Her babies lay dead on the floor. Eunice tip-toed around their broken bodies as she entered the kitchen. Outside, Katrina roared like a freight train.
The focus of Eunice's attention, however, was the monster holding a knife to her husband's throat. It sat in front of the sink, hunched in a folding chair with her husband quivering on the floor between its knees.
It wore a military uniform, but held itself like a hungry dog. Its eyes flashed as they flicked from Eunice to the empty chair waiting for her in the middle of the floor. Somehow, she knew what it wanted, even before she saw the gun.
Her husband was a mess. His eyes jittered madly in their sockets. Eunice couldn't tell if he was aware of his situation or not. She hoped not.
The gun, a semi-automatic pistol, waited for her in the chair.
"Take it," the madman told her. "Take your shot. Save your man. He didn't have the sack, not even when I broke your baby's spine."
Eunice picked up the gun and sat down, but laid it across her lap. Distantly, she heard herself say, "No. I won't do it. My husband was right. Thou shalt not commit murder."
"Then I'll cut his throat and come for you! You'll both die and I'll move on down the street! On to the next fucking family!"
Her thumb moved across the safety. It was off, but she still didn't take aim. "Whatever happens here is your fault, not ours."
"Don't I deserve it?! I murdered your children!" it howled. "I snuffed them out like spent cigarettes and this asshole did nothing to stop it! NOTHING!!! Why won't you stop me?"
That last was a whimper as its tears rolled, streaking the blood already splattered across its cheeks. One by one, Eunice's fingers slipped from the pistol. She whispered, "No."
The madman slumped in his chair and casually dragged his blade across her husband's jugular. Crimson poured down his chest. "You brought this upon--"
Eunice was on her feet and pulling the trigger.
The madman's head jerked back, then forward, as bits of brain and skull sprayed across the sink.
Years later, the house still stands empty. I'll be staking it out, one night soon. Maybe perched on a rooftop. Maybe crouched behind a car across the street. Wherever I am, you can bet El Diablero will be nearby.
I'll ambush him, like I always do, and tell him to get the hell outta harm's way. "No deal, bruja," he'll growl. "I'm a stubborn, cross-dressing asshole who only does the exact opposite of whatever anyone who gives a damn tells me to do!"
"This ain't a roll in the hay with fish boy," I'll tell the brick wall. "I'm hunting a rugaru! There's no good end for you here, kid. Go home."
"Grrr, rawr, I hate you. All my friends are dead. Everything's your fault. Blah blah blah." Then Eunice will get the drop on us and at least one of us will end up dead.
That's what'll happen if things keep going the way they're going, anyway.
At this precise moment, it's a bright and dewy morning in Louis Armstrong Park. I try to come here once a day. The feng shui is twisted just the way I like it. Plus, it's good to establish habits like this, in case you need to improvise a dead drop with a new informant or a suddenly shy voodoo goddess.
Point in case, this intriguing manilla envelope I just plucked from beneath my park bench. I guess Bridgit was too busy to ninja her way into my apartment, for once.
Mostly, it's a stolen police file. Eunice's file. Pretty open and shut: the bodies were still inside when the Coast Guard went through, prints all over the knife, and the perp was already wanted in connection with another shooting.
What they didn't find was Eunice. Her fingerprints were on the gun, her bloody footprints were on the floor, but Eunice herself had vanished with the storm.
It was obvious that the soldier, US Army Specialist Taylor Young, was a psychopath. Or maybe he had PTSD. I dunno, I'm not a doctor, but Bridgit sure seems to think he was a rugaru. Be still, my heart!
A rugaru hunt's gonna be dangerous, though, especially for someone like the idiot vigilante currently surveilling me from the parking lot... through binoculars. Hand to god, binoculars. Gonna get himself killed or worse. Probably worse.
She knew what it wanted, even before she saw the gun.
I take a meandering stroll over the park's many bridges, leaving El Diablero no choice but to pursue. When he's nice and close, I proceed south through Congo Square and wait for the oncoming traffic. Then, I dart across Rampart like a jackrabbit with a hotfoot!
Normally, this is how I'd shake a tail, and that's exactly what I want the vigilante to think, but we need to have a talk. I slip into a narrow alley and wait for his harried footsteps. He yelps like one of those celebrity purse dogs when I grab his arm and haul him into the crevice with me.
"What the unholy hell are you up to?" I demand with one forearm against his clavicle.
"I'm spying on you," he confesses. "I'm a spy now. I spy."
"Really? Cuz you look like a bird-watcher."
"After last time, lady, you're at the top of my Most Wanted list."
"I don't need any tag-alongs, Daisy. This one's too dangerous. Go home to your mother, ferchissakes." He just gives me that death's head stare. "Damnit! You need to stop following me!"
"I need to stop you."
"From what? Keeping a lid on this powder keg?" It's only barely a metaphor. Between fish boy's very public meltdown and these rugaru rumors, I'm up to my eyeballs in monster hysteria. Maybe I should be glad that my vigilante's following me instead of riling up the undead, but I'd still rather send him home.
"You're working for them!" he reminds me. "Or maybe they're working for you, huh?"
"You know, I could give you a hotfoot, magically compel you to leave town for a few days."
He laughs. "Curses, right? Is there any problem they can't solve?"
"Kid, if you stay on my tail, a bullet's gonna be the only solution to your problems."
"Threats don't mean shit to me."
"I'm not threatening you," I sigh. "I'm trying to warn you." We wait in stony silence while crowds of passers-by pass us by. "Fuck. Fine, you can come... if you can keep up."
I shimmy down the alley, fast as fast can be, and El Diablero follows. By the time I pop out in somebody's backyard, I have just enough of a lead to draw and aim my magic shotgun.
"Goddamnit," El Diablero curses as I curse him with Unlucky shot.
"I don't actually have any hotfoot on me," I confess, "so this'll have to do. Catch me if you can!"
Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows is a tiny, two-story convent in the French Quarter. Don't ask me how I've never heard of it before, but I haven't. Bridgit seems to think I'll find Eunice here, if I'm reading her chicken scratch notes correctly.
Canary yellow, white trim, flowers hanging from the window bars. I didn't know convents had to work so hard to keep the nuns inside. Must be the dress code.
I beat a little rhythm on the front door until somebody answers. It takes a surprisingly long time. "What?!" The sister who finally comes to shut me up is a short, animated old bitty with bulging eyes and chatty hands. They convey her consternation by flapping about her face. "You're makin' enough racket to wake the dead."
"Let's not even joke about that." I take off my hat and give her a nice smile. Old people like manners, right? "I'm looking for someone. Got a tip she might be here. Could I speak to, um... the Abbess? Mother Superior? The, uh, nun... boss?"
"Reverend Mother and maybe. You can wait in here." She shuffles aside and I enter. It's a nice place. Sunny. This front area is just a walkway abutting a little garden. All the rooms must be above me or in the wings. The old nun shows me to a bench and bids me sit. "This person you're looking for... they got a name?"
"Eunice Delacourt, though I expect she's using an alias."
"Well, we do got a sister named Eunice," the jazz hands inform me. "Been here a few years; making good progress. We can see if she's taking visitors." I accept the offer. "I'm Sister Adelaide."
We leave the garden and climb a narrow flight of stairs to the second floor. A long row of doors open into tiny, spartan cells, most adorned only with a cross and/or a statue of the Virgin. One, however, catches my eye. Its walls are covered with jagged writing and sketches of strange, alien monoliths. It reminds me of Kevin's support group rant.
I put a pin in that and ask a more pertinent question: "You said Sister Eunice was 'making good progress.' What did you mean by that?"
Adelaide clucks her tongue in concern. "Oh, Eunice was in quite a state when she first came to us. It was during the flood, so lots of folk were in a bad state, but I ain't never seen a woman's eyes like that before. 'Haunted' don't begin to describe it."
"I'm a spy now. I spy."
She knocks on the door at the end of the hall. "Sister Eunice? You got a visitor, dear. Someone named Marion?"
"I'm not taking any visitors, right now, Adel!" The voice on the other side of the door quivers, as if Eunice has been crying. "Tell her to go away."
"You alright, Eunice?" Adel's hands flutter up to her mouth.
"I'm fine!" Then, more calmly, "I'll be fine. I just don't want to see anyone right now, ok?"
"Ya know, some company might do you goo--"
"TELL HER TO GO AWAY!!!" The whole building seems to quake in resonance. Even I think twice about pressing the issue. Adel takes two steps back and pushes me down the hall.
"I think we should give Sister Eunice some time to herself," she whispers, still pushing. "Maybe you could come back tonight? Or tomorrow? Or just leave your number?"
"Tomorrow's good." We pass the room with the interesting wall art and I can't help but ask, "What's the story here?"
Adelaide rubs her hands together in transparent, gossipy glee. "Sister Ariel. That's what we call her. Like in the Disney movie? Never did get a name from her, nor any other kinda useful thing. Just rants and raves every waking hour, pausing only to eat. Sleeps in fits and starts.
"Bunch of voodoo people brought her in one night, when the full moon watched us through a veil of clouds. They had to carry her, cuz she was thrashing her legs about like a whale's tail, flailing her arms and screaming like the Devil on his way to Hell."
The old lady's doesn't seem the type to ever be at rest, but now there's a tense energy behind her eyes, like a watch wound too tightly. She starts fidgeting with her Rosary beads to keep her fingers from flying off. I'm just happy for a friendly witness and let her unwind as she pleases.
"Well, them voodoo people came and went without telling us much of anything. Not her name, not any clue what was wrong with her, just dropped her in the first empty room and scattered to the wind. Only ever gets one visitor, a tall drink of water who carries hisself like a military man. Never did catch his name, neither.
"Some days, she gets her claws in ya and won't let go. Tries to drag you in close and take a bite outta ya. We've had to strap her down a few times. Always breaks my heart, but it's either that or somebody loses a limb."
"Do you have a lot of people here like that?" I inquire. "People with psychological trauma?"
"Oh, yes. We help quite a few people. It's our mission. During Katrina, that whole garden was an infirmary. Eunice actually helped out a lot. I think she used to be a nurse, before the good Lord sent her to us. Back then, she couldn't rest more than a few hours without screaming herself awake, poor thing."
"How'd you say she's doing now, raging misanthropy aside?"
"I hope you'll excuse her. Those nightmares of hers been starting up again. She gets short of temper when she can't sleep, like anybody. You seem like a woman who'd understand." It's the first time she's made any mention of my scars. I was appreciating the polite discretion.
"Has Eunice had any other visitors lately?"
"Besides you? Just one, a woman so thin it hurts your eyes just looking at her. She never gives her name, neither. People ain't big fans of names, around here. I don't think she's family, and she sure ain't no psychologist. Not a good one, anyway."
"When do you expect her back?"
"I don't rightly know. Seems to keep odd hours."
"Will you put in a good word for me with Eunice before I try again tomorrow?"
"Ain't no trouble. You're a nice young lady."
"You're not so bad yourself, Adelaide. Hey, one more favor: Can I use your phone?"
The convent's phone looks like it's been here since the seventies, all beige plastic and buttons that clack as you dial. I ring La Fleur and see if she's available to watch the place.
"I dunno, Marion. I gotta study for my real estate test and research this ghost for the Windham hotel."
"Research? Oh, you must mean 'write,' 'fabricate,' or 'make up from whole cloth.'"
"You say 'tomato,' I say 'Mind your own damn business,'" she pushes back. That's what I like about her: she always pushes back.
"So you admit it's a business."
"I admit you're a business."
"That doesn't even make sense."
"It will," she laughs. "Are you just calling to heckle me or do you have some actual business?"
"I do and it's dangerous... it's a rugaru."
"I shit you not."
"Ohmygod ohmygod! I'll write a book!"
"I like that enthusiasm, especially since I can't pay you, but don't go all Nancy Drew on me, okay? I need you to keep your distance. The rugaru is... transmittable. I'll leave my car across the street for your stake-outing pleasure."
"No problem. I'll write my book from a safe distance, possibly on a tropical beach. Probably with a fruity beverage in my hand."
"Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. Ever heard of it?"
"Oh yeah, sure. It's a strip club, right?"
"I'd never heard of it, either. It's on Ursuline's, north of Bourbon, but you might walk right past it. Just look for my car."
"Wait... what was that about not paying me?"
It's a short, three mile walk from Our Depressing Lady to Henre's plantation in the Garden District. The nervous doorman is there again. This time, I sneak up on him and yell, "Boo!" For a hot second, he looks like he's gonna shit himself, then we have a good laugh about it.
I don't think he's a member of the congregation. Probably just a contractor like the rest of the staff. The ones who've been "baptized" have this self-satisfied aloofness about them. Must come from having a big ol' secret or feeling invincible or thinking they're gonna live forever.
He escorts me to a sitting room that overlooks the backyard. Henre's out there playing ball with the children, Kevin included. His mummy wrap is gone, but the mutations remain: flipper hand, goiter-looking throat thing, sheen of ectoplasmic slime on his skin. That last one must suck for the other kids. Seems like he's getting along well, though.
When Henre finally comes inside, he thanks me again for my help with Kevin. "As you can see, he's doing much better. Would you like to talk to him?"
"I would, but later. I'm on the clock."
"But of course," he sighs. Sometimes, I think Henre really does want us to be friends. "How can I help you this time?"
"Ever hear of a convent called Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows?"
"I can't say as I have. Do you want me to pay for an elderly nun's nursemaid?"
I chuckle, though he's only half joking. "Not at the moment, but keep your checkbook at the ready. The nuns there are caring for a crazy woman who thinks she's La Sirene."
"Huh. Sounds like a voodoo thing."
"I figured the same, still do, but her delusions have a real familiar sound to them... like the stuff Kevin was spouting just before he had his episode. You should see the walls of her room; they're covered in sketches of stygian vistas and tentacle monsters. You sure you don't have a crazy person or two stashed away around town?"
It hurts your eyes just looking at her.
"We've never had a failed baptism, Marion. I've told you as much, although... I guess it could be Raphael Ulrich's wife. He's that African American inductee I was telling you about."
"U-L-R-I-C-H?" I double check. "Is he a seaman?"
"Retired. You know him?"
"Maybe. You were saying..."
"He first came to me asking about our use of the name 'La Sirene,' said it was causing problems for some of the local voodoo communities. I put him in charge of switching us over to 'La Grand Dame,' but I must admit, even I forget to use the new name more often than not."
"Know anything about a nun named Eunice?"
"That one... I don't think I can help you with. Is she related somehow?"
"Remains to be seen. How about the rugaru curse?"
He smiles and shakes his head. "Marion... I used to think my life was strange."
Kevin sees me and comes inside. He hovers near the door, waiting for an invitation. Henre makes sure our business is concluded, then waves him over.
"Hi, Marion. Good to see you. Thank you for..." He lurches forward and goes for a hug. I'd feel bad about dodging, so I just let it happen. Fortunately, he's not nearly as slimy as I expected. Guess that just happens when he's panicked. Or crazy.
"Thanks for cracking you across the skull?" I suggest over his stubbly head.
"Heh. Yeah, I guess," he replies, backing away awkwardly. "For stopping me, anyway. I wasn't in my right mind. I'm finally getting some perspective on the whole thing. You saved me from myself. I owe you. Well all do."
"Yeah, well, y'all are like a second family."
"No, not us," he corrects me. "Well, also us, but I meant the whole world. You saved the world, Marion."
It's another brisk, three mile walk back to my place. Toward the middle of mile two, I start to regret leaving La Fleur my car. She's probably got her feet up on the dash, crumbing nachos all over the upholstery. I pick up a box of shrimp and curly fries, which keeps me occupied for most of mile three. It's a greasy ruin by the time I climb the stairs to my apartment and let myself in.
Time for a pow wow with Bridgit. I now suspect this morning's dead drop was a way to avoid answering a bunch of questions about the Loa's private dumping ground for the metaphysically damaged. That little delay of game is over.
Despite her endorsement of personal tracking devices, she's never given me a phone number. Instead, I draw her veve on my window in red marker. Not the whole thing, mind you, just the heart and mask. I ain't got all day.
I weaponize some hoodoo while I wait.
Unlucky Shot is a swiss army knife, but sometimes you just wanna get a body gone. That calls for hotfoot powder. Two big handfuls of cayenne and black pepper go in the mixing bowl. If my sinuses weren't already cleared out from the cajun shrimp, they damn well are now. A pinch of sulfur is next, followed by a little dirt from a vagabond's footprint. I prefer to use fugitives from justice, but husbands kicked out by their wives are essentially the same thing.
I line up a few red shotgun shells and press the hotfoot powder in with wadding and a light load of gunpowder. The finished shells go straight into my jacket pocket, so Bridgit's busy fingers won't accidentally discharge them while they're wandering around the place.
The mixing bowl, I submerge in soap and salt water courtesy of the kitchen sink. I'm wringing out a washcloth to use on the reloader when I hear the front door open. Never mind that I locked the deadbolt when I came in. Goddesses, I tell ya.
"That was prompt," I greet Bridgit. "Were you keeping an eye on me or just in the neighborhood?" I leave my washcloth in the sink and find Bridgit standing demurely near my dresser.
Even a pair of oversized Jackie O sunglasses can't quite hide her shiner. It spreads out like an inkblot, discoloring the left side of her face. And the glasses do nothing to disguise her split lip or the bruises around her throat.
"Bad week?" I ask with quiet deference.
"Family's in town. You know how family can be."
"Does your family run a fight club? That's a pop culture--"
"I saw the movie."
She takes a seat on the foot of my bed. I fetch us each a beer, then lean against the wall across from her. It's a small apartment, but I give her as much emotional space as I can.
"You've been to the convent?" she asks.
I pretend not to notice she's changing the subject. "Yeah, and I heard a tall tale about a voodoo mermaid. Was she invited to your family reunion?"
"Actually, she's the reason for the whole affair... which is why this," she gestures to her entire face, "is kinda your fault."
"I beg your what now?!"
"You saved the world, Marion."
"You were supposed to be my spy in the fish cult, Marion! They're using La Sirene's name for whatever foul lake monster they worship and it's causing all this... feedback in her mind. It's driving her mad, maybe killing her."
"Oh, well then I apologize for your black eye, cuz obviously mea culpa."
She takes a long draw from her beer before responding. "We're all just stories, Marion. All of us Loa. We're the stories our followers tell about us. That's how we cheat death, how we can be in many places at once, but the one thing we can't do is share.
"When a Loa's story changes, they change with it. If different people tell conflicting stories, it's like static in your mind. Or like wearing somebody else's glasses. If you're lucky, you split into complementary versions of yourself."
"If you're not lucky," I finish for her, "your husband drops you off in his secret loony bin and calls it a day?"
"Our Lady is a charity, Marion, not a waste bin. We take good care of those people, but we're getting off track. How did you know about her husband?"
"The alias he gave Henre is super obvious: Raphael Ulrich? Loa, please. He's Agwe, lord of the sea. You know he joined the fish cult, I take it."
"Yes, but we'll get to that. Let's start with Eunice."
"Right, Sister Eunice. I'm not supposed to believe she just walked into the place by chance, am I? Not when I've walked right past it a thousand times and never taken notice. You've got it, I dunno, cloaked in some deep magic. No, I think someone parked her there and I think it was Marinette."
"Yes, actually." Bridgit seems honestly impressed. "How'd you know that?"
"Marinette's the patron of werewolves. I've never heard of her being in New Orleans, though. Ain't she more of a Haiti thing?"
"Sure, but we are allowed to book plane tickets, you know."
"So... Marinette's upset that your spy, apparently a.k.a. Me, hasn't resolved this La Sirene business and now she's flown here to take it out on your face?" I stop and sip my beer, thinking I'm done, then spit take as it occurs to me... "And she's gonna use Eunice as her assassin!"
"She's also pissed that Agwe would join the fish cult, but it's worse than that. Even more diabolical. She'll set her rugaru loose on the fish cult, alright, but she's counting on Henre to be a hero and kill Eunice to save the rest of his people."
"And become the new rugaru."
"Yes. He'll become a ticking time bomb and, when he goes off, it'll be much more than a bloodbath. 'Cult Leader Murders Faithful.' It'll be the end of their whole religion."
"Well, that might not be so bad," I admit, "but I can't endorse all the murder."
"Well, now we're just quibbling over methods. Maybe you'd like to join her side? Braid each other's hair while you slaughter a reasonable number of innocent people?"
"You know how family can be."
I ignore her tone and change the subject. "Speaking of methods, how does Marinette expect to control Eunice? She's got no personal grudge against the cult, that I know of, and isn't the rugaru supposed to be indomitable? Like, that's their thing?"
"Remorse is more their thing, actually. You become the rugaru by killing the rugaru and the weight of that murder, no matter how justified, eats you from within. Eventually, you come to think that you're no better than the thing you killed, that you deserve to be murdered, too. You lash out at anyone you think might pull the trigger. When they do, they become the rugaru. Rinse and repeat pretty much until the end of time."
"Okay, so she's using some kinda conjure to torment Eunice with nightmares, which is how she gets her cocked, but how does she aim Eunice at the fish cult?"
"I don't know, Marion," Bridgit sighs. "I'm neither the patron of werewolves nor a murderous bitch goddess. All I know for sure is that it's the fish cult she's after."
"Why not tell me all this up front? Why the dead drop? I hope you weren't just trying to hide that black eye from me."
"I didn't want you to see me like this." Bridgit takes the glasses off, revealing the true extent of the damage. Her left eye peeks out through a swollen slit of purple tissue. I feel like punching Marinette in the face. With a truck. "But mostly, I wanted you to be able to move freely. Marinette was already watching me; I didn't want to lead her to you right away. She'll be watching you now, too."
"It ain't nothing to be ashamed about, Bridgit."
"What? Being watched or being careful?"
"Being beaten. We all got our oppressors to deal with, but you can't let them stop you from seeking help. You could've called me right away, the moment you knew she was in town."
"Kind of you to say, Marion, but we handle our own affairs."
"When did you start doing that?!"
"We're a tight knit community."
"Of spies, cut-outs, nuns, turncoats, and werewolf assassins."
"And some of us have chauffeurs." She laughs, which is nice.
"I'm gonna help you, Bridgit, both with this rugaru business and with Marinette. She doesn't just walk away from this, not while I'm on the job."
"You won't be brokering any truces with Marinette," Bridgit assures me. "She's less the negotiating type and more the burning down your village and eating all your children type."
"I wasn't planning on a truce--"
We're interrupted by the ringing of my phone. I let the answering machine pick up. It's La Fleur. "Marion! You gotta get down here. Windows are exploding, wolves are howling, nuns are standing in the street. I never seen so many nuns!"
"I'm not a murderous bitch goddess."
I put her on speaker. "La Fleur! It's me. Slow down."
"I'm pretty sure the cops are on their way. You gotta get down here."
I glance at Bridgit. For once, she's too concerned to roll her eyes at La Fleur's theatrics. Or maybe her eyes are too swollen to roll. "Slow down and start over. Tell me exactly what happened, in the order it happened, and don't leave anything out."
"Alright. Around 11:30, I really had to go to the bathroom, but since last time I took a pee break you ended up knocking an old lady's teeth out, I'd brought a funnel and a few empty water bottles. So I hiked up my skirt and--"
"Okay, okay!" I surrender. "Don't leave out anything pertinent."
Bridgit cracks a smile. "I take back half of the things I've said about her," she whispers.
"Okay, so like two minutes ago, I hear this weird howling sound like a pack of Gregorian wolves. It builds rapidly, then BOOM! I hear breaking glass from somewhere inside the convent. A few seconds later, nuns start evacuating. They just mill around on the street, like they're waiting for the fire department.
"Oh, and this wiry black lady comes limping out with them. She goes right past the car and I see she's got these nasty gashes on her arm, like bloody claw marks. Rugaru shit, right?! Is she the next rugaru? Shit, I hear sirens. I'll leave your car around the corner. Gotta go!"
The line goes dead and I hang up. "Did she say the windows exploded?" I ask Bridgit, seeking any source of confirmation.
"Yeah, that happens sometimes."
"Full on poltergeist, huh? Or maybe Highlander." She looks at me blankly. "Those are pop culture references. I thought you'd be all over Highlander."
"Shouldn't you be going?"
I get my coat.
Damnit. There's already so many bulls in the convent, you'd think the nuns were hosting a papist rodeo. I don't recognize anyone I like, and the officers I do recognize don't like me, so little chance I'm getting under that yellow tape.
I decide to go all-in. The convent abuts a residential alley on the far side. I creep down the broken cement, squeeze past two trash bins and the corpse of a couch, scare a cat, and climb over a low wall into the convent's garden. I slip inside, hoping I can at least get upstairs before running into a cop.
I run into Brooks, so it's debatable.
"Marion the Barbarian!" he bellows from the bottom of the stairs. "Who the hell let you in here?!"
"I live here, now. Who the hell let you in?"
He grins. Somehow, he always makes it look like he just finished eating, like there's something in his teeth. "Never took you for the celibate type. Not by choice, anyway," he winks. "Can't say I'm surprised. Soon as I got here, I knew you'd be tits deep in this shit."
"I had the same thought about you last time I was at a BBQ joint."
"That supposed to be funny?" He looks like he's trying to choose between escorting me out or hitting me. I'd rather not be escorted out, so...
"Wow, Brooks. Who'd you have to blow to get paired with Prosper, anyway?"
"You think this looks like a good gig, huh? Truth is, I drew the short straw. First, he was shacked up with Spooky. (That's you, sugarlips.) Then, he comes out as queer! Your boy's a glutton for punishment."
"And you're a glutton for pork chops. Hey, when you order a side of bacon, is that like cannibalism?"
"Hey, when you fuck your mother, is that like... shut your fucking hole, Marion." He tries to grab my arm like men do in movies, that way that's supposed to render women powerless.
"When you kiss your mother with that mouth," I ask, "do you slip her some tongue?"
He does take a swing at me, then, or just about. Prosper catches him winding up. "Am I interrupting something?" he demands from the top of the stairs. Brooks tries to act like he was straightening his hair.
Kill the rugaru...
"Hey, Prosper," I greet him. "I was just seeing if I could get Dough Boy to take a swing at me. Come back in ten seconds?"
Prosper decides against it. "Brooks, why don't you let me handle the dick?" Dough Boy seizes up as all the punchlines try to escape his face hole at once. I give him the ankle and join Prosper upstairs.
"You never paid for my dry cleaning," he tells me.
"You never sent me a bill."
We smile at each other like idiots and, if I let it, it'd feel like we're on a date again, back before... everything. He shakes it off before I do. "I suppose you expect me to just let you pick over my crime scene, then run off without any kind of explanation." His voice has this rumbling undertone that makes my toes curl.
"You're reading my mind, Prosper. You'd make one helluva concierge. Got anything courtside?" I try to start us walking down the hall, but he steps in front of me.
"Marion, I'm about to do something unorthodox and I want you to pay real close attention, 'cuz it could really improve your game. Are you ready?"
"Okay. I'm gonna ask for your help."
"Takes a big man to admit he needs help," I offer sagely.
"I like to lead by example. Hint fucking hint. It's this crime scene, it's... batshit. I could really use your expertise."
"My expertise in batshit?" I guess he's done joking around. "Of course. Please, lead the way."
"Where'd you come by all that expertise, anyway?" he interrogates me casually as we march down the hall. "I know you had... experiences during Katrina, but that don't begin to explain all the conjure... or that thing with Laffite and his voodoo god," he gestures around his lips.
"Do you wanna question my expertise of benefit from it?" I snap. "'Cuz I'll bet dollars to donuts, unless Brooks is eating, that there's some conjure somewhere on your crime scene. Maybe we should get to that."
"Yeah, fine." I take no joy in my victory. We're passing the mermaid's room when Prosper distracts me with this bombshell. "Oh, hey. Based on a couple of witness statements, I'd say your old snitch was here when it went down."
"Yeah, she was in here talking to the nun, uh... Sister Eunice--"
"He," I cut him off. "On the street, Daisy prefers 'He.' And also not to be called 'Daisy.'"
"She can prefer whatever she wants. I'm going with whatever's on her driver's license."
"Not very accepting of you," I chide him.
"Look who's talking." So much for my high ground.
Eunice's room overlooks the garden near the back. The window is shattered, but all of the broken glass inside appears to have come from the light fixtures.
I drag her cot away from the wall and find exactly what I expected: Marinette's veve scratched into the floor. I reach underneath the mattress and pull loose a mojo bag.
"What's that about?" Prosper asks, indicating all of it.
...become the rugaru.
"It's rootwork. Causes nightmares," I assume. "Now that it's been touched, it's mostly impotent, but I should probably wash it and bury the pieces at a crossroads." I start to put it in my pocket, then stop and hold it up to Prosper. "Unless you think it'll be valuable evidence."
I tuck the gris-gris away and reconstruct the crime scene in my head. El Diablero comes to the door. Eunice gives her the same warm reception she gave me. "But I'm a good Catholic girl," El Diablero announces. "We have so much in common, like venerating the Virgin and loving the Pope, am I right?"
"Well, I wouldn't talk to the black chick, but you sound alright. Come on in; we'll have tea."
"Gee, thanks." Ssssip. "This tea is real good. Hey, what did Marion want with you? I'm not a spy."
"She probably just wanted to talk to me, cuz I'm the rugaru."
"Oh, that's nice." Ssssip.
"Do you wanna be the rugaru?"
"Sure," El Diablero shrugs. At this point, I start to suspect that my recreation may be less than perfect.
"Great. All you gotta do is murder me, okay?"
"No problem! I'm great at murder. Murder's kinda my bag."
Marinette enters. "Grrr, I'm Marinette! I'm a force of fucking nature! Rawr rawr, kill the fish cult! Do it do it do it do it!!!"
And then... I dunno. Eunice tells Marinette to get the hell out, gives her a much deserved raking across the arm, and everything explodes? Whatever. I'll find out.
"There's just one more thing, Prosper."
"Before you run off without an explanation?"
"I'll give you an explanation. It's not gonna help you build a case, of course, but first I need to speak to Eunice."
"The nun?" he asks, somehow surprised. "I thought that was why you were here. Witnesses say she jumped right out the window and ran off, roaring like a lion possessed by the Devil, quote unquote."
I don't stick around to hear him chuckle, but he yells out the window as I run down the street.
"Told ya so!"
During the short but terror-inducing drive to the Garden District, I move "buy a cellphone" a little further up my To Do list. I leave twin trails of vaporized rubber as I skid up to the gate and slam the buzzer.
"Let me in, Henre! It's a goddamned emergency!"
The gate rattles open at a pace that would make a glacier impatient, but at least Henre meets me at the door for once. "Marion, welcome. Where's the fire?"
"It's way too long a story, with way too improbable a cast of characters, so I just need you to trust me right now. Someone who means you harm is on their way here and the police can't stop them. We gotta prepare this place for a siege."
The cult is (not) surprisingly well-prepared for a siege. In no time at all, they've barricaded the doors and passed out guns to everyone except the kids. The front desk has the security feeds, so they drag some furniture into the entryway and we all hunker down in a couch fort and take aim at every window.
An hour and half later, we're still holding our dicks. Henre and I have gone over the story about ten times, but details are doing little to assuage his skepticism.
"Sure, but a werewolf?" he asks me, as if just the right degree of emphasis will make me change my mind.
"No, not a werewolf. A rugaru. They're entirely different.
"'Entirely' sounds like a stretch."
"Well, it's not. It's apt. A rugaru is a feral, indomitable murder machine. Werewolves are made up."
"And why is it also a nun?"
"I dunno, Henre. Cuz she wants forgiveness, I guess? Or maybe she was just raised Catholic. She didn't wanna talk to me."
"Then how do you know she's coming for us? I've never wronged anyone, much less a nun."
"'Never' sounds like a stretch."
"Fine, but definitely no nuns. I'd remember pissing off a nun."
I'm desperately trying to dance around the Loa issue. That just seems like one thing too many for Henre right now. "Well, maybe the insane mermaid living a few doors down gave her some ideas. Told her about the tentacle gods and the ooze that eats itself and the End of Days. Whatever. I have it on good authority that she's headed here with a huge kill-boner for y'all."
Henre pinches his nose. I think he misses his glasses. "But that's all nonsense, Marion. That's not our religion. This is all just a big misunderstanding."
"You can explain that to the snarling beast while she's got you playing cat's cradle with your intestines."
"But she's not a werewolf."
"Murder's kinda my bag."
A little after sunset, someone opens the gate. An alarm goes off at the desk and the whole room jumps in its skin. People are screaming, crying, waving guns. It's a shit show.
Henre tiptoes to the door and peeks outside while I cover him with my shotgun. Why, it's the mysterious Mr. Ulrich, apparently here to offer his services in supernatural home defense!
"Marion, I'd like you to meet Raphael." Henre's even more excited to make the introduction than I am to be introduced. "Raphael, this is--"
"Marion Barbarouss," the Loa finishes for him. He's a fit, African American male in my mid-fifties, well-dressed in a tailored shirt and leather shoes. His fingers are festooned with rings and his nautical watch looks pricey. "Who else could it be?"
"Mr. Ulrich," I shake his hand and hold onto it, "but don't I know you by another name..."
"Life's too long for just one name, ain't it?" He squeezes back and pulls us closer. "I've heard folks call you a few, like 'The Mare of the Forgotten--"
"That doesn't sound like a flattering nickname, Mr. Ulrich." I say, declaring a truce. "And we've only just met. Why don't I help you with your hoodoo?"
Henre looks like he just survived a married couple's public spat and is all too eager to let us go. He returns to the couch fort and does his best to calm his flock.
We start at the far end of the west wing. Whether it has any occult significance or Ulrich just wanted the privacy, I can't say. Knowing the Loa, it's probably both. "So, how much have you told Henre about me?"
"Nothing. I've been keeping your old time religion on the DL. A cat's only useful when it's still in the bag. Do you guys, the other Loa, do you actually talk about me?" I try not to sound flattered, but I don't try that hard.
"Of course! We been around a long while, seen damn near everything, but when an outsider channels The Forgotten God, punches a tyrant into a coma, and starts slingin' curses from a sawed-off shotgun... You've made quite a splash, Marion. Don't be surprised if people talk."
"Hmm. When you say it all at once like that." I give him a smile that's maybe a little wider than I intended, then sock him one in the arm. "What about you?! I never heard of a god joining someone else's religion before."
"Heh. I guess not, but I wouldn't have gotten into the god game in the first place if I weren't interested in immortality." We reach the window at the end of the wing; he conjures a nail and a tiny gris-gris from an inside pocket. "Shoulda asked Henre for a hammer," he laments.
"Just go ahead and hold it up there." I unsling my shotgun and take aim with the butt. Ulrich makes a face, but keeps his hand steady. I wind up real big, but it only takes a tap to push the nail through the drywall. "How's that even work with your whole Loa thing?"
"You mean the plastic blood or the constant urge to return to the lake?"
"Either, I guess. Plastic what?"
"Truth is, I have no idea, but I'm looking forward to finding out."
We're still holding our dicks.
Next, we head around back toward the service entrance. He produces a few more mojo bags and whispers something into each of them before tying off their drawstrings. "You really think a little souvenir like that's gonna keep a rugaru out?" I ask.
"Maybe not," he admits, "but I'm more worried about Marinette. I don't want her meddling with these folk, even if it's just to spread rumors. The situation here's delicate and my wife... How much did Bridgit tell you?"
"Well, I've had enemies try to change my story before, and I can tell you: it ain't no cakewalk. Feels like your mind's being run through a strainer. And I know how folk talk about 'La Sirene' here and that ain't pretty. Put the two of them together... I dunno if her mount's gonna be salvageable."
"You mean the body she's in right now."
"Yeah, I mean the instance of her I've been married to for the last fifteen years. Mounts come and go, but parting's never easy. You get attached, ya know. It's part of our story."
"Weird." It's not the most empathetic thing I've ever said to a person in grief, but seriously. I can't tell if he's talking about a lover, a pet, or a part she plays on TV. Gods are weird.
The service entrance is behind the kitchen, a nearly industrial affair like you'd find in a hotel or hospital. We maneuver around stainless steel tables, walk-in dishwashers, and past a long row refrigerators that reminds me of a morgue. This job might be getting to me.
"So, you're not on good terms with Marinette, either?"
"Is anybody?" He hangs the next gris-gris over the service door, using a pepper grinder as a hammer. "Seriously, she can't tell you the time without going on about how she burned somebody alive that morning. She's hell at a cocktail party."
"I can imagine."
"No, you can't."
We head out through the dining room. "Well, then it's brave of you to walk into the lion's den," I pat him on the back. "You didn't have to do that."
"I'd like to take that compliment," he confesses, "but I'm quite well-protected. Our brand of immortality might not make the Loa invulnerable, but we've got some highly refined hoodoo for that."
My eyes light up. "Oooh. Can I see it? I'd love to talk shop."
"I would, but it's in a delicate area. You know you gotta wear them against your skin, right?"
"I wasn't gonna touch it."
"It's a very delicate area." He's unmoved by my pouting. "You're not fixin' to kill the rugaru yourself, are you?"
"Of course not."
"You know that's how you get the curse, right?"
"Yes, I know. This ain't my first rodeo." He throws me an eyebrow. "Fine, it's my first rugaru rodeo, but I do know the rules."
"But do you know what it really is?"
"Hmm, let's assume not."
"It's one of a handful of primordial stories we call Les Mysteres. They're self-propagating, like the Loa, but much older. Maybe older than the spoken word. Stories don't have to be told to be lived, after all. Some say they're what gave ol' Papa Legba the idea in the first place."
"Are they all curses?"
"Werewolves are made up."
"Well, they're a little more complicated than all that, but none of them are entirely pleasant. And they pass from one victim to the next, so you might as well think of 'em as curses."
We walk out into the garden and Ulrich stops to bury a mojo bag in the center. Now I see the pattern; we're making a five spot, like on a die. It symbolizes the crossroads.
I listen to the city pass outside. Something's not right with the air. There's a charge to it, a smell, like right before it rains. "Seems like stopping this curse should be pretty straightforward. Just gotta keep the rugaru alive, right?"
"Man, I heard you're one crazy bitch, but that's--" he looks up and sees my serious face. "You do know that's crazy, right? If the rugaru wants to die, somebody's gonna have to kill it. Sooner or later, whatever the body count, it's gonna happen."
"It'll make you kill it."
"Her name's Eunice. She's not an 'it' and she doesn't wanna die. She wants forgiveness. That's how she's been fending it off for--"
"Years? Not all that unusual. The curse can take decades to come to fruition; it ain't in a hurry. Les Mysteres are like fate. They happen over and over and over because they're inevitable, Marion. It's their thing."
"Yeah, well, it's not Eunice's thing. She would still be safely in her little cell at the nun hatch if not for Marinette's meddling. If she can speed things up, I can slow them down."
We're back in the main entry, upstairs from the couch fort. "Are we good?" Henre asks, giving voice to everyone's frustration. I'm sure they'd rather be having dinner.
"Not quite yet," Ulrich announces in his room-spanning baritone. "Still need to get the east side. Shouldn't be but a few more minutes."
And suddenly there's a Haitian fucking ninja standing between us! Her arms, like steel cables wrapped in leather, are all over me. I try to get my foot behind her, push her the hell over, but she's already shoulder-checking me over the bannister.
I almost catch myself on the railing, but my fingers slip and I flop face down into the lower flight of stairs. Lucky I didn't snap my neck. The peanut gallery starts screaming. I roll myself over and go for my gun, but it's not where it should be. The strap's gone, too, cut loose by Marinette.
Above me, I hear a familiar gunshot. Ulrich's face and chest are coated in goofer dust. "Let's see if I get lucky," Marinette gloats before ducking under a right cross and plunging her knife into the inside of Ulrich's thigh. She twists and pulls, leaving a ragged hole in his pants. Gris-gris ingredients spill out, followed by a thick spray of arterial red.
"Traiter," she spits as Ulrich falls. Then she grins at me through the railing and drops my shotgun like a hot mic before taking off down the east hallway.
I'm almost up the steps when Ulrich stops moving. I check his pulse, but he's not really bleeding anymore. The wound is kinda... bubbling. Or maybe foaming, like a rabid dog. Seems like it's stopping the blood loss, though, so bully.
The rest of the fish cult is on my heels; I grab my shotgun and get outta their way. "Take him to the infirmary," Henre orders unnecessarily. They're already hoisting him by the legs and shoulders. "He'll be fine," Henre reassures me. "I've personally had worse. We'll take care of him."
I'm already over it. Guessing that she'll try to jump the main gate, I sprint down the stairs and vault off the lower landing. I crash through the front door and find Marinette just a few yards ahead on my left.
I eject the black rounds from my shotgun and plug in two of the new, red ones. Marinette takes the gate like a goddamned spider monkey, over the top before I can close the distance, but I slide up to the iron bars with my shotgun held out between them. I squeeze the trigger and a cloud of dark, red dust paints Marinette's backside. She disappears around the corner.
Smell ya later, bitch goddess.
I trot back inside, slowly recovering my breath. Henre's waiting for me by the door. "Who the tapdancing Christ was that?" he asks, much more candid now that we're alone.
"I don't know," I lie, "but she won't be coming back for a while. I gave her my best hotfoot; she'll be compelled to leave town. Here's the better news: If she showed up, it means the rugaru ain't gonna, so the siege is over. You can go about your business." I dig out my keys and head for the mustang.
"So that's it?" Henre sputters. "You raise the alarms, get one of my people stabbed, then call it a night?"
"Hey," I push back at the little man. "I was always here on a rugaru hunt. If you wanna know why Ulrich got stabbed, ask Ulrich."
There's only one other place I can think to look for Eunice, so this is gonna be a short trip. If she's not here, and she's not at Henre's, then she's in the wind and I'm going home.
Like many abandoned houses on this side of town, Eunice's looks much as it did after the flood waters receded: Paint flaking off like old scabs, one lonely section of fence standing vigil, FEMA code spray painted on the wall. Four dead. That woulda been Eunice's two children, one husband, and the previous rugaru.
I park the mustang around the block and walk the perimeter. Can't be too careful with a cursed nun on the loose. Most of this street looks abandoned. Half the population fled to other cities after the storm, or to FEMA camps, waiting for insurance money that never came.
I've just turned my third corner of four when I pass by a narrow alley. Arms shoot out like vipers and snag my coat, drag me inside. I'm ready to look into the eyes of a rugaru and then see no more, but it's only Daisy.
"Welcome home, bruja." He's still wearing the crossing powder from this morning. I can smell it.
"Damnit, Daisy." He gives me a look like a punch in the nose. "Diablero. Whatever. How'd you follow me to the convent, this morning? I crossed you good."
"Are you kidding? It was easy. You weren't even checking your six. Must be getting old."
"Shit. I shoulda known. Stupid, ironic fate. I was trying to keep you clear of this. Following me to Eunice was your bad luck. You gotta go home, kid. This'll be the death of you."
"Get over yourself. Way I heard it, you struck out with ol' Eunice. She wouldn't even talk to you, but I turned on the charm and talked her door open inside of a minute."
"It was probably still the goofer dust."
"Whatever, lady. Don't deny the skills. Anyway, some Caribbean chick showed up and Eunice lost her shit. Jumped right through the window; it was totally badass. Took a piece outta Caribbean chick, too. I tracked her here, but she's gone to ground. I was thinking about setting fire to the place."
I beat my head against the wall behind me. "You know, the shortest distance between two points doesn't always have to be right up your ass."
"Got a better idea?"
"Yeah... go home!" No response. I really wish there was enough space in here to give him a hotfoot. "Come on! What'll it take to get you gone? A bribe? A favor? Admission of guilt for some wrong I've done you, real or imagined?"
"You can't bribe me, Marion. I'm not going home until that monster's dead."
"Not on the table. Whoever kills the rugaru becomes the rugaru, Daisy. I'm not letting that happen, not to either of us."
"What, then? You gonna just put her back in her cage? Feed her a bucket of crawdads once a week? She's a monster, Marion! I saw it! Why don't you solve a problem, for once, instead of just stalling for time?!"
"That's all life is, kid."
"You wanna deal? Here's my deal: we stick together, watch each other's backs, and search that murder house. If the werewolf's not in there, we go our separate ways. If she is... well, let's just play that by ear."
"Fine," I lie. He finally lets go of my coat.
I start to shimmy down the alley toward the backyard, just like this morning, but El Diablero stays glued to my side. "I said we stick together, Marion. Try to shoot me with any more black magic and we both get cursed."
"You think of everything," I congratulate him. Once we're clear of the alley, I feign a prat fall and land on my back, opening up just enough space to get off a clean shot.
She drops my gun like a hot mic.
Just as the hammer comes down, a black-and-white blur knocks El Diablero out of the way. The hotfoot powder dissolves harmlessly in the breeze.
Across the yard, the vigilante crashes through what remained of Eunice's fence. He doesn't get up. I roll to my feet and find the nun standing in the yard, staring at me with hunched shoulders and hungry eyes. I think they glow.
I swap out the spent hotfoot for Unlucky Shot, but the rugaru pounces before I can close the breach. Pain, weightlessness, then nothing.
Some time later, I wake up to a pair of alley cats fighting in a bag. The bag is my head. Daisy's on the floor a few feet away. She's struggling with something.
I focus on getting my eyes lined up and realize where I'm sitting: on a folding chair in Eunice's kitchen. She's sitting across from me, near the sink, holding El Diablero in a headlock. I wonder how long they've been waiting.
"Kill me or I kill him," Eunice growls. I notice the 9mm pistol in my lap. Where the hell'd Eunice find that? Looks new, probably hot. Maybe she killed somebody for it.
"Kill me or I kill him!" she repeats, even tightens her grip to prove she means business. El Diablero sputters, grabs the nun's tiny arm with both hands, but can't pry it loose.
"Isn't this a little on the nose, Eunice? I was told a self-hating murder spree was more traditional."
"This is what I deserve!" A delicate crack issues from the base of El Diablero's skull. He doesn't cry out, but his eyes bulge and drift down to the gun in my lap. I shake my head.
"This ain't gonna happen, Eunice. You can still stop. God will forgive you. You can forgive yourself."
Eunice loosens her grip, just a bit, and her eyes lose focus. "I didn't want to do it. Didn't want to kill. I watched that monster... cut my husband's throat and I did nothing to stop it! I cared more about my own soul than his life and then--"
"You refused to play a rigged game, Eunice. That was the right move. That's why I'm not gonna play, either."
"Then I'll kill you."
"I don't think you will."
"I WILL!!!" The whole house shakes against her fury.
I consider trying to shoot her in the leg, but it's already too late. I can see her weight shift, the tension gathering in her legs, then her shoulders, surging down her arms toward--
Something falls out of El Diablero's sleeve, then. Something shiny. His arm snaps upward like a bear trap and punches the ice pick through Eunice's temple.
I think I whisper something. Probably, "No." Then I'm on my feet, gun in hand, safety off. The barrel twitches back and forth from victim to would-be victim.
Eunice's eyes fix in her skull as the rest of her body goes slack, releasing El Diablero. Blood oozes around the murder weapon.
The new rugaru sucks in a breath and rubs his aching neck. "Goddamnit, Marion. What are you good for?"
"You have no idea what you've done."
"Sure I do." He reaches out a hand and I help him up, but he snatches the gun away from me and shoves the barrel in his mouth.
I hurl my fist across his jaw before he can pull the trigger and his head whips around. I can hear his brain swishing inside. He swoons. I snag the gun.
With that, I find myself standing in the ruins of a kitchen with one stolen gun, one murdered nun, and one unconscious werewolf. I have no idea where my shotgun ended up. I decide to come back and look for it tomorrow.
"You should've taken her to the convent." Bridgit berates me from the bedroom while I prepare some brunch. French toast is on the griddle, mimosas are ready, and I'm putting the final touches on the most artful fruit plate this side of the Met.
"I think you're missing the point, Red. I want her fate to be different from Eunice's."
She chokes back an impolite laugh. "Well, not much you can do about that, dear girl, but you're sweet for trying. Still, I just think she'd be safer under proper supervision."
"In a few days, they'll send her home to her family. That's about as proper as supervision gets, eh?"
"I thought she was a teenage drug dealing gangbanger."
"That's hardly her family's fault." I flip the french toast over. Golden brown. Perfect. "And pardon me if I wanna keep her out from under Marinette's thumb."
"We've all decided to kick Marinette out of that particular partnership. Our Lady is now a Marinette-free zone."
"Good in theory," I assure her, "but I worry about execution."
"Speaking of execution, and also of Marinette, you know she won't stay gone for long. And it won't be about the fish cult, next time. She only has two hobbies: revenge and macrame. How much time do you think a person can spend on macrame?"
I bring out the fruit plate. "Stuff your word hole, naysayer. Brunch is nearly upon us." I go back into the kitchen and slide the French toast onto a coupla plates. The mimosas come, too. "I'm gonna handle Marinette. I've been taking down psychopaths professionally since 2005."
"You're gonna get yourself killed," she mumbles around a mouthful of fruit.
I raise my champagne flute and she does the same. "We'll keep each other alive, Irish."
Daisy wakes up in a cell, but it's not a prison cell. She's wrapped in a hospital gown, not orange peels, and her feet are bare. The bracelet around her wrist reads "Florencio, Daisy."
She pads across cold tile to the door and finds it locked. She pounds one fist against it, then the other. It rattles in its frame, but does not give.
Her blood runs hot and she roars my name.
The whole room trembles.
Many thanks to these generous patrons!
- Mark Dipasquale
- Grant Howitt
- Herman Duyker
- Jesse Quisenberry