In the movies, it's always so damn easy to punch a fucker out. One knock on the bone box is all it takes. Down here in the gutter, it takes repeated pummeling to make a body stay down.
Hell, I had to hit my boss twenty-seven times to put him in that coma. And that was after I cursed him!
It was well after dark when I hopped his white picket fence. His yard was more kitchy than I'd expected, littered with knick-knacks and children's toys. There was even one of those windmills were a tiny, plastic lumberjack saws off his own dick. Maybe it was supposed to be a log he was sawing, but it was positioned at suggestively dick level.
Anyway, I crouched behind a bush and took my time quietly prying a stone loose from the foundation. The porch was a few feet off the ground, which was perfect for my needs. I stuffed a gris-gris bag under his front step and slid the stone back in place.
I threw my fist through his face...
The inside of Webb's sadness shack made his front yard look like a Mardis Gras beer garden. More ababdoned toys were piled in the living room, crayon graffiti graced the kitchen cabinets, a box of sugary cereal sat in the cupboard... but there was nowhere for a kid to sleep. No itsy clothes, no bitsy shoes, not even a teeny weeny toothbrush.
I didn't blame his kids for not wanting to stay overnight, or his wife for not wanting to share custody. The man was a raging asshole! If he'd had it in him to be any better, I wouldn't have been there in the first place.
It took over an hour to find all his goddamned guns. I made sure they were empty, all except the snub-nosed .38 in his kitchen. He'd notice the weight, so I sabotaged the firing pin instead.
Webb staggered in around eleven, not terribly drunk by cop standards, but in no condition to deal with the likes of me. I let him wander around for a bit, hit the head and shed a layer of clothing, including his shoulder holster, like I knew he would.
When he finally came into the kitchen, looking for a nightcap for his nightcap, I greeted him all friendly-like.
He didn't jump, but his shot glass did, right outta his hand before shattering on the floor. "Marion. Fuck." That may have been his approximation of a scream. "What are you doing here? Besides getting fired?"
I sat at his kitchen table, a diner-style bench abutting the outside wall. His kids' cereal box and an empty bowl sat near me. We'd had a fine old time. "You won't believe this, Webb, but I don't wanna be here. You just haven't left me any other options. If you hadn't been such a foul, pig-headed cuss--"
"For fuck's sake! Tell me this isn't about that thing with the Hispanic gang?!" He fished his phone out of his slacks and tried to call... it didn't matter who. He wouldn't get any bars. He'd walked over my gris-gris on his way in. Among other things, it was filled with dirt from the grave of a man who died begging for help. No one saved that bastard and no one was gonna save Webb.
...like a Molotov cocktail.
"Yes, it's about that thing with the Hispanic gang!" I roared. "That and about a thousand other lapses of your fucking judgment. They don't trust us, Webb! How are we supposed to do our jobs?" I eased my way out from behind the table and he went for the .38, surprising no one. I let him wave it around while I slipped into my brass knuckles.
"They never trusted us!" he bellowed back. "We're cops, Marion! They're not supposed to trust us. They're supposed to lie and cheat and murder each other. That's what they do!"
"Not if we give them other options."
"Like what? Paying you to break into my house at night and intimidate me?" He snorted in what I assumed was derision. "I could shoot you dead right now and they'd call it justified. You gotta know that." He didn't even wait for a response, just squeezed the trigger.
I was on him before it finished click-click-clicking. I threw my fist through his face like a molotov cocktail. Blood and teeth exploded across the counter.
He crumpled to the floor and I went down with him, pounding his skull again and again, screaming... "This is what happens when you don't play ball!"
So, Bridgit's dead.
I'm standing in her houseboat, looking down at her corpse, and I'm ashamed to say it, but my first thoughts are about myself. How I failed her, how much I'll miss her, and who might be trying to hang a frame around my neck.
Henre already tried to frame me once, but that was for felony drug possession. Seems like a big leap from there to murdering my friends. Besides, I sealed his deal hours ago. It was barely ten o'clock when I finished rolling four barrels, conspicuously marked "EXPLOSIVE," onto a small fishing boat...
I was waiting for La Fleur to call me on my new burner phone. I know, I know! After all that stuff I said about cellphones. Just this once, though, I decided it was worth the risk.
Earlier that morning, I'd called La Fleur from a roadside diner just west of town, one of those 1950s places that appeals to baby boomers' misplaced nostalgia. They had gas pumps and gator fries, which is all that really mattered to me at the time. That and the landline.
"You're finally joining us in the twenty-first century!" La Fleur preened when I asked her buy me a phone.
"Don't get excited. I'm just visiting for the day. Get one for yourself, too, but don't spend much on them. Mine's going in the lake in a few hours and yours should do likewise. You don't wanna know what that GPS data will make you an accessory to."
Deflated, she agreed on one condition. "Alright, but you'll have to pick it up at my new office!" The way she raised her voice at the end, I could tell she was posing in front of it. "You got a pen and paper to take down directions?"
"Blondie, this here is my town. Just gimme the address."
So, Bridgit's dead
About an hour later, my beater pickup wheezed into a parking spot near a one-story brick shithouse in Treme. I think it used to be an outbuilding for a church, but now it stood beside an empty lot and the only identification was a tiny sign hanging from the awning: Psychic Realty.
"Really?" That's how I greeted LaFleur after pushing the iron gate open and walking inside the... garage, maybe? Barn? Really long storage shed? It was dark on the inside, since there wasn't a window to be found, just a series of garage doors along the right. A lethargic ceiling fan was already struggling against the heat.
"I know!" she beamed, gathering some papers on her way up front. "Isn't it brilliant?"
"You took the word right outta my ass."
"There's still so many distressed properties and, you know, people have a lot of anxiety when they're house hunting. 'Is it haunted?' 'Am I gonna be happy here?' The houses are fine; the buyers just need a bit of reassurance. Of course, then you have the people who specifically want a haunted house."
"Sounds like your kinda people."
"Your kind, too," she winked and handed me a brochure. "Check out page three."
I flipped it open and almost leapt outta my skin. "Is that what I look like, now?" She'd taken some candid photos of me, it would seem, and paired them with a few endorsements I couldn't remember making. "Never thought of myself as celebrity endorsement material, La Fleur."
"Are you kidding? People are talking, Marion. Especially people you've helped with ghosts and monsters and whatever. Or people who've seen you chasing ghosts and monsters down the street. Plus, just look at you! You're every inch the part."
"Huh." I wasn't sure what I thought about that, but I knew she meant it as a compliment. I mean, building a reputation among the underground of occult weirdos was always the plan, but I thought I'd remain more anonymous among the normal folk, insofar as there are any normal folk in this city. "Shouldn't I be getting a kickback or something?"
"I'll help you find your next place, gratis." She handed me a hot pink, plastic flip phone.
"Where'd you get this? The bottom of a cereal box?"
"You said not to spend too much."
"But I expected you to spend something!"
"Christ, you're just gonna throw it away! Look, it takes calls." She flipped it open for me and speed dialed her own, identical phone. "See? Just don't go too far from town with it and try to stay out of the sewer. You can stay out of the sewer for a few hours, can't you?"
I cast her a look that could wither springtime magnolias. "How many skeeball tickets do I owe you for this?"
"Oh, I know you're good for it." Must not have been many. "Now, what's the rest of this favor and how long is it gonna keep me away from my grand corporate adventure?"
"I'll be surprised if it takes more than an hour. You know where Henre LaFontaine lives?"
"The freaky cult guy?"
"He's not that freaky, but yes."
"I know where he lives. That place raises the property values for three blocks in every direction, even down."
"You should see the inside," I teased her. "I just need you to watch the front gate and call me as soon as he leaves."
"You got a picture of him? I can't say I know what he looks like."
"Oh, you'll know. He'll be the Mr. Rogers lookin' guy thundering outta there with a truck full of goons."
"You took the word right outta my ass."
Which is exactly what happened. I'd picked the time carefully. Henre always struck me as an early riser, but he never scheduled appointments before noon. Even if he stayed up late waiting to hear what happened with his crooked cops and their ill-fated frame job, to use a hypothetical example, I was sure he'd be awake and still at the compound around ten in the morning.
I also knew that he'd have people watching every marina, dock, and jutting parcel of land from Mentre Park to the Mississippi after the fairly specific threats I'd made against his Precious. Still, I took my time loading those barrels, just in case the lookout at my marina was bad at their job.
I was contemplating my contingency plan, calling Henre and challenging him to a race, when the burner started vibrating in my pocket. I leapt to my feet and patted my jeans as if to put out a fire, then realized I was an idiot.
"You were right," La Fleur told me as if there'd been any doubt. "A truck and a black sedan just took off outta here like bird dogs chasing a... bird of some kind. Didn't see Mr. Rogers, but I'm sure whoever was in the back of the sedan was important. Need me to confirm?"
"Nope. That's him," I assured her. "No way he's leaving this one to the help. Go toss that phone in the river and light a candle for me, or whatever your people do."
"White people or psychics?"
"Ok. Break a leg." She hung up and I flung my phone into the lake. Probably shoulda waited for deeper water, but that thing was really freakin' my shit out.
I don't know what Henre expected to find when his yacht cruised past the last hazard bouy that morning. Probably me riding a nuclear bomb down into the depths of Ponchartrain like Sam fuckin' Pickens.
But I'll damn well tell you what he didn't expect: my stolen fishing boat tied up next to a University of Lousianna marine research vessel. He probably had to tell his goons to hide their guns as they pulled alongside and hailed us.
The university kids barely looked up from their computer monitors when Henre came aboard. We'd gotten their drone sub in the water maybe ten minutes earlier, so they had far more amazing things to occupy their eyeballs.
"Marion!" Henre greeted me in his customary manner, though his smile was tight as a garrote wire. His people didn't even bother; they just glared down at me between terrified glances toward the water. I wondered if they could feel her down there. I'm sure they thought they could.
"Henre, you old so-and-so!" I slapped him on the shoulder with a completely justified amount of force. "Glad you could make it. I told the nice, innocent people not to wait, that you'd get here in time to pick their jaws up off the deck." I stepped between Henre and the gaggle of biologists taking their first look at the wreck of the Pabodie. "How you wanna play this, old timer?"
His smile was tight as a garrote wire
I've never seen anyone do such frantic mental math. His eyes vibrated with the strain of it. I think he was calculating every possible future that stretched out from that moment, trying to pick the least disastrous one. That's Henre's problem, if you ask me. Always the pessimist.
Finally, he had his murder squad stand down. "Do you have any idea what you've done?! This... this could be the end. Of everything! Mon Dieu, Marion! I can't believe... I can't... You just..."
"Henre, you've obviously got a lot to say on this topic, but now it's time to listen. I'm making this your decision. You could still keep your status quo, but you'll have to murder me and everyone else on this boat. I don't think you're a murderer, Henre. Maybe a killer, but not a murderer."
"What do you think is gonna happen to me and my people?!" he almost shouts, then collects himself. "They'll want to dissect us!"
"I told them about you, Henre. The rest of your people, they're still your secret to share or keep, as you see fit, but you're coming outta the closet. These guys, these kids, they're not gonna put you under a microscope, not without your consent. Way I see it, the safest place for you to be is in the spotlight. Come out, Henre! Be proud! You're the first human immortal and, soon, you're gonna be the richest asshole on the planet."
"At what cost, Marion? I can't even conceive--"
"Then be the one who guides it, Henre. Who better?"
"Fuck, Marion. I tried to have you framed."
"I was there!"
"My people... they won't all agree."
"If they did, they wouldn't be people, but they have faith in you. Besides, you'll have enough money to run the world's most luxurious witness protection program."
"Jesus," he crossed himself, "in with both feet. You know, I'm holding you responsible if this ends the world."
"Fair enough," I told him, then we joined the biologists and watched them discover the thousand-eyed tentacle monster that inhabited their lake.
So, Henre's not at the top of my suspect list, but Lafitte tried to have me killed just a few hours ago. I had no trouble believing that the nightmare machine he'd sent after me could have done something like... this.
Bridgit's corpse has been sloppily autopsied right here on the floor, like somebody tried to dig out her soul before it could escape. I can't imagine how she must have suffered.
Which is when I realize it wasn't Lafitte, and also that I'm being an ass. A self-centered, insensitive, paranoid ass. This wasn't about me. It was about Bridgit. It's obvious who did this to her and they're gonna pay. Bridgit deserves that.
I hear footfalls on deck, quiet ones, but not quite quiet enough. Careful to avoid stepping in Bridgit's blood, I press myself against the wall. Best I can hope for is somebody's clean-up crew. At least I could interrogate them.
Worst case, it's someone who's gonna scream and call the cops.
The footsteps slow as they come down the short steps from the deck and, presumably, take in the carnage. I catch a glimpse of red hair and pale skin.
"Like shite beaten up in a bucket," she says.
"Bridgit?" I peak out from my hiding place, hands up.
She jumps away from me and opens an umbrella like a gladiatorial shield. Wide, green eyes peak over the top, then she closes the umbrella and leans on it, either relieved or exhausted. "Shite, woman. I thought you were her."
"Marinette?" I know it's the truth, but I ask anyway.
"Fuck yes, Marinette! Who else?!" She's Bridgit, but not Bridgit. Same hair, same complexion, but taller and older, I think. Or she's just had a rougher life. "You know any other psychotic murder-cannibals with a hard-on for hurting me?"
I come the rest of the way out, step back over the congealing blood, and get a closer look at New Bridgit. "I... I knew this was how it worked, but I've never seen it before. Do you remember... everything? I mean, do you know me?"
"Like shite beaten up in a bucket."
"Yeah, it's always weird for the greenhorns. Go ahead, look til you're convinced." She's certainly not dressed like Bridgit: ratty jeans, black blouse over a pink bra, hair set loose to wander. But there's something else underneath it, a certain way she carries herself. It's eerie as shit. "You're Marion Barbarouss, knight errant and P.I. to the stars. And by 'stars' I mean me. You make pretty decent French toast."
"And you remember this?" I gesture to the human rights violation at our feet.
"Well enough. Kinda like how you'd remember a shitfaced one-night stand, but I'm no less Maman Brigitte than she was. I remember you, Marion. I remember that you're my friend and I know, without a doubt, that Marinette did this to me."
"Fuck. This is the last thing I need today."
"Go tell it to the moon, lady. This is the last thing any of us need."
"Oh, I'm sorry," I stammer, "... for your loss?"
She laughs and it's the same old Bridgit. I have to look down at the corpse to remind me it's not. Or maybe it's both and neither. Divinity is fucked up. "Don't worry about it, Marion. This is my mess to clean up, not yours. Get the fuck outta here. I'm sure you got your own fucked up shite to give a shite about."
It's like we picked up right where we left off, before Old Bridgit was even room temperature. It makes it worse and better at the same time.
"Oh fuck!" The realization hits me like a car alarm at two in the morning. "If Marinette's back, she'll be after Daisy! I gotta help her!"
"Go on, then! Get the fuck outta here before I punch ya in the cunt!"
I'm already running out the door "You sure swear a lot more than Old Bridgit!"
"Yeah, this one was a real priss!"
That definitely makes it worse.
The last time El Diablero needed my help, things didn't go so well. They went like shit, actually. It was two days after I got my apartment in the French Quarter. The place was still furnished with cardboard boxes and I was sleeping on the floor. I kinda liked it, truth be told. The place looks bigger when it's empty.
I trudged through the door near midnight, dragging three shopping bags full of food, toiletries, and kitchen gear. I'd already had enough of eating take-out and leftovers for every meal, thanks much. I was looking forward to sleeping in and making some brunch.
"Finally got yourself a piece of the pie, huh Marion?" I hadn't even noticed the sullen teen in the black hoodie slouched against the back wall, getting his filthy combat boots all over my sleeping bag. I wasn't exactly at the top of my game, back then. I'd walked out on Prosper a few weeks earlier, then there was the thing with the Forgotten God, a week of hard detox, and non-stop hazing from my supposedly fellow officers.
It's not an excuse, it's just where I was at.
"La Fleur found it for me," I confessed while I finished hauling in my supplies and securing the door. "She's got some kinda inside line on real estate. It's probably haunted," I laughed.
"Only thing haunting this place is black mold." Buzzkill. "You shoulda stuck with Prosper. I bet that boy goes down smooth."
"You know you're welcome here at any hour, Daisy," I could feel him glaring at my back, "but you better have a reason beyond trying to get a rise outta me."
"Yeah, yeah. All business with you. Christ." The sleeping bag material made his uncomfortable shifting clearly audible. I started to think this was serious. "It's all your fault, anyway. You know you coddle those monsters, right? They should be six feet under, not getting the weekend spa treatment in jail."
"Can't keep 'em in jail when they play dead. You know that."
"And those are your only options?! Let your balls drop!"
"I'll hold you responsible if this ends the world."
I took off my badge and put it on my nightstand, by which I mean a box of old clothes next to the sleeping bag, just to remind him who he was mouthing off to. "We're friends, so I'm not gonna take offense, but keep it up and things might change. Now, spill it or go home."
He wiped sweaty palms on his metal-studded jeans, but it wasn't my bravado that was making him nervous. This was definitely something serious.
"That fucking Frenchie and his monsters been hitting our suppliers all week. One-Punch thinks we got a rat, but it won't matter much longer. People find out we don't got any flow and that's gonna be the end. If Laffite doesn't decide to pop us, there's a dozen others waiting for a shot.
"Can't you do something about them?!" he pleaded with too much force. "They don't gotta go to trial, just confiscate their stuff or something. You think a pirate keeps receipts? Civil forfeiture that shit!"
"I need reason to believe any assets seized were involved in a crime," I reminded him. "Now, if you know where he's keeping whatever drugs he's stolen..."
"You don't think I'da lead with that?!" He strangled a sob before it could escape, but I heard it struggling. In the years I'd known him, as either Daisy or El Diablero, I don't think I'd ever seen him cry. "You just gotta get 'em off the street for a few days, okay? Just... lock 'em up on bullshit charges, I dunno. Plant evidence on 'em. Whatever you gotta do, just do it."
I drag the nightstand out of the way and sit down next to him. "I can't help you if you don't tell me what's going on."
"If they knew I was here, talking to you about this, they'd never speak to me again. They will never speak to me again, but it's better than letting 'em all..."
He took a deep, shuddering breath. "They're gonna try to ambush Laffite and his lieutenants. One-Punch says we gotta settle it, thinks if we hit 'em hard enough... but you and I both know... they're gonna get slaughtered."
"And you want me to stop them."
"Chango set up a fake deal and let Laffite find out about it. It's tomorrow morning. Chango thinks they'll be powerless during the day, cuz he's a moron."
"I can put cops on the scene. At the first sign of violence--"
"They'll already be dead!"
"Look, I'm gonna help you, okay? I am. But I can't just go all vigilante justice! Not on them, not on anyone. I need evidence of a crime. I need witnesses. If I can prove Laffite's running an organized crime ring, there are all kinds of tools--"
"Fuck, Marion! Fucking fuck. In a few hours, they're gonna be dead. All dead."
Somebody tried to dig out her soul
"Alright," I got up and dug a box out of my shopping bags. "Time for creative solutions. Let me make some calls." I unpacked my new answering machine and plugged it into the wall.
He laughed hoarsely. "That's gotta be the biggest goddamned phone I've ever seen! Oh, wait, is it an answering machine? Holy shit! Why did you buy an answering machine? You taking calls from 1985?"
I ignored him and dialed Guts. He sounded asleep. "You in bed already, old man? It ain't even last call!" I guess I'd had enough of being teased and wanted to get out in front.
"Yeah, I'm old now," Guts slurred groggily. "Thanks for the recap. 'Night..."
"Don't hang up! I got a hot tip: Laffite's planning a massacre. I know you want that monkey off your back."
"I hope you've got something better than arresting him, this time. Mass suicides in jail don't look good for the district."
"I've got an angle," I lied, "but I could use a little help on execution. What with your promotion and all..."
"I'm just a captain, Marion."
"You're Webb's little golden boy."
"Sure. Look, you know I'll have your back, especially if it involves that goddamned pirate, but he's got dirt on both of us. I can't jeopardize my career on a hail mary pass."
"Guts, we've talked about the sports metaphors."
"Whatever you're planning, I'll have to run it past Webb first."
"Oh. Come. On!" El Diablero nearly got up to leave. I waved his ass back down. "Webb doesn't give two shits about these people. No offense."
"None taken," they both told me, one in each ear.
"Damnit, Marion. You never get tired of watching me sweat. Just get your shit together by zero eight hundred and I'll get whatever resources I can. No promises on quality."
"But you always deliver. That's why we get along so well, Guts. I'll see you in the morning. Wear your curb stomping shoes."
"God, you're such a cop," El Diablero reprimanded me after I'd hung up the phone. "We don't talk that way about people we need to beat up."
"Yes, you do."
"Maybe, but aren't you supposed to be better than us?"
"Way I see it, we're all in this together," I assured him. "Everybody except Laffite."
"I can't believe this. I'm a fucking rat."
"You've been my snitch for, like, two years." That was not the right thing to say. He got up and buried his hands in his front pocket, started dragging his feet toward the door.
I stopped him with one of those half hugs plus an unnecessarily hard pat on the back. You know, like bros do. "It's alright to not wanna see your friends dead. They'll understand. Maybe not for a while, but they will. Now go home and take care of your family. I'll swing by when it's over."
The Florencios' backyard's been hanging out with a bad crowd. I'm creeping around back to avoid Daisy's parents, this time. The patio's still got the concentric squares of beige-and-red tiles I remember. The same string of tiny, glowing Edison bulbs around the perimeter. Same green-and-white striped deck chairs. Same gleaming gas grill the size of a camper trailer.
What's changed is the art. I remember a few human figurines, some pottery, and one vaguely creepy ceremonial mask. Now, I'm surrounded by hissing, learing Aztec deities, all sharp angles and jutting teeth. An intricately engraved skull lolls its swollen tongue at me in naked contempt. Suddenly, I wonder if Mrs. Florencio isn't into some dark, heathen shit after all. Or maybe pre-Columbian blood cults are just in this year.
Daisy's room overlooks the patio. It's the one with the broken window. "Fuck." I finally notice the shards of broken glass glittering among the tiles.
I'm too late. Again.
"You're too late," Marinette echoes my inner monologue. No idea how I didn't hear her approach, but she's right behind me. Black magic, I guess. I spin like a top and start to draw my gun, but she's right. It is too late.
I'm looking down the barrel of a sawed-off Winchester rifle, one of those lever action numbers. It belches a cloud of black powder right in my face. Goofer dust. Smells like potent shit.
Little bitch stole my idea! Suddenly, New Bridigt's umbrella shield makes a whole lotta sense.
Divinity is fucked up
Cursed, I sputter and trip over one of the deck chairs, fall on my ass. Always on my ass. I feel my shoulder strap break; my shotgun skitters across the tile and disappears under that grill. That gigantic goddamned grill.
Marinette twirls her rifle, cranking the lever to eject her spent shell and load the next round into the chamber. "After you helped me teach the Admiral a lesson," she gloats, "I decided I needed one of these for myself. You like it?"
She does a little victory dance. Her tight, red-and-black dress does little to fill out her cadaverous figure. The ridges of her sternum and clavicle spread out across her chest like a spider's web. Her hair's covered by a black do-rag and her eyes are just dark glimmers in deep sockets.
"They call it a mare's leg. Just as conealable as your little room sweeper, but I got six rounds in this hellraiser before she needs to reload. How's it feel to be obsolete?"
I try to look dignified as I sit on the floor with my legs tangled in a chair. "Six shots, huh? And you can only shoot them in the one order? I guess that's cool. Me, I like to keep my options open. I load all kinds of crazy shit in there," I tell her as I crab walk my way toward the grill.
"Wadaya you think you're up to, dead woman? Still about ten minutes before your luck turns around, and I'll shoot you again before then. I'm gonna take my sweet time with you."
"Like you did with Bridgit?"
"Word travels fast," she muses while taking a quick tour of the art. I wonder if she feels at home among all these wooden, bloodthirsty fiends. "Yeah, she had that coming."
"God, I should burn you at the stake." I roll over onto my stomach and start fishing for my firearm.
Wooden, bloodthirsty fiends
"Hurry up," she cheers me on. "I wanna see what happens. I bet that ratty antique backfires in your face. Last thing you need, eh?" Her laugh is a phlegmy death rattle that ends in a painful wince, like her ribs are bruised. I notice that she's nursing her left arm, too.
"Aww, did Daisy rough you up a little? Poor princess. I hope she threw you through that window."
"Quite the spitfire," the goddess agrees. "I tried to sic her on the fish cult, but all she wanted to talk about was some vampire pirates or mafia mummies or some damn thing. This town is the worst."
My fingers find familiar gunmetal and I pull my shotgun free like Ex-fucking-caliber. I level it at Marinette. She laughs.
"Go ahead. I'll give you one free shot before I decorate your friend's house with your entrails."
I hope I remember which round is in which barrel. "You're only invincible if I try to beat you, Marinette. I'm the one who's cursed. The gun will still work if I use it for something really, really stupid."
I squeeze the second trigger and a load of normal, everyday buckshot wipes that smile right off her face. Way off. Blood soaks the Aztec gods, just the way they like it.
I'm sure I'll regret that later.
I've got a few more minutes of this curse left. What would be worse for me: not finding Laffite and letting Daisy die or putting myself between a rugaru and an undead pirate who wants my head? The first location that springs to mind is so unlikely, so poeticaly ironic, I know it must be where Laffite's hiding.
I feel bad leaving a body for the Florencio's to find, but I don't have time for proper corpse disposal. I do have time to nab her mare's leg and throw it in my trunk, tho. It is kinda cool.
Now, this place looks exactly as I remember it. It's the middle unit in a row of townhouses, all foreclosed or abandoned. Big, two-story windows look out on the enclosed back patio, formerly an alley. Cracks spiderweb across them from one corner to the other, bisected by a line of ragged bullet holes.
I'm not sure why Laffite would hole up here during a time of war. Maybe it makes him feel powerful to be reminded of past triumphs. Or maybe the rugaru curse had its fingers on all our puppet strings.
Whatever the reason, I'm positive this is the place. I spot a lookout patroling the back, pretending to smoke. He just waves a cigarette around every so often, letting it burn down to his knuckles before lightning the next. Poor bastards. They try so hard to fit in.
Through my scope, I can make out a crowd of about a dozen more milling around inside, mostly on the main floor. I might even recognize a few of them from Laffite's place. It's hard to say for sure; they're usually bowing.
Speaking of Laffite, I spy him upstairs in the lofted bedroom, pacing like a zoo animal. Or maybe a lab rat. Do lab rats get nervous in the morning, right before their tormentors clock in? Anyway, it's nice to know I torment him.
I announce myself by throwing his lookout through the window. The spiderwebbed glass gives way like a beaded curtain. I take cover against the neighboring unit as the glass rains down and itchy trigger fingers do their thing.
After a few cacophonous seconds, Laffite calls a ceasefire. "Is that you, Marion? Come to make war?!"
"Come to make a deal, actually," I reply and toss my magic shotgun around the corner, breach open so they can see it's not loaded. "I need your help, Laffite. I got bigger problems than you. Henre's coming after me hard. Crooked cops, fish assassins... he wants me dead."
"Why would I help you with that, Marion? What's in it for me?" Some of his cronies snicker, but only a few. Seems like not everybody wants me dead, after all.
"Well, I took care of his first assassin, some crazy mutant with a smile not even a British dentist could love, but the next one... it's even worse and it's gunning for us both."
"And why is that? I've done nothing to cross the fish cult."
"Have you heard of the rugaru, Laffite?"
He laughs. "You mean loup-garou. Don't tell me Henre's got a werewolf up his sleeve!"
"That might be were it got it's name, but this ain't no Hammer film. The rugaru is a curse, a very old curse that passes from one murderer to the next."
"We've already conquered death, Marion! How can this death curse possibly threaten us?"
"It's not the curse so much as the cursed. It's someone you know. Someone who's been hunting you and yours for the last few months. Successfully, too. There are ways to kill the dead, Laffite, and he found them."
"The vigilante," someone mutters and a gasp sweeps through the mob.
"And now the curse has made him unstoppable! He'll tear his way through your people until all that's left is a pile of torsos. Call my bluff this time, Laffite, and you're all gonna be enjoying a big, hippie mind meld for the rest of eternity. The ultimate group hug! Don't that sound nice?"
"Say I believe you. What can the two of us do about it that you couldn't do yourself? This smells like another one of your bullshit cons, Marion."
"I think I can stop the curse, but only if I can talk to the rugaru. I need you, all of you, to hold it down for a minute, make it listen. I'm willing to wager my life on this, Laffite."
"And if this monster of yours doesn't show? Is your life still on the table?"
I come out from around my corner, hands in the air. "If it doesn't show, then I'll just have to fight my way outta here."
"This town is the worst."
Laffite smiles under his little rat mustache and gestures for someone to fetch him my shotgun. One of the goons tosses it up and Laffite catches it. "If you can fight your way out unarmed, then go with God, but if your vigilante does show up and I catch any whiff of a double-cross... I get to kill you myself. That's the deal."
"You know, Laffite, a gentleman doesn't make people agree to terms at gunpoint."
"I don't see any gentlemen here, Marion." Two snickering thugs take my arms and walk me up the stairs to the loft. They sit me down on the floor next to a perfectly good chair. At least they don't tie me up.
"How long should I wait before concluding your monster is a myth, Marion? An hour? Two? I'll send someone out for Thai; we can wait all night."
"Kind of you to offer, but I won't be needing a last meal." I wish I felt half as confident as that sounded.
And that sounded like shit.
When I got to work, bright and early that long-ago Sunday morning, Guts was already clocked in and looking guilty as sin. He moved to intercept me before I got to my desk and waved me toward Webb's office. I didn't hold it against him, not really, but I groaned loudly all the way across the bullpen.
Guts fell in beside me and we finished walking to the gallows together. "I hope you have a good plan, because Webb needs some convincing."
"I told you what I was gonna do." He tightened his tie and stood up even straighter. "Knew I shoulda hung up the phone."
He opened the door and went in first, trusting me not to run for the hills. Webb's office made an interesting counterpoint to his house: no sign of kids or family, his commendations hung neatly on the wall, a display case packed with photos of him shaking hands with all the right people. Webb was a career cop, or at least that's what he wanted other cops to think.
"Marion, you're looking well," he spat without even a glance up from his paperwork. "The answer is 'No.' Enjoy your day off."
"You haven't even heard--" I began.
"Oh, you wanna have the whole conversation, then? Fine. I figured you'd be in a hurry. Everything seemed so urgent when Captain McCarty burst in here thirty minutes ago. Just give me one moment..." He made a big show of signing whatever the hell was on his desk, and straigtening all his papers, before finally blessing us with eye contact. "Now, what's this I hear about another record-tarnishing catch and release in Treme?"
I swallowed my pride, but it didn't go down easy. "Sir, I... we are trying to prevent a bloodbath. Laffite's been moving into the drug trade, muscling out the smaller gangs, and I've learned that one of those gangs has set up an ambush for him in... less than an hour. I just need to get the key players off the street for a while, let things cool down--"
"We all know how this plays out," he interrupted me. "You're gonna haul a bunch of those moonbats in here and not a' one of them is gonna talk, except for a constant stream of their crazy, religous nonsense. And then we're gonna find most of 'em dead in their cells. You think that looks good for the precinct, Officer Barbarouss? Your service record might be a lost cause, but what about your fellow officers, like the one standing next to you? They've got careers and families."
That whole time, despite the swearing, he remained seated and cordial. It was surreal. I figure that's why Guts felt he could stick his neck out.
"Sir, with all due respect, and I mean that, um... there are lives at stake. Hauling away body bags on the evening news doesn't look great for the district, either. I think we should at least--"
"Captain McCarty, my jail is not a time-out corner for Marion's personal daycare. Unless you wanna wait for the bullets to start flying and charge these fuckers with homicide, or know where to find them holding a literal tonne of cocaine, the only resources I'm putting at this woman's disposal are a segway and a pad of parking tickets. Do you even have grounds for a warrant?"
"Judge Varignon was willing to--"
"That crook?! And what'd you bribe him with, a handjob?!" This time, Webb did rise from his chair. Pushed it back so hard, in fact, I thought his diplomas were gonna fall off the wall. "If I didn't know better, and I definitely don't, I'd think you were running interference for those drug dealing cartoon character friends of yours!"
Guts tried to jump in again. "Sir, we can't just let this happen--"
But I was already in the deep end. "Who's side are you on, you selfish, ass-kissing, ladder-climbing shitheel?!"
"I'm on our side, Marion! All of ours," he gestured through the walls to encompass the entire police station. He obviously didn't mean the public. "You think anybody who matters gives a shit what happens to some weirdo cultists or street punk, drug dealing wetbacks? Let the lowlives murder each other!"
"Aren't you supposed to be better than us?"
Guts and I tried to be heroes, anyway, but we were too late. It must have been over quick.
El Diaberlo's gang used foreclosures as dead drops, meth labs, and meeting places. There was no shortage of them all around Nola, newly converted condos like these townhomes, either claimed by Katrina or reclaimed by the banks.
The bullet holes in its big, two-story windows must have been made by the gangsters, because it looked like the Survivors just tore these kids apart with their bare hands. Connecting the bloody dots, I counted at least six of them. That was the whole gang, minus my C.I. Wiped out, probably in minutes. Frantic, desperate, tortured minutes while Guts and I made our way through Mid-City traffic.
Guts had to take his weak stomach outside, so I was alone when El Diablero appeared upstairs, clutching the bannister like a man dangling from a ledge.
"You know, I don't even blame you," he lied. "This is my fault. I shoulda done something else, anything else besides trust you to take care of it. Fucking cops! You're all just out for your goddamned selves! You don't give a shit about us. You just use us and let us die, when you're not doing the killing yourselves."
"Daisy, I tried--"
"You don't get to call me that!" He shook the bannister so hard, I thought it was gonna come apart in his hands. "In fact, you don't get to call me at all. We're done, Marion! DONE!!!"
"Come with us. We'll take your statement--"
"You had your chance, asshole! And I'm fucking done asking anybody for help. I'm gonna hunt them down like rats and I'm gonna exterminate them. Get in my way, and I'll do to you whatever I gotta do to them: bury you in concrete, put you through a wood chipper, drown you in acid, whatever it takes. I'm gonna kill 'em all!"
I tried to say something else, but he was gone. Guts came back in, gun drawn, but I waved him down. "Don't bother. Just one more fence I gotta mend. We've got our hands full, anyway."
He didn't holster his weapon, just dropped down onto the floor, sat in the broken glass on the back porch and stared into the charnel pit. "This isn't working, Marion. Trying to be on both sides, the only honest crooked cops in the city, it just isn't working. They don't trust us, Webb doesn't trust us, and nobody's interested in keeping the peace. It's like they want this city to fall apart."
Like a man dangling from a ledge
That's when we hatched our crazy plan. The underground needed its own sheriff, someone to protect it from the public and vice versa. It needed some form of conflict resolution that didn't come in a body bag.
And the cops needed someone at the helm who gave a shit. I knew how I could burn my bridges with Nola's Finest and create a job opening for Guts at the same time.
"You can't kill him!" Guts protested.
"Well, I'm pretty sure I could," I corrected him, "but that's not what I'm saying. I'll just force him into early retirement and fix him so he can't tell anyone what happened. Everyone will assume it was me, but they won't be able to prove shit. I'll get fired, finally, and you're the obvious choice for promotion."
"And I suppose the only way I could stop you is by having you arrested?"
"That might work, but it won't fix anything."
"God, just please don't kill him."
When El Diablero finally arrives, it's almost anticlimatic. He just walks in through the broken window, fists buried in the front of his hoodie, and looks around like he's surprised to find us all here.
The lookout comes running up behind him and El Diablero reacts like a bear trap. His fist crashes through the lookout's face, from left temple all the way through to his right ear. The fool staggers backward, his whole head like a deflated beach ball.
The vigilante turns back to face us and I'm hit with a strange double vision. There's a second El Diablero standing there, one whose mouth is full of gleaming fangs. Whose eyes glow like road flares.
Then the guns come out. I scream at them not to shoot. "Whoever kills him gets the curse!"
And so the brave ones move forward and the cowards sort themselves to the back. El Diablero roars and leaps toward the closest attacker, driving one knee into their chest and pushing them over.
Before the rest can close in, the rugaru swivels and breaks the next thug's knee, just jabs a fist right through it! He climbs over that guy as they fall and plunges one hand into another Survivor's back as they flee, crushing their spine. The bastard folds in half like a straight razor.
And so it goes for the most gruesome fifteen seconds in my entire life. No one can lay a hand on El Diablero and keep it attached. Broken bodies litter the floor.
Eventually, someone gets behind him with a belt and throws it around his neck. Two more grab his arms; crippled bodies latch onto his legs and feet. They hold him like a man being stretched on the rack.
"You're on," Laffite nudges me forward.
His eyes glow like road flares
"You know you can't kill them, right?" I bark over the bannister. "Not like this! The curse will make sure one of them kills you. What if it's Laffite? What would he do with all that power? How many innocent people would he take apart before somebody managed to put him down? Get out of here, you pigheaded ass! Live to fight and die pointlessly another day!"
He responds with a roar that shakes the foundation. The whole building resonates with his rage. The remaining windows explode outward like a glittering hailstorm.
The Survivors holding El Diablero go ragdoll. Their bodies don't break; it's like the situation demands that they fall and their minds make it real. Their bodies just play along.
The rugaru breaks free, inevitably, and leaps up the stairs. One of Laffite's bodyguards tries to get in its path and ends up embedded in the back wall.
I dig a round of Unlucky Shot out of my pocket and hand it to Laffite before stepping in front of him and staring the monster down. El Diablero is barely visible behind the rugaru's mask, so I focus on the moment, on my breathing. I push aside the meaning of it all, try to forget about the future that's at stake or the path that brought us here.
I trust my eyes, not my mind, and then I see him: a teenager in a blood-spattered hoodie and close-cropped hair. His face is a mask of pain. I tell him the truth.
"This isn't you, it's Marinette. Might not be the target she had in mind, but it's definitely her will that put you here."
"You said Henre--" Laffite hisses, but I shove one finger in his face and he shuts the hell up.
"Know what else her will got her, not two hours ago? It got her shot in the goddamned face. And not with grave dirt. Cold lead. She got what was coming to her."
Suddenly, the air seems to slacken. My ears pop. The man behind the monster is listening.
"I need you to leave Laffite to me. I'll make sure he gets what's coming to him, just the way you want it. And if I fail, you know where to find me. I'll kill you myself, I promise."
He folds in half like a straight razor
He smiles. Been a long time since I've seen that. El Diablero turns and vaults over the bannister, clear over the heads of the mob below, and lands on the stonework outside. He's gone in one bound and nobody's inclined to follow.
That's when Laffite covers me in grave dirt.
"You were as good as your word, Marion," he prances about while I sputter and clear my eyes, "but now the shoe is on the other foot, eh?" I take a few clumsy swings at him to get him good and overconfident. He laughs and lands one in my gut. I double over, exaggerating the hit, and slip my fingers into the special pair of brass knuckles tucked under my belt.
A pale, blue light flickers around the arcane symbols wrapped around the metal that's wrapped around my fingers. Laffite looks down just in time to take the biggest haymaker this side of the grain belt right on the chin. His entire jaw crumbles.
He hits the floor like a sack of laundry, but I haul him up and drape him over the bannister so all his people can see. "Goddamnit Laffite! I gave you every opportunity to be a fucking adult, to deal with me as an equal, to just stop stabbing everybody in motherfucking back!"
I start raining blows down on what's left of his face. The light glows brighter with every sickening hit. "The only time you ever told me the truth was when you couldn't think of a better lie! I didn't wanna do this, but you left me no other options. How many times do I have to tell you fuckers? This is what happens when you dont... Play... BALL!!!"
Finally, I hit him in just the right place and the ghost light washes over Laffite like a tidal surge, blinding me. When it recedes, I've got an empty shirt in one fist and a dying dwarf star in the other. I let the shirt drop and keep my other fist raised high, daring the lot of them to say one goddamned word about it.
Instead, one by one, they bow down in worship.
Just my fucking luck.
"So, the dumbass didn't know you can't touch someone else's gris-gris without rendering it powerless?!" New Bridgit guffaws when I finish telling her about my week. We're visiting La Sirene at the convent and the mermaid just settled down for a nap.
"He knew enough to be dangerous," I shrug, "but mostly to himself."
New Bridgit's been dipping into Old Bridgit's wardrobe. She traded those old jeans for a satin showgirl skirt, hitched up in the front to reveal turquoise tights and black combat boots. I don't recall Old Bridgit ever wearing combat boots. It's all topped with a ribbed, strapless bodice of matte black. Her hair's pinned up with a pair of laquered chopsticks. "Some big time necromancer he turned out to be. Pft."
"Actually, I think he was strictly a small time necromancer."
"Smaller than you, at least, eh?"
"I don't know about that. After the thing with the Forgotten God, a lot of stuff started coming together in my head, like those symbols Laffite showed me and some math I took in college." She looks at me funny, like she just took a sip of lemonade when she expected Coke. "And some hoodoo my grandma taught me. Anyway, I doubt I understand enough to raise the dead or anything, but good enough to wreck shit up."
"But you don't remember the Name?"
"If I did, I'd have told you by now and we'd both be possessed."
"Fun. I suppose that magic record belongs to you, now?"
"I'm sure they'd give it to me if I asked for it."
"Hmm..." she demurs.
"Don't 'Hmm' me, you hooligan!" I sock her in the arm. "Don't be getting any bad ideas. The record's not going anywhere. I have half a mind to break it the rest of the way."
"Oh, uh... look at her go!" Bridgit pats La Sirene gently on the shoulder. Her legs are twitching together like a mermaid dreaming about chasing cars, but they've been doing that for the last five minutes. Bridgit must want to change the subject before she gives me any more ideas about smashing valuable antiques.
Strictly a small time necromancer
"She is getting better, isn't she?" I ask with furrowed brow.
"I think so. It'll take some time. They just started calling Henre's monster 'Lilith' this morning."
"The Mother of Monsters," I muse. "Pretty good allusion for cable news. I figured they call it 'Sedusa' or 'Ponchie' or 'Old Grabbie.'"
"Ha! It's not too late. We can call Rupert Murdoch. He owes me a favor."
I kinda don't think she's kidding. "Save it. We might need it if the real Lilith comes around, all pissed off that we gave her name to a tentacle monster and now it's driving her mad."
"You'll be fine. Things like us don't exist just because people believe in us," she assures me. "The Loa, we invite people to become us through ecstatic trance. It's a whole different thing, but that reminds me... there is one irate, insane goddess we're gonna have to deal with."
"You know she's not really dead, right?"
"Oh, she's dead. The one I shot is really goddamned dead. Dead as shit." I mime my head exploding.
"She's no more dead than I am, darling. There aren't many of her out there, maybe just one or two more, but they're out there and they're definitely pissed."
"I know, I know. If it'd been a good idea, it wouldn't have worked, but she deserved it and then some. And there are ways of waging war against the Loa, right? By attacking their stories? Like what was happening to La Sirene, but on purpose. Can't we do that? Lots of that?"
"Maybe. I've been a party to it before. Been a victim of it, too. It ain't fun and it ain't easy, but I'm game."
"Also, I've got a cult of unkillable minions at my disposal now, so there's that."
"Careful, Marion!" She socks me in the arm. "Keep living your story like this and you'll end up a goddess yourself."
Many thanks to these generous patrons!
- Mark Dipasquale
- Grant Howitt
- Herman Duyker
- Jesse Quisenberry