Don slumps, sighing. "Isn't that just it, then? Every time I think I find out something, there's something else I just don't get. I feel I never knew my sister very well after all," he says with a twinge of sadness that he tries to fight back—there's no use asking for sympathy right now.
"Or, perhaps that's part of it too. Becoming different as you say she was." Lentre leans in. "You've been thinking that something happened to her, affected her. But what if it's a bit more extreme?"
"Okay, so our going theory at this point is that Adelaide got asked by someone to investigate a Mafia family, in the process of which she was forced to become a priestess and get a personality transplant?" He ends that with a snort, and Lentre mirrors it. The man's sense of humour must be rubbing off.
"Well, I think I have to get going," the doctor says after a pause spent finishing off the last of his bacon. It's probably for the best, it doesn't seem they'd have any more fruitful discussion that morning. "You have something planned for today?"
Don nods as the other man drops some money on the table. "Thought I'd go ask her old professor, maybe see if any old friends are still around."
"Where did she go?"
"St John's. It's close by, isn't it?"
"Not too far. I'll see you later, then."
Don gives Lentre a hint of a smile, but as he watches the retreating figure he can't help the small niggling feeling that there might be more to that sudden look of revelation than Lentre said. Something else to all his strange comments. Something he's not telling Don.
* * *
St. John's University is not large but still manages to be grand. Its grounds open back onto the Bayou, and the open breezes blow softly through the stately buildings as Don makes his way through the wrought-iron front gate. He'd enjoyed the forty-five minute walk from his hotel, weaving though familiar enough morning traffic jams and sniffing out the not-so-familiar scent of freshly baked bread at a few select points among various other delicacies. Back in Boston he'd always been more of a car person than for open air, but immersing in such a foreign city takes an attraction he hasn't met before. He can't recall feeling it either of the last two times he was here. Perhaps it's taken advantage of the rawness that he's been left in after all that's happened, seeped in through the cracks of loss. Maybe even started to fill them a little.
He’d met Adelaide's student adviser briefly during his first visit, and finds his way to his office through a mixture of vague memory and squinting at tiny door plaques. Professor Reiding is a friendly-looking middle-aged man with an impressively full head of red hair, spindly glasses perched on the very end of his nose that look like they're a second from falling off. He frowns at Don as after letting him in with a low, "Hmmm, do I know you?"
"I think we met once, but it was a few years ago. My name is Don Berger."
"Now, Berger, Berger, that sounds familiar."
"My sister was Adelaide Berger."
"Ah, yes! Please, take a seat." The professor sweeps back to his chair, then pauses as if catching himself. "What do you mean was?"
Don takes a breath. "She was killed six days ago."
"Oh that's terrible." Reiding's face falls. "An accident?"
"Not quite. I'm, uh, trying to work out what happened. I haven't seen her in a long time. Not since about when she left here, I think."
"Yes, I recall. Quite a disappointment, I thought. She seemed so promising. It was funny, the last few weeks before she officially dropped out were very, well, strange I guess would be the easiest way to describe. I have a lot of students and a lot of drop-outs, but this one really stuck in my mind. She was also so lovely, always asking about my daughter and my cats and how my job was as much as we discussed her study. Then one day when I said hello to her in a corridor she stared like she barely recognised me."
That's something Don can picture all too well. "Do you have any idea what could have happened to her?"
A large hand gingerly takes off the glasses and places them down on the desktop. "Something dark," he says softly. "Which made her darker too. Not nasty or cruel or anything, but like she'd seen too much of the world."
They both sit in silence for a little bit after that. Don traces his eyes over the frames that line the office walls, some holding academic certifications and other photographs. Of a young girl in pigtails, a pretty Asian woman cuddling an orange tabby cat, a black Siamese looking grumpy in a pair of pink booties. He tries to imagine Adelaide in here, young, bright-eyed and eager as he'd always known her to be. Before she changed.
"Do you know any of her old friends?" Don asks eventually. "Anyone else I can talk to?"
"Oh, let's see." Reiding pulls out his phone from his pocket and begins to scroll at something. "Her room-mate, Lilia Green, she was also one of mine. She got a job after finishing her undergrad but still drops by to visit sometimes. I have her number here. And there's also another girl, Danielle Hattin, who's studying. I can look up her timetable for you."
Don takes down Lilia's number, and discovers that Danielle is coming out of a chemistry lecture in half an hour with a one hour break next. He thanks the professor, who wishes him luck and points him to the south side of the campus.
At least, he thinks as he ambles his way towards the chemistry building, it seems he wasn't singled out.
* * *
He can recall Danielle being one of the names that popped up often in Adelaide's conversation, but she'd been on holiday when Don had been down. He waits outside the lecture theatre and rushes in after the bell rings to hastily ask the lecturer to point her out.
She turns out to be one of the nervous students carrying an armload of textbooks and an entire folder of notes, who greets Don with a wide-eyed, "Hi, I'm Danielle. Who are you?"
They re-locate themselves to a bench outside while Don explains, Danielle gasping when she hears about Adelaide.
"I mean, I only knew her for a few months and it was a while ago, but that's just awful."
"Did something happen to her, do you know? That made her leave?"
"I guess something must have, but I don't know. It wasn't, like, instantaneous. It didn't seem that she specifically wanted to drop out, if you know what I mean? More like she just stopped caring. Which was weird, because she was never like that. She wasn't, a nerd or anything, but she was passionate. And then she sort of just, wasn't. She just changed."
"Yeah, that's been said." Don considers for a few moments before asking, "did she ever mention anything about the Matranga crime family? Or seem interested in crime?"
"What?" Danielle's face twists in confusion. "No, none of that. Oh, I think I've heard of the Matranga, but not from Adelaide."
"What about Voodoo?"
The confusion melts away. "That, oh yes. All the time. She was really fascinated by it, but that suddenly went away too. Like she just forgot."
Or perhaps, Don finds himself pondering as he thanks Danielle and flashes a half-hearted smile, she knew enough already.
* * *
It's not going anywhere, not really. This investigation, if it can even be called that. They don't have witnesses, only observers who see the same effects but not their cause. They don't have clues, just a trail which leads to more trails. Scattered puzzle pieces which all overlap but make different pictures.
"It sounds crazy," Don tells Lentre that lunchtime, "but there's been a few ...odd things." It takes him more than a little bit to admit that. "Funny things happening around, and—now this is probably crazy—weird dreams I've been having. I almost feel like something's trying to stop me."
"That's not crazy." Lentre's voice drops low. "There is something trying to stop you, Don. A force."
Don sighs. They're at this, then. "You're not talking about magic, are you?"
"Call it what you like. Voodoo is more than just magic. And everything here is mixed in it. But don't forget that Adelaide needs you."
"Why do you keep doing that?" Several people on surrounding tables look up at the loud exclamation. Don takes a deep breath and forces his voice lower before answering. "Why do you keep talking about Adelaide like she's alive?"
"Why are you so sure she isn't?"
"Because her heart stopped, that's why! And you signed it off!"
Lentre lets out a slow exhale. "There are things in the world that many still would find mysterious. But you're close, Don, can't you feel it? You're almost there."
"And that, that! What's that supposed to mean? You're talking like you know more about this!"
"Perhaps I do." Don stares, and the doctor continues. "Perhaps I know, or knew, a little more. But you have, or had, to find it. Work it out for yourself."
"Oh, what the hell are you on about now?"
"Don," Lentre says firmly, pressing a hand down firmly on the other man's wildly waving arms. "Please, calm down." Then hand moves away to press flat against the tabletop. "If I'd told you when you first arrived that your sister was a powerful Voodoo priestess, how would you have reacted?"
"I—" Don breaks off. He grudgingly admits to himself that this is a fair point.
"And after everyone you've talked to," Lentre continues, "you still have no idea why anyone would steal Adelaide's body. Isn't it easier now than it would have been at the start to hear that I think she walked away herself?"
Fair enough too. Still, Don doesn't find himself fully convinced.
But Lentre isn't finished. "And now," he says, looking at Don intensely, "after all these other things you've seen, hasn't it become easier to think that maybe, just maybe, there's a little bit more than just the human and the logical in all of this?"
That one, Don has no answer for.
* * *
He meets Lilia in a cafe that afternoon, the same one he ate lunch at with Lentre the first time. It's the only one he knows, after all.
Don walks again, making his way through the French quarter to the ever-present lilt of jazz, and finds himself tapping a finger to the tune. The city's starting to grow on him. The people, the air, so different from his grey and tidy apartment-to-office living back in Boston.
Adelaide's old room-mate he has met already, and he spots the shy girl by her short black hair which looks exactly the same as when he's seen her last. They exchange hellos, after which there is a repeat of the earlier scene with Danielle when Don breaks the news.
"Something funny happened to her at the end, but you've probably heard that already. We talked about it a lot when it happened—me and Dani that is—'cause we were getting really worried about her. But she wouldn't answer any questions, barely talked to her friends at all. And never did again after she moved out."
Don nods and gives an "uh-huh" at appropriate times but finds himself disappointed as Lilia gives more-or-less the same answers as he's already received. It's with defeat that he bids her goodbye an hour later. She, the school, were the last idea he had. Now there's nowhere else to look, and nothing that he's found but more questions.
But he hasn't yet left when she speaks again.
"There is one thing."
He turns on his heel a little too quickly. "Yes?"
"I wasn't med science like Adelaide, you know. I'm in psychology. And well, I remember thinking at the time that a lot of her behaviour," she hesitates, biting her bottom lip uncertainly, "sort of fit with post-trauma symptoms."
"Sort of? What do you mean?"
"That's the strange part! Sometimes it seemed to fit and sometimes it didn't, and then sometimes a couple of the things she did fit but not the others."
"Like she was fighting it?"
Lilia shook her head. "No, that's part of the symptoms. Denial, refusal to admit weakness and all that. But for Adelaide—and I know it sounds kind of weird—the best description I could think of was that it was like only half of her was affected."
* * *
There's a strange feeling on the air that night.
On the air in the dream that isn't real, he amends immediately after the first thought passes through, but it sounds a little doubtful even to his own ears. It's a feeling of trepidation, of preparation. Of something ready to happen.
The scene is lit by flickering firelight. Candles, large and bright, form a wide circle around a drawing on the ground made in yellow-white powder. The same symbol he'd found in that drawer instead of Adelaide. The curve borders the tree-line on one side, and on the other stretches down toward the lapping water.
Don counts fifteen candles on the ground, twelve already lit, spaced several paces apart from each other. A sixteenth is being held by a hunched, wrapped figure who guides its flame towards an unlit wick.
"It is almost midnight." The snakes again. The words seem to be acknowledged. The thirteenth candle flares and the figure moves on, slowly, in the same loping gait as the foot-beats of the previous night.
Don tries to move forwards, to yell, but this time he can't. All he can do is watch.
He can make out more shapes too, beyond the flickering border of orange light. Five of them. Upright, but not high enough to be standing. Seated on something, then. And unmoving.
"We cannot delay any longer. They will wake soon. It must be tonight."
"And it shall be," the figure replies.
The fourteenth is lit, then the fifteenth, and the held candle placed down to complete the ring of fire. Then that hunched shape moves out of the circle and returns with a large pole which is driven into the ground at the centre. A candle is picked up off the ground once more and held to an orb at the top. A lamp.
A second later it ignites, and the scene flashes in firelight.
* * *
Don's eyes snap open to the beating of his heart. In a second the wall light is on and he's squinting in the sudden brightness as he pulls on his jacket, toeing into his shoes without bothering to change out of his pajamas.
A few hours ago, he thought he'd been at the end, as far as he could go. But now he finds something surging inside him, because in that last flash he'd seen the backdrop for the first time. And he knows it. He walked past it this morning.
The red numbers of the bedside clock blink at him as he flies out the door.