Tuesday, 03 June 2014 10:30

Through the Eye of the Serpent by A. E. Doylle: Day 5

Day 5

 

Lentre calls the hotel room the next morning to let Don know that he's working too early to catch breakfast, but can meet up at lunchtime to talk if Don wants to drop around the hospital. The walk to Storyville is made alone once more, past the cleared-down parking lots that cut like wounds through the lines of dull brown buildings that make up the poorest district in New Orleans. The key clicks like a solitary footstep as it turns in its metal cradle, a single toe across a line. The door creaks and groans the familiar sound of tired steel as it slides upwards and slides horizontal against the roof, almost clipping Don on the chin when he doesn't move back quite fast enough. He takes a step inside, then stops, because his eyes fall on the desk.

It's empty. Well, not really, because it's still littered with Adelaide's odds and ends, but the blue folder he placed down the day before is decidedly gone.

 

He searches everywhere. Back under the crude bed for a start, just in case he hadn't put it where he thought he had, but that comes up blank too. Then on the other surfaces, and underneath in case it dropped down, but still nothing. It's not tangled up in the blankets, or slid up between shelves, or hidden by statuettes.

He finally comes upon it when he resorts to tipping everything out of the boxes. The blue folder seems to blink at him from the very bottom of one, fully obscured by its previous contents. There's no way he put it there.

He's barely had time to pick it up and frown, hardly had an opportunity to cry the whatonEarth exclamations in his mind as he's done too many times already, when his gaze is snapped around to the opening.

It's unmistakable. It has to be. Rainbow scales glint in the sunlight on a large writhing body, a thin tail giving a final flick as it disappears around the corner.

Don's off after a bare moment. He pulls himself out of that rectangular-block room and sprints down a short corridor of doors in grey that remind him horribly of the morgue, skidding to a stop at the T-junction at the end. Peering around both sides reveal more corridors of lockers, both empty.

Soft footfalls echo in the maze of metal as Don trudges back the way he came, only to be stopped dead yet again in shock that seems to be becoming a recurring pattern. He checks the number, then checks it again.

The door which he'd leapt through without a backwards glance only minutes ago is firmly wedged shut into the ground. A quick feel, of course, checks that is it locked and that the key he'd left in its lock is nowhere to be seen.

Well then, he thinks almost dissociatively as he stumbles back until his shoulders hit the wall, here come those exclamations.

* * *

Is he losing his mind?

Has he finally snapped under the pressure of work and rent and too much caffeine, and now Adelaide? Is he only winding himself up, trying to find something when he should have trusted the police? And how he's chasing phantom snakes and seriously considering that she could have been spirited away by some other force and even almost coming to believe his dreams are real—and no no no.

He rubs a hand over his eyes, pressing so hard a little bubble of pain and pressure drifts to the surface and pops. He moves his fingers to rake through his hair and blinks at the black dots on his vision.

Or is he just overreacting? Too taken in by mystery of a new place and the whispered words from the books. Read too deep into a little spot of oddness and delved too far into his own doubts. He's not a policeman. He's not a private investigator or a genius civilian consultant like you see in detective novels. He's just a man who's lost, and needs to hold himself together. Focus, now, is what he needs. Just as Scarlet O'Hara said, there'll be time to worry tomorrow.

He looks up, and breathes. Forgetting snakes and loa and Voodoo and everything in that mad line, there's still something. Someone who took Adelaide's body, who doesn't want him to find out why. A perfectly logical explanation. Something to do with what's in this folder.

The folder.

He looks down to where the blue card-pocket is still held in his left hand, now slightly bent and creased in his tight grip. Whatever Lentre says, he doesn't know if Adelaide needs him. But he needs her. He needs to know.

There's a cork board on wall in front with an arrow pointing down the opposite direction to where he'd just run and a sign that reads Office, opening hours inscribed beneath of 10am – 4pm. He checks his watch. 11:50, though that's still on Boston time. 10:50, then. He tucks the folder under his arm and heads off as the arrow directs.

It ends up taking a surprisingly long time to arrive at the office. The place is big, bigger than he'd expected for a storage rental. A burrow of just a little section of history, a snapshot of time tunnelling through the city's forsaken blocks in a heart of iron latches and concrete shells.

He walks slowly not of hesitation but of the unease that comes from solitude in such a place even in broad daylight, when his own pulse and breathing seem to reflect off the walls on either side. He sees no one else—this place must be the kind where you dump everything once and don't come back until it's all fallen into past tense. But Adelaide must have frequented it, this ghost town of crumbling memories and bits and pieces of so many lives.

The owner opens promptly when Don knocks on the door of the medium-sized office. He's a portly man with greying hair, who greets Don amiably before sitting back down at his desk on which he appears to have been treating himself to a game of solitaire.

"What can I do for you, eh, sir? My name's Joe, and this is my place. Shall I set you up with a locker? We currently have a reduced rates offer for long-term storage."

"Uh, no thanks. Actually, I was wondering if I could borrow a spare key. Number 147."

Joe fixes him with a look. "And why would you be wanting that? Lockers are private, I don't just go around letting people in."

"This is important. Very important."

"Why, something happen? I'm quite familiar with the owner of that one, nice girl. Been with us a few years."

"Adelaide Berger?"

"Yeah, that's the name."

"Well." Don reaches into his back pocket to pull out his wallet, opening to show his license. "I'm Don Berger. Her brother."

"She never mentioned a brother."

"We haven't really talked for a while.

"I see." Joe leaned forward with his elbows on his desk. "Why you here now then, checking up?" he asks, not entirely unkindly.

"Not quite. Adelaide—Adelaide's been murdered."

The man stares at Don in shock, opening and closing his mouth jerkily like a nutcracker. "I—I," he stammers, then slumps in her chair with a sigh. "Oh my god," he said hoarsely. "How? Why?"

"I'm trying to work that out." Don moves closer, touched a little by the display of emotion. "You knew her well?"

"Not quite well well, you know, but better than the others. Most just come and go without me ever seeing, but she'd pop by here too when she knew I was in." His voice begins to trail. "She was very good person. A little odd though, aloof. I think she was lonely."

Don gives a small nod, eyes falling to the floor. Lonely. After she cut all her ties herself. There's a little pause before he asks, "She lived here, did she?"

Joe grimaces. "Well, sometimes, yeah," he says eventually. "They're not supposed to, but if they're desperate and have nowhere else I'm not exactly going to force them onto the streets. It's easy enough to turn a blind eye and make sure they're alright. She was here a lot, used her place as some sort of work space. Didn't stay over all the time, but every now and then."

"Do you know all your customers this well?"

"Oh, hardly." The owner gives a sad little smile. "Most just come and go on their own.”

"Do you know where else she stayed?"

"Not really, no. I expect it was mostly through her work, though."

Work. Don moves even closer. Another piece of the puzzle he could fill in now. "Her work," he says, words coming quickly. "You know what she did."

"Oh yeah. A lot of us can tell you about Adelaide Berger."

"What?"

Joe leans in. "She helped people out, you know? Pointed a good friend of mine to her once who was having some troubles with her family, your sister cleared it all up. Never charged for her services either, but I suspect she got a lot of thanks and donations. I think she stayed mostly with clients too."

"Helping people out," Don repeats slowly. "How?" It's a silly question since he's seen her locker, but there is a slight possibility that it could be something else. A slim chance that she was a movie prop-maker, or a tourist supplier...

"She was a priestess."

...or perhaps none at all.

"They say one of the most powerful today," Joe goes on. "Even maybe the most powerful we've seen in a long time."

Don lets out a breath. "A Voodoo priestess," he says softly, half to himself. He's not quite sure if that explains a lot or sends things spinning out even further into complexity. "So," he continues after a little while turning this new information in his head. "Will you give me her key?"

Joe gives a quivering nod and turns to a cabinet behind him, pulling open a rickety door and counting through the shelves. There's no second chair in the room and Don finds himself pacing as he waits, though there's hardly time to be impatient before the sounds of rummaging stop.

But the man's hand is empty when he turns. "I'm sorry," he says as a deep frown creases his face. "The key seems to be missing."

Don doesn't even sigh. Of course it is.

* * *

"So. My sister was a Voodoo Priestess," Don says faux-casually when he meets Lentre for lunch in the hospital cafeteria.

"Well of course she is."

Don drops his fork. "You knew?"

Lentre frowns at him. "She's not exactly in the public light, but her name's far from unknown in the right circles. Sort of a shadowy figure, they call her. I thought the police would have told you."

"Police didn't really say anything much to me, except that she apparently had a dark side." Don rubs a hand over his forehead. "Well, anyway," he says again after a couple of seconds. "I've got something else." He untucks the folder from under his arm and hands it over as they make their way to a table and take their seats. "Found it under her bed. Anything mean anything to you?"

The doctor opens it up, flicking through the newspaper cuttings before pausing over the files. He gathers up three in his hands. "These, yes." He spreads them out for Don to see. They're the men with the same last name. "Matranga was the name of the New Orleans crime family."

Don's eyes snap up. "You mean the Mafia?" Was Adelaide involved? But no, why then would she be collecting mugshots? Were they potential clients she checked up on, perhaps? "Could they be behind this?"

"Unlikely." Lentre's fingers slowly move over the files of the other two men. "They fell into shadow two decades or so ago. There's rumours and controversies though, of course, that say that they're still one of the most powerful families in America today. But even so, leadership changed in Prohibition era." He left the files again, now squinting down at the handwritten notes, holding a few up against the newspaper clipping as Don had done to compare dates. "The famous Sylvestro Carolla, or 'Silver Dollar Sam' ruled the New Orleans underground for a while, but after that it passed down to the Marcello family. It's all part of local legend around here, the Marcellos still own a significant amount of real-estate in this area. But the Matrangas themselves, if there really are any left, probably have little or nothing to do with it by now."

"Right." Don bites his bottom lip, tugging at it with his teeth in counterpoint to each flashing question in his mind. "Any ideas, then?"

"Hmm, I don't know. Maybe there's a few stragglers trying to reclaim an old glory, or a handful of gang hopefuls who changed their name to something famous as a calling card. Or maybe these are real Matrangas who are actually completely innocent, put under suspicion simply due to unfortunate descent. You?"

Don shrugs. "Either way, why would Adelaide have these?" he ponders out loud. He looks over at Lentre, expecting another cryptic comment, another vague answer and assurance.

But Lentre looks more truly intrigued than Don's seen yet. He gathers all the papers back into a pile, straightens it, then starts going through from the beginning again with eyes that glint with a new light. "That's our question now, isn't it?" he says quietly. "And I have a feeling that a lot hinges on this answer."

Well, at least that one wasn't too cryptic.

Don drops forward, leaning his head over the backs of his hands as they lie folded on the shiny metal table-top. "I'm getting the feeling that my sister's life was a lot more complicated than mine. And right now it's all spilling over."

* * *

The afternoon is spent back at the hotel and between the covers of the history book. Don finds the section on priestesses, who apparently lead the religion in a matriarchal system, presiding over public meetings and rituals as well as earning a private income providing amulets and charmed objects to those seeking protection, cure from sickness, or hindrance to an annoyance. He turns a page, and is greeted with a picture of a tree-lined area of swampy land. The passage continues beneath.

Of course, any history would be sorely incomplete without the story of our Queen Marie Laveau. She was born in 1794 as a free woman of colour, a Creole, and remains one of the most well-known and powerful practitioners of Voodoo. She was not the only queen when she came to power, but as her reputation grew it overthrew the others until she had sole rule over New Orleans. Known in the earthly sphere as a hairdresser who was quite highly  sought after by white families, she was always up to date with gossip and information through the city. Her famous rituals were conducted in a number of places which still remain: behind her own cottage in the French quarter, in the garden of the St. Louis Church, and also notably along the Bayou St. John (shown in image). Her legacy has lived long after her death and a descent of Queen Marie is still active in Voodoo today, though it is a relation by marriage and not birth.

It's all interesting enough, though he makes sure to firmly compartmentalise the information in his head under 'legend' and not 'fact'.

He also makes his way down to the hotel's internet booth a little later in the evening and sets himself the tedious task of searching up each article found in Adelaide's folder. They're all found quite easily, though only some are large and important enough that he can turn up any more information while for others he only manages to bring up the exact same report on the same newspaper's website. The dates begin four years ago, exactly around the time he'd last seen Adelaide and left after barely a conversation.

There's a one-year period covered by the clippings before the personal notes take over. The first few articles are completely unmarked, while towards the later articles there are little things jotted around. No words, but there are things underlined and highlighted—the most important investigation details and the information on possible suspects by what he can surmise.

The common factor is easy enough to find. Every crime reported is done by persons unknown, and aside from these single reports Don can't find any follow-ups recording successful conclusions to any of the cases. And the few clues that are there appear to match up with the details of the men on the files, Don can see, though they're too vague to come to anything definitive.

And another thing begins to pop up around the later clippings. Titles with a different tone, recording failed attempts at robbery and interrupted assaults. Suspects become clearer, though still no arrests are made. It's here where the personal notes overlap, and they stretch up nearly to the present.

The last note dates to a mere month ago. Don picks up the small scrap of paper daintily in his fingers, holding it up to his eyes, eyes tracing over the sparse words: 55 Coola Avenue, 11pm.

With the neat concrete-wrapped package of Adelaide's life now closed to him, this is the last snapshot he has of his sister. It's ticked. Whatever it was, it had been successful.

Don sits in the booth with the folder for some time after he closes his internet browser and the computer starts prompting him to insert more money. It's all in front of him, but he doesn't need it. He can see it all flashing in his head, and it's not quite as hazy as his first glance had made out.

It's like Adelaide was tracking them. Starting off collecting their activity after it happened, putting the pieces together herself until she could start predicting them. And the types of report and the ticks in the notes—it's like the ones that failed, failed because of her.

* * *

Damballah and Ayida—and he's not quite sure when he started thinking of the snakes as such exactly—aren't there that night. Not that he can see much anyway, but he can somehow sense it. Most everything's dark, except for a few spots of torchlight. He creeps as close as he can to the moving shapes, and with each flash gradually builds it all together in his head.

There are five men standing together, pacing a little from foot to foot. Their faces, as each is gradually made out, jolt immediately after all the time he'd spent staring. It's Rico, Hadrian, Marco, Nicolo, and Sergio from the files. And they're talking.

"Where are they?" one is hissing, and the voice hits Don like a bullet. It's the same man who was in the alley on his first night, leering as the sounds of pain steadily rose.

"Calm down!" another growls, and that one's familiar too. "They're coming, all right?"

"I don't know why we all have to be here," a third grumbles.

"Because they said it would take at least all of us to carry the whole shipment, and the less time we take the better." That's the second one again. "Come on, man! We got a city-load of coke coming in, it's our first big business!"

"But there's still no—" another man begins, but it cut off when the sound of footsteps breaks through the night.

The men straighten themselves into order as the click-clack steadily becomes louder. It's slow and uneven, like the result of a bad limp. Gradually, a single figure makes its way out from the gloom. It appears to be wearing an odd apparatus on its head, like a gas mask. Don can see the confusion on the group's faces.

And then figure's face falls into focus, and the confusion turns into blank shock.

"No," comes a rasp. "No, you're dead. We dealt with you!"

Adelaide just smiles as a small cylindrical object slips from her clasped hands, clattering to the ground and beginning to spurt white vapour.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: A. E. Doylle is a young writer hailing from Sydney, Australia who is still somewhat riding on her childhood dream of writing professionally one day. She's spent a lot of time in flash fiction and poetry, and now with a few short publications under her belt is trying her hand at some longer works. She also enjoys reading, music ...and long walks on the beach.