Crossroads in Crescent City

Lisa Marie Arnopp

Lisa
Marie
Arnopp
 Crossroads
in
Crescent
City
 N’awlins

1


Maggie and Carmen walked down Pirate Alley between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral. Maggie was the taller of the two high school seniors with long sandy tresses and round deep brown eyes. She wasn’t the kind of girl that stood out and next to Carmen she felt completely invisible in her turquoise tank top and jean shorts. Looking down she wished she had worn cute sandals to dress up the outfit a bit instead of her sneakers. Then her pragmatic side reminded her if she had, she’d have blisters. Her pragmatic side was annoying but usually right. They had been roaming the French Quarter since before lunch and weren’t going to stop until after dark. What Carmen lacked in height, she made up for in extra curves. Carmen’s D cups dwarfed Maggie’s barely Bs. Her hair and eyes were a close match to Maggie’s naturally but currently her mane was nearly black and cropped short with long bangs. It was also styled straighter than a ruler. The enhanced darkness was for their trip. “I want people to know I'm emo and not goth.” Carmen confessed before Maggie even had a millisecond to register the entirety of the new look. Maggie didn't hold to stringent concepts to either emo or goth. She had a few silent reactions to the improved Carmen. First, if anything Carmen was more goth. Second, Carmen was like a cheerleader despite her efforts. Other than an unhealthy fixation with the occult, she was way too perky. Maggie never told Carmen her thoughts for they would be received as an insult. And third, Carmen could shave her head and still be stunning. Carmen had been the Home Coming Queen last fall and Maggie had been the Home-Coming Queen’s BFF. Carmen had always been the bold one and cutting off eight inches of hair was just another exhibit in the litany of evidence. It was eye-catching but she wished Carmen had asked her before hand. It didn’t take more than a moment to see why she hadn’t. Maggie would be too chicken to do the same and worse, she would have tried to talk Carmen out of it. They liked to pretend they were sisters and their hair and eyes were the only things they had in common to sell the farce. As she people watched and window-shopped, Maggie debated getting her hair done. Getting a short cut was an option but she doubted her mother would let her dye it black, at least not professionally. Then her pragmatic mind reminded her that she’d need

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 Crossroads
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 to blow dry it straight or it wouldn’t look as cute. That was enough to let Carmen be Carmen and she’d stay Maggie. High maintenance, she wasn’t. She wished she had

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gotten the opportunity to talk Carmen out of it because it dawned on her that it was going to take Carmen longer than ever to be ready in the morning. Dressed in all black, Carmen’s top was gauzy and short sleeved. It was over eighty degrees after all. As always, the guys took notice often smiling at Carmen, who returned the favor without delay. Occasionally, they’d deign a cursory glance to Maggie who also smiled back, always growing a bit pink in the process. Every time Carmen pretended she didn’t find this shyness endearing, which she did. More proof she was too happy to be emo. “That one was cute.” Carmen said when a guy bumped into Maggie and gave her an approving scan as he apologized. “Makes up for almost knocking me down.” Maggie joked thinking he was only average looking. “Girl, you hold yourself back. Matthew asked me if you like him.” Apparently Carmen had spoken to Matthew since Friday, or she sat on the news a full weekend, which would be an impossibility for her. Like was a strong word but he was fetching. Maggie wouldn’t mind spending some time with him. She had never had a heavy steady and he was high on her wish list. “When did Matthew supposedly say this?” “Sunday and he did say it.” Carmen’s voice always sounded like a little girls, more so when she was irked. “And you didn’t think to tell me this earlier? Like on the plane or for the last six hours we’ve spent together.” “I forgot.” Maggie tried to imagine how she came up in conversation. Then it the bulb lit up so to speak. Matthew was trying to woo Carmen, who had recently broken it off with Owen after a yearlong romance. Carmen wouldn’t be keen on Matthew because he’s super straight-laced, so she pushed the idea of Maggie on him as a substitute. Too kind to be a jerk, he most likely gave a noncommittal statement of agreement and Carmen read into it.

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 “He wanted to arrange a double date until I told him about Owen and me.” Carmen continued unaware of Maggie’s personal head game. “Matthew didn’t hear about that yet?” It was recent news and goodness knows boys are slower when it came to the latest gossip but that debunked her theory that he was only opting for second best. Or he played dumb embarrassed that his endeavors weren’t welcomed. Carmen was right. Maggie did hold herself back. Carmen shook her head and bit her bottom lip. Maggie felt like a heel worried about if Matthew was really going to ask her out when she saw her friend was still in the dumps about her failed relationship. “Are you having doubts about calling it off with Owen?” “No.” She answered immediately. Carmen was over the moon in love with Owen and he was the same for her. Maggie didn’t understand exactly what went wrong.

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Carmen had even given up her virginity for him, something she refused to do until it was the right guy. Regret didn’t come instantly after that but a few months later. Carmen insisted at the time it was a good call but the relationship became all about sex and she missed his friendship. What confused Maggie was how that was a deal breaker. Couldn’t they manage both? She had some idea that other details factored into the equation. Owen didn’t aspire to a college education. He planned to follow Carmen and get a job nearby. Obviously he enjoyed their intimacy but he was devoted to staying with her beyond graduation. The lack of ambition coupled with dependency on Carmen put too much pressure on Maggie’s carefree friend. She understood that better than they were having too much sex, which she believed Carmen also enjoyed. The worst part of the breakup was that Carmen would be going to the prom with just some guy rather than her boyfriend. Maggie didn’t have a sure date either. It’d probably be her standby. Sean lived next door and went to a different school, so he could attend her prom without missing his. The only budding glitch was his new sort-of girlfriend who may put the kibosh if she felt threatened. Maggie didn’t imagine she’d be seen as a threat. “Mmm.” Carmen hummed. “We should get something to eat.” This was her subtle hint to move off the topic of Owen.

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 Crossroads
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 One thing was certain, New Orleans didn’t smell so good – until dinnertime anyway, when the aroma of food overtook the trash and filth left behind by partygoers.

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They had passed at least two puddles of vomit and it wasn’t even five. The Big Easy was Bacchanalian twenty four seven. It was not a familiar scene to the two girls. Their hometown was small and conservative. New Orleans was neither. “What time is it?” Carmen asked again. Maggie didn’t check her watch. Carmen was asking every ten minutes since lunch when they scheduled time to see the esteemed psychic Zed at the Voodoo Hut. “Carmen, six isn’t going to get here any faster just to appease your anxiety.” The moment Maggie said it she knew it came out snarky. She swiftly dialed it back with, “Relax. We’re good.” It was too little too late. Carmen saw that she was getting on Maggie’s nerves. “I don’t want to miss our appointmen, that’s all. He agreed to take us after his last client and if we’re late, he’ll go home. Do you want that?” Honestly, Maggie was ambivalent and could live without it as easily as with it. She had to reel in her bad attitude but Carmen was controlling their entire vacation. This was possible because Maggie was compliant to the nth degree. Tapping her kindness reserve, Maggie said, “We’ll make our appointment, I promise.” Carmen was raised by a wannabe hippie. Her mother was too young to be from the sixties but she acted as if she were. You’d think she was trapped in a time warp that could only be described as Height Ashbury during the summer of love. She was the only parent of any of Maggie’s friends that got stoned and didn’t hide it from her daughter. Their home was in a time lock as well; no microwave, a gas stove and a black and white television that was never used and even in its youth didn’t have a remote. It was only a year ago that Carmen’s mother bought a personal computer and embraced iTunes. This was a necessity since too many of her LPs were scratched beyond repair. Carmen helped her mom buy all her favorites from the Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin. Other than the all-black wardrobe, Carmen was a lot like her mother who favored colors and wore tie-dye way too often for an adult woman with a grown daughter. It was in this environment that Carmen picked up a fascination of the esoteric. When they used

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 to have slumber parties in junior high Carmen would always suggest a séance or the

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Ouija board. At the time, it was splendid. Maggie thought Carmen was the smartest girl in town. Now Maggie felt they had outgrown it but Carmen had only evolved to newer venues to explore the supernatural. Maggie didn’t believe in any of it. She blamed the rash of vampire movies and televisions shows that fed Carmen’s fantasy. Unlike Carmen’s mother, Maggie’s was boring, like mothers ought to be. Sure it wasn’t cool and there were more house rules than Maggie could recall. Her father was the arbitrator when things got too strict. As an early graduation present and a reward for her 2090 SAT score they offered to take the girls to New Orleans for Spring Break. This, in part, was made possible by a computer error giving them extra frequent flyer miles. When Maggie’s mother called to correct the mistake, too straight and narrow to take advantage even of a faceless corporation, the operator offered four tickets to Louisiana as compensation for their mistake. Her father wouldn’t let her mother turn them down. In his frugal opinion they had come clean and refusal of appreciation would be wasted martyrdom. Luckily Maggie was allowed to invite Carmen who was able to get the money for her flight. Carmen’s father was as rich as her mother was lenient. What a wonderful combination in parents? Seeing as Maggie and Carmen had proven to be smart and independent, her parents let them wander without supervision provided the girls stayed in the French Quarter and knew where the police station was located. Even this was out of her mother's comfort zone. She didn’t trust the local businesses to adhere to age limits for serving to minors. The girls were to check in at midnight. Carmen thought it would be rude to wake them but agreed. Maggie knew it was going to be a pseudo-sobriety check. Her mother would search for red eyes, slurred speech and top it off with a casual sniff disguised as a hug good-night. Maggie’s parents were off on their own adventure looking at plantation homes and a boat ride down the Mississippi. That was for her little brother, who tagged along rather than spend the weekend with the grandparents. Johnny was thirteen and still young enough to hang with the parents without losing social status. Maggie was not.

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 Crossroads
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 “I’m just so excited.” Carmen needlessly emphasized still obsessing about the almighty Zed. “We’re going to get a Tarot card reading from an honest to goodness psychic. Mom said Zed is out of this world. She’s gone to tons and often she feels it wasn’t real but she endorsed Zed as an authentic psychic.” Maggie smiled as best she could without looking too skeptical. She didn’t want to rain on Carmen’s parade. Maggie didn’t buy into any of the traditional myths that New Orleans capitalized on; vampires, ghosts, voodoo or psychics. Going along for the fun of it was her graduation present to Carmen and she had nearly spoiled it with her sarcasm.

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With an hour to kill and the need to eat, they bided their time at a local restaurant. Carmen got Gumbo of course. Maggie opted for a Monte Cristo and side salad.

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 Crossroads
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 Voodoo Hut The Voodoo Hut was a typical business in the French Quarter. Aside from bars

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and restaurants, voodoo stores were the next most prominent commercial enterprise in the area. A sweet smoky smell wafted throughout the shop. Other voodoo stores were dark and drab compared to the Voodoo Hut, which was sort of cheery in a Tim Burton kind of way. Maggie strolled around as Carmen notified the cashier that they were there fifteen minutes early for their six o’clock appointment. The voodoo dolls were kind of cute, brightly colored and other than no doll had the same two buttons for eyes, almost cuddly. Each had a brief description of its purpose; one was for warding off hexes, another for prosperity, multiple iterations of finding true love. Carmen grabbed Maggie’s forearm in a death grip, “I’m so glad you agreed.” Relented was what Maggie had done but she held her tongue. “Just don’t tell my parents.” Maggie begged. Her mother was superstitious in a cautious way. She’d see a tarot reading as an invitation for trouble. “Zed will see you now.” The cashier announced with a New Jersey accent that ruined the ethereal ambiance. Maggie nicknamed her Elvira because of the long flowing dress with the dipping neckline. She had the body for it. Underneath the pounds of black make-up she could be any age but Maggie guessed she was in her late twenties. Elvira took them to a room draped with silk remnants along all four walls. Centered perfectly was a round table with three chairs spaced evenly. A man in his late sixties sat poised shuffling a thick deck of ornate cards. Swirling smoke columns raised on both sides from incense burners. “I’m cleansing the cards of the previous reading. Please, have a seat.” “Thank you for staying late to see us.” Carmen said eagerly scooting up close as she could. “My mother told me you were the best. We really appreciate it.” “Ah, a referral. I remember your mother.” He smiled and revealed a large gap between his teeth reminiscent of David Letterman. “That must have been twenty years ago. Her name is Gabby, correct?” Carmen nodded and even Maggie was impressed. That kind of memory recall must be very handy in his line of work. “I’m Zed.” An

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 shirt and khakis, he fit the role well. His eyes moved slowly, as if they were older than

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overwhelming sense of harmony emitted from his very core. Despite wearing a Hawaiian the rest of him and taking in more than the outer appearance of things. It didn’t look like blindness or even early signs, more like his eyes were a bit wild and overactive. “I’m Carmen and this is Maggie.” Zed nodded and placed the deck aside. Picking up a small pointer he held out his hand for one of the girls’. Carmen enthusiastically went first extending her right hand. “No, your writing hand.” He said accurately. Quickly she corrected her mistake. Using the stick to indicate what he saw, he read her palm. “You have a strong life line. I see that you are open minded and friendly. You draw people easily, perhaps too easily. You’re too nice to tell leeches to buzz off.” Critically Maggie dissected his comments. It wasn’t so general that it could apply to anybody but it was slanted. Almost anyone could see it as true for himself or herself. She skeptically admitted if nothing else, he had skills at reading people. “What brings you to New Orleans for the first time?” Lucky guess. Maggie thought since he was correct. It was a first for both of them. Perhaps it wasn’t luck. Locals would be too wise to buy into this stuff. “It’s an early graduation present.” Carmen answered. “High school?” He said peering deeply at Carmen and she nodded. His old orbs took a couple of seconds to really focus. “You’re soul is mature but now that I take a good look, your body is very young.” “Thank you.” She sat up taller trying to see what he saw in her palm. “Shuffle as many times as you wish.” He instructed passing the deck to Carmen’s eager hands. “When you’re done, fan them out and choose fifteen cards.” Carmen painstakingly made her selection as if each was of dire importance. Zed placed each pick face up with the occasional aside of “interesting” or “of course.” When he laid the final piece of the puzzle he examined the whole picture for several quiet tense moments. Carmen fidgeted as the anticipation built. “You’re at a crossroads.” He said at last after taking a couple of minutes to infer what the cards meant. “This isn’t uncommon. We pass through many during our lives

Lisa
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 and most frequently in our youth. Considering your age, it’s probably related with your next big adventure, college. It says here that you aren’t following your heart. Why?”

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“Dad wants me to get a useful degree but I’d rather study art.” Realizing her own self-defeating remark Carmen amended with, “Art’s useful.” “Very useful. You will succeed either way but you will be happier if you pursue your passion. In time, the money will come and your father will accept your choice but to change course, you’ll have to stand up to him.” Biting her lip, Carmen nodded. Her father was the antithesis of her mother. They never married but managed a two home family well. Carmen’s free-spirited mother believed in a holistic world. Her father saw the cause and affect of the modern age. He made a good living as a businessman working with commercial real estate. Even with his wife and her two half sisters, he never let Carmen feel second-class. “It will be uncomfortable but he’ll respect you.” Tapping the pivotal card he added, “He’ll understand that you have much of your mother in you. He’ll remember when he fell in love with her and see how you are as beautiful in your own but similar way.” “I can do that.” Carmen inhaled to steady her nerves. This guy was good. He fed some hints and got Carmen spilling the beans. Maggie wasn’t going to make it easy for him. Secretly, she was glad he told Carmen to talk to her father. Carmen was the most creative person she knew and should develop her artistic side. That and a rigid career would kill her vitality. With a satisfied smile, Zed collected the cards and did his perfunctory cleansing shuffle again. “Maggie.” He tabled the deck and held out his hand for hers. Confidently, Maggie turned her right and writing hand palm up for his diagnosis. “Humph.” He chuckled picking up his mini-pointer again. “You do not have a problem of being too nice or holding back your opinions. Speaking your mind is so natural to you that you seldom bother to weigh the consequences. A filter between your mind and mouth would serve you well.” Sort of fair but considering Maggie was holding back her doubts on his psychic abilities it wasn’t as absolute as Zed implied. Able to keep her opinions silent but unable

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 to stop a smirk, she waited for him to continue. With some effort, she returned to a flat expression.

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“Take what you want from this experience.” Zed commented as he narrowed his eyes. Dropping his pointer he flattened out Maggie’s fingers with his. “You aren’t closed minded but new ideas have an uphill climb to win you over.” He arched a brow to denote this wasn’t a compliment. Maggie was proud of her prudence. All her friends, Carmen especially, were prone to change their minds with the wind. In fact, Carmen had already bounced back and forth several times about whether or not to tell her dad she didn’t want to get a business major. Maggie was grounded. Under Zed’s scrutiny, she remained deadpan. She wasn’t going to give him any hints. The sage was onto her but he didn’t mind. If anything he found her resistance amusing. “Here.” He said simply giving her the Tarot cards. Maggie shuffled four times, fanned the deck out and picked fifteen cards haphazardly. Looking over her choices, Zed lost his blithe expression. Shushing Maggie when she asked what he saw, he perused her reading for ten long strenuous minutes. He glanced up to Maggie, focused and studied her every feature. “I’m surprised you haven’t found your way to our fair city sooner.” What an opening line, that he now used twice? How prosaic? “You have strong roots in N’awlins. Those roots tie you to unknown allies and some dangerous enemies. Beware a dark stranger.” “No worries, I prefer blondes.” Maggie joked wanting to lighten the mood. He was definitely less cheerful reading her cards. This must be his MO when someone is hard to read. A little fear of the unknown offered him some leeway. Maggie felt it working, so she reinforced her efforts to be passive. Thumping his weathered fist to his heart he clarified, “A dark soul. I don’t know what he’ll look like. It could be a woman with masculine traits. A leader with legions of obedient followers. Maybe he won’t be hu…” he didn’t finish his statement. His dramatics were doing their job. Carmen’s face was pale white. It worked with her dark hair and eyeliner but it annoyed Maggie that he was getting to her. Maggie

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 about affirmations? She was losing the battle to keep it from feeling personal.

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glanced at the old man waiting for some words of encouragement. Weren’t these things “It’s so clouded, the details are being hidden.” He said frustrated that he couldn’t see the way out. On his orders, Maggie chose two more cards both were ominous; Death and the Tower. “It isn’t hopeless but the cards aren’t divulging an answer only repeating your dire situation. Your apex Crossroads is here and immediate. Crossroads is a term thrown around willy-nilly. It can mean a choice in the road of your life, like it did for Carmen, and it could mean an intersection of the physical and the spiritual world. That is what your cards are telling us. The spirit world seeps into the physical world more in this city than in other places like two layers of stratum overlapping. You are a very young soul and that energy is alluring to spiritual beings. Others are jealous. Others will want to control you. Anyone that can sense auras will see yours outshining all others.” Maggie felt light headed and realized she was holding her breath. Taking long slow breaths she let her mind relax. This was hokum. Accurately diagnosing her doubt, Zed was less amused by it than before. Perhaps Maggie’s irritableness was contagious because he was losing his patience. He hurriedly gathered the cards and shuffled them in the snaky smoke trail of his incense. “Shuffle again and choose four cards only.” As she complied she purposely kept only positive thoughts in mind willing a happier outcome. The Fool, the Devil, the Moon and Hanged Man lay in a row. Zed gestured for one more card and Maggie handed him a card labeled Strength. “Amazing. All from the Major Arcana, like your last two but unlike the first fifteen.” Hovering his palms face down over the cards his wild eyes floated from card to card stopping on each at least three times. “These four are the major players. The Fool is you and signifies a start of an educational period. You must be more opened minded than you’re comfortable with to pass this test. You hide behind an ornery façade as a coping mechanism. This needs to be set-aside for the duration. You certainly have an aptitude to welcome new ideas if you choose to do so.” He concentrated again, apparently done with his diatribe for the moment. “You do get set in your ways.” Carmen reprimanded.

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 happy reading.

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Maggie practically snarled her lips. It was easy to be diplomatic when she got the “Since the Devil is reversed, this denotes your foe. Whoever it is, you will know they are against you which will make the path clear, not easy.” Zed stressed. Lifting the Moon he examined it closely. “This is puzzling. It is right side up, therefore a collaborator but it typically represents fraud. The Hanged Man means suspension, a state of limbo. Again this is a person that allies with your cause.” “Which one am I?” Carmen questioned waking Maggie from the trance of listening to Zed with too much curiosity. As if he forgot there were two girls before him, Zed’s head swiveled towards Carmen. “You aren’t here.” Zed looked at the five cards again reaffirming his statement internally. “How peculiar. The cards are urgent, sudden and yet you aren’t here. Do you plan to spend time apart during your stay?” “No.” Maggie shook her head. Why would she go on vacation with her best friend and then ditch her? “Whatever happens, you are not involved.” Zed told the girl. Finally he slid the Strength card towards Maggie. “This is the situation. Internal might is the key to success. You cannot let yourself get distracted.” “Could you be less precise?” Maggie sassed. His eyes darted up disappointed in her comment. She wasn’t being openedminded at all. She hadn’t intended to be cantankerous. Rephrasing to explain her concerns without the angst, Maggie said, “I mean, that doesn’t tell me what I face, does it?” “Take two more cards.” Zed coaxed far too smugly. He had something up his sleeve.

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A Gift Maggie studied the gamut of cards from the unused deck not wanting to validate Zed’s bravado. Carmen was on the edge of her seat waiting to see what the voodoo doctor was expecting. Maggie un-tucked the second card to the bottom. Carefully without looking she passed it to Zed. He didn’t turn it over, as he done every time before. For her second card, she took one from the middle that was wedged in a group of three. She was taking her sweet time making selections this round. Mentally she scolded herself for taking it so seriously. Without looking he confidently said, “Death or rebirth from history. The Tower or catastrophic shift.” Those were the cards she picked at the end of her first shuffle. Being too enthralled to resist, Maggie flipped the cards. He was correct. Her mind registered the battered state the well-used deck was in. Perhaps he didn’t need to see the front to know which card they were but how did he know those would be the two that would come up again? Clumsily she flipped the remaining cards face up knocking a few on the floor in the process. Embarrassed, she swept them up and spread out the entire deck face-up. Nothing funny was apparent. “What is your family name?” Zed asked watching her sort through for duplicates. “Why does that matter?” “Is it Gregoire or Gregory?” He pressed. “Not even close.” Maggie Mallory grinned. Finally he made an erroneous assumption. He didn’t know what he was talking about. “It’s Mallory.” Carmen told him to Maggie’s dismay. “Mallory?” He puzzled. “And your mother’s maiden name?” “Fuentes.” More perplexed than ever the old seer sat back doubting himself. “I’m wrong. I was so sure. The cards have never been so adamant.” Picking them up again, he shuffled them clean. “As an experiment, please, shuffle again and select two.”

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 Sighing and a little disturbed by his linear goal, Maggie followed instructions with two underlying goals; mix up the deck and make quick choices. After ten perfect

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shuffles, she simply pulled the top two cards, flipping each in turn. Death. Tower. “It’s a rigged deck.” She scoffed and looked at Carmen who was mesmerized by the reappearance of the omen. “Or a fluke.” “Duh!” Carman slapped her forehead. “You were adopted. For all we know, you could be a Gregory or whatever.” The gleam returned to the old eyes. “Yes, it is you. I’m sure of it.” Suddenly he stood up and left. “Um, okay?” Maggie looked at Carmen who was still wide eyed. “Does that mean it’s over?” “I don't think so. Isn’t this fascinating?” “No. Let’s go.” “He’s coming back.” “Who cares?” Maggie stood up but didn’t get to leave. Zed returned with his hands cupped together making an enclosure. “This was given to my grandfather, who passed it to my mother and then it came to me. My grandfather was told that one day its rightful owner would come. It’s a talisman and a key. I don’t understand how it works but it wasn’t ours to understand only to deliver.” Maggie was relieved. All his theatrics was an effort to sell her a trinket. “I’m not here to shop.” “It’s a gift.” He snickered. “Actually, it’s being returned to you, Jean Gregoire’s heir.” “Who is Jean Gregoire?” Carmen repeated the name with a decent French accent. “An American spy who reported to President Jefferson before and after the Louisiana Purchase.” “Was he a pirate?” Carmen was absorbing the story with avid intensity. “Well, he frequently posed as one to keep tabs on illegal dealings, Spain and France.” “Wow! You’re the descendent of a pirate.” Maggie appraised her friend as if she hadn’t known her since first grade.

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 “I am not.” “Of course not.” Zed echoed. “He was loyal to the United States, a good man and a hero.”

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Maggie didn’t have a response other than Zed was full of horse droppings. Since commenting on her deduction would be wasted breath and start an unwanted debate, she sat there dumbfounded. Were his typical clients so gullible? She reconsidered his people reading skills. Even a rookie should have seen this lame story would have been better suited to Carmen than Maggie. Pulling up a silver chain Zed dangled a fleur-de-lis charm in front of Maggie. The top was rounded rather than pointed, the tails longer than usual and it had two bands at the middle. “For you.” “Wow!” Carmen remarked. “It so shiny.” “I can’t take that.” Maggie said wishing she could. It was something she’d wear proudly. Stopping herself before moving her hand, she almost reached for the charm. “It’s rightfully yours.” “Based on a reading? Please.” She ridiculed, this time without any concern of offense and looking away to avert temptation. “That’s very lovely but I won’t take it.” “I insist.” “Accept it.” Carmen said quietly, which was dumb since Zed was close enough to hear her. “What does it cost?” Maggie dug in her purse for her wallet. How much could he really overcharge her? It was a nice charm and she’d be done with this sinister man. If he asked for too much, she’d barter down. Risking another glance, she was fine with the purchase. Deep down, she wanted the trinket for her own. “It’s not mine to sell.” The old sage stubbornly declined. “It’s yours.” “Then I can’t take it.” “I can’t charge you.” “I’ll think about it. Perhaps we’ll stop by tomorrow.” She lied. Even if she changed her mind, she wasn’t coming back to the Voodoo Hut. Carmen would fetch it for her but she’d sleep on it first. Her mother always told her if she felt compelled to buy something it was good to walk away and see if the urge subsided.

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 “Stubborn fool.” He muttered. “This is important to your epic journey on the Crossroads. It will start almost immediately and you should be armed appropriately.”

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Not wanting to hear anymore Maggie stood up. “Thank you for the entertaining reading.” She vamoosed. Carmen wasn’t far behind her. “That was so rude.” Carmen snapped once they were on the street and walking away from the Voodoo Hut. “I know. What was that all about? I thought psychics were about a better tomorrow and positive outlooks.” “I meant you.” Carmen glared at Maggie. “He was doing what he believed was right and you threw his kindness in his face.” “It’s a scam.” Maggie didn’t know how the whole plan would play out but gifts came with strings attached. “There’s no free lunch. There’s always an undisclosed caveat.” “Whatever. You sound like your mother.”

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 Dark Stranger

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The setting sun casted long shadows and a pretty orange glow where the last rays reached through the buildings. Families with children were scarcer and more drinkers stumbled down the streets. Being Spring Break, the average age of the nightlife was young twenties offering more worthy prospects to admire from afar than before their bizarre altercation with Zed the charlatan. Unfortunately, Maggie and Carmen were too pissy with each other to partake of the eye candy. The girls strolled without direction and without speaking. Feeling guilty, although not convinced she was impolite by any measure given the context, Maggie didn’t want to spoil their vacation. “Carmen, I’m sorry. He gave me the heebie-jeebies. You got a normal reading and I get some apocalyptic prophecy to beware of strangers.” “Don’t dismiss his warning.” Carmen grabbed Maggie’s hands forcing her to face her and listen. “I’m not saying you have to change the course of your life, I’m just saying be careful. We’re in New Orleans. We don’t have to get back to the hotel until midnight. Until then, we stay vigilant and we don’t talk to anyone.” Maggie smirked. Even Carmen didn’t buy it lock, stock and barrel or they’d go to their room straight away. “Even if some total hottie is checking you out?” “Where?” “To your right.” Slyly Carmen peered in the general direction. “Which one?” “In the Harley shirt drinking Heineken.” “Ooo, he is very nice to look at.” Carmen wasn’t being snide. She liked ‘em smart so looks weren’t enough to sell her on a guy even if he was very, very, very attractive. “He’s an Adonis.” Maggie corrected. By far the best of the lot they had seen all day. Mr. Harley scanned his surroundings, always coming back to Carmen, once giving her a friendly nod. His sandy hair was cut close causing a clump of spikes off

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 he was more interested in Carmen than Maggie. Another guy, equally pleasant to behold, walked up to him wearing a white tee

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center and he had soft brown eyes. There wasn’t one thing wrong with him, except that

with “NOLA” printed boldly across in worn-out letters. NOLA had dark wavy hair and a great smile, which vanished as his head snapped their direction. “What’s NOLA?” Carmen asked trying not to be obvious as she snuck looks. “New Orleans Louisiana.” Maggie answered realizing it was Harley that was distracting the usually brighter Carmen from completing the simple riddle. “Two of them and two of us. I would be happy with either.” Carmen offered magnanimously. Probably true but Harley’s choice was abundantly clear and Carmen was reaffirming it. “They’re too old. They’re drinking.” Maggie didn’t know if there were other cities that allowed open containers on the streets but half the adult population was drinking as they strolled the French Quarter. The other half was between drinks. “We can talk to them, can’t we?” Maggie wasn’t averse to a year or two older but hanging out in the Big Easy with drinking buddies sounded like a recipe for trouble. “They’re strangers.” She teased and got a glare that could cut through steel. Yes, distance from the Voodoo Hut was all that was needed to put perspective on Zed’s ominous prediction. “They’re coming over.” Carmen alerted too loudly. “Hello.” Harley shirt greeted. “I’m Wayne, this is Tony.” “Hi.” Maggie returned since Carmen was suddenly mute. “This is Carmen, I’m Maggie.” Tony looked uncomfortable. He was probably thinking the girls were too young to continue partying. He was right. “Carmen? That’s a pretty name.” Wayne stared at the silent girl until she smiled. He paid little to no attention to Maggie. “Do you talk?” “Yes.” Carmen giggled proving her image and personality were incompatible. Maybe Maggie was jealous or maybe she didn’t like feeling rejected but she thought Carmen came off like the schoolgirl she was. A suave guy like Wayne wouldn’t

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 care for that unless he got off on being adored like an idol. Giving him the once-over, she fretted that that might be his big turn on. Tony glanced away, bored and all too aware that spending time with the ladies was time spent away from bars. Nonchalantly he checked his watch. “We’re going to Lafitte’s for a drink. Care to join us?” Wayne asked ignoring his friend’s concerns. “Um, we’re only eighteen.” Maggie happily informed them and anticipated a negative reaction. Carmen frowned. Fact was, she wasn’t even eighteen yet.

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“That’s too bad.” Tony happily shook his head. “Maybe we’ll catch up with you later.” “You go ahead.” Wayne surprised Tony and delighted Carmen. Holding up a finger to the girls Tony asked for a minute. Pulling his buddy aside, they had a quick chat. Taking advantage of the space allotted Maggie opted for another route to liberate them from older men. “What about staying vigilant?” She cocked her head waiting for Carmen’s justification to disregard her own rule. “Well, technically, you have to be careful and Wayne asked me to join him?” Technically, he asked them both but that was parsing words. “No drinking.” Maggie commanded. Her parents would expect them to check in before going to their room. There wouldn’t be a Breathalyzer but they wouldn’t need it if Carmen were tipsy. Carmen couldn’t hide it because she never had to. Carmen held Maggie’s shoulders and rocked her to and fro. “Come on girl, let your freak flag fly.” “No drinking!” Maggie pointed a strict finger directly at Carmen. Wayne was grinning ear-to-ear when the guys concluded their one-on-one. “Would you like a tour of New Orleans?” “Don’t you have to get going?” Maggie hoped but knew by the signs that Wayne had won their debate. “No.” Tony insipidly said without conviction.

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 way Wayne barely noticed Maggie.

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“Are you from around here?” Carmen beamed with joy barely noticing Tony the “I am. Tony is from Baton Rouge.” Wayne held his arm out and she gladly took it. “Shall we?” Tony and Maggie tagged along apathetically as Wayne recounted the famous streets and buildings. He was a wealth of knowledge. Every block had a haunting or some morbid history related to death, war or illness. He had a natural talent for making the tales intriguing. Wayne spoke as if he was a first hand account, even referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Maggie mistook the comment as a joke but judging by his harsh reaction to her snicker, he didn't mean it as one. As for Carmen, she was spellbound. Perhaps Maggie wouldn’t have minded if Tony gave her a hundredth of the attention Wayne bestowed on Carmen. Instead, he drug his feet and checked his watch constantly like he was the White Rabbit late for tea with the Queen of Hearts. Maggie, who didn’t have throngs of men at her beck and call, wasn’t as selective as Carmen in regards to men. However, she did appreciate conversation or at the bare minimal, acknowledgement that she existed. Tony was rude, plain and simple. Sure he was out of her league being too old and quite the looker. Still, for the time being they were the two spare tires and common courtesy demanded some sympathy. Was small talk too much to ask for? Again, he checked the time and Maggie wished she had the guts to yank his watch and toss it in the sewer. Instead, she whispered to Mr. Persnickety, “Running late?” “Not really.” He rolled his eyes when Wayne took Carmen into an art gallery. They didn’t even bother to wait for the others as the door closed behind them. Tony held it open expectantly for Maggie. “I’ll wait out here.” It wasn’t much fun watching Carmen flirt or hanging out with the iceman. Tony considered his choices. In the end, waiting took less effort. “You’re friend isn’t really Wayne’s type.” He professed without prompting like he wanted her to take Carmen away to spare her pain when Wayne inevitably found someone more apropos.

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 “Couldn’t tell the way he dotes on her.” “Yeah, I know.” Tony was at a loss. “What’s really odd is we were going to meet his ex that he’s been pining for since they broke up.” “Maybe he’s accepted that it’s time to meet new people.” “Maybe.” He said cagily. “Do you know New Orleans history as well as Wayne?” He shrugged. “Some but not like him. He has stories I’ve never heard.” “Do you know Zed at the Voodoo Hut?” Tony frowned as he nodded. “Everyone knows Zed.” “He’s pretty good at that stuff. We had a psychic reading.” She said lightly to indicate it was purely for leisure. Tony kept nodding. “Do you believe in that stuff?” “That’s for girls.” He callously blurted out.

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“I guess.” Maggie felt insulted. “Still, he pegged us pretty quickly. I guess that’s the real skill. Reading people and knowing what they want to hear.” Glancing her way and softening up he dulled his sharp tone. “I’m not saying I believe in that hocus pocus but if I did, I’d say he’s genuine. Zed is an artisan. My sister went to him a couple of years back. She’s older, at the time she was,” he scrunched his face to recall the age, “twenty-two. Anyway, Zed told her that she was going to have a car accident but not to worry, the damage would be minimal and no one would be hurt. He said he usually warned to avoid those things but this one was important and couldn’t be bypassed. She asked where and when. Zed wouldn’t tell her. Of course, it happened and it turned out the guy driving was an old friend of hers from grammar school that moved away. They laughed it off. His car was dented but nothing else.” He paused but Maggie guessed something big was coming. And it was. “They’re getting married.” “That’s an ambiguous prediction in a town like this. Fender benders probably happen every hour.” Frankly she was surprised that the taxi they caught at the airport arrived unscathed given his errattic driving temperment that blended in with the other vehicles on the road.

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 it until after the accident or it would bring about horrible consequences.” “And she listened?” Maggie wouldn't have.

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“Yeah. But Zed wrote it down. He gave her an envelope and told her not to open

Tony shook his head. “Not really. She meant to read it that night but the accident happened on the way back to Baton Rouge.” Maggie got goosebumps. He seemed sincere but he had to be teasing her. In her one day in town she noticed that the locals really talked up the folklore. It was to keep the tourists intrigued. “It had the exact time and location.” Tony looked away uneasily. “I don’t know how he did it. Hell, he even wrote down her fiancé’s initials.” “You’re lying.” Tony chuckled. “I wish. It really happened. I won’t go near the Voodoo Hut now. He gives me the heebie-jeebies.” Her words exactly. Rubbing her arms to quell her nerves Maggie wished Carmen would hurry up. “How long have you known Wayne?” “Barely at all. We’re acquaintances. Carrie, Wayne’s ex is a good friend of mine. We grew up together. Anyway, she wanted me to make sure he got to the bar between eight and ten.” “It’s only fifteen past seven.” “He’s not going to the bar. Jeez, he’s mesmerized by Carmen. When he dated Carrie he acted like he was doing her a favor to give her time. This is bizarre.” Four drunken men turned the corner and stumbled their way, a fifth lagged behind. The sidewalk was narrow, as they all were in New Orleans, and Maggie stepped closer to Tony to let them pass. “Hey there dawlin’.” The straggler winked at her and she waved at him. Tony shocked her when he put his arm over her shoulder. He whispered in her ear, “I’m not trying to keep you from exploring, just making sure they’ll move on if you don’t want to.” Ew! The guy was in his thirties. “Thanks. I’m not coquettish.” “I can see that.” He snickered. “Coquette? Read Shakespeare much?”

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 Was that an insult or a compliment? If she wasn’t sure, it was an improvement. “What’s taking them so long?” Why did she ask that right when Tony was getting interesting?

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“I know where a great bar is with live music that won’t shoo you two girls away as long as you don’t order anything alcoholic.” He tempted her winsomely. Maggie smiled thinking the night was definitely taking a turn for the better. “You don’t have a legion of obedient followers do you?” “You’re weird.” He blushed at his cutting remark. Knitting her brows, she tried to decide if he was evading the question or making an obvious call. Leaning down to her ear he told her, “Don’t stop smiling. You’re far prettier than you are weird.” Pleased with himself for recovering from his social faux pas, he held the door for Maggie. “We better find them. Wayne probably found a nook to cuddle in. We should at least tell them where we’re going.” Maggie wasn’t going anywhere without Carmen even if Mr. Icy had begun to pique her fancy.

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 Vampire Bar

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The art studio was busy for its size, as per usual in New Orleans. The artist was good. Bold colors and most pictures were of musicians. The first room was the most spacious and occupied. Maggie wove to the next door faster than Tony. Searching all four rooms, she got scared. Carmen wasn’t there and there wasn’t a back door. Maggie retraced her steps to see what she might have missed. “This way.” Tony said turning a knob on a closed door. It was barely discernable and half covered with a large painting. She was amazed he found it. A huge man stepped out, ducking under the doorframe as he did. He was at least six foot six and wall-to-wall muscle. Tattoos covered his arms and maybe more but that was his only exposed skin other than his face, which was mostly hidden behind a thick trimmed beard. His dark hair looked almost military. As far as bouncers go, he was in the top echelon if looks alone were qualifying. Maggie huddled behind Tony wondering if there was a password to get past the brute. Gargantuan didn’t say anything but move aside to let them in. Two ladies shopping in the gallery tried to follow but Beefy waved his hand. They wondered away as if they never saw the entrance. Tony and Maggie walked down a narrow hallway. Live Calypso music wafted forward to great them, along with smoke, from cigarettes and marijuana. At the end was the main room, which was hard to see in the insufficient light. The place was full but not jammed. Conversations didn’t stop as they navigated but inquisitive eyes followed them. Tony let Maggie lead but kept his hand on the small of her back. Along the walls, where it was darker, couples made out with no proprietary qualms whatsoever. One man had his girlfriend’s blouse nearly off as he fondled her large bra-clad bosom. When he lowered his mouth to his buoyant prize, she moaned and her eyes cracked open. Even in her lust, she noted the outsiders and watched Tony and Maggie. Moving to her side, Tony blocked the intimate couple from Maggie’s line of vision. That was a futile effort since the whole place was a barbaric den of salacious taboos. The motif was austere and seedy.

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 Maggie heard Carmen’s giggle and steered through the dimness using it as a beacon. In the far corner, her friend was drinking something that wasn’t Diet Coke. “Maggie!” Carmen hugged her friend like they didn’t expect to run into each other so far from home. “Isn’t this place fab?”

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The fruity drink had rum, enough that it gave itself away with one sniff. So much for getting to know Tony and his friend. Maggie was going to tell Carmen off and good but without witnesses. First order of business was to politely end their evening early. “It’s cool. Did you forget about me?” “I’m sorry.” Carmen’s bottom lip jutted out. “I knew you’d find us.” Wayne said with a steely gaze fixed on Maggie. For someone who barely noticed her before, he was glaringly attentive now. “We need to go.” Maggie reached for Carmen’s arm but Wayne stepped between them. “No, you don’t. Carmen said you were free until midnight.” “We aren’t staying here.” Maggie felt Tony right behind her, gently holding her elbow to signal that she needed to proceed gingerly. Discretion was key but Maggie’s temper was boiling. “I tell you what, why don’t you go back to your friend Zed and procure the talisman.” “What?” Maggie tried to look at Carmen but Wayne obscured her. Clearly Carmen told him about their reading but why would he care about a bauble? “The talisman. Get it and bring it to me.” Maggie didn’t know why he wanted the stupid charm but she didn’t see a need to insert herself into his purpose. “If Carmen comes with me.” “She’ll stay here. Go. Tick tock, tick tock.” Not the subtlest of threats especially with Wayne’s long fingers shooing her off like a gnat. “Carmen?” Carmen peeked over Wayne’s shoulder. She didn’t look sober or buzzed. There was only blankness in her eyes. “Hi Maggie.” “What’s wrong with her?” Maggie’s voice was sharp with her anger. Wayne sneered. “Nothing permanent so long as you complete your mission.”

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 Maggie was scared. This man had drugged her friend; there wasn’t another

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rational explanation for Carmen’s aloof behavior. That was illegal and if Carmen didn’t leave with her, Maggie meant to go to the police for help. Maggie’s brain struggled for a way to leave with Carmen but didn’t see a way around Wayne. “Tony, make sure she complies.” Wayne ordered. “I will but once you get it, you leave these ladies alone.” Tony’s request was direct but hardly as foreboding as Wayne’s demand. “All I want is the talisman.” Demonstrating the control he had on Carmen, he turned to her and gave her a long, wet kiss on the mouth. “We’ll be fine.” Tugging on Maggie’s arm, Tony directed her back out to the French Quarter streets. Outside a guide, with twenty tour-goers gathered close, told of the hidden room in the building that hosted mysterious rituals. One avid listener asked if he meant vampires but Maggie didn’t hear the answer. Tony walked them to a quiet location. “What talisman does Wayne mean?” Mad, frustrated, scared and plain old pissed off Maggie told him. “Zed wanted me to take a necklace with a fleur-de-lis pendent. Carmen must have told him about it. She’s drugged. What did he drug her with?” “I don’t think she’s drugged. What did the fleur-de-lis look like?” “It was pretty but not terribly unique, rounded at the top with long tails.” Maggie answered thinking it an odd question but too disturbed to care why. On the whole, his line of questioning was chafing her last nerves, if she had any left. “With two bands around the thin section.” Maggie nodded absent-mindedly. “Look, she has to be drugged. Did you see her eyes?” “It’s not drugs!” Tony shouted and ran his hand through his hair. “Has Wayne done this before? He shrugged. “Not to Carrie, not that I know of. I barely know the guy.” “Sure. You just obey his every command.” “Hey! Listen, I wasn’t going to let you go off alone anyway. Not after that scene in there.”

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“You have some guile! What’s the con? How does the old man, the sleaze inside and you wrap it up and what do you get out of it? Drugging someone against their will is a crime.” Then she wondered if Carmen had taken the drug willingly. Tony glared at her. “Do you know what that was inside the art studio?” “A secret bar that serves to minors.” “It’s a vampire bar.” Maggie had heard much on this topic from Carmen. People claimed to be vampires but they were not the supernatural beings you read about. They drank blood and adapted a life to the folklore but they were humans in every conceivable way, except they may not be one hundred percent sane. “And Wayne’s a vamp?” “Maybe.” Tony paled. “Doesn’t adhere to the usual rules.” “I’m not talking about people who dwell on dark tales and wish they were more. Those people may be real vampires.” “Well, I’m so lucky to have escaped with my life. I suppose losing my friend was out of my control.” Maggie walked swiftly to Royal Street. There was a Police Station on Royal. She knew this because her father drove the girls by before letting them run amok. “I should consider myself blessed.” She stopped abruptly and turned back to Tony, “If you want some advice to perfect your scam, Zed needs to mention two men not one.” “What did Zed tell you?” “Like you don’t know.” “Believe it or not, I don’t know. Carrie dated Wayne for a while, then she broke up with him. Never told me why. I ran into him and he told me that he wanted to see her again and make up. Asked me to pass on his regret. I never told Carrie. A few months after they split, she regretted it.” He chuckled in an un-amusing way. “Became obsessed with him actually. Tons of guys chase her all the time but she wouldn’t have any of them. Begged me to help her out. I didn’t want to. At times, she got a glazed look, but not as pronounced as Carmen’s.”

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 He was aggrieved. Probably trying to emote that he was heartbroken. A sham

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would do this to hide his predatory side. A mark that saw him as a wounded man would drop their guard. Maggie wouldn’t let herself pity him. “So he did drug Carrie.” “Couldn’t have. It happened when he wasn’t around.” Tony sighed before he continued. “Sure enough, I ran into Wayne again and well, I was too stupid to keep my pie hole shut. Maybe I was too drunk to listen to my own good senses. I told him everything; that she wanted to see him again, that I’ve had a thing for her, that I never relayed his first message. Hell, for a moment I thought he was going to rip my head off. Anyway, he talked it up like he would mend his ways, never revealing what caused the spat. So I make the arrangements and next thing I know, he’s hitting on your friend.” “Carmen is a minor. She’s seventeen.” “I don’t think he means to take her virtue. He had this planned out. He played us all.” Maggie wished she could believe that but Carmen was enchanted and in danger. “All for a necklace? This is preposterous.” Shaking her head she continued down Royal Street. Tony followed but she didn’t care. Fact was if he was part of the scheme he’d take off when he saw where she was headed. “What did Zed tell you?” “To beware of a dark stranger with a legion of obedient minions.” She froze midstep. “What?” Tony beseeched. “Nothing.” Maggie lied realizing that Carmen was removed from the situation. She shook off the creepy vibe crawling up her spine and double-timed her stride. “Where are you going?” Tony asked when she didn’t turn towards the Voodoo Hut. Maggie didn’t feel compelled to answer. Tony repeated his question two more times before he figured it out or gave up. A block away from the station a relatively young cop was warning a bicyclist to stay off the sidewalks. His badge read Officer O’Malley. Maggie had a good feeling about him. He had a certain statesmanship about him that spoke volumes to his ability.

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 “Excuse me.” Maggie walked up mildly surprised that Tony was still on her heels. “I need your help.” The cop glanced her over with kind eyes, which iced over when he saw Tony.

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“What seems to be the problem?” Puffing out his chest, he took a menacing step closer to Tony who responded by taking two steps back. Losing her cool, Maggie started rambling on about her peculiar day. It sounded outrageous even to her. O’Malley listened and took notes. That was reassuring. She summed up her narrative with, “So he’s taken Carmen to a pub even though she’s under aged and it’s a dodgy wannabe vampire bar. He’s drugged her somehow. Please, we need to hurry.” Patiently the cop listened to her tale. “I know this bar, it’s bad news.” Hope engulfed her. “Can you get her out?” The officer stared at Tony. “How are you involved in this?” “It’s my fault these ladies met Wayne. I guess I feel responsible.” “You’re not and you’re not needed.” The cop excused him. Tony got hot under the collar. “I’d rather stay.” “Do you know where Wayne lives?” Tony shook his head. “I’m not even sure if he lives in N’awlins or Baton Rouge.” He didn’t have a heavy accent but it showed when he referred to the Big Easy. “I don’t understand. How do you feel like you are of use?” O’Malley condescended. Tony got red with outrage. “Why would you assume I am worthless?” “Actually, you remind me of a troublemaker I once knew.” “Who cares what Tony does? Let’s get more officers and close down that bar.” Maggie suggested strong enough it was just shy of a command. “Call for a formal inquest if you have to.” Tony snickered. “You sure do talk pretty.” He said in a voice perfect for Hooterville. “We need to act now before Wayne can relocate.” Maggie repeated not only to amplify the importance but also to denote she was ignoring Tony’s uncouth commentary on her vocabulary. He may be jovial enough to make dumb jokes but she was not.

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 The cop blanched, so much so that for a moment Maggie thought she could see through him. “Well, that may be a problem. There are two kinds of cops in this town. Those that believe there is more in this world than things we can perceive with our five

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physical senses and those that will laugh you out the door when they hear your tale. The numbers aren’t in our favor. I’m afraid our best course of action is to start with locating the locket from this Zed.” He checked his notes. Apparently not everyone knew Zed. “Why? Even if you don’t shut down the bar can’t you get Carmen out?” “I don’t intend to hand over the talisman but we should have it to keep our options open. Let’s see if Zed is still at the Voodoo Hut.” O’Malley led the way.

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 Ghost of a Chance

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The Voodoo Hut was closed for the night. “Great!” Maggie gasped. She looked anxiously to O’Malley. It was time he cut to the chase and fetch Carmen away from Wayne. The fact that he even wanted to get the charm didn’t make any sense but she trusted the uniform. O’Malley peered into the storefront thinking unknown thoughts. Testing the lock, he confirmed it was engaged. Was he contemplating breaking in? Isn’t that illegal? Turning to face Maggie and Tony he mentally debated his next course of action. When he looked at Maggie, his expression was one of sincere concern but one look at Tony washed away any signs of kindness. Maggie got the distinct impression that he loathed Tony, which was so conflicting with his true kindness for her. Tony took the prejudice in stride, or at least didn’t let it scare him off. Perhaps Wayne and Tony were known by the cops as swindlers. A very cocky smirk lit up Tony’s face. “I could call Zed but that sounds so useful.” O’Malley didn’t like his tone but he was more interested in contacting Zed than saving Carmen. That made Maggie madder. “We’re squandering time. What if Wayne has taken Carmen somewhere else?” She didn’t speak her true fear. What if Wayne took advantage of the inexplicably compliant Carmen? Officer O’Malley hugged Maggie. She broke down to tears in his cold arms. Gentle as a parent reassuring a scared child he said, “I believe Wayne won’t harm Carmen. I believe his intent is the talisman. With it, we’ll have the best bargaining chip for her safety.” Then he gave Tony a nod to make the call. Tony didn’t have Zed’s number but his sister did. When the phone was ringing, Tony passed it to Maggie to do the talking. “Hello Zed?” “Maggie. I didn’t think you’d called. I’m so relieved you did.” “Is it too late to get the charm?” “It’s yours.” He said amiable as ever.

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 “Is it possible to get it now?” Zed agreed to meet them in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Hanging up, Maggie was glad Zed didn’t ask a lot of questions like how she got his number or why she couldn’t wait until the store opened the next day. Of course, any normal person would

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have asked. Then again “seers” aren’t normal. And then again, he was probably working with Wayne. Wait until he sees she has the law with her. Tony led the way to the cathedral. Even with his back to O’Malley, the officer threw disdainful looks. Twisting her mouth to one side she couldn’t decide if Tony was a good guy or a bad guy. She’d keep her mind opened before making the final decision. As if he sensed her eyes, Tony glanced back. Abashed to be caught staring, and when her eyes had dropped to his bottom, she flushed. Sure it was a nice butt but she wasn’t even enjoying it being in the midst of a crisis and all. The crowd was lively in front of St. Louis Cathedral. A street band played some funky music and people danced. It was a scene straight out of her fantasy of what New Orleans would be like but she had to forgo participating. Another night perhaps, if she could erase away the bad vibe she was getting on her first night. More than musicians were out displaying their talents. There were a dozen fortunetellers with tables reading palms, cards or auras of rapt tourists. The variety in appearance ranged from old rugged burly men to young waif women barely older than Maggie. Had they come to this city as naïve girls and then someone like Wayne led them astray? Her eyes watered. “You holding up?” Tony asked. Maggie shook her head and he held her. She closed her eyes hoping to wake up from a bad nightmare safe in her bed. That didn’t happen. In his arms, she felt he was trustworthy or she needed him to be. Tony held her tighter and a few more tears trickled out. Wiping them as they broke the embrace, she caught O’Malley’s livid expression. She excused it on his job. Policemen were protective by nature. “What are you doing here?” Zed challenged surprising the trio from behind. Maggie looked to Tony to hear his explanation but it was Office O’Malley that spoke. “The talisman is hers. Why does my presence matter?”

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 The old man considered the officer critically. Slowly a pointed withered finger reached to O’Malley and jab his shoulder. “How is this possible?” “The talisman.” O’Malley requested flatly. “You can’t be a ghost and solid.” Immediately Maggie realized her mistake. She didn’t go the police station.

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O’Malley was a plant, dressed as a cop and part of the scam. What an idiot? Experience would teach her going forward but she erred costing time. Why use such far-fetched myths? Why so many characters? Why hold Carmen hostage and drugged? O’Malley saw her hard expression and in an apologetic tone said, “I’m here to serve you.” “No one better to come to her aid than Jean Gregoire.” “You’re Jean Gregoire?” Tony repeated with evident rage. The fact that Jean Gregoire lived two centuries ago didn’t faze him one bit. “Just tell me how much money you want.” Maggie pleaded digging out her wallet once again. They were smarter than her. She was too scared and tired to be clever. “All I have is two hundred. It’s yours just end this masquerade and get Carmen. Please.” “Put your money away you foolish girl.” Zed demanded then his weathered eyes focused on Tony. “This is not good.” “What?” As soon as the word left Maggie’s lips, she regretted asking. She had one goal and these three strange men were only interested in creating a fictitious web based on mixing every local legend ever. What next? Witches? The gage in her head wavering between trust Tony and don’t trust him lurched to the don’t end of the scale. “Who are you boy?” Like he had with O’Malley, Zed tested Tony to see if he was flesh and blood. Tony batted Zed’s hand away with a clearly physical slap. “I’m Tony Lambert.” Zed and O’Malley exchanged knowing glances. Zed closed the distance and for an old man, he did a respectable job of getting in Tony’s face. “A Lambert is going to help Jean Gregoire?” He ridiculed. “I’m helping Maggie. I didn’t know he was a Gregoire.” Tony’s distaste now as apparent as O’Malley’s.

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 “Not a Gregoire, the Gregoire.” Zed corrected. “You want the talisman.”

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“The talisman is ours.” He said softly but firmly not looking at Maggie. “We can argue about that afterwards.” “Wait, I thought we were using that to free Carmen?” Maggie countered. “You can get it from Wayne later when Carmen and I are gone.” “I will. We’ll get Carmen first.” Tony assured her and if he was acting, he was going for the Oscar. “We can’t give this Talisman to a vampire.” O’Malley interceded. “He’ll hand it over to Estelle Roux. That would end very badly for all of us.” “I don’t want to hear about vampires or ghost or Estelle whoever. I just want to get Carmen and go back to our hotel.” And before midnight, which was their curfew. Maggie’s voice had risen in aggravation and all three men looked to see if anyone was overhearing. They wanted discretion. Maggie didn’t care if the whole world listened. She willingly admitted defeat in the face of admirable con men. “This way.” O’Malley directed them down Pirate’s Alley to the next street and into a tight walkway down two buildings. The door was locked. Closing his eyes, O’Malley walked through the wood and opened it from the inside. Maggie gaped and as she entered, she felt the door, which was solid to the touch. Certainly she was dreaming. They were in an abandoned home. The place hadn’t been used in years. Old decrepit furniture was on its last legs, some upended without enough stems to stand erect. Paint pealed and cracked on the walls. The windows were checkered with complete and broken panes. A yellow-stained portrait of a family hung slanted above the fireplace. They were dressed in old-fashioned clothes. Maggie couldn’t place the era but it was before color photos when people stood stiff as ramrods and didn’t smile for the camera. It looked like the kind of place a ghost would live. She almost giggled at the thought or perhaps she was going mad. “When did you meet Wayne?” O’Malley moved his hands to place them on Maggie’s shoulder but they passed through. She shivered from the frigid sensation and recoiled. Convinced the last of her sanity was lost, she answered between hysterical hiccupping laughs, “After we left the Voodoo Hut. It wasn’t even seven and the sun was

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35


still up.” She added the last line as evidence that Wayne was no vampire. Maggie wasn’t sure she was proving it to them or herself but she was sure that what little remained of her sanity was fighting back with a vengeance. “Vampires only need to avoid direct sunlight.” Zed clarified as counterproof. “How did he know who you were?” “I was wondering the same thing.” O’Malley waited for Zed to answer. “If you think I told him you are sorely mistaken. How long have you known my family? How can you make such a poorly veiled accusation?” “You’re new associate then.” Zed didn’t respond. Perhaps it was Elvira, or perhaps this was added fodder. Maggie hoped her parents’ insurance covered psychiatric treatment. She’d be using it for a few years. O’Malley continued his inquisition. “Tony, did you know what he wanted with Maggie?” “No. Wayne and I were supposed to meet some friends but he planned this to happen tonight. I’m sure of it now. He was insistent that I see him today even if Carrie wasn’t going to make our appointment.” “Who is Carrie?” “Wayne’s ex.” Tony sulked to think she wanted a vile man like Wayne over him. “Then she’s irrelevant.” O’Malley disparaged. “When did you first see him today?” Tony thought about it. “We had just met up and were going to go to Lafitte’s by eight. We were never in the sun, if that’s what you mean. In hindsight, he may have been stalling until sunset but he got a call and went outside for privacy. Stayed in the shade.” Maggie reached into her purse for her phone. She was getting a feeling that she needed to get away from these guys and fast. This bad decision was magnified seeing that she was alone with them and no one knew her whereabouts. “I appreciate all the drama but I really need to get going. You know what, Carmen will come home when she’s ready.” Before anyone could argue she was out the door and in the street.

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 She practically ran to Jackson Square. Surrounded by people, she called her parents. Without ringing voice mail picked up. Not knowing what to say she hung up without leaving a message. Next she called Carmen. “Why are you wasting time? Get the talisman and bring it here or your friend dies.” Wayne answered. “I don’t have it. Please, let me talk to Carmen.” She fought back tears. The line went dead. “Is everything okay?” A girl her age asked.

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“Fine, thanks.” She said not wanting to trust another person that approached her first. Maggie didn’t know who to call or where to turn. Walking to the water she looked over the Mississippi to mull over her next move. Were those three men her best chance? Was this all a scam? If it were, as she suspected, what would happen to Carmen if she didn’t play along? How could she when they made it so complicated? She already offered all her money to them. A shiver ran up her spine as she contemplated what more they could want? But the most unsettling part of all was she couldn’t explain how O’Malley passed through her. Was she imagining that? The door was solid, wasn’t it?

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 Being Followed

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“Maggie Gregoire.” A slick man, who she didn’t know, asked. “Wayne sent me to get you back on your path. Where is Tony?” “I don’t want your help. Go find Tony if you want.” She stammered and stepped away. Shamefaced, he feigned a pout, “Don’t be like that. I’m your friend.” “I have plenty of real friends. Now go. I’m on my way to see Zed now.” “Liar. You just left him.” He leered at her. “Who would have thought someone so beautiful could be a descendant of the notorious Jean Gregoire?” Slick moved in. “But then, your stubborn streak is telling enough that it’s quite possible.” Maggie didn’t wait for him to get closer. Turning she bolted but Slick had her in his grasp before she knew it. Kicking and flailing, she struggled to break free but he pinned her face-forward against a vacant ticket booth. He nuzzled into her neck and took a deep whiff. “Get off me you cretin!” She screamed. “Mmm, you smell delicious.” Slick’s tongue ran up her neck. “You taste even better.” The night air chilled the trail of spit left behind. Getting an arm free, she elbowed her assailant, which only angered him. He grabbed her wrists, twisted her around and held her hands over her head far enough to be uncomfortable. Smiling to see her immobilized his wicked tongue licked the tips of two long, pointed canines that sprang out, at least Maggie hadn’t noticed them before. “You need to learn a lesson on the pecking order. I’m on top and you are at the very bottom.” Easily Slick lifted Maggie and ground his needy self into her to show he meant to use her sexually to drive his point home. “Don’t worry, we’ll have time.” His right hand roughly pulled at her tank top tearing the left strap. When she yelled he covered her mouth with his. He mauled her right breast and then ran his fingers under her bra strap. “Why do women today wear these things?” At first Maggie felt helpless. But she didn’t have time for emotions so she dialed back her fear and summoned her inner strength. She moved her only liberated limb.

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 men. Rather than a scream, Slick howled in pain. He struck her with a fierce blow of his open hand and let her fall to the pavement like a rag doll. Maggie locked her feet

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Maggie kneed Slick in the groin, which evidently was as sensitive to vampires as human

around one of his ankles and yanked until he was down as well. She scrambled up but he held her calf. Kicking at his face, he skillfully dodged a direct hit. Catching her sneaker, he flipped her on her back never losing grip of her shin. The pain shot up her leg and she was sure the bone would shatter. Slick pulled her to him as she pushed her palms on the ground for purchase. Out of nowhere, Tony plunged down on Slick. Another howl, this time ear piercing, screeched into the night air and then Slick was gone in a puff of vapor. Flattened clothes lay where he fell. Tony rolled on his back with a wooden stake in his hands. Panting and more frightened than Maggie believed possible she stared in disbelief. It was a clean kill and no remains. “What happened?” She registered throbbing in her hands, a sharp ache in her lower leg and tender spots on her bosom most notably but she didn’t inspect the damage. “You know what happened?” Zed said offering a hand to assist her. “No I don’t.” She wouldn’t say it. She wouldn’t say it looked like a vampire death straight out of Hollywood. She would not accept her insanity that readily. Unable to stand, she held up her hand to Zed’s to politely refuse his leverage. Sitting on the pavement she did her best to recompose breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. O’Malley sent Tony on an errand and then ran his hand down Maggie’s face. He wasn’t dressed as an office any longer. Instead he was in old fashion clothes, a blousy shirt and ordinary brown britches. His touch was like ice but he did not pass through her as he had done before. “We shouldn’t have let you leave. We didn’t want to force you. I am not your master, I am your kin.” “You’re so cold.” “I’m dead.” He smiled as if that wasn’t a deficit. “I’m only solid when I’m near you. My spirit is reinforced in substance because we are family.”

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 “O’Malley, that makes no sense at all.” “Does everything have to make sense? Does math and science hold the only truths? No.” He answered for her. “There are mysteries in this world that cannot be quantified by conventional academics.” “You passed through the door when I was there.” “With concentration, yes, I did.” The ghost answered and released Maggie. “Now, if you could do me a favor, please call me Jean or Gregoire, O’Malley was the name of a long lost friend of mine.” “All right, Jean.” Something was changing in Maggie. Her mind struggled for explanation. The absurd was looking like the only plausible solution. Tony was back with a boutique bag. “How’s this?”

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Maggie peered inside to see a pink shirt. Taking it out, it looked a bit large. The slogan “Life is a Bowl of Gumbo” was written across the front in bold cartoonish lettering. “Perfect.” She smirked trying to lighten her mood. Her mind told her that they could not be what they claimed but her heart was grateful to see them after her scare. “Thank you.” “You can’t walk around with a torn shirt.” “I meant thank you for saving me.” She glanced at the empty remains of her attacker. “Well, thank Jean Gregoire. He told me to stake him. I don’t know why I listened other than I didn’t have a better plan.” Tony teetered on the fence between the real world and whatever world was seeping in to create chaos. He was doing much better than Maggie but then he knew the stories even if he hadn’t believed them before. Under his breath he muttered “vampires?” One of Slick’s pockets lit up as a cell phone alerted an incoming call. Jean retrieved it but too late to answer. “He’ll call back.” He said grimly. Maggie looked at the ghost who she still thought of as O’Malley. Was he her ancestor? Was there any truth in their fantastic tale? She didn’t know how he could walk through a wall, let alone touch her without touching her. She didn’t know how Slick disappeared in the blink of an eye. But she also knew that illusionists had done many inexplicable things.

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40


Zed took out the talisman and clasped the necklace on her. “They can’t harm you with that on. That’s why they didn’t take you. Once you have it, why would you hand it over unless they had something treasured by you?” “Not something, someone. I can’t keep this if it’s the only way to save Carmen.” Maggie’s phone rang and she sighed. “It’s Wayne.” Or she assumed since the caller ID read Carmen. Jean answered for her. “Hello Wayne or do you go by Estelle’s bitch now?” Maggie could hear the muffled indignation float out of her iPhone. Mentally, she questioned Jean’s judgment to rile up a vampire. “That’s right, I’m involved and if you want the talisman, you’ll have to meet Maggie somewhere outside of the French Quarter, on neutral territory.” Maggie slipped into her new shirt and removed her tattered tank top as Jean worked out the final details for the exchange. Regretting the lose of her favorite summer top, she tossed it. “Good news and bad news.” Jean announced after the conversation was over. “The good news is we have an hour. The bad news is they will bring reinforcements.” “Is Carmen okay?” “He wouldn’t let me speak to her.” Jean frowned. “She is alive. They need her.” That was as small as consolation could get. “We do have one thing in our favor. They won’t expect me to go with you or that I will be able to fight them. It’s only because you are my descendant that I can leave the area or even Crescent City altogether. That isn’t common knowledge.” “How did you bargain for time?” Tony asked. “Time is needed if we won’t meet them in the city. We are to go to the bayou. Here the spiritual is woven into the physical because of the history but it’s patchy. Vampires are prone to spiritual realms for they live in both worlds. Within the Quarter, they are as dangerous as their legend warns. Leaving the city weakens them and leaving the protection of active spiritualism makes them susceptible. They cannot travel a straight path because of this. There are only a few enemies of vampires but they are proficient enough that the vampires have to take precautions.”

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 Maggie’s mind jumped to werewolves having seen enough movies. She shook her head sure that regardless how real everything seemed, she had to be dreaming.

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Praying with all her might, she hoped her subconscious wasn’t going to bring in another movie monster before she woke unless they were going to be hunky romantic monsters. Rubbing her hands clean, she saw they were free of wounds, even her leg had stopped hurting. Wasn’t that proof she wasn’t awake? “Are you saying they will be powerless outside the Quarter?” Tony prodded. “They will be formidable but not invincible.” Looking at the charm around her neck Maggie asks, “Why do they want this?” “It is a key to a treasure.” “A stolen treasure.” Tony remarked harshly. “Not if your family hasn’t found it.” Jean barked back. “That’s not the way I heard it.” “Of course not. But then history is written by the winners.” “What does that mean?” Maggie asked. “I was killed by Pierre Lambert, this man’s ancestor.” Jean said mournfully. “Because of him I was not there for my children. Because of him I have been bound to walk these streets until a rightful heir frees me from my onus. Once you and the talisman are safe, I will pass on to the next realm.” “What onus?” “The treasure is modest.” He said evasively. “Among the gold and jewels is a ring forged from the Spear of Longinus, the weapon the Roman guard used to ensure Jesus was dead before taking his body to the tomb. The metal was smelted and made into that charm and a ring. A vampire cannot touch the holy metal unless it surrounds him. If it circles even a small part it could exercise the demon from the vampire. It’s theoretical but it’s the demon within that can’t go into the sun, leave the spiritual realm, subjected to holy water. If the wearer retains the supernatural dominance, the vampire would be unstoppable.” “Estelle.” Zed covered his mouth fearful of the idea. “What does this do to them?” Maggie held out her talisman.

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 circle.” “If they can’t have it, why do they want it?” “As long as it doesn’t touch their skin. This…” Jean touched the charm and paused. “I can hold it. I know I am not truly physical but even this simulation is awesome.” “You were saying?” Tony encouraged impatiently. “The talisman opens the crypt where the treasure is stowed.”

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“Burn them and if they touched it long enough, destroy them. It isn’t a complete

“A crypt?” Maggie didn’t want to go into a cemetery during the day let alone at night. She reluctantly planned to visit some the next day with Carmen, at least that was the plan before everything went hay-wired. She had crossed it off the agenda about ten minutes ago. “If Estelle wears the ring, how would that affect her children?” Zed asked pale as a ghost – a ghost without an ancestor around to give him substance that is. “Only once has a vampire worn the ring. Vlad Dracula walked into daylight and Van Helsing cut off his finger and then ran his sword through Dracula’s heart. Who knows what havoc would have ensued if Van Helsing hadn’t been proactive? Those corollary vampires turned by Dracula died when he died.” “So why are there still vampires?” Maggie asked. “Vlad Dracula wasn’t the first. The first vampire was Estelle Roux. When the world was flooded, she wasn’t destroyed only suspended. When the waters subsided, she found a new home in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t more than wilderness for years. She lived a hard life feeding off animals. Animal blood isn’t satisfying but it is sufficient. When humans began to spread out over the land, she was ravenous. Before the flood, she never killed her prey. Even today it is rare for a vampire to kill without provocation, they prefer playing with their food. But Estelle fed on humans so deeply that they were left dead or very near. When the black plague struck the vampires, for there were many created by then, they would die if the drank contaminated blood. That reigned in their bloodlust. Five centuries passed before Estelle learned of the ring, she has sought it ever since.” “How did you get it?”

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 “He stole it from my family.” Tony groused. “Your ancestor was a cutthroat. Pierre took it from me and gave it to his wife Antoinette. It had been entrusted to my family for a millennium or more. When we arrested Pierre’s ship, Antoinette traded it for his life. It was the only time I disobeyed orders and a stupid act on my part since he killed me not two years later.” “That’s a lie.” Tony said impetuously.

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“That was life in the eighteen hundreds. It took me almost two hundred years to accept that.” “You killed Pierre and Antoinette.” “No Tony, Pierre killed me. Estelle had Pierre and his treacherous wife killed when she came to claim the ring. Antoinette had promised it to Estelle if she turned her. She wanted eternal life. She didn’t know the ring already gave that to her.” Tony seethed. “You’re wrong.” Softer Jean said, “You are nothing like them.” “I don’t believe you.” “Boy, I have no reason to lie.” “You do if you want me to help you fight Estelle.” “I have told you to go, that you are not needed. As much as I sense you are honest, I cannot trust someone that looks every bit like the man who murdered me, even if it was decades ago.” “What proof do you have?” Maggie challenged out of curiosity. Jean was wounded that she questioned him. “A written agreement from Antoinette. It is with the ring.” Tony didn’t look up. He was processing everything Jean told him looking desperately for the contradiction that would eradicate its validity.

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 The Bayou

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Maggie’s heart went out to Tony. At least her dead ancestor was a hero and there to defend his good name in the face of slurs to his character. Tony was forced to reassess his familial tree without any historical reference. “We’re wasting time.” Zed reminded everyone. “We should go and before we do we need to devise a plan to get Carmen without giving Estelle the talisman?” Maggie looked at the three men not knowing if she only trusted them because at the moment she had no choice. Doing something she was not comfortable with, she set her logic aside. Her heart said these were good men. That would have to do for now. Seeing that it was losing the battle, her mind resolved it was only a dream and safe for her to play along. “We need a decoy. It won’t fool Estelle for long but we only need enough time to get Carmen away. Maggie cannot be touched with the true talisman and I am already dead. You two should stay here.” Jean gestured to Zed and Tony. “My friend, you know I won’t.” Zed smiled. “Outside of the spiritual, I should be safe enough with my own devices of defense.” “Very well and thank you.” Jean turned to Tony. “Go home. What little help you bring isn’t worth the added risk of a potential lost life.” With a subtle nod and without a word, Tony skulked away. “I’ll be right back.” Maggie said and chased after him. “Tony!” He stopped but didn’t turn to her. Circling him she waited for him to look her in the eye. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Hopefully this goes in our favor. For what’s its worth, I’m not sure I believe the story either. Frankly, I’m still doubt that all this isn’t a smoke screen.” “If it helps, in my opinion, this is the unreal reality.” “Isn’t that a contrary term?” Tony shrugged. “Trust them. You’re smart. You never trusted me and you were right. I guess we’re like the Hatfields and McCoys. Two sides of feuding families and no one really knows what started it.”

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 you were helping Wayne.”

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“Let’s not rehash that.” She rolled her eyes. “I didn’t trust you because I thought He looked at her wondering if she trusted him now that she knew he wasn’t in on the scheme. Picking up the charm around her neck Tony examined it closely, and her. “Mine or yours, Carmen is more important.” She smiled. For the first time since Carmen’s abduction he had a sincere grin. “It isn’t much really. Not enough to fight over let alone kill.” “It’s pretty.” She defended. “But not enough to fight for. Think of it this way, we’re the first in over a century from either family to see it.” “You know, if I wasn’t tied up in a stupid love triangle, I would’ve enjoyed meeting you tonight. And if Wayne wasn’t a kidnapping vamp.” “I’m too young.” “A year isn’t too young.” She looked at him quizzically. He had been drinking but then that didn’t prove he was legal drinking age. He broke from his inflexible posture to hug her. “Be careful. Between Zed’s knowledge and Gregoire being a ghost, I guess you’re prepared but if they really are vampires…” If there were, he was the only of the three that killed one, at least in the last twenty-four hours but Jean made an excellent point. Tony didn’t need to be in danger. She didn’t have a choice. Tony hadn’t let go and she wasn’t sure she was ready to face her demons but time was precious. Reluctantly Maggie backed away. “If there is a document, do you want to see it?” She wouldn’t in his position. He shook his head. “What difference does it make now? Jean Gregoire is right. I am who I am regardless of what did or didn’t happen. It took me off guard that’s all. I’ll be fine.” She played with the charm on her neck. “If I didn’t need this, I would give it to you. It is more important to you than me. When we’re done…” Tony’s fingers stopped her from completing her thought. “Keep it. It suits you.” He crossed the street and vanished in the crowd.

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 moment. She returned to the antsy ghost and seer.

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Maggie hated to see him leave but he was a distraction that she didn’t need at the Zed had a VW Rabbit at least twenty-five years old. It was shiny black and in top condition. He unlocked the passenger door first. “Can I drive?” Jean asked. “Sure. Wait, do you have a license.” “No. Without Maggie here, I wouldn’t be able to but I’ve always wanted to drive a car.” It was a modest request for someone who died long before the invention of automobiles. Zed smirked in confused amusement. “Maybe on the way home. It’s a manual.” Deflated O’Malley took the passenger seat after Maggie crawled into the back. “Can we lower the top?” Jean had witnessed so much without truly joining in and Zed allowed it. Then they zoomed off to their destination somewhere in neutral territory. It was cold enough before they got on the highway. Maggie found a throw and snuggled into it for warmth. She stared up at the sky as her hair whipped back. They weren’t on the freeway long and sooner than she expected they were driving down a one-lane road with trees lining both sides. She worried about Carmen. She replayed the day’s events. Revelation hit. Sitting up she leaned forward. “Jean is the Hanged Man. He’s in suspension.” “What’s that?” Jean asked. “I gave her a Tarot reading. It came up with two allies and one foe.” Zed quickly summarized. “Yes, I think he is. I’m ashamed that I didn’t foresee you contacting her.” “Estelle is the Devil a known evil.” Zed’s eyes smiled to see her accepting his truths. That meant her incipient mind was opening up. “You must be the Moon.” Maggie tapped Zed’s back. “That can’t be it. A seer is never part of the reading or else we would always be part of the reading. The Moon was Tony. It signifies fraud or disillusionment.” “He didn’t lie and he isn’t working with Wayne.” Maggie retorted.

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O’Malley glanced over his shoulder. He didn’t like to see how attached she was to a Lambert. Unexpectedly he said, “The moon could signify ingenuity and perception.” “That’s true. How do you know that?” Zed glanced sideways at his ghost rider. “When I’m bored I hang out in your shop. I’ve seen you give a thousand readings.” Maggie didn’t know if the clues fitting so nicely proved that she was really involved with vampires or that they were scamming her. Somewhere inside, she felt she was doing the right thing. Near death forced Maggie to choose either acceptance or continue to doubt. The wise decision was to accept. That way, even if she was being scammed, she was doing the right thing to end it and get Carmen. She accepted that if it was a scam, it was too convoluted for her to escape with dignity. “But Tony isn’t here for the situation.” Maggie said recalling what the cards had excluded Carmen. “He was instrumental in its commencement.” Jean guessed without certitude. “I’m the psychic, you’re the pirate ghost.” Zed reminded him. “I was never a pirate.” Jean frowned at Maggie. “It was an assignment from the government.” “But you kept treasure.” She tested him. “That’s how privateers were paid. They got a percent of the spoils.” “Wasn’t that how pirates were paid?” “Yes but we were sanctioned and under orders to keep human carnage to a minimum.” Maggie sat back. It was a different era but to hear that her ancestor had slain men for any cause sickened her on some level. Her mind wondered to Tony. Surely he was halfway home and forgetting all about her. She wished that she got his contact information. No one would ever believe her, even Carmen might not and she lived for those tall tales. As much as she’d like to have a friend to recall her adventure, she understood why he left without any ties. He was a Hatfield. “Why don’t more ghost make themselves known?” Maggie asked. “I mean, every block has a haunting in New Orleans. Or do they look like people until you interact with them? Did I see a bunch of ghosts and not realize it?”

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 Gregoire chuckled at her assumption. “There are different kinds of haunting. Some are merely recordings of an extremely profound event. These ghost may be seen by those with the predisposition for that kind of sensory but do not acknowledge the changed world around them. They replay their final moments in an eerie loop. Some places are so affected by people that passed through that they manifest a simulation but

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those apparitions are confused by modern time. Ghosts like me, those bound to Earth to complete an unfinished task, are very rare. We are completely conscious of our demise and what needs to be accomplished for final passage.” And he wasn’t free to pass over until she had the sacred items safely stowed. That was a large burden for a young girl to carry but Maggie was too far in now to let her rationale take over. Too much had happened that at the very least, she had to have faith even if she wasn’t wholly converted. Having gone over the major thoughts occupying her mind, she circled back to Carmen. Quietly she prayed that Carmen was unharmed. The car bounced and she saw they were on a dirt road. They pulled up to a battered dock with an airboat and canoe. Hiding the car in a cluster of trees, Zed stayed with the vehicle enhancing charms to ensure it could ward off demons. Jean and Maggie moseyed to the clearing by the water. “Are you ready for this?” Jean asked. Maggie shrugged. “I’ll hand this over for Carmen.” “I see that.” He regretted but it was hers to do with as she willed. If she did, he was Earth bound forever. “So why didn’t you contact me sooner?” She asked to avoid the guilty lump forming in her stomach. He glanced at her. “I’m bound to the Quarter. Until you were in the area, it wasn’t an option. Even then, if I approached it would only frighten you.” Maggie didn’t bypass being frightened but she appreciated the effort. “When I died, I tried to contact my widowed wife, which was a big mistake. It only scared her since she couldn’t see me as I truly am because she isn’t a blood relative. When the kids started telling her that they talked to me, she got spooked and took them west.” “Am I the first to return to New Orleans?”

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 After he left, I found Zed’s grandfather. Most seers aren’t that much more in tune with paranormal than regular folks. Zed’s grandfather was authentic and he decided to read

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“No. You’re great grandfather, maybe great great, came but he didn’t believe me.

my future. I couldn’t shuffle but I could embody him and shuffle. The cards said that a descendant would come and seek out psychic counsel, one that he believed would be in his family. We had a contingency plan to keep tabs on other truly gifted seers to be sure. So I showed him where the talisman was hidden. We knew there would be opposition but it didn’t show how formidable nor did it indicate that it would be vampires.” He looked ashamed. “I’m sorry this has landed on you and yet I am glad to meet you.” “It’s lucky I found you.” “Not luck. I sensed you were near. I didn’t get to the Voodoo Hut in time. When I felt you were at the bar, I knew I had to find a way to run into you away from the vampires.” He stood vigilante. “En garde, they’re here.”

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Speaking of unholy creatures, a searchlight lit up the dock and they heard a motor from a boat. Blinded, Jean and Maggie strained to see. When the boat docked the light was pointed downward giving their eyes a chance to adjust. It was a flat boat, like a pontoon, and covered from bow to stern with a metal top. The sides were open with two small rooms on each side of the steering wheel. Ten people were onboard, Carmen among them. Wayne stood behind her with his arm around her waist as if he were her boyfriend. Seeing her friend didn’t give Maggie hope. Maggie was more aware than ever how much was at stake. Were all these minions children of Estelle? The one vampire that attacked Maggie in New Orleans was dealt with easily enough but she didn’t fool herself that she wasn’t terribly outnumbered. It was a teen, a psychic and a ghost against a cadre of vampires, perhaps weakened but still a deadly force to be reckoned with. “Well, well, well. Jean Gregoire the legend. I’ve heard only good things of course.” A beguiling woman said as she disembarked followed by three of her group. Her hair was red and wavy and her figure was perfect. She wore a royal blue silk blouse opening with a respectable amount of cleavage showing and skintight white pants. If Maggie didn’t know she was a vampire, she’d have guessed she was thirty give or take. Her voice was melodic. “How did you get all the way out here Gregoire?” “Bring the girl.” The ghost requested. “Not until I see the talisman.” Jean held up the dummy charm. Estelle’s perfect brows knit together wondering how a specter could hold a chain. “I’ve lived longer than I care to remember and yet I have never seen a spirit reform to flesh. It is wisely said you learn something new every day.” Her eyes didn’t wander from the charm. “Carmen, are you all right?” Maggie hollered. Still dreamy eyed Carmen nodded. Her arms rested over Wayne’s at her midtorso like a dance photo pose. “You must be Maggie Mallory.” Estelle gave Maggie the once over. “Somehow you aren’t what I expected and yet you are perfect.”

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 What did she expect? “Hello Ms. Roux.” “Please, call me Estelle. I only chose a last name for legal reasons.”

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“Estelle then.” Maggie said politely more out of fear than truly meaning to please the vampire. “Wayne, bring the girl.” Estelle ordered. Wayne took Carmen’s hand and walked her off the boat like a dog on a leash. He stood her between Estelle and Jean. As he stepped away the glazed look on Carmen’s face faded to bewilderment. “Maggie, where are we?” Carmen spun around confused by her surroundings. Maggie motioned for Carmen to come to her. “I’ll explain everything. We’ll talk later.” When Carmen was close enough, Maggie pulled her behind. “The talisman.” When Estelle asked she showed her sharp teeth. She meant to attack if the bargain wasn’t fulfilled. Wayne had a fervent look. He was eager to fight. Jean inched slowly forward with the charm swaying from the movement. A dangerous expression crossed Estelle’s lovely face. She grabbed the talisman and clutched it in her tight fist. “Once a dishonest pirate, always a dishonest pirate. Where’s the real one.” Since her flesh didn’t burn, she knew it was counterfeit. “Let me guess, that precious little thing is wearing it.” Her greedy eyes locked on Maggie. “You don’t have the power to take it.” Jean sneered and turned his back on Estelle. She sprang forward but he knew it was coming. Jean swung around and delivered a roundhouse right on the she-vamp’s jaw. Tumbling down and bleeding from the lip she was dumbfounded. Without the spiritual intersection she was weakened and he shouldn’t have any substance. “You’re not a ghost?” Was all Estelle could manage to say. “Or the seer? He did this to you? How?” Carmen was shaking behind Maggie. Maggie was as terrified as her friend. The other vampires watched anxiously waiting for the signal to strike. Estelle stood and brushed the dust and grass from her slacks. Then her tongue darted out to lap up the small dripping of blood. “We had an arrangement pirate.” “Arrangement implies good faith. You kidnapped an innocent bystander.” Jean said as if explaining multiplication tables to an idiot.

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 “Collateral damage. Wasn’t that your justification?” Again he turned to leave.

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“Not so fast. I anticipated that you’d stonewall me.” Estelle said but didn’t lunge forward. Equanimity came with great effort for the first vampire. “Fetch the boy.” Two stocky vampires picked up a limp body from the floor of the boat and carried him, feet dragging. Even before one grabbed his hair to lift his head Maggie knew it was Tony. He had been badly beaten. They dropped him with a thud. “He’s a Lambert.” The ghost scoffed incredulously. “Surely you know how little I care for him.” Maggie stiffened. Jean was bluffing or letting Tony fend for himself. She didn’t like it either way. “Fine. It’s been years since I had a full body of blood and you know how I love young men.” Estelle strolled over to Tony and put her finger under his chin. “You were right, you mean nothing to them.” Unhinging her jaw she opened her mouth wider than humanly possible. Two teeth plunged into Tony’s neck and he screamed in agony. “Stop!” Maggie begged. Estelle knew the young girl wouldn’t allow it. With a vindictive smirk she said, “Gregoire, your progeny isn’t as heartless as you.” “Kids.” He said throwing a stern glare to Maggie. Licking the droplets from Tony’s neck Estelle sighed, “You are yummy. Too bad she didn’t hold out longer before buckling.” “Bitch.” Tony choked out. Grabbing a fistful of hair Wayne snatched Tony from the ground and flipped him over lengthwise. “Apologize.” “I’m sorry your boss is a bitch.” The irascible boy said tactlessly on all fours. Wayne pulled back his foot to administer more discipline but Estelle said, “Don’t.” It was too little too late. His boot was already in motion. Still it missed its mark. Jean tackled Wayne. They rolled on the ground kicking and punching. Being dead, Jean was able to take a beating and still fight back. Wayne opened wide and bite

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 O’Malley’s ear. Both made unearthly noises. O’Malley held his ear, which looked untouched. Regardless, he felt it as if it had been ripped off. Wayne threw up holding himself up with the aid of a tree.

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“Stupid vampire.” Estelle rolled her eyes as the wretch reflex retook Wayne for another cleansing process. “He’s dead. We don’t feed on the dead.” With a mere flick of her wrist, the two guards who fetched Tony from the boat had him in their clutches again, each holding him by an arm as they had before. Tony kneeled with his upper limbs stretched to both sides. Maggie pleaded. “Let Tony go. I’ll give you the talisman.” “Maggie, don’t.” Tony slurred. The taller guard gave him a swift kick in the stomach and Tony buckled with an umph. Estelle glared and the taller vampire cowered. Returning her attention to Maggie the ancient vampire explained, “That offer expired when you tried to renege. You’ll open the treasure and retrieve the ring. It’ll be such a pleasant evening on a moonless night.” If Estelle knew where to find the ring, why bother with talisman? Why hadn’t she collected the ring herself? Surely vampires could break a lock without a key. “Carmen, Zed will take you to New Orleans.” Jean instructed with a whisper. “We’ll take it from here.” Carmen was near tears. Maggie quickly surveyed her friend’s arms for signs of bruising but thankfully found none. Carmen was scared but healthy. “I’ll be okay. Go to the hotel.” Maggie promised. Whatever Wayne did to control Carmen left her scattered. She didn’t want to leave Maggie but she knew she was useless. Sensing Maggie’s strength Carmen walked in the direction of the car. If she’d known Maggie was only pretending, she’d never have left. “Where’s she going?” Wayne whined. Apparently he had grown attached. “She’s of no further use.” Estelle disregarded. “But I didn’t even take a sampling. You know how I love virgin delicacy.” Maggie didn’t break the news he wasn’t giving up a virgin. At least he hadn’t drank from Carmen or raped her and that was a just reward in and of itself.

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 “Do not impugn my authority again! You’re being an insubordinate pain in my ass.” Estelle scolded her temper exacerbated by frustration. “We all do. You’ll have others. Tonight is not about carnal urges.” Wayne nodded subserviently to Estelle. “There are others.” His eyes darted to Maggie. “Not her either. Excuse him. He can sniff out a chaste maiden a mile away.” Estelle knelt by Tony but this time without malice. Maggie stopped herself from asking if they were sure. Whether Carmen was or

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wasn’t physically experienced was so far down her list of questions. She wanted to check Tony but didn’t want to alarm Estelle. Jean approached Maggie obviously over his phantom pain. “I can’t believe we’re risking your lives and the ring for a Lambert.” He whispered to Maggie somewhere between incredulity and comprehension. “He’s not Pierre.” Maggie reminded him. She cautiously walked to Tony and Estelle. “Is he going to be okay?” “He’s got a strong spirit.” Estelle said appreciatively. “As do you.” Tony was curled up on one side too pained to stretch out fully. “Is that all they got?” He poorly joked. “See. Strong spirit.” Or sheer stupidity. Slowly Maggie lowered next to Estelle and took Tony’s hand. “We should have stuck together.” She rued mournfully. “It worked out for the best this way. I should have asked for the ring to start with.” Estelle stood up and went to have a heart to heart with the morose Wayne. “You’re brash to help Estelle.” Tony told her. “I couldn’t bear to see you die. Can you stand?” Jean and Maggie hoisted Tony and got him on two wobbly feet. The three prisoners sat on a wood bench and the vampire captain steered them to New Orleans. Maggie’s lasting thought was that they really needed a plan B right about now. At least Carmen wasn’t a chip to be bargained with. One woe erased and a new one took its place. Top revised agenda item – escape from an inescapable dilemma.

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 Into the Fire Maggie was sandwiched between Jean and Tony. She felt coldness from the ghost and warmth from the man. She put her arm around Tony who rested his head on her shoulder. “We’ll get you away somehow.” Wayne snickered. “Tony is to blame for his state. He was immensely uncooperative.” “I went to see Carrie.” Tony said. “To warn her to go home but she turned me over to Wayne.” Maggie shut her eyes thinking Carrie was absolutely ghastly.

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“You still love Carrie. Mortals.” Wayne mocked. “You know she loves you too. That is how I worked my way into her life. She wasn’t as easily manipulated as some, like Carmen. I love a challenge, so I told her if she wanted you to notice her she should make you jealous. Then I volunteered my services. In time, I was able to impact her but never fully. Since you were her goal I was left wanting. Sure I could have forced myself on her but that is forbidden since you were involved.” “Because he’s a Lambert. You didn’t know who had the fleur-de-lis.” Jean guessed accurately. “Tony was the real target.” Maggie wondered how Tony felt to hear that Carrie was only part of the problem because of him. If he was like her, he felt intense blame. Estelle nodded and Wayne finished his taunting story. “I could keep my hands off her but a vampire has needs. She found me feeding and assumed I was cheating. Yes, I had sex with my dinner but how could I cheat when I had no emotions for Carrie or my dinner for that matter? I was more than willing to forget about it but I was encouraged to repair our rift even though she offered no information on if you had the talisman. I thought it was a waste of energy but as always, Estelle knows best.” “Can’t this boat go any faster?” Estelle urged. She felt exposed so far from the French Quarter but Maggie noted that she was irked at Wayne. “We’re on the Mississippi.” Jean told the kids. “It has a spiritual essence but it fluctuates since it is a flowing river.”

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 “She doesn’t know much about our world.” Estelle stroked Maggie’s hair until

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the girl jerked her head away. “So pretty and yet so green. That will change. Your life force is impressive, it’s almost intoxicating.” The she-vamp closed her eyes to block out physical sensory input and narrow on Maggie’s aura. Maggie felt like a roasted turkey on Thanksgiving. She gulped and Tony held her hand tighter. “You’re going to be a powerful woman.” Estelle prophesied. “If I live that long.” Maggie mumbled but was heard. “You will.” Estelle vowed loudly as if underlining her order to her clan to keep their lethal paws off Maggie. “How did you pirates put it? We are at a parley.” “We had no choice but to surrender.” “No, no. I mean we are in a conference. Strong-arming you was the only way to get your help but rest assured we should be partners.” Jean huffed incredulously. “We are not partners. You don’t understand pirate code at all.” She caressed his cheek. “How is that you are solid?” Jean didn’t speak but Estelle’s eyes shifted to Maggie. “She is remarkable.” A loud splash disturbed the water to the right of the boat. Then another from the other side. Vigilantly the vampires looked for the source. The searchlight circled the shoreline. “Hold the talisman.” O’Malley whispered to Tony in the confusion, who did as instructed. “You’re claustrophobic, aren’t you?” A confused Tony answered. “Some.” Maggie thought it an odd question given the open water and the unforeseen rock thrower. “Werewolves can’t throw rocks?” She asked but no one responded. Maybe they didn’t have proper claws. Maybe werewolves were able to mix up their body parts as need demanded. More likely, it was an idiotic question showing how ignorant she was yet again. “You’re whole family is like that.” The ghost winked at Tony.

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 Whatever Jean wanted to convey must have transmitted because Tony’s head lifted from Maggie’s shoulder looking less green around the gills and a glimmer of understanding in his eyes.

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Their quiet exchange was interrupted. Another splash and then three more. Each closer than the one before. “Damn it!” Estelle shoved the vampire next to the searchlight and ran it along the riverbanks. As fast as the first searcher was, Estelle was ten times faster. The light zipped back and forth so quickly Maggie didn’t have a chance to see clearly. They were traveling down a narrow inlet moving toward wider water. “Olly olly oxen free.” Estelle sang like a child playing hide-and-seek. “Where are you?” A rock landed on the tin roof denting it in the process. After the first hit, others followed. “There!” Wayne pointed as the most precise toss of all hit him in the upper arm. He shook out his limb but was otherwise unhampered. The fair size boulder was twice as big as a bowling ball. It was heavy if the effort it took one of the vampires to discard it was evidence. “It was a zombie.” Wayne said gravely. “Zombies?” Maggie looked to O’Malley for illumination. “Aren’t they undead like vampires.” “Please! We aren’t undead unless you mean that we never died. They are reanimated dead without a soul and only a vague recollection of their former selves. We have free will. They are at the mercy of their master.” Estelle educated Maggie in the least kind voice possible. Now that they identified their assailants, Estelle returned to her guests. “You have free will.” The captain cheekily revised. “Isaac, you’re making me sound like a cruel tyrant.” Isaac shook his head to indicate that wasn’t the case. He gave a wry smirk to Maggie with a little wink. He seemed far too friendly for a vampire, especially one trying to navigate a slow boat down a narrow inlet surrounded by reanimated corpses. “She’s all right for a boss.” Maggie snickered. Looking at the gentle captain, she could almost believe it.

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 The other vampires had spread along the edges to fend off any more projectiles.

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They had a ways to go before the wider river and the rocks were coming more frequently and with more exactness. “Vampires are made when humans drink enough of their blood.” Jean told Maggie loudly to be overheard from the occasional thump and splash and the roar of an engine pushed to its limits. “It takes three days for the change and during that time, they appear to be dying but they do not die. They do not know death.” “Who changed Estelle?” “I was born this way.” Estelle was flattered by Maggie’s question. “Before the resurrection of Jesus, things were very different on this planet. When God tossed Lucifer and his fellow angels out of heaven they walked the planet with man. Lucifer wanted to breed an army but only one fallen angel was female, well only one of any consequence, Desdemona. Desdemona wasn’t interested in Lucifer’s plan but he took her often and against her will. Her children were even less substance than the fallen and had an unnatural desire to possess flesh, animals or willing humans. They did cause havoc but were not the soldiers Lucifer had envisioned. The other fallen would not risk Lucifer’s wrath and did not succumb to Desdemona’s advances. Her urges had grown although she despised Lucifer. So she ran off and found a man to lay with. Lucifer killed him in the mists of their lust but she was impregnated. Despite his anger, he wanted to see what the child would be like.” “That was you?” Estelle smiled proudly and sat next to Tony while her minions dealt with the onslaught. “Estelle, we should turn back.” Wayne suggested. “No doubt they have a barricade set.” “We have no choice. We cannot stay so far from our home.” Turning back to her captive audience Estelle continued her autobiography. Unlike her minions, she was relatively calm, perhaps a tad excited. Estelle liked talking about herself. “I was flesh but I had the same limitation of the fallen, which was only an aversion to sunlight at the time. Lucifer was pleased until he learned he had no jurisdiction over me. I am only part demon and creatures of the earth are granted free

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 Estelle looked like she might shed a tear. “When the Holy Spirit came to Earth, things changed. Sunlight was the only thing potentially fatal but holy water and blessed land are severe irritants. It was after

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will from God Himself. As punishment Lucifer cursed me to be barren.” For a minute,

Jesus returned to his Father that I found a lover that I did not want to leave or kill. Often I fed on him. Even after we had sex his blood was sweet to the taste. One night he asked if he could taste my blood. We didn’t know he would change.” She looked lovingly to Wayne, more like an owner’s love for a pet than true love but she cared for him dearly. “When he changed one of the demon spawn possessed him even without his permission. Each vampire is empowered by an unwilling possession.” So it wasn’t all free will. Maggie thought. A rock pounded into the railing behind Maggie and the three jumped. “How much further to the Mississippi?” Estelle asked bending the metal back to its original form like it were putty. “Fifteen minutes at least.” Captain Isaac said frowning. “This boat may not last that long.” She half kidded. So far the hull was intact but the sides and roof were getting banged up faster than the vamps could repair it. “If we aren’t in a spiritual crossroads, how can zombies be here?” Maggie wondered. “Zombies are reanimated dead people controlled by voodoo. Voodoo is spiritual magic but once a zombie is created, they can go to the ends of the earth with the lone exception of sacred land. They feed on brains because they think if they have more brain power they can break free of the voodoo priest’s control but so far, it hasn’t happened.” Estelle reassessed the situation not liking how far they still had before they could avoid the riverbanks. “Who would send zombies after vampires?” “Victor.” Estelle snarled between her gnashed pearly whites. “He wants the ring for himself and compared to me he’s downright odious.” Maggie tried to see any of their attackers but didn’t make out more than shadowy figures in the brush. She gulped and wondered if her charm warded them off. Then she

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 a threatening act?

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remembered that Estelle touched her. Wasn’t that impossible? Perhaps because it wasn’t “They’re up to something.” Estelle paced the length of the boat. Her good humor passed to irritation. The rocks had stopped. “Be ready for anything.” Anything happened before she finished her warning. Zombies had swam to the boat under the surface and breached like whales to swipe vampires. Two were taken, the others fought. One of those taken wasn’t gone long. He tossed the head of his attacker back in the water as he climbed back into the boat. The number of zombies was four times greater than the occupants on the boat and even with vamps keeping many from embarking, several were on board within seconds. Wayne was savage. Limbs were removed and then torsos discarded. After each extinguished foe, Wayne wiped his hands on his shirt as if the idea of touching dead flesh grossed him out. “Well?” He shouted at his brothers. Seeing his success, vampires dismembered the unwelcomed stowaways. The biggest and dumbest looking vampire bit a zombie but it did more damage to him than the zombie. Estelle grabbed the arm of the dead man and flung him off her boat. “Don’t bite!” Dummy hung his head over the side and threw up bloody sick into the face of a zombie assailant. One zombie had Maggie in his sights but he hit an invisible wall and shrieked back into the water. “How do we fight zombies?” Tony asked standing away from the edge still holding Maggie. He was rejuvenated by the talisman, still bruised but not immobile. “Fire, but they aren’t going to catch if they’re wet.” O’Malley educated. “Do they know that?” Tony sassed out loud. Good question. They didn’t look too clever. “No.” Estelle liked the idea. “Men, we blow up the engine.” “What?” Wayne blurted out without thinking and got a slap from Estelle. She had been impatient with him and he was pushing his luck. “They will flee. We’ll have to make it on foot.” “And them?” Wayne jerked his thumb at Maggie and friends. He kept the rebellious tone in check and a far bit of room in case Estelle meant to punish him again.

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 Tony and Jean, who was backed to the rail. She couldn’t see much more than Tony’s

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There were more zombies than vampires on board. Maggie was pinned between back but she could count heads. A body in early stages of decay lumbered as he walked, he moved slowly but with determination and he had Maggie in his sights. Taking down a decorative oar, Tony knocked him over. Hitting another corpse the two flipped over the railing. Immediately, they began to swim for the boat to try again. “Stay with them.” Estelle ordered Wayne as she examined the options on igniting the fuel. She whipped off her blouse and tore off a shred. Rolling it tight she stuffed most of it into the fuel tank. “Lighter!” She hollered. The tall vamp that kicked Tony earlier produced matches. Two zombies were left on deck but they were the stockiest and freshest making dismembering or knocking over hard to do. Three vampires readied for a fight. Tony as well, with Maggie clinging to his back for dear life. She looked for Jean right as one zombie sprang out of the muck and snatched him overboard. Lurching after Jean, Tony grabbed Maggie. “Don’t.” Maggie sagged and wept as vampires exterminated the boat completely. “Get ready to swim for it.” Estelle warned and the end of the boat exploded. The floor bucked like a bronco. Several dead heads lifted from the water, fear in their lifeless eyes. The zombies swam for shore. The two holdouts leapt off the boat and followed their comrades. The flames lit the unbelievable sight. Dead bodies crawled up the riverbanks dressed in clothes spanning many eras. Some wore shabby confederate uniforms, their bodies more bone than meat. A few looked fresher, if that was the right word for it. Light wasn’t the only thing emanating from the ruined engine. The heat was unbearable. It wouldn’t last long. Slowly the boat sank at a tilt. When it would submerge, the zombies wouldn’t have flames to run from. Maggie searched for Jean among the walking dead. They weren’t waiting to see the fate of the vampires. With fear to motivate them, the zombies hightailed it into the trees. No sign of her ghost friend. “Well, what are we waiting for?” Estelle nudged Maggie, pinched her nose and jumped into the river.

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 “Is that a crocodile?” Maggie gasped seeing a large reptilian tail slither on the water. Estelle saw it too. She swatted its nose and it slunk back to shore.

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“Alligator. There are no crocodiles in Louisiana.” Tony told her giving her hand a squeeze. “It was one gator. It’s not gator galore.” Maggie stared at him wondering if he thought that difference was relevant or if he really thought there weren’t more. Tony searched her pocket and got her phone. “Now.” He said lifting Maggie and dropping her into the gator-infested river. His splash was right behind her. “Swim!” The water had a disgusting layer of scum but at least she’d see a trail if another predator approached. Maggie tried not to think about it as she did her best impression of Michael Phelps. The boat sizzled when the fire hit the water and went out. Tony took longer doing his best to keep the phones from the murky water. Once on land, Tony ran like a demon out of hell pulling Maggie behind him. She had no idea where they were going but he seemed to have a plan. When they came upon a zombie Tony passed the phones to Maggie and grabbed a fallen branch swiping it under the zombie’s legs knocking it flat on the ground. They were gone long before it righted itself.

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 Honky-Tonk Further inland from the bayou, the terrain was too uneven for speed but Tony

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pushed forward fleet of foot. Maggie stumbled all the way. Using trees as leverage they didn’t slow down. Thirty minutes later, Maggie got a stitch in her side. When holding it wasn’t enough to ease the pain she paused and bent over to let it unknot. “You okay?” Tony asked looking past her to see if they were alone. “Why aren’t they nearer? Aren’t they faster?” She winced as she carefully stretched to hurry the process. Her side coupled with a chill only added to her wretched state. “Not outside of the Quarter.” He panted. “Hear that?” Maggie listened. The loudest thing she heard was their breathing. Both tried to slow it to keep from giving their position away. Then there was the cacophony of wild life – toads or frogs, bugs, owls. She figured he’d heard a vampire or a zombie, her wild imagination even tossed out Bigfoot as a potential culprit. Finally she heard the purr of an engine. “It’s a car.” “This way.” They came out on the side of a rural paved road. The taillights of the automobile they heard too far gone to catch a ride. It turned right and vanished. “Do you think Gregoire is okay?” Tony asked. “I don’t know.” “That zombie will be disappointed to find him brainless and fleshless.” He kind of smiled because he believed Jean wasn’t doomed. “This way.” Staying out of sight, they continued. A sign read ten miles to New Orleans. That was a long walk. She’d never make curfew but she had already resigned that was inevitable. It didn’t matter. Carmen was safe. Now all she had to do was not die or let Tony die. Hiding until dawn may be the best way to safety and if that led to the grounding of her lifetime, she’d gladly serve it considering the alternative. They came upon a roadside bar. The small lot was packed with cars and loud music shook the shack to the beat. Tony tucked in his shirt and tried to look like he hadn’t been beaten, dunked in the river or covered in mud. Maggie did the same, wiping

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off crusty dirt patches that had begun to dry. They strolled in hurriedly and with as little

imagined it was saturated in her new tee, shorts, sneakers and her muddled tresses. Since she was alone, she removed her new tee to rinse, ring and dry as best she could without a dryer. Maggie cleaned up as best she could which wasn’t much. Her purse was in Zed’s car. “I hope he stayed with Carmen.” She told her tired image in the mirror as she squirmed into her damp shirt. “Honey, aren’t you a mess.” A voluptuous African American woman startled her. “Where have you been? You look like you’ve been swimming with the gators.” Maggie wasn’t up to trusting strangers or explaining she was on the run or what was chasing her. “My boyfriend and I got lost in the woods. It took us forever to find our way out.” She quickly fabricated and felt bad for it since this stranger was very likeable. “Tsk, tsk. Well, you play it up and don’t give him any loving for a good while to teach him a lesson.” The affable lady said pulling out leaves from Maggie’s mangled hair. Realizing it was a big task, she brought in the heavy artillery, a comb. “I’m Cynthia Louise.” “Hi, I’m Maggie.” “Cute name. Nice shirt. Life is a bowl of gumbo.” Cynthia Louise finished Maggie’s hair and then put on some mascara. “Oh, I envy you. I wish I was young enough that a little mascara was all I needed.” Cynthia Louise was a cutie but she did have a good layer of war paint on. “You listen to me Maggie. You be careful. Ole Mack came in here saying he saw a zombie in the woods. He was drunk as a skunk but that don’t mean there wasn’t a zombie.” “Good advice.” She nodded wondering if all locals were familiar with the unnatural wildlife rife in their swamps. “I tell you what, a tour bus is headed back to the city in ten minutes. You get that dolt of a boyfriend of yours and get on like you belong. The drivers don’t check tickets and they’re fixin’ to leave. If he does ask, you tell him Cynthia Louise sent you.” “Thanks.” Maggie would let Tony make the call on the free ride.

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 grungy than neat. “You did well. Doesn’t even look like you’ve had any life endangering experience all evening.” He complimented cheerfully with a wide grin.

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Tony was waiting for her on the front porch looking better although still closer to

Maggie told him about the bus and how she thought is was odd a tour would stop at a little honky-tonk off the beaten path. He said there were a couple of bar crawl tours that did that. Tony wanted to steal a car but Maggie feared it was risking an arrest. In the end they decided to stowaway on the bus. The bus driver didn’t give them a second look when they boarded and headed to the back row. Maggie immediately leaned on Tony and shut her eyes. “Don’t fall asleep. The night ain’t over yet.” She giggled. “At least we’re free.” “About that.” He said low enough not to be overheard. “They have Carrie.” Maggie almost said “so what” but decided that was cruel. She couldn’t allow that even if Carrie sounded like an autrocious witch. Getting killed by vampires wasn’t a just sentence even for her. It wasn’t a surprise that the answer wasn’t as simple as hide out until dawn. Whatever had started, it begun without her consent and she was sure it would end when it ran its course. At the very least, she’d have to see that her family was safe and that meant chancing crossing paths with some non-human entity in the near future. “So where to?” “In case you’re wondering, I don’t care for Carrie not after she turned me over. Probably stopped caring for her a while ago and was in it for the competition but I see the error or my ways now.” “She didn’t know.” Maggie said diplomatically. “Probably not but does that matter? I mean, even if it was an unfair test, she failed miserably.” Maggie didn’t believe him and she called him on it. “You’re so cavalier. How can you turn off your feeling like that?” “Cavalier.” He snickered. “What kind of grades do you get with that expensive vocabulary?” She scowled and Tony’s steely gaze averted her eyes for he wasn’t sure how she would react to his next statement. “A cubit zirconium looks great until it’s next

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 to be “cavalier” if she laughed in his face. When Maggie read between the words, she got embarrassed and looked down.

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to a diamond.” Maggie was smart enough to catch his gist and he didn’t have the resolve

He was emboldened to see he had her confused. He lifted her chin and looked deeply in her eyes. “Carrie would have left me with the vampires. You didn’t. It wasn’t a fair test and yet you passed with flying colors.” “You hate my family. You only came along when you heard about the talisman.” He shirked his shoulders. “I’m not the brightest guy in the world.” Gently, he pecked her cheek. “But every now and then I’m smart enough to eventually figure out when I have something good right in front of me.” Seeing her rosy complexion wasn’t the response he hoped to elicit but it was encouraging. He went in for a real kiss on the mouth. It wasn’t Maggie’s first but it was her favorite. Before he could kiss her again, she pulled slightly away. The night wasn’t over and she needed her wits about her. Plus, she didn’t trust him. Okay, she did but she didn’t trust her trust. “Where?” She repeated tersely not because she was mad but because she was afraid if she spoke too long she’d say something ludicrous like “more kisses please.” “Lafayette’s Cemetery.” “Cool. We’ll go to a graveyard on a dark night fraught with all kinds of monsters on our trail.” She sassed like only a teenager can. “Cemetery one or two?” Maggie and Carmen were planning on touring the local graveyards and she knew there were two cemeteries with that name. “Three and it isn’t a draw for out-of-towners. It’s small potatoes but it’s the right one.” “How do you know that’s the right one?” “Gregoire asked if I was claustrophobic. We need to go to the Lost Pirate’s Tomb.” “I’ve heard of that. I thought it was only a legend.” She laughed at herself given her recent exposure to truth in fairytales. “Scratch that last comment. The Lost Pirate’s Tomb is where coffins moved between entombments. Every time they opened it to add a

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 new corpse, the other coffins were in different arrangements. They sealed it up and refused to use it decades ago.” “All but one coffin moved, Jean Gregoire’s.” Tony glanced away again but

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intertwined their fingers. “My family tells a lot of ghost stories. I’m thinking they were taken more earnestly generations ago. I was told that our family’s lost treasure was hidden within. When a new coffin was laid to rest, they snuck in before the tomb was resealed, usually that day after the ceremony, and searched but they could not open his coffin. It was protected magically.” “Aren’t cemeteries closed for the night?” “We’ll hop the fence.” Maggie wrapped her free arm around her torso losing that fleeting feeling of security she had felt. Tony scooted close and held her. She didn’t shoo him away but she didn’t warm up, at first.

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The bus exited the freeway and slowly made it to a parking lot by the waterfront. Maggie and Tony left unmolested. Once again, Maggie was in the French Quarter walking down Pirate’s Alley. They both kept looking over their shoulders. “We won’t see any we recognize.” Tony told himself as much as Maggie. “They will need some time to get back.” “We think.” She warned him. Maggie wasn’t going to underestimate Estelle again. Everyone was celebrating life. New Orleans didn’t hurt for evening entertainment. The further they walked the less people they saw. Soon they were on a lonely street and Maggie clung to Tony’s strong arm hoping to absorb some of his raw nerve. “Here.” Tony announced in front of an iron gate. The archway entrance did not have a name. It had worn away long ago. Testing the bars, Tony leapt upward. It wasn’t working. He needed more leverage to compromise the height. They walked the length. At the end on one side was the typical home with a first floor balcony. Tony reached up the black pole and released it immediately. “It’s greased.” He wiped his hands on his jeans. It wasn’t like they could get any dirtier. “Why?” “To deter burglars.” He looked around. Seeing a trashcan, he rolled it to the edge and they managed to get into the cemetery. Somehow, Maggie wasn’t all that pleased at their momentary success as they navigated the gravesites to the larger family vaults. Tony gave her confidence merely by holding her hand as they walked. Just as she convinced herself that there was nary a soul around who wasn’t resting in eternal peace, Tony started whistling. “What is that song?” She asked but really she meant, “Why are you whistling?” “It’s the theme song to an old Disney movie, Robin Hood.” They got to the path and both felt better to be off the gravesites. “It’s an odd version of the story if you think about it. There’s definitely a mix of country in the accents and music, which doesn’t

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 make sense for old England folklore. Still, at least Robin Hood had an English accent. Costner’s version didn’t.”

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“Uh-huh, uh-huh. That’s terribly fascinating. Um, why are you singing it now?” “You mean opposed to humming a dirge?” Tony looked back at her. “Just whistling in the dark.” Maggie actually smirked. “Sure. Things are all comfy here in the cemetery at night. We probably have five or ten minutes before a vampire pounces down on us” “They can’t come here. It’s holy ground.” “The zombies too?” “Well, if this is their home, maybe, but I haven’t seen any unearthed graves, have you?” “No.” She admitted and gave a cursory glance around to affirm their assessment. Everybody was still tucked in. “Why wouldn’t that voodoo doctor use these corpses?” “Because pirate’s make horrible zombies. They have to obey but they resist too much. It’s tiring, really.” A sinister voice said from the shadow of a large crypt entrance. “I see you’ve come for the ring. Hello, I’m Victor.” A thin dark haired man stepped onto the path. He was much younger than Zed. The gray tailored suit was more fitting an aspiring gangster from a 70s mafia flick than a mystic of dark magic. Even his shiny pointy black shoes stated that wealth was important to him over say, soul collecting. The only revealing piece of his wardrobe was a large cape held closed with a big infinity clip, glimmering gold with a large diamond in the center. “Yeah, we gathered that. Thanks for sending the zombies after us.” Tony said sarcastically and rather bravely considering Victor’s powers. “You don’t sound grateful. Didn’t you want to be separated from Estelle? Well, I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the idea of her getting the ring.” “Because you want it?” Maggie accused. “Dawlin’, I don’t need it. I’m already invincible but I can’t have vampires getting past their numerous confines. Their annoying enough as it is. It would make life difficult in the Big Easy. I’ll take the ring and see that Estelle never gets it. Trust me, I’m no match for Estelle and her children.”

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 Tony and Maggie exchanged looks wondering if that was a viable option. Tempting as it was, Maggie doubted Victor’s motive were so altruistic. “I’m at your service.” He exaggerated with a humble bow.

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“You can’t protect us or our loved ones.” Tony stated hoping he could tell them otherwise. “I can do a great deal to ensure you leave New Orleans unhampered and unharmed.” Victor approached and stopped a yard away, his dark eyes twinkling with a red gleam. “I’d advise you to never return again or else you will most certainly be slaughtered. For now, how can I assist you?” “How about you start with no more zombies.” Maggie suggested and tugged on Tony’s hand to get going. “They weren’t to hurt you.” Victor’s eyes flashed with withheld anger, bright and red. “Well, your dead pets hurt our friend.” She snapped. Jean couldn’t die again but he might not be able to return to New Orleans without her. If he didn’t show up before the next day, she may have to drag Carmen out to the bayou tomorrow. That’s assuming that she lives. It was also assuming her mere presence was enough energy for Jean Gregoire to rematerialize. “Subtle nuances can be complicated for zombies to understand. You were travelling with several vampires. Surely in the confusion they’d have a hard time distinguishing between a mortal and an immortal. Pardon my zealousness but those crude beings were the best tool at my disposal.” Maggie wasn’t ready to be that forgiving, not after the night she’d had and it wasn’t over yet. She also didn’t like Victor referencing bodies as tools. They were humans meant to rest for eternity not to do his bidding. She paced. Victor stepped back and gave her space. Tony grabbed her arm and pulled her to his side. “Stop circling me.” “I’m nervous.” “Duh.” He muttered. It was understandable but she was unnerving him. “Okay, Victor, we’ve got things under control. If we need any assistance, we’ll holler.”

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Victor knew when he was being disregarded. Feigning meekness, he bowed again and strolled backwards into the darkness of the graveyard silent even with his fancy hardsoled kicks. They didn’t tarry. Near the back center was an elaborate and gothic entrance to a stone tomb. Two of the fiercest looking gargoyles Maggie had ever seen glared at any bold soul who dared to request entrance. An equally imposing iron gate guarded the entrance. “The gate was added when they stopped using it.” Tony told her absentmindedly as he examined the lock. Maggie sighed and pushed the gate open. “Looks like Victor took care of it for us.” Tony might have made a comment of appreciation but Maggie had a discouraged expression as she lost a staring contest with a stone guardian. Like the gate, the tomb door was ajar in anticipation. Inside was pitch black with the feeble exception of the doorway, which was merely nearly black. In the doorway was an old fashion kerosene lamp. Pulling out his Zippo, Tony lit it. “Why do you have a lighter? Do you smoke?” “Not cigarettes.” He didn’t expound but she got the idea. Maggie hadn’t done anything worse than drink and then only a glass of wine. It was at Carmen’s last birthday dinner. To make her naivety even more pronounced, her guilt coerced her to confess to her parents who were ambivalent to the violation, yes even her strict mother. When she should have been thinking about the urgent matter at hand, she wondered if Tony would frown on her innocence. He already thought her erudite and she didn’t care for the nerdy label. The lantern creaked when Tony lifted it from its peg. Holding it high so the light could spread out as far as possible, it still wasn’t much. There were five coffins total; two on each side and the centerpiece coffin resting on a lifted slab in the middle of the back wall. A plaque read “Jean Gregoire. Born 1784. Died 1815.” Setting the lamp on the floor they searched.

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 Touching the fleur-de-lis, Maggie looked for a notch it might fit in. When they

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didn’t see one, they ran their fingers over every inch of the coffin and stone slab. Maggie last ounce of hope started to sink. “I found it.” Tony gasped. Maggie rushed to his side. She undid the clasp from her chain and put the ornate charm snuggly into the hole. Nothing happened. She pressed it to make sure it was secure and still nothing happened. “I thought it would trigger some kind of hidden nook.” Tony admitted. They jumped when the stone door shut behind them. That was definitely not the reaction they hoped for. “No!” Tony pushed futilely against the door, when it didn’t budge he shoved as hard as he could with his upper body. “Maggie, it won’t open.” Gently she tugged at his shoulder until he faced her. His face was pasty and it wasn’t from the lack of illumination. His breath was short and she guessed he was having a panic attack. Holding Tony, since that was all she could do, she gently reminded him, “This is hardly the worst thing that’s happened to us.” “How did it close?” Tony stood tall, trying to portray the courage he had earlier. “Victor locked us in. I was wrong to think Estelle was my opposition. It’s Victor.” Maggie’s words landed on befuddled ears. “Either I’m dreaming or I’m not. Either way, I’m working on the assumption that all this hokum is real. In Zed’s reading, he said the opposition would be obvious to me.” “And the first vampire born isn’t obvious? Maggie, she’s a demon.” “She’s born of demons, which are fallen angels. She didn’t subjugate herself to Lucifer. Seems to me, she has free will like we do.” “She exercised her free will to have a vampire attack you.” “Wayne sent Slick after me and he was going rogue. Fact is, she touched me. She doesn’t mean me harm. Victor on the other hand, couldn’t stand within a yard of me. Didn’t you notice him move when I paced outside?” “Not really.” He puzzled. “Is that why you kept so near me? And I thought you liked my company.”

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 my safety net. And we saw him earlier at the art gallery. He was walking behind those

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She didn’t have the energy to blush but she did. “I like you enough to keep you in drunks. He called me dawlin’ then too.” Letting him digest that tidbit for a moment, she paused before going on. “Did you see his eyes? They blaze red. I bet he’s possessed and per Estelle, demons can only possess willing humans. How else do you make dead men walk? His demon probably controls other demons and they jump into the dead.” “You talk like an expert. Not to doubt you but you thought zombies and vampires were both undead.” “Got a better idea.” “How would one demon control others?” “A stronger one. Maybe one of the fallen.” Maggie slapped her palm to her head. “Lucifer, he’s the father of the mini-demons. They would have to obey him.” “You think Lucifer is going to let a voodoo doctor control him? And why wouldn’t Lucifer control Estelle if she’s his daughter?” “She isn’t his daughter and she’s also half human. I think Lucifer controls Victor. Either way, it makes sense. Trust me, Victor is our biggest problem. I’m not saying Estelle’s our best friend.” Then she remembered Tony’s pathetic state when they produced him in the swamp. “Did she tell the vampires to beat you?” He shook his head. “She ordered them to stop when she came in. Are you sure?” “It’s a hunch.” She admitted. “Oh, wait, she bit you.” Tony grabbed his neck. The wound was healed after he held the talisman as a cure. “She let me keep the talisman to cure you.” Even Maggie had to admit that was a long stretch but still possible. “Because we’d need it to get the ring.” Tony closed his eyes, probably to imagine he was in the open air and not an enclosed mausoleum. “Didn’t really hurt.” “When she bit you? You screamed.” “I expected it to sting. It was less painful than a shot.” “You screamed.” She said again with a smile. He opened one eye. “I’m a craven coward.” “You are not. You taunted Wayne to open a can of whoop-ass on you.”

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 this new concept. Color was returning to his face slowly as he was distracted from his claustrophobia. “Um, Tony.” Maggie said pointing to the back of the tomb. A cubbyhole burrowed into one of the thick slabs holding the coffin had been revealed under Gregoire’s remains. Happy to keep busy, Tony fetched a modest sized burlap sack from the hideyhole. A huge spider was on the other side and he dropped the bag. The eight-legged fiend ran to Maggie who yelped and ended its life. “That wasn’t very nice. He didn’t mean to scare you.” A person materialized behind them. It was her ancestor looking wan from his time far from her proximity.

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“I was delirious.” Tony replayed the evening looking for evidence for and against

“Jean.” Maggie gave her lost relative a hug being careful not to pass through the semi-solid ghost. “Can you get us out of here?” Tony asked as he placed the lantern and the sack on the casket to inventory the contents. “That is my resting place.” Jean reminded him. “It isn’t a workshop table.” “Sorry.” Tony rummage through jewelry, doubloons and gems of all sizes and colors. There were some documents but he didn’t investigate. Lifting the ring, he held it next to the light. Like the pendant, it was shiny silver and it had a matching fleur-de-lis on a flat circle. “This is what everyone is after.” “Aye.” The former pirate said. “Tony, you should put it on. That way you’ll both have protection.” “I’m a Lambert.” He teased but wore the ring. A common enemy was bounding once feuding lineages. “Tell Gregoire your theory.” Maggie obliged. “Jean, I think Victor is who the cards warned about. He’s the known evil.” She was ready to defend her hypothesis again but it wasn’t needed with Jean. “I agree. He’s raising the dead as we speak.”

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 Waking the Dead “Dammit!” Tony exclaimed. “You mean the whole graveyard is going to be waiting for us?” Jean Gregoire smirked. “Well, this is mostly a pirate graveyard. They’ll be missing legs and arms. They won’t be as fast or feisty.”

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“Victor told us pirates make bad Zombies because they don’t obey well.” Maggie knew it sounded fishy when she heard it. Gregoire shook his head. “He knew we’d come here and this is blessed land. Zombies cannot walk on blessed land unless it is their home.” “Do you know how far it is to the exit?” Tony asked Gregoire but glared at Maggie. It didn’t matter why Victor waited to raise the pirates since either way they had an army of zombies to face. “Exactly. I have been here for two hundred years. They can’t touch you and they can’t touch Maggie. As for me, I’ll keep from being too substantial. I know I couldn’t really die but I did feel the sensation as if I were when the zombie oaf tried to drown me. So Tony, do you prefer being stuck in here or facing a hoard of undead?” “Undead.” Tony grumbled and clasped Maggie’s hand tightly. “Anything to get out of here. What about Victor?” “He left. He thinks the charm didn’t work so he locked you in. Good thing, the door needed to be closed. You should have known that.” “Claustrophobic.” Tony remembered the obscure clue. “It doesn’t really kick in unless you’re in a closed room.” “How do you sleep at night?” Maggie teased. She didn’t care for the tomb but she wasn’t panicking. Actually, she liked being in a small space free of foes better than running in bayous with gators, zombies and vampires lurking about. “With a window opened.” He frowned at her for mocking his cowardice yet again. “Knowing it’s an irrational fear doesn’t make it go away.” The cubby vanished with a thunk when Maggie removed the fleur-de-lis. “Leave the treasure for now.” Gregoire suggested. “Come for it later if you wish, but you’re better off without the burden.”

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 Tony refilled the sack and they stowed it safely inside it’s stone safe. “I’ll open the front gate as well. Just follow the footpath.” And with that, Jean walked through the door and opened it from the outside. Apparently he decided to be invisible because there was no one there when they walked out. Not a zombie in sight but several lids were skewed or completely off. Gulping, Maggie stepped forward. Not ten feet from the gate the first zombie lumbered forward. His limbs were

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intact but he was missing an ear and one eye was sewn shut. If he weren’t man-size, he could have passed for an ogre zombie. He moaned or groaned, arms extended but he couldn’t get close. His progress was stymied by the blessed objects. With no better options, he shadowed them as they passed. In front of the cemetery gate stood a line of zombies. Maggie inched closer and when she did, two were forced to part. It was a game of supernatural Red Rover. Repelled by the energy of the talisman and ring the zombies dumbly grunted but kept away. The cemetery gate swung open. Not waiting for more of a sign the teens ran for all they were worth. Slowly the zombies followed, those with missing legs helped by full corpses. A couple of turns and their pursuers were well behind them but not forgotten. “Where?” Maggie asked. “The Voodoo Hut.” Jean’s disembodied voice said. Fifteen minutes later, they were back with Zed, safe inside his protected storefront. The séance room was no longer austere with the bare essentials. Zed had been doing his homework. Strewn on the floor were books and papers with the only clear spot for him to sit, cross-legged like a kindergartener. To his right was a laptop. The first words out of Zed’s mouth were comforting, “Carmen is in your hotel room. I took precautionary measures. They cannot reach her.” “What can you tell us about Victor?” Maggie asked aloud but quietly she reveled to know at least her one goal of saving Carmen had been accomplished. Her new cause was to survive the night with her team of co-battlers. “Yes, those zombies are his handy work. Victor was born in the mid-1800s. He is human or was but you don’t stop aging and live over 150 years without making a deal with the devil.”

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 “I think he’s the opposition in my reading.” “It’s looking that way.” Zed conceded easily. “And I think he’s possessed by Lucifer.” Zed wasn’t willing to buy that as quickly. “Lucifer is the kind of boss that delegates. He doesn’t get his hands dirty. Why do you think it’s Lucifer?” “I’m guessing it takes a quasi-demon to reanimate a dead body.”

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That got Zed thinking but he didn’t have the energy to concentrate, not with more pressing issues pressing. Instead, he wanted an updated. “Tell me, what’s happened since the swamp?” They filled him in. “Yes, it does seem like Victor is the greater of two evils if Estelle touched you. At least at that moment or prior to it, she wasn’t planning your demise.” Maggie nodded. “Is there a good reason she’d want the ring? One that doesn’t involve evil intent?” “Possibly but what of her children. You’re correct that she isn’t possessed by a demon but her children are. If they lost their free will it was from drinking her blood.” “Something they did of their own accord.” Gregoire said sagely. “So the vampire demons are warring with the zombie demons.” Tony half stated, half asked. “Which are stronger?” “Vampires. They are in living flesh and can regenerate. Zombies can’t. Knock a leg out from under them and they are rendered harmless, as long as you don’t get too close. That’s against us. Against each other, the zombies have an advantage since dead flesh is toxic to vampires, even when they don’t bite. Vampires get a rash that won’t heal rapidly when in physical contact with zombies and only an experienced vampire can resist the urge to bite in a fight.” It was eleven o’clock and Maggie was running out of time. Not only for her curfew but no doubt her family was back in town. Estelle or Victor could use them as added leverage. They needed to talk to Estelle and get honest answers. Apparently the she-vamp was on the same page because Maggie’s phone rang. “Hello.” Maggie answered. “You have the ring?” The lift in Estelle’s voice implied she had current intelligence and merely sought confirmation.

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 “That and a gaggle of zombies roaming the streets chasing us.” “Victor is desperate.”

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“Why do you want the ring?” The three men watched with wide eyes as Maggie waited for a sign that Estelle was going to play fair. Estelle didn’t speak for a full minute. “I want to walk in the light.” “You’ve put my friends in danger for a stroll in the afternoon sun?” “Not the literal sun. Unlike my children, sunlight cannot kill me. Burn me to a crisp and leave me miserable but it won’t kill me. I’d like to say we didn’t hurt anyone but we know that is a lie. What I’ve done to your friends is nothing compared to my youth when I didn’t have the willpower to fight my instincts.” She actually sounded remorseful. “It’s not that I don’t want to trust you.” “Maggie, you have no reason to believe me given my surreptitious demeanor. I have lived a very long time because of it. If you don’t trust me, goodness knows I have done enough horrible things over my life to support your caution. For a century, I couldn’t feed without killing. Even immortals feel starvation. It took me to a dark side. Immortality coupled with an exact memory is a curse. There were times I wished to end it all. For decades I tried. I am agonizingly aware of the wrongs I committed that can’t be undone. However, I can change and I don’t live my life that way anymore. The ring can take away the darkness in me and hopefully within my children. I’m a reformed vampire.” Was that even possible? “Everyone deserves a chance.” “Thank you Maggie.” “You could have told me this before forcing my hand.” “I didn’t think you would believe me.” Estelle had Maggie there. At the time, Maggie would have walked away. That option had long since been removed from the table. Still, she didn’t care to be manipulated. Appreciating that Estelle was finally being forthcoming Maggie felt she didn’t have the luxury of pouting over spilt blood. It was time for action. “Can you get to the Voodoo Hut?” Maggie looked at Zed to see if he objected. Swaying his head back and

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 forth, he was uncertain if he should allow that. He held his hands in surrender that he didn’t have a better plan. “Even if Zed let’s us in, that place would drain our powers. If we are to fight zombies, we should meet somewhere significant to us.” “Significant meaning on your turf? Giving you more power?” Maggie fretted.

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She was putting her faith in her hunch and with it, her life. Empowering the vamps was a different tactic but things had evolved. Putting her life in jeopardy was frightening enough, but Tony and Zed would follow and that scared her. Glancing at Tony and then the ring on his finger, she bit her lip and fretted some more. “Victor is powerful.” Estelle urged. “It is to overthrow him that we’ll need the advantage.” “Could he be possessed by Lucifer?” “No.” Estelle chuckled derisively. “Another fallen angel, it’s possible but not Lucifer.” “Where can we meet that is spiritually rich?” Maggie asked the men in her camp. “Beauregard Square.” Zed suggested. “I’m sure he means Congo Square.” Estelle corrected having heard his answer without Maggie relaying it. “Excellent suggestion. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” “We need to prepare.” Zed said and gathered all kinds of gear from his shop. Among the many items he shoved in a large duffle were stakes, veils of holy water and egg cartons. “You don’t trust the vampires.” Tony raised a brow to Zed. “For now, I’ll give Estelle some latitude, that’s it. Who’s to say the truce isn’t over once Victor is neutralized? Even if they do not mean us direct harm we are at a risk of injury being caught in the melee.” Packing the last of his egg cartons he zipped up his gear bag. “Are we going to egg someone’s house on the way? Should we get some rolls of toilet paper so we can TP?” Maggie joked. “They’re full of an herbal mix. It will free a zombie from the demons control.” “Won’t that leave a lot of old dead bodies lying around in the morning?”

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 “I’ll try to send them home before dawn.” He vowed. “No one should be disturbed from their final rest.” Admiral sentiment if he could do it. “You just happen to have these ready?” O’Malley wondered.

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With an exhausted expression Zed said, “I live in N’awlins. It’s not like I expect to wage war against monsters but one is wise to be prepared.” Once on the street what little courage Maggie had dissipated. New Orleans was a ghost town and it wasn’t even midnight. “Where did all the tourists go?” “Victor’s doing.” Zed shook his head. “I’m not a tenth as strong as him. Even with the vampires, our best hope is to survive through the night. Whatever has possessed him is stronger than most demons. He walks in daylight, he isn’t a vampire. It’s a new dilemma and one I do not have an answer for.” “A demon is a demon. It may be stronger but it is has weaknesses. All things have weaknesses.” Jean Gregoire enlightened from experience. “Did you find anything in your research?” “A legend that even if it’s true, I don’t have a clue how to get one.” “Can I have your cell?” Tony asked and Maggie handed it over. He punched in his number. “We’ll have to hurry you home but you call me tomorrow. I want to see you before you leave.” She nodded half excited to see him again in non-lethal circumstances and half hopeful that they’d live to see daylight. “Okay but let’s go somewhere off the spiritual hotspots.” Forgetting that excluded Jean as well, she added, “You can go since it will be with me.” “After we’re done, I won’t be available. I’m long past due for retirement.” He coyly answered. “Our time is quickly coming to an end.” “That makes sense.” Even so, she would miss him. They never had a chance to get acquainted. How often does a person get a chance to interact with a relative born two centuries earlier? Every footstep echoed down the empty streets. Even Jean was disturbed by the lack of people. On the other hand, they saw no zombies. “Are the gates usually left wide opened?” Maggie asked knowing the answer. “No.”

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 The only question is who was waiting? Good vampires or bad zombies?

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 Congo Square Congo Square had a circular pattern of grey cobblestones and this was the spot they were to meet. Maggie didn’t know if it was her recent experience amplifying her sixth sense or if the area was so spiritually attune that she couldn’t miss the electricity

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coursing through the air. Or it could be that she expected Victor was already there with his militia. Reflexively she scanned the perimeter. Not like she could run if she saw zombies or like they weren’t there if she didn’t. “Does this place affect the zombies the way it does vampires?” Maggie’s tongue got tangled a bit as she asked. “Zombies are limited by their death more than strengthened by their demon.” Zed handed out stakes, veils of holy water and demon-freeing eggshells. Maggie pocketed a veil and weighed a stake in one hand and an egg in the other. There would be no concealing them on her person. Did she want to be seen with weapons? Better to keep the herb grenade over the stake now that she was on team Estelle. In the few hours she had met Tony, she was already familiar with his touch when he grabbed her elbow and pulled her aside. Then again, she was looking at Zed and Jean Gregoire was cold as ice. “I wanted to talk to you privately.” Tony ran his hand through his hair. He was fidgeting. Waiting for the cat to come when you’re a mouse in a trap does that to a person. “We’ll be fine. You can tell me anything you want to later.” She wasn’t fooling herself that things were under control. They were far from it and she didn’t want to have an emotional moment in light of oncoming events. The cards warned of distraction and there was the biggest one she ever had staring at her with smoldering eyes and an inviting mouth. “No doubt.” He rolled his eyes – at least it subdued the smoldering some. Steadily, he brushed back a wisp of hair from her face. “Tony, now isn’t the time.”

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 Kissing the top of her head he smiled. “I know. What I want to tell you is that you’re safe so long as you wear that. Don’t hand it over to anyone for any reason.” Was that an order? Sure it was good advice – nay, great advice. “But it can’t

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protect all…” Maggie couldn’t finish her sentence with Tony’s palm gagging her mouth. “Let me finish.” He held her hands in his, the weapons still within hers. “You run when the fighting starts. Don’t look back and don’t worry about us.” His eyes pierced hers not liking the resolve he saw. Using his fingers he ironed out the crinkles in her forehead. “Don’t like it, but do it.” She would have preferred the distraction of romance. There were so many things wrong with his request. It was cowardly, one-sided, sexist and unlikely to matter. She was protected with the amulet, so long as she kept it. “Why wouldn’t I keep the charm?” “There isn’t any reason to hand it over. Keep it and when the battle starts you’ll run.” His long index finger pointed square between her eyes. Putting her egg and stake in one hand she playfully grabbed his finger. Softly she kissed his lips. “Tell me where you’ll take us tomorrow.” He sighed. “Is this your passive way of denying my request?” “Oh, was that a request because it sounded like a command.” “He’s trying to protect you.” Gregoire interrupted. “He’s right.” “Doesn’t matter.” Tony said sadly. “She doesn’t back down.” “Isn’t that what you liked about me?” She wryly asked. “This is different.” It wasn’t. It wasn’t even the next day. They were in the same predicament. The face of the enemy changed but they also had reinforcements with Estelle’s band of lethal vampires. “Well, I’ll think about it.” She walked over to Zed and handed him her stake. “I don’t need this.” He shrugged but didn’t argue. “Hello again.” Estelle came forward wearing a fresh shirt and with forty vamps at least. She smiled proudly at Maggie pleased that Maggie relinquished the weapon. Dropping her eyes on the stake still in Zed’s hand. “I see you came prepared. Do you intend to use that?” “Hopefully, no.” Zed answered honestly.

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 should have found a better way to address you. You are a strong woman.” Maggie shook her hand. “Not as strong as you.” “Stronger in the ways that matter.” Estelle assured her. “And you’re smart. It was fear that what I am is so hideous that you’d refuse my request.” “You aren’t hideous when your fangs aren’t out and biting Tony.” Estelle was abashed. “When we feed, it isn’t painful. I wanted to control you.” “It worked but we’re past that now. We have the ring.” Estelle rallied her inner serenity. “I’d like it but only if you bestow it to me.” Maggie was stunned but not nearly as much as the men. Estelle was humbled without a trace of greed in her eyes. Ready to answer, Maggie was cut short. “Brava, Miss Roux. Isn’t this a droll moment.” Victor clapped his hands as he entered the area followed by twenty zombies.

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Estelle held out her hand to Maggie. “Forgive me for my earlier transgressions. I

At least the numbers were in their favor, assuming more weren’t hiding. Maggie wondered why Victor waited for the vampires. The vampires were faster, stronger and had a two to one advantage. “Victor, we finally meet.” Estelle said eyeing him critically. Surely she was looking for his weaknesses and evaluating his strengths like a good half-demon halfhuman warrior would. “The rumors of your beauty are inadequate.” He complimented lavishly, the red gleam in his eyes even more prominent in Estelle’s presence. “It’s too late. The girl has promised me the ring.” Estelle over extended her expectations. “It’ll kill you and your children. Go ahead, put it on.” Victor dared with relish. Estelle wasn’t born yesterday and she scoffed. “It will do no such thing. Their bodies are preserved. The remainder of their mortal existence waits for them, only this.” “Die today, die tomorrow. What’s the difference? How do they feel about your fantasy?” “That isn’t your concern.” Estelle assured. “Hmm?”

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 “Wayne.” Estelle called over her shoulder never taking her eyes off Victor and his crew. Her loyalist stepped forward on command. Wayne took out a silk drawstring pouch and held it to Maggie. “Please, put the ring and the charm in here.” “We don’t need the charm now.” Estelle corrected. “I have the ring.” Tony held up his hand and wiggled his fingers. Wayne tossed the sac to Tony. With a nod from Gregoire, he removed the jewelry and dropped it in. Synching the bag, he dangled it in front of Wayne. Wayne didn’t approach. “Do you want it or not?” Their personal history was why Tony was always too challenging with Wayne. Maggie worried that the vampire couldn’t get nearer, that he meant malice. Wayne hadn’t been as benign as Estelle and perhaps that triggered the ring’s defense mechanism. Cautiously taking another step Wayne didn’t hit the usual barrier. He snatched the sack and looked inside. “Finally.” “Bring it here.” Victor requested. Estelle huffed incredulously. Wayne looked back at his lover and maker. “I’m sorry.” He said and threw the ring to Victor. “Imbecile!” Estelle screeched.

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“You’re the imbecile for thinking your subjects would allow you to destroy them. Quickly or slowly, they are not ready to die.” Victor held the bag in his open palm. “You betrayed me!” Estelle leaped at Wayne with gusto. The large muscular dumb vampire held her back by her arm and she recoiled and slapped her abductor. “They won’t let you kill me. More of them are from me than from you. If you kill me they die.” Wayne said confidently until Estelle tore Muscle’s head off. For a moment the headless body flapped its arms and then evaporated out of existence followed by two others vampires who had been turned by him. More came forward, some to Estelle’s aid, others to halt her progress. Wayne moved away to see the havoc. The zombies stepped back as well letting the vampires do

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 their job for them. A girl-vamp’s head rolled to Maggie’s feet and she jumped back. Then it was nothing but a puff of smoke. An angry bleached blond she-vamp ran for Maggie. A yard away she began to

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howl as she fought the repulsion of the ring to get closer. Smoke rose from her skin but stopped when she retreated deciding the sting was too severe to resist. Vampires were viciously sadistic when they clashed. It was nothing as serene as the skirmish Jean and Wayne fought in the bayou and far more physical than when they battled the zombies. Seeing them claw, bite and rip each other was sublime carnage. Three males held onto Estelle and still struggled to maintain control. Snatching a stake from the open duffle, Maggie ran to Estelle and eliminated one of the three captors. The other two backed away, pulling Estelle with them to get away from the burn. A man-vamp yelped when he tried to grab Maggie from behind. A veil cracked on his head and he melted from the holy water within. Tony’s hand was cute from the glass. “This is messy.”

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 Changing Tide

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Everywhere Maggie looked was carnage without casualties. Empty clothes were the only clue that a vampire life had been extinguished. “Kill Wayne.” Zed yelled. Maggie pivoted to see Wayne. He shook his head to warn her he wasn’t going to make it easy. A sinister leer sat smugly on his twisted lips. Then his eyes widened. Glancing down the last thing he saw was the tip of a wooden stake poking out his chest from behind. When Wayne was nothing but smoke Maggie saw Gregoire. He had slain the traitor. A chain reaction rippled through the battlefield. When those created by Wayne were dissolved, Estelle was down to seven minions. She was mortified that Wayne betrayed her. Estelle never factored in the possibility that there was dissension in her ranks. Maggie felt bad but she felt worse that they were suddenly extremely out numbered. During the vampire war, more zombies had arrived. The entire area was surrounded by demon possessed dead shifting from foot to foot waiting for Victor’s instruction. Practically comatose, Estelle rambled like a madman. “He lied to me. He said he wanted this as much as I did. So many were tied to him, lost with him. How could he betray his family?” “Wayne wasn’t a fool. He wanted the ring and my protection. Said it was never the same after he changed.” Victor lifted his brow curious to see if she’d break down. “How could it be? He was more demon than the man I loved. Each year his ruthlessness grew.” “Your love had morphed to ownership and your ambitious had diminished. Wayne wanted to rule the earth and you subjugated him to withhold and hide. It’s a miracle he didn’t find a way out sooner. Did you know he knew what would happen when he fed on you, when you turned him? I told him of the never ending life that awaited him.” “He was turned long before you were born.”

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 “Wayne saw he was aging and that one day he would die or more likely, you would leave. He drank your blood knowing what he would become but unknowingly enslaving himself and ruining your love.”

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Estelle’s laughter was chilling, a gruesome mixture of anguish and bewilderment. “He was enslaved by the demon that possessed him. What was he going to do? Kill me? He couldn’t without destroying himself in the process. It was an idiot’s errand.” Victor’s red eyes waited patiently. He’d wished she had broken down but he still delighted to see revelation strike. Holding up the velvet pouch he taunted her to connect the dots. Estelle expression contorted. “The ring. It might have made it possible.” “We’ll never know. He’s dead. No use mourning the wicked.” Victor tucked the ring in his pocket. Taking a roll of the survivors he was elated at the sheer lack of vampires remaining. Assessing the humans and ghost last he deemed them harmless or if he saw a threat, he showed no sign of it. “You’re Jean Gregoire.” He identified with almost a fan-like reaction. “Are you bound to earth to protect this?” Victor patted his prize mocking Gregoire’s worthlessness. “Guess you’re not going anywhere now?” Gregoire hadn’t even noticed he had been addressed. He was surveying the zombies with growing concern. “Jean Gregoire!” Victor screamed to get his and everyone’s attention. He wasn’t keen on being upstaged. Gregoire’s eyes shot up to Victor. “You know many of these men.” Victor announced pleased to have the ghost’s undivided attention. “It is dishonorable to their memories to use their bodies this way. You’re punishment will be unbearable in the afterlife.” “There is no after life if you don’t die. I guess you wouldn’t understand.” He said callously. “It doesn’t surprise me that you and Zed would be acquainted.” Zed didn’t make the same mistake that Gregoire had. He was sure to appear aware albeit apathetic. For the time being, Victor had the floor. “You’ve squandered talent to share truths with tourists who didn’t believe a word you said. A complete waste of potential.” Victor derided and then his eyes landed on

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 other girls. The energy you possess is palpable and fresh.” Tony pulled her closer but she was already at his side. “Boy, I’ll have her.” Victor licked his hungry lips. “In every way.” “Don’t you dare touch her.” Tony threatened. “Do you love her? No matter, but if she loves you, than I’ll keep you alive to coerce her. Her life force is too raw to mold to my fancy. Do you love him?” Victor’s hand was over his heart as if finding their affection childishly adorable.

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Tony and Maggie. “Aren’t you a cute couple?” He winked at Maggie. “You’re not like

“No.” She said. It wasn’t a lie. They only just met but she didn’t want him held and tortured on her account. At least he was in the safety radius of her charm. With a silly grimace Victor’s head shivered. “She does love you.” Maggie touched the talisman for reassurance. “Oh, that’s right! You have a trinket to keep the boogieman away. Did you know some of the ring’s essence is useable even if it’s encased in silk, even if it isn’t worn? For example, I can approach you.” Without warning he charged at Maggie yelling, “Give me the charm.” Maggie snapped into action pushing Tony away and ducking on her knees. Victor stumbled over her. It hurt her side when he hit but she imagined he got worse from the unforgiving pavement. Standing he faced her again. His forked tongue darted out to lick blood dripping out of his nose. The burst of action had taken the group by surprise but they were battle ready again. Estelle made her move and with a graceful jump, she flew through the air and kicked Victor back to the cement. Estelle was pained and recoiled but Victor grabbed her ankle. Screeching like a banshee Estelle swung her two handed fist right at Victor’s ear. Neither the ring in his pocket nor the demon in his body could deflect the blow. Estelle backed away keeping her distance. “I have the ring.” Victor reminded her standing upright. With slow dramatic steps he approached Maggie. “Aren’t you brave to fight me. That quality will be enjoyed later but currently it’s irksome.” Gregoire, Tony and Zed guarded her. To demonstrate how feeble they were, Victor tossed Zed with a subtle flick of his wrist. Taking a few quick steps, Victor

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 kicked Gregoire and grabbed his last opponent by the throat and dangled him the air,

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crushing his windpipe as he did. Victor’s mouth fell open. He had four fangs, two on top and two on the bottom like a snake. His whole appearance was morphing to a serpent. Enjoying the suspense he hissed and watched his prey squirm. “The demon’s energy will burn the human host.” Zed said and clearly this was bad. The words of warning were like white noise in the background. Gregoire slammed into Maggie, his essence merging with hers. Inside her head she heard Gregoire’s thoughts. “The demon will be unstoppable until it possess a new body. We must kill him now.” Maggie was opened to ideas but Gregoire had none. Tony brought down his arms on Victor’s. Being between two forms Victor wasn’t sturdy to hold on and Tony dropped to the ground clutching his neck, desperately gasping for air. With her ancestor’s essence intertwined with hers Maggie ran to Tony. Victor stretched and chuckled as his form steadied to human again. “Pathetic lover you have there. I’ll give you three seconds to bring the necklace to me and spare the lives of your friends.” Tony stared at her unable to verbalize something he desperately wanted to say. It was crucial whatever it was. Then he put his hand in hers. Maggie glanced down at the clenched fist holding the velvet pouch. Tony had picked it off Victor when he was attacked. Gregoire was impressed but warned if Victor felt its power when it was in his pocket, it was a matter of seconds before he noticed it missing. Whether her time was up or he discovered the theft, Victor roared. Twisting and standing in one fluid motion Maggie faced a fully formed snake with recognizable red eyes. Lunging at full speed he slithered at her with a gaping mouth. Her hand yanked the fleur-de-lis from her neck. She didn’t know if she did it or Gregoire or both. With all her might she threw it deep into Victor’s snaky gullet. Then she curled into a ball.

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 of the throat the snake stopped in its tracks and writhed in pain. Victor convulsed, his body twisting and changing between human and an enormous asp. The unearthly scream reached an impossible crescendo. Falling to the

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Maggie was frozen in fear, alone in her body again. When the charm hit the back

ground he howled in pain. The noise was brutal and even the vampires covered their ears for protection. Maggie thought she might be left deaf until it stopped. Gregoire and Zed crawled away from eerie scene. Following their lead she hooked her arms under Tony’s shoulders and dragged him to a safe distance. As Victor burned the smoke slithered like a creature. Rising from the hoary remains it solidified into an ethereal image of a naked woman. Her eyes were pure burgundy, no iris, no white showing. She was transparent and with the smoke from the burning body at her feet, her imaged undulated. Maggie covered her nose and mouth to keep from smelling the sulfuric aroma emanating from the demon’s discarded shell that was Victor. His remains looked like overcooked clay, fragile to even the slightest touch. Estelle starred in disbelief. “Mother?”

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 Demon vs. Demon

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It wasn’t Estelle’s night. First her treacherous lover revealed his true colors and attempted to entrap her. Now her estranged demon mother proved to be the driving force of her worst enemy. “Dear, it’s been a while.” Desdemona stepped out of Victor’s deathly remains. She wasn’t substantial but she wasn’t a hundred percent spirit either. Wiping the soles of her feet on the grass, she cleaned off charred chunks of human flesh. Maggie gagged at the sight. “It’s been never. I don’t count the time before I was born. Why the ruse?” “Plausible deniability. I was looking out for you and I knew you wouldn’t take it from me as I am.” Desdemona sighed but it wasn’t endearing. “I stayed away for your protection. Lucifer would have taken you like he took me.” “He couldn’t or didn’t. I wasn’t under his command being half human.” “My mistake.” Desdemona whispered. “It’s hard to be a mother, not that you’d understand.” “Who cursed me? Was Lucifer or you? Why couldn’t I have children?” Estelle’s fiery eyes watered. “Another mistake. There isn’t a handbook on parenthood. Well, there wasn’t three thousand years ago. Sure there are all kinds of books on it today.” “Who cursed me?” Estelle screamed. “You or Lucifer?” “You won’t like the answer.” Desdemona vowed with devilish delight. “You were born an aberration. It’s the same for mules who are born of a horse and donkey but can’t breed.” Tony grabbed Maggie by the shoulders and pulled her to him. The zombies were still waiting for orders. Zed kneeled by Victor’s body behind Desdemona. He reached for the silk bag but before he found it already missing, Desdemona did an about face. Zed flew back and landed on his back hitting his head hard. Gregoire went to him.

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 every creature in her sight. None were to disobey her. With a tacit jerk of her head, zombies lumbered forward to restrain those that remained. A long dead woman with a fixed smile, reached for Maggie, who was no longer untouchable without her charm. She was close to Tony but the ring was on the far side and clearly her arm was out of the rings boundaries because the zombie grabbed it without discomfort. For a corpse, she had a strong grip. Her head jerked back as an

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“Leave the locket.” Desdemona scowled as she circled making eye contact with

herbed filled egg smacked her between the eyes. Shaking it off, she released Maggie and fell to the ground rendered useless from the impact. Zed was on his feet. With both arms taking turns, he pulled out egg after egg and tossed them at the walking dead. The old man had an accurate throw and zombies were dropping like flies. “I command you to halt!” Desdemona yelled and tried to shove him again but Estelle leapt at her estranged mother and the two demon women tussled. Neither seemed able to overtake the other. “Little help here.” Zed asked with Gregoire’s voice and the few vampires remaining were at his side and extinguishing zombies twice as fast. The strafe of herbal eggs peppered the undead. When the last of the zombies were down and out he held the back of his head to stop the blood seepage. The only action was Estelle and Desdemona. The spectators didn’t know what to do. Something told Maggie it was Estelle’s fight to finish. “Is Zed all right?” Maggie asked. Gregoire nodded in Zed’s body and held the hand to the open gash on his scalp. “I can help.” Isaac said going to his aid. Tony had the ring on and was doing better. He looked down his nose at the deceased Victor. “We’ll be here until dawn and the sun will do more damage to you than me.” Desdemona grunted while wrestling her daughter, now rolling on the cobblestones. “And I don’t get hungry as you do. You’ll feed on one of your friends within the hour.” “Get away.” Estelle told her minions and humans. “Run!”

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 Maggie looked to Tony, who made the oddest statement. “It wasn’t like he had any respect for the dead.” He shrugged his shoulders. Dropping to the ground he used his knee, covered in mud and grease, to crush Victor’s throat. Then he shifted his leg until he felt the charm. Pulling up the chain the few pieces of flesh burnt off. “It’s self

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cleaning.” He said as he replaced it on Maggie. Then he removed the ring and held it in his palm. She caught on then. Snatching the ring she ran over to the mother daughter brawl. As soon as she got close Desdemona screamed but wouldn’t let go even with the repulsion of the double artifacts adding to her angst. Holding firmly on Estelle’s arms, Desdemona’s talons scratched deeply but Estelle didn’t give her purchase. Instead, the younger she-demon lifted both thumbs and gouged her mother’s eyes. Desdemona ran back. She was regenerating but that didn’t stop the rage. Maggie took Estelle’s hand but before she could slide the ring on Estelle curled in her fingers. “I need to see that none of my children will resent me for this.” “We did not lie like Wayne. We have apprehension. Whether it is our salvation or our doom, we are prepared.” Isaac said still at Zed’s side. The love in his eyes for Estelle was genuine. “Isaac is right. You’ve searched for this for hundreds of years. We had ample opportunities to voice objections.” A woman knelt on Estelle’s other side and held her hand tenderly. Estelle sat up, being slower to regenerate than Desdemona. Desdemona was livid as she watched her plans unfold. Maggie guessed these last seven vampire warriors might not represent the total of nest. Putting the ring in the silk pouch she placed both in Estelle’s palm. “When you’re ready.” “Your family was charged with protecting it.” Estelle reminded Maggie. Gregoire stood behind Maggie, separated from Zed again. “Protecting it isn’t the same as not using it.” Gregoire couldn’t believe he was saying those words. It was Maggie’s to do with as she saw fit.

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 Estelle hugged Maggie. “Thank you. I vow that I will not do anything to make you regret your generosity. There is so much I have to atone for but believe me when I say I’ll be a paragon of virtue.” Maggie giggled. “Baby steps.” “If I don’t use the ring, I’ll get it back to you.”

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“Or Tony.” Maggie figured he’d watch it as well as her. Probably better since he could return it to its stone safe in the Lost Pirate’s Tomb. “You aren’t like either of your ancestors. Not that I think foul of you Gregoire.” Estelle got up looking fresh as a daisy except for her torn blouse. She had the body to pull of a bra without embarrassment. Gregoire laughed. “I understand. She is willing to test things, take risks, put others before herself, give people the chance to reform.” “Yes. You are brave but she is gracious.” Maggie looked up at Tony. He was conflicted. Catching her watching him he stooped to ask Estelle a question. “Not that it matters, but if you didn’t, I’d feel better. Who killed Pierre and Antoinette Lambert?” Estelle shook her head. “They were dead when I found them. Someone had fed on them.” “I killed them.” Desdemona stated proudly. “They were delish.” Tony and Gregoire exchanged glances no doubt wishing there was a way to destroy Desdemona for eternity. Isaac was cleaning Zed’s head wound with his shirt, occasionally sniffing and licking the rag as he did. Like Estelle, shirtless was a vision on Isaac, one that Maggie could appreciate more. His torso was perfect as a chiseled masterpiece. When Isaac moved in for another taste of blood this time straight from the gash, Zed told him he was feeling better. Then he said, “Estelle, I believe you won’t have a problem winning the fight with that ring on, if you wanted to finish what you lovely ladies started.” Desdemona narrowed her eyes on Zed. She wanted him to suffer. Instead, she shook her head and vanished. “She just left?” Tony mused both happily and dubiously. “For now.” Estelle told him.

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 “Isn’t she stronger than you?” With a sly wink Estelle said, “Free will trumps brute force.” “Will she retaliate?” Maggie worried. “Given that it took her four thousand years to put this plan into action, you’ll be long gone before she tries again. And if not, what can she do? There are strict rules about demons interaction with humans.” Estelle held up her new treasure. “And if she disobeys, I’ll put this on and kick her butt if she tries anything.”

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A bell tower chimed in the distance. It was midnight. “I have to get to my hotel.” Maggie said suddenly. Now that people were safe, her curfew went up on her priority list. “What about those guys?” Tony pointed to the zombies scattered like ragdolls on a floor. “We’ll put them back.” Estelle got to her feet. “Zed, can you decipher who is who?” “I think so. Is my wound okay?” Zed asked the hunky bare-chested vamp. “It’s closed. Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” Isaac answered sweetly like an old TV doctor. “I’ll see to the kids and come back to help with these guys.” Gregoire offered. “You won’t be very late.” Tony comforted as they strolled back to the heart of the French Quarter. “How strict are your parents? They won’t ground you on vacation?” Maggie figured her biggest problem would be explaining her appearance and why she was out without Carmen. She’d play it by ear. “Wait? Jean, you’re still here.” The epiphany shocked him. “Does that mean, I’ll see you tomorrow?” She was pleased, extra pleased since the streets were teeming with people again. Sure they were drunk or in the processing of un-drinking, so to speak. But that was so earthly and human that she felt like she was back in the terrestrial again, aside from being escorted by a ghost. Gregoire didn’t feel as light hearted by the idea. “Yeah, I guess.” “You’ll pass on eventually.” Tony told him. “Whatever you need to do will be made known, right?”

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 “I’ll have Zed give me a reading. See if the cards can help.” He was dejected. “It’s been so long. A soul gets tired.” “Is it because Estelle has the ring?”

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“Could be but if she means to use it for good, it shouldn’t stop me from passing. I’ll have to get it back if that’s the case but in my heart of hearts, I believe you did the right thing. It shouldn’t stop me. Worse case scenario, it would stop you after your demise.” “Maybe your task wasn’t about the ring. Maybe it was about something else.” “It had to be regarding the ring.” He said as they arrived. The three looked up at the French Colonial hotel looking like refugees from the worst camping trip ever. Gregoire hugged Maggie and kissed her cheek. “Sweet dreams.” Despite his coldness, she tightened her embrace. “I’m glad we met.” With a curious expression he looked up at Tony and shook his hand. “I take it you’d like a private good-bye.” Tony had a silly grin and nodded. Gregoire moseyed down the street and then vanished. “Call me when you wake up.” Tony brushed her hair behind her shoulder. Shyly glancing down she nodded. Lifting her chin, Tony kissed her good night and walked off in the direction of Gregoire.

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 Making Curfew

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Maggie’s phone beeped that it had a text message. It was from Carmen telling her not to check in with her parents because they thought they were both home already. A second text asked when she would be home. Laughing and loving that her biggest crisis was to sneak in after curfew, Maggie galloped up the stairs to her room. She was giddy with euphoria. Carmen looked better than Maggie on the outside but then she hadn’t crawled through swamps and graveyards all night. Inwardly, Carmen was faltering. She hadn’t lost the woozy side affects of her earlier mind control. As gross as Maggie was physically, Carmen either didn’t care or notice because she swooped down on her with a crushing bear hug. “Is it really over?” Her voice cracked. “Yeah. As it turns out, Estelle was a good guy, sort of. More a reformed bad-guy that was reverting to extreme measures to find her way to model citizen. Wayne was an ingrate, not that it matters now. He turned over on Estelle and you can imagine how vampires deal with that sort of mutiny.” “He’s dead?” Carmen expression passed through confusion, to relieve, to a resolved sadness. “Wayne was bad to the bone, I don’t know if he got what he deserved but he lived a lot longer than even the best of people. You didn’t have any feelings for him?” She shook her head. “It’s hard to get a grip on. I mean, first I was so flattered by him but after the trance, he scared the living tar out of me.” “Me too.” Maggie sat them both on one of the beds and held Carmen for a bit. She needed it as much as her friend. “How are you doing, really?” “I’ve got a raging migraine that won’t subside. Not sure if that’s normal or if I’m freaked out.” Probably both. “Let me clean up first. I am so disgusting. Wear this, it should help your head if it’s from Wayne or even if it isn’t.” Maggie moved the chain from her neck to Carmen’s and took a warm shower washing her hair twice before conditioning. Slowly she began to accept that her moment in the Crossroads, capital C, had passed and she was back on

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 terra firma. She half wished her parents didn’t know she was home. She’d love to see

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them before going to sleep but why mess with success when it would mean a haranguing. As dull as her mother was, she would have loved to tell her everything. She guessed some day she would but not until she was older. Her mother would get scared and that was if she believed half of it. Maggie guessed after she had her own place and a career, she’d sit her mom down and confess to her crazy night in New Orleans. Perhaps her father was a better choice to share her tale with. She’d play it by ear. “Carmen, can I borrow your brush?” Maggie recognized immediately how awfully mundane that request was and she reveled in it. Isn’t this what trips were for? To remind one to appreciate the simple life of every day drudgery? “Carmen?” Carmen didn’t answer because she had passed out. Looked like the charm did the trick with her headache. Maggie searched in Carmen’s bag and only found a comb and a round brush, the kind to blow dry your hair stick straight. Neither would suffice. Reluctantly, Maggie combed out her hair. Putting on fresh day clothes, she went to the lobby to see if the hotel had a brush to buy. Selecting the least pathetic of the lot, she paid the clerk. “No need for a bag.” Maggie removed the price tag and withheld the urge to use it right there. Instead she tucked the smallish brush into her copious pocket of her drawstring shorts. “I’m lucky you were open.” The girl working the shop didn’t make eye contact but did give an indifferent shrug. She couldn’t be older than twenty if that and Maggie felt bad she had a job with crappy hours. Her dirty blond hair was done up to look messy even though it was clearly not accidental. Maggie never understood the rational behind that style. Reconsidering the clerk, Maggie withdrew her initial pity for the late night shift. The girl was not only pretty but dressed in nice clothes, not rich but she wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck if she had STS Blue shorts. You’d think shorts wouldn’t be permitted for work but perhaps rules were lax after regular hours. Then again, New Orleans was as rule free as any large mecca in America. Walking out the door, Maggie saw the store hours. It should have been closed at ten and just as the realization that she was not wearing the talisman hit so did a blow to the head and she blacked out.

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much time elapsed while she was unconscious? The sky was dark, so it wasn’t morning or it was the next evening. If Carmen woke up, who would she call? The police? Maggie’s parents? Not the people equipped to deal with an ancient demon seeking revenge. A wicked smirk lit up Desdemona’s new face. Whoever this young girl was, she was now housing a fallen angel with daughter issues. “Never in my wildest dream did I think of your entire entourage, that I’d run into you first and without the talisman. Here’s the real question, do you think Estelle is equipped to follow through on good intentions when a crisis happens? Sure, it’s easy to change your diet and live off the vast wealth she’s accumulated when times are good but when someone who she owes a favor to is in dire need, do you think she has the gumption to step up and do the right thing?” Maggie didn’t need to answer. It was a long shot. Even if Estelle felt obliged, if she had put the ring on there was a fair chance that her super powers were null and void or at the very least muted. A more reasonable reaction might be that Estelle would tell Zed and he’d find Jean Gregoire. Hope glimmered but dimly. What would they do? What could they do? Desdemona was pleased as punch to see Maggie’s complexion green. “Estelle arranged for your family to come here. Did you know that? She was tired of waiting for a living Gregoire to visit. She meddled to get her way as usual.” Sure it was plausible. The mix up on the air miles and consolation offering could have been a trick. “How does that matter now?” “Don’t you see her true colors? She’s every bit my daughter despite what you or she wants to think.” “Again, I’m missing how this is pertinent now?” Maggie bristled. Her head was throbbing and now she had a second reason to wish she kept the talisman. “You chose poorly.”

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“Is that it? You think I regret giving the ring to Estelle?” There was a part of her that admitted had she kept both pieces, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. Another part said she would have given the ring to Tony if not Estelle and she’d still be vulnerable. “You’d be stupid not to.” “I wouldn’t have given it to you.” “I don’t want it!” Desdemona screamed. “She can’t have it. She can’t use it. How can you be so glib about rewarding her after the things she’s done?” Frustrated Desdemona paced. “It’s already too late.” Maggie was laying down on a wooden bench, hands tied together with twine. She sat up and took in her surroundings. Shocked, she recognized that interior of a church, rundown and unused but a church. “How can we be in a house of God?” “Hah! This place was abandoned long ago. It doesn’t retain the irritating affects when it’s forgotten.” Maybe not irritating to demons but the rat scavenging for food didn’t set well with Maggie. She wanted to ask what Desdemona was going to do with her if Estelle didn’t come. She didn’t because she guessed the best possible answer was a quick death and the worst a drawn out torturous one. “Admit it. You made an egregious error giving Estelle the ring?” “No.” Maggie didn’t hesitate. The consequences weren’t in Estelle’s hand. Desdemona slapped Maggie with such force light flashed in her right eye. Maggie also fell to the stone floor with a hard thump. But Desdemona hadn’t spent her fury. She booted Maggie in the gut and then walked casually around and gave her an equally sharp kick to the small of her back. Crying and laughing Maggie waited for another strike. “Why are you laughing?” “I understand you.” “I’m pure evil.” She curtly summarized. “You’re jealous. Your daughter has free will. The ring gives her a chance at redemption, something you squandered for good eons ago.” “You vile little meat-bag.” Desdemona viciously brought down her foot on Maggie’s leg.

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 tied hands reflexively held the leg and felt bone jutting out of her shin. She morbidly considered angering Desdemona to finish her quickly. “I could fix that.” Desdemona offered with a devilish gleam in her red eyes. “Why? So you could do it again?” “We don’t have to be on opposite sides. If you could forgive Estelle, why not me?” Reaching her dainty hands to Maggie’s open wound she stopped. “You have to give me permission for this to work.”

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The pain was incredible and Maggie’s bellow echoed in the empty building. Her

That was the rub. Access required permission and Maggie guessed partial access wasn’t an option when dealing with a demon. Wisely she didn’t announce verbally that permission was denied. As a distraction for her pain and Desdemona’s game, she said, “What if Estelle doesn’t come?” “Why would she?” “Didn’t you call her?” “No.” “I’m here for your kicks and giggles. There isn’t a plan?” Desdemona stood again sensing permission wasn’t coming in the near future. In time, with more inspiring pain, it would happen but for now she’d taunt her captive. “My plan is justice for those puny humans that dared to stand in my way. You should be honored to be my top priority.” Tony and Zed were next, no doubt. Maggie may as well add Gregoire to the list. She didn’t know what Desdemona could do to a ghost but clearly the demon had means and motive. Never liking the idea that she was losing her audience, Desdemona grabbed Maggie shin to mercilessly remind her to pay attention. Screaming again, tears streamed out of Maggie’s eyes. “I can be extremely efficient at enforcing my wishes and quite brutal at disciplining if they are disobeyed.” Desdemona warned after discipline had been administered. “Do it then. Kill me already.” She dared in her delirium. “Not yet.”

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 “What are you waiting for?” “Me.” Tony guessed walking into the Church.

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 Together Again Maggie bypassed bravado and wept at the sight of Tony. He was no match for Desdemona.

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“You have a lot of conceit thinking you’re the guest of honor.” Desdemona told Tony callously which conflicted with her lustful leer. “Maggie is the prize. Although, I may keep you alive as well. Not healthy, but alive. Eventually the news will reach my wayward daughter and she’ll have to remove the ring.” “And then you’ll kill her and us?” Tony sassed. “If you’re going to be intransigent, I suppose. But you could curry my favor if you behave. As for Estelle, she merely needs to embrace her true self. She did once, long ago.” “That wasn’t her true self. She isn’t like you.” Maggie defended in Estelle’s absence. “If you don’t shut up, I may kill you by mistake. You will not deprive me of teaching Estelle a long over due lesson in self acceptance.” Holding his hands up cautiously, Tony announced, “I’m going to see to her leg.” With evenly paced steps, Tony went to Maggie wincing to see her leg. Catching her eyes, he held her gaze. “This is going to hurt.” That was the only warning she got before he pushed her bone back into the flesh with both hands. Maggie whimpered while he continued to massage the bones to the best position. Her tied hands covered her weeping face. Desdemona looked away. She hadn’t permitted it but she hardly lost control of the situation. Let him do his juvenile doctoring. Considering the environment, infection was almost guaranteed. And if not, she’d break it again and again and again. Finally satisfied the bones were in place he brushed back Maggie hair and untied her hands. Eventually his right hand took hers and she felt the ring in his palm. Could it heal such a severe injury? Already its sinew was coursing through her body to her leg but not as much as if she wore it properly. If she put it on, Desdemona would attack Tony, who would be unsafe without it. Tony whispered. “I’m sorry.”

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 Maggie shook her head. What did he have to be sorry for? They were in this together before they even met.

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“What do you want from us?” Tony stood demanding Desdemona’s focus giving Maggie the opportunity to slide the ring on. The best Maggie could do was wear the inside out but that wouldn’t stop Desdemona from recognizing it for long. “Where is Zed?” “I didn’t call him.” Tony answered. The rings power traveled from Maggie’s finger to her head, her stomach, her back and most notably to the busted bones. How long would it take? She needed full strength to be able to guard the now exposed Tony. “I wanted all of you.” “Sorry to disappoint you.” “Call him or I’ll break her other leg, followed by her arms. Then I’ll get creative.” Steely gazed Tony dialed. “Zed, I’m at St. Christopher’s with Desdemona and Maggie. We’re in danger. She wants you to come but it’s a trap. She’ll kill us all.” Desdemona rolled her eyes. “He’ll come.” “Maybe when he gets the message.” Tony flippantly said stowing his phone. Raging again, Desdemona rushed him but he side stepped her and grabbed her from behind. Snapping her head back, she tried to break his nose but he dodged again and held one hand to her neck. She was immobilized. Stunned beyond believe, Maggie felt her shin had mended. Still sensitive, she could use it but she’d wait. Meanwhile, her bones could regain more durability. “In that body, you are limited. Get out.” Tony sneered. “You’d like that. She let me in.” “I don’t care.” He tightened his grip and she gasped for air. “You’ll kill her and I’ll survive.” Desdemona reminded him, implacable as ever. Pushing her away, Tony glared.

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him. “Don’t you want me? You’ve loved me for how many years and now you’d risk killing me to save a girl you only just met, a girl that is a Gregoire.” “I never loved Carrie.” Tony stated as convincingly as he could. “And you’re not Carrie.” “We are one.” Desdemona stretched her neck and caressed away the bruises. No wonder he came. Desdemona was in Carrie’s body. Maggie selfishly wondered if he came to her rescue or Carrie’s. In the big picture, it didn’t make a difference. The ultimate goal was to get all three away from Desdemona. Still it saddened Maggie. Tony only felt feelings for her because of their traumatic experience. Now that he was forced to fight for Carrie, his familiar and long established feelings for Carrie would override his short alien ones for Maggie. Desdemona laughed maniacally. “I’ll give you a choice. Carrie or Maggie? One can go free right now, the other will die.” Unfazed and without so much as a peek at Maggie, Tony answered. “Carrie.” Maggie closed her eyes. A completely different kind of hurt encompassed her one the ring couldn’t cure. Crawling to the pew, she pulled herself up to hide the fact that her leg was mostly well again. Too enthralled in the battle of wits with Tony, Desdemona didn’t look either. Maggie may as well not be there for all they noticed. Narrowing her eyes Desdemona evaluated Tony’s reaction. “That didn’t take long.” “You won’t let Maggie go regardless.” “I will and I won’t harass her again. Is that your final answer? Carrie over Maggie?” “Yes.” He said again without pause. “How do you feel about that?” Desdemona contemptuously asked Maggie. “It’s his choice.” Her voice squeaked. “The irony is delicious. A Lambert has broken the heart of a Gregoire. What I don’t understand is how is that possible? Isn’t Gregoire inside you now.” Tony didn’t react. “Is that what you think?”

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 “How could a young man know how to work the bone?” “My mother is a nurse. I made my choice. We have an agreement.”

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Slinking over to him with a seductive swing in her hips, she ran her fingers down his shirt. “Why don’t I stay in Carrie? I’ll make it worth your while.” “Let her go.” He stepped back. “After I kill Maggie.” She decided. “I don’t want you going back on your word.” Maggie gulped. With the ring on, she was safe but Desdemona would figure out why and murder Tony and Carrie in the blink of an eye. “No.” Tony said nonchalantly and retrieved a crystal ball from his pocket. It was about half the size of an orange and looked as if it were pure opal, perfectly smooth and glimmering with pastel shades of purple, pink and light blue. “You lied. Zed gave you that.” Desdemona shirked away. For once she had true fear in her laser red eyes. “I said I didn’t call him.” “Parsing words. He was with you then. Destroy that or I kill both women.” He shook his head. “Then you’ll have to choose because I’ll activate this before you make a second move.” They were at an impasse. Suddenly the front door creaked open. Maggie didn’t hear Tony walk in because she was screaming but in the silence of the standoff, the hinge groaned as Zed entered. “I came as soon as I got your voice mail.” “Enough lies. You humans think you are so superior in your values. Stop pretending this is happenstance.” Zed surveyed the situation. Tony was unharmed but Maggie’s leg was covered in half crusted blood. Even though it was healed, it looked heinous. With the glow of red in her pupils, he didn’t need to know who the host was to recognize Desdemona was running the show again. “All right.” “Desdemona was going to release Carrie.” Tony stated firmly. “And when I do, you’ll trap me. No sir. I’ll kill Maggie first.” “What?” Zed said, his old eyes intent on the magical item in Tony’s hand.

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 first or she’ll be haunted with the memory for the rest of her life.” “You really do love her.” Desdemona announced with a sinister wink towards Maggie. “At least you know that you are his second choice before you die.” If anyone was going to walk away safely, it was Maggie and it hit her, Tony

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Placing the clear orb on ground, Tony held his hands up. “Carrie needs to be free

needed Desdemona out of Carrie or she might incinerate her the way she had Victor. He was trying to win the whole enchilada. “Zed! What do you think about Tony’s choice of who lives and who dies?” Desdemona yelled pissed that Zed was looking up at the architecture instead of her. “I disagree with him.” Zed answered evenly. Clearly he was looking for the logic behind the decision. “Truly Maggie is the more astounding woman but he’s a boy not a man.” With her eyes never straying from the orb, Desdemona stepped aside but Carrie’s body stayed in place. The dirty blond held her hands to her temples. Her green eyes widened seeing that she was in a decrepit church. “What’s going on?” Carrie stuttered. “Tony, why are you here? Where are we?” “In St. Christopher’s. Go home.” He ordered. “Where’s Wayne?” “Dead.” Desdemona informed her with glee. Carrie looked at Desdemona. “How?” “A vampire war broke out, thanks to Tony and his friend.” Desdemona motioned to Zed and Maggie. “You didn’t tell me this.” Carrie’s cold eyes drilled into Desdemona. “It didn’t suit my cause. If you were grief stricken, you might have declined my request.” As usual, the demon wasn’t remorseful. “Tony and his friends helped Estelle and killed Wayne.” She knew how to work the emotions. Tears welled up as Carrie took in the horrible news. “I never want to see you again.” She said bitterly to Tony and the spun to Desdemona again, “Or you.” “You won’t. Now leave us. We have business and you have been extracted from the situation.”

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removal. Regardless of her personal feelings, that probably coincided with leaving, she hated him. Carrie stood tall and walked out, each step reverberating off the walls and ending with a loud bang as the door shut behind her. Desdemona moved to the orb until it was between her feet safe from Tony or Zed’s reach. They would not use it against her while she killed Maggie. With absolute pleasure, she turned to Maggie. “I’ll make it painless.” She promised without sincerity. Maggie stood using the edge of the pew as a false crutch and to conceal her healthy body. Tony scooted next to Zed who did a surprising thing. He punched the young man in the gut. “Umph.” Tony buckled over but didn’t retaliate. Desdemona giggled but didn’t look to enjoy fully. She wasn’t going to move from the orb and she had a big to-do to mark complete. Staring with ferocity at Maggie her face contorted horrifically combing serpentine features with the beautiful demon woman she usually portrayed. Her hands extended forward, also morphing and now sporting talons and claw like fingers. Maggie shifted away, even though she believed she was untouchable. Fact was Desdemona looked so vicious she wasn’t sure the ring was strong enough to withhold such a force after spending so much energy mending her bones. In the pew behind her were some hymnals and a beat up Bible. Surely its holy value wasn’t lost in disuse. An electrical current pulsed through Desdemona and out her fingers but stopped short of Maggie. Doubling her effort didn’t close the gap. Spinning to Tony, Desdemona recognized her fatal error too late. Maggie snatched the Bible and hurled it at the she-demon. It didn’t do much more than a normal book would to a normal being but that was more than most items could do to Desdemona who was forced off the orb. Maggie scrabbled forward and retrieved the ball. Another amateur mistake for the ancient Desdemona but she was free to do damage to Tony and Zed.

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Maggie’s leg wasn’t as ready as she thought. Getting the orb while Desdemona was distracted had caused it to buckle under stress. At least she had the crystal, though she didn’t know what it was other than something that frightened the impervious Desdemona. She turned it in her hands but there weren’t any instructions on how to activate it. Holding to the ball for dear life, Maggie looked on as Desdemona recharged. Tony and Zed split and ran but at least one wouldn’t get out before she wielded her evil. Choosing Tony over Zed, Desdemona pivoted to keep him in her aim. The current flowed out of her fingers right as a stained glass window cracked opened. Estelle leapt with uncanny grace landing between her mother and Tony. Again the beam was stalled short of its goal as Estelle took in the electrical charge. Her hair went wild but she stood her ground. Sensing the tide had once again turned against her, Desdemona flew up. “Stop her.” Maggie shoved up and ignored her leg. Limping as fast as she could she made way for Tony and Estelle. Zed grabbed her arm and sped her up. “She isn’t going anywhere.” Estelle took the crystal from Maggie. They all looked up and sure enough, Desdemona was flying around the ceiling like a fly hitting the inside of a window. The noticeable difference was flies didn’t rage with toxic anger. “Stand back.” Estelle ordered and Maggie pulled both men with her. She wasn’t going to let them stray from the ring. Thankfully Estelle wasn’t wearing it because it gave them a deadly defender in this battle. “Where did you get that?” Zed asked Estelle. “What is it?” Maggie asked on top if his question. “It’s a demon stockade. I had it made,” she told them and with a mischievous raised brow she added, “By Merlin.” Zed inhaled rapidly. “What else do you have in your treasure collection?” “I’m having a barbeque this afternoon if you’d like to stop by.”

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 quietly chanting. He kept her trapped.

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Desdemona swooped down towards the door but Isaac was there, book in hand, “What time? What’s the address?” Zed was so awed by Merlin’s handiwork he had forgotten they still had a mad demon on the loose. “Zed, how about we discuss that in a minute?” Estelle’s nerves of raw iron could manage the light chitchat while she kept her gaze steady on her nemesis and mother. “You can’t use that.” Desdemona scoffed. “Demons can’t trap other demons. It’s a rule.” “So is assaulting humans. Shall we take the matter up with Lucifer?” Estelle smiled. Desdemona didn’t answer with words but the feral growl was enough to convey her wishes were to keep Lucifer out of things. Holding the ball far out with her hands equidistance on both sides Estelle lifted her arms and walked to the steps leading to the altar. “In the name of Jesus Christ,” Estelle shouted, which was helpful to hear since at the sound of his name Desdemona anguished in disgust. “I command you Desdemona the fallen angel to obey. Enter the sphere.” Flying in an upward motion, Desdemona floated backwards. Frantically she clawed at air but the power of the sphere or the name of Christ was too compelling. “Enter the sphere.” Estelle reiterated the ball glowing bright in her hands. Wings sprouted from Desdemona and her body converted to a serpent. Regardless she continued to be magnetically pulled to the orb making her macabre clamor as she did. When the tip of her tail touched the crystal she screeched. “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to enter the sphere!” Estelle said for a third time with finality. The ball’s light doubled from within and with a surge of power it engulfed Desdemona completely. Glowing brighter than the sun for several seconds everyone, Estelle included, turned their heads. Those not holding demon prisons covered their eyes. Woosh! All the air in the room was sucked into the ball and for a moment, no one was able to breathe but not for long. Fresh night air seeped in through the broken window and now open front door.

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 rather than opal. “Estelle!” Maggie ran forward.

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Estelle was curled on the floor, hands still holding the orb that looked pure black

“Don’t touch the sphere.” Gregoire commanded. He must have been in Tony but he was out again. Isaac squatted next to Maggie by Estelle’s head. He uncapped a bottle of water and splashed his mistress in the face. Estelle’s eyes popped open and shot Isaac a dirty look. “The whole bottle wasn’t needed.” He shrugged. “Nor was risking your life. May I?” He gestured to the dark ball holding a thick sack. “She can’t escape.” Estelle dropped her mother’s cage and got up. Pulling Maggie by the shoulder, she embraced her. “You should have known I would come too.” “I didn’t see why you would.” The half-demon rolled her eyes looking like a goofball without a menacing cell in her. “Humans are so funny.” “Why would Merlin make a demon a demon catcher?” Zed looked into the bag at the magic ball. “What is it made of?” “He told me.” Estelle waved her hands dismissively. “I have notes. You can see those too. As to why, we had a tryst.” “You turned him?” Zed accused. “I was against it. Gave him the usual warnings about watching people you love die, being subjugated to me or whoever turned him, the limitations of sun and holy objects.” “Yadda, yadda, yadda.” Isaac sassed. “Unlike you, Merlin wasn’t dying.” “But you did turn Merlin eventually. He reportedly lived over 900 years.” Zed insisted. “You can meet him when you see our trove.” Isaac vowed. “He actually asked about you when we told him about our evening.”

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 barbeque?” “Noon.” Estelle passed out more hugs. “Invite your family and friends if you want.”

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“Merlin’s alive and wants to see me?” Zed was in psychic heaven. “When is this

“Oh no, it’s morning.” Maggie gasped when she saw the sky turning pale blue. “It’s okay, I think.” Estelle said bravely. “Everyone, inside.” Maggie was actually worried about how Carmen and her parents would react to her missing but Estelle assumed the girl was concerned that the sunlight would damage her children. It wasn’t her first concern but wasn’t that still a problem if Maggie had the ring. The noise of several people climbing down from around the outside of the church clambered at once. Four dozen vampires came in dressed in black and gray camouflage. “We’re fine.” A lovely girl said. She looked younger than Maggie. “Didn’t even start to smoke.” “All the same, I’ll be the guinea pig.” Estelle said charitably. With resolution in her movement, Estelle walked to the front door and let the orange light of the morning sun cascade over her. She shaded her eyes. “Did anyone bring sunglasses? It’s bright.” “The ring?” Maggie remembered and hurried after her but Estelle wasn’t burning, smoking or uncomfortable by any measure. “The ring did its healing power on me when I wore it. My demon heritage was cleansed from my human side.” Looking back to her vampires she continued, “They all had a bad spell as their true selves resisted their demons that didn’t want to go quietly. Once a demon is expelled it needs permission to reenter. I only needed to wear it until they were free and their fate was sealed. I hope they won’t hate me when they start to age again.” Maggie shook her head. “They won’t.” “I’m like a teenage worried what her friends would think but that’s what they are now. They are no longer required to obey me. I wonder how long before I miss that element of my former life?” “Probably before nightfall.”

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 barbeque.”

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“We need to get you home before your family wakes up. You’ll bring them to the “I’d like them to meet you but perhaps we should wait until after the novelty of being day-walkers wears off.” She nodded. “You know, when you’re as old as me, you make a few connections?” Maggie’s brows knitted together wondering what the she-vamp was trying to say. “You’re off to college next year and I could see that you are admitted to LSU if you think you’d like Louisiana.” “I didn’t apply to LSU.” “Did you not understand my inference that I have connections?” She nudged Maggie’s shoulder. “Tony said he wouldn’t accept my offer to pay his tuition unless you were accepted. I can pay your way as well.” Maggie was stunned. “I’ll think it over.” Neither of them needed the funds if they went back to the crypt and got their treasure. “Do that, but before you leave, you need to let me meet your parents. I’ll weave a plausible reason why we met, how you impressed me and why you would have a free ride to a college you didn’t apply to.” She got quiet. “Regardless, you’ll come see us again.” “Definitely.” Maggie answered. “So, will you age now too?” Estelle shrugged. “Maybe not. I was able to stand the force of the orb. I’m still more than normal human.” “So what was cured?” “My bloodlust. I ate a bowl of strawberries this morning. They were divine. I can’t wait for the barbeque. We’re keeping it simple, burgers and chicken. I want to build up to gourmet cuisine.” They laughed. “I can’t wait.” “Maggie,” Tony came out with the others. “I’ll drive you back to your hotel.”

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Maggie had to do some creative maneuvers to get back to her room, freshen up and eat breakfast with the family. When the girls got to the dining room, it was only Mr. Mallory that joined them. Her freakish mother and brother had already ventured off to take a walk. Of course she forgot about the pendant on Carmen and the ring on her finger until Mr. Mallory asked about where they got them. Sighing and not wanting to lie Maggie told an edited version of her escapades to her father. “Believe it or not, I am a descendant of a privateer named Jean Gregoire, who was charged with guarding these items that were made from the spear the roman guard used after Jesus was crucified. Anyway, Estelle, a half-demon half-human and first vampire wanted this ring as did her mother Desdemona who had possessed a power hungry oaf named Victor.” Carmen blanched to hear Maggie being so forthcoming about such an unlikely narrative. Her father listened without interruption. “It sounds way worse than it was but after a war between good vampires, bad vampires and zombies, everything is fine. Estelle and her clan aren’t vampires anymore. We’re invited to a barbeque and you can meet everyone, plus some people I haven’t met like Merlin, the Merlin.” She emphasized. “I guess he never died. So do you want to come?” Her father mulled it over with consideration. “We’re taking Johnny on a swamp tour.” He finally told them. “Invite this Estelle and Merlin to dinner.” “Really?” “Well, if they’re your friends, why not?” “Actually, I don’t’ know Merlin but you should meet Zed, Jean Gregoire and Tony. Jean won’t eat though. He’s dead.” Maggie could see that her father didn’t believe her much more than her mother would have but he was gentle enough not to deride her directly. That actually stung more to think she was being placated. Taking off the ring, Maggie picked up her knife and sliced into the palm of her hand. It was a bad idea since it not only hurt but blood seeped

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 out onto her plate. Grabbing her napkin, she mopped up most of it and then got a new napkin to put on her cut. “Maggie!” Her father shouted. “What are you doing?”

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Maggie picked up the ring and slid it into place. Once she felt the energy working on her palm, she displayed her hand for inspection. “The ring heals as well as protect you from people meaning you harm. See?” Her father grabbed her wrist and looked at the cut as the last signs faded forever. Words failed him for a spell. Finally he spoke, “I’d like to meet your friends.” This time he was truly inquisitive. A frown formed as he wondered about her dangerous excursion. “Here’s one now.” Maggie waved Jean Gregoire over. “Jean Gregoire, this is my father and you know Carmen.” “Nice to meet you.” Jean said sporting more modern clothes than he had the night before. He was in walking shorts and a polo. It was still dated but only by a couple of decades rather than a couple of centuries. “I told Dad everything.” Maggie said and Jean went so pale that he was momentarily transparent. Her father missed it but her Carmen hadn’t. “Jean Gregoire is a ghost. Do something ghostly.” “I feel like a toy.” He mumbled but stuck his hand through the table. “See?” Her father reached to the spot and felt for a hole. “Don’t push it. They’ll get there or they won’t. You were honest, that is admirable.” Her dead relative said tongue in cheek. “Will you come to dinner with us.” Maggie asked. “Of course.” Maggie watched her father’s reactions carefully. She saw a protective grimace, that reminded her of Gregoire from the night before. He must think it inappropriate for an older man to spend time with his daughter especially one that did hokey magic tricks and fed her fantasies. “Is there a problem?” Gregoire asked seeing the parental concern. Mr. Mallory didn’t answer the question. A new revelation hit him and he stared at Jean Gregoire. “We saw your picture at the plantation yesterday.”

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 “Could be me.”

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Pulling out his iPad, Mr. Mallory started peppering Jean Gregoire with questions as he googled the answers. “Much of the history is slanted.” Gregoire said peering at the tiny computer screen and amending details frequently. “That is all myth. I never faced off with twelve men against me.” In the end, Maggie’s father didn’t protest letting her go off with Jean Gregoire who had done well under pressure and passed his hand through Maggie’s dad. After that, Mr. Mallory started asking questions that the world wide web wouldn’t have reliable answers to. “You’re earth bound?” “It is a pleasure to speak to a man my age about this.” Gregoire said sincerely even though he died in his early thirties and Mr. Mallory had just turned forty-two. “Yes. I thought I would pass over when an heir took over guarding the heirlooms but apparently, there is another task keeping me here.” “Forgive the boy.” Maggie’s father said sagely as he filled in the tip and signed his name on the bill. “Tony?” “Yeah, you’re here because you held a grudge for too long. Forgive the boy and I bet you cross over right away.” “I think I have.” “Perhaps you should say it – to him. That ends the feud.” Gregoire nodded. “I’ll forgive you if I don’t see you at dinner.” Mr. Mallory tossed down some money for Maggie and put his hand on Gregoire’s shoulder. “Have a good day.” “You’re father is an exceptional man and clearly that is why you are different than the rest of the Gregoires.” Jean complimented Maggie. “Shall we. Estelle said to bring your bathing suits.” Estelle had a regal estate right on the Mississippi. Driving through the gate they expected to see a picture perfect quasi-palace. It was a small palace but the windows were all smashed.

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 “Maggie! Carmen! Jean!” Estelle greeted happily. She was in overalls and

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wearing a large floppy hat and dark sunglasses. “We’re changing out the dark panes for clear windows.” Giving them a short tour of the ground floor, she led them to the backyard and left to change. Zed was chatting with a man about his age. He waved at the new arrivals but didn’t leave Merlin’s side. The vampires were so varying in appearance. Maggie had only seen younger ones, none older than say forty, but there were so many more of all ages, many in their twilight. She counted fifty and hadn’t covered half the crowd. There was a band comprised of three old men. Their tour bus had crashed when Estelle and a couple of vampires found them. The sax man said he was glad that his eyesight stayed when Estelle put on the ring because he was blind since he was a boy. Estelle returned showing off her model ready physique in a scant bikini covered in a loose open blouse. She still sported the sunglasses and hat. All the former vamps were the same, the men in baseball caps except for Isaac and the band. Isaac opted for an old beat up cowboy Stetson. The band joked they were a slave to tradition and sported chic fedoras. Undoubtedly, they were the coolest band ever. “The sun is too bright for them.” Gregoire laughed as they left the stage so the musicians could do their craft. They joined Estelle with several of her lady vampires. They told the girls and Jean about how they almost died and when they chose to be turned. Each story was so sad and interesting. Lizzie, the youngest, was only fourteen when she almost died of leukemia. She was excited to grow up and had already started looking into local schools. Then the talk changed to how weird it was to feel hunger, exhaustion or even to sweat. Somehow it was both invigorating and scary. Maggie wondered how’d they feel when their old cycles returned. She wasn’t prone to severe cramps but it was a biological process that she could do without or at least not as frequently. Absorbed in their biographies, Maggie had lost track of anything else until Jean’s cool grip picked up her hand. “May I have a moment?” He walked her to a private corner. “Tony’s here?”

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Maggie whipped around to see the guy she was totally too into interrupting Zed and Merlin. Merlin was delighted but Zed looked a bit miffed to divert their conversation for a hello. “Let me talk to him first.” Gregoire said amused to see how taken she was by someone that he would have never given a second thought to not twenty-four hours earlier. “When I do, I might not get a chance to say good-bye to you.” Like an idiot, her eyes watered. She held on to the cold man. “You can’t come and visit?” “I hear it’s possible in dreams and Zed may have ways of reaching me but it won’t be the same as it is now.” “Have fun crossing over.” She said courageously and let her who knew how many greats-grandfather go, literally and figuratively. Maggie sat in the shade of a large elm and closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see him leave. Lightning struck. She ran up to Jean and Tony. “Stop!” “Maggie, I need to say it regardless of how we feel about it. If I delay it to stay with you longer, that is selfish.” She took his hand and put the ring on. “It can heal death.” He said. “Are you sure?” Tony asked. Somberly, Jean looked at Tony. “A wise man, who raised an exquisite young woman, suggested my stay of passage wasn’t about the treasure but about our feud. You know I trust you but I need to tell you that I forgive your family.” Nothing happened. “And I’m sorry for my part in our feud.” Jean looked up waiting for any sign he had completed his mission. “Maybe I need to accept it.” Tony guessed. “I accept.” Jean stood there perplexed. “You have a right to live out the rest of your life, just as they do.” Maggie pointed to the former vampires now forming a buffet line to get their first taste of America’s most popular cuisine.

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 Holding up his hand, Jean considered the ring. Before he could slide it off, Maggie stopped him. “Keep it. You’ll live forever.”

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“That isn’t as wonderful as it sounds.” He said sadly. “It was given to me to keep safe.” “That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. You’re the guardian, keep it until you pass that duty on. Until then, enjoy the modern world.” “And your great-great-great-great-granddaughter.” Tony said to tempt him. Jean thought about it. “For a while.” He allowed. “I’ll get a driver’s license and a car.” “Great!” Maggie said as the first of many happy tears trickled down her elated face. She clung to him tighter than ever even though he wasn’t going anywhere. “Where do you live?” Jean asked. “I’d like to be near you.” “She’s going to LSU in the fall. Until then, you’re welcome here.” Estelle sashayed up. “You still have a tendency to control everything.” Maggie kindly warned with a smirk. “Oh, I’m not why you’re going to accept my offer.” Estelle winked at Tony but took Jean’s arm in hers. “You know, I use to have a crush on you before you died.” “We never met until yesterday.” Jean blushed. The ring was restoring a physical form to him because usually he faded off. “I admired you from afar.” She ran her fingers through his hair but he still wasn’t buying it. “Okay, okay. I’m exaggerating but I did once agree with Isaac when he said your wanted poster picture was cute.” “Is Isaac gay?” Jean knew the vernacular but wasn’t comfortable using it. Sure living, so to speak, in New Orleans he knew it was common but he never asked regarding someone’s gender preference. He was from a different day that those things weren’t discussed openly. “Not at all. He does like to shop around for me as if he were. The term is metro. When piracy was big he’d tell me I needed a seafaring man. When the gold rush struck and he’d tell me to get a rich cowboy. Come to think of it, he still tells me that.”

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 his descendant and knew he could manage a few more years of ordinary life.

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Jean shook his head wondering if he should have passed on but then he smiled at Estelle steered him toward the barbeque. “Come on, Pirate. When was the last time you had a burger?” “Over two hundred years since I had beef but we didn’t have burgers per se.” If Estelle couldn’t tempt him with her charm, she found an alternate route to grab his attention. “I hear they are fantastic.” “Let’s find out together.” Estelle and Jean were a handsome couple as they walked to the front of the line. Isaac gladly let them cut in and hushed the protest of the band members behind him. “If they get married, that makes your step-great-great-great-great-grandmother is a demon.” “Was a demon and I think that’s more of meaningless flirting that actual courting. Then again, who knows? Maybe if they both never die they can keep each other’s company.” Maggie corrected and kissed Tony. “At least she isn’t a Lambert.” “You’re weird, cute but weird.”

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