After all these years, there was still a sign. Not the one she remembered but not so different either.Hayden pushed past the chipped painting of an open palm with the phrase MADAME LAVALLE’S VOODOO SHOP written above it in ornate, hand-painted letters. A second sign—PSYCHIC READINGS—hung unlit in a dirty plate-glass window. The high-backed wicker chair positioned just behind it was empty and the interior of the the shop was dark. The only indication of life was a faint light shining from the back of the store.
Now that she was here she regretted coming and not just because she doubted she’d discover anything new about Destiny Farrell’s whereabouts. There was too much about her childhood Hayden didn’t want to remember, too many memories she would rather push out of her mind. Not that her mother hadn’t loved her or given her as much as she could. But somehow it had never been enough.
She couldn’t think of a time in her childhood when they hadn’t struggled financially, when she hadn’t been an unwilling participant in the thousand petty deceptions her mother’s “work” demanded. At first, when she’d been very young, she’d liked being her mother’s secret assistant. It had been a game and a fun one at that. Little by little, it became less of a game and more of a chore. On her thirteenth birthday she told her mother she was through and she meant it. To her surprise, her mother hadn’t protested and for the first time in a long while Hayden had wondered if Destiny Farrell was a better person than she’d suspected her mother of being.
But even without her help, the trickery went on. Destiny contrived new ways to create the specter of a deceased loved one, new methods of convincing her clients the wonderful things she read for them would come true in the not-so-distant future. To be fair, Hayden sometimes got the idea that the women and men that engaged her mother’s services weren’t all that worried about being deceived. Sometimes she wondered if that was what they wanted, even more than they wanted truth.
Because truth was complicated, unpleasant and fraught with pain. Even as a teen-ager, Hayden knew enough of life to understand that. How many times had she imagined opening the shop door one day to find her father standing before her, a broad smile on his handsome face? She had no idea what he looked like, or even who he was, but the lack of concrete information didn’t matter at all.
In some of her fantasies, her father took her away with him to live in his restored plantation house just outside the city. She had a bedroom full of light and a house overflowing with books and even a sister or two. More often though, her fantasies involved her mother as well. For all her disgust with Destiny’s “career,” Hayden couldn’t truly imagine her life without her mother. In her waking dreams the three of them would set up house together and act like the families on television, the families of her few friends. They’d sit around the dinner table, laughing and eating gourmet cajun cuisine. Her mother would teach her to cook and afterward she clean up, wiping dishes side by side with her father.
It was an unrealistic vision, a dream of reality that had little to do with day-to-day existence of even the happiest of families. But knowing its falsity and believing it were two different things. Even now, a part of her still longed for that ideal family, that happy childhood.
It was too late for that. But it wasn’t too late for her to at least find her mother. It wasn’t too late to make amends—to apologize for the way she’d left New Orleans.
Granted, her reasons weren’t as altruistic as she would have liked them to be. Because there was another reason she was there and it had nothing to do with their estrangement. Shortly before she left the city Destiny had told her their life had been an even bigger lie than Hayden could have ever suspected. According to her mother, not only had she deceived her clients but she’d hoodwinked her daughter as well. All of it—their grimy existence, Destiny’s trickery—was part of an elaborate construct, a ruse, done to protect them from forces far more powerful than Hayden could understand.
At the time it seemed like bullshit, just another of her mother’s lies. Anything to salvage their faltering relationship.
It hadn’t worked.
She’d left and meant it to be for good. She wanted a life as a cop, not as the daughter of some small-time con-artist. Over the past few years, she’d spoken to her mother less and less until they’d fallen out of touch completely.
Now she needed to find her. Something was telling her what her mother claimed was true—and that it held the key to figuring out who she really was.
The only problem was that her mother had vanished.
Well, she’d never learn anything if she went on standing there.
She placed her hand on the doorknob and was surprised to find it unlocked. Stepping inside, she called out into the darkness, feeling as if she should turn around head back to her apartment. Just as she was about to do just that, a ponderous figure appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the light.
“We’re closed,” the voice said, revealing the slight trace of a Jamaican accent. “Come back tomorrow.”
“I’m not here for a reading,” Hayden said.
“All the more reason for you to leave.” The woman, presumably Madame Lavalle, ambled toward her, her hair wrapped in a great turban and her substantial figure encased in a flowing scarlet robe. Enormous gold earrings dangled from each ear and a clunky, amber necklace hung around her neck. With her warm, brown skin and clear, dark eyes, the fortune teller seemed ageless and strangely beautiful.
“Please,” Hayden said. “I’ll only take a moment of your time.”
“You already have,” said Lavalle.
“I’m looking for my mother,” she explained hastily. “I realize it’s a long shot—it’s been over ten years since she did business here—she used to have a shop—but I thought it might be possible someone who works here might still be in touch with her. Or have some idea where she might be.”
“You’d have been better off if you’d come for a reading,” said Lavalle. “At least that way, you would gain some satisfaction, however false what I told you might be.”
“I’d rather have nothing than a lie,” she said, thinking back to all the years she’d helped her mother work the same sort of trickery Lavalle no doubt practiced.
Lavalle pulled the turban off her head and collapsed into the wicker chair. Beneath the turban, her hair was short and greying in a few places. “Sit,” she said, indicating the stool on the other side of the round table.
Hayden wondered if the woman was indeed going to read her palm, or even break out the pack of tarot cards that lay at the center of the table. “I really don’t want—”
“I know what you want.”
“Did you know my mother?”
Lavalle sighed heavily. “When you were young I used to come here for supplies. I was just starting out and couldn’t afford my own place so I set up a card table in Jackson Square and read palms for five dollars each. Sometimes your mother would read the cards for me.”
Hayden tried and failed to keep her expression neutral. Lavalle leaned forward across the table and pointed a red-lacquered nail at her. “I can see you haven’t changed,” she said sternly. “Take care not to disbelieve what you don’t understand. That, my dear, is a dangerous practice.”
Had she known Lavalle as a child? Surely not. She had absolutely no memory of the woman. “I don’t remember you.”
“That’s because we never met. Your mother took great care to keep you safe.”
Hayden was having trouble following the conversation. There were too many things that eluded her. “So . . . you’re saying she would have considered you a danger—to me?
Lavalle smiled so that all her teeth showed. “I was never a danger to you. Gigi always knew that. But she was cautious. She had to be.”
Hayden stared at her. “Gigi?”
“Your mother’s true name,” Lavalle said. “Genevieve. Gigi for short. Surely you must have suspected Destiny was simply a pseudonym, used for business purposes.”
“She never told me." Hayden felt like an idiot. Whose name is actually Destiny, after all? “I never knew.”
“There was a lot you didn’t know about your mother.”
Hayden suppressed a flicker of anger. “You mean a lot she kept from me.”
“As I said, she was a cautious woman. It was better that you didn’t know her true name. Or the
people she associated with.”
“She never associated with anybody,” Hayden protested. “She had no friends.”
Lavalle made a clicking sound with her tongue. “You are mistaken, my dear. Gigi had a great many friends. And enemies.”
“That is not for me to tell you. You must find that out for yourself. Or, if you are wise, you might perhaps return to the place you came from.”
An image of Valentin flashed across her mind. “I can’t go back,” she said. "Anyway, I don’t want to. I came back to find my mother. If you won’t tell me who her enemies were or what she was really up to all those years, can you at least tell me where I can find her?”
Lavalle shook her head. “I don’t know where she is.”
“You must have an idea. She must have contacted you after she left here. Or you must have heard something—from one of her many friends.” Hayden couldn’t help adding that last phrase, bitter as it sounded. She didn’t mind that her mother had friends. What bothered her was how little she’d known about the woman she’d thought she understood. She hadn’t even known her mother’s real name.
Even worse, she knew Lavalle was lying to her as well. “When’s the last time you saw her?”
Outside, it was wholly dark. On the other side of the windows lights flashed on all along the street. Martini glasses and third eyes, streetlamps and white string lights. The usual mix of tourists and natives trickled out onto the streets in search of whatever it was they were seeking. Food, drink, excitement.
How long had it been since she’d been a part of that crowd? Hayden couldn’t remember a time when she’d felt part of humanity. Now the gulf seemed immeasurable.
Lavalle watched her closely. “It’s not too late for you,” she said. “There may still be much joy in your future.”
“From the look on your face, I’m guessing all that joy’s not going to happen for a while.”
“No,” Lavalle said at last. “It may not happen at all, depending on the choices you make. You said you didn’t want a reading so I won’t give you one. But you should know the forces gathering against you are not to be taken lightly. You have many gifts, many things working in your favor, but the obstacles are not easily overcome. It is possible you may not have the strength to follow the path laid out for you.”
“So much for giving me satisfication,” Hayden said drily.
“You said you preferred truth.”
“So I did.”
Lavalle laid both hands on the chair arms and pushed herself up. “Follow me,” she said, propelling herself toward the light at the back of the shop. “I can’t tell you where to find your mother but I do have something for you.”
For a crazy second, Hayden wondered if Lavalle, too, planned on supplying her with blood. She’d been back in the city for little more than a couple of weeks, but it was long enough to realize she couldn’t knew next to nothing about its true nature. Everything she’d dismissed as a slasher version of a Grimm’s fairy tale was turning out to be true.
She hurried to catch up with Lavalle, who was surprising light on her feet considering her ample figure. When they reached the back of the store, Lavalle held up a finger. “Wait here,” she said, disappearing through a side door and closing it behind her.
When ten minutes had elapsed, Hayden started to worry. She knew the door Lavalle had opened led to the basement, but couldn’t remember ever actually going down there.
Her mother always kept it locked.
Somehow she got the idea it wasn’t going to be the last.
Still, Lavalle had been gone a long time. Aside from the distant conversations of the people outside, the shop was silent.
“Madame Lavalle?” Hayden called out.
Another five minutes passed. She crossed to the door and pressed her ear to it.
Laying her hand on the door, she flung it open and peered into the gloom. “Madame Lavalle,” she called out again. “Are you down there?”
Hayden debated what to do. She sure as hell didn’t want to go down into the basement. But she didn’t want to go on waiting there in the shop either, especially if something had happened to Lavalle.
She stepped onto the first stair, gripping the banister. Her eyes had already adjusted to the darkness and she could see fairly well. One of the benefits of her new condition, she supposed.
She’d reached the bottom stair when a loud scraping sound echoed out across the basement. “Madame Lavalle?”
Lavalle appeared before her, the beam of her flashlight momentarily blinding her. She held up her hands in front of her face. “Where were you?”
“That is none of your concern.” Lavalle switched off the flashlight and tucked into the pocket of her robe. “You should not have come down here.”
“I was worried,” Hayden apologized. “You were gone a long time.”
Lavalle clamped her hand around Hayden’s arm and led her back upstairs. When they’d reached the shop again, she turned toward her, her face a mask of disapproval. “I see you are not nearly as cautious as your mother. Whether that will work in your favor or against, I cannot say.”
“I thought something happened to you.”
Lavalle’s expression softened, though not by much. “Don’t ever let fear govern your actions. Or concern for others whom you don’t know. Trust only those you can be sure of. Remember your training and let that guide you.”
Hayden wanted to protest further, but decided it was better to keep her mouth shut. The truth was Lavalle was right. Lavalle had given her no indication she was someone Hayden could trust. The psychic’s entire life was mired in deception.
Lavalle reached into the voluminous folds of her robe and extricated a small, metal box. She held it out for her, its tarnished silver catching on the light. “Take it.”
Hayden reached for the box and examined it. The cover was wrought with intricate patterns and a padlock hung from the lock on its front side. “Where’s the key?”
“There is no key,” Lavalle said, pursing her full lips. “Not anymore. You’ll have to break the lock when you are someplace safe. Make sure you’re alone when you do it. And do not return here, under any circumstances.”
She met Lavalle’s gaze. The psychic’s eyes blazed, daring her to protest. “This belonged to my mother,” she said. It wasn’t so much a question as a confirmation of what she knew to be true. She had no recollection of ever seeing the box and yet it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar.
Lavalle nodded, making her enormous earrings dance. “After you moved away, your mother came to me and asked if I’d consider buying the shop from her. By that time I was good and tired of sitting all day in Jackson Square and I had some money too. On the day of the signing your mother and I came back to the shop for a cup of tea. She gave me this and told me to keep it while she was away. At the time I thought she was going on some kind of trip and for all I know that’s all it was. But she never returned. After a year passed, I began to ask around about her. I even began to seek her out in the places she used to visit—Café du Monde,…. and even the church. She would go there often to pray.”
Hayden opened her mouth, closed it. Her mother, religious? The only time she’d gone to mass growing up was on Christmas and even that wasn’t a yearly event.
Lavalle’s eyes blazed. “Ah, another thing you did not know about your mother. Yes, Gigi was fond of that church. Very fond. I think she felt safe there.”
Again, the mention of safety. What had her mother been so afraid of? Was it the same thing that scared Lavalle—this woman who’d told her not to let fear control her? “What did you find out?”
Hayden asked. “Did anyone know anything?”
“Nothing at all. It was as if she’d disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Perhaps she had. What if she’d waited too long? “Do you think she’s . . . dead?” The word stuck in her throat.
“No.” Lavalle’s voice held no trace of doubt. “A death is palpable, something felt by those closest to the one who has passed on. Gigi is not dead.”
“But you don’t know where she is,” Hayden said. “Or what happened to her.”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “But the contents of the box may help.”
Hayden tucked the box inside her coat and zipped it. It was too big to fit into the pockets and at least this way it would be hidden from view. You’re getting as paranoid as Lavalle, she thought. “Why didn’t you ever open it?”
“Because it was meant for you,” Lavalle said. “Your mother was very clear about that. And there are some things it’s better not to know.”
Was it her imagination or did the psychic’s gaze rest just a moment too long on the spot on her neck where Valentin’s teeth had punctured her? The twin wounds had healed, leaving only faint circles in their place, and she’d been careful to keep the skin covered. Still, Hayden couldn’t shake the idea that Lavalle could see right through the scarf that she wore.
“How can I reach you,” she asked, moving toward the door. “You said not to come here again but what if I need to talk to you?”
“After you leave here tonight, we will not speak again. Even if I was foolish enough to agree to your request, there is nothing more I can tell you that would be of any use.”
Not true. Hayden bit back her words. Lavalle might not be able to tell her anything that would help her find her mother but she’d known a woman Hayden had never even glimpsed. And she wanted to know that woman. “Surely there’s some way—“
“If you return,” Lavalle warned, “I shall be forced to take actions I would prefer to avoid. Now it is time for you to go. You’ve been here too long as it is.”
Lavalle brushed by her on her way to the door. She stood in the glare of the neon lights across the street, her face lost in shadows.
Hayden wanted to protest, to cajole the psychic into a few more minutes of conversation, but Lavalle wasn’t the type of woman to be manipulated. She’d done what she’d meant to do—given her the box—and now that her task was complete she had no more use for her.
“Thank you,” Hayden said, touching her coat at the place where the box rested, “for this.”
“There’s no reason for gratitude,” said Lavalle. “You’ll find that out soon enough.”