“If we go in there, odds are it’s not gonna end well. You know that, right?”
It’s a voice in the back of my mind, a whisper that only I can hear. You’d think after all this time, I’d be used to it, but it still sends a chill down my spine. “Yeah, I know that. But that’s what you’re here for.”
I keep walking as I talk, heading down the night-shrouded street, the old cobblestone wet and glistening. Lights from the surrounding buildings reflect in the shallow puddles on the sidewalk, garish neon glimmers amidst the ripples of falling raindrops. Most of the shops are closed for the day, doors locked and security gates lowered, but a few are still open. The worst of those are just starting their business hours. I’m headed for one that belongs in a… special category.
Figures watch me from the shadows of alleys and doorways, eyes glittering when the lights hit them just right. Some of them are peddlers of exotic and illegal wares, others the lookouts for those who sell even more dangerous products. They take in the suit, functional but out of fashion, the suspicious lump where a gun rests in an under-the-shoulder holster, and fade back into the deeper darkness. They know an officer of the law when they see one, and want nothing to do with me. That goes double for the ones who recognize me.
“Every time we come here, I’m reminded of why we don’t come more often,” the voice says, it’s tone that of someone who has already used every argument and failed, but can’t quite resign themselves to what they’re doing.
I smile at this show of discomfort. It’s nice to know some things still get to it. It’s a dark part of the great city of New Orleans, only a short distance from the eclectic charm of the French Quarter, but worlds away in tone and purpose. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be, and an innocent life hangs in the balance.”
I hear a laugh that doesn’t come through the air. “There’s no such thing, my friend. Like a free lunch of a selfless politician, innocent life is a myth.”
“Now I’m hearing that some things aren’t possible?” Sarcasm drips from my words. “From you?”
The voice goes silent, and I tally up another point for myself in the never-ending war we wage. I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone in my position; I don’t even know how many people there are in my position, if there are any. There’s just no frame of reference. Books and movies, popular entertainments, they all make demonic possession out to be this terrible thing, all floating in the air and spewing vomit. The truth, however, is much, much worse.
Finally, I spot my destination. The small storefront nestles between a pawn shop blatantly displaying stolen electronics and a sandwich house offering fried clam po’boys, that latter adding a sharp sent of hot oil and spices to the air despite the late hour. The place I’m looking at it is little more than a glass door, cracked and discolored, with a cardboard sign taped to it, bearing a single printed phrase in French: Pour ce qui te fait mal.
For what ails you.
“Last chance to step back and let nature take its course.” There’s a note of amusement in the voice, like it knows that what it asks isn’t possible for me.
I step up to the door, pull it open, and walk through.
The interior of the shop strikes me as a cross between a thrift store and a root cellar. The ceiling is low, with bundles of herbs and shriveled plants hanging from hooks, seemingly placed at random. Shelves line the walls, marching back into the gloom, the dim lighting revealing an assortment of strange objects, everything from old books with crumbling binding and titles written in a smattering of different languages, to little statues, carved in exacting detail, whose miniscule eyes appear to follow me as I walk further into the room.
Near the back sits a large desk, doing duty as a sales counter. Behind it stands a tall man, his hair very white and his skin as dark and wrinkled as a pecan. Two small, jet black eyes peer at me from the mass of wrinkles, displeasure and suspicion glittering in his gaze.
Then his lips part in a smile, revealing large, yellow teeth. “Hello, secret agent man,” he says, in a strong Caribbean accent. “What can I do for you tonight?”
I come to a stop in front of the desk, glancing at the surface littered with small animal skulls and figures made of woven grass. “I’m here to see Charles.”
The smile disappears as suddenly as it appeared. “Roi Charles doesn’t see anyone without asking to see them. You know this.”
I shift my weight back, settling into an easy, loose stance, ready for anything. “Let’s make an exception to that rule,” I say, my gaze flicking to the well-hidden camera in the near corner of the ceiling.
A faint buzz sounds. Behind the shopkeeper, a door opens in the wall, and two tall men step out to flank the old man. Their dark skin is made darker by the whorls and spirals of tattoo ink, their long hair woven into thin braids, and their faces are set in identical scowls. Both carry large handguns thrust behind belts of alligator leather.
“Oh, look,” the voice purrs. “They’ve rolled out the red carpet for you.” There’s an eagerness in its words, a sense of hope that things will go too far.
I arch an eyebrow and smile at the new arrivals. “Charles may not be expecting me, but he’ll want to hear what I have to say.” Their stony looks don’t change one iota, and I sigh. “I’ll make it worth his while.”
Finally one of the towering figures grunts, steps back, and jerks his head, signaling me to follow.
I do so, through the secret door, and down a long hallway of old herringbone-brick walls, dimly lit by a few naked, flickering bulbs. Another door sits at the far end, this one set with a large peephole. My escorts stop at the door and turn to face me. One of them sets his hand on the butt of his gun, while the other wordlessly gestures for me to raise my arms for a search.
I comply, and wait patiently while he pats me down. He doesn’t miss the gun I’m carrying, but ignores it anyway, much more interested in making sure my pockets are otherwise empty. He pulls out my wallet, gives an amused snort at the ID and badge inside, slips it away again. Finally, he gives an all-clear signal.
Several locks click open, and the door swings wide, admitting me into the room beyond.
The space is far larger and more opulent that the drab corridor outside would imply, a luxurious chamber hung with red silk curtains, the floor covered in thick rugs, set with overstuff chairs and divans. The air is thick with a smoky haze, bearing the unmistakable odor of marijuana. No surprise there.
“These people do love their ganger,” the voice says, faking a little cough. “Don’t they know it lowers inhibitions, makes them reckless, prone to doing something stupid. Oh, how I love the stuff.”
I ignore that, and move into the room. As I enter, more men, frighteningly similar to the first pair, rise from chairs and couches, crowding forward with an air of menace. I meet their belligerent gazes with a calm, amused expression. For a moment, we just eye each other, doing that whole sizing up thing.
“Sorry, guys,” I say into the mounting tension. “But I’m not the pizza man.”
A harsh cackle sounds from the far end of the room, followed by a slowing clapping. The crowd before me parts, to reveal a figure seated at a low table draped with a thick velvet covering, a lamp glowing softly in its center.
“If it isn’t my very favorite G-man,” the figure says, spreading his arms. Charles, Roi Charles to a large part of the city’s criminal underbelly, makes quite an appearance, all decked out in a suit of white silk, with a cloth-of-gold fedora on his head and so many gold, bejeweled medallions hanging around his neck that it’s a wonder he can sit up straight. He smiles at me, more gold winking among his natural teeth, his eyes invisible behind dark glass with sparkling frames. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Agent Croy?”
I cross the room toward him, casually nudging aside his bodyguards, until I stand in front of the crime lord. “I’m here on business, Charles,” I say.
“Of course, of course,” he replies, his mood apparently cheerful and expansive, though I know him well enough to recognize his annoyance at my presence. “When is it every anything else? So what can I do for you?”
“Madeleine Jordan,” I say. “This is about her.”
At that name, Charles good humor evaporates, his mouth dropping into a scowl. “What about her?”
“Don’t be coy, Charles. I know it was you.” Most people who have the misfortune to know Charles pass him off as yet another scumbag, grown rich off dispensing violence and suffering to the masses. It’s easy to dismiss him, with his caricatured appearance and affectations. I know better, and the secret to his success is a lot darker than anyone has guessed yet. He has power, real power, of a sort that you don’t get without being evil enough to enjoy using it.
Charles settles back in his plush seat, makes a production out of rolling a joint. “Let me tell you a story, my man. A little tale of tragedy. See, there is this man in the city government, has a lot of clout, and owes me more than a few favors. But once he gets what he wants, his big office with his name on the door and people treating him like the Second Coming, he forgets who his friends are, what they did for him. Now, this man thinks he knows what power is, what can make him and his family safe.” A slow, ugly grin spreads across Charles’ face. “Oh, yes, he has a family, nice wife and little girl, even a dog. Sadly, this man is wrong, about so much.” A match flares in Charles’ hand as he lights up, the flame reflecting in his shades. “So this man needs to learn a lesson. A painful one, yes, but necessary.”
My jaw clenches. An hour ago I was standing in a hospital room, watching thirteen-year-old Madeleine writhing in agony, screaming herself hoarse, her doctors baffled. “Consider the lesson learned, Charles. End it.”
Charles’ eyebrows lift at my peremptory tone. He shakes out the match, puffs contentedly on the roach. “Everybody says you got the juju, special agent man. End it yourself.”
I grimace, roll my shoulders uncomfortably. If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, a power like mine doesn’t lend itself to healing. “Charles, she’s a child, with nothing to do with the feud between her and her father. You’re missing the real target.”
“I beg to differ,” Charles says, pointing two fingers at me, the burning joint clutched between them. “Her father needs to suffer. There is no greater pain than watching your child hurt, knowing it is your fault. This I know.”
“You know,” the voice inside me interjects, sounding speculative. “I think I really love this guy.”
I rock back on my heels, letting my gaze go to the smoke drifting above me. “What will it take to make you end it?”
“You want to fix this?” Charles gives an amused snort. “And here I thought all you did was take people’s money to look the other way.”
“Ooh, zing!” the voice croons with a laugh.
The jab hurts, but it’s an old pain. There’s nothing special about being an agent on the take, and I’ve come to terms with it. Mostly. It’s not like it’s the worst part about being me. “Come on, Charles. Let’s make a deal here.”
He shrugs. “So you do want to fix this. Okay. Make her father come down here, apologize, renew his oaths. Then it ends.”
“You know he won’t do that. Can’t do that.”
“Then it doesn’t end while she has breath to scream.” Charles voice is suddenly hard as stone.
I let out a ragged sigh. “Is there nothing I can do to change your mind? No promise? No amount of money?”
Charles glares at me, smoke dribbling out of his nostrils. “Now you insult me, Agent Croy. Not very wise thing to do.”
I can feel it as the dozen or so men standing around me stiffen, more than one hand stealing toward a weapon. A sadness wells up in me, a form of self-pity that I know too well. Surrounded by a crowd of people who would kill me on a whim, and enjoy doing it, and all I feel is a bitter sorrow over what I have to do next.
“I told you this wouldn’t end well.” The voice is practically panting in eagerness now. “Let’s show him how we fix things, my dear friend.”
I breathe in slowly, give a small nod, acknowledging something I can no longer deny. Then I reach inside myself, to that place deep down, where what most people would call a soul resides, to where I keep it hidden, a beast, a monster, barely controlled, always eager for release. I take hold of the chains I’ve forged to hold it at bay, and let out some slack.
Charles is still glaring at me when the lights dim. It’s not like their losing power, rather like some sort of darkness, cloying and tangible, is spreading. It comes from the shadowy corners, from the places where the lights can’t quite reach, from the darkest parts of everything.
The men around me stiffen further, backs arching, lifting onto the balls of their feet. Their mouths drop open, and their eyes close until only a sliver of white shows. Slowly, one by one, they settle back to the floor, and each of them takes hold of their gun, drawing the weapons out.
And pointing them at Charles.
For a long moment, he doesn’t react. Then his gaze flicks around the circle of shining gun barrels aimed at him, and his eyes narrow. His fingers twitch, flex. The tip of a pink tongue flicks out, licks his lips.
“Don’t try it, Charles,” I say, the words coming out through clenched teeth as I fight against the strain. It’s not controlling the men around me that’s hard; it’s restraining the thing that’s controlling them, keeping it from doing something much worse, that has me feeling like I’ll fly apart at any second. “Just do what I asked you to do.”
Charles looks at the men around him again, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. “All right, secret agent man. You win. This time.”
He leans back slowly and reaches into a pocket of his suit jacket, pulling out a small object, a doll of coarse sackcloth, given a vaguely feminine cast by a crown of straw hair. Keeping his motions slow and clear, he pries apart a rough seam on the doll, and extracts a slip of paper. I don’t have to look at it to know the name written there.
Another match flares, and Charles holds the burning tip to the scrap, muttering words as he does so. The paper ignites, the fire consuming it in seconds, leaving nothing but drifting ash. I can feel the air change as the spell is undone, like a fresh breeze blowing through a stifling hot room.
“It’s done,” Charles says, glowering at me.
With a grunt of effort, I push the thing inside me back, forcing it to relinquish its hold on those it has momentarily possessed. It’s like driving a lion back into its cage, a delicate task where a second’s inattention will result in tragedy. But back it goes, into the darkest place within me, to brood and sulk, biding its time for its next chance. The effort leaves me shaking, drenched in cold sweat and gasping for breath.
“Till next time,” the voice whispers as it recedes.
When I can lift my head again, I see that my victims haven’t fared any better than I. Bodies lie slumped across the furniture or sprawled on the floor, moaning and twitching. They’ll be all right in time, or at least better off than I will.
Finally, I look at Charles, to find him staring back at me. He takes off his dark glasses, staring at me with eyes whose sclera is the color of fresh blood. “You have some nerve to you, coming in here to do this thing.”
I force a tremulous smile onto my face. “You know me, Charles. You’re hardly the only devil I’ve ever dealt with.”
He nods slowly, lips tightening into what might be a smile. “You have got the juju, Agent Croy. Got it bad. Now leave, and take it with you.”
I nod back, a gesture of gratitude, a little surprised to be walking out of here so easily. At the door, however, Charles voice reaches me again.
“I do know you, Agent Croy.” I turn to see him still staring at me. “And you know me. You know I have power, power to fix most anything I want.” Those fingers stab at me, the brand between them gone dark and cold. “But for you, I got nothing. There’s nothing I know of that’s a fix for what ails you.”