We’re kicking off our Fantasy Firsts program with an extended excerpt from Royal Street, an urban fantasy novel filled with wizards, mermen, and pirates. This fun, fast-paced read is the first in Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans series. The 5th book in this series, Belle Chasse, will become available November 8th.
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 for the 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, 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 knew 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 partnership 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 someone else’s hands. “Something is amiss,” he muttered, and cast a suspicious glance at me.
I backed away, 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 looked when I lifted the handgun from the table with two fingers and eased it in 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 extracted a syringe from my bag and released 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 a while 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?”
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 something 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 naïvete.
Gerry gave me a bemused smile. “You’ve really no idea, do you?”
“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 suck.
“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 leagues 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.”
A low-level wizard two weeks ago 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.”
SUNDAY, AUGUST 28, 2005 “Katrina could turn out to be the perfect hurricane, much to the dismay of south Louisiana residents.”
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. 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. 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 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, 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. I’d helped bolster her windows with big Xs of masking tape, 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 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 Street in 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.
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 theTimes–Picayune from ruffling in the wind. Today, in type so large it took up half the front page, screamed two words: “Ground Zero.”
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 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 and another hour to inch over the five-mile Twin Span bridges 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.
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 felt the need to 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. 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.”
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 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 Tuscaloosa eventually led to my grandmother’s house in the tiny northwest Alabama cotton mill town of Winfield.
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.
MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2005 “Superdome becomes last resort for thousands unable to leave. New Orleans braces for nightmare of the Big One.”
As Katrina grew to monstrous Category Five status and started her last slow march toward land, I’d spent Sunday night frozen in front of the TV in my grandmother’s living room with no more eloquent prayer on my lips than “please.”
Please let this storm die out. Please take care of those people who couldn’t leave. Please help my home survive. Please help Gerry. If nothing else, help him make it through this.
I drifted into an exhausted sleep around four a.m., then awoke to the news that Katrina had weakened just before landfall and taken a last-second jog to the east. It had avoided the direct hit, socking New Orleans with a blow from its weaker, westerly side. Relief rolled through me, relaxing muscles I hadn’t realized were bunched. News hadn’t come in from the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal areas east of New Orleans, but it would be bad.
I was still trying to process it when Gran wandered in to tell me coffee was ready, still wearing her pink housecoat and fuzzy slippers. “Looks like it didn’t amount to much in New Orleans,” she said in her slow drawl as we watched TV news teams wander around the French Quarter. The reporters seemed torn between relief at their own safety and disappointment that the big story was happening to the east, where Katrina was probably making mincemeat of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and the Mississippi coast.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done if it had hit us head-on.” I watched as camera crews captured the palm trees on Canal Street bending under 140-mph gusts. Hundreds of windows on the Hyatt Regency had exploded, but the building stood. An old storefront downtown had collapsed on a car, but no one was hurt. There would be a lot of wind damage, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. New Orleans would survive.
“Well, you’d have moved back here, I reckon,” Gran said. “Wouldn’a been the end of the world. Come get breakfast.” A woman of few words and highly understated compassion, my grandmother.
As soon as I’d arrived Sunday night, I’d moved my late grandfather’s old Pontiac out of the garage and created the other end of the transport in case Gerry needed it. We’d talked by phone, made sure the two portals were connected, and then I’d locked myself in the bathroom and retraced the steps of my grounding ritual. I’d learned the hard way that Gran and I got along better if I didn’t know what she really felt behind that stiff upper lip.
I wandered in the kitchen, slid a biscuit and piece of ham on a plate, and poured some coffee.
“Is Gerry coming here?” Gran sat at the kitchen table scanning the Birmingham newspaper, reading glasses perched on the end of her nose and every strand of silvery-blond hair in place. “You gonna see your daddy while you’re here?”
I sighed. Two loaded questions.
“I don’t guess Gerry will have to come after all,” I said, sitting opposite her at the table. “And do you really think Dad wants to see me?”
My father, Peter Jaco, had dumped me on my grandparents’ doorstep when I was six, shortly after my mom died of an aneurysm. She’d been on borrowed time her whole life and didn’t know it. Dad worked at the conveyor belt plant, a solid and quiet man. My mom had given up her magic to marry him and live a normal life just like Gran had done with my grandfather. But with Mom gone, Peter Jaco hadn’t wanted the stress of a six-year-old kid with magic skills. Maybe it wasn’t that simple, but that’s how it looked from my end of things.
“Well, of course your daddy would want to see you. What a question.” Gran rattled her paper and turned the page, ending the discussion.
I ate silently, trying to think of an excuse not to visit him. Really, though, he’d done no worse by me than my grandparents. They’d kept me less than a year before driving me to New Orleans and leaving me with Gerry, a complete stranger. I don’t think I was a bad kid, just one with a lot of untrained magic. I tried not to blame them. Sometimes I even succeeded.
I poured the last of my coffee into the sink, then placed my mug in the dishwasher. “I’ll see Dad before I head back home.”
“When you going?”
What was the old saying about fish and houseguests stinking after three days? “In a day or two, unless Gerry needs me sooner.”
“Stay as long as you want to, Drusilla Jane. This is your home too.” Her face was hidden behind the newspaper, and I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. One of these days, I was going to have to come to terms with the fact that Gran and Dad were my closest family members whether or not they approved of the life I’d chosen. But not today.
Back in the living room, the cable news reporter had left the French Quarter and stood in the New Orleans Central Business District, the CBD, looking perplexed.
“We’re getting reports of rising water in different parts of town, but we haven’t been able to confirm more than this.” He pointed the camera’s focus toward his shoes, which were immersed in a half inch of water. “This wasn’t here an hour ago.”
I frowned and returned to the sofa, my dysfunctional family forgotten as I listened to new reports filtering in. Storm surge had caused levee breaches that were dumping tons of water into the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. The Lower Nine was a predominantly black neighborhood a few miles east of the French Quarter; St. Bernard was predominantly white and just east of the Lower Nine. Other breaches in the area’s broad levee system had reportedly flooded New Orleans East, but the media couldn’t confirm it—only that 9-1-1 calls had come in before the phone lines went down. No one knew where the water downtown was coming from.
I scrambled in my jeans pocket for my cell phone and called Gerry.
He answered on the first ring. “I thought it was about time you called. You’re such a mother hen.”
“Are you getting any news?” I said. He sounded relaxed, even cheerful. Maybe nothing was wrong after all.
“No, the electricity went out early this morning, but I’d say the worst of it missed—” He stopped talking, and I heard him moving around. “Damn.”
“Gerry? The levees are failing. Get in the transport.”
He didn’t answer, but I heard him calling Sebastian. “There’s water coming in the first floor. I think the floodwall—”
The phone’s tiny gray screen blinked CALL ENDED. Hitting redial got me nothing but silence.
I raced through the kitchen to the garage, passing Gran along the way. “Something’s wrong.” My voice sounded calmer than I felt. “I’m going to try to bring Gerry here.”
I knelt beside the interlocking circle and triangle I’d drawn in chalk on the concrete floor. Lighting two small candles from my backpack, I set one on each end of the transport and laid small chunks of green amber at each point of the triangle. I warmed the largest piece of green amber in my hands, placed it carefully on the circle, and shot a tiny bit of energy inside it. The power of the transport caught like an ember bursting to flame. Gerry should be able to come through.
“TV just said the Lakeview levee broke.”
I started, unaware that Gran had come into the garage and was standing behind me.
A thrill of fear shot through me. “You’re sure it was Lakeview?”
She nodded. “They say the whole place’ll fill up like a soup bowl. They had no business buildin’ a city below sea level in the first place.”
I bit back a retort and did some mental calculations. The foundation of Gerry’s house sat about twelve or fourteen feet below the levee. If New Orleans really did fill up, his first floor would be underwater, but he should be able to go upstairs unless the force of the water pushed the whole house off its foundation. It would depend on how close he was to the breach.
Retrieving the large piece of amber, I warmed it in my hands again. “Gerry established his transport in his upstairs study,” I said. “I’m going to try to go there and see if he’s okay.”
I stepped inside the transport and knelt again, placing the green amber on the line of the circle and willing a small amount of energy into it.
Pressure squeezed me from all sides, and I waited for the transport to begin. Then it dissipated. Gerry’s side of the transport wasn’t working. It had been disconnected, or destroyed.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 30, 2005 “Catastrophic: Storm surge swamps 9th Ward, St. Bernard; Lakeview levee breach threatens to inundate city.”
An hour of frantic transport attempts and aborted phone calls passed before I thought of trying to locate Gerry by less-conventional means. The Elders had outlawed unauthorized hydromancy and other forms of divination years ago because they were too easy to abuse, but like most young wizards I’d tried a few times just to see if they worked. Want to see what the cute boy down the street’s up to? Hydromancy is a teenage girl’s dream.
Sometimes you have to break rules to get things done in an emergency, and I thought a hurricane probably qualified. Besides, I’d run out of other ideas. I’d even checked with Tish, staying at her cousin’s house in Houston, and she hadn’t been able to reach Gerry either.
My energy was flagging from the transport attempts by the time I headed to the Winfield Walmart in search of makeshift hydromancy tools. A headache nudged at my temples, and my muscles ached as I prowled the aisles looking for an acceptable substitute for a dark marble bowl. I found a smoked-brown Pyrex dish that should work, and purified water to substitute for holy water. Alabama was Bible Belt. Methodists and Baptists do casseroles, not holy water.
Back at Gran’s, I pulled a small gardening table into the backyard to take advantage of energy from the full moon, and set up the ritual. Faux-holy water in the bowl. Something of Gerry’s—a book I had borrowed. Patchouli incense from Walmart. I really needed mimosa leaves to burn, but patchouli would have to do. I lit the incense sticks and tried to relax while the ashes collected in the mason jar I was using as an incense burner. Finally, I added the ashes to the bowl of water.
I rested one hand on Gerry’s book and dipped the other hand in the water, concentrating on Gerry and tapping my dwindling reserves of magic. A minute passed, then two, and a cloudy image reflected on the water’s surface.
Thank God. It had been almost four frantic hours since our phone conversation, but at least I knew Gerry was alive. He sat at the desk in his upstairs study, writing by candlelight and looking hot and sweaty and miserable. But alive. I closed my eyes and my heart rate slowed. I couldn’t imagine my life without Gerry. I might share blood ties with my dad and Gran, but Gerry was my family. I’d stop complaining about my assignments. I’d appreciate what I had. I’d trust Gerry to bring my skills along the way he thought best.
I spent the next two weeks glued to the TV news channels, watching as my beautiful city died an ugly death, broadcast around the world 24/7. Thousands of people were stranded without help because they’d been too poor to leave, or too sick, or too old and frail, or too sure nothing bad could happen. If Gerry and the Elders hadn’t forced me to leave, I would have been one of them.
International media and private rescue groups swarmed the city immediately, but it took almost a week for squabbling officials to send even such basics as bottled water. In the meantime, people drowned in the eighty percent of the city that flooded, and died on the streets in the twenty percent that didn’t.
A report on what looked like a voodoo ritual killing of a National Guardsman trying to secure one of the neighborhoods finally propelled me off the sofa. The camera crews raced to a partially flooded Central City area and showed a black-draped form on a patch of high ground next to a boarded-up nail salon. A strange symbol had been drawn on the side of the building in white paint, and reporters speculated that a voodoo practitioner had sacrificed the soldier in some misguided plea to save the city.
Enough. I had to do something, but I couldn’t go home without blustering my way past jumpy soldiers and breaking the mandatory evacuation order. Gerry’s side of our transport remained inoperable for some reason. No phone calls to the 504 area code would go through. My options were limited.
On Thursday, almost two weeks after the storm, I finally broke down and visited my father—Gran had told me it was his off-day. I didn’t feel too badly about waiting so long. The roads worked in both directions, and he hadn’t come to see me, either.
I pulled up to his neat red brick ranch house, about a ten-minute drive from Gran’s. The lawn was green and the flowerbeds well-tended. A black Ford pickup sat in the driveway. Like every place here, it seemed eerily quiet. My life was filled with sirens and horns and streetcars and crowds, with a constant backdrop of music.
The front door opened before I cleared the small brick porch, and Dad stepped back to let me in. “Wondered when you were gonna come by here,” he said, smiling and pulling me into a quick hug. He was always smaller than I remembered. In my mind, Peter Jaco was a tall bear of a man, I guess because in most of my memories, I was a kid. This Peter Jaco was just a middle-aged man in a navy polo shirt and khakis, thinning on top and thickening in the middle.
“Sorry it took me so long,” I said, following him into the bright kitchen with its floral wallpaper and white curtains. “I’ve been trying to follow what’s going on at home, and, well…”
“Yeah, it’s a shame. Your house all right?”
He’d never come to see it, but at least he asked. “I don’t know. I heard the spots along the river didn’t flood so maybe it’s okay. I’m hoping they’ll start letting us go home next week when it drains a little more.”
Dad held up a Diet Dr. Pepper. “You still drink these?”
I smiled and took it. “Where’s Martha this morning?” Dad had remarried when I was ten, but never had more children. Probably just as well.
“Always gets her hair done on Saturdays,” he said. “She’ll be sorry she missed you. You talk to Gerry since the storm?”
I followed him into the neat den and took a seat on the end of the plush sofa nearest his favorite armchair. “I haven’t really gotten to talk to him, but I know he’s okay. His house was about eight blocks from one of the worst levee breaches.”
At first, I’d used hydromancy to check on Gerry every night but finally decided he was fine. He’d always been reading, writing at his desk, pacing. Once or twice I’d seen him talking to someone outside my field of vision—a trapped neighbor, probably, or one of the rescuers going around in boats.
Dad didn’t ask how I knew Gerry was okay. The whole idea of magic made him antsy so neither of us mentioned it anymore. “Gerry will be fine,” he said. “He always lands on his feet.”
I was about to ask what he meant when Fats Domino started belting out “Walking to New Orleans” from deep inside my purse.
Dad chuckled. “Your purse is singing.”
I smiled and dug in the oversize satchel. “I have a five-oh-four area code and no one’s been able to call since the storm,” I said, pulling out a chocolate bar, some keys, and a notebook, but no phone. “Maybe this means the cell towers are working again.”
By the time I’d excavated it from the tangle of stuff that purses always seem to collect, the caller had hung up. I checked the call log and choked on my soda. Congress of Elders. No phone number, but the message icon blinked.
“Uh, I need to check this.”
“You go on,” Dad said, heading for the kitchen. “I’m gonna get me some coffee.”
My hand shook as I punched in my PIN. Pixie retrieval did not put one on the Elders’ radar. I’d never seen an Elder, much less talked to one. The highest I’d ever rated on the wizarding scale of importance was a certificate showing I’d passed my sentinel exam four years ago and the nifty badge that came with it.
A deep, rich voice boomed out a short message: Gerald St. Simon is missing. Return to New Orleans immediately.
Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Johnson
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