"Golden and Lebbon have far outstripped their past efforts with this wonderfully creepy thriller of a ghost story." Publishers Weekly starred review
"Golden and Lebbon vividly evoke the rich, enduring character of New Orleans, as well as spinning a compelling fantasy yarn that builds momentum as Max works his way through the city's history." Booklist
Max Corbett has returned to New Orleans for the funeral of his former girlfriend, Gabrielle Doucette, but between the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of his ruined relationship, the city feels alien.
At Gabrielle's graveside, Max meets Ray. Over a bottle of bourbon in a dive bar, the two discuss Gabrielle's unique connection to the city. Ray suggests that this connection might mean her tragic death is not truly her end. And he happens to know a real magic practitionernot some Bourbon Street phonywho could open a window to the past and send a warning to Gabrielle. Maybe Max can even deliver the warning in person? Ray offers him a cheap map and says the process is simple. Follow the charted moments to build up a little bit of magical clout and then find the man with the gift.
Surging with liquid courage, Max takes the ludicrous tourist map and sets off. But it turns out this quest is not so easy. When Max enters the First Moment, he is drawn into the fabric of history to witness dark and violent periods, and with each passing step, a grim conspiracy is revealed. Suddenly in too deep, there is nowhere for Max to go but through. But trudge through a swamp, you're going to get muddy.
About the Author
Christopher Golden’s novels include The Lost Ones, The Myth Hunters, Wildwood Road, The Boys are Back in Town, The Ferryman, Strangewood, Of Saints and Shadows, and The Borderkind. Golden co-wrote the lavishly illustrated novel Baltimore, or, The Steadfast The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Vampire, with Mike Mignola, and they are currently scripting it as a feature film for the New Regency. He has also written books for teens and young adults, including the thriller series Body of Evidence, honored by the New York Public Library and chosen as one of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Readers. Upcoming teen novels include Poison Ink for Delacorte, Soulless for MTV Books, and The Secret Journeys of Jack London, a collaboration with Tim Lebbon. With Thomas E. Sniegoski, he is the co-author of the dark fantasy series The Menagerie as well as the young readers fantasy series OutCast and the comic book miniseries Talent, both of which were recently acquired by Universal Pictures. Golden and Sniegoski also wrote the upcoming comic book miniseries The Sisterhood, currently in development as a feature film. Golden was born and raised in Massachusetts, where he still lives with his family. At present he is collaborating with Tim Lebbon on The Map of Moments, the second novel of The Hidden Cities.
Read an Excerpt
In Max’s dream, Gabrielle still loves him. And she is still alive. They’re in the attic of the wood-frame house on Landry Street, making love on top of a decades-out-of-fashion gown that her mother had worn to some ball in her debutante days. Gabrielle had dragged it to the floor and positioned it carefully to avoid getting splinters from the old boards. Golden light streams in and makes her cinnamon Creole skin glisten, and Max’s heart catches in his throat as he moves inside her. She’s the kind of beautiful that clouds the minds of men, and makes even the most envious woman marvel. Yet she has a wild, desperate need in her eyes, as though a fire burns inside her and she believes he might be able to give her peace.
“Don’t ever stop,” she says, gazing up at him with copper eyes.
Stop what? Making love to her? Loving her? He’s known her only a handful of weeks, and already he realizes that he will never be able to stop. The spell she has cast over him is irrevocable. He suspects that he has opened himself up to anguish, but he drives on with abandon. Better to have her and suffer forever if she should cast him aside, than to never have her at all.
Confusion touches him, makes him blink. This isn’t how it was. The ball gown is right, all sequins and charm, and Gabrielle shudders with pleasure, her breath hitching, and that is very right, indeed. She wears a tight tank top with lace straps, her socks, and nothing else. So sweet, and only nineteen . . . but the wisdom and confidence, the sensuality in those eyes belong to a woman who truly understands the world. Gabrielle is the first woman, Eve; the temptation for which Max is willing to risk his reputation and career.
But the light shouldn’t be like this. It should be night, with the sounds of car engines and pounding music from the street below. Instead, there is no sound at all, save for her heavy breathing. It’s like listening to a dead phone line—not just an absence of sound but a vacuum.
A heavy knocking comes from the door into the attic. Eyes glazed with love and lust, Gabrielle doesn’t hear it, but Max falters.
“No, no, baby, come on,” she urges, closing her eyes tightly.
The light has changed. Her skin has a bluish tint, but he blinks and it’s gone.
Her fingers twine in his hair and she pulls him down. He loses himself in the hunger of her kiss, but when they break apart the wrongness still troubles him.
The attic is too clean.
Gabrielle flips him over and settles down onto him, and he can feel the heat emanating from the place where they are joined, and the dark ringlets of her hair brush his face as she bends to kiss him again. Max rises to meet her, eyes drifting closed . . .
But the attic is too clean, and the knowledge stabs him. This is a moment of magic for Max, like nothing that’s ever happened to him before, but Gabrielle keeps the attic of this old place clean, which makes him wonder how many men have been here before him, and how many felt the same way he does.
Floorboards creak, and the attic has changed. It’s impossibly huge. Posters hang on the walls—things he’d had in his office at Tulane University—and in the shadows of the eaves, figures loom. Then, somehow, he can see through the shadows, and he knows these silent observers. He recognizes some of his colleagues and students; Gabrielle’s cousin, Corinne, two men from Roland’s Garage, the bar on Proyas Street where she’d taken him once and he’d been the only white face in the place. They watch, but he feels no menace from them, only sadness, as if they’ve come for a wake.
One figure remains in shadow. Max cannot see its face, which is fine, because he doesn’t want to. He’s too afraid.
He focuses on Gabrielle, shutting them all out. He wants to give her all of him, to bring her joy, and he touches her face, thrusting up to meet her.
Only then does he feel the wetness beneath him.
Frantic, he glances around and sees water flowing up through the spaces between the floorboards. The arms of the ball gown float like butterfly wings. An old leather shoe drifts by his head.
He tries to ask where it’s all coming from, turning to look up at her. But when he opens his mouth, water spills in. The attic is flooding. Max is drowning. Panic surges through him for a moment, but up through the water he sees that Gabrielle is still rocking on top of him, smiling as she presses her hands down on his chest, holding him down, keeping him under. He cannot breathe. For a moment he fights her, but then his panic shatters, leaving only the debris of sadness.
The world inverts.
Gabrielle is still above him—he can see the beams of the attic roof, and he can still feel the floorboards beneath his back—but as though the house has turned upside down, she is now the one under the water. It fills the top of the attic and she begins to sink upward, arms still reaching for him as though beckoning him to follow.
She is wearing her mother’s old debutante gown now, and it billows around her. Then the roof tumbles away, down into a pit of nothing, and she slips into black waters and is gone.
And he wakes . . .
. . . with a deep breath, as though coming back to life. Max had a moment of dislocation, and then his seat jostled and the hum of the passenger jet’s engines filled his ears, and he remembered it all.
“Jesus,” he whispered, opening his eyes and surrendering to consciousness.
The obese woman in the seat beside him shifted, absorbing even more of the space he’d paid to occupy. It seemed she’d actually gotten larger since the plane departed Boston, but of course that had to be impossible.
Don’t be a prick, he chided himself. Such thoughts were out of character for him on most days, but most days he wasn’t pinned into his seat by a woman of such immensity. Most days he wasn’t returning to a place he’d sworn to leave forever, traveling to the funeral of the person responsible for both the greatest joy and the greatest pain he’d ever known.
So if he behaved like a prick, he had a feeling he’d be able to live with it.
The landing announcement came through the PA system. Max managed to get his seat upright. He rested his head against the window frame and stared down at civilization below. It should have been New Orleans, but ten weeks after the hurricane, getting a flight into that city still presented complications and doubts. In the seven months he’d lived in Louisiana, Max had never been to Baton Rouge, and as the plane descended over the state’s capital, he found himself wishing he could have avoided it forever.
Did I ever really know you? he thought. And though the question was meant for Gabrielle, it could easily have applied to the city of New Orleans. He’d barely scratched the surface during the nearly two semesters he’d taught at Tulane, figuring he’d have years to explore and understand the mystery of what had once been called the Big Easy. It had been a city of music and exoticism, a place of both excess and torpor. He thought he’d gotten more intimate with New Orleans than the average tourist, but he’d been fooling himself, like a john falling in love with his favorite hooker.
Such thoughts led to dark corners of his mind, and he forced himself to move away from them. Gabrielle had hurt him so badly that he’d fled home to Boston, taking a new position teaching at Tufts University. But comparing her to some back alley whore made him cringe. She wasn’t entirely to blame. Yes, she’d told him that she loved him, and pulled him into her life and her bed with a fervent passion he had never before encountered. But Max was thirty-one years old when he met Gabrielle, while she was only nineteen. He’d been her professor. He’d known the rules, and had broken them with abandon.
Yet despite the way everyone who discovered the relationship had seemed willing to give him a pass, Max blamed himself. He’d looked into those bright copper eyes and seen the love she felt for him, believed it wholeheartedly. When Gabrielle had told him that she’d dreamed of finding a man who would leave her breathless, and that she’d found him in Max, he’d believed her. When they’d made love in the attic on Landry Street, and she’d wept and clung to him afterward, and wished them away to some place where no one else could ever reach them, he had felt like the man all men wanted to be—the hero, the knight, the lover and champion.
What an asshole.
One thing he’d learned in his time in Louisiana was that New Orleans was a city of masks. Everyone wore one, and not just for Mardi Gras. Only the desperately poor were what they seemed to be. Otherwise, how to explain the way the populace had so long ignored warnings of their beloved city’s vulnerability, or the libertine air of sexual and epicurean excess and music that fueled the tourist trade, while sixty percent of the city remained illiterate, and thousands lived in shotgun houses slapped together like papier-mâché? New Orleans had two faces: one of them a stew of cultures and languages, poverty and success, corruption and hope; the other, the mask it showed the world.
How could he have been fool enough not to see that Gabrielle also wore a mask?
Max had asked himself that question far too many times while back in Boston. He ought to have been settling in, enjoying the preparations for his new job, and trying to move on. At his sister’s Fourth of July barbecue, he should have listened when she’d told him her single neighbor, Jill, had taken an interest in him. But he’d been too lost in that question to pay attention, beating himself up, wondering how he had fallen in love so fast and hard. Wondering how long it would be before it stopped hurting.
And then August had come, and with it, hurricane season.
Watching the television reports as Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico, he’d wondered why no one seemed as terrified as they should have been. Weren’t they watching the same reports down in Louisiana? Couldn’t they see the monster about to make landfall? But even as those questions rose in his mind, he understood. Some of the people in New Orleans would put their faith in God, others in luck, and others would simply chalk it up to fate. If the storm was meant to take them, it would. And some would just be stubborn; until someone called for a mandatory evacuation, they weren’t going anywhere. And maybe not even then. Someone would have to round them up to get them out of there.
For too many, no one ever came.
Max had sat in his little faculty apartment on the Tufts campus and watched the anguished aftermath of the storm.
He had little faith in the spiritual, but Max had felt a soul-deep certainty, in those initial few days, that Gabrielle had not survived Hurricane Katrina. Days turned to weeks, shock turned to numbness, and numbness to mourning. Hurricane Rita arrived at the end of September, flooding parts of the city all over again. Chaos had still not released its hold on the Gulf Coast, and it seemed order might never be restored.
On the 18th of October, just over seven weeks after Katrina, Max’s phone rang. Without even realizing it, he had gotten into the habit of holding his breath when he glanced at the caller ID window. That night, the readout had said unknown caller, but what struck him was the area code: 504. Louisiana.
Max had picked up the phone. He’d hated himself for the hope in his voice when he said, “Hello?”
“It’s Corinne Doucette.”
And he’d known. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
For a moment, the line went silent. Then, just as he’d begun to think they’d been disconnected, Corinne spoke again.
“I told her to get out of there, but she wouldn’t go. Said she couldn’t leave, that it was the only place she’d be safe. They were saying all the neighborhoods in the bowl could be flooded, but she just went up into that damn attic and wouldn’t come down. I told her she was crazy, Max, but you know Gaby. No talking to that girl.”
Corinne’s voice had broken then.
“The water got that high?” he’d asked.
Max had listened to Corinne as she told him about evacuating to Houston, and how she’d called and tried to get the police or someone, anyone, to go by and check the house on Landry Street. Most of her family had left New Orleans, and of those who planned to return, none of them wanted anything to do with Gabrielle, dead or alive. Except for Corinne, her family had written her off years before.
In late September, Corinne had reluctantly returned to New Orleans. And so she’d had to identify the body.
At last, when Max had heard enough, he’d finally spoken up.
“Why did you call me?”
It had brought her up short. “What?”
“After what happened. Why would you call me?”
Her nerves had to be frayed. She’d laughed, and the sound was full of hurt and anger. “Jesus, Max. I called you because I thought you’d want to know. Maybe she fucked with your head, but I figured you were the only one . . .”
Her words trailed off.
“The only one what?” Max had to ask.
“The only person in the world besides me who would cry for her.”
Max had wanted to tell Corinne that he’d done his share of crying for Gabrielle when she was alive. That it hadn’t helped then, and it wouldn’t help now that she was dead. But he couldn’t get the words out.
Nearly three more weeks had passed, and now he found himself on this airplane, about to touch down in Baton Rouge. During the layover in Memphis, he’d almost turned around and caught the next plane back north. At least, he’d pretended to himself that he could do that. What a joke. He could no more turn around than he could snap his fingers and make the grief go away. Leaving the way he had, this chapter of his life had never felt closed.
Gabrielle’s funeral might finally put an end to it.
He’d grieve, but he would not cry. Perhaps it was a good sign that he couldn’t shed any more tears for her. Or maybe it meant he was dead inside.
“I hate landings the most,” said the woman beside him.
Max blinked and looked at her. She’d said nothing the entire flight, and now she wanted to strike up a conversation? The cynicism that had been building in him all year began to form a reply, but then he looked at her, and he saw her. The woman had kind, intelligent eyes, and wore an expression of nervous self-deprecation. He wondered what brought her to Baton Rouge. There must, he knew, be other people on board who were coming to Louisiana for funerals or to rebuild. And some who were returning to search for still-missing loved ones, lying undiscovered in mud or in some other attic.
“Don’t worry,” Max told her, smiling. “This close to the ground, even if we fall the rest of the way, the worst we’re gonna get is bruises.”
She gripped the armrests and stared at him, wide-eyed. “Don’t even say that!”
Then, with a squeak of tires, the plane found the runway. The woman let out a breath and chuckled. “Was that your attempt to set me at ease?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You’re not very good at it.”
“Never have been,” he confessed. “But still I try.”
They shared a smile as the plane taxied toward the terminal.
“What brings you to Louisiana?” she asked.
Max glanced out the window. “A woman.”
Corinne drove south on Interstate 10 with the windows down, making a wind tunnel out of her beat-up old Chevy Corsica. Max didn’t complain. The car had no air-conditioning, and the afternoon was warm and humid. Back home in Boston, November meant chilly days and chillier nights. But that Louisiana day, winter felt a whole world away.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” he said, fifteen minutes south of the airport.
“Not a problem. Guy like you, if you’d gotten a rental, you’d probably have been carjacked before you got anywhere near your hotel.”
Max stared at her, waiting for the smile.
It didn’t come.
Corinne kept both hands on the wheel and her eyes straight ahead. There’d been precious little small talk at the airport, and even less since.
“We’re a little short on jokes down here, lately,” she said. “So yeah, I’m serious. It’s rough. The city’s still reeling.” She trailed off, but Max sensed that she had more to say, so he gave her the silence in which to speak. After a pause, she did. “They’ve got hundreds of dead folk in a warehouse over by the Superdome. Doing DNA tests, supposedly, trying to figure out who they all are. If I hadn’t laid claim to Gaby, she’d probably still be over there. Maybe forever. French Quarter’s back up and running, other parts of the city, too. High ground. You’ll be fine in your hotel. But some areas, it’s still a war zone. Might as well be in Baghdad. A lot of the folks that left, maybe most of ’em, aren’t ever coming back. Some places, it’s like the apocalypse came. There’s talk of rebuilding, but it’s never gonna happen. That’s the first sign of a crumbling empire, Max. Cities fall and nobody builds ’em up again.”
He kept staring at her, but Corinne still didn’t turn to him. Max became keenly aware of his hands, as though he should be able to do something with them, maybe try to offer her comfort, or send up a prayer to God. But he barely knew Corinne, and he and God were strangers.
After a couple of minutes, the time when he should have said something in reply passed, so he stopped seeking the words.
Corinne and Gabrielle were cousins, Creole girls who’d never be mistaken for white but whose skin forever marked them out among the black population of New Orleans. Max had never understood the politics of hue, and always feared expressing an opinion on the subject. He was white and from Boston, and he couldn’t claim to know a damn thing about New Orleans. So he kept his mouth shut. All he knew was that even before he’d met Gabrielle he had thought a mixed race heritage produced the most beautiful children, and that there must be some lesson the world should learn from that. Meeting Gabrielle had cemented this belief.
Riding in the car beside her, Max saw some of that same beauty in Corinne. They’d met half a dozen times when he’d been involved with Gabrielle, but he’d never really noticed her looks. She simply didn’t have her cousin’s presence. Gabrielle had burned brightly; Corinne had been in her shadow. But apparently it hadn’t stopped her from loving Gabrielle.
Abruptly, she turned and shot him a hard look. “Why do you keep staring at me like that?”
“You look a little like her,” Max said.
“I’m nothing like her!” Corinne snapped, turning her gaze back to the road ahead. The hurt in her voice didn’t surprise him, but the anger did.
“Are we really going to be the only people at the funeral?”
Corinne softened. “Our family shut her out; you know that. The ones who are still in the city, they live Uptown. When she was alive, they’d cross the street if they saw her coming. Now that she’s dead, they won’t be going out of their way to say good-bye. Could be some of her friends’ll have heard and come along and surprise me, but I doubt it. Lots of people have been shipped out. Those who are still here are looking after themselves and their own. It’s all right, though.”
Max looked out the window, watching the side of the highway where wind-downed trees and abandoned cars remained, part of the debris left behind by the storm.
“Two people,” he said quietly. “How can that be all right?”
“Ah, she wouldn’t mind so much,” Corinne said. “She didn’t have but the two of us who really loved her. We’ll be there. That’s as it should be.”
Max swallowed hard. His throat had gone dry. “I’m not sure—”
“Don’t even start. She put the knife in you deep, man. I know that. But don’t try to tell me you stopped loving her because of it. I know better.”
Irritated, he narrowed his eyes and studied her. “You think so?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
Max opened his mouth, but closed it again. The Doucette women had a habit of leaving him speechless.
The French Quarter of New Orleans had established a reputation around the world. Some of it had been born of fame, thanks to the Quarter’s unique architectural mélange and the delights of its restaurants, and some had sprung from the infamy of Bourbon Street, where the drunkenness and breast-flashing of Mardi Gras had spilled into the other 364 days of the year. Max had never been interested in Bourbon Street. One walk along that road, with its faux-voodoo shops and tourist puke-fest bars, might have put him off of the city forever, if not for the rest of what the Quarter had to offer. The terraced balconies and narrow streets could transport him back in time, and the tiny restaurants with their succulent gumbos delighted him.
The Quarter had sustained hurricane damage. There were restaurants and bars that were still closed, some of them boarded up, and more than one shop stood empty and dark, the owners having given up on New Orleans forever. The wind and the rain had taken their toll, but the Quarter hadn’t flooded. When the city was ready to receive tourists again, Bourbon Street would be there.
For now, though, Max found it eerie as hell. Even in the rain, there had always been street performers here; saxophone players and steel bands, dancers, mimes and jugglers. The afternoon he arrived, the sun was shining, but as he walked into his hotel the street outside was silent. New Orleans had lost its music. It might as well have lost its soul.
Next morning, Corinne picked him up and they drove out of the Quarter, following Esplanade up through Faubourg Marigny. Their route took them mainly through areas that had remained above the floodwaters, and thus far he’d not encountered the level of devastation he’d seen in photographs and on television. He wondered if Corinne had been purposely sparing him that, or if she’d just rather avoid it herself.
When they reached Holt Cemetery, however, there was no way to avoid the reality of what had transpired in the city. Max had driven past it before, had seen the rows of tilted crosses and slate-thin headstones, but he’d never been inside the gates. In most of the Catholic world, All Saints’ Day just meant another trip to church. But in New Orleans, every first of November brought massive gatherings to the city’s cemeteries. People went there to decorate the graves of their loved ones, to leave flowers and notes and photographs, or just to remember.
As Corinne drove the car slowly along the narrow cemetery road, Max shuddered to think what November 1st had been like this year. Markers were down, and many were probably far away from the graves they were intended for, lying on brown, lifeless grass.
“The whole cemetery was flooded,” Corinne said.
Max didn’t need telling. In his mind’s eye, he could see the crosses slowly being submerged as the water level rose. In some places the water had worn the topsoil away, and the upper edge of a coffin could be seen. If any bones had been brought to the surface by the flood, they’d been removed or reburied. With so much of the city’s population driven from New Orleans, Holt Cemetery had probably been quiet on All Saints’ Day, but someone had been tending to the worst of it. Someone had hope.
“There are no aboveground crypts here,” he said, glancing around in surprise.
Corinne laughed. “Not everyone can afford to be buried in style, Max. Holt’s full of poor black folks. Some of the markers have lists of names on them, bones from half a dozen generations in a single grave.”
“Your family’s not poor.”
She put the car in park.
“Our grandparents and my father are buried in the family crypt in Mount Olivet Cemetery. I tried to get Gaby’s parents to let us put her there, but they refused, and they wouldn’t give a dime for her burial. Even my mother wouldn’t give me a dollar for Gabrielle’s coffin, and the girl had been her favorite once. Made her laugh more than I ever could. Gaby used to sleep over and we’d do my momma’s hair. Now that she’s dead, everyone turned their backs on her.”
Her voice cracked, tears threatening.
“I don’t understand,” Max said. “When I was seeing her, I was aware of some rift, but she never talked about it. Now you tell me her family hated her so much they won’t even come to see her laid to rest. But why?”
For a second he thought she might tell him, and the idea brought a darkness to her eyes that made him think maybe he didn’t want to know. Then the moment passed, and Corinne shook her head.
“It’s family business, Max. I start talking about family business, and when my time comes I’ll be buried out here with her. They’re already turning cold to me because I won’t pretend Gaby never existed. I’m just hoping once she’s in the ground, we can all put it behind us.”
“So you can forget her?”
Corinne glared at him. “I won’t ever forget her. But I want them to forget. It’s the only way they’ll forgive me. Now, come on. They’re waiting.”
She exited the car and started off across the ravaged cemetery, stepping over a warped, bloated wooden sign that had once marked a grave. Max watched her go, trying to ally the picture she was painting of Gabrielle with the girl he’d known. At nineteen, she hadn’t only been stunning, she’d been spectacular, one of those people who seemed loved everywhere she went.
Maybe she never went anywhere she wouldn’t be so well received.
There might be some truth to that. In the months he and Gabrielle had been together, the only member of her family she had introduced Max to had been Corinne. But he had never realized the full extent of the rift in the Doucette clan. Now that he did, he couldn’t help wondering not only what had caused it, but what it had cost Corinne to ignore it.
Max fixed his tie and adjusted the cuffs of his jacket. Even in November, he felt too warm in the charcoal suit he only ever wore at weddings and funerals. Perhaps the New Orleans weather was to blame, humid and warm today. Or maybe he just felt out of place here, the jilted ex, much too old for the dead girl to begin with.
The eight people standing by Gabrielle’s open grave watched him without expression as he approached.
Corinne spent a few moments in quiet conversation with the priest, by which time Max had arrived at the graveside. From there he could see the other road through the cemetery and the two cars parked there, one of them a hearse. There had been no wake and no funeral mass.
No longer able to deny its presence, he at last focused on the coffin that sat on the ground beside the open grave. It was a simple metal box, but he suspected it was better than a lot of those interred at Holt would have had. He stared at it, tried to imagine that Gabrielle lay inside, and could not.
His throat closed up, emotion flooding him. Grief and anger mixed into some other, unnamed thing. Memories began to rise of their time together, making love in the attic room of that empty house, strolling the backstreets of the Quarter, drinking in bars in Marigny or listening to music in Bywater clubs. She’d hated all the tourist spots except for Cafe du Monde; their beignets were better than crack, Gabrielle had joked. At least, he’d always thought she was joking. She’d make breakfast in the nude, but get shy if he walked into the bathroom while she was showering. She loved flowers that grew wild, but thought gardens pretentious.
How could anyone not have loved her?
How could he ever stop?
“Are you all right?” Corinne asked.
Max flinched, looked at her, and then slowly nodded. “I will be.”
“You don’t look it.”
He smiled, keeping his voice to a whisper. His words weren’t meant for other ears. “I thought I was being a fool, coming down here. What kind of guy travels this far for a girl who slept with someone else, you know? But I’m glad I came.”
Corinne touched his arm gently. “She was hard to understand.”
Max only nodded. That was the understatement of the year. He glanced at the other mourners. “I thought you said it’d be just us.”
“Father Legohn’s congregation is mostly gone. The one with the nice shoes is the undertaker. The others are what’s left of the church, just here to help carry her, say a prayer, and put her in the ground.”
The truth of this hit Max hard. Despite the warning Corinne had given him, the idea that there was nobody left in New Orleans who cared enough to say good-bye to Gabrielle was bitter and ugly. It boded ill for the city, and spoke darkly of the dead girl. At least Gabrielle’s body had been identified, not left amongst the hundreds of corpses remaining unclaimed, identities unknown.
The priest took his place at the head of the grave, Bible clutched in his right hand. As he began to speak, Max leaned toward Corinne.
“At least she had you,” he whispered. “If you hadn’t paid for it, who knows where she would’ve ended up.”
“I didn’t pay for it,” Corinne said. “The storm left me with nothing.”
Max blinked, confused, listening to the priest with one ear as he tried to make sense of Corinne’s words.
“Then who did?”
She gave the slightest nod toward the hearse. A third car had pulled up on that cemetery road, a little white two-door coupe that looked forty years old. The man who stood by the car must have been thirty years older, with hair as white as his car, and skin darker than his funeral suit.
“Who’s he?” Max asked.
One of the congregation members hushed him. Corinne was focused on the priest and didn’t answer. Max looked back across the cemetery to the old guy and his little white coupe and wondered why, if he’d paid for the coffin and the grave, he didn’t come and listen, and say good-bye.
But then Father Legohn began to talk about Gabrielle—what little he knew of her from Corinne—and he segued into talking about the days of loss they’d all put behind them and the many more days that lay ahead. And Max let himself be seduced by the man’s eloquence and heart, and again slipped into the past, into his own memories of Gabrielle.
When the funeral ended, the undertaker and the handful of members of Father Legohn’s congregation accompanied the priest back to his car. Several men piled into the Lincoln with him and drove off, but others remained behind with the undertaker. They stood by the hearse and smoked, waiting for Max and Corinne to depart so they could put Gabrielle into the ground. One of them offered a cigarette to the old man by the white coupe, but he declined.
“I could use a drink,” Corinne said. “And nothing pleasant. No fucking margaritas for me. I want whiskey.”
Max looked at her. “I’m with you. I’d like to take a minute, though. Is that all right?”
“Take as long as you like.” Before leaving the graveside, she touched her fingers to her lips and then brushed them against the lid of Gabrielle’s coffin, a last kiss for a cousin who’d been more like a sister. Then without glancing back at Max, she turned and walked back across the storm-and-flood-ravaged cemetery to her car.
Hands stuffed in his pockets, Max stared at the coffin. No headstone had been erected. From the look of Holt Cemetery, it seemed more likely Gabrielle would have some kind of marker set into the ground, and maybe that would be the best thing. If someone put up a cross or a stone, the next storm surge might just knock it down. And any fool could see there would be a next time.
“I hate you a little,” he whispered. “For what you did, and now for dying.” He chuckled softly, ashamed but unable to pretend he didn’t feel these things. With Gabrielle dead, he’d never know why she’d hurt him, or how she really felt. He’d never be able to confront her about it.
“Sometimes I wish I’d never known you.” But he knew, even as the words came out, that they were a lie. What he wished was that he had never learned the truth.
A cough startled him. The polite, sorry-to-interrupt-you sort of cough.
He turned to see that without him hearing, the white-haired old man had come over to the graveside. Max stood at the head of the grave, where the priest had prayed a short time before, and now the old man stood at the foot, with that gaping hole between them and Gabrielle’s coffin off to one side.
“You’re Max Corbett,” the man said. His skin was so dark his hair looked like snow on top of tar. Of all the things Max might have expected to come out of his mouth, this wasn’t it.
“That’s me. Who are you?”
The old man nodded toward the coffin. “Girl was a friend of mine. Sweet thing, and gone too soon.”
Max nodded. Gabrielle was full of surprises.
“You have questions for her,” the old guy said. “Things you wanted to ask her.”
Uncomfortable, Max glanced at him. “Why? Did she talk about me? Give you a message or something?”
“Some, but nothing like what you mean.” The old man touched the thin metal of the coffin, stared at it for a moment, then looked back up at Max. “I’m just saying if you have questions you want to ask her, it might not be too late.”