Tue
Apr 3 2012 11:00am

Royal Street (Enhanced Excerpt)

Suzanne Johnson

CHAPTER 3

 

SUNDAY, AUGUST 28, 2005 “Katrina could turn out to be the perfect hurricane, much to the dismay of south Louisiana residents.”

—THE TIMES–PICAYUNE

 

I stared into the hatch of the Pathfinder, ruminating. What should a wizard pack when fleeing a hurricane? It sounded like the opening line of a bad joke.

The suggested packing list from the morning newspaper included three days’ change of clothes, my laptop, insurance papers (even wizards need a good hazard policy), and a box of photos. My backpack of magical gear occupied one corner, along with a cooler of perishable herbs and potions in case the electricity died, some personal spellbooks and journals, and a fifty-five-hour, unabridged audio CD of The Lord of the Rings. (43) Frodo and Sam would probably stumble halfway to Mordor before I cleared the Louisiana state line.

Saturday had been spent hurricane-proofing my house. I lugged pots of herbs and flowers inside from the front porch and lined them along the kitchen wall, propped the patio table against the side of the house, and dragged the chairs inside. (44) All my perishable food went in the trash—two eggs, a block of cheese, three frozen pizzas, and a green-tinged pack of sandwich meat. So I’m not Julia Child. At least I wouldn’t come back to a fridge full of rotten food.

Finally, I unplugged everything and carefully coated all my windows with a paste of ground bay leaves and purified water shot with a quick infusion of magic. It looked gross and smelled like a pot of soup, but it would make the glass unbreakable for two or three days. By then, Katrina would be a memory.

I slammed the hatch and climbed in, pausing to look around before I left. The dry, scorching wind that had persisted the last couple of days rustled the leaves of the ancient live oaks lining the avenue beside my house, a Victorian camelback (45) in a neighborhood straddling the line between commercial and residential. The result was an eclectic mix of private homes like mine and funky boutiques whose owners often lived above their businesses.

Everybody was scattering. My neighbor Eugenie Dupre (46), who ran a hair salon named Shear Luck across the street and lived on her second floor, had evacuated yesterday to wait out the storm with relatives in Shreveport (47). I’d helped bolster her windows with big Xs of masking tape (48), which probably wouldn’t do any good but made her feel better, then lied and told her Uncle Gerry would tape mine later. Eugenie doesn’t know about magic.

Gerry’s girlfriend Letitia Newman (49) had left for Houston a few hours ago. A Green Congress wizard who’d spent almost as much time with me as Gerry, Tish had taught me herbs and minerals and potions. We’d talked about evacuating together, but the hurricane provided a good excuse for me to visit my grandmother in Alabama. I hadn’t seen her since last Christmas. I’d probably have to make an appearance with my dad, too.

Light traffic hustled along Magazine Streetin front of my house. Like all New Orleans thoroughfares, its pavement rippled with ruts and bumps wrought by the unholy trinity of soft soil, a high water table, and ambivalent city government. My truck creaked and groaned from too many years driving on it.(50)

Around me I heard the staccato rat-a-tat of hammers as neighbors with more do-it-yourself skills than I possessed nailed plywood over their windows. Early-morning light from a gloomy sky cast halfhearted shadows on the row of pastel century-old houses with their ornate gingerbread molding. I rejected the notion that all this might be gone tomorrow, no matter what the forecasters said.

I called Gerry on my cell as I wound through mostly empty streets toward the interstate. “Remind me again why I’m evacuating and you’re at home reading the paper?” I could imagine him on his deck, cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain in hand, fighting to keep the panic-driven headlines of The Times–Picayune from rustling in the wind. Today, in type so large it took up half the front page, screamed two words: “Ground Zero.” (51)

He laughed. “Because the Congress of Elders ordered you to and they pay your salary. You chose to drive, remember? They offered to set up a transport for you to Las Cruces, or you could have gone to Houston with Tish.”

The sentinel in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was a self-absorbed, Elder-wannabe asshat monkey. I’d walk to my grandmother’s before I’d voluntarily spend time with him.

I assumed a sour expression and kept driving, taking a shortcut through the run-down and razor-wired neighborhoods of Central City. Plywood covered almost every storefront window, and an air of nervous anticipation hung in the air.

“Wait and see,” Gerry said. “The fickle Katrina will probably curve north before she gets this far. But if by chance she does knock the electricity off a few days, you’ll be glad you left. New Orleans in August without air conditioning will be as miserable as one of Dante’s circles of hell.”

“Yeah, well, I hope you enjoy the inferno.” I’d take on a little fire and brimstone to avoid a heaping helping of relatives.

I knew the real danger from the storm had nothing to do with heat and sweat. The fluctuating barometric pressure of a strong hurricane could wreak havoc on the energy fields between this world and the Beyond, opening the door for any old monster to stroll through. Hurricane Andrew had led to such an explosion in the vampire population of south Florida back in 1992 the Elders had been forced to bring in sentinels from Europe to contain it.

“Do you think we’ll have the same problems as Miami?” I’d only been twelve and had been hustled to Gran’s, but Gerry had been one of the sentinels sent down to help, at least till Andrew re-entered the Gulf and headed toward Louisiana.

“Probably not,” he said. “Although it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for a few new species to move in, stir things up a bit.”

Oh, God. Back to that old tune.

“Look, I’m almost to the interstate,” I said. “If it gets bad, use the transport we set up between your house and my grandmother’s—you and Sebastian (52) both. Gran would be glad to see you.” I’d finally talked him into setting up an open transport so he and his cranky, cross-eyed Siamese cat could get out if they needed to, or I could get back quickly. I’d establish my end of the transport when I got to my grandmother’s.

He was still laughing at the idea of Gran being happy to see him when I ended the call. She might have foisted me off on Gerry when I was seven, but she didn’t like him. She’d deny any animosity till she turned blue, but it’s hard to hide emotion from an empath. She’d be happier to see the cat, and she disapproved of house pets on principle.

I had reached the interstate on-ramp quickly. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. Then I actually saw the interstate. Even at seven a.m. it looked like a mega-mall parking lot on Black Friday: an ocean of cars, little movement, lots of tension.

I gritted my teeth and invoked the law of the urban jungle— any vehicle smaller than mine was fair game. I waved an apology as I nosed in front of a blue sedan with two harried-looking adults in the front, at least four kids in the back, and two dogs hanging their heads out the rear windows. They all gave me the finger, except the dogs. They barked.

New Orleans ain’t the city of brotherly love, at least not when a storm’s brewing and traffic’s creeping at less than two miles an hour on the I-10.

It took more than ninety minutes to drive the ten miles to New Orleans East (53) and another hour to inch over the five-mile Twin Span bridges (54) that crossed the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain. As I sat on the eastbound bridge, I had plenty of time to watch the whitecaps chop and foam on the lake and try to ignore the ominous mountain of clouds building around me.

Katrina was turning into one nasty storm. I tried to concentrate on the audiobook and calm the fingers of panic that scrabbled around the edge of my brain, looking for a way in.

I knew most of the day would be spent on the road, surrounded by other cars full of nervous people. If normal hurricane frenzy ranked five on a scale of one to ten, Katrina hysteria had ratcheted up to fifty in the past twenty-four hours. Friday, it had been a minor storm headed for Florida. Now it was a monster hurtling straight for us. Without a miracle, the City That Care Forgot (or, as we liked to call it, the City That Forgot to Care) would be in trouble.

So I’d gotten up early enough to go through my most effective grounding ritual, part meditation, part magic. Aromatics in a room hydrator, Pachelbel on the iPod, both hands holding magic-infused rubies washed in holy water for emotional protection, eyes closed, mind focused on precisely nothing. Works every time.

And, just in case, I put fresh herbs in my mojo bag.

I edged the Pathfinder up another three feet and wondered: If enough wizards turned their powers toward it, could they change the path of a hurricane? Of course, doing so would violate magical law. The Congress of Elders keeps the magical community on a tight leash, and despite his doubts about the system, Gerry had taught me every thou-shalt-not in the book, including the one about interfering with nature.

Bottom line: I couldn’t do anything about this storm, which really ticked me off. I just crept along and started hour three of the audiobook. Bill the Pony could make better time in this traffic.

Whenever I stopped to stretch my legs, I found people gathered around radios, fear mirrored from one face to the next. My emotional shields were holding so far, which was a good thing. My own skittering nerves were bad enough. Add any more stress and I’d be sitting on the side of the interstate gibbering like a chimpanzee when the storm hit.

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer,” warned a National Hurricane Center spokesman, his voice vibrating out of someone’s car radio at a rest stop. The NHC guy used phrases like “catastrophic structural failure” and “human suffering incredible by modern standards,” sending a palpable tremor through everyone within earshot. The feds were putting the Drama King to shame. (55)

I still couldn’t accept it. We’d had too many close calls. Hurricanes headed our way, the weather prophets spouted doom and gloom, and the storms either took sharp last-second turns or fizzled out before landfall. We had an unwritten belief system: God watches out for fools and New Orleanians. I’d clock anyone who said that phrase was redundant.

Waiting my turn at a gas station outside Meridian, Mississippi, I heard people talking about fuel shortages along the evacuation routes. (56) I bit my lip, thinking. Maybe I could do something to help, at least on a small scale. Let the Elders track down my happy evacuating backside if they didn’t like it.

I jumped out of the Pathfinder and dug through my backpack full of potions and charms arranged in neatly labeled vials and bottles. I finally found the one I wanted: a replenishing potion made from a simple blend of ground hawthorn and geranium in my usual base of magic-infused olive oil. I stuck it in my pocket and went to lean against the nearest pump, half-listening as evacuees from Biloxi and Gulfport exchanged horror stories about the scarcity of hotel rooms.

A red-faced man in a white polo shirt that failed to camouflage the evidence of a few too many Budweisers ranted to nobody in particular. “I heard there’s over a million people running from this dadburned storm.”

He had to be from Mississippi. Nobody from Southeast Louisiana says “dadburned.” (57)

A white-haired woman in wrinkled shorts and a pink visor nodded at him from the next pump. “Heck, I just talked with my cousin Luanne. She left Ycloskey (58) last night with three babies and a dog, and they couldn’t find no place to stay. Spent the night on the floor of a motel up near Jackson.”

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t diss my family. At least I had a place to go.

I strolled around the gas pumps, looking for the circular cover that led to the underground fuel storage tanks. I finally found it and knelt, pretending to tie my shoe while I pried off the lid and looked at the hatch. The tanker-truck drivers probably had a special wrench to open it, but I had something faster: magic. Using a tiny bit of magical energy, I managed to get it open enough to pour the replenishing potion inside. This set of pumps, at least, wouldn’t run out of fuel for another six or eight hours.

“Take that, Gerry,” I said, replacing the cover and returning the empty potions vial to my pocket. Red Congress wizards might fight better, but they were downright dangerous when it came to electronics, fuels, or explosives. If Gerry had tried that stunt, we wouldn’t have to worry about a hurricane. We’d be so deep-fried you could roll us in powdered sugar and sell us as beignets.

The beginnings of a headache rewarded me for my efforts. After filling my own tank and buying a giant coffee with enough caffeine to keep a narcoleptic awake, I wedged the Pathfinder back into traffic and snaked up I-59 into Alabama, stopping to magically replenish fuel storage tanks along the way as long as my pre-made potions lasted. Always, I was surrounded by drivers whose faces grew incrementally more worried. A series of back roads out of Tuscaloosaeventually led to my grandmother’s house in the tiny northwest Alabama cotton mill town of Winfield. (59)

I’d spent the first seven years of my life here, not all of them particularly happy. I prayed it wouldn’t turn out to be the only home I had left.

Royal Street © Suzanne Johnson 2012

(Just in case you read through without the answer key, click here to find out what all those numbers where about...)

6 comments
Tricia Irish
1. Tektonica
OK...I'm hooked ,and why do I think you'll meet up with Jean later?
And like it? LOL.

Congratulations, Suzanne....I look forward to the whole thing!
Suzanne Johnson
2. SuzanneJohnson
@Tektonica....LOL. Um, yes. You certainly might expect to run into Jean again. And again. Thanks!
Buffy Armstrong
3. Buffy Armstrong
Awesome! So excited for the release.
Buffy Armstrong
5. Roger Simmons 1
Suzanne,

This is just FANTASTIC. The most unique pre-release information I have seen from a Debut author. Thank you and Tor. Six days to go . Very excited!
Suzanne Johnson
6. SuzanneJohnson
Thanks, Roger! I'm going to keep annotating the book for my website after the release (but without the excerpts), so stay tuned!

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