The moment is broken by the shrill ringing of the hotel telephone. Don stares for a few moments, wondering who on Earth could be calling him at this time, before taking the few steps into the main room and groping along the wall in the dark. He ends up knocking the phone off its hanger, wincing at the thump as it swings back to hit the wall before he reaches down to snag it where it's hanging by its curly line.
"Hello?" he asks cautiously, pressing the speaker a little lopsidedly against the side of his head.
"Mister Berger? I had reception patch me through."
"Doctor Lentre?" Don rubs a quick hand over his still-damp face. "Is there something wrong?" His words speed up. "Have you heard anything?"
"Oh not at all, and I'm afraid not," says the familiar tinny voice. "But I just thought I'd check up."
Don's shoulders slump and he frowns at the receiver even though it can't be seen. "At this time in the morning?"
"I expected you'd probably have just woken up. You looked about ready to drop yesterday, the sleep cycle matches up to about now. Doctor's hypothesis."
Don's frown deepens, "Well your hypothesis has good timing." Very good timing. "Uh, thank you for the concern, I suppose. Is that all?"
There's a brief silence before, "Well, also, actually, I was going to ask if I could join you for breakfast."
That comes as a surprise. "Why?" he replies, a little abruptly.
Lentre doesn't seem to take offence. "I've been hoping to ask you a bit more about your sister."
Don sighs, sitting himself down on the edge of the bed and leaning out at a bit of an awkward angle due to the stretch of the phone line. "I'm not sure I'd be the best conversationalist right now. Especially about that."
"I understand, Mister Berger. But something sort of struck me, if you know what I mean? Something about her, though I can't say I really knew her for very long." Black humour tints his voice. "Plus, it's a bit of a new thing for me. I usually take care of the morgue, never had a patient walk out on me before like the other doctors have."
It's the kind of semi-morbid wit that Adelaide would have appreciated. Don casts an eye over his travel-case dumped in the corner and yesterday's clothes which still lie crumpled where they fell. He checks his watch, mentally factoring in the one hour Boston to New Orleans time difference the flight attendant of the previous day had pointed out. "Please, call me Don. And how's eight, for you?"
* * *
Lentre's already in the lobby when Don gets down, short brown hair already almost dry after his shower and face stinging a little from the crude hotel-provided razor. The other man smiles in greeting, and Don nods in return.
"Good morning, doctor."
"Good morning. And please, there's no need for titles outside of work."
He indicates a table in the breakfast area, and Don pulls out a chair for himself. "Ives, then, was it?"
"No, just Lentre. I've always preferred my family name."
They spend some time browsing the menu that sits propped up in stiff plastic in the centre of the table, though Don's barely reading. Lentre takes his time to decide his order when the waitress comes around and Don picks the first thing on the list, whatever it is, tacking an espresso on the end. There's another minute or so of silence after the girl finishes scribbling on her little pad and scuffles away before he deems to break it.
"I haven't spoken to Adelaide in a while, you know," he says, eyes cast down at the brown table-top. "But when we were young," a small reminiscent half-smile curls across his lips, "we were inseparable. They say siblings should fight, but not us. We went to the same school, played together every afternoon."
"She was the elder, no?"
Don nods. "But only by a year. She was my best friend, always, even though we were so different. I always liked everything set up properly, and she was the wild one, you know? Used to stumble in from school hours late, splattered in mud, when I'd always be home on time and doing homework exactly twenty minutes later on the dot. Drove our parents crazy."
"And what about them?" Lentre interjects. "Are they still here?" He pauses, then, "Have they been informed?"
Don shakes his head. "Mum died when I was twelve, cancer. She'd been fighting it for as long as I could remember. Dad was a lot older than her, passed away when I was eighteen. Adelaide was nineteen. She'd spent a year working after high school, it was right after the funeral that she decided to come study down here. She swore she wasn't running away, said it was because she wanted to find out more about our roots, or something. Our grandma was Creole, you know, moved to Boston and met our grandpa."
The food arrives then—eggs, it turns out Don had ordered—and the conversation breaks for a bit again. Don downs his coffee first, then devours the mediocre hotel breakfast with the fervour of a man who hasn't eaten properly in eighteen hours. Opposite him, Lentre tucks into a full continental breakfast and neither speaks again until both plates are empty.
"I gave her something when she left," Don begins again once the table has been cleared. "A paperweight. Lame, I know, she said so too, but I was boring back then. Well, still am now, I guess. It had a piece of red coral in it, and I thought she'd find it pretty. And useful too, right, now that she'd decided to go back to school?" He gave a little chuckle. "Well, she said she liked it anyway, lame as it was."
"I'm sure she did," Lentre says softly. "You two must have been the best of families." He pours himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table and sips it slowly. "What happened? Was it the distance?"
Don takes the pitcher himself and dumps a few splashes into his empty coffee cup. "No. Not at all. Even after she moved away we were emailing almost every day, calling at least a few times a week. I visited after the end of her first semester, she was going to show me some sights but ended up being swamped with homework so I just bunked in her dorm room and hung around with her and her friends. It was good, easy. We didn't have to make a thing out of visits. I saw she actually had my paperweight on her desk too." He drank a mouthful of his coffee-cup water, grimacing at the lingering bitterness. "But still, the way she was, and the way she talked about this place, I was afraid. To lose her, I mean, she just seemed to slip right in."
He remembers how Adelaide had looked that first time he'd seen her since she'd moved away. She'd been so bright as she walked against the unfamiliar backdrop like she'd lived there her whole life, eyes lighting up every time she got to talk about her new home. And when he'd left she'd kissed him on the cheek and said she'd call soon, promised to visit him next time.
Then it all changed.
"One day," he continues, words tripping over in his mouth very slightly. "seven months after she left, the calls stopped. Emails stopped. And the end of the next semester, nothing. So I caught a plane down myself and surprised her, but she was …different. Her old room-mate told me she'd dropped out of college and gave me an address, she stared at me like she'd forgotten who I was when she opened her apartment door to find me there. The way she talked, the way she acted, it just wasn't right, you know? And she wouldn't let me in, so I slunk away. Caught the next plane straight back. Didn't know what else to do."
Lentre regards him, eyes flickering from his face, down to where he's gripping his cup just a bit too tightly, back up again. "Was that the last time you saw her?"
Don gives a single nod that is little more than a twitch. "Yeah. I tried to call again, a little after, got a disconnected number. Called her apartment block, found she'd moved out again barely a month after she'd gotten in. And that was it. When they talked to me yesterday I was surprised I was still listed as her next-of-kin."
Lentre eases the cup out of his hand without a word, refilling it even though it isn't empty. "How old was she?" he asks, lifting a hand to signal the waitress for his bill.
“Twenty the last time I saw her. Just. God, she never even made it to twenty-five."
He pauses to drink, not trusting his voice to continue. The water was a little less bitter this time, but still tanged on his tongue. "She was brilliant, you know?" he says softly, half to himself. "So much smarter than me, but she never let it become a problem. She didn't brag, always helped me with school when I needed it, never pushed or got annoyed at the things I just couldn't get. She was studying medical science, pretty darn good at it too from what I heard. But I guess that changed."
He broke off, sitting still with his eyes half-focused as Lentre paid his own bill and gave Don's room number to cash in the other man's complementary breakfast. Don stood up without looking at his table-mate, wandering towards the glass doors separating the lobby from the footpath outside. He could see the cemetery through them, rising out of the grey street. In the morning light, the graves were oddly beautiful.
"Take a walk," Lentre suggests, joining him by his side. "I've always found cemeteries calming. Everyone's finally at rest."
They step into the crisp air and the sound of morning traffic, approaching the road and idly gazing down the left for a gap in the traffic. "Do you have work?"
"Not on Saturdays. I always ask for them off, have to fight for it usually since doctors don't exactly get to stick to weekday routine. Dead people don't take weekends, you know." Lentre's lips twist with another twinge of that dark humour. Perhaps it's just what happens when spend so much time in a morgue.
Lentre's right. It is peaceful, in a strange sort of way. They don't talk as they trace the steps made by so many mourning relatives and dedicated friends, weaving through houses whose tenants are forever at rest. His mind wanders in the silence, and Lentre lets it continue. Thoughts flit without settling, like the few little birds he spots fluttering between the roofs of the mausoleums, hopping from life to life, end to end. Adelaide, his boss and that damned proposal, the nurse, the uneaten breakfast he'd left on his kitchen table that morning, that empty morgue cabinet—everything swirling in a nonsensical haze without slotting in anywhere.
He almost walks into Lentre when the man stops in front of him. Don looks up questioningly as the doctor reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a small doll-like creation, made from two crossed sticks wrapped in cloth and lace.
"Here," he says, and holds it out.
"It's for you.
"Oh. Thank you? What is it?"
"An offering." Lentre inclines his head towards a tomb sitting slightly off to the left in front of them, which Don only just notices is littered with odds and ends at the base.
Don takes the doll hesitantly and walks a few steps closer. Beads and flowers, hair-ties and an assortment of coins lie strewn on the ground before him, and the wall of the tomb itself is scratched all over with cross marks in sets. He raises a hand and traces the groves carved into the stone. "How does this kind of vandalism happen?"
"It's not vandalism," Lentre replies, matching his paces by his side. "Have you ever heard of Marie Laveau?"
Don shakes his head, dropping his eyes to the small plaque down on the side and reading over the brief description underneath the name. "She was a Voodoo Queen?"
"Yes." Lentre also reaches up to run his fingers over the markings, but his actions are laced with something akin to reverence. "Marie Laveau was one of New Orleans's most famous and most powerful Voodoo queens. She was born of a rich Creole plantation owner and his black mistress, learned her craft from a Voodoo doctor. And still now," he indicated down at the smattering of curios, "people come to her. At her tomb you can make an offering and make a wish, break off a piece of stone from another grave and draw three X's, as you can see. And if she grants the wish, you come back and circle them."
"I see." Voodoo. The heart of New Orleans, as much popular culture termed it, which had sat tickling just a little hint of expectation in the back of his mind since he'd stepped off that plane. Thinking back it had been one of the things that Adelaide had prattled on about on his first visit, which he'd sat listening to in indulgence more than anything else. It had fascinated her, lured in her attention like a fisher with a line in its mystery. She'd had a way of diving into rich new things, cultures and peoples, but it had never meant much more to Don than another set of mildly interesting stories—which from her assertions he now knew to be vastly different from their Hollywood portrayal though in what ways exactly he wasn't sure. His tone is far from convinced as he looks over the bare markings. "She mustn't grant many, then."
Lentre only smiles. "Ah, but most nowadays are made by tourists who pop by for a one time visit and are long gone before any granting may happen. Who knows how many really come true when they're back home with their marks far behind them?"
His words aren't particularly passionate or persuasive, but Don can hear the man's own earnestness in his voice and it sounds very much like Adelaide had when she talked of her new city. He glances down at the doll in his hands. "So what do you want me to do with this?"
Lentre looks at him. "Offer it, go on. It's a Queen Marie doll, you know."
So, a Voodoo doll. A real one, it seems, not the white things stuck with pins. Don turns it over in his hands. "Why don't you offer it yourself?"
"Because I'm not the one who has a wish right now." Lentre moves a little closer, putting a hand on Don's arm in a steady, solid grip. "Have some faith, Don. Believe in New Orleans."
His family was never religious, and he's always trusted more in what he can see and touch and hear rather than vague promises and rewards. It's silly, really, to ponder a dropped piece of junk and a bit of scratching. But still—perhaps he's just being polite, or perhaps it's the city air—still he finds himself bending down to lay the little doll on the ground. He picks up a nearby rock fallen on the ground because breaking off another tomb seems a little too much even so, pressing it against the smooth wall and feeling the grind of stone in six even strokes.
A wish. That's easy. If he could wish for one thing, it would be Adelaide. To see her once more, to stand before her once more. And, well, he thinks with wryness, if he's really going to wish on a pile of bones with supposedly magical powers he may as well go all the way.
Let me talk to my sister again.
"So," he says as he straightens again. "You really believe all this Voodoo stuff, then?"
Lentre only gives a soft laugh, hand falling again to Don's elbow to lead him away. "My family is one of the oldest you'll find in our fair city. For us, it's not something to believe or not believe. It's history. And it's life."
* * *
Don declines Lentre's offer to show him the sights, but continues on with some idle strolling during which the doctor skilfully keeps the conversation to lighter matters—the weather, the film industry, politics, and various other topics of prattle. It's not until lunchtime that the previous day is brought up again.
They eat again at a cozy little cafe in the French quarter which serves quite an impressive baguette. There's jazz playing at a street corner, somewhere, and a mix of accents in the air that provide the bubbling backdrop when Lentre admits that, "actually, there is one more thing to today's meeting."
Don looks over as he reaches once more into the pocket of his dark jacket and takes out a folded piece of paper, laying it flat on the table. It's a poorly-lit picture which looks like it was snapped on a phone camera, rough quality but instantly recognisable. "That's the symbol we found in the morgue yesterday."
"The police dismissed it," Lentre says. "Do you know what it is?"
"Some sort of logo, maybe? Funny looking one if it is."
"Not quite. It's a veve, a ritualistic marking drawn in a powdery substance used to represent and channel a loa. Cornmeal, flour, brick dust—in this case talcum powder taken from the morgue store-cupboard."
Don crams down the last of his sandwich and swallows quickly before placing his hands flat on the table. "Oh," he replies flatly. "Voodoo again?"
"Indeed." The doctor seems undeterred by the scepticism in the words. "The loa are spirits, intermediaries between us and the distant creator god, each with their own domain and unique veve. I can tell you about them, if you want to listen."
Don raises a finger to trace over the fuzzy lines of the picture, barely brushing over the slightly raised printer paper. It's all bizarre, all of it. But everything’s been bizarre since he arrived, and it all feels like it's still just floating through his brain before it really registers properly. "You think this might have something to do with Adelaide?"
"It's not about what I think, it's about you," comes the reply. "Keep your mind open, Don, you never know what might come in."
* * *
Don spends the rest of the day in his room after Lentre walks him back to the hotel, stepping out the lobby door with a polite farewell and number slipped into Don's pocket 'if he wants to talk some more,' seeming to blend away into the afternoon traffic between blinks. He tests out his couch and finds it passable, flicks through television channels without really watching, tries to make some coffee but only ends up with a kettle-full of now-lukewarm forgotten water. He expects the police to call today from what Bryson said, and finds himself checking his watch every fifteen minutes for a lack of anything else to look forward to. He finally gives in after treating himself to a modest dinner in the lobby, plucking out the card the doctor had given him and dials it into his room phone.
A sombre cop answers and asks for his name, which Don gives before pulling back to stare at the handset in blank shock at the next reply.
"What do you mean the investigation's been dropped? It's only been one day!"
"Hmm, yes, but it was just another street beating, not much evidence to go on. Who knows what the girl was tangled in, with a record like that."
"Record? Adelaide had a record?"
"Well of course. That's how we matched her prints, after all. Can't quite remember it all off the top of my head, but there were quite a few cases of trespassing, a bit of disturbance. Found once at the scene of an attempted crime, I think, got taken in and questioned but couldn't be held. We tried, you know, but it's all very routine. Assaults like this happen all the time and there's rarely anything distinctive at each scene.
"And the body going missing? You mean to say that happens all the time too?"
"Oh, surely that's nothing. A record error, processing mistake, nothing a little paperwork down at the hospital couldn't fix."
Don continues to stare at the phone as if it's somehow messing up the words coming through. "What? But I was there, I know—"
"I'm sorry, Mister Berger," the voice cuts off curtly. "We shall contact you if there are any new developments, but that does not seem likely. Good night."
Don replaces the receiver on its holder slowly as the dial tone chimes, going through his bedtime routine with only half his attention. There's something not right about it all, and even as he berates himself for being paranoid and over-dramatic the more not right it seems.
He's always been the one who kept the order and structure to counterbalance Adelaide's caprices. And this isn't order.
It must have all taken a bigger toll that he'd thought, because the moments before he slips into sleep he could have sworn he saw a most peculiar sight at the window. Not the wall-length one, but the small one opposite with a narrow sill on the outside jutting out over the city fifteen storeys below. His last memory of that day is a thick white snake coiled outside the glass, head raised as if watching him inside.
* * *
It makes it into his dream that night too, slithering through. This one's not a memory like last time, he's sure, because it's all as clear as if he's living it.
Adelaide's there. As he saw her last, changed. Different. Her face is drawn, from tiredness as well as an assortment of bruises that mar the well-known features. She's not well, not well at all, but she's alive.
She doesn't speak, and every time he approaches she shies away. She's trying to get away from him, he can see, but it's not that she's running. No, it's more that she's unsure. "Please," he begs, and his voice sounds distant, and won't get louder no matter how much he strains his throat. "It's me, Don. Come on, Ad. It's been a long time, but I know there must be something left of the big girl I used to run around with and laugh at when she got in trouble for jumping through the neighbour’s gardens and exciting their dogs." Her gaze snaps to his at that, but she looks at him like he's not really there. There's something withdrawn in her eyes too, but it's not cold. It's sad.
Behind her the snake hisses and coils its huge gleaming body around her ankle, a piercingly white tether to the blackness beneath them.