Mon
Mar 26 2012 11:12am

Royal Street (Excerpt)

Suzanne Johnson

CHAPTER 2

Two hours later, Gerry and I relaxed on the wooden deck behind Sid-Mar’s, reviewing the Lafitte job and gorging on stuffed artichokes and fried oysters. The restaurant filled a small wooden house in Bucktown, which had been an isolated fishing village on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain before the railway line connected it to New Orleans and jerked it into the nineteenth century. Now it was a suburb clinging to its colorful history.

A hot breeze blew off the lake as we crunched spicy oysters and used our teeth to scrape savory stuffing off the artichoke leaves. The food took the edge off my post-magic malaise. Until recently, we’d done these recaps after every job—a way, Gerry said, of helping me learn the mysterious ins and outs of sentinel work. Lately, he’d been putting off the reviews of his jobs, and mine weren’t worth talking about. Well, until today.

I plucked a French fry off his plate and sprinkled it with Louisiana Hot Sauce. “Lafitte made it sound like he’s tried talk­ing you into a business deal before.” I left out the part about him calling Gerry arrogant.

“Only every time he’s summoned,” Gerry said, chuckling. “I had another appointment today, so I thought we’d try some­ thing different. Obviously, it worked.”

“Yeah, except he swears he’s going to hunt me down and get even.” I flagged down the waiter and ordered a refill on my soda. “I think he took the whole fake seduction personally. What made you think he’d fall for it?”

When Gerry came up with the idea of having me lure the pirate to a swampy tryst, I’d thought he was certifiable. Lafitte was famous for many things, but not naïveté.

Gerry gave me a bemused smile. “You’ve really no idea, do you?”

“What?”

“Well, let’s just think about it. Why would a ladies’ man like Lafitte want to venture into a secluded spot with a young woman, especially one whose magical skills he doubted?” He shook his head, still laughing. “All he wanted from me was a business deal, DJ.”

Of all the arrogant, pigheaded, Neanderthal attitudes. “Meaning?”

“You’ve grown into a lovely young woman, and that gives you a certain power. You can use it to your advantage.”

I stabbed a plump oyster with my fork. It was one thing for Lafitte to belittle my abilities as a wizard, but another to hear such dismissive talk from Gerry. Like most sentinels, he was a Red Congress wizard, skilled in physical magic. He could blast the fangs off a vampire at fifty yards.

Green Congress wizards were the geeks of the magical world, hell on rituals and potions but always last to get picked for wiz­ard dodgeball, so to speak. I’d have to immobilize the vampire, saw off his fangs, and dissolve them in an herbal potion while muttering some obscure incantation. We had no flair.

I sighed, struggling against Gerry’s logic. I wasn’t strong in physical magic, but I did have skills. Maybe he’d take me more seriously if I started packing heat.

Speaking of which. “Remind me to give you Lafitte’s pistol later,” I said. “You can have his condoms too, if you want them. Fruit-flavored.”

Gerry choked on an oyster, coughing till his face turned pink. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

Prurient curiosity made me itch to ask Gerry if the historical undead could really do the deed, but it didn’t seem appropriate dinner conversation. Lafitte sure didn’t seem to think sex would be a problem. I’d do like any other self-respecting young wizard of the world. I’d look it up on the Elders’ secure website when I got home.

I had to bring up the empathy problem, though. “Why do you think I was able to take in emotions from Lafitte? I didn’t go through my shielding ritual beforehand because I wasn’t ex­pecting it to be an issue.”

“You could feed off his anger. Wouldn’t that strengthen your magic?”

I rolled my eyes. “By the time he got angry I had it under control, thanks to my grounding herbs. No, what I picked up from Mr. Lafitte was lust.”

The more I thought about it, the more outraged I got. “Lust, Gerry. Which I absorbed. If it weren’t for my mojo bag, we’d be out in the swamp doing God only knows what. And this was all your idea, remember?”

“Oh my.” Gerry took a sip of his beer, trying to fight back laughter without much success. He was getting way too much enjoyment out of this.

“I’m sorry, love.” He wiped away tears. “I had no idea. I guess it makes sense. I understand empaths can sometimes pick up emotions from vampires because they were once human. Apparently the same thing works with the historical undead. Maybe zombies, too.”

Great. Other things I had to shield myself from.

I changed the subject, hoping to squelch Gerry’s laughter. “Heard any more about the storm? I couldn’t find anything on the radio driving back from Delacroix, but lots of people were talking about it when I came in the restaurant.” Worry hung over the place like a dark mist.

Gerry tugged his thick silver hair into a short ponytail to keep it out of his face and regarded me thoughtfully.

“Every time the weather service updates its forecast, pro­jected landfall has shifted farther west, and now they aren’t sure if it will make that curve into Florida. If it doesn’t, it’s coming straight for us. Unless something changes overnight, you’ll have to evacuate.”

I snorted. “Yeah, right. I tried leaving before Hurricane Ivan a couple of years ago, remember? For three hours, I sat in traffic that would give Mother Teresa road rage and still hadn’t made it out of downtown. I finally did a U-turn and went home. We never even lost power.”

I shook a few drops of red, peppery hot sauce in a small bowl, mixed in some ketchup and horseradish, and stirred it into a cocktail sauce for my oysters. No New Orleans restaurant worth beans offered its patrons bottled cocktail sauce.

“Besides,” I said, “the weather guys always freak everybody out and then the storms pass us by.”

I still held a grudge against one TV forecaster who had an on-air meltdown a few years back and urged everyone within hearing to hustle out and buy an ax. We’d need it, he said, to hack through our roofs ahead of rampaging floodwaters. Instead, we got a quarter-inch of rain that drained in ten minutes. I’d since dubbed that forecaster the Drama King.

“You sound like a regular native,” Gerry said. “But I’ve a bad feeling about this one. You need to plan on going while I tend to things here.”

I settled back in my chair, looking at the dark waters of Lake Pontchartrain as a family of ducks waddled past, snapping up the bits of bread diners tossed their way and quacking at a stray cat. I rubbed my throbbing temples with my fingers and willed my aching muscles to hold out a little longer. It was go­ing to take a few hours of sleep to slough off the energy drain from sending Lafitte and his wandering lips back into the Be­yond. The last thing I wanted to think about was packing up and running from a hurricane that would end up going some­where else.

A gust of wind blew out the small candle on our table, and Gerry touched the wick, casually shooting enough magical en­ergy from his fingertip to relight the flame. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed, and shook my head.

He laughed at my reaction. “Do you really think the Elders are going to swoop down on us because I lit a candle in a res­taurant?” He scanned the other diners as they talked, laughed, paid no attention to us. “Besides, it would do ordinary humans good to learn there’s still a bit of magic in the world. They’ve put all their faith in science and damned near lost their souls in the process.”

I started to argue but bit my tongue. I was too tired to get into a philosophical chess match with Gerry. I had more im­mediate concerns. My mind went back to his motives for sending me after Lafitte. I was better at this job than he gave me credit for, damn it.

Gerry studied me, traces of a laugh still playing on his face. “You aren’t even going to argue? You’re no fun tonight.”

We could keep dancing around the problem till doomsday, but my dancing skills sucked.

“I don’t want to hear about how you think the Elders are mishandling the magical world,” I said. “I want to talk about my job, and why you think I can only handle an assignment when you’re too busy to take it or when I can use something like sex to make it work.”

He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest and squinting at me. “Very well, then. Speak your mind.”

“It was nice to go out on a real assignment today. Don’t you think it’s time to let me out of the minor league and start giving me better things to do than handle runaway pixies and immo­bilized mutts?”

I put my fork down, the better to avoid stabbing him with it. “I can handle this job, Gerry. I might not be an al-freaking­ mighty Red Congress wizard, but I’m better than what you give me credit for.”

He twitched his mouth in a faint smile. “Admit it. You en­joyed the dog job.”

Two weeks ago a low-level wizard had grown so annoyed with his hyperactive Jack Russell that he immobilized the dog, then needed help getting it unfrozen. Welcome to my life— savior of the magically inept.

Gerry looked away, taking in the lights along the water’s edge. “You’ll have everything you want soon enough, DJ. Don’t be impatient.”

Whatever that meant. “I’m never going to be able to ad­vance from deputy status if I don’t get bigger cases, Gerry.”

His gaze remained fixed on the water. “Do you really think you’re ready? You’re still learning to control your empathic skills, and emotions and magic make dangerous companions. You con­sider it a liability right now, but it can be an asset when you learn to use it. And you have some physical magic we need to explore. Until then, you’d need to learn a weapon.”

He turned from the water and looked at me, arching an eyebrow. “I’ll set you up with shooting lessons, if that will make you feel better. You can use Jean Lafitte’s gun.”

“Fine, I’ll do that.” I took a deep breath and bit back the urge to keep arguing. It was obvious I wouldn’t get anywhere with him tonight. I’d have to dissect Gerry’s psyche later, when my head didn’t ache with fatigue and a hurricane wasn’t looming.

“Okay, back to Katrina,” I said, and Gerry looked relieved. “I’ll come to your house and we’ll have a hurricane party like we did when I was a kid. You know, sit outside and grill after the rain blows through and the electricity’s off? Or better still, come to my place Uptown. We’ve never ridden out a storm there.”

Gerry’s house in Lakeview, the one I’d lived in since I was seven, sat about ten city blocks south of us, with a steeply slop­ing backyard that edged up to the 17th Street Canal. A high concrete floodwall sat atop the canal’s levee, designed to keep Lake Pontchartrain from spilling its guts into the city during a storm surge. It always made me feel safe. My own house was in an older part of town that spanned the strip of land along the east bank of the Mississippi River. Either place would work.

Gerry sipped his beer, the breeze rippling the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. “Don’t make too many plans. I think you’re going to have to evacuate this time unless something changes overnight. I don’t have to tell you why.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” One of us had to keep an eye on the Beyond during the storm. The other had to leave and be ready to return quickly should all hell break loose in New Orleans—literally. Sentinels were in short supply, and the Congress of Elders couldn’t afford to lose both of us. I knew the drill.

“Theoretically, I should be the one to stay since I’m more expendable,” I said, knowing he’d never go for it.

“You’re not more expendable to me.” The breeze blew out the candle again, and he didn’t bother relighting it. “Besides, I’ll enjoy the quiet time while the city is shut down for a day. Maybe even two or three days—this is feeling like a real storm to me.”

I had to agree. Despite the fluff-ball name and my own desire to avoid evacuation, Katrina felt ominous somehow. Maybe it was the way dry heat hung in the wind blowing around us, or just the stray bits of disquiet I kept picking up from the people sitting nearby. It strummed across my skin like fingers across guitar strings. I’d stay and ride it out if Katrina began making an early turn toward Pensacola or Mobile. Otherwise, I’d have to suck it up and go.

I tipped my diet soda in his direction and tapped the edge of his beer bottle. My taste of cheap rum with Lafitte had soured me on alcohol for the day, but there was time for one more toast. “Here’s to postponing a decision till tomorrow, then,” I said.

Gerry smiled. “To tomorrow.”

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