NEW ORLEANS NEIGHBORHOOD
June 2 -- Eddie Dupre had
an uninvited guest at his hurricane party last
night. As you all know, Eddie always puts on the
finest celebration to kick off the beginning of
hurricane season. There was a parade down Bourbon
over to Royal--where Eddie lives in the Fauberg
Merigny--with music, dancing, and appropriate
costumes(Eddie was luminous as Dorothy Lamour).
Unfortunately, the party
mood was soured when it was discovered that a
nun lying passed out in the alley behind Eddie's
yard not only wasn't a party-goer, she wasn't
passed out. She was dead, with her face obliterated,
possibly by a shotgun blast. Too, too gruesome.
Now, she might not even
have been a nun, but we'll never know, will we?
It seems that by the time Eddie got back to the
site with the police, the holy woman had vanished...along
with any evidence she'd ever been there.
Here's the best part, though,
babies. It seems that when she went to her last
reward, our good sister was wearing a near flawless
seven carat emerald and diamond ring. Sure redefines
those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Don't you just want to know what kind of obedience
earns you sparklies like that?
Omens come in all sizes. Hair
standing up at the back of the neck. Crows on a telephone
wire. Shapes in a cloud or a chill in the wind. A hundred
innocuous things designated by tradition or superstition,
and a thousand more kept in a personal lexicon.
Chastity Byrnes carried around
quite a full lexicon of her own. Not just the regular
omens handed down from generation to generation of Irish
women, like birds in the house meaning death, or uncovered
mirrors at a funeral meaning death, or any of the other
myriad Irish omens meaning death. Chastity embraced
a plethora of personal portents inexplicable to anyone
but her. Chastity was a trauma nurse, and only ballplayers
and actors were more superstitious. So in addition to
the usual signs of doom, Charity dreaded quiet shifts,
the words "I think something's wrong," and
And the number three. Chastity
absolutely loathed the number three. Everything happened
in threes, from births to deaths to every disaster in
Like the omens Chastity received
that hot June day in St. Louis. She should never have
ignored them. After all, Chastity paid more attention
to her omens than her bank balance. She lived by Murphy's
Law as if it were the first commandment. But that hot,
sultry summer, even though she knew better, she blew
off those three omens as if they were parking tickets.
To be fair, they weren't easy
omens to recognize, like a black cat or the hoot of
an owl. They were more like odd things that made a person
want to look over her shoulder.
The chaos theory.
A phone call from a brother-in-law
she didn't know she had.
Innocuous in themselves, but
each of which sent a skittering of unease down Chastity's
back that should have had her casting a wary eye for
trouble where there seemed to be none.
Well, maybe four. But the fourth
could have just been Chastity's bad luck. On the way
in to work that day, Chastity lost her driver's license.
She didn't consider it an omen at the time. More a "shit
happens" kind of thing. But if it hadn't happened,
she never would have heard about the chaos theory, and
Chastity would always believe that if she'd missed that,
nothing else would have followed.
The cop who stopped her was a
buddy. All cops in town were buddies of trauma nurses.
But he wasn't smiling when he strolled up to the window
of her hot red MiniCooper.
"Not that I'm not impressed,
Chaz," he said, an eyebrow raised at the speeds
she managed. "But this is your third warning. In
two weeks." There was that number again. "And
there are all those unpaid parking violations...."
Chastity ended up locking her
car at the side of the highway and riding into work
in a police cruiser, thirty minutes late for her shift.
Which put her smack in the middle of trauma room one
just in time to hear the chaos theory.
She'd been scheduled to work
triage that day. She got bumped instead to the Trauma
Team One. Not that she minded. Chastity had joined the
staff at St. Michael's especially for the trauma. Particularly
the kind of trauma they saw at St. Michael's. Chastity
wasn't just a trauma nurse anymore. She was one of two
new forensic nurse liaisons at St. Michael's. It was
her job to not only save patients, but preserve any
viable forensic evidence that might prove a possible
criminal or civil case. She made sure abuse victims
didn't fall through the cracks, rape victims got better
treatment from the hospital than they did from their
attackers, and unknown patients were identified. She
helped police and hospital personnel work more efficiently
So she wasn't surprised that
she didn't even get a chance to reach her locker before
she got yanked into Trauma Room One to help with a sixteen-year-old
gunshot wound victim.
"About time you showed up,"
one of the nurses accused from where she was pumping
The room was already in turmoil,
half a dozen staff members spinning and colliding around
the room like random ions. Blood oozed over the side
of the table, and paper and sterile wrappings littered
the floor. The patient had been shot in the chest. He'd
already been paralyzed and intubated, x-rayed, ultrasounded
and evaluated. A forest of lines snaked from chest,
arms, throat, and penis, and blood was being recycled
from his chest. The staff had probably been working
on him for about ten minutes.
"You're lucky to have me
at all," Chastity assured them all, slipping booties
over her brand new magenta tennis shoes. "I was
supposed to be on crowd control out front today."
"Are those uniform?"
Moshika Williams asked from her position by the boy's
left chest. Moshika Williams was the trauma doc in charge.
A seriously brilliant trauma fellow, she stood square
and solid, and ran a code like a traffic cop on speed.
Chastity lifted a foot free of
the sticky mess on the floor and spread her magenta-clad
arms. "They match my new scrubs."
"Which are very...bright."
agreed with a nod as she finished gowning up. "Exactly.
It all reflects my new attitude."
"Your forensic attitude?"
"My happy attitude. My life
is in harmony...well, except for the need to find a
ride to work tomorrow. But otherwise, I am now in balance.
Harmony, Moshika. It's the word of the day."
"Not for Willy here. His
clothes are on the counter, by the way. We didn't even
cut 'em through the bullet hole this time."
"I'm very proud of you all.
You've saved the crime lab untold grief. Now, if you
just haven't sneezed on everything..."
Gowned, gloved and shielded,
Chastity pulled out her camera and her swabs, her rulers
and her paper bags to save the evidence hat hadn't already
been washed away in the attempt to save Willy's life.
Since they already obviously had his ID, she didn't
have to worry about the search for that as well.
Moshika bent back to the chest
tube she was preparing to insert. "And you're in
time to hear what I just learned."
Chastity wasn't the only one
in the room who groaned. The only disadvantage to working
with Moshika was the method she used to keep herself
calm in a crisis.
Some people whistled. Some cracked
knuckles or told jokes. Moshika lectured. She shared
all the tidbits of random scientific information she'd
been stuffing into her overheated brain, as if anybody
hip deep in blood and vomit really wanted to know the
latest guess about what the hell a quark was.
This time what she wanted to
share with the class was the chaos theory. Bent over
her patient, she waved a scalpel in Chastity's direction.
"You missed the first part of this, Chaz."
"I'll get the notes later.
Everybody smiled. Chastity snapped
shots of the slightly elliptical bullet hole just below
the kid's sternum, and especially the soot ring and
powder stippling that surrounded it. Willy had been
capped at very close range.
"Well, it's interesting,"
Moshika assured her, bending back to her work."The
chaos theory says that no experimental result can be
perfectly replicated. There is always a variable that
can't be duplicated."
Chastity nodded as if she understood
and hummed Brigadoon as she measured and swabbed
and sealed. It was easier that way. Chastity hummed
show tunes to keep herself focused. The fact that they
drowned out Moshika's lectures was just a fringe benefit.
But then Moshika went and ruined
it all. Her fingers probing the patient's chest for
the tube placement, she looked straight at Charity with
those huge, bright black eyes of hers and said, "Now
here's the part that you should find most interesting.
Especially considering your new attitude. It seems that
according to chaos theory, just at the moment when a
system attains its most perfect harmony, that's when
it's really on the edge of spinning out of control."
The hair literally stood up on
the back of Chastity's neck. Right in the middle of
a trauma code, she stumbled to a dead halt."What
the hell did you have to say that for?" she demanded.
Moshika, too busy with intercostal
spaces, didn't hear. But the damage had already been
done. She'd said it, hadn't she? She'd said it to Chastity,
who had told Moshika no more than three minutes ago
that life had finally found a certain harmony.
An odd thing to contemplate during
a trauma code, certainly, but the truth was that Chastity
was at her happiest during trauma codes. She loved action,
she loved the rush of adrenaline, she loved the challenge
of forensics. She loved living on the edge, and she
could safely do that within the oddly proscribed ritual
of a trauma code. Chastity was practicing at the forefront
of twenty-first century nursing, and she loved it.
Even knowing that she was to
be separated from her lovely little car for a bit, until
Moshika had opened her interfering mouth, Chastity had
reached a free hand into her labcoat pocket, where along
with pens and penlights and laminated trauma scale cards,
she always kept a small velvet drawstring bag. She wrapped
her fingers around it for a minute, just for the feel
of it. Just to make sure it was still there.
She could have used a better
name, of course. Chastity was, after all, such a cosmic
joke. Her mother had named her daughters Faith, Hope,
As if Mary Rose Byrnes had either
had an odd sense of prescience or a catastrophic need
"Chastity, there's a call
Chastity looked up to see the
new secretary leaning in the doorway, her focus more
on the disaster in the room than the recipient of her
message. No big surprise. The secretary was new, and
it took a while to get used to the ambience of the place.
The patient lay naked and alien-looking in the midst
of bedlam. The air was rank with the smell of blood
and bowels. Machines crouched at each corner of the
cart, and staffers shuffled around like bumper cars
in an attempt to get Willie safely to surgery before
his heart gave out along with his liver and left lung.
Chastity was now helping the
team to do that. She'd collected all the evidence she
could. She'd taped the boy's hands inside brown paper
bags to protect defensive or blowback evidence, and
she'd collected photos and personal effects. While
everybody else ran Willie Anderson to OR, Chastity would
instead pass her information and her specially taped
bags to the police.
"There's a call for
you," the secretary repeated, her lips pursed into
a moue of distaste at the wreckage in the room.
"I'll call them back later,
Kim," Chastity answered as she dropped an empty
IV bag onto the littered floor and stretched across
two techs and the patient to change EKG leads.
"Call her Chaz," Moshika
told the secretary as she finished sewing in the chest
tube."Gives her stature."
"Makes her sound like a
made man," a paramedic snorted.
Moshika laughed, her big hornrimmed
glasses glinting in the florescence. "Considering
the fact that she looks like Peter Pan, it couldn't
So she still shopped for her
jeans in the boys' department, Chastity thought. Big
deal. So she wore her hair in one of those cheesy pixie
cuts, and it happened to be blonde. It was easier that
way. She was in harmony, damn it.
She had a boxer puppy named Lilly
and a flat in south St. Louis painted like a Mexican
cantina. She had friends she socialized with regularly,
enough money to support her habits, and a fast little
car to give her the illusion of control. No surprises,
no problems, no new traumas that woke her up any more
than the old traumas did. She had some peace within
herself, as long as she kept to her comfortable rituals
and safety zones.
She was in harmony.
She was happy.
Which, as any Irishwoman knew,
spelled disaster. The chaos theory was just the scientific
spin on that old, unimpeachable Irish truth that good
things never lasted.
"I'll still call 'em back,"
"It's long distance,"
Kim insisted. "From New Orleans. He said it's a
matter of life and death?"
For a second everyone in the
room stopped and looked at her.
"Yeah, okay," the secretary
said, blushing because she was still that new. "But
he says he's your brother-in-law."
Chastity only hesitated for a
second before pulling up a new Lactated Ringers IV bag
to hang. "Really? I didn't know I had a brother-in-law."
"And that your sister's
Another lurch nobody saw. "As opposed to the
last ten years she's been missing?"
Again there was a brief silence.
But then, Chastity wasn't going to explain that, either.
Especially when her heart was suddenly pounding and
her hands had gone sweaty.
Chastity made another grab for
the bag in her pocket. Soft velvet wrapped around tumbled
hard edges. Reassurance. Comfort.
"You have a sister?"
Moshika asked, sounding a bit affronted.
Chastity didn't face her friend.
"I never said I didn't."
"She seems to have found
"Well, he's lost her,"
Kim reminded them all.
Chastity should have done more
than recognize that omen. She should have run from it.
Bought a plane ticket for parts unknown and blown this
pop stand before anybody knew she was gone.
Before that brother-in-law chased
She could feel whispery feet
tip toe right across her grave. She could feel all that
harmony in her life lurch imperceptibly out of balance.
And no more than hours after she'd acknowledged it had
existed at all.
She checked her pocket again,
just to make sure.She usually didn't need to check it
more than twice a week. This had been, what, four times
in an hour? Not a good sign. Not good at all
"I'll still call him back,"
she said. "Get his number."
"This something you want
to talk about?" Moshika asked quietly as she sidled
over to where Chastity was crouched by the cart doing
a final check on chest tube output.
Chastity looked up at St. M's
best new surgical turk. Moshika had managed to get a
lot of information out of Chastity since they'd been
friends, but nothing this pertinent.
Chastity smiled. "And give
you the satisfaction of knowing that my family's more
screwed up than yours? Thanks, no."
Moshika chuckled. "Honey,
nobody's family's more screwed up than mine. We're listed
in the Guinness Book of World Records for most screwed
up family in existence. There are even pictures."
Chastity bet not. Chastity bet
Moshika's family was just run of the mill screwed up.
Not operatically fucked like Chastity's. But that
wasn't something Chastity was going to think about right
now. Right now she was going to do the same thing she'd
done for the ten years since she'd last seen her sister
Faith. She was going to pretend she was all alone in
the world, so she'd be safe, and she was going to get
on with her life. Which was why she smiled again and
climbed back to her feet.
"It's time to take your
boy down to OR," she said and popped the brakes
on the cart.
Moshika flashed a mighty scowl,
but in the end she gave in to the inevitable. Grabbing
hold of IV poles and monitor, she took her place on
the team and helped maneuver Willie out the door for
his run down to surgery. Gathering the bulging evidence
bags from the counter, Chastity headed in the opposite
direction to meet with the police.
For the rest of the shift, she
did her best to avoid Kim the secretary. If Kim didn't
find her, she couldn't hand off that damn phone number
of the brother-in-law Chastity hadn't known she had.
And if Chastity had no phone number, she couldn't call
to have him tell her that her sister was missing and
he wanted Chastity to help him find her.
Kim found her anyway. Right before
end of shift, Kim ran Chastity down in the nurse's lounge
and handed off that phone number like the nuclear codes.
And Chastity, fool that she was, took it. She took it
in front of witnesses, so that later there would be
no way to deny culpability.
She walked out into a purpling
dusk and thought that she had a few things to say to
Moshika. Because maybe if Moshika hadn't mentioned that
damned chaos theory, she wouldn't have recognized the
moment her harmony slipped the tracks.
* * *
Willow Amber Tolliver had shown
up at Jackson Square sometime between Mardi Gras and
Easter. A thin, anxious girl with stringy blonde hair
and a pierced eyebrow, she wore flowing skirts and a
tank top that exposed the I LOVE BRUCE tattoo on her
right shoulder. Her wrists jingled with cheap beaded
bracelets, and her backpack was stuffed with fantasy
It took only a week or so for
her to join the psychics and tarot card readers that
controlled the Chartres Street side of the square. At
first too shy to mingle, she simply staked out a corner
with a battered little card table covered in an old
purple scarf. On it she lay her oversized Tarot cards,
an assortment of crystals, and a candle she'd bought
at the Walmart in Biloxi, which was where she said she
was from. With a hand-painted sign that said "Let
Madame Nola see a better life for you", she set
up her own little corner of business.
Willow didn't have much of a
gift, but she was earnest. She told her customers only
the good things she thought she saw in their cards and
crystals. She played with any baby who came by, and
petted the dogs the other street kids brought around.
She struck up a relationship with another of the tarot
readers, an irascible seventy-year-old ex-Black Panther
by the name of Tante Edie, who couldn't tolerate most
people and made it a point to frighten the customers
who displeased her.
But she liked Willow. They kept
an eye on each other's tables, traded food and stories,
and shared the late night when the cathedral church
bells chimed into darkness and their candles flickered
in the desultory breeze.
When Willow didn't show up for
six days in a row, it was Tante Edie who notified the
police. She cornered one of the uniformed officers who
regularly watched the square from the unit he pulled
right up to the edge of Chartres and St. Ann.
"I ain't seen the girl for
a good few days," she said, leaning in his car
window. "You see or hear anything?"
"Nah. You know where she
"Algiers point, I think."
It was where most of the homeless
street hustlers huddled at night. Tante Edie preferred
a real house, which she'd been squatting in over to
Bywater way for the last year. The last week or so she'd
been thinking of letting Willow share it with her, but
she'd never gotten around to asking.
"Was she in a warehouse,
do you know?" the policeman asked, jotting notes
on the paper his muffaletta had come wrapped in. "There
was a fire in one the other night."
Tante frowned. "I don't
know. Anybody killed?"
"Not that I heard."
"Can you ask around?"
she asked, because this was one of the cops who would
help a street performer.
"Yeah, sure. Do you think
Willow's her real name?"
Tante Edie could only shrug.
Who knew in New Orleans?
The officer never did hear anything.
The next day a new girl took over Willow's corner with
a henna tattooing stand, and Tante Edie went back to
sitting alone. Willow Amber Tolliver, it seemed, was
meant to fade into the lore of the Quarter, just like
most ghosts before her.
* * *
It was inevitable, really.
Once Chastity got that phone
number in her hands, there was no way of holding off
the rest. She tried, she really did. For four days she
hid in her house, where she painted her bedroom neon
yellow. She took Lilly out for walks in the park down
the street. She worked extra shifts, and she tested
her limits in the clubs on Washington Avenue, where
she went to be pummeled by thumping rock'n roll and
drink herself into a quiet stupor.
Finally, though, she gave up
and called her brother-in-law.
"You were the last person
I wanted to call," he said, sounding thin and harried.
"Not the way to entice me
down there, Mr. Stanton."
"Ah. Doctor, then."
"I'm just not sure Faith
wants anything do to with you."
I'm sure. She doesn't."
"But I can't find
her," Dr. Stanton insisted. "And I don't know
where else to go."
Chastity fought a shiver of prescience.
"Because you're a forensic
Another short pause for disquiet.
"How'd you know that?"
"Your mother. One of her
friends from home sent her an article in the St. Louis
Post Dispatch about how you helped solve some big murder
case. She showed it to me."
"The article said that you
knew people all over the country. Police and coroners
and such. It said you found missing people."
"Identify unidentified people.
There's a difference."
"Nobody will listen to me,"
he said, as if not hearing. "I was hoping you'd
know somebody down here who'd listen to you."
As a matter of fact, she did.
She didn't tell him, though.
"What about my mother? Doesn't
she know where Faith is?"
After all, it had been her mother
who'd disappeared with Faith the first time. Who'd decided
that Chastity had no right to know where either of them
were. Well, evidently while Chastity had been tied to
St. Louis like a sacrificial goat, the two of them had
been in New Orleans enjoying gumbo and jazz.
How nice for them both.
Suddenly Chastity realized she
was hearing a very awkward silence on the other end
of the line. "You didn't know," Dr. Stanton
was saying. "Of course."
Well, that sent her stomach sinking."No,
I guess I didn't. What?"
"Um, your mother passed
a few months ago."
It was Chastity's turn for the
uncomfortable silence. Tears. How ridiculous, after
all this time. She looked down, to find her hand clenched
around her drawstring bag. She fought the need for details,
fought the urge to apologize, when it couldn't have
been her fault. At least not this time. So she emptied
the contents of her drawstring and spread them across
the table she'd bought from a bankrupt Mexican restaurant.
no desire to ever see New Orleans," she said.
Her brother-in-law never said
a word. Chastity could hear his need in the rasp of
his breath, though. In the weight of the silence that
stretched taut across the miles. She listened and she
fingered her cache, the garnets and citrines and clear
water aquamarines that tumbled across her table like
Her treasure. Amethysts and tourmalines
and one small emerald the color of spring. The treasure
she'd accrued from the late night shopping channels
she watched when she couldn't sleep. Glittery, colorful,
She kept staring at it all, touching
it, watching it glitter in the kitchen lights, as if
it could tell her something.
It told her something, all right.
It told her she was an idiot if she thought she was
going to avoid this.
"All right, Dr. Stanton,"
she said, rolling a garnet beneath her fingers. "I'll
come help you look for my sister."
Which was how, four days later,
she found herself confronted with her third omen. The
omen that finally frightened her beyond escape.
Chastity didn't really know what
it was when she saw it. She only knew that as the plane
circled New Orleans for a landing, she looked out her
window and saw water.
Everywhere, nothing but water.
And only one, endless bridge.
Chastity hated water. She hated
it worse than she hated late night phone calls. Worse
than she hated the words "It can't get worse, can
it?" Worse than she hated her own history.
No, not hated.
Chastity was paralyzed by water.
She couldn't so much as take a bath. She couldn't sleep
some nights because she woke to the sounds of lapping
water and laughter, and it made her cry out into her
empty bedroom. She couldn't bear to look at that much
water in one place.
She did, though. She sat in that
claustrophobic little seat looking down on an endless
expanse of metallic, shifting water, and suddenly she
knew for a fact that she'd made a mistake. She should
never go to New Orleans, no matter what was at stake.
It was too late, though. She
was already there.