Read a sample from GHOST TRAIN TO NEW ORLEANS by Mur Lafferty
Witty urban fantasy from fan-favourite Mur Lafferty, about a travel writer who agrees to write a guide to New Orleans – for the undead.
COULD YOU FIND A MUSEUM FOR A MONSTER? OR A JAZZ BAR FOR A JABBERWOCK?
Zoë Norris would have rather had a root canal than conduct this interview for a new writer. Her stomach rolled forward at a slow, constant pace, nearly pulling her along toward her fate: an interview with an angry Norse goddess.
Zoë reminded herself that it was her turf, her job to give out, and that she was only doing this interview as a favor for Gwen, her head writer, who had recommended the Norse goddess. Zoë could easily tell this woman no, she couldn’t have the travel writing job.
The problem was, she needed to fill the position, and fast.
The offices of Underground Publishing were in a condemned off-Broadway theater, mainly to accommodate the vampires who worked with Zoë in publishing travel guides for nonhumans. Being human, Zoë wished her office at least had a window, but was simply grateful she had a door that locked.
She conducted her interviews on the stage, where the office kept its break room. In fact, the break room looked an awful lot like a set—it held a refrigerator, a counter with a microwave, a bookshelf filled with travel guides, easy chairs, and a lunch table.
The audience was full of dusty red velvet seats that had seen better days many decades before. Zoë was fairly good by now at ignoring the expanse of emptiness beyond the break room, and she no longer felt that getting a cup of coffee was paired with handling stage fright, but right now all she wanted to do was flee into the audience.
The goddess, Eir, sat at one end of the lunch table, her spine ramrod-straight, her hair in one thick golden braid across her shoulder that brushed her hip. She wore a gray Yankees sweatshirt that did nothing to hide her very obvious divine nature. The woman practically glowed. Gwen had once told Zoë that Eir was a relatively minor goddess, a Valkyrie, but even a minor goddess was more divine than Zoë, and Eir knew it.
It didn’t help that Zoë had interviewed Eir once before, and that had ended with Zoë’s completely offending her.
But that was a while ago, Zoë firmly reminded herself. Since then she had become much more comfortable with the world in which she worked: a world where vampires, zombies, and the occasional demon or deity were tourists just like humans and, therefore, needed travel guides. She had successfully edited one book about New York, and was building a writing team for a travel guide to New Orleans.
Zoë weighed the subtle power dynamics of the situation: the goddess had already taken the head of the table, which was the interviewer’s seat, but she decided that she would let Eir have this one. Zoë was the one with the real power here, despite Eir’s impressive ability to intimidate.
And heal, apparently. Morgen would have laughed at her being afraid of a healing goddess. But Morgen wasn’t here; the water sprite had been missing for over a month (since the rather destructive events last December), and no one was around to make Zoë laugh at herself. Everyone was so damn serious here.
Eir was much taller than Zoë, even seated her height was impressive, and her stony features depicted a perfect picture of a pissed-off Norse goddess. If, as a child, Zoë had been instructed to draw a pissed-off Norse goddess, she would have drawn Eir. Long golden braid, crossed arms, furrowed brow.
She probably would have put wings on her, too, because Zoë as a child thought everything was made better with angel wings, even bugs, which already had wings. Also, she wouldn’t have included the Yankees sweatshirt. But besides that, Eir still impressed Zoë with her palpable divine presence.
Zoë fought the urge to cringe, but instead smiled at Eir and sat down at the table.
Before she could speak, Eir asked, “Why have you called me back here?” Her voice boomed, echoing through the auditorium. She had great stage presence, Zoë thought, wondering if she should encourage the goddess to go into acting instead of publishing.
“It’s good to see you, Eir,” Zoë said, ignoring the imperative question. “All right, so our first encounter was handled poorly, and the fault was entirely mine.” (And your crazy temper’s, she didn’t add.) “We’ve had an opening in the writing team, and I’ve had a chance to look over your résumé again, so I wanted to see if you were still interested in a job at Underground Publishing.”
Eir’s face softened, but she just segued into a skeptical frown instead of a look of relaxed ease. “Why me?”
Because Gwen made me, Zoë didn’t say. Instead she said, “Gwen tells me you have spent some time in New Orleans, yes?”
Eir eased her huge form back into the chair, relaxing at last. “Yes. A couple of decades selling music. It is a beautiful city.”
Zoë smiled. “That’s why we need you. My team is talented but having someone we know who knows the city is quite useful. Gwen, ah, mentioned you still didn’t have a steady job?”
Eir nodded her regal head, her braid bobbing. “Employers respond poorly to my passion. They make me angry too often.”
“Here you would be working with coterie, and I’m sure they can handle your . . . passion,” Zoë said carefully.
“What about you? Are you not a human?”
“I am,” she conceded. “But I think I’ve had enough experience now to not be surprised by the actions of one of your kind. Or if I am surprised, I can at least keep my head. When you met me, I was new to this whole world. I’ve had some experience since then.” She stopped, realizing she sounded as if she were interviewing for the job, not Eir. She bit her tongue inside her mouth.
Eir smiled, a touch of malice on her broad face. “Oh? And where were you on December eighth? Hiding in your apartment from the scary coterie?”
Zoë’s smile froze on her face. On December 8 she had been fighting a crazy woman who was raising golems to attack the city of New York. Many had died, and the authorities had explained it away as an earthquake. Zoë had been injured in the battle, and had lost friends. She didn’t like talking about December 8.
“Someday we’ll have a drink together and Gwen and I can tell you what happened the night of December eighth.” She looked down at the table and shuffled Eir’s résumé papers around, surprised at the tears that sprang to her eyes when she thought of that night, and her friends Morgen and Granny Good Mae, both of whom were gone. “But no,” she finished. “I didn’t hide.”
She took a deep breath to steady herself. “Your employment has been interesting through the centuries,” she said, looking at the résumé. “What can you tell me about your service to, um, sorry, I can’t pronounce it. Menglod?”
Eir nodded. “Menglöð, or Freyja, was my mistress, and I served her as a Valkyrie, choosing who lived and who died in war. After the wars died down, she had no more need of my service, so I spent time as a mead-server to heroes in Valhalla.”
“From Valkyrie to food service, got it,” Zoë said, making a note. She would give Eir the job—Zoë had no other choice—but she had to go through the motions. “It seems you had a spot of unemployment here, some twelve centuries of it?”
“Times were tough all over,” Eir said.
“And you applied to med school in 1975 but left because you didn’t need medical training since you already had divine healing power at your hand. I’m trying to find your New Orleans experience . . . ah, here!” She found the line she wanted on the résumé. “The store Mama Peat’s Records in New Orleans, you were assistant manager for ten years. Did you stay in the city long after that?”
“Some. I mostly traveled around, visited a war here and there, but choosing the living and dying has lost its sparkle for me. I haven’t found my true calling yet.”
“And do you think writing travel books is your calling?” Zoë asked.
“It could be. I will not know until I answer the call, will I?” Eir’s stony face had begun to flush, and Zoë broke eye contact, hoping not to rile her further.
She sighed and turned over the paper. “I will be honest with you, Eir. We need a writer now, and you know the city we’re working on, and Gwen has vouched for you.” Zoë’s eyes flicked backstage, where she knew her head writer was eavesdropping. “But I’m not crazy about your temper. If you took this job, I would need you to respect the word of the head writer and the editor.”
Eir sat, impassive. She said nothing.
“That would be Gwen and myself, respectively,” Zoë said. “The death goddess and the human will be your bosses. And the vampire above them,” she added, since Phil was the publisher and boss of them all. “If I can trust you to rein in your temper, I can offer you the job.”
“I will take your job,” Eir announced, as if she were doing Zoë a favor. “I will start tomorrow. Where is my desk?”
Her abrupt acceptance shocked Zoë. Did Eir accept the conditions? She shrugged mentally and continued. “Actually, we aren’t going to assign you a desk yet; we are heading out of town tonight to go to New Orleans, and we need you to come help us with our research. We’re going on the new high-speed train that runs the East Coast.”
Eir showed real interest for the first time. “Really? The ghost train? I have been wanting to ride that!”
“So have we all. It’s good to have you on board,” Zoë said, and shook the goddess’s hand. She was testing Eir, putting a lot of faith in the hope the goddess wouldn’t crush her hand, but then she remembered that Eir was a healing goddess, and her grip was firm and warm.
Zoë gave Eir the information she needed to meet them at Grand Central and told her to go meet Phil and Aneris, Phil’s new office assistant and acting coterie resources (the monster equivalent of human resources) representative, for the welcome‑to‑the-company speech.
“Phil and Aneris will discuss salary and benefits with you,” she said. “After that, you’ll need to go pack and then meet us tonight at midnight.”
The goddess nodded imperially and walked off the stage. Zoë flopped back into her chair and forced her shoulders to relax.
She stared at the acoustic tile on the ceiling and then called into the wings, “I know you’re there, can you come chat?”
Gwen, Underground Publishing’s head writer, peeked out from behind the curtain. “How did it go?” Her black eyes—completely black, with hints of stars within—were shining.
Zoë closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “You know how it went because you eavesdropped on us.”
“I did, I admit it,” she said. Zoë opened her eyes and mock-glared at her friend.
Gwen came onto the stage, a flowing image of 1985-era goth—night-black skin, black gown, long black hair. Zoë had no idea how she passed for human—her skin would place her as African in origin, but her hair was thin and straight, and her eyes were just plain freaky.
“If you had wanted privacy you should have gone into your office,” she said primly, and sat across from Zoë at the table.
Gwen was a Welsh psychopomp death goddess, once responsible for chaperoning the dead to the underworld, but with Christianity having taken over the British Isles, she didn’t have much to do anymore. She looked up with her glittering black eyes in her inky black face, and smiled slightly. “Thank you for giving her a chance.”
Zoë liked Gwen. The death goddess and Morgen the water sprite had been Zoë’s first friends in the office. But the death goddess was the polar opposite of the bubbly water sprite. Talking to Gwen was often, well, grave. It also wasn’t comforting that Gwen could sense at any time how close Zoë’s death was, and sometimes seemed comfortable telling Zoë when her odds of dying changed. This made conversation tense.
“You’re welcome. If she screws up, you’re responsible,” Zoë said. Gwen nodded. Zoë began gathering her papers back into her interview folder. “How are you doing? Trip prep going all right?”
“It takes very little for me to prepare for a trip,” Gwen said.
“Well, sure, you’re always wearing the same flowy dress that apparently doesn’t need dry cleaning,” Zoë said, “but don’t forget you’ll need to back up your laptop before you pack it up. And remember to pack power cords and all that.”
Gwen frowned, then said, “Wait one moment, please.” Zoë snickered and got up to get some coffee as Gwen headed offstage to, Zoë assumed, go ask the IT staff—two tiny gremlins—for help, as she always did when dealing with her computer.
She came back a moment later. “I’m not entirely sure what you said to me, but I repeated your words verbatim to Cassandra and she assured me she would take care of it. Now I am ready,” she said, and sat back down.
“So how did you meet Eir, anyway?” Zoë asked.
Gwen looked at her hands, which were calmly folded. “We’d seen each other on various battlefields through the centuries and became friends. Last night I was at the hospital and encountered her there, volunteering. We had a cup of coffee together.”
Zoë knew this meant that Eir had drunk coffee while Gwen fed silently on the desperate sense of fear of the dying, but she didn’t pick nits. She tried to imagine Eir’s bedside manner in a hospital, and shuddered.
“We talked about work, and it seemed she was still looking for a job. She tried faith healing, but that has largely gone out of style in favor of people who claim to talk to the dead.”
“That’s more your style,” Zoë said, and looked at Eir’s résumé again, having missed the hospital volunteer job at the end. “You know, we should talk to Phil about a book on business planning for coterie, including a chapter on how to write a résumé.”
“It has only come up as a necessity in the past few decades. Acquiring new knowledge requires overcoming centuries of habits for most of us,” Gwen said mildly. “But a book is a good idea.”
Zoë took a sip of her coffee and smiled. “That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
Gwen stood. “Thank you for giving her another chance, Zoë. You will not regret this.” She swept from the stage.
“I regret nearly every decision I make around here,” Zoë muttered. Her phone beeped and she checked it—it was nearly time for her meeting with Phil. She put Eir’s information back into her file and got that and her coffee and left the stage. She stopped by her office to grab her notebook and look mournfully at the still-untouched croissant she’d grabbed for breakfast, and headed to the big dressing room turned office to meet her boss.
* * *
Phil had never looked threatening to Zoë. He was white, thirtyish-looking, and comfortably plump, with glasses. When she was getting to know him, she had known that her coworkers were scared of him for some reason but she could never quite figure it out. But during that night in December, she’d seen him attack her former lover in a rage, and then kill a powerful zoëtist. His pleasant face transformed into monstrous rage was something Zoë wouldn’t forget.
You didn’t fuck with Phil.
After the incident, Zoë had taken some time off work to “heal,” ostensibly, working from home. She’d also needed to get her confidence back. Before, Phil was a nerdy puppy. Now he reminded her of a fat, dozing cat that could awaken and draw blood anytime if he needed to. A fat cat could still pounce, could still eviscerate.
“Morning, Phil. We need to make it quick, I still need to do a million and one things before the train leaves tonight.”
The fat cat smiled. He hadn’t done much to change his office from the dressing room it had been; he worked in front of a mirror that did not reflect him, which always disoriented her.
She took her customary seat on the couch and he swiveled his chair away from the computer to face her.
“Right. I spoke to your new writer, I was surprised you went with the Valkyrie.”
Zoë nodded. “Yeah, so am I, frankly. But she was the best of everyone we talked to, is familiar with the city, and Gwen wants me to give her a chance. Really, I only hesitated because she’s got a wicked temper.”
Phil laughed. “Like half the people in the office.”
Undaunted, Zoë said, “And that’s why I was hesitant about adding yet another volatile personality. We need more people like Morgen to diffuse the tension, not angsty people like Kevin to ratchet it up.”
Kevin was a young vampire, a writer who chafed at having a human for a boss. Zoë wasn’t happy about having to take him with her, but the fact was he was a damn good writer. When he wasn’t smelling her like a creepy guy in an elevator.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Phil said. “Gwen has had thousands of years to work on her judgment of character.”
“Too bad you can’t have her in coterie resources,” Zoë said. “Sometimes I think we’re writing the wrong books. It seems there are several books we could write to help coterie in more ways than travel. I mean, you should have seen Eir’s résumé, it was a mess. Someone needs to run a course or write a book on how to write a résumé that covers thousands of years. How to do business in the twenty-first century when you’ve lived for twenty of them. Or something like that.”
“Put it in an idea folder,” Phil said. “I’m open to growth, but only after we get our footing. Now tell me what you have planned for New Orleans.”
Zoë looked at her notepad. “We arrive early tomorrow before sunup on the new ghost bullet train, check into Freddie’s Ready B and B—”
“Excuse me?” Phil interrupted. “ ‘Freddie’s Ready B and B?’ ”
“Yeah, it’s run by a minor New Orleans deity, Freddie Who’s Always Ready. He’s got that name because he can accommodate any guest—vampire, sprite, fire demon, what have you. I like to think of him as some sort of hospitality god. Anyway, tomorrow we start exploring the city, I will check in with the local Public Works to let them know we’re in town and not going to cause trouble. After that I need to get to know Eir and her strengths, figure out where to put her, and then just get everyone to get to work.” She shrugged. “We’re on new ground here, with a New York–based writing group researching a new city. We’re going to have to make friends with the natives pretty fast.”
“Or your writers will have to, anyway,” reminded Phil.
Zoë rolled her eyes. “Yes, we’ll keep your pet editor safe, boss man. I won’t go meeting any scary vampires or zombies without an escort.”
“Good.” Phil walked to a hook on the wall where his jacket hung. “I nearly forgot. I got you something.” He pulled something rectangular out of the pocket and tossed it at her.
She caught it and examined it. It was a black phone, but she didn’t recognize the brand name, Talkankhamun. “I have a phone,” she said, raising her eyebrows at him.
Phil held his own phone out to her, showing her the leather case he’d placed it in. “This is new, it’s from a coterie company. It makes us less easy to track by Public Works, for one thing, and it makes it easier for some among us to communicate. Undead find it difficult to get phones, for example, especially if their families canceled their plans after they died.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” Zoë said, turning it on. “But you remember that I don’t have a problem getting a cell phone, right?”
“We don’t want our calls to you traced, necessarily,” Phil said.
“I thought you guys worked in cooperation with Public Works?” Zoë asked, smiling slightly.
Public Works, along with keeping the city running with sewer lines and trash pickup, was the front line of human monster fighters/police. It had an uneasy truce with coterie who wished to live peacefully in the city, but still protected humans from coterie who broke the law.
“We like them tracking us as much as you like your government tracking you,” Phil said. “Wasn’t there some mess in the news about your NSA spying on you?”
Zoë enjoyed baiting Phil with Public Works comments, as she knew he got along with New York City Public Works better than most coterie in the city. It didn’t hurt that both she and Phil knew someone who worked for it, someone who owed his life to Phil. Someone Zoë had an early dinner date with before she caught the train.
Zoë slipped the new phone into her pocket. “All right, fine, I’ll juggle two phones, anything else?”
“Just one.” Phil turned back to his desk and fiddled with his laptop mouse. “John got back this morning. We’re calling off the hunt for Morgen.”
Zoë felt as if she’d been kicked in the belly. She’d actually started feeling somewhat warm toward the incubus who had taken a sabbatical to look for Morgen. But now he was back empty-handed, and she closed her eyes against the white-hot rage that rose in her. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“That’s too bad. Thanks for letting him try.”
“He wants to see you. I told him only if you agreed to it.”
Phil was referring to her request not to have anything to do with John, whose power made her dizzy with lust. He had attempted to seduce her last fall, and had nearly succeeded. She avoided him when she could.
“No. I don’t need the distraction. Tell him to e‑mail me.” She rose from the couch and raised her eyebrows. “If we’re done here?”
Phil nodded. “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. She gave her life to protect us that night. She’s a hero.”
That’s a lot of comfort to her. Zoë bit back the comment and silently left Phil’s office.
* * *
The city was quieter in the winter.
Not the part of the city with the traffic, or the obnoxious old lady who yelled out the window at the children who played on the sidewalk, or the jackhammers—that stayed loud as ever.
It was the city’s soul that was quiet. After work, Zoë went daily to the park for a contemplative wander around the Reservoir to see if she could get a sense of the city under the water. In December, a rogue zoëtist—a human who manipulates life forces—had built a giant golem from buses and taxis and a small building and had captured the soul of the city within. Only Zoë’s friend and mentor, Granny Good Mae, was able to calm the rampaging golem, and she and the city had sought refuge under the waters of the Reservoir in Central Park.
Granny Good Mae was a very strong citytalker, one who could hear and communicate with the soul of a city. She had a very close relationship with New York.
Zoë had discovered she also was a citytalker. Granny Good Mae had been teaching her how to live among coterie (and more important, how to stay alive amid them) but had never taught her much about citytalking. Now that Zoë knew what she was, Granny was gone, and no one could teach her how to interpret the strange sensations and thoughts she sometimes got.
Since the night Granny Good Mae disappeared, life had been enough of a distraction that Zoë hadn’t had a lot of chances to explore her newly discovered skill.
She had hidden that skill from the coterie she worked with. She yearned for answers, but instinct told her not to share this information with people who might want to eat her, or use her power. Vampires can gain zoëtism powers if they drain a zoëtist, it’s possible they could get the same effect if they drained a citytalker, and Zoë wasn’t going to take that chance.
So no mentor, no teacher, no Obi-Wan. Zoë found herself going over the events of the previous fall, trying to figure out what had been going on when she had thought Granny Good Mae was merely a poor homeless schizophrenic.
Homeless, yes. Schizophrenic, not so much. A quite powerful coterie? Definitely. Zoë had been struggling with the idea of human coterie. She had been looking at coterie as a black-and-white thing, monsters on one side, humans on the other. But it seemed that some humans had powers. First there were the zoëtists, manipulators of life. People like Dr. Frankenstein and Jewish mystics who raised mud golems. Then she had learned of citytalkers.
It was ironic how Zoë, whose name meant “life,” had ended up being a citytalker and not a zoëtist, but she had stopped looking for clever meanings to things a long time ago.
Then there was the matter of Granny Good Mae being “poor.”
“I got the call from your lawyer today,” Zoë said aloud, her breath puffing in the dying afternoon light. The ice coating the Reservoir glittered in the sunset, and she focused on it, knowing Granny Good Mae likely still lived below the waters in her city golem, like Voltron.
“I’m not sure why you left me all that money, I’m not even sure why you stayed homeless if you were that rich.” She paused and continued her wandering around the frozen lake. “Why did you sit on that much? Anyway, thanks, I guess. I don’t really feel worthy, but thanks. I’m not sure what else to say.”
Zoë still couldn’t wrap her mind around the number the lawyer had quoted. The first thing she had done after the call was go online and purchase new work boots. Solid, steel-toed, wool-lined boots. She had bought a second, lighter pair for summer. One of the first things she had learned about Granny Good Mae was that the old woman was homeless and dressed in layers of old clothing, but she never scrimped on boots.
At lunch Zoë bought some cashmere gloves, but immediately felt extravagant and embarrassed when she paid the surprisingly high bill. She wiggled her fingers in the luxury and dared the winter’s bite to go through them.
Then she stopped spending.
“I am heading away tonight. New Orleans. I’ve got a new book to work on. I’m nervous.” She felt awkward talking to the open air, but she always had a sense that someone was listening. “I didn’t feel New York talking to me when I was a kid, and I never felt Raleigh at all when I lived there. I’m just wondering what’s going to happen when I get to a new city. And how can I find another citytalker to train me? How many of us are there?”
It was a circular discussion that Zoë often had with herself. She had no one else to talk to about it. The only people who knew of her talent were her sort‑of boyfriend Arthur from Public Works, and the zoëtist Benjamin Rosenberg. Arthur had found out about citytalkers when Zoë had, and Benjamin knew about them but never wanted to talk about them, even when Zoë begged for answers.
Zoë preferred being a plain old human to her coterie coworkers. Resilient, and strangely able to adapt quickly to frequent strange incidents, but human all the same. She liked her coworkers, mostly, but was always acutely aware that many saw her as a meal they weren’t allowed to touch.
Zoë checked her watch. She had two hours before her date with Arthur. She peeled off her gloves and stuffed them into her coat pocket, then quickly took off her coat, hat, and sweatshirt. The arm she had broken last month ached in the subfreezing temperatures, but she calmly piled her discarded clothing on the grass and began going through a slow, tai chi–like form that Granny Good Mae had drilled her on.
“If you do it right, then you don’t feel the cold,” Granny had scolded in November when Zoë had complained. Now Zoë patiently did her forms daily to keep her wits about her. She worked out for an hour, going through forms and various attacks for the different coterie she would likely encounter. From the smooth and unpredictable bob and weave to avoid a zombie’s shambling to a jumping drill to work her fast-twitch muscles to avoid vampires, and even down to the ever-elegant straight punch to the mouth while avoiding eye contact for when an incubus tried to hit on her, and the fast search through her bag for a wrench to open a fire hydrant to battle a fire demon, she went through them all. When she was done, she had worked up a sweat and even her fingers and ears were pleasantly warm. She dressed, hefted her satchel (which held, among other things, her wrench, a knife, a complicated string puzzle that Granny had told her would help foil animal spirits, and a small bag of gold coins Granny had given her to distract dragons), gave a furtive look toward the silent, icy Reservoir, and turned to walk to the train station.
Two words floated into her mind as she left, the clearest words she’d heard since Granny Good Mae and the spirit of the city had gone under the waters.
* * *
Zoë was still pondering the words when she opened the door to her apartment. She dumped her bag next to the weapons rack that stood by the door and stretched. She chewed on her lip, wondering if she should visit Arthur before getting ready for the date, but when she heard swearing coming from his apartment next door, she left hers and knocked on his door.
Arthur was panting when he answered the door. He was tall, bald, thin, and had a way of moving that suggested a wiry strength. His dark skin shone with sweat and his eyes were wide behind his wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a simple blue T‑shirt and jeans. She had been feeling self-conscious coming over directly after a workout, but it was clear her appearance was the last thing on his mind.
(Not to mention that Arthur had seen her covered in blood, sewer water, and demon goo, so sweat was nothing.)
Arthur rubbed the back of his head. “Zoë, hey. I thought we weren’t meeting for another half hour?”
She smiled. “You sounded like you were fighting a band of pixies or something, I wanted to check on you. Is everything OK?” She peeked around Arthur and gasped at the disheveled state of his always-neat apartment.
“Come in,” Arthur said, stepping aside. “I have to cancel our date. Shit is going down.”
“What’s going on?” Zoë said in alarm. “Public Works business?”
He shook his head absently and started rummaging around in the cushions of his brown leather couch.
“It’s Ben. He’s on vacation and I can’t reach him. I think he and Orson took a cruise.”
Zoë nodded. Their zoëtist friend was married to a man who hated the coterie, and had insisted on a vacation far away from cell towers. “You knew this. He set you up with enough medicine, right?”
“It would have been enough if I could fucking find it,” Arthur said, throwing a small cushion back on the couch.
Zoë went cold. Last November she and Arthur had discovered that Ben was a uniquely powerful zoëtist in that he had access to obscure medicinal herbs that could keep the zombie curse at bay if someone had been bitten. And Arthur had gotten a bite from an enraged zombie when he tried to help out Zoë and her boss during a fight that had gotten nasty fast.
The last Zoë had heard, Arthur was healing nicely and the zombie curse was completely stable, but he would need to take Ben’s herbal drinks for the rest of his life.
Zoë and Arthur had asked Ben to make the remedy available to Public Works to protect the other people likely to be bitten by zombies, but Ben had refused.
“It’s not just a matter of a pinch of sage and a cup of basil. It requires zoëtist magic, and frankly our magic is dying out. We are getting fewer and fewer students, and the older masters are dying. Lucy had mortally wounded my master, the Doyenne, before she left the bayou. I get my herb shipment from her last student, whose name I don’t even know.”
Lucy was the crazed zoëtist who had tried to take over the city in December. Phil had eaten her.
Ben had said that the recipe was a sacred text and refused to give it to Public Works. Arthur had grudgingly accepted it as long as Ben promised a lifetime supply of the herbs.
Zoë tried to avoid all the obvious questions as she slowly cast her eyes around the apartment. “When did you take your last dose?”
“A week ago,” he said absently, glaring at his coffee table, which held one magazine, a Guns & Ammo issue, as if the table were somehow hiding the herbs.
“OK. You made the tea in the kitchen, right?” She walked to the kitchen without waiting for him to answer.
The kitchen was in an even worse state of chaos. Cupboards were open, drawers had dish towels and utensils sticking out of them, and globs of dust sat on the floor around the fridge. Zoë realized Arthur had been looking for his herbs on the rarely cleaned fridge top.
She went to the cupboard where he kept his tea and coffee, which stood ajar, and opened it wider. The tin Arthur kept his herbs in wasn’t there.
“And you haven’t had a break‑in or anything, right?”
“Of course not,” he snapped. “Besides, nothing else is missing.”
Arthur did have a large collection of antique weaponry that any thief would be attracted to.
Zoë grabbed a kitchen chair, dragged it over to the counter, and stood on it to get a different view of the cupboard. At the very back of the top shelf, only visible if you looked at it directly, was an envelope. Zoë snagged it.
ARTHUR was written on it in neat, feminine handwriting. Zoë handed it to him.
“Oh shit,” he said, his voice weak and empty.
Zoë hopped off the chair. “I guess you know who left that?”
He nodded slowly as he opened the envelope. He was silent as he read the letter inside, and his long fingers tightened until the paper was creased and quivering.
“I take it that it’s not good news,” Zoë said lightly, trying to siphon off some of his obvious rage.
Arthur abruptly collapsed into the chair Zoë had used to retrieve the envelope and he leaned over, cradling his head in his hands. “My sister Katy. She dropped by this weekend. She had to have found them.”
“Why? Did she steal them? Why would she need zoëtist herbs?”
“Because she doesn’t know what they are,” he said, his voice devoid of emotion. “Our sister Kimberly OD’d when we were teens. When we grew up, I went into Public Works, but Katy went to work for a drug rehab facility to help others. She found my herbs and thought they were pot.”
Zoë winced. She had smelled his herbs and they did smell like marijuana, among other things.
“So she took them, and I’m supposed to call her when I find this letter so she can do an intervention.”
“An intervention isn’t going to stop you from becoming a zombie,” Zoë said in alarm. “And you can’t reach Ben.”
He shook his head.
“This is bad,” she said.
* * *
They had to come up with a credible lie as to what the herbs were, and Arthur called his sister to try to get them back. They hadn’t hoped for much, and when Katy archly informed Arthur that she had washed the herbs down the garbage disposal, Arthur hung up on her.
They sat at his kitchen table, sipping coffee; the only power it had was stopping metaphorical zombification.
“Do you want me to stay?” she asked, holding his hand.
He shook his head as if to clear it. “Shit, that’s right, you’re on your way out of town. I can’t think of anything you could do if you were here, so I guess not.”
It stung that he didn’t want her there for simple moral support, but Zoë was distracted from her hurt feelings by a dawning recognition on Arthur’s face. “Wait, you’re going to New Orleans, right?” he asked.
“That’s where Ben studied with his mentor, in the swamps down there! There might be someone down there who can get me more herbs!”
Zoë wanted to kick herself for not thinking of it. “Of course! You want me to try to find any master zoëtists down there for you?”
He shook his head. “Sorry, but I gotta do this myself. I’m going with you.”
As pleased as she was that they had a plan, Zoë couldn’t help but feel her spirits drop. Now I’m traveling with vampires and a member of Public Works. This has no chance of going very, very badly.
* * *
They had a quick dinner together, Arthur bright-eyed and invigorated with his new plan. He served steak and baked potatoes and red wine.
“Something weird happened today,” she said.
“Weird shit always happens to you,” Arthur replied, smiling for the first time that day.
Zoë shrugged. “OK, weird in the citytalker way, then. I was working out in the park, and when I’m there, I usually talk to the Reservoir. I know they’re in there, but they never talk back. I mentioned I was going to New Orleans tonight, and complaining about not knowing any other citytalkers, and as I was leaving I got a clear impression that I should avoid other citytalkers. What does that mean?”
Arthur frowned. “I don’t know. Most everyone wants to find their own people, don’t they?”
Zoë nodded slowly. “I just wish I could learn how to connect with the city as well as Granny could.”
“I hope that won’t make you a schizo homeless woman,” he said, giving her a peck on the cheek as he poured more wine.
“I don’t think it will,” she said, but she wasn’t sure. Something had definitely snapped within Granny Good Mae at some point. Was she willing to go through that to talk to a city?