At the height of her singing career, which some will say came up to Billie Holiday’s rumpled ankle socks, Echo’s voice was sweet breath through a straw, a straw poked up among swamp water reeds, as predators cruised the surface; a high-yellow voice that matched her tightly stretched teenaged skin, but not her short white hair, and most certainly not those pale gray eyes, startled and ready to bolt, eyes that did not belong in any human face.
King Z and Lady Juno first saw her in the Delphi, a photo negative wandering among the zydeco musicians on a board-and-cinder-block stage. At first they couldn’t hear her; then barely could; and then Z surprised himself when he raised a hand to silence the two thugs arguing about the best place for a manicure and a blow job. The place went silent, all six odds-and-ends tables with their mismatched chairs, and their clueless tourists who knew only that they felt a hard hand gripping their hearts, with just the implication of a squeeze.
Juno nodded toward the stage, and the little-girl voice rose, gained power, and soon was a woman screaming. Or so it seemed to the tourists, who were left shaken, hearing only Echo, over and over again, even later when an unappreciated one-man-band threw down his cymbals and cursed them in Creole, the second best language there is for cursing.
To Juno, Echo sounded like the little girl, half-sister and half-child, she’d never had.
To Z she sounded like a sex kitten pawing at the door from another world.
To the two thugs at their table, Fishbone (so-called because he used a boning knife) and Truck Stop (big enough to stop a . . . ), Echo sounded like the perfect combination of manicurist and blow job artiste.
The little club, one of many Z owned, was a rotted-wood-and-bare-light-bulbs dive in the Warehouse District, two miles from the Vieux Carré, and one of the few places in the city that managed to be old without being historic, dirty without being authentic, run-down without being quaint. If someone had put a chicken wire fence around the bottles, which in fact Z had thought of doing, the place might have passed as a pawn shop.
When Z sent his men for Echo—that is, to the bar, because there was no dressing room, only an alley outside the door in the back marked Privates—Echo assumed he wanted her for reasons unmusical. Which he did, but not for himself, not in that way, not in his usual way.
He sent Fishbone and Truck Stop back to the bar, so only he, Juno and Echo sat at the little round corner table.
"Who the hell made you, girl?" Juno asked.
"God," Echo replied with a lack of conviction.
"Nah, I know His work. Besides, He mostly unmakes folks nowadays. Must have been somebody else." Juno had a spade-shaped, cumin-colored Cajun face and long, looping black curls, twisted with herb bundles, carvings, and the odd bone, all of it hanging free, like ju-ju charms from Spanish moss at Christmas.
"We’re all orphans and bad guessers here," said Z. "Have a drink and tell us what you know."
"Have a drink," Juno said. "You have no place to go."
"I know." Echo ordered the same as Juno, a double bourbon with a water back, the latter of which she used to dab at the corners of her eyes when she tasted the former. Folded in a raggedy-ass armchair like a package from Sav-a-Buck, she told them she was from Baton Rouge.
"That’s a lie," Juno challenged.
"Well, Georgia, originally, outside Athens. I moved to New Orleans for my career. To sing."
Juno leaned across the table and said, "You lost the baby, didn’t you?"
Echo’s face paled to nearly the color of her hair.
Z laughed. "Don’t fuck with the witch woman, girl."
"You got pregnant and he told you he’d run away with you, so you dropped out of school and got on a bus, only he never showed up, did he?" Juno was showing off, not even looking at Echo’s face now, studying her own nails as if they were tiny clipboards. "Ever think about killing yourself?"
Echo stared with her big gray eyes.
"Who hasn’t?" Z offered philosophically.
"You haven’t," Juno snorted. "When you get depressed, it’s other people got to watch out. But this child here—you what, sixteen, girl?"
"Seventeen," Echo answered automatically.
"You had the baby because you figured at least your own baby would have to love you."
"That’s why I killed it," Echo said. "To be free of—"
"Free of love? ‘We free at last!’" Juno laughed deep in her chest, lit a cigarette, took a drag, and offered it to Echo, who took it. "Honey, that’s the biggest lie you told so far, though you ain’t tryin’ too hard." Then she said, more gently, "You killed it how, by gettin’ your old man to beat you up when you were pregnant? Never mind. You can sing a little, you know that?"
"I know that." Echo didn’t cry, and she didn’t direct anger at Juno.
Z watched the two women thoughtfully. "You want a job?" he said to Echo.
Juno gave him a look.
"Singing, I mean."
"Yeah," Echo said, glancing only briefly at Z before she looked back at the table in front of Juno. Echo’s strategy, a good one whenever she played with big people, was to make herself as small as possible. But anonymity, the poor man’s kryptonite, failed her this time. She couldn’t help singing.
Z felt in his pocket for a pen and something to write on, found neither, and pulled out a knife so wicked the folks around there probably had a name for it. "Carve your number on this table," he rumbled, handing her the knife.
"She ain’t got no number, fool," Juno told him, patting Echo’s slender back. "The asshole you pay to run this place keeps her money for letting her eat leftovers and sleep in the back."
Z pretended to frown; actually he didn’t pay the asshole anything, just let him keep some of what he made.
Juno said, "You need a place to stay, child? You can stay with me."
"Why you bein’ so nice to me?" Echo asked.
Juno smiled, pleased to see the girl had enough brains to be suspicious. "Same reason you sing. It’s what I do."
Z ran a lot of the smaller nightclubs outside of the French Quarter, and some whores and drugs, the way a big dog runs the street he walks on. He controlled the gun trade throughout New Orleans. No formal transactions, just sniffing and pissing and then taking what he wanted without having to bite anybody, usually.
The most surprising thing about Z, when you looked at him close up, was that he was a white man, a Caucasian who somehow had co-opted the density, the gravitas of a black king who had become a slave, and then a king again. He had a twenty-inch neck, hands too large and thick for normal commerce, and a sexual appetite that only Juno held in check, and only some of the time.
"The trouble with the devil," Juno told Echo a couple months after they met, "is that he keeps his bargains."
That first night, Echo rode with Z and Juno in the back of a big black car, with Fishbone and Truck Stop in the front. They left the Warehouse District, ducked under Interstate 10 and headed toward Mid City, rolling down pock-marked avenues that were still holding out against the hundred-year-old fad of electric street lights. Then the car found an even worse neighborhood, and pulled in front of a great old Regency-style house, well-maintained and enclosed in wrought iron. Juno explained that no one, including the police, ever fucked with her wrought iron, thanks to Z having the place watched 24-7.
"Doesn’t mister Z live here too?" Echo asked. The two women already had adopted the habit of speaking of the man as if he weren’t there, or at least as if he were incapable of understanding their words.
Juno smiled and shook her head. "He just comes by to get what he wants. Never stays the night. Better for everybody that way. Fishbone and Truck Stop park out front, but they don’t come in. Some boots don’t ever get wiped clean."
There were a dozen rooms for just the two of them; it reminded Echo of when she worked at the Olympus Motor Inn, where no more than two of the twelve rooms were ever rented. (Though they rented only the rooms near the office, they changed the sheets in every room every three or four days, sheets dirty with a strange, gray . . . film. Not slime or dirt, more like shadow, like a trick of some outlaw light breaking optical rules.)
Because Z was coming in to do what he did with Juno, Echo slept on a funky old couch in a room on the north side of the house, a drawing room with an unused fireplace, a mantel of carved walnut and plaster columns, several overstuffed armchairs covered in the same dark green velveteen as the couch, a jungle of potted ferns and hanging plants, and an aged but not yet tattered rug on the wooden floor. The room felt good to Echo, who was good, maybe too good, at knowing what felt good, and she did this trick she always did to make it feel even better: she imagined herself as Juno, falling asleep on the couch after making love to Z. So she left the door to the room open, because it was her house, and she was completely comfortable in it.
Sometime during the night Echo half-woke. Moonlight through the north-facing bay windows suffused the room with soft shadows, densely jungled but playful, cast by plants and furniture. They fascinated Echo, shifting as the light outside shifted. Gradually, she became aware of something else among them, one shadow that didn’t shift in quite the same way, one that came closer.
She wasn’t frightened, because she was being Juno, in Juno’s house—and because Echo accepted the inexplicable as part of life—but it did keep coming closer. By the time it reached the foot of the couch, she was noticing other shadows among the shadows, and when it slid up and touched her foot, warmed her toes, it seemed . . . surprised. Echo remembered holding her sister’s baby when it was still too young to see, and thinking, while her sister tied off her arm with a rubber cord and heated a spoon for herself, that the baby knew people well enough by their smell, and that smells ran in families, so the baby knew she was family, and was cool with family—or would be until she got to know them better. Echo didn’t want to think about babies, though, so she started singing to the shadow, in her small voice, not singing words, but humming, the shadow of words. The shadow at her foot grew denser. The shadows in the shadows, pockets of density, came closer.
She didn’t hear the outside door slam, though she remembered the sound afterward, and didn’t see Juno come into the room, though she suddenly saw her at the foot of the couch, checking things out, concerned. She was dressed in . . . rain.
"There you are," Juno said, but she wasn’t talking to Echo. She spread her arms; the rain fell from them silently, never quite striking the floor, and when she left, the shadows left with her.