The Wicked & The Dead
Faery Bargains Book 1
AUTUMN IN THE SOUTH WAS STILL BOTH HUMID AND HOT. New Orleans was always a wet city. Wet air. Wet drizzle. Beer soaked streets. Other things spilling out from behind trash bins. Sometimes, the heavy air and frequent rain was just this side of too much.
Most nights, there was nowhere else I’d rather be. We were a city risen from the ashes, over and over. Plagues, floods, monsters. New Orleans didn’t stop, didn’t give up, and I was proud of that. Tonight, though, I watched the fog roll out like a cheap film effect, and a good book in front of a warm fire sounded far better than work. The nonstop rain this month would wash away evidence of the things that happened in New Orleans’ darkened corners, but I could prevent bloodshed. It was more or less what I did. Sometimes, I spilled a bit of blood, but if we weighed it all out, I was fairly sure I was one of the good guys.
More curves and sass than actual guys, but the point held. White hat. Dingy around the edges. I blame my persistent nagging guilt.
A thump on the other side of the wall made me pause.
Could I hurl myself over the wall into Cypress Grove Ceme- tery? It wasn’t the worst idea ever—or even this month—which said more about my life than I’d like to admit.
I listened for more sounds. Nothing. No scrabbling. No growling.
I needed to be on the other side of the wall where tombs were lined up like miniature houses. The tree branches I’d used last time were gone, probably trimmed by someone who saw their potential. Now, there was no graceful way to hurl myself over the ten-foot wall.
Every cemetery in the nation now had taller walls and plenty of newly-opened space for the dead. Cemeteries had become “stage one” of the verification of death process. Honestly, I guess graves were better than cold storage at the morgue. The lack of heartbeat made it impossible to know if the corpses would walk-again, and those of us who advocated for beheading all corpses were deemed callous.
I wasn’t sure I was callous for wanting the dead to stay dead. I knew what they were capable of before the world at large did.
At least I was prepared. A moment or so later, I shoved a metal spike into the wall, cutting my palm in the process.
“Shit. Damn. Monkey balls.”
A ripple of light flashed around me the moment my blood dripped to the soil. At least the light was magic, not the police or a tourist with a camera. While the laws were ever-changing, B&E was still illegal. And I was breaking into a cemetery where Imightneedtocarryoutacontractedbeheading.Thatwasille- gal, too.
It simply wasn’t a photo-ready moment—although with my long dyed-blue hair and nearly translucent skin, I was far too photogenic. I won’t say I look like I’ve been drained of both blood and color, but I will admit that next to a lot of the folks in my city, I look like I’ve been bleached.
I fumbled with my gloves, trapping my blood inside the 2
thick leather before I resumed shoving climbing cams into gaps in the wall. Normally, cams held the ropes that climbers use. Tonight, they’d be like tiny foot supports. If I were human, this wouldn’t work out well.
Mostly, I’d say I am a witch, but that is the polite truth. I am more like witch-with-hard-to-explain-extras. That smidge of blood I’d spilled was enough to send out “wakey, wakey” messages to whatever corpses were listening, but the last time I’d had to bleed for them to rest again, I’d needed to shed more than a cup of blood.
I concentrated on not sending out a second magic flare and continued to insert the cams.
R est. S tay. I felt silly thinking messages to the dead, but better silly than planning for excess bleeding.
At least this job should be an easy one. My task was to find out if Alice Navarro was again-walking or if she was securely in her vault. I hoped for the latter. Most people hired me to ease their dearly departed back in the “departed” category, but the Navarro family was the other sort. They missed her, and some- times grief makes people do things that are on the wrong side of rational.
My pistol had tranquilizer rounds tonight. If Navarro was awake, I’d need to tranq her. If she wasn’t, I could call it a night —unless there were other again-walkers. That’s where the beheading came in. Straight-forward. Despite the cold and wet, I still hoped for the best. All things considered, I really was an optimist at heart.
At the top of the wall, I swung my leg over the stylish spikes cemented there and dropped into the wet grass. I was braced for it, but when I landed, it wasn’t dew or rain that made me land on my ass.
An older man, judging by the tufts of grey hair on the bloodied body, in a security guard uniform had bled out on the ground. Something--most likely an again-walker--had gnawed on the security guard’s face. Who had made the decision to have a living man with no special skills stand inside the walls of a cemetery? Now, he was dead.
I whispered a quick prayer before surveying my surround- ings. Once I located the draugr, I could call in the location of the dead man. First, though, I had to find the face-gnawer who killed him. Since my magic was erratic, I didn’t want to send a voluntary pulse out to find my prey. That would wake the truly dead, and there were plenty of them here to wake.
Several rows into the cemetery, I found Alice Navarro’s undisturbed grave. No upheaval. No turned soil. Mrs. Navarro was well and truly dead. My clients had their answer—but now, I had a mystery. Which cemetery resident had killed the security guard?
A sound drew my attention. A thin hooded figure, masked like they were off to an early carnival party, stared back at me. They didn’t move like they were dead. Too slow. Too human. And draugar weren’t big on masks.
“Hey!” My voice seemed too loud. “You. What are you . . .”
The figure ran, and several other voices suddenly rang out. Young voices. Teens inside the cemetery .
“Shit cookies!” I ran after the masked person. Who in the name of all reason would be in among the graves at night? I ran through the rows of graves, looking for evidence of waking as I went.
The masked figure was climbing over the wall with a ladder, the chain sort you use in home fire-emergencies. Two teens tried to grab the person. One kid was kneeling, hand gripping his shoulder in obvious pain.
And there, several feet away, was Marie and Edward Chevalier’s grave. The soil was disturbed, as if a pack of excited dogs had been digging. The person in the mask was not the dead one in the nearby grave. There was a recently dead draugr.
I glanced back at the teens.
A masked stranger, a dead security guard, a draugr, and kids.
This was a terrible combination.
The masked person dropped something and pulled a gun.
The kids backed away quickly, and the masked person glanced at me before scrambling the rest of the way over the wall—all while awkwardly holding a gun.
“Are you okay?” I asked the kids, even as my gaze was scan- ning for the draugr.
“She stabbed Gerry,” the girl said, pointing at the kid on the ground.
The tallest of the teens grabbed the thing the intruder dropped and held it up. A syringe.
“She?” I asked.
“Lady chest,” the tall one explained. “When I ran into her, I felt her—”
“Got it.” I nodded, glad the intruder with the needle was gone, but a quick glance at the stone by the disturbed grave told me that a fresh body had been planted there two days ago. That was the likely cause of the security guard’s missing face. I read the dates on the stone: Edward was not yet dead. Marie was.
I was seeking Marie Chevalier.
“Marie?” I whispered loudly as the kids talked among them- selves. The last thing I needed right now was a draugr arriving to gnaw on the three dumb kids. “Oh, Miss Marie? Where are you?”
Marie wouldn’t answer, even if she had been a polite Southern lady. Draugr were like big infants for the first decade and change: they ate, yelled, and stumbled around.
“There’s a real one?” the girl asked.
I glanced at the kids. I was calling out a thing that would eat them if they had been alone with it, and they seemed excited. Best case was a drooling open-mouthed lurch in my direction. Worst case was they all died.
“Go home,” I said.
Instead they trailed behind me as I walked around, looking for Marie. I passed by the front gate—which was now standing wide open.
“Did you do that?” The lock had been removed. The pieces were on the ground. Cut through. Marie was not in the cemetery .
Shaking heads. “No, man. The ladder the bitch used was ours."
Intruder. With a needle. Possibly also the person who left the gate open? Had someone wanted Marie Chevalier released? Or was that a coincidence? Either way, a face-gnawer was loose somewhere in the city, one of the who-knows-how-many draugar that hid here or in the nearby suburbs or small towns.
I pushed the gates closed and called it in to the police. “Broken gate at Cypress Grove. Cut in pieces.”
“Miss Crowe,” the woman on dispatch replied. “Are you injured?”
“No. The lock was cut. Bunch of kids here.” I shot them a look. “Said it wasn’t them.”
“I will send a car,” she said. A longer than normal pause. “Why are you there, Miss Crowe?”
I smothered a sigh. It complicated my life that so many of the cops recognized me, that dispatch did, that the ER folks at the hospital did. It wasn’t like New Orleans was that small.
“Do you log my number?” I asked. “Or is it my voice?”
Another sigh. Another pause. She ignored my questions. “Details?”
“I was checking on a grave here. It’s intact, but the ceme- tery gate’s busted,” I explained.
“I noted that,” she said mildly. “Are the kids alive?”
“Yeah. A person in a mask tried to inject one of them, and a guard inside is missing a lot of his face. No draugr here now, but the grave of Marie and Edward Chevalier is broken out. I’m guessing it was her that killed the guard.”
The calm tone was gone. “There’s a car about two blocks away. You and the children—”
“I’m good.” I interrupted. “Marie’s long gone, I guess. I’ll be sure the kids are secure, but—"
“Miss Crowe! You don’t know if she’s still there or nearby. You need to be relocated to safety, too.”
“Honest to Pete, you all need to worry a lot less about me,” I said.
She made a noise that reminded me of my mother. Mama Lauren could fit a whole lecture in one of those “uh-huh” noises of hers. The woman on dispatch tonight came near to matching my mother.
“Someone cut the lock,” I told dispatch. “What we need to know is why. And who. And if there are other opened cemeter- ies.” I paused. “And who tried to inject the kid.”
I looked at them. They were in a small huddle. One of them dropped and stomped the needle. I winced. That was going to make investigating a lot harder.
N ot my problem, I reminded myself. I was a hired killer, not a cop, not a detective, not a nanny .
“Kid probably ought to get a tox screen and tetanus shot,” I muttered.
Dispatch made an agreeing noise, and said, “Please try not to ‘find’ more trouble tonight, Miss Crowe.”
I made no promises.
When I disconnected, I looked at the kids. “Gerry, right?” The kid in the middle nodded. White boy. Looking almost
as pale as me currently. I was guessing he was terrified. “Let me see your arm.”
He pulled his shirt off. It looked like the skin was torn.
“Do not scream,” I said. My eyes shifted into larger versions of a snake’s eyes. I knew what it looked like, and maybe a part of me was okay with letting them see because nobody would believe them if they did tell. They were kids, and while a lot had changed in the world, people still doubted kids when they talked.
More practically, though, as my eyes changed I could see in a way humans couldn’t.
Green. Glowing like a cheap neon light. The syringe had venom. Draugr venom. It wasn’t inside the skin. The syringe was either jammed or the kid jerked away.
One of the kids pulled a bottle from his bag, and I washed the wound. “Don’t touch the fucking syringe.” I pointed at it. “Who stomped on it? Hold your boot up.”
I rinsed that, too. Venom wasn’t the sort of thing anyone wanted on their skin unless they wanted acid-burn.
“Venom,” I said. “That was venom in the needle. You could’ve died. And”—I pointed behind me—“there was a draugr here. Guy got his face chewed off.”
They were listening, seeming to at least. I wasn’t their family, though. I was a blue-haired woman with some weapons and weird eyes. The best I could do was hand them over to the police and hope they weren’t stupid enough to end up in danger again tomorrow .
New Orleans had more than Marie hiding in the shadows. Draugr were fast, strong, and difficult to kill. If not for their need to feed on the living like mindless beasts the first few decades after resurrection, I might accept them as the next evolutionary step. But I wasn’t a fan of anything—mindless or sentient—that stole blood and life.
Marie might have been an angel in life, but right now she was a killer.
In my city.
If I found the person or people who decided to release Marie—or the woman with the syringe--I’d call the police. I tried to avoid killing the living. But if I found Marie, or others like her, I wasn’t calling dispatch. When it came to venomous killers, I tended to be more of a behead first, ask later kind of woman.
AS FAR AS I KNEW, I WAS THE ONLY PERSON IN ALL OF NEW Orleans who offered draugr services. Ours was one of the proclaimed havens for the again-walkers. We rebuilt after losing ground to a series of hurricanes and fires about eighteen years ago. For us, rebuilding required tourists, so New Orleans had decided to embrace the dead, which was unheard of for a smaller city, but we weren’t just any city. We had a history with the dead and with magic.
Elsewhere in the world, only the large cities had been so accepting of draugr. New York and London. Prague. Berlin. Lima. Moscow. Manila. Sydney. Rome. Cape Town. Tokyo. Vancouver. The reveal of the draugr spanned continents, cultures, and races. Admittedly, conservatives claimed the larger cities only accepted them as a ploy to thin their populations, but I figured it was simply impossible to ferret the draugr out in such vast cities. Why start a losing war?
Despite the romanticized attitudes of some people, draugr were not the sparkling angsty vampires of popular fiction. They weren’t crypt-napping, bat-transforming, cape-wearing crea- tures of the classic stories either. They were creatures out of mostly forgotten Icelandic folklore. Modern people, injected with a venom that had peculiar bio-magical traits, woke and eventually carried on as if they were alive.
It was the decade-plus gap between waking and clarity that was the main issue.
The youngest ones had no ability to control their hunger— or their venom. Whatever rules defined the draugr, they had a fail-safe: venom from a creature under a century old was unable to infect the living. Enough venom from any of the older draugr and a person woke up after death.
I stopped them when they did so. It was my raison d’être. And I was damn good at it. I was vague on the right terminol- ogy, but the meat of it was that magically reassembled corpses would push their way out of their tombs and follow me like a ghastly second-line parade. All the foot-shuffling, but none of the jazz.
These days, though, I mostly just killed draugr.
“Alive,” I texted to Eli. I’ve rejected his help the past few months, but we have a peculiar friendship. He was—for reasons I had no desire to know—living in this world, although he had more than enough fae blood to cross over to their world any day he chose. Instead, he stayed in New Orleans.
“Headed to Karl’s,” I sent in a group text to my other three closest friends.
That text was more of a formality than anything. Most nights, I met my very human friend Sera at her work if she was finishing when it was already dark. We’d been friends for years, and despite her insistence that she was perfectly fine, it took only a few minutes out of my week. I’d spend almost as long worrying, anyhow .
The walk was almost four miles, so after a quick scan to be sure it was safe, I let myself flow. I was careful not to do it around my friends—or most people. Seeing a living person move like a draugr would raise questions I preferred not to address.
Tonight, I covered a couple miles in mere moments.
I slowed before I reached the dense tourist section that was the French Quarter, but the streets were mostly empty at this hour. Curtains were drawn. A few cars passed. The government of New Orleans bought cars and hired drivers, as well as built walls to protect our beautiful cemeteries—and by extension, both the tourists and locals.
I walked along Lafitte, heading toward the French Quarter. My phone buzzed. Eli texted, “Injured?”
“No,” I texted back. I paused and added, “Thanks.”
Before the fateful day when the world discovered that not
every dead thing was a cause for mourning, tourists were still strolling day and night. They dropped their dollars at strip clubs and restaurants and marveled at Mardi Gras. A century or so before all that, they came in droves to visit the city with the first ever legal red-light district. My city was and had been all about tourism for almost as long as we were here. Ours was a bold cry: Come, come to our swamp, and leave your money with us.
These days, tourism is more of a daylight activity or restricted to the patrolled zones. Fifteen years ago, after the first international news incident from our city—"Handsome Young German Ripped Apart on Bourbon Street”—the wise souls with marketing minds reconsidered their approach to drawing tourist dollars. We were and are still dead-friendly, but the city added even more taxes to pay for increased police to patrol the still-flourishing tourist area and played up the “vam- pire” aspect as if draugr were the same thing.
They aren’t. Draugr are reptilian, cold-blooded, and venom- spewing.
But the allure of immortality was strong—as long as you didn’t think about years of drooling, biting, growling existence or an eternity with the urge to tear throats out. I didn’t get it, but death tourists came to New Orleans hoping to see a draugr either for the fantasy of eternity or the titillation of being close to a predator. They roamed close to the perimeter of the patrolled areas in hopes of spying something grisly—safely seen through the lenses of their over-priced cameras.
Tonight, I was far too aware of the blood on my trousers to want to get near the tourists. Even now, the group I’d been trailing was moving around obstacles almost as one entity. They were almost to the French Quarter, the section of my fair city that was so heavily patrolled that tourists could still feel secure in the dark. Post-Reveal, the Quarter had become a tight clutch of stores, bars, and restaurants. Busking musicians worked every intersection. Neon and crowds filled every space so there was no chance of shadows that could hold fanged surprises.
I’d reached the well-patrolled greenspace of Louis Armstrong Park, so I sped up and passed the tourists. They were safely in sight of the patrols, and I was late to meet Sera.
“She’s armed,” one said in that shocked way as I passed.
Of course I was armed. Necromancy was terribly alluring to things that had been—and honestly, still were—dead. Night or day, I felt far more at ease with weapons in reach. I’d walk naked in the city before I’d go unarmed. Long before the rest of the world knew that the night held surprises with sharp fangs, I was watching in the shadows.
As I walked, I slid between another tour group and a double-parked car to avoid ending up in a photo. The first “blue-haired ghost” image to go viral was enough lesson for a lifetime. I wasn’t a ghost. I was a witch with oddly pale skin.
Several street patrol officers standing on corners met my gaze as I passed, and I gave a small nod each time. Our silent conversations, inquiries on if there were any draugr nearby, were reason enough to escort a few tourist groups. I wasn’t really guarding the tourists, just traveling in the same direction. I wasn’t even actively looking for trouble. If I happened to get to behead a draugr along the way to the patrolled zone, it was just a cherry on my evening. Better me than one of the officers who wasn’t innately equipped for combat.
My phone buzzed. Eli texted, “I’m available if you want me.”
I smiled, despite my better judgment. There were plenty of things I might want from Eli, a few of which made regular appearances in my dreams. But I also knew what Eli wanted— and needed—out of life, and I could never give it to him.
I shoved my phone in my jacket pocket and sent out a pulse of magic, feeling for draugr. They registered as blanks in the canvas, spaces where there was no life, but somehow motion. At best, I usually could scan a couple blocks. Considering the speed at which they moved, that offered a blink of warning. Not always enough, even for me. It was still more than humans got.
I felt nothing, so I darted around the line trying to get into Karl’s Cajun Coffee. I waited for Sera to notice me. The line extended far enough that I knew she wouldn’t be ready for a good fifteen minutes. It was her shop, and she never left when her staff was this deep in the weeds. Like Karl, the original owner, she was devoted to both her staff and the brand’s recognition.
I went to the tiny staff bathroom, changed out of my bloodied trousers and into the back-up pair I’d stored there. I kept a change of clothes at my friends’ homes, as well as Sera’s coffee shop. My job made that a necessity. The blood would probably come out of these just fine, so I bagged them and went back out to the shop.
“Behind you,” I murmured several times as I went behind the counter and poured myself a cup of black coffee.
Grumbles from the line faded when I slid into a recently emptied chair and put my sheathed sword on the table in front of me. I wasn’t threatening anyone, but I didn’t feel like listening to their bitching. I took my “payment” for protecting Sera in endless cups of quality coffee. It was the only way Sera tolerated my overprotectiveness.
So, I sat and watched her charm the wary and weary with the sort of grace I’d never have. Sera was a striking mix of curves and bold features. Average height. A voice like warm honey. If I was anywhere near her type, I suspected that the one night we’d spent together in college would’ve become a habit, but as she politely pointed out back then, she was looking for love, and I was looking for sex. That detail hadn’t changed.
Since that night, five years ago, I no longer slept with friends because the risk of ruining a friendship had been made crystal clear to me then. I couldn’t risk losing someone precious to me again. Honestly, over the years since, it hadn’t even been a complicated choice—until Eli. He was about as subtle as a rock to the head.
I re-read Eli’s texts while I sipped delicious chicory coffee and waited on Sera to decide she could leave guilt-free.
A buzz of incoming messages pulled me away from consid- ering bad decisions. Another job offer? That was the third one this month. Typically, I averaged only one a month. Sometimes, I had two. Three was unheard of, and three within the first ten days was worrying. I hated to do it, but maybe I should give in and get back-up. I opened my text log with Eli and considered what to say.
“You okay, Gen?” Sera was beside me, coat and bag in hand. Usually, I was on my feet before she was there.
“Sorry.” I held my phone up. “Work stuff.”
She gave me the pinched look that she always did about my job, but she nodded. I didn’t miss the look she shot at the trash bag next to me. She handed me a more subtle canvas grocery bag, where I shoved my trash bag of bloody trousers.
“I’m okay,” I assured her.
We were silent as we left Karl’s together. Knowing the little she did about what I did, she was obviously worrying. It was what she did.
Carefully, I offered, “I fell. They were just dirty .”
“No.” I smiled, and then, trying to sound lighter, I added,
“Fell after going over a wall.”
As I escorted her to the safety of her car, I wished I hadn’t
mentioned work. It was hard to explain to her why I did what I did for pay. Sure, removals paid well, but most people stayed clear of the kind of danger I hurtled myself into monthly. Sera, like the rest of my friends, didn’t know I was uniquely qualified to do this job. If I told her about the masked woman with the syringe or the kids in the graveyard, that would take her worry from its usual level to lecture-land.
“You know, Jesse could use help at the bookstore,” she said as she opened her car door.
“What about you?” I teased, trying to shift to anything but lectures or anxiety. “Need a barista?”
Sera sighed in that put-upon way of hers. The last time I tried to help her, serving coffee and pastries to customers, she’d come near to punching me. Often. Sera wasn’t violent, but I was apparently lousy at customer service.
“Honestly? If you were serious, I’d cope, Gen. I don’t like you risking yourself. There are options. Just think about—”
“Darling, I love all of you guys, but we would hate each other if we mixed business and friendship.”
Another sigh. “You’re being careful, though, right? I mean it, Geneviève! I don’t know why you take these murdering jobs, but . . . I worry.”
I melted just a little. All three of my very human close friends—Sera, Christy, and Jesse—worried about me. Christy coped by stopping to watch me train sometimes. Jesse nagged and lectured. Sera fussed and plotted to convince me to choose a safer path.
“Draugr are already dead,” I reminded her softly .
“Obviously not or you wouldn’t be out acting like some ancient warrior with a damned sword,” she muttered.
I squeezed Sera’s hand. “I’ll do better. Don’t worry .”
Sera nodded, closed her door, and drove away while I watched.
She and I were both businesswomen, even if she would really prefer my business was just about anything else. We are what we are, though, and what I am is good at killing. That didn’t mean I should be careless, though.
It was time to face Eli.
Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Marr All rights reserved.