Posts Tagged ‘series’

Plucked

In Fiction on November 25, 2013 at 11:14 am

Luxor

Plucked

As I wheeled through the streets of Luxor in the bullet-eaten Mahindra—my brother covered in blood and brooding like a lunatic—the crowds stared but kept their distance. At the hotel, I parked down an alley and walked my brother through the back.

“Stay here,” I said, opening the door to my room and nudging him inside. I limped down to the front desk to find Panya hiding behind the office door.

“Father has gone out, Dr. Rosen,” she said meekly.

“That’s alright; you can help me.”

The girl gripped the door like a shield, her thick eyebrows working. She was Oxford educated, and smarter than her father by half, but she was also extraordinarily traditional. It was improper for a man to speak to her alone.

“I’m hurt, Panya,” I said. I held up my bloody hands for her to see. “Please.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Father Pietro

In Fiction on November 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

tuscan villa

Father Pietro

“I mean to make you my husband, Pietro.”

Pietro leaned forward, certain he’d misheard over the clatter of horse hooves and carriage wheels. Ippolita smiled wickedly.

“My family has always punished you for what you are,” she said, smoothing her skirts. Her hands lingered between her legs as she met Pietro’s gaze. “But if you do me this… kindness… I promise I shall remember you.”

Ippolita sat with her legs delicately crossed—a tiny thing, so light that the slightest jostling of the carriage bounced her on her velvet cushion. She was as dangerous as she was beautiful, but Pietro was only a fool by profession, and he wasn’t so easily played.

“Why can’t you do this thing yourself?”

“Kill my own father?” Ippolita shrugged. “I could. I wouldn’t shrink from such a thing, but it would seriously complicate my inheritance.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Original Sin Inn

In Fiction on July 2, 2013 at 5:36 pm

The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden ( )

The Original Sin Inn

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Garden District

In Fiction on June 18, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Garden District

The Garden District

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. Read the rest of this entry »

From the Cradle

In Fiction on June 17, 2013 at 4:18 pm

palm trees

From the Cradle

Fevered, I dreamt I crawled a burning maze, my limbs withering and sloughing off in my wake; dead men chattered nonsense, mouths filled with ash, eyes filled with pain; then a drenching rain swept up from some distant gulf, washing the ash and limbs and fire into an endless black chasm.

When I woke, dew dripped from the palms, dropping heavy in the leaves. A faint light glowed over the dunes to the east, pink like lilies in the spring. The oasis, our green cradle, seemed to sigh. We were safe.

I let my brother sleep and set to work digging a shallow grave. Read the rest of this entry »

The Crucible of Death

In Fiction on June 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm

light through windows with curtains

The Crucible of Death

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Lonely Travelers

In Fiction on June 11, 2013 at 9:30 pm

moon, stars, night sky

Lonely Travelers

I drove south over dunes and flats of rough-packed gravel, my brother groaning meaningless psalms in the back, Meher’s lifeless body jostling like a marionette to my right. My leg needed attention: Shrapnel had nicked the femoral artery, which leaked a slow pulse of blood—a violent bump might tear it completely—but our attackers were in pursuit.

Egypt’s Western Desert is a bleak expanse marked by few settlements and fewer roads, but I knew the Dakhla Oasis lay some 30 miles to the south; it would be several hours over the treacherous terrain, but I drove on, praying the dusty skies would give us cover… praying the blood I had left would last.

*** Read the rest of this entry »

Madelaine

In Fiction on May 8, 2013 at 10:17 pm

lips

Madelaine

“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… Read the rest of this entry »

The Treatment

In Fiction on April 22, 2013 at 8:48 pm

hallway2

The Treatment

I ducked and followed Meher into the narrow hall. Wide bands of rusty light shone beneath the corrugated steel roof; dust motes danced upon the strands. The air was damp and the walls were black with mold.

“Is it safe for the inmates?” I asked.

Meher smiled, barely turning.

“By your reputation, I am thinking you don’t much care what is safe, yes?” He laughed. “But don’t worry, doctor; these men cannot be harmed.”

These men… they were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Their silence, their stillness—approaching catatonia—unsettled me in a way that my work rarely does. They lined the walls and huddled on stairs, clutching their bony frames, watching us pass with milk-white eyes.

I pulled at the strap of my satchel. I was sweating excessively, and the heavy gear was chafing.

“What do you bring with you, doctor?” Meher asked, noting my struggle, not troubling to mask his lack of interest.

“Equipment,” I replied, simply enough. “Medicines to increase the effectiveness of the treatments. Atropine, methohexital…”

I trailed off as Meher began to laugh.

“Treatments!” he said, and he wagged his finger at me. “Trifles. These men are not ill—they are intoxicated with love for God. No ‘treatment’ can shake them from their ecstasy.”

We were approaching the end of the hall, and an imposing steel door studded with massive rivets. Meher unbarred it and gave it a mighty push.

“This, I think,” he said, “is what you have come to see.”

I stared. At first it was difficult to see anything at all, but slowly a pair of glimmering grey eyes distinguished themselves from the black.  Set in a soft, pale face, they did not blink and they did not move—but I could feel that they saw me.

“He came to us long ago,” Meher said quietly. “Long, I think, before you were ever called ‘doctor.’”

When I finally spoke, my voice quavered.

“Brother,” I said. “Brother—I have come to take you home.”

I’d last seen my brother when he was 11 and I was 15. I did not recognize this man—soft, bloated and white—that stared upon the world with these watery eyes. He was like a corpse, newly surfaced in some icy pond.

“Brother…” I said. “Paul.”

“He will not speak,” Meher said. “Our world is as distant to him as God’s light is to the heathen.”

I set down my equipment and tried not to sound perturbed.

“There’s nothing godly about this,” I said. “His mind has closed itself—a response to severe psychological trauma… It has been this way since we were boys.”

I handed Meher the cable to the machine and motioned for him to plug it in. I set to work placing the contacts on my brother’s scalp.

I’d long maintained that what my brother had been through had been traumatic for both of us: His unexplained disappearance and mysterious return 18 months later—as a broken boy.

The police had suspected the worst, and even blamed our father for a time, but there had been no signs of physical abuse. There was only Paul’s silence and his sad, vacant gaze, as if he’d stumbled upon some horrible secret, some ruinous truth the universe had managed to hide from the rest of us. He would not drink and he would not eat, and the simplest tasks fell to our parents to perform. It tore our family apart.

Looking upon him now I realized I had suffered merely a fraction of his pain. For nearly forty years he had been a prisoner of his own mind.

I gently rolled his sleeve and gave him an injection.

“Do you think you can cure him?” Meher asked.

“Perhaps not. But if I can open a door to his mind, even for a short time, I may be able to discover who did this to him.”

“And then?”

I gave my brother a second injection.

“Then they will find God’s light,” I said.

I watched my brother’s face as the cocktail of drugs took effect. His eyelids fluttered and his eyes rolled, and beads of sweat began to appear on his waxy skin. I made sure the contacts were secure against his scalp.

“Turn it on,” I said. Meher’s hand went to the switch, but he hesitated.

“You would do this to your own brother? Your own blood?”

“Of course,” I snapped, “as I have with thousands of patients before. I would not make myself a hypocrite. Besides, it’s perfectly safe—and if there’s any chance of finding out what happened to him, I must try.”

I composed myself in the silence that followed, and repeated calmly:

“Turn it on.”

Meher complied; the machine snapped to life and the faint crackle of current filled the room.

Paul’s response was subtle at first, but unmistakable. His mouth slowly opened and closed, as if he were trying to speak, and his eyes began to shift erratically—until finally they landed on me and were locked, with frightening intensity, on my own.

A low moan came from deep within his throat and slowly swelled like a chant.

“Is he speaking?” Meher asked. I leaned over my brother and his eyes tracked me as I approached.

“What is it, brother?” I asked. “How have you come to this place? When we were boys…”

But suddenly there was a pop and the room went silent. The machine failed, and my brother’s moans ceased.

“What did you do?” I asked, rising. “Did you switch it off?”

Meher had no time to respond, for down the hallway, echoed and faint, footsteps were sounding. I stepped to Meher and took him roughly by the collar.

“Who did you tell?” I whispered. “Who knew I was coming here today?”

“No one!” Meher gasped. “I swear it!”

I grabbed my satchel, pulled the contacts from my brother’s skin and grabbed the machine from the table.

“Get him up,” I said flatly. “We have to leave now.”

Sweat stung my eyes and blurred my sight. Meher stumbled ahead of me, walking backward and straining. My brother hung between us like a bridge, heavy and insensible, as the footsteps grew louder behind.

“Who are they?” Meher gasped. “What do they want with your brother?”

“They don’t want my brother,” I said, wheezing. “To them, he’s just a freak. They’re literally out for his blood; whether it’s hot or cold when they get it is incidental.”

Meher’s terror flashed on his face.

“I do not wish to die,” he said.

“Then let’s get him to the truck.”

Outside, the day was fully blazing. Dust hung thick in the sweltering air, making a muddy orange slush of the sky but doing little to temper the blistering sun; only the shade of an enormous sycamore had spared my rundown Mahindra. Meher and I loaded Paul into the back and climbed in.

Meher spoke between staggered breaths.

“Why—“ he choked. “Why his blood? What does this have to do with his condition?”

I threw the Mahindra into gear.

“Everything,” I replied simply. Behind, men flooded from the low, mud building, Kalashnikov’s raised. “I just don’t know what ‘everything’ means.”

The next instant, the bullets were tearing the truck to shreds, throwing showers of glass and aluminum shards in every direction. The world fell apart, a demonstration of entropy in its most brutal form, but somehow I kept my hand on the wheel, steering blindly around the sycamore and up the ravine.

As we cleared the ridge, my side exploded in pain and I felt the blood run cool and wet down my leg.

Shit,” I hissed, even as the gunfire faded and the empty desert opened before us. My pant leg was already saturated with blood. “I think that’s the artery, Meher. There’s a kit in the back, do you think you can reach it?”

Meher did not reply. He lay slumped amid shrapnel—some man made, some organic—half his jaw shot away.

I drove south over dunes and flats of rough-packed gravel, my brother groaning meaningless psalms in the back, Meher’s lifeless body jostling like a marionette to my right. My leg needed attention: Shrapnel had nicked the femoral artery, which leaked a slow pulse of blood—a violent bump might tear it completely—but our attackers were in pursuit.

Egypt’s Western Desert is a bleak expanse marked by few settlements and fewer roads, but I knew the Dakhla Oasis lay some 30 miles to the south; it would be several hours over the treacherous terrain, but I drove on, praying the dusty skies would give us cover… praying the blood I had left would last.

***

Night had fallen by the time we reached our salvation. Riding up, the date palms were gray silhouettes against an oil-black sky, rustling gently in the breeze. Above, the stars shone like a thousand far-off lanterns—as if a sea of lonely travelers had risen to shine a light, silently calling to the lonely travelers on the earth below.

I drove the Mehindra round to a copse of peach trees at the edge of a pool, silenced the engine and collapsed in the seat. My thigh burned, but the leg was numb below the knee. It was a minute or two before I found the strength to tear away what remained of my pants; beneath, the flesh was reddish blue and puckered around a deep gash. I fished my kit from the back.

Each movement of my dirty fingers was an explosion of excruciating pain as I plumbed the depth of my wound. My leg throbbed as if the blood were coursing deep within the bone, moments from rupturing and rending the limb from my body. But I found the artery—a weak little worm—clamped it, and sutured the small laceration. When I finished, exhaustion took me.

In the back, my brother chanted his laments. Meher, meanwhile, had begun to stink.

The lonely travelers watched in silence.

***

Fevered, I dreamt I crawled a burning maze, my limbs withering and sloughing off in my wake; dead men chattered nonsense, mouths filled with ash, eyes filled with pain; then a drenching rain swept up from some distant gulf, washing the ash and limbs and fire into an endless black chasm.

When I woke, dew dripped from the palms, dropping heavy in the leaves. A faint light glowed over the dunes to the east, pink like lilies in the spring. The oasis, our green cradle, seemed to sigh. We were safe.

I let my brother sleep and set to work digging a shallow grave. My leg pained me, except below the knee where I’d lost all sensation, but the work kept me distracted. I laid Meher in the fertile loam, covered his body with earth and rock, and said a silent prayer as the flies began to swarm.

Paul was awake when I had finished. He watched silently from the bed of the Mahindra, his eyes bulging in his pale face.

“This wasn’t my fault,” I said feebly. “Meher could have stayed behind. He didn’t have to come.”

Paul only stared. I hobbled back to the truck and climbed behind the wheel, where I sobbed softly for a time. At last I turned the key.

“Paul,” I said, speaking to my brother but speaking to no one, “do you remember the stories father used to tell? Poland after the invasion?”

Paul said nothing, but it didn’t matter. I needed to talk. A strange thought had suddenly gripped me.

“He used to say the worst part about the occupation wasn’t the soldiers at his club or the disappearances, but the way the language changed. Infected with German. They even changed the names of the cities. Lodz became Litzmannstadt.”

We rode east over the dunes, toward Luxor, and my conviction grew even as the light woke slowly in the sky.

“The men who killed Meher…” I said at last. “I think they were speaking German.”

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.”