So, there I was, parking my mustang across the street from L'Hotel de l'Arsenal, when a hanged man appeared above the entrance. His eyes and tongue bulged perversely as he swayed at the end of a noose.
And then he was gone.
I banged my head against the roof and accidentally popped the car back into drive in my rush to leap right outta my skin. You'd think I'd be used to ghosts and death omens by now, but some things hit you right in the lizard brain. Lynching victims, for example.
Since I'm here to hunt ghosts, I write it off as a promising sign and get out of the car. I wave to Bridgit and Cimitiere as I retrieve two guns and a pocketful of Uncrossing Shot from the trunk. They're waiting patiently for me outside the hotel.
"I brought an extra gun!" I lift both arms above my head, triumphantly displaying my sawed-off in one hand and Marinette's mare's leg in the other.
"Ugh," Bridgit pinches her nose. "How can you touch that thing? It's probably got Marinette all over it. Did you even clean it first?"
"You think I'd just drive around for two days with a dead woman's firearm in my trunk?" I ask guiltily. "Of course I cleaned it."
Bridgit squirms in her slinky, black dress and backs away from me, still holding her nose. The Baron's dressed down in gray jeans and a black, silk shirt. Either he's showing off his bony chest or he doesn't understand how buttons work. Neither of them looks like they're ready for a night of ghost hunting.
"We're not staying," Cimitiere chimes in, reading my mind, "but I'm sure your friend inside can put it to good use."
"La Fleur? Last time I let her borrow a gun, she shot me with it. Twice."
"I appreciate what you've done for me, Marion," he continues. "I've asked you here tonight, not for another job, but as a show of that appreciation. As a gift from the gods."
"A blessing," Bridgit elaborates with a shit-eating grin.
The Baron takes off his dark glasses and fixes me with a stare like Nietzsche's abyss. "I need you to promise me that you'll see it through to the end."
"Of course," I stammer, taken aback. "It's just ghosts, right?"
He puts his glasses back on, apparently satisfied, and the two of them part ways to let me pass. "It's just La Fleur and some ghosts, right?" I ask them again as I walk through the front doors and find myself standing in a gilded lobby with not one old friend but two.
Immediately, I turn to leave, but the Loa have closed ranks behind me. "What is your word worth?" the Baron asks as Bridgit shoo's me inside.
"You'll thank us later," she foretells. "Properly. With booze."
"Goddamnit." I spin around and hold my guns above my head. "I brought an extra gun!" I tell La Fleur and my former fiance.
The medium puts me in the spotlight of her smile, but it only make me more uncomfortable with Prosper as my audience. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly as he breaks eye contact, looking at his shoes and shaking his head. I think they ambushed us both.
The Loa, not his shoes.
La Fleur's got her little realtor blazer on and her hair pulled up in a semi-professional bun, but she left a few loose locks of hair around her face and neck. It's cute, but not cute enough to make me remember we're friends.
"Marion's here!" LaFleur sings, as if not noticing the volley of daggers flying from my eyeballs. "Fabulous. Now we can start the tour."
"One second." Prosper towers over her like a dead sexy mountain, breathtaking and unreachable. "Am I supposed to pretend this isn't a thing?"
She blushes. "Yeah, sorry about the setup, but it's a two person job and I didn't think I could get you both to show up if I told you, so now that we're all here I'm sure we can handle it like professionals, right? Like professional friends who totally know that they only have each other's best interests at heart?"
"I brought an extra gun!"
"I'm good if you are," I tell Prosper in my deadest deadpan, "but you're gonna owe me a bottle of spiced rum," I inform La Fleur with a quick, one-finger jab straight through her heart.
"And I'll take a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black," Prosper hops on the bandwagon.
Having settled that, I toss the mare's leg to Prosper and we walk out of the lobby. Of course, we have to stop and let Le Fleur scramble into the lead, because we have no idea where we're going, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time.
"Aren't pistols more traditional for a duel?" He turns the gun over in his hands, inspecting the blood stains.
When he pushes the slide open to see if it's loaded, I slap his hand. "Don't touch the rounds or you'll ground them out. I had to make 'em special for this gun. It's salt, cayenne pepper, and some other stuff. If I get possessed or you see an apparition you don't like, a round of this at moderately close range will take care of it... at least for a few minutes."
I show him my pocket full of spare rounds. When he reaches for one, I have to slap his hand again. "No touchy, just shooty. Let me reload for you, if it comes to that."
"You're kidding, right?" he asks, then turns to La Fleur when I give him my serious face. "She's kidding, right?"
"Laugh now," La Fleur pats him on the muscly shoulder, "but you'll know when to pull that trigger."
She stops us at the ballroom. It's a sad, lonely space haunted by white sheets. They drape over tables and stacks of chairs, hang from what must be a chandelier, and serve as the tablecloth for a single card table near the door. I can imagine music and laughter filling this space, but now it contains only echoes.
"This hotel's been haunted for nearly a hundred years," La Fleur brags into the void. "All the way back in 1811, a southern gentleman came to the New Orleans and stayed in the suite upstairs. We can stop by later, but the ghosts don't seem to like it up there. There are other places they'd rather be."
I remember the hanged man dangling from the balcony and don't have to wonder why.
"For instance, the ballroom." She gestures around us like a game show hostess. "This where they met and, now, it's where they are most often seen.
"When the southern gentleman came to town, a local woman caught his eye. Those who've seen her say she's stunning: raven-haired and curvaceous with dark, sultry eyes. More than one male guest has inquired about her at the front desk, not knowing they've seen a ghost!
"Like I said, she caught the gentleman's eye and he spent a few days courting her before another looker entered the scene: a free black man who swept the woman off her feet. They danced right here in this ballroom and fell instantly in love.
Haunted by white sheets
"In some versions of the story, she slips out of the gentleman's suite and spends one passionate night in her new lover's embrace. His room would've been in the back, near what's now an administrative office. Some of the female staff have reported... intense psychic impressions there," La Fleur winks at us. We both look at our shoes.
"I hope it was every bit as good as the stories say," she continues, "because it had to last her a lifetime. The next morning, after she'd gone home to change or do whatever nineteenth century party girls did during the day, the southern gentleman whipped up a lynching party. They dragged Romeo from his room and took him up to the gentleman's suite, where they beat him senseless before tying a noose around his neck and dropping him off the balcony.
"He was still there, swinging, when she returned.
"No one knows what happened to her after that, but wherever she went, her soul eventually returned here in search of her love. They both haunt the hotel, mostly the ballroom, but they're never encountered at the same time. Maybe they're doomed to circle each other in death, their paths ever crossing but never joining, just as in life."
La Fleur bows her head as if finishing a homily, then springs that goddamned smile of hers on us and, chipper as you please, announces: "Next stop: the murder room!"
Down the hall and up one floor, we find a smallish room with a conspicuously art deco bathroom. I'd expected blood to gush out when La Fleur opened the door, but no such luck. "I think you may have oversold it," I tell her as we cram into the entryway.
"Have you ever heard of Rosalie Lagrasse?" she asks in a conspiratorial whisper.
I shake my head, but Prosper perks up. "Wasn't she that high society call girl who--"
"Tut tut tut!" La Fleur interrupts him. "Let me tell the tale."
"Then why did you ask?"
"Shhh, honey." She puts a finger to his lips. "Rosalie Lagrasse was the youngest daughter of the oldest money in New Orleans. In the Roaring Twenties, she was known around town as a flapper, a hard drinker, a vocal suffragette, and the cause of many late nights for her well-respected parents.
"One morning in 1928, she was found dead in this very bathtub, stabbed seventeen times with a broken liquor bottle. The medical examiner said she bled to death before she could drown, but it was a close race.
"The crime was no head-scratcher. The housekeepers who discovered Rosalie's body also found her killer passed out on the floor next to the tub. He was a rumrunner and petty thug named Charles Oger. That he murdered Rosalie is not in question -- he confessed, after all -- but the details of that confession cause scandal and speculation to this day!
"Oger claimed that Rosalie was a prostitute, that he'd picked her up at a speakeasy nearby, brought her up to this room, and degraded her with sex acts whose details he was all too eager to share with the press. Then, he drew her a bath and quote: 'Visited God's wrath upon her.'"
Prosper and I cast each other skeptical glances.
"If you're wondering why a rich progressive would need to turn tricks with the likes of Charles Oger, you're not alone. Oger himself suggested that Rosalie had been molested by her father and was acting out, but that's a load of bull. There was zero indication of any trouble at home and, besides, Oger was a lying shitbag.
"The men, and a few women, who knew Rosalie from the underground painted a different picture. They said Rosalie Legrasse was a woman no one could possess for more than a night. She was dead set against marriage. They'd all had to make their peace with that.
"But not Charlie fucking Oger.
"During the 30s, rumors kept cropping up that an engagement ring had been stolen from the scene of the crime. Some said the housekeeper who discovered the body had taken it, while most blamed the cops. I think Oger had hidden it in the room himself, to conceal the truth about his feelings for Rosalie, and it was found years later by a plumber or carpenter working on renovations.
"Oger had been so intent on making the world remember Rosalie as a fallen woman, because she had broken his black, little heart.
"And it would explain one more thing: Guests who stay in this room sometimes come back to find the place turned upside-down. Drawers pulled out, luggage torn open, and once in a while... a ring goes missing."
Prosper frowns at the mention of the engagement ring. If he's nursing a broken heart, it's his own damn fault. I hope he doesn't wanna talk about it later. Oh, fuck, he's totally gonna wanna walk about it later. I make a note to shoot myself in the head.
Silently, like a funeral procession, we follow La Fleur up the stairs and out onto the roof. "Careful." She stops outside the door to unnecessarily help us up the last step. "They don't really let people up here anymore."
I give Prosper a knowing look. "Because bird shit."
"Because twenty-two people died up here during the twentieth century, that's why! Eleven couples, all newlyweds visiting the Big Easy on their honeymoons. All took a nosedive off that ledge and hit the alley below in exactly the same place, dashing their brains on the pavement."
La Fleur's really on a tear, now. She drags us over to one side of the roof and has us look at a specific section of the ledge. It's only about two feet high, stone, and it overlooks the Marigny to the north. The Mississippi curves off to our right, past the rolling landscape of rooftops. She steps aside as if to let us approach, but then pulls us back when we try to look over to edge.
"We wouldn't even know it was a haunting except for the one woman who encountered the ghost and survived. Her name was Lateisha Carver and she worked here in the sixties. Her husband, Jules, was in Vietnam. Drafted. She hadn't heard from him in weeks and was preoccupied with worry. She'd come up here to watch the sunset on her break.
"Suddenly, she heard her husband's voice calling to her. She looked around, thinking it was just in her head, but then Jules was standing here, right here on the ledge! He beckoned her to him. 'Thought it was time I came home,' he told her as she stepped up and took his hand.
"They locked eyes and that's when she knew he was dead.
"Terror filled her heart to bursting and drew her eyes down past her teetering feet to the distinctly reddish cement two stories below. When she looked back up, it wasn't Jules holding her hand, but a stranger! His eyes were bloodshot, his smile manic. She jumped back, away from him, as he dove off the side of the building and vanished.
I make a note to shoot myself
"Later, she would describe the ghost as 'an old timey, white doctor.' So, I did some research and it turns out the very first suicides were a young doctor and his new wife. Dr. William Green came here in 1853 to help fight the worst Yellow Fever epidemic in the city's history. It would claim nearly eight thousand souls before the year was out. He was fresh from medical school and newly wed to a farmer's daughter named Abigail.
"Their obituary states that she fell ill near the end of the outbreak, about a week before she and her husband took a swan dive off this roof. Another medium and I independently contacted the spirits -- shut your face, Marion! -- and confirmed that the ghosts of Billy and Abigail Green are active here.
"They were so desperately in love that neither could bear to go on living without the other. He'd been hitting the bottle like a blacksmith hits an anvil; used to tell the bartender that he couldn't be seen around town with a healthier liver than his wife's. Turns out, he wasn't quite joking.
"She told him that the only thing worse than imagining him living the rest of his life alone was the thought of him laying with another woman. They wanted to enter the next world together, even if it meant damning each other's souls.
"When her skin started to turn yellow, he took her up here to watch the sun set one last time. They clung to each other, even as they stepped onto the ledge, even as they plunged over the side. The cobblestones showed them no mercy.
"So, ya know, be careful up here."
I like how Bridgit puts together a spread. She musta known I'd be pissed about the setup and wanted to get back on my good side. Food is always served on my good side.
When La Fleur brought us back downstairs, right before she left us here alone, a three ring circus of take-out bags had been set up on that card table in the ballroom. A pungent mound of shrimp creole takes center stage, much to my nose's delight, but I can't help giving the side of dirty rice a flirtatious sniff. Fortunately, there's room on my plate for two.
Make that a threesome! A paper dish of bite-sized, roasted potatoes tries to escape my notice, but Prosper pops the lid off just in time. I swipe it right outta his hand and make a cozy spot next to my dirty rice. They get along famously.
Prosper consoles himself with some grilled corn on the cob. I suppress my urge to make a gay joke, but he looks up at me like he can hear my thoughts. Then, he puts one tip in his mouth and mimes falatio. See? We were meant for each other.
I balance one of those corn cobs with some oysters Rockafeller on a second plate and make my way to one of the faux-antique lobby chairs like the most delicious high-wire act ever. Prosper tosses me a beer, because he knows I always forget my beverage, and joins me in short order.
Food is served on my good side
"You're surprised that I'd do this," he tells me before going to town on that corn. He also knows I'll need a minute to clear my airway before responding. It's like getting the band back together; we're in time with each other rhythms, perfect give and take, effortless. If I could just forget about all the bad blood... thinking about it almost ruins my appetite.
"I dunno," I finally say in a puff of cayenne-scented breath. "You and La Fleur always got along, but I guess I'm a little surprised she never mentioned it. How long has this been going on?"
"A couple months, on and off," he shrugs those broad shoulders. "I never see anything on these little tours, mind you, but I help her verify any crimes mentioned in her stories and she gets to say that the police investigated the haunting. I guess it makes me feel a little closer to you."
I choke on a spoonful of rice. Bits of okra and bell pepper spray across my plate. Smooth.
I try to change the subject. "Well, get ready to see some shit tonight. They really stacked the deck in our favor. Or against us, depending. We're in here with-- " And then I realize that I hadn't changed the subject. "All these ghosts are doomed lovers. We're gonna be like catnip at a spinster convention."
"Because spinsters have a lot of cats?"
I nod with a corn cob in my mouth.
"So, ghosts get high off us?" He's right to question my metaphor. It's not apt. I must have lonely old women on my mind for some reason.
"No, not really," I explain. "Ghosts are more like psychic echoes. When things in the present start to mirror things in the past, the kind of semiotically meaningful things that happen over and over again, it can trigger a haunting. The ghosts are just part of the meaning that gets attached to a place."
"And this place is all about romances that end in death."
"Even the good ones end in death, Prosper."
"You know what I mean," he growls, but I see the edges of a smile on his lips. "In every story, somebody gets murdered or commits suicide. What does that say about us?"
"Maybe nothing, but I know my friends and they don't leave shit like this to chance."
Catnip at a spinster convention
"They?" he raises an eyebrow. "Not just La Fleur?"
Damnit. "Yeah, someone else asked me to do this. They think they're doing me a favor."
"Or maybe it's like you said: they figured we'd be the best team for the job, given the circumstances."
"Maybe," I admit, "but the one doesn't rule out the other and my friends are known for their ulterior motives."
"They sound like great friends. Anyone I know?" I've definitely got his cop dander up. He's not gonna stop picking at this until it bleeds. When I don't answer right away, "So you got secret friends now, too. It never ends with you!"
"Just let me enjoy my dinner." I pick up an oyster and consider flinging it at him like a rich and creamy catapult, but that wouldn't be fair to the oyster. Oh, Mr. Rockefeller, I can't stay mad at you.
"I know we're not on the best of terms, right now. The wounds are still fresh, for both of us, but we need to talk about this."
I put down my plate, crack open that beer, and take a long draught. Then I just stare at the man. There's anger on his face, for sure, but sadness in his eyes. Desperation. Tiny tremors pass from his jawline up to either ear. He knows he needs to stop clenching like that or he's gonna give himself a toothache. I gotta say something...
"Are you gonna eat that?"
"Jesus tapdancing Christ." He pushes his plate over to me and I go to town on that shrimp creole.
"So, wadaya we do now?"
Prosper's standing in the mothballed ballroom, shoulders drooping like limp balloons. He'd be pouting, if he knew how. After polishing his plate (not an innuendo), I'd insisted we get on with the ghost hunt. Reliving other people's most traumatic moments seemed preferable to rehashing my own. Of course, now that he's asked the question, I'm kicking myself.
"Well, in the past, I've experienced the most vivid hauntings when I was standing right in the ghost's own shoes, so... I guess we should, um... dance."
He swings his hips and gets a groove going. "All this, just to get me on the dance floor?" he chides. "Marion, all you had to do was ask."
"Shut up," I blush and grab his hands out of the air. One of them, I keep. The other goes around my waist. He draws me into a slow waltz.
We keep our stance open, professional, but I can still feel his body near mine, the electric shock of his skin under my fingers. I remember what it's like to pull him close and let me body melt into his.
Goddamn, I hate New Bridgit right now. I'm sure she means well, but what the shit?! I'm not one of her faithful and I damn well didn't pray to her for help with my personal problems. It's not bad enough that she's probably my secret landlord and has people watching my window on a daily basis, now she's gotta run my (lack of a) love life, too?!
The electric shock of his skin
And I can't believe La Fleur was in on the whole thing! I didn't think they even knew each other. Or do they? Maybe my psychic realtor is just another piece on Bridgit's improbable chessboard. I mean, it's one thing to conspire with a con artist when you're both after the same mark. At least you're in on the joke. But when they turn their craft against you, make you the mark--
"You're not a mark," Prosper whispers in my ear. I look up, but it's not Prosper who's speaking. The man I'm dancing with now is leaner, hungrier, but his smile is no less charming. He looks like a fox who just waltzed into a hen house. "He's the mark, yours and mine. Maybe we can help each other."
I have no idea what's he's talking about, but when he twirls me out and then pulls me back, scandalously close, I hear myself say, "Make it look good, but not too good. I want him jealous, not defeated. Help me get into his suite and I'll get you the combination to his safe."
"Cakewalk," he winks before snapping our bodies together and launching us into a fast, swooping gallop that parades around the dance floor. My heart's thrashing like a caged beast. My vision swims. The whole world tips over and I realize he's dipping me. Vaguely, I worry about losing my hat, but then I feel the heat of his thigh against the small of my back. I throw one arm around his neck and pull him even closer.
My lips part, my eyes close... and he drops me.
Flat on my back.
"Marion," Prosper gasps, staggering backwards like I just slipped three inches of steel between his ribs. "I'm sorry."
"We're all sorry," I snap while picking myself up and retrieving my hat. "Shoulda started with the murder room."
I try to walk down the hall and up the stairs in silence, but Prosper's positively made outta words, tonight. "Is it always like that?" he pesters me outside the murder room door.
"Like what? Sexy?"
"No. Like your whole identity is just gone -- poof! -- and you're somebody else. Somebody long dead." He's rubbing his face with his hands like he can't get either of them clean.
"Oh, no. Not always," I admit as I hold the door for him. "I had visions of my own past, one time. I don't think there are clear rules."
"Like dreaming?" he offers.
"Yeah. Dreaming for the dead."
The murder room is just as we left it: cramped and not at all creepy. Prosper sits down on the bed, still lost in his post-traumatic stress. I wander into the bathroom, just to be a little bit alone.
"So... what?" he asks the aether. "They were old timey con artists, both working the southern gentleman for the same score? Not the love story I expected."
"Yeah, well, all La Fleur told us was a story. That's what she does," I say with all the hypocritical scorn I can muster. "What we saw, well... that might not be the truth, either, but it's probably more true than not."
"Maybe they played each other too well and fell in love for real, but what kinda relationship could they have? Neither one could trust the other."
Jesus, Prosper. Don't put too fine a point on it or anything. "Maybe they just got stupid and the 'gentleman' caught them with their hands in each other's cookie jars."
Dreaming for the dead
I prop my shotgun in the sink and stare daggers at the Marion in the mirror. She's not the woman Prosper knew, and it's not just the scarred lips or the swanky hat. Her cheeks are hollow, nearly as deep and dark as her eyes. For a second, she scares the shit outta me.
"You know, I was never mad at you." Oh, great. Now he's really getting into it. Stupid, cathartic ghosts. "I was hurt, sure. Still am, but we don't gotta fight all the time. I hope you're not mad at me. I hope you know that I wasn't trying to hurt you.
"I took me so long to be honest with myself about why things... were the way they were between us. About why I was the way I was. The way I am. I knew you'd want the truth, no matter what. I knew you wouldn't want to continue living a lie.
"Besides, it's not the seventies anymore, ya know? I expected... I don't know what I expected, exactly, but not what I got. Damn well not what I got. You said--"
"I know what I said!" I scream, gripping the sides of the sink.
"Do you?!" he counters with equal force. "Some people might call it hate speech. Judges, for example!"
I sigh and the mirror fogs up. Marion vanishes into it like a stage magician. I wonder if that's all she really is. Then, I notice the fog's not only in the mirror. It's all around me, filling the room. I hear splashing and realize I'm not alone.
Rosalie lounges in the bathtub. I feel like I've stumbled upon a nymph bathing in a stream, like one of those mythology guys, but less rapey. She runs her fingers through her hair and it spills around her like a halo of spun copper. 'Beautiful' seems too small a word, and I'm not normally into white girls. Or any girls. Or dead people.
She rolls her head back and glances up at me as if perplexed that I'm still here. Where else could I possibly be? Then, she starts speaking Prosper's words, in Prosper's voice.
"I'm a big man, Marion. Big as shit. I don't gotta worry much about people making me feel small. Even when they do -- your gran, for instance, or that racist dickhole drill instructor we had at academy -- I always had this thought in my back pocket. 'Ya know, I could probably knock that fucker out with one punch.' Yes, even your gran. Sorry. It always made me feel better.
"But you, Marion, you made me feel about two inches tall. And you're the one who was supposed to love me! How could I expect anyone else to react?! I remember thinking to myself, 'Holy shit, I just threw my whole life away. Wadded it up into a little ball and tossed it right in the trash. That woman's gonna walk outta here and ruin me.'"
Stupid, cathartic ghosts
Something sours in that deep well of lust, now, and I'm burning a hole through the back of Rosalie's head. I made HIM feel small? How the fuck did he think I'd feel?! He DID throw his life away, his life with me! OUR life together, gone in the span of one conversation--
"You, of all people," he rants on, "were supposed to understand. You were supposed to accept the truth because it was the truth! Instead, you tore out my heart and ate it."
I grab the liquor bottle off the sink and smash it! Rosalie screams, tries to climb outta the tub, but I hold her down with one hand while the other plunges broken glass into her flesh over and over and over and--
A gunshot rings in my ears. I feel heat on my face and taste salt on my lips. Salt with a hint of cayenne pepper. The fog evaporates and Prosper's standing in the bathroom door, pumping the lever of Marinette's rifle. A spent casing leaps from the mare's leg and a fresh round slides into the chamber. He waits with his finger near the trigger.
I'm standing in a pile of broken glass, but there's no liquor bottle in my hand, just my shotgun. The butt is damaged. I look around and notice the mirror and much of the tile around the tub has been shattered.
And then I realize what I'd thought I been doing. "Oh shit."
"Yeah." Prosper lowers the rifle, turns on his heel, and leaves the murder room without another word.
"Where are you going?" I shout as I chase him down the stairs.
"I'm done with motherfucking ghosts!" he says, as if that weren't obvious. "I know I wanted in on all this bullshit, but seriously. You were murder-possessed! I'm going the hell home before I get stabbed and so should you."
He bursts into the downstairs hallway and we head for the lobby. "I can't, Prosper. I made a promise."
"To who?! La Fleur? She'll understand."
"I take my promises seriously, Prosper."
"Fine. Do what you want. You do everything else without my help, so I guess you get to keep your streak alive."
"Maybe I want your help!"
"Too late, Marion. Way, way too late."
We continue to bicker well past the point where the lobby should have been. Prosper continues down the hall, unwilling to slow down. "Do you even know what you did, back there?"
"I was possessed," I mumble.
"You were murdering Rosalie! Like, with feeling. Did it feel real to you? I mean, did you feel what he felt?"
"It felt like shit, is how it felt, Prosper! It felt like being a violent, small-minded, cold-blooded asshole who deserved worse than he got!"
That woman's gonna ruin me
"Did you hear what I was saying, right before?"
"That was the worst part," I admit, though I should probably keep this part to myself. "She was speaking your words."
"And you killed her."
"Jesus, Prosper! I was possessed!"
We get to the next corner and, again, no lobby. Prosper does a double take, then pushes past me back and retraces his steps. I straighten my hat and follow.
"Do you really think I tore out your heart or was that the ghost?"
"You were possessed, not me."
"So you do feel that way."
"Of course I do! You rejected me!"
"You rejected my whole gender!"
We march in angry silence until we're back at the previous corner. Prosper stands where he can look down both hallways at the same time. He shakes his head like he's trying to wake up. I already know what he's going to say.
"Something doesn't want us to leave." I preempt him. "I don't think it's the ghosts--"
"Your secret friends?"
Wadaya know?! He is a detective. "They probably rigged something up in the basement, under the lobby where we'd have to walk over it. Either that, or it's on the roof, but we've been up there."
"Yeah, but we only saw the one side."
"Sure, but the basement seems more likely."
"The basement of the haunted hotel that makes us reenact jilted lover murders," he scoffs. "I'll check the roof."
"The roof's haunted, too."
"I'm not going into the basement. Mama Gandolfi didn't raise no fools."
"You're being an idiot."
"Fine! You check the basement and I'll check the roof. Split up. Cover more ground. Whatever." He heads for the stairs.
"Goddamn it," I mutter as I follow him to our likely deaths.
"You were never happy with our love life, anyway!" Prosper shouts to the heavens as we emerge onto the roof.
It's well after dark and I can imagine the neighbors waking up to the details of our bedroom dysfunction. "The sex wasn't important to me!" I remind him.
"Exactly my point, Marion! Exactly!" He jabs one finger in the air like a man scoring a point against god. "If the sex wasn't important, then why did you leave me?!"
A hot wind blows from the northeast, rolling over Marigny before passing us in the night. I can see the river in the distance, the same river that watched Dick and Abigail Green swan dive to their deaths. That's when I notice Prosper's on the wrong side of the roof. Instead of checking for hoodoo above the lobby, he heads straight for the suicide ledge and hops up.
"Get off the damned ledge, Gandolfi!"
"It's fine," he assures me with a backward glance and thumb up. "We can climb down the fire escape. Come here."
"Can't you just look over the side, like an adult?" I plead, but my legs are already moving. He takes my hand as I step up, but I don't see any fire escape below us, just three stories of dead air and a bloodstained alley.
Scoring a point against god
I try to protest, but Prosper's staring at me with such love in his eyes! Such depthless, unrestrained love. It moves me to tears and then we're both crying. He leans over and kisses me, tenderly, before squeezing my hand. Our eyes remain locked even as we slip over the edge.
Our fall ends not with a splash, but with the clatter of steel as something hard slams into my legs and slaps me upside the head. We've tumbled onto the third floor fire escape, just a few feet below the suicide ledge.
We lock eyes again, this time in horror, but it breaks immediately in gut-wrenching peals of hysterical laughter. We laugh until new tears wash away our old ones, until our bruised lungs run out of air and we cough ourselves into exhaustion.
"Holy shit, Marion," Prosper wheezes as soon as his vocal cords are under voluntary control. "I hope you know, I totally want you to go on living if I die."
"Me, too," I croak. "And also you, if I die."
"And I want you to find love again."
"In fact, I want that even before I die."
"Oh, right," I pause, letting the epiphany percolate. "I want that, too."
We grin at each other like lunatics while we rub the injuries from our limbs. "Alright," Proser proclaims once he's recovered. "Let's climb down."
"I'm not sure that's gonna work."
"Of course it'll work! Look, the ground's right down there."
Three stories of dead air
"Yeah, and if we could get to it, we'd be dead right now."
He rolls his eyes and his aching head at the same time. "Oh my god, now what? I'd just end up climbing down the same ladder over and over until the end of time?"
"Maybe. Or maybe you'd just sit on the last step for an hour and think you'd been climbing down the whole time. Hoodoo is funny like that."
"The basement, then?"
He gets up and shakes it off, does a little shadow boxing. "Alright, alright. Haunted murder ghost basement, it is! Let's do it! Oh, wait..." He finds Marinette's rifle teetering on the edge of the platform behind him. "Now I'm ready for the basement."
We hit the stairs and take 'em two at a time. Over our thunderous descent, I ask him, "You're really not angry with me? How can you possibly not be angry?"
"Yeah, I'm a saint. Or maybe I'm just a guy who loves you and that ain't ever gonna change." I'm speechless for a flight, then he asks, "I know you didn't mean it. Any of it. How long are you gonna be mad at yourself?"
"Probably forever," I reply without thinking.
He reaches the bottom first and holds the door open. "Think you can get over it long enough for us to have dinner some time? Maybe tomorrow, if we live and aren't still trapped in this hotel and taking bets on who resorts to cannibalism first?"
"Sure," I tell him and mean it. "I owe you a meal, anyway."
The Arsenal Hotel's basement isn't so much creepy as crawly. Wolf spiders, silverfish, roaches, moths -- I'm pretty sure I saw a centipede slithering away -- they all haunt the piles of busted furniture, spare parts, cleaning supplies, holiday decorations, and probably a few secret corpses that have gathered here.
Mechanical sounds reverberate through the space at regular intervals, accompanying the thu-thump of Prosper's heart. A pilot light clicks on somewhere to our left and the big man lets out a high pitched yelp like a purse poodle. This time, I do laugh and he punches me in the arm.
It doesn't take us long to find the space under the lobby and, sure enough, there's a great big piece of conjure right in the middle of the floor. Mostly, it's a large rock. Some votive candles are burning down around it, amidst a pile of assorted curios, and the edges of a veve are dimly visible on the floor.
"Now we're in business," I confirm for Prosper's benefit.
"We are?" Clearly, he's not easily impressed. "What business is that, exactly? 'Cuz that's just a rock."
"The pros always make it look easy. Just help me roll it over."
We clear the candles out of the way and, with a little elbow grease and a lot of swearing, tip the stone over. It rolls across the floor in a lazy circle, eventually banging up against a pile of old paint cans.
Art supplies and heavy things
Our own faces stare up at us from the floor. Someone's glued print-outs of our ID photos to the cement. "Is this supposed to be magic?" Prosper scoffs. "I expected more than art supplies and heavy things."
"Don't know what to tell ya, Prosper. It gets the job done," I quip before blasting our mugs with Uncrossing Shot.
Prosper shoots the rock and the paint cans, for good measure.
"That should do it. Let's go back upstairs and try to find the lobby again."
Wadaya know?! It's right where we left it. Prosper makes a beeline for the door, but I veer off into the ballroom to snatch up as many of our leftovers as can fit in my arms, my teeth, and maybe my hat.
Outside, after I've finished loading my car with goodies and stowed both my guns in the truck, we awkwardly negotiate a handshake that turns into a one-arm hug. Eventually, it we settle into one of those real, warm blanket kinda hugs where you squeeze just a tiny bit harder right before letting go.
Prosper warns me not to spoil my appetite with all those leftovers and I promise him I'll bring my A game to dinner. For the first time in months, I feel like I have a future. As he's walking to his car, I make a mental note to thank Bridgit the next time I see her.
Right after I curse the living shit outta her.