I thought she looked a little stunned. I tried not to say anything spooky about riders or kidnapping teenagers.
"The former owner was a very dear man," she said. "Lived here for thirty years."
I nodded. There were deep marks in the living room carpet. The couch had gone here, the coffee table there. Something wide and heavy along the wall, the line of crushed nap the only evidence of its passing.
"It looks great," I said. "Do you have the key to the shed too?"
"Of course," she said, fumbling with her purse. Chogyi Jake took the key from her, smiled, and went out the back door toward what would soon be our holding cell. I signed a few papers, shook the Realtor's hand, accepted the bottle of cheap celebratory champagne she'd brought, and ushered her out.
I'd spent two days sleeping, eating, talking to Karen and Aubrey, Ex and Chogyi Jake, and then sleeping some more while my lawyer cut through the red tape, waived the inspections, and sent me the papers I needed to sign. I had inherited dozens of properties around the world, but this was the first one I'd bought myself. It was mine, free and clear.
Ex stood at the front window, watching the Realtor's car wind down the drive, past a stand of trees to the road. His white-blond hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail, his face had the focused, almost angry look that seemed most comfortable on him. I hadn't brought up his drunken visit to my room, and neither had he.
"Well," he said. "I guess we'd better get to work. Aubrey, can you help me haul that box?"
"Sure thing," Aubrey said from the kitchen.
"I need to put this in the fridge," I said, hefting the champagne.
"No fridge," Aubrey said as he walked past.
"No fridge," he said over his shoulder. "Range. Oven. Sink. No refrigerator, no freezer."
"Well, little tomato," I said to the small black bottle, "I guess we'll have to drink you warm. That sucks."
Karen Black walked down the narrow stairway from the second floor, the stairs creaking with each step.
"It's not great in a firefight," she said. "Too many windows. And there's no back way off the property except by foot."
"If it gets to a firefight, we'll already have screwed the pooch," I said. "The whole idea is to not get seen."
She nodded, giving me the point. Chogyi Jake came in the back as Aubrey and Ex, black wooden chest between them, came in the front. The chest had arrived at the hotel that morning. Ex and Aubrey put it down, and Aubrey stretched his back with a grunt.
"We're going to need to get some things," Chogyi Jake said. "Fresh salt. Charcoal and oak for ashes. Local honey."
"Can you pick up a couch and refrigerator while you're at it?" Aubrey asked.
"And groceries," Ex said. "Lots of them."
"DVD player and TV," I said. "I don't guess the place has Internet access?"
"The order's in," Aubrey said. "It probably won't be up for a week, though. No phone service either."
"And again with the suck," I said.
We had all spent time in hiding before. The long days besieged in a warded house had taught all of us what we needed. Karen caught the mood. She was wearing dark silk slacks and a pale yellow blouse, but she shoved her hands in her pockets like they were blue jeans.
"I don't think we'll need to stay underground too long," she said. "A week. Ten days at the most. Once the rider's lost its victim, it should be more vulnerable. All this is more for Sabine than for us."
"I don't know," I said. "It seemed pretty butch when it came after me."
"We can take it," Karen said. I bristled a little at her dismissive tone, but I let it pass. She knew what we were up against better than I did.
"Okay," I said. "What's the next step."
Karen leaned against the wall, her hands still in her pockets and twitching restlessly. The rest of us gathered. Aubrey sat on the chest, Chogyi Jake on the floor beside him. Ex stood by the front window, his posture unconsciously mirroring Karen's. I put down the champagne.
"We have to find the girl," Karen said. "The rider knows we're here, and it knows its own vulnerabilities. It's kept Sabine well hidden."
"You got to the little sister through her school," Ex said. "What about trying that with Sabine?"
"She doesn't go to school," Karen said. "Dropped out three years ago. After the hurricane, it was easy to fall between the cracks. As far as the system knows, she might be one of the people that evacuated and never came back. Or she might have died. There were thousands of people reported missing after the storm. No one knows how many were unreported. If the bodies got washed out to sea..." She shrugged.
"But someone must be checking up," Aubrey said, though his voice didn't have the weight of conviction. Ex coughed.
"Okay," I said. "How do we find her?"
"We follow her grandmother or the little sister," Karen said. "Daria is still in school, and I've met her so I know what she looks like. The downside of that is that she's precognitive, and the things that affect her directly are going to be easier for her to foresee."
"So the closer we get to her..." I said.
"The more likely we are to walk into an ambush," Karen said. "Which leaves the grandmother."
"Hanging out with the evil serial killer lady seems a little problematic," I said.
"It is," Karen said. "But there are advantages. For one thing, we know that in a showdown, the two of us together can beat her. We already have."
"I had a question about that," Chogyi Jake said. His smile might have been apology or accusation or anything in between. "From what Jayn¨¦ said, I'm not perfectly clear on how the attack at the hotel happened. Or how it was turned aside."
"I'll admit that I was surprised at how well Jayn¨¦ fought," she said.
"Eric put some sort of juju on me," I said. "We haven't found his notes to know all the details."
"But the way the rider seemed to stop time..." Chogyi Jake said.
Karen took her hands out of her pockets. Her eyes were focused on the back wall, as if she were reading something there.
"The rider we're fighting is the god of the crossroads," Karen said.
"Legba. Opener of ways," I said. "I've been reading up. It's supposed to belong to a bunch of relatively benevolent spirits. Radha?"
Karen shook her head.
"Radha, Petro, Ghede. Who's benevolent and who's evil just depends on who was winning when the propaganda was written," she said. "But what I was coming to was the way Legba gets between things. Between places, between moments. It brought Jayn¨¦ into that place because it thought they wouldn't be interrupted. I've been working for years to find a way to break through that protection. I can do it again."
"Let's hope you won't need to," Ex said.
"Crossroads," Chogyi Jake said. "I've read something about that. But it wasn't Legba, I thought. Carrefour..."
"Carrefour is another loa with very similar attributes," Karen said, a little sharply. "Sometimes they're mistaken for each other, but they're different. Legba is Radha, Carrefour is Petro. They aren't on the same team."
"I don't understand," Chogyi Jake said. "They can do the same things..."
"It could be like two competitors in the same ecological niche," Aubrey said. "Wolves and hunting cats can have the same prey, and even use the same strategies, but they hate each other. Maybe these Radha and Petro gangs are the same."
Karen blinked, her brow furrowed. She looked at Aubrey and smiled.
"That's a really good metaphor," she said.
"Let's get back to the part where we're following the bad guy," I said.
"Right," Karen said. "My first point was that we can beat her in a fight. The second is that Amelie Glapion is a living woman, and she needs to eat. She's got her voodoo cult, and they have meetings and ceremonies that require her to be out in public. We know where she'll be. And we know that Sabine will be close to her. We do our reconnaissance, find where the girl is, and then we can make a more detailed plan for getting her out."
"But sooner is better than later," I said.
"Absolutely," Karen said. "Time is an issue."
"So how quickly can we do the thing?"
She smiled. The gleam in her eye looked like complicity.
"Funny you should ask," she said.
BETWEEN THE near-apocalypse of places like Lakeview and the Ninth Ward and the undamaged icon of the Vieux Carr¨¦, there was a middle ground with no tall grass, no bare foundations. The corpses of the buildings hadn't been washed away in part because they were too large to dispose of. Even if they weren't too big to kill.
Aubrey and Karen and I stood in the empty fourth story of the parking structure as the twilight around us deepened into true night. Across Tulane Avenue, Charity Hospital still towered, but the hundreds of windows were all dark. Pigeons rose in the dim light, whirled above the street and the traffic and us, and then settled again. We weren't more than ten minutes' drive from the hotel and the restaurants, the music and the tourists, and the life of the French Quarter, and we were in the ruins.
"It's better now," Karen said softly. "Not fixed, better. And not Charity. That's... that's never coming back. But the city is better than it was right after."
"I can't believe that," Aubrey said.
"No," Karen said. "What you can't believe is how bad it really was. Come on, kids. Let's suit up."
We turned back to the minivan. Karen had known where to get the things we needed. The right props and clothes were as important to what we were doing here as the ritual unguents and incense that Chogyi Jake and Ex were using back at the house were to their work. Only instead of looking like weird occult freaks in the suburbs, we looked like weird ninja wannabes in the city. I pulled black surgical scrubs over my jeans, a soft black wind-breaker over my T-shirt. Karen stuffed her pale hair into a tight black cap.
"They've been meeting here almost since it was abandoned," Karen said as she strapped leather-sheathed knives to her forearms and plucked the sleeves of her windbreaker over them. "Amelie's always in attendance."
"And the girl with the Sight?" Aubrey said. "She's here too?"
"Sometimes," Karen said.
I tested the little blue LED flashlight, then stuffed it in my pocket.
"So if she tipped them off, we could be going into a huge building filled with crazed, armed rider cultists," I said.
"It's a risk," Karen said with a grin. "Come on. Who wants to live forever, right?"
She walked away fast. Aubrey and I trotted to catch up.
"Me," I said low enough I didn't think either of them would hear. "I would very much like to live forever, thanks."
Aubrey turned his head and chuckled, but neither of us stopped.
Karen led us down a side street, walking with her hands loose at her sides and a bounce in her step. When she ducked in close to the building itself, the motion was perfectly graceful and natural. Aubrey and I followed. Karen helped us through an empty window frame, then slid through herself without making a sound louder than breathing. I felt like a kitten on its first mouse hunt.
The hallways were darker than night. The emergency lights had died years before. I took out my little flashlight, and the hall lit up in dim monochrome blue. Graffiti sprawled along the walls and debris covered the floor; old plastic chairs, bits of desiccated shrubbery, a wide, clear plastic box that reminded me of the incubators they kept premature babies alive in. The stink of mold was overpowering. Karen slunk along the passage like a cat, her hands out before her, fingertips touching each obstacle, and then moving on. Aubrey and I followed as best we could. I felt the adrenaline seeping into my blood even before we heard the drums.
The bass carried through first, a throb so low it almost wasn't sound. Like the building had a heartbeat. Karen grinned and picked up the pace. Aubrey and I struggled to keep up. Higher tones started to join the beat-bells, tambourines, bongos. At the corner of two wide hallways, Karen lifted her hand and pointed to the flashlight. I turned it off. Far away on our left, a dim light danced, red and gold and flickering like flames. I saw Karen's silhouette as she moved toward it. When she reached a pair of double doors with AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY in fading red, she gestured to the thin gap between them with her chin. I snuck over and peeked through.
The cultists had taken over what might have been an emergency room or some kind of intensive-care ward. There was room for twenty or thirty beds, though the space had been cleared of them. A curved desk squatted in the middle of the room like an altar. Ruined curtains hung like cobwebs from rusting metal tracks. On the far side of the room, half a dozen men drummed, their eyes a perfect, pupilless white.
The light wasn't fire, but a collection of orange and red lamps. The flickering came from twenty or thirty dancing bodies. Men and women. Old, young. Mostly black or brown skinned, but I saw at least one woman as pale as me. All of them were naked.
They writhed and leaped and called out. If there were words, I didn't catch them. My vestigial fear of being discovered eased. These people wouldn't have noticed if I'd led a riot squad through the door. I felt Karen lean over me, squinting through the same crack. She tapped my shoulder and pointed to the far corner of the space.
Between the bodies, I caught a glimpse of what she meant. The old woman from the hotel- Amelie, Legba, whatever we were calling her- walked through the crowd toward the altar. She wore a thin, shifting gown that might have been white, but glowed gold in the light. And behind her was a girl no more than sixteen years old in a matching outfit. The girl's face was as serene as her grandmother's, her skin darker, her hair in shining plaits. She was stunning. I touched Karen's arm and nodded. I saw her.
Sabine Glapion. The girl we were supposed to abduct. The girl we were trying to save.
Legba rose to the desktop, but I didn't see quite how she got there. Her head was moving to the lush rhythm of the drums, but awkwardly. She shouted and raised her hands. Her left arm was noticeably thinner than her right, and rose more slowly. The drums quieted, but did not cease. The dancers stood in place, swaying. Their faces were ecstatic and empty.
"Children!" the old woman said. "My children, we are set upon! We are attacked! Comprenez-vous?"
The dancers shouted something with one voice, but I couldn't make out the word. When the old woman spoke again, her voice was a low growl, her hands stretched before her like claws.
"We are weak, my children. Weak! But we shall be strong! We are fallen, but we shall rise up! The spirits hear us, and they will not be denied!"
The crowd shouted again, and the the old woman clenched her fists. Sabine was behind her, almost directly across from me, swaying in the same oceanic flow as the dancers. As her grandmother's claws clenched into fists, her eyes fluttered closed.
"Louvri!" the old woman cried. "Legba! Legba! Ki sa ou vl¨¦! Louvri les p¨®t!"
The air around me flashed with something that wasn't sound or heat, but something of both. For the space of a heartbeat, I saw the serpent where Amelie Glapion stood, its black eyes glowing in the lights, its skin shining like sunset on the ocean. I was backing away from the door even before I knew I intended to, but I was too late.
I had felt the abstract, other-reality of the Pleroma-what Aubrey called Next Door-come close to me before. I had seen things, felt things. Now, like I had been hit with a brick, the two worlds fused. I saw things all around me, bodiless and aware and hungry.
Something pressed at my belly, looking for a way in. A powerful rush of heat blazed in my spine, pushing the rider back, keeping my flesh my own. Karen staggered, her mouth gaping open like she'd been gut-punched. The shouting beyond the closed double doors changed to screaming, and the drumbeats stopped.
"We have to go," Karen said. "We have to get out."
I nodded, turned, and stumbled into the darkness. Karen was at my side. I didn't realize Aubrey hadn't followed us until we had gone twenty, maybe thirty feet. I could see him standing by the double doors, ruddy light flickering on his face. The shrieking rose in a crescendo. "Aubrey!" I shouted. "Come on!"
Aubrey turned. In the dim light filtering through the crack between doors, I saw his eyes. I saw him see me, and the slow, feral grin that came afterward. Things moved in the shadows behind him like smoke, and the fear hit me like stepping into a freezer.
He was being ridden.