The minute hand of the ornate grandfather clock crept like a gator stuck in swamp mud. I’d been watching it for half an hour, nursing a fizzy cocktail from my perch inside the Hotel Monteleone. The plaque on the enormous clock claimed it had been hand-carved of mahogany in 1909, about 130 years after the birth of the undead pirate waiting for me upstairs.
They were both quite handsome, but the clock was a lot safer.
The infamous Jean Lafitte had expected me at seven. He’d summoned me to his French Quarter hotel suite by courier like I was one of his early nineteenth-century wenches, and I hated to destroy his pirate-king delusions, but the historical undead don’t summon wizards. We summon them.
I’d have blown him off if my boss on the Congress of Elders hadn’t ordered me to comply and my co-sentinel, Alex, hadn’t claimed a prior engagement.
At seven thirty, I abandoned my drink, took a deep breath, and marched through the lobby toward the bank of elevators. My heels clicked on the marble, their sharp tap tap tap contrasting with the squeaky shuffling of the tourists in their clean, white tennis shoes. I dodged a herd of them as they stopped to gape at the sparkle of crystal chandeliers and brass fittings. The old wives’ tales about Jean Lafitte’s hoard of gold and treasure must be true if he could afford a suite at the Monteleone.
On the long dead-man-walking stroll down the carpeted hallway, I imagined all the horrible requests Jean might make. He’d saved my life a few years ago, after Hurricane Katrina sent the city into freefall, and I hadn’t seen him since. I’d been desperate at the time. I might have promised him unfettered access to modern New Orleans in exchange for his assistance. I might have promised him a place to live. I might have promised him things I don’t even remember. In other words, I might be totally screwed.
I reached the door of the Eudora Welty Suite and knocked, reflecting that Jean Lafitte probably had no idea who Eudora Welty was, and wouldn’t like her if he did. Ms. Welty had been a modern sort of woman who wouldn’t hop to attention when summoned by a scoundrel.
He didn’t answer immediately. I’d made him wait, after all, and Jean lived in a tit-for-tat world. I paused a few breaths and knocked harder. Finally, he flung open the door, waving me inside to a suite plush with tapestries of peach and royal blue, thick carpet that swallowed the narrow heels of my pumps, and a plasma TV he couldn’t possibly know how to operate. What a waste.
“You have many assets, Drusilla, but apparently a respect for time is not among them.” Deep, disapproving voice, French accent, broad shoulders encased in a red linen shirt, long dark hair pulled back into a tail, eyes such a cobalt blue they bordered on navy. And technically speaking, dead.
He was as sexy as ever.
“Sorry.” I slipped my hand in my skirt pocket, fingering the small pouch of magic-infused herbs I carried at all times. My mojo bag wouldn’t help with my own perverse attraction to the man, but it would keep my empathic abilities in check. If he still had a perverse attraction to me, I didn’t want to feel it.
He eased his six-foot-two frame into a sturdy blue chair and slung one long leg over the arm as he gave me a thorough eye-raking, a ghost of a smile on his face.
I perched on the edge of the adjacent sofa, easing back against a pair of plump throw pillows, and looked at him expectantly. I hoped whatever he wanted wouldn’t jeopardize my life, my job, or my meager bank account.
“You are as lovely as ever, Jolie,” Jean said, trotting out his pet name for me that sounded deceptively intimate and brought back a lot of memories, most of them bad. “I will forgive your tardiness—perhaps you were late because you were selecting clothing that I would like.” His gaze lingered on my legs. “You chose beautifully.”
I’d picked a conservative black skirt and simple white blouse with the aim of looking professional for a business meeting, part of my ongoing attempt to prove to the Elders I was a mature wizard worthy of a pay raise. But this was Jean Lafitte, so I should have worn coveralls. I’d forgotten what a letch he could be.
“I have a date after our meeting,” I lied. He didn’t need to know said date involved a round carton with the words Blue Bell Ice Cream printed on front. “Why did you want to see me?”
There, that hadn’t been so difficult—just a simple request. No drama. No threats. No double entendre. Straight to business.
“Does a man need a reason to see a beautiful woman? Especially one who is indebted to him, and who has made him many promises?” A slow smile spread across his face, drawing my eyes to his full lips and the ragged scar that trailed his jawline. I might be the empath in the room, but he knew very well that, in some undead kind of way, I thought he was hot.
My face warmed to the shade of a trailer-trash bridesmaid’s dress, one whose color had a name like raging rouge. I’d had a similar reaction when I first met Jean in 2005, two days before a mean hurricane with a sissy name turned her malevolent eye toward the Gulf Coast. I blamed my whole predicament on Katrina, the witch.
Her winds had driven the waters of Lake Pontchartrain into the canals that crisscrossed the city, collapsing levees and filling the low, concave metro area like a gigantic soup bowl. But NBC Nightly News and Anderson Cooper had missed the biggest story of all: how, after the storm, a mob of old gods, historical undead, and other preternatural victims of the scientific age flooded New Orleans. As a wizard, I’d had a ringside seat. Now, three years later, the wizards had finally reached accords with the major preternatural ruling bodies, and the borders were down, as of two days ago. Jean hadn’t wasted any time.
“So, Drusilla Jaco, I invited you here to discuss how you might repay me for being so grievously injured while protecting you after the hurricane. I also wish to appeal to you for help on behalf of a friend.” Jean’s accent wrapped around my old-fashioned name like a silk peignoir, all soft and slinky.
“What kind of appeal, for what friend?” I’d ignore debt repayment as long as I could and, besides, grievous injury was a relative term for the historical undead. They lived through the magic of human memory; the only way to kill Jean was to forget him. And he was quite unforgettable.
“Un moment, Jolie.” Jean rose from his chair and walked to the wet bar with a catlike grace honed by years—make that centuries—of walking the decks of sailing ships. He poured two fingers of brandy into crystal snifters and handed one to me. “Do you realize there are merpeople living near the mouth of the Mississippi River?”
The smooth burn of the brandy choked me, and I gave an unladylike hack.
“I thought not,” he said, nodding. “The Delachaise clan has lived in this area for many years, back to my own time. The Villere clan recently encroached upon their territory. There is a war brewing, Drusilla, which could affect the humans who ply the river. I thought you would wish to prevent such a thing.”
Well, crap. The Port of New Orleans was not exactly a sleepy small-town enterprise, and the Mississippi River no isolated stretch of waterway. A Hatfield-McCoy feud among the merpeople could disrupt shipping and endanger the humans who made their living fishing the coastal waters.
I stared out a river-view window so big a pirate brigantine could sail through it. Cargo ships, barges, and cruise liners vied for docking space along the Mississippi’s muddy banks. “And this involves you how?”
Jean took his seat again. “I wish to help my friend Rene Delachaise. He is young but intelligent, and has assumed leadership of his family members who live southeast of the city. Rene believes the Villeres have poisoned their hunting grounds and is determined to act. I have told him of my lovely friend Drusilla, the skilled wizardess, who would be most happy to assist him.”
Uh-huh. Because Jean was helpful like that. He had an angle, and I’d get it out of him eventually.
“How does this Rene guy know the area is poisoned?” I tried to imagine what might constitute a hunting ground for a merman and mentally cursed the Elders for not letting me know there were freakin’ merpeople in my territory. “And where is this hunting ground?”
Jean sipped his brandy and twirled the stem of the snifter. “I do not know what the area is called in modern times, but it is near the mouth of the river, in the long slivers of land which”—he forked three fingers like a bird’s claw—“reach into the Gulf.”
“Plaquemines Parish?” Southeast of New Orleans. Not as populated as pre-Katrina but still a lot of people.
“Oui, just so. By trade, Rene and his family are fishermen and hunters. But the water has been fouled, and the Delachaises and Villeres blame each other. I convinced them to allow you to attempt a truce before they began une mêlée grande.”
Jean Lafitte was no natural peacekeeper, and didn’t have an altruistic bone in his body. I didn’t want to even ponder the ironies of merpeople in the fishing industry. “Why didn’t they come to me themselves? What’s in this for you?”
Jean tsk-tsked me. “Such suspicion, Drusilla.”
I crossed my arms. “I’m a sentinel, Jean. It’s my job to be suspicious. Besides, I know you, remember?”
Tiny lines crinkled at the edges of his eyes as he grinned. “We do not know each other nearly so well as perhaps we might, Jolie.”
Well, his come-on lines hadn’t improved since our last meeting. I asked again: “Why didn’t the mers just come to me in the first place?”
“They have no love for wizards.” Jean shrugged as if that information should have been obvious, although it was news to me. “My considerable skills in persuasion were required to convince them the wizards should be consulted at all.”
I took another sip of brandy and pondered my ability to settle a mer feud. I was a Green Congress wizard. I was hell on ritual magic but had no idea how to negotiate a truce with marauding bands of merpeople. My partner would be even worse. Alex’s answer to anything he didn’t understand was to shoot it with different ammo until something killed it. This could get ugly.
On the other hand, it could also be an opportunity to prove myself, depending on Jean’s motives. “You have no love for the wizards either, unless we’re useful to you. So unless you tell me why you’re in the middle of this, our conversation is over.”
“You have grown up, Jolie,” he said with a small smile. “I hope you have not grown hard and calloused as so many of your fellow wizards are. I bring this to you because we are friends—perhaps more than friends. And friends help each other, do they not?”
We might be friends, in a loose manner of speaking. Didn’t mean I believed him for a second. I continued to stare at him.
He set his brandy snifter on the coffee table with a thump. “Very well, then. I conduct business with Rene Delachaise and his brother on occasion. You do not need the details. If there is a war between the mers that makes passage through the waters treacherous and distracts Rene from our dealings, it will hurt my business.”
He looked around at the well-appointed room, then back at me, his voice dropping to a seductive murmur. “If my business suffers, such fine accommodations might no longer be affordable to me, Jolie. In such an event, you might need to furnish me a home in the city, as you promised. Or allow me to share yours.”
And there we had it, finally—the motive, followed by the not-so-subtle strong arm. The way housing prices in New Orleans had escalated since Katrina, I’d have to flip burgers at night if he insisted on collecting that debt. Taking on Jean Lafitte as a devious, oversexed roommate? I’d sooner move in with Hannibal Lecter and a pot of fava beans.
“I will talk to your friend Rene and the head of the Villere mers.” I forced a decisive tone into my voice. I’d show him I wasn’t the naive wizard he’d tangled with after the storm. “Also, I’ll need to test the water. This might be a big misunderstanding.”
“Perhaps.” A small smile. “Or perhaps you do not want to discuss the debts you owe me, or what I might really want from you—or you from me.”
My pulse sped up at Jean’s appraising look, and I uncrossed my legs again, tugging on the hem of my skirt. “Stop gawking at me and tell me how to get in touch with the mers.”
“Rene Delachaise and Denis Villere will not talk to you unless I am present.” He smiled, his trump card played. No way I’d be able to cut him out of the negotiations. “They specifically said to tell you this. And they will speak only with you, not another wizard, nor your partner the murderous petit chien.”
My little dog: Alexander Warin. And Jean wasn’t just referring to the fact that my partner was a shapeshifter and an enforcer. They hated each other.
“Alex needs to be there,” I said. However independent I wanted to prove myself, I wasn’t stupid enough to meet Jean Lafitte and two angry mermen without backup.
“Very well.” Jean crossed his arms and beamed at me. The man loved to negotiate, and had obviously foreseen he’d have to give in on the Alex issue. “Shall I show you where these hunting grounds lay?”
I hesitated. The Elders’ intelligence was worse than mine these days. As much as I’d like to leave before Jean could make this personal again, I needed his input in order to plan a strategy. “Fine.”
“I have a map here, which Rene provided me.” He walked to a round table and a trio of chairs, all placed strategically in front of the large window. The evening view was breathtaking as the city lights outlined the broad, dark ribbon of the Mississippi. The sitting area had been perfectly set up so the well-to-do Monteleone guests could watch river traffic sail past as they noshed on room-service canapés.
I took a seat facing the window, and Jean slid his chair so close our arms touched. The historical undead weren’t cold-skinned like vampires, and the heat radiated from his arm to mine. I didn’t move away. If this was a battle of wills, I wasn’t going on the defensive.
Instead, I focused on the map, a detailed, laminated representation of extreme Southeast Louisiana, centering on Plaquemines Parish. Jean switched on the table lamp after a bit of fumbling. Guess that newfangled electricity would take some practice.
He traced the coastline with long fingers and swiveled the map to give us equal access. I caught myself admiring the strength of his hands as they splayed across the page and gave myself a mental kick in the head. I did not need to indulge an attraction to an undead pirate, however tempting.
He traced one scarred digit down the length of Plaquemines. In boot-shaped Louisiana, Lower Plaquemines is the bottom of the toe, a vulnerable peninsula of wetlands jutting into the Gulf of Mexico around the mouth of the Mississippi. About halfway down the peninsula, just south of Venice, Jean’s index finger came to rest near the point at which the last real highway fizzled out.
“This is Orchard, where the Delachaise clan resides.” Then, pointing an infinitesimal nudge west, “And this is Mauree. Non.” He squinted. “The English name is Tidewater. That is where the Villeres have recently made their home. And this”—he moved his finger southeast along the largely uninhabited wetlands around the mouth of the river and came to rest near the easternmost nub jutting into the Gulf—“is where the mers claim the water has been poisoned.”
I frowned and looked at the spot he’d pointed to. The map legend read Pass a Loutre. “There’s a town?”
“Non,” Jean said. “It is mostly marécage. Marsh.”
Great. Isolated and hard to reach. “What has happened to make them think the water is bad?”
“There has been some illness, I believe, among both clans,” Jean said, pushing the map closer to me and leaning back in his chair.
“That doesn’t make sense.” I studied the jagged edges of the coastal marsh. “Why would either clan poison the waters it wants as its territory?”
“Exactement,” Jean said, nodding in approval like a teacher whose dunce pupil had finally come up with a rare bit of insight. “It might be that the mers simply want an excuse to fight over the marshland, as they tend to be a people of fierce temperament, or it might be that something else has fouled the water. Either way”—he reached out to brush a stray curl from my cheek—“it is a wizard matter, non?”
If the water was oil-slicked or polluted, it was not a wizard issue, but if there was even a chance it involved pretes … Damn it. He’d done the right thing by getting me involved.
His mouth curved into a smug smile. “From your expression, I know you realize my actions were correct. As you are an intelligent woman, I knew you would recognize this, so I have taken the liberty of arranging a meeting with both Rene Delachaise and Denis Villere tomorrow at the eleventh hour.”
He was so damned pleased with himself, I couldn’t help but return his smile. Big mistake. Give the pirate an inch and he’d take a fathom.
The strong fingers I’d been admiring slid around my wrist, and he traced small circles over my palm with his thumb. “Now, Jolie, we should renegotiate the repayment of your debts.” He stroked his hand slowly up my arm. I shivered as a tingle of warmth spread through me, and raging rouge danced a hot second-line across my face.
As much as some shameful part of me relished being the object of any handsome man’s desire—even a technically dead man—I couldn’t encourage him.
“Look, Jean. I like you. You’re a very desirable man.” The hand stroked a little higher and squeezed my shoulder. Oh, boy. I searched for the right turn of phrase, one that didn’t include the word dead. “But we kind of have an age difference.”
More than two centuries’ worth.
Chuckling, he pulled his hand away, and I checked him out as he walked to the wet bar for another brandy, all powerful grace and lean muscle. The air practically moved out of the way to make room for him.
He turned back to me. “You still cling to the old world, Jolie. Things have changed. I might be older than you, as you say, but you do not fit into the human world any better than I.”
I stared at him, frowning, troubled that I couldn’t think of a good comeback, troubled that he was right, in a warped kind of way. “Still—”
“Still, Drusilla, you owe me for saving your life. Why not repay me in a way that would be pleasing to both of us? You cannot afford to buy me a house, non?”
I had no answer for that and I felt my moral high ground turning to mud, so I stood up and gave him a little finger wave, grabbing my purse and striding toward the door. “Gotta be going. See you at the meeting tomorrow.”
“Jolie.” His voice did that deep, sexy dive again. “What if one simple thing would erase all of your obligations to me?”
I stopped at the door with my back to the room, one hand on the knob, having an internal war. Jean was a devious pirate who always operated with an ulterior motive. On the other hand, he came from an era where favor begat favor. He wouldn’t let this drop, no matter how much I wanted it to go away. One way or another, I’d pay.
“Okay, what?” I turned from the door and gasped. He’d followed me across the room on sneaky pirate feet and stood a scant few inches away. Heart thumping, I got a close-range view of his chin as he flattened his arms against the door on either side of my head, forming a big, warm cage.
“Just a simple meal with me—what your modern people call a dinner date,” he whispered, leaning down to plant a light kiss on the side of my neck.
I closed my eyes and inhaled his scent of tobacco and cinnamon for a moment before pushing him away and pinning him with my best steely glare. “Just dinner?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You wish there to be more? Then, perhaps a stroll after dinner. Perhaps a kiss.”
Except for the kiss part, this could work. Dinner would be public and painless, and how many people got to dine with a legend? Jean was handsome and could be entertaining when he wanted to be.
“So, just to clarify.” I ticked off points on my fingers. “We have dinner. We talk. Maybe we stroll. We do not kiss. And then I owe you nothing.” I couldn’t see a loophole.
“Mais oui, I agree.” He stepped closer and rested a hand on my waist. “Shall we seal our bargain with a kiss?”
“No, but we can shake on it.”
He stared at my outstretched hand a moment, then took it in his own and lifted it to his lips. Just an old-fashioned kind of guy. Accent on old.
He reached around me and opened the door. “I will meet you at your office at nine tomorrow, Drusilla. We will talk to the mermen.”
In my haste to escape before he thought of any other debts or requests, I reached the lobby before it occurred to me: How did he know where my office was? How did he plan to get there? And what did one wear on a dinner date with an undead pirate?
Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Johnson