In a basement bathtub somewhere under Treme, a hand like a harpy's talon clutches stale air. It reaches up from a charnel pit of half-dissolved blood and gore. I wonder if it's aware of what's happening. At what point, exactly, do they die?
A figure in a gas mask pats the last drops of solvent from a plastic jug, then tosses it onto a pile of its fellow fallen soldiers. With the clatter still ringing off tiled walls, he peels the gloves off his intricately inked arms. Saints mingle with devils among a thicket of rose-covered vines. Nearby, Santa Muerta stands guard between densely muscled shoulders, framed by two columns of street names like One-Punch and Chango.
The gas mask turns its attention to a wall covered in photos, news clippings, and pencil sketches connected by lengths of cliched, red string. He draws an "X" across a sketch of a hunched figure in rags, then unpins a still from a security camera and takes a closer look. It shows a man sitting bolt upright in an unzipped body bag.
Way down in the corner, at the end of one long, lonely string, sits a cell phone photo of yours truly, back before the scars and the hollow cheeks. Back when we were friends.
I've been trapped on this carousel of boredom and bland sincerity for almost an hour. I'm slouched in a folding chair, arms crossed and face scowling, in what must be the break room of Henre's infirmary. A ring of furrowed brows runs from my right around to my left. At one end, Kevin and his IV vibrate like taught violin strings. At the other, Henre drones on like an air conditioner. One that blows hot air.
"It's not easy, putting your head before your heart. I still think about going back to Her. Every damn day." He pauses for their polite gasps. "Yes, even me. Even after all these years. I used to go stand at the edge of the lake, barefoot, and let the water caress my ankles. I did that because I wanted to feel close to Her, but I also wanted to defy Her. That's what you must take to heart, Kevin. It's not about what She wants; it's about what's best for you. Best for all of us."
Unspoken questions rearrange the baptized boy's face until they're happy with the feng shui. He shifts in his folding chair, as uncomfortable with the topic as with the bandages swaddling his legs, right arm, and one side of his head.
Henre takes off his glasses and polishes them rhetorically. "You don't have to believe me, young man. We all have trouble believing while the wounds are still fresh. It takes time, distance. You'll never stop longing for Her. You'll just get better at putting it aside, like a box of old love letters."
The boy's neighbor drops a hand on his shoulder and leans in. "It gets better," he intones with all the gravitas an old, white guy wrapped in a sweater vest can muster.
"Thank you, Dave." Henre picks up his speech as if reading from a queue card. "After the shipwreck, back in '67--"
Saints mingle with Devils
"All due respect, Henre," the boy breaks in, "but that's what you don't get about all this. It's different now. She's different. The shipwreck was a long time ago and things have changed! The things She shows us--"
"We all have the visions, Kevin," Henre assures him. Blonde heads bob in confirmation. "We all feel the cold darkness against our skin, taste the salt--"
"It's not just that! I've seen the world when it was still a young, naked thing shivering under alien stars! I've watched the iridescent ooze grow and spread and eat itself! I know where the Old Ones walked and will walk again!" He lurches to his feet, staring into some unfathomed distance. "We're just a stray note in a grand symphony, and SHE will still be here after the TRUE immortals have come and gone and GROUND US INTO DUST!!!"
The men on his flanks get up and grab him by the arms and legs, lifting him off the ground before he can take another step north, toward the lake. Henre nods sadly and they carry him back to his room, thrashing like a fish on a hook.
The rest of the therapy group shuffles out after mumbling their reassurances to Henre. He takes me aside and pours us both some coffee. "I'm sorry about that, Marion. Kevin's having a rough time of it."
"You don't say."
"It's not always like this," he tries to convince us both, "but it is increasingly common. The goddess thrives on biodiversity; I have this theory that the lake isn't big enough for her. Once She's tasted everything it has to offer... I dunno. Maybe she tries to create diversity where none exists."
"I hear science works pretty good on that shit. Have you tried science?" I sip my coffee.
"Have I ever! Problem with scientists? They always wanna publish their work. I did try, though, back in the '80s. Never have I wasted so much time or money. Not a one of them could tell me something I didn't already know."
"Hmm..." I let my skepticism mingle for a bit with the hum of the vending machine. "You said you had surgeons for his... whole thing, but what about the psychological trauma? Kid might need more than group."
Henre puffs himself up. "I've always been able to handle that, Marion. What La Sirene blesses, she calls back to Herself. What returns, she devours. Mastering that biological imperative is the central mystery of our faith and I have never failed to teach it."
It's almost noon and I'm sashaying down Julia Street when I spy my old pal Guts through a restaurant window. A big plate of crawfish etouffee is just about to join him, so I decide to stop and say hi.
"Guts!" I greet him boisterously from the door.
"Marion." He pushes his plate away, appetite lost. "Been a while. Too bad you can't..." I sit down opposite him, "... stay."
I waive the waiter over to gimme a glass of their finest water. "How's the new job, Guts? I suppose the Mayor's up your ass about something or other?"
"Actually, he's sponsoring me into the Elk's Lodge." Guts is dressing pretty good these days... for a cop. A dark mustard shirt cuts sharp lines beneath his black suit and tie, but the fit and fabric give him away. The polyester blend bunches up behind his neck and the cuffs fall just a bit out of place. Even chiefs of police buy off the rack.
"Good to see you're not taking bribes," I commend him. "At least, not good bribes. I bet the view is nice from that moral high ground of yours."
"And I hope it smells real sweet down in your gutter."
"Not half as sweet as what you got there, Guts." I snipe a shrimp off his plate and plop it in my mouth. "Mm-mm-mm. It's like there's a drug party in my mouth and everyone's taking off their clothes."
He clears the middle of the table and pushes the whole plate over to me. "Party on, asshole." Then he tosses a wad of bills on the table and gets up to leave.
"You're the best, Guts!" I flip through the bills, take a few off the top, then waive the waiter back over for godamned wine. About half way through my etouffee, I pause to wipe my hands... and fish out the envelope that Guts left hidden under his plate. It slips inside my jacket, then we're back to the mouth party!
Good ol' Guts.
Later, and safely back in my apartment, the envelope disgorges its secrets: a few crime scene reports, a flash drive, and a post-it note that reads "One of yours?"
The reports describe a string of gang-related shootings. The perp, always a white male, guns down a group of men in broad daylight, then shoots himself in the chest.
I pop the flash drive into my secondhand laptop and find a few minutes of security camera footage. Looks like the morgue. Four body bags are lined up on gurneys, probably awaiting autopsy.
It's grainy, but I can kinda make out a finger poking through the zipper of the last body bag in line, closest to the camera. It recedes and I can imagine someone peeking out through the gap, watching the coroner remove the first gang member's liver.
Suddenly, the body bag sits up and unzips itself. A white male with dark, shoulder-length hair turns and says something to the coroner, who faints like a leaf.
The body squirms out of his bag, hops off the gurney, and heads for the door. A second later, it comes back into view and walks across the room to the autopsy table. It scoops a handful of entrails into an evidence bag before leaving.
"Yep," I say to no one in particular. "Definitely one of mine."
When I first met Laffite, back in 2005, I shot him. It was just a few weeks after Katrina and most of the city was still flooded. We'd had multiple reports of "inhuman screams" coming from a warehouse in Bywater. Since I'd recently had my eyes opened to things that go bump, I volunteered to investigate.
Guts was my partner back then, off and on. We were stretched so thin, you kinda partnered with whoever was available at the time. Guts wasn't a bad guy, I just didn't trust him to keep his shit together at half past tentacle time.
Nothing seemed unusual as we approached the warehouse, nothing except the fact that we were floating down a city street. And everything was pretty much destroyed. Except for those things, situation normal.
Somebody's sailboat had blown through the loading dock doors, so we tied up our dingy and let ourselves in. The main floor was a shambles: shelves knocked over like dominoes, boxes and crates scattered everywhere. The wind blew through with a loud whistle that rose and fell in unsteady rhythm.
"Maybe it was just the wind," Guts echoed my thoughts.
"Yeah, probably," I agreed, but it rang hollow. "Let's check the offices, though. Might be bodies." Katrina'd left corpses everywhere. Not just the newly dead, either; the flooding had washed more than a few bodies out of their tombs. Since the evacuation, the dead were just about the only people who lived here.
Curiously, the back rooms were locked with a shiny, new chain. I tried peering through the windows, but they were too caked in silt and grime. I remember thinking that the filth had a strange, reddish-brown color to it. So dumb.
"I know where the Old Ones walked!"
Anyway, we were debating breaking the glass when we heard a noise from outside, like something wet being dragged over concrete. We drew our weapons and circled back out the loading dock and around the far side of the building.
Even by recent standards, what we found was gruesome. A clear, plastic bag of half-eaten legs sat on top of a pile of severed heads. The latter stared up at us with empty sockets. Guts lost his lunch.
The sound of retching alerted the perpetrator, who was just about to drag another bag of some damn thing out the office door. He swore and brandished a blood-crusted shovel, but I had him dead to rights.
"Drop it, psycho!" I screamed at far too high a pitch. "You're under arrest!" He was a white male, around 40, short and wiry. Helluva mustache. His eyes darted over to Guts, who'd managed to get his gun up despite being doubled over.
I swear, the perp winked at me before raising the shovel above his head and charging like a lion. I fired two rounds into his chest. (Guts fired, too, but who knows where those bullets ended up.) The perp spasmed and fell.
I went over to check him, but even if he wasn't dead, there was no way we were gonna get him to a doctor in time. I put my fingers to his neck and felt no pulse. In fact, he was already cold. I looked up to check on Guts. His eyes were wide.
That's when I felt the dead man move under my fingers. A moment later, his shovel flattened my skull.
These days, Laffite's living in much nicer digs. He's had a three story townhouse renovated with granite countertops, hardwood floors, a spiral staircase, and art nouveau furniture by the barrel. Way too classy for a pirate.
I knock on the door. The thug who answers gets four knuckles and keeps the change. The rest kowtow as I storm through the living room and up the fancy stairs. Laffite's office is down the hall. I kick his monogramed double doors open and blow in like an angry gale.
"We had an arrangement, Laffite!"
Full-length windows frame the pirate and his assistant against Treme's skyline. The latter is a 20-something weasel with a hair gel pompadour and non-prescription glasses. I have instant dislike of him.
Laffite looks up from his computer screen. "Do you know that I have a wikipedia page, Marion? They spelled my name wrong."
"I'll make sure they get it right in your obituary," I counter, gesturing for his weasel to leave. The boy bows at the waist as he passes me and keeps his eyes below mine all the way out. "And tell your people to stop fucking bowing to me."
"I apologize, Marion, but you've become a figure of some religious significance to them. And I'm not a dictator; they're all free to do as they wish, within the bounds of our arrangement, of course." He strokes his porn stash and gestures toward the empty chair opposite himself.
I remain standing. "Their personal freedom does not include spree killing your drug trade rivals or using your... condition to escape prosecution."
"You must be talking about Francois." Since I won't sit, Laffite stands and walks around to my side. He leans against the desk, trying to appear relaxed. "He's one of mine, of course, but he's gone off the reservation. His... theatrics aren't sanctioned by me. He's always been a loose cannon."
"Too bad, Laffite. If he's not under your jurisdiction, he's under mine." I march toward the pirate with as much menace as I can muster. "If you can't tie this loose cannon down, I will. That's the deal. Tell me where to find him."
He puts his hands up in mock surrender. "If I knew, I would tell you--"
"Jesus, Laffite. You must really wanna keep this idiot free. I mean, you'd rather have me thinking you're incompetent? Just how badly do you wanna be a druglord?"
"I knew you wouldn't buy it, Marion, but no harm in trying." He hops off the desk and presses into my personal space. "Tell me, when you're dancing the tango, do you skip right to the big dip? I prefer to savor every moment of the dance."
"Flirting? This is what it's come to? Call me when you lose the stash..." I grab him by the collar and push him over the desk, off balance, "... and aren't an asshole."
"Yes, yes, you're the big dog in the yard." He swats my hands away and squirms off the desk, returns to his Big Man chair on the other side. "I have, indeed, been benefiting from Francois' foolishness, but I always intended to put him back under his rock. You have my word, it'll be taken care of by nightfall."
"Not good enough, Laffite."
"Marion! You're being unreasonable."
"Tell me where to find him."
He puts on a show of straightening some papers, then makes his actual offer like we both knew he would. "How about a compromise? I know what a fan you are of deal-making. We'll go and apprehend the fiend together, right now."
"Hell, Laffite! That's all you had to say."
As it turns out, my spree killer is squatting in a construction site north of Washington Square. Looks like the property developer ran out of credit before the interior could be finished. Contrary to the pirate's lavish tastes, most Survivors don't need much in the way of creature comforts. They really could live happily under a rock.
Laffite swears up and down that Francois' not a flight risk, but I park my car around the block, anyway. We enter through a gap in the fence and climb the poured concrete stairs.
There's only one room with a door. "Sure you don't wanna knock?" I start to ask, then notice it's already ajar. I swing my shotgun up to my shoulder, but too late.
The door flies open on its own and three feet of barbed aluminum pipe plunges through Laffite's abdomen. It emerges from his back in a puff of crimson dust.
"C'est quoi ce bordel?!" he swears and staggers back. A heavy, wooden haft comes with him, weighing him down and bending the metal pipe. He throws his hands up. "Oh, this will be hell to get out."
I push past him and into the apartment, where I find Francois in a leather recliner, hogtied and gagged. There's a kitchen to my left, empty except for beer ans, and a closet to my--
When I first met Laffite, I shot him.
Too late. Tattooed arms ambush me from the closet to my left. They snap around my wrists, pushing the shotgun down and pinning the barrel across my chest.
"Marion?! Who the hell's side are you on, bruja?!" I recognize the voice. El Diablero squeezes my trigger hand and the gun goes off, spraying black dirt all over my legs and feet. "Goofer dust? You shoot people with curses, now?"
He doesn't even have to throw a punch. With the Unlucky Shot on me, I trip over the javelin protruding from Laffite's body. I reach out for something to break my fall and nab the pirate's belt. The buckle breaks and his slacks join me on the floor.
We must not look very threatening, me on my ass and the pirate in his skivvies, because El Diablero just laughs and returns to his work. He throws Francois over his shoulders and carries him out. Laffite tries to block his escape, but the kidnapper just pushes him the hell over and my bad luck does the rest. We end up in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Francois pleads with his eyes as he's carried over us.
I hear a car squealing away somewhere in the distance as Laffite and I extricate ourselves. "Little help?" he gestures toward the obvious thing, but I have to disappoint him.
"Right now, I'd probably just pull your liver out by accident."
"Mon Dieu, Marion. What are you good for?"
The first time Laffite asked me that question, it was far less rhetorical.
I woke up inside that warehouse, locked in a steel cage with Guts. The place was painted in blood. Guts still smelled like puke. Judging by the mess in the corner, he'd had leftovers.
"What happened?" I asked him, checking the back of my head with one trembling hand. Felt like a pretty nasty gash, but it wasn't bleeding too bad. I probably had a concussion.
"He, uh, he didn't die. We shot him, but he didn't die. He's, like, a vampire or something. A mummy, maybe? Oh, god. He used you as a hostage and locked us in here. Haven't seen him in, maybe ten minutes? You were out for--"
We heard rattling as Laffite let himself back in. "Please, don't let me interrupt the speculation. Perhaps I'm a loup garou or a sorciere. Or the Devil himself. I certainly have the mustache for it," he chuckled.
When we didn't respond, he upended a bucket and took a seat near our cage. "I am, in fact, human. Just like you. Or rather, I was like you. Then, I died. Shrapnel from a Spanish cannonball. It was the most blood I'd ever seen... until recently," he gestured around the slaughterhouse.
"You won't believe the rest, but I swear it's the truth. I was resurrected by a cruel, greedy madman. He'd stolen a power that belongs to God alone and he used it for petty crime." Laffite shook his head sadly. I think he was more disappointed than outraged.
"He tortured me for my treasure. I dabbled in privateering, you see, and stashed my winnings all over the gulf coast. But I never broke! Not to the British and not to this new tyrant!" He spat on the floor, but it was lost amongst the many fouler fluids.
"And I wasn't the only one. Not by far. He raised dozens upon dozens of us. He had these... holes beneath his mansion. Deep, cold, dark holes like you'd dig for a latrine. He'd throw us down there until we were packed in like a nest of vipers. He kept us too weak to climb out, to do much more than wail. I can still hear it, that endless wailing. I think I'll hear it until Gabriel sounds his trumpet.
"When the flood came, the necromancer disappeared. Died, maybe, but I doubt such justice exists in this world. Escape alone was miracle enough for us. The flood waters washed most of the house away and allowed us to scramble out of our prisons. We were free, but weak and visibly inhuman.
"We needed a sacrament, one familiar to us from the necromancer's perverted religion. We needed to consume human flesh, drink human blood. Fortunately, we found the streets full of corpses.
"And that, officers of the peace, is what you've stumbled upon. I am disposing of the dead, nothing more. The only victims here were my people, the poor wretches who lost their minds in that dungeon and needed to be kept under lock and key until their bodies could be made whole again. The only crime--"
"Why should we believe any of this?!" I was angry, not just at the preposterousness of the tale, but from the vise-like ache in the back of my skull. "What the hell do you want?!"
"Why do you think I made you shoot me?" he asked, unbuttoning his blood-soaked shirt. His chest was sunken, his skin sallow, but what struck us where the wounds. Not scars, but wounds. The two bullet holes I just gave him plus countless gashes, burns, and crudely-stitched incisions. There was no evidence of healing, but they didn't really bleed, like post-mortem wounds on a corpse.
"Believe what you want, but know this: We're not monsters. We're survivors. And we need your help."
"To do what?!" I demanded, incredulous.
"To live!" he replied. "We'll need protection from a frightened and xenophobic world. We'll need help assimilating to this... bizarre future. Some of us lived hundreds of years ago, in foreign lands. I'll need help recovering and laundering my fortune... which I'll be happy to share."
"We're not crooked," I object.
"Then what are you good for?!" the pirate stood, kicking his bucket across the floor. "I am not a wicked man, constables, but my people are all that matter to me. We suffered together for so long and now, by the grace of God, we have a second chance at life! How many people get that? What would you do to save your own life? What atrocities would you commit to protect your loved ones?"
"In other words, you'll kill us," Guts paraphrased. Laffite let the comment stand.
"This is crazy." I sat up and tried to clear the fog from my brain. "So... what? You let us go and we look the other way on your unlicensed mortuary slash butcher shop? Once we're out of this cell, what's to stop us from double-crossing you?" Guts gave me such a look.
"Your good will, I suppose?" Laffite mused. "Or maybe the fact that you'd be crossing a desperate, powerful man who cannot be killed? A man who's survived torture and defeated Death itself? I don't think I'd want to cross such a man, especially when I stood to gain so much by simply keeping my word. Don't you future people believe in a man's word?"
"We don't have a choice, Marion." Guts was clearly not interested in a philosophical discussion. "We'll do it. We'll be your agents on the force, for whatever you wanna pay, and a guarantee on our lives and the lives of our loved ones."
"Your loved ones?!" The pirate seemed personally offended. "Is nothing sacred, anymore? I have no ill intentions on your loved ones. In fact, you'll come to see what a fair and forthright person I really am. This may not be an auspicious beginning, but we'll do great things together. Mark my words."
Dinner's long overdue by the time I get home. The Unlucky Shot had worn off in ten minutes, mostly, but I do a lotta hoodoo. It's hazardous to walk around with even trace amounts of goofer dust clinging to my person.
So, I'd had to stop at a laundromat to wash my clothes in salt water. Grandma woulda thrown in some cayenne pepper, too, but I can never get the smell out.
There was just no saving the pants. I drove twenty minutes outside the city to a nice, gravel intersection and gave them a proper burial. Nothing like a busy crossroads to randomize your karma, all those people traveling toward their various fates. Grandma woulda explained it with ley lines or whatever the hell, but I guess my college experience gives me a different perspective.
That and also the other experience. I absentmindedly probe my scars with the tip of my tongue as I chop vegetables and fire up the stove. Even after the etouffee, I'm starving.
It had taken almost an hour just to get that damned javelin out of Laffite's gut. We searched the construction site for a hacksaw, but couldn't find so much as a nail file. Eventually, we decided it was easier to unbolt the metal spear from the wooden haft and pull the former out through his body.
I woulda planted one foot in his lap and torn the thing free, but Laffite didn't wanna make the hole any bigger. Survivors don't really heal; whatever damage they do to themselves, they gotta live with. Or unlive with. We never settled on vocabulary.
The dead were the only people who lived here.
Gotta hand it to that stubborn gangbanger, javelin's a good way to deal with an undead, or whatever, opponent. You can't shoot or stab them, because they don't have any blood pressure. You can't choke them out, 'cuz they don't breathe. They're propelled into the future by the momentum of other people's lives.
Watching Laffite hobble around with a twenty pound piece of wood jutting four feet out of his chest was pretty damn funny, though. The spear head was made of a soft metal and bent under its own weight, so he ended up dragging it through the dirt like some enormous, flaccid dildo.
We parted ways with harsh words about who's fault it was that we got steamrolled by a "child" and mutual promises that this wasn't over. His word doesn't count for much, but neither of us was bluffing.
No sooner have I thrown everything in a skillet than my phone rings. It's the other white male pain in my ass. "Marion, we have a, uh... situation," Henre stammers, "and I could really use your help. It's Kevin. He... he had a crisis and fled the estate. We're sure he's headed for the lake."
"And if he makes it, then... what? He get's eaten by a lake monster?" I'm not quite ready to take my dinner off the stove.
"Sort of. That and... something much worse. I honestly don't know what will happen, but... well, I saw enough during the shipwreck to be afraid, Marion, deeply afraid. I could really use your help. How soon can you get here?"
I take my dinner off the stove. Reluctantly. "Gimme ten minutes."
Before I put down the phone, though, I tap the hook for a dial tone and place a call to a former informant of mine. It goes straight to voicemail. "It's Marion. I'm sure we're not on speaking terms right now, but I ain't one to hold a grudge. Thought you'd wanna know there's a monster loose in the Garden District, rampaging its way north toward the park. Get there quick, or you'll miss the fun."
Trap thusly baited, I hit the road.
Ten minutes later, I'm pulling up to Henre's compound. I mean, his "estate." Three pickup trucks full of armed men and women are parading out the main gate as I roll in. Their fearful leader's standing in the driveway, surrounded by assistants with phones stapled to their ears.
"I've got patrols along the shoreline and teams on each of the byways," he reports to me for no reason, "but Kevin knows all about the protocols. I'm sure he'll go overland as far as possible, probably through the park, before making a final dash to the water."
"Sounds like you've got it covered. Wadaya you need me for?"
"I need you to drive."
We cruise north from the Garden District toward the park, police scanner chattering in the background while Henre fields text messages.
"The Pabodie didn't sink by accident," he begins without warning. "Members of the crew went mad during the trip back from the antarctic. They'd had contact with La Sirene while we pulled her up from the sea floor. Like Kevin, they'd seemingly fallen ill while a strange substance infused their bodies.
"As we got closer to the states, they became... agitated. They wanted to get in the tank with Her, which, if you'd ever seen Her up close, was just insane. We stopped one of them from sabotaging the engines in the gulf, but they'd basically mutinied by the time we reached Pontchartrain.
"They sunk the ship, but we wouldn't let them... join with Her. We'd already seen how she assimilates the traits of whatever she consumes. I can't imagine what would happen if she gained human intelligence. So we... we tried to kill Her. If there's a way, I still don't know what it is. She's ungodly resilient.
"When that didn't work, we... did what was necessary to prevent the mutineers from reaching Her. They weren't easy to kill, either, but we got the job done. I was the only one who made it to shore."
"And how do you plan to get the job done tonight, Henre?"
"With great care, Marion. Kevin has become deranged, violent, and his deformity has proven more... practical than most. I want you to help me intercept him at the park. I think I can talk him down, but your bad luck gun could buy me the time I need."
"I'm riding shotgun, too, huh? Fine, but when this is over, and Kevin's safely strapped into his hospital bed, we're gonna have a talk about the public safety issue you've created in my city."
He laughs. I'm pretty sure Henre thinks of it as his city. Times change, old man. Times change.
I catch something interesting on the scanner and turn up the volume. Seems somebody's got a "monster" trapped in their garage. Two people have been injured; cops are on the way.
I put my blinker on for the exit. "That address is in Mid-City, not too far south of the park. We should check it out."
"You should check it out," he disagrees. "Police are your area of expertise. I'll continue to the park. When you're done, or if he gets past you, look for me near Scout Island. That's where I think he'll go. If it is him and he doesn't escape... please, try talking to him first. Ask him why he wants this and remind him of what will happen if he gets it."
Henre peels out in my Mustang like he knows what he's doing. Maybe I shoulda let him drive, because a crowd's had time to gather and the cops are already here. My heart sinks as I realize who it is. Shoulda used the cayenne pepper.
My ex-fiance sees me in a blink and heads over. His idiot partner looks like he's listening at the garage door. I hope he's not trying to open a dialog; Brooks isn't ready for the horror show in Kevin's head. I wait for Prosper at the edge of the mob.
"Marion! You look... good." He must've gotten close enough to see my scars right in the middle of that sentence. We walk a few yards off to the side, so as not to be overheard, but Prosper never lets the garage out of his sight.
I flash him a bittersweet smile. "Back at ya, Prosper." I mean it, too. He's six and half feet of coffee skin and taught abdominal muscle wrapped in a tight t-shirt. For a moment, I have that old feeling back, then I remember all the shit I said. And did. I wince and pull myself together.
"I knew, the moment dispatch used the word 'monster,' I'd be seeing you tonight." His laugh is a deep, throaty chuckle that makes my heart leap in my chest. I wish the damn thing would pick a position and commit to it. "We got this covered, Marion. Just a junkie holed up in a garage. We'll talk him out and take him in, no problem. Do it five nights a week."
"I have one hundred percent confidence in fifty percent of your team, Prosper, but listen... I think your perp is a client of mine. He's dangerous. Let me talk to him. I think I can calm him down."
"Oh, Marion..." He shakes his head sadly, but smiles. "You're like a bad penny. You know I can't let you intervene in a situation like this, not as a P.I. Why don't you gimme some pointers? We'll call you a consultant."
"When I said, 'he's dangerous,' Prosper, I meant--"
"I know what you meant, Marion!" The smile's gone, now, the shoulders squared. "You meant 'not too dangerous for you.' That's the real reason you never got along at the precinct, ya know. Always trying to do everything yourself, shutting everybody else--"
"Not really the time for this discussion, Officer Gandolfi."
"No, that woulda been... God, almost a year ago!"
"This is going great." I let silence fill the space between us. Seems like a mercy. "Okay, Prosper. You're right. I'm gonna move along, but let me tell ya: that boy's not gonna stay in that garage. When he comes out, don't get in his way."
I walk off, but Prosper's not done yet. "Marion, if you know something that could help resolve this situation, you need to tell me."
"Gandolf, if I told you half the things I've seen today, you'd run back to the shire."
Of course, I don't leave a damn thing to him and that half-wit hobbit partner of his. I'm circling around the block, plotting something crazy like dropping through the garage ceiling, when I spot a familiar Hispanic backside skulking in the neighbor's back yard.
I keep walking. The next house has a nice, sturdy railing on their deck. Quietly as I can, I scamper up the side and climb onto the roof. I tip toe over the ridge and creep down until I can see El Diablero. He's spying on the standoff through a gap in the neighbor's fence.
Wadaya know? He took the bait.
At Half past tentacle time.
I put one hand on my hat, then drop on him like a bag of angry bricks. "Daisy!" I whisper loudly in his ear, trying my best not to let him buck me. "Settle down or we'll both be arrested!"
He does the smart thing and puts his hands up. I let him go and we both dust ourselves off. "Don't call me that out here, Judas," he hisses through clenched teeth.
"Fine, 'El Diablero,'" I mock him. "Where's Francois?"
"That his name? I just call him, 'Shut the fuck up.'"
"What'd you do with him?" I punctuate the question by swinging my shotgun up from under my jacket.
"Whatever, lady. You're not gonna set that thing off while we're hiding from NOLA's finest." He sticks his chin out, double dog daring me to shoot.
I put it away. "Fine, but you really should listen. We want the same thing."
"I want him dead."
"He's already dead. You want him punished. So do I. He's been a very naughty boy."
"He's a monster."
"We're all somebody's monster, El Diablero. You're a monster to them. You're their grim fucking reaper. You're Death to the dead. Should I dissolve you in a bathtub?"
"God, you're so full of shit. Even when I trusted you, deep down, I knew you were just another cop. Just another lying shitbag. I shoulda never listened to you. Some of us might still be alive."
I move in on him until we're nearly nose-to-nose. He doesn't give an inch. "A relationship talk is not what we need right now; I've had one too many of those already tonight. We need to talk business. Negotiate, for fucking once!"
"Why should I, Marion?! Why should I?" I feel a light spray of spittle on my face. "They don't negotiate with their victims. The police don't negotiate with me. The one time I asked you for help, everybody fucking died!"
I lean back, try to deescalate. "Look, just tell me where he is and I'll see that he's punished for his crimes. You'll get your justice without even a single felony."
He steps in, following my retreat, until I can smell the fumes in his hair. "I don't make deals anymore, Marion. I make things happen, on my terms. If you can stop me, stop me. If not, don't waste my time."
I think long and hard about dragging him out to Prosper and turning him in for aggravated assault and kidnapping, but our standoff is interrupted by a loud crash and riotous screaming from the far side of the fence. We both vault over, him a little faster, and race around the side of the garage. I pause to examine the scene.
The side door has been kicked off its hinges. The wreckage is coated in some kinda translucent ooze. Prosper's partner is sitting on the curb, holding his head in his hands. He's even more slimy than the door. If I had to guess, I'd say Kevin picked him up by the face and threw him into the crowd.
Dozens of onlookers are shooting videos of something down the street. El Diablero pushes his way through them and I follow a few yards behind. Prosper's already at the end of the block, calling out for Kevin to stop. Fish boy does, but only long enough to hit Prosper with... something. I can't quite see it, but Prosper flies off his feet as if struck in the chest. Ectoplasm, or whatever, splashes all over him.
I stop to make sure he's okay. "What'd I tell you, Prosper?"
He pulls his hand away from his torso and it trails a film of drooping snot. "I'm sending you my dry cleaning bill."
"Stay put and I'll pay it," I lie as I take off north on David Street. Now, I run a pretty good mile, but El Diablero is a serious athlete and, somehow, scrawny Kevin's keeping pace. Fortunately, I'm smarter than either of them. I cut through a coupla parking lots and reach Orleans hot on their heels.
"You're Death to the dead."
Kevin zigs left between two houses and my gangster friend follows. I turn the corner just in time to watch a slimy mass erupt from fish boy's face, stretch over three yards, and engulf El Diablero's whole head. He grabs the... tongue, I guess, with both hands as it lifts him off his feet and smashes him into the side of a house, then the neighboring house, then back again before finally letting go.
I watch, dumfounded, as the tentacle impossibly retracts into Kevin's distended pie hole. I think he's even more disturbed by the whole thing than I am. When I don't make a move, he turns and continues toward the park.
I pause to check on El Diablero, but he pushes me away roughly. Too breathless to yell at each other, we continue pursuit.
We're almost on top of Kevin when he crosses into the park. El Diablero pounces like a tiger. He wrestles Kevin into an arm lock and I see that fish boy's got a flipper instead of a left hand! It slaps El Diablero enthusiastically, but ineffectively, about the face.
Kevin writhes right out of the arm lock as a thick layer of ooze sloughs off his skin. The vigilante falls backwards into me, but I step to the side and let Kevin have it with the Unlucky Shot.
"Yeah!" the vigilante howls with delight. "Shoe's on the other flipper now, freak! I've got a filet knife with your name on--" He shuts his trap as I drop my shotgun down to his level and let him have it with the second barrel. A blast of goofer dust coats his whole body, indignant head to vengeful toe.
Kevin scrambles to his feet and takes off down the footpath.
"For fuck's fucking fuck sake, Marion! How many betrayals can you fit into one goddamned day?!"
I put my gun away and crouch over him, dig a map of the city out of my pocket and unfurl it. "Don't worry about fish boy, Daisy. He's not gonna get very far and we need to have a talk about Francois, like I said."
"Damnit! I knew this was a setup."
"I think of it as an setuportunity. Now, I wanna know where you're keeping Francois and you don't wanna tell me. My bad luck, right? Well, as long as I've got you here and thoroughly cursed, I'm just gonna randomly point to a spot on this map. Maybe you'll get lucky and I'll point to something that's not the one place you've stashed an animated corpse."
I drop the map on the ground and jab it with one finger. "Oh, look! Wasn't this one of your gang's safe houses? Not too far away from here, either." I wad the map back into my pocket. "I gotta take care of something else first, so go ahead and try to beat me there... if you're feeling lucky."
I'm not present for the entirety of Henre's conversation with Kevin, but I imagine it starts with a shout.
"Kevin!" Henre halts the fish boy's advance. "Look at yourself! You're rampaging through the city like King fucking Kong, for godssake!" Henre doesn't swear very often, but I figure the situation warrants it.
"Shut yer word hole, old man!" Kevin lurches from the tree line nearly out of breath, or so I'd like to think. "You don't understand us kids and our rock 'n roll or whatever!"
"Why are you doing this, Kevin? Is it for you or for Her? What do you think will happen when you reach Her?"
"I dunno, man, like stuff and junk. Cosmic horror, I guess?"
Henre does his thing where he polishes his glasses for dramatic effect. "I'll tell you what's waiting for you under those dark waters, son. You're gonna find the corpse of a ship half-buried in the silt, alien eyes staring out through every porthole. Barbed tentacles are gonna reach out for you and, for an instant, you'll greet them like a lover's arms.
"Then, they're gonna bite into your otherwise immortal flesh and tear you to bloody pieces. You'll be dead, in every way that counts, and she'll absorb your DNA, perfectly preserved for her.
"What happens then, Kevin?! What do you think happens to the rest of us? Everyone you've ever loved, seven billion of us on this planet? What do you think will happen to use when She gains self-awareness? 'The Old Ones will walk again.' Isn't that what you said?"
"Shut yer word hole, old man!"
Anyway, I only catch up in time for Kevin's final outburst. "I don't have a choice, Henre! I'm sorry, but I don't. You should never have put me in the water!"
He gurgles and spasms, his entire body winding up the force to propel that damnable tongue up and out his throat. It envelopes Henre's head and shoulders, then contracts violently enough to toss him clear over Kevin and into the woods.
Fish boy takes off toward the lake. I have no idea where he gets the stamina. Okay, I have one idea. Fortunately, his luck is still in the crapper and he runs directly into the butt of my shotgun.
I've managed to circle around while Henre was trying to handle things like an adult and I guessed the precise spot where Kevin would exit the clearing. I jab blindly around a tree when I hear him approach. It's not his lucky day. Fish boy's out for the count.
"See, Henre?" I holler as the old man emerges from the underbrush, covered in slime. "I told you it wouldn't work."
El Diablero's safe house isn't far from the park, a boarded up split level on the north side of Treme. All's quiet when I get there; I guess the vigilante had the good sense to go home. Color me surprised.
I kick in the back door and cover my mouth when I see the mothballed meth lab inside. It smells like cancer. I decide to make this quick and head for the basement.
Somebody put a lot of work into this torture dungeon. White tile on all the walls and floor, industrial size drainage in the center, easy to hose off. A freestanding bathtub crouches near the back wall, waiting to be cleaned. There are anchors in the ceiling for chains and meat hooks, which is where I find Francois.
The shit-eating spree killer is hanging from his arms, grinning like an idiot. I know the fumes haven't gotten to him, because he doesn't breathe, so the coffin stuffer must actually be happy to see me.
"Don't thank me, killer," I forestall him as I fetch a bucket to use as a stool. "We're gonna have us an uncomfortable conversation, just not in the basement of the cancer house. Oh, wait." I step back and give him a blast from the bad luck gun before lifting him free of his meathook.
"Pft!" he sputters. "Did you just shoot me with dirt?!" He rolls it around on his tongue like we're at a wine tasting. "Grave dirt?!" He would know the flavor, wouldn't he?
Predictably, the big poof tries to make a run for it, but can't keep his feet straight as he prat falls up the stairs. I chuckle at my own handiwork. Grandma taught me well.
As I leave, I notice what looks like a schizophrenic's wall mosaic. Laffite's on there, along with a rogue's gallery of other Survivors, a few of the local Loa... and me. I remember when Daisy took that picture, back when she was still my snitch. Maybe "friends" was a bit strong, but still. It hurts a little, somewhere way down deep.
"We're not monsters."
I hear Francois crashing through the chemistry set upstairs and realize it's time to go. I climb the steps, but detour away from the kitchen and leave through the front door. I cross the driveway just in time to clothesline Francois as he wheels around the corner. His feet fly ahead of him and the rest flops to the ground.
I pin him with one knee and rip open his unnecessarily ruffled shirt. Among a constellation of cuts and gouges, I find three bullet holes clustered around his unbeating heart.
"Mon dieu, woman! What have you done to me?! More to the point, what have I ever done to you?!" His accent is archaic, big surprise, but his voice cracks like an adolescent's. Maybe it's just my knee in his navel.
"Come on, Francois! You're no stranger to violence. Why don't you tell me about your recent trips to the morgue?"
"The morgue?" he gasps with feigned indignation. "Mademoiselle, I do my best never to associate with the dead. A man is defined by his company, is he not?"
I give him the back of my hand. "Let's skip to the part where we both admit we know all about the Survivors and curses and the Easter bunny, okay? I'm Marion Barbarouss." I let him get a better look at my face, my scars. "You know my name."
If he had any saliva left in that lying, mummified mouth, he'd be swallowing it hard. "Marion, yes... forgive me. I thought--"
"You thought I was a rube."
"Most people are," he smiles. "My apologies. Truly. What do you want to know?"
"Laffite had you killing drug dealers in broad daylight. Why?" The motive is obvious; I just want him to admit that Laffite put him up to it.
"You misunderstand me, detective. I'm my own man, always have been. Why, the king of France once offered me his patronage as court alchemist and I turned him down," he brags. "I may have been working in Monsieur Laffite's interests, but never at his behest."
If that's true, then he'd have to be an egomaniac to confess like that. I'm sure Laffite coached him. Would definitely explain why he was so willing to take me to Francois this morning. Why do I feel like someone's walking over my grave?
"Bad news," I tell him as I haul him to his feet,"'cuz then he'd be at the top of my very long shit list instead of you."
I stuff him in my trunk and drive to Laffite's bachelor pad. There's a discreet entrance in the alley, because piracy, and I decide against giving the neighbors a show. Francois doesn't put up much of a struggle. Curiouser and curiouser.
The Survivors inside do their bowing and curtseying, even though I tell them not to. Come to think of it, Francois' lack of fear is kinda refreshing.
Laffite's lack of fear, on the other hand, gets my goat. This time, his office door is wide open. There's a woman inside, wearing a white smock, her head and hands in Laffite's lap. She seems hard at work. A black medical bag lies open on the carpet beside her, having disgorged some of its contents: several jars of mortician's wax, a spool of surgical thread, scissors, gauze, and a few medical devices I'm glad I don't recognize.
"Marion, delightful--" Laffite begins, but the mortician slaps him on the knee.
"No talking," she admonishes as she picks up the scissors and gives something a snip. Laffite casts me a long-suffering look while we wait for her to finish. "Done," she announces a few seconds later, and pushes Laffite's chair back so she can put away her things.
He gets up and starts buttoning his shirt. The hole El Diablero put in his midsection has been filled, puttied over, and given a good layer of fake scar tissue. Thick stitches prevent the wound from opening further. I wonder how long he'll need to leave those in, then realize the answer is "forever."
"There, all better," Laffite smiles with everything but his eyes. "And you found our friend. I'll see to it that he's punished."
I don't let go of Francois. "I'm sure I don't have to remind you that this ain't a slap on the wrist kinda thing. Your boy didn't get in a bar brawl; he murdered a dozen people! He's a danger to society. What do you plan to do with him?"
"Solitary confinement." Laffite almost stops there, but my skeptical face convinces him to continue. "It may seem like nothing to a Survivor, given all we've been through, but it's the best option I have, Marion. We don't know how to... unanimate him without destroying him forever, so several consecutive life sentences will have to suffice."
"Where? Here? In the bachelor pad?"
"No, not here. I'll have a properly prison-like facility put together. He'll be kept in a cell, under watchful supervision. It's more humane than a hole in the ground, I assure you, but still no way to spend your afterlife. He'll regret what he's done."
The mortician snaps her bag closed, gives us all the hairy eyeball, and skirts around me to the door. I'd expect someone who stitches up talking corpses to be a little less flappable.
I stretch out my neck, rolling my head around until my eyes come back to Laffite's. "Look, I've had a really long day. My dinner's sitting on the kitchen counter, cold and uneaten. There are a hundred better places I could be than here, no offense."
"But what kind of assurance do I have that you're not gonna just send this bastard to Baton Rouge and let him murder his way through another city's drug trade? Or just sit him in front of the TV with a damn bowl of cereal and call it a day?"
"You don't, Marion. That's not the deal." He extends a hand toward me like Francois is a stack of bills and he's looking for a tip. "You turn Survivor criminals over to me and I see to their punishment. No reviews, no approvals. Do you trust me or not?"
"I dunno. How far do you think I can throw you?" I ask as I shove Francois across the floor. He plants himself in Laffite's chair and makes a big, theatrical show of looking depressed.
"Wow. I am already convinced of his remorse." I tip my hat and turn to leave. "But if I ever see his face again, and it ain't through a set of bars, there's gonna be a reckoning, Laffite."
"I expect nothing less, Marion."
Days later, in another dark basement somewhere beneath the crescent city, next to another stained bathtub, El Diablero finishes mounting his victim montage to the wall. This time, he's left some room at the top, right next to Laffite's mustachioed mug, space for a kingpin without a kingdom.
Slowly and with deep emotional conflict, I like to imagine, he raises my picture onto that empty throne and pins it there like a butterfly under glass.
Many thanks to these generous patrons!
- Rebecca Chapman
- Mark Dipasquale
- Grant Howitt
- Herman Duyker
- Jesse Quisenberry