Queen of Hearts

In Fiction on September 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm

light through windows with curtains

Queen of Hearts

It wasn’t until I died that I finally saw my life clearly – not until this morning, that is, when I woke up on a cold gurney with a Y-shaped scar on my chest, a bitter taste in my mouth and a lipstick stain on my cheek. I had a hangover that would’ve made most other men think twice about reanimating, but I’m not most men; I’m a private eye – a damn good one – and I wasn’t about to hang around with a bunch of stiffs while a case went unsolved.

See, three days ago I was sitting in my office, making plans for the few unspent bucks I had in my pocket, when this dame walked in wearing three-inch heels and a little red dress so tight you might’ve seen her soul if she’d had one. She was trouble, of course, and before all was said and done I’d caught three in the chest and a serious case of buyer’s remorse.

I let down my guard – I let myself give a damn – and I paid the ultimate price, but now there’s nothing but cold sludge pumping through these veins, and this dead man’s got a score to settle.

***

The thing about being dead is that it hurts like hell. When you come back, I mean, like Idid, the wounds that put you down are still there­—they just refuse to heal.

In my case, it was the three bullets that shredded my heart like Christmas morning wrapping paper. And—all those clichés about broken hearts aside—there was no way I could forget the woman who’d done it to me, not with the searing fire that tore through my chest every time the old thing went thump. So when I got back to my office, I filled a crystal tumbler with Glenmorangie and kept at it until the pain subsided.

About an hour later I was feeling pretty good about things, but there was still a problem, and that was the foamy porridge my heart kept pumping through the bullet holes. I was a rotten, bloody mess.

Luckily I’m a resourceful guy, so I had a cure for that, too, and with two strips of duct tape I put an X over my heart and sealed up the works. At least if the bitch ever got the draw on me again, she’d know exactly where to aim.

***

“You come here in the middle of the night and tell me you were dead yesterday, Sean. What am I supposed to think?”

“Think scientifically, Charlie,” I said, and I sat on the table. “You’re a doctor, after all.”

“I’m a coroner.”

“Even better.”

Charlie sat on his stool and eyed me carefully, his gaze drifting to the crimson-stained X on my chest.

“Three to the ticker?”

“Yep.”

I peeled back the tape and let my heart pump its congealed refuse onto Charlie’s floor. If he hadn’t believed me before, he sure did then.

“Christ, Sean.” He covered his mouth. “How the hell are you walking around?”

“That’s what I need to find out,” I said, and I smoothed the tape back down over the holes. “I need you to tell me how this is happening… and how long it’ll be before I drop for good.”

Charlie stood and paced the office.

“Sean, I mean…this isn’t exactly my area of expertise, you know? What am I supposed to do? Cut you open? See if you’re still… rotting inside?”

“Exactly. I need you to perform an autopsy.”

“And if it kills you?”

“I’m already dead, so your conscience can be clear.”

When I came to, the rain was coming down so hard Charlie’s office felt like a submarine in a dive: Water streaked the windows, warping the streetlights—making me seasick.

“This isn’t possible,” Charlie said. He peeled off his gloves and tossed them in an aluminum bin.

“This is a piece of your lung,” he said, lifting a vial from the table and shaking it. “I’ve got brain, liver and heart on slides under the scope. All dead tissue.”

“Isn’t that what we expected?”

Charlie bowed his head and squeezed his temples.

“I don’t take this stuff for granted, Sean. The physiology is very straightforward. Your heart is pumping, but your blood…” he lifted another tube, full of crimson muck, “…is no good. It can’t possibly carry oxygen. Your systems should be shutting down. You should be a vegetable.”

“Or at least have a hell of a headache. So what, you’re saying this is some sort of black magic?”

Charlie shrugged.

“Know any voodoo priests?”

“No. But I know a voodoo priestess.”

Charlie laughed.

“And why would she bother raising you from the dead?”

“No idea,” I said, suddenly smiling. “She’s the one who killed me in the first place.”

***

Madelaine Meilleur: The broad that shot me, that killed me—then brought me back to life. I was turning it over in my mind as I walked, plugging in the numbers, but it just didn’t compute.

She had a place in the French Quarter, a cute little burlesque where the girls were razor thin and just as sharp. I don’t know where she found them—they were like creatures from another world—but every time I’d gone in, they’d worked me over like they were fixing to eat me for dinner. Madelaine had been convinced someone was about to rob the place. She wouldn’t say who or when or why, but she insisted I was the only one who could stop them.

Fool that I am, I agreed (though that might’ve had something to do with the cut of her dress… and the way she sat on my desk as if she didn’t know just how short it was).

Well, if I’d been under her spell that day, I was under a different spell now—a dead man staggering through the rain. It seemed only right I should stroll down to Les Moelleux to pay Miss Meilleur a visit.

***

Les Moelleux was shining like a riverboat in the rain that night, the gaslights burning like a thousand tiny fires in a thousand cozy hearths. A loud zydeco tune was spilling from behind the windows, frantic with accordion and rub-board rhythm. The music itself wasn’t so unusual—the joint was as Creole as crawfish étouffée, after all—but what did strike me was the voice, sultry and sweet, that flowed along with it: It was Madelaine’s.

When I pushed through the door, she gave me a bashful, baleful glance and just kept on singing—as if she hadn’t put three slugs in me just the night before:

Elle dit qu’il est trop tard
Elle ne parle qu’au passé
Son corps implore la mort
Elle ne peut plus respire

She was wearing about as little as she could get away with without being mistaken for one of her girls—a tight black number that twisted around her legs and up her chest like kudzu climbing a tree. When she’d finished singing, she stepped elegantly from the stage and went up to the bar where her drink was waiting. She didn’t bother looking my way; she had known I would come.

“Son corps implore la mort?” I asked, casually as I could. “I’m no French scholar, Madelaine, but that doesn’t sound too good.”

Madelaine smiled coyly and sipped her drink. She was pleased I’d caught the line (or perhaps that I’d taken the bait).

“It means ‘her body begs for death’,” she said, and she set the glass gently on the counter. When she finally looked at me, her dark eyes seemed like coals about to catch fire. “You’re looking better.”

I laughed.

“I went from dead to living overnight,” I said. “Turns out it does wonders for the complexion.”

Madelaine nodded. She was enjoying herself. I decided to let the moment muddle and waved over the barman.

“Corpse reviver,” I told him, with a wink in Madelaine’s direction. “Easy on the vermouth.”

“Appropriate.”

“More appropriate for you, maybe,” I said. “Since you’re the reviver here.”

“Very true.”

Madelaine turned. Her skin was liquid midnight, her teeth white like heat lightning in the summer. There was nothing predictable about her, not even the way she looked, which made her easy demeanor all the more unsettling.

The barman brought my drink and I downed it in one go. Madelaine said nothing.

“Now if I kill you,” I said, wiping my mouth,“and believe me, sister, I have a mind to—who’s gonna bring you back? The barman? One of your girls? You can be sure a drink won’t do it.”

Madelaine smiled.

“Oh, Mister Brennan,” she said, pouting pitifully. “You couldn’t kill me.”

“You don’t think so?”

At this Madelaine moved very slowly and reached into her dress, just below the vines that twined about her neck, and drew out a tiny bauble on a silver chain. It was a vial not unlike the ones in Charlie’s lab.

The smile disappeared from Madelaine’s face like a snake slipping into placid water.

“Literally, no,” she said. “Not while I have this.”

“And what’s that?” I asked. The smile returned.

“A piece of a dead man’s heart.”

***

“You took a piece of my heart?”

“Isn’t it romantic?”

I frowned. Les Moelleux was clearing out as we drank, and apart from the few dancers that remained, undone in the laps of patrons in dark corners, we were alone.

“And your story about someone robbing your place? That was a lie?”

Madelaine smiled.

“Well… it was half true. The other half is that they wanted me dead, too.”

She sipped her drink and swirled the ice.

“I needed you to help me stop them,” she said, “but, when you couldn’t do that, I needed a talisman for protection instead.”

She fingered the chain around her neck and winked, but I was done with this game. My hands were shaking.

“Stop it,” I growled, a desperate note entering my voice. “Think of what you’ve done to me. I may be walking around, but my life is over. I belong in the ground, not here… not in this place. Why did it have to be me?”

Madelaine swiveled, letting her high heels slip softly to the floor, and rested her bare feet on my shoes.

“Because,” she said, almost shyly, “only the heart of the man I loved would do.”

***

“I see that look on your face: You don’t believe me, and I don’t blame you. But I do love you, Sean Brennan—after a fashion.

Shh. Don’t interrupt, sweetie. Let me explain:

When I came to see you four days ago (or three and a half if it please you) I told you I was desperate, and that was true. I’d come to unlock my place that morning—let in the day shift and count the take from the night before—when I’d found a note slid underneath the door.

Philippe Bonté, the cochon that owned the place before me, was threatening to run me out. He’d changed his mind about the sale, and told me he was coming back to take the place by force—with a few of his guys for good measure, naturally.

You ok, honey? You want another drink? Suit yourself…

Well, what I didn’t tell you was that it wasn’t enough for me to give up the Moelleux and leave. Bonté wanted me dead, and it was on account of what I’d found hidden in the basement—something Bonté himself had only just learned was there at all: an artifact from way back.

Lean in sweetie and let me whisper this in your ear (I wouldn’t want anyone to overhear us, now):

That artifact was this little chain and vial you see around my neck, where I’ve got this tiniest piece of your heart to keep me safe.

It’s a bit of history, mon petit. A little something your ancestors picked up from the locals when they kill’t ‘em. I recognized right away what it was, and it was the most powerful piece of voodoo I’d ever come across.

It would keep me from harm, but I needed a… sacrifice, we’ll say… to claim its power for my own: The heart of the man I loved.

So you see, honey, it was a good thing I walked into your office when I did—‘cause for me it was love at first sight… or close enough.

Mmm… To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure if lust would do the trick, but so far it’s working just fine.”

***

I don’t know what made me angrier, that the bitch had killed me, or that she thought she could make up for it with some pulpy story of lust and love.

“Listen, cherie,” I said, my words slurred by what must have been a dozen bourbons, “you used me, that’s all there is. Stole away my life even as I live and breathe.”

“You’re dead drunk,” Madelaine said.

“Correction, miss,” I replied. “I’m dead and drunk. Your version’s a noir cliché, mine’s a Greek tragedy. And you know the thing about tragedies?”

“What’s that?”

“Everyone always dies at the end.”

I fumbled in my pocket and drew out my gat, a trusty 1911 with steel plating. Unsteady, I leaned into the counter and took aim at Madelaine’s face, squinting one eye to make sure she was all lined up.

“The end,” I said, and I squeezed the trigger. I squeezed it again and again… until Madelaine silently reached across and took the barrel between her thumb and forefinger. I laughed.

“Guess that bauble protects you after all,” I said, pointing to the pendant around her neck. Madelaine smirked.

“The safety is on, darling,” she said. “Let’s get you to bed.”

***

When I awoke, the golden morning was pouring through tall windows, glowing behind shifting gossamer curtains. Madelaine lay beside me, long and liquid and naked. She smiled.

“You talk in your sleep, Sean,” she said. I sat up. I was still fully dressed.

“Anything interesting?”

“Dreadfully boring. Dirty laundry and mysteries and murder.”

She rose from the bed and stepped to the window, where she was a cutout in the incredible light. The sun flashed through her legs. I reached for my gun.

“It’s gone, darling,” Madelaine said. “I couldn’t afford a repeat of last night, not with you sober. Besides, we’re on the same team, now.”

“We are?”

“I need you—“

“That’s been established…”

“—and you need me.”

“That’s where you lose me.”

Madelaine turned and took three delicate steps toward me. She laid a hand on her chest, where the thin glass vial hung like a blade between her breasts.

“This artifact of mine has a twin, Sean. This one the old voodoo priests called the ‘Crucible of Life.’ Philippe Bonté has the other one, and you can guess what it was called.”

“So?”

“So, his has the power to bring you back proper—fully alive.”

***

Philippe Bonté had clubs all over town—Carrollton, Gentilly, the Lower Ninth—but it was Sunday morning, and that meant I’d find him at his Garden District hotel, likely sipping black coffee and balancing some lithe teenage girl on his knee. For a criminal, Bonté kept a surprisingly high profile; his schedule was practically public knowledge, and Madelaine’s story was far from the first I’d heard of the man. I knew he was dangerous.

But as I walked from Madelaine’s apartment, stumbling a bit on the sun-kissed cobblestones, it occurred to me that she was dangerous. She had shot me, resurrected me, and yet she’d somehow managed to convince me she was on my side. The image of her standing naked at the window, the soft light squeezing through her legs, was still fresh in my mind—like a daguerreotype of some half-imaged ghost, beautiful and chilling at the same time. Yes, she was dangerous.

I tried to rationalize it, to tell myself I was being smart by going after Bonté and his Crucible of Death, but the truth was simpler: I was a man, albeit a dead one, and my brain was deteriorating faster than my other parts.

***

The hotel was called the Original Sin Inn, partly because of its location in the Garden District and partly because of its reputation for depraved debauchery. If even half the stories I’d heard were true, there wasn’t a crime that hadn’t been committed under Philippe Bonté’s roof—and Bonté, for his part, had more than enough clout to keep the lawmen away.

Well, he couldn’t keep me away, not when it was a matter of life or continued death. I pushed through the front doors and into the white marble lobby with as much swagger as I could muster, and called out to no one in particular: “Where’s Bonté?”

My voice came back to me in crisp, cold echoes. The lobby was deserted.

I walked through to the bar to find it similarly empty. The blinds, half drawn, cut the sunlight into ribbons, throwing long, thin shadows onto the booths and walls.

“Hello?” I called, like an idiot.

This was a bad spot, I suddenly realized. The whole thing felt too sterile, too post-apocalyptic. Only this time the zombie was the victim. I turned to go.

“Stay awhile, Mr. Brennan,” a voice like oil called from behind. “We should talk.”

***

“Sit, Mr. Brennan. Your wound is weeping.”

When I turned, Philippe Bonté was sitting at the white marble counter, delicately stirring a coffee.

“How’d you do that?” I asked, slow to comprehend. “You weren’t there before.”

“I wasn’t?” he asked innocently. “Well, if you’re sure… You really are a magnificent detective, Mr. Brennan. Voudriez-vous un café?”

I crossed the room in three long strides and put my pistol beneath his chin.

“Non, merci,” I said, readying the hammer with a click, but Bonté didn’t so much as flinch. He wiped his mouth and waved the napkin in the air like a little white flag.

“I surrender,” he said, arching a brow, then his gaze dropped to my chest and he offered me the napkin. “But I wasn’t lying; you’re truly undone.”

Reluctantly, I looked down and saw that he was right. The tape had peeled back from the bullet holes, and slow gobs of sludge were slipping down my skin, reddening my shirt. I took his napkin and slid it casually inside.

“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked. I pulled back the gun but left it cocked. Bonté smiled.

“Of course. You were sent by Madelaine Meilleur, who tells you I have the Crucible of Death. She tells you the Crucible will bring you back to life if you can get it. She also tells you she loves you. She is lying.”

“About which?”

“Only the last.” Bonté unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a glass phial on a thin silver chain, just like Madelaine’s.

“Give it to me,” I growled, and I sunk the muzzle of my pistol deep into Bonté’s fleshy throat. Bonté only sighed.

“I intend to, Mr. Brennan,” he said. “Put down the gun and I will tell you why.”

My anger began to melt—not entirely, but to an icy slush muddy with confusion and doubt. I lowered my aim.

“Best talk fast, then,” I said, “or I’ll give you some holes to match my own.”

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  1. […] short story continues my undead detective series, Queen of Hearts. It’s also a response to Andy Black’s Two for Tuesday prompt which, this week, was […]

  2. I really like this, your description is absolutely fantastic, I have to know what happens next.

  3. […] is a continuation of my Queen of Hearts series. You can read the whole thing here if you’d like to get caught […]

  4. […] pretty well on its own, but if you find yourself swimming in a slushy confusion, I encourage you to read the rest of my Queen of Hearts series here. As with so many of my stories, it’s rife with intrigue, violence and nudity—in other […]

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