"Jayn¨¦!" Karen called from the darkness behind me. The thing in Aubrey's body howled and leaped forward, vanishing as it left the thin strip of light. I tried to backpedal, but the hallway was thick with debris that caught at my ankles. Without the flashlight, I might as well have been blind. I hunched, hands out before me, and braced myself for impact. It wasn't enough.
Something hit me hard across the chest, and I fell back. The ancient linoleum flooring was gritty and slick, like sand and motor oil. I heard the rider step close.
"Aubrey! Fight it," I yelled, and his foot slammed down into my ribs. I thought I heard something crack. My breath went out of me, and a terrible calm came in. I swung my arm up, closed fist driving hard into Aubrey's crotch. He doubled over with a groan, and my legs swept out. I felt them hit the backs of his knees, heard him fall.
The rider cried out words I didn't recognize, but the tone of its voice was enough; rage and pain and fear. I rose to my fingertips and the balls of my feet, knees bent and ready to spring. It was like I had been pushed to a small, observing part of myself while my body took on the fight. I closed my eyes, the raw spiritual energy of my qi bringing my ears, my nose, my skin to a terrible sensitivity. The shadows brushed against me like small, dry hands. I could smell something sweet and fatty, like burning pork.
"You are mine, little girl," the rider said. Its voice was inhuman; feminine and raw and powerful. My head shifted a degree, homing in on the sound. "I will taste your soul. Your blood will spill from my mouth. Fear me!"
Something washed over me. Its will, its power. The greatest magic a human being can summon is nothing compared to what riders command, and at its word, the quiet, observing part of me started bouncing around the interior of my skull, screeching like a monkey. My body remained still as stone.
It shifted its weight, and I jumped. The flesh I slammed into wasn't like Aubrey's. It was thin as a starving woman but solid. My shoulder took it in the belly, and we both fell down. Skeletal hands wrapped around my throat, but I shifted, pushed, and got on top of the writhing, killing thing.
"Who are you?" it shrieked. My fist buried itself deep in the gristle of its throat.
It's also Aubrey, I thought. It's his body. I can't kill it.
The momentary hesitation was all it needed. With a shout, it arched, throwing me into the air. In the black, I didn't know where the wall was until I hit it. My head rang and brightness filled my peripheral vision. I fell to the floor. My feet slipped under me as I tried to stand. Something-fists, foot, club- hit me in the right kidney, and I went down again.
Red light flooded the hallway. The double doors had opened, and naked men and women were running silently into the hallway toward us. I saw Amelie Glapion-Legba-limping in the middle of the crowd, her paralyzed face lit with rage. I turned to what had been Aubrey.
His flesh had been turned to the rider's will. His shirt had ripped in the fight, exposing a shrunken chest, ribs black and red as a burn victim. Small, flaccid breasts hung, black nipples pointing to the ground. The face was still partly his. The angle of its jaw was familiar, the shape of the eyes. It was also a woman's death's-head grin. The rider shifted its gaze to the coming cultists, and rose an inch, as if preparing for an attack from them too.
With a shout, I brought up both fists under its chin. It felt like punching cinderblock, but the thing's head snapped back, and it fell like a marionette with its strings cut. I rolled to my feet.
The cultists came forward. Their naked bodies had no sense of vulnerability. At least two of the men had huge erections. At least one of the women had a machete. I stood up. None of them spoke. The first of them stopped no more than thirty feet from me. Another half dozen came out from the doors, their shadows stretching ahead of them. One of them was Sabine. There were too many.
And Karen flew past me like a wind.
She stood between me and the oncoming mob, knives in both hands.
"Go!" she yelled over her shoulder.
My throat felt stiff. The words had to fight their way out of me.
"Can't leave Aubrey."
"Take him and go!" Karen said and turned back to the cultists. At my feet, the body was turning back into the familiar shape, the face filling out, and the burns fading. I scooped the unconscious Aubrey up like he was a child and ran. The shrieks of battle sounded behind me.
Without Karen to lead me, the hospital was a labyrinth. Doors splintered by water damage refused to open. Hallways seemed to lead in circles. After the first couple of turns, I had to stop, fumble with the LED flashlight, and then stumble on. The smell of mold and death nauseated me. As the adrenaline faded, Aubrey grew heavier. I wasn't looking for the way we'd come. Any way out would do.
It seemed like forever before I hauled Aubrey into a room with an ancient couch decomposing against the wall, and a window wide enough to crawl through. A thin network of rusted wire held the remains of the safety glass in place. I put Aubrey on the couch while I kicked the dead wire free.
Somewhere in my flight, I'd started crying. Small, slow tears that didn't mean sorrow or fear. They didn't mean anything in particular, except that as I tried to lift Aubrey's dead weight to the open window, they shifted into sobs. I ignored myself, pushing his limp arms and legs out into the night air, then crawling after him.
The clean night air tasted wonderful. I let myself pause, my back against the rotting concrete wall, my breath labored. Aubrey lay beside me. His chest rose and fell deep and slow, as if he were only sleeping. As if he were the only one in his body. My hands were shaking with fatigue and the aftereffects of battle, but I couldn't stop. At any second, Legba's followers could pour out of the building. Or worse, the thing in Aubrey could wake up.
I fireman-carried Aubrey across the street, shuffling as quickly as I could to get across before a pickup truck ran me down. No one stopped to help, but no one stopped to ask me what the hell I was doing. At the base of the parking structure's stairway, I paused again, gasping for breath. I was still weeping a little, and I hated myself for that.
Karen was back there, in the hospital. She was probably dead by now. Between one breath and the next, it had all gone to hell, and there'd been nothing I could do. And the elevator was broken, meaning four long flights of stairs to the car. I couldn't carry him that far. I sank down to the steps, pressed my palms to my eyes, and trembled.
"Okay," I said. "Get it together. Come on, Heller. Get it together."
I swallowed my tears, looked up the twisting metal and concrete stairway, then back at Aubrey's still-inert form. I couldn't carry him. I just couldn't.
"Fine," I said. "You stay here, okay?"
Aubrey didn't answer, of course. I took a deep breath, nodded, and ran up the stairs by myself. Yes, someone might come by and find Aubrey passed out in the stairwell. Yes, the rider might come awake, and greet me with a renewed attack. But I needed the car, it was on the fourth level, and so I was going to go get it.
Driving slowly down the empty parking structure grounded me. By the time I got back to Aubrey, I'd almost stopped shaking. Karen's black duffel bag was still in the backseat. I thought I'd remembered seeing a roll of duct tape in it. Not quite as good as handcuffs, but what the hell.
As cars passed by on the street, I wrapped Aubrey's arms behind him, taping them together with almost half a roll. The rest, I put around his ankles and knees. He murmured once as I moved him, the voice not his own. I debated for a minute between the backseat and the trunk and opted for the backseat. I got him in, pushed the doors closed, and found my cell phone. Ex answered on the third ring.
"Where are you?" I asked.
"At the house," he said. "We've finished the first cycle of wards. I was thinking we could go pick up a refrigerator."
"Stay there," I said.
"What's wrong?" he said. I could see his face, the hardness of his eyes, the cold fury.
"The reconnaissance went south," I said. "Just... just stay there."
I dropped the cell onto the passenger's seat, turned on the engine, and started to pull out to the street. The cell lit up.
"Hey," it said. "You've got a call."
The display said it was Karen Black.
"Hello?" I said.
"Where are you?" Karen asked.
What if she'd been taken captive? What if it wasn't really her?
"In the car," I said, not lying, but not giving away anything.
"Great," she said. "Take La Salle south. Toward the Superdome. Turn left at Perdido. I'll watch for you."
"How do I know this isn't a trap?" I said.
There was a pause. I thought she was laughing, but she might only have been out of breath.
"You don't, really," she said. "But it's not."
In the backseat, Aubrey muttered angrily and shifted his weight. I wondered what I was going to do if the rider came to before I got back to the house. Was it a bigger risk to get Karen, who might be the free cheese in the mousetrap, or drive alone with a demon in the backseat? I thought about how I would have felt if she'd been the one to reach the car.
There wasn't really a choice.
"Okay," I said. "I'll be right there."
The traffic was light. I took La Salle down a long city block. Perdido was a one-way, and I slowed the car to a crawl. City hall was creeping up on my right when Karen stepped out of the shadows, opened the passenger door, and got in without my stopping the car.
She looked spent. Her face was spattered with blood, and a long rip along the side of her shirt showed a deepening bruise. She'd lost her hat, and her hair was pale and wild as hay.
"How's our friend?" she said.
"Possessed by evil. Wrapped in duct tape," I said.
She muttered something obscene.
"What about the others?" I asked. "Legba? The cult?"
"I held them off as long as I could, then rabbited. Nothing slows down a naked man like an angry woman with a knife. We're clear. For now."
"I don't know," Karen said. Her voice was low and tired.
I got on I-10, heading north. Heading toward help. Aubrey growled low in his throat, but didn't sit up or try to kill us. I was reconsidering the wisdom of picking the backseat over the trunk. We passed the edge of the land, black water on either side.
We could take care of Aubrey, I told myself. We could pry the rider out of him. He'd be okay. I told myself he would be okay, and hunched over the wheel, and drove too fast.
We were five miles over the river when Karen said, "Not doing that next time," at the same moment I said, "That could have gone better." She turned and looked at me. I glanced at her. I couldn't say who started laughing first. The panic and the danger and the violence spilled out of us in shared, wordless hilarity. For the rest of our passage across the lake, we were sisters. Travelers on the same dark road.
"MARINETTE," Ex said. "From what it looked like, I'm thinking definitely Marinette."
The shed was lit by the white, unforgiving light of a Coleman lantern. The air smelled like turned earth and burning fuel. Darkness pressed in at the windows. The lights of the city were a glow on the underside of scattered, low clouds. The first crickets of spring were singing.
I felt like I was waiting for a doctor to tell me whether the lump was malignant.
Aubrey sat in the center of the space, looking at each of us-Ex, Chogyi Jake, Karen, me-with a pure, black hatred. A double circle of salt with careful designs in brightly colored chalk dust between them kept the rider bound.
"It's supposed to be kind of an ambassador figure between loupines and the loa," Ex went on. "And it's apparently a queen bitch to keep confined, so we need to move fast."
"You've been reading up," Karen said.
Ex scowled at her, but a heartbeat later allowed himself a little smile. Chogyi Jake nodded to Aubrey. Or to the thing inside of him.
"It isn't in the same clan as Legba," he said. "Legba is supposed to be Radha loa. Marinette is Petro."
"And when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way?" I asked. Both men turned to look at me. I shrugged. "What does it matter what team the thing's supposed to be on?"
"I'm wondering why Legba, an exiled spirit making its toehold for a forced return to unfriendly territory, would be working with its traditional enemy," Chogyi Jake said. "Perhaps this isn't Marinette. Karen mentioned how difficult it could be to tell one loa from another."
"Or maybe the local spirits are attacking the exile, and we just got in the way," Karen said, her voice oddly sorrowful. "Maybe they all still hate it."
"Okay, but if it's after Legba, why attack us?" I said.
"You have no place here," the rider said. "You have fallen."
"Be quiet," Karen said, and I could feel the force of her will in the air like the draft of a truck speeding past. Aubrey made a strangled sound.
"Karen's right. Don't listen to it," Ex said. "The only power it has right now is to confuse us. You three go. This is my job."
"You're an exorcist?" Karen said.
"I've managed before," Ex said.
She smiled at him a little more warmly.
"I've known others," she said. "It's hard work. Painful."
"But you can do it, right?" I said. "You can get it out of him? You can get Aubrey back?"
Ex turned to look at me. The lantern threw shadows on his cheek and in the hollow of his eyes. There was something in the way he held his body that I couldn't understand, like he was guarding himself. It reminded me of a man with broken ribs steeling himself for a blow.
"I can," he said.
Karen put a hand on my arm. I nodded, and we walked out of the shed into the darkness of the yard. The house squatted before us, light blazing from the windows. The bareness of the kitchen was like a particularly depressing movie. Bare bulb, no furnishings, old paint. I half expected a film student in a black turtleneck to come out with a handheld camera and tell us to start improvising dialogue. Chogyi Jake followed us, and the shed door closed behind him.
"I'll stay with them," Chogyi Jake said. "You should go back to the hotel. There's no food here. No beds."
"We could sleep on the floor," Karen said.
"It wouldn't help," he said.
"Ex can do this," I said. "He's done worse before. And he's really good."
Chogyi Jake didn't answer one way or the other. I could have stood some reassurance. In the shed, something popped and I heard Ex's voice in a rising chant. Aubrey screamed. I wanted to go in. I wanted to stop it or help or something. Anything.
"This will take hours," Chogyi Jake said. "Go. Rest. Only... be careful."
"It's going to be all right," I said. I didn't sound convincing, even to myself.
I crawled back into the car and aimed us south again, for the French Quarter. Karen, in the passenger's seat, had grown quiet. I went through my leather pack with one hand while I drove, found a Pink Martini mix disk I'd burned, and popped it in the CD player. Their soft, eerie version of "Qu¨¦ Ser¨¢ Ser¨¢" started up. What will be, will be, I thought, whether I like it or not. I skipped ahead to "Cante E Dance."
When Karen sighed, I knew it was a preface. I expected her to apologize. This was her fault, she'd led us into danger, and so on. It was what I'd have been saying in her place, and I had my response all planned out. We were big boys and girls, we knew the risks, and we'd come of our own free will. All the things I'd have wanted to hear.
She surprised me.
"They care about you," she said. "Those three. You call them your staff, but they care about you."
"Yeah," I said. "I mean. Sure. I guess so."
"Must be nice," she said, and that was all.