Mar 26 2012 10:12am
Royal Street (Excerpt)
As the junior wizard sentinel for New Orleans, Drusilla Jaco’s job involves a lot more potion-mixing and pixie-retrieval than sniffing out supernatural bad guys like rogue vampires and lethal were-creatures. DJ’s boss and mentor, Gerald St. Simon, is the wizard tasked with protecting the city from anyone or anything that might slip over from the preternatural beyond.
Then Hurricane Katrina hammers New Orleans’ fragile levees, unleashing more than just dangerous flood waters.
While winds howled and Lake Pontchartrain surged, the borders between the modern city and the Otherworld crumbled. Now, the undead and the restless are roaming the Big Easy, and a serial killer with ties to voodoo is murdering the soldiers sent to help the city recover.
To make it worse, Gerry has gone missing, the wizards’ Elders have assigned a grenade-toting assassin as DJ’s new partner, and undead pirate Jean Lafitte wants to make her walk his plank. The search for Gerry and forthe serial killer turns personal when DJ learns the hard way that loyalty requires sacrifice, allies come from the unlikeliest places, and duty mixed with love creates one bitter gumbo.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 26, 2005 “Once [Tropical Storm Katrina] moved over the gulf today, it was expected to wheel north, pick up speed and hit the Florida Panhandle on Sunday.”
—THE NEW YORK TIMES
A secluded Louisiana bayou. A sexy pirate. Seduction and deceit. My Friday afternoon had the makings of a great romantic adventure, at least in theory.
In practice, angry mosquitoes were using me for target practice, humidity had ruined any prayer of a good hair day, and the pirate in question—the infamous Jean Lafitte—was two hundred years old, armed, and carrying a six-pack of Paradise condoms in assorted fruit flavors.
I wasn’t sure what unnerved me more—the fact that the historical undead had discovered modern prophylactics, or that Lafitte felt the need to practice safe sex.
Nothing about the pirate looked safe. Tall and broad shouldered, he had dark-blue eyes and a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth as he watched me set two glasses and a bottle of dark rum on a rickety wooden table. A tanned, muscular chest peeked from his open collar, and shaggy dark hair framed a clean-shaven face. A jagged scar across his jaw reminded me the so-called gentleman pirate also had his ruthless side.
He’d arrived by way of a stolen boat at this isolated cabin near Delacroix, a half hour outside New Orleans, to pursue two of the world’s most timeless pleasures: sex and money. I’d met him here to play the role of a gullible young wizard falling under the spell of the legendary pirate, at least for a while. Then I’d do my duty as deputy sentinel and send his swashbuckling hide back to the Beyond, where he could rub shoulders with other undead legends and preternatural creatures unfit for polite human company.
My hand shook as I poured the rum, sloshing a few drops of amber liquid over the side of the glass. I’d finally been given a serious assignment, and I needed it to go without a hitch.
Lafitte’s fingers brushed mine as he took the drink, sending an unexpected rush of energy up my arm. “Merci, Mademoiselle Jaco—or may I address you as Drusilla?”
Actually, I’d prefer he didn’t address me at all. Despite his obvious hopes for the evening, this wasn’t a date. “Most people call me DJ.”
“Bah,” he said, taking a sip of rum. “Those are alphabet letters, not a name.”
From beneath the red sash that accented his waist, Lafitte pulled a modern semiautomatic handgun and set it on the table next to the rum bottle. I knew how he’d gotten it—he’d rolled the Tulane student who summoned him, lifted the kid’s wallet and iPod, rode the streetcar to a Canal Street pawnshop (13), and made a trade for the gun. Enterprising guy, Lafitte.
I pondered the odd spike of energy I’d gotten from his hand. Touching increases the emotional crap I absorb from people as an empath, but Lafitte was technically a dead guy. Still, I’d like to say if he touched me again, I’d demand double pay from the wizards’ Congress of Elders. Triple if it involved lips.
But who was I kidding? My bargaining position was nonexistent. My boss, Gerry, only sent me on this run because he had something else to do and thought Lafitte might respond to my questionable seduction skills.
I’d pulled my unruly blond hair out of its usual ponytail for the occasion, loaded on some makeup to play up my teal eyes, and poured myself into a little black skirt, short enough to show off my legs while not offending Lafitte’s nineteenth-century sensibilities.
It must have worked, because the pirate was giving me that head-to-toe appraisal guys do on instinct, like they’re assessing a juicy slab of beef and deciding whether they want it rare, medium, or well-done.
“You really are lovely, Drusilla.” The timbre of Lafitte’s voice shivered down my spine, and I fought the urge to check out the biceps underneath that linen shirt.
Holy crap. This was just wrong. I should not be absorbing his lust.
I forced myself to take a step back and put a few inches of distance between us. He was at least six-two and I had to crane my neck to make eye contact. Plus, distance was good. “Shouldn’t we discuss business first, Captain Lafitte?”
He took another sip of rum. “Very well. Business then, Jolie. After all, you are the first sentinel to realize how beneficial a relationship with me could be.”
“You’ve tried doing business with my boss?” That conversation should have been entertaining. Gerry had probably zapped him back to the Beyond faster than he could say walk the plank.
“Gerald St. Simon is an arrogant man who exaggerates his own importance,” Lafitte said, and if that wasn’t a case of a pot and a black kettle I’d never heard one. Although it did make me wonder how often he’d met Gerry.
“Present-day businessmen such as your antique merchants would profit greatly by selling goods from the Beyond,” he continued. “And an experienced trader like myself could procure valuable items from the past. As my business partner, you would of course receive a generous percentage without having to involve your Elders.”
I swallowed hard as he shortened the gap between us again. “And you and I could forge a most enjoyable personal partner ship as well.”
He regarded me with a slow smile, and I found myself smiling back, heart pounding. My damned eyes were probably twinkling as my gaze lingered first on his mouth and then the fine line of his jaw. I wondered if the scar would feel rough under my fingertips . . .
I’ve spent most of my twenty-five years learning to manage my empathic abilities, to guard against emotions I don’t want and channel the rest into my magic. I hadn’t performed my grounding ritual today because, really, who’d expect to absorb emotions from a dead guy? Yet Lafitte’s lust and anticipation shimmered across my skin. Touching ramped the empathy to warp speed.
He stepped close enough for me to feel the heat from his body and answer that age-old question: No, the historical undead, powered by the magic of memory, did not have cold skin like vampires.
Setting his glass on the table with one hand, he used the other to lift a stray curl from my cheek and tuck it behind my ear. His breath heated my neck as he leaned over and swept a soft kiss just below my jaw, and another across my lips.
I closed my eyes and returned the kiss—until some kernel of sanity finally reminded me to reach in my skirt pocket and finger the slim packet of herbs Gerry calls my mojo bag. Basically, it’s a magic-infused ruby for emotional protection plus a blend of acacia and hyssop to clear my mind in an emergency, which this definitely was.
My pulse slowed as the warmth from my hand released the calming energy, and in a few seconds I felt only my own chagrin and a blush creeping up my cheeks that had nothing to do with the hellish temperature.
Maybe I’d ask for that bonus after all. Gerry liked that I could harness outside emotion to fuel my magic, but if I had to let myself be pawed by the undead, he would by God pay for it.
I stepped back, handed Lafitte his glass again, and offered a vague toast: “To our mutual satisfaction.”
He tossed back the rest of his rum in one swallow, and I pretended to sip. I should have sprung for something better than the cheapest rum on Winn-Dixie’s shelves, but the Elders are tightwads when it comes to reimbursable expenses.
I gazed off the porch of this ramshackle cabin near the edge of Bayou Lery. Lafitte hoped to establish his headquarters here once we consummated our partnership, so to speak. The orange-gold sunset illuminated a pair of white egrets splashing around the murky water and accentuated the fierce, wild beauty of the place. Here, surrounded by marshes and alligators, it would be easy to forget metro New Orleans lay only a few miles away.
Lafitte poured himself another drink and relaxed in one of two old wooden chairs we’d retrieved from the cabin’s dusty interior. “I know you don’t want to betray your mentor, Jolie, but . . .”
He frowned and set the wine glass on the table, flexing his fingers and looking at them as though they belonged on some one else’s hands. “Something is amiss,” he muttered, and cast a suspicious glance at me.
I stepped away from his chair, just in case he could still move when he figured out Jolie had caused his sudden loss of dexterity.
Within seconds, he’d lost use of his hands and feet. He stared at me in outrage. “You . . . You . . .”
A word rhyming with witch was probably about to roll off his tongue, but he stopped mid-sentence, eyes widening as he realized his body had frozen in place. He did the only thing he could unless I came within biting range—bombard me with a torrent of French most likely filled with expletives. Glad I couldn’t understand a word of it.
Note to self: Next time you make an immobilization potion, add an accelerant and a silencer.
I knelt and retrieved my silver dagger from its sheath inside my boot, avoiding eye contact.
He lapsed into English. “Damnable wizard, treating me with such treachery when I come to you in good faith. You will rue the day you crossed me.”
Definitely add the silencer next time.
“I have to admit you made a tempting case for yourself, Captain Lafitte, but I’m a licensed sentinel and I’ve trained under Gerald St. Simon since childhood. I’d never betray him or the Elders.”
As I talked, I cleared the area around Lafitte’s chair, kicking aside branches and leaves to ensure ample space on all sides. I prodded a tiny brown lizard back into the swamp with the toe of my boot. Better for him to stay here in Delacroix, munching mosquitoes.
From the bag I’d used to bring the rum and glasses, I retrieved a small syringe of mercury and a half-pint mason jar of sea salt. “You know, this is all Johnny Depp’s fault,” I told Lafitte, glancing around to see if he was still listening. “People summon you thinking they’re going to get this loveable movie pirate, and you show up.”
Anger darkened his eyes till they were almost black, and the energy coming off him sent a warm tingle across my scalp. “I do not know this Depp.” He spat the words. “But there is always someone in Louisiane who wants to meet the famous privateer Jean Lafitte. When I am summoned to the modern world again I will find you.”
Terrific. Something to look forward to. While Lafitte ranted, I formed a triangle of salt around his chair, leaving a gap of about six inches. I considered throwing another pinch in his smirking face for good measure, but unrefined sea salt is too expensive to waste.
“Drusilla,” he said, his voice sliding from anger to sarcasm. “Why must you use your magic to bind me like a prisoner, and make your silly little figures on the ground? Your Gerald simply points a finger at me and sends me back to the Beyond.”
One corner of his mouth edged upward in a sly smile. “You must be a very poor wizard. That is a good thing to remember when we next meet.”
Big undead jerk.
“I’m just a different kind of wizard.” I stopped working and treated him to a saccharine smile. “Besides, if I were so weak, you wouldn’t be stuck in that chair like a big old Jean Lafitte statue, would you?”
That earned me another spate of name-calling, in Spanish this time. Couldn’t understand that, either.
“You might as well calm down,” I said. “I don’t have to send you back to Old Orleans, after all. I’m sure the vampires would enjoy a nice pirate snack after they played with you a while. Or I could send you to the elves.”
He narrowed his eyes and shifted his gaze back toward the swamp. At least he was fuming in silence. He didn’t even look when I lifted the handgun from the table with two fingers and eased it into my bag. I raised my hand to toss the condoms in the water, thought about the ecological implications, and threw them in my bag as well.
I drew a triangle in the air over the pirate’s head with my dagger and used more salt to close the one around his chair. Finally, I used the syringe to release small beads of mercury at three points along the triangle. The air shimmered as the third drop of mercury fell, and I released a small burst of magic along with it. With a final glare in my direction, Jean Lafitte disappeared.
My limbs felt heavy and the headache started within seconds—part adrenaline drain, part the cost of physical magic. Green Congress wizards like myself, who specialize in rituals and spellwork, can muster enough juice to do summoning and dispatches, but it takes a toll. I was tempted to rest on the porch awhile and watch the egrets, but dark had begun to settle in and I didn’t want to be gator bait.
On the porch outside the triangle lay a gold doubloon, an unintended souvenir from Lafitte. I picked it up for Gerry’s antiques collection, thinking it might butter him up for better assignments. More jobs like Lafitte and fewer crap jobs like pixie retrievals and research.
Today was a turning point—I could feel it. Lafitte had been dispatched as planned, despite the little lust problem, and it would prove to Gerry I could handle myself.
“Yo-ho-ho,” I muttered, smudging a break in the triangle with my boot. The air solidified, and I retrieved my cell phone from my bag, punching in Gerry’s speed dial.
“Ahoy, matey.” He sounded chipper. Whatever his mystery job had been, it must have gone well.
“Ahoy to you, too. All’s done on this end, and I’m on my way back.”
“No problems with the dispatch?”
“Strictly textbook,” I assured him. “But did you realize I’d be able to absorb Lafitte’s emotions?”
“No, I didn’t.” Protracted silence. “Interesting. Meet me at Sid-Mar’s and you can regale me with the ghastly details over dinner. Oh, and pick up a case of bottled water, would you? Looks like we might be in for a little hurricane after all.”
In Gerry’s British accent the word sounded like “herrikin,” even after almost thirty years in New Orleans.
I tried to remember the last report I’d heard on the storm, which was so small it barely rated a name. “It’s not supposed to come here, is it? This morning, the weather guys said it was headed for Florida.”
I loaded my bag in the back of my dusty red Pathfinder, phone tucked between shoulder and chin, and paused before climbing in. “What’s it called, anyway? Kitty? Koko? Kelly?”
“Just as bad,” Gerry said. “Katrina. Not exactly a name that inspires fear, is it?”