"This one," Lentre says as he drizzles out the last corner, "is the veve of Loko. Generally known as the loa of vegetation, associated with trees and also with herbs and healing."
"Ah." Don sits back. "Not out of place in a hospital, then, right?"
"Perhaps, but I don't believe that's what he's being invoked for. " Lentre sets the shaker back down and brings his fingertips together. "You see, Loko is also known for his good judgement, and is often called on to judge conflicts. He is especially intolerant of injustice."
Don's eyes trace the fine white lines. "So," he begins slowly, "maybe someone, someone who's a practitioner of Voodoo, saw an injustice so they drew this and they took—" he breaks off, then finally finishes, "—the body."
Lentre shrugs. "That's one theory." He picks up his fork again and casually tucks into his food once more. "Or perhaps she drew it."
"What?" Don's eyes snap forward. "She who?" Because he can't mean...
"I'm glad you came back, Don. Adelaide needs you. I shouldn't have let her go but I did. And now she's at the crossroads, and we both need your help."
* * *
Lentre's working today, but suggests that the best place to start might as well be the hospital. His car is old but in very good shape, pitch black in colour and comfortably spacious as they drive through the streets and well-known sites that Lentre points out with an enthusiasm that makes Don smile a little despite the atmosphere. It takes both the amiable ride and the mostly silent end to breakfast of the previous hour to excuse and pass over the doctor's odd words.
The man puzzles Don, but he's only one of many things that do at the moment and Don feels like his appropriate reactions are all being delayed. Lentre seems to carry his heritage with him, with all the darkness of mystery of his city and its old faith seeping through his words and countenance. And with his insistence at the Laveau queen's grave and his strange comment over the morning meal it's almost as if he's seeing something different to Don. Something more.
Though, in the heart of New Orleans chasing after a dead woman, something more might well be right. And at this point, it's a friend who is the most welcome.
Lentre lets Don into his office while he leaves for his rounds, opening up the database on his computer for perusal. Don brings up Adelaide's patient log first, just to double check what he's already been told.
She'd been called in on a 911 report at just before 2am early Friday morning. A frantic passer-by described coming upon several large men beating a woman, apparently deciding it wasn't worth the trouble silencing a witness when they were seen and abruptly running off to leave their victim for dead. She went straight into emergency surgery upon admittance by paramedics and was released for a brief period eleven hours later at 1:30pm that afternoon—during which fingerprints were taken and passed on for identification—but had failed to stabilise and been placed back on the operating table half an hour later. A positive match had come via criminal records at 6pm New Orleans time, matching up with when Don received his first call at 7pm in Boston, and a second call had been made three hours later when she'd been released for the second and final time. The last few notes in the log were official death twenty-one hours after admittance, and the inexplicable self-release from the hospital.
Impersonal. So utterly impersonal, that critical time where a life hangs in balance set out line by line on a buzzing computer screen.
Don opens up the death certificate intending for a quick glance but ends up taking some time before he can bring himself to close it. Cause of death is organ failure from severe physical trauma, and Lentre's spiky signature seals her fate in blotted scanned ink.
He brings up her medical record once he finally clicks away. No general check-ups are listed but there are a number of mild injuries spanning the previous eight years, dates notably more frequent and closer together in the last six months or so. There's no insurance company and it seems she paid for herself each time, which is conceivable since none of the treatments would have been too expensive. The patient information has a contact number Don recognises as the one he'd found disconnected last time he tried to call, and an address which he jots down and brings to Lentre when the lunch break rolls around.
"Is it far?"
"Only a few minutes drive."
"Then is there any chance I could get a lift?"
* * *
"Just let me take a look around," Don says when they're back in the car. "You can go back to work, I'll catch a taxi back."
"We'll see how much looking around we can do when we get there. What is it again?"
"17 Cilantro Street. Do you know it?"
"Vaguely. I know most streets around this city a little, at least."
Really quite the native man, then. Adelaide would have probably liked to meet him. Outside of work, that is. Don's lips twist a little at the thought, that's another little joke she would appreciate. If she could.
True to his word, Lentre turns promptly at a little metal sign marked Cilantro and slows. Don catches the flash of a little gold 9 to the right side of the road as they drive past, counting the doors to 11, 13, 15, then a gap—and then a skip. The doctor seems to share his confusion as he pulls the car up next to number 19, the two stepping out and walking only a few paces back before they stop dead.
It's not a skip. There is it, Number 17, stuck up in big numbers right out the front. It's an empty lot.
"This isn't a good real-estate area," Lentre says. "Especially after Hurricane Katrina. Sign looks old, this could have been put for sale years ago."
For sale. Advertised. Address listed for anyone to pluck out and stick on a form. Don squeezes his eyes shut.
"I guess I won't be needing that taxi after all."
* * *
He's slumped back in Lentre's office chair with an uneaten sandwich in front of him when the doctor excuses himself briefly to return with a large, clear, zip-locked bag. Don spies Adelaide's name on the little label, and swallows hard when his eyes fall on blood-stained fabric within.
"I got something else for you," Lentre says, "hopefully a bit more useful. This is what we took off her when we started the surgery."
Don sits up a little. "I thought the police would have that?"
"Yes, they should have. But this investigation hasn't exactly been the most thorough." Lentre's pursed lips tell Don that he's not the only one who's more than a little uneasy about that quick surrender.
"Okay. Well, let's take a look."
Fortunately the red isn't as extensive as he'd feared, damage must have been mostly internal. Don stands and carelessly moves his plate to the chair as they spread the contents over the desk. There are small smatterings of blood here and there on the loose brown shirt and dark cotton pants, and a caked-on smear over the front of the black coat that looks like it was vomited . There's no jewellery or accessories with the clothes, and when he rummages through the pants pockets for a wallet he finds only a single quarter.
"I have a feeling that if this were a cop show, we'd be able to solve everything just from this." Don holds the coin up to the light. "Maybe she was on her way to the laundromat? Was involved in a quarter-counterfeiting scheme? Was the victim of a serial killer who left quarters on all his bodies?" A hint of hysteria begins to creep into his voice.
"Or maybe," Lentre cuts in evenly, "whoever did this emptied her pockets for money and just missed one coin."
Don's arm falls as if it were cut, the little disc of metal clattering to the floor as his head drops into his other hand. "What am I doing, Lentre?" he whispers. "What's going on, what are we even looking for?" He collapses back in his seat, knocking the plate off in the process which luckily doesn't break as it hits the floor. "I just want my sister," he rasps. "I just want to see her, even if she's dead. At least then it would all be done!"
Then Lentre's beside him, a hand on his elbow and another easing his fingers from his face. "Breathe, Don. None of this is easy, but you have to peel it all back and break it through. For Adelaide.
And he's back with all the bizarre cryptic comments. Don sighs, but since that's still breathing Lentre probably takes it as a good sign. He unclenches his locked muscles, slowly letting himself slump down once more. Lentre lets go after a few moments and starts gathering up the remnants of his lunch.
"I have to go back to work," he continues eventually. "Just stay here, alright? Calm down. We'll talk more later. Do you want more food?"
Don shakes his head, and cracks his eyes open just a little as the footsteps pad off out the door. They fall on the computer screen where Adelaide's record is still open, and settle over one field.
Next of kin: Donald Berger (brother)
After all this time, even when she went as far as to hide her own address. She held onto this.
He does spend some time sitting, trying not to think. The window lets in a nice amount of light, and the office is warm without being stuffy. His wandering tapping fingers keep straying, however, to the bundle of stained fabric before him, and on the third time he lets them continue.
He double checks the pants and confirms them as empty, then kneels down to grope for his dropped quarter. He examines it briefly once his fingers close around it, but despite his earlier half-frantic conjecture it remains resolutely no more than idle loose change. In the left coat pocket his hand meets again only cloth, but in the right it knocks against something small and sharp.
It's a key, though not the right shape and size to be a house key, attached to a thick ring. And also attached is a metal plaque which he turns over in his fingers before pausing when he feels the thin grooves of an engraving, sticking it under the light to better read with a little flare of something less hopeless.
147 it says on the front, and on the back Storyville Storage Lockers. Following that is an address.
* * *
Storyville still holds a little of its past as the city's notorious red-light district up until the first world war. It's sunset nearing dusk when they make the drive down after Lentre's shift, through buildings that range from the old and decaying to the new drab houses stuck up by the government in a half-hearted attempt to modernise. The Lockers for Rent! billboard sticks out to be easily seen from the main road and they veer off into an adjacent parking ground.
The lockers range from several in a single wall to full floor-ceiling in size, and they find 147 down the largest end. The key fits with a few clicks and turns easily, both men exchanging a glance as they pivot the garage-like door upwards. Don feels around for a light switch, then peers into the gloom when it seems there isn't one. Lentre pulls out his phone and presses a button that activates a little flashlight on the back, shining it in.
In the dim glow, Don can make out a desk, a shelf, and a few shapes on the floor. They step inside, and he takes a slow turn around, running his eyes over the things strewn about until their pattern becomes extraordinarily clear.
Voodoo. The whole locker is full of it. From a box full of dolls in one corner to the figurines on the shelves to the small cloth bags of veve powder on the desk. The largest shape on the floor against the back wall also makes itself known—a sleeping pallet, beside which lie a pile of thick blankets.
"I guess that explains the address. Or lack thereof." Don's tone is frank and matter-of-fact as he tries not to imagine how someone could spend their nights huddled up here in the darkness and stale air and so many fake faces watching. "I guess we'd better come back when the sun's out, eh? Or at least with a torch."
Lentre nods and clicks off the light, pulling out the key and handing it back to Don as they drag the door closed. They're halfway back to the car before Don speaks again.
"So, I was wondering. Is it unusual to see snakes around here?"
"No, not that unusual," Lentre replies with a sideways glance. "Why?"
"Because I saw one last night outside on my windowsill. Big, like the size of a python, but it didn't look like one. And pure white."
"Oh." The sound rings long in Lentre's mouth. "Now, that is more unusual."
* * *
There are two odd things about these dreams. The first is that there's never anything in the background and yet the foreground is always crystal clear, not a hint of fuzziness when he goes to remember. The second is that every time he is always there with absolutely no doubt that he is dreaming.
But it's a little different this night. It's all less surreal, more tangible. And he can't move or talk or do anything, just watch.
The snake is there again, and so is another one. But this other one isn't white, its scales shine with all the colours of the rainbow. He also sees the outline of someone else, a person. Adelaide. And they're talking, all of them. Sure, he knows that snakes can't talk, but he also knows it's a dream and dreams don't have to make sense.
Adelaide's unsure of something, and it's her voice. It's definitely her voice, but words aren't like screams and though they have the right tone and timbre they don't sound quite like her.
"Why?" rolls of one forked tongue. Not a sibilant hiss like he was expecting, though still distinctly snake-light. And also female. This one's the rainbow one. "Why do you hide from him? Why don't you go to him?"
"Because he won't understand," Adelaide replies, and she sounds so weak. "He can't understand."
"But how would you know," the other snake says, "unless you let him try?" The s-sound does hiss out there, trailing over the nothingness in between to Don's ears like a wafting miasma. "Think about it, mistress. Perhaps you should give him a chance."