Zenobia sat near the window like a queen waiting to receive visitors. I swallowed the flare of pride that threatened to make me renege on my promise to Adam. Instead, I called up Maisie’s face in my mind’s eye. I took a deep breath and reminded myself this apology was nothing more than a necessary evil en route to finding my sister. I stopped in front of the voodoo priestess and tried to look contrite. “I’m sorry I called you a cow.”
She inclined her head. “And?”
I paused, trying to figure out what else I had to apologize for. “And what?”
“You forgot to say you’ll be more generous in your attitude toward the mortally challenged.”
Oh, for f**k’s sake, I thought. Adam cleared his throat, a subtle reminder to keep my temper in check. With great effort, I nodded. “I promise I’ll try. ”
She ran a tongue over her teeth as she assessed my sincerity. “In addition, I demand that you vow not to feed on me, my employees, or my customers.”
I looked up at the ceiling, praying for patience. “Not a problem.” The truth was, with the exception of a slipup in New York no one knew about, I hadn’t fed directly from a human in weeks. I still didn’t like the taste of bagged blood, but I had to admit it saved me a lot of trouble.
Zen nodded in approval of my easy acceptance of her terms.
I continued. “Just point me in the direction of the nearest blood bank and we’ll be good to go.”
Zen drew back with a grimace. “I’ll do no such thing. The good people of New Orleans need that blood more than you.”
I sighed. “Look, lady, what do you expect me to do? Starve?”
“I didn’t say that,” Zen said. Her smile gave me a feeling I wouldn’t like the next thing out of her mouth. “There is another perfectly acceptable solution. A butcher friend of mine would be happy to sell you all the cow’s blood you’ll need.”
“Fine.” Not that I was looking forward to sucking on farm animals or anything, but I just wanted this conversation over with already. I raised an eyebrow, challenging her to add another stipulation.
Instead, she stood up with a clap. “Excellent! And now that that’s settled, why don’t I show you to your rooms?”
“Wait,” Adam said.
“Yes?” she said with a raised eyebrow.
“You’re still going to help us?”
“Of course, cher. A proper southern woman never allows a simple misunderstanding to get in the way of hospitality.” She chuckled and rose from her seat. She paused. “Besides, Rhea warned me about this one’s”— she nodded toward me— “colorful personality.”
She sauntered over to Adam and slid her arm through his. He laughed— somewhat uncomfortably, mind you— and seemed to enjoy playing the gallant gentleman as he led her from the room with Brooks and Giguhl trailing them. I glared after them but managed not to call out a colorful retort.
Zenobia’s passive-aggressive comment had painted me in a corner. If I argued her point, it would just prove she’d been right.
Before I joined them, I cracked my neck from side to side. Breathing in a martyred sigh, I reminded my temper to behave itself. If I’d learned one thing, it was that killing people who annoyed me generally created more problems than it solved.
I mentally patted myself on the back. See? Totally growing.
Half an hour later, Adam, Giguhl, and I walked toward the halogen lights in Jackson Square. After Zen had shown us our rooms— actually an attic apartment on the third floor of her building— we’d decided to do a quick walking tour of the immediate area. I wouldn’t be able to sleep without knowing exactly where I was and what lurked in the French Quarter’s shadows.
We passed Pirate’s Alley and entered the square in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Two young boys played large plastic buckets like drums for a crowd of tourists. Palm readers sat behind card tables scattered throughout the area. No one found it ironic to offer such a pagan service in the shadow of the looming cathedral.
With a sigh, I allowed my worries to float away down the Mississippi. My shoulders unknotted, and my breathing slowed for the first time in days. I even found myself smiling at a persistent fortune-teller who promised she could tell my future. Even if I thought she could help— which I didn’ t— I was content to allow myself to be in the now for the moment.
We were finally getting somewhere, and while the situation was far from ideal, I could almost feel Maisie here. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but the city pulsed with magic. A dark, earthy energy swirled beneath the streets, down in the city’s swampy foundations.
But I also detected a lighter, more familiar power in the air. If this magic had a color, it was cool cobalt blue. If this magic had a scent, it was bright cedar and jasmine.
My chest swelled with hope and my pulse picked up. Maisie was here somewhere. I just knew it.
Then my gaze landed on a middle-aged woman forking a twenty over to a fortune-teller with greasy hair and a couple of missing teeth. The trust and naked hope in the customer’s face gave me pause. Did my expression mirror hers?
Adam backtracked a few steps to check on me. Giguhl was perched on his shoulders, but the cat was too busy taking in the carnival of the senses to notice my distress.
“Red? You all right?” Adam asked.
I took a deep breath and dragged my eyes from the desperate woman at the table. I knew better than to put my faith in intangibles. Gut feelings, talismans, prayers to selfish gods— these things wouldn’t get Maisie back. Only clear thinking and strategy would get the job done.
I nodded at Adam. “Yeah, just watching foolish mortals get suckered out of their rent money.” Dismissing the scene with a wave, I pulled him away. As we walked, I pulled Giguhl onto my shoulders. For some reason, the weight and warmth of his little body helped dispel some of the lingering fog of worry.
We skirted the square containing a statue of Andrew Jackson and headed up the brick avenue toward the river. A crowd gathered at the corner, watching a living statue pose. The woman was dressed to resemble the Statue of Liberty, with her skin painted convincing verdigris. We paused at the edge of the crowd and watched her for a moment.
“Oh, my gods, what’s that smell?” Giguhl hissed from my shoulder. His little pink nose went up like a periscope searching for the source by smell alone.
I sniffed the air. The muddy scent of the Mississippi melded with the seductive aroma of warm blood flowing through all those mortal veins. But I was confident neither mud nor blood were making Giguhl squirm and snort the air like it was cocaine. Instead, I took a wild stab that it might be the scents of sugary fried beignets and smoky chicory coffee coming from the other side of the street.