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jes' turn around and go back home. You gots other fish to fry."
"Not until I talk to Lup."
"I'll take her my cell phone and see that you have your talk."
"In person," I insisted.
"Well now how that gonna happen wi' your body back on theNew Moon and you all
dressed up 'Dude look like a lady' style? I think explanations are gonna take
more time than you got."
I ground Volpea's teeth. She had a valid point. But I couldn't go home
without seeing Lup and looking in on the others. "I'll figure something out."
There was a longer pause at the other end of the line. "I have an idea," Mama
Samm finally said, the regional patois suddenly absent from her voice again.
"Meet me at the Place d'Arms Hotel."
* * *
The Place d'Arms is the only hotel located on Jackson Square the St. Louis
Cathedral, Caf du Monde, and French Quarter are only steps away.
Nevertheless, I repeated the address over and over as I drove, hoping that the
litany would distract me until I made landfall, again.
I had reached the midpoint of the Pontchartrain Causeway, connecting
Mandeville and Metairie. At that location on the twenty-four-mile span,
neither shore of the second largest salt water lake in the U.S. was
visible just mile upon mile of open water in all directions. Beautiful and
more than a little creepy: it was as if I were suspended over an endless ocean
on a fragile ribbon of concrete and steel, dissolving into nothingness at both
I've felt that unease, that dreadful vulnerability of insignificance when out
on the ocean in a boat of any size. Canned like Spam in a car, trundling over
a narrow conduit like a tightrope act where you cannot see the ends of an
uncertain cord awakens something more in me, each time I make the trip.
Something more and more like dread.
This time it was worse.
It was every childhood fear I'd ever had of the water and more. It felt as if
there were unseen things squirming beneath the inky waters along with
something that ate sea monsters and submarines for breakfast.
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And the creeping impression that the axis of the world was subtly shifting,
preparing to tilt reality over on its side and me into the nightmare beneath
the surface of a barely sane world.
By the time I reached the southern shore of the lake and headed into
Metairie, I was drenched in sweat and practically singing the address over and
over. Not at the top of our lungs, of course.
But loud enough to keep the windows rolled up.
Making landfall didn't ease my unease all that much. "Dry land" is a
subjective term south of the estuary. Reading that New Orleans is largely
built inside a bowl of levees and situated below sea level was an abstract
concept until a little trip down for a convention a few years back. I was
walking along a levee abutting the Mississippi River and looked up to see a
freighter sailing majestically past.
Some thirty feet above my head!
Don't get me wrong, I like waterfront locations. Especially the kind where I
can look down and out over the vista of a lake or river or ocean.
Not so fond of the water being high enough to look down and out over me.
So, Marie Laveau could relax. I had no desire to pick up real estate on her
home turf. New Orleans is a nice enough place to visit, but an extended stay
in an inside-out fishbowl doesn't appeal to my long-term peace of mind. The
Big Easy makes me uneasy.
I have a similar antipathy toward Southern California don't blame me, that's
San Andreas' fault . . .
As I angled into the glare of the sunrise, I pulled down the car visor to
shield my eyes. There was a vanity mirror clipped to the visor.
And in the darkness behind me a pair of ancient, yellowed eyes swam into
I shrieked a little.
My reflexes or Volpea's?
"Damn, Jefe!" exclaimed a familiar voice. "Dat you in dere? You one fine
lookin' woman!"
I tilted the mirror to be sure. Yep. Black top hat. White ceremonial paint
forming a skull-like pattern over a midnight-dark face.
The Baron. Loa of the Dead.
Probably still pissed that some of his homeboys preferred my company to his.
"Samedi. What a delightful surprise." My tone suggested just the opposite.
All of my dealings with the Voudon Avatar of the Grave had been strained to
this point. Aside from our vast theological differences, I had inadvertently
"taken over his territory" while he and the other loa were bound and
imprisoned by Elizabeth Bthory. And even though I was still sending him
referrals on every animated corpse that shambled across my path, it would be
just like him to rat me out to Laveau.
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He chuckled. "Oh man can I say 'oh man'? You is so busted! Tryin' to sneak
yo' lily white ass into the Queen's territory!"
I shook my head. "Oh, this is so bad," I moaned.
"Yes, it is," he agreed.
"So bad . . . that the great Baron Samedi has been reduced to running errands
for Marie Laveau," I continued.
He stopped chuckling. "What?"
"I mean, it's just sad and embarrassing."
"What you talkin' 'bout?"
"And she's even got you up pulling guard duty past cock's crow." I shook my
head. "The least she could do is give you a badge or some kind of uniform.
Like a rent-a-cop or something . . ."
He was suddenly up front and sitting next to me on the passenger side. "The
Baron works for no one!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "I am here to warn
"Warn me of what? That you're about to run and tattle on me to your boss
He reached out and clutched Volpea's arm. The coldness of the tomb slid
through muscle and sinew like winter ice down a canted roof. "Shut up and
listen!" he hissed. "It's on account o' dat crazy-ass bitch I been searchin'
the length of this state for yo aura since moonrise! Dere be things I gots to
tell you!"
"Do tell?" I said mildly. "Well, I would pull over and give you my full
attention but I'm kind of on a compressed timetable, Mister Graves."
"What you should be doing, Protestant Boy, is turning this hunk-a-junk around
and skedaddling north as fast as you can. But since I know that you won't, I'm
here to warn you. I only have a few minutes before de spell is used up an' I
go back to de groun'."
"How sad," I said, still failing to articulate any tone of sincerity. "Feel
free to fast forward past the social pleasantries and cut to the chase. What's
up, Papa Doc?"
The thing that looked like an emaciated black man, daubed with white paint
and wearing a top hat and raggedy old tuxedo, stared out the window at the
rising sun a view that had to be even rarer for him than it had become for me.
"First thing. Marie Laveau be crazy. She smart enough not to show too much of
what really goin' on inside her head but she be well on de way to bat-shit
I could've said "It takes one to know one" or "Isn't that a case of the pot
calling the kettle black" but, if he was really on a limited timetable it was
best to get on with it. "You're wasting your mojo, Topper: tell me something I
don't know."
The Baron shook his head back at me and I could hear the dry rasp of bone on
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bone beneath his parchment husk. "Jus' 'cause she crazy don't mean she not
dangerous! She know most of what she doin' so dat's what make her crazy fo'
"That and the voices," I offered.
"Dat's jus' it," he said, his yellowed, sunken eyes taking on a haunted look.
"De voices is real! She not hearing voices 'cause she crazy she crazy 'cause
she hearing voices!"
With a start I realized that the cocky Loa of the Dead was afraid. He had
seemed remarkably self-possessed last year when set free from Lilith's
imprisonment. But now fear was oozing from him like a sponge leaking vinegar.
"Whose voices?" I asked, noting an edge of unease had suddenly crept into my
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