18 May 2015

The Veil – Chapter Two

[ Click here for Chapter One ]

CHAPTER TWO

Veil FinalBlacks, grays, taupes. There weren’t many civilians left in New Orleans these days, especially in the Quarter, and we tended to wear neutral colors. Military colors. Our clothes blended with theirs, and that was fine by me.

Stay quiet; work hard. That was my motto.

But this was War Night. War Night deserved more than camouflage, so I’d donned a pale violet dress sprigged with white flowers. While Gunnar waited downstairs, I changed from black and gray into NOLA-appropriate purple that worked pretty well against my green eyes and long red hair. Fortunately, I was happy with it straight, because it wouldn’t hold a curl if you begged it.

When Gunnar finished off the tea and the store was locked up tight, we followed Royal Street past brick buildings still half-destroyed, then turned onto Canal. As Gunnar had reported, the crowd was already huge.

The few remaining palm trees swayed, the air cooling as the sun dropped toward the horizon. The sounds and smells of War Night were carried on the breeze—the rhythms of brass-heavy jazz, the fruity scent of tonight’s Drink, lingering smoke from the fireworks.

The Vanguard stood at the head of Bourbon Street, scepters waving beneath a homemade arch of metal scraps, paper flowers, beads from prewar Mardi Gras parades. This year’s War Night theme was “paradise,” so they’d also stuck in palm fronds, Spanish moss, and flowers made of cut soda cans.

The parade would zigzag through the Quarter, down Bourbon to St. Anne, and then over to Jackson Square, a gorgeous park even war hadn’t managed to destroy. At the Square, the parade would turn into a block party that would last until the band got tired, the booze ran out, or Containment shut us down.

“Claire! Gunnar!”

We looked over, found Tadji waving from a spot in the middle of the street. She was tall and slender, with velvet-dark skin and curly hair that framed a face dominated by enviable cheekbones and a wide mouth. Tonight she wore a gauzy purple tunic over a saffron bodysuit, and a dozen thin golden rings on her fingers that sparked in the light. The ensemble—fluid fabric over her long, strong form—made her look like a pagan goddess.

She was absolutely gorgeous, crazy focused on her work, and usually unflappable.

Except when it came to magic.

Tadji was a couple of years older than me. She’d been born in a small community in Acadiana, the French-speaking part of Louisiana, but left the state after high school. Her mom and aunt, and her grandmother before them, had practiced voodoo, preparing gris-gris and cure-alls for neighbors, helping them summon loa and saints.

Tadji thought they were con artists, and had been angry and embarrassed that they’d wanted to bring her into the family business. It wasn’t until the Veil opened that we learned magic really did exist, that some of the voodoo and hoodoo practitioners, psychics, and magicians really did have some power. I wasn’t sure whether Tadji’s relatives fell in that category.

She’d eventually made peace with her mom and aunt. But she didn’t talk about them much, except to say they moved around a lot. She never wanted to discuss them, or magic.

Tadji was now in grad school, studying linguistics at Tulane. She was interviewing survivors in southern Louisiana to investigate how war affected language in the Zone.

I hadn’t gone to college, but I knew how to make do. I read as much as I could on my own, and I’d learned some things on the streets that couldn’t be learned in a classroom. But I was still in awe of how much Tadji knew about so many things. Jealousy bit me sometimes, even though I knew I’d made my choice to focus on the store.

We exchanged hugs, and she and Gunnar exchanged cheek kisses.

“Hey, guys!” she yelled over the booming drum. “Happy War Night!”

“Happy War Night!” we shouted back at her. She pulled paper cups and a recycled lemonade bottle from the khaki messenger bag around her shoulder, distributed the Drink.

“To New Orleans,” Gunnar said. “May she be forever strange.”

I sipped, my eyes widening at mouth-puckering tartness that warred with sinus-clearing alcohol.

Tadji was good with words. Tadji was not good with chemistry.

“That is . . . strong,” I said as Gunnar wheezed beside me.

“Is it gasoline?” he asked.

“What?” Tadji blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?” She took another drink, tasted. “It’s good, right? It’s good.”

“It’s definitely almost a beverage,” Gunnar said, then pointed toward Bourbon Street. “Ooh! Fire-eaters.”

When Tadji turned to look, he took my cup and tipped both his and mine into a planter box overgrown with weeds. I doubted the plants would survive the night.

“Gumbo,” he whispered, the word a warning.

I loved Tadji. But as we’d learned during Sunday night dinners—our weekly ritual—she could not cook. As far as I could tell, she didn’t taste things the way other people did, and didn’t have much interest in food anyway. I didn’t consider myself a foodie, but I preferred edible to gummy cardboard. Which generously described the “gumbo” she’d made for us one evening. Gunnar and I had worked to keep her away from the stove after that.

Since there was no point chastising someone who literally didn’t have a taste for cooking, Gunnar just kept smiling.

“So good,” he complimented after handing my cup back to me, but shook his head when she held up the bottle in invitation. “Don’t want to push things too early.”

The look in her eyes said she didn’t buy the excuse, but she didn’t argue about it. “Suit yourself. I like your dress,” she said to me.

I glanced down. It was probably a little old-fashioned for War Night, but that made it feel more appropriate. That was why we were there, after all—to remember traditions and luxuries we couldn’t afford anymore.

“Thanks,” I said. “You look amazing.”

Tadji shrugged off the compliment. She wasn’t great with them, which I thought was residual guilt about coming home with more than she’d had when she left. And probably more than her family had now.

The music grew louder as the Vanguard prepared to move. Gold fireworks arched over us, sending my heart stuttering again as the crowd’s roar grew to a thundering crescendo.

“Nous vivons!” we shouted together. It meant “we live,” and was our mantra of remembrance, of grief, of joy that we’d survived war, even as we lived in its shadow.

The Vanguard stepped forward, feathers and sequins flashing in the gaslights that had replaced streetlamps. We were a few dozen feet from the front of the crowd, and we could take only tiny steps forward. It took ten minutes for us to reach the arch, which was guarded on both sides by a pair of Containment agents in gray fatigues and black boots. Their gazes passed over the crowd, looking for troublemakers.

One of the agents made eye contact with me. I forced a vague smile and pretended to be nothing more than a red-haired girl in the crowd.

Gunnar, Tadji, and I linked our hands as we passed beneath the arch, the soda can flowers glittering as they shimmied in the breeze.

Gunnar squeezed our hands. “Let’s make this a War Night to remember, ladies.”

# # #

Even in the heat, people were damn certain they’d enjoy War Night. A party was a luxury they wouldn’t give up.

There weren’t many wrought-iron balconies left on Bourbon Street. But people still filled them because you couldn’t have a parade in New Orleans without throws. Beads were expensive and not exactly a priority for military convoys, but paper was still easy to come by, so necklaces of twisted paper and folded flowers had become another War Night tradition. Folks on the balconies wore dozens of necklaces on their arms, and they tossed them over the parade as it passed, filling the air with paper petals.

I snatched two as they fell, handed one to Tadji, and we slipped them over our heads. The twisted necklace and its flowers, big as old-fashioned peonies, were made from folded phone book pages. Not that we needed them—war had destroyed most of the phone, cable, and fiber-optic lines and towers. The Paras had learned quickly enough to target them.

We were six blocks into the parade, and the sweaty crowd had bunched together again, any sense of personal boundaries completely abandoned. Gunnar had found a dance partner a few people away, so when the fourth sweaty person in a row bounced against me, I decided it was time for a break. I grabbed Tadji’s hand and maneuvered through jostling bodies to the edge of the crowd.

The breeze felt like a miracle.

“Oh my God, that’s better,” Tadji said, flapping her tunic to cool herself. “Good call.”

I nodded. “I was about to punch the next sweaty person who elbowed me in the stomach.”

“The next person who elbowed you in the stomach, or you were going to punch them in the stomach?”

Sometimes it didn’t pay to be friends with a woman obsessed with words. “Har-har. The point is, there are a lot of sweaty people in that crowd.” I glanced back, surveyed the mass of people. “I think the party’s even bigger than last year.”

She nodded. “The population’s actually gone up a little in the last few years. Some people think it’s safe to come back, that there’s no chance the Veil will open again. And some people are fascinated by what happened, really hope that it will.”

Her voice had gone quiet, and I glanced at her, found her gaze on the high wall that surrounded Devil’s Isle, visible at the other end of Bourbon Street, the sky orange above it from the glow of the electrified mesh that covered the neighborhood and kept the Paras from escaping upward.

“Do you ever wonder what it’s like in there?” she asked.

I had wondered, and hadn’t liked what my imagination had come up with. A few thousand Paranormals and Sensitives interned for our protection—and because the government had no idea what else to do with them. We’d closed the Veil, after all. That made them prisoners of war from a world we could no longer access.

That made me think of uncomfortable things. I wasn’t bad, and Containment still would have tossed me in to Devil’s Isle. If I wasn’t bad, what about the other Sensitives who’d been locked in?

“I try not to think about it,” I said honestly.

“It’s a complicated issue. But man, what I wouldn’t give to get in there. Can you imagine the vocabulary they’ve developed? The Paranormals probably had to create a completely new language just to describe what they’re going through.”

She was probably right, and I could admit it was intriguing. But I still didn’t want any part of Devil’s Isle, and I had no interest in going in there. Not when the odds were good that they wouldn’t let me out again.

While Tadji watched the parade, bouncing to the music, I checked out the street. There was a former walk-in daiquiri shop on the corner. It was missing a front wall, but an off-duty Containment agent—a man I’d seen in the shop—stood behind the bar and poured red liquid into plastic cups. His version of Drink, probably, and an opportunity to make a little extra money. Couldn’t fault him for that.

A handful of his uniformed Containment colleagues looked on from the sidewalk, gazes moving suspiciously between the parade and the patrons in the make-do Drink shop.

Most of the agents who worked in the Quarter had been in the war. They’d seen its horrors, and knew about its tragedies. Others came from outside the Zone, or were too young to remember battle. They’d missed the fighting, the injuries, the sweet and bitter smells of death and battle. Maybe because they hadn’t seen the horrors for themselves, there was fervor in their eyes. They’d learned to hate Paras, and wanted their own chance to fight magic.

I looked away, torn as usual between who I was and what magic would have made of me, and let my gaze skim the rest of the revelers. The couple whose pale skin sheened with sweat, whose eyes were filled with love as they drank greedily from plastic cups. The friends who sat in a line on the curb, shirts soaked through, but all of them grinning. A man who stood alone, arms crossed, watching the party.

He was tall, with a long, taut body, and wore jeans and a short-sleeved shirt that snugged over muscled arms and chest. His hair was dark and short, his eyes sharply blue and topped by thick eyebrows, his nose a sharp, straight wedge. He blinked long, dark lashes that fell like crescents across his tan skin.

“Handsome” didn’t seem nearly a good enough description. His attractiveness was nearly visceral, bladed and sharp, like a weapon he could draw. He probably had women at his beck and call, probably had every romantic skill a woman might imagine.

And being that I lived in a war zone, I had a very active imagination.

A casual glance would have said he was bored by the shenanigans. But boredom hadn’t tensed his body like a panther posed to attack, or put that intense gleam in his eyes. He was coiled energy, and his gaze was on the crowd, tense and watchful, as if he was waiting for something for something big to happen.

His gaze suddenly shifted, those sapphire eyes streaking toward mine and locking on.

Something settled low in my gut, like my soul had rearranged itself, changed and shifted to account for him. For this man I’d never seen before.

Each dull thud of my heart ticked off another second, and still he didn’t move or look away. The intensity of his gaze didn’t diminish, and that made cold sweat skitter down my spine. Why was he focused on me?

A group of men and women shaking tambourines and maracas passed between us, breaking our eye contact. There were nearly twenty of them, dancers with plastic coins sewed to their bodysuits, feathers braided into their hair. And when they finally cleared the block, he was gone.

I turned in a circle, scanning the street and crowd for him, half annoyed to find him gone, half relieved. He apparently hadn’t been watching me. But he had been . . . interesting. Hard edges, serious eyes, beautiful body. I wouldn’t have minded if he’d ambled toward me, asked my name. And I didn’t say that very often.

“Did you hear what I said?”

I blinked at the sound of Tadji’s voice. “Sorry. What?”

“You were staring again.”

It was a bad habit. Like the man with blue eyes, I was a watcher of the world.

“Guilty as charged,” I said, putting a smile on my face, rolling the sudden tension from my shoulders. “What were you saying?”

“I was asking if you were ready to get back out there.”

“Absolutely.” I put an arm through hers. “Let’s get back to the parade.”

# # #

Three hours later, we stood in front of the Cabildo, where the parade had turned into a party.

The Cabildo had been a city council building, a court, a museum. After the storm, the Louisiana State Police set up there. Now it was the headquarters for the Devil’s Isle Commandant—and Gunnar’s tidy desk outside his office. Its former buildings-at-arms, St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbetére, had been destroyed in the war, leaving the Cabildo as the lone sentinel in front of Jackson Square.

Magic had mostly skipped over the Square itself. The plants had survived the war, providing a gorgeous spot of green among the gray of the Quarter. But the statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the first Battle of New Orleans in 1815, hadn’t made it through the second one. Jackson could beat back the British. He wasn’t as good with Paranormals.

Around the Square and inside its gates, War Nighters abandoned paper flowers and costumes in the heat, switched from booze to bottled water shipped in by a snack food company outside the Zone that had been apparently been feeling charitable—or wanted to market its goods to the folks who came into the Zone for a good party.

We’d danced so long I was almost deliriously tired. But it was the right kind of tired—the kind of exhaustion that made troubles seem far away. War Night was about unity and debauchery, and we were taking full advantage, like hedonism on this one night could make up for a lot of want the rest of the year.

Tadji and I sat in front of the fence that surrounded the Square, our feet stretched in front of us.

“I am starving,” Gunnar said, hand on his stomach as he leaned against the fence. Bodies and sweat had smeared the paint on his arms, blurring the figures and landscapes into hazy stripes.

He glanced speculatively at a pushcart on the corner selling unidentified meat chunks on skewers. The grill filled the air with the slightly gamey scent of swamp critters.

“No,” I said.

“What if I dared you?” Gunnar asked, poking me with the toe of a boot.

“I’ve had my share of questionable meat,” I said. “And I don’t need to relive it.” Times had been even leaner during the war, when even FEMA had trouble finding food in New Orleans. Dealing with wars on American soil was politically complicated, and it had taken nearly a week for the feds to mount a response to the invading Paranormals. In the interim, before FEMA brought in the trucks, we did what we had to survive. If that meant nutria for dinner, so be it.

“Our little scavenger,” Tadji said, patting my arm. “You know what would do us all some good right now?”

“A bottle of very old Scotch?” Gunnar suggested.

“That, too,” Tadji asserted. “But I was thinking good, old-fashioned yaka mein.”

Yaka mein was another New Orleans specialty that took off during the war, but tasted a helluva lot better than gamey swamp critter. It was supposed to be hot broth over noodles with hard-boiled egg and green onions. Nowadays, it was bouillon cubes and dried, reconstituted eggs. Not exactly the same, but it still hit the spot, when you could find it.

We probably could have wandered into one of the more residential neighborhoods, found someone selling bowls from the back of the truck. But I was running out of energy to find anything.

I yawned hugely.

“Lightweight,” Gunnar teased.

“Guilty as charged. I think it’s time for me to head home. Who wants to carry me back to the store?”

“I’ve got a little party left in me yet,” Tadji said. “But even if I didn’t, I’m not carrying you anywhere.”

I looked at Gunnar, who shook his head. “You’re not a helpless damsel. Rescue your own damn self.”

I couldn’t really argue with that. “In that case, my friends, this is where I leave you. I’ll drag my tired, old bones back to the store.” I held out a hand to Gunnar. “If you’ll at least help me up.”

Tadji clucked her tongue. “She always gets so dramatic when she’s tired.”

“I know. She’s twenty-four, acts like she’s eighty-four.”

“I have customers who are eighty-four,” I pointed out, “and I’m sprightlier than at least some of them.”

Gunnar offered both hands, helped pull me to my feet.

Tadji stood up, too. She looked a little guilty, and I half expected her to give in and walk back with me.

But before she could speak, a shadow fell over us. We looked up. The shadow belonged to a very well-built man. His skin was dark, and his eyes were brown and amused beneath slightly pointed eyebrows. His chest was bare, his abandoned T-shirt tucked into one of his back pockets. And across his gloriously broad chest was a black tattoo in a Gothic font: work hard, play hard.

I could relate.

“Hey,” he said with a smile.

“Hey,” the three of us said simultaneously. We all held out hope.

The man grinned, a flash of white teeth, but it was all for Tadji. He put a hand on his chest. “I’m Will Burke,” he said, then hooked a thumb toward the band, currently offering us a lively rendition of “Tipitina.” “But everybody calls me ‘Burke.’ Would you like to dance?”

“Oh, well, I—” Tadji looked at me, eyebrows lifted in obvious hope.

“Don’t mind me,” I said with a smile. “I was just leaving. The store is calling my name.”

Burke snapped his fingers, pointed at me. “I knew I’d seen you before. You run Royal Mercantile?”

“I do.” The Marriott was only a few blocks away, and the soldier sundries at the store, so I knew a lot of agents by sight. But Burke didn’t look familiar. “Have you been in?”

“Only once. I haven’t been in the city very long. I’m with PCC Materiel. Just transferred.” He grinned. “I hear you’ve got the best store in the Quarter.”

PCC was the Paranormal Combatant Command, the Defense agency that managed the entire war effort. Containment was one of its units, as was Materiel.

“It’s easy to be one of the best when you’re one of the few,” I said, returning the smile, and deciding I liked him. And not just because he’d complimented my store. “But don’t let us interrupt you. You were going to dance?”

“Thank you,” Tadji mouthed, and took Burke’s extended hand. They walked toward the crowd, began to move and sway to the music.

“I like him,” Gunnar said.

I snorted. “That’s because he’s your type: gorgeous and well connected.”

“And apparently skilled at the art of materiel.”

“And in civilian terms that means what, exactly?”

“That means he has access to the good stuff. Food. Furniture. Uniforms.”

I knew an opportunity when I heard one. I turned to him, linked my hands together pleadingly. “See if he can get me some cheese. The real stuff, not cheese-flavored product, not ‘cheeselike’ spread. Actual, real cheddar.”

“You know refrigerated trucks don’t do well in the Zone.”

I knew—it was another electricity problem—but I didn’t care. “I’ll give you a million dollars if you can get me some real cheese.”

“You don’t have a million dollars.”

“I have a million walking sticks.”

Gunnar grinned. “I don’t want your walking sticks.” He pursed his lips, considering. “But I do need to make sure he’s on the Commandant’s visitor list.” He pulled out a small notebook and pencil to scribble a note. Gunnar took his job seriously, and wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to tell the Commandant about a material (or materiel) advantage.

That’s precisely what made my friendship with Gunnar tricky. But he was too much my family to give up on him now.

“Come on,” he said, shoving the notebook away again. “I’ll walk you back to the store.”

I didn’t mind the offer, but I knew the Quarter better than I knew the guy who’d just asked Tadji to dance. I didn’t get any bad vibes from Burke the materiel guy, but better safe than sorry. And besides: cheese.

I shook my head. “Don’t worry about me. You stay with Tadji. Keep an eye on her. And when they’re done dancing, find out which materiel he’s responsible for. Use your copious charm.” I spread my hands in a dramatic rainbow. “Think dairy.”

“That’s my hilarious girl,” he said, but concern flashed on his face. “There were three wraith attacks last week. Are you sure you’ll be okay walking back alone?”

He’d told me about each attack to warn me, to keep me on my guard. He hadn’t realized the irony.

“It’s only four blocks,” I said, “and there are Containment agents everywhere.” That was a blessing and a curse. “I’ll probably have to push them out of the way just to get inside the store.”

Gunnar didn’t look thrilled, but his pressed his lips to my temple. “Be good, Claire. And be safe.”

I told him I would.

And I really had meant it.

 

Need more Claire? Read Chapter Three

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