Bayou Nights by Julie Mulhern

 

Chapter 1

New Orleans, 1903

Christine Lambert jabbed herself with a pin and a bright drop of blood welled at the tip of her finger.

Her mind was elsewhere. Her carelessness was her father’s fault.

Warwick Lambert had been missing for a week. A dark cloud of worry had followed her every step the last few days. She’d even wired Trula about his absence.

Trula’s return cable ZEKE SENDING HELP STOP had been a comfort.

If only the promised help would arrive.

She wiped her finger on a handkerchief and wrinkled her nose at the sudden stench of sulfur.

Christine lifted her gaze from the collection of silk roses on the counter. What in the world?

A wave of cologne accosted her. Bay rum. So strong it almost overwhelmed the other odors. Almost. Not quite.

Never had her gardenia-perfumed hat shop smelled like this.

The door opened and a man entered.

Christine schooled her face into a polite mask. The man was the source of the bay rum and seemingly the other odor as well.

His suit was cut from fine cloth and fit him well. His hair was pomaded as neatly as a banker’s. Even his shoes were shined. He looked like a man interested in buying a hat for his wife. He lurched like a man who’d had too much to drink. There was something wrong, off. That, and he smelled worse than a garbage pit on a July afternoon.

If he lingered too long, her shop might smell, too.

“May I help you?” She offered him a chilly smile.

He wet his lips and stared at her with red-rimmed eyes. “Eight.” His voice was as rusty as old hinges.

“Eight?” Eight hats? For eight hats she’d tamp down the fear that bloomed in her chest at the sight of his eyes. She’d add some warmth to her smile. She’d even tolerate the smell a while longer. “You need eight hats?”

He shook his head. “The piece of eight. Give it to me.”

Christine called on a lifetime’s worth of practice faking a calm, cool demeanor and kept her gaze and voice steady. The smile ran away. “I believe you have the wrong shop. I sell hats.”

The red rimming the man’s eyes bled until even his pupils looked crimson. “You have it.” The man leaned against her glass-fronted counter. Then, with a sweep of his arm, he sent the silk roses cascading to the carpet. “Give it to me.”

Christine’s heart beat in her ears and her fingers turned cold. She took a deep breath and regretted it when the smell of sulfur hit her lungs. “I don’t carry Spanish silver.” She gripped the edge of the counter. “You should try the antique shop down the street.”

He splayed his hands across the counter, marring its sparkling surface.

Christine looked from his hands to his face and back again. Never show fear—a basic tenet of survival. Who cared if her heart raced faster than a colt at Fair Ground? She raised a quizzical brow.

He flexed his fingers until his hands looked like claws. Real ones. He dragged the claws across the glass. His nails scored the surface.

Saints above. Her already cold fingers turned to ice and her mouth went dry.

The man growled.

Run! Save yourself!Her body primed for flight. How many steps to the door? It didn’t matter. He stood in her path and she wasn’t running away from her own shop. She’d rather fight—just as soon as her heart stopped trying to escape her chest. Christine shifted her gaze from his beastly hands to his face.

A mistake.

With his red eyes, he hardly looked human. “Give. It. To. Me.”

Christine retreated until her back touched the display cabinet built into the wall. Her hands scrabbled for a weapon and found nothing.

A foot or two to the left, her father’s cane leaned against the wall. She sidled toward the walking stick. It would have to do.

That dratted coin! Wherever he was, her father owed her an abject apology and a lengthy explanation.

Mattias Drake scowled at the backs of the ladies meandering down the sidewalk. Not a sidewalk. A banquette. And so narrow that he couldn’t pass the slow-moving women without stepping into the mire-filled street.

He pulled at his collar and wiped a trickle of sweat from his temple. It was hotter than blazes and the damned air was so thick a talented tailor could use it as fabric for a suit. No wonder the ladies walked slower than spent mules.

How could anyone stand to live here? The heat. The humidity. And then there were the people—terminally polite. The women would bless your heart before they gutted you like a catfish pulled fresh from the Mississippi. The men smiled around the memories of their grandfathers and fathers and uncles, hallowed dead lost in the war. Not the Civil War, not even the War Between the States—those ancestors died in the War of Northern Aggression.

Drake’s accent marked him as a descendant of those aggressors. No one let him forget he was a Yankee. Not for an instant.

But the worst thing about New Orleans was the ghosts. They were everywhere. Thick as flies on manure. And it seemed to him that half the population could see them. He’d even seen a newsboy conversing with the shade of a Confederate soldier.

Zeke Barnes owed him a whale of a favor. New Orleans? Some flibbertigibbet milliner with a missing father? He lengthened his stride. The sooner he found the man, the sooner he’d be on a train north.

He pulled the hastily scrawled address from his pocket and compared numbers.

This place?

The windows were filled with hats—hardly surprising for a hat shop—but these hats… He shook his head then pushed open the door to the shop and paused, letting his eyes adjust. Bows and ribbons and bits of lace, silk flowers, velvet bands, feathers. And hats. Hats everywhere. All displayed on shining brass stands. Flights of fancy that looked completely unable to complete a hat’s primary task: keeping its wearer’s head warm.

Where was she? The place seemed to be empty.

He poked at a hat seemingly made of silk flowers. As hats went, it was about as useful as the loops and curls on the balcony rails in Jackson Square. More style than substance.

Crash!

Drake’s body tensed. He unbuttoned his coat and his fingers closed around the handle of his revolver. “Hello?” His voice was loud enough to carry to the back rooms.

His answer was a second crash.

A man stumbled backward through the swinging door that presumably led to the workroom. He tripped on the edge of the carpet and landed on his backside.

The man brought with him the overpowering scent of sulfur and rotting fruit.

A woman followed him, wielding a zebra wood cane.

She held it like a sword.

The man leapt to his feet and advanced on the woman.

She was dainty and frilly and armed with only a cane.

That she’d knocked the brute down was a miracle, that she’d do it again, an impossibility.

Drake drew his gun from its holster. “Hey!”

Neither combatant paid him the slightest attention.

The woman swung the cane, splintering its length across the man’s head.

The man didn’t flinch. Instead, he came at her. His tensed hands easily fended off the woman’s fancy broken stick. He fisted one of those hands into an enormous ball of muscle and bone and mottled skin. He meant to hit her.

She was so tiny she might not survive such a blow.

Drake pointed his gun toward the ceiling and squeezed the trigger.

Bang!

The man froze. The woman shifted her gaze to the newly minted hole in the ceiling. Her brows drew together. Her lips thinned. “Have you lost your mind?” The man swung.

She ducked with the grace of a professional boxer.

The fist connected with a hat stand, sending a collection of bows masquerading as a hat careening to the carpet.

If possible, her expression grew fiercer.

The man swung again.

Again she ducked. She was as light on her feet as Joe Gans. Although a southern lady probably wouldn’t appreciate being compared to a Negro boxer. Even if he was the Lightweight Champion of the World.

The man brought back his arm for a third attempt and Mattias grabbed fabric, rock-hard muscle, and pulsing anger.

The man growled and turned.

Eyes red as fresh-spilled blood stared at him. Not the red-rimmed orbs of a man who stayed out too late. The eyes were red. Pupils. Irises. Whites. All red.

“Demon.” The words slipped through his lips unchecked. He glanced at the woman. Did she know what had attacked her? Was her pale skin any paler? If she fainted, she might hurt herself.

She turned away from him. Opened a concealed cabinet and withdrew…something. Her back blocked his view.

The demon’s free arm arced toward him, its fist connecting with his jaw.

His head snapped back and stars danced in his eyes.

Damn.

Literally.

With the hand holding his gun, Drake smashed the beast’s head. The blow had the same effect as the woman’s cane. None at all.

A fine kettle of fish this was. Zeke hadn’t said a word about fighting demons. Drake wasn’t prepared for hell spawn.

“Duck!” The woman’s voice carried unexpected authority.

He ducked.

A sluice of water splashed the demon’s face. The moisture sizzled, dancing a macabre dance on the creature’s skin. It bubbled. It raised welts. It smoked. The beast tore at its own flesh. It fell to the floor. Limbs seizing. Mouth frothing.

Holy Water?

What was a shopkeeper doing with a pitcher of Holy Water?

She pushed past him, reached into her chignon, and withdrew a hairpin.

She bent near the creature’s head.

Had she lost her mind? Most women would be swooning right about now, not approaching their attacker. “Don’t!”

She ignored him and scratched the sign of the cross into the beast’s forehead with the tip of the pin.

The thing on the floor screamed, its lips stretched into a fearsome snarl. The giant fist twitched once then loosened.

Red eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.

The woman backed away. “Is he dead?” He nudged the body with the tip of his boot.

A bit of smoke escaped the lips then vanished in the humid air.

“It’s dead.”

“Did I kill him?” The words came in a rush. She lifted her hand to her mouth, hiding the trembling of her chin.

“No.” She need not carry his death on her conscience any more than he needed to deal with a guilt-ridden, crying woman. “Whatever possessed him killed him.”

“Well, that’s a mercy.” She slumped against the glass display case. “I’m Christine Lambert.” She pronounced the last name lamb-bear. “Who are you?”

This was the hat maker? He’d expected a fussy woman of a certain age, not a virago who fought demons. Certainly not a virago who looked like an angel.

“Mattias Drake.” He slipped his gun back into its holster. Guns tended to make ladies nervous.

This lady tilted her head and stared at him with eyes the shade of Baltic amber. She might have dispatched a demon, but if she was like most of the ladies of his acquaintance, hysterics were probably just around the corner. He dug in his pocket for a handkerchief and held it out to her.

She stared at the neatly folded square for a few seconds then her chin firmed. “Why are you in my shop, Mr. Drake?”

“Zeke Barnes sent me.”

“I see.” Her gaze drifted to the hole in the ceiling then to the body splayed across her carpet. “How long until it disappears?” She steepled her fingers then brought her palms together, a gesture apparently meant to suggest the disappearance of the all-too-corporeal being on the floor.

Or maybe she was praying. He blinked. “Disappears?”

She pulled her hands apart as if a ball inflated between them. “Poof. Disappears. When does the body disappear?”

She expected the body to disappear like mist in the sunshine? Not likely. “When we call a wagon.”

Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. “I should have used more Holy Water.”

At least she had a sense of humor. Most women would faint dead away.

The front door flew open. “Sorry it took me so long. The clerk wouldn’t stop talking. What’s that smell? It’s awful.” The girl who’d pushed through the door wrinkled her nose. “What—” The words died on her lips and the parcel in her arms fell to the floor.

“You missed the excitement, Molly.”

Excitement? The woman thought being attacked by a demon was exciting?

“Wha— wha—” Molly pointed to the body.

The milliner nodded her head toward him. “Molly, this is Mr. Mattias Drake, an associate of Zeke Barnes.”

Molly didn’t spare him a glance. Her gaze remained locked on the corpse on the carpet. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”

The polite reply was meaningless rote, pretty words hiding a lack of true sentiment. The girl, who’d paled to a sickly shade of green, probably didn’t even know she’d said them. “Who is that?” She pointed a shaking finger at the body.

“I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you, Mr. Drake?”

“No,” he replied. He’d been in New Orleans exactly three hours, how could he?

They all stared at the body.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to look and see if he has any identification.” The milliner might look cool and collected but her dainty hands gripped the edge of the counter hard enough to whiten her knuckles.

He approached the body and crouched. Now that the demon was dead, the smell of sulfur had faded. The stench of rotting fruit lingered. The man’s pockets were empty. No money. No handkerchief. No identification. “Nothing.”

The woman huffed. “Of course not. That would be too easy. Now what?”

He’d promised aid finding her father, not disposing of a demon’s leavings. “The police.”

She crinkled her nose as if she’d caught a fresh whiff of rotting fruit. “I suppose there’s nothing for it. Molly, are you still walking out with that young detective?”

Molly offered up a quavering smile and nodded.

“Please fetch him.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Molly turned with a swirl of skirts, relief stamped on her lightly freckled face. She pulled open the front door and was gone.

The woman bent, picked a silk rose off the floor then smoothed its petals. “What a mess.”

It would have been exponentially worse without her

Holy Water. “Does this happen often?”

She looked at him as if he was an escaped lunatic.

“I only ask because of the Holy Water. Most people don’t keep pitchers handy.” And what about the pin she’d pulled from her hair? Women—at least the women of his acquaintance—didn’t usually wear sterling hair pins.

“You’re the man Zeke sent to help me find my father?” She sounded disbelieving enough to be insulting. “I am.”

“Have you been to New Orleans before?” “Once or twice.” No need to tell her the reasons.

A resigned whoosh of air escaped her lips and her straight shoulders sagged. “What did Zeke tell you about my father?”

Practically nothing. “He’s missing.”

“He’s dead.”

He’d wasted a trip? At least now he could catch the next train north. “I’m sorry for your loss. When did he pass?”

“A few years ago.” She stared at him, daring him to doubt her.

The favor Zeke owed him grew far bigger than a whale. No wonder he’d asked him to come. Ghosts were tethered to a place or person. They didn’t go missing. “Perhaps he crossed over.” Drake dug for the handkerchief again.

Her left brow rose. Her lips pursed. Her thoughts seemed clear—she found it amazing he successfully pulled up his socks in the morning. Only an idiot would suggest that her father had moved to another plane.

This from a woman who sold hats that looked like bird nests complete with nesting robins? One need take only one look at her frilly, silly shop to know that the sensible one in the room was he.

“My father would not cross without telling me first.”

Ghosts didn’t behave like the living. Sometimes they just crossed. He made a sympathetic noise in his throat.

“He didn’t!” She looked ready to pick up her broken cane and whack him on the head.

In the short walk from his hotel to the hat shop, he’d seen no less than a hundred ghosts. The city was lousy with them. If she was right and Warwick Lambert had gone missing, finding him would be like searching for a specific lobster in the vast waters off the coast of Maine. To wit, impossible. The task was made still harder by his status as a stranger and a Yankee. In New Orleans, he had no contacts, no influence, no power. He wasn’t even here in an official capacity.

Her elegantly tapered finger tapped the edge of the glass countertop. Apparently, she expected him to respond.

He didn’t have an answer for her. Either her father had crossed and they’d never find him, or he’d disappeared into the veritable congress of ghosts haunting New Orleans and they’d never find him. Failure was inevitable. He wouldn’t offer her false hope.

The silence stretched.

With a huff, the woman cast her gaze heavenward. Then she skirted the corpse, locked the glass-paned front door, fastened the chain, and turned the sign in the window to Fermé. Why didn’t the placard say Closed? They weren’t in Paris so signs written in French were as pretentious as saying lamb-bear instead of lamb-bert. Silly store. Silly hats. Silly woman.

Her back bristled as if she could read his thoughts. He’d made her angry. Better that than hysterical. Thank God she wasn’t one of those women who dissolved into tears at the drop of a hat. Good thing, too. If she’d taken refuge in tears, he didn’t know what he would have done. Probably, he would have agreed to whatever it took to find her father. Women’s tears rendered him idiotic.

She bent with the grace of a dancer, picked up the hat covered with bows, and righted its stand. Then she put the hat in its proper place and tsked. “Ruined. It’s ruined.”

It didn’t look ruined to him. Its trip to the carpet hadn’t changed a thing. It had started out as ridiculous frippery and still was. He grunted.

“You don’t like my hats, Mr. Drake?” Her tone was sweeter than maple syrup, dripping over the edge of a stack of flapjacks fresh from the griddle on a hungry morning.

“No.” Whenever possible, he told the truth. Wasting a lie on ridiculous hats was…ridiculous.

She glanced at him, her gaze assessed his plain suit, then her mouth primmed. “How do you know Zeke?”

“Harvard.”

“They didn’t teach you the value of a white lie while you were there?”

His lips curled. “They tried—”

“But they failed.” She finished his thought.

Disconcerting, that. He dragged his gaze away from her butterscotch eyes. The body on the floor couldn’t finish his sentences. Drake looked at that instead. “What did it want?”

“No idea.” Something sharp lurked in the smooth honey

of her voice. His gaze returned to her face. Fleeting as a summer wind, bright as a fire in winter, the lie flashed in her eyes.

Why would she lie?

“You’re sure? Barnes sent me to help you.”

“Then find my father.”

“What about him?” He jerked his chin toward the body. “What if your father’s disappearance and the arrival of a demon in your shop are related?” It stretched the limits of credulity to suggest they weren’t.

“You seem like a man who appreciates honesty, Mr.

Drake.”

“My friends call me Drake.”

“I’ll be honest, Mr. Drake. I don’t know you and I don’t trust you.”

Probably smart, that. And surprising. The woman standing opposite him was dainty, far too pretty, and apparently addicted to the kind of gee-gaws he despised. When he’d expected hysterics, she’d shown him strength. His lips curled into a smile. “I’m completely trustworthy.” There was a lie worth telling.

“Every no-count man in Orleans Parish has uttered those exact words at some point in his life. Probably right before he betrayed some poor woman’s trust.”

The corner of Drake’s eye twitched. He’d saved her. Didn’t that count for something?

Her brows arched as if she could read his mind and disagreed with his conclusions. She was the one who’d doused the demon with Holy Water. She was the one who’d carved a cross into its forehead.

Maybe he hadn’t saved her but he’d helped. Maybe the damsel in distress had saved herself. Or maybe Christine Lambert would be lying dead on the floor if he hadn’t come into her shop. Drake rubbed the back of his neck.

Tap, tap, tap.

A woman stood at the door with a hatbox dangling from her hand.

“She can’t come in,” he said.

Christine favored him another look that questioned his intelligence. Apparently, the obvious need not be stated. She cracked the door without removing the chain.

“You have to fix this for me, Christine.” The woman shook her hatbox. “Now. Right away. I need it for tonight.”

“I’m sorry. We’re closed.”

“Pish.” The woman pushed on the still chained door.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Simms. We’re closed.” There was something—perhaps the tone of her voice, or the set of her shoulders, or the tilt of her chin—that gave Drake the impression that Christine didn’t like the woman at the door.

“Open the door.”

“We’re closed.” The voice. Dislike definitely lurked in Christine’s voice.

The woman lifted her hand to her face and peered through the glass.

Drake stepped into her sightline, blocking her view of the body.

“You have a man in there! I can see him.”

“Mr. Drake owns a department store in New York. He wants to carry my hats.” Christine’s lie was effortless. If Drake didn’t know better, he’d believe her himself.

“Why don’t you wear the hat you bought last week?” Christine asked. “It’s so becoming.”

Was that too a lie? Christine blocked his view of the customer demanding entrance but her petulant tone suggested a woman who depended on frippery to hide her lack of character. No hat on earth could disguise that.

“You know the one,” Christine continued. “It has that enormous brim and the black ostrich feathers.”

“It’s too much for the theater.”

“On the contrary. It’s perfect for the theater. Every woman there will be mad with envy.”

“You’re sure?” the woman asked.

“I’m positive.” Christine spoke with absolute assurance, a woman who knew her hats.

“A shop in New York, you said?” Her fears about the suitability of her headwear assuaged, Mrs. Simms now wanted gossip.

“We haven’t yet come to terms.” Christine eased the door toward its jamb. “Have a lovely time at the theater.” The door clicked closed.

She turned and faced him. “What’s the name of your store?”

Drake stared at her. “I don’t have a store.”

“Good plan. A couple of the ladies in the Garden District travel to New York regularly. They’d know if we made something up.” She tilted her head. “You’re thinking of opening one and you travelled all the way to New Orleans because you heard I was the best hat-maker in the whole United States.”

“What are you talking about?” The stress of the afternoon had obviously affected her. She was raving.

“That was Yvette Simms. The rumor will be all over the Garden District within an hour.”

“Do I look like the kind of man who owns a department store?”

“It was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment.” She tilted her head farther and studied him. “There’s nothing for it. You’ll have to get yourself a decent suit and pretend a certain knowledge of fashion.”

“I will not.”

“I thought you were here to help, Mr. Drake. That’s what Trula’s wire said.”

He was here to find her father, not engage in fantastical lies. “You could admit to the lie. The truth will come out when that woman learns there was a dead body in your shop.”

“Why would she learn that?”

“It’ll be hard to hide.”

“No, it won’t.” She shook her head and a dark curl brushed her cheek. “This is New Orleans. All it takes to hide a body is money.”

He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Yvette Simms isn’t part of the New Orleans that would believe a demon attacked me.” She glanced at the man on the floor then at him. “She’d make up something better, something like a love triangle gone wrong. A lie is more believable than a demon—especially a lie about a Yankee wanting to sell my hats.” She squinted at him. “Although, if she sees you up close, she won’t believe that either. You dress like a down-on-his-luck undertaker.”

He resisted the impulse to smooth his lapels. “Clothes do not make a man.”

She sniffed. “We’ll agree to disagree on that point.”

Why did the urge to buy a new suit hit him now? He snorted. How dare she? His suit was serviceable. He didn’t need anything more.

“Perception is reality, Mr. Drake.” The left corner of her mouth lifted in a wry smile.

She was wrong. Reality was reality.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

What now? Another customer she’d charm with sugared lies?

Molly and a young man waited outside.

Christine unlocked the door.

The two entered and the man’s gaze went directly to the body on the floor. He paled.

“What happened, Miss Lambert?” He pronounced her name lamb-bear. Of course he did.

“Detective Kenton, thank you for coming.” Her eyelashes fluttered. “This man came into my store and attacked me.”

Kenton stepped closer to the body, bent and peered. “He did? You’re sure?” Then he jerked his chin toward Drake.

“Who are you, sir?” “I’m—”

“He’s one of Zeke Barnes’ colleagues,” piped Christine.

Now she told the truth? Now? Life would have been much simpler without announcing his presence to the local police.

Christine’s pronouncement earned Drake a closer look. Kenton pulled at his collar as if his shirt had grown too tight. “Then you can tell me how he got here?”

Drake hadn’t the slightest idea why a demon had walked into the hat shop. “Pardon?”

“The body, sir. How did it get here?”

“I told you,” said Christine. “He walked through the door and attacked me.”

A wrinkle creased Kenton’s brow and he shifted his gaze to Christine. “No, ma’am, that’s not possible.” “He did,” she insisted.

“No, ma’am.” Kenton repeated then he rubbed his forehead. “This man was in the morgue this morning. I took him there myself.”

Drake’s gaze flew back to the man on the floor. “Dead?”

“Yes, sir. That’s why I took him to the morgue.” The young man’s face flushed but his gaze remained steady and forthright.

Kenton’s assurance raised disturbing questions.

Demons had to be invited and a dead man couldn’t ask for anything. Whatever had possessed the man on the floor, it wasn’t a demon. So what was it?