New Orleans, 1975
The woman slid from an open door in the Quarter, the darkest doorway in the darkest street that Little Benny had yet searched. One moment she’d belonged to the blackness beyond the hallway, the next she stood beside him in a hem-to-the-ground cape, her head buried inside a thick-folded hood.
“Women without no bottoms,” she whispered.
Had she not spoken, Benny might have supposed that Death himself had come early. Very early for a boy barely into manhood. But her voice was a song in itself, far too sweet and clear to belong to the dark one. It had a child’s-play modulation, but beneath that lay an eerie monotone that made him think of the Sirens in one of his long-gone Classic Comics. And the words—what the hell had she said, anyway?
“Women without no bottoms, kind sir,” she whispered again, this time pressing her mouth to Benny’s ear. Her breath washed over his cheek, up and around his nostrils. He expected the scent of alcohol; instead, he smelled earthy things that he couldn’t place.
“Come with me,” she said. “I’ll show you things you dream of.”
Thirty yards away, in the direction from which he’d come, the dark street merged into the sleaze of Bourbon Street. In the light of a hundred dull, incandescent bulbs he could still see the gallery of sun-faded photographs he’d passed minutes before, pretending not to notice. Strippers by the dozen, the signs said. Women, men, men pretending to be women, anything you wanted. “No cover charge,” the barker had called. “Naked women! No cover charge! People! People! Come see!”
Then Benny got it. She had a different line, a weird line, but the dark woman with the earthy breath was a barker—way stranger than the other—but a barker. Nothing more.
It pissed him off—his own gullibility more than the woman. All his life he’d worked hard to curtail it, but failed more often than not. It was the weakness itself that pushed his buttons, not the inevitable crap it got him into. To be made a fool of—that was the worst. He should have cussed the woman out, that or simply stepped around her and walked on. Instead, as was always his first instinct, he feigned distraction while calculating his next step. The crumbling brick wall surrounding the doorway from which she’d emerged became a fascinating distraction. It had no sign, no light, no embellishment at all other than a set of shutters, street-grimed and cracked, covering the door-side windows. Rusted chains, shackled with rounded, begrimed padlocks, held them shut—padlocks whose keys had likely gone missing a century ago.
“Not for you, those places, sir, no, not for you.”
She’d seen his glance up the street, he realized. Sharp.
“You need special. You deserve special, as I do. A young man like you, I can tell it easy. Your look, it tells me.”
She had his arm. He hadn’t noticed when she took it, but she’d begun leading him toward the doorway before he could react. Benny surrendered to her tone, her words, the way she said them. He couldn’t help it. Beneath each phrase, he imagined, ran floods of profound but confusing meaning, mesmerizing mystery, and, most strange of all, an unstoppable need aimed directly at him.
It was this last that weakened her spell. With the exception of his tormented older brother, Benny reckoned, no one needed him at all. In fact, he would never have returned to the Quarter if it hadn’t been for Harrison. “Don’t come looking for me,” his brother had warned. “But if you do, you’ll find me among the crazies. Watch out for the rest of ’em.”
She needs you, all right, Benny thought. She needs your money, just like the guy across the street. She just plans to earn it differently.
He pulled back. “Sorry. Not interested.”
She lowered her hood. Beauty like that didn’t grow on hookers. Pale green eyes, the jewels of a perfect face, locked his own in a gaze he couldn’t escape. He saw no greed, lust, or deceit in those eyes. Instead he sensed yearning, and, impossibly, love. And of a sudden the part of him that he would never curtail bent his thinking over backwards, bent it into considering whether maybe, just maybe, love came in varieties he’d never yet experienced.
“I knew you would be here soon,” she said. “I’ve felt you coming. For months now. Come with me. I need to help you. You need to help me.”
“Help you? Are you in trouble?”
“Trouble.” She whispered the word as if it posed a riddle. “Come. You do not see. You do not feel. Not yet.” She looked back across the street, then turned her incredible eyes back to his own. “There is no charge, monsieur. You mistake me.”
With even the smallest time to think about it, Benny might not have let her pull him through that door. But the woman had somehow turned time off altogether. They turned left, brushing through a film of something he couldn’t identify, then stepped past a row of candles, their flames spaced at perfect intervals along a long wall of cracked plaster. She opened a second door to a hallway much narrower than the first—narrower and darker. Again he pulled back.
“Come, Little One. Tonight is a night that will stay with you always,” she said, “always and a day.”
“But what did you mean? No bottoms?”
She smiled and hooked her fingers into his own as she stepped into the narrow hall. Her cape flowed over their joined hands, and he felt a deep warmth rising from beneath.
And so Little Benny surrendered altogether.
“Goddamn, Leon. Goddamn it all to hell. Looks like another poor bastard’s met Wanda.”
The voice is angry, but clear. It reaches Benny through a soft consciousness, as if someone has turned the treble all the way up and the base down, then stuffed his head with rags. His right foot burns with pain. Above him the tops of two magnolias nearly touch in a cloudless blue sky, and as the rags dissolve he realizes that he’s lying on his back. He turns his head, his ear against the grass, and strains to recognize the pale, oblong shapes that surround him.
“Call the medics, Leon,” says the voice. “I’ll try to get the bleeding stopped.”
Benny tries to move his arm, but it comes up short after only an inch. He blinks once, twice, many times before he can focus on the cord running from his wrist to a sepulcher a dozen feet away. Then he sees the other three cords. In panic, he jerks all four of his limbs hard against them.
“Hold still, son, hold still. You’ll be all right.” A new voice—Leon, Benny supposes. “You’re dumb, kid, but lucky. Around here, it’s smart to keep your pecker in your pants. You could have met a lot worse than Wanda.”
God, his foot hurt. Benny looks down past the bulge of his belly, down where the other cop has cut the cord so that he can hold up Benny’s right foot as he works. Blood flows over the lifted shin, and the warmth and thickness of it makes Benny sick.
“She only took one toe this time,” says Leon, “The big right.” He pats Benny’s thigh as if to reassure him. “Sometimes she takes more.”
“Wish to hell I knew what she does with the suckers,” his partner says.
“She’s just fucking crazy, is all.”
“I heard one of ’em showed up in a voodoo shop.”
Leon shrugged. “Like I said.”
Benny wants to scream, but it takes all the effort he can muster to keep from vomiting.
“Be calm, boy. Just try to stay calm.”
The Magnolias above Benny sway in the harbor breeze. It’s a gentle, stately dance that’s oddly synchronized with the wail of a sax somewhere off in the Quarter. He hears pigeons cooing in the way that no one ever notices enough to like or dislike. Moments later, an ambulance adds a third voice to the Quarter’s rendition of a piece that Little Benny should have known never, ever stops.