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 holidays.
And the number three. Chastity absolutely loathed the number three. Everything happened in threes, from births to deaths to every disaster in between.
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 together.
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 in fluids.
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.”
“Bright,” Chastity 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 smile.”
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 been happy.
Instinctively she 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, and Chastity.
As if Mary Rose Byrnes had either had an odd sense of prescience or a catastrophic need for denial.
“Chastity, there’s a call for you.”
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 hurt.”
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,” Chastity said.
“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 missing?”
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 a husband.”
“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 her down.
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 novels.
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 lives?”
“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.”
“Well, 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. “Why me?”
“Because you’re a forensic nurse.”
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.
“I have 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 pirate’s treasure.
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, solid.
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.