So there I was, running for my gun through someone else's kitchen, knee deep in muddy Mississippi. Hungry things snapped at my heels, a half-dozen of them. Maybe snakes or tentacles, but I coulda swore I saw rings of protruding teeth gnashing at each end. Their breath reeked of the river's rot.
I'd left my service weapon on the kitchen counter in a fit of poorly-timed human decency. Each step closer to it brought the beast another inch closer to me, but I kept running. I didn't want to become one more bloated corpse adrift in the flood.
My feet left the floor and I dove over the counter. My fingers gripped gunmetal. I twisted around, trying to get a good shot, but no joy. Not yet.
I rolled through the water, then back to my feet.
I faced the beast...
I wake up in a cold sweat, then flog myself for it. That lake monster was far from the worst thing I'd seen since Katrina, not even the worst lake monster.
I pull back my dreads, swing my legs over the bed, and lurch to the window. I throw open the shutters and let the city pour in. The white noise of a thousand conversations floats up from the square several stories below. Someone's playing trumpet on the northwest corner, competing with a capoeira rhythm from somewhere near the river. It rinses my brain clean.
People of every description flow through the streets, only two parts tourists at this time of year. The French Quarter plays host to the entire world, it seems, countless faces and accents merging like tributaries.
Time was, I hated this city and everyone in it. Got that from my grandma. She was quite the wicked witch.
I brush my teeth in front of the mirror. Hmm... I thought they'd be more healed by now. Angry scars criss-cross my lips, red and raw, a constant reminder of what I've sacrificed. My cheekbones are casting deep shadows, these days, and crow's feet crowd the edges of my eyes.
I'm too young for this shit.
When I come back out, still wrapping a towel around my chest, I'm embarrassed to find I'm not alone. Lounging across my unmade sheets is an infuriating Irish chick in a frilly, black dress. Her red hair spills over my pillows like a wine stain.
"Don't you people knock?" I ask her.
"What? The Irish?" she feigns. "We're renowned for our knocking abilities, but I like to cultivate an air of mystery. Drives the ladies wild," she winks.
"Either you climbed in through the window or you've been hiding under my bed all night. Either way, that's commitment to a bit." I start plucking clothes out of the dresser. "You got some business for me?"
"Well, I don't like to think of it as business," she demurs, "but one of my faithful does need your help. A girl named Ida Wallace. She's got a ghost problem."
"What am I supposed to do about ghosts? I ain't an exorcist or a medium. Why don't you call La Fleur? She'd turn that place into a sideshow attraction in no time. At least your girl could make a buck."
"I'm not a carnival barker, Marion. I'm a goddess. It's my job to make sure the dead are ushered into the afterlife."
"Sure you are." I don't let her see me rolling my eyes, but I'm sure she can hear it.
"Maybe I am and maybe I'm not, but there's a rent check in it for you either way, so what's the difference?" I gesture for her to turn around while I change. She pouts, but complies.
"Besides, it's not like you lack qualifications." She gestures to the shotgun reloader and box of supplies on the table near the window. "We all think this magic shotgun of yours is ingenious. Have I told you that? It's the kinda thing you can't believe someone hasn't thought of before. It was an original idea, wasn't it? Or did it come from your Forbidden friend?"
"Nope, all my idea," I bluff. "Just makes sense. I'm the MacGyver of magic." I shrug my red, leather jacket on over a black t-shirt and a pair of faded jeans. "I'll look into it, but I already got a thing this afternoon, so it better be quick. You got an address for this ghost?"
"Surely I do. It's in Westwego." She grabs my wrist and scrawls an address on my palm. "You do have one unique qualification for this little milk run," she adds.
"What's that?" I ask as I fetch my hat and unlock the door.
"The ghost asked for you by name."
The address in Westwego is a long, low duplex with an unkempt lawn and sun-bleached Saints flags in the windows. I roll up in a vintage, yellow Mustang that squeaks like an old couch when I hop out. The classics never die.
I march up to the door and give it the ol' shave-and-a-haircut. "Two bits don't buy what they used to," someone growls from inside. "Who is it?"
"My name's Marion Barbarouss. I'm looking for Ida Wallace."
A grizzly comes to the door amidst much clanking and clattering. It must be a junkyard in there. He's a big man, gray at the temples. He smiles at me with a jumbled pile of teeth. "Are you one of Ida's high school friends?"
That's equal parts flattering and creepy. I decide to split the difference. "We have a mutual friend, actually. Is Ida home?"
"Should be any minute. You're welcome to wait." He pushes the screen door open and ushers me under his arm. I lift the limb out of my way like the gate on a long bar and go inside.
It's less like a junkyard than I expected. The first third is a kitchen and dining room, but the table's been shoved aside to clear space for several boxes of Mardis Gras decorations and an old woman's wheelchair. The latter has wings like an Emmy statue and half a rave's worth of LEDs glued to it.
I know it's an old woman's wheelchair, because the old woman is still in it. Her head sags to one side, seemingly unaware of the string lights looped around her. She looks like a Christmas tree. A sad, sad Christmas tree.
"I'm gettin' mom ready for the parade," he explains. "We do Halloween up right, 'round here. I'm Ready Wallace, Ida's uncle." He holds out his hand and I give it a single, business-like shake. "This is Bev."
I acknowledge mom with a nod, but I doubt it matters. She seems pretty out of it. Stroke, maybe? I let my gaze roam around the room, looking for signs. People tend to hang a lot of crosses when they've got a ghost, but all I find are sports memorabilia and pictures of saints.
"So, this is gonna sound like an odd question, Teddy, but has anyone died on your property?"
"Not recently," he replies. "And it's Ready, not Teddy. Short for Rederick. They call me Ready cuz I always am... for anything." I give him a weak smile by way of apology. "Ready for anything?" I don't think he wants me to laugh, which is good, cuz I'm not gonna. After a few seconds, he gives it up and asks, "How did you say you know Ida, again?"
"Our mutual friend tells me you have a ghost--"
"Oh," he cuts me off. "You're one of Ida's woo woo voodoo friends." He makes sure I see his eyes roll. "I don't like you people fillin' her head with nonsense. She's goin' to college next year. They'll fill her head with plenty of nonsense as is."
"So, you haven't experienced any apparitions or hallucinations, then? No stacked furniture, missing objects, unexplained fires?"
"Even if I had, it don't mean the house is haunted. People see things, ya know? Especially teenage girls with too much stress and not enough sleep. Ain't nothing supernatural about it."
"The ghost asked for you by name."
Creepy flirtation aside, I get the feeling I'm about to be shown the door. "Look, Ready, I'm not here to question your beliefs, but can I ask you one thing?" I wait for him to nod his consent. "Are you Catholic?"
He crosses his arms. "Baptist."
"Then what's with all the saints?" I gesture around the room.
"Those are Bev's. Whole house is, actually. She used to be all about those votive candles and saint medals and all that crap. Never went to Church, tho, did ya mom?" He shakes his head. "Must be where Ida gets it. I just moved in a year or two ago, after her stroke."
"Belief is a tricky bitch, Ready. What if you believed there was an invisible cat in that chair over there?" There's a worn, leather easy chair opposite the TV. Judging by the Sports Illustrated tucked into the side pouch, I'm betting it's Ready's roost.
"Invisible cat," he parrots. "Got it."
"Yeah, an invisible cat. Intangible, too. Like Schrodinger's Cat finally died and this is its ghost. Point is, there's no way you can prove there's a cat in that chair, you just believe there is."
"You goin' somewhere with this?"
"Point is where you're not goin' and that's the chair. As long as you believe there's a cat in it, odds are you're not gonna feel much like sitting down, am I right? Just the thought of that ghost cat curled up in your pelvic region ought to give you the willies."
"Right. So, what difference does it make if there's a cat in that chair or not? Either way, you're acting as if there is. Ida obviously believes there's a ghost in this house and I expect it's stressing her right the fuck out. Anything we can do to put her mind at ease will make her happier and let her do better in school, am I right?"
The arms stay crossed, but they make themselves more comfortable. "Wadaya have in mind?"
"Well--" I start, then stop when I glance down at the floor. Muddy water sloshes around my ankles, littered with trash. "That's odd..."
I look back up just as a crimson plume sprouts from Ready's side. He falls backwards into the easy chair.
"What the shit?" This is probably a hallucination, but I can't just let the guy bleed out. I drop to my knees and apply pressure to his alleged wound. I look around for a cell phone or, more likely, one of those novelty football phones, but there's nothing in reach.
"Marion..." Someone addresses me in a voice like a toad gargling gravel. I look up to find an empty wheelchair, then further up to where grandma's looming over me, apparently ambulatory, except it's not Bev anymore. Not her face, anyway. It's another old woman, one I haven't seen in years.
"You left me, Marion. Left me there to die." She weaves like a marionette. "YOU ABANDONED ME, MARION!"
I swing my magic shotgun up from inside my jacket and take aim at the apparition, but someone screams before I pull the trigger. Suddenly, Bev's back in her seat and there's a teenaged girl in the doorway, diving for cover. I blink my eyes, hard.
"What the HELL?!" Ready roars to life, no longer bleeding in the least. He grabs my arm and yanks us both to our feet. I think about punching him in the face, I've had worse ideas, but decide against it. Instead, I lower my sawed-off and let Ready throw me out.
"And if I ever see you around here again, I ain't gonna call the cops!" The big man finishes cussing me out. Sorry, almost finishes. "Cuz I'm gonna kill ya!"
Ghost confirmed, I hop back in my squeaky American classic and tear the hell outta Westwego.
It was 2005 when I came back from college and joined the police force. Timing, I know. Having acquired a broader appreciation for the role of institutional racism and social stratification in all the shit I once hated, I decided be part of the solution.
Anyway, Katrina hit and I was one of the dipshits who stuck around. It was early on Wednesday, after the storm. I was in a fishing boat with an apparently middle-aged volunteer named Henre. We were going house-to-house in Chalmette, looking for people who hadn't evacuated. I'd never seen so much death and devastation. Hope never to see it again.
We came upon this two-story cottage built up on four or five feet of concrete, so only the first floor was flooded. We thought we saw movement upstairs, but got no response after announcing ourselves. I gestured for Henre to stay with the boat and splashed down onto the front steps.
The door had withstood the hurricane's fury, but not so the kitchen window. I pried away the last, loose piece of plywood and climbed inside. The place was a mess, of course. A large tree branch intruded through the back door, chairs were smashed and drifting around the room, cabinet doors sloshed open and closed like an arrhythmic heartbeat.
A bullet greeted me. Came right through the ceiling and put a hole in the water hear my feet. "Get the hell out!" a man bellowed upstairs.
"It's okay," I yelled back. "I'm a cop!"
"Don't mean you ain't a looter!" At least, I thought that's what he said. It was hard to hear through the bullet hole, but it was a common sentiment. Stories about cops looting houses had been spreading like malaria. Some of them were probably true.
"Yeah, well, I'm just here to talk. Mind if I come upstairs?"
Another shot punched through the ceiling and plugged the fridge behind me. "Hey, hey! Ricochet!" I danced over to the hallway entrance, where I might get some cover. "Look, I'll even leave my gun down here, okay? I just wanna talk!"
He said something muffled, but it wasn't punctuated by a bullet, so I decided to call it affirmative. I laid my gun on the kitchen counter and started climbing the stairs.
"I'm the MacGyver of magic."
The second floor, as it turned out, was just a glorified attic: one room with steeply slanted walls and little furniture. There were actually two people in it. The most pertinent was the man with the rifle. He was tall and thin, maybe 6' 2'' and 160 pounds, in his mid-fifties. Judging by the chest-high line of filth bisecting his Hornets t-shirt, he'd already been foraging today. Probably thought the storm would blow over and didn't bother stocking up on supplies.
The other was an old lady with an oxygen tank, lying on a cot along the far wall. She must've been in her seventies. The man stood between us, rifle at the ready. "What you wanna talk about?"
"You, mostly." I gave him what I hoped was a friendly smile. "It's not safe, here, not even if you've got dry land. Water's not clean, could be days before they get it under control. Obviously, your... mother?" he nodded, "needs medical attention. I've got a boat right outside. We can take you--"
"Where?" he interjected, eyes widening. "Some refugee camp? Where you gonna take us that's better than here?"
"Where can I take you that's worse?" Not the best answer. He took a half step forward and gestured 'out' with his rifle, but I stood my ground. "All I mean is you can't wait it out here, not as long as you think. Not long enough for her, anyway. There are medical facilities in town. Volunteer doctors. My boat's right outside. Let's carpe that diem!"
Maybe he would've gone for that, maybe not. I'll never know, because that's when the lake monster crashed the party. Literally. The whole place shooked like someone drove their truck through the wall.
Skinny wheeled around and pointed his rifle at the floor, but I rushed over and stopped him. I put a finger to my lips and whispered, "Let me check it out." Then I remembered where I left my gun. "Mind if I borrow your rifle?"
"From my cold, dead hands, lady." A stern look from me did nothing to change his mind.
I crept back down the stairs, expecting a wayward sailboat or another fallen tree, but instead there was... nothing. The branch that once poked through the back door had been ripped free, taking most of the door frame with it. Waves still bounced around the walls from the force of its departure.
I took one step into the water, one goddamned step, and all hell broke loose! This unholy screeching burst up from below; black, inky tentacles erupted through what used to be the back door. They pushed a brackish tidal wave ahead of them, filling the rear of the house. I couldn't tell the flood from the flesh.
I bolted for my gun.
Ophelia La Fleur (not her real name) is telling fortunes on Royal Street when I spot her blonde updo and hoop earrings. I lurk in the crowd while she finishes up with a gay couple who can't seem to stop giggling. Not sure if that means La Fleur's doing well or poorly, but they leave her a decent tip.
I slip into one of the chairs across from her. "I bet I can tell your fortune, this time" I announce. "You're gonna ditch this gig and do a little stake-out for me."
She gives me her megawatt smile and touches my hands in a practiced gesture of intimacy. "What's it pay?" she deadpans.
"Oh, so we're all business, now?" I counter, mocking offense. "I thought we were all about the adventure!" She doesn't move a muscle. "Don't you wanna see a real ghost?"
She can't quite hide her interest. "How real? And how close?"
"Not like last time," I assure her, "but plenty real. I just came from a full-on apparition. Accidentally manhandled a guy and almost fired a shot at his niece, my client." She tsks and shakes her goldilocks at me. "Yeah, so I need a fresh face to keep its eyes on the place for a few hours."
"What's it pay?"
"So mercenary!" I pull my hands free and lean back in the chair. "Three hundred a day. Double, if things go south. How's that sound?"
"Good," she beams, then back to deadpan. "Half up front."
"You got it, hustler." I flop a few bills down on the table and she makes them disappear. "You'd better take this, too." I unlatch my sawed-off and hand it to her under the able. "It's loaded with salt and cayenne pepper, mostly, but try not to point it at the living, anyway. And don't touch the shells, or they'll lose their potency."
"I know the drill, mom." She packs up her tarot cards and folds her table in a few, deft movements, then gestures for me to give up my seat. "What's the address?"
I scribble it on her palm. "Don't cause a scene unless somebody screams."
"I never do," she lies.
A few hours later, I'm perched on the bow of Henre's yacht as it skips over Lake Ponchartrain. It's gonna be a beautiful sunset. Clouds are painted across the sky in thick, textured strokes. I hope we take our time getting back.
The yacht itself is a piece of work: three luxurious decks of gleaming, white plastic and hardwood. Boat like this, I should be mingling at some rapper's drug party, not spending my time with a closeted cajun and his all-white entourage. I swear, it's like bottomless shrimp night at Red Lobster.
"Marion! So glad you could make it!" He greets me with forced intimacy. Finally free of his vaguely religious duties, at least for the moment, he separates himself from the sea of white faces and joins me at the bow.
"Glad to be here, Henre. I wish the feeling was mutual," I say in lower tones, casting my eyes at the congregation.
"I hope you won't hold it against my people if they're a bit skittish," he tries to excuse them. "We don't normally allow outsiders to witness the sacrament. And you look so... fearsome now, since the... unpleasantness."
"I look like hell, Henre," I laugh. "It's okay. You can say it."
"You're making it work for you," he laughs with me. It takes some of the tension out of the air. "The hat is a nice touch."
He's referring to my new hotness: a wide-brimmed fedora with lace trim, deep purple on deeper red. I will admit, it's sexy. "So, what happens now?" I ask, getting down to business.
"Well," Henre strokes his chin and gazes out over the water. He's clean-shaven today, must be for the occasion. His pastel blue, button-down shirt is wrapped in a cream sweater vest. A white tie peeks out, looking transparently parochial.
"First, we sail out to the wreck of the Pabodie. I had hazard buoys placed around the site years ago, so we won't be disturbed. Then, we'll say a prayer for poor Kyle and lower him into the water."
I gesture to a bald, young man in a white nightgown. "Is that Kyle, over there?" He practically gleams in the afternoon sun.
"Yes," Henre confirms with a sad shake of his head. "Cancer, obviously. He's only the second baptism I've allowed this year, and then only because his tumor metastasized."
"Was the other one also a white male?"
"Actually, no!" Henre is far too excited to tell me that, like he's been holding it in. "Our most recent initiate is black!"
"Hmm, and was he the first?" Henre doesn't want to confirm it, but he can't deny it. "How historic. And it's only the twenty-first century."
"Listen, Marion. Like I said, we've never given an outsider this level of access. I was hoping it'd be a positive experience for all involved."
"Yeah, yeah," I wave him off. "I'm the mouse and you're the lion, I know. Won't be that way forever, Henre. Just remember that." I pat him on the back, to remind him we're friends. "I do appreciate the invitation, but you know me. Truth to power."
"You flatter me," he feigns. "Whatever power I have comes to me only by the favor of others."
"Most power does."
"It's not all flowers and feety pajamas, Marion. I didn't ask for this responsibility, but I bear it, for all our sakes. What would you do, if you found the Holy Grail in your cupboard one morning? I doubt you'd mail it to the Pope. Maybe you'd bottle its waters for the world to enjoy?"
"Sounds like a great idea," I agree, "but it's not that easy, is it? This ain't the cup of Christ."
"Belief is a tricky bitch."
"No, it's not," he confirms. "Not remotely. When we lower Kyle into the water, you might be... disturbed by the process. Please, Marion do not interfere!" He fixes me with his grandpa look, like he's staring over a pair of bifocals. "I've been at this a long time and my safety record is excellent. Just stand back and observe."
"You got it, boss man. I comprende the rules."
"I have no doubt," Henre affirms with a smile, tucking away his imaginary spectacles. "Now, if you'll excuse me, we're almost there." He returns to his flock of well-dressed sheep. They smell like fabric softener and money. I stay on the bow and listen to the waves.
A few minutes later, we're anchored somewhere on the west side of the lake. Henre's blinking hazard buoys bob a hundred or so yards away, our only companions.
Everyone gathers at the stern. Henre whispers some final words to Kyle before laying him down on a gurney. Someone brings out a breathing tube and they strap it to his face. Then, they hoist him up on a crane, swing him out over the water, and let him sink.
The water must be damn cold in just that flimsy gown. I wonder what they do about the hypothermia. Guess I'll find out. The cable and breathing tube continue to snake out of sight for a minute or two, it seems like hours, before Henre orders a stop.
We hold our collective breath.
Suddenly, the cable spasms up and down, then more violently side to side. The breathing tube joins in its frantic dance. The congregation looks pensive, but not panicked, so I wait. At one point, I swear I can hear Kyle screaming through the tube.
Henre makes a grand gesture and they start retracting the cable. Its clanking counts off the seconds. Crimson begins to stain the water and someone gasps down below. Maybe Henre's record isn't a excellent as he made out.
Finally, Kyle breaches the surface. Bloody water sloughs off him and drips from the gurney. His gown is slashed in a dozen places, ragged tears that reveal equally ragged lacerations. He wrestles the mask off and sucks in a deep, desperate breath before breaking down in monstrous sobs.
"Praise La Sirene!" Henre yells, keeping the crowd at bay with sheer force of personality. "Kyle is saved! We give our thanks to La Sirene for this miracle!" They bow their heads in silence assent. Henre turns and pulls Kyle carefully from his cradle. "You are now Her child. Rejoice."
Leaning heavily on Henre, Kyle steps down onto the deck and is instantly engulfed by his new, adopted family. They take him below decks, presumably to dress his wounds. And pray over him, I suppose. Whatever floats their boat.
When I get home, Bridgit is waiting for me. "If you're gonna spend the whole day here, you could clean up a little." I tell her as I toss my hat on its hook and proceed to my answering machine. Yes, I have an answering machine. Shut up.
"You have one new message," it beeps. Then La Fleur's voice: "Hi, Marion. Just checking in. Nothing's happened here yet, but I'll keep my peepers peeled. You didn't tell me the niece was a teenager. Ever think maybe this is a poltergeist? They tend to latch onto troubled teens. Talk to you in the morning."
"That's so quaint," Bridgit laughs, still spread out like she owns the place. (Actually, she might. It occurs to me that I've never met my landlord.) "I can't believe you have an answering machine. You, a grown woman, in this day and age!"
I rub my temples and fetch a bottle of beer from the fridge. I'd offer one to Bridgit, but I'm not religious.
"Man, people and their cell phones," I bitch. "Imagine the cops came up to you and said, 'Hey, Bridgit. We'd like you to carry this weaselly little man around in your pocket all day. He'll write down every place you go and every person you speak with, just in case we ever wanna link you to a crime, fairly or otherwise. Oh, and we wanna charge you a hundred bucks a month for the privilege.' What would you say to that?"
"Depends. Does the little snitch give me turn-by-turn directions?"
"You'd tell 'em to take their damned probable cause machine and shove it up their ass," I finish for her. "No, I'll be happy with my dumb answering machine, thank you. When I delete my messages," I tell her, brandishing a hammer, "at least I know they're deleted."
"You are the expert," she concedes. "Sounds like there hasn't been much movement on the case, though, if you roped in that poser for a stakeout."
"I told you, I had a thing this afternoon."
"Oh yes, your friends in the fish cult. How are they?"
"Right as rain. What's your interest?"
"Oh, I like to keep tabs on every upstart religion that wanders through my town. Do you know that they've co-opted the name of La Sirene? I happen to know La Sirene personally and, let me tell you, she is livid!"
"Yeah, marketing's a harsh mistress." I sit down by the window with my reloader. "Can we focus on the ghost case, right now?"
"Sure, sure. I'm not here to stir up trouble." She snickers to herself, like that was a private joke. "Wadaya got?"
First, I fish out my lighter and a copy of Psalm 23. That's the one about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I crumple it up, nice and loose, lay it in my mixing bowl, and light it on fire. Then, I mix in a handful of kosher salt and a handful of cayenne pepper.
"I think I recognized the ghost," I confess, "but it's in the wrong part of town. By rights, it should be haunting me."
So there I was, trying to decide which of a dozen lake monster heads to shoot first. Decide is the wrong word; I was just shooting and screaming. The creature roared, thrashed, and started to withdraw.
I took more careful aim at what I thought might be center mass. The hammer clicked back. Time stretched out as my vision contracted to a single point... and then Henre yanked my arms up and off target. The shot went wide.
The creature slithered through the back door. I thought I glimpsed a bulbous cephalopod at its root; one enormous eye glaring back at me.
"What the holy fucking fuck, Henre?!" Everything that'd happened to me in the last thirty seconds came howling out at once. "Did you see that goddamned thing?! It's a monster!!"
"I did indeed, ma chere." He tried to take my gun, gently, but I shoved him back and holstered my weapon. He put his hands up. "But it ain't no monster. It's just an animal. You get those people evacuated, okay? I'll handle the wildlife."
He walked around the kitchen counter and made for the back door. "There's only one boat," I reminded him. "We gotta stick together."
"No, you can have it." He didn't even turn around, just walked out into the flood. Walked out like Moses into the desert.
Baffled, I returned to the attic, soaked through and covered in debris. "All clear!" I shouted up. "Don't shoot--"
"From my cold, dead hands, lady."
In the back corner, slumped on the floor, Skinny was bleeding from a gunshot to his midsection. I followed the line of fire through a hole in the floor to where I'd been standing when Henre ruined my shot.
"Shit," I cursed beneath my breath. "Shit shit shit shit shit." The old lady was awake, eyes wide and sucking hard on her oxygen. Her son's wound looked survivable... if he got medical attention tout suite. I was pretty sure I could get him into the boat by myself, but not so much the old lady.
"Your son, or whoever this is, he's gonna be fine," I reassured her in my best cop voice. "I need to get him to a doctor right away. Then I'll come back to get you, okay? Just hold on tight."
I took Skinny by the legs and started dragging him down the stairs. The old lady watched me all the way, tears welling from her big, quivering eyes.
That was the last time I saw her. Until today.
"When I got Skinny to an infirmary, I found out the Mayor had called off all rescue operations in favor of evacuating the superdome. I punched my captain in the jaw over it. If they coulda sent me home, they would've." I pound the table, angrier than I thought I'd be. "I figured she was dead, but... I guess I tried not to think about it. There were so many other horrible things to think about."
"Maybe you're coming at this all wrong," Bridgit muses at the end of my confession. "I mean, what makes you think ghosts are the souls of specific dead people?"
"I guess just everything ever," I reply as I squeeze another shot of Uncrossing Powder into another white shotgun shell. "Plus, they look pretty fuckin' much like specific dead people. I guess just that and everything else."
"And another thing everybody gets wrong," Bridgit ramps up her rant, "everybody thinks ghosts are about the past. Wrongs not righted, affairs not put in order, blah, blah, blah. In my considerable experience, ghosts have more to do with the future. They're omens. They appear when history is repeating itself, like echoes in the zeitgeist."
"Nice. Got any wisdom about the present," I inquire.
"My point is, a ghost may appear as a specific person, but it's more like a composite of everyone who died, or even just suffered, under similar circumstances. If you wanna get rid of a ghost, don't try to put its affairs in order... put the affairs of the living in order."
"That's just what I intend to do," I assure her. "I'm gonna get to the bottom of whatever's troubling our teen."
So here I am, staking out a high school parking lot, like the least mustachioed pedophile ever, when a cop taps her nightstick against my window. I sit up straight and roll it down.
"You dealing drugs to wayward teens, now?" She's a young woman, still in her twenties and fit as a fiddle. Ya know, a fiddle that works out a lot. Her uniform's spotless, freshly ironed, every piece of kit in place. I remember when I gave a shit, too.
"That's some interrogation technique, Sully. You learn that from Policy Academy or Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach?"
She laughs and puts the nightstick away. "God, was I even born when that came out? How old are you?"
"Old enough to fuck your father." I make her laugh, then grimace, then laugh again. "What are you doing here? Don't tell me you married that kinesthesiologist you were dating and now you're picking up his kids."
"I wish," she says, leaning conspiratorially through my window. "Naw, they just found a box cutter in some kid's locker. That's what schools are like, these days. Focus all our paranoia and idiocy into a white hot point, then make our kids sit under it for six hours a day. But you're not selling drugs, right?"
"Oh course not," I glare at her under my hat. "I'm working a case."
"Really?! Haunted lunch box?"
"Haunted teen," I retort. "I'm gonna follow her after school."
"Who the hell's paying you to do that?!"
"An Irish voodoo goddess."
"Man," she shakes her head, "you're livin' the dream."
I let our pause get good and pregnant before asking, "How's Prosper?"
She gives me the slant-eye, probably trying to decide if I want the truth or not. "Still nursing that broken heart you gave him."
"Hrmph. He rejected me."
"Not how he tells it." After another bit of awkward silence, she adds, "Otherwise, he's good. Leading the pack, in fact, despite being partnered with Brooks."
I make my Mr. Yuck face. "Did he lose a bet?"
"Well, they still average out to one pretty good cop." The bell rings. Time for both of us to get to work. "I'd better get in there," Sully resigns herself. "Do me a favor? Don't let anybody at the precinct know I was nice to you?"
"I'll tell 'em you spat in my hair and called me a bag of dicks."
"You're the best, Marion." She takes a step, then turns back to me. "Seriously, all the girls still talk about the indomitable Marion the Barbarian. Take care of yourself."
"Always do," I sigh.
A few minutes later, children are streaming outta that place like lice from a burning wig. I spy Ida walking out with another girl, a punk rocker in a pixie cut and an army surplus jacket. Unfortunately, they head out on foot. Looks like I'm leaving the mustang here for a while.
I feel extremely exposed as we cross a divided highway and a long block of commercial buildings, but the girls' attention is squarely on each other. Gravel grinds beneath my feet as we march along the shoulder; no fancy sidewalks here. In Louisiana, even the suburbs are rural.
They hole up under a footbridge next to a public park. I keep walking past the bridge, so as not to arouse suspicion, and set up shop between two parked cars down the street. I dig a rifle scope outta my coat and get a good look at their canoodling.
Gay teen, Baptist uncle... those blanks aren't hard to fill in.
Not exactly sure what I'm gonna do about it, though. Encourage her to come out? Teach her uncle a violent lesson about keeping his judgmental trap shut? Something that's not a terrible idea?
Guess I could start with a rapport-building, girl-to-girl talk. I mosey on over to their cozy love nook and cough pointedly. "Ida Wallace? My name's Marion. I--"
"You pointed a shotgun at me!"
Oh, shit. That. "Don't freak out, okay? That was a just a dumb... your uncle was... the ghost made me do it."
"You saw the ghost?" She pauses with one hand in her backpack, probably fishing for a can of mace. The punk rocker's got her fiercest lip curl locked on target and ready to fire.
"Yeah, I saw it," I confirm, glad for the foothold. "A mutual friend of ours asked me to look into it."
Ida whispers something to her girlfriend. The pixie looks down her nose at me, but gets up and gives us some privacy. I assume she's waiting in the park, close enough to come running if anybody screams. Ida pats the ground next to her and I take a seat.
"I remember when I gave a shit, too."
"Any idea why you're being haunted?" I ask. "Maybe some obvious source of intrapsychic turmoil?"
"Nope." She answers without hesitation. "Haven't crossed any old gypsy ladies or read from any mysterious books, either. Dead people just started appearing late at night, a month or two ago."
"Dead people, plural? Not just an old woman?"
"Lots of plural. They're usually old, pale, always wet. One night, I was coming home late and saw dozens of them looking out the windows. Seemed like rain was pouring over the glass in sheets... but on the inside. I had to pound on the wall to be let in, because all the furniture was piled against the doors and windows. Freaked me the fuck out."
"I can imagine." I unfurl an arm to give her a reassuring pat on the back, but she looks at it like a coiled snake. "How about your uncle? He didn't strike me as the understanding sort."
"Ready? Naw, he wouldn't admit it even if he did see something. And grandma don't say much about anything, these days. She'd have believed me, though. Grandma was into all kinds of voodoo."
"So was mine," I smile softly. She warms up a little, gives me a reciprocal grin. "Does Ready know you're, you know... gay?"
"I'm pansexual, actually, but he knows all about it. Why?"
I don't really know. "Well, uh... It just seems like being gay, especially when you're a teen, like, it seems hard, ya know? And sometimes ghosts latch onto that sort of thing. Dark emotions, I mean: fear and self-loathing. Resentment. That sorta thing?"
"Wow. Why are you such a homophobe?"
I wait for the punchline, but she's completely serious. "I'm not--"
"Closeted lesbian raised by bible-thumpers?"
"No. Nothing like--"
"Gay men burned your village?"
"Funny, but--" I know she's joking, this time, but that one hits close to home. "I was engaged to a gay man," I admit. "I didn't know he was gay at the time. Neither did he, I guess."
"How'd you find out?"
"He told me."
"Well, then I can see why you're so traumatized."
I stare at her blankly, having long ago missed her trolley.
"Well," she drawls as if explaining something to a child, "if you're not a homophobe, but you got all this crap in your head about how awful it is to be gay, I assumed your experience was traumatizing."
"It was!" I assert with more emotion than I expected. "He broke my heart."
"Okaaaay..." Again, she acts like I just said something crazy. "But you didn't peek at his browser history or follow him to a brothel or walk in on him bobbing for apples between two hairy thighs?"
"You wouldn't understand." I try to retreat into myself.
Ida's having none of it. "Are you fucking kidding me? I'm a teenager! If there's one thing I understand, it's having my heart broken!"
"We're supposed to be talking about your problems."
"Right now, you are my problem, shotgun lady." This time, she reaches out to pat me on the shoulder. I don't put up a fight. "Why don't you tell Ida all about it?"
I can't believe I'm doing this. "I fell in love with a great guy, we got engaged, then he decided... figured out that he was gay. He didn't cheat on me or anything, just sat me down for a very adult conversation and... I didn't handle it well. We broke up."
"You broke up with him?"
"Yeah." I swear to god, I'm not gonna cry in front of the client. The seventeen year old client. "I felt like he was rejecting me, personally, not just my gender. I may have... used some unkind words."
I don't confirm, but I can't deny.
"No offense, lady, but that's pretty messed up."
"Yeah, well, it's not like I feel good about it."
"No, it's pretty obvious you feel shitty about it," the girl agrees. "You're just taking it out on everyone else, which is even shittier."
"You call 'em like you see 'em, don't you, Ida?" She shrugs her shoulders like it ain't no thing. "I can respect that, but we really should be talking about your ghost problem. If they're not latched onto you, maybe Bev?"
"I dunno. Grandma's got plenty of problems, but I wouldn't call her a bubbling cauldron of emotions. I don't think she likes Ready very much, or maybe she just knows how much he resents having to take care of her. He's not exactly Mr. Subtle."
Finally, the gears start turning. "Ya know, sometimes ghosts are omens of the future. They appear when history's about to repeat itself... Did you say the haunting began a few months ago?"
"Yeah, right around the time school started."
"And this is your senior year?" She nods. "Know where you're going to college?"
"Louisiana State," she says proudly. "I've been taking post-secondary classes since summer session."
"Think Bev's feeling abandoned?"
"Maybe," she frowns. "Probably, but I'm sure she wouldn't want me to give up college."
"I'm sure she wouldn't, but what if you could take her to college with you?"
"Huh," Ida pretends to think it over. "I was hoping my roommate would be more of a sexy librarian type."
"What if we could find her a nice nursing home in... Baton Rouge?" I ask. She nods. "Baton Rouge. She wouldn't be left alone with Ready and you could visit every so often. You would visit every so often, right?"
"Oui oui, but there's no way we could afford that. Grandma and Ready are already scraping by on Social Security checks."
"Alright, I think I'm hatching a scheme, here." I scratch my chin and raise my scheming eyebrow. "If I can conjure the cash, I may still need Ready to sign some papers. Think you can make that happen?"
She waves one pinky finger at me. "Are you kidding? I've had him wrapped around this thing since I was two."
"Great," I stand up and offer her my hand. She gives it a good shake. "I'll try to get to your place before nightfall, but no guarantees. Just be home and be ready."
Henre's yacht was pretty nice, but his fucking mansion could swallow it whole. It's gotta be the biggest damn thing in the Garden District. Three stories, two wings, and one city block all to itself. Full-on colonial and white as a dry bone. If he didn't wanna be accused of racism, he should consider not owning a plantation.
I have to ring at the front gate and wait for some manservant to buzz me in. He just about jumps out of his skin when I walk in the door. Can't stop staring at the scars on my lips. I don't even say anything to him, just loom over his desk in grim silence until Henre comes to greet me. Good times.
"I was hoping you'd drop by, Marion." Henre is all smiles, as usual. "Kyle's recuperating, but I'm sure he could handle a short visit."
Oh yeah. Kyle. "I'd love to see him, but I've actually come about something else."
"Of course. We can walk and talk?" Henre and his beige dockers take me through the marble foyer and down a long corridor of chandeliers and hotel carpet straight out of The Shining. "What's on your mind, Marion?"
"I've been investigating a haunting. Nice, working class family in Westwego. Ghost asked for me by name. Turns out, it involves you."
He laughs perfunctorily. "Involves me how?"
"Remember back during Katrina, when you stopped me from shooting that lake monster?"
"I remember protecting some wildlife, yes. You handled the situation pretty well, considering it was your first encounter with New Orlean's... colorful underbelly."
"Yeah, well, after you just walked off into the sunset, I went upstairs and found the homeowner bleeding out. That shot you knocked wide? It went through the floor and hit him in the abdomen."
"I'm sorry, Marion." He stops at an elevator door toward the end of the east wing. I half expect blood to come pouring out. "I had no idea. Why haven't you mentioned this to me before. It's been years."
"Didn't see much point. I got the guy to medical attention in time, but I had to leave his ailing mother in the attic. They wouldn't let me go back for her and... I guess she died."
"And now she's haunting a working class family in Westwego?"
"You pointed a shotgun at me!"
"Her and countless other souls who were abandoned during the flood." The elevator takes us down to a gleaming, antiseptic basement, like they built the mansion over an ancient, Indian hospital.
He leads me to a softly lit room crowded with medical paraphernalia. Kyle sleeps amongst it all, mummified and probably sedated. One side of his face is wrapped in bandages and his throat is noticeably swollen. If I didn't know better, I'd say he got between Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in a bar fight.
"That's what doing well looks like to you?" I ask Henre, aghast.
"Not really," he admits with a sad shake of his head. "This happens every so often, like a bad reaction to a vaccine. We'll treat him, get him the best reconstructive surgeons on the planet. We've handled this before. He'll be just fine."
I cross my arms. "Real nice miracle, you got there."
"Like I said, he'll be fine." He turns to face me, pointedly taking my gaze away from the bitched-up cancer patient. "Now, how can I help with this ghost case of yours?"
"You'll just have to trust me on why, but I think the solution is to put an old lady in a retirement home in Baton Rouge. Wadaya say?"
"I can tell you, Marion, that's definitely the worst business deal I've been pitched today. Have you considered paying for an exorcism?"
"Have you considered your moral culpability in an old woman's death?" If I could cross my arms any more crossier, I would.
Henre puts his wrists together in mock surrender. "Am I being charged, officer?" I doubt it was his intent, but I feel that one right in the ego. He must see it in my face, because he puts his hands down and says in his business voice, "I'm sure I could work something out. Just give me a few days and--"
"Afraid I need the papers drawn up immediately, Henre. I told a very nice, young woman that I'd have them for her by sundown."
For a hot second, I think maybe I pushed this one too far. I can see Henre ticking off beads on his mental abacus. "Come upstairs and I'll call my lawyer."
Henre's lawyer takes his goddamned time. When I finally get back to Westwego, the sun is long since down. Worse, the only thing waiting to greet me is an empty curb. I guess it's La Fleur's understudy. I jangle my pocketful of magic shotgun shells, wondering how useful they'll be as throwing weapons.
(Maybe I should get a cell phone. One of those burner phones like drug dealers use. Bottom of my To Do list.)
There's a light on inside, but it's weird. Looks like... water is pouring over the glass! A silhouette walks into view, inky black against the backlight. Then another, and another.
I sprint across the road, up the steps, and kick in the front door. The ghosts are gone and the main room empty... except for Ready, who's lying in a pool of blood. "How many times am I gonna fall for this?" I wonder as I kneel down and apply pressure to his probably phantasmagoric wound.
I yell for Ida, but the only response I get is a low rumble that seems to pass through the entire house. It gathers intensity until the windows are rattling in their frames.
"YOU LEFT ME TO DIE!!!" The accusation reverberates inside my skull. I grit my teeth and glance over my shoulder just in time to see Bev descend on me like a fucking screech owl. Her talons dig into my shoulders and lift me clear off the ground. I sail across the room and slam into the wall, leaving an ass-sized crater.
I square my shoulders and dig in my heels. "I hope you can take a punch, Bev." She comes in slashing with her gnarled fish hooks. I put my arms up, guarding my head, then kick one leg out from under her. She staggers and I land a right hook across her temple.
Before she can recover, I grab her by the head and hoist her off her feet. One arm goes around her neck and I press against her jugular. God, I hope you can choke out a ghost. "Come on, Bev. Sleepy... time..."
Suddenly, she goes slack, but she's not Bev anymore. She's the old woman from the attic. Water sloshes against my ankles. I'm back in that kitchen, but I'm standing where the lake monster should be. I watch the younger, dumber me dive for her gun.
"No, you idiot!" I toss the old woman aside and charge forward, willing to take a bullet. "That never helps!" I get a skip and a jump from the counter before the other me is back up, gun in hand, terror on her face like a Mardis Gras mask. She shoots me right between the eyes.
"That's what doing well looks like to you?"
I taste salt. Salt and cayenne pepper. I'm back in Westwego and staring down the barrels of my own shotgun, pointed at me through the front door by a wide-eyed La Fleur.
I'm about to say "Thank god" when she shoots me again, for good measure. I can feel the powder burns on my forehead. "Jesus, La Fleur!" I bellow. "Take a step back, first. You're lucky I go easy on the gunpowder."
"You're welcome," she quips as I snatch the shotgun out of her hand and break open the breach. A quick scan of the room reveals Ida on the floor trying to revive Ready, but no sign of grandma.
"Where's Bev," I ask La Fleur while I reload.
"I dunno. You jumped in front of her and then I guess I got distracted by all your damn questions."
"She won't stay gone for long." I snap the breach closed and push La Fleur back out the door. "Wait outside."
I hear a muffled "You're welcome" as I shut and lock it.
"Ida!" I greet the girl with exasperation. "There you are!"
"I've been here the whole time, you lunatic!"
Huh. I pull a stack of papers outta my pocket and toss them to her. "Get him to sign these." I throw in a lightly-chewed Bic, just in case. "And hold still for a second."
I bless her and her uncle with a blast of Uncrossing Powder. Ready sputters and comes to, completely uninjured, of course. His eyes swim around before fixing on me. "Did you just shoot me with cajun spices?"
"And kosher salt," I finish for him. "I gotta find--" Bev appears out of nowhere, catching my wrist in a vice. She wrenches my arm nearly out of its socket, sending my shotgun across the room and tossing me like a rag doll.
I roll onto my back. Bad move. Bev drops on my stomach like a sack of dirty laundry. I crack her one in the jaw and she loses her dentures, the comedy of which makes her no less terrifying. She latches onto my wrist before it can rebound and pins it against the floor.
She screams and the walls behind her seem to ripple. My eyes must be vibrating in their sockets. Either that or it's another trippy ghost thing. I'd rather not find out.
I stretch my pinned arm up and out, pulling Bev off balance. My right knee drives into her elderly ass and launches her over my head. She crashes into the wall, just about where I did.
Rolling to the side, I pluck my sawed-off from the floor. Somehow, Bev lands on her feet. I barely get the shotgun between us and start to squeeze the trigger, when Bev's eyes lose focus and one side of her face goes slack.
She wobbles and starts to fall like a spent balloon. I drop my weapon and catch her, sweeping her into my arms. Now, she's light as a feather. "I got you, old lady," I whisper, looking up to find Ida and Ready with a signed stack of papers. Tears roll down my cheeks and mingle with Bev's.
Either that, or she's drooling on me.
For once, my place is empty when I get home. I hang up my hat and toss my gun on the bed, then push the bathroom door open.
"Occupado, por favor!" Of course she's in there.
"Hurry it up, Bridgit!" I exclaim before flopping down on the still unmade bed. "And light a match!"
"Please," she pulls the door open a crack. "Everything about me smells like a rose garden. I'm classin' up this joint. How'd it go at the Wallace's?"
"I had to punch grandma a few times, but mischief managed. That's a pop culture reference."
"I saw the movies."
"You were wrong about the ghosts, though." I roll on.
"Oh, you were right about them being more than one person, echoes in the zeitgeist and all that, but you were wrong that they're not about the past. My past, mistakes I've made, that's why the ghost asked for me. I owed a debt."
"And you paid it, then?" Bridgit finally shuts off the water, but takes her time drying her damn hands.
"Well, I talked a rich guy into paying it. Classic exorcism move. I'm a professional."
"Henre Fontaine," she guesses. Or knows. She probably had spies watching me the entire time. She opens the door, but doesn't use it, just lingers on the edge of the room, blocking my access.
"Speaking of that closeted francophile," she rumbles, "we need to have a talk about your friends in the fish cult..."