New Orleans, Mardi Gras, 1927
Three blocks away, the Mississippi swept toward the Gulf of Mexico, its brown waters running hard and fast. Fog tried to play games but couldn’t hide the telltale regular slap of boats tied up to their piers. Nothing to worry about there.
A single big diesel purred like a kitten in the distance, ready to roar like a tiger if need be. Cut the rope, put her nose out into the current, and the fastest yacht in Texas would soon be far beyond the rich layers of decadence and greed called New Orleans. Out of sight and out of reach within seconds.
Ethan Templeton still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d agreed to let Don Rafael Perez step off the Matagorda Lady. Probably because nobody said no to a vampiro mayor, a six-hundred-year-old vampiro capable of freezing you in your tracks or ripping your head off. Especially not when he was the patrón of the Texas esfera, the absolute ruler of every vampiro in Texas and Oklahoma, and the richest patrón in North America.
Ethan had been fool enough to let Don Rafael become a target tonight for any vampiro who wanted to grab that fat esfera by wiping out her ruler.
As if he could stop his creador – the vampiro who’d sired him – from doing any damn thing he wanted.
A growl rumbled through Ethan’s throat. He snapped shut the tiny window with its view of a blank wall only six inches away, and spun around. A drab hallway lay ahead, the vines on its sour green wallpaper and threadbare carpet turned into flickering shadows by a single swinging light. Three men waited by the only door, just one of them his friend. Four strangers played poker in the office above the warehouse next door, their voices garbled by the thin plaster wall.
He started to walk back, counting every pace. Damn, how he hoped the ex-legionnaire had broken the rules and changed positions.
Greed was probably why Monsieur Armand, the New Orleans patrón, had invited them here. Hell, it would have been damn surprising if treachery wasn’t on the bill of fare. The bastard had to have figured out some way to kill Don Rafael, even if it took an army sporting Greener shotguns and Thompson submachine guns. After all, he’d reduced Monsieur Lucien to ashes that way five years ago, right in the middle of Cathedral Square at midnight.
Or maybe some green cachorro would burst in, thinking he was something special, just because he’d managed to survive La Lujuria’s madness long enough to think about something more than blood and sex. The only fast way guaranteed to stop one of those fools was sunlight, dammit, which would kill everybody else in the room – except Don Rafael.
It didn’t matter, though. Don Rafael was also the man who’d salvaged Ethan from hell and turned him into a man. Somebody who could hold his head up and be proud to look at himself in the mirror every morning. He’d spend the rest of his life repaying that debt.
As an invited guest, Don Rafael had the right to satisfactory protection and Ethan got to produce it. He’d woven a cordon of men, edged with steel and bullets, around this small warehouse south of the French Quarter, plus a path from here to the docks. He’d also guarded, equally thoroughly, the big stone mansion in the Garden District they’d rented. The big Spanish vampiro had a crazy habit of shrugging off danger and might just choose to stay ashore for a few days. After all, Gray Wolf was back home in Austin, courting the young oil geologist he’d just met. With his heir unlikely to go anywhere surprising, Don Rafael was even freer than usual to chase an adventure.
Three attacks had tested those perimeters before tonight and Don Rafael’s arrival. No way to tell how many vampiros had fallen, since they turned to ashes upon death. A good bribe had seen the prosaicos – the ordinary mortals – decently buried without any public outcry, especially since good jazz musicians had escorted their funeral processions.
A handful of rats played tag on the roof above him, the rapid patter of their feet as clearly audible as the jazz orchestra in the far larger warehouse next door. It was turned into a spectacular recreation of a New Orleans square every year, lit to resemble daylight and filled with Mardi Gras parades. Half of North America’s vampiros came here, just like the prosaicos did – or rather had done before Prohibition.
Not his problem, that. Texas wasn’t nearly as dependent on tourists or booze as New Orleans was.
Ethan was almost at the office door. Inside, Don Rafael and Jean-Marie St. Just – his heraldo or chief diplomat – were talking to Monsieur Armand and his top accountant.
Poker game next door was quieter, probably because the pot had gotten bigger.
Outside, Angus Rough Bear – Ethan’s number two or alferez menor – leaned against the wall, deceptively lazy as only a Kiowa brave could be. The ex-Foreign Legionnaire – a vampiro born in Marseille and now Monsieur Armand’s alferez – was standing across from Rough Bear with the other bodyguard, eyeing the silhouettes outlined on the door’s glass panel. One half-step sideways and they could put a bullet into Don Rafael’s back, which was why they were supposed to have stayed still.
Nine paces. Damn fool was definitely out of position – and optimistic as hell if he thought two thirty-year-old New Orleans vampiros could take out Rough Bear.
The ex-soldier’s right hand came up to the lapel of his very fashionable jacket. He started to slip his fingers inside.
Rough Bear tensed slightly. His bowie knife’s handle dropped into his palm, its blade ready to gut the bodyguard opposite him.
Ethan released the safety on his Colt 1911 and aimed it precisely at the bastard’s ear. Biggest advantages of being twenty-five years older than the competition were being faster and carrying less scent. Plus, he was carrying cocked and locked, bringing him the joy of a bullet already in the chamber ready to go.
The distinct click stopped the other alferez cold. His head swiveled, until he gazed straight down the gun’s barrel. From that angle, all he could see was a little bit of blue steel and a hell of a large hole aching to deliver a .45 round into his face, with seven more rounds stacked up right behind it.
His black eyes narrowed, turning flat and hard. His fingers twitched briefly under his lapel, millimeters away from his own big Luger. He probably considered himself the best fellow around with a knife. But how much would he risk in a gunfight?
Ethan waited, his blood running just a little bit faster. First time he’d been in a fight was over sixty years ago. His only regret tonight was having to play the polite guest and wait for absolute proof of an attack. Otherwise, his so-called host would already be dead.
The other bodyguard was pasty white, his eyes flickering between Rough Bear’s knife and Ethan’s Colt. Smarter than his boss, though: He’d never moved from his post.
Ethan knew the instant the ex-soldier made his decision.
“Did you want something, Monsieur Templeton?” The New Orleans alferez cocked his head slightly, in a mockery of courtesy.
Ethan curled his lip. It wasn’t a smile. “Just checking my gun,” he remarked. “And you?”
“Cigarettes,” the other answered a heartbeat later. “Care for one?”
“No, thanks, not here.” Ethan’s voice conveyed his contempt for any fool who’d scatter hot ashes across this carpet.
The other’s mouth tightened and his hand fell away from his jacket. He stepped back into his assigned spot, and was quickly rejoined by his still-silent fellow, leaving behind the faint, sharp aromas of anger and fear.
No signs of an attack from anywhere else, such as the roof or stairs. Don Rafael’s Pierce-Arrow was still idling in the alley outside, peaceful as a grandma’s rocking chair.
Ethan casually put the safety back on his Colt and holstered it, his pulse sliding back to a normal beat. He stretched, rubbing his back against the door’s frame.
Rough Bear snickered softly across their mind-to-mind link. Only other Texans could hear them, thanks to being vampiros sired by Don Rafael. Trying to spook the opposition?
Not this time, no.
That alferez won’t wear such a pretty coat next time.
Agreed. He’ll make sure he has more men on his side, too.
Ethan tilted his fedora forward slightly, cutting down the damn lamp’s reflection, while Rough Bear’s knife vanished back into its sheath. He didn’t allow himself to listen to the conversation in the office – nobody eavesdropped twice on Don Rafael.