By the time a sliver of orange begins to glow out the long window, warmth warring with the bleached fluorescent ceiling light, the room finally lies bare and the bed fully made—for the third time. He bends down to check the safe under the bedside table even though he hasn't used it, and his eyelids twitch when he spies a glint of metal.
It's Adelaide's locker key. He plucks it out with a few cautious fingers, rolling it between his hands and casting a long look over the small window through which he first saw the white snake.
* * *
The door is silent this time when it opens, no creaking, no grinding. The sun is still leaning on the horizon, and its rays for the first time give a near-homey feel to the cold concrete. Don takes a single step inside.
The locker is empty.
Gone are the trinkets and the crates, the table and the makeshift bed. The only thing decorating the blank floor is a single bauble in the very centre. Don approaches slowly, crouching to pick it up and hold it to the light.
It's a coral paperweight. Almost the same as the one he'd given Adelaide to remember him by, but that one had been red, and this one is vivid blue. A second gift. An affirmation. A promise.
He holds it tightly in both hands as he turns to gaze at the small patch of eastern city horizon-line visible over the locker roofs. It's the same city he stepped off the plane into last Friday, but everything's different to him. Because now he's seen its shadows and the power that flits within them, a power that he is sure he will one day meet again.
He's always liked his life straight-forward, planned, organised. It was Adelaide who danced on her whims until they led her here, where he had to follow. Where he couldn't hide away behind peeling office walls and black coffee any longer.
He raises a hand to check his watch, then slips it off his wrist to wind it an hour back. The right time, finally. Her time.
* * *
He takes a taxi to the library to return his books then drops by the hospital to say goodbye, making it halfway down the corridor to Lentre's office before he remembers it's the doctor's day off. He meanders back to reception where the familiar Candy is popping gum yet again.
She looks up, disinterested. "Hi."
"I'm Don Berger. I was here last week."
"Oh!" Her face flashes in a smile, which quickly fades again when she remembers their last meeting was less than pleasant. "Right. So, can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Doctor Lentre. He's not here today, is he?"
She frowns and looks down. "We're not supposed to give personal information away."
Don sighs, and leans closer. "I really am sorry about what happened last time," he says softly and truthfully enough though he still holds back a wince when she pops again. "He's helped me a lot this past week, and I'm flying back to Boston today. I just wanted to say thank you. Plus," he adds, "isn't the confidentiality with patients, not doctors?"
"Hmm." She looks a little torn, but concedes. "I guess I can say because everyone knows it. I mean, he doesn't actually tell us his address or anything, actually he's very private with stuff outside the hospital, but the Lentre mansion is pretty famous. One of the oldest in New Orleans. Let me just look it up." She clicks her way on her computer for a few seconds, then tears a sheet off a pad of paper and writes down a name. "Here. Calisse Street. Don't know the number, but it says it's at the very end."
Don thanks her, and walks back out to hail another taxi. He repeats the direction to the driver who stops, and gets an 'ah' in response.
"Want to see the Lentre Mansion?"
"Yes," Don replies, sliding into the seat. "Do you know it?"
"Yeah," the man grunts. “Printed in a brochure or something somewhere, is it? I get tourists wanting to see it every now and then, but it's private property so all we can do is drive past."
"Oh, it's not that. I'm his friend."
There's an unconvinced grunt, then the rest of the ride is spent in silence. Don closes his eyes though he's not at all tired, lets time blur a little as the car bumps steadily and soothingly beneath him. A stop and another grunt opens them again to a dead end crowned by a tall, dark, house which looks very much like its owner.
"I already said, it's private property," the driver says as Don gets out.
"And I already said, I'm a friend."
"Alright then, but don't say I didn't tell you. Want me to wait?"
Don shakes his head. "No, that's alright. I'll walk back to my hotel. I think it's pretty close by."
The man shoots him a puzzled look. "Which one's this?"
The puzzlement deepens. "I wouldn't be walking unless you have an hour or two to spare. Who said it was close?"
Don stares at him. "It was, uh—never mind." He gives a slightly flustered clear of his throat. "I guess you'd better wait, then. I won't be too long."
He walks up the cracked cobblestones with a feeling that he's really stepping into the heart of New Orleans. But while the house rises impressively, he can see that it hasn't been well maintained. Paint is peeling and the gardens are over-grown, though he supposes it's only fair enough when you have something so large for only a single occupant.
The only bell is a real one, brass and greening above the door frame. Don tries that and also the lion-headed knocker for several minutes until the sounds ring in his ears.
No answer. He admits defeat with a last knock of his knuckles.
A lot of the drive back is spent planning out in his head a message he can leave at the hospital. He also wonders what Lentre is up to, what the enigmatic man might do for a hobby. Don can't quite imagine him playing sport or going out. Enjoying a fine meal, perhaps.
He steps into the hotel with a deep breath, turning around for one last glance out before the lift doors slide shut. He grabs the suitcase from behind his door without entering and locks up with a mental nod to himself.
"Enjoy your visit, Mister Berger?" he concierge asks amiably as he returns his key.
"It was certainly eventful."
"Well, I do hope you stay with us again some time. Have a nice flight home."
"Actually," Don says, "I'd like to book it again right now."
"Fabulous!" the man beams. "When would that be?"
"Oh, right away. I'll take a little while to tie things up back in Boston but I'll be back in say, four days."
"Alright." Eyebrows raise on that grinning face. "And how long would you like to stay for?"
"Well, that would depend on what our real-estate climate is like right now."
Don flashes his own grin at the concierge's wide-eyed look, turning on his heel and making his way out onto the street once more.
It's only been a week, but a lot has changed. It all really has grown on him somehow, subtly during all his running around. It's not anything grand, but as he walks across the road to the city's heartbeat he can see what captivated Adelaide all those years ago. It's a place to sit back and let your senses flow through the music and mouth-watering scents of the food-vendors on the air. A place to enjoy, and live life as you do.
He's been trying not to think since he arrived, afraid to speculate unless he hit something further than he wanted to go, pushing back his responses to it all. But now, now that it's over and he can let them go, everything's suddenly easy. He won't forget the four lives he saw ended in a flash or that feeling of something else, something higher raising him over, but it's all settled in his mind instead of whirling. Become a part of him and what he's seen, what he's come to welcome, which he can remember in quite caution.
He wanders across the road and into the cemetery without really intending a destination. He can recognise it all as he walks the same path he strolled with Lentre that very first morning, drawing to a stop when he finds himself staring again at a set of familiar X's.
The Queen's tomb rises up on its base of offerings, the prayers around it carved into its very character. He steps forward and reaches a finger to trace the marks he made, before he had any idea what he was wishing on.
Let me talk to my sister again.
The rock he used is still lying on the ground, and he bends to pick it up before he stops himself. Instead, he turns like he's supposed to and steps up to the mausoleum behind his, gripping one ridge with both hands and pushing until he feels the stone crack. He's turning around again when something catches his eye.
It's a man. A man whom he could have sworn wasn't there a moment before, standing between the rows of tombs under the shade of a large over-hanging tree. He's dressed in black, an elegant tuxedo over a crisp white shirt with a very out-of-place looking top hat perched on his head. He looks straight at Don, dark piercing eyes fixing him from a high-boned face. A face which Don knows.
Lentre stands with one hand holding a thick cigar and another resting atop a tomb, not leaning on it, but more like he's guarding it. Guarding. And then it all clicks.
The morgue doctor who emerged from among the dead. The hotel across from the cemetery, 'near my place.' The talk of letting Adelaide go, of crossroads. The he the snakes spoke of, who was pushing her brother to find her. And belatedly, Don thinks, it's Saturday.
His high school French returns to put it together. Lentre. L'entre. The Between. He's smiling too, just like Charleigh from the library said. And Don has to smile back his acceptance, his respect, all his thanks.
There really is more after all.
Then Don blinks and the man is gone once more, melted away. Don's left hand moves unconsciously to curl around the paperweight still heavy in his pocket as he turns back to the marked wall.
In a few hours he'll be on a plane, but he'll be back again and he'll be moving his books and his clothes and the rest of his life. Tracing back on his grandmother's footsteps. Following his sister's.
Make me proud, little brother, won't you?
An arm lifts, rock scrapes against rock, and he circles his old impossible hope in a single stroke.
* * *
The sun is bright as Don Berger walks away, the birds trilling from their branches. The air is as light as his step, and the entire city seems to shine of promise.
New Orleans sings.