The Wicked and the Dead – Melissa Marr

AUTUMN in the South was still both humid and hot. New Orleans was always a wet city. Wet air. Wet drizzle. Beer soaked streets. Other things spilling out from behind trash bins. Sometimes, the heavy air and frequent rain was just this side of too much. Most nights, there was nowhere else I’d rather be. We were a city risen from the ashes, over and over. Plagues, floods, monsters. New Orleans didn’t stop, didn’t give up, and I was proud of that. Tonight, though, I watched the fog roll out like a cheap film effect, and a good book in front of a warm fire sounded far better than work. The nonstop rain this month would wash away evidence of the things that happened in New Orleans’ darkened corners, but I could prevent bloodshed. It was more or less what I did. Sometimes, I spilled a bit of blood, but if we weighed it all out, I was fairly sure I was one of the good guys.

More curves and sass than actual guys, but the point held. White hat. Dingy around the edges. I blame my persistent nagging guilt. A thump on the other side of the wall made me pause. Could I hurl myself over the wall into Cypress Grove Cemetery? It wasn’t the worst idea ever—or even this month—which said more about my life than I’d like to admit. I listened for more sounds. Nothing. No scrabbling. No growling.

I needed to be on the other side of the wall where tombs were lined up like miniature houses. The tree branches I’d used last time were gone, probably trimmed by someone who saw their potential. Now, there was no graceful way to hurl myself over the ten-foot wall. Every cemetery in the nation now had taller walls and plenty of newly-opened space for the dead. Cemeteries had become “stage one” of the verification of death process. Honestly, I guess graves were better than cold storage at the morgue. The lack of heartbeat made it impossible to know if the corpses would walk-again, and those of us who advocated for beheading all corpses were deemed callous. I wasn’t sure I was callous for wanting the dead to stay dead. I knew what they were capable of before the world at large did. At least I was prepared.

A moment or so later, I shoved a metal spike into the wall, cutting my palm in the process. “Shit. Damn. Monkey balls.” A ripple of light flashed around me the moment my blood dripped to the soil. At least the light was magic, not the police or a tourist with a camera. While the laws were everchanging, B&E was still illegal. And I was breaking into a cemetery where I might need to carry out a contracted beheading. That was illegal, too. It simply wasn’t a photo-ready moment—although with my long dyed-blue hair and nearly translucent skin, I was far too photogenic.

I won’t say I look like I’ve been drained of both blood and color, but I will admit that next to a lot of the folks in my city, I look like I’ve been bleached. I fumbled with my gloves, trapping my blood inside the thick leather before I resumed shoving climbing cams into gaps in the wall. Normally, cams held the ropes that climbers use. Tonight, they’d be like tiny foot supports. If I were human, this wouldn’t work out well. I’m not. Mostly, I’d say I am a witch, but that is the polite truth. I am more like witch-withhard-to-explain-extras. That smidge of blood I’d spilled was enough to send out “wakey, wakey” messages to whatever corpses were listening, but the last time I’d had to bleed for them to rest again, I’d needed to shed more than a cup of blood. I concentrated on not sending out a second magic flare and continued to insert the cams.

Rest. Stay. I felt silly thinking messages to the dead, but better silly than planning for excess bleeding. At least this job should be an easy one. My task was to find out if Alice Navarro was again-walking or if she was securely in her vault. I hoped for the latter. Most people hired me to ease their dearly departed back in the “departed” category, but the Navarro family was the other sort. They missed her, and sometimes grief makes people do things that are on the wrong side of rational. My pistol had tranquilizer rounds tonight. If Navarro was awake, I’d need to tranq her.

If she wasn’t, I could call it a night—unless there were other again-walkers. That’s where the beheading came in. Straight-forward. Despite the cold and wet, I still hoped for the best. All things considered, I really was an optimist at heart. At the top of the wall, I swung my leg over the stylish spikes cemented there and dropped into the wet grass. I was braced for it, but when I landed, it wasn’t dew or rain that made me land on my ass. An older man, judging by the tufts of grey hair on the bloodied body, in a security guard uniform had bled out on the ground. Something–most likely an again-walker–had gnawed on the security guard’s face. Who had made the decision to have a living man with no special skills stand inside the walls of a cemetery? Now, he was dead.

I whispered a quick prayer before surveying my surroundings. Once I located the draugr, I could call in the location of the dead man. First, though, I had to find the facegnawer who killed him. Since my magic was erratic, I didn’t want to send a voluntary pulse out to find my prey. That would wake the truly dead, and there were plenty of them here to wake. Several rows into the cemetery, I found Alice Navarro’s undisturbed grave. No upheaval. No turned soil. Mrs. Navarro was well and truly dead.

My clients had their answer—but now, I had a mystery. Which cemetery resident had killed the security guard? A sound drew my attention. A thin hooded figure, masked like they were off to an early carnival party, stared back at me. They didn’t move like they were dead. Too slow. Too human. And draugar weren’t big on masks. “Hey!” My voice seemed too loud. “You. What are you .

” The figure ran, and several other voices suddenly rang out. Young voices. Teens inside the cemetery. “Shit cookies!” I ran after the masked person. Who in the name of all reason would be in among the graves at night? I ran through the rows of graves, looking for evidence of waking as I went. “Bitch!” The masked figure was climbing over the wall with a ladder, the chain sort you use in home fire-emergencies. Two teens tried to grab the person. One kid was kneeling, hand gripping his shoulder in obvious pain. And there, several feet away, was Marie and Edward Chevalier’s grave. The soil was disturbed, as if a pack of excited dogs had been digging.

The person in the mask was not the dead one in the nearby grave. There was a recently dead draugr. And kids. I glanced back at the teens. A masked stranger, a dead security guard, a draugr, and kids. This was a terrible combination. The masked person dropped something and pulled a gun. The kids backed away quickly, and the masked person glanced at me before scrambling the rest of the way over the wall—all while awkwardly holding a gun. “Are you okay?” I asked the kids, even as my gaze was scanning for the draugr. “She stabbed Gerry,” the girl said, pointing at the kid on the ground.

The tallest of the teens grabbed the thing the intruder dropped and held it up. A syringe. “She?” I asked. “Lady chest,” the tall one explained. “When I ran into her, I felt her—” “Got it.” I nodded, glad the intruder with the needle was gone, but a quick glance at the stone by the disturbed grave told me that a fresh body had been planted there two days ago. That was the likely cause of the security guard’s missing face. I read the dates on the stone: Edward was not yet dead. Marie was. I was seeking Marie Chevalier.

“Marie?” I whispered loudly as the kids talked among themselves. The last thing I needed right now was a draugr arriving to gnaw on the three dumb kids. “Oh, Miss Marie? Where are you?” Marie wouldn’t answer, even if she had been a polite Southern lady. Draugr were like big infants for the first decade and change: they ate, yelled, and stumbled around. “There’s a real one?” the girl asked. I glanced at the kids. I was calling out a thing that would eat them if they had been alone with it, and they seemed excited. Best case was a drooling open-mouthed lurch in my direction. Worst case was they all died. “Go home,” I said.

Instead they trailed behind me as I walked around, looking for Marie. I passed by the front gate—which was now standing wide open. “Did you do that?” The lock had been removed. The pieces were on the ground. Cut through. Marie was not in the cemetery. Shaking heads. “No, man. The ladder the bitch used was ours.” Intruder.

With a needle. Possibly also the person who left the gate open? Had someone wanted Marie Chevalier released? Or was that a coincidence? Either way, a face-gnawer was loose somewhere in the city, one of the who-knows-how-many draugar that hid here or in the nearby suburbs or small towns. I pushed the gates closed and called it in to the police. “Broken gate at Cypress Grove. Cut in pieces.” “Miss Crowe,” the woman on dispatch replied. “Are you injured?” “No. The lock was cut. Bunch of kids here.” I shot them a look.

“Said it wasn’t them.” “I will send a car,” she said. A longer than normal pause. “Why are you there, Miss Crowe?” I smothered a sigh. It complicated my life that so many of the cops recognized me, that dispatch did, that the ER folks at the hospital did. It wasn’t like New Orleans was that small. “Do you log my number?” I asked. “Or is it my voice?” Another sigh. Another pause. She ignored my questions.

“Details?” “I was checking on a grave here. It’s intact, but the cemetery gate’s busted,” I explained. “I noted that,” she said mildly. “Are the kids alive?” “Yeah. A person in a mask tried to inject one of them, and a guard inside is missing a lot of his face. No draugr here now, but the grave of Marie and Edward Chevalier is broken out. I’m guessing it was her that killed the guard.” The calm tone was gone. “There’s a car about two blocks away. You and the children —” “I’m good.

” I interrupted. “Marie’s long gone, I guess. I’ll be sure the kids are secure, but—” “Miss Crowe! You don’t know if she’s still there or nearby. You need to be relocated to safety, too.”

.

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