The afternoon sun had completely chased the damp springtime cold from the antique storefronts and alleyways along Decatur Street. A humid breeze across the Mississippi carried with it a heavy, unclean scent wafting over the Charger as Gabriel picked his way through the traffic, cursing yet another suicidal driver whose car flashed between the tightly-packed vehicles.
He glanced at his battered jacket, sitting in the passenger seat, and thought how glad he was that had decided to take it off before he got in the car. Jesus, if it’s this hot and humid here in April, how do people stand it in July? It must be like breathing through wet cotton. With that he rolled his window up and turned on the air conditioning inside the old car.
At a stoplight, he glanced at his map. He had carefully drawn it on the back of his pay statement before the first time he’d come here. That seemed so long ago. He was good at drawing maps and navigating streets—always had been, but this place was making him mad. He scrutinized his squiggles, cursing whatever insane city planners had thrown these haphazard pick-up sticks onto a table and called it a road plan. It seemed he never took the same route twice in this strange town.
“If I can just find St. Charles. That’s the street,” he said aloud.
He turned on Canal Street and a moment later, he was on St. Charles, breathing a sigh of relief. Now, if the drivers don’t kill me, or I don’t get creamed by one of those trolleys, I should be able to make it to Bastiaan’s place so he can finish me off. Gallows humor.
It was so confusing. Reading people, understanding their motivations, that sort of intellectual stuff had never been his forte. Hell, up until the first time he’d spoken to Bastiaan on the phone, or at least until that day when the love of his life had been lost forever to him, he thought of himself as a pretty normal guy—drinking a few cold ones with his buddies and watching a game on the television, or going to Cypress Park and walking along the water with Michelle on weekends—nice quiet stuff like that. But that normal life seemed so far away, as if it had happened to another person, in a movie he watched a long time ago.
His mind returned to Bastiaan. Did Suriya tell me not to trust him? Or was she talking about that guy with the non-name…the dark wizard dude? Or maybe she was saying not to trust either of them. She had been strangely evasive on the trip down, switching subjects from one to another and back. Irritating little thing. He felt a cold hollow just below his ribcage and suddenly realized that he was missing her.
He thought about the drive to New Orleans, and how Suriya and he had enjoyed a laughing conversation about that old 1960s TV show, I Dream of Jeannie. "It’s way too silly to get mad at. Besides Barbara Eden looked SOOO great in those outfits." She had grinned, warming up the inside of the car with her mirth. "But yeah, it would be a little like if…I dunno, it would be like if you had a show about chimps in costumes and claimed they were humans or something. Not that you guys are like chimps to us..." He found himself laughing despite everything. She couldn’t have known how appropriate that analogy was. Michelle had always gotten mad when she saw monkeys dressed up like people on television. She thought it was undignified and cruel to do that to the animals.
As the car approached the Garden District, the houses became older and larger—massive, stately things that brought the mind to the days of the antebellum South a time of slavery and malaria, wealth and poverty. A time gone by, maybe not by as much as some people seemed to think, or hope. He looked at a huge mansion with somber white columns in the front, imagining French-speaking men dressed in old-fashioned linen suits enjoying expensive brandy and cigars on the porch—or gallery, as they seemed to call them here. Overhanging trees turned the street into a tunnel, trailers of Spanish moss swaying in the late afternoon breeze like the skirts of a dancer.
He swung the Charger onto Napoleon Avenue. Nothing for it now. I’ll face him. See what he has to say for himself. Worst comes to worst, I’m dead and I’ll find out about this psycho-energy levels-babble sooner instead of later.
He parked his car on the street, stepping out into the muggy afternoon.
“Here goes nothing.” His mind rolled miserably back to how Michelle used to tease him when he used that phrase. She would always grin broadly—that huge smile that lit up the entire room, and she would say "Don’t be so pessimistic! Here goes something!"
The young woman, Rachael, opened the door as he stepped onto the neat, white porch of the tidy townhome. She nodded and Gabriel entered the dim of the house. The cool air felt good on his skin, there was a vague smell of cigar smoke and music came from somewhere down the hall—accordion playing a jaunty tune while a man’s huge voice sang "yeaaaah," followed by what might be French...or that odd language Bastiaan spoke.
Bastiaan stood at the window in the parlor, like a statue in a room full of light and air. The music came from a stereo system built into a highly polished armoire. He did not turn his eyes from the window for a moment, then, slowly turned to Gabriel. "Well?" His voice betrayed no emotion.
Gabriel felt his hands growing cold, an artery was banging unpleasantly in the left side of his neck. He tried to keep his voice level, "Well what?"
Bastiaan turned, a slight smile, disarming, "The crystal." The sun’s dying rays turned his eyes into glittering gems.
"Oh yeah." Gabriel was uncomfortable. He opened the briefcase and set the big crystal on a small round table, steadying his hands by force of will. The evening sun and its inner light turned the air around it into a kaleidoscope of spectral colours.
"Good job, mon." The big man crossed to a desk at the far end of the parlour. A moment later he placed 50 crisp hundred-dollar bills on the table and picked the crystal up, contemplating it dreamily in the light from the window. He turned to Gabriel, there was mildness in his demeanor, "Sit down, noble mon. You look like hell. You want a beer? Bourbon?"
Gabriel thought for a moment, then, sinking into a soft, deep red chair, "Beer. I guess. I’ve had to do some thinking."
"Something the Brat said, no doubt." Bastiaan flashed a strangely affectionate smile, producing a couple of amber bottles from a small fridge. He set a glass mug and the bottle on the table, next to Gabriel, then he sat nearby, opening his own beer and pouring it lovingly into a glass. The brand was something Gabriel had never seen—maybe a local brew—it had a ram on the label. "Go on, what did that Brat say? Probably that I’m someone you shouldn’t be listening to so much, heh?"
Gabriel watched the bubbles as he poured the beer into his own glass. "She said you were bugged. That this guy...That...man, whose name sounds like white noise. She said he’s listening in."
The man on the stereo was singing about a girl named Marie playing guitar. Bastiaan smiled, "We safe in here. He can’t listen in. But he want to." He snapped his fingers, remembering something. "Oh, but I need to see your mobile phone."
Gabriel took the phone out of his pocket and passed it to the big man without a thought. Bastiaan’s eyes were fixed on the slim telephone as his big fingers worked on the case. "Where the Brat go, she not want to see me?"
"Nah. She had to leave. It was something like…she had to refresh her power. Some damn thing." Gabriel looked distracted.
"Yes, that make sense. She have to go to the source of her power from time to time. She be back in no time, mon. You see. Think of it like filling up your car." The back of the phone came off and Bastiaan laid it aside gently. Grabbing a long pair of tweezers, he removed a small piece of paper from the telephone. "Oh, here is your problem." He laid the little slip on the table.
Gabriel regarded it: almost blank, about an inch on each side…it looked slightly browned, as if it had been heated, there appeared to have been writing once. "What the hell is this, and why is it in my phone?"
"I put it there, mon. It supposed to look like this." He placed a similarly-sized piece of paper down next to it. This one was fresh, white and had a circle drawn and quartered off with tiny squiggles that Gabriel thought might be some kind of foreign writing. "It is a seal of Jupiter. No one listen in while this in your phone. Someone seem very interested in hearing what you have to say."
"So why does this not fill me with happiness?" Gabriel smirked, he sipped his beer, ice-cold and rich. "So who the hell is this guy?"
Bastiaan narrowed his dark eyes. "No one know for sure. There are hundreds of stories about him—no one know what his name is or where he come from. Some people say he is Hasan, master of the Ismaili a thousand years ago."
"Hasan? Never heard of him," Gabriel smirked.
"The Ismailis got called the Assassins. It was said that they had magical powers, and they had a leader named Hasan, supposed to be a great sorcerer." His eyes widened on that last word.
"Okay, so what’s with that radio static sound that Suriya makes when she says his name?"
Bastiaan smiled slightly, "That is the Brat’s way of showing respect to her old master." There was a brief silence. "Names have great power, mon. To name a thing, you can control it. That why a poppet gets a name first thing. A poppet what you would maybe call a 'voodoo doll.'"
Gabriel made a face, "Voodoo doll? You’re serious? I thought that stuff was just in the movies."
Bastiaan straightened somewhat, "Voodoo serious stuff. Not movie stuff, mon." His tone was slightly warning.
"Oh no no no! I know I know. It's a religion and everything. Sure. I know that." Despite the headache and the beer, and the assorted uncertainties, he had no intention of alienating the one person who might be an ally in this freaky adventure. "It’s just...voodoo dolls?"
Bastiaan was calm, "They make it into a joke in the cartoons and teevee. It is horse shit. But poppets are serious business. You use them to..." he had to think for a moment, to select the right words, "You have to use a poppet to re-direct sick energy inside a person. They messed up, you name the poppet as them and fix them. Specially important if they a danger to themselves or to other people." He took a sip of his beer, sighed lightly then met Gabriel’s eyes, "The Old Man, he guard his name very close. To some he is Hasan, some people—in the Caribbean, and maybe in..." the big man sipped his beer, "...South America, not sure. They call him Santiago, or Mister Santiago." Bastiaan grinned with his straight, white teeth, "The people in China, or maybe India, I forget which, call him some name that mean 'Old Mister No-Name.'"
Gabriel snorted, "And he’s some kind of dark wizard?"
Bastiaan kept eye contact and spoke in slow, measured tones, "Yes. Sort of…But don’t allow yourself the mistake of thinking he some cartoon character with a pointy hat and a long beard, mon." The big man gestured with a charming grin, "You know—a hooky nose, like in the movies. He is a very charming and brilliant fellow. Smart, handsome...debonair. Got that English accent like from Oxford. You know."
"Yeah." For some reason, that description made Gabriel feel even more miserable. "So, what’s his deal? What does he want?"
"I wish I could tell you, mon."
Gabriel felt his head beginning to ache slightly, or perhaps it had been doing so for awhile and he’d not gotten to notice it. He finished his beer in a wide draught.
"His usual goal is knowledge, but he and I ..." Bastiaan paused, formulating how to say it, "We at cross purposes. I am trying to heal and he don’t care about that. Just knowledge, power." He stared at Gabriel for a moment. "Look, mon, it is good you got that Brat. She can help. She help you stay of of harm’s way and we do some good in the meantime."
Gabriel rubbed at the back of his neck and stared at the patterns in the expensive rug on the floor, "I don’t even know who I can trust anymore."
"You can trust her. Listen to the Brat, she won’t steer you wrong."
Gabriel met his eyes, "She says not to trust you."
Bastiaan laughed loudly, a rich booming sound, full of mirth. It was the laugh of a generous man. "She not like me so much, that Brat." He grinned, "Listen to her. She do not like me too much, but she be a very good friend for you to have."
Gabriel sensed their meeting was drawing to a close, "And you?"
"No one is as good as he thinks he is, mon. I got agenda, you got one, she got one, Old Man got one too. I’m not…what would you say? I’m no holier than thou. I don't pretend I'm a saint." Bastiaan rose, straightened the pleats on his trousers. "One thing, noble mon. I never lie to you. I tell you what I can. I don’t know if you say you can trust me, but I never will lie."
Gabriel got up, feeling mildly bewildered, "Where do I go from here?"
"Who can say? We got business...lots of it. Make sure you take the new crystal, mon." He gestured to a small table near the door. On it was a crystal, sitting between an old skull and a half bottle of Bacardi rum. He picked up the crystal, "Booze for me too?" He managed a smile despite the intense weirdness.
"Nope. An offering." Bastiaan regarded him, "Go where your heart leads. Go where the Brat say. Watch the news. You will do right. I have confidence in you."
Gabriel shook his head, shook hands with the big man and walked out into the balmy night. The yard swam in unearthly colors from the streetlight. He looked up at the light, gigantic insects were circling it in a cloud. He felt a chill of disgust. He’d never much cared for insects, especially big swamp bugs like New Orleans has. While he had been walking back to has car earlier he’d seen a cockroach, or something very much like one, as long as his thumb running along the top of a brick wall. Damned thing just flew away. Roaches aren’t supposed to fly like that. Nearly made him jump out of his skin.
It was then that he realised that the swarm of insects circling the streetlight were all those giant, flying roaches. He mouthed the words "Motherfucker!" and got into the car fast. As he started the engine, the huge, ugly bugs started bouncing against the roof and rear windshield of the Charger.