Ahem. I know I don't write like gogoangelgunboy, but he said this was good. This happened to me in a dream after I'd mildly OD'ed on all the Downed*Angel stories. It rode me until it got written. So I'm posting this here. No real warnings. About 2500 words. Work safe.
At least the Vieux Carré was as it had always been.
There was still the on-and-off reek of puke and piss while walking on the bricks of Bourbon Street. The flashing neon shouted Dollar Hurricanes!, Gallon Beers!, and Topless Girls! Girls! Girls! And said girls in just enough clothing to be legal smiled smiles that didn't reach tired eyes, others with glitter eyeshade and a tray of Jello-shots stood outside the bars selling their shots to drunk tourists wide-eyed at all the blatant, colorful, loud, packed-to-the-gills vices offered from all directions. The old French colonial architecture supported wrought iron balconies, where equally drunk partiers threw beads on everyone that even looked up, and piled them on the ones that knew enough to flash 'em properly.
One look down the street was all Immer needed. He and Tommy walked the extra block over to Royal Street. A limo pulled up, oil-black slick and smooth, disgorging a man in a sharkskin tux, with pale eyes and dark skin. He politely gave his hand to a woman in stiletto-heels and a dress that flowed and flickered over her form like fire. The man didn't give them two looks before the couple flowed into the entrance of Brennan's, the staff outside all stiff in uniforms and white gloves.
The closed art galleries still had their displays lit bright. Bulls splashed with their own blood, a dozen fleur de lis collages of everything N'awlins, black figure whirling limbs wide on a field of jeweled colors, gray-green portraits of moss hanging off cypress on bayou waters, and a faceless man in a top hat over a field of knee high grasses before a half-smashed broken-glass eyed house. They were right next to consignment and pawn shops filled with Civil War antique weaponry, carved mahogany chests, and silk privacy screens glowing with golden Asian dragons on silver edged clouds.
Tommy stopped to press his nose against the cold glass. The slender teen with his slanted almond eyes and dark hair was reflected in the glass, and the light was such that his face almost looked like that of one of the dragons.
Immer waited. The humid warmth of the air and the scent of oleander felt familiar, comforting. So different than San Jose's hot, arid sun or the desert's sharpness; the heat here soaked in, slow and easy. It would rain tonight, and there would be fog in the morning, dripping on anyone not hung-over enough to need stayin' in.
Finally he said, "Baby, we've got an appointment to make."
Tommy looked at him, nodded, and they moved on.
Music fought music every ten feet. The street bars and underground basement stages thrived on every street. A U2 cover band segued into the smoker's rough alto of a torch song with glissading piano melted against a brass-backed blues band that slammed it out against a heavy metal band. Heavy metal? Maybe not everything was as it had been.
Rue St. Ann was marked by the shadow angel on a cathedral wall made by flood lamps on a Jesus statue. He looked back just once as they turned back towards the darker, quieter North end of Bourbon Street.
The buildings here were no longer lit by neon.
There were still the wrought iron clad French colonial buildings, but darker in colors, deeper in shadow. There were more residences on this end of the street, but a few businesses were still on the ground floors. One had "Voodoo Queen Jezebel: Readings by Appointment Only" smeared in blood red on a driftwood over the door. The front display had vials and glass jars, dolls next to neat boxes of iron pins, dried herbs in grey green array, pans of glittering gem stones, small bones, incense, pouches of tobacco and cigarette papers, bits of silk cloth in jewel colors, and nearly two dozen different Tarot decks.
They went in. The shop door bell rang. A goth girl bent over a book ignored them completely. The shelves were filled with gag Voodoo gifts, rubber chickens, rag dolls, bone dice made from plastic, a mood ring dressed up as an aura detector, rubber eyeballs, organic henna temporary tattoo kits, and plastic skeletons. There was a whole area of incense, and another with books and Tarot decks all neatly locked under glass. Right by them was a rack of incongruous children's animal puppets, bright and colorful.
Tommy crouched by bottom shelf and poked gently at something that looked like a bird's nest and next to it was a shining length of hair longer than Immer had ever seen on anyone's head.
The girl sat in the back room, past all the tourist junk. He went back to her.
She looked up, annoyed, "It's the music festival, we've got nothin' available until next month."
A soft voice came from the darkened, curtained doorway even further back in the store than anyone might have thought possible. "Cher, this man, he's had this appointment his whole life. Let him in," it said in the smooth cadences of Immer's childhood. He shivered, hard.
He felt for a read on the person behind the voice and got nothing but the infinite patience of nothing. He could feel the goth girl's resentment of anyone coming into the shop, her longing to get back to her book, and the tickle of curiosity at why the witch had said they were here. So it wasn't that he was blind.
He felt a gentle touch along his back. It was Tommy, eyes narrowed.
"What you got?"
Tommy frowned. "Feels like..." His brow wrinkled. "Like... something patient, animal warm, and at the back of her... nothing and everything. Like Kwan but not actually her."
Immer frowned. Not actually Kwan, what was this contact for, then? He turned back to the girl. "Look, we've got an appointment for 9 p.m., should be under Yin."
The girl frowned and looked in the appointment book. "Yeah, I gotcha right here. Guess her highness is ready for you."
Rich, low laughter came from the darkened room. Immer parted the bead curtain and stepped into sandalwood incense and flickering candlelight, his eyes adjusted quickly and touched on a liquid gleam of dark eyes framed by impossible lashes. His next glance was for her hands, simply to see where they were, but then his eyes were caught by the intricate, rich designs laid out in black all over them. Power thrummed in the designs. One slender, black-laced hand reached up towards him. The bayou, the heat, and memories flowed, overflowed, and Immer took that hand, bowed over it, and kissed the gently perfumed knuckles.
"I am Queen Jezabel. Someone has already announced your coming, Reaper," she said softly. Then those dark eyes narrowed as well. "I was, however, expecting..." She looked around Immer. "Ah. There. The wings."
Immer raised an eyebrow and turned to see Tommy crouched again, looking into a stack of square cubbies in a low cabinet against the wall. Tommy reached out a slender finger, and Immer felt the woman gather herself. But Tommy curled his hands up against his chest, head cocked, and said, "There's dead birds on a glove of skin."
"That's the Mockingbird, cher." The woman looked at Tommy and Tommy looked back, dark eyes unreadable.
"Please introduce us?" Tommy asked. "I'm Tommy."
She tilted her head to the side at the single name, but then moved over to where he was and she knelt beside him. Immer followed and stood at their back. Her fingers didn't go in the cubbies either, but she pointed out each one as she spoke. The center top one was the one with a leather glove with two bird skins on either side, dark blue feathers made the white stripes glow in the candlelight. "That's the Mockingbird. Mockingbird, this is Tommy." To the right, on the top, was a cubby with nothing in it but a black leather-bound Bible, worn and gray around the edges, no gilt on the sides, just plain, white, rough-deckled edges. "Tommy, this is the Preacher. Preacher, this is Tommy."
She went on, introducing Sugar who was a cat-eared doll with green marbles for eyes in a bed of silks, jewelry and perfume; Pierrot who was a white-faced clown puppet settled among a water-squirting flower, a finger trap, and a worn white-cotton handkerchief; the Widow who looked like nothing more than a bottle full of dead spiders; and Mr. Copper who a wooden figure tall, thin, and gleaming with bone dice and cards. She introduced each to Tommy and Tommy back to them in the same cadence of a ritual.
Tommy didn't bow his head to any of them, but he did listen and watched with avid eyes. Immer didn't even really need to listen. The Riders. What the hell did Kwan have to do with the Riders?
"You're not shielding too well, are you, young man?"
Immer started and saw both pairs of dark eyes now looking up at him. He shrugged. "What the fuck are we doing here?" he asked.
The woman's eyes rolled up in her head, whites showing for just a moment, and then she changed. Her shield dropped and Immer got a sensation of dust and leather, hard blood-stained wood and metal. Then she got to her feet, she did so as if she were a tall, older man, stiff in his joints, stiff in his manner; an old man that in a blur of motion drew his hand back. Immer caught the backhand in the midst of the arc, just. And he flinched when he met the flint-hard eyes over the hand.
"Watch that mouth, boy. You might be the vengeance come, but you have no call to blaspheme." The voice was deep, hard as a strap.
"Who the..." Immer swallowed his next curse word and frowned. "Preacher."
"Aye. I guess you're just God's hand in this bit of Devil's work. Though that one that allowed us your use..." The slow shake of the suddenly angular face, incongruous with the gleaming, swinging earrings on either side, expressed disapproval nearly as deep as his own sometimes got.
Immer frowned and turned to walk out.
"Im." Tommy's voice stopped him. "She's here."
The essence of divine flowers and iron flooded in, and Immer whirled, eyes going back to that shifting form, no longer tall, hard, straight, but liquid now, rolling hips that were accented by the peasants' skirt. Aw shit, he thought, and her laughter was as he'd remembered it in his head.
"Mercy, my blade. He's skimming rebuilding funds, stealing homes from people who stood neck high in the rising waters and wondered if it was going to keep coming higher while holding babies, grandmothers that had to throw their grandchildren into trees and pray the crocs and snakes would be too scared, too, to attack them. You saw the marks, the open wounds unhealed." Her eyes were as hard iron as they'd ever been, seeing everything he wanted to hide, to deny.
He nodded, slow.
On the drive in from the airport he'd seen. The neighborhoods with cousins, aunts, and uncles that had left home for the big city, as a kid he'd visited them with the thrill of being elsewhere. Now it was all replaced with the shattered-glass eyes of empty narrow shotgun houses still marked with the big black X's with the date, the organization, code, and then the raw number of dead found in the house. Three fucking years, and they were everywhere, still; marking not just the death of people, but of vast sections of the community as well. Dead houses, closed stores, and the Ninth Ward nothing but waist high grasses with a few off-kilter, crushed houses graying in the heat.
It had been a relief to walk the piss and vomit-perfumed bricks to find at least those were the same.
"Let the power flow properly again," she said and it was as close to pleading as he'd ever heard.
Immer bowed his head, not sure if it was to her or to the inevitability of it all. "I will."
A flicker of a wink too quick to quite be believed, before eyes fluttered again and turned red copper; and the aura that rolled off was now as cold as hard cash. "Here are the particulars, Mr. Immer. Addresses of those affected, including several local musicians to whom he's... given... high-interest loans. His working nomer is Boeuf Gras." A cold smile flashed as three cards appeared between slender fingers. "Kill the fatted calf and we'll be quit of this suck on this city's life blood."
Immer took the cards and flipped through them. "Is that how do you want it done? An Old Testament offering?" he asked, even knowing it was a mistake to ask these things. It would be so fucking messy.
There was a pause and a scrambling mass of spiders seemed to crawl right through Immer's soul. He hid the shiver as he heard the old, tired, weary, angry voice say, "Yes, give us exactly that, young man. It will give the young an example and the careless powerful what seems to be a necessary warning."
Immer sighed. "All right. I'll take it."
The Widow bowed, "Thank you." And just as quickly as she'd come, the spiders crawled away again. Immer had to step forward quickly to catch Jezebel as she collapsed. He frowned at the density of her body, the hardness of the musculature against his grasp, and then put "her" in her velvet armchair very gently.
Those chocolate eyes fluttered opened again, looking violated, lost, dazed, a soul kicked out of its own body and then shoved back in. Immer contemplated the fact that as shitty as his job sometimes was, there were worse ones. And Jezebel took a deep breath and visibly gathered herself back up again. She looked up at him, "You got whatcha needed?"
"Yeah. And then some."
She laughed, "Isn't that how it always is?"
Author's Note: Hm... a reference I should add is that the ideas for these Riders are from Sean Stewart's Mockingbird, only realized they're not general archetypes, though they're all very Southern archetypes. I guess the usual disclaimer about the fact that I don't own or make money off Sean's or Gabriel's ideas and characters needs to be made.