Jazz swirled through the room, competed with my heartbeat and pressed against my skin, sensuous as a lover’s kiss, steamy as the bayou in mid-August. It stole my soul. It always did. For a few sweet moments I forgot about the world; I leaned forward and imagined another ending, one where I sat next to the bass player, nodding half asleep in a midnight mass of smoke and whiskey, saxophone reed thrust between my lips like the ultimate pacifier.
Bodies swayed and sagged, forever twined together with the music; it was a romantic symphony, it was worship for the weary.
And, in my mind, I was the worship leader.
I soared with the music to a land that didn’t exist. Beyond time and space. Beyond the never-ending cycle of life and death, and hit-me-again, more life please.
Outside I could hear the ancient city of New Orleans whispering like a ghost down back alleys and twisted cobblestone streets, a rough, sultry memory of what she had once been, before the soul of the city had been stolen by urban regeneration; before the Cities of the Dead had been transformed into high-priced condos.
Is it too late for us, too late for redemption? That was my thought. But that wasn’t what I said. Sometimes I get so caught up in the rhythms around me that I don’t notice my own contribution to the white noise.
“Sterilization is the new death.” That was what I really said.
“Nothing.” I nodded at a passing dark-skinned waitress, the one with the heart-shaped birthmark on her right cheek. Talking out loud was just one of the many unpredictable side effects of black-market whiskey. A moment later I had another crystal tumbler, two fingers full. I knew I should quit. At least for the night.
“What now, Chaz? You game?”
I blinked as I downed my second glass, felt the liquor sizzle down my throat all the way to my gut. Shadows moved through the club like disembodied spirits with lives of their own.
“Hey, yeah. We could, you know, go somewhere else. Dancing.” A woman leaned into my line of vision, blue eyes, silver-blonde hair. Angelique. This was her first time. It had to be.
I chuckled. “I mean the first time at the second time.”
“Did I say that out loud? Well, it doesn’t matter.” I set down my glass, focused on her face. Smiled. “Yeah, dancing. Sure. That’s what Babysitters are for, right?”
Angelique grinned, ear to diamond-studded ear. “Hey, yeah.” She sucked down the last of her margarita.
I mentally focused on her speech patterns, a harmonic convergence created in the Pacific Northeast, let’s see, early-21st century—Norspeak, that’s it. What I really couldn’t figure out was, why do 21-year-olds always drink margaritas? And why do they all want to be 21? It didn’t matter. A week out of the joint and this Newbie would be on her own; she’d be done downloading all her past lives and I’d be done playing chaperone.
I had six more days and nights with Little Miss Margarita.
As far as I was concerned, that was seven days too long.
She stood up slowly, adjusted her dress. It was made out of one of those new synthetic fabrics that molded to her skin, whispering and rustling every time she moved. Very sensuous. Every goon in the bar was watching her, me included.
She was beautiful. More beautiful than I wanted to admit.
Maybe I was staring at her when I should have been watching the gutter punks who had sauntered in a few minutes earlier, all stitched up with black laces across their cheekbones. Just as we were about to leave, two of those underfed urchins broke into a fight. I saw the flash of knives and should have noticed that everything was too neat and clean, no blood, no torn flesh. Just the soft thud of knuckles against flesh and a few gruff moans.
But I didn’t want to get involved in somebody else’s mess, so I just hooked my right hand in Angelique’s elbow and led the way toward the door.
“Time to leave,” I said.
Right about then the shouts got louder and the bartender leaped over the bar, a baseball bat in one hand. While everyone else was focused on the brawling street thugs, a 220-pound genetic monster pushed his way through the crowd until he slid between the Newbie and me. He’d been staring at us from across the room, ever since we first walked through the door.
“Hey, sugah,” he breathed, his words slamming together in Gutterspeak, that blue collar dialect born in NOLA’s Ninth Ward. “I’ll takes ya dancin,’ baby. All night long.”
He was high on stims. I could smell it, like the inside of a rusty tin can. But all I could see was the back of his metal-studded head and the muscles that rippled from his neck all the way down his oversized arms. Even his beefy fingers curved as if ready to strike.
“Back off, scumbag,” I warned.
I mentally noted two gen-dealers at five o’clock and a tattooed Nine-Timer cult gathering at two o’clock. Meanwhile, back in the corner the gutter punks still rolled and tumbled, curses ringing out. Memories of the Newbie that went missing last week sparked through my mind, images of her mangled body on the freak show that posed as the ten o’clock news.
At this point, I always wonder why I became a Babysitter. I mean, I had options.
The Neanderthal ran a meaty finger along Angelique’s arm and pushed his bulldog face closer to hers. She stared up at him, mesmerized. Blasted Newbies. No mind of their own. Then he glanced over his shoulder as if noticing me for the first time. Sneered. White spittle caked his lips. “Get lost, puppy. This party’s for two.” A low growl rumbled in his throat and I stared into icy soulless eyes.
“That’s enough,” I said as I grabbed his sweat-stained shirt and pulled.
Behind me I heard the inevitable scuffling of chairs as people backed up. A few of the regulars recognized me, so they knew what was going to happen.
My left hand slid into my pocket. I wrapped my fingers around my current weapon of choice, a soft chunk of liquid light. Molded it into a wad about the size of my thumb.
He was facing me now, muscles pumped, cord-like veins standing at attention.
I swallowed. It felt like I was in the Old West, challenging a gunslinger.
“This is your last chance,” I warned him. I knew the stims had him going, had taken him to a land beyond logic. There was only one conclusion here. If that primate had half a brain, he would have known—
“The young lady, she stays with me, punk.” His words slurred and his eyes narrowed. Angelique peered at me from behind his barrel-sized chest, like a teenager who got caught staying out after curfew.
“Move away from him, Angelique,” I told her. She hesitantly obeyed, shoulders hunched. I gave her a nod and a soft smile. Good girl. Stay.
“You gots puppy written all over ya,” he taunted. “Ya First-Timer!”
I’ve been called worse things. Doesn’t mean that I like it. Or that it’s true.
Then he lunged at me. There was a split second when I realized I may have misjudged him. I don’t think he weighed 220; it was probably more like 250. I pulled my hand from my pocket and with a flick the liquid light ignited. A flash blasted from the palm of my left hand, shot toward him; electric current pulsed like jagged lightning, wrapping his arms and legs and chest in a sizzling blue-white anaconda. The force of it knocked him across the room, hissed while his limbs quivered. His eyes blinked in rapid succession, like he was trying to send us a message through Morse code.
Probably 250, not 220, I reminded myself as I waited for him to wake up. He got a lower charge than I expected. He convulsed on the floor.
All around me the room jolted to life.
“Somebody call the mugs! He gots liquid light—”
“He’s gonna kill us—alls of us—”
I held up my hand, showed them the tattoo on the inside of my left palm.
A deadly quiet breezed through the club. Even the jazz stopped. I hate this part, the part where I kill the music. On the ground, the brute shuddered awake, lip twitching. He shook his head, struggled to fix one eye on me.
“I’m gonna gets the mugs on you, First-Timer,” he choked out one word at a time.
I laughed. “No, you’re not.”
The Neanderthal forced his body to sit up, fought the storm that raged in his muscles. He pointed a quivering finger toward me. “Nobody pours liquid light on me and lives ta talk about it.” He pushed one leg into position, then the second, grabbed a chair and used it to hoist himself to a shaky stand.
I turned my palm toward him. Showed him the tattoo. Watched his eyes widen, saw his gaze sweep the room as if one of the people there could help him. As if they would even consider it. “You see that woman over there?” I asked, nodding toward Angelique. He slid a nervous glance in her direction, not moving his head. “That’s my baby, buddy. Nobody touches her—you got that? It’s within my legal rights to send you all the way back to your own miserable beginning. You want to start all over as a single-celled zygote?”
He shook his head, his jaw slack. His lip was still quivering.
I reached into my right pocket, pulled out a tag, walked toward him.
He started to move backward, ran into a table, knocked it over.
I stopped. “Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
He froze, every muscle trembling now, but not from the liquid light.
I sighed. Reached over, clicked the tag on the back of his hand. A microscopic chip shot out, embedded itself in his skin. He flinched, but not from the pain. “That’s my marker,” I whispered. “You’re my baby now.”
He shook his head. “I didn’t means nothin.’ I didn’t do nothin.’”
“Well, then you just better pray that when you’re my baby, nobody does nothin’ to you, neither. Cause when your time comes, I’m gonna be your Babysitter. And sugah,” I leaned dangerously close to his face, let my hot breath sink into his pores, switched my speech patterns to make sure he understood. “We’s gonna haves lots of fun together. I promises.”
READ AN EVEN LONGER EXCERPT ON THE HARPERCOLLINS SITE.